We’re all going to die soon unless everyone sees what I see, which is admittedly unlikely. Linked table of contents:
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INTRODUCTION. I’m a contrarian: I enjoy complaining. I’d like to join some political organization, but unfortunately I find myself disagreeing about something with everyone. Following is a list of some groups of people and my disagreements with them. If you know of an organization that passes all the objections in this list, please tell me about them – I may add another paragraph!
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THE UNINFORMED OR MISINFORMED – that is, people who see things differently from me. It’s not their fault. Either
- they haven’t been paying attention, because they didn’t know they needed to, or
- they’ve been misled, because they trusted the wrong sources. By the way, as replacements for the corporate press, here are a few of my own favorite news sources: Black Agenda Report, Counterpunch, Greanville Post, Popular Resistance, RT, Common Dreams, Truthout, Caitlin Johnstone, Richard Wolff, Jimmy Dore, Ted Rall, Lee Camp.
But really, nearly everyone is uninformed or misinformed. It is as Noam Chomsky said:
“The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know.”
It takes a while to figure things out. Malcolm X said,
“Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”
Unfortunately, we humans prefer simple and familiar explanations when we can get them, and we are reluctant to reconsider views that we have already supported publicly. Try to watch out for those weaknesses in yourself.
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THE INACTIVE – that is, people who are not engaged in trying to heal the troubles of the world. People aren’t at fault,
- if they don’t see the troubles, or
- if they don’t see what they can do about the troubles, or
- if they are too busy just trying to survive the troubles.
But the world does need healing, by all of us who are not already crushed. The first step is to help spread awareness.
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THE UNALARMED. The world is on fire, so be alarmed. Be alarmed calmly, so we can try to put out the fire.
For ages we’ve had poverty, war, and sorrows. But recently we’ve added some extinction-level threats:
- Global warming is speeding up; some crop failures have already begun; worldwide famine is coming soon. And even after that, feedback loops will continue raising the temperature. Within a few years there will be no survivors. To have even a chance of averting extinction, we must make huge changes immediately in our way of life.
- It is a mathematical certainty that if we continue our arms race, we will eventually have a nuclear war. Some politicians speak of “winning” such a war, but that is nonsense: The drifting clouds of radioactive fallout would kill any survivors within a few years. We can only be made safe by universal disarmament and friendship. That, in turn, requires a different economic system, as I’ll explain.
- This year’s variant of Covid-19 is much worse than the version that was prevalent last year. Next year’s version could be worse still. We are all at risk as long as some version of the virus is still present and mutating in a large portion of the human population. It doesn’t stop at national boundaries. We need to help the whole world recover. The rich nations are putting themselves at risk along with everyone else, by hoarding vaccines and by permitting the pharmaceutical companies to keep the vaccines proprietary and the prices high.
Citing those problems plus the problem of disinformation, in both 2020 and 2021 the atomic scientists set their Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. Their announcement also mentioned government irresponsibility; I’ll say more about that later.
But poverty, war, warming, nukes, and disinformation are just symptoms of deeper problems in our culture, problems so big that they are hard to see. I’ll say more about those problems too.
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CONSERVATIVES believe we all have liberty, and our lives are separate; each person is wholly responsible for his or her own fate. (Also, many conservatives feel threatened by people different from themselves.)
But actually, people are not free when they are scrambling desperately to survive; only the affluent really have liberty. And actually we are all interdependent, whether we want to be or not. Here are some examples:
- Conservatives blame poverty on laziness, while I blame it on lack of opportunity.
- The 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe is an archetype for our culture; it tells of a man who survived on an island on his own. But look again: Crusoe brought to his island tools and knowledge developed by other people. No many is an island, not even the man on an island.
- The USA is the only advanced nation that doesn’t have universal healthcare. The Covid-19 pandemic should make more obvious what has been true all along: any contagious illness my neighbor gets is a risk to me. We really are all in this together.
- Our present economic system of “every man for himself” is trashing the commons and destroying the ecosystem. That will kill us all if continued.
So I recommend the values of empathy, community, and solidarity; those will bring conservatives up to the level of progressives. But later in this essay I will go farther than that, and explain the need for sharing.
I should also mention “liberals”; that term used to be taken as the opposite of conservatives. But the word “liberal” has been given so many different meanings by so many different people that by now it has no meaning at all. Except, nowadays many people use it as a synonym for “Democrat,” a member of a political party that doesn’t stand for anything at all.
