Posts Tagged ‘Anarchism’

Intellectual Graffiti

March 9, 2018

I love graffiti, and I don’t just mean the pretty, artistic stuff. I especially love the really rough, nasty scrawls that cover some urban environments. I love graffiti because it is, in its purest form, the cry of the oppressed and powerless, the voice of the unheard. Typically it’s produced by people who have been born into poverty, denied a decent education, denied employment opportunities, abused and neglected, and generally treated like scum. These people are told that they are nothing, that their lives are worthless, and that they have no right to complain. When they produce graffiti they are saying, ‘I exist. I am not nothing. I too am human. I too have thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams. Do not ignore me. Do not tell me that I am scum.’ Or to put it more succinctly they are saying ‘Fuck you!’ to a brutal society.

Under capitalism graffiti is a crime, but it’s fine for companies to plaster advertisements for their products all over the urban environment, whether people want them there or not. It’s fine for companies to try to convince people that their lives are inadequate – that they look and smell wrong, that their cars, homes, electronic gadgets, holiday destinations, and so on, are out of date and contemptible – and that this inadequacy can only be addressed by buying the appropriate products. It’s fine for capitalists to manipulate and degrade us but it’s wrong for oppressed people to express themselves in the only way left to them. Advertising is the voice of the oppressors; graffiti is the voice of the oppressed. There’s more honesty and humanity in one unintelligible scrawl on a block of concrete than there is in a million advertisements.

This writing of mine is simply another form of graffiti. Call it intellectual graffiti, if you like, scrawled on the great electronic wall of the internet. I too have been told, from an early age, that I’m worthless, that I’m scum, but I too wish to say that I exist, that I am not nothing. And I too choose the power and safety of anonymity, because periodically I have to beg capitalists to exploit me in return for a pittance to live on. If those capitalists did a quick search and found what I’ve written they may be less likely to see me as a suitable candidate for exploitation. So instead I put on a tie and a smile, and bow my head with humility, and tell them how much I’d love to be exploited by them, all the while screaming inside.

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The Illusion of Democracy

February 19, 2018

We in the capitalist West are told that we live in democracies, but is this really the case? Consider the three main social institutions that we encounter during our lives, and in which we spend most of our time: the family, school, work. Surely if we live in a democratic society these three institutions must themselves be democratic? So is the family democratic? No, children are required to obey their parents. Are schools democratic? No, children are required to obey their teachers. Is work democratic? No, the workers are required to obey their managers. So where is this fabled democracy? It’s an illusion.

Capitalist societies are, by necessity, not democratic but oligarchic; that is to say, they have a ruling elite. Capitalism is an economic system in which a minority (the capitalists) own and control the wealth and the majority (the working class) do the work which creates that wealth. Since most of our lives are dedicated to work, or preparation for work, and work is undemocratic, capitalism is essentially undemocratic. Insofar as there are democratic elements in a capitalist society this is because the working class has organised, campaigned, protested, and disobeyed, until they have won concessions from the capitalists.

Western capitalism has a broad ruling elite: politicians, business executives, media executives, senior civil servants, judges, senior academics, police chiefs, army chiefs, and so on. Together they control the wealth and wield the power of society. Most members of the elite are appointed by the elite itself, not elected. The few that are elected stand as members of political parties offering a set of policies that voters must accept or reject as a package. If voters don’t like what’s on offer there’s nowhere else to go. Western capitalist societies are not democracies, they are partially elective oligarchies.

As society in general is oligarchic it’s no surprise that the family, schools and workplaces follow this pattern and have their own miniature oligarchies, their own petty little ruling elites: parents, teachers, managers, who jealously guard their power and punish disobedience. Since we are all raised, live and work in hierarchical, authoritarian institutions it’s no surprise that we come to think this is the natural way for human beings to live, that there is no alternative, and that we must perpetuate this way of life. But there is a real, humane alternative: direct democracy.

An example of a democratic workplace is the worker cooperative, where the workers jointly own the business and democratically manage it. The workers regularly meet to discuss and vote on company policy; they elect committees to deal with specialist matters; they form panels to mediate in workplace disputes, rather than leaving judgement to the whim of managers; they are all entitled to an equal share of the company’s profits; and they all have an equal voice in deciding how to spend the company’s budget. From this the workers get a greater feeling of personal worth, power and commitment.

