Writing something worth reading has become difficult, lately. Due to the chaotic state of global politics, we’re awash with shocking, sickening, outrageous, alarming, disgusting, unprecedented things to read all the time. There are more polemics, accusations and denials than you can shake a stick at. We’re all more or less fully occupied grappling with what it all portends, or else hiding from it like scared little children, that moments of clarity are exceedingly rare.
Distressingly, many people, when presented with incontrovertible evidence of their own government’s malfeasance, go into a kind of manic, violent, blinkered meltdown, insisting that they’re still the good guys and at least they’re not as bad as the horrible bogeymen they’ve been programmed to fear and despise since childhood, but the truth is different. The truth is that their system of government has been every bit as evil and murderous as any other system of government, if not more so. The problem is and always was blind obedience to hierarchies of corrupted power. It is government.
Denial of this kind is just another species of hiding like scared little children. It’s infantile, because it comes from a place of wilful ignorance. They believe what they’ve been told, accepted uncritically, without independent reading or investigation. The cognitive dissonance they’re experiencing now is so overwhelming that they must resort to pure fantasy to avert breakdown.
It’s time to behave courageously, like proper adults. If we don’t, who will? Do we believe that hiding or hand wringing will save us? If events leave us confused and paralysed, is that an adequate response? More importantly, how is looking after your own mental health, as the only effective action you take, going to help? Will it work, or simply perpetuate the constant assault on your mental health and maybe even amplify it? Now is the right time to take events in hand and seek to control them a bit more, rather than simply reacting the whole time.
At moments like this, in history, it’s worth stepping back to identify what isn’t being discussed and debated, but ought to be. What isn’t on the rolling news agenda, that should be added with urgency? We’re all so caught up in the drama of betrayal and dirty tricks, by shysters and charlatans, where key decisions of national importance are taken solely on the basis of deceptive dark money influence and nasty, sordid blackmail, that few people are paying much attention to what to do next. We collectively have no viable plan. We’re all just rolling over and playing dead. There isn’t a lively discussion about how to move forward positively and with optimism.
Instead, there are numerous appeals to return everything to some previous known state of stability. That’s impossible and undesirable. Even if you could do it, if that state of affairs, in our rose-tinted past, which we vaguely recall and maybe completely imagined, was so solid and dependable, we couldn’t have gotten here from there. Rewinding the tape and replaying it all again just gets you to the same end point. That’s just not the answer.
Going back to how it was before, or applying our previous solutions, but this time with more commitment, simply isn’t going to work. More Neoliberalism, Stalinism, Predatory Surveillance Capitalism, Objectivism, Statism, Religion, inequality, competition, cruelty and technology-led, artificially-intelligent automation can’t get us there. Those ideas have played out and are exhausted.
We have to learn from our collective failures and innovate, but where to start? What haven’t we seriously tried?
It turns out there were threads of thought that came to nothing, in the past, not because they were no good, disproven, fruitless, unworkable or impractical, but simply because we lost interest in developing those ideas any further, at the time. We abandoned them, half-baked, because we were distracted by something else – usually by calls to stay the course, or to redouble our efforts on some existing plan of action that patently wasn’t working. Consequently, we’ve left many potentially good ideas lying on the table.
Dusting some of these orphaned ideas off and remodelling them for current circumstances gives us something useful to think about. Our way forward might emerge from seeding our thinking with long forgotten ideas, representing the road not yet travelled. This, I claim, is how to catalyse innovation on what we could do to get ourselves out of the present mess.
Here’s why I think this way. At the risk of trivialising my case, I have some tiny examples, from the practice of making art, that prove the point in microcosm. The painting technique known as glazing is rarely pursued, these days, because it’s slow and messy, requiring a great deal of patience and discipline, but the results are wonderful. Manufacturers of art supplies haven’t sold premixed, short open time glazes, which would make the process easier and faster. Could that happen? For sure. Why hasn’t it? Because it’s an old, ignored idea. Similarly, some spectacular painting effects are possible with acrylic gels and mediums, but too few painters experiment with them or know how to use them effectively. More old, ignored ideas. In music, voice leading rules reveal much about musical consonance and tension resolution, but few musicians study them. Old, ignored ideas.
