Why I am not an anti-capitalist and why it shouldn’t matter

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.

5 reasons being right doesn’t matter in politics

I think I've now heard critique of the 'We', the 'Are', the 'The' and the '99%' bits of this slogan. Maybe those critics were right...

One reason for the fractiousness of Britain’s extra-parliamentary left (slightly redundant hyphenated word there but some people are still confused enough to think Labour is a left party so it needs to be said) and presumably the left in most places in the world is, ironically, that many people are obsessed with being RIGHT.

This is not a problem that I imagine afflicts, say, David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch. They couldn’t give a toss who is right, they just want to achieve certain things and they’re usually pretty good at it. Now I don’t want to argue that lefties should stop trying to be right in order to compete with our Bastards In Chiefs, but I think there are other reasons to not focus so strongly on being right.

1. But really, how far does it get you? Jesus was right and look what happened to him. Being right doesn’t win you any friends, or any battles, or any resources. It won’t keep you warm at night, or if it does only from the strength of the moral glow within you. For sure it won’t keep anyone else warm at night and if you care about the poor getting heating that should matter.

2. Being right is good for our egos but our egos won’t take us far. You can be right but boring, right but self-denying, right but self-righteous, right but too angry, right but inarticulate, or right but alone. What matters in each of those combinations is not the ‘right’ bit I’m afraid. The moral glow isn’t too attractive and alone you are powerless. It’s not that you shouldn’t make your arguments, but if being right makes you push away potential allies it probably isn’t all its cracked up to be.

3. It’s very difficult to escape the mental structures of Christian traditions. People’s conviction of ‘rightness’ often combines the worst aspects of religion and individualism. It relies on both absolute belief and on you self-definining yourself as different from others. The result is that many people end up belonging to a cult with one member. Even when the cult is a bit bigger than that, it becomes very difficult in our individualistic age for it to grow into a full scale proper religion, even if you consider such a thing desirable.

4. You probably don’t really believe what you do on the basis of evidence. Political ‘truths’ sometimes have a basis in the real world but the important ones establish themselves socially. They become more significant not according to their ‘rightness’ but according to how many people share them and how they share them. Most people participate in such ‘movements’ not on the basis of evidence but because it ‘feels’ right – and if you had any honesty you’d know that’s the real reason you do too.

5. All that really matters in politics is getting people to act together. Contrary to what many people think this does not mean getting them to believe the same things. It means creating and promoting temporary alignments of interest in order to generate the power necessary to change things. This can be done without ever once proving how right you are. I don’t mean you should never argue for what you believe in, only that the arguing is not the point, it’s the people you’re arguing with who are.

Travel reports: Evo’s Road

Asking people in Bolivia what they think of Evo Morales, the current president, turns out to be less interesting than I thought it would be. In the past the country was very divided on the question of the country’s first indigenous president. There is a long history of deep racism in Bolivia and many people hate Evo for who he is – a man from a poor indigenous background. The racism here turns out to not be purely about skin colour but also about culture. Many self-described ‘mestizos’ have a high percentage of indigenous blood but if they behave in an appropriately European manner they can be forgiven. Evo was a poor llama farmer and coca grower (and as a kid he sold bottles of soda to bus passengers) and to many mestizos you don’t get much less civilised than that.

Meanwhile Evo was swept to power on a tide of grass-roots – mainly indigenous – activism that twice in the last ten years brought the country entirely to a halt. He and his party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) have implemented some important changes in Bolivia, including outlawing discrimination and changing the constitution of the country to ensure indigenous people can never again be excluded quite so totally as they were in the past. He has also defended coca farmers against the US war on drugs, and although he is not the rampant socialist many of his opponents claim, he has forced gas and oil companies to hand over much higher revenues and used the money for important improvements in education, infrastructure and other necessities.

But I read an interesting thing about MAS before arriving: that it does not have many connections with the broader social movements in Bolivia. It was designed as an implement for placing indigenous people into the formerly pale national elite, and this it has successfully done. It is a party then that depends not on grass-roots support but on wooing the electorate like any other party. And while it has worked to make structural changes to Bolivian politics, it has always worked to ensure its own place in the structure.

Now we come to why it was so boring to ask people about Evo. About a year ago, in a move seemingly from nowhere, Evo cut the government’s subsidy on fuel. Prices shot up overnight, not just on fuel but on food and every other essential item, some prices almost doubling. Overnight, Evo made the poor people who voted for him poorer. Admittedly he made the rich poorer too, and you can argue that a subsidy that helps the rich is ‘inefficient’, but the people who voted for Evo could not afford those rises. There were massive streets protests and eventually Evo backed down and reinstated subsidies. The prices however stayed where they were. For this one mistake it is now difficult to imagine Evo being re-elected. He managed to piss off everyone in the country at once and anyone you ask about Evo will give the same answer: he screwed us. He may have done some good, but then he screwed us. Or from the middle class: he was an ignorant peasant and then he screwed us.

