From the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
On his book, “Revolution”, Century, 2014
First, how do I come to be reading your book, Revolution? I have spent the past thirty years arguing the point whenever and however I could, that world capitalism has to be ended. Not just in its most excessive manifestations, not just when it is run for private corporations and shareholders as opposed to state bureaucracies, but in every conceivable form it might take. How can you tell if the system in operation is capitalism? With a simple check-list. Employment – the exploitation of employees (French for the ‘used’) by employers (users) via the legalised robbery of the wages system. The market; in other words, the buying and selling of things which could instead now be created in such abundance that they could be taken freely by anyone in the global population, without the need for any system of money, vouchers, tokens, barter or trade of any kind whatsoever. Also, state power: governments, armies, police, who enforce the class rule by a tiny fraction of the population who own and control all productive resources.
Your book is disarmingly honest about your past, your faults, your flaws, thought processes, previous ambitions and resulting disillusion, the sources of your unhappiness, your latest hopes and desires, your continuing self-doubt, your determination to continue speaking and writing uncompromisingly and unashamedly what you believe to be true, and your refusal to give in to the pressure from snobs and hypocrites. These are people who have often attempted to silence your expression by mocking almost everything about you from your accent to your origins, your supposed lack of education, your poverty, your wealth, your hair, your profession – and, when all else fails, by misquoting, misrepresenting and distorting the ideas you express.
I hope it will make a refreshing change to have it suggested that, far from advocating the impossible or going beyond the thinkable, rather that you need to go one step further by demanding the so-called ‘impossible’. Your book is a brave step in promoting discussion of revolution to end the capitalist system we have throughout the world today. You make several cogent and absolutely essential points which are not only true, they cry out to be endorsed and adopted by the thousands who have already read your book – and the millions of others who would relate to so much of it. Points such as:
1. Do not vote – IF there is nothing worth voting for. Do not feel obliged to give moral and practical consent to the status quo by endorsing it, through voting into power one of several parties, each of which are openly pledged to defending, running and upholding that status quo in one form or another. Most of your opponents in the wake of that Paxman interview conveniently ignored the second half of this proposition, pretending that you had some kind of bizarre antipathy to the concept of voting, under any circumstances. More heinous still was their subtle exclusion of even the possibility of allowing a different way of running society: ‘you have Labour, Tory, Liberals. Lots of ways of running Capitalism. What more do you want? Now get out there and vote for one of those! And be damn grateful for having this wonderful choice once every five years!’ runs their mantra.
2. Global society is currently organised in a way which is designed purely to benefit a tiny (even less than one percent) minority, who have unfathomable wealth and power, who own and control the Earth and its resources – and who in doing so are depriving the 99 percent of access to the riches and comforts those resources have to offer us all. This is an insane, anti-social, irrational, illogical, unacceptable premise and starting point on which to found our global society. It is therefore urgently in our interests as that majority to end that regime completely and utterly, now. Another word for such a huge and urgent change in the way society is run is revolution, so clearly the fact that this is needed is beyond dispute.
3. There are many ways in which the present organisation of society like a vast prison camp (disguised as a holiday camp) causes unhappiness, suffering and distress – way beyond the crudely economic aspects of poverty, crucial and painful though those are too. Terms like alienation, epidemics like addiction are easy to dismiss as in the first case abstract waffle and in the second a poor choice made by (millions of) individuals. However, these are in fact very real, almost universal side-effects of the global social system we have. Indeed, for many people in the huge cities of the more ’developed’ parts of the world – like London or New York – these are some of the most powerful prompts which drive many of us to question the way society is currently structured. The one percent are devoted to maximising the surplus they extract from the work of the rest of us, and this in turn depends on them maintaining a certain social landscape, the consumer culture, the stifling of true dissent, the separation of people from one another and from themselves.
As your book progresses, you draw on input from a variety of activists and social thinkers. Some are more credible than others. One of the more compelling is Naomi Klein, with her brilliant expose of the stark choice now forced on us, between saving capitalism and saving the planet as a viable ecosystem or human habitat, and she shows incontrovertibly how incompatible the two are.
