Socialism of the present moment

Around three years ago I ran into an old work colleague that I had not seen for years. I remembered him as an obstreperous old-school lefty who was seemingly incapable of social interaction without causing an argument and/or offence. I was a fellow ‘lefty’ myself and even I found him impossible, and to be quite honest, wholly obnoxious. My natural inclination upon seeing him was to recognise that this engagement would take at least five minutes of my time so I sought to make it as easy as possible for the both of us by pushing at a door which I assumed would still be at least slightly ajar. The conversation went something like this:

‘Remember our old boss, what a wanker! I still recall you abusing him in staff meetings.’

‘Yes, I remember that.’

‘He didn’t change after you left, you’ll never guess what happened last year!’

But already I could tell he wasn’t playing ball. There was a passivity about him, a listlessness in his eyes, at least that’s what it seemed like from my point of view.

‘You seem different,’ I continued. ‘Have you calmed down?’

‘My wife made me go on a mindfulness course,’ he responded. ‘All this stuff is just not worth it.’

I was both stunned and impressed. If this guy could ‘let it go’ then I could too, surely? But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to let go of my anger. Anger was my righteous response to perceived injustices, was it not? My anger was in fact, my identity, my personality.

No, I could not give this up.

There was a reason for my anger. I was struggling in a hostile work environment that had been slowly killing me for many years. My only protection was anger, resistance, and my socialism. This was the narrative I told myself every day, and to give these things up would be tantamount to rendering myself defenceless.

Fate smiled on me, and due to a variety of circumstances, I left the job and knew that this was the perfect time to reconstruct my broken identity.

In fact I had little choice.

For many years, a growing interest in the broad idea of ‘Buddhism’ (or calming down) and a decline of my faith in the possibility of revolutionary socialism had opened up the possibility for change. But concrete circumstances prevented any real development. It was a case of one step forwards, three steps back, and an inevitable return to type every time the proverbial hit the fan. Now that I was ‘free’ I could change how I saw the world, my narrative, and perhaps most saliently, my identity.

This process is an on-going work-in-progress.

I started to meditate on a semi-regular basis. Fear prevented me from full commitment. What if it failed to work? I would be stranded in an existential no man’s land. I took baby steps, all the time being emotionally supported by my wonderful partner, family and my rekindled friendship with Stuart (the other writer on this blog) who had also been undergoing a similar journey. Over time I meditated more frequently and opened my mind to ideas and practices which had hitherto been blocked. I had previously understood the words, but they just bounced off my mind. I was not ready and words are never enough.

And this last insight struck me with a certain poignancy. Had my previous socialist identity just been words and abstract concepts? A futile resistance to life itself, masquerading as a critique of capitalism (whatever that might actually mean)?

Possibly.

Capitalism is very real, but what if, horror-of-horrors, this is just life – this thing we call ‘capitalism’? How to deal with injustice? How to create a more humane society?

***

In many respects mindfulness is the antithesis of socialism. Whereas the former exists in the present moment, the latter dwells in the past and the future. Mindfulness teaches ‘letting go’, socialism advocates day to day ‘resistance’ to existing reality – the bridge between the past and future erected around concepts and abstract ideas ie, words, thoughts. Looked at from this perspective, it is mindfulness rather than socialism that appears to be the materialist philosophy. All that is ‘real’ is the present moment or the ‘now’.

I have come to the conclusion that socialism’s best hope might actually exist in the here and now – a ‘socialism of the present moment’ if you will. As people become mindful and align themselves with an inner silence, which is essentially an alignment with the universe, a personal transformation which contains the seeds of social change are inevitably sown. Paradoxically, by giving up the ‘revolution’ (resistance) we open ourselves to the possibility of not only changing our own perception of reality, but social relationships as well. Perhaps a ‘mindful capitalism’ is all we can realistically achieve, but would it still be ‘capitalism’ – if capitalism itself is only a product of our own over-active intellectual minds? Socialism’s main drawback is its most attractive feature – it takes the ‘truth’ far too seriously and this is precisely what makes it so addictive.

Like my old friend, it is possible to be a ‘good socialist’ even if one’s personal skills are severely lacking. As long as one adheres to the agreed theory or party-line, such things are of no more importance as to who one sits next to in the after-meeting pub piss-up. Moreover, it can be seen as a virtue. The reason Comrade X is constantly rude and lacks common empathy, compassion and understanding is because he is so fixated on the project of global human emancipation… just not the actual humans in the room in the here and now. There never can be such justification in the world of mindfulness, other than the open admission that you have attached yourself to vices that you were planning to lose.

The power of mindfulness is its lack of muscularity. It is you – naked, alone, seeking reconnection to those around you, the void, the universe. Reconnection is frequently lost – sometimes several times a day. Each time first principles are revisited and reactivated. There is no dogma of pedigree, or time served. Each time is the first time – one strips down and starts again. There is no belief or theory just ‘This’ (whatever ‘this’ may or may not be.)

So I took off my ‘cloak of socialism’ and hid it away in the wardrobe. Or have I? With the passing of time I sometimes realise that I am in fact still wearing it.

A paradox? Maybe not.

We give up the ‘revolution’ to gain the only realistic possibility for true revolution – the spiritual one.

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.

The power of now

We never normally (we hope!) try to foist so-called “spiritual” books onto people. More than any other kind of book, they are tricky to recommend since what appears one day to the intellect as a platitude or a monstrous piece of nonsense on stilts appears the next to the soul as pure wisdom, beautiful as a flower. But in this singular case we feel we may be neglecting our duty if we didn’t strenuously recommend Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (his other one’s good too).

We won’t review it here. The main message is in the title, the lessons are familiar from millennia of spiritual texts, there’s nothing in it you can’t get from a thousand other books, all of which will be more impressive to the intellectual colllector. By Tolle’s own insistence, he has nothing new to teach, and to the unopened eye he can seem like a New Age charlatan. But nothing we’ve read or done (even much formal meditation practice) has had anything like the transformative effect of his book. It’s all the usual old stuff, but he has a knack for making it understandable and practical and down to earth and easy to follow – and, most importantly, to realise. We know we’re sounding like ludicrous converts to a fraudulent guru, but trust us – the road is not to Waco but to happiness!

Read it all the way through to satisfy your intellectual curiosity by all means. But then put it under your pillow and read a paragraph or so a day, every day – and endeavour to put the teachings into practice. Don’t worry – it will be a pleasure not a chore! And it may be the most powerfully transformative thing you’ve ever done. The result will be nothing less than the revolution of everyday life.

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