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Article Jonas Guigonnat TRANSFORMATIVE TECHNOCRATS - December 2018

Freedom: The Digital Leash of Neoliberalism

Written by Jonas Guigonnat

Believing the (online) news, the changes we are witnessing are unseen in history. The digital revolution created new ways to interact with each other and with society. Some say that this process will bring humanity to a higher level of civilization, while others insist on the dangers, and see the possibility of new dystopian futures arising (as some Pandemic writers did in this issue). Another fear concerns the way politicians are using those technological innovations and putting the world order at risk. Some of its guardians are ringing the alarm. Others have already transformed themselves, and thus the political system itself.

Old World vs New Political Claims

Even in the short period of the past 200 years, the political arena gave birth to many concepts that we nowadays take for granted. Liberalism, socialism, representative democracy, or the idea of national identity itself, for example, are born out of historical earthquakes that touched the old continent in the nineteenth century. At the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the old European monarchic network tried to reestablish the sphere of influence they had before the French Revolution. Economic instability, famines and new revolutions in the 1840s ended their ambition. Technological developments, industrialization, neo-imperialism and population growth were forcing the hand of all political actors. They were adapting to the circumstances.

In the twentieth century, things changed as radically as a century earlier. At the end of WWII, only two types of political organization survived the ideological battle that began in the 1920s. On one side, the democratic world was represented by one of the real “winners” of the war, the United States. On the other winning side, looking toward the “east,” Russia created the Soviet Union, incorporating countries which it had claimed after the war in Eastern Europe and imposing the communist political regime.

Unstoppable Changes

But even in those two political and ideological entities, things continued to change, and the political realm saw many movements rise and fall since the 1960s. Marxist ideas have been ostracized since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, but in the 1960s and 70s, they were often used by feminists and civil rights movements. Representative democracies had to adapt to permanent migration movements from Asian and African countries since the beginning of the decolonization process in the late 1940s. New technological innovations also changed the way populations in the western world saw their life, with most Europeans and North-Americans beginning to experience a welfare unknown thus far in history. Out of those changes, neoliberalism developed itself using the ever-growing mass consumption culture to its advantage.

The technological revolution, which began in the 80s, turned bureaucrats into technocrats. For the last 40 years, this new kind of politics learned not only how to govern and keep its influence, but also how to use welfare and technology as a warranty for its own existence. Neoliberalism seems to be using the tools of the digital age to swallow the possibility of significant democratic changes.

The Technological Spring

At first, it is tempting to see the internet as an objective platform for expression. The only problem is that its algorithms are built by humans, who cannot really be seen as objective beings, to say the least. Google or Facebook, for example, are built with a purpose, and that is simply to keep making profits. It may seem irrelevant in the political realm, but some recent events show that such a simple purpose is able to instigate large-scale political crises.

The most discussed example in the debate about the influence of tech companies on international politics is the Arab Spring in 2010. We know now that Facebook’s algorithm used politically loaded publications from the student movement in Egypt to literally set things on fire. It was automatically sent to groups with radically opposite political opinions. But why? The algorithm didn’t try to create hate on purpose, it was just built with the scientific knowledge that negativity is a powerful vector of communication. In other words, it was the simplest way to reach the goal of the company: create more adhesion to the medium, whatever the cost, to optimize profit.

But we are free to choose. At least that is what we are told continuously, for neoliberalism is based on individual responsibility. Freedom itself needs to be taken into perspective, considering it never really exists on its own. The way we interact with the society in which we live defines the essence of our freedom, to the point that we are allowed to claim it.

Photo by Ali Tareq

Online Freedom, Political Serfdom

Neoliberalism is particularly effective because it changed the way values are communicated. The old top-down type of interaction has been abandoned to such an extent, that the exchange of ideas and claims between power structures and the population now happen from below. It doesn’t mean that politicians are listening directly to “the people” – we would be aware of it – but that they give different communities enough attention to understand their whereabouts. How that flow of information is transmitted, and what happens to it afterward, shows how the freedom we are granted is defined.

