Not all revolutionaries have to be like Che Guevara, it's often enough to oppose capitalism

In response to Part One of this series Luke Andreski wrote: “If it’s ‘revolution or nothing’, then we’re really looking at nothing.” I had not intended to present that as the alternative, particularly since Luke continued, “When things get bad enough for a revolution, the far right are likely to be better positioned for that moment than the left.” I can see why Luke drew that conclusion but I hope I can go some way to explaining why that is not the only conclusion to draw.

The implications of Luke’s response are that firstly things fall neatly into a dichotomatic choice, but secondly, and more importantly, that we can influence the outcome of events. We get to choose ‘revolution or nothing’. We don’t, although we can choose to become revolutionaries. So that sounds dramatic and conjures up images of uniforms, armies and insurrection. But actually all it means is that we recognise capitalism as a total system and believe that it will not evolve naturally to some higher state of freedom and equality for all, but will need to be replaced by a different total system. That system, we call for convenience, socialism.

The nothing state that Luke suggests cannot exist unless the entire species was wiped out by a malign virus, climate change or catastrophe of another kind. So the choices available for humanity are: continue as we are (liberal conservatism), continue as we are but with modifications (reformist social democracy) or change completely. This final one is where socialism finds itself competing with fascism, though it might be said that, given that fascists invariably turn out to support capitalism, perhaps they should be placed in that middle category competing with social democracy.

It is interesting that fascists tend to be driven by the same hatred of the state that often inspires socialists and social democrats, admittedly with very different conclusions drawn. We do share some common ground. As some right-wing commentators are quick to point out, the Nazi Party was actually the National Socialist Party. We may not like to admit it, but fascists would also nationalise large sections of industry, neither are they friends of large corporations. Where we differ, of course, is on freedom (a word they have expropriated but which every experience of fascism suggests that they would severely restrict); equality (in which they have no interest whatsoever, believing that everybody should bend to the interests of the state, for which read big leader); and democracy, which they would curtail the moment they had appropriated the state. 

We sometimes throw the word fascism around to describe our political enemies: The Tories are fascists, Sir Keir is a fascist, the Israelis are fascists, Nigel Farage is a fascist etc. This is, however, simply political rhetoric. Across the Atlantic Americans regard the NHS as socialist. These words are powerful, overused and, frequently, entirely meaningless. That’s not to say they are always applied wrongly, and reminding people that we do not want to descend into fascism is probably a good thing.

To return to the question though of what we should practically do to overcome capitalism? We cannot overcome capitalism by an act of will alone. We cannot choose to create a revolution. We cannot, in that sense, choose socialism as if we were choosing from the menu at a restaurant. To extend that metaphor, you can only choose at the restaurant what the chef places on the menu. Similarly, we get to choose conservative, social democratic, fascistic at elections. Never socialism. Indeed, never capitalism. Even parties who call themselves socialist or communist – the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party (and its numerous off-shoots) – are not offering socialism/communism at the ballot box, not only because they do not expect to win, but because the elections are not concerned with changing the system, merely how best to organise it. And the system here is capitalism.

Occasionally people are asked whether they would prefer socialism to capitalism? But they have no experience of socialism and a lifetime of experience of capitalism. Capitalism surrounds them. And how they answer that question will undoubtedly depend on their experience of capitalism.

You will no doubt be familiar with the Monty Python sketch in the film ‘The Life Of Brian’ which starts with the question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” After listing all the improvements under the Romans comes the comic pay-off, “But, apart from (long list of things) what have they done for us?” The joke is clever and taps into a genuine issue and that is, as I have said elsewhere, for most people, most of the time, life under capitalism is not actually that bad. That it could be a lot better is not in dispute, at least not to readers of Critical Mass, but that it is, for the majority, bearable is a real issue for socialists.

It is not discontent, per se, that can lead to socialism, but the inherent problems that capitalism faces. The conditions for revolution are not created by self-proclaimed revolutionaries but in a system which for all its braggadocio is inherently flawed. The tendency for crisis is not an accident or a result of bad management, it is hardwired into a system based on competition. 

Any system which has competition at its core is going to create winners and losers. The thing is that, whilst some seem insulated from losing, even they can be cursed by a system that is self-perpetuating. Whilst we may well be much closer to the losers than the winners, the vagaries of the system mean that, whilst losers can become winners (the lottery win we all dream of), the winners can never be entirely secure at the tip of the pyramid either.

It’s hard for those without money, or even with very little money, to imagine what it is like to be rich. Well, let’s qualify that, it’s easy to imagine not having to worry about whether you can afford food, clothes or to pay your bills. But, it is hard to imagine just how paranoid the rich are about losing their money and all that accompanies it. For us, by which I mean ordinary people, the dream is to win enough money that we never have to work again. How much would that take? Let’s say £1 million. 

According to Credit Suisse, there are around 2.85 million millionaires in the UK. They include Adele, JK Rowling, Ricky Gervais and lots of people you will never have heard of. Apparently, being a millionaire is becoming rather passé, the real wealth is held by the UK’s 177 billionaires. They include Rishi Sunak, James Dyson and a lot of people you’ve never heard of. Don’t you ever wonder why these people don’t just enjoy their luxurious lifestyles rather than keep amassing more? I do. 

My explanation is fairly simple but I have no empirical data to support it. I’ll leave it to you as to whether this is a plausible explanation. Let’s be honest: even £1 million means that there can be little left you actually need to buy. Unless you are very profligate, the chances are that you are no longer working to survive. It seems to me that making money becomes an addiction. At some point reaching a certain level of wealth is no longer about security but is pursued for its own sake. I imagine (I have to imagine as I’ve barely ever had more than loose change left at the end of the week) that at some point making money must have provided an enormous adrenalin rush. I imagine this is particularly the case for those who make money by investing, particularly where those investments have an element of risk attached to them. Psychologist Elizabeth Hartley describes addiction as experiencing something that makes you feel special. Whilst she concentrates on socially stigmatised addictions: drugs, alcohol, gambling, the same could be said of investing, which is actually a form of socially approved gambling.

We all know what happens when gamblers start to lose. Their immediate response is to gamble more trying to recoup their losses. Capitalism is a total system but it is one made up of lots of small parts. At any point some of those parts will be on a winning streak. But, at the same time, others will, through the competitive processes that drive the system forward, be doing very badly. It is when those doing badly outnumber those doing well that it causes the loss of confidence that results in recession and worse. 

I am not asking you to sympathise with the poor capitalists who lose money. Their addiction may, in the good times, provide jobs and opportunities. But in the bad times it is, and this is probably true of most addictions, bad for others dependent on those investments doing well. When capitalism sneezes, to use a well-worn cliche, it is the working class that gets pleurisy. There is a knock-on effect. When a significant number of investments are failing to provide the rush, other investors become nervous and more cautious. Instead of investing, they hoard. They are biding their time waiting for the market to improve. And, as a result, the recession deepens. In short, that is what we are faced with now. According to a variety of sources, investor confidence is currently at an all-time low.

To return to Luke’s point that a revolution is unlikely in the current circumstances. As more and more people find their jobs, homes and opportunities at threat because of a deepening recession, they will start wondering about the efficacy of a social system to provide for their needs. This is precisely the situation when trade unionism becomes more militant and people become more disenchanted. Whether this leads to a revolutionary situation is another question entirely and, whether socialists are in a position to take advantage of that outbreak of militancy, a further question requiring further discussion and thought. But nothing is pre-determined. With the benefit of hindsight we will say that ‘that’ was the spark that ignited the revolution, but we are not there yet. 

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