Monday, 15 May 2017

Attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is 88 years old. Born in 1928 he witnessed the bulk of 20th century history, not through the eyes of a passive observer but as someone who was actively involved and also constantly reflecting intelligently on the events unfolding throughout what was undoubtedly one of the most dramatic centuries in human history.

On 10th May 2017 he gave a lecture entitled "Racing for the Precipice: Is the Human Experiment Doomed?" at The Concert Hall in Reading, England. I was lucky enough to have been offered a ticket by someone with the foresight to buy a few before they all sold out. It was a memorable evening. Chomsky is of an age where if you haven't seen him in the flesh yet you don't really expect you will get the chance. Kropotkin lived until he was 78, so did Malatesta (dying when Chomsky was aged 4) and even the old man Rudolf Rocker died 3 years younger than Chomsky is now. He's doing exceptionally well for an anarchist, (it's only a shame he hasn't chosen to grow a huge beard!) so it was a real treat and a surprise to get the chance.

The theme and Chomsky's introduction instantly reminded me of Kropotkin's 'species-ism' outlook found in books like 'Mutual Aid - A Factor of Evolution' and 'Conquest of Bread'. The idea of stepping back and looking at humanity as a species and asking the questions, where have we come from and how has this shaped us? Where are we destined to end up? And ultimately, what kind of species are we, can we pull together to survive and thrive or will we fail?

The diagnosis was less optimistic than 100 years ago when Kropotkin was giving his last lectures. We may be an intelligent species but intelligent species don't necessarily fare better, in fact it's the most simplistic species that go on for millions upon millions of years. We've already surpassed our life expectancy. Not only that, but now, through the looming dangers of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe we have directly threatened our own existence in a very real and concrete way, and the one weapon we have in our favour, democracy, is failing. 

This grim take on the prospects for the human species aptly reflected the mood in the car on the way there as we'd discussed the prospects for the coming UK general election with most people having already conceded it to the Conservatives who remained stubbornly ahead in the polls by a margin of up to 20 points (although this is dropping now). The idea that we as humans might be fundamentally selfish/ idiotic/ stubborn probably seemed plausible enough to most of the enlightened, well educated audience members. 

Here is where this approach can hit the limits of how far it's going to take us. By treating humanity as one big lump, (or at best divided between a minority of progressive individuals and a mass of idiots) we naturally move on to supposing that we, as humans, mostly have relatively fixed attributes - whether these be for the better as in Kropotkin or for the worse as in Chomsky's lecture. 

So if we really are a recklessly short sighted and short tempered and possibly short lived species it's hard for a person to know what to do. If you've decided that you don't want to see the end of life on earth as we know it, if you think you've got an idea of what kind of social system could take us back from the precipice and allow us to go on to survive and thrive, then what? How do we get from here; at one and a half minutes to midnight on doomsday clock, to there; peace and harmony and justice?

The options seem limited, do we try to persuade people? If so who? In a world where some people have much more power and influence or sheer money to do something about all this than others then surely them? Or do we start to think about how we could protect ourselves and the people we care about from impending doom? Or do we prefer to try to to stay pure, and to at least ensure that if the world is going to die it's not going to be our fault? 

Chomsky's voice is silent on this issue, like a last warning from a person who has seen us repeatedly refuse to learn lessons from the past intentionally leaving us to frantically search for the answers ourselves if we want to prove him wrong.

Proving such a pessimistic assessment from such an intelligent man wrong will be no easy task. As the capitalist system enters what must surely be it's final decades before we face the crossroads of revolution or collapse we will need now more than ever to be armed with the right analysis and theory and be ready to take the right actions derived from it. Both Chomsky and Kropotkin's methods of analysing human history undoubtedly have a basis in science but neither of them seem willing to engage with and contribute towards a whole field of study set up to answer these questions; scientific socialism. Anarchists everywhere avoid it, probably because it sounds exclusively Marxist and so arrogant but it's a treasure trove. 

