Archive for category Anarchism
It is going to be a busy day! So much to do!
- Congratulate a bunch of people — those who felt the system was failing them — for letting their voices be heard in a dramatic way. I’m sure there is something hopeful in that. Well done.
- After considering some of the people mentioned in #1 — just as a precaution, change my Christmas shopping wish-list from Amazon books to Cabella’s gun department.
- Check into that whole “rigged election” thing…after all, he’s been right about everything else.
- Check the over/under on “Days Until Military Coup.” If they’re calling it 230, I’m taking the under.
- Select my outfit for the Inaugural Ball. (I am thinking something white and billowy, with maybe a pointy cap….)
- Read a good “prepper” manual and stock up on canned goods, freeze-dried meals, and water. Also pretzels. I really like pretzels.
- Remember to boot my computer from Tails, and always use a zero-knowledge VPN and the TOR browser. Get all my friends to switch to the Signal instant messaging app (end-to-end encryption, and not owned by Facebook). Delete all my social media accounts (please send cute baby and kitten pictures via snail-mail to my new post office box in Belize).
- Smash capitalism.
- Scoop the litter box.
- Shut down this blog.
Well, I’d better get busy!
People want to know: Who is to blame for this whole election, for these two candidates, for all the rancor and dissension. I’ll explain:
- The Republicans are to blame: from Gingrich on, the party has positioned itself to lead inexorably to Donald Trump. Their emphasis on no-nothingness, obstruction, racism, sexism, their denigration of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — no wonder this is who they’ve nominated. He is a mirror to that party, and many in it now don’t like what they see. But Republicans have brought it on themselves.
- The Democrats are to blame: ever since Bill Clinton, the party has tried to move rightward such that it is now “Republican-lite” — and not even that “lite.” They are in bed with finance capital, and no longer are they the party of labor. They are traitors to their base. They are the ones who started to cut the social safety net to ribbons, they are the ones who removed the protections of Glass-Steagell, they are the ones who implemented mass incarceration and the prison-industrial system. The forgotten and disaffected needed someone who would listen — or at least feign listening, as the Democratic party no longer even pretends to be the representatives of the middle and working classes. And when a candidate like Sanders comes along who can galvanize the party’s historical base, they do everything in their power to quash his efforts. Instead, they nominate the one candidate in the world who is vulnerable in a campaign against Trump. The Democrats have brought this on themselves.
- Democracy is to blame: Democracy — the rule of the people, by the people, for the people — i.e., self-rule is an oxymoron. If the system depends on everyone having a voice, then the enemies of democracy get a voice — and no anti-democratic voice has been louder in recent times than Donald Trump (“I, alone, can fix it!”). A social system based on the occasional voting of a populace otherwise unconcerned and ill-equipped in matters of governing, is fundamentally vulnerable to demagoguery, fascism, political suicide. Was Churchill correct? Is democracy the worst form of government…except for every other form of government? Democracy requires constant attention. Trumpism (or something like it) is a permanent risk and tempation for democracies. Is it worth it? Democracy has brought this on itself.
- We are to blame: We consent to work 50+ hours per week, often at what David Graeber calls (technically speaking) “bullshit jobs.” We have our faces buried in our mobile devices. We live our lives on social media, blissfully unconcerned about matters of privacy, ideology, manipulation, and control. We dumb down our schools, cutting music and the arts, belittling philosophy and critical thought, turning educational institutions into factories for producing more cogs for the machine. We get our “news” from any website with a .com, regardless of its quality. We repost articles we haven’t read and have not vetted, and then feel we’ve added to the civic conversation. We believe all the lies that make us feel better about ourselves and that give us someone else to blame for all the troubles. We pat ourselves on the back for making it down to the polls once every four years and throwing a few switches (or punching out a few chads) for candidates about whom we haven’t the slightest idea. We are proud patriots. We look down our noses at the non-voters (lumping them all together under the umbrellas of “lazy un-americans”) and feel superior that we have kept democracy safe (for capital, for the 0.1%, for creeping bureaucracy, for the surveillance state, for a system for lining the pockets of those who play this highly artificial game). We denigrate those who just say ‘no’ to this charade, insisting that they have no right to complain, no voice, nothing to say. If they propose alternatives, we simply stop our ears. “Just vote once every four years, then shut the hell up.” Well, in fact we voters are the lazy and the ignorant — perhaps the most ignorant, the most duped, the most “played.” We are right where the powers-that-be want us: compliant consumers of whatever bullshit they configured us to “need.” We brought this on ourselves.
