Towards An Absence Of Friends In Low Places

In a response to yesterday’s post, James writes:

‘This is an issue which had stumped me once too, “how do we overcome positive and seemingly progressive capitalist rhetoric and promotion”. But I was reminded, as I now always remind my friends on the revolutionary left, that it comes down to material circumstances that individuals of the working class are faced with – these realities always overcome and contradict even the most comprehensive arguments in favour of capitalism – and fundamentally, the left’s response to those conditions. It would be abstract to most people to argue with the slogan “down with capitalism” on the streets, unless they are already sufficiently class conscious. Instead it is essential that we base a struggle that is relevant to the specific issues of the working class. At the moment, in Ireland for example, these would be water charges, austerity, women’s rights etc. These are the issues that are relevant for people, on which a consciousness can be developed. No propaganda can overcome actual material contradictions. No one will believe the most stringent political arguments in favour of a system which stops them putting bread on the table.’

It’s hard to disagree with this response, for the most part. However, I would say that the whole point of propaganda is to overcome actual material contradictions: propaganda in itself has a real material effect. James is right to move from the terrain of abstract and hypothetical conversations and onto the real situations in which people confront the fact that the logic of the system under which they live is geared towards their expropriation.

But this move is never inevitable. And it can it ever be a mere operation of mechanical reason: personal difficulty and humiliation can also lead to support for and consent to the most insidious and reactionary manoeuvres of the regime: against migrants, women, Muslims, Jews, people who depend on state benefits, and other potential “enemies within”.

When we talk about our conversations with “nice people”, or, for that matter, “individuals of the working class”, these are largely hypothetical scenarios that bear little resemblance to the ebb and flow of our encounters with others, which seldom take place under circumstances of our own choosing, and seldom the terms of debate of our choosing.

I saw a comment on a Facebook page yesterday about the article I wrote. It said that what I had written was typical of the condescension of socialists. I didn’t take the comment seriously. These comments can be a typical knee-jerk reaction when someone calls into a question a kind of life that you identify with. If you do it with some measure of intelligence and conviction, you’re operating with typical socialist condescension, and we all know that this led to the gulag. If you do it in confused and contradictory terms, you are operating with typical socialist soft-headedness, fantasy or stupidity, and we all know that this led to the gulag.

As it happens, I think people with far greater mental capabilities than me can fail to see the distinction between capitalism as an ideal and capitalism as a specific historical form with its own specific logic. You could put Stephen Jay Gould’s observation about Einstein into reverse: how is it that people with talent roughly the same as Einstein’s and who did not work in cotton fields and sweatshops but rather, the pinnacles of scientific achievement, could, unlike Einstein, be oblivious to the social system in which they were living, or compartmentalise their lives in such a way that they could ignore it?

Well, it is a distinction that is systematically blurred and obscured, I suppose, and anyway, it isn’t the sort of thing that crops up in casual conversation while you’re putting the bins out.

I take this more seriously, a remark from another reader:

‘I wish you’d addressed this in your response, because I think that after criticizing apologists for capitalism along *exactly the same lines as people criticize apologists for communism* – you might owe ‘these people’ a little more…? Unless, as you seem to imply, that unless people have read Marx, then they’re probably not worth talking to in the first place…’

It wasn’t my intention to dismiss certain people as not worth talking to. In fact, I’d find life unbearable if the only people I could talk to were people who have read Marx. What I meant to show was that capitalism and communism are not two comparable objects of consideration.

We can stand in a capitalist world and think about what communism might be. No-one has ever done the reverse. At best, they have some experience and awareness of certain aspects of life lived in ways that correspond to ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’, or, have made imaginary leaps towards what a classless society where all classes have been abolished might look like. If not the latter, I think most people have such experiences from their everyday lives, including even most Garth Brooks fans.

What is more, I assume that under certain circumstances, even Garth Brooks fans could see the abolition of class society as not only desirable but necessary, and remain Garth Brooks fans for all that. Or, they might go some distance in that direction, but then decide tomorrow will never come, and turn back to their glorification of the splendid underdog, their ideal of a hierarchical society with high and low places where a classless society is the mere abolition of social graces. To take these possibilities seriously is called politics. However, the political encounter is seldom, if ever, one of our choosing, and repertoires from other times and places may not be of that much use.


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