On the outside looking in or on the inside looking out? By William Bowles

9 April 2007

Marx’s famous dictum that ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’[1], is never more appropriate than now. Yet in spite of the absolutely desperate state of the world, we seem to be even more removed from the political process than our ancestors were more than a century-and-a-half ago when Marx wrote it!

But before throwing up my hands in disgusted resignation with the human species, it’s worth asking the question why, after such a long period of uninterrupted struggle to change our world for the better, we find ourselves in this situation?

The cynics and defenders of the status quo amongst us will point to the alleged selfish nature of the ‘average’ human; to our ignorance and indifference to the plight of the planet and our fellow humans. Yet people are no more nor less selfish now than they were one hundred years ago and in theory at least, we are better informed now than at any point in our history and, it can be argued that people are more concerned and more moved by events, especially disasters of one kind or another.

But of course dipping into your pocket for a donation to your favourite ‘charity’ is not the same as taking up the political cudgel and joining the fray, this takes a conscious act of political will and commitment and is not without risk either personal or financial (or both).

Yet and still, people are undoubtedly totally fed up with the ruling political class who they mostly see as a gang of corrupt and self-serving liars and opportunists. Worse still, when we look around for an alternative, it’s nowhere to be seen. For the most part, the traditional parties of the left—those that still exist—seem to live in some kind of time warp, still battling amongst themselves over who is the ‘more revolutionary’, using arguments that were, in my opinion anyway, out-of-date way back when, let alone today.

More generally, we blame the ruling elites’ control of the media, education (or lack of it) and the increasing concentration of political power into the hands of a tiny elite for the current state of affairs but although the propaganda war has entered a new phase of control and sophistication, anyone who takes the trouble to check into the past will see that broadly speaking it’s been like this for decades.

But who is to blame for this state of affairs? Have we not allowed political parties, especially those with formal connections to working people, trade unions et al, to abandon their constituencies? During the 1970s and 1980s when the Reagan/Thatcher agenda was in full swing, did we not fall in with their ideology of greed? Have we nobody but ourselves to blame for the destruction of all the gains we had made?

But undoubtedly things have changed, but how and why? Some will point to the failure of the socialist states or more generally, the failure of the Left to come up with convincing and viable alternatives to capitalism and undoubtedly there is a great deal of truth in this, but it’s not the whole story. At some point, we have to look to ourselves for not taking responsibility for our own actions or rather lack of them.

Yet for more than two centuries prior to the last couple of decades, people consciously struggled to take charge of their own destinies, whether in the workplace or within their communities. Distilling Marx’s words it came down to a battle between Capital and Labour in one form or another even if not directly anti-capitalist. Political involvement was a feature of life whether through membership of a political party, trade unions and finally, voting, when we had a choice that is.

There would appear to be a paradox at work here, for on the one hand, the ruling class lacks credibility on a scale almost unheard of in past times. Simply put, people do not trust the people who rule, even more so, the political class lacks any kind of legitimacy to justify their rule and people generally know and acknowledge this to be the case.

And almost unheard of, opposition to yet another imperialist war of aggression found global opposition to it even before it had been launched. Yet in spite of this apparently fortuitous state of affairs, once the war had been launched, we seem to have thrown up our hands in resignation and a despondency descended upon us even as the actions and words of our ‘leaders’ would have, in an earlier period produced howls of incredulity and anger and the birth of a growing movement of resistance.

How do these bastards get away with? What has changed? It’s as if some kind of awful spell has been cast over us that has paralysed our ability to organise and resist.

Some argue that for the most part, we have been ‘co opted’, persuaded that our interests are the same as those who rule us. Yet how true is this and most importantly, even if true, how long can it continue given that in spite of all the ‘advantages’ we have, we’re unhappier now than we’ve ever been. Dissatisfied and unfulfilled we cast about for answers and find none.

Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the actions of the ruling elites has made the world incomparably more dangerous than it’s been since the darkest days of the ‘Cold War’ period and they threaten to expand their wars of aggression and acquisition even as the effects of uncontrolled capitalism threaten our very existence.

