Brexit part II: the economy and the left

We were planning to write a second part to our blog on Brexit, but we’ve never seen any point in reinventing the wheel, so here are links to two excellent wheelwrights who got there before us.

Firstly, we wanted to talk about the role of the left as unwitting footsoldiers for the right. People who live in their heads too much are often convinced that they’re being asked questions that they’re not. Ask why the bus hasn’t arrived, and they’ll launch into a polemic about privatisation. Ask whether Britain should remain a member of the EU, and they start dreaming about sovereignty and revolution. Here on earth, the question is a more straightforward one, but with potentially serious consequences, so conservative caution is called for. Vote Remain.

Secondly, we wanted to correct our perhaps too blasé analysis of the potential for economic damage on Brexit. As the post linked to points out, predicting the future is a tricky business, and it’s at least conceivable that Brexit will have no economic effect – perhaps even a positive one. But we are called upon in this referendum to judge the balance of probabilities – to choose between two elites who have done the work for us. Again, the conclusion looks pretty plain. Brexit will damage our economy – or, to put it in less abstract terms, will make us all poorer. Vote Remain.

A close reading of both these links might also, we would hope, put to rest the arguments of that smaller section of the far left who argue for a “plague on both their houses” as there’s “nothing to see here” for the toiling masses. Nothing could be further from the truth – unless you seriously think that living in a poorer country with fewer protections for workers at work, for human rights, and the environment, with neighbours engaged in ever more intense geopolitical conflict, is “nothing”. Remember, please, that you’re being asked a straightforward and serious question about present capitalist arrangements – you are not being asked about the dreams and hopes you have for the future (dreams and hopes that these bloggers share). Vote Remain.

The debate, for those following it, has sometimes been wearying, but interesting arguments have been aired on all sides. We rather wish this referendum weren’t happening at all, but given that it is, we have engaged with it, as all responsible citizens should. But at the end of the day, a decision is called for. We have made ours. It’s got to be for Remain.


What is money?

This is a piece we wrote for the SPGB’s summer school. The concluding sentence our regular readers will perhaps recognise, but it seems to us too good not to use at least twice.

The blind men and the elephant

What is money? As with pretty much everything else in the social sciences, you’ll get different answers depending on whom you ask. Societies are, after all, massively complex things, moved by human intention and will as much as by any other force, which makes them tricky things to analyse scientifically. Much heat, and occasionally some light, is generated by the conflict between the rival theories. Sometimes, of course, one theory will be contradicted by another, and one will be right and one wrong – which is which will be determined by an appeal to the facts. More often, in social science anyway, it will be a case of blind men feeling an elephant. If one blind man insists that the essence of elephants is trunkiness, and another tuskiness, and another thick-leggedness, then stepping back and taking a broader perspective, rather than choosing between them, will yield something closer to the truth.

Different theories of money are probably more like the blind men than they are like natural science. If they could be discriminated between on the basis of an appeal to the facts, then that would have happened long ago. It doesn’t matter then, for the purposes of my argument here, which theory of money one uses. I could have used any and come to the same result. But for novelty and variety, I have gone with one I hope Marxists will be less familiar with and hence find interesting.

A theory

Money, according to a theory with a long heritage but that came back into fashion in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, is a token issued by the state with the purpose of coercing work out of its population. How would that work? To answer that, let’s consider how money as we know it today might have originated. (The following story is not meant to be taken too literally as a historical account, but it probably captures something of the character of what really did happen.)

Once upon a time, there was a society without much in the way of money. Peasant communities produced directly for their own needs, and perhaps traded surpluses occasionally with nearby communities. For the purposes of trade, perhaps something like money had evolved as a convenience. But it played a peripheral role. Society was not organised around it. Then, one day, as happened now and then, the King decided to wage war with some other king, and an army was raised. This, as always, presented the state with a problem. To stand a chance of winning the war, the state had to keep the army on its feet, well fed and watered and sufficiently rested, and provided with all its other needs, bodily and military and spiritual, and this presented the state with an enormous economic calculation problem. Just how much food should be produced, and when, and distributed how? What spares and tools should be carried on the journey? How many horses, and how much feed will they require? Think about it even for a while and you’ll see that, even in a relatively simple feudal peasant society, the problems would not just be large – but intractable. The King had an idea. Perhaps he and his team of state advisers didn’t need to solve the problem at all. All they had to do was tax the peasants.

