Reality doesn’t feel good
We live in truly horrible times. Capitalism is eating us all alive, wealth and resources are being sucked out of the the land and its people at an alarming rate. Indeed, Matt Tiabbi’s Vampire Squid is busy sucking everything the rest of us need even just to survive out of us. Drug companies don’t want you to get better, they want you to survive until the next shot of the palliative they have designed so you can keep pushing at the neoliberal wheel, charities that help the poor treat the symptoms but are legally bound not to go for the cause because that would be political. Bluntly, even if you’re doing alright at the moment, it’s a shit show for the desperate majority. Things are much worse if you live in the global south. In the other half of the globe we can hold on to what little illusion of plenty is left, but even here the inequities are growing and social mobility came to a halt many years ago.
It’s as if life in early 21st century Earth were a game of monopoly where most of us live on a board where every square is charging rent, there are several go to jail squares, and passing go does not give you $200 but instead a hard kick somewhere sensitive that brings tears to the eyes. We’ve been conned into thinking There is no alternative to what we have now.
We’ve also been sold an approach that is nothing more than another commodity at base. That’s how the world we live in now works. Most every solution that gets out there is limited and turned into a way of channelling the anger into places where it can be expressed but not acted upon. The idea of working collectively to solve problems without some wealthy individual holding the purse strings seems odd. Simple solidarity is now a commodity and the concept of caring for others because they are our friends and neighbours is alien. When people try to make something happen a smiling politician will vomit comforting word salad and make it seem alright for five minutes until the chance of change is quietly buried at a cross roads with a stake in its poor heart.
So, give up then? Turn to a life of crime or hedonism and don’t plan on living long? Or call this clear analysis cynical and carry on donating to Oxfam?
Escaping the vampire castle
We live in an abusive relationship. While all the suffering, depredation and rapine goes on our abuser is telling us everything is fine as long as we carry on and do what they say. The reality doesn’t make it into the news bulletins unless it supports the idiot consensus or the current batch of war mongering.
Despite this I don’t believe there is any reason to despair. The first thing you need to to is be clear about how things work. That doesn’t make things hopeless, however. Our owners tore up the post-war consensus that kept us quiet. In the UK there was a cynical phrase from the cradle to the grave, which was the surface promise of the welfare state. It meant abdicating responsibility to our betters, and no-one saw the trap. Our owners already look after themselves from the cradle to the grave, we were supposed to accept their largesse and do what they told us to. The UK’s class-riven society hid itself in a cloak of egalitarianism, but the real power relations never went away. If you watch any documentaries about that period the poshness of most of the accents is very noticeable. We will give you the things you need to survive as long as you shut up and don’t rock the boat.
The key lie we have been sold is scarcity. In fact we live in abundance. The defining feature of capitalism is that it has managed to abolish scarcity. The great wealth some people have comes from this lack of scarcity. What capitalism did was socialise how things were made, but the ownership of the products remained that of the individual capitalist. The wealth and power got funnelled to a very small number of people. However, there are a couple of things that stop the socialisation of ownership this being realised.
- The anarchy of production. I talked about this in the TINA disease. We have warehouses full of fidget spinners and shortages of things we actually need. It doesn’t matter that companies might be very efficient internally, the market makes anarchy, and not the good kind. In the UK Creating markets in services like health, transport, water and power has created decades of under investment, and short-sighted decisions that have ended up costing ridiculous amounts so that share holders can take dividends and pocket subsidies. Behind the neoliberal nonsense about private enterprise being more efficient we see the casino mentality and public bailout we have all come to know and love. This isn’t singing the praises of the old nationalised industries, they were badly run in many cases, new organisational forms with democratic control and accountability will also be needed.
- Distribution for profit. Why do we make enough food for eleven billion people, there are only seven billion of us, and people are starving? Simply, capitalist logic means that food is destroyed so that profit is preserved. We’ve all seen pictures of supermarkets spraying the food they’re about to throw away with bleach to stop people eating it. We need to rid ourselves of this nonsense. It’s not just food, it’s also having equipment that wears out quickly and the cost of repair is more than buying a new one. Food is the most obvious example but there are others, such as housing.
The old Marxists used to say that if we had a planned economy this wouldn’t happen. This was mocked because the systems back in the early 20th century were poor at doing this, and the organisational models uses were centralised ones that removed local autonomy from the decision making processes. The interesting thing now is, if you look at the big supermarkets and distribution networks like Amazon, we have the basis for a planned economy that works very well already. The problems around working with demand and unpredictable changes have been dealt with very successfully. Taking workers’ control and creating democratic accountability wouldn’t be that difficult if the will was there.
So, we have an interesting situation:
- Human needs can easily be met without changing how we do things that much.
- Resolving the anarchy of production will make dealing with the climate crisis much easier and even possible.
It may be rough and difficult, but it’s all very possible. The cynical blaming of individuals will not fix anything, there needs to be a collective response, and it can happen. We live in times where we have been atomised and separated from one another for many years, but things change.
Part of the point of taking these toys away from their owners, by the way, is to make them meet people’s needs even better than they do already. The needs become the why of the organisation instead of profit.
How does change happen
Change comes from different forces in society in conflict with each other producing what eventually gets called history. The somewhat silly view that it’s all great men (and a few women) making decisions that change the world isn’t in fact the case. An individual may be able to shape what happens if they’re in the right place at the right time, but they don’t make those things appear by magic. Opportunities to change things come and go. Laws are only meaningful if someone enforces them.
Cradle to the grave is long over. The old complacency is being beaten out of us by people with very short memories who forget they are a tiny minority. It’s deeply sad that the forces that will cause change, the material conditions, are built on human suffering, but there’s nothing we can do about that in the macrocosm. In the microcosm there’s nothing stopping you working with charities, or campaigning to prevent health service cuts. How else to start rebuilding the sense of solidarity? How else to help people realise who actually has the power and they don’t need to ask permission?
Do things but with your eyes open. If someone seems ready to engage then engage. Remember that a clear eyed view of how society works puts you at odds with the consensus. Acting like you’re from Mars won’t win anyone over. Remember the old saying that most people need to hear something several times from different sources before they might start to change their minds. Be the person that lives on the other side of this as best you can and work in solidarity with others. Demonstrate what democracy actually looks like.
New structures and ways of doing things should come from the people who need them. For example, when Iraq fell, the local people elected their own councils and started to govern themselves. The first thing the US invaders did was remove these councils and appoint people they knew would toe their line. This is why the Iraqi government, and the now defunct Afghan one, have no legitimacy. They didn’t come from the people they rule over and the change was forced upon them. Without the participation of people who know what they need and why structures have no legitimacy. This is why the war lords started doing their own thing – it was the only way to ensure they had a voice. This is the irony of how the UK is governed: everybody knows a government that has a thumping majority and yet no mandate is illegitimate and nobody knows how to fix it.
I can see we need to create co-ops for housing and health that go around the politicians and leave us in control. They need to be structured so speculators can’t buy them and use them to screw people over. The old top down structures based on city councils are too easily broken and sold off to spivs and speculators. I have no idea how you would do this, and that’s fine. It would only be a start. The same goes for food autonomy and other things I think are necessary and important, other people might not agree.
There is no point in having a detailled programme worked out to every line. That’s a recipe for paralysis. The new ways of doing things will come from doing them, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, just what people find when they look. The key thing is to take initiative, and not be blinded by the old way of doing things. Please, no more calling for or demands for the useless political class. We need to take back control, but properly, this time. We need to go around the existing structures that are designed to stop us and demonstrate they are in fact a pantomime irrelevance and have been for a very long time.