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.

The books that last

Early one morning, around a week ago, I opened the front door to take a draught of clean morning air when I detected something in the breeze that awoke a cheer in the heart. There was in the wind an unmistakeable autumn quality – a new chill, the smell of damp earth – that had not been there even the morning before, and that meant two things. Firstly, and most obviously, it meant that autumn was here, and autumn has always been my favourite season. Second, it reminded me of an event that always happens at this time of year. There is in my memory a certain someone who famously waited for the autumn before setting off on a perilous quest: someone who felt, surely correctly, that summer was the time for relaxing and making the most of the comforts of home; autumn for journeying and adventure. That someone went by the name of Frodo Baggins. This year, as in so many of the years since I first attempted it, and despite the terrifying perils that await any who do, I decided once again to join Frodo on his quest.

I am talking, of course, about JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. It may seem odd that a (relatively) grown-up and (sometimes) serious person should spend so much time, year after year, reviewing yet again a tale concerned mostly with furry-footed creatures that first made their appearance in a children’s story. Of course, many people get obsessed with silly and trivial things and build a life around them – we have learnt to tolerate this or even admire it as part of “geek” culture. But a decision to reread Lord of the Rings regularly is not that, or not in all cases at any rate. It goes deeper.

In my life I have read many books that deeply moved and affected me in various ways, and I have not forgotten them. I am grateful for the lessons they taught and the pleasures they gave. But I never go back to them now. They were books of the moment, and the moment has passed. Enid Blyton enchanted my childhood. But there’s no going back now. Kurt Vonnegut and Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx fomented a rebellion. Revolutions can’t last for ever.

Other books are not books of the moment: they are for ever. They do not just satisfy passing needs and fancies but have depths unguessed of when one first reads them. They are like a deep well – you go to them and draw as much water as can satisfy the needs of the moment; you carry away with you according to your capacity. But when you go back, you’re surprised to find that more can be drawn – ever more, to satisfy the soul-thirst of a lifetime.

Again, that The Lord of the Rings is such a book may surprise some. Perhaps they tried it in the past or know it by reputation and just can’t get on with fairy tales or take seriously hobbits and elves and goblins. Perhaps they enjoyed it on the level of the story as a child, and never went back. Perhaps they have learned to despise the book, as have several miserabilist and materialist critics, finding that the book appears to their intellect as too simple-minded, too reactionary, a glamorisation of war or apology for class division or backward-looking, petit-bourgeois romanticism – even fascism.

The latter cannot have read the book at all, or not very closely – they certainly cannot have read in it deeply.

The Lord of the Rings is very much like the Bhagavad Gita. On the level of the material events of the story, it is indeed a tale of a war. On the intellectual level, it is full of aphorisms that provide much food for thought and stories providing entertainment and amusement. Whether these appeal to you in the manner presented may well be a matter of taste. But the real force, the real meaning, of the book is deeper and more spiritual. The Gita and The Lord of the Rings both are really about the inner war for the individual soul.

The Ring of the title is a magical object that gives its bearer and all who use it great worldly powers. (It’s something like a mind fixed on worldly goals then.) All who hear of it greatly desire this power – they want to get their hands on this magical and precious object, have it for their own, use it for their own ends – and, from the first, perhaps they genuinely desire such power that they may do good with it. But desire and the lust for power have their own logic, their own demands, and these all too easily overpower one’s more noble intentions. You seize the Ring intending only good; but only the smallest missteps lead one away from the path and into the dark forest, where the undergrowth of tangled wants will ensnare you for incarnations. The path to evil is paved with good intentions.

