(Libertarian) Municipalism, Anarchism, Capitalism, class conflict, Communication, community education, Crisis, Democracy, Education, Left-wing politics, Radical democracy, Socialism, transformation, UK

Dousing the Fires, Part Five – only love can overcome

Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war

Part Five: Only love shall overcome

As usual, you can listen to this blogpost here…

In the previous article (part four of five), I predicted that, on the election of a progressive government, the combined factions of the state and capitalist class (financial, corporate, and media) would orchestrate a full-blown attack on the government and the social movements behind it. They would instigate a total war of manoeuvre, in Gramscian parlance. In this face of this onslaught, what is to be done?

I will answer this age-old question in four ways. It is a four-fold interconnected framework for the democratisation of power and the empowerment of democracy from the level of the state down to the smallest community. Each element of the framework is underpinned by the principles of radicalism and love.

By radicalism, I don’t mean extremism; I mean an approach that works on addressing and transforming the root systemic causes of the challenge. I also mean radicalism, therefore, in contrast to a reformism that seeks compromise with opposing social forces and piecemeal ameliorations within the current system. In the face of such a maelstrom, such an onslaught, brought on by systemically opposing forces, reformist compromise is suicide. This is a zero-sum game. This is the great lesson of all failed revolutions. By love, I mean a micro-political commitment, that is, a commitment in our own local communities, workplaces, assemblies, families, and, above all, in our own hearts to love –  suspending judgment of others (and self), non-violence, empathy, listening, dialogue, and, wherever possible, consensus.

The current system must be transformed. The four components of the overall framework for action are:

1) Temporary state socialism

2) Democratisation of political and economic power – municipalism

and co-operativism

3) Social mobilisation and organisation

4) Democratising our culture and our selves – creating a politics of love

1) Temporary state socialism

The capitalist class will wreak its economic havoc primarily through the financial markets. This means that the only way to stop this is to take the financial functions (supposedly) performed through markets under state control. This means the nationalisation (forced purchase of majority shareholdings) of any UK bank speculating against the government (in reality, all banks). In the case of a housing crisis, the government should immediately intervene to stop banks foreclosing on homeowners. There could also be a general erasure of all mortgage and private debts. This would mitigate the worst of the economic fallout and support living standards and economic activity. The launch of a national investment bank will help to invest in both the renovation and (ecological) modernisation of infrastructure and loan to new (co-operative – see below) enterprises.

Temporary state socialism also means the nationalisation of vital economic and security infrastructure – the energy grid and providers; the rail network and providers; the water infrastructure and providers; the National Health Service; and the Internet infrastructure and providers. This will ensure, at least, that basics are provided at hugely reduced costs for all.

All such interventions should be undertaken according with E.F. Schumacher’s famous maxim that ‘small is beautiful’, i.e. that the transfer of private property into collective ownership should proceed where possible by transferring ownership to the lowest and smallest community level possible. However, urgency of action, in the short-term, and economies of scale, in the longer-term, may require a more regional or national ownership.

Schumacher_201977.jpg

2) The democratisation of political and economic power – Municipalism and Co-operativism

The new government should move swiftly to democratise as much power as possible to regions and councils. In particular, the government should support and legislate for the emergence of municipalism, specifically the creation of neighbourhood assemblies across the country empowered to collectively take control of and manage local community resources. This overlaps with new legislation enabling and supporting workers to buyout private businesses and convert them into worker-run co-operatives.

Working Group

3) Social mobilisation and organisation

If a progressive government gets into power there will already have to have been a huge increase in social mobilisation and collective action to achieve this. What is absolutely vital is that this energy does not dissipate post-election under the false assumptions and hopes of liberal representative democracy. What we know far too well is that either our politicians will disappoint us or they will be thwarted in the ways outlined above. We need to be ready. This means community, civic, regional, and national action and demands. It may even mean the creation of self-defence brigades to defend our communities.

4) Democratising our culture and our selves – creating a politics of love

Mass mobilisation and organisation and the legal establishment and empowerment of neighbourhood assemblies is not enough if we continue to act in hierarchical, authoritarian, racist, sexist, and other oppressive and undemocratic ways. We have to democratise our culture and our very selves. We need those mindful of the principles and practices of democratic culture – those trained in anti-racism, gender equality, critical pedagogy, non-violent communication, spiritual practices, participatory art and theatre, and many other democratic and peace-making traditions and practices – to facilitate our meetings and to train us in these practices. We need to quickly (as quickly as possible) learn how to suspend judgment, listen to each other, find reconciliation, and, so doing, work with and make decisions with each other on a basis of consensus wherever possible.

The framework is for a transitional cascading down of power from state to community. It has to be this way. We cannot create a perfect direct democracy that brings down the state from below overnight. We have to begin where we find ourselves and this means that centralised decision-making and ownership will be necessary in the first months and years to ride out the maelstrom, defang those fiercely powerful opponents, and, ultimately, expropriate them. At the same time, we must do all we can to democratise that centralised, bureaucratic, socialist state power at the first realistic opportunity. This will require collective mobilisation and organisation. Finally, the decentralisation and democratisation of power will not democratise our society unless and until we democratise our selves. We cannot have democratic institutions without democratic culture and this requires the micro-level work within communities, within families, within our very hearts and minds. This requires a pedagogy and a politics of love.

Conclusion

Jeremy Corbyn is no radical. The fact that a social democratic figure who would have represented the centre-left ground in 1960s British politics can be characterised as an extremist ‘hard’ leftist reveals the true extremism of what has been the centre ground of British politics for two decades. It also reveals the fear that the ruling class holds for any harbinger of hope who might help us ‘rise like lions from our slumber’. If the Labour leader is to be demonised as a radical for mostly reformist policies, he might as well play the part and go all out for, in a struggle between two systemically opposed forces such as capital and labour,1 particularly in situations of crisis, there can be no compromise. He and his government will only do this, can only do this if they are supported and pushed by huge social pressure. This is our task.

friedman_quote

Naomi Klein has famously documented the ‘shock doctrine’ strategy in which the ruling class takes advantage of the social chaos that follows in the immediate aftermath of natural or engineered crises to push through the agenda of capital that would otherwise never have been politically achievable (see Friedman’s quote above). However, as Klein herself recently noted, evidence is growing that, after five decades, we are becoming ‘shock-proof’. Ironically, the neo-liberal resilience agenda has helped here. We are starting to realise what is happening and why and we are beginning to learn how to stop it happening. We will need to be resolutely shock-proof here in the UK soon. Writing and reading this article and stuff like it is a good start, I guess.

I am aware how UK-centric this article is. In many other countries, the crisis is playing out in very different ways, some seemingly far more bleak. Nonetheless, wherever the rule of autocracy seems ascendent, its seeming power really only reflects a rule by violence that betrays the facts both that hegemony is dead and that our collective democratic powers of resistance, imagination, and hope are rising. Take the US, for instance. In reality, the Trump regime is very weak, huge numbers of people are getting politicised and active, and, had the Democratic Party’s executive not stopped him, Bernie Sanders would be President right now. In countries in the periphery of the global system, though it is clear that your struggles inspire ours, it is also clear that radical change in core countries will be the best hope for radical change in yours. In the Middle East and North Africa, for example, the election of a progressive government would mean the UK’s withdrawal from the regions and the end of weapons sales. A start.

There can be no socialism in one country and, just as we in the UK have been inspired and informed by successful movements elsewhere, we hope that our recent advances will inspire and inform friends abroad.

I began this long article by declaring that:

‘The world is ablaze!! In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Portugal, Pakistan, London, fires burn, destroying lives and fuelling the fires of righteous rage spreading right across our planet.’

These horrific fires are heralding the last days of the Capitalocene! What I have painted above is a stark and fearful picture. There is no avoiding this. This system – capitalism – has been in place for centuries and was forged and has been maintained ever since through violence. ‘Capital’, as Marx famouly put it, ‘comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. It will not go down without a hell of a fight. There are times when this will unavoidably mean a physical fight – always, of course, in self-defence. But, the greatest chance – the only real chance – of our overcoming capital, patriarchy, racism will be to fight fire not with fire, but with water. Ultimately, is there is to be a great transformation it will be a transformation in our hearts and souls. The scale of such fires of injustice and hatred can only be put out by a tidal wave of love, but this tidal wave is made up of thousands, millions, of individual drops of water. A macro-political revolution of our society begins and is driven by a micro-political revolution inside each of us. So, the revolution starts with each of us as individuals, but it ends in us as a society, as humanity. Let’s get educated, organised, democratised, and loving.

Thanks so much for reading.

Solidarity and love,

Joel

1What I mean by this is that capital accumulates through the work/energy of human and non-human life. In the workplace, capital and labour confront each other.

Capitalism, Crisis, Culture, Democracy, Ideology, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Love, Marxism, Neo-liberalism, Philosophy, Politics and economics, Socialism, transformation, UK

Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war – Part One: introduction and understanding ‘hegemony’

Dear readers,

If you prefer to listen to this blogpost, you can do so right here…

Part One: Introduction and understanding ‘hegemony’

The world is ablaze!! In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Portugal, Pakistan, London, fires burn, destroying lives and fuelling the fires of righteous rage spreading across our entire planet.

The fire that burned down the high rise Grenfell Tower in West London two weeks ago killed dozens (hundreds?) of (overwhelming Muslim and non-white, immigrant) working class people. All people with love in their hearts feel grief and, yes, a burning anger.

In the glare of these fires, why would anyone call for social theory?! Why the hell should we think about theorising about the state of the world when we are called by the most excruciating anguish to act in it right now?! It sounds crazy, but I want to argue that we need theory right now to make sense of our situation so that we can act in the most effective ways. When I say that I want to talk about Italian political philosopher and activist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony I fear I can almost see readers’ eyes rolling back in their heads, but, please, trust me, stick around. It matters. It matters so profoundly. I’ll try my best to convince you why and how.

Gramsci

In this series of articles, I will first set out Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and why understanding hegemony is vital to any process of personal journey towards, and collective struggle for, real freedom. Basically, I will argue that ruling groups cannot maintain power through violence alone, so the construction of a dominant culture, a dominant understand of ‘common sense’, and a naturalisation of an arbitrary, artificial, and unjust social order is required. In short, the construction of a hegemonic ideology is essential. Over the last thirty years, this ideology has been neo-liberalism. A hegemonic ideology requires underlying social and economic stability to be credible. An economic crisis gradually weakens its foundations. This is what has happened here and all around the world. Because of the 2008 crisis and continued falls in living standards, very few believe in the core mantras of neo-liberalism anymore – ‘free’ markets, privatisation, pure self-interest, financial markets, austerity. Neo-liberalism as functioning ideology is dead. This means that ruling groups have to rule ever more through violence – physical, yes, but also communicative, that is, the politics of hate and fear. It also means that there is an opening at last for a politics of hope – both ideological and material. That is, there is a space for groups to present a hopeful vision of and for humanity and a concrete programme of action to achieve it. This is what has happened recently with Labour’s resurgence in the recent election. This has transformed the ideological landscape, our collective understanding of ‘common sense’.

thatcherTINA

In the second article, I take us on a whistle-stop tour of the nature of the economic, social, and political crises affecting the UK right now. This establishes the foundations and context for the current hegemonic crisis.