Until we admit this, we will continue to be plagued by bad politics. And it will be our fault.
So what shall we do?
What, again? Are you still asking someone else what you should do? Let me remind you of something Immanuel Kant wrote [An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784)]:
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of [people], long after nature has released them from alien guidance, nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them…regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock [i.e., us] dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures [i.e., we] will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they [i.e., we] would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts. Thus, it is difficult for any individual [person] to work him- or herself out of the immaturity that has all but become his [or her] nature.
Has immaturity become your second nature? Are you able to respond to Kant’s clarion call: sapere aude — “Dare to know!”? Can you think for yourself? And do you think you can think for yourself if you don’t even know yourself?
Okay, you say, you’ll think for yourself for a change. But still you ask: can you at least give us some guidance, some way to go about it?
Fine…but just this once. On Tuesday, go down to the polling place and pull the Democrat lever. Don’t even look at the names…just pull it and leave. [Why not Trump? Answer: Clinton is (a symptom of) the problem; Trump is not the answer; there is no quick fix.] On Wednesday, after Clinton is deemed President-elect, write her a letter (okay, okay, an email). Congratulate her, then tell her that you vow to never let up on her the entire time she is in office. Tell her you don’t mean you are falling for all these phony “scandals” the opposition has tainted her with all these years. Tell you mean you will be on her about her policies, decisions, alliances, and performance on the job. Tell her you are not doing this because she’s a woman. Tell her you are doing this because you should have been doing this all along, no matter who got elected. Tell her you promise to seek out your local and state representatives and deliver them the same message. Tell her you will do what you can to organize a local meeting of your party — whatever your party happens to be, or, if you do not belong to a party, that you will at least meet with neighbors and friends (it could even be bi- or non-partisan) — every two months to discuss the performance of all your representatives, and that you will report to all those representatives your collective views of how they are doing. That means that she, along with all your other representatives, will be getting a “report card” based, not just on your own idiosyncratic opinions, but on the research, discussions, and debate that you’ve been engaged with and tested by. Tell her you hope to encourage friends and family outside your local community to do the same. Tell her a failing grade will not be tolerated, at least not by your local, informed, diligent, and objective group which has actually thought things through. Tell her that the existence of this network of discussion groups may very well result in a significant grassroots movement or even a third (or fourth) party, unless she (and your other representatives) are adequately responsive to those she/they purport to represent.
There you go! Do that. Not enough, you say? Won’t work, you say? Well, it is likely to be about a jillion times more than what you have been doing, right? And things have gone to shit, I’m sure you’ll agree. So give this idea a whirl. At least you might meet a few neighbors and make some new friends and learn a few things. How bad could that be?
“…the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
— J.R.R. Tolkein
Why I am (not) an anarchist.
Here are some random thoughts on this claim:
- Anarchism tends towards emphasis on negative liberty: “Nobody tells me what I can and cannot do.” Like difference philosophy and deconstruction, anarchism emphasizes one pole of the sphere of human existence. What about postive liberty, the freedom for becoming what you are (or will have been)?
- Anarchism, as Emma Goldman puts it, resists the state, property, and religion. It is an open question whether these can be resisted. All can be seen as “artificial,” creatures of human artifice, and so we might be warned against, in Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s terminology, false necessity. But the question is whether underlying the particular manifestations of state, property, and religion there is not something fundamental, something fundamenting, as Xavier Zubiri would put it, that explains the inescapability of something like state, property, and religion.