In eventually sketching a plurality of ‘alternatives’ , however, you may be unwittingly over-complicating the situation. There are not ‘loads’ of alternatives; the one key issue causing all significant social problems is the way we organise society – the system of minority ownership and production for profit. The solution, the one solution, to this is therefore common ownership and production for use. That means no money, banks, finance – and no ‘co-operatives’ selling goods in the market. Free access to all, for all! From each according to ability, to each according to need – one worldwide co-operative society, no buying and selling.
Some notes you quote about the virtues of co-ops mention ‘raising capital’, ‘job opportunities’ and making agreements with governments. But the revolution to get rid of capitalism has to mean getting rid of capital, government, finance, money, ‘jobs’ – all parts of the capitalist way of running world society. Of course, on paper, the idea of having thousands of autonomous co-operatives, each run democratically within itself, and engaging fairly with all the other units sounds a lot more just and pleasant than the current control of the world, its resources and its population by a tiny, powerful minority of less than one percent of the population. But if we are talking about ending that, then let’s end it. All these models and reforms are variations on the market system which, if ever pursued, would inevitably lead us eventually back to where we started. The solution is for us to withdraw our consent from capitalism, as you say – but to create instead a society without ownership, in which the whole world and all its resources becomes the common heritage of all humanity.
Of course, this necessitates all of the democratic aspects of administration which you touch on, local, regional and continental, but the key point is that these are ways for the world’s population to run a planet no longer divided into owners and non-owners. In the model of separate co-ops which you settle on at the end of the journey in your book, you do not go far enough – after all, if each co-op autonomously owns its resources then those outside that co-op are still alienated from the resources in it. You still then have money, trade, competition, separation – and the certainty of corruption, accumulation and minority power again flourishing.
You emphasise your belief in God. Connecting with our true selves and connecting with one another are positive parts of the revolutionary ending of property-based society. Belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent force outside of ourselves is significantly less helpful in creating the freedom from oppression to which we aspire. On this I would be more inclined toward the healthy cynicism of the late, great American comedian George Carlin:
‘I've begun worshipping the Sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the Sun. It's there for me every day. And the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, a lovely day. There's no mystery, no one asks for money, I don't have to dress up, and there's no boring pageantry. And interestingly enough, I have found that the prayers I offer to the sun and the prayers I formerly offered to God are all answered at about the same 50-percent rate.’
You rightly describe as mere ‘pipsqueak reformism’ the Swedish workers’ shares schemes (which in fact are a means of co-opting the impoverished majority into supervising our own exploitation). In one of your final chapters, you then make a list of demands which includes, for example, ‘State power to dissolve wherever possible to empower autonomous, democratic communities.’ Wherever possible? Although I have no doubt of your sincerity in sketching possibilities for what we construct in place of the wretched system we currently have, I would strongly urge you to reconsider the wisdom of listing multiple ‘realistic’ steps as the culmination of a book so rich in its often poetic damning of current social relations. The biggest tragedy in history, already played out myriad times, is this lowering of expectations as the first slippery slope back to cynicism and misery.
I recognise the courage and honesty with which you have put yourself on the line, derided your own celebrity status, taken on Paxman and others and often left them in gibbering defensiveness. Your regular podcasts, “The Trews” are a welcome window into reality without the twisting and obfuscation, the bullshit mediation of the media. In many ways it has been a breath of fresh air to see those hilarious and perceptive insights into the madness of capitalism viewed regularly by hundreds of thousands of people.
Let’s now take the next logical step and build a majority movement committed to the complete ending of capitalism, in all of its forms, with all of its trappings, and nothing less. On page 297 of your book you slightly misquote Marx in a way which could be significant. You say ‘From each according to his means, to each according to his needs’. On Twitter last year, however, you correctly quoted it as ‘from each according to ability, to each according to needs’. It was never about redistributing money, but abolishing it – and Marx’s slogan is even more relevant today than it was 150 years ago.