Engines of change

When the levee breaks, mama, you gotta move

Engines of change

In Socialism, Utopian and Scientific Frederick Engels draws a clear distinction. Utopian socialism is the unthinking socialism of the lefty mainstream, the socialism that comes from wishing that things were better and trying to make it happen without the social base to create it. It comes from the arbitrary decisions of rich philanthropists or politicians and not out of the struggle for the new world to emerge, which means it can be taken away again with a different arbitrary decision. He uses the examples of places like New Lanark to illustrate this approach. By contrast Scientific Socialism is based on understanding the material conditions in society and working with them to create a socialism that has roots in people’s lives and lived experience. This is where the phrase Socialism with British features (or the the country or place where you live) comes from. It’s a socialism with a base in the people that created it, not something given by their betters. You can only work with what you have - there isn’t any point in wishing, there is no point in writing detail plans for your revolution. You will not know where it will come from until the conditions make it possible and what you end up with will belong to that particular time and place even if guided by the same principles.

We have a more modern twenty-first century version of utopianism. For example Peter Buffet, Warren’s son, has effectively bought a town in New York State and is creating a post-capitalist-but-still-with-obscene-wealth utopia there by buying everybody and everything, much to the bemusement of the original locals. The main difference is Buffet’s wealth allows him to create a kind of feudal control, where what he wants counts far more than anyone else because a lot of the people there owe him their livelihoods. This isn’t New Lanark, it isn’t a modern attempt at utopian socialism, but more a place where the whole zero-growth malthusian project can be tried out. There is a whole other discussion about the mega wealthy becoming new feudal overlords and keeping their wealth while the rest of us are transformed back into compliant peasants working for them.

But what instead creates the conditions for change?

The most obvious thing is human suffering, or perhaps more gently the human condition, and the human struggle to thrive and survive. Circumstances shape people and they in turn shape their circumstances. Funnily enough the relationship is dialectical. The utopian view simply says we can wish ourselves into a better world, the marxian view is that we have to create that world with what we have at hand and from the conditions we find ourselves in. It’s a fundamentally different approach that grounds change in how people work together collectively, far away from the extremely limited vision of rich philanthropists. This approach, grounded in a clear understanding of relationships but also aware of the social realities, has a name: Praxis. Once again, as with dialectics, people like to mystify it, but it’s essentially using the scientific method and learning by doing.

Talking about this usually raises the usual nonsense about human nature. Human nature is based on material conditions - the five human needs: food, clothing, housing, education, health, plus contingency for the unexpected once the five have been met, are the basis of human nature. The social conditions, the relationships between people, and the material conditions, the technological base, define what that nature looks like at a particular moment.

This is very different from the incrementalist approach pushed by mainstream thinking. Where what’s possible is determined by how little they can get away with given the circumstances and the unquestioning love of the status quo is tacitly assumed. When we talk about democratic control and creating institutions that meet our needs we mean seizing the reins of power from the people who have abused and lied to us for years. There will be no room for wealthy feudal lords and ladies, or lovers of the status quo - they will have to join in on the same basis as the rest of us and their once having owned stuff will be irrelevant. They won’t like it, and the buying and creation of these towns, and oligarchs’ funding of nice-seeming non-government organisations is about them finding ways of avoiding losing their wealth and keeping in control by co-opting the potential leaders of the revolt.

Without changing the fundamental basis of society the owners could easily push back over time, like they already did from the post-war consensus, and we will be back here again. But with even less left to fight for and with because the coming ecocide will wreck everything. Instead of allowing the pendulum to swing back yet again we must dismantle it, and the conditions that created it. Remaking how we do things is necessary, and way beyond the whole left and right foolishness that implies we should still be joining in with the unsustainable nonsense that’s killing us.

The contradiction between the formal surface of society and the red raw reality carefully hidden out of sight that runs through our whole existence can finally be resolved after centuries of mayhem and hurt. The roots of how we do things will finally be based on what we need and what we love. No more hand to mouth and broken promises. No more standing with our hands out hoping to be given enough to survive. We make and keep the promises to ourselves, which makes things much easier, no more kings or queens, no more permission to live, no more slow violence killing the people you care about. We will own the means of production, so we will use them to make things better instead of profitable and unaccountable.

This change has to come on the back of our own struggles or it will be hollow and easily undone. That’s the tragedy in places like Iraq - the occupiers made sure any spontaneous legitimate structures grounded in what people wanted and needed were broken up, and their pet war lords had control. So we need to have have a war over consciousness first, then leading into the one about grasping the reins of social reality to actually create the better world we all want to live in. The irony is the more the owners try to steal from us and undo the safety nets our grandparents fought for, the more we realise we need to get rid of their system, and they can’t see it. This is why the Communist Manifesto says capitalism is creating its own grave-diggers.