A democratic school is run by an assembly of all staff and students, where everyone has the right to speak, everyone has one equal vote, and school rules are decided. Positions of authority – teaching, pastoral, administrative, maintenance – may be elected by the assembly and scrutinised by it. Disputes in the school are addressed by a panel of staff and students rather than leaving judgement to the whim of individual teachers. The school day is designed to suit the children rather than the teachers, and the children learn by following their own curiosity rather than having a curriculum imposed on them. From this the children get a greater feeling of personal worth, power and commitment.

Making the family more democratic is an interesting problem: expanding it would probably help. The nuclear family is a deeply hierarchical, authoritarian institution, since it hides parents and children away in their homes, where parents are allowed to dictate all aspects of the children’s lives and the children have no one to appeal to if they object. It’s considered deeply impolite to enquire into or comment on the way that other people raise their children. Parents are encouraged to believe that they have a right to raise their children as they see fit, regardless of the preferences of the children, and to threaten and punish them if they disobey.

If children were raised in larger groups of people, with a group of adults taking care of their children together, and older children helping to care for younger children, there would be less opportunity for individual parents to tyrannise their children. The children would have other adults and children to appeal to in family disputes. The larger group would foster the view that children are distinct members of society, with rights and responsibilities of their own, not the property of their parents to do with as they wish.

Creating the situation in which childcare is collective is not so easy, as housing is designed to keep families, and people in general, separate from each other. The last thing the ruling elite wants is strong communities with people who help and support each other, as that would threaten their power, so they make sure to build housing that isolates us all in our own little units with no social spaces. The rulers want us all isolated and struggling alone, so that we are kept ignorant, anxious and obedient. Ideally they want us to be working, buying things, or sleeping, and training our children to do the same.

One possible solution to this problem would be the housing cooperative, in which housing is owned and managed by a democratic association of residents. Anything that brings residents into greater contact with each other, creating a sense of common purpose, and engaging them in debate and decision-making, is likely to relieve the pressure of living in isolated families. If only the people in each neighbourhood knew and trusted each other, they could pool their skills and resources in order to provide mutual aid and support.

I don’t say that democratisation is easy – if it were we’d already be doing it – but it is worth trying. For most of human history we lived as hunter-gatherers, with common property, collective childcare, equal work and democratic decision-making. We evolved to be democratic, so we should be able to do it again if we really want to. The starting point is a change in individual attitudes. The more people become aware that society doesn’t have to be so deeply hierarchical and authoritarian, that there is a democratic, egalitarian alternative, the sooner we can start building a better world.

Lazy Bastards

October 2, 2017

Sometimes the state of the world can make us feel hopeless. What can any of us really do to change things for the better? Well, we can start by joining a trade union and a socialist or left-leaning party. We can contribute a little of our time and money to the cause of social justice. But there is also a simpler approach that we can alternate with the more active approach. We can simply do less. We can even spend some time doing nothing at all. We can individually defy an unjust system by refusing to accept its values and by refusing to give it our best efforts.

Capitalism is utterly dependent on people turning up to work, producing lots of goods and services, and spending the money they earn, and the little free time they get, on consuming those goods and services. The more time we spend producing and consuming the more we are exploited by the capitalists, the greater the profits they make from our efforts, and the more power they have over us. The more time we avoid producing and consuming the less we are exploited, the weaker the capitalists become, and the freer we are.

Think of the great variety of goods and services available to us, if we have the money: all the food, drinks, clothing, housing, furniture, electronic gadgets, personal grooming products, cars, travel destinations, television channels, and so on. Most of it is completely unnecessary. We could be perfectly healthy and happy with much less stuff. In fact we would be healthier and happier. Human beings are social creatures with powerful imaginations and our happiness lies in human interactions and creative self-expression, not in doing as we’re told by the powers-that-be and greedily consuming whatever we can get our hands on. All the consumer products simply distract us from what really matters and make us feel inadequate if we don’t possess the latest fashionable item.

The advertising industry, and the media in general, exist to make us all feel shit about ourselves, to feel hopeless and impotent, and to convince us that we’d be happy if only we had the latest clothing or mobile phone, or whatever crap they’re trying to sell us this time. Our desires are twisted to generate profits for the capitalists. In order to earn the money to buy all this shit we are forced to work for capitalist employers, giving them the opportunity to exploit our labours twice over, when we produce the goods and services and when we consume them.

Hard work is the ultimate moral virtue under capitalism, for obvious reasons. The more time we spend working, and the harder we work, the more exploited we are, the more exhausted we become, and the less energy we have to examine or challenge the society in which we live. The harder we all work the weaker we are and the stronger the capitalists become. Exhaustion and apathy make us easier to oppress and exploit.