As a species, we seem to spend a lot of time needlessly, wilfully lost, as solutions have already been found, but we fail to acknowledge them. What to do to reverse the epidemic of obesity has been known since Banting. Sugar has been known to be the toxic root cause of multiple prematurely fatal and debilitating diseases at least since Yudkin. Health, today, is becoming less mysterious through simply reviving and rethinking some old, forgotten, ignored ideas.
So, what are some old, ignored ideas that could begin to inform discussions about a brighter economic, environmental and political future for the inhabitants of this small, fragile, intimately interconnected planet? We’re dogged by problems due to staggering and accelerating inequality, underemployment, environmental destruction, failures of both governance and government and plagued by corrupted hierarchies of power. These problems have observable impacts and consequences in our personal and working lives, as individuals, as well as for society as a whole.
Society is comprised of us. If anybody is going to take corrective action to fix what’s broken in our cultures and societies, it’s going to have to be us. There isn’t anybody else. We’ve left the management of these issues to professional, paid bureaucrats and elected representatives, but it patently hasn’t worked. We’ll all have to contribute to the solutions and where humanity is found wanting, we each will need to change ourselves before we can expect any changes for the betterment of society. We are society.
Let’s address inequality, to start with. Some people don’t acknowledge it as a problem at all, but those that think higher quality thoughts have already accurately identified it as a root cause for multiple, egregious, societal maladies. What should we do about inequality? What to do about inequality has been known since Silvio Gessel, Margrit Kennedy, and Henry George. Thomas Piketty, Bernard Lietaer and David Graeber are only some of the more recent contributors of insightful analysis and plausible solutions.
There’s a large body of well-considered thought that’s worth discussing and experimenting with. We need not be helpless and clueless in the face of growing inequality and there is no justification to allow it to continue to get any worse, which is the default position of most politicians, intellectuals, pundits and the media. The general public has been kept ignorant of the positive possibilities simply because those that shape modern day narratives refuse to discuss them or make them part of their agendas. How stupid is that?
What to do about underemployment has been known since William Morris and Edward Bellamy. David Graeber has also made recent valuable contributions to the solution space. Our choices are not limited to abject unemployment, where we are annihilated because we are unable to pay for own existence and the precarity of take-it-or-leave-it zero hours contracts and the mind-numbing, exploitative, race-to-the-bottom gig economy. We squander vast reserves of human potential and well-being through our irrational fixation on the religious dogma of the Protestant work ethic.
Other ways of existing and living fulfilling, purposeful, meaningful lives exist. We just have to dust them off, consider them seriously, experiment with them and try to do better than the disastrous stalemate we’ve got. Yet you wouldn’t know it, of course, for all the exposure these ideas get in the media and corridors of power. Our institutions of governance fail us by sins of omission. When plausible, existing solutions are not acknowledged or realistically considered at all, we’re being short-changed by the ruling class, in whom we have misguidedly placed our absolute faith.
That brings us to our failing organs of governance. What to do about governance has been known since Antonio Gramsci and Albert Parsons, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bukarin. It has been updated by Nicolas Walter and, more recently, by Ziga Vodovnik. To claim that our current democratic arrangements are the best we can do, or the least worst of all possible systems, as is glibly parroted by lazy apologists for the mess we’re in, is the very height of absurdity. Far superior systems of personal and public life – of conducting human affairs peaceably and collaboratively – are very well characterised. The literature contains a veritable feast of ideas almost never put into practice; not because they are impossible to implement or utopian (therefore unobtainable), but because the will to do so has been forever undermined by those of a conservative mindset, determined to perpetuate the bloody circus we endure now (and their own selfish privileges). This amounts to a monumental crime against humanity.
