An older favourite
Category Archive: Personal politics
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“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 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. 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.
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.
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.
So the welfare state can be attacked for being ideologically incorrect (those people don’t ‘deserve’ their benefits because wealth belongs to the individuals who earn it) or it can be attacked for being technically incorrect, because it is a strange mix of ideological construct and technical fix. It can – and probably should – be defended on ideological grounds of course, but that has become more difficult in a world where the whole mainstream debate has shifted rightwards. It can also be defended on technical capitalism-saving grounds but today’s capitalists seem to be too dumb to do that.
However, while I might lean strongly towards the social point of view I still find the ‘right to the collectively produced wealth’ argument to be something of a technical, abstract argument. I think the notion of shared wealth is important but I’m not sure it is the only basis for defending the welfare state. I also think it is important to develop arguments for the welfare state that do not depend on a particular ideological view of the world.
For me the case for the welfare state can be made on a very personal level. Why do I choose to support the welfare state? Why do I hate this government’s attacks upon it? Put simply: my sympathy for people leads me to defend the welfare state. I feel strongly that people should be cared for, and the weaker they are the more they need help. In a society with poor community links the state sometimes has to step in to do that. I know that we live in an economic system largely uninterested in caring for people and so I am happy that some small part of the system can make minor amends for that.
That’s it. I realise it’s not a sophisticated argument, but it carries a lot more weight with me than any ideology does, however ‘right’ it may be. It might sound like something of a ‘liberal’ position to some people but actually liberals also tend to defend welfare on functional grounds. Never have I heard a liberal on a news debate saying what I want to say: I think our world is not caring enough. Not only do I hate attacks on welfare, I think we should go much further. I think we should ask how to embed love and care in all our institutions, or ask what institutions would have to look like to embed love and care within them.
The argument over whether welfare ‘works’ or whether people are getting their ‘fair share’ seems irrelevant to me compared to my desire to see people cared for. I suspect that many other people feel the same. Why is it so hard to just say that we want a kinder world? Does kindness seem ‘unrealistic’? If so, we should think hard about why, and think about how we can change people’s ideas of what is realistic.
There are reasons to still make the shared wealth arguments: to explain why we tax, and to avoid the idea of welfare as charity. But I think if we moved towards being prepared to defend the welfare state on simple empathic grounds, rather than constantly having to refer to some big theoretical framework to ‘justify’ our position, we might find the welfare state easier to defend.