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.

Politics for beginners

This talk* was originally entitled “Being political in a non-political era”, so given what has just happened to the Labour Party, it is probably a good idea that I agreed to change the title. However, this is not a pure Politics 101 type talk. Instead, after saying a few words about the nature of politics, how it is represented in the media, how we are all affected by it, and about the academic study of politics, I propose to give an illustration of how we can start the process of thinking critically and learning to navigate our way through the political world – and that means, the human world, our world. It is not my intention to convince you of any particular political point of view – rather to provide food for thought.

What is politics?

My guess is that if you ask most people what they understand by ‘politics’ you will get a variety of answers revolving around politicians, the House of Commons, elections, legislation, political parties, foreign relations and wars, and so on. And these are undoubtedly crucial aspects of what we call ‘politics’. But what such answers reveal is that, for most people, politics is ‘out there’ and has nothing much to do with them or their everyday lives. Indeed, this is how politics is most often represented to us. And yet, at the same time, although politics is not our “specialist subject”, we will be asked to vote, or someone will offer strong opinions in the pub, workplace or over the garden fence, as if we’re entitled to an opinion.

And what do we hear over that fence? More often than not, platitudes ingested and regurgitated without much thought from the mass media. You will sometimes hear some sense or evidence of careful thought, of course. But the observation brings me to my first controversial statement: political ‘common sense’ is invariably nonsense. If we think about it, this should come as no great surprise.

Political culture appears to be based upon a contradiction: on the one hand, we are feted by pollsters, and parties seek to connect with this thing called ‘public opinion’. After all, we live in a democracy – rule by the people. On the other hand, we also just as clearly seem to live in the age of the ‘expert’, and are effectively told (and sometimes we tell ourselves) that we are not politicians, and that we should defer to the experts for guidance.

My contention is that within the space where these contradictions clash lurks something called ‘ideology’, that that ideology masquerades as “common sense”, and it is precisely here where we are open to political manipulation. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that, with the help of critical thinking, we can turn the tables, and change the agenda. This should therefore be an area of deep concern to all citizens of a democracy.

If we define ideology roughly as the ideas that those in power want us to accept in the interests of their keeping power, then this leads me to my working definition of politics: power and its distribution in society. Associating power with politics is not controversial, but the social relations of power can be. If we take a brief and simplistic overview of the history of our society over the past few centuries, we will clearly see that power relations can change quite radically – from the divine right of Kings and Queens, and the power of the church, to parliament, and up to our modern day, where, in theory at least, we all hold the power – the revolutionary idea of universal suffrage. It is salutary to think that our society is actually based upon this extremely radical idea, and I would like you to hold on to this thought.

The academic study of politics

I have been involved in the academic study of politics, both as a student and teacher. Political science is a branch of the social sciences, which includes the likes of economics, sociology, anthropology, history and so on. All such disciplines are an attempt to investigate scientifically – or at least systematically and seriously – aspects of human life. Really, what all social science does is pose the question: what does it mean to be human? But if, as I suggested earlier, politics is concerned with power, you might see that there is a problem. Does not power and its distribution in society and the resulting ideologies affect our ability to investigate things objectively, scientifically?

Political theory is the study of ideologies (conservatism, socialism, liberalism, and so on) – it asks questions about the nature of political life, the relationship between the individual and society at large, the nature of the ‘state’ and its ideological underpinnings. An appreciation of such questions will affect how you see all the other questions – all the other branches of study. It will colour the lenses through which you see political reality. That is why political theory can be seen as primary for a genuine understanding of human life in all its aspects. If you have no appreciation of international relations, social history, or economics, then your understanding of what politics really is will be severely hampered. Without some grasp of political theory, one lacks any genuine frame of reference for understanding anything.