I think that conservatives don’t see the consequences of their values, but at least their values are consistent. It seems to me that the values of the liberals are inconsistent. As Phil Ochs sang, “I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes, as long as they don’t move next door.” The liberals want everyone to be treated well, but they hope to achieve that through some sort of reformed capitalism — that is, a kinder, gentler selfishness. That’s not going to work; we can’t just be neutral to other people. If we don’t care for the well being of another person (or another creature, or the ecosystem, for that matter), we come to objectify them, and eventually to exploit and abuse them. I’ll say more about that later.
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PATRIOTS. These people believe too much of what the government tells them. I urge them to relearn everything, starting with foreign policy. “Sanction” is a euphemism for siege – it kills many people; it’s not just a slap on the wrist. The USA has been at war nearly every year of its existence; why do we have so many wars?
All our wars have been based on lies to make a few rich men richer; thus all our top politicians are mass murderers. Even the Revolutionary War was fought in part because King George was impeding the rich colonists’ project of stealing land from natives. And there may have been some good reasons for fighting World War 2, in retrospect, but those were not the reasons the USA entered that war.
In the novel “1984,” the military branch of the totalitarian government is called “the Ministry of Peace.” Shortly after that novel was published, the US Department of War was renamed as the US Department of “Defense,” but the mission of that department was not changed; there is nothing defensive about the USA’s many, many wars. The new name made it easier for USers to believe that their government is always on the side of good. “Honor the troops,” we are told, but it would make as much sense to honor the mafia. No, I would say “forgive the troops,” because most of them were misled, and didn’t understand what they were getting into. That explains the very high suicide rate among veterans.
And there are plenty of other things wrong with this country. We have more people locked up in prisons than anyone else, both in total and on a per capita basis; we are just the opposite of the “leader of the free world.” And we have greater economic inequality and poorer healthcare than any other advanced country.
And I still see too much patriotism even among people who are in most respects “progressives.” They say things like “we need to fix this country,” as though we should see this nation as something separate from the rest of the world. But global warming and pandemics don’t stop at a national border; we need more cooperation throughout the world. A national border is a line drawn on a map by politicians, who then say “the people on the other side are different.” But really the people on the other side are our cousins; it’s the politicians who are different.
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FORGETFUL PEOPLE. That’s most of the USA. Political lies exposed just a few years ago are already forgotten. War criminals exposed just a few years ago are already appearing as “experts” again on television talk shows. The “terrorist monsters” that our troops are now fighting were, just a few years ago, “freedom-fighters” that our taxes were supporting.
And most people seem to think that the corruption and plutocracy in our government is a recent phenomenon. They want a return to the “good old days” which were – um – when? They praise “the wisdom of the founding fathers,” forgetting that the USA has been a plutocracy thinly disguised as a democracy ever since its founding in land theft, genocide, and slavery.
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AUTHORITARIANS are people who believe that someone needs to be “in charge” of everyone else. They feel that otherwise society will get nowhere or will crash, like a boat that has no helmsman or too many helmsmen. But society is not a boat. Nevertheless, the authoritarians mostly have what they want: Most of our activities in government and business are organized in hierarchies. Power corrupts, so we would be better off if most or all of our activities were organized in horizontal networks, like friendship.
To understand authoritarians better, here is a joke: Three authoritarians are shipwrecked on a beach; it appears to be part of an uninhabited island. What is the first thing they do, even before searching for food, water, and shelter? Answer: They elect a president.
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SPORTS FANS. And by “sports” I mean more specifically “competitive sports” but that’s what “sports” generally means in our society. Most people in our society are sports fans, but a few of us are not, and here Noam Chomsky is on my side. At one point he said,
Now I remember in high school, and I’m pretty old, I suddenly asked myself at one point, Why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know, right? I mean they have nothing to do with me. I mean, why am I cheering for my team? It doesn’t make any sense. But the point is it does make sense. It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And, you know, group cohesion behind the, you know, leadership elements. In fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.
And that is why the US military subsidizes violent video games (along with movies that glorify soldiers).
Actually, I am opposed to all forms of competition, though that seems to be blasphemy. Most of our society worships competition. They constantly assert, without any evidence, that competition is the source of all effort and all innovation, and that it brings out the best in us; the opposite is actually true. Alfie Kohn gave a lecture titled “The Case Against Competition,” and it is more brilliant than anything I’m likely to say, so I’ll just insert a link to it here.