We’re nothing at all without our natural home; the planet we inhabit. If we destroy it, as we’re incentivised to do under the prevailing systems of global economics, we perish. If economics owes its origins to sensible household management, our current economic theories lead us to behave as if burning down the house is the best and only way to manage our household. It’s clear to anybody that observes with their own two eyes that we’re hurtling down the wrong track at speed, despite who claims to be making money. What to do about the environment has been known since Murray Bookchin. Kate Raworth has made recent, valuable contributions. So, why do our politicians, oligarchs, corporations, thinkers, consumers and commentators pretend this is a non-problem, with intractable challenges and no solutions? They’re lying to us and we’re deceiving ourselves.
There are fruitful discussions to be had about options for remedial environmental actions, provided we have the will to have them. The fact that none of this is front and centre in our consciousnesses, and only superficially paid lip service by those that set the agenda of the prevailing narrative – the stories we tell ourselves – is just another vivid illustration of how terminally broken and deficient our institutions of governance really are. We have to address them both.
We’re wedded to our myriad dysfunctional hierarchies and bureaucratic power structures. Everything takes on the complexion of Feudalism, with their equivalents of kings, vassals and serfs. Every goddam organisation is a little tyranny, modelled after a mini-monarchy. How to replace hierarchies with other forms of organisation has been known since hyperlinks. Our entire Internet is literally a living, working example of a viable and superior solution. Does anybody apply it to their corporation or national government? Do they reshape their public services this way? No!
The thing that is most galling for those of us that have done the reading and made ourselves aware of the seeds of possibility is that we routinely and monotonously encounter a point-blank refusal to resurrect old, ignored ideas to find a way to change things for the better. They’re not even entertained, but rather dismissed immediately, as if they had already been comprehensively discredited and disproven. This eagerness to refuse to consider these ideas is rooted in blind prejudices and ossified class distinctions. Their objections are invariably regurgitated counter-propaganda, promulgated at the time, to kill these possibilities at birth. Why? Because vested interests didn’t want to risk their wealth and privileges, staked on a gamble of a better future for all.
Small, cowardly minds shut these alternatives down, before they could take root, for reasons of pure fear and selfishness – unrelated to the quality or viability of the proposals. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” in the immortal, satirical words of Groucho Marx. This habit of killing promising innovations at their very inception is not one of humanity’s more admirable and edifying tendencies.
What do we have instead? Fixed mindsets, wallowing in the mire of filth of unsatisfactory, unworkable settlements within our society. Tensions build to breaking point, yet they remain obsessed by appeals to ideas that haven’t worked and have no possibility of working. Dead horses are viciously flogged. “Stay the course and keep the faith,” they cry.
Dominic Raab, the latest British minister for negotiating Brexit, believes in more of the same Neoliberal solutions that have been imposed on the populace since the time of Margaret Thatcher, only greatly amplified. He doesn’t believe in economic, human and social rights (only because he already has his). What his colleagues in the ERG (European Research Group) believe is that we should all endure a thinly disguised form of slavery, while the ruling classes enjoy the spoils. This, to them, is the natural and proper order of things, with themselves at the pinnacle of their permanent hierarchy. It’s feudal and ignorant, based on nothing more substantial than pure presumption and prejudice, in order to purposely preserve existing inequalities, but magnify them. Indeed, this is and has always been the main function of a State.
Yet, there is a discussion to be had, by all of society, about whether this arrangement will do. For the vast majority, it represents unrelenting misery, punctuated only by the unmitigated terror of having one’s life prematurely annihilated by a stroke of random misfortune. It won’t do at all and seeking to impose it by force will lead to unpredictable, unintended consequences. It always does, in the end.
Billionaire Robert Mercer seeks to change your beliefs (in both the US and the UK, given his funding footprint) to his own Objectivist views, through artificial intelligence, micro-targeted propaganda and personal social media data, harvested illicitly as feedstock for privately funded psy-ops. He seeks to change minds, without those minds even being aware that they’re being cynically manipulated, for someone else’s opaque ends. Unfortunately, his ideas are an extreme version of Neoliberalism, not social, humanist or anarchistic, based as they are on the cod philosophy of a hypocritical and long-dead author. He wants to be at the top of the global hierarchy he envisages, not the bottom. In essence, he wants freedom without equality, but anarchists, for one group of thinkers, concluded long ago that freedom and equality are two aspects of the very same thing. I have no meaningful freedom, if you don’t have yours. Equality is a necessary pre-condition for anybody to enjoy freedom. You can’t have freedom without equality. Objectivism is a pipe dream.