- Anarchism, as an ism, paradoxically functions as an archē, as an inviolable principle which serves to authorize, to generate authority (and heresy). A good example of this can be seen in all the trouble Shevek gets into with the “anarchists” of Anarres in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. He is called a “traitor” for his “egoizing” desire to be in contact with the people of Urras (the “Propertarians”). The “anarchism” of Annares becomes the tyranny of the mass, as Goldman would put it.
- I am interested in an anarchy that has no archē. Or at least no single archē.
- Anarchy means to be without a ruler. It means, thus, to be unruled, unmeasured, without a measure. But is it so that human beings are lacking all measure? Is self-transcendence (Augustine) the same as infinitude? Is not the confusion of these two what is meant by “original sin”?
- Multarchism would mean that there are multiple measures, perhaps always one more measure. It would reject the idea that there is no measure (an-archy), but it would also reject the hegemony of any particular measure, principle, foundation.
We hate too often. There is no shortage of things to hate for an anarchist, but we must never allow our hate to become a defining feature of our individual insurrections and revolutionary rhetoric. Hate can help us identify the enemy, but it can never destroy them. Hate will not empty the prisons, it will not burn down the corporate office space, it will not melt down the machinery of the military-industrial complex. If we are filled with hate, we will only accomplish the destruction of our current system for another system of walls. Because what is oppression but hatred for freedom? It is raw fear, terror and misery which ensnare us all in some way. It is the true fuel of military conquest, racism, xenophobia, sexism. Without hate, systems have no way of imposing themselves on us.
Sometimes, it starts to seem simple.
Everything. All of it.
Yeah. Sometimes I think I see the simple pattern of all the struggles that our common life together seems to bring.
Yes. Let me explain. I read the following sentences in a book:
In what measure and by what means can individuals accept themselves as mortal without any imaginary instituted compensation; in what measure can thought hold together the demands of the identitary logic which are rooted in the Legein and the exigencies of what is (which is surely not identitary without becoming for that reason incoherent); in what measure, finally and especially, can society truly recognize in its institution its own self-creation, recognize itself as institution, auto-institute itself explicitly, and surmount the self-perpetuation of the instituted by showing itself capable of taking it up and transforming it according to its own exigencies and not according to the inertia of the instituted, to recognize itself as the source of its own alterity? These are the questions, the question of revolution, which not only go beyond the frontier of the theorizable but situate themselves right away on another terrain…the terrain of the creativity of history. [Cornelius Castoriades, cited by Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy, 298-299.]
Say what, now?
Yeah, dense, isn’t it? But what is the simple meaning? To me, this goes back to Aristotle, at least. What is the good life? It is the life that is best for us to lead. How do we know it? How do we learn it? We learn it by watching others and forming habits. But what if the habits we form by watching others whom society says are worth imitating, what if that leads us to vice, not virtue? What if the whole society is corrupt? Is there any hope? Yes, because although moral virtue is very important, there is more to being a human than moral virtue. There is what Aristotle calls intellectual virtue, which is being able to see what is—even past the habits and practices and institutions of our own society. With those intellectual virtues, we always have access to the other, to the unexpressed, to the not-now visible possibilities. Indeed, this goes further back, to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which the prisoner somehow slips his bonds (but how?) and gets out of the darkness of illusion and can see what is in its truth. But the prisoner does not—cannot—live in this “realm” because he is human. He needs his institutions in order to live. Those institutions make life possible AND impossible at the same time. To say this in a formula: I am in society, but not wholly of it. I carry my alterity with me. I need the bonds of identitary logic to live AND I am always more and other than how that logic “identifies” me, how it turns me into a (mere) identity.
Perhaps that goes even further back to the very edge of thought: the many and the one, identity and difference, analysis and synthesis.
Indeed, it does. The truth is in the middle and the margin, in the in-between and at the edges.
But is what you claimed, right? Is what you just tried to say simple?
Yes. It is just that simple.