The icing and the cake

And that leads me back to how most people engage with politics. Even for those relatively highly motivated people that watch Newsnight or read a broadsheet – if this is all they are doing, and politics is a cake, all they are doing is nibbling the icing. The sponge will forever remain an untasted mystery. I am not saying one should not read quality newspapers, obviously, but they are no substitute for broader and deeper study. They are not a substitute for books or collective engagement.

What kind of things would a serious study look at? Many difficult issues, no doubt, but let’s start with just two. First, what does it even mean to say we live in a thing called ‘society’? You will perhaps remember that Mrs Thatcher herself raised this question, and famously answered it by asserting that the question was meaningless as there was no such thing as society. For those of us awake to present-day social realities at the bottom of the pile, perhaps now we are in a position to see the practical impact of her theoretical assumption and the intimate or dialectical relationship between theory and practice. Thatcher’s political theory defined her attitude to social questions and the action she took on them. In other words, political theory is not just abstract ideas. It can hurt you. Badly.

Second, how shall we be governed and on what terms? A democracy is a society based upon political equality. We are all equal before the law and we have one vote each. But at the same time there is social and economic inequality, which implies power structures in society, which democracy itself has not been able to fully bring to account. As good citizens, we must question how the people at the top got there, whether or not there is any validity to the process whereby they got there, and whether they should be allowed to continue in their roles or be made redundant.

Now we are really doing politics! When we engage with politics, ideology and theory in a critical way, then we are in a position to hold our political masters to account – as is demanded of us in any genuine democracy. The alternative is to uncritically and unconsciously accept the unexamined ideological framework and the power structure on which it rests. This turns on its head the old definition of politics as “the art of the possible” – because what is deemed “possible” is itself an ideological construction, not a matter of objective science. This is the importance of political theory: to help us see beyond what is obvious, beyond “common sense”, beyond ideology.

Ideological societies

This kind of analysis often surprises people who assume they are free of ideology. Most of us realise that Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, North Korea, or even those areas now controlled by ISIS are examples of ‘ideological’ societies, being based upon a prescriptive set of values and rules, where free thought is suppressed and submission to some kind of doctrine the norm. We often congratulate ourselves on having escaped this and for living in a ‘free society’.

One does not wish to be churlish – of course, we do live in a society that is remarkably free by historic standards. But such freedoms need to be guarded, nourished, and extended or surely they will wither away. As noted earlier, the freedoms we take for granted spring from a democratic culture which has been many decades in the making. In some respects, mainstream politics has been about expanding those freedoms, but in some cases it has been about restricting or reversing them. The overall context is political equality: one person, one vote. That we have a form of democracy is not in question. The issue is its content and quality – its depth.

The point is that, despite our society being based upon one of the most subversive ideas of all time – mass political democracy – arguments over social and economic democracy have still to be won – perhaps the best example of how ‘ideology’ still controls us and defines our options. In a sense (and only in a sense!), we have it harder than the North Koreans. We are already free – but what shall we do with our freedoms? Are we truly alert to the responsibilities – and grown up enough to take them on?

Demand the impossible

Perhaps, then, the ‘art of the possible’ is not so much about a wise acceptance and navigation of objective realities as it is an ideological defence of social iniquities. I want to subvert the idea that politics should be or is the ‘art of the possible’, and argue that it should, and can become the ‘art of the impossible’ instead. We must examine closely what we are constantly told is ‘unrealistic’. We have a perfect example of this with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, and I will finish my talk with this point about how ideology works.

Labour lost this year’s general election and then threw itself into a bruising leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn was persuaded to stand as the left candidate, and because he could barely even get the minimum number of nominations required, MPs who disapproved of him signed his papers so that at least the party could be seen to have a ‘full debate’. Some of these people later regretted helping him, when his campaign started taking off. So please note that what they wanted was the appearance of ‘democracy’ – a token. This way, their democratic credentials could remain intact, and the left could take a thumping and be reburied after its temporary exhumation.