But the more we slack off, laze around, take a break, and shoot the breeze, the weaker the capitalists become. People who don’t work, or don’t work hard, are doing us all a favour. They’re undermining the capitalist system that imprisons us all, they’re consuming less of the earth’s precious and dwindling resources, they’re generating less of the pollution that poisons us all, and they’re reducing the amount of conflict in the world by refusing to join in the selfish competition for commodities and social status.

Busy people are the ones who cause all the problems in this world. Busy people consume lots of energy, lots of goods and services, they consume the earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate, they generate more pollution, and they cause competition for resources that leads to conflict and war. If the human race ever dies out it will be the busy people who push us over the edge. Only the lazy bastards can save humanity.

Hierarchy

October 1, 2017

Hierarchy is a despicable thing, whether it’s in the family, schools, workplaces, the state or anywhere else. It’s despicable that anyone wants power over other people. The only legitimate power is power over one’s own life, the power to choose one’s own principles, activities and relationships. The desire to control others is a type of sickness. If people are satisfied with their own lives then they will put all their energy into living those lives and feel no desire to control others. If people do feel the desire to control others then there is clearly something lacking in their own lives, some frustration, some feeling of powerlessness, which they are attempting to compensate for by controlling others.

Why on earth would anyone want to tell other people how to live? We might want to give advice and make suggestions, to persuade or encourage. Which is fine, in moderation. But what pleasure is there in shaping other people to meet our own preferences? How does that make our own lives any better or more fulfilling? What have we personally achieved when we force someone else to serve our needs and desires? Surely the only way we can ever be satisfied with our own existence is if we concentrate on making the most of our own lives rather than interfering with the lives of others.

I despise anyone who wants power over others and I also despise anyone who wants others to have power over them. I feel contempt for people who want to rise up the hierarchy and I feel contempt for people who willingly obey the hierarchy. William Hazlitt said that some people love having power and that makes them tyrants, while others admire powerful people and that makes them slaves. I couldn’t agree more.

I have no problem with organisation in itself. We’re social creatures and we need some way of organising ourselves, but it should be democratic organisation, such as worker co-ops, housing co-ops and democratic schools. Democratic organisations pool our individual talents, and encourage consensus and compromise, while hierarchical organisations crush our individuality and twist our lives to the will of the people in power.

It seems to me that we’re dealing with mass neurosis here. People who desire to control or be controlled are unable to accept their own individuality. They feel uncomfortable with their distinctness and separateness from others, their personal responsibility, and their vulnerability as fragile, mortal beings. In order to compensate for this discomfort they convince themselves that they’re not really individuals at all, that their identity is formed by their place in the social hierarchy, as patriotic citizens, as husbands, wives, pupils, teachers, workers, managers, and so on. Personal responsibility, with all its challenges and opportunities, is rejected in favour of social conformity and obedience.

All the people in a hierarchy are defined by their roles in the hierarchy. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the people at the top are any freer than the rest of us. The rulers have to adapt their behaviours to meet social expectations just as the ruled do. The people at the top have to appear confident and commanding just as the people at the bottom have to appear humble and obliging. The power of the rulers depends on the obedience of the ruled. The ruled live in constant fear of punishment while the rulers live in constant fear of disobedience. Everyone, from top to bottom, is imprisoned in the iron cage of hierarchy.

The highest ideal of a hierarchical society is self-sacrifice. What could be clearer than that? We’re told that the greatest thing we can do is sacrifice our selfhood, our distinctness as individuals, in order to give service to our ‘great’ country with its ‘great’ traditions and its ‘great’ leaders. The pressure to think for oneself and act on one’s own initiative is reduced at the cost of denying one’s individual humanity. This is a refusal to accept reality as it is – a clear indication of neurosis.

Here’s a little suggestion. Instead of sacrificing our selfhood why don’t we each try to really nurture and explore it? Let’s each try to discover principles that we really believe in and try to live by those principles. Let’s each try to find a variety of interesting and worthwhile activities that we can engage in to enrich our lives and contribute to the community we live in. And let’s each try to form a range of relationships in which we learn to appreciate each other’s distinctness and respect each other’s choices. Doesn’t that sound more appealing than simply following social convention and doing what we’re told by the powers-that-be?

