Commonism – communism for today (an outline)

November 19, 2012 at 11:50 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Seeing what lies open to view

Our understanding of the world is shaped by our socialization which is in turn deeply penetrated by ideological forces. For so long we have not seen our contemporary Western form of life as a constructed ‘system’. Rather, we have experienced it as a perfectly natural mode of social and economic organization, apparently in tune with human nature and ideally suited to deliver material well-being. Problems that have arisen have been perceived as merely minor defects of systemic functioning requiring only technical adjustment. The ideological hegemony of this idea culminated in the 1980s so much so that the ‘left’ effectively from then reduced their demands to humanizing the dominant system.

However, we are now in a different moment. The system is in view qua system and it is called capitalism. We can finally see it. Why? The scale of disorder is now so great its symptoms are everywhere. People in the Western centre are now themselves directly experiencing suffering and deprivation. We can now perceive the huge accumulation of wealth and capital by so few on one side and the vast human need and scarcity of so many on the other. Ecological disaster mounts. Poverty, oppression and human marginalization is evident everywhere. Business as usual is now not an option simply because ‘business as usual’ not only cannot solve our problems it has created them in the first place.

 

What is the problem?

Why is capitalism the appropriate name of the problem? The answer is that it produces, according to its own inherent logic, exploitation and alienation. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains valid and demonstrable – exploitation is built in to the very nature of labour and alienation is its offshoot. Alienation characterizes our social world. This is visible in rising emptiness, despair and feelings of powerlessness. The growing level of mental distress and other social dysfunctions signals this at an emotional, ‘non-rational’ level.

Why capitalism cannot be the answer is that it cannot structurally overcome its own inevitable production of exploitation and alienation. In addition, it cannot solve the general problems of ecological disaster or social inequality. The liberal state has mitigated the worst consequences of capitalism over the last century but the state is now in sharp decline because of fiscal deficits, ideological undermining from neo-liberalism and from its colonization by powerful corporate interests. Capitalism cannot fix the critical contemporary problems of:

ecological devastation;

permanent global economic growth (simply not possible in a finite world);

growing exploitation and alienation.

A new system is needed. But what? And how do we get it?

 

What must we do?

First, we must think. New perspectives and ideas are needed, new in terms of the hegemonic system but not new in the history of human culture. This includes a recovery of the insights of Marx and others. The modern left has badly failed to articulate and represent genuine social alternatives. Its obsession with the Gesture and the Dogmatic Word has closed off its ability to mobilize and inspire at the level of both dream and reason.

Second, we need to think together. The Freirean method of dialogue and cultural discussion is now essential.[1] We need to recover the Kantian use of public reason – reason deployed without being tied to purpose, without project.

Then, finally, we need to act. We need new forms of life. But we also crucially need to propose a clear programme to take us to where we want to go. But, what do we really want? I think we need to recover from the horrors of the 20th century our dream of forging a genuine human history, yes with all its messes and failures, but nonetheless human. This rests on radical egalitarianism and ecological intelligence. We are thus faced with the question of values and desire and the ideas and planning to achieve them.

 

We need to be radical – reform has not worked and cannot

Reform has not worked. We are now in fact regressing. The advent of the Chinese model (authoritarian capitalism) and the permanent ‘war on terror’ show us the extent of our deterioration. The system cannot be adjusted because its inherent logic centres on exploitation and alienation – it cannot do otherwise. The new dynamic face of capitalism is China and its dark reality is seen in the Congo, in Tibet, in the teeming favelas of the world. In addition, capitalism has had half a century to address the ecological crisis – it cannot do so because it cannot function without economic growth. This is simply systemic. It is not a question of greed or corruption or regulatory failure – maintaining growth at all costs is inherent to the logic of the system itself.

Furthermore, cultural change – often suggested as the way forward – has not and cannot work on its own. This has centred on the proposal for ‘inner reform’ – a type of spiritual awakening or enlightenment that will cause cultural reformation. Hence, the ideological role of Buddhism, TM, Yoga, mindfulness and so on. Yet, these lifestyles are now effectively co-opted as yet new commodities and coping mechanisms which in fact permit the system to function all the better. They also delude us into thinking that we are doing something, indeed doing the very deepest thing of all. But we are not.