How would that work? All the state had to do to solve its economic problem was pay its soldiers in state-issued tokens, and impose a community-wide tax, to be paid only in state-issued tokens. The peasants, as we have seen, did not have much dealings with money at all, and none anyway in state-issued tokens. The state refuses to accept payment in kind or in any other kinds of money. What, then, is a peasant to do? What else but figure out ways of getting the soldiers’ tokens out of their hands and into their own? Figure out what it is soldiers need, then provide them with it in exchange for the tokens. The soldiers get their needs provisioned by the population. The peasants get their tax money and give it back to the state. The state has, merely by throwing bits of paper into circulation, coerced the population into stopping economic activity directly for its own needs and producing instead for the state. Magic. The magic, in fact, of the free market – of the Invisible Hand.

What follows?

If this theory captures something of the truth of money, and it surely does, then certain consequences follow. Social scientists working with this “modern monetary theory” have ideas about the implications for the working of modern economies. But for our purposes, it will be more interesting to consider what the consequences are for those socialists and communists who argue that modern society could do without money. Our sketch above helps throw some light on the arguments of those who say that it could and should, and those who say it’s impossible.

Those who say it’s impossible look at the role of the King and his state, and see just how much more intractable the problem of economic calculation has become in modern societies. To take just a few of an infinitely sprouting set of questions, how much energy need be produced to mine the gold for use in the army’s GPS equipment? And what would be the most efficient energy source for that mine? And might that gold not be better put to use in the aerospace industry? And so on ad infinitum. Money is the means by which society answers these questions and it can’t do without it.

Those who look forward to a moneyless society, on the other hand, just read the story backwards. What about those previous peasant communities that got along perfectly well producing directly for need and without much use for money? Had they not been perfectly happy and relatively prosperous before the King came along with his magic tokens? Could we not, now, do likewise? The claim that we could must take one of two options. Either the argument is that we could go back to some kind of simple peasant arrangement, directly producing for need. Or that we could keep the King’s army (ie, modern industrial economies) on the road, but without monetary incentive or state coercion, simply by doing all the work necessary for free, including the work of figuring out – by trial and error, and by means other than money, perhaps less efficient means – how to make economic decisions.

For those who argue that a moneyless modern society is impossible, both those options strike them as ludicrously unfeasible. Socialists and communists on the whole tend to agree with them that the first option is indeed unfeasible, so argue instead for the second. But if the second option strikes most people as unfeasible, then perhaps it’s not too hard to see why. The argument is that it is possible, within our lifetime, to create a society where a majority of its members fully understand and agree with the necessity of keeping the King’s army on the road, and selflessly agree to work, perhaps very hard, towards that end, without direct or selfish incentive. They would set the alarm at 6am in order to be at the factory gates (or office doors) on time for the orderly functioning of the economy, not because they are economically coerced into it, but out of their own free choice and will. That non-socialists find this improbable is hardly to be wondered at. But I wonder whether socialists have given it the full consideration it demands. If you agree, as I do, that such a societal arrangement is indeed possible, it has some direct political and ethical implications.

Breaking the spell

At the present time, we all work under the spell of magic pieces of paper, inscribed with runes and icons, and devote most of our energies every day to looking after Number One – an activity that comes naturally to us and, by the magic of the Invisible Hand previously described, keeps the King’s army on the road too as a bonus. How is it possible to break this spell? Socialists and communists have tended to answer that question in mystical and religious terms. “Material forces” are working in our direction, it is claimed. Technology will save us. It will all come right after the Rapture, the Revolution, say the Millenarians. Those of a more pragmatic, earth-bound frame of mind will see through all this. External material considerations are of course important up to a point, but for the vast majority of us living in the rich countries, at least, that point was reached long ago. The idea that technology will save us is a feeble capitalist myth that socialists should know better than to fall for. As for the Rapture, the pragmatic know full well that tomorrow never comes. Think of the wise barman who had “Free drinks tomorrow!” written above the bar.