Most of us have no choice but to obey, at least some of the time – since the hierarchy controls the money, the police and the prisons – but we don’t have to like it. We can at least have enough self-respect to resent our slavery rather than taking masochistic pleasure in it. We can also limit our support for the hierarchy in various small ways. We can subtly undermine it by refusing to fully conform and refusing to make our best effort to meet its demands. If we spend our lives doing what we’re told we might as well never have existed. Someone else could have filled our place just as well as we did.

Work and Play

August 4, 2017

We are most fully ourselves when we are playing. Play is what we do for its own sake, purely because we enjoy it, as opposed to doing things that have to be done in order to survive. Play is what we choose to do when left to our own devices, an expression of who we really are, as opposed to what we and others are forced to do as a matter of necessity or social convention. If a person struggles to play then they don’t really understand themselves, they haven’t learned to express their individuality, and their life has probably been dominated by conformity and obedience.

I’m using the word ‘play’ in a very broad sense to include arts and sciences as well as crafts, games and pastimes. Any activity that is done simply for the pleasure of doing it counts as play in this sense. An activity may have practical benefits as well as being pleasurable, such as the technological benefits of scientific enquiry, or the health benefits of playing sport. But it counts as play as long as it’s done primarily for the pleasure of it, as opposed to the practical benefits.

I’m not referring here to the simple pleasure of, say, a pleasant meal or a sunny day. I include, in my definition of play, the pleasure of setting ourselves challenges and overcoming the difficulties we face. But such challenges and difficulties are very much ones that we create or find for ourselves, they are not simply imposed upon us either by nature or society, and they are sought out for the ultimate pleasure of overcoming them, as an expression of who we are and what we are capable of, not as a demonstration of self-sacrifice.

Given this view of human nature it’s depressing to live in a society that worships at the Altar of Hard Work, a society where everyone loves to talk about how hard they work, and to judge others according to whether they work hard or not, as if human life has no other meaning or purpose. This hard work is, of course, work we are told to do by our so-called ‘superiors’, not work that we choose to do.

We live in a deeply hierarchical and authoritarian society. People who step out of line face ostracism and punishment, whether social, legal or economic. The Cult of Hard Work is a method of control used by the capitalist rulers to keep the workers in line. If the bosses can convince the workers that hard work makes them better people then the bosses will probably see their profits rise. They’ll also have fewer complaints about pay and working conditions. This is why hard work is lauded as morally supreme under capitalism.

The hallmark of hard work, as a moral concept, is that it involves sacrificing our individuality and subordinating ourselves to the social hierarchy. A society based on this concept of hard work can produce a great variety of alluring and largely unnecessary material goods and services, but it can produce very little freedom or happiness.

I have no objection to necessary work or competent work or efficient work. Obviously there are practical things that need doing and we should try to see that they’re done adequately. But to value work simply because it’s hard is perverse, a form of masochism or self-hatred. Suffering doesn’t make us good people, contrary to the twisted values of the Cult of Hard Work, it makes us slaves. What makes us good people is the ability to feel and express love, compassion and solidarity.

According to bourgeois morality a worker’s life is vindicated if they suffer for their society, which actually means suffering for the capitalists. The workers are encouraged to diminish their own individual humanity in order to obey and conform. The key institutions of capitalism – the family, schools, workplaces, armies and prisons – all place great value in obedience and conformity. The prison is the ideal to which all forms of capitalist organisation tend, a situation where conformity is at its most intense and freedom is almost non-existent.

We are sick animals. But we could be so much more.

Toward Freedom and Dignity

August 1, 2017

My conception of a decent human life is one in which there is as little coercion as possible. To coerce human beings is to inhibit their free and natural development, to twist their lives to fit someone else’s plan. In a fair and decent world people would have as much freedom as possible to decide how they live their own lives, drawing on their own resources or the advice of others as they see fit. And since so much of our time and energy is put into our working lives this freedom must especially apply to choosing the kind of work we do and how we do it.

Work should be a matter of voluntary and productive cooperation with others, in order to satisfy our practical needs and social inclinations, not a form of coerced and exploited labour. We should have opportunities to develop our talents and interests in creative and original ways, to think for ourselves and bring our own unique perspective to our collective endeavours. Of course we can’t expect others to agree with all our personal preferences, but we can discuss the alternatives available to us, make compromises, and hopefully reach agreed courses of action for mutual benefit.

Now contrast this with the experience of work that the majority of us have. We are given tasks we did not choose by people whose authority we cannot question, and must carry out those tasks in ways that satisfy not ourselves but our so-called ‘superiors’. Perhaps we can suggest alternatives, and decide the minor details of our daily tasks, but this is a very limited freedom that can always be overruled. In return for our labours we get the lowest wage our employer can get away with in the current labour market, the rest of our efforts being used to generate profit for shareholders and large salaries and bonuses for managers.