I've found (to my gratification) that in general people don't listen to someone ranting on at them trying to convince them to think a certain way. They have to grab hold of questions for themselves, wrestle with them, attack the key texts, fight the seminal thinkers and come out the other side and face the original problem again. 

To deal with the challenge that Chomsky left in this lecture, and for another way to approach the problem in itself I recommend starting with this short pamphlet from Engels: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Don't take my word or Engels word or Chomsky's for anything, see what you think.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Nationalisation in the Labour Party Manifesto - an anarchist perspective

The leaked Labour Party manifesto contains plans for the nationalisation of certain Key industries. I've called for a vote for Labour and yet I still call myself anti-state. How does that work?

Let's hear from Engels about nationalisation first:

"...the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution". (Socialism, Utopian and Scientific).

That speaks for itself but there is a bit more from me.
These industries, which were previously nationalised and then sold off into private hands by the Conservatives were never really de-nationalised. They still operated with contracts to run from the state and they were still largelly funded by taxation. The only difference was that capitalists have been allowed to use them to make a profit since they were "sold off". "Re-nationalising" them puts them back into some level of democratic control by the people who funded and built them and prevents any parasites from getting rich off them. It's clearly a step in the right direction, however small.

The anarchists' job is not to try to stall steps like this but to never be satisfied by these small ventures towards socialism and to demand the maximum personal autonomy for the working class at every stage. A vote for Labour is still perfectly good and fit for the purpose of accelerating the revolutionary process (as described in the previous post here Positive Accelerationism).

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Positive Accelerationism

(I refuse to give a spoiler warning for the film Inception when it's been out for 7 years... and now I've done it anyway) 

In the film Inception the main character Cobb and his wife Mal get trapped in a dream world limbo for decades. Eventually Cobb realises that the only way to wake up is to die in the dream. He has to convince his wife that the world they've lived in for all those years was just a dream and to get back to reality they have to kill themselves. The idea becomes so powerful that it won't go away, even once they've awoken again in the real world it comes to absolutely define Mal, leading her to commit suicide for real in a vain effort to wake up for real.

The idea of accelerationism grew out of a tiny seed of truth implanted deep within the minds of those who first came up with it but it's grown well beyond it now.

The idea is:

Capitalism produces the conditions that will eventually destroy it.

 The gravediggers of Capitalism

The unthinking assumption about the sequence of events made by adherents of accelerationism is that capitalism makes people's lives unbearable and brings them to a point where they have nothing left to lose. They then revolt in huge numbers, this snowballs into a revolution and capitalism, just when it was at it's most crushingly brutal, is suddenly brought to it's knees.

It's a somewhat convincing tale at first. When people's quality of life is reasonable what real incentive is there to risk death in a revolution? That's why our protests become more and more docile the more comfortable everyone's lives are, right? That's why a lot of people are totally disengaged with politics and the struggle altogether right? Because their lives are basically fine?

The trouble with this is that it really is an assumption and it takes no account of some huge problems that should be obvious:
  • Capitalism in recent years has destroyed most of the horizontal links between the working class. From freindly neighbourhoods looking out for each other to trade unions to even our families everything is melting away. We're becoming scared, isolated individuals that accept the blame for our miserable lives and believe that we deserve what we get. 
  • As capitalism progresses, our jobs and our homes become precarious, stepping out of line can lead to anything we've managed to hold together in life from our mental health to our bank balance or a relatively pleasant life for our children being wrecked.
  • In recent years we've seen that as capitalism cannibalises the welfare state that was put in place to stabilise it people are going hungry and not getting the health care they need. Even life expectancy is beginning to fall. Every person who hasn't eaten properly for months or is walking about waiting for an operation is another person who is going to have difficulty concentrating or carrying out any kind of revolutionary actions.
  • Every step that capitalism strides forwards involves working class resistance to it being crushed. Every cut to vital services that was resisted but happened anyway or every strike that never achieved what it intended to do and was broken is a defeat and eventually after enough of this people just give up.
  • The less disposable income people have the less they can travel around to protest/ meet people/ fund actions. 