No, if you are labouring under a spell of delusion, there is only one way to dispel it, and that is through your own hard work. If you know deep within yourself that a society of goodwill and peace is possible, where people work freely and with good cheer for the common good for no other reason than that is necessary for the prosperity and health of us all, then there is only one thing to do and that is to live your life in accordance with that truth. That does not of course mean refusing your pay cheque. Socialists have to be practical. But they also have to be good propagandists for the cause. Anyone who has been a socialist for even a year or two will surely realise by now that propaganda by the word is, roughly, useless. Talk is cheap and everyone knows it. But propaganda by deed has a power beyond the magic of money. The socialist political project goes much deeper than ideology and party-building. It involves a deep reformation of individual character, a commitment to doing good works in a spirit of comradeship and charity, to care for one’s neighbour as much as oneself. Out of such commitment, it’s feasible that the necessary political and economic changes will come. What is not feasible is that it will happen the other way about.

Socialists have long said that socialism is not just a nice idea, but is a practical possibility. But too many of those who say that only entertain “practical possibility” as itself a nice idea. Socialism is indeed a practical project – but it begins with us, today, in the work we do and the attitude with which we do it. As Maya Angelou said, nothing will work unless you do.

Brexit? No thanks! Better the Devil you know

That there is a lot wrong with the European Union is not in doubt. It has morphed into a lumbering, hubristic leviathan before our very eyes, often displaying the kind of staggering incompetence, not to mention cruelty and abuse of power, associated with empires that have grown too quickly; losing touch not only with reality, but most importantly with its people, as it shambles along in a delusive bubble of its own creation. But it was not always like this.

A potted history of the EU

Back in the eighties, it was a no-brainer that Britain should be a part of the nascent European project. That the Labour Party dared to advocate withdrawal from the EEC in its 1983 ‘suicide note’ was deemed to be further proof that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives were the only competent party to be trusted with the economy. It is now often forgotten that it was Mrs Thatcher (later to succumb to Euroscepticism) who signed the Single Market Act in 1985 – giving us the free movement of capital and people, a neoliberal nirvana. Only a few years later John Major followed up with the Maastricht treaty, which drew out some of the political implications of the ongoing process of the union of European nations, and then took us into what turned into the disaster of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The ever-expanding EU project culminated in the creation of the single currency – something now widely credited with much of Europe’s economic woes. Euroscepticism grew in tandem with the expansion. The European project was growing too fast, said the sceptics, and Britain risked losing what was left of its sovereignty – we were sleepwalking into a ‘superstate’. Even from the very start of the creation of the EU, the Tories had had their naysayers – its right-wingers, who cloaked their ideological objections in an economic rationale. This struck a chord with their doubles on the left who were doing the same thing. These ideologues patiently bided their time as, over the decades, the fantastic success of what is now called the EU slipped into its opposite – vindication of the naysayers’ warnings, at least in their eyes.

Britain was always something of a reluctant partner in this project. It wanted to have its cake and eat it too. After the decline and fall of its empire, Britain was caught following the second world war between the rise of the new superpower, the USA, and the formation of the European power bloc. The former imperial power naturally wanted to retain power and influence in a changing world – but what compromises should it make with rising greater powers, and with which ones? Straightaway we see that worries about the loss of ‘sovereignty’, voiced by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, is at least situated by history. But if it was all as simple as they like to make out, why did Johnson only convert to Brexit after David Cameron’s apparent failure to secure suitable reforms? It’s not as if those reforms were ever going to deliver the kind of sovereignty wished for. Brexiteers argue that, with full sovereignty restored, Britain would be free to do trade deals with all four corners of the globe, but what sort of trade deals would the likes of Johnson and Farage sign us up to? Presumably, ones without the socio-economic protections of the EU – arguably good for businesses, or at least for some of them, but what kind of boon for democracy and ‘sovereignty’ would it represent for the mass of the population? One that is hard to discern, we would wager.

It’s not the economy, stupid

You can argue the toss about the economic trade-offs. As far as it is possible to tell, the boring reality is that the purely economic costs or benefits will probably be marginal either way. The whole question is more a political one. As Paul Mason points out, there are good arguments for wanting to exit the EU, but that doesn’t mean you should actually vote for Brexit. Why? Two words: Boris Johnson. Vote Brexit, get a resurgent Tory right, which will dominate the next period of British politics, and which will use the referendum win as a mandate to pursue ever more extreme Thatcherite polices. It is all very well voting to ‘get your country back’, but you won’t get it back – you’re handing it to the Tory right.