So why did he cut the fuel subsidy? Evo’s claim that he didn’t want to subsidise fuel smuggling sounded a bit weak. Was it because, as in Nigeria, IMF economists decided it was an ‘inefficient’ subsidy? But it seems it wasn’t even outside pressure that did it, or not directly. Allegedly the reason Evo cut subsidies was because of falling private investment in the state oil and gas company. That is, he did it to please international finance.

The MAS project has been a success, but what type of success is this? In the short term you can get some changes by putting new people into the elite. Reportedly this government works till 8pm at night where previous governments worked until 4pm. They are serious about changing things. But in the long run, as many people in the United States have discovered, it doesn’t much matter what colour your president is. He’s still the president. It is his role that is the problem, target as it is for everyone who already has money and power. It seems a shame that the architects of MAS didn’t think about flattening the elite rather than entering it, that they didn’t try to move power from the government to the grass-roots movements who supported them. Perhaps some of the people within MAS itself may begin to regret it too if they lose the next election.

In the satirical Bolivian film ‘Who Killed The Little White Llama?’, the narrator talks about Evo Morales only once, while standing in the middle of a typical unpaved Bolivian road. “Evo Morales is a first class president,” he says. “While we travel on these roads, he flies first class.”

At the Poachers Arms: large scale organising

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

It was a Saturday night in the Poachers Arms and the local screamo revival trio Meaningless Fucking Meaning were dominating the ambience of the pub from the occasional stage in the corner alcove beside the fireplace.

Regulars and visitors filled every square inch of breathable space and the bar staff moved around constantly and quickly, making eye contact only with the customer of the moment.

I took my pint of Colonel Despard and squeezed and bounced myself to the garden door. The garden, which is a different shape each time you go there, was yard-like today and filled with people. The noise of human speech, loud as a flock of gulls was, at least somewhat quieter than the rendition of Aristocratic Corpse Longings from behind me.

“I hear the neighbours have called in a complaint,” said the Blairite man standing next to me.

“It’s only for one night,” I said. “I don’t think people should never be inconvenienced by other people.”

“Maybe they’ve got kids,” said the Blairite.

“And maybe they can’t resist using the apparatus of local government to their advantage even though they bitch about the council tax 364 days of the year.”

“A bit late for political talk isn’t it?” said the Blairite (who I had not yet discovered was a Blairite).

“Nonsense,” said a woman in front of us, spinning around. “If you can’t support your political views with four pints inside you then you don’t believe them. Take me. I’m an anarchist and I’ve had six pints and I can still explain that anarchy doesn’t mean chaos but organisation of society without structural violence.”

“I’m a Blairite,” said the Blairite. “But I’ve had three pints and I can’t explain it.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “No one could. This is my first and I have no clue how you could begin to explain it.”

“But I will say,” said the Blairite, “That I don’t think it would be possible to do without the state. If only because some violent minority would get in charge.”

“Very different from now,” said the woman, her eyebrows raised.

“Touche,” said the Blairite.

“But I know what you mean,” I said to him. “I think the existence of the weapons we have now means that you need large scale organisation, if only to ensure the nutters don’t end up in charge. And you need organisation to move resources around the planet in a useful way too.”

“See, a state,” said the Blairite.

“That’s a failure of imagination,” I said, taking a sip of Despard. “Why does large scale organisation have to look like a state? It could be completely different in form, in mandate, in principles…”

“And would your hypothetical organisation mediate disputes between neighbours on noise levels?” asked the Blairite.

“Who knows?” I said. “Who cares? I can sure as hell imagine one that wouldn’t randomly start wars in Middle Eastern countries.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said the woman.

The Blairite hesitantly raised his glass, almost looking over his shoulder as though to check that his friends weren’t watching. “Me too.”

At the Poacher’s Arms: on progress and tedium

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

Last night I found it beside a small railway station on top of a hill. I joined another regular at the bar and ordered a Lochyloch single malt whisky to start the night off. Macy the barwoman poured me a double shot for the price of a single and when I thanked her she looked offended and informed me it wouldn’t happen again.

I got talking to the Regular about this and that, and someone he knew who had once sat on a spiked iron railing and slightly lacerated some essential parts of his digestive system and had afterwards said it was the most interesting thing to happen in his life. I could see his point, I said, ignoring the snigger at the unintentional pun. The Regular couldn’t, and claimed that boredom was a disease, especially when the world was becoming a better place.