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PEOPLE WHO DON’T WEAR SOCKS. No, I was just kidding, I have nothing against people who don’t wear socks. It’s a joke. I just put that one in there to see if you were really listening. But the other topics in this list are quite serious.
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APOLOGISTS FOR THE RICH. Too often, I’ve heard reformists say “I don’t resent the wealthy, I just object if they use their wealth to exert an unfair amount of influence over our lives.” That is just wrong, in so many ways.
First of all, it is inevitable that the rich will mess up our lives, because power corrupts. They are causing great suffering, and ultimately destroying the world.
But even if the rich were minding their own business, would it be fair or morally acceptable for a few people to be immensely wealthy while many others are homeless and hungry? Do you think a few people are more “deserving”? It is “fair” only if you have no empathy; evidently the rich are sociopaths. The board game Monopoly is “fair” in the sense that all players begin with an equal chance of being the winner – but the game always ends with all the players but one totally impoverished; that is a terrible plan for the real world’s economy. Ours is a very sick culture, to have accepted enormous inequality as normal.
Sociologists have found that, beyond basic material necessities, additional wealth does not add to happiness, but improved social connections do add to happiness. I had the good fortune to grow up in a middle-class home, neither rich nor poor, so I was as happy as one can be in this sick culture. The poor can get basic material necessities only with difficulty, but the rich cannot get improved social connections at all. The rich look down on anyone who is not rich, and so their own self-esteem must be contingent upon their fortunes; thus they cannot enjoy the love and self-respect that you and I enjoy. Property separates us, so the rich cannot have ordinary trusted friends, only uneasy temporary alliances. But the wealthy apparently do not understand their situation; they want to be wealthier still.
And how do you think the rich became rich? In the English language, the word “earn” has two very different meanings – “acquire” or “deserve” – but the rich think those are the same. Balzac was right when he said that “behind every great fortune is a great theft.” Here are two origins of great fortunes:
- Business: Pay many employees less than they deserve, and charge many customers more than is necessary.
- Conquest: Seize a nation by force of weapons or through economic “sanctions.” Justify your actions as “the bringing of civilization,” “the bringing of democracy,” or some such. Or inherit from a conqueror.
Neither of these methods – business or conquest – was available to Robinson Crusoe; there are no “self-made” millionaires.
And after the thief becomes powerful enough, he becomes the establishment, or at least an accepted part of it. After that, his ill-gotten gains are protected by “property rights,” enforced by government courts and weapons. Note that the word “noble” means both “admirable” and “descended from a warlord”; this illustrates how the powerful build propaganda into our language.
Apologists for the powerful believe those people can be persuaded to do the right thing. Corporations and politicians always advertise themselves as friends of the general public, and recently also as friends of the ecosystem. But don’t be fooled – that’s just greenwashing. The laws of the market have not changed: The market is still competitive. To survive, a corporation must put short-term profits ahead of all else, and politicians must put their big corporate donors ahead of all else. The ruling class profits from the status quo, so it will block any real change.
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DEFENDERS OF DEMOCRACY. These so-called “defenders” believe we have a democracy, because that’s what they’ve been told over and over. They are mistaken. Regardless of elections, the rich get the public policies they want, and the rest of us don’t. In effect, we have plutocracy, rule by the rich. That has long been obvious to anyone who would open their eyes, but it was proved statistically in 2014 by Professors Gilens and Page. The fact that the plutocracy is disguised as a democracy makes it harder to overthrow. It is as Baudelaire said: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
And some political activists seem to think that democracy is the solution to all problems, a panacea, the holy grail of politics. They are mistaken. If we got a real democracy but changed nothing else, the improvement would be very slight. We can’t vote wisely when misled by lies of the corporate press. We are divided by our property, so we end up with 51% overruling 49%, an unstable truce that is unpleasant for all. And so-called “representative” democracy is hierarchy, which inevitably corrupts.
“Democracy,” “rights,” and “justice” are adversarial terms, the sort of terms you might use in a court of law when dealing with people you don’t really like. You wouldn’t use any of those terms in a friendship or a successful marriage. “Democracy,” “rights,” and “justice” are reasonable goals within the context of our present culture, but I think we are not likely to achieve them unless we also keep in mind still larger goals. What we really need is a culture in which people care about each other, work to understand each other, and try to take good care of each other. Then we could govern by consensus.