In the third article, I offer evidence for both why neo-liberalism is clearly dead (as hegemonic ideology) and for this recent dramatic shift leftwards in in the ideological landscape.

In the fourth article, I take a bold step and offer a prediction of what will happen in the UK within the next 12-24 months. Usually, the optimism of my will trumps the pessimism of my intellect, but here, perhaps for the first time, my pessimistic (realistic) intellect wins out. I predict a very scary scenario in which the Tory government falls and a progressive government (Labour majority or coalition) is elected. That’s not the scary bit! The new government then faces the collective wrath of the state and capitalist factions (army, police, financiers, corporations, political class, and media) who do their utmost to bring down the government and the movements behind it. What I describe is the emergence of a real ‘war of manoeuvre’ in which opposing social forces take their struggle beyond the cultural terrain into direct economic and even physical confrontation. That’s the scary bit!

In the fifth and final article, I will set out a four-fold framework for winning this war through the democratisation of power and the empowerment of democracy. This framework is underpinned by the principles of radicalism and love. By radicalism, I mean a governmental strategy and policy approach that addresses the root causes of crisis and injustice and makes no reformist compromise to social forces systemically opposing our ambitions. It is people and planet against capital. There can be no compromise and history’s battlefield is littered with the corpses of failed revolutions sold out by reformism. By love, I mean a micro-political commitment, that is, a commitment in each of our local communities, families, workplaces, and our hearts to a democratic culture of love – non-judgment, non-violence, empathy, listening, dialogue, and, wherever possible, consensus.

These failed democratic revolutions were also cut down by bureaucratic statism. However, the first component of the framework is a temporary state socialism. I advocate a temporary and necessary state socialism to defend against and expropriate the forces of capital; to sustain the people in the midst of crisis; and to begin and support a far greater democratisation of political and economic power. This democratisation of political and economic power, the second component of the framework, must take the forms of municipalism and co-operativism. Municipalism means establishing local control of councils and neighbourhood assemblies for communities to control and run local resources. Co-operativism entails the democratisation of companies through worker takeovers and conversions to worker-run co-operatives. The third component of the framework requires the continued post-election mobilisation and organisation of citizens on community, regional, and national levels to defend the election victory and to push the government, lured by reformism or cowed by crisis, towards radicalism and democratisation. The fourth and final component entails the vital micro-politics of democratisation – the democratisation of our culture and our very selves through collective learning. Ultimately, only water can overcome fire; only love and hope can overcome hate and fear.

I conclude with a call to all of us to get informed, to get ‘shock-proof’ (as Naomi Klein puts it), to get involved locally and nationally, and to open ourselves to love.

Hegemony

What is Gramsci’s theory of hegemony? In order to secure stable rule, ruling groups use the cultural institutions of society (media, education, civil society) to create if not active, but at least passive consent around the status quo. You might not like the society you’re in, but, through your constant exposure to the papers, TV, films, schooling, etc, you come to accept the ‘reality’ you see as normal, inevitable, and even natural. Stable rule through passive consent requires the production of an ideology so profound that you don’t even know it’s there. It’s ‘hidden in plain view’. One central way of thinking about what hegemony produces is our collective ‘common sense’ – that which becomes so ingrained in us as to be instinctive and unconscious.

The hegemonic ideologies of neo-liberal capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and more, then, are constructed through cultural institutions and disseminated through the countless words and images we see. Indeed, we reproduce hegemony ourselves through our own language, signs, mannerisms, clothes, bodies each day.

Hegemony is never totally stable because there is always resistance. However, one thing that capitalism has been amazing at is colonising and co-opting this resistance and invariably commodifying it. A potential social threat ultimately becomes simultaneously a point of social catharsis and a money-making opportunity. Think, for example, of the punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s or rap/hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hegemony is a vital, I would say, fundamental, social theory because it helps us to see how we (our supposed freedom, our ideology, our subjectivity, our very selves) are produced. Indeed, crucially, hegemony is not just a cultural theory; it is a political economic theory because it shows not just how we as pliant citizens, but also productive workers and desirous consumers (not to mention stereotypical gendered and racialised roles) are produced. In short, we need to understand hegemony – the conditions of our mental enslavement – if we then want to pursue and struggle for our genuine freedom. We also need to recognise that all the institutions of society are battlegrounds in a social war and that this war is going on not just out there in society, but in here – in our family homes, in our kitchens, our bedrooms, our hearts, our minds, our souls.

Hegemony and crisis

An emphasis on the material foundations of cultural hegemony is crucial because this emphasis then sheds light on the conditions that either help to concretise or destabilise hegemonic orders. However partial and jaundiced the ‘reality’ that is constructed through the media, there has to be some correspondence to the reality we actually experience for the foundations of a hegemonic order to stand strong. It is in periods, then, of profound and prolonged social and economic crisis (crises of capital) that the widespread passive social consent for a hegemonic order begins to collapse as the perception gap between these mediated and experienced realities grows. Consequently, as, for reasons spelled out eloquently by David Harvey here, crisis is inevitable in capitalism, so are corresponding crises in the underlying/overarching hegemonic order.

Image result for cultural hegemony

We are living in such a period of material (ecological and socio-economic) and hegemonic (ideological) crisis. The ‘Great Recession’ triggered by the 2008 Financial Crisis is almost a decade old and living standards in post-industrial Western societies continue to decline as inequality continues to grow. In the second of this series of five articles, then, I will lead us on a brief overview of the situation here in the UK by way of example to capture the depth of the economic, social, and political crisis we face. We can then move on to look for evidence of hegemonic crisis too. That’s the focus of the third article.

Thank you so much for reading.

Solidarity and love,

Joel

Democracy, Elections, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Neo-liberalism, Radical democracy, Socialism, UK

To UK readers – A vote for Labour is a vote for yourself, for ourselves

Dear friends,

I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging in recent months. It’s been a combination of a bit of a crisis of confidence (which I’m over) and a lifestyle change that’s seen me move away from my desk for a few months. I’m actually working as a tour guide for a bit here in Oxford, before I move with my family to Bristol in late July. It’s been fun!

Anyway, here we are on the eve of another general election. I just want to make one main point – that a vote for Labour is really a vote of confidence in yourself, in ourselves, in society, in hope. I’ll explain what I mean in a second, but, first, this statement comes with a massive caveat: if you are in a constituency where Labour cannot win, but another party other than the Conservatives can then DON’T VOTE LABOUR. PLEASE don’t increase the Tory candidate’s chances by voting Labour. Instead, please vote Liberal Democrat, Green, Plaid, SNP, Sinn Fein, etc. In an imperfect system, we have imperfect choices. We have to vote tactically. I’ll be voting Liberal Democrat in my marginal seat of Oxford West & Abingdon.

Right, that said, check out these two party political broadcast videos…

When I watched the Labour video with my wife the other evening on Channel 4, we were both in tears. As a socialist, I couldn’t believe someone on my TV was saying that we, the workers, produce the wealth in this country and that we are taking it for sharing it among all! The key point I want to make, though, is simply the starkness of difference between the two.

The Tory video is asking us to place our faith in the hands of one person, one party. It’s a tiresome, worn out testament to authority, to charisma(!), to centralised power, to political passivity, to broken promises, to a bankrupt party and political system. In stark contrast, the Labour video is a call to place our faith in our OWN HANDS. There’s a lot of criticism about the backward-looking social democracy of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. Some of that might be valid. However, a central, crystal clear message of Corbyn’s discourse right from the start of his leadership campaign has been this radical democratic mantra.

In Bertold Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo, one of Galileo’s students feels distraught and betrayed when he finds out that Galileo has recanted his theory to the Catholic Church to save his life. ‘Woe is the land with no heroes’, he cries. Galileo’s reply is profound: ‘Woe is the land that has need for heroes.’ We don’t need strong and stable leaders, we don’t need charismatic leaders. We need faith in ourselves!

Representative democracy is already dying. This is the beginning of the era of an increasing grassroots, communitarian, participatory politics – a real democratic politics. Labour’s video captures the power, energy, and relentless hope of this transition. It’s the struggle between what Paul Mason calls hierarchy versus network that network will ultimately prevail in.

Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who’s read these blogs will know I’m no Labour Party member or voter. And there are many things to criticise about Labour, particularly as a bureaucratic institution. However, it’s also Corbyn who has been pushing hardest to democratise this institution.

So, please, vote tomorrow and vote, where possible, for Labour. And know that a vote for Labour is a vote for yourself, for ourselves, for us.

Whatever happens tomorrow, the tide has already turned. Neoliberalism as a functioning ideology is dead. It was proven dead when Teresa May dedicated her inaugural leadership speech not to the magic and justice of the market, but to those struggling to get by and those suffering from social injustice!! What has been put in its stead are empty words like these on economic opportunity, investment, and social justice and the hatemongering of nationalism. But, the whole spectrum has been shifted leftward by Corbyn’s election. Even UKIP are economic Keynesians now.
Corbyn’s campaign has shown that, surprise surprise, you can run on a social democratic manifesto and do alright in this country. The economically unthinkable and unsayable has become orthodoxy, if not yet policy – nationalisation, rent control, energy market caps, tax rises.

The goal now, whatever the result, is to keep the momentum going, keep the movements growing, keep the alternatives developing, and keep pushing at local, regional, and national levels demands and ideas far more radical than even the Greens promote.

Yours in hope,

Joel

 

Capitalism, Crisis, Democracy, Ideology, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Media, Neo-liberalism, Socialism, UK

On Jeremy Corbyn: let’s end cynicism and embrace (critical) hope

Dear friends,

Feel free to listen to a recording of this blogpost above…

I just want to make three points about Jeremy Corbyn and his re-election. I want to argue the following: (1) Ultimately, we should analyse Corbyn’s role in terms of its significance as part of a growing counter-hegemonic war of manoeuvre against capital – a role that has ensured nothing less, in my view, than the ideological death of neo-liberalism; (2) I am deeply sadden by those espousing socialist views and values who express feelings of cynicism and fear towards Corbyn. I will suggest that we should be able to empathise with such feelings, but will argue that they are misplaced and self-defeating; (3) I will emphasize that we must always remember that we are committed to struggling not for Corbyn, but for socialism. Therefore, our commitment to Corbyn should remain steadfast for as long as he and his team prove principled and, yes, competent leaders. But, based on its achievements so far, I’m convinced that Corbyn’s Labour can win an election.

12_corbynvictory_w

(1) The Corbyn movement’s historical achievement – the death of neo-liberalism

The first thing to say is that surely we are blind if we cannot see what remarkable things have been achieved since Jeremy Corbyn’s initial election. We must not forget that, prior to the summer of 2015, people like Jeremy Corbyn were not just on the political margins; they were beyond the pale! For over three decades, social democrats like Corbyn, let alone socialists, were hardly ever allowed on the TV or radio. For example, after the riots of 2011, the BBC readily gave a platform for the overt racism of people like historian David Starkey and the tough repression of conservatives, but barely allowed social critiques grounded in class and racial analysis. Consequently, socialist ideas were easily ridiculed and their proponents demonised. Everything changed once a group of Labour MPs voted to include Jeremy Corbyn on the Party’s leadership election list – a move most of them only made to give the election a veneer of ideological breadth. The move backfired most spectacularly when Corbyn won the largest leadership victory in UK history, voted in by hundreds of thousands of new members and cheered on by huge crowds nationwide.

