Be anarchist, act communist, embrace markets, smile at hierarchy

For years we have been tormented by ideas and contradictions. Capitalism or socialism? Democracy or leadership? Class struggle or social peace? For or against? What is our “position” on the coming war? Or election? Determinists or not? Materialists or not? Is our being a matter of biology or society? Or perhaps philosophy? And so on and so on endlessly. We gave ourselves much pleasure –and much pain too – thinking endlessly and compulsively about the answers. So much so that, in the end, the thinking itself became as much of a problem as the ostensible one. The problem was not in fact our problem; our problem was the desire for a solution.

What we were doing was not so much use thinking as a tool for dealing with life as trying to fashion an identity out of thought. In other words, we were making a religion. And as we all know, religion is the source of much solace, a good basis for companionship and solidarity – but also the source of much violence and strife.

Let’s take just one of those problems and examine it. The big one for us, and to some extent perhaps it still is, is the question of socialism. Your bloggers met having both recently converted to one of the west’s most important but declining secular churches, Marxist socialism. We had pondered the question, capitalism or socialism? And come up with an answer: socialism.

But is an answer in fact called for? For Marxists, capitalism is a totalising system that comes to embrace the whole world, and calls for a totalitarian response. Capitalism is a total system; it must be replaced by a total system. But outside of the theory, in the real world, this is of course never true. In our own society, as in all previous and present-day societies, you get a bit of both. Future society is hugely unlikely to be any different on this score. There are three basic ways of organising human affairs*.

The first is communism. The defining principle here is, “from each according to ability, to each according to needs”. In other words, if someone wants or needs something, then within the confines of reasonableness, they take it. If you can help them achieve something, then assuming you’re on good terms, why not? They’ll probably do the same for you one day. In other words, communism is how humans organise their affairs when they are hunter-gatherers going on a hunt, or members of a nuclear family, or friends looking out for each other, or workers working together within capitalist offices and factories. Contrary to the prejudice, it works well.

The second is exchange. The defining principle here is equality and fairness. It’s what happens when human individuals or groups come into contact with one another, and want to interact to their mutual benefit, but without then being obliged to enter into more intimate long-term relationships. It’s how humans organise their affairs when they are hunter-gatherers encountering another tribe with whom they want to trade, or when capitalist companies want to acquire raw materials, or when we go shopping. Contrary to the opposing prejudice, it can also work very well.

The third is hierarchy. The defining principle here is one of mutual duties and respect. It’s what happens when human beings are not equal in some way – they differ in wealth, in power, in knowledge, in wisdom – but who nevertheless form long-term relationships with each other and who therefore expect things from each other. It’s how hunter-gatherers pay respect to the wisdom of their elders, how we relate with our teachers, or interact with our bosses and rulers.

Now, there is a prayer, which we first came across in the writings of Kurt Vonnegut, but which is apparently a staple of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it goes like this:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

It struck us immediately as something worth remembering, perhaps something clever, perhaps just a piece of homely wisdom. What we didn’t quite realise or appreciate, but do now, is that, like much of what is dismissed as homely wisdom, it is in fact just wisdom, and that learning how to tell the difference between the three things and act on it is a lifetime’s work.

Of course, some questions demand an answer, and the answer is either right or wrong. Then it is a matter of science. But social life rarely submits to such simple analysis. Capitalism or socialism? The answer may well be both, if we have any choice in the matter at all, which we probably don’t. Certainly, making an ideology and an identity out of it will do nothing to further the cause one way or the other, and may well do more to hinder it. This applies quite as much to the Adam Smith Institute as it does to the Socialist Workers Party.

Much more important than such questions is the quality of our being, and this is where the anarchism of our title comes in. Of course, most anarchists play precisely the same game – they make an identity and an ideology out of anarchism. But anarchism should really go much deeper than that. The most important authority to free ourselves from is not the state or capitalism, but the ego. We must free ourselves first from the idols and fetishes we set up in our own minds to rule over us, topple the authoritarian in our head who demands an answer to every social question and problem, face down the child that shies away from whatever it is that’s going on in the world. Because when we are free from all that kind of thing, we’re also free to act – to listen carefully to the person talking to us, for example, then do something to relieve their suffering; to oppose injustice; to face down hierarchies that have outlived their usefulness; to replace capitalism with communism where appropriate; communism with capitalism (or markets at least), where appropriate. We will be free to be anarchist, act communist, embrace markets, and smile at hierarchy.

* This schema is indebted to Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.


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