Power corrupts, as we see in domestic violence, workplace bullying, police brutality, prison torture, wars based on lies, and assorted other cruelties. Our ruling class consists of liars, thieves, and mass murderers, yet we honor them; it’s some sort of national Stockholm syndrome.
Wealth and political position are two forms of power, and they are largely interchangeable: Each can be used to obtain the other. Between business and government is a revolving door, not the barrier described in our mythology. As journalist Glen Ford said,
“The idea that the plutocrats can be quarantined from power, while remaining plutocrats, is absurd.”
I conclude that the only way to end rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class.
And if we don’t see the bigger picture, then even a revolution won’t fix things. If we get rid of the plutocrats, but we don’t change our culture, then our culture will quickly spawn a new litter of plutocrats. That was the outcome of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, perhaps because those uprisings both preceded Marx.
The world has been ruled by the rich ever since the invention of private property and hierarchical authority 12,000 years ago. By now, those two institutions are so deeply embedded in our culture that it’s hard for us to recognize them as a problem or to imagine living without them.
But property and hierarchy are only a superficial cultural overlay. Our deeper nature is that of social animals, far more than any other species. Our linguistic and tool-making abilities are nature’s extreme experiment in cooperation. For our first 200,000 years we shared everything as equals. That’s still what we teach our kids, still where we turn in crisis, still who we are genetically. We made a cultural wrong turn 12,000 years ago, to hoarding and inequality, but we can still turn back. We must, or profit will annihilate us in nuclear or climate apocalypse. The biologist Robert Sapolsky observed one tribe of baboons that changed its culture accidentally; surely we humans, who are much smarter, can change our culture intentionally.
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APOLOGISTS FOR WAGE-LABOR. Your boss makes more money than you, not by working harder or being more productive, but by controlling more – that is, by standing between you and the money.
Conventional labor unions have the goal of getting workers a better deal from the bosses. That’s like slaves having the goal of fewer whippings. I’m more in agreement with the Wobblies, whose goal is to get rid of the bosses altogether. The constitution of the Wobblies begins with these words:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth.
Our world is tearing itself apart, because our present economic system is based on not caring about others. If we all cared about each other, clearly our economic system would be this formula:
from each according to ability, to each according to need,
without any quid pro quo. That formula is sometimes called “communism.” It is also what the early followers of Jesus did, as described in the book of Acts.
Skeptics ask, “How would you regulate things, to make sure everyone did their fair share of the work?” That leads into debates about what is “fair,” and mechanical rules, but all that misses the point. Let’s not be so adversarial. What we really need is
a culture where people want everyone to be comfortable.
Once we’ve agreed on that goal, fine-tuning the details should be easy. And anyway, if we can get rid of destructive parasites like Bezos, Gates, and the Pentagon, there will be plenty for all; no one will have to work very hard.
FANS OF THE GREEDY BAKER, the better mousetrap, the invisible hand, etc. Here in the USA, these fans call themselves “libertarians” or “objectivists.” They believe that “greed is good,” as Gordon Gekko said. Adam Smith wrote that
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard of their own interest.”
The idea is that you can make your living, and perhaps even get rich, by providing goods and services that other people want. Ralph Waldo Emerson said something to that effect, which was later paraphrased this way:
“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Nowadays this whole process, of greed making the world a better place, is often called “the invisible hand of the market,” based on a single reference to a more narrow instance of it in Smith’s writing. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has had some fun with that metaphor.
The theory of the invisible hand is tempting, as long as you keep your eyes closed and don’t look at the evidence. But Gekko, Smith, and Emerson were all wrong. Emerson can be corrected this way:
People won’t come to your door if they don’t know about your mousetrap, regardless of how good it is. But convince the public that you have built a better mousetrap (regardless of whether you actually have done so), and the world will beat a path to your door.
That is why big corporations spend more on advertising than on research and development. And there are still other ways to get rich; for instance,
Kill all the other makers of mousetraps, and the world will beat a path to your door (to buy yours).
That’s one of the reasons for all of the USA’s wars. John Maynard Keynes summarized the whole theory this way:
“Capitalism is the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.”
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FANS OF VOLUNTARY TRADE. That’s almost everyone. But actually, my ideas are only a little different from those of the famous economist Thomas Piketty.