Desperate, we seek all manner of ‘solutions’ to that which ails us (except the ones that count), and those who rule even exploit our realisation that things simply cannot continue as they are, but instead of telling it like it is, they continue to lie to us about the real state affairs and indeed suggest that we can continue to enjoy the ‘good life’ and even maintain ‘business as usual’ and deal with what is a rapidly approaching point of no return.

Now it’s true that the mainstream media are the main culprits in perpetrating this mass illusion but even as they continue to deceive, there is also a general movement to reject the lies and deceptions and to look elsewhere for answers. So even if not expressed in concrete actions, it shows that the state and its actors are far from omnipotent.

We also have a deeper understanding of the nature of capitalist economics, indeed it can be argued that analysing capitalism is an industry all on its own replete with entire departments in universities, research groups and foundations, all beavering away producing analyses of capitalism.

We also now have an untold number of independent media outlets, perhaps collectively running into the thousands, that are analysing and reporting on the world on a daily basis, yet we still remain for the most part, on the outside looking in.

It is perhaps this paradox that I find the most frustrating about the current situation for it seems that in spite of our collective knowledge of the world, we are unable to translate it into a meaningful programme for radical change.

In part this is due I contend to the failure of ‘our’ theoreticians to come to terms with the post-Soviet reality, for rather than re-embracing Marx’s lifetime endeavour to unpack the nature of capitalism, they seek to re-invent the wheel, forever leaning on the failures of countries like the Soviet Union and China as somehow ‘proof’ that Marx got it wrong and blaming them for our failures.

Yet if there is one thing that reinforces our understanding of capitalism as a system which hasn’t fundamentally changed since Marx’s time, it’s the events of the last two decades. Unencumbered by the presence of a rival no matter how flawed, it has resorted to the time-honoured method of the use of brute force of the most horrendous nature to enforce the rule of capital.

However, in order to justify a return these methods it has had to repress domestic dissent and resistance under the guise of the ‘war on terror’. Clearly, even if we are not aware of our potential power, the ruling elites are, why else go to such lengths to pre-empt challenges to their power and authority?

An excellent piece by by David MacGregor, entitled ‘7/7 as Machiavellian State Terror?’ sums up the current situation by comparing the current onslaught on the people of Iraq with the Allies terror bombing raids on the cities of Germany and Japan during WWII:

‘The RAF targeted more than a thousand German towns and cities; hundreds of thousands of civilians were massacred. Victory over Nazi Germany was clearly inevitable by early 1943, but the remorseless Anglo-American bombing campaign gathered momentum until the closing weeks of the war. By May 1945 “40 percent of the seventy largest cities had been demolished, mainly by bombing.” A.C. Grayling remarks that Anglo-American destruction of Germany and Japan amounts to culturecide, the “concerted smashing” of a people, its cultural heritage and collective memory.[2]

‘Destroying cities meant—in addition to killing and traumatizing many thousands of people—destroying monuments, libraries, schools and universities, art galleries, architectural heritage, the cultural precipitate and the organs of corporate life that make an identifiable society.’[3]

Aside from the direct comparison of the methods used, both situations share a common use of racist demonology in order to win over domestic support for such barbaric actions.

‘You either have to castrate [the Germans] or you have got to treat them…so they can’t just go on reproducing people who want to continue the way they have in the past.’ — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1942.[4]

Today, we see comparisons made between German Fascism and what has been termed ‘islamo-fascism’, the international conspiracy to ‘destroy Western civilisation’.

It should be obvious therefore that in one sense we have returned to an earlier period but this time armed with weapons of even greater devastation than those used during WWII and also armed with a propaganda machine of even greater power that has, in a relatively short space of time (since September 11, 2001) succeeded in instilling a fear of the ‘other’, the best comparison being the campaign used before and during WWII as the quote from FDR above, demonstrates. Today’s propaganda campaign may less crude and for a number of obvious reasons, but no less effective.

I get fed up with repeating this message, but nevertheless, the ideology of racism is so corrosive and destructive that it is one of the most important weapons that the ruling elites have in their arsenal. It divides and turns working people against working people and masks essential truths about the way the world is controlled. Just as it was used to unite working people against Germans and Japanese in ‘patriotic wars’, so too it is used to justify the creation of states of xenophobia and whip up hysterical responses, for example after 9/11 and then 7/7.