Do you have the feeling that politicians really do listen to what you have to say? Considering the underlying assumption of this question (that answers it already), is it possible to believe that politicians are even interested in what interests us? For insofar they need us to legitimate them, they obviously need to know what we want to hear, if they want to be elected at least. Let’s imagine a system, like neoliberalism, within which politicians choose to stimulate the use of new technologies that give them access to a considerable amount of the information they require. Without regulation, for example, private companies would be able to create virtual databanks about the personal life of anyone using one of their products. Let’s imagine again what politicians will be able to accomplish with such insights.

To Consume Or To Be Consumed?

There again a wise mind would say that we are free to be a part of this new reality or not. But there again one may underestimate how well prepared the digital tsunami is. The boys of Palo Alto weren’t only successful because their products eased the way we interact with the world on itself. The advertising industry had, since the 1920s and the beginning of the mass consumption society, developed an expertise in the art of subliminality. Influenced by the entertainment industry, every effect of advertising on the public has been analyzed. From colors, shapes and shadows, to sounds, silences and musical breaks. One of their greatest achievements is to have created desires that seem instinctive and recognizable for most, although it is the results of a century of innovation in advertising techniques. When tech companies made their entrance, this knowledge was just ready to be grasped.

The scale on which the #humanity is expanding shows how successful mass consumption techniques are, particularly when they are used in the digital realm. Without a political leash to control it, we are exposed permanently, every day less able to escape. Our time becomes occupied to such an extent that it seems difficult to take a look at the world around us from a distance. Technology is used again and again to that end, always stimulating the active participation of the consumer. Given a free pass, tech companies were even able to reinforce the traditional way of consuming – using our time and energy to purchase a projection of what we really desire – with a new activity: ourselves being the product and the buyer at the same time. Long live the digital realm!

Photo by Jerin J

The Ghosts Of Our Time

And then what? Shouldn’t we just accept that things worked out that way? Aren’t we “lucky” to live in such an insouciance? We are, after all, living in a time where freedom has been expanded more than ever before. The #humanity is seeking peace, so why would we put it into question? Considering that things around us are not naturally themselves, but the result of a human construction, we should be cautious to believe those statements. Yes, life is a lot more livable for most peoples in Europe or in the US than it was even 60 years ago. But at what costs? We are to believe, then, that our society is the result of progress. It is however obvious that, without the period of colonization and both world wars, this civilization of progress would never have existed. Blood and oppression were the price still being paid.

Without entering the debate about the political and economic independence of African and Asiatic states, it is obvious that the oil coming from the Middle-East and minerals from the whole African continents are a crucial piece of the welfare puzzle. Without low-cost workers of many ages, making shoes, clothes or computers in Asia for American and European companies, our material world would be quite different. In their discourse, developed countries affirmed that their aim is a worldwide prosperity. The facts are telling another story and show how the richness of a few is built on the misery of many others. But still, we are free to choose. At least that’s what we are told, still.

Alternative Scenarios?

Out of this quite pessimistic scenario, the fact that individuals and small groups are still thinking about how to use these new technologies remains, too. Yes, it seems that Big Brother is watching us, and has been for quite a while already, still, not everyone is following the leader blindly. The digital realm is now a fact. Let us take advantage of it then, little by little, influencing the choices that are made. Patiently, with distance, almost stoically, but actively at the same time. If we refuse the world vision as it is presented to us and dare to think out of the screen, neoliberalism might be beaten at its own game and be forced to change and adapt to survive.

Then again, the question of what to believe will be asked and some claims will have more impact than others. Our freedom would be defined quite differently and would open up possibilities that are not understandable for the #humanity. The time of the ?humanity will finally have come.