I have always referred to what I call the “anarchist temptation.” It is always so tempting to think we can just do away with the state, have no gods and no masters. I have been leery of that temptation in light of all the concrete questions that anarchist and intentional communities have failed to solve. It has not worked so far. But now it seems I have to give into this temptation. I realize, if I am honest with myself, that I simply subscribe to left-libertarian views, even as I cannot always think them through consistently. I am certain that the capitalist world system does and will continue to threaten the very existence of the human race. I believe that governments exist as the means of violent imposition of the will of capital and/or kings, and not for the well being of the people or the planet.
I am, though, very skeptical about the idea of the innate goodness of human beings. I am not convinced. I see massive stupidity, venality, greed, and meanness all around me – of course not exclusively, but more than enough to make me suspicious of any grand program, party, or plan.
Thus, although I am sympathetic to socialist goals in the abstract, I am too skeptical to be an outright advocate of hitherto existing socialisms. I certainly do not believe in “state capitalism,” central command and control, or any other totalitarian structure. But our U.S. “democracy” is fake. Everyone knows it. People just aren’t courageous enough to admit it outwardly, except for the freaks, left and right. And those people scare regular folk (and not without justification, by the way).
So if there is no such thing as “good” government, maybe anarchism turns out to be the least bad bad form of government (as Aristotle thought about democracy, which to him was dangerously close to anarchy, which to him was a bad thing). Maybe, however imperfect a mutual aid society would be, its problems would be less bad than the problems caused by capitalism (both the so-called “laissez faire” and the state-monopolistic kinds). Maybe, despite whatever drawbacks there would be with localism and subsidiarity, they would represent an improvement in human relations, both among themselves and with nature. But anarchism just scares people. Folks hear the word and they think of mask wearing, bomb throwing, window breaking, dumpster diving, mayhem producing vulgarians who violently act without thinking and who have no idea of the good.
Is that all there is to anarchism? If it really is the least bad bad form of social arrangement, then maybe we need a new way to say “anarchism,” a new way to think it, a new strategy for living it.
Some ancient wisdom for today…
THE CONFUCIAN LITERATI SAY: “Heaven gave birth to the people and then set rulers over them.” But how can High Heaven have said this in so many words? Is it not rather that interested parties make this their pretext? The fact is that the strong op pressed the weak and the weak submitted to them; the cunning tricked the innocent and the innocent served them. It was because there was submission that the relation of lord and subject arose, and because there was servitude that the people, being powerless, could be kept under control. Thus servitude and mastery result from the struggle between the strong and the weak and the contrast between the cunning and the innocent, and Blue Heaven has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
When the world was in its original undifferentiated state, the Nameless (wu-ming, i.e., the Tao) was what was valued, and all creatures found happiness in self-fulfillment. Now when the cinnamon-tree has its bark stripped or the var nish-tree is cut, it is not done at the wish of the tree; when the pheasant’s feathers are plucked or the kingfisher’s torn out, it is not done by desire of the bird. To be bitted and bridled is not in accordance with the nature of the horse; to be put under the yoke and bear burdens does not give pleasure to the ox. Cunning has its origin in the use of force that goes against the true nature ofthings, and the real reason for harming creatures is to provide useless adornments. Thus catching the birds of the air in order to supply frivolous adornments, making holes in noses where no holes should be, tying beasts by the leg when nature meant them to be free, is not in accord with the destiny of the myriad creatures, all born to live out their lives unharmed. And so the people are compelled to labour so that those in office may be nourished; and while their superiors enjoy fat salaries, they are reduced to the direst poverty.
It is all very well to enjoy the infinite bliss of life after death, but it is preferable not to have died in the first place; and rather than acquire an empty reputation for integrity by resigning office and foregoing one’s salary, it is better that there should be no office to resign. Loyalty and righteousness only appear when rebellion breaks out in the empire, filial obedience and parental love are only displayed when there is discord among kindred.