But, what explains this remarkable victory? It cannot be understood without recognising the depth of the economic crisis that capital and we are still mired in; the depth of the contempt with which vast swathes of British people hold its morally bankrupt political class; and the corresponding depth of the ongoing ideological crisis whose expression is taking its most concentrated form within the Labour Party. As articulation of ideological crisis, Corbyn’s victory expressed a negative feeling and move – the rejection of neo-liberalism and its proponents. Yet, it also expressed the rebirth of socialist, truly democratic, politics, hopes, and imaginaries in Britain. In short, Corbyn’s victory heralded both the ideological death of neo-liberalism and rebirth of socialism as a legitimate and viable ideology and potential organising function of society.

By ideological death, I refer to an ideology’s ability to perform its central function of legitimating the social order or, to put it in Gramscian terms, securing hegemony. Neo-liberalism cannot do this any longer, i.e. it can no longer secure widespread consent for the status quo. Here are two major pieces of evidence to support this claim. First, while Corbyn’s internal Labour opponents have tried to attack him wherever and whenever possible, their attacks have focused far less on policy and overwhelmingly on personal and strategic grounds. Indeed, Corbyn’s adversary in the recent second leadership election, Owen Smith, conceded pretty much all policy ground to Corbyn, choosing instead to reinvent himself as a radical, critiquing only Corbyn’s leadership and ability to win power. A second piece of evidence comes from Teresa May’s inaugural speech as Prime Minister. If neo-liberalism were still a functioning ideology, May’s speech would have been founded on the usual sanctification of the market, the insistence on its socially just and moral mechanisms, and a call for working people to work harder in order to succeed. Instead, in stunning fashion, May delivered a speech so focused on social injustice that, had Corbyn made it, he would have been savaged as a dangerous socialist. May argued that black people faced discrimination, that women faced discrimination, and that even people working as hard as they possibly can are failing to make ends meet due to low wages and high rents. And, all along, the media rallied around May and even supported ‘Citizen’ Smith in his failed attempt to dethrone Corbyn.

So, if you believe that: the NHS should be properly funded; that rich people and companies should pay tax; that we need to move to a renewable energy-powered society asap; that we need to build loads of social housing and to impose rent controls; that students should not be crippled by debt; that transport and energy should be renationalised and run by and for the people; that people should have far more power in their local communities and municipalities; that the UK state should not spend £200billion on nuclear weapons and prosecute murderous foreign wars; that people should be paid a living wage for their labour; and that workers should have more ownership and control of businesses, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Jeremy Corbyn and the movement that brought him to power. Before any criticism begins, we must all recognise that this list of, frankly, self-evident ideas and policies are once again on our TVs and radios, in our newspapers, in our community and family discussions – in short, back within ideological reality and political possibility – thanks to the Corbyn movement.

The previously impossible and unspeakable has become possible again. I mean, just pause and think for a minute! Jeremy Corbyn! Jeremy Corbyn!…is leader of the Labour Party! WTF! That, for people over a certain age, in itself feels like the world turned upside-down!…

(2) Understanding and transcending fear and cynicism

And so, yes, although the ideological power of the media, think tanks, and education system remains intimidating, there is no longer a stable hegemonic situation. The system cannot be reproduced through active consent and even passive consent is dissipating. Hence, the rise of violence – both physical and, above all, symbolic and semiotic violence – is used in an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain order. In layman’s terms, we’re seeing increasingly violent words and images to attack all identified enemies of the state, the nation, freedom, prosperity, etc.

Faced with the capitalist system’s inability to reproduce itself without increasingly desperate and intensifying monetary interventions, mercenary parasitism, and ecocidal assaults, what is our response? We respond with hope and we respond with fear. Many key recent elections reflect this schism. What saddens me most, but does not surprise me, is that many people who espouse socialist values and views are condemning Corbyn, insisting on his unelectability, and even arguing that his election has destroyed any hope for left-wing politics in the UK. Not only do such views betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the political situation, more significantly, they express a cynical worldview, a subjectivity driven not primarily by love and hope, but by fear. What I would suggest is that this is entirely understandable after more than three decades of T.I.N.A. and the purposive and relentless attacks on our belief in ourselves and each other. We should have empathy with those expressing this cynicism; it resides to some degree in all of us. It expresses both a social and a personal fear – that our dreams are futile, that we are pathetic and powerless. It also expresses a deep conservatism driven by insecurity – if I take a leap of faith and try to change the world and fail, I’ll look naïve and foolish and there may be repercussions, but if I simply denigrate anyone trying to change the world I can appear as a clever ‘realist’ from a safe distance. But, ultimately, living in fear is paralysing, and hope, as Paolo Freire pointed out, is an ontological and spiritual necessity for every human being. Humans are not really beings; they are becomings. Ultimately, a leap of faith needs to be taken – in each other and in oneself.

Gramsci’s famous prescription is to have ‘pessimism of the intellect’ but ‘optimism of the will’. Far too often, I see not even pessimism; I see cynicism, which is a pessimism of both intellect and will. We have to work on ending this together. But, neither is a blind optimism of use either…

(3) Offering active and critical support to Corbyn

While we can readily dismiss criticisms coming from Corbyn’s political and ideological sworn enemies from outside and within his Party, we should not close our ears to potentially sympathetic Labour MPs and others who claim to have experienced Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as incompetent. There are sufficient mitigating factors until now to give him and his team the benefit of the doubt, but there are frustrations among his supporters concerning the audibility and clarity of his strategic message.

JC as OBK 2

A year ago, I wrote an article comparing JC to Obi Wan Kenobi. I suggested that, ultimately, Corbyn’s fate may be similar to Obi Wan’s – he may initiate a counter-hegemonic movement and nurture that movement and new leaders, but he may be destined to give way to new, fresher leadership. The crucial point is that the goals are democracy and justice, not the election of Corbyn’s Labour per se. Consequently, I would suggest that those who want to promote the democratic and socialist cause, whether Labour members or not (I’m not), should offer critical (not cynical!) support to Corbyn and his team, while contributing to: growing the democratic movement, ensuring Corbyn’s team are competent in their communication and strategy, and pressuring them to be even more radical in their proposed policies for transforming our country.

Conclusion: he’s electable, our values and dreams are achievable

Jeremy Corbyn has faced and faced down the combined threat of the oligarchic media and biased BBC and the attacks and coups of the neo-liberal Labour factions. He has emerged with a larger mandate than before. Personally, I now want to see Corbyn not seeking compromise with those factions, but using his strong mandate to push for radical internal democratisation and to articulate a clear strategic and policy agenda beyond. The polls are rigged, as is the electoral system. He faces huge structural challenges and should quickly embrace a strategic cross-party anti-austerity pact with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, as recently proposed by Caroline Lucas. I’m not worried at all by the polls. When the election is called, because of his historic breakthrough, Corbyn’s Labour will have plenty of time and space to clearly articulate their manifesto.

Our future will be constructed fundamentally on either fear or hope. Corbyn categorically embodies and expresses hope. We have to overcome our fear and support him hopefully and, of course, critically. So, I say to anyone who wants to see a better world, that world needs you to build it, so get out there – talking, learning, working with others, building communities, movements, and parties – and let’s get behind JC so long as we deem, critically not cynically, that he’s the right guy to lead.

Thanks for reading!

Joel

Capitalism, Democracy, Elections, Immigration, Left-wing politics, Neo-liberalism, Radical democracy, Socialism, transformation, UK

Why I burned my EU referendum ballot paper

You can listen to a podcast of this blogpost here. Otherwise, just read on 🙂

 

Dear reader,

Because I’m out of the country on EU referendum polling day, I received my ballot paper early, intending to vote by post. As you may have seen by now, yesterday I burned my EU referendum ballot paper.

burnt ballot paper

The photo shows a burnt ballot paper rather than a burned one. I was a bit inept. I took it outside to burn it and couldn’t destroy it. Turns out it was a serendipitous stroke because I’ve used it a bit more artistically now!

Those of you who have read my blogposts before will know enough about me to know that this was no flippant act of mindless petulance, but a decision and a plan that were the culmination of many weeks of reading and reflection. I have no delusions of grandeur. I didn’t assume anyone would watch it let alone think it would have any significant political effect. I’m not famous or powerful, but I, just like you, am just one person and I wanted to do the best thing I thought I could do with my one vote. All I had was a plan borne from deep reflection and a hope.
I still don’t know if I’m right. Even many of my closest friends think I’m wrong. I just wanted to put an alternative perspective out there. If, in time, I recognise the error of my judgment, I will openly come back and admit that as publicly as I burned my ballot paper.
With that said, I will now offer a list of reasons explaining why I decided to burn my ballot paper and what I sought to achieve by doing so. I’m going to give you two versions of my reasons – a very short version and a longer, more detailed version. If you don’t have the time or inclination, you can just read the short list of reasons. If you can, I ask you to read the longer version in which my arguments are given in far greater detail. The first reason I will give also explains why I didn’t give my reasons for burning the ballot paper immediately after doing it, but instead waited for a couple of days.

 

*****

The short version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
By burning my ballot paper I wanted to produce a work of art in the sense of producing something that provoked strong emotional responses in others. I wanted to create what Jacques Ranciere calls a ‘dissensus’, which is an act that disrupts the artificial and contingent ‘reality’ imposed each day upon us. I wanted to burn a hole out, to shine a light beyond, this spectacle of a society. This is a scary, brave move for me. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist before. I still don’t.

burning a hole through

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign. I’ve expected it from the right-wing Leave, but the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left Remainers have shocked me. Their pathetic vision and tactics – a combination of scaremongering cold economism and mythological romantic nationalism could never seduce me and has reminded me of the futility of reformism.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason is that I wanted to liberate myself from the unbearable and unfair weight on my shoulder foisted above me – a burden manifested as a binary choice between two unpalatable and toxic options. So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated – the class, patriarchal, racist war in which fellow human beings are imprisoned, left homeless, hungry, and even killed every single day. The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. To talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. To vote in the referendum, for me, is to give implicit support to this myth and to the nation-state – the embodiment of all forms of social injustice – as the foundation of our political system.
We must transcend representation. We are not citizens; we are passive ‘constituents’ in an ‘anti-political’ system. Real politics, democracy, is the politics of citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We already have begun.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
On both sides, the referendum is portrayed as a monumental historical event. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a credible analysis of how this process produced this event. The referendum was caused by a split in the Conservative Party provoked by the rise of UKIP, but the rise of UKIP expresses the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of people discarded, exploited, and demonised by this economic system. To call all Leave supporters xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis and by embracing the myth of the nation and the possibility of reform, cannot adequately respond.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of us, must take history into our own hands.

So, what is the alternative?
There is no roadmap for change. We make the road by walking. As my historical analysis shows, we first need to know where we’ve come from. But, we do need a sense of direction for the way forward too.
We should bury any minor differences and come together in our communities in dialogue to develop both minimal and maximal programmes for action. The minimal programme would detail what needs to be done immediately to meet the physical needs of everyone in our communities and of nature. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision for the world we ultimately want to create and live in. At its most fundamental, this means the reversal of privatisation of property and the reflourishing of common forms of ownership and management. Democratic dialogue must be the cornerstone of our new politics and society. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.
We stand again confronted by a choice between socialism and barbarism. Rather than engaging with this referendum, I believe that people with concerns for eco-social justice should, as Gordon Asher has put it, ‘be focusing our time, energy and resources on building and evolving broad networks of resistance and alternatives in the UK, in Europe, and beyond’. We must be brave; we must reject the status quo of state politics; we must become citizens and we must actively build our democracy and win our justice and freedom for ourselves, our children, our planet.