We can’t be given our freedom. We tried that and got the now bankrupted cradle to the grave trap that put us into a dangerous sleep for 60 years. We must make it happen ourselves. We must look past our ignorance and work out how to govern and feed ourselves. This is why I say don’t call me left and spend time thinking and writing things like this. We have to stop joining in, except as a way to expose how meaningless their promises are because the basis of those promises is built on a lie. We need to stop playing their division game, the anger that their populist politicians channel to divide us is legitimate, but they run its power to ground where it can do their system no harm. This is also the roots of why the idea of empowerment is bunk - if it’s given to you it can be taken away. If it lies within you then you don’t need permission and the idea is meaningless.

The skull beneath capitalism’s skin is a death’s head, and we must see that clearly first.  Or their promises will seem to have some weight, instead of being something not worth bothering with. We have to be our own hope, and not wait to be delivered by some secular messiah or other. The days of waiting are long gone. We are living in times of emergency over climate, and over humanity’s very survival. The Buffets of this world can get in line with the rest of us.

The earlier parts of this collection are about gaining a clear understanding of the world we are forced to live in. A world built on the post hoc legitimisation of theft, violence and lies that has come up against its physical limits and done a mental trick to call those limits externalities. As if labelling them so means we never have to address the ecocide that’s already here. This distortion of reality is so fundamental we don’t see the abundance all around us, and how it was ripped from us before we were born. In a class society the story told by the ruling class to lull us all to sleep does not give us the tools to understand what needs to happen. This holds us still while they carry on. Their view is the one that appears to be how the world goes around, because it’s their world. Despite this the underlying structures are beginning to weaken because things are unsustainable and full of contradictions. Just like the Led Zeppelin song quoted at the beginning of this article, when the levee breaks you have to move, or you will drown. It’s whether we are once again conned into moving to preserve their power, or let it finally be swept away. You can’t have rich without poor, you can’t have obscene wealth without vile poverty. So let’s have neither.

Politicians constantly lying like Johnson, Trump or any number of imitators mentored by the likes of Steve Bannon appears to be a relatively new phenomenon. The thing is, they have always lied to us. The fundamental basis of the systems that we are forced to survive under is a lie. A lie that the theft of labour and resources being funnelled to our owners is somehow egalitarian. The old conceits about laws and rights are nothing more than paper without a way of enforcing them. Enforcing laws and regulations that are supposed to protect us is a choice, and if they don’t choose what are we supposed to do? The state is not neutral, it is not ours, and will not protect us when push comes to shove. This is why we need each other, and we need to work together.

Johnson’s crew are nothing new. The only new thing is that his cohort are just so lazy and entitled, they hold us in such contempt, that they can’t be bothered trying very hard to create a legitimising story. This is also true of the folks that pretend to carry progressive thinking along. If you look at the deeds rather than words of the so-called left of the establishment, they are not here for you and never were. This is why calling yourself left means you’re joining in with their nonsense. There is little common ground in fact.

Plutocrat wealth creates black holes in society that suck resources and monopolise decision making away from the rest of us. We must move away from the peculiar distortions created by this wealth by abolishing it. You often see the phrase tax the rich - but have you thought past this a little? It implies the rich, with their black hole wealth warping and tearing the world - wrecking it for the rest of us, should still exist but be a bit nicer, gee thanks Mr Buffet. The transformative slogan should well be abolish being rich. As in, remove that dangerous distorting power from our owners by removing ownership. It’s a far deeper transformation and much harder to undo.

You see this in our existing political structures. When our owners decide it’s time for the government to change which colour hat it wears - usually to move our anger somewhere safe - you often see the outgoing administration’s flagship initiatives have their funding turned off, or arbitrary announcements for their replacement and cheapening. There is no connection with people’s needs, the services were invented by whichever party just lost power, and can be removed just as easily. Once you have a society built not around parties that tell the same lie in different guises, but around actual needs and love this kind of nonsense goes away. This was one of the things that Blair’s Labour tried to counter by claiming to be evidence based in their policies - but it was still fundamentally telling poor people what to do and cherry picking the evidence. The principle is sound, but the practice was not.

There are no trivially easy solutions or we would have done them already. We need to do things and evaluate them to find out what works. This is why programmes and manifestos are nonsense - they assume things underneath will stay the same and ignore the unstable roots of our society. Transforming the systems and moving ownership to the people who create the wealth will throw up problems our existing systems cannot cope with, they were not designed to cope with them. The old state’s forms are useless, they are built on, and in support of, the violence of ownership. We need to replace it with systems that are built around human needs and desires, rather than the distortions of overbearing wealth, short term profit, and robbery.