The corrupting influence of such desires on all the heroes of the book at every step in their quest and battles gives the lie to the notion that this is a simplistic and simple-minded tale of a battle between good people and evil ones. The evil are not inherently evil, not even Sauron, but are fallen angels – they started out just as we all do, as the heroes in the book do – as ordinary beings with contradictory desires and impulses. They choose the wrong path and go over to evil, ever more irrevocably as they progress down the wrong path. The good are not inherently so, and again and again must struggle with their own inclinations and lack of courage to do the right thing. Even as you progress in this righteous quest, your strength may fail you in the end – as it fails Frodo. In the battle over your soul, you turn again and again to the places where you might find comfort and strength – to your friends and comrades and loved ones, to your hearth and home, to guidance from the wise, but always in the end to the hero inside yourself, your own resources and courage and faith that choosing good will always in the end be its own reward, just as much as evil will in the end be its own punishment.

Such deep moral issues belong to no one age of man nor to any particular historic period. That is why books that deal with them seriously are not books of the moment, but of eternity. The road goes ever on and on – and as long as it does, a map and a guide will be helpful, particularly in dark and treacherous spots, in heavy weather, when you are lost or despair of ever reaching your goal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that The Lord of the Rings is such a book. Keep it by your heart always.

Repentance: the mistakes we made

The aftermath 

From the moment we opened our eyes on the dawn of 24 June, our minds were thrown. It has taken from then till now to reach a place of equanimity. A reckoning is in order – what happened, and was our reaction wise or just?

What happened in the outside world we have sketched already and we see no reason nor has anything materialised to change our minds about our analysis of it. In short, an irresponsible, unserious, unscrupulous and stupid section of the ruling elite has taken power, or is in the process of taking power, based on a campaign of lies designed to whip up the fears and emotions of the poor and bewildered. The result has been just as predicted by those denigrated during the campaign as “experts” – so not Project Fear at all, but Project Reality. The brains were for Remain. But the brains lost. Project Hate is taking the reins of government and the lid that had been kept on racism and social divisions in recent decades has been lifted off, with explosive and ugly consequences. Can there possibly be a bright side to any of this?

The best that we can be
There might well be, but to get there we need to look a bit more closely at our reaction to the news – to what happened internally. As we said, our minds were thrown. We were angry, and depressed, and sought people to blame. Having picked a scapegoat, the one we believed to be most immediately and obviously responsible, we picked up hot coals of anger and thew them – burning our own hands in the process. That this is understandable and (we hope) forgiveable should be derivable from our honest and we believe factual assessment of what had happened. But never mind the justifications – was it right? Was it just? Was it wise?

At times like this, full of anger, of sorrow, of confusion about the best way forward, we turn for guidance to those who are more highly evolved than we are. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master. That means he is a master of his mind and his emotions and is therefore more capable than we are of making wise decisions in the heat of the moment. When he first came to America from Vietnam during the war there, his country too was in crisis. And, it should be needless to say, a much more severe crisis than we are facing. Thich’s country was being destroyed, his friends, family, loved ones and fellow countrymen slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands. When the gentle monk stood up in a meeting to speak for peace, an audience member interrupted and asked what a kook like him was doing over here in his country, giving lectures. If things were so bad, why didn’t he go back home where he belonged and put his attention there? Thich remained completely calm and gently explained that his country was on fire. Given that the cause of the fire was over here in America, he’d come over to see if he couldn’t help put it out. Later, after the talk, Thich was found by his friends standing outside, trembling and shaking all over and breathing deeply. He explained to those who asked him what was wrong that anger had arisen in him as that man had spoke. Then why not express that anger, he was asked. Surely the fool who had asked the question deserved it – surely Thich was justified in expressing it. Maybe so, said Thich, but I am not here for myself. I am here to represent my fellow countrymen who are suffering so badly. I must show people here in America the best that we can be.

I can never relate that story without choking up. And the lesson from it is clear. We failed to be the best that we can be. Following the path of peace and wisdom is a hard one that takes many years of training to yield success. We do not beat ourselves up for our failure, but we do bow in gratitude for the lesson – it is humbling to the ego to know how far one yet has to go. It inspires us to begin anew and try again.

Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher from a different tradition and inspired by Gandhi, says that anger is not a problem as long as you have trained your mind to be slow. If your mind is slow, you can see and watch gently as anger arises, take steps to calm yourself, not feed your anger with thoughts, and drive the energy of anger instead into wise and compassionate action and kind speech. If your mind is fast, there is no hope for any of that. You will have no chance of taking hold of and transforming your anger – your anger will tear off and drag you in its wake. You won’t use it, it will use you.