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Phillip Morris

Greenhouse Gases Fresh From the Farm

Written by Phillip Morris, Editor-in-Chief

Despite the efforts of a few backward individuals, the world has recognized the need to mitigate the impact of climate change by reducing GHG emissions. The world has however been slow to recognize the important part that food will play in facilitating that reduction. Even further behind is the acknowledgment that primarily meat-based diets are unsustainable.

Global agriculture emissions contribute 20-30% of the GHGs annually. The EU has acknowledged that agriculture contributes to climate change, but when it comes to policy the focus has long been on ensuring food security and economic performance, which helps explain why methane was excluded from the National Emissions Ceiling Directive even though methane emissions from livestock are a significant part of overall emissions.

Some of the agricultural emissions come from the CO2 exhausts of machines used in agricultural production; these will be reduced by legislation that limits vehicle emissions, and market forces that encourage hybrid and electric vehicles. What is likely to continue to be overlooked is the amount of GHG produced by the animals raised for food, and specifically bovines. When organic compounds break down in an anaerobic environment, like animals digestive tracts, they produce methane, a GHG 10 times more efficient than CO2 at trapping heat. These then get released in a constant stream of burps and farts.

Agriculture emissions would be significantly reduced by a cultural switch from meat to plant-based diets, yet, in the name of preventing consumer confusion, the EU, Germany, and most recently France have passed policies that make it more difficult to market plant-based alternatives to animal products by preventing the use of terms traditionally associated with animals. It’s such a bad idea, that 45’s head of the US FDA considers it a good idea and is making similar moves to crack down on the use of the term almond “milk”.

These policies hinder the adoption of plant-based diets because consumers are use terms like “burger”, “sausage” or “milk” when deciding between products, even for plant-based alternatives. The European Vegetarian Union has already released a position paper denouncing legislation banning “meaty names” as an arbitrary decision, but denunciations are rarely enough to bring change. When politicians are caving to industry lobbyists over common sense you’ve got to hit them where it hurts.  

Photo by Jez Timms

Taking Action

Article 11 of the TFEU, which it has been argued applies to Member States along with EU organs, requires public policies to balance their objectives with their impact on the environment, but it doesn’t appear that such consideration was given with these restrictive policies. On the other hand, the companies subject to the restrictions actively promote their environmental consciousness.

Professor Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre has stated that despite the benefits of a plant-based diet for the environment and human health, eating meat is too culturally embedded in the developed world to be easily changed. Indeed, studies have found that consumer awareness of the environmental impact of animal-based meals in Europe is less than 50%. Still, individuals have recognized that their diet can impact climate change and a growing number are making changes to reduce their contribution by reducing the amount of meat in their diets and reducing food waste. Where the embeddedness of meat consumption comes into play is in government policy, where there has been plenty of acceptance that agriculture overlaps with health and the environment in general, but less so for climate change specifically. Any policy that neglects to consider the industry’s contribution to climate change is worth challenging.

The French law is really ripe for challenge because it is based on a misinterpretation of a Judgement of the CJEU. In this instance, the National Assembly states “Names associated with products of animal origin may not be used to market food products containing a significant proportion of plant-based materials…” It then gives “steak”, “fillet”, and “sausage” as examples of such names. It cites June 2017 Judgement of the CJEU for Case C-422/16 Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb eV v TofuTown.com GmbH as the basis for its logic. However, that judgement differentiates between substitutes for meat and substitutes for milk, “In the present case, that the fact that, as regards sales descriptions, producers of vegetarian or vegan substitutes for meat or fish are not, according to TofuTown, subject to restrictions comparable to those to which the producers of vegetarian or vegan substitutes for milk or milk products are subject, pursuant to Annex VII, Part III, to Regulation No 1308/2013, cannot be regarded as inconsistent with the principle of equal treatment.” This should imply that meat substitutes are not prone to causing similar levels of confusion to consumers as substitute milk products and so don’t need to be included in the restriction.