First, a very brief version: Voluntary trade brings profit to all participants, so it is mutually beneficial in the short run. That looks good, and most people see no further than that. But trade generally brings greater profit to the participant who is already wealthier. Over the long run, that has terrible consequences.
Now a longer version: Economic inequality in our society is enormous. It has been that way consistently for thousands of years, through varying economic systems, so it didn’t happen by random chance. Great inequality must be caused by something common in all those economic systems, something very simple and basic. Following is a simple, basic explanation.
If we don’t share, we must trade – for labor, food, rent, interest, influence, everything. The idea is basically the same with barter or money, but it is easier to describe in terms of money, so that’s what I’ll do. A sale occurs if a commodity’s value to a buyer is greater than its value to the seller. Both traders will profit if they negotiate a price between those two values – that is, if
value to buyer > price > value to seller.
We can calculate each profit with a simple subtraction:
(profit to buyer) = (value to buyer) – (price)
(profit to seller) = (price) – (value to seller)
Both traders profit; thus trade is mutually beneficial. But what happens while the traders are haggling over the price? If the price goes up or down, then one profit goes up while the other profit goes down. The haggling is not mutually beneficial.
The two profits probably won’t be equal. Rather, the negotiated price will be more to the liking of the trader in the “stronger bargaining position.” What does that mean?
- Imagine, for instance, that your family is hungry, your refrigerator and your bank account are both empty, and you have no one else to trade with. Then you need this trade desperately, and you will accept any deal that brings you even a little profit, perhaps just barely enough to survive for another day. That’s a weak bargaining position.
- On the other hand, imagine that you and your family are fine, your refrigerator and bank account are plentiful, and you have plenty of trading partners. Then you are in no hurry to close this deal. You can afford to wait for some other trader who offers you a bigger profit. That’s a strong position.
The stronger trader could be the buyer or the seller. (For instance, the buyer of migrant farmworker labor, or the seller of needed pharmaceuticals.) But usually it is the richer trader. So trade brings profit to everyone, but generally it brings greater profit to the rich than to the poor. Thus trade increases inequality. That leads to poverty, plutocracy, corruption, war, ecocide, etc. This problem is inherent in any system of not sharing; there are no reforms that can make it go away. We need to end trade, and go back to sharing everything.
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APOLOGISTS FOR CAPITALISM. That is, “mainstream” economists. Why must these people make things so complicated? Do they really think that one method of not sharing is better than another method? Is hanging better than drowning?
Fans of capitalism say that anyone who works hard can succeed. If that were true, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. Fans of capitalism say the responsible thing to do is to work hard and pay off your debts, but it’s mathematically impossible for everyone to do that, because of this little known fact: All money in our society is created as loans from banks, and the debts increase with interest; thus the total debt is greater than the total amount of money. It’s like the children’s game of “musical chairs.” Perhaps it is for this reason that Henry Ford, the inventor of mass production assembly lines, said (paraphrasing)
If the American people knew how our monetary system really works, there would be revolution before morning.
And there are some fans of capitalism who claim that the problems we see all around us are not really problems of capitalism, because what we have now is not true capitalism. What they describe as true capitalism would solve all our problems, they say. Chomsky has neatly sidestepped this claim by pointing out that what we presently have is really existing capitalism – i.e., the version or variant of capitalism that presently exists. Clearly, really existing capitalism does cause the problems we see all around us. And I would suggest that if our society ever somehow did get the “true capitalism” proposed by those fans, it would be unstable, and it would quickly convert itself to something a lot like the really existing capitalism we have now, for the same reasons that we have already arrived at the present system.
Incidentally, Chomsky, also sidesteps the question of what true democracy would be like, and what true capitalist democracy would be like. He says that what we have is really existing capitalist democracy, which he abbreviates as R.E.C.D. and pronounces as “wrecked.”
Many apologists for capitalism give it credit for the achievements of science and technology. That is like giving me credit for Tom Petty’s music, because I was born in the same year. Actually, nearly all innovation originates in university labs and government labs, where scientists and engineers are paid in a fashion more like socialism than like capitalism. The discoveries are then given away to private corporations.
Different leftists have different definitions of “capitalism,” so what some of them call “ending capitalism” is what some of us would call attempts to reform it. Many leftists in the USA are “market socialists”: They believe in continuing to own and buy and sell some things. Some think we just need to change the monetary system. Some want to ban “private property” but permit “personal property”; I’m dubious of that distinction: What will happen to your economic system when someone accumulates an overly large share of the “personal property”? And what would you do about “intellectual property” – digital copies of music, books, videos – which are expensive to produce initially but free and easy to duplicate? My own view is that we need some other method for compensating the creators of intellectual content.