That is what happened to us when we learnt of the EU referendum result. Our minds raced off and anger and fear fed greedily on the thoughts. Social media made it worse – as social minds they are faster even than newspapers and TV and are therefore, unwisely used, poisons. Drunk on thought and poison and anger, we started wars with all around us. Thank God, the war of words has not yet escalated into a real war – though how easily that happens should now be obvious to all who are paying attention to the predictable and predicted rise in racist and xenophobic violence. We happily (or rathe unhappily) started wars of words with friends and family. In the country, others are starting literal wars of hatred with their neighbours. How desperately and urgently we need to slow and calm down and begin to make peace!

Drive all blames into one: the only revolution that will work
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a system of slogans to help you with daily living known as lojong. One of the slogans forms the subhead to this section: drive all blames into one. What this means is that when things go wrong or aren’t to your liking, when disaster or dissatisfaction in whatever form strikes, whether in big ways as in wars or in small ways as in irritation with your neighbour, what you can do is to take all the blame for the situation onto yourself. This is not the normal way of proceeding, of course. Normally we start looking for someone to blame. To reverse that normal way of behaving is to begin the only revolution that will ever work. It doesn’t mean to turn yourself into a doormat for other people or to ignore or tolerate bad behaviour in others. It simply means to take full responsibility for every situation you find yourself in. If you look deeply, you will see that you personally always bear, or at the least share, responsibility for creating the situation you are in.

In the wake of the EU referendum result, we started to blame those most responsible. The Leave campaign. The people who voted for it against all the advice of the experts. The social situation that led the working class to so distrust the political class – the fact that they had been shat on from a great height and ignored or taken for granted by both sides of the political divide. And so on and so on. But we are to blame too. We failed to mount a successful enough campaign – in the first place against holding such a stupid and undemocratic referendum, in the second for the right result. We failed to get out there and connect with and educate the ignorant. We have failed to inspire confidence in the left project. We didn’t work hard enough to support those being shat on by the elites – the fact that they no longer trust them is our fault too. Our behaviour and conduct and thinking as socialists has inspired precisely how many people to follow our good example? Would zero be too cruel an answer?

This is our task now as our country slips into crisis. To drive all blames into one and act.

Maybe…”
There is another Zen story that is relevant here. It goes something like this. A man comes into a great inheritance and is given a ton of money. You are so lucky! say his friends and family. Maybe, he says. With his windfall he goes out to buy himself a new car and drives it into a tree on the way home. At his hospital bed, his friends commiserate with him. You were so unlucky, they say. Maybe, he replies. While he is in hospital, a mudslide destroys his house. How unlucky, say some of his friends. How lucky you were not in the house at the time! say others. Maybe, he replies…

The point of course is that we cannot see all ends and must work well within the situation as it is, whatever it is. The vote for Brexit struck us as a complete disaster – and, of course, in so many ways it is. But might there be a bright side? Maybe.

For a start, Brexit may not even happen. The odds that it will and the political feeling that it must are against such a conclusion, but the possibility of EU fudge, a new deal, a general election, a feeling of Bregret when Brexiteers realise they’ve been sold a pup and cannot have the best of all worlds and that the costs of Brexit will be severe, means that a Breversal, as The Economist puts it, cannot be ruled out.

But more optimistically still, we have the situation in the Labour Party. The Blairites may have miscalculated here. They took Jeremy’s lukewarm endorsement of Remain and his supposed footdragging in the campaign as the excuse they’ve been desperate for ever since Jeremy was elected leader to launch a coup – flavoured, as might be expected, with shameful, even evil attempts to break Jeremy on a human level, a brew seasoned with lies and Machiavellian plotting and backstabbing. They have done everything in their power to unseat him – except, of course, to trigger a leadership challenge that they must surely lose. (The membership remains firmly behind Jeremy.)

