Are 'correct' belief systems really necessary or good as a framework for organising?
We live in a large scale society where the tendency to dehumanise those you cannot see and will never meet is ever-present. It is a society that tends to attach a financial and financial return value to everything, including the life of, say, a peasant farmer in Laos. And you. In polite circles this is done indirectly, but the City of London is not polite circles and there it is done pretty openly. It is part of a wider system in which those values are propagated.
“Aha,” says a reader, “You are referring, Mr ‘Contact’, if that is your real name, to capitalism, and you are presumably an anti-capitalist.” Except I’m not, and I’ll try to explain why, if only because I told a friend I’d write a post on it months ago.
The point is not that I like capitalism. I am neither pro or anti capitalism because I am not sure of the concept of ‘capitalism’ itself, so I would not want to define myself by it. I would be willing to say I am against something I feel I can point to more easily, say, unnecessary human cruelty. But that pits me against Roman gladiatorial displays and its descendant X-factor, as well as against our current economic systems. I am happy to be against feeding people to lions and X-factor, but that can hardly define my whole political position, nor would I want it to. But I do not think that a more complex and complete political position can be outlined by defining myself against a more complex concept. It does not really add the level of nuance and complexity I think is needed if we want to try to create systemic changes.
The bad things (and let’s define that as unnecessary cruelty and cruel situations, for the sake of argument) happening in the world today strike me as on the one hand very basic, and not greatly different from processes that happened under the deeply non-capitalist Genghiz Khan, and on the other hand very complex, shot through with everything from historical currents, through cultural oddities, to bodily functions. I do not feel I am in a position to say – and I do not think anyone is in a position to say – that one current of activity (whether you call it capitalisation, commodification or something else), or one conceptualisation of that activity, has a defining, let alone a totalising, role in the systems we see.
This brings me onto my problem with Marxian thought, and why I have never been a Marxist. It isn’t just that I disagree with parts of it (the poor historical method, the psuedo-scientific differing definitions of ‘value’, for instance – much of it creates an air of scientific authority around what is essentially a narrative – dialectical? – and inaccurate description of history), or that I think his failure to analyse power outside of the concept of ‘class relations’ did leave the door open to authoritarian uses of his work. It is that Marxism is the wrong type of theory for me. It is an enlightenment theory that attempts to give a ‘true’ picture of the world. Once we grasp this truth the world becomes an understandable place, and we know the right action to take.
This contrasts with my position, which is not that ‘there is no truth’ or some straw man position of absolute relativism, but that we can only catch glimpses of what we might semi-seriously call the ‘real world’. We can come closer to understanding the world than before, but it will not be through grand models or revelations of the ‘truth’ but through incremental changes in our understanding and through constructing multiple models from multiple viewpoints.
There are various ways of explaining why I hold to this model of discovery rather than the enlightenment model, but as a short-hand let’s say that we communicate our ideas about the world in language, and language does not map to the real world. All our attempts to describe the world are therefore heavily compromised from the outset, particularly when addressing social problems. Less social problems like the trajectories of sub-atomic particles can be dealt with through tight definition (albeit ultimately unfounded) but social problems cannot use this method because they must either use the fuzzily defined language of everyday life or re-define, and so separate their language from everyday life, diminishing their power to reflect everyday discourse and life. You can, for instance, define the idea of a ‘working class’ with objectively aligned interests within a model, but I think it a big mistake to believe this idea is something that actually exists in the world.
I am suspicious too of the desire to create a coherent and defining view of the world because I do not believe the world is coherent; I certainly don’t believe it is black and white. Despite Marx’s attempt to remove moral disapproval from his modelling, to many people ‘capital’ is the devil. For myself, I do not believe in the devil. I know that many people would say he’s just pulled a good trick on me, but I think there is a certain religiously-tinged paranoia, not to say egotism, in believing that ‘capital’, as a coherent set of social relations, exists. I may feel like a target sometimes, but not of anything so coherent as ‘capital’. In as far as we have a ‘system’ on this planet, I see no reason to believe it has coherence in the way many people attribute to it.
The ‘system’ contains within it, I think, many things that we have so far failed to define, some of which we will never define, mixed in with various things we try to define, some of which can be picked on as a source of evil (the commodity form, say) within a certain worldview. I think we should discuss and talk about those ideas. But we should not pretend to have an understanding we don’t have. Some systemic features that exist today were present in feudalism, or the Roman Empire, and had other names then. Some aspects we see today will exist in the future, when no-one at all can cling on to the idea that capitalism exists. While I think we can improve our knowledge, I suspect our global systems are too complex to be defined by particular features at any given moment in time.
This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to understand where I find myself or the details of the system in which I live. I just don’t think I’ll ever know it well enough to attach a name – capitalism – to a set of defined things and say “That’s what I’m against.” To call yourself ‘anti-capitalist’ you presumably have to have decided that the economic worldview Marx outlined (or some correction offered by one of his followers) is essentially correct, and that deliberately opposing this is the way forward. To me a confidence that you know the right things to be against within a system you do not fully understand is a danger sign. You begin to look something like the US Military in Iraq, convinced they knew what they are doing, walking with certainty into disaster.