Additionally, Regulation No 1308/2013, and related Regulation No 1305/2013, do not seem to address the relationship between agriculture and climate change, except for mitigating the latter’s impact on the former. This goes against Article 11 of the TFEU, whereby “Environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Union policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development.”

Where I believe the error lies in the Judgement is its test of proportionality which references protecting consumers from confusion and finds restricting the use of the term “milk” appropriate for meeting that objective. I have not yet found a broad study on the level of confusion among EU consumers deciding whether “milk” or “soy milk” are both animal products, but that can serve as evidence that, in general, consumers can tell the difference. Other similar studies would support this conclusion.  In the late 1990s when McDonald’s tried to block the trademark for “McVeg” vegetable burgers, The Australian Trade Mark Office reached the conclusion that “the practical risk of deception or confusion is completely negligible.” In the lead up to Germany’s law, a study conducted by The Federation of German Consumer Organizations found that only 4% of consumers said they bought a plant-based meat substitute by mistake.

New Avenues for Climate Change Litigation

The trend in climate change cases has been to target the biggest and most obvious players: oil and gas companies, and the governments in charge of their regulation and licensing. This, of course, makes sense considering the share of greenhouse gases emitted from their products. These companies are low hanging fruit in terms of their obvious contribution to climate change, but they represent a challenge in securing favorable outcomes due to their deep financial pockets and political connectedness. A cost-effective strategy for fossil fuel companies is to drag litigation out as long as possible to the point where continuing is not a viable option for the plaintiffs, either financially or politically.

While in no way suggesting that these efforts should not continue, I do believe it’s necessary to explore other possible targets. A first step would be for the EU to roll back its unnecessary policies and direct its Member States to follow suit. The next step would be for governments to take the opposite policy position to support efforts to adopt a plant-based diet and in doing so support their citizens trying to make a difference, one meal at a time.

Christian Hazes FOOD POLITICS - September 2018

Oh SNAP! Food Stamps are Under Pressure

Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer

It is safe to say that ample initiatives coming from American presidents have miserably failed. Ronald Reagan’s intense acceleration of the War on Drugs, originally commenced by President Nixon, and its devastating impact on incarceration rates and especially the Black community, is probably one of the most fitting epitomes of those unfortunate initiatives.

Sometimes, though, a hidden gem comes to the surface. Unlike several other Wars On something started by the United States, the War on Poverty and particularly its 1961 re-introduced food stamps system received critical acclaim. It was President John F. Kennedy that suggested the food stamps system as a pilot and eventually secured sufficient and healthy nutrition for a staggering number of American families living below the poverty line. Up to this day, a vast amount of Americans continues to rely on what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), preventing widespread hunger across the country including all of its disastrous consequences. In 2016, a staggering 45 million Americans benefited from SNAP.

However, if current president Donald Trump has his way, getting food on the table will soon be a difficult task for a large portion of Americans. Envisaged budget cuts for 2019 jeopardize a precious and effective American welfare component, thus leaving many American families in peril.

Trump aims at trimming the SNAP-related spending severely over the next decade. Approximately a quarter of the current program’s funding will have to be cut according to the president. What this boils down to is the fact that a significant number of current SNAP recipients will lose access to this invaluable social safety net. In the case that Trump is able to fulfill his wishes, the aforementioned number of 45 million Americans that participate in SNAP will drastically decline.

Unsurprisingly, SNAP has always been a vexed topic within U.S. politics. The debates on SNAP make a longstanding and notorious schism in American culture come to the surface once again. On one side, liberals laud the bulwark of the American social safety net, emphasizing that the program spares millions of American households from misery. On the other hand, (mostly Republican) conservatives tend to detest the program due to its alleged motivation-stifling nature.

Obviously, every individual is allowed to have a certain ideological preference. But, the primarily positive effects of SNAP cannot be denied. More importantly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly guarantees freedom from hunger, thus making access to food a human right.