Could, then, this crisis lead to a final reckoning in the Labour Party? Picture the scene – Jeremy wins a renewed mandate for his leadership. The movement that supported him gradually steps up to the challenge; MPs deselected, the PLP and shadow cabinet filled with Corbynistas. Come election time, a highly energised Corbynista Labour Party is able to connect to the least bigoted of the Leavers, thanks in part to Jeremy’s well known euroscepticism, winning back Labour’s core vote. The very fact of Jeremy’s survival and likely victory so discredit the mainstream narrative about his lame leadership that the aspirational middle class begin to see that there is little to fear in the Corbynomics plan to grow the economy. Following Corbyn’s victory, the very fact of Brexit gives the new Labour Party the freedom to pursue economic goals that would have been problematic under EU rules, and a moral power to renegotiate access to the single market with freedom of movement combined with protections for the sections of society that lose out most from such deals. In other words, from the jaws of Brexit defeat, we snatch a social democratic victory beyond present imagining.

That this scenario is almost ludicrously optimistic from the point of view of the intellect and of political and social realities we would be the last to dispute. There barely seems to be time for it to be realised, let alone the will. But there is a final spiritual lesson to learn from this ongoing disaster – and it is perhaps the most important of them all. It is that pessimism of the intellect and objective realities can hold no power over a fully developed, undiscourageable, ever-renewed optimism of the will. So if our scenario is in the slightest bit appealing to you, don’t just sit there – and certainly don’t just criticise or sneer. Join the Labour Party – join Momentum, the movement that supports Jeremy. Do it today.

Regardless of the prospects for our utopian scenario, at the present time Jeremy remains the great hope for a progressive outcome for this crisis. He is also something of a model when it comes to political conduct. He may not have mastered his mind as Thich Nhat Hanh has, but he is a pretty remarkable operator nonetheless – committed to a politics of kindness, honesty, seriousness and straight-talking that even the right finds refreshing to behold. Jeremy doesn’t do personal. But he does do tireless political work for peace and socialism and compassionate action. Let Jeremy be our role model. Let’s get behind him now.

Why I am so furiously angry about Brexit – and how the vote changed me forever

The first thing to say of course is that democracy has been served, that the people have had their say, and that we respect the result. Except that would be a complete lie.

Democracy and politics

Anyone who knows the first thing about democratic organisations or has participated in them will know full well why this is the case. But I suspect that will be a vanishing minority of the people who voted so confidently for Brexit, so let’s spell it out. Democracy is a process whereby all the people who need to make or are affected by a decision come together to make it collectively. The very coming together implies an ethos of mutual respect and an agreement to play by the rules. The rules of the democratic game include the idea that everyone can have their say, that everyone will do their best to understand the arguments on all sides and put aside their own narrow interests or prejudices in order to participate in the discussion and come to an agreement. That agreement will take care to find consensus where possible, decide by majority vote where necessary. The minority agree to accept the decision of the majority; the majority to respect the rights of the minority and do their best to not outrage their fundamental beliefs or trample on their interests. Anyone who thinks this describes the process that led to the recent referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union is a deluded fool.

Roughly what happened is this. In the last general election, David Cameron offered a sop to his lunatic fringe. Back me in this election, he said, and I’ll give you an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Cameron did not expect to have to honour this – he expected to have to do another deal with the Lib Dems to form a government, and his stupid promise would be the first to go in the horse trading. Alas, the Tories won a majority and he was stuck with his pledge. Cameron went ahead with it in the expectation that he would win anyway because leaving the European Union would be such an obviously insane and reckless thing to do.

