It occurred to me that I’ve never directly discussed the issue of grand historical expectations – in particular, the expectation, widespread on the hard left, that sooner or later there will be a worldwide social convulsion of some sort in which, over however long and protactred a period, power structures will be dismantled, property will be socialised, freedom may or may not ring, and rule will be replaced with self-rule.
And I thought that the day after Mayday would be a good opportunity to do so, and in particular to confront the fact that much of the time, this idea – what I will call the Final Revolution Thesis – seems much more like an article of faith than a sober historical judgement.
Now it would be silly of me to deny the ways in which it does function as an ‘article of faith’. Like any strongly-held belief, it plays a role in a psychic economy, it has an emotional significance. That’s consistent either with it being false or with it being true. So let’s put that aside.
Let’s also put aside the question of whether such a revolution would be desirable – whether anarchist communism is a good idea, and in most people’s interests. I think it is, and I’m going to assume that in what follows.
We might flip the question around and ask: if a certain arrangement is to most people’s advantage, how can society operate by any other? If statist capitalism, slave-owning patriarchy, feudal theocracy, corporate badism, etc, are so bad, how did they exist for centuries? What stops people’s collective interests determining society?
The two answers seem to me to be individual irrationality and collective irrationality, i.e. disorganisation. Both of these are actively created by those classes and groups who benefit from these arrangements. On the first note, every society generates a mainstream of opinion that accepts that societies’ essential structures as legitimate. On the second, every society strives, wherever possible, to fight and undermine organisation on the part of oppressed classes. Union-bashing is the most obvious example, but so is the confinement of women in houses. Dominant groups are almost always more organised and co-ordinated.
I know it sounds rather cliché to say that most of the world’s people are living in ‘false consciousness’ (weird phrase) and that this is all that stops them from rising ‘up’. But I don’t really see an alternative, if we take as premises that 1) rising in said direction would be to most people’s advantage, and 2) if everyone with an interest in such a rising took part, it would be essentially irresistable.
So the conclusion I seem to be led to, cliché as it is, is that some combination of misunderstanding and disorganisation are necessary conditions for the persistence of injustice. I then ask myself; what are the long-term prospects for misunderstanding and disorganisation? And on a long view, they both seem to be declining.
Obviously it’s possible to be stupidly optimistic, or to falsely idealise our current culture as so much more ‘enlightened’ than all previous ones. Certainly there are idocies which are distinctively new. But it just seems implausible to me to deny, for example, that the world’s average person nowadays – literate, with internet access, having absorbed an awareness of cultural diversity and historical change, having at least encountered the essential scientific ideas of our time, has a better intellectual understanding of things, as a whole, than the world’s average person a hundred or two hundred years ago.
That organisation is increasing is both more obvious and perhaps more important. As people emerge from every form of isolation – rural isolation, national isolation, or isolation inside a household – they constantly encounter more and more of each other, and are forced to adapt to modern technologies of transport and communication. As a result, mass movements, mass sharing of experiences, mass organisation, are all possible now in ways that they were not possible in the past.
This doesn’t mean that the revolution is imminent. I imagine it will probably occur after I am dead. But it means that in the long run, I think that capitalism, patriarchy, statism, and assorted evils rest on a foundation that is being undermined.
We should remember that just belief in revolution has an emotional and psychological weight associated with it, so too does despair of revolution. Our judgements – our feelings – of what’s ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are extremely malleable, it seems to me: they reflect the dominant theme of our experience, so that if something involves contradicting the shared feature of all our life experiences, it will feel ‘impossible’, ‘unreal’. But such things happen. Most descriptions of the present would sound ‘unreal’ to someone from the past.
To say a brief word about Marx. Marx, like the typical communist, anticipated an imminent revolution. That anticipation was not fulfilled. On the other hand, most of the reasoning he used is, I think, still sound. The proletariat expands – recently it has now become the world’s majority class for the first time. The proletariat occupies the central place in production – by definition, insofar as production is capitalistic. The proletariat becomes ever more organised and concentrated – indeed, we have recently also seen a majority of the world’s population living in cities. And the proletariat’s interests lie opposed to those of capital and to those of dominating groups per se.
Where I think Marx was incautious was in assuming that the proletariat that he saw was the final and mature form of that proletariat. With a bit more historical hindsight we might suggest that proletarianisation is still ongoing; that we have not yet seen the emergence of the kind of dispossessed class that will inaugurate anarchist communism.
The first aspect of this is the proletarianisation of women, the transformation of that majority of humanity who had previously occupied a position analogous to serfdom – trading freedom for security in the ‘family’ of whatever structure – into a mobile and dynamic class of individuals both free and dispossessed. The primary acheivement, arguably, of the feminist movement up to this point has been not so much the liberation of women as their proletarianisation. And since most positions of power and privilege are occupied by men, the revolutionary proletariat of the future, we might surmise, is likely to be mainly female.
The second aspect is the globalisation of capitalism, which makes the urban proletariat into a global, rather than a European and North American, phenomenon. As I said, this is advancing full strength.
But connected with this, I think, is the still-largely-future need to make a global proletariat into an international one – which is not simply present across the world, but which co-operates across the world, and is organised across national boundaries, in the same way that the International Workingmen’s Associations on the the 19th century attempted (and failed, in WWI). This will be forced onto the proletariat through the international organisation of capital: IMF, UN, WTO, MNCs, out-sourcing, intelligence-sharing, etc.
How will this international organisation come about? It seems not implausible to suggest that 1) migrants will be an important part of it – already there are entire ‘proletariats’ whose economic position is transnational, working in one country so as to send remittances to their families in another country; 2) atheism and religion will be a major issue: the international co-operation will sit uneasily with fervent belief in one’s own special brand of mythology – though it will also sit uneasily with having to accept someone else’s own special brand of realism, 3) the power-psychology of militarism and patriotism will need to be undermined, more successfully than was done in the 19th century. For this, the connection with feminism, which at least offers a route into understanding power-psychology, may be significant.
None of these processes is complete yet, and from this I conclude that ‘the revolution’ may well be a long way off yet. That’s not to say it’s impossible now, just unlikely.
As a final note, it might be worth asking why revolution is necessary. Why can justice not be acheived by a gradual and consensual process? And the thing is, it could – in an anarchist communist society. In a society where people have roughly equal power, no privileged minority could manipulate the various organs of society to defend their interests. In a society that proceeds by consent instead of coercion, no group with new ideas can be repressed or prevented from putting them into practice. But we do not yet live in such a society (also known as: rational society, civilised society, adult society).
That’s why I speak of the ‘final’ revolution. It’s not that everything will be happy and perfect afterwards. People will no doubt find ways to make themselves miserable in anarchist communism. But as individuals and as groups, they will be able to resolve those problems in a sensible, consensual, constructive way. Until then, we inhabit a society controlled by an elite and managed through force. Such a coercive elite, trained to rule and weeded out if they show insufficient desire to rule, will not surrender all possibility of ruling unless forced to. That need not mean bloodshed; but it means at least the threat of it – that it be made clear that attempts to forcibly govern people will be forcibly resisted.