SNAP’s first and foremost goal, quite evidently, is to reduce food insecurity. In other words, the nutrition assistance aims to prevent having uncertain or insufficient access to food. Research consistently shows that participating in SNAP is accompanied by a decreased risk of food insecurity. What’s more, the height of the sum that participants get plays a huge role: the higher the benefit received, the lower one’s food insecurity risk is.

But SNAP does more than simply put food on the table of the needy; its positive long-term effects are likewise noteworthy. The incidence of babies born underweight – a tragic event that comes with a slew of complications during later stages of life – fell relatively drastically; roughly 10% fewer occurrences were measured after the inception of the food stamps program. Seeing as access to nutrition assistance in early life stages is vital, health problems dawning in adulthood can be circumvented by ensuring access to SNAP in utero and during early childhood.

SNAP’s reach extends to the economic domain as well. The initiative lifts numerous American households out of poverty, as well as many out of deep poverty (those living below half the poverty line). But that’s not everything. Food stamps have become an automatic stabilizer of the American economy. The program stimulates the economy by virtue of a larger enrollment rate when the economy slumps and many families need nutrition aid. On the other hand, when the economy overheats, SNAP participation decreases. Furthermore, essential expenses such as medical bills and rent can be maintained more easily when food is being provided by the government.

Fortunately, SNAP can expect much support in its battle for survival. SNAP is part of the Farm Bill, a bill supporting the demand, thus boosting production, for food. The food industries and agricultural lobby groups would be far from happy with shrinking the size of SNAP. In addition, the vital function of the nutrition assistance as a social safety net is much appreciated by many Americans. Cracking down on the already minimal welfare provisions of the U.S. will not be a very popular decision amongst the needy and the liberal. Cutting back on SNAP expenses will maybe even mean political suicide for Trump; a great deal of states that chose Trump over Clinton have a population that relies heavily on SNAP.

Despite the moderate chances of passing, the attempt to cut back on SNAP funding is worrisome. Concentrating on ambitions, goals, and desires instead of an empty belly is so important in life and many people would not be able to develop that part of themselves without food stamps. SNAP remains, somewhat uniquely, one of the most successful initiatives within the U.S. Cutting back on SNAP would not fix something that is broken, rather, it would break something that actually works.

Christian Hazes MADNESS - July & August 2018

Learning Insanity

Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer

Being Dutch is inevitably accompanied by a couple of long-lasting stigmas and traits. According to outsiders, but often also according to ourselves, every Dutch person loves cheese, uses a bike to get from A to B, and probably the most notorious habit: “going Dutch” on the bill.

A tradition the outside world is less acquainted with, but that an abundance of Dutch people detests, is what we call zesjescultuur. The fact that the term entails the Dutch word for the number 6 (zes) already makes it a bit more convenient for you to guess the habit’s gist. It is simply the Dutch equivalent of the culture of mediocrity plaguing education. A culture of obtaining a grade that barely meets the threshold to pass a test or a course reigns in the Netherlands.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of prominent Dutch newspapers write about the highly vexed topic of education. Newspapers such as De Volkskrant, Trouw, and De Telegraaf identify challenges, unveil problems and provide recommendations for the future concerning the Dutch education system. What caught my attention is the Dutch newspapers’ tendency to (over)emphasize the prevalence of the zesjescultuur. Lately, it seems to be the only thing they can discuss.

In my opinion, the tradition of the zesjescultuur in the Netherlands is largely non-existent: a contemporary Dutch myth.

There seems to be not a culture of mediocrity, but the opposite: a culture of having to excel in school. This myth is reinforced by the perpetual stream of news that argues that education has to improve and that the majority of the Dutch students are towards education.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson

Together with the dawn of the efficiency pivoted thinking in Dutch education, particularly universities (companies that strive for profit, students are merely products and need to be fabricated as quickly as possible), the two amalgamated into an acceleration of the solidification of the culture to academically excel, including far-stretching consequences. Academic pressure takes its toll, mostly in the form of depression. Many students struggle psychologically; succumbing to the daunting pressure of having to perform. In South Korea, the leading cause of death amongst Koreans aged 15 to 24 is suicide thanks to extreme academic pressure.