In the earliest times, there was neither lord nor subjects. Wells were dug for drinking-water, the fields were plowed for food, work began at sunrise and ceased at sunset; everyone was free and at ease; neither competing with each other nor scheming against each other, and no one was either glorified or humiliated. The wastelands had no paths or roads and the waterways no boats or bridges, and because there were no means of communication by land or water, people did not appropriate each other’s property; no armies could be formed, and so people did not attack one another. Indeed since no one climbed up to seek out nests nor dived down to sift the waters ofthe deep, the phoenix nested under the eaves of the house and dragons disported in the garden pool. The ravening tiger could be trodden on, the poisonous snake handled. Men could wade through swamps without raising the waterfowl, and enter the woodlands without startling the fox or the hare. Since no one even began to think of gaining power or seeking profit, no dire events or rebellions occurred; and as spears and shields were not in use, moats and ramparts did not have to be built. All creatures lived together in mystic unity, all of them merged in the Way (Tao). Since they were not visited by plague or pestilence, they could live out their lives and die a natural death. Their hearts being pure, they were devoid of cunning. Enjoying plentiful supplies of food, they strolled about with full bellies. Their speech was not flowery, their behavior not ostentatious. How, then, could there have been accumulation of property such as to rob the people of their wealth, or severe punishments to trap and ensnare them? When this age entered on decadence, knowledge and cunning came into use. The Way and its Virtue (Tao te) having fallen into decay, a hierarchy was established. Customary regulations for promotion and degradation and for profit and loss proliferated, ceremonial garments such as the [gentry’s] sash and sacrificial cap and the imperial blue and yellow [robes for worshiping Heaven and Earth] were elaborated. Buildings of earth and wood were raised high into the sky, with the beams and rafters painted red and green. The heights were overturned in quest of gems, the depths dived into in search of pearls; but however vast a collection of precious stones people might have assembled, it still would not have sufficed to satisfy their whims, and a whole mountain of gold would not have been enough to meet their expenditure, so sunk were they in depravity and vice, having transgressed against the fundamental principles of the Great Beginning. Daily they became further removed from the ways of their ancestors, and turned their back more and more upon man’s original simplicity. Because they promoted the “worthy” to office, ordinary people strove for reputation, and because they prized material wealth, thieves and robbers appeared. The sight of desirable objects tempted true and honest hearts, and the display of arbitrary power and love of gain opened the road to robbery. So they made weapons with points and with sharp edges, and after that there was no end to usurpations and acts of aggression, and they were only afraid lest crossbows should not be strong enough, shields stout enough, lances sharp enough, and defences solid enough. Yet all this could have been dispensed with if there had been no oppression and violence from the start.
Therefore it has been said: “Who could make scepters without spoiling the unblemished jade? And how could altruism and righteousness (jen and i) be extolled unless the Way and its Virtue had perished?” Although tyrants such as Chieh and Chou were able to burn men to death, massacre their advisers, make mince-meat of the feudal lords, cut the barons into strips, tear out men’s hearts and break their bones, and go to the furthest extremes of tyrannical crime down to the use of torture by roasting and grilling, however cruel they may by nature have been, how could they have done such things if they had had to remain among the ranks of the common people? If they gave way to their cruelty and lust and butchered the whole empire, it was because, as rulers, they could do as they pleased. As soon as the relationship between lord and subject is established, hearts become daily more filled with evil designs, until the manacled criminals sullenly doing forced labour in the mud and the dust are full of mutinous thoughts, the Sovereign trembles with anxious fear in his ancestral temple, and the people simmer with revolt in the midst of their poverty and distress; and to try to stop them revolting by means of rules and regulations, or control them by means of penalties and punishments, is like trying to dam a river in full flood with a handful of earth, or keeping the torrents of water back with one finger.
BaoJingyan: “Neither Lord Nor Subject” (300 CE)
[From Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume 1.]
I am reading a little book entitled, The Anarchist Revelation. It has me thinking about a number of things concerning the kinds of selves we are shaped to be under capitalism. In one passage, the book’s author, Paul Cudenec, discusses television and the role of advertising (as forerunner and adjunct to our “screen culture” today). What he says is familiar; you have heard this critique before. But if we can stand to hear the tv ads repeatedly, surely we can stand to hear an alternative view more than once. It is the capitalist system that praises novelty above every other criterion, never once asking if new is always better.