*****

The longer version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
What I sought to do by burning my ballot paper was to produce a work of art in the sense that I sought, through my creative labour, to engage other human beings by provoking a strong emotional response within them. I wanted this artistic act to be an act of what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls ‘dissensus’.
For Ranciere, what we commonly understand as politics is really the ‘consensus’ – a reality that is constantly produced and enforced by the whole gamut of the state apparatus (government, party politics, media, university, school). An act that disrupts this reality and reveals the artificially enforced and contingent nature of the social order it maintains is an act of dissensus. Central to any political moment, to any instance of dissensus, is, as Stephen Corcoran puts it, a ‘particular kind of speech situation’, often short-lived, in which ‘those who are excluded from the political order or included in it in a subordinate way, stand up and speak for themselves’. Rancière describes this speech situation as ‘litigious’ because it ‘refutes the forms of identification and belonging that work to maintain the status quo’.
So, the first reason I want to give for burning my ballot paper is that I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus that expressed my refutation of the forms of identification that the EU referendum imposes upon me and my unwillingness to maintain the status quo/consensus by being a good little voter. I’ll talk about these forms of identification later in reason no.4.
I was also inspired by the ideas of Guy Debord and the ‘Situationists’ who came to the fore in the student movement in Paris of the late 1960s. Debord described our society as the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ in which ‘the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’. This (near-)totalised commodification of human experience is ‘spectacular’ because our experience of reality is overwhelmingly mediated semiotically via communications systems:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’ (ibid: 132)

Drawing heavily on Marx’s theory of abstracted and alienated relations of labour and commodity production within capitalism, Guy Debord saw ‘separation’ as the ‘alpha and omega of the spectacle’ – a separation institutionalised within ‘the social division of labour, the formation of classes’ that ‘had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning’ (ibid: 152).
So, I see the incessant EU referendum media flow as evidence of our society as spectacle. I see how it unites us in division – in this case a strict binary division. And I saw and felt it as an almost absolute force out of which we cannot escape. But, this kind of fatalism is precisely the weakness in Debord’s theory for me. There is a way out, a way beyond. I sought to burn a hole in the spectacle to reveal some light beyond – for myself and, ideally, for others too.

burning a hole through

The reason for delaying giving you my justifications for my act is that I wanted to try to provoke that emotional response in you and I wanted to give you the time to feel that and to respond to it in your own way. I wanted to put that act of dissensus out there into our world and for people to make their own sense (or non-sense) out of it. I didn’t want to try to open up a space merely just to immediately close it straight back down again through explanation.
So, this was an artistic act. That might sound vain, but this is no egotistical act. It’s the opposite. Joseph Beuys said that all human beings are artists. I agree. I’ve never ever thought of myself as an artist before, still don’t. For me, in a polarised environment, this took courage.

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign.
I know the right-wing game – the consistent and deliberate lying repeated enough times to turn a lie into a fact; the playing on the fears of angry, scared, and hopeless people. What I wasn’t prepared for was the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left social democrat Remainers. What a pathetic vision they have offered. Their arguments have either sought to claim that the EU is a bastion protecting workers’ rights, that only the EU can save us from the Tories or that it’s only thanks to the EU that we haven’t had World War Three. Then there’s the woeful ‘least worst option’ argument – we know the EU is undemocratic, but it’s not as bad as leaving. The more positive reformist argument is better, but wrong, I believe. I’ll explain why later.
The Remain argument has been broadly founded on a simplistic economism framing trade as virtually the object of life itself. This has been complemented by cheap, tacky videos aimed at disarming critical faculties by pressing emotional buttons by conjuring up words and images of romantic nationalism.

I’ve been shocked by how many people I know who would probably consider themselves on the left have bought this sugary bile. I have been told to tolerate some utilitarianism, but, for me, tolerating any utilitarianism means sacrificing reason and democracy. You can’t sacrifice those in their name. What we have learned from history is that in politics the means are the ends.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason why I decided to burn my ballot paper was because I was sick and tired of the unbearable weight that I felt on my shoulders – a weight that was foisted upon me involuntarily and constantly increased by daily exhortations by Remain supporters about the profound, almost unparalleled, historical significance and possible consequences of the referendum. The nature of this weight is the apparent obligation to choose between two irreconcilable contradictions. I personally cannot reconcile the contradictions and reject having to shoulder that responsibility imposed upon me/us involuntarily. By contradictions, I mean that both options I am offered are hideously bad. Gordon Asher sums up this supposedly democratic choice eloquently:

‘…‘both sides are equally committed to deepening austerity and have collectively driven an agenda several steps to the right of anything emanating from Brussels’ (Hore et al., 2016) – and the nation state (Plan C, 2016). Neither ‘Lexit’ nor a left-wing Remain are likely outcomes…..given the sheer dominance of the traditional forces of international finance on both sides of the mainstream debate, talk of a Lexit or a Left Remain become highly misleading: There will be only a ‘Rexit’ or a right-dominated Remain’ (Murphy, 2016)
If the UK ‘Remains’ under present proposals there will be a further neoliberal intensification… – a deepening and expansion of ‘austerity’; of competition, privatisations, imposition of markets/market like imperatives, and ‘the rule of money’ (Holloway, 2016), alongside a continuation of attendant assaults on what little remains of democratic mechanisms, public services, collective protections and human rights.
If the UK ‘Leaves’ under present proposals, the left will have to contend with capital’s inevitable response exploitative of crisis: hostility of the markets, ratings agencies, corporations and financial institutions – as well as of other governments – due to the threat posed by such an example (Anastasakis, 2016). We have witnessed, most recently in Greece (and they weren’t actually leaving!), the response of the neoliberal system to those who would dare take a different approach (Varoufakis, 2016).’

So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
Earlier I wrote about an act of dissensus as a way to refute those ‘forms of identification’ imposed on me/us. There are two forms of identification I want to particularly reject here. The first one is nationalism. I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated. Each day we the people are being imprisoned, starved, and killed by this war in the UK. I am talking about the class war that renders increasing numbers of us homeless and hungry, some of us even desperate enough to kill ourselves or others, and many more of us depressed, anxious, and stressed. I am talking about a patriarchal war that excludes women from power and opportunity; that, through austerity, punishes women disproportionately; that, through the production of a misogynistic media and culture, objectifies women and creates social conditions in which women are subjected to physical and sexual violence; and that, through a male-dominated criminal justice system, rarely delivers justice. I am talking about a white supremacist war that demonises and criminalises people with darker skin, particularly black and Muslim people, constructing them as the dangerous other, the enemy within our borders and the savage horde beyond.
The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. The nation-state is the institution that perpetuates this myth – with every war and every memorial of every war; on every Queen’s birthday; through the media; through the teaching of history; and through the everyday language and images it uses. To accept this myth, to talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. This is not to say that peoples might not collectively agree to form as nations, but it will be as nations without the nation-state.
This leads me to the second main refutation of forms of identification – the entire current model of supposedly ‘representative’ politics. First, what we have is not representative. The arguments for this are well rehearsed – a system dominated by middle and upper class white men; an unelected upper chamber; an unfair electoral system; and the whole system dominated by corporate, financial, military interests. Beyond this, however, is my rejection of any model of state politics in which we are reduced to peripheral and part-time players. In state politics, we might be called ‘citizens’, but we are not. We are ‘constituents’ who are given a vote to choose which party we think will give us the best value for our money and who can seek to lobby our representatives to make better fiscal and distributional decisions. Fuck that! This system has no future. Instead, we all have to build a real democracy in which we are citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We are already developing the ethos and methods of this direct politics. We now need to take power of our local councils. Clearly, then, I’m not saying we should shun the formal system completely. We need to engage with it to win power to dismantle it. But, this referendum is no such opportunity.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
I am told that I must vote Remain to stop the racists. For me, this is an ahistorical argument: rather than seeing history as a process, it reduces history exclusively to events. The referendum has become this monolithic EVENT. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a history that clearly explains the process that produced this event.
So, let’s take a longer historical view of the process that got us into a situation in which the political class was forced to hold a referendum and in which it became possible for a majority of voters to choose to leave the EU. It is commonly said that the EU referendum was foisted upon us because of a split within the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, being a broad alliance of divergent bourgeois interests (financial, commercial, agricultural), has long been divided over its relationship to European supranational institutions. What forced the Tory government’s hand was the rise of a nationalist, explicitly anti-EU party – UKIP.
Do we end our historical analysis there? No? Of course, not. What explains the rise of UKIP? It’s clear – UKIP is fuelled by the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of working and middle class people. Where do these feelings come from? They are the product of four decades of a political, economic, and cultural attack by the ruling class on our livelihoods, economic security, health, education, culture, and self-esteem. The globalisation of capitalism has meant the deindustrialisation of UK towns and cities. The neo-liberal agenda has meant the decimation and privatisation of social housing, healthcare, education, culture, and justice. Imperialist wars have provided doomed employment and escape for many, but have devastated those societies from which desperate refugees come and have brought home UK soldiers with broken minds, spirits, and bodies. The crisis in capitalist profitability fueled an unprecedented global financialisation that brought the system crashing down in 2008. Eight years later and the next, far bigger crash is only a matter of when not if.
We only have a referendum vote and a vote that Leave might well win because we have a capitalist system that has discarded and demonised millions of people in this country for decades nows. This is where the anger, fear, and hopelessness of so many people comes from. To call them all xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis, cannot adequately respond. And this is why I reject their reformist position. Capitalism is a system of social relations structured in exploitation, oppression, and violence. It cannot be anything but. History shows us that reformers seeking change from within an institution end up themselves being changed instead.
We are at an historical moment of profound crisis expressed as an intensified social war in which the current system cannot reproduce itself any longer. It has reached its material, physical, evolutionary limits. 2008 was the first heart attack. This system has to crash again and soon. The crash will be triggered by an event. The event might be the referendum. I don’t think it will be, but it might be. But even if it is it would be a mistake to somehow blame the crash on Brexit. Brexit is the inevitable consequence of this current terminal neo-liberal phase of capitalism.
This is like watching the slowest but scariest car crash in history (Again! i.e. like being in 1930s and the only way out of that crisis was genocidal war). It’s socialism or barbarism again. And this significant event, Brexit, might just wake some on the left up about the actual nature of the historical situation we’re in.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of you, must take history into my own hands.

