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I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me

June 23, 2010

Warning: contains politics…if you violently disagree, that’s cool, but you own your own words. Of course, my opinions reflect only myself. And hey…relax…it’s not that serious.

Late last year, I thought it was about time I started learning more about communism, socialism, and anarchism, and the differences and similarities they contain. I’ve shied away from these topics, not because I disagree with them, and certainly not because I’m a lapsed Catholic. Mainly it’s because the language these political stances shroud themselves in is often purposefully obtuse, confusing, and actively hostile to communication. It’s ironic that the right is largely self-evident, plain-spoken, and more unified than the left, which seems to have a much larger group of intellectuals than the right.

Another reason is that I can’t really accept the political as a valid arena of intellectual pursuit. Ursula LeGuin once remarked that, although she would love to characterize herself as a feminist, and that many of her books are feminist in nature, Buddhism got to her first, and that remained the essential core to which she returned. I may vote NDP, prefer political compromise to open revolution, and support international legal institutions like the United Nations, but at the core of this is still the conviction that politics is something you must do to avoid having it done to you, and that treating people humanely is still the realm of morality, not litigation. Michael Ondaatje drives home this point poetically in the novel In the Skin of the Lion: “Ideology hates the private. You must make it human.”

The vast sea of information on communism, barely a century old, is also a daunting prospect that can leave you tied up for years, trying to navigate it. I chose a rather shorter path, spending quite a bit of time collecting and evaluating the Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press. The series is extremely well-edited, and the authors are chosen with great care.

I read the following (in order):

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Singer
Marx was a ‘Young Hegelian’, a group that hotly debated Hegel’s theories of history and morality, so to understand Marx, you must at least be familiar with Hegel. Whose philosophy is very hard to understand. Singer covers only the most important texts, many of which feed directly into Marx’s theories.
Marx: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Singer
Interestingly, Singer wrote this before his book on Hegel, above. This is a good summation of the vast amount of literature Marx and Engels wrote together and individually, during Marx’s lifetime. If, like myself, you don’t feel the overwhelming urge to wade through Capital, this book will leave you able to at least discuss the basics of Marx’s theories.
Communism: A Very Short Introduction, Leslie Holmes
Marx invented Communism, but he was never a politician who had to put it into practise. Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and other colourful characters are discussed here, along with their victories and failures.
Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction, Colin Ward
Anarchism is very different from Communism, rarely violent, and returning to the political landscape with a vengeance. Marx argued incessantly with its early adherents, and it seemed to fade away for most of the twentieth century. With Communism now largely in disarray and thought to be archaic, the anarchists may finally be getting the last laugh, as movements like Open Source software and the Creative Commons take anarchist ideas and add new technological twists to them.
Socialism: A Very Short Introduction, Michael Newman
Over-arching both Communism and Anarchism, Socialism is a looser set of ideals than either, but tends to value the basic fundamental ideals of the left more than either. This book evaluates and contrasts the socialism of Sweden and Cuba; a mis-matched pair, if ever there was one.

Reading all five books back-to-back was almost better than consulting the source texts, and obviously shorter. It underscores one essential fact: the left is far more fractured and confused than the right, and can be just as vengeful, spiteful, and dogmatically evil. In many ways, the “War on Terror” was presented in a more straightforward fashion than the people presenting evidence to oppose it.

And this seems, to me, to be the crisis the left is in now. Terry Eagleton‘s chapter in The Gatekeeper on his encounters and participation with Marxist politics in England and Ireland underscores the disunity, blind acceptance of dogma, and almost religious fervor surrounding policy that has kept the left always on the defensive, always disorganized, always shouting all at once, not in unison. We spend more times arguing amongst ourselves than with those who think it’s ok that one-third of the Earth’s population live on less than two dollars a day.

The current G8/G20 summit in Toronto has left me kind of ashamed to have any politics, either way. For all the ruffled feathers over security fences, thousands of cops, and the $1.2 billion price tag Canadians will have to bear, the left hasn’t put forth any type of coherent economic alternative. And really, after Seattle, what did you expect? That world leaders would just walk down the sidewalk unprotected? They’re the movie stars of politics, and like movie stars, protect themselves.

I’m not sure what a protest would do, if there’s no clear alternative to neoliberalism to promote. Voting with your wallet isn’t a political solution, as Eric Hobsbawm has already pointed out. Voting for leaders that appear to promote the same solutions whether they are left or right doesn’t help, either. Where does that leave you?

Out on the street. Holding a placard. Surrounded by thousands of people just as disenfranchised as you. On the other side of the fence. Where the leaders of the free world can just ignore you.

It just can’t be that bleak. It just can’t. And it probably isn’t.

I think both the left and the right agree on one thing: money and property, and it’s relationship to people. Both think it’s important beyond almost any other consideration, but have come to radically different conclusions on how to solve the problem, to say the least. But, I think you could argue that both conclusions, no matter how different on the surface, generally tend to be pessimistic. Those on the right tend to believe that humans can’t be changed, and that by their very nature, need to be rigidly controlled (Hobbes Leviathan). Those on the left tend to believe that humans can be improved upon, and that this process of improvement needs to be rigidly controlled, or imposed (Lenin’s ‘vanguard of the revolution’).

At the end of both of these world views, you’re left with totalitarianism. Fascism. Police states.


I think that the basic assumption that humans can never be changed is probably true, in that psychological change will probably be married to physical change. We will change, but through evolution. But I also think that the assumption that we will never change societally is probably wrong, too.

C. B. Macpherson noted in chapter 5 of his Massey Lecture The Real World of Democracy that, as far back as the 1960’s, we’d already eliminated a large amount of want and need in what we now know as the G20 nations, and that the necessity to have unlimited economic growth was untenable. He wrote about this 45 years ago. Even then, it was identified that the current system just couldn’t work forever. That increasing automation would lead to mass unemployment, as workers were ‘freed’ from physical labour. But he refused to map out an alternative or speculate on it.

I think the left really hasn’t responded well to the challenge put forth by technology, automation, and the increasing irrelevancy of traditional industries. When you can digitize books, send fabrication specifications digitally to a factory on the other side of the planet, do you really need ‘industries’, in the traditional sense, at all?

I think anarchism provides some way forward that meshes well with a marketplace as dynamic as the one we’ve seen emerge in the past three decades. Anarchism tends to promote local solutions to problems, in a way that actively discourages coercion and political consolidation. It promotes micro-markets, ‘long tail’ economies, and diversity, things we desperately need.

If you can’t stand the fence, do what Billy Bragg suggests in the lyrics to Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards: “If no one seems to understand, start your own revolution and cut out the middleman”.

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