Television, Advertising, Capitalism vs. Our True Identity
Elements of Cudenec’s critique include the following. When we are engaged, if that is the right word, with television, we are lost to ourselves. Citing Guillame Carnino, it is that “we become what we watch.” It is either an escape from ourselves or the active prevention of our becoming our true selves. The default position is immersion in a television (and now more broadly “screen”) culture, and opting out is no easy struggle.
In addition, television is 100% advertising, the shows being only a draw to the commercials, meant to make our minds receptive to the message. And what is that message? You need things. But capitalism works in a way opposite to the natural relation between needs and good. The system first produces the goods, and then it generates the needs. In fact, the system functions on the proviso that it can generate wants that it can turn into needs.
We thereby are molded into selves that are a function of external objects and stimulations – the objects and stimulations generated for us by the system. Cudenic complains that there is a lack of “real individuality.” What passes for individuality is just another persona produced by the marketplace. We are, as Cudenic puts it in the words of Joseph Campbell, “men who are fractions (who) imagine (our)selves to be complete.”
The market promises to satisfy all our wants, but in fact it operates on the principle of creating an infinite series of desires (masquerading as “needs,” of course) that cannot be satisfied. The satisfaction of desire would be the end of the capitalist system.Cudenic cites, as two examples of the absurdity of the generation of false needs, the fact that advertisers have convinced girls and young women to spend massive amounts of money for skin products meant to counteract the problems (if that’s what they are) of much older women, as well their having sold the notion that simply to take a walk one needs expensive gear in order to do it “properly.” All of this puts us on a never-ending treadmill of ultimately meaningless busyness and acquisition that prevents us from coming to be our real selves. Gustave Landauer (cited by Cudenic) put it this way:
Progress, what you call progress, this incessant hustle-bustle, this rapid tiring and neurasthenic, short-breathed chase after novelty, after anything new as long as it is new, this progress and the crazy ideas of the practitioners of development associated with it…this progress, this unsteady, restless haste; this inability to remain still and this perpetual desire to be on the move, this so-called progress is a symptom of our abnormal condition, our uncultured.”
There is an ever-expanding distance between ourselves and the reality of the world around us. Our meat simply “comes from the store” — we have no awareness of the process by which it arrives at our table. This disconnect doubles back on us, preventing us from having a true sense of our own identity.
There is much to be sympathetic with in this passionate critique — and I have only touched the surface, reflecting on just a few pages of this book. It is difficult to argue with this analysis, yet I wonder if there aren’t some subtleties that need to be brought to light. It is always tricky to try to sum up either human nature or the times in which one lives. Attempts often end up as caricatures, capturing some core truths but lacking a comprehensive balance. I found myself reflecting on a number of points:
What does it mean to say we have a “true” self that is being suppressed or blocked by the world system? What is that true self and how are we to discover it? If the capitalist system is truly totalitarian, as François Brune puts it, how is one ever even to recognize that one’s true self is in peril of being submerged? There must be some “space” for critical reflection, even in this all-pervasive capitalist system (or any other totalitarian regime). This also implies that we can at least catch a glimpse of or have an intuition about what one’s true self must be like, even under the conditions of the non-stop onslaught of advertising.But is it right to say that that self is an individual? There is a tendency for Cudenic (and maybe for most of us) to equate who we really are with a unique individual. But I wonder sometimes whether the idea of the “unique individual” is not, itself, a creation of the capitalist system. Does this idea not smack of that obsession with novelty that is elsewhere criticized in Cudenic’s account? If there turns out to be truth in that possibility, then we human beings are in a more complicated position than this account lets on. For what then is our true self? Is it really something unique? And, if not, how will we distinguished between a mass-marketed self foisted on us by the world system and a self-in-solidarity, a self-in-communion that inevitably draws its identity from others and which is, therefore, not unique? What if the anguish of the soul longing for uniqueness is not a revolt from consumer society, but just another manifestation of it, perfectly poised to be sold yet another solution-for-profit?I am simply raising the question. I am convinced that much of our identity is an off-the-rack model and that we are missing the chance to get at the marrow of life because of it. But I am concerned that we have uncritically adopted either a typically modern or post-modern view of the self. The former would see us first of all as isolated individuals. As such, the distinguish mark of each one of us is how we are different from each other, i.e., unique. If the latter, we see ourselves as an infinitely malleable “text” whose “true” nature is that it has no nature at all. Both views leave us well-open to the siren calls of the marketplace. There is nothing within either view that provides us with adequate resources to critique and resist. I could put it this way: this particular critique, which is by no means Cudenic’s alone, may, itself — despite its best intentions, have bought into the capitalist arch-criterion of novelty.