So what is the alternative?
‘There is no alternative’ is, of course, that infamous Thatcherite mantra that ruled supreme and imprisoned our power and imagination for three decades. When we look at the way more and more areas of politics and policy are being put beyond democratic control into the hands of ex-banker technocrats, we might feel that the ‘TINA’ era continues. The EU is the best example of this kind of ‘post-political’ institution. Nevertheless, the ideology of the supposed free market is no longer hegemonic and those with their hands on the levers of political power can make their moves, but their time is ending and their system is collapsing.
What shocks me is when I hear the TINA line from well-meaning liberal/social democratic types. A neighbour of mine actually said ‘I’m as anti-capitalist as anyone, but show me the roadmap’. As if there was ever a roadmap from feudalism to capitalism! Such notions betray a fundamental ignorance of history. ‘We make the road by walking’, as the Zapatista saying goes. And those of us who are building the new society that is already emerging out of the collapsing architecture of the current system have already begun down that path.
While Karl Marx was rightly adamant that there was no blueprint for the future society, we do need a clear sense of direction and we also need to know where we’ve come from in order to know where we can and should go. This means understanding our history. So, one central task is not to dismiss Leave voters as, as one Facebook ‘friend’ put it, ‘unthinking fools’, but to engage them, listen to them, and try to work with them to reveal an alternative, reasoned history for why they are suffering so much. The second task is to bury any minor differences and come together in dialogue to articulate a minimal and maximal programme of objectives and actions. The minimal programme would express what we believe is needed immediately to satisfy the material needs of everyone and nature in our community right now. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision of the world we ultimately want to create and live in. The next task is to decide on a political action plan for getting these things achieved. Some actions might require action within the system – winning electoral office to democratise power and change laws, for example; Many other actions can be done outside – for example, establishing new co-operative commonly-owned and managed ways of producing and distributing resources, energy, food, money, etc. The foundation must be new radically democratic ways for interacting, learning with, and deciding with each other. Dialogue is the corner stone here.
Both Remain and Leave campaigns are founded instead on an anti-democratic cynical view of human nature. This is clear for Leave, but by Remainers arguing that only the EU can save us from the Tories they betray a similarly cynical lack of belief in themselves and others – in our capacity to act. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. The crisis has to deepen, the shit has to hit the fan. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.

Last week, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in an act of fascist terrorism. She was, by all accounts, a remarkable, beautiful, and wholly good human being. While I praise many of the stances she took, she was for Remain and within the Labour Party. I am neither of those things. I am a radical socialist. While this is a fundamental difference, it is a difference irrelevant to the far right. Above all, what we must recognise is that before the Nazis and much of the German population killed the Jews, the homosexuals, the Roma, the disabled, and others, they killed the trade unionists, the socialists, the social democrats. It is the murder of socialists, those who stand first and firmest against hatred and for justice, that paves the way for genocide. Once again, we are confronted with a stark choice between socialism and barbarism.

Capitalism, Ideology, Politics and economics, Socialism

Knowing our left from our right, Part Five: Get real, get utopian!

Hi! Welcome to this series of posts about the left-right divide in politics. Here’s the story so far…

In the first post, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. I then offered ten beliefs I hold that supposedly made me extreme but which, I thought, made me a sensible, intelligent, caring human being. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s preference for the state or markets to produce and allocate scarce goods was an anachronistic red herring. In reality, capital needs the state to force us to be ‘free’. Moreover, I argued that markets were very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics. This, by the way, isn’t some aberration as economists would see it; this is the inevitable reality of economic power.

In the third post, I argued that only left-wing thought understood the true nature of human and social freedom and proposed concrete visions and ideas for us to create a society in which maximal individual freedom could coincide with and sustain social peace and justice. In the fourth post, I suggested that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media and the sheer political power of the state) is because they offer simplistic solutions or promises based on superficial interpretations of reality. These are false, but they can satisfy and help avoid us doing the harder work necessary for our freedom – independent critical thinking. In societies with low levels of critical education and historical knowledge, such ideological frameworks can quite comfortably maintain the status quo. In crises, it gets trickier and, therefore, more violent. Here’s the next post in this series and it’s about realism…

stalin_gulagThe ‘gulag’: Where all attempts at socialism end up?

Their arguments

There comes a point in any debate where those on the right, or those on the left who lack the imagination or faith, interject and say ‘well, this is all well and good and sounds absolutely lovely, but now can we get back to reality?!’ The right-wing argument then goes that all previous attempts at such fantasy have ended at the gulag i.e. the mass repression and murder of millions of people by totalitarian dictatorships (the most famous exposition of this idea is ‘free-market’ icon Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom). A more sympathetic, but equally dismissive, version suggests that the economic and political power of the corporations and financial markets comprises an insurmountable and permanent barrier against such naive dreams, that dreaming this way is thus an irresponsible waste of time, and that the only realistic progressive strategy is to accept the status quo, but to work with the CEOs and bankers to try to win small but significant concessions to alleviate the worst consequences of global capitalism (see perhaps Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy and Making Capitalism Fit For Society here). This would be the social democratic argument, broadly put. At the optimistic end of this social democratic perspective stand those reformists who believe in an ethical capitalism that can serve shareholders, bosses, workers, society, and the environment alike in a harmonious positive-sum relationship. This tends to be promoted by idealists, not in the sense of abstract dreamers, but in the sense of people who believe that the world is made up of ideas rather than historical materialists like me who think that ideas are crucially important, but that history since the Agricultural Revolution has been driven by the conflict between antagonistic social forces (a great place to start here would be Neil Faulkner’s A Marxist History of the World or this lecture with the same title). The ‘ethical capitalism’ ideal is also promoted, unsurprisingly, by those corporate elites with a liberal conscience like Bill Gates and major US foundations like the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations.

So, in this post, I will politely thank those well meaning conservatives or faithless or naive liberal reformists for patronising and dismissing my intellectual utopianism, but I will stick to my guns, and I will stick to my guns by offering four arguments for why, actually, left-wing utopianism is more realistic than their supposed realism. Here goes…

 Indonesia 1965The Indonesian anti-communist genocide of 1965, backed by US government

(1) Only mass violence has repressed democratic socialism so far

First, on the argument that socialism is only good on paper and that history shows it can’t be realised, there are many arguments here. I will cover the stuff about human nature in the next and final post. Instead, I‘ll stick here to history and just say that the failed attempts of the past were far more to do with the superior power and relentless and violent intervention of capitalist forces. Only the murder of countless millions of left-wing activists (like me) have ensured socialism’s failure so far. I’ll just point you here to two examples that are of contemporary significance. First, because we’ve just had to go through the annual ordeal of the shameful jingoism that is Remembrance Day, here’s a great short article by Paul Mason on the real reasons behind the end of World War One. Second, since we’ve just commemorated its fiftieth anniversary and because so many people should know about it, here’s something on the hundreds of thousands of peaceful people murdered with US support by the Indonesian regime in 1965. Two examples out of hundreds where capitalist violence crushed democratic intention or, at least, potential. That’s not to ignore the brutality of the ‘really existing socialist’ regimes that have emerged. Beyond the persuasive argument that these were often more like state capitalist regimes with extraordinarily high levels of centralised power and economic control, I’d just argue that they disprove nothing about the viability of democratic socialism. Furthermore, as I argued in the second post, and as the current Eurocrisis incontrovertibly shows, capital requires authoritarian force. To survive, capital must oppose real democracy. In a fit of prosopopoeia, conjuring the spirit of capital itself, Alan Sugar, a famous supposed UK ‘entrepreneur’ recently said he’d move to ‘communist’ China if the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was elected Prime Minister. I think we’d be fine without him, without them all, indeed.

(2) Capitalism is moribund. Condition probably terminal

The next argument for why left-wing utopianism is actually also hard realism is that capitalism is moribund. It seems to be dying. Even zero interest rates and the effective printing of $12trillion via quantitative easing have failed to revive the patient. All that’s really been achieved is the enrichment of the richest and the revival of old and the creation of new asset market bubbles. Evidence for a new global downturn is growing. This will soon be greatly exacerbated by a new financial crash.

(3) Capitalism is blocking technological and scientific progress

Third, the only arguably redeeming trait of capitalism was the technological dynamism it fuelled, but now capitalism is blocking this dynamism. To be clear, this technological dynamism wasn’t primarily driven by capitalists’ intrinsic love of technology. Capitalist firms pursue profit and only profit. They are legally obliged to maximise it. However, for two main reasons, capitalism is now blocking technological and related social progress. First, because working class organisational power is so weak, capitalists can try to revive profitability the lazy way – by cutting labour costs – rather than the more expensive but ultimately more sustainable way – by investing in new technology to boost productivity. Hence, all these MNCs sitting on billions of cash, choosing to buy back their shares rather than invest. Second, because information can be reproduced at almost zero cost, this new information revolution means we can now collaborate online, sharing and exchanging, producing together. There is no price on something that can be produced, stored, and shared for almost free. Hence, the only way to continue their ‘free market’ is to lock down monopolies. Think Google, Apple, Facebook. What do Google and Facebook do? They sell us back to us. Apple hook us onto their hardware so it can hook us into buying its software. There’s no rational reason why we can’t all own, say, the Beatles greatest hits for free. TTIP, the huge multilateral ‘trade’ treaty so many are protesting against, isn’t really so much about trade as it is about the real ‘IP’, not ‘investment, but ‘intellectual property’. We don’t need capitalism anymore. We can own, share, and develop our own ideas, thank you very much. The internet makes that possible. We need to liberate the internet to liberate ourselves. For far more on this see Paul Mason’s excellent Postcapitalism and Nick Srinicek & Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (the latter I haven’t yet read).

Everything stated here regarding technology is the same for science, particularly medical science. Think of the regular scandals we hear about pharmaceutical firms blocking access to life-saving drugs for the poor. Capitalism has to go.

(4) Capitalism is destroying our planet, our species

Finally, capitalism is destroying our ecosystem and climate. That’s the reality. One of us has to go – capital or us. Think that’s a false binary? Well, the fossil fuel companies now have reserves over four times more than the amount calculated we need to stay within burning in order to have any chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees by 2050. Their financial future and prosperity depends on those reserves – reserves they’ve invested billions in identifying and readying. Ours depends on those reserves staying in the ground. But, it’s more complex than that because their financial prosperity is tied up with ours via our pension funds and economies. That’s why the only realistic option is ending capitalism. Ultimately, capitalism is a social system founded on and requiring private ownership and continued and growing exploitation of land and labour. It is incompatible with human health and sustainable social and ecological relations.

(5) Capitalist realism is sustained by those who proclaim it

Much of the ‘realism’ the right-wingers parrot is discursive, i.e. imposed and reinforced through their own saying so. I’m not denying the real material power of corporations, bankers, and governments, of course. But all empires, regimes, governments can and do fall, and, by defining reality as the permanence of the status quo, those who do so, whether wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuate the same reality. Those who say that to imagine another world is naive and impossible either have a vested interest in this current unjust world or a total lack of faith in their fellow humans. They also have little understanding of history. Some of them may want change and might just be scared (and that’s understandable), but then that’s not an intellectual argument that’s an emotional one. Whatever the motive, by saying what they do, their words actually serve to maintain the status quo in our collective heads.

So, in short, here are five powerful arguments against the naysayers and for why they might consider a dose of the realism they so readily prescribed.

AWIP

Another World is…Necessary!

Paul Mason has called on us on the left to be ‘unashamed utopians’ (in his Postcapitalism book). I am one. At the very same time, I also see my politics as way more realistic than those who seek to narrow our definition and imagination of reality to the perpetual crisis management of current desperate and terminal state of affairs we now endure.