There’s a small ‘c’ conservative argument for staying, too, in that we are gambling with uncertain and potentially big upheavals for at best marginal economic gains. The terms of the withdrawal that Britain will win from the EU are by no means clear at this stage, but could conceivably be punitive – the EU will want to discourage other countries with similar ideas. Britain will want a continuing relationship with Europe, particularly access to the single market – and Europe will to an extent surely want that too. Britain is still one of the biggest and richest economies in the world. But given Britain’s current (at least apparent) hostility to migration and regulation and other conditions imposed by Brussels, how will this be achieved? The devil will of course be in the detail. But this is the real point. Brexiteers are pursuing an ideological agenda, the implications and real consequences of which they cannot be sure of. They are dangerous radicals, not conservatives. They want the benefits of EU membership without the costs. They are not really conservatives at all but have a petit–bourgeois spiv mentality.

Don’t let’s divorce or kick out the kids, let’s talk

Let’s return to the sovereignty question, as this would seem to be something of a trump card for Brexiteers of left and right. It can be seen for the myth it is with an analogy. When an individual decides to get married, they cede a large portion of their personal sovereignty with another person who is doing likewise. Both parties pool sovereignty: what they lose in one aspect, they gain in another. This is only apparently a loss, from a limited and selfish point of view. Actually, the apparent loss is a real gain: both individuals are strengthened by the partnership – the ‘individual’ has been transformed into a higher synthesis. At this point, it would be stupid and counterproductive to continue to insist on your individual rights. All that would do would be to threaten the higher synthesis. You’ll end up back on your own again, back where you started, having gained nothing. As The Economist likes to point out, full sovereignty is not obviously something to be wished for. Nowhere on earth is more sovereign and independent than North Korea.

What would we want this much-prized sovereignty for? The Brexiteers top trump, at least when it comes to connecting with a disaffected populace, is: to control our borders. The UK has entered an arrangement which nominally cedes border control for the right of access to other countries. The Brexiteers’ big beef is that more people in the other countries appear to have taken advantage of this to come here than people in the UK have to go there. This is a partial and hence misleading truth. What has really been happening is that the UK economy has been sucking in some of the most able workers from other EU countries and exploiting them in our more-flexible and hence cheaper labour markets. This has been made possible because of the near collapse of the ‘wage’ following 30 years of Thatcherism. Many indigenous Brits cannot afford to live on the wage a job offers without relying on a relatively generous (soon to be taken away) system of benefits. That this has been a boon to UK business (if not to its workers) is not in doubt. The UK has expanded its economy by raiding poorer countries’ labour forces, at the expense of our own, whilst at the same time having the chutzpah to claim that these very same people are clogging up our hospitals and social services – institutions that are, ironically, most often built and staffed by those very same immigrants.

Increased migration was an inevitable consequence of neoliberalism. This is the economy Thatcher and her successors built – a globalised, neoliberal, free-market utopia – and it explains why large sections of the business community still support EU membership, albeit through gritted teeth. But rather than accepting this reality, the likes of Johnson and Farage want to go a step further. For them, the EU stands in opposition to the kind of neoliberalism they want to see. When they bemoan the EU’s ‘regulations’ and ‘red tape’ what they are tacitly acknowledging are the remains of the social democratic settlement that followed in the wake of the second world war. This settlement was a compromise that recognised the rights of ordinary working people to such things as health, education, housing and a decent wage, if in return working people would recognise the rights of businesses to ply their trade in search of profits. This compromise, now thinned out, still underpins the Single Market, and the likes of Farage and Johnson want to get rid of what remains. The rest of the ‘red tape’ constitutes the legal framework required to underpin any free trading agreement – costs big businesses are happy to take on, but which can be an intolerable burden to smaller ones (a reason in itself why big businesses are happy to take them on). So when the Brexiteers light a bonfire under EU red tape, we can assume that any new such arrangements they come up with will be just as bureaucratic and costly (if not more so, minus the social protections we currently enjoy). What kind of free-trading paradise would you expect when when a desperate UK led by the blonde opportunist starts renegotiating our trading position with the likes of Trump or authoritarian states such as China?

