Anarchist Science Fiction and a Few Random Thoughts on the current crisis

It is with a sad heart that I do this blog - Iain Banks, the Scottish writer, has died at a far too early age. Reading the interview published in last Saturday's Guardian, it is obvious that one of the good guys has shuffled off this moral coil. In terms of his writings, I've only read his Science Fiction works and I would recommend them to all anarchist SF fans - particularly the Culture series. So I'm going to take the opportunity to go on about anarchist SF for a bit, before inflicting some random statements on economics, the economy, the left and anarchism which may, or may not, chime with the reader.

First, though, I should mention that my Kropotkin Anthology Direct Action Against Capital is now appearing in on-line book catalogues (including AK Press, the publisher). To generate more interest in it, I have an important 1881 article on "Workers Organisation" published in issue 59 of Anarcho-Syndicalist Review along with my talk "Direct Action Against Capital". Robert Graham was kind enough to publish the two part article on his anarchism blog (Part 1 and Part 2). It is an important article, part of a series, arguing for anarchist involvement in the labour movement over a decade before the rise of syndicalism. This is, if you like, a missing link between Bakunin's ideas in the First International and revolutionary syndicalism.

I make no claim to original research on this issue. It is pretty obvious if you read the standard works by anarchists (the Black Flame guys drew the same conclusions, independently) which explains why it comes as such a surprise to Leninists - heaven forbid they actually read an anarchist book to engage seriously with it rather than skimming it to cherry-pick quotes. This article is quoted (along with other important ones from the time) by Caroline Cahm in her essential book Kropotkin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism, 1872-1886. Published in, I think, 1989, it is still required reading to understand Kropotkin's ideas (particularly in the context of the First International and its aftermath). I still remember the joy I experienced reading and thinking that this article on "Workers Organisation" should be translated - little did I expect I would create the book which did so!

And talk of books, I'm surprised by how sad it makes me feel to think that there will be no more Culture books. I read The Hydrogen Sonata this year, which was fun (although not as fun as Surface Detail - particularly the wonderful chapter sketching the rise of artificial heavens and hells). I've read them all and the only one I found disappointing was Matter and even that was worth reading (it mentions anarchist revolutionaries in it!). My one quibble is that the books tend to have somewhat anti-climax endings - Banks builds up the story, the ideas, the threat so well that when it ends it always seems somewhat less than hoped for. However, while the destination may be less than hoped for the journey makes it worthwhile.

For those who don't know, the Culture is a post-scarcity communist/anarchist utopia and it does present a fun vision of a free society. So in terms of SF it gives a glimpse, particularly the novella The State of the Art in which Culture agents visit Earth in 1977 and the obvious contrasts are made:

"On Earth one of the things that a large proportion of the locals is most proud of is this wonderful economic system which, with a sureness and certainty so comprehensive one could almost imagine the process bears some relation to their limited and limiting notions of either thermodynamics or God, all food, comfort, energy, shelter, space, fuel and sustenance gravitates naturally and easily away from those who need it most and towards those who need it least. Indeed, those on the receiving end of such largesse are often harmed unto death by its arrival, though the effects may take years and generations to manifest themselves."

I particularly liked the speech by a Culture member noting that, compared to Earthlings, he was the richest man alive as he had access to the vast economic, social and cultural wealth of a vast chunk of the universe but he was also the poorest man alive as he owned none of it. Banks was clearly a man who understood what Proudhon was getting at, the core idea of socialism. He did, however, indicate a certain attachment to central planning (as indicated in The State of the Art and in an interview I read). Suffice to say, if central planning requires hyper-intelligent super-computers to work then just as well proclaim that all we need is fairy dust as well.