In pursuit of the façade of democracy, the rules of the leadership election had been changed – the idea was precisely that this would neutralise the left, and disempower the trade unions. Imagine the shock and horror of the party establishment when thousands of outsiders decided to pay their £3 and declare for JC! Such temerity could not be tolerated, so the party establishment claimed they were being infiltrated by outside left groups. Although true, the numbers did not add up – the numbers in such groups are minuscule and people were joining to vote for JC in their tens of thousands. The establishment had opened Pandora’s Box and they were losing control. And all thanks to their own rules – their own political chicanery. This led some party figures to argue for the suspension of the election – just because they did not like what was happening, that the result was not going their way. Just consider that for a moment. For years such people had bemoaned the lack of participation in politics, and now, at last, their proclaimed dream was coming true. But the dream was after all a nightmare, because the people joining had the cheek of having their own ideas. Such hypocritical hubris, cant and humbug.

We all know what happened next, but notice this. The same people that told us that the election of JC was impossible were not only proved hopelessly wrong, they are now telling us his potential election as PM will equally be impossible because what he proposes is unrealistic, and the people won’t go for it anyway. Notice the language they continue to use. They speak of ‘realism’, ‘common sense’ and the need to be elected. Aside from the obvious objection – ‘what is the use in electing a Tory-lite Labour Party other than to save your personal careers?’ – they have this fixed idea about what is permanent, possible and acceptable. In other words, they lack any kind of historical analysis whatsoever – they do not understand that change is the only thing that history guarantees.

But what change is possible is actually down to us. We can only be effective in bringing about change if we are alert to ideological bullshit. This demands a better civic-democratic culture than the one we already have – a culture that values reading, study, participation. But maybe such a culture is now on the cards. Love or loathe him, JC and his nascent movement will surely contribute to this end–Dave

* This is based on a talk first given by Dave to environmental group Barkingside 21

Jez the Wolfman

As is well known, wolves are predators that kill and eat their prey. What is less well known is that, in doing so, they give life to whole ecosystems. When wolves were reintroduced into America’s Yellowstone park, the result was a wonderful healing and rebirth. The wolf, it turns out, can not only change landscapes, even redirect the course of rivers, it can also sing beautiful songs – through the birds and insects and other wildlife its presence makes possible. Watch this wonderful short video to see how. It’s the story of an ecological revolution set off by a measly and easily achievable reform.

When I first came across this story it got me wondering. Could there be a political and social equivalent to the wolf? Is there some measly reform we could make that would cascade through society and lead to meaningful and positive societal change? My first thoughts, in keeping with my already existing inclinations, were on libertarian-socialist or Buddhist lines. Perhaps a revival in grassroots political organisation and/or an awakening of the heart among individuals and communities could start the cascade?

Perhaps indeed, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to my own proposed metaphor. It is a change at the top of the food chain that leads to the “trophic cascade” that heals ecosystems. Perhaps the same might be true in human politico-ecosystems. So, what kind of change at the top of our social and political food chain could lead to a blossoming of political life and intellectual diversity and change the course of the river of history? No one knows, of course. But we’re putting all our chips on red.–Stuart

What is “socialist consciousness”?

While Dave was giving his talk to the comrades, I was preparing the following piece for a pamphlet prepared for the party’s summer school – on the theme of “new perspectives on socialism”. I don’t know whether my perspective is really new, but I don’t think I’ve heard the view expressed in quite this way anywhere else.

My unstated assumption in the piece is that socialism is a secular religion, and that for every feature you can find in religious organisation, practice and belief, you can find a more or less exact counterpart in the socialist traditions. I mean this as both criticism and praise, for every aspect of religion itself has a dual character. There is the religion of dogmatism, blind faith, empty ritual, oppression, reaction, propagandism and plain stupidity. There is also the religion that is, as Marx put it, “the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification”.