Some leftists compromise with small-scale capitalism: They have no objection to the traditional “Mom and Pop store” on the corner. Actually, this issue is becoming moot: Mom and Pop are being driven out of business by Walmart and Amazon. But I think Mom and Pop would welcome the socialist revolution: They would be glad to turn their store into a People’s Distribution Center, and address people’s needs instead of their money.
Anyway, how do you keep small-scale capitalism from growing into larger capitalism? Where do you draw the line? The Little Prince warned us to weed out the baobabs when they are small; when they get bigger they will destroy the planet. And really, I don’t want any alligators in my swimming pool, large or small.
The Georgists and the native Americans believed that no one should be able to own land. As Proudhon said, “property is theft.” I can argue that position quite easily: In the beginning, thousands of years ago, all land was commons, shared by everyone. When someone fenced off a portion for himself, that was theft. And no matter how many times a stolen property is sold and re-sold, common law says it still belongs to the people from whom it was originally stolen. It is only force that leaves Palestine and Turtle Island in the hands of the Europeans.
My own view is more extreme than those compromisers: We must share everything (not just land). Admittedly, I don’t know how that will work, so I hope to get more people involved in figuring out the details. But sharing is necessary, because not sharing has terrible consequences that cannot be reformed away. I already mentioned increasing inequality; here are two more unreformable problems:
- Alienation. Separate property creates the illusion of separate lives, despite pandemic and ecocide. Competition kills empathy, leaving fear, greed, lies, madness, random shootings, authoritarianism, wars. That fear and loss of empathy also results in racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other exclusions of identity groups. Our workplaces are dictatorships that objectify, exploit, and discard us; that’s why we hate Mondays. Ours is a very sick culture, to accept as “normal” that a few people are rich while many are poor.
- Externalities. A trade negotiated between buyer and seller has harmful side effects on other parties who were not consulted. Thus the commons gets trashed. Ecocide is about to kill us all; that would hurt the economy significantly! The so-called “efficiency” of the market is a lie.
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GRADUALISTS believe we can solve our problems gradually.
There’s a partial truth in that. Change depends on waking people from the old way of seeing things. Generally people wake at different times, for different reasons, so awareness grows in society only gradually.
But some things cannot be done gradually. Familiar examples are lighting a candle or getting pregnant. More relevant examples are grasping an idea or ending plutocracy.
And for some problems, a gradual solution is a solution too late. For instance, ending the USA’s unjustifiable wars next year doesn’t help someone killed next week. And climate change is speeding up; we don’t have time to address it gradually.
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SPIRITUALISTS. For lack of a better word, that’s the name I’m giving to people who say “love is all you need” or “we just have to work on ourselves” or something of that sort.
Yes, our attitudes are important, but so are our institutions. In fact, our attitudes and institutions are reflections of each other; they are the inside and outside of our lives. But we easily lie to ourselves and to others about what we are feeling; look at how easily politicians say “I feel your pain.” Our institutions are more tangible, less easily misrepresented; they are a better measurement of our progress.
And anyway, how would we get the sociopathic ruling class to “work on themselves” ?
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REFORMISTS think we can solve our problems by “working within the system,” because they believe much of the system’s mythology. They will tell you that the basic principles of the USA are “liberty” and “democracy.” They believe that capitalism may need some tweaking, but basically it makes sense, and they believed Margaret Thatcher when she said about capitalism that
there is no alternative.
But none of that is true. And what the reformists see as problems, radicals such as myself see as mere symptoms of much deeper problems. “Radical” comes from a word meaning “root.” The USA is based not on “liberty” or “democracy,” but on the powerful using their power to make themselves still more powerful. We need to replace that basis with something better.
Reformists contrive regulations, incentives, and penalties in an attempt to remove troubling symptoms while leaving the system’s foundation unchanged. I am reminded of Rube Goldberg machines or the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy. Corporations routinely violate the regulations, because the resulting fines are smaller than the resulting profits.