It’s a brutal information war, though, waged by the established order, using deception and disinformation, against those that wish to create a better world. It plays out in your world view, mind, belief systems, frameworks of understanding, mental health and ultimately the ballot box. Our likes and preferences have been weaponised against us. The battlefield is inside all our heads. Your thoughts are not your own and your head is filled with garbage that somebody else benefits from you believing. Most of it isn’t even true. That’s where we are now.
In the 60s, the US federal authorities reacted to the New Left’s growing power by establishing COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), whose primary objective was to systematically “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralise” leftist activists and political organisations. The words of the document with which the program was enforced are merely a euphemism for the many assassinations of visible members of the movements, including some highly visible artists working in popular culture. Their deaths were explained away as rock star excess, leading to regrettable misadventure. This, of course, was a massive lie.
The intelligence programme worked. The diseased, moribund, corrupted edifice of the existing order continued unchallenged, from that day to this. A dead hand has obstructed human progress, so that a tiny elite could continue to profit and for these guys, too much is never enough – their appetites are never satiated. The price we all pay, of course, is that pressing existential threats to our survival remained (and remain) unaddressed and were greatly exacerbated. The cost of all that opulent profiteering was imperilling life on Earth.
Now, billionaires are using the same tactics and techniques to accomplish the same thing the intelligence agencies used to busy themselves with, like good obedient dogs. They fund and execute private campaigns that are almost indistinguishable from COINTELPRO in nature. That’s why promising alternatives are never discussed. Things are deliberately (and expensively) arranged so that it can never happen.
If it weren’t for the active and deliberate suppression of ideas that are alternatives to the prevailing status quo, we could, today, be having a lively public debate about Transcendentalism, as originally expounded by Thoreau and Whitman, for example. How would we adapt that for modern circumstances? Could that be made compatible with a Universal Basic Income, designed to be maximally empathetic and compassionate? How could we, as a society, better invest in people, communities and the infrastructure that unites us all in common purpose and interest? Could we unlock untapped human potential better than we accomplish with predatory capitalism?
Do we believe in universal personhood and humanism, or are we lonely, calculating, self-interested, consumption robots, as current economic theory and government policy would have you believe? Are we alive only to enrich a select few, or is our greater purpose to ensure everybody thrives? Is there a way we could all upgrade the quality of our thinking? Could debt cancellation, along the lines of ancient jubilees, allow us to break deadlocks and reset our society, entangled as it is in financial servitude? Would decentralisation of systems and governance break the monopoly stranglehold on unequal power that paralyses so much of society today? How can we change the orthodoxies and prevailing narratives creatively?
As you can, I hope, see, there’s a lot we could be considering and thinking about, together, which could radically alter the complexion of our lives for the better, but we’re not because we’re led by the nose, slavishly following the dominant media agenda. Is that how you want to spend your brief time on Earth and one precious life?
The more astute of you that go and research the ideas I’ve mentioned will learn that some of them have a common ancestor in anarchist thought. This association alone may tempt you to immediately dismiss everything out of hand, but you’d be throwing the baby out with the bath water. It can’t be denied that factions within the anarchist tradition have, at various times, advocated and engaged in violence, but I claim they’re an irrelevant minority today, no longer operative and that the core anarchist philosophy has much to offer, despite the historical taint of destruction.
Remember that the caricature of the anarchist, maniacally bent on mayhem, disorder and chaos, with a bomb hidden under their coat, is one that the establishment propagated to exaggerate and neutralise the threat of an idea that could have shifted power substantially away from them, the then ruling elite. As a movement, it was purposefully vilified, ridiculed and humiliated, turning it into a joke at best, or an idea decent people didn’t even think about at worst, by the oligarchs of the day. The reason the idea was so feared was that it contained within it a deep and undeniable truth about the nature of humanity – nobody wants to be owned by anybody.