Which is one of the many reasons I love Ursula le Guin's The Dispossessed - it remains my favourite anarchist SF novel precisely because it does not invoke technology much more advanced than we have and, moreover, suggests that a free society will not be perfect, will face difficult decisions, will face problems. The Culture is fun and expresses the mind-set well, but it is utopian. She also clearly understand anarchism and the anarchist mind-set (as shown by The Dispossessed and the excellent short story The Day Before the Revolution). If you have not read her works, do yourself a favour and do so - starting with The Dispossessed! In terms of political investigations of her work, try The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (pdf)

You can tell that her parents were anthropologists given the richness of her work. Reading David Graeber's Debt (which I would urge you to do, as it is an important work) two things struck home. As Graeber notes, the poverty of imagination of most economists (who basically project a money economy backwards and then remove the money, causing them to invent a barter system which no tribal society ever had). Second, the poverty of imagination of most SF and Fantasy writers (particularly the "classic" ones from the mid-20th Century) whose characters are white, male, middle-class Americans in space. In terms of Fantasy, much the same can be said - Conan's world is just our world's history with similar names (not to mention the casual racism and sexism!).

This point was made by another one of my favourite writers, Michael Moorcock in his essay Starship Stormtroopers. This first appeared in the Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review (the anarchist movement needs something like this these days) but I first read in as part of The Opium General which also included a review of Michael Malet's book on Nestor Makhno. These got me aware of anarchism and when I read the introduction to The Anarchist Reader and the extracts on Makhno in it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the ideas I had developed by myself had a name - anarchism. And talking of Makhno, Moorcock has him fighting Stalin in an alternative 1940s in the fun The Steel Tsar, the final part of his A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy regarding the adventures of Captain Oswald Bastable. The first book in this series (The Warlord of the Air) also has anarchists in it. Both are worth reading.

I should also mention Marge Piercy's Women on the Edge of Time and Body of Glass, both excellent (her City of Darkness, City of Light is also excellent, set during the French Revolution it made me read finally read Kropotkin's The Great French Revolution - something else I would urge revolutionary anarchists to do). And it would be remiss of me not to mention Alan Moore, specifically V for Vendetta. Do not let the film put you off (best bits are those taken straight from the book and the politics are gutted, anarchism being mention once - when someone shots "Anarchy in the UK" after stealing from a shop!). It is a classic and V's speech to the nation is brilliant. And, no, it is not an inspiration for anarchist tactics (as some clueless Marxists suggested when the film came it). It is a superhero comic.

I should also mention Ken MacLeod and his Fall Revolution series, which I did not particularly like. I read The Stone Canal first, being drawn in by it starting at Glasgow University (which I attended long after MacLeod). The "anarcho"-capitalist utopia is unpleasant, as you would expect, but the end suggested that The Cassini Division, with its libertarian socialist utopia, would be more interesting. It was, although very much a Marxist-inspired stateless communist utopia. Unlike the rest of the series, it was the only one I wanted to know how it ended. I then read The Star Fraction and The Sky Road, neither of which appealed. Finally, China Miéville. I've read two of his books (Perdido Street Station and Iron Council) and they were enjoyable enough (I would say they were a bit long, but I cannot complain about others on that score!). The latter did show his SWP politics by taking Marx's "revolutions are the locomotives of history" a bit too literally, not to mention "the anarchist passion" of one of the protagonists. Still, he seems to have made the right decisions in terms of the recent crisis in the SWP which is good news.

I'm sure that there are other SF and Fantasy writers and works of a libertarian nature - who would you recommend?

Finally, a random collection of statements. If I were a Marxist I would proclaim them "theses on the present crisis" but I'm not that pretentious.

The current crisis:

  • Austerity is based on the premise that the worse thing for a company in the face of a crisis (reduced demand) is for someone to buy their products or services. Yes, really.
  • The question arises - is it hubris, evilness or incompetence? The answer, surely, is a bit of all three, with the specific ratios depending on the issue. Hubris, of course, as they do believe themselves as superior (not to mention the unfounded arrogance of neo-classical economists). Evilness, of course, they wish to keep an unjust, exploitative and oppressive system going by increasing all three of these. Incompetence, of course, because they often cannot implement their plans well.
  • Any goods news shows that Austerity is working (and so needs to be accelerated) while any bad news shows that Austerity is desperately needed (and so needs to be accelerated). Logic and facts matter as little in elite decision making as appeals to their humanity. What is planned will be done, unless working class people intervene effectively to stop it.
  • What passed for the intellectual basis for austerity has been destroyed but that will not stop it any more than the empirical evidence of its implementation across the globe. This shows that much of economics is simply saying what the master class wish to hear - as has always been the case.
  • A crisis can have different root causes. Some are caused when the working class has too much power (1970s). Some are caused when the working class has too little (1930s). The current crisis is one of the former but it is haunted by memories of the latter, so contributing to the apparently paradoxical lack of action by the authorities (unless it is putting the costs of the crisis caused by the few onto the many or cracking protesters heads, of course).
  • The lack of action is due to the crisis not affecting the elite (or ruling class). As long as the impact is felt only in the working class (the vast majority) then for the master class there is no crisis. Our task is make it a crisis for them by our struggles.
  • The key is to understand that capitalism is not based on meeting needs but on making profits for the owners of capital. While a commodity has to have a use value (utility) to be sold, someone without cash do not  needs do not make a profits then they will not be met. As such, austerity producing grinding poverty is not a bug in the system but a key feature.
  • Prostitution used to be the frowned upon by respectable bourgeois society, now it is considered as the ideal in terms of relationships. Love does not allow customers to ensure the efficient allocation of their resources between competing possible uses. Neither does a decent environment - hence ecological destruction is economically efficient as it allows people to judge whether they derive more utility buying air than clean water. If they cannot afford either then it shows they did not really want them in the first place (human action, revealed preferences and all that).
  • When it becomes commonplace to hear people talk of how we have overcome the business cycle then we can expect that the next crisis is on its way - the crisis will arrive faster and be bigger is said people are economists.
  • The root problem for capitalism is that industry is full of workers. Workers sell their liberty and labour to the boss, however how enthusiastically they do so varies considerably. In other words, the use value of their labour is a variable and contested amount. Resistance still exists but in an individualistic form. This is not a good thing.
  • For neo-classical (and Austrian) economics the main problem is the working class - wages are too high (profits, interest and rent are never that), unions are too strong and simply exist (companies and bosses are never that), governments interfere to help "the poor" (governments never interfere to help the rich) and so on. That this reflects the interests of the master class is simply a coincidence. So is the neo-classical idea of marginal productivity which shows everyone gets paid their contribution to production.
  • The neo-liberal assault on the labour market (destruction of unions, less welfare, less employment protection, "flexibility") has resulted in workers wages stagnating while productivity increases. This contradicts neo-classical productivity theory which postulates that they will grow in line. Anyone surprised by this, or the lack of concern by neo-classical economists, has not been paying attention (nor learning the lessons of history).
  • Neo-liberalism shows that "trickle down" economics as very little trickled down. What? You thought they labelled it honestly? "Flood up" economics, while honest, does not make for good sound-bites for politicians. However, the monopolisation by the few of more and more of the surplus created by the many heightens the contradictions within capitalism and so produces a capital-too-strong crisis. This is not "market failure", it is how capitalism works.
  • Neo-classical economics perfectly describes a world without time, without production, without uncertainty, without classes, without power. No wonder it is so popular in academia and so useless.
  • The right has been victorious since 1980 so why are they so unhappy? The Daily Mail, for example, got what they voted for so why do they so regularly bemoan the rip-offs of privatisation and the impact of free market financial institutions?
  • Increasing private debt allows the contradictions caused by "flood up" economics to be reduced in the short term by allowing working class people to maintain their lifestyle in a period of stagnant wage growth. It also helps control them as they will be less likely to make trouble with debt hanging over them. Moreover, it allows the owning class to doubly exploit the working class (directly, in production, and indirectly by interest payments). However, this heightens the contradictions within capitalism and so produces a capital-too-strong crisis.
  • Labour produces all. State redistribution policies can blunt inequality but only weakly. Best to ensure workers keep more of the value they create at the point of production by strong unions, direct action and solidarity. This means that there is less surplus available for the few to monopolise. However, this heightens the contradictions within capitalism and so produces a workers-too-strong crisis.
  • For the right, it is not enough for the poor to be poor - they must suffer.
  • Economic policies like Monetarism and Austerity gathers so much support from elites, no matter how terrible they are theoretically or bad they fail in practice, because, first, it tells them what they want to hear, second, it allows them to increase their wealth and power and, third, economic crisis allows them to push through the changes that they want. Which means that George Osborne is the best Tory Chancellor for some time, precisely because his incompetence has increased the crisis and so furthered wealth and power monopolised and deepened the crisis, so allowing more austerity to be justified.