Bigger dreams

At least some of the Brexit people have bigger dreams. They believe that a referendum victory will lead to a series of referendums in other EU states, thereby destroying the EU leviathan by stealth and turning Europe into a group of free associating and freely trading democractic nations – a kind of anarcho-capitalism, in fact. This is almost certainly a dangerous illusion and makes Cameron’s overheated warnings about world war seem all the more plausible. As the Remainers rhetorically point out, about the only foreign power praying for Brexit is Vladimir Putin – there’s nothing that would suit his geopolitical strategy more than the break-up of the power blocs currently frustrating his ambitions. This is not to say that there will be chaotic break up and war in the event of Brexit – but given the uncertainties, and the continent’s still recent history, conservative caution would seem sensible. There’s nothing very wrong with utopian dreaming, but beware the fanatics who are in a rush to impose their vision on a recalcitrant reality. Afghanistan and Iraq provide sobering lessons for those who are in a hurry to engage in utopian state-destruction and social engineering. The hope there was that ‘liberal democracy’ would spontaneously emerge from the rubble; what we actually saw was tribalism, sectarianism and corruption, to mention nothing worse, emerging in the power vacuum of these failed states. Utopian Brexiteers, whether of the free trading or socialist variety, should be careful what they wish for.

The EU does of course need to change, and the best way for progressive forces to help bring about democratic change is for Britain to remain a member. Being outside will leave us with no control over events occurring on our doorstep and will not return any meaningful sovereignty. Warnings from the likes of the Bank of England and the IMF should be heeded. The only likely result of a win for the Brexit campaign is a carnival of reaction in this country – and perhaps worse in the countries on our borders. That many people want to leave the EU is entirely understandable, however. The EU needs to wake up to the simple fact that its current course is unsustainable. Let’s hope the UK’s referendum goes the right way – for Remain – but that the EU learns a lesson from all the millions of ordinary people who are clamouring for the exits.

The Young Conservatives, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and me

What follows is our second extract from Dave’s work in progress, currently entitled From Solipsism to Socialism – Portrait of a Political Animal. It traces Dave’s personal, social and political development from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, trying to discover what may lie behind the social and political ideas we choose to identify with. For Dave, there is a complexity of subjective factors underpinning our ideologies, and more often than not, they are in no way ‘political’…

The perfect antidote to an evening’s political entertainment at the Young Conservatives meeting was going home to my favourite television show of the moment, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – the story of a group of unemployed building workers who’d ‘got on their bikes’ to find work abroad. Dad was a fan of the show because it reminded him of his time in Germany, and because there was some swearing in it. When he picked Stephen and myself up from the meeting he was usually excited from having just watched it, and I was paranoid that he may not have recorded it.

“How was the ‘twits’ tonight?” Dad called my Young Conservative friends “the twits”.

“Yes, good. Did you remember to tape Auf Wiedersehen?”

“Of course I did, it is all set up for you when you get in.”

“Was it good?”

“Yes it was, Oz insulted the ‘erics’ and said ‘Bollocks man’.”

“Why was he insulting the ‘erics’? They’re not in Germany, they’re in Spain in this series.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right, but he still said ‘Bollocks man’. I love the Geordie accent, don’t you? We’re gannin’ doon the toon like. Why do they always say like? We had some Geordies in the army you know, canny lads like.”

And all the way home with Dad continually muttering to himself, “We’re gannin’ like, we’re gannin’ yem – that means ‘we’re going home’.” “They call women Pet, so it translates to ‘Goodbye love or dear’. “I still remember some German.”

“Yes we know.”

Stephen’s nose flared sarcastically.

As soon as we got in, Dad loaded up the video, whilst Mum made me a sandwich. “Why don’t you watch it as well Mum?”

“Oh, I don’t understand their accents so I wouldn’t be able to follow it.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” interjected Dad, “if they say ‘gannin’ yem’ that means going home, and they’re fond of saying ‘bollocks man’, or ‘bollicks man’ a lot. Yes, that’s it ‘bollicks’ not ‘bollocks’. We ‘ad a lot of ‘em in the army y’knaa, y’knaa.”

“Well I won’t enjoy it if I can’t understand them, and they spend all their time swearing. Anyway, I have the wiping up to do, bring your plate out when you’ve finished the sandwich.”

