I was nobody By William Bowles

3 April 2007

Peasant‘I was nobody. I had no desires, no will, no likes, no dislikes. I had been fashioned to resemble as closely as possible a human model which I had not chosen and which did not suit me. Day after day since my birth, I had been made up: my gestures, my attitudes, my vocabulary. My needs were repressed, my desires, my impetus, they had been dammed up, painted over, disguised and imprisoned. After having removed my brain, having gutted my skull, they had stuffed it full of acceptable thoughts which suited me like an apron on a cow. And when it was verified that the graft had taken, that I no longer needed anyone to control the waves which welled up from the depths of my being, I was let go. I could live freely.’ — ‘The Words to Say It’, Marie Cardinal

It was my comrade and friend Patricia Murphy-Robinson who, at a critical period in my life, turned me on to ‘The Words To Say It’, surmising accurately, that it would be an invaluable tool in my attempts to deal with my own fears and inadequacies, and how right she was! It’s not possible to do justice to this book here, nor my intention, all I can say is buy it or get it from your local library (if you have one). I picked a second-hand copy for 2 bucks on Amazon.

Psychoanalysis was not high on my list of ‘to-dos’ and indeed, I’m still of two minds (excuse the pun) about the process, but for some, it surely works, but only if set in the context of the culture that makes us what we are.

What is so brilliant about ‘The Words To Say It’ aside from its prose, is that in the process of trying to uncover the ‘Thing’ that pursued her, she uncovered the network of chains that bind us: chains composed of gender, class, ‘race’ and religion and how the family transmits the past into the present and in doing so, hides the chains from our view.

‘Not fitting in’ is both a curse and a blessing. A curse, because depending on how you don’t ‘fit in’, can determine whether you can survive or not. A blessing, because not ‘fitting in’ can free you, allow you to keep your own brain, at a price, a price many are unable or unwilling to pay.

Of course, ‘not fitting in’ is not something confined just to ‘eccentrics’, most of us go through a process similar to the one described by Marie Cardinal, the difference however between those who ‘adjust’ well and those who don’t is striking. Marie Cardinal went mad and spent seven or more years to recover herself, most of us are not so lucky or blessed with the tenacity and courage to embark on such a dangerous journey of discovery.

According to the ‘statistics’, some 70% of the population of the US is or has been, ‘mad’ at some point in their lives. Now of course, it all depends on what it is meant by madness. For most it expresses itself as a deep sense of dis-ease, anxiety and depression. Indeed depression is the number one dis-order, but not to worry, there’s a pill that will dull the senses, suppress the fears and enable one to function in an ‘orderly’ manner, after a fashion.

Order of course, is the bottom line, never mind madness, madness is acceptable as long as it’s ordered. But once it becomes dis-orderly, ruffles the smooth functioning of society then it has to be not only suppressed but hidden. And in fact, until madness became a profitable dis-ease to be treated with drugs, that’s exactly what happened.

That madness became an institution in the 17th century reflects the fundamental transformation that capitalism brought about and to this day, mental hospitals are still known as institutions.

The problem with madness is that it’s not susceptible to being disciplined. Mad people are unpredictable and essentially ungovernable, and for an economy that needed discipline from its workers, the best that could be done was to make them ‘go away’, out of sight, out of mind.

So too were those who resisted the rise of capital. ‘Vagabonds’ for example, were one of the hundreds of categories subject to the death penalty in the 17th century. Not that for capital, it was a walkover; it took the better part of two centuries to destroy pre-capitalist social and economic relations.

So, for over four centuries, in the process of ‘regularising’ us, a vast edifice has been constructed around us, so complete that we take much of it not only for granted but consider it to be normal.

It would appear to be the family that is the foundation upon which our lives are built, after all, isn’t it our parents who have the most influence over our development? But as Comrade Marx pointed out:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” — Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Our conception of the family, far from being thousands of years old as popular myth would have us believe, is a construct a little over four centuries in the making. It was no accident that in the 17th century ‘common law’ marriages were outlawed. The transformation of the human being into little more than a unit of labour required a standardised social structure, regulated by the state which in turn, required the creation of a framework of social control, codified in law that determined our behaviour and not only in public or the workplace but also our personal relationships.