Part of this critique challenges the idea that our identities are best formed by the things that we have — more accurately, the things that we buy and consume. Aristotle already challenged this notion a couple of millennia ago, noting that happiness (which for him is not an emotion or a feeling but the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being) must be something other than the fleeting pleasures afforded by external goods. But Aristotle also noted that in order to be happy — even in his profound understanding of the term — one had to have a share of external goods.
Human beings are, among other things, creators. We make things. We use things to enhance our abilities to do more things. Thus it ever was. Cudenic criticizes, not without justification, the idea that we have to have superfluous things (preferably expensive things) in order to engage in the most simple, natural activities. Do I need expensive walking shoes, an expensive hat, an expensive walking stick simply to take a walk? Do I need them? No, of course not. People are walking all the time without them, and I can (and do), too. But is it not really more comfortable walking in a good pair of walking shoes? May I not walk much further in good shoes? Might that not keep me outdoors and away from the television? Wouldn’t a good hat protect me from sunburn, thus keeping me less likely to get skin cancer? Might a good walking stick take a little pressure off these aging knees? Is there not something in — dare I say it? — true human nature that seeks such improvements? Are we not naturally tinkerers and experimenters? I ask these questions because I wonder if the capitalist generation of infinite needs is as artificial, let’s call it, as the critique makes it out to be. Again, there is definitely something to the critique, to the insight that we are fooling ourselves if we think that accumulation of material things equals genuine happiness. We are wrong if we think we are solely what we own. We are not solely what we own, but we are in part what we possess.There is a sense of this critique which somehow sees us as disembodied. I am certain, of course, that neither Cudenic nor the cloud of other critics of capitalism would admit this. Still, I think it should be considered. There is an undercurrent in these critques that see us as somehow poluted, disfigured, and falsified by consumer goods. Consider this passage:
The possessions in which we invest so much value, from cars to washing machines, are, as scientist and writer Kit Pedler sees, ‘symbols of despair and failure: surrogates for achievement, which encourage us to live on the outside of our senses and actually diminish the quality of life.’ Carnino points out that ‘having, and no longer being, is the sole source of our desire,’ and there is a horrible sense of us having abandoned our own selves, our own destinies, under the hypnosis of mass exploitation.
Is my having a washing machine to clean my clothes a sign of my despair? Would I be more my true self if I took my pants down to the river, soaked them in the running (and no doubt at this stage polluted) waters, and beat them on a rock to clean them?I think we need to look at ourselves as materially extended beyond our own bodies. I am certain that there are risks involved in such a self-conception, but only because I am certain there are risks involved any time one tries to pin down what it means to be human.
None of these questions should be construed to constitute a gainsaying of Cudenic’s critique. I find him to be, in fact, a kindred spirit (at least so far in the book). And, on that note, I remind us that this is not actually a review of this book (maybe later…). I was simply provoked to thinking this morning by some of the insights of this particular chapter in The Anarchist Revelation. In any case, I still am struggling with what is really going on in the capitalist culture, the system in which I am thoroughly implicated and enmeshed.
It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the very sort of problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.
Read more of the recent essay by David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”
And while you’re at it, read “The Abolition of Work,” by Bob Black (1985). It begins like this:
No one should ever work.
Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.