Ultimately we can, of course, resign if we don’t like this situation, and move to another job where the conditions are likely to be just the same, or sink into demoralised poverty. This doesn’t strike me as a way of life that brings out the best in human beings or respects their moral right to freedom and dignity. In fact it strikes me as a system designed to crush initiative and generate apathy and alienation.

We’re all trying to make the best of our lives, doing what we can to provide for ourselves and to improve our situation by means of our physical and intellectual efforts. It’s arbitrary and deeply unfair that some individuals should accumulate such wealth and power – by control of the labour of their fellow human beings – that they can dictate to the rest of us how we should live our lives. The result of this injustice is that we are forced to work in ways that best serve not the great majority of humanity but rather the interests of the rich and powerful.

It seems to me that the best way to address the fundamental injustice of this world is to reorganise our economic life on democratic principles, just as we once reorganised our political life on democratic principles. Absolute monarchs are mostly gone from the political sphere, but sadly they still exist in the economic sphere in the form of the chief executive with his court of directors and shareholders. This has to change.

So what am I proposing? Among other things I would like to see collective ownership of each business by all who work for it; regular meetings of all workers to discuss and vote on important questions of business policy; committees of workers, elected by the whole workforce, to investigate and advise on specialist matters; and allegations of misconduct to be assessed by a tribunal of one’s fellow workers, rather than at the whim of managers.

Let me be clear what this means: No more wages. No more managers. The two most unfair and dehumanising aspects of the workplace would be removed. Instead of wages set by management we would all have an equal stake in the business and an equal voice in determining how much of the profit is kept for ourselves and how much re-invested in the business. Instead of managers appointed from above we would have democratic management by all the workers together.

No longer would the results of our work be controlled by a small elite. No longer would we be set in futile competition with our fellow workers for pay rises, promotions and petty authority over a handful of our colleagues. All our energy could be directed to developing our skills and making the enterprise a success from which we all benefit. There are many possible variations on the type of organisation I am describing, but whether they are worker co-operatives, collectives, communes or self-directed enterprises, they all share the basic principles of voluntary membership, shared ownership and democratic control.

There is no need for a violent revolution to bring about the changes I am advocating. With the co-operative business model we could conceivably change the world one workplace at a time. For that to happen we would need popular support, the support of labour unions (who know a lot about worker self-organisation), and a progressive political movement that can win power and legislate in favour of cooperatives.

The transition could begin by requiring businesses to pay workers partly in shares, held collectively in a trust fund, until the workforce has a controlling interest in the business. At first this would take place within the current capitalist economic system, but as the popular movement grew that would naturally change. The principles of competition, greed, and selfishness on which capitalism is based would be superseded by cooperation, fairness and mutual respect, in other words by democratic socialism, as I understand it.

If we genuinely value democracy then it should be introduced into the economic sphere, into the workplace, where we have our most important, ongoing contact with society. Most people today would think it absurd that the rich should have more votes than the poor in general elections, as was once the case, and yet we think it acceptable that the rich have vastly more votes in business decisions which often have far more direct effect on our lives than the events in distant parliaments and congresses.

What does it profit individuals to have a small say in the choice of governing party at the national level when those individuals have little or no say over the form of their own daily activities? The work we do each day is the single most important and demanding activity of our lives. The true measure of democratic freedom is not an occasional trip to the ballot box but how much control we have over our daily life. By that measure our so-called ‘liberal democracy’ is merely a pale imitation.

We will be told, of course, that the workers controlling the workplace would lead to chaos, that they have neither the personal skills nor the strategic overview required to run things effectively. This objection to economic democracy is the same form of objection that was made to political democracy prior to universal suffrage, that the ‘ordinary’ members of society couldn’t be trusted to understand the complexities of policy or to choose their government wisely. It was a lie then and it’s a lie now, serving the same vested interests of the rich and powerful.

Our present form of authoritarian social organisation has led us into wars, economic crashes and environmental devastation as often as it has led us to peace, prosperity and sustainability. In contrast to this a truly democratic society would make use of the talents of all its people rather than relying on the wayward judgement of a small elite. Give people today the necessary education, information and power to run their own lives, let them participate fully in managing their own economic activity, and they will be able to develop the strategic skills required by citizens in a genuinely democratic society.