The result of the extended negative portrayal of this philosophical tradition is that the mud sticks, even to this day. It matters little that modern thinkers have reshaped and refined the basic ideas into something far more benign and peaceable than the governments they seek to replace. People still associate its key ideas with frightening, fearful, murdrous crime waves, without end. They don’t see it as a cooperative, collaborative, mutually-beneficial, social enterprise, with obligations and responsibilities that our current elected representatives only too gleefully abrogate.
Because this ruler-free mindset has been designated “unthinkable” for generations, the consequence has been that our current democracies have, in fact, been turned into authoritarian “Representative Oligarchies”, over time. They are now rapidly morphing into Kleptofascism. I urge you to approach potentially workable ideas without the baggage of century-old propaganda. There’s much more to them, if you care to do the reading.
Instead of ordinary people asserting their sovereignty, en masse, we are instead invited to place our faith in think tanks, as sources of innovative policies for the betterment of society. A little bit of cursory research into the origins and function of these largely opaque think tanks reveals that such faith is terribly misplaced. Think tanks are not going to innovate or change the orthodoxy of current policy. They are explicitly “dealers in second hand ideas”, not originators.
Some of the more forceful of the think tanks are merely peddling regurgitated, but markedly distorted and corrupted versions of Hayek’s Neoliberalism – a mechanistic, technocratic, self-contradictory body of ideas that seeks to establish pure market freedom by top-down government manipulation, planning, distortion and control. It badly misjudges the motivations and values of humanity. The application of Neoliberalism and it’s bastard cousin Monetarism has not only singularly failed to deliver the predicted benefits, but its unintended, unforeseen consequences have literally killed people.
The best ideas think tanks have to offer have run out of road, yet up to this present moment, that’s what zealots in government are pushing forward, with gusto. In their blind faith, they’re proposing and enacting “purer” forms of this catastrophic body of theory, greatly worsening and deepening the damage. Think tanks are more like AstroTurf PR organisations and agitators, like big tobacco famously employed, rather than deep, original thinkers. They pretend to represent the grass-roots opinion of a majority of people, but are in reality the mouthpieces of the vested interests that fund them, who assiduously remain cloaked and anonymous. Think tanks have conned us and taken us for a ride.
Orthodox political thought can become so ossified and sclerotic that those in power fail to understand why unexpected sectors of the demographic seek to reform and replace them. It catches them unawares, by surprise. To quote the author Edward Lengel, “One of the biggest blind spots of the US government from 1918-1945 was its underestimation of communism’s public appeal. Many officials thought the doctrine so obviously pernicious—and foreign—that it would find followers only among the foolish, the desperate, and the criminal. In fact, many American converts to communism were well-placed intellectuals, social elites, and civil servants. The proximate cause of their attraction to communism was the catastrophe of the Great Depression, which led many in the western world to believe that capitalism and democracy were no longer viable. Men in the FBI and intelligence services often simply refused to believe the evidence before their eyes that intelligent, privileged and well-placed Americans not only sympathized with communism but were prepared to work for the Soviet Union. When the truth finally emerged, it instigated shock leading both to determined awareness and paranoia that some erstwhile traitors used for their own purpose.”
Unfortunately, this historical experience means that the intelligence services are, today, hypervigilant and hair-trigger paranoid about ideas that challenge the established orthodoxy of Capitalism, as it is currently practiced. Now, as then, they cannot see why ideas “so obviously pernicious” would appeal to well-placed, intelligent and privileged people, but they underestimate the fact that predatory, neoliberal capitalism is widely seen as he proximate cause of the 2008 banking catastrophe, its subsequent public bail-outs, the resultant austerity policies and the bare-faced insolence of the unrepentant financial community, who went back to reckless business as usual, priming a repeat of the sudden breakdown of the global economy, only to a much greater degree, in the near, anticipated, indeterminate future.
Despite the dangers, the only viable way to prevent global disaster is for ordinary people, not intellectuals, corporate executives, politicians, pundits, lobbyists and security services, to begin to discuss, debate and reshape old, ignored ideas, independent of the think tanks we all believed were supposed to be doing that for us.