Oh I loved this show, from the opening credits right through to the theme song at the end. Three Geordies from Newcastle, Barry from Birmingham, Bomber from Bristol, Moxy from Liverpool, and Wayne from London, living together in a wooden hut on a building site in Dusseldorf, Germany. All victims of the recent economic changes, yet these men continued to eke out a human existence in straitened circumstances forming strong bonds of friendship and solidarity as they went along. None of them wanted to leave their homes and families, but had nonetheless followed Norman Tebbit’s advice, and not only ‘got on their bikes’, but caught the ferry too. As ‘boring’ Barry from Birmingham, the group’s ‘intellectual’, put it, “I think Thatcherism is a misguided policy. That’s why I joined the SDP.” But even Oz, a big rough Geordie who was more likely to use his fists than his brain, was still human enough to care for his friends when it was needed. He hated the Germans with a passion, and considered himself a supporter of Arthur Scargill. His constant anti-German jibes often got him into the kind of trouble that only one’s friends can get you out of. Most of the group wanted to get along with the ‘erics’, as they referred to the Germans, and make the best of a bad situation, even educate themselves in aspects of German culture. But Oz rejected all of this, preferring to spend most of his spare time drinking and being socially obnoxious. As fellow Geordie and group ‘leader’ Denis put it, with words to the effect of, “I‘ve seen men like you before Oz, working abroad for the first time, getting all patriotic for the country that couldn’t employ you in the first place.”

And this last sentiment struck me as self-evident: if there was ‘work out there if you want it’, as Dad so often insisted, and unemployment was caused by laziness, why were these people abroad in the first place? Dad never questioned their need to be there, it was obvious – there was no work in England. One time, I was watching an episode with Dad and ‘uncle’ Paul was there. Oz was complaining about why all foreigners don’t speak English and Denis rebuked him with, “You would have made a good imperialist Oz”, to which Paul gave a nodding chuckle, but I had not understood the joke. I was now at the stage where pride prevented me asking Paul what an ‘imperialist’ was. Later, I looked it up in a dictionary and Denis’s comment became clearer. It was another political type word I could throw into conversations along with the distinction between monarchy and republicanism, and fiscal and monetary policy.

In one episode, the lads decided to paint the interior walls of their hut to make it as homely as possible. The problem was that they couldn’t decide upon which colour they wanted, until SDP member Barry suggested they use a form of proportional representation – the single transferable vote – to decide. The joke was that after an extraordinary labour on Barry’s part, to organise the election as democratically as possible, the colour which ‘won’, pink, was nobody’s actually first choice (aside from Barry’s). Such comedy only reinforced in me that the First-Past-the-Post system that we had in the UK was the only way to ensure effective government. This said, I fully appreciated that the likes of the SDP were discriminated against in this regard.

From my warm bedroom in southern suburbia, I would lay fantasising about the wooden hut from Auf Wiedersehen Pet and how warm and snug it could be. In my version, they had an inside toilet and a full kitchen. In the second series they slept in the stately home they were doing up, before going to Spain. The conditions in the stately home were not fantastic, but it was an improvement upon the wooden hut. For me, these men were living exciting lives, rather than being victims of the free market.

A wanderlust, on my part, was taking a nascent form.

But Oz’s inexplicable Germanophobia continued to grate upon the other characters as well as myself. I couldn’t make any sense of it – after all, Germany had given him work, but all he could think about was the fact that they had lost the war. Besides this, Germany was just about the only foreign country which Dad liked, so I had had no real exposé to anti-German feeling (with the notable exception of my Nan who didn’t really like anyone). But Oz himself didn’t really know either, and on one occasion when he was pushed, all he could come up with, after a few seconds of refection was, “The bastards bombed me granny”.

I found out that my Young Conservative friend Kevin enjoyed Auf Wiedersehen Pet and spent more time discussing this than actual politics. He was fascinated by the character of ‘Bomber’, played by professional wrestler Pat Roach. “He’s six foot five and weighs around 19 stone,” I told him.

“Is that all he is?”

“I thought he’d be more than that, he’s so big!”

“He’s a really good wrestler too,” I proffered.

“I bet he never gets beaten”, returned Kevin.

“No he doesn’t.” I was just relieved I didn’t have to defend pro wrestling from another potential detractor. The premature death of Gary Holton, who played the cockney carpenter, Wayne, provided another talking point. Kevin was almost crying into his beer. “I can’t see them continuing without him,” he said wistfully shaking his head. I thought that it was good that Kevin and I had something to bond over. I had tried him with monetarism, but that hadn’t worked.

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.