Radicals call for a different world, and that takes imagination. Fredric Jameson said (I’m paraphrasing) that
it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
He was right: We imagine that the end of the world must look something like a cemetery, and we’ve all seen one of those, but no one alive today has ever seen anything like a world without capitalism. The corporate news never mentions the real basis of our present system, nor the very different world that is possible. Even the fictional future that we watch for entertainment is just a continuation of the present: more gadgets, but still the same socioeconomic system.
Here are some historical examples of the failure of “working within the system”:
- Franklin Roosevelt, the only US president who ever did much for common working people, did it only because he was heavily pressured: Leftists were quite strong at that time, and were on the verge of revolt. But FDR’s concessions merely raised living standards; they didn’t redistribute power. After FDR died, the plutocrats passed laws to weaken labor unions, and Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition decimated the communist and socialist parties. As long as power remains in the hands of the rich, any concessions to workers will be temporary. I am reminded of the futility of the labors of Sisyphus.
- The first amendment to the US constitution promises us freedom of speech. But it does not make any promises about where we can speak. “How about in public spaces?” asked the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011-2012. “No, not there” said the government in late 2012, as it used brutal force to expel peaceful demonstrators.
- In recent decades, some whistle-blowers have exposed crimes of the US government, particularly war crimes. But only the whistle-blowers have ended up behind bars as a result.
- The DNC rigged the 2016 presidential primary against Bernie Sanders, because he was a little bit socialistic. Sanders supporters took the DNC to court over that. The DNC did not deny that they had rigged the primary. Instead they denied that they were under any obligation to make the primary fair! The court – part of the same plutocracy – accepted their view. I’m sure that this court decision will be quickly forgotten (see my earlier discussion of forgetfulness). Thus, “working within the system” only beats the plutocrats on those rare occasions when the plutocrats permit it. – Still, Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns were not total losses: He did manage to spread some ideas, and for a while he recruited a very large following. Apparently people were ready for his message.
Perhaps we are making progress through reform, but it’s very slow, perhaps too slow: The Doomsday Clock is ticking. I’m disappointed by people whose vision, though big, is not big enough. Here are two examples of that:
- I’m glad that Extinction Rebellion (XR) communicates about climate with the urgency that it deserves. They point out that politicians have been irresponsibly ignoring the warnings and dragging their feet for decades. But I’m annoyed that they don’t talk about why the politicians have been dragging their feet. The reason is capitalism, as I explained earlier. This omission is ironic, as one of XR’s slogans or demands is to “tell the truth.”
- Progressives currently are calling for Medicare For All. The pandemic has made it more obvious than ever that capitalism is a terrible way to run a healthcare system (though the progressives are not ready to say so in quite those words). When will they recognize that capitalism is a terrible way to run everything else, too?
Reform and radical change begin the same way: holding meetings, making signs, marching in the streets, handing out leaflets, listing demands, recruiting more people, and – most of all – spreading awareness. Recruitment succeeds if the message is one that people are ready for. But our short-term efforts are shaped by our long-term vision and goals, and those must be mentioned in the message. That is where the reformists and radicals part ways. Presently, reformists are more successful in their recruitment, perhaps because they do not demand as much imagination.
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NEW PARTIES. I don’t understand why the “People’s Party” was recently formed. We already have too many leftist parties competing against each other.
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RECITERS OF OLD RHETORIC. This final section is sure to alienate my best friends, the Marxist-Leninists (MLs), because it’s mostly about them. I like half of what they say, but I can complain about the way they say it. And I don’t understand the other half of what they say, and probably a lot of other people don’t understand it either, so I’ll complain about how they say that half too. But when I tell this to any of the MLs, they say I might be right about other MLs.
MLs usually begin their discussions of political economics with what seems to be a discussion of 19th century epistemology, and how it is more “scientific” and better than 18th century epistemology. (Marx’s dialectic is materialist, where Hegel’s dialectic was idealist, or something like that.) I’m sure the later epistemology is better, but do we really need to discuss epistemology?
Admittedly, the first time a person departs from “mainstream” thinking, she may be surprised to discover that it is even possible to reject what “everybody knows,” and she may feel that that fact warrants discussion in its own right. I used to feel that way too. My earliest writings on political economics were always prefaced by a few words about 20th and 21st century epistemology. I would talk about cognitive semantics, social psychology, paradigm shifts in science, and the 1999 film “The Matrix.” But later I came to feel that political economics stands better on its own; adding epistemology is an unnecessary complication.