What’s more, while I might learn things from a Marxian perspective, I do not think I should constantly overlay my subjective experience with some supposedly objective framework [Note: some people have said to me in response to this that Marx isn’t seeking to reveal truth, he’s being dialectical man, meaning I think that his claims are attempts to change the world, which is fine but (a) I wish most Marxists understood he was not preaching the gospel and (b) that only shifts the truth claim to the claim that you’ve found the right weapon – and I don’t think dialectics or Marx’s models are all that]. That is why I talked about the notion of being against cruelty. It is an emotional reaction to the world (one of many a person might have) and I am more likely to give weight to this reaction than to any ideological construction, even if I find that construction useful. I dislike X-factor not because it is attempting to draw me into a mass consumer experience for the sake of advertising revenue, although that is one way of viewing it. I prefer to hate it for being a cruelty-fest of the type that rears its head constantly throughout history. If any ideology failed to eliminate cruelty in its mindset, I would discard the ideology long before my dislike of cruelty.
I have had people get annoyed with me when I described their Marxian ideas as ‘an interesting point of view’. But that’s exactly how I see those ideas and how I know I will always see them, no matter how much Marx or marxian thought I read, and no matter if I see the M-C-M circulatory form, or some other marxian concept, as useful sometimes. The notion of ‘capitalism’ itself is to me a particular viewpoint, so I am unlikely to use the concept in anything more than a casual sense. It is not a ‘true’ description of the world against which I would be willing to define myself.
The question people often ask now is, in the absence of a shared ideological framework, how do we create collective action? But this is an odd question. I think most collective action happens in the absence of a shared ideological framework. People unite around particular things for wildly differing reasons, even when they are claiming to be ideologically united. I suspect that leftist organising would often be more effective if it gave up on the notion of ideological unity and instead united around campaigns to improve the conditions of people’s lives. We might regard all aspects of political organising as encounters in which we all learned about the world, rather than a chance to express our beliefs.
Now it’s true that your viewpoint on the world affects the actions you may wish to take – this was visible in the division between ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ in Occupy camps – but in the end I suspect that ‘radical’ action will only ever come out of desperation for change. The arguments we have amongst those of us who do not have that desperation are probably more important as social interactions than as deciders of the future. Moments of change will happen despite the ideologies and despite the arguments over how change should be brought about. Our ideas can influence those moments a little but will probably be relegated to the position of a mouse pushing against the tiller of a great ship.
To put it another way, even when people rallied under the banner of Marxian thought, I think it was more the wish to improve their lives that brought them together, not the ideology itself. The use of ideological rhetoric as a social glue to hold these campaigns together has a mixed record, to say the least. I do not think that polishing up the ideology a bit – making it anti-hierarchical, say – will make ideology a better uniting force. For myself, and I suspect for a lot of people inclined towards leftist ideas but not active in politics, it would be preferable to find some other way of creating the social cohesion necessary to help us act together.
Finally, the discussions about how the world works and how we should react to it are important, but if what is radical is what brings change, then we should admit we do not know what is radical yet. It may turn out that being ‘anti-capitalist’ is not the position that will force a big change in economic and social relations but something else entirely, some position or campaign we do not yet know and have not yet imagined.
ENDNOTE on editing post 03/11/2013: I wrote this a while ago and now feel I missed at trick in not noting that, while it is easier to unite people against something than for something, it is not necessarily the most politically productive way to proceed. I think I avoided the point because so many people have asked of anti-capitalists “But what are you FOR?” and they have always reserved the right to define themselves by what they are against, or to answer the question with ‘revolution’, or some similarly ill-defined term. I used to have a tolerance for this because it is important to begin to resist and difficult to work out where to go next, but I am less tolerant of it now because I think it ignores something really obvious in using the term ‘anti-capitalist’. To people who get their food and homes and holidays under what we might call ‘capitalism’, to be against it is to be against their quality of life – unless, that is, you offer a viable alternative. How can you hope to build a popular movement if you promise to take away people’s livelihoods without explaining how you will replace them? It takes a certain type of fervour to want to do that and I’m glad most people don’t have it.
It is not the big leaders to whom we need to offer concrete demands and plans, it is the people around us – our friends and parents and colleagues. This is who we have to organise with and it’s very difficult to engage with most of them on the basis of saying ‘this is all crap and here’s why’, dismissing those who don’t believe our framework as being not radical. It leaves so little room for discussing what alternatives WE see as feasible, for dealing with the moment we are in, so little room for developing the future with the people standing in front of us. As for theory, it’s not that we don’t need it, but I feel that we should frame the world through communication with those around us, with a bit of help from theory, rather than framing the world primarily through theory. For me the right balance is to relegate theory to a place where it does not define my position and that is why I cannot be an anti-capitalist.
Possibly this last paragraph makes all my other arguments redundant.