Continuing some of the themes of yesterday’s post (perhaps?) it occurred to me that it’s quite common to hear socialists and sundry radicals arguing in the following styles:
1. Defensive: no, we don’t love Stalin. No, we don’t want to have everyone living in caves. No, we don’t want to give more power to Gordon Brown. No, we don’t want…
2. Critical: you see this piece of right-wing or centrist ideology here? It’s bullshit, for reasons A, B, and C, as follows…
3. Lamenting: Doesn’t it suck how many people are being blown up or are malnourished? Look how bad the existing system makes things…
4. Illuminating: see, the reason why such-and-such happens is that capitalism is constrained by the drive for profit to do X, and the political elite have to respond by doing Y…
But there’s much less of the
5. Constructive: see, if everything were run by federated workers’ councils, then large-scale economic decisions would be made by…
Now, obviously the first four are very important, but I’m still somewhat concerned about the relative lack of point 5. It’s not that there’s no discussion of it at all (I recently came across this good piece) but it tends to be occasional, and often written by socialists for socialists.
If you look at what the public tends to hear, the ‘soundbytes’ that socialists throw out, I think there’s a tendency (at least in my experience) to refrain from talking much about what ‘socialism’ is, beyond a certain collection of vague aspirations (co-operative, solidarity, rational planning, economic democracy).
Is this a bad thing? A few reasons why we might think so:
1) It’s likely to leave a significant number of people in a position where they’ll happily walk up to edge of socialism, but aren’t willing to step into it. Yes, I can see how bad the status quo is, yes I can see why it’s that way, and no, I don’t think that you want some blood-soaked crazy utopia, but…what do you want? A species that didn’t evolve inhibitions on stepping into the unknown would be a short-lived species.
2) It’s self-reinforcing. That is, the fact that this is the case generally makes it harder for any individual to buck the trend. In criticising capitalism in various ways, it’s fairly easy for individual socialists to know what all the others are likely to be thinking – it’s possible to offer the arguments in relative confidence that they are established and respected arguments, and that one in some sense ‘speaks on behalf of’ a traditon of thought.
But when it comes to telling people about how we envisage socialism, things are different. The relative silence of others means that what an individual says, especially if they’re not well-read in Texty-Texts, feels like a personal invention. How does democratic planning work? If individuals have to ‘bear the responsibility’ of explaining that themselves, they’re likely to be quite reluctant to say much.
3) A particular worry is that this feeds into the problem I discussed in this earlier post, of the frustrations of the working class producing not a desire to be personally and collectively free but to dominate some Other – a desire that leads away from socialism and into various deflections.
That’s because if the idea of the future society remains vague and sketchy, attention naturally becomes focused on the process of acheiving it: ‘the struggle’. The sorts of emotions attendant on the idea of ‘struggle’ are such as imply an Other against which to struggle, and whose eventual defeat is the key source of satisfaction.
That’s not bad in itself. Struggle is certainly what will be needed, and it would be absurd to suppose that it could happen (and be successfully resolved) without the sorts of emotions and relationships that are appropriate to struggle.
But at the same time, we might be justifiably anxious at a phenomenon which increased this relative to the less antagonistic emotions that might be associated with actually acheiving a self-managed, co-operative, rational society.
We can recognise this when capitalist states seek to make war – how the idea of ‘being at war’, and the sort of public attitudes that result, make it easier to justify repressive measures, easier to stigmatise dissent and solidify ruling-class power. Supposing, as some socialists sometimes seem to, that the only problem with this is that it’s nationalistic fervour and not fervour for the revolution, would seem to rely on the idea that we have nothing to fear from revolutionary leaders. Which would just be silly.
So those are some reasons to be anxious about this phenomenon, of focusing on defensive or offensive, but not constructive, arguments. What are some reasons to be glad of it? Find out in the next post, at – Directionless Bones! *theme tune plays*