As with religion, so with socialism (in all the meanings of that term). My idea for the following piece came when I began to wonder what the socialist counterpart was of the concept in the spiritual life variously known as Buddhanature, Big Mind, Zen mind, pu, Krishna consciousness, or Christ consciousness (and I’m sure many others – all rooted in meditation). I’m not entirely sure it has one. But it should do – and there’s an already-existing but somewhat empty concept waiting to do the job…

What is socialist consciousness?

“… socialist consciousness requires workers to experience ‘a process of
complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.’ Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind – but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation.”–Steve Coleman, ‘Impossibilism’

The Socialist Party of Great Britain stands alone among socialists and Marxists in its peculiar insistence on the importance of “socialist consciousness”. Socialism, in this view, is impossible unless and until a majority of the world’s workers undergo a “process of mental reconstruction”. To put it another way, that the inner transformation of individuals is more important than, and logically prior to, any meaningful transformation in the structures and institutions of the outer world. This may be a peculiar point of view, but it is surely the right one. An unaddressed question, however, is precisely what is meant by socialist consciousness and how it is to be achieved.

Steve Coleman, quoting an author in the Socialist Standard, puts his finger on it (see epigraph above). Socialist consciousness is a “process of complete mental reconstruction”, one where years (indeed millennia) of “thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour” are decisively overcome. Socialists must, as Coleman rightly says, “think very carefully” about what all this might mean. In his own essay, Coleman makes the observation and lets the thinking stop there. He doesn’t tell us what socialist consciousness is or how it is to be achieved beyond stating that it is a matter of “understanding” and “desire”, before going on to imply that the task is mostly one of propaganda and education and political organisation. This is perhaps necessary but surely inadequate, as we shall explore below.

Socialism really is impossible
One way of thinking about this is to imagine, for the sake of argument, that “socialist consciousness”, whatever it may be, really is not possible under capitalism, as the Leninists insist. The logical conclusion, if this were so, is that socialism would be impossible too. Grasping this point will help us understand and sympathise with every right-wing and common-sensical objection to socialism we’ve ever heard. To give just the most obvious examples, human nature, as it manifests in capitalist societies, clearly does make socialism an unlikely proposition. Greed and violence really does make stateless abundance and free access improbable ways of organising economies. Revolutions really must end in the establishment of new tyrannies. A party taking power in the name of the workers really would end up having to impose a dictatorship. The SPGB links arms with socialism’s opponents on every point. Having linked arms with our new anti-socialist friends, perhaps we might sit down to consider together what “socialist consciousness” might be, ie, what kind of inner transformation might turn socialism from a “nice idea” into a real practical possibility.

It’s not what you think it is
To the knowledge of this writer, very little has been written, either within or without the party, on what socialist consciousness might mean. A more common conception among Marxists generally is the related idea of “class consciousness”. But by this seems to be meant little more than knowledge or awareness that one is part of a social class. We must all surely know of people who have such awareness, but are nevertheless not socialists. Indeed, there’s no obvious reason why such a class-conscious person might not also be a Tory, depending on their political views and upbringing, precise position in class hierarchies, and so on. Class consciousness is clearly not necessarily much help to us.

Is it, then, a matter of “understanding” or “desire”, as Coleman puts it? The way to see that it is not is to conduct a scientific experiment of our own. Think of a person you know who lays claim to a good understanding of socialist issues – perhaps they’ve read every word of Marx and Engels and Morris and so on – and who has a burning desire for socialism. Now closely watch that person as they conduct themselves in social life. Do they, to use Coleman’s words again, demonstrate by their actions that they have overcome, lock, stock and barrel, impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour? Have they achieved a “complete mental reconstruction”? Have they achieved “the necessary consciousness for social liberation”?

Whether the person you are observing is yourself or your worst enemy doesn’t in the end matter, and in neither case is moral judgement or censure implied. If your subject is the worst arsehole and hypocrite imaginable, he or she is only sharing in the general social madness, and is no doubt nevertheless very nice indeed to their dog. But while we refrain from judging, let us nevertheless continue to observe closely and carefully. Let us see what is there, and think about the implications.