Alas again, Cameron did not bank on the ignorance of the population. The Leave campaign played its hand well. How to sell a lunatic idea to an ignorant and ill-informed population? Well, play on their fears and prejudices of course. So, pick a problem, any problem. The root causes of that problem will be some combination of the structure of the capitalist economy, the nature of the globalised political order, including the perceived necessity of imposing austerity to rescue the economy from the effects of the financial crisis, and the lack of clout and nous on the part of the working class to figure out what its own interests are and fight for them. Leaving the EU will solve none of these problems. And the latter is at least partly the fault of the working class itself. Defeat and economic changes and the fact that it has been left behind and shat on for decades are of course partly responsible. But the working class is morally culpable. For all its hardships, it lives in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and benefits from welfare states and educational and employment opportunities our forebears could only dream of. Except that they didn’t just dream – try got off their arses, educated themselves and fought for them. What are we doing? Moping around and blaming brown people for our woes. It’s pathetic. We have become too fat and lazy and selfish to be worthy of anything better than the austerity imposed on us. The working class was once the salt of the earth, they say. But if the salt has lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is henceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men.

In case anyone is wondering, the brute truth of the present situation is this. The British elite has suffered a coup at the hands of another section of the same elite. The ascendant elite took power on the back of a mendacious campaign led by liars, fools and fascists who whipped up emotion and fear in that section of the population too stupid and supine to know what the fuck was going on except that it hurt and someone somewhere should be made to pay for. Brown folk and the EU were somehow made to appear as an identity in their booze-addled, cholesterol-soaked minds, and off to the polls they went to vent their hate. A young mother was gunned down in the street, but what of that? A national and global political and economic crisis has been sparked. Racism and xenophobia have been given a spur. We will all pay the price for this in the years to come.

The spiritual dimension

As the foregoing comments might possibly make clear, this whole process has made me furiously angry. Followers of our blog will know that we are aspirants on the spiritual path. Now, what are the teachings of that path on anger? Have I not failed badly in recent days by venting my anger instead of keeping it under wise control and developing compassion for the downtrodden instead?

Partly the answer is yes. I have in at least some respects failed to live up to the wonderful example of the spiritual masters and my sorrow at that will only deepen as my anger subsides, I am sure. But there are other teachings about anger that are relevant here. Firstly, anger is not in and of itself a problem. Anger is a motivating emotion that gives us the strength and power to act courageously in a just cause or to defend ourselves when under attack. It is only problematic when we can’t control it wisely (and which of us can?). Secondly, anger is a teacher. When we are angry with others, it is usually because we see in them something of ourselves, or we are deflecting attention that would be better directed at our own character flaws and wrong actions onto the failings of others.

So, what I am really most furiously angry about is myself. I have struggled for many years to educate myself and participate in political activity – not always I’m sure with the noblest of motives, but certainly not with entirely base or self-interested ones either. And yet, who really would know it? In most social situations, my ego character is such that it would rather stay quiet when political issues are raised. I’ll let it go rather than raise a voice of protest for the sake of social peace. I might convince myself that this is noble – that I’m just trying to be kindly and friendly. But that is what Buddhism calls Idiot Compassion – action that has the appearance of kindliness, but is motivated by the ego’s desire to avoid being bothered or disturbed, of fear of conflict or of being wrong, of (pathetically) a desire to be liked and approved of.

This is wrong action, and if I have learnt anything from this referendum result it is that I must learn to be less likeable. It is only possible to stay out of political action or discussion if you suffer from the delusion that it doesn’t affect you. Political action IS you – it’s the water you swim in. If you object to a politics that treats you like a stupid piece of shit to be used and abused by the ruling class at will – well, then, you’d better pick yourself up and be worthy of a different kind of politics, of a different kind of society. All those problems you moan about? They’re YOU’RE fault. They’re my fault. Let’s work on our faults together.

So, I come out of this grotesque referendum campaign with a new determination. I will no longer put my need to be liked or my selfish desire for peace and quiet ahead of speaking the truth. I will renew my commitment to learning about the issues that affect us and putting what I have learnt into political practice. I will write about all that more regularly on this blog – not because I care about winning readers, but because writing about things is the way you learn about them. I will continue my spiritual practice and learn to develop sympathy and compassion for all, including those who disagree with me or who hate me – or who are deeply ignorant or aggressive. I will learn to be a more effective communicator and political activist. La lutte continue. Peace.

Addendum

But see Repentance.

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.