True left-wing politics, for me, has always been utopian. Now more than ever it is obliged to be. But our utopianism must be a ‘concrete’ or ‘real’ utopianism. It must be grounded in a rigorous, scientific analysis of our current conditions. To quote my favourite band, Fat Freddy’s Drop, ‘we’ve got to know where we’re coming from before we know where we’re going to’! We’ve got to know our history and our political economy. We know the phrase ‘Another World is Possible’ that expresses utopian hope. When we combine it with the realism I’ve just offered, we might suggest that left-wing thought and activism today should centre around the slogan ‘Another World is Necessary!’

Right, in the last post (here), I will make a more philosophical case (combining it with some empirical evidence) against the right-wing one-dimensional, static and misanthropic view of human nature. I’ll argue that all right-wing claims about freedom and democracy are rhetorical cos they are there to defend an oppressive and exploitative social system. I’ll argue that we’re totally up for this sharing and co-operating stuff; that it’s in our essential nature; that we’re doing it already, all of us everyday; and that, ultimately we urgently need to bring in a social system that is based on sharing and co-operation and allows our generous, co-operative impulses to flourish. I’ll finally argue that left-wing thought today should be based on what French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls the ‘equality of intelligence’.

Thanks, as ever, for reading this!

Joel

Capitalism, Culture, Socialism, UK

Comic Relief is a bad joke; Make charity history!

There are many institutions in our culture and society that, for me, highlight the depth of our dysfunctionality and despair. Such institutions express the shocking degree to which a social system of artificially-created human misery has been so successfully naturalised that its universality and ubiquity has been rendered invisible. They also reveal how we are, wittingly or unwittingly, complicit in hiding truth, and how depressingly limited our collective imagination is. One such institution in the UK is the annual national do-something-silly-for-charity-shenanigan. We have two primary charitythons like this: Comic Relief and Children in Need. On both these occasions, Brits come together to dress up, do silly things, bake cakes, etc in order to raise money for the poor and needy at home and abroad. The fact that every year the poor and needy are still with us and that their poverty and need grows is barely questioned and is used merely to justify a redoubling of efforts.

Comic+Relief+Red+Nose+Day+2009+Press+Launch+Ohgg7z2BpLMx

Comic Relief is one of the UK’s largest overseas development charities. Its annual fund-raiser is called ‘Red Nose Day’ after the clown-inspired red noses that people all across the country wear. Alongside the money-raising fun and games of ordinary folk, the event is, inevitably, centred on celebrities and ‘big-hearted’ multi-national corporations. On Red Nose night, on TV, we are alternately entertained and then harrowed by comedians who travel among the world’s poorest to capture both their suffering and, of course, the hope that Comic Relief and our money bring. Big corporations – this year it seems to be PG Tips and Persil (Unilever-owned tea and washing powder brands – get in on the act, showing us how humane and generous they are, by pledging big money in return for us buying their products.

How can something so well-meaning, something that brings people together, something that has raised so many hundreds of millions of pounds for charity stir feelings of such anger and distress in me? I will answer this question by drawing on the work of Oscar Wilde, someone who understood precisely what charity constituted within capitalist society and who explained it with characteristic eloquence. For Wilde, it was quite ‘inevitable’ that people who found themselves ‘surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation’ would be ‘strongly moved by all this’. However, since, unfortunately, ‘the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence’, ‘with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.’ Thus, Wilde saw charity as an institution that ‘degrades and demoralises’ and ‘creates a multitude of sins’.

oscar-wilde

I stand with Oscar Wilde. Comic Relief constitutes merely the most degenerate expression of the spectacle-mediated, consumer-driven institution of contemporary charity. I would suggest that not only does today’s ‘spectacle charity’ serve as the eternal plaster over a gaping, festering social wound, it actually functions directly to sustain the system that injures us. First, spectacle charity does this by alleviating social pressure. Legitimate frustration and anger at blatant social injustice is channeled ‘productively’ into charitable activity. Second, spectacle charity serves to appease feelings of guilt among those who are, or at least feel, better off and luckier. It also tells those unlucky ones they should be grateful they’re not far worse off in some Third World urban slum. Third, spectacle charity reinforces capitalist social relations by asking us to help alleviate suffering by acting as consumers – buying cakes, red noses, corporate sponsors’ products. Fourth, spectacle charity serves to maintain the status quo by providing depoliticised depictions of human suffering. The political-economic root causes of, say, child poverty in the UK are not and cannot be confronted. Poverty is portrayed in technical terms as a mere lack of things: money, education, resources. Fifth, in this way, spectacle charity reinforces the status quo by reinforcing general thoughtlessness. ‘Don’t think, do!’ is the general message here. In all these ways Comic Relief, and charity in general, does more harm than good by serving to maintain the status quo economically, socially, and culturally. I shall offer some evidence for these claims.

Yesterday, I tried to find out where Comic Relief’s red noses were manufactured and what they were made from. Unfortunately, I was able to find out very little. With regard to labour, all I could establish was that Comic Relief had signed up, alongside other major charities and companies, to the ‘Ethical Trading Initiative’ (ETI) under which partner NGOs (non-government organisations) monitors the companies (presumably, predominantly in China) that manufacture their orders. I also found a mixed (albeit quite old) report on the ETI’s effects by Sussex University, found out that several major companies, including Boots, had subsequently left the ETI, and that Primark, the company whose Bangladeshi subcontractors were guilty of the Rana Plaza tragedy in which 1,129 people needlessly died, is an ETI member. With regard to the environment, I could find nothing except for the fact that red noses can be recycled at various outlets.

Whether the conditions in these factories had improved under ETI or not is, for me, secondary to the telling fact that I was not able to establish where Comic Relief’s red noses were made. This tells us everything we need to know about the hidden, alienated nature of capitalist social relations and the institutions of commodified, spectacle charity within it. Comic Relief, an organisation dedicated to alleviating poverty, is largely blind to and reliant on the structure of class exploitation that creates this poverty. Thus, even if conditions are somewhat better in red nose factories, they are still exploitative. Why? Because it is the human labour within these factories that generates the surplus value that allows Comic Relief to sell these things for a profit. If this was not the case, these red noses would simply be produced in the UK. In terms of the environment, I am none the wiser, but pessimistic, as to the ecological cost of mass-producing millions of plastic red noses.

Over a century ago, Oscar Wilde was acutely aware of the perversity of charity: ‘It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.’ His ultimate conclusion resounds to this day: ‘The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.‘ The only thing that gives me heart on days like Red Nose Day is that people undoubtedly care. But, no amount of silly tomfoolery or hard, cold cash will end poverty. Capitalism breeds it, capitalism needs it. The goal of socialists like me is to encourage well-meaning, big-hearted folk (i.e. most people) to go beyond doing and take some time to explore and think about the root causes of our bleak situation.

Ten years ago, the major charities in the UK came together under the banner of ‘Make Poverty History‘. Remember the white plastic wristbands? In the UK and beyond, poverty has increased in the past ten years.1 Let us, instead, take an approach that is at once more radical and realistic. To make poverty history means to make charity history, and to make charity history we must make capitalism history. If we don’t, Oscar Wilde’s words will continue to resonate yet another century from now.

Capitalism, Culture, Food, Socialism

On middle-class foodyism

This is a post about a stereotype – the stereotype of the middle-class foodie: the organic, fair trade, quinoa-munching, camomile-sipping, bread-making, home-brewing, veg patch-loving middle-class foodie. But, it’s also about much more than this figure of ridicule. It’s about a wider and deeper cynicism towards anyone who seeks to take a principled, ethical stance in their life around issues concerning the ecologically and socially unjust forms of production of food, energy, and other commodities in our society. What I want to argue is that, though there can be a problematic side to this kind of character, and sometimes inaccuracy in their reasoning, their ridicule says much more about the cynicism, misanthropy, and lack of hope and imagination that continues to plague our society and impede the possibility of positive societal transformation.

So, confession time. I am that middle-class foodie. I am vegan. I make my own bread. I drink hemp milk! I have foraged. I have made elderflower cordial. I own a collection of around ten different herbal teas. I’m really excited about permaculture. I buy my fruit and veg from a local co-operative. And I am totally proud of all this. I am proud that I feed myself and my children with the best quality produce. I am proud that I know how to cook it in exciting and tasty ways. I am proud that I try to minimize waste and consume ethically (though, as I’ve argued before, ‘ethical consumption’ is, ultimately, an oxymoron within capitalism). I am proud…and I am conscious of my good fortune. For it is a matter merely of good fortune that I find myself with the material ability to afford good food and the opportunity to educate myself about my food. It is a matter of good fortune that I have the time to shop, cook, and eat better.

In a society in which the experience of life for most is that of a chronic lack of time and money, I and my fellow middle-class foodies are a privileged breed. We are open to ridicule and contempt. But to ridicule or have contempt for people like me is to confuse the symptom with the disease. The disease is a social system that steals our time, limits and perverts our education, depletes our seas and soil, tortures our fellow creatures, and produces and wastes mountains of unhealthy food. It has rendered so many of us in the UK unable to cook and to afford decent produce, and has left us strung out, malnourished, sick, and fattened up by industrially-processed muck. The ‘symptom’ is the individual and the group able, by dint of superior access to time, education, and money, to raise themselves above this scene of devastation and smell (or taste) the fresh air of human health and freedom. It is our collective inability to see beyond surface appearances that makes us direct our sense of irritation, anger even, against the privileged middle-class rather than against the system.

Intriguingly, I do not detect similar contempt toward the eating habits of the seriously rich, those with far more money, but far less time on their hands than the middle-class types of places like West Oxford where I live. The highest earners today – the bankers, the corporate lawyers, etc – are money-rich/time-poor. Consequently, you’ll find them not so much baking their own bread or foraging, but spending fortunes in London’s top restaurants on the world’s remaining sturgeon or blue-fin tuna. Ethical consumption for the middle-class; Conspicuous consumption for the ruling class, I would suggest. Not that this binary is clear-cut. You can certainly have conspicuous ethical consumption!

I am a socialist. This means I desire a far more egalitarian society. But I wish to level up, not down. Since we must have an environmentally and socially sustainable system, it will have to mean an end to unsustainable consumption. But, I desire a social system that substitutes the right to consume unsustainably with the incomparable right to time. Put another way, the freedom we lose to buy as much crap as we want will be replaced by the freedom to live how we wish, to develop our individual and collective potential, to satisfy our physical, cultural, social, spiritual interests, passions, and dreams. This is why, I think, Oscar Wilde described socialism as the only system capable of cultivating true ‘individualism’.

Behind the stereotype of the middle-class foodie lies the deeper truth that if you give any human being greater access to time and education, they’ll generally start feeding their body and brain with better stuff! Unfortunately, since even a middle-class education is not of a critical nature (i.e. even at universities today, they are unlikely to be exposed to theories that encourage deeper questioning and holistic, structural thinking), a myopic and superficial analysis of social relations dominates middle-class thinking too. Consequently, just as the rich think they are rich cos they’re the cleverest, hardest-working, and, generally, the best, and just as the poor think they are poor cos they’re the stupidest, laziest, and the worst, the middle-class are too often prone to thinking that the rich are bastards eating the planet and the poor are feckless idiots too lazy and stupid to shop properly and cook. At best, their responses can be Jamie Oliver-style well-meaning, but condescending interventions that fail to address the root causes of health and food inequality. Middle-class foodyism can also too often be corrupted by our society’s extreme individualism and consumerism to become a self-indulgent parody in which food becomes a commodity fetish. The middle-class are as much in need of critical pedagogy as anyone else.