It also ignores the historical evidence. During the 1950s and 60s when conditions we're rapidly getting better people wern't pacified at all. With a sense of security from full employment and rapidly expanding social housing, a few 'wins' under their belts to give them some hope the unions were powerful, the youth were getting militant and the authorities were worried. 

As conditions began levelling off and then deteriorating during the 1970s, 80s and 90s there were some extremely bitter struggles (e.g. miners strike and poll tax resistance) but I would argue that these were so furious and bitter because people had glimpsed that a different way of living was possible and many people still had a certain level of community solidarity and security that had been built up during that period and the collective memory of winning a number of previous struggles convinced them that it was worth having a go.

Since then in the 00s and the 10s we've been in a funny stage. Since the crash and recession post '08 there certainly has been a return to struggle but it's hardly been a mass movement. We haven't even been able to convince people to vote the Conservatives out yet because they've been so ground down, betrayed and atomised that even after a huge spike in homelessness and millions of people being pushed into relying on food-aid and insecure work no one seems to really believe that we can do much about it, or they have come to interpret it as basically the fault of the homeless and hungry and just hope that they can keep their own heads above the water.

Positive Accelerationism

Anyone who is really serious about accelerating towards a revolution should look carefully into the evidence about what kinds of conditions are right and necessary for it to come about. I doubt they will find that there is a sure fire recipe but there is certainly some evidence from history that it's not revolts due to total desperation that are likely to snowball into revolution but the experience of progressive 'wins' that build confidence and improve people's material conditions and teach them about who's got the same interests as them and who will fight them all the way, that could turn into something much bigger. 

Why not think of this as positive accelerationism? The idea that trying to accelerate the demise of capitalism is a noble thing but this belief that the rise of fascists or total domination of conservatives politically will provoke it is probably not justifiable. 

In positive accelerationism it's all much more straightforward, wins are wins and are to be celebrated. The eventual revolution in this model will occur when we provoke desperate revolt from the ruling class because we've pushed too far - not the other way around. They will attempt a coup or a massive repression not because they're confident they can get away with anything but as a last hope. This then provokes seasoned confident individuals used to struggling together to smash it once and for all. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

International Workers Day 2017 London

Yesterday I joined the anarchist bloc on the London may day march. Anarchists were certainly in the minority. I would estimate maybe 30-40 of us maximum. Class War were there and some people from the London Anarchist Federation + some independents like myself who turned up and tagged along.
Last year I turned up and managed to find about 8 other anarchists so this was a step in the right direction! Would be nice to see a much bigger bloc next year though. 

I'm particularly keen on this because I don't see anarchism as being some fringe rebellious cult that relies on the state and capitalism and all the authoritarians continuing to be there in order to have any identity and meaning. Instead anarchism needs to place itself firmly within the working class revolutionary movement - as the libertarian wing. That's why anarchists should be marching along with the trade unions and all the other international socialist groups making it clear that we're serious and dedicated to the emancipation of our class and global revolution.

Everyone who did turn up was great, a handful of us climbed up on the base of Nelson's Column and waved some black and red flags and held up some good old home made signs, that felt good. The Anarchist Federation had their stall out which seemed to be getting some interest from a few passers by and the main anarchist publication that was being promoted 'Rebel City' is free as well, unlike many of the other groups desperately trying to sell their papers.

I don't think that the "other groups" are all created equally either from an anarchist point of view. Some are fairly friendly and receptive, the group Workers Liberty are pretty chilled with anarchists (even though I don't know much about them and I'm certainly not vouching for them in general!), although the Spartacist League aren't much fun to talk to. 

May day of course has specifically anarchist origins. Let's not be outnumbered by Stalinists next year!

Still a good day out celebrating everything the workers movement has achieved so far while keeping one eye on the future.