The twitter account @SageThinker recently observed: “As you are well aware, the best minds of our generation are serving the stupidest whims of the super wealthy people. The entire system is a pyramid scheme that is grinding the souls and intellectual life of people into dust from our vertebrae.” We don’t have to accept that role. It’s crucial that we don’t.
If you do answer the call to action, to start discussing and shaping alternative systems of organising human affairs than we endure and suffer today, be forewarned. It’s really difficult to fight your own biases and propagandised programming, to think differently and adopt new assumptions, habits and behaviour. We start from a position of having had our minds utterly corrupted and poisoned. Self-awareness of the imposed limits of our objectivity is a necessary pre-condition for thinking up innovative ways to remake society. We’re all hampered by the lies we’ve been told; most of which we still regard as truth, despite he glaring inconsistencies.
“Few understand how deeply their worldview is shaped by narratives advanced by manipulators with ulterior motives, whether by mass media propaganda, by family members, or by ancient religions promoted by ancient governments. Who has benefited from the ideas you hold in your mind?” writes Caitlin Johnstone.
“Many people would rather die than see themselves proven wrong,” says Bob Marshall. “The less [people] know about a subject, the less expertise they have in a field or domain, the more aggrieved and aggressive they get about that warped relationship,” adds Umair Haque.
So much of what people believe is incorrect, but they’re too cowardly to entertain the possibility of the alternative, in practice. They lack the courage to live in a different way to the generally intolerable way they live today. It’s maddeningly self-sabotaging, but any open, public debate that seeks to question, challenge and replace apparently stable institutions and ways of living that are seemingly intractably embedded in our lives, will need to grapple with this perverse reality. The people that need things to change most will welcome those changes least. They’ll resist, against their own interests, not because the change is wrong, but because they cannot envisage an improved reality. They fear, somewhat rationally, that the promises won’t be fulfilled. They definitely won’t be, unless we’re prepared to try, learn and adapt.
“Americans don’t seem to even understand, remember, or know that collective action exists’” says Umair Haque. The same could be said of most democratic nations. Collective courage comes from lots of individuals, acting in solidarity, resisting together, as one.
A brighter future, in which we thrive, enjoying universal prosperity, is no mystery. We just have to stop billionaires and oligarchs from suppressing these ideas, propagandising against them and calling all the shots. We have become so possessed by the ideology of our age that we cannot think outside it. Libertarianism isn’t a licence to behave like predators; it’s an obligation to behave with compassion and generosity. That idea got lost, somewhere along the way.
Saying you don’t like politics and don’t want to talk about it condemns you to being a distressed and helpless passenger on the train wreck. For the sake of your mental health, learn about and begin discussing the alternative possibilities. This is your best chance to take back control – with your own mind and hands, not delegated to crooks with questionable motivations. Don’t free ride on somebody else’s conception of what’s clearly good for them, but unacceptable for you.
You can get people to internalise beliefs by addressing them as if they already had those beliefs. That’s what has been done to you. You’ve internalised beliefs because the authorities and the media have spoken to you as if you already think those thoughts. Now, you need to examine those planted beliefs and question whether they’re really in your best interests. Usually they’re not. Once public discussion determines new, preferential, benign ideas for a way out of the current mess, those can be internalised by people that initially oppose them, by the same means. Speak to them as if they already believe the new, alternative ideas. It works both ways, you see.
People hide like scared children from political chaos because they don’t know what to do, to achieve some positive outcome or effect. They feel powerless and helpless because they were taught to feel that way, but they have agency and sovereignty, which they can choose to exercise. Discussions starting from old, ignored ideas could offer enlightenment and encouragement and that’s a good enough reason to have them. We have to discuss what to do next, starting from promising threads of thought that were never seriously pursued, because that’s the only viable course of action we have left. The present approaches are demonstrably broken beyond repair.
Enough analysis. Let’s get on with some synthesis. Let’s re-examine some old, ignored ideas.