MLs have their own specialized jargon, and they won’t translate it into common English. Perhaps I should give them the benefit of the doubt on that. After all, I’m a mathematician (now retired), and we mathematicians have our own specialized language too. When anyone asks us to restate one of our equations in simpler terms, we reply that it already is in the simplest terms possible; that’s what mathematics is all about. Paraphrasing Albert Einstein,
everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
But I’m not sure that the MLs deserve this excuse. Earlier in this essay I presented sharing as a fairly simple concept. The MLs complicate that concept in ways that I have not yet understood; I have to wonder whether their complications are really necessary.
For instance, I don’t see why some MLs make a big fuss over the distinction between “capitalists” and “the rich.” Those two groups are technically different, but nearly the same in practice: Most capitalists and most of the rich are trying to become richer, by investing in capital. And most MLs fuss over “the working class,” a phrase that in modern English sounds too much like “blue-collar workers” or “people without college degrees” or “the bottom 80%,” when they really mean the 99%. And today, most working people are not working in a large concentration, in coal mines or factories or whatever; rather, they are dispersed, in Starbucks or an Uber or whatever. And the middle class is still sizeable, and its workers are paid enough that they may not even realize they are exploited. Instead of focusing everything on “organizing the workplace,” I would talk about other issues that affect us all: Nukes and warming and pandemic threaten us all, and imperialism, racism, and homelessness are the shame of us all.
Why are there so many different socialist parties? Why do they disagree about so many little things? Why can’t they just agree on socialism, and work together on that?
When I ask MLs a simple question, they hand me several ancient books full of references to ancient events and people. I’m a slow reader, and I lose interest and patience if I don’t immediately catch the gist of the plot or start liking the main character. The fact that my ML acquaintances can’t answer briefly in their own words suggests to me that they haven’t yet fully understood these books of theirs. I should ask them what Marx and Lenin wrote about nuclear weapons, Joseph McCarthy, the internet, and global warming.
The Revcoms (Revolutionary Communist Party USA) are slightly better: Their parroted phrases are more up to date, because their ancient saint is still alive. And they don’t beat around the bush: They call very explicitly for “communist revolution now.” But even their rhetoric still doesn’t pass the ultimate test: What does it accomplish? Are they recruiting many people? Are they bringing us closer to their revolution? It doesn’t seem so to me.
I might be in favor of revolution, but only if it is the right kind of revolution. For instance, I am certainly glad that the insurrection of January 6, 2021 failed.
And what does the phrase “communist revolution” even mean? MLs are focused on what that phrase meant a century ago, but we need to consider instead what that phrase means to the people we’re trying to recruit today. Those people grew up immersed in a century’s worth of capitalist propaganda. Many of them are horrified at the prospect of a “communist revolution,” because they have been told over and over that it means
dictators murdering millions of people and making themselves rich at your expense.
I’m not going to debate about what really happened in history, nor about what the phrase “communist revolution” really should mean. Such an argument is not likely to convince anyone of anything. It may be more productive to simply drop that phrase, and express ourselves using other words instead.
I like the word “awakening.” That’s where we all see the world in a new way and change our way of life accordingly. That could be bigger than revolution, more than a change of laws and leaders, and yet it has less connotation of violence and coercion.
However, we still need the right kind of “awakening.” That word has been attached to different visions by many different political factions – left and right – and religious factions too. Indeed, my own vision is similar to a religious one; it’s too bad I’m not religious. Here is my own vision, summarized very briefly:
We must awaken to a culture of brotherhood and sisterhood, a culture of sharing, like the early Christians in the bible’s book of Acts. That radical change is necessary, because not sharing has terrible consequences discussed earlier in this essay.
I hasten to clarify that by “awakening” I don’t mean brainwashing. What I have in mind is more like putting on a pair of prescription eyeglasses for the first time. Things that were blurry before, suddenly become clear; the improvement is immediate and obvious.
Of course, I’m using eyesight as a metaphor for understanding. In the “awakening,” many people will try on a new conceptual framework for interpreting the world. If it’s a good fit, things that people were already aware of will quickly become more understandable.
And that’s a good place to finish this essay. At great length I have described what I’m against, but here’s what I’m for: a great awakening, an increased understanding. Let’s all learn from each other, and figure this thing out together. I don’t have a detailed blueprint of where we need to go or how to get there, but I invite you to join the conversation; that’s the first step for all of us.
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2021 August 21, version 1.59.