“Is it?” I said.

“You can see the data,” he said.

“That depends partly on what you choose to measure,” I said.

“Infant mortality is falling across the world.”

“But,” I pointed out, “It’s not a good measure because billions of dollars have been poured into precisely getting that figure down. It doesn’t mean people’s lives have improved in other ways.”

“But our standard of living has improved,” said Macy.

“For some people, in some places,” I said. “But inequality increased in Britain all through the Labour years. In the meantime things having been happening that are difficult to pick up in the data.”

“Like what?” said the Regular.

“Like a shift in power to concentrations of corporations and a shift in thinking funded by those with the money. I think this means things are going to get worse for most people in most countries for a good couple of decades. What’s happening now is a new thing. It will be hard to stop.”

“What do you think we can do about it?” said the Regular. I know his views on politics. He doesn’t think it a good use of his time. With which I don’t entirely disagree. It isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.

But Macy broke in, “People’s lives are full of other things. Full of the everyday things we have to do. Work, going food shopping, all that stuff we don’t get any choice about.”

“And people will do what they are motivated to do,” said the Regular.

“So we leave it to the people motivated by money to run the world?” I said.

“We’ve got lives to live,” said Macy.

I downed the Lochyloch – a waste of good whisky but I had to fortify myself for a boring speech – and said “But this specialisation is what dooms us. Your job is pulling the pints and changing the barrels. Their job is making millions of pounds and they fuck up the world. The compartmentalisation of roles is screwing us. In the meantime those few people have formed a very effective power bloc and the only way I can see to break it is for the many people with little power to unite against them.”

“But in the end it’s about changing the terms of the debate,” said the Regular.

Macy absent-mindedly poured me another Lochyloch as I said, “In a way, but that isn’t just a matter of persuasion. You have to exert power. You think the directors who got 50% payrises last year while our wages stayed static and lost out to inflation can be ‘persuaded’ things should be done differently? The organisation of power against those in charge and changing the terms of debate are one and the same thing.”

“I get off at 12,” said Macy. “I don’t know what to do to change anything, and I need to be in bed by 1am cos my next shift is at 11am tomorrow.”

“I don’t know what to do to change it either,” I said. “None of us do yet. We’ve got to talk about it.”

“And talk and talk and talk and talk,” said a voice to my right. I turned to see another of the Poachers Arms regulars. “God you three are boring. Can’t a man have a drink in peace? I’m going to order a pint of anthrax to kill myself in a minute if you lot don’t stop.”

I raised my glass. “To the end of tedium,” I said. “Especially mine.”

We clinked glasses.

At the Poachers Arms: growing numbers

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

The other day I found it operating from – of all places – the north wall of St Paul’s Cathedral. I ordered myself a pint of Winstanley and watched through the doorway some hippies being friendly to police officers. A man sitting next to me introduced himself and we fell to talking about large-scale organising for a different political system that would give us more control over our lives.

Within moments he admitted to being a ‘Blairite’, a crime for which he seemed unrepentant, but this was the Poachers Arms so I made no comment. In the true Blairite tradition he said he thought that left and right needed to unite in order to change the world.

I suggested that if he meant the promoters of right wing ideology who used their money and power to impose their self-interested ideas on others then I could not join him in his quest for global unity, but if he meant Daily Mail readers then actually I agreed. We then had a discussion about whether you could divide the rich from the comfortable working class or middle class at some particular level of income and decided that you couldn’t. I pointed out that there are, however, reasons why particular people, including powerful people and even those on low incomes, will always support the status quo. It was important to understand, I suggested, that there would have to be movement without having everyone on board.

This bothered him a little, as though he, like the hippies outside, thought that the whole world could sing together in harmony. He didn’t want to pursue the matter though, instead taking a sip of his pint of Cromwell and gazing around for a moment until he hit on a new topic.

My new friend seemed worried about one particular idea he had heard doing the rounds: the idea of bringing other people into the ‘movement’ for change. This was too much like conversion for his liking, and I agreed.

“People will join in large numbers if and when they feel pissed off enough,” I said. “I don’t think there’s much point in trying to persuade them to take action before then.”

“Ok, that’s good,” he said, “Because I was starting to feel a religious vibe around here.”

“I do think that people experimenting with politics right now, without mass support, are important,” I said. “When more people are tired of being made poorer, they will be joining a core of people who already have experience organising.”

“As long as the education process isn’t going one way,” he said.

“Since those people active in politics in this country hasn’t brought about a new world lately,” I said, “I think that everyone needs to learn from each other.”

He raised his glass in agreement. I drained mine and left. Outside the Poachers Arms the police officers were stopping and searching a homeless man.