On Keynes:

  • Even the lobotomised neo-classical Keynesianism has shown up the Panglossian cheer-leading of the neo-classical mainstream. This is unsurprising as Keynesianism is a capitalist strategy for a crisis caused by the strength of capital (or weakness of the working class). It helps that neo-classical Keynesian modifies neo-classicalism by adding some realism to its models but, ultimately, it is still neo-classical economics
  • Keynes aimed to save capitalism from itself. That does not invalidate any genuine insights he made on capitalism while doing so. He was right when he pointed out the flaws in the neo-classical argument for curing unemployment by cutting wages. He was right about uncertainty. So read him and build on his genuine contributions to what passes as the science of economics.
  • Keynes recognised the importance of uncertainty and how government spending, by providing reliable demand, can reduce it. By reducing uncertainty and allowing firms to sell products, it creates the possibility of profit. Increasing profits makes firms seek investment so laying the foundations of the end of the crisis. This is not difficult to understand - nor is stating the argument the same as advocating this as the solution to the problems we are facing.
  • It is painfully obvious that most Marxists, particularly in parties like the SWP, do not understand the ideas they are trying to critique. This is obvious to any anarchist with even a basic understanding of anarchism reading their articles on anarchism, but it also applies to Keynes, the Austrian critique of central planning, selfish gene theory, and a host of other issues. While often a source of amusement, it is not a good sign and we anarchists should try to be better.
  • Keynes was wrong about ideas being what counts, not vested interests. He ignored that vested interests demand ideas to justify their positions and, as economists should know, that will produce a supply - and there has been no limit in economists seeking to supply that demand. Most, of course, do so because they believe in the system. Some, because neo-classical (and Austrian) economics is designed to make true-believers in abundance (only true-believers could think it is a science).
  • Keynes was wrong - the rentier class did not quietly disappear and resisted its euthanasia. Unsurprisingly enough. And, unsurprisingly enough, they also did not see much benefit in letting clever intellectuals make the decisions - bosses like being bosses and will often forego profits and income to secure their position. Monopolising more of a lesser amount (neo-liberalism) would be preferred to a fairer sharing of the gains of more growth (social democracy).

On Marxism:

  • In these days, conservatives are radicals while radicals are conservatives. This is not a good thing as the former are looking forward to the commercialisation of everything (and so the destruction of things conservatives are meant to hold dear, like the family and nationality) while the former are looking backwards to some idealised past (1945, 1917, 1871).
  • The left has failed. In the face of the worse crisis since the 1930s, the left has offered no ideas just repetition of the past. The post-war social democratic consensus may be better that the post-70s neo-liberal consensus but nostalgia helps people to forget the many social movements which arose within it precisely because of its bureaucratic nature. And best not mention Soviet Russia as the "cure" (state capitalism) was worse than the "disease" (private capitalism) - both under Lenin and Stalin (that the former was better than the latter does not excuse us looking at the relationships within production and society).
  • Marxists, in the main, have not sought to explain the crisis but have rather used aspects of the crisis to show that their interpretation of their preferred version of Marx's crisis theory is correct. This explains, in part, why it was post-Keynesian economists have been vindicated by their analysis. And, no, repeating the obvious fact that capitalism is subject to crisis is not the same as predicting the current one.
  • Marxists generally fail to understand uncertainty. This is understandable for if they did then they would see one of the many reasons why centralised planning will never achieve their desired ends (you cannot predict the future). It may "work" (Stalinism produced goods, however inadequate they were in term of quality and quantity) but it did not produce socialism. Which is the point, surely?
  • Engels was a capitalist. This influenced his politics. Only a boss could write "On Authority." Only a non-worker (Lenin) could regurgitate it in order to undermine workers' self-management of production during a revolution.
  • Marxists need to understand what successful means. Social Democracy, while an impressive movement in terms of size and influence, was not successful as it did not achieve socialism. The Bolshevik revolution, while ensuring a self-proclaimed socialist party seized state power (as Lenin stressed), was not successful as it did not achieve socialism. Creating a one-party state-capitalist regime is not success. The sooner our modern-day Leninists recognise that, study the Russian Revolution and draw the appropriate conclusions by rejecting Bolshevism, the sooner we may see a revival of socialism (genuine socialism, which can only be a libertarian socialism)
  • The problem with the Leninist left is that, in the main, what they think happened in the past did not. This is doubly the case for the Russian Revolution. Which is a shame, as this is usually considered their claim to be taken seriously.
  • The key problem with the "revolutionary" left is that most of them think the Russian Revolution was (initially) a success and only defeated by external forces. As if producing a state capitalist party dictatorship within a year counts as a "success"! And if so-called workers state cannot handle a civil war (the ostensible reason why it is advocated) without degenerating, then it should be avoided like the plague.
  • And focusing on "objective" factors means ignores "subjective" ones - like the limitations in Bolshevik ideology - and how they interact. The conclusion draw is simple - there is nothing to really gain analysing the Russian revolution.
  • No, Bolshevism cannot be understood by looking only at the spring and summer of 1917. What happened before and after counts far more than six months of trying to catch up with the masses in a quasi-feudal regime.
  • Marx is too important a thinker to be left to the Marxists. Only non-Marxists can objectively evaluate his contributions to socialism. Marxists are too busy trying to justify the hero-worship implied in their self-imposed label.
  • Most Marxists do not realise that most anarchists have read more Marxist texts than they have. Thus we know that many so-called Marxist positions were not actually advocated by Marx and Engels (either at all or before anarchists).
  • History did not stop in 1883 nor did capitalism stop evolving.
  • The history of Marxism is the delay between Marxists attacking anarchist ideas and them finally appropriating them. The best Marxists are those who do more than just pay lip-service to the libertarian ideas they (more often than not) unknowingly repeat.
  • The Socialist Party of Great Britain is the UK's only genuinely Marxist organisation - and even they reject Marx and Engels on using political action for reforms.

On Anarchism:

  • There is a consumerist attitude in much of the anarchist movement - happy to consume (or complain!) what others do but not willing to actually produce or do anything themselves. This is against everything anarchism stands for. This helps explain why we are where we are, and how to go forward.
  • Reading Proudhon won't make you look cool to your Marxist friends, but it is worth it - particularly as you will discover the real source of a great many "Marxist" ideas.
  • If another Marxist lectures anarchists on the Paris Commune, they should be forced to eat Proudhon's and Bakunin's Collected Works. Then they might, just might, realise that Marx was reporting on a revolt heavily influenced by anarchist ideas.
  • Being right is all fine and well, but anarchist ideas need to be applied in practice. Thanks to the influence of ultra-left Marxism, many dismiss all practical activity this side of the revolution is dismissed as "reformist" or "self-managed capitalism." We need to think of ways to apply our ideas and recognise there is a reason why ultra-leftists hold their meetings in phone boxes.
  • Instead of nationalisation we must stress expropriation, instead of "political action" we must stress direct action, instead of the past we must stress the present and the future. This is not London in 1872 nor St. Petersburg in 1917 nor Barcelona in 1936. It is here and now. Many on the left seem to forget this - just as they seem to forget everything that has happened since those dates.
  • We need to be inspired by the past, not limited by it.
  • It is too hopeful to expect Marxists to seriously engage with anarchist thinkers, but let us hope that anarchists will.
  • Anarchism is not perfect. We got some things wrong, but it is the only hope we have for a better world - particularly given how flawed Marxism is.


Iain, you're becoming a

Iain, you're becoming a Twitterer old son.


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