I reject outright any notion that being a middle-class socialist means suffering in solidarity. Eating crap white bread and take-away kebabs would merely constitute a perverse and useless form of patronising charity. Instead, I believe that we need to argue the case for a society in which every single person has sufficient time and education to make their own choices about food, and not just food but every aspect of their own lives. This won’t happen under capitalism. Only by transcending the profit motive can we imagine and create a world without crap food and a production system destroying people and planet. Only by transcending capitalism can we imagine and create a world in which we all have ample time to live, love, and learn. Right, where’s me baba ganoush!

Capitalism, Ideology, Marxism, Singapore, Socialism

In Defence of Marxism…and Marxists

Dear blog-reader,


Thank you for reading my blog and sorry I’ve not produced anything so far this year. It’s been a transitional period with my family and I relocating back to Oxford from Singapore. It’s cold and gloomy, but, nonetheless, it’s good to be back!

The best news is that I found out that I won a one-year award from the Independent Social Research Foundation to kickstart an exciting project. I’ll be based at Warwick University’s Dept of Politics and International Studies. I need to keep the project a bit quiet for now, but I’ll definitely tell you all about it later on this year.

Anyway, this post is a bit of a long one, but it recounts a funny old story. The story starts in Singapore where, in December, I recorded the interview below with blogger and activist Roy Ngerng. Roy is an excellent blogger, shining a piercing light on the murky world of the activities of the Singaporean ruling party, the People’s Action Party. A minor indiscretion on his part gave the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, the opportunity to crush this small thorn in his side. PM Lee sued Roy for defamation and is pushing for big damages. You can learn much more about Roy’s story in the video here.

The interview has been viewed over 40,000 times on Facebook and Youtube. It also provoked some social media responses. Roy pointed my attention to one particular response at thesingaporebeacon.com entitled ‘Is Roy Ngerng a Radical Leftist? His interview with Joel Lazarus’. In this piece, the writer, a certain ‘B Goode’ (bravery in anonymity there!) performed an incredible feat of detective work by deducing from the open fact that I use the bearded one’s own quotations and theoretical insights to claim that my political perspective ‘smelt heavily of Marxism’! Genius! S/he suggested that Roy was possibly an agent of an ‘international radical leftist group out to undermine the economic and political system of Singapore’. Less genius!

My response was to post a comment below this article, openly confirming that my political perspective was strongly informed by Marxist thought; arguing that our current dominant theories, policies, and leaders are clearly failing; and recommending to her/his readers to ‘go beyond the instinctive fear of the unknown that has been inculcated within you and to read up on alternative theories and proposals for organizing society’.

Back came B Goode with a follow-up piece with the fantastic title: ‘Joel Lazarus Admits That He Is A Marxist and Roy Ngerng Is Aware Of It’! The beginning of the article reads like the decrying of a witch!1 Indeed, substituting the word ‘Marxist’ for ‘witch’ here brought a wry smile to my lips. B Goode then goes on to challenge Marxism with the ultimate goal of emphasising not its theoretical failings, but the inherent violence that must unavoidably emerge when Marxists seek to bring about the revolution they desire. Though far from a weighty challenge, I feel obliged to reply.

Marxism’s inherent violence?

First, how accurate is B Goode’s definition of Marxism? S/he defines Marxism as a theory positing capitalism as class-based ‘systemic subjugation’, and her/his understanding of this subjugation and, by extension, Marxism’s theoretical framework and contributions, is appropriately broad: ‘everything that governs the society; religion, education, polity, economy, law et cetera are crafted to such an extent as to perpetuate this subjugation.’ Consequently, the only path to liberation must be through systemic transformation, i.e. revolution not reform. I see this as a fair, albeit simplistic, definition.

Amazingly, though s/he refutes this theory, B Goode does not offer a single argument to challenge it. Not a word. Instead, her/his only bone to pick seems to be with ‘the interpretation on how Marxism should be implemented’. Here, B Goode sees the inevitable threat of violence:

‘For every Marxist political party and society that calls for a peaceful revolution, you’d have Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tze Dong, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chin Ming, Pol Pot and the like who believed in the violent overthrow of the existing social order, and the cleansing of the society. Sort of like wiping the slate clean. And so you have things like the cultural revolution, the killing fields, the gulags and other atrocities committed in the name of revolution.’

B Goode compares Marxism with Islam – ‘nothing wrong with [it] per se‘, but just perverted and made dangerous by violent, fanatical groups.

Let us leave Goode’s historical inaccuracies aside and just produce a response focused on her/his own central critique. Let us assume Marxism’s theoretical accuracy. Let us assume that capitalism is a system based on structural exploitation. Let us assume that we need revolution not reform. Is Marxism’s problem one of unavoidably violent interpretation and implementation?

Thinking dialectically

The first thing we need to do before we answer this is to start to think in Marxist ways, i.e. we need to start to think dialectically. By this, I mean that we need here to start to recognise the interrelation, the interconnection between things – between systems, between social forces, between ideas – and that history is driven by the dynamic nature of these dialectical relations. This means that we cannot isolate one system, one social group, one ideology and try to establish a straight causal relationship, e.g. we cannot say that Marxism causes violence. Instead, we have to understand that Marxism is in a dialectical relation with capitalist ideology, and that this ideological dialectic is itself in a dialectical relationship with the underlying dialectical material social relations between the social classes. In short, reality is dialectical; it is complex, dynamic, and everything – social relations, ideology, institutions, technology – is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by everything else. That said, a Marxist perspective sees history shaped primarily by material relations, i.e. the political-economic relations between social groups.

So, what does this mean for our argument? First, we need to make visible Marxism’s necessary dialectical partner here, namely capitalism. If Marxism is a revolutionary theory or ideology, if a Marxist is a revolutionary subject, it must have an object, i.e. it must be in a social relation with this object. The object here is capitalism – as system, as ideology.

Capitalism and violence

This leads us to look at capitalism and question what B Goode fails entirely to question: the relationship between violence and capitalism itself. What we are usually confronted with are depictions of reality in which capitalist social relations are normalised, indeed naturalised. In reality, it took an incredible amount of violence to institutionalise capitalism, first in Europe, and then globally.

First, in order to become a proletariat, working class, you need to find yourself in a position in which the only thing you have to sustain yourself, to sell, is your own labour-power. If you have land, you can subsist without the market. Hence, we experience, for example, the ‘Enclosures’ and the ‘Clearances’; huge forceful dispossessions that took place over many centuries in the UK, concentrated land in the hands of the aristocratic and emerging capitalist elites and led to death, deprivation, hunger, and exile. These events were pivotal to the creation of the urban industrial proletariat needed to drive capitalist industrialisation.

Second, the worker him/herself had to be forged. The process of turning a human being naturally disposed to undertake back-breaking and monotonous work only to the extent necessary to feed oneself and one’s family into a worker desperate to work whatever hours s/he could get required serious and sustained punishment. What was required here was that such natural dispositions be made incompatible with dignified life. Throughout the 19th Century, mechanisation helped bosses discipline the workforce through unemployment and poverty-rate wages. For its part, the state generally served to produce the pliant and desperate workforce that capitalist industrialisation required. If the working conditions didn’t kill you, destitution would. The only thing worse than being exploited was not being exploited! Things only improved for two reasons: first, the very social conditions that brought workers together facilitated their collective political organisation. Trade unions emerged and fought for better pay and conditions. Second, when workers’ conditions became so dire, the capitalists themselves realised that they were killing the geese that laid their golden eggs and certain factions within them pushed for reforms. Nonetheless, the role of violence in the industrial revolution was central.

Capital’s systemic need for ever-increasing returns pushed its violence worldwide – the slave trade, imperialism, and colonialism. Can we possibly hope to calculate the number of millions murdered, tortured, enslaved, imprisoned, humiliated by this system? Marx himself puts it thus: ‘In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.’

And what of today? The violence clearly continues. The forced land expropriations continue, now primarily beyond Europe, in Africa. Imperialist wars continue. A million dead in Iraq. Read the Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism by Naomi Klein if you don’t think that’s about creating opportunities for private profiteering.

Could we even imagine the commodities we enjoy – our mobile phone, our tablets – without violence in their production? Take global telecoms. We see a supply chain that runs from child slave labour in mineral extraction in the DRC on to suicidal assembly line workers at Foxconn in China up to the call centres, those modern-day ‘Satanic mills’, that serve us from India, the US, and the UK.

There’s more. In a time of crisis, a time in which the gap between the reality portrayed to us on our TVs and classrooms and the reality we actually experience grows to a problematic size, do we not see a return to more direct and constant violence? Repressive legislation in the name of ‘security’; the ‘militarisation’ of police forces; peaceful protests smashed by riot police, we see them all.

Furthermore, as inequality grows, the haves need ever more to protect themselves and their property. Hence, the explosion of private security in recent years. So many ordinary poor people today are employed basically in protecting the expanding assets of the rich who live in increasing fear of the supposedly predatory or vengeful poor.

Then there’s the violence that this system does to our environment. This needs little further comment. Suffice to say that we’ve lost half our wildlife in the past 40 years!

Finally, there’s the violence produced by capitalist crisis. People expropriated from houses and made homeless; businesses destroyed; children and the elderly going cold and hungry; individuals taking their own lives in desperation.

So, that’s a whole lot of violence. No wonder that our societies are marred by violence: in towns and cities each weekend; within communities; within the household. I haven’t even mentioned the indirect, non-physical ‘symbolic violence’ committed verbally each day against oppressed social groups.

In short, capitalism, indeed any social order based on structural injustice and exploitation, is and must be brought in and sustained by violence. This is true of every single social order in human history since civilisations first emerged.

Marxism and violence?

When we recognise the incredible savagery of capitalism, B Goode’s challenge takes on quite a different light. If we recognise structural oppression, be that based on class, gender, race, whatever, we are recognising a social group as victims of brutal, institutionalised violence. Their desire for justice is its just. And, yes, if the system itself is structurally unjust then such groups, and those who stand with them, will push for revolution. There have been countless examples of social movements using non-violent means to pursue their goals. They have invariably been met by state violence. This means that when we consider the relationship between oppressed and oppressor, it is the oppressor who determines the level and nature of violence. The oppressor has the dominant military or repressive power. If the world was truly one just consisting of ideas then we might imagine that the ruling class could be convinced of the injustice and inhumanity of their system and that a socialist revolution could be brought about without a drop of blood being shed. This clearly will not happen. As we have seen in the previous century, when threatened, the ruling class is quite willing to support and elevate fascists into state power in order to liquidate the social forces that threaten the system. Before the recent Syriza victory, we had seen this happening again more recently in Greece.

The place of violence in political struggle

In short, in the dialectical relationship between capital and labour, the nature and degree of violence is primarily and overwhelmingly determined by the dominant party. Invariably, revolutionaries have resorted to violence as a final resort. What do you do if you are being kicked off your land? What can you do? Petition local or national state authorities who have sanctioned the expropriations? Sometimes you have to stand, unite, and fight!

That said, revolutionaries still have to consider the appropriate role of violence, and I would always advocate peaceful means and violence only as a very last, self-defensive resort. It is hard to give birth to a peaceful social system through violence.