It is within this ‘return’ to an age of unbridled imperialist barbarism dressed up as ‘democracy-building’, that we find ourselves as socialists, trapped. Unable to call on a ‘higher power’ as it were, we have no alternative to offer except slogans from earlier and now defunct period, yet again recalling yet another of Marx’s razor-edged dictum’s:

‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’ [5]

The problem we confront is complex for in making comparisons to an earlier period of imperialist expansion we are inevitably compared to the socialism of that period and indeed that’s exactly what has happened. One alternative being used is by Chavez in Venezuela, whose call for a ‘socialism of the 21st century’ tries to avoid the linkage (without much success it has to be said, so deeply ingrained is the virus of anti-communism).

Let’s face it, we have to stand up and be counted as socialists and be proud of the fact but we need a coherent alternative that meets the needs and demands of today’s working people who live in a world that is very different from the one my folks grew up in even if the imperialism of yesterday finds itself reinvented in an age of the ‘war on terror’.

What I find depressing is that in spite of the wealth of theoretical knowledge we have at our disposal as well as the practical experience that has been accumulated, we still lack a viable programme for change. What does it take I ask?

Part of the problem resides in the fact that the political process itself has been fragmented and reduced to the level of personal actions which manifests itself as a multitude of ‘issues’ which have no connection. When we do act, we do so in isolation (and we do act, which points to the fact that people are not only concerned but willing to get involved). For example, the climate crisis has been reduced to what ‘I’ can do to minimise ‘my’ impact on the environment. The responsibility has been shifted from the social/economic to the personal (and all the guilt along with it) which enables the state and business to avoid addressing the fundamental economic realities of a system which in order to survive must continue to ‘expand’ and by expand, they mean continue to create new markets for products that we have to be persuaded to buy.

The current ‘debate’ over over carbon emissions is a perfect example of the paradox of an economic system attempting to square the circle, for on the one hand it recognises that it’s a global problem but ultimately it retreats behind the façade of ‘competition’ between producers when what we need is cooperation not competition, something that capitalism is structurally incapable of doing.

This reality is further revealed by the dominant ideology of contemporary capitalism which is essentially a neo-Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ approach, best exemplified by the phrase ‘let the market decide’. Thus all human actions are reduced to nothing more than consumption; we make ‘choices’ about what to buy, which in turn, decides who we are, which in turn ‘even things out’ as if what we buy will somehow produce solutions to structurally fundamental contradictions. Thus we act in isolation merely as ‘consumers’, at best as the ‘family unit’ and even this is collapsing under the impact of revolutions in production, and nothing more.

The question for socialists (at least in so-called developed economies) therefore rests less on the traditional wealth versus poverty divide than it does on values but this is increasingly a question also confronting the developing world, the last bastion of the collective.

But values also has a new and broader meaning than it had in the past. If there is one thing that has become clear, it is that a life based solely on consumption for its own sake is ultimately pointless except in the pursuit of profit. At the end of the day, filling one’s life with products produces nothing of value, merely the desire to possess more products in the vain hope that they will satisfy a craving that consumption can never satisfy.

Marx put it succinctly when he wrote:

‘The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume … your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life … So all passions and all activity are submerged in greed’[6]

Capitalism is the ultimate drug, more powerful than heroin or cocaine, all consuming from cradle to grave and sanctioned by the state no less. Thus any alternative has to offer a set of values that are based not on passive consumption but on active participation in all the things that make us human just as Marx wrote.

But in order to to achieve this we have to abandon totally an economic and hence political system that rests on nothing more than the accumulation of capital and from which the entire rationale for the current insanity flows.


  1. Marx, K, The German Ideology, p.73
  2. 7/7 as Machiavellian State Terror? by David MacGregor
  3. Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, New York: Walker and Company, 2006
  4. The People as Enemy by John Spritzler, Black Rose Books, 2003
  5. Marx, K, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p. 7
  6. Karl Marx, notebooks, 1844

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