It is clear that the system qua system cannot change. Individuals within its logic may be well-meaning but there is nothing decisive that they can do. Charity and Corporate Social Responsibility are mere delusionary palliatives. Thus, the system will either be overthrown or it will crash. But if it crashes it will do untold human and ecological damage.

But, if the system cannot reform itself or be reformed then what are the implications?

 

 Seizing Power – Commonism

In the face of this reality we must be direct and unequivocal.  No more euphemisms or obscurantism. Are we serious or not? If so, then we must seize power. It is that simple.

Here, two dimensions need to be addressed – the immediate / local dimension and the national / global dimension. In the first we must take power at every level and opportunity that we can. This means liberated zones of the life-world in a systematic de-linking from capitalism. This means what? Our food supplies, our fuel resources, our economic exchanges and our social networks becoming de-linked.[2] What is needed is a new non-monetary, gift and exchange economy operational at local levels which mobilizes the creative talents of all so that all may manifest their humanity for their own self-expression and for their social identity and value.[3]

In the second dimension we need to stop holding our noses and pretending to be pure. We need a new political party committed to total revolution, one that is ready to take the reins of power and re-direct the State towards a new system. Of course such a party will have to compromise in the short-term. But it does so knowing where it is ultimately going.

We therefore require:

  1. Organization and solidarity by which we link with like-minded individuals and groups in order to de-link (a new class consciousness that we are in this together, the system is failing and we need new ways to sustain our shared social existence)
  2. Dialogue as our mode of engagement as opposed to force which is counter-productive, does not work and benefits those who seek to uphold the present system
  3. A political programme which mobilizes, is clear and understandable and is achievable and effective.

Thus we need the movement from below and the movement from above, the one to democratize the other, the other to manifest the movement in the public, political realm. It is democracy for an ecological age.[4]

There is no alternative to this approach. Everything else is naïve and misses the point about contemporary power. Other approaches may make us feel better but they won’t work. They have not worked up to now. We have many ideas – we need an operational plan to implement them. Power must be taken in real terms.

We can call this new movement Commonism – a new communism for today. Why associate it with communism with all the baggage of that term? Because this word is not co-opted and still carries a thrill of fear and radicalism.

Why commonism? Because it focuses on the key issue – our shared commons, social and ecological. Capitalism focuses on capital because that is what is important to it. In commonism we address how to live within our commons, how to organize ourselves within this shared and fragile reality and how to plan and bring about integral human well-being.

Commonism’s programme

There is no simple blueprint. It must be developed dialogically. But the ultimate goal is radical egalitarianism and maximum human liberty within our ecological limits. We need a simple but transformative initial revolutionary agenda:

Guaranteed basic income for all

Power-down – systematic repudiation of fossil fuels (cap and share)

Resource planning to operate within planetary limits[5] and to ensure equitable distribution of resources

 

Reality determines

We must be open to total pessimism – the real possibility of complete failure. However, if we are to save civilization then it must be communistic. Individual self-interest, ruthlessly pursued, cannot deliver social well-being. That illusory game is now up. The system is finished but, like a dinosaur, may live on destructively though its brain is dead. Facile hope that something will happy or that it will all work out is not any more helpful. We are facing disaster. Our new hope must be ruthlessly realistic:

H –       ‘home-centric’ regarding the critical resources of food and fuel

O –      organization and openness to others

P –       power, i.e. seizing it, taking it back to ourselves at every level from the personal   to the political

E –       new modes of free exchange, i.e. of goals, services, goods and ideas.

 

We must start from here. But from here, in the aftermath of capitalism as Marx suggests, genuinely human history may begin. Not perfection but human.

 

 

 


[1] Freire, Paulo: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

[2] See, for example Douthwaite, Richard (1996)  Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economics for Security in an Unstable World.

[3] See, for example, Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein (sacred-economics.com).

[4] See, for example in an Irish setting, Garavan, Mark (2004) A Democracy For an Ecological Age, in Growth: The Celtic Cancer, Feasta Review No. 2; and more globally Jopling, John and Roy Madron (2003) Gaian Democracies: Redefining Globalisation and People Power.

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