Violent implementation

What of B Goode’s examples: Lenin, Mao, Ho, Kim, Pol Pot. Again, thinking dialectically here helps. In the cases of Lenin, Ho, Kim, and Pol Pot, these leaders’ countries had experienced huge violence at the hands of the capitalist powers either prior to or in the early years of their rule. In the case of Cambodia, for example, the Cambodian peasantry was subjected to one of the most prolonged and intense bombing campaigns in human history by the US. This psychological destabilisation created the conditions for a barbaric genocide. We see similar situations in the Middle East today where the deaths of millions from the imperialist US-led occupations has created conditions in which violence has become an everyday reality. The normalisation of violence seems to be the precondition necessary for the advent of murderous, fascistic regimes to emerge – regimes, by the way, whose roots can be traced back to US funding, training, and arms.

Of course, I am sicked by the horrific mass violence perpetrated by Stalin and Mao. However, I would argue that any democratic potential in these revolutions was thwarted by external international conditions that made it impossible for socialism to flourish in any one country. Not only were these countries forged in the violence of prolonged civil war, these international conditions made it necessary for their ruling parties to compete internationally and essentially act as a dirigiste capitalist class.

Finally, as for B Goode’s point about Marxist revolution being about wiping the slate clean, this is not adherent to Marx’s own position. For me, Marxism is really about recognising the incredible dynamic power of capital in organising human society into hugely powerful and efficient complex organisations. We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We just need to wrest ownership and control away from the ruling class into the hands of all in order that our efforts no longer generate profit for them, but provide prosperity for us all.

Conclusion

Marx really said very little about what form post-capitalist society should take, refusing to provide a blueprint, I guess preferring human beings themselves to collectively work it out for themselves. What was clear was that his vision was for a society in which every individual was free to fulfill their personal potential, liberated from enforced labour, be it capitalist or totalitarian communist.

I believe that we’re reaching the end game for capitalism. We are witnessing capitalism’s slow death. A wounded beast is at its most dangerous, and those in power still have a huge capacity for inflicting violence upon us in all its forms. Nonetheless, as Syriza’s victory shows, we can achieve much through organisation and by spreading a message of hope, offering people a real alternative and inviting them to shape, to be that alternative. If we want to end violence, we should want to end capitalism. A peaceful social order can only be a just social order. We should seek to establish this just society through peaceful means.

Wishing everyone a peaceful revolutionary 2015!

Joel

1This, of course, is no exaggeration. Recall the McCarthyist witch-hunts against anyone with remotest socialist sympathies in the ‘Second Red Scare’ era of the 1950s. Arthur Miller satirises this period in his play The Crucible about the Salem Witch-hunts of the late 17th Century.

Capitalism, Culture, Socialism

What would a socialist Father Christmas look like?

Santa Marx

Well, it’s Christmas time again, and, once more, Christmas is defined, as it must inevitably be in this particular social system, by rapacious consumption. And, of course, the man at the very heart of our contemporary Christmas, is not, as one might expect or hope, Jesus Christ, but rather Father Christmas or ‘Santa Claus’. Though Santa’s name and character derive originally from Saint Nicholas, he also clearly emerges out of European pre-Christian paganism. His contemporary form seems to crystallise and develop over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, reflecting the cultural trajectory of the emerging industrial, and now post-industrial, capitalist system.

Before I set out my proposals for reimagining Father Christmas, allow me to explain why I think Father Christmas in his current manifestation is so problematic.

Father Christmas today

Santa as consumerist icon

Clearly, the predominant problem with Father Christmas is that, as cultural institution, he has come to play a central role in the shameful consumption that dominates Christmas today. He has gone from giving solely to those in need (à la Saint Nick), to giving something small to every child (e.g. an orange), to giving loads-a-toys to every kid and kicking off a general orgy of present-giving among all and sundry. This generates hugely damaging environmental, social, and spiritual consequences that I barely need to elaborate on. Suffice just to say: plastic crap, dangerous work, soulless materialism, and crushing debt. Indeed, the only way we can see our consumerist Christmas as in any way rational is, unsurprisingly, through the current hegemonic prism of economic rationality.

Since our economy depends on continued consumption and the Christmas period is crucial for consumer spending, Christmas is absolutely vital to economic stability and ‘growth’. (Interestingly, the right-wing press has little to say about the fact that Christmas has morphed from a religious festival to a consumerist bun-fest, but are up in arms at any suggestion of any council or organisation relegating religious imagery to the background of their seasonal celebrations.)

Since, however one tries to spin it, it’s hard indeed to argue that Jesus Christ would have been even remotely cool with consumerist Christmas, it’s unsurprising to see Father Christmas elevated to top dog as he functions as the legitimating symbol of present-giving.

Santa as ultimate hider of social relations

For me, the fundamental contribution of Marxist theory has been to reveal capitalism as a system of social rather than purely economic relations, and to reveal these social relations as class-based, that is, structurally exploitative. This is absolutely necessary because capitalism does such a phenomenal job of hiding these social relations: commodities are produced in unseen factories and bought and sold in impersonal exchanges facilitated by pieces of paper and bits of metal. This creates a situation described by Marx as ‘commodity fetishism’. Rather than seeing the indirect, but no less real, social relations between us that are mediated by the things we make, exchange, and consume, we instead only see the actual products themselves and the direct value relation between them (expressed in prices). Thus, we end up attributing social relations between these things (commodities) themselves. This brilliant little video explains it better than I can here.

If this is the case then Father Christmas goes even beyond commodity fetishism. The commodity as gift-bestowed-by-unknown-man strips the material product of even the remotest sociality. Even the impersonal exchange relation, i.e. the social interaction of a shop purchase, is eradicated. Not that a visit to Toys R Us is an enriching human experience! Thanks to Father Christmas, our kids have absolutely no sense of where their presents have come from at all. They wake up and the thing is there. That’s seriously problematic.

Santa as white patriarch

It’s certainly problematic too that Father Christmas is portrayed as the archetypal white avuncular patriarch. We shouldn’t go so far, of course, to suggest that old white men can’t be generous and kind. We just need to be conscious of the cultural suggestions bound up with this depiction. If we lived in a society in which people of all genders, colours, creeds, etc were relatively equally held up as icons and heroes, I don’t think Father Christmas would be problematic in his current guise. It’s the fact that today the icons and heroes that are elevated are overwhelmingly white and male. From this perspective, Father Christmas today is a symbol perpetuating white patriarchy. This needs to change.

Santa as anti-critical thinking

Children are naturally, infinitely curious. It takes increasing amounts of deception to hide the fact from our children that Father Christmas does not and could not possibly exist. Some may think this is harmless fun. Others may see it as a harmful deception that abuses children’s trust in their parents as their principal guides to discovering the world. Personally, I think there is a line here. For me, we play along, but if our children ask an intelligent, critical question we respect them with an honest, straight-forward answer. The bigger issue here is that, if we want to make the world more democratic and just we need to raise our children to be critical-thinkers; to question everything in pursuit of truth. Ultimately, I think it’s for each parent to use their own judgment.

So, here we have a Father Christmas who peddles, and simultaneously conceals, our current environmentally, socially, and spiritually damaging consumption, and certainly does nothing to encourage a more critical-thinking and socially just society. So, what would a socialist Santa look like instead?

Socialist Santa

The first thing to say is that I am no killjoy. I understand socialism as an ideology grounded in the deepest love for humanity and for life. Therefore, what we should seek to do at Christmas under socialism is to cast off the detrimental and enhance and enrich the nourishing and truly joyful elements of Christmas. I think that under socialism, we would be able to lose the tragic, but keep the magic. Here’s why…

Losing the tragic

First, since under socialism, production would be for social need rather than for profit, the whole manipulative media and advertising circus would be disbanded. Social status and identity would be redefined, away from wealth and consumption, toward social contribution (very broadly defined). The financial and emotional relief on families would be immense. Furthermore, whatever we produce will be produced in democratic and socially and environmentally sustainable conditions and will be distributed far more equally. In a situation that people were cognisant of the environmental, social, and personal cost of capitalist production (and the surmounting of capitalism can only be achieved by such people), we would have no fear of producing in wasteful, damaging ways.

As for reforming Santa as cultural institution, in my view it might be achieved by bringing him closer to his original Saint Nicholas roots. As I understand it, Saint Nick’s most famous act of kindness was to anonymously provide a poor father with the dowry for his three daughters. Rather than portraying this within a frame of liberal charity, we could see this as expressing a basic communistic ethic of ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their need’. This could, of course, serve as a timely reminder of the awful structural injustice at the heart of all previous social systems as we build our socialist society finally free from poverty.

Keeping the magic

As for retaining the magic, the contradiction between our kids’ presents magically appearing and the danger of commodity fetishism can only be surmounted under socialism. First, the gifts that socialist Santa would bring would be far more modest. But, far more importantly, these gifts would now be produced under democratic and environmentally sound conditions. That is why we could then maintain the magic ritual for our young ones safe in the knowledge that when the right time comes they can be told where their gifts really come from.

A socialist Christmas would also add to the magic in the most profound way possible. Only under socialism could we ensure that every child got want they really wanted for Christmas – their mums and dads. With people earning proper wages for proper work, not having to work over Christmas and able to take lots of time off, we could ensure that Christmas became a truly joyful time for all families.

Finally, we must of course consider the religious aspect of Christmas as a festival celebrating the birth of Christ. Under socialism, the space opens for a re-politicisation of Christ. This would involve creating a Christmas that reflected the radical political teachings and acts of Jesus, and relegating Santa to his rightful place, well below JC…

This blog, and the utopian suggestions it contains, clearly raises serious practical questions concerning how all this could be achieved. I cannot answer them here. However, I will say that they are, at bottom, a matter of collective imagination, organisation, and creation; in short, they are totally possible. If you think what I propose is attractive then please join me in learning more about post-capitalist alternatives and in the struggle to realise them. More on all that next year!

I leave you with a small Christmas present of my own – a silly, slightly self-deprecatory poem. Happy Christmas to you all and thank you for reading my blog.

In solidarity!

Joel

Communist Christmas

The Revolution has finally arrived

and Capitalism is dead.

But Christmas Eve has come again

and the children have gone to bed.

So, what’s gonna happen this year?

What are the kids gonna get?

A flying visit from the avuncular chap

and his red-nosed ruminant pet?

An iPad for dear little Jonny?

An Xbox for Jane, his neighbour?

Expensive gifts flown from afar

produced by Chinese sweated labour?

No!

That wouldn’t be right

now that we’ve won the fight

to escape from our gilded prison.

It just won’t do.

And Santa too must be liberated from consumerism.

So, on this joyous revolutionary morning,

on this first communist Christmas Day,

we’ll wake up our sons and daughters

and this is what we’ll say…

‘I’m afraid there’ll be no Scalextric for you,

no trampoline, scooter, or bike,

for Santa has been exposed as a capitalist pig

and the elves have all gone on strike!

But, don’t despair, little Jonny!

Dear Jane, please dry your eyes,

for we still have the warm love of each other…

oh, and these delicious vegan mince pies.

And don’t think that we’ve forgotten your present!

Take a look what’s under the tree!

A lovely big parcel all wrapped up in red…

Das Kapital, Vols I, II, and III!’