“The machine was becoming the model of social behaviour [in the 17th century].” — Caliban and the Witch, p. 145

The family therefore became the transmission belt and in the process reinforced the illusion that values originated with the family whereas the reality was that it was (and still is) the state that defines how we live and interact with each other.

The parallels with the present situation in the UK are more than coincidental, for capitalism is under-going yet another vast upheaval as the forces of production undergo another revolution, requiring that a new kind of infrastructure be put in place.

In the 17th century thousands of new laws were passed (including the creation of over 300 ‘crimes’ for which the state could execute you, 160 of which existed well into the 18th century), just as today, where Blair’s regime has enacted over 3000 entirely new laws that have in effect, criminalised virtually the entire population, and especially the young.

The fundamental difference between now and the 17th century is that in the 17th century the new ruling class of capitalists was in its ascendency whereas today, you might say that what we are witnessing is a ‘rear-guard’ action on the part of the ruling elite to maintain an outmoded social fabric, hence all the talk about ‘family values’ and the increasing intrusion by the state into our private lives, best exemplified by the Blair regime’s vast body of new laws that attempt to regulate our behaviour.

Interestingly also is the fact that under the Blair regime alcohol and gambling are now viewed as not only acceptable but necessary with 24-hour drinking and ‘super-casinos’, but note, NOT prostitution. So too, in the 17th century, female sexuality became the subject of state control, contraception and abortion were both capital crimes.

“[T]he uterus reduced to a machine for the reproduction of labor — into the hands of the state and the medical profession.” — Caliban and the Witch, p.144

And also not coincidentally, both our age and that of the 17th century are and were, times of extreme cruelty, a direct result of the dehumanising effect of capitalist relations and the view that humans were little more than machines for the creation of surplus value. Then, just as now, torture became an institutionalised process.

“The stakes on which witches and other practitioners died, and the chambers in which their tortures were executed, were a laboratory in which much social discipline was sedimented, and much knowledge about the body gained. Here those irrationalities were eliminated that stood in the way of the transformation of the individual and social body into a set of predictable and controllable mechanisms. And it was here again that the scientific use of torture was born, for blood and torture were necessary to “breed an animal” capable of regular, homogenous, and uniform behaviour, indelibly marked with the memory of the new rules.” — Caliban and the Witch, p. 144.

The process initiated during the 17th century is just as alive today, although obscured by the creation of a vast cloak of pseudo-scientific nonsense about the nature of mind and body and especially about ‘human nature’.

“Hence this battle against the body, which characterized the early phase of capitalist development, and which has continued, in different ways, to our day.… Thus, the birth of the body in the 17th century also marked its end, as the concept of the body would cease to define a specific organic reality, and become instead a political signifier of class relations, and of the shifting, continuously redrawn boundaries which these relations produce in the map of human exploitation.” — Caliban and the Witch, p.155

Is it any wonder therefore, that we find it difficult to confront the fundamental issues of our time, submerged as they are by over four centuries of conditioning which goes to the very essence of what it is to be human.

It should obvious therefore, that the struggle that confronts us is not only about capitalism per se (although it resides beneath, like the buried strata of rock, supporting the entire thing), but how it has perverted our perceptions and understanding of ourselves which in turn has blocked our ability to bring about change.

Capitalism is in crisis. The ‘rules’ that have maintained it for over four centuries are crumbling, and ironically, from within capitalism itself as it undergoes yet another transformation in the attempt to preserve itself.

And here the parallels with the 17th century end, for although capitalism possesses enormous power through the state and big business, in the effort to transform itself to function effectively in the globalised economy it has created, it has undermined the carefully constructed social relations that have kept capitalism alive from one generation to the next.

The crisis of capitalism comes not from the ‘Left’ (which for the most part is as confused and caught up in the crisis as the state is) but its inability to comprehend and control the forces it has unleashed. On the one hand it fights a rearguard battle to preserve the status quo it has constructed over the centuries but on the other, it is confronted with the reality that the status quo is past its sell-by date. The reproduction of labour is no longer the central reason for the ‘family’, yet without the cohesion of the traditional family to transmit capitalist ‘values’ from one generation to the next, it tries to maintain a disintegrating social order even as the forces of capital compel it to cast the old order aside.