You might see that socialist “understanding” and “desire” has, if anything, made us worse. Our superior understanding alienates us from our fellow workers, and we get frustrated and angry that they can’t see as we do. Our desire for socialism burns to anger at the social injustices we must live with every day, and we turn into monsters of negativity and aggression. Frustration, anger, pride in superior knowledge, alienation from our fellow man, negativity, aggression – are these the characteristics of the “necessary consciousness for social liberation”? Surely not.

If socialist consciousness isn’t then what we think it is or what we desire, what is it? What I would like to suggest is that socialist consciousness is what arises spontaneously and without volition from a total awareness of our situation.

That starts with us as individuals – the exercise I suggested above needs to be continued. Proceed carefully and slowly, for such scientific observation demands great skill and subtlety and patience. Watch and appreciate every aspect of your own consciousness and experience – the thinking and the emotions, and how they feed each other; your desire to be proved right; to do the right thing… and get applause for it; the aggression and irritability; the constant search for gratification and entertainment; your childishness when you don’t get your own way in even the slightest degree; your shyness and desire to assert yourself; your pride in achievement; your desire to go out and change the world, and to curl up in a darkened room and forget the whole thing.

That’s the internal aspect. We hardly need to go into the external aspects when all we have to do is switch on the news. But make this too part of your scientific experiment, your awareness of the world we live in – the world we help to create and sustain everyday by our thoughts and our actions. The wars. The violence. The greed. The stupidity. The ecological destruction. The ugliness. The pettiness. The class struggle.

The SPGB is quite right to insist, against other Marxists, than socialist consciousness does not arise spontaneously out of the class struggle, but rather out of our consciousness of and reflection on the total situation we find ourselves in. This then is our answer to the question in the title. Out of the total awareness of our total situation arises a consciousness adequate to that situation – a direct and immediate consequence of that awareness is that we grow up and become and act as responsible adults in this crazy and immature world.

Those who were hoping for an intellectually satisfying answer to the question might be very disappointed by this anti-climax. But the truth is that the whole question of consciousness is a very tricky one scientifically and philosophically. As a practical matter, however, we can just accept the unsatisfactoriness of it. We may not quite be able to grasp consciousness – let alone socialist consciousness – scientifically or intellectually, but consciousness is the one thing we have good access to and a measure of control over from the inside. So let’s start with what we have – the common inheritance of all humanity – and begin our study of ourselves, from the inside, to see whether the answer to the possibility of socialism doesn’t lie within.

Although we don’t really know what socialist consciousness is, nevertheless “by their fruits ye shall know them”. We know it when we see it. We know it by its signs – friendliness, kindliness, patience, compassion, service, work freely given without expectation of reward, moderation, open mindedness, good heartedness, forgiveness, altruism, sharing, generosity. When socialist consciousness comes into this world, then so too inevitably does socialism.–Stuart

The real prophet of the 20th century was not Marx…

… it was Dostoevsky. Albert Camus’ provocative statement provides the backdrop as to why socialists should be interested in this most original of writers. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested and sentenced to death for his involvement with a group of Russian utopian socialists. His death sentence was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia, an experience that shook Dostoyevsky to his foundations and resulted in a political shift to the right with a revitalised faith in Christ.

However, despite his subsequent reputation as an arch reactionary, Dostoyevsky’s conservatism was far more nuanced than is commonly understood. Indeed, socialists should be able to identify with his penetrating psychological insights into the mindset of Russian ‘nihilism’, and the irrationality of humankind more generally.

Novels such as ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Possessed’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, won him monumental praise from the likes of Nietzsche, Freud and Albert Einstein. For some, he was the ‘prophet’ of what became the ‘nightmare’ of the Russian Revolution.

But did Dostoyevsky offer any real alternative, and what is his relevance for us today? Negative Capability blogger Dave explores these issue in his excellent talk, given to the comrades of a party we were both once members of. Please do have a listen.