Hopefully, the Netherlands (and elsewhere in the world) is able to circumvent such an extreme fate. The first signs are not hopeful. Recently conducted research in higher education in the Netherlands produced baffling figures: a quarter of the students copes with burnout symptoms, 1 out of 7 students face depression and suicidal thoughts which also frequently occur. Oftentimes, the detrimental effects of excessive academic pressure on mental well-being are less overt, but not less harmful. The instilled urge to perform and excel academically kills both self-esteem and happiness, and stifles creativity.

Severe academic pressure negatively affects physical health as well, ample research suggests. Insomnia, increased cardiac risk and an increased blood pressure are all valid concerns. The fact that a lot of students turn to coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol does not help either. What’s more, due to the increased focus on performance, education has become substantially more expensive. Many students build up a considerable debt at a young age, especially now that the Dutch government stopped funding students.

The obligation of (excessive) striving and prospering throughout one’s academic career is indoctrinated from a young age on. Many Dutch elementary schools have joined the quest for eradicating the lethargic youngsters. Schools sell and promote themselves with award-worthy marketing, promising to turn your little boy or girl into the next Nobel prize winner. At an age of about five, kids get exposed to government official tests for the first time. A flood of others will follow in the years to come. Most fascinating is the implementation of student-based rankings. A huge in-class billboard shows in which category a pupil belongs. The bright students are identified as “stars” (or something else in a similar vein), those who still need to make considerable progress are called “rockets,” and the hopeless belong to the category consisting of “moons”. But do not panic! If you work hard, outdo your 8-year old peers, and perform well, you can climb the ladder and reach the class’ upper echelons.

Parents can contribute a lot to the solidification of academic pressure. Their role can be summarized with one simple, yet powerful, sentence: there are not a lot of gifted children, but there are a lot of parents with gifted children. Parents to (intentionally) overestimate the abilities of their kids. Parents obviously want the best for their offspring, but the academic pressure they impose on their children might backfire. Children undergo intense pressure in order to fulfill dreams that are sometimes not even their own.

Progress and the need to perform in school are undoubtedly important and justified. The youth needs to be motivated and stimulated in order to develop, not just for their own sake but also for that of the world. Education is invaluable and its fruits are sweet. At the same time, striving comes at a price and poses an inescapable trade-off. Should we always strive for the highest attainable or rather take it easy and aim for general well-being and happiness? A healthy balance should be found, especially when taking into consideration the rapidly enhancing intense nature of society and contemporary life. A step in the right direction might come in the form of pursuing the Humboldtian education ideal. The leitmotif of this school of thought is academic freedom, which is a two-fold concept. Universities should be independent from governmental influence and external economic constraints. But there should also be academic freedom from within, meaning that students themselves are pulling the strings of their educational journey.

Education might be the blueprint for successful living, but let’s refrain from an excess of zeal.

Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Interrogating Utopia

Written by Christian Cail

Capitalism is “the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.” – often attributed to John Maynard Keynes

Utopian thinking, at its best, requires the meeting of both a firm foundation in the material factors of our moment and history – how we reproduce ourselves and how we got to this point – and an imagination unbound by the very conditions under which we currently exist. Utopian thinking is a lost art. Most people know that the end of everything is becoming inevitable. The rise in sea levels, drought, crop failure, etc. will eventually create a mass refugee crisis which will make the Syrian Civil War (sparked by drought) almost cute in comparison. The positivists among us think there is still time and hope that neoliberalism will create a savior; but no savior will come. We cannot expect the greediest among us, through the individual drive of profit, to save humanity. Theodor Adorno once said that ideology is only exposed during violence. Likewise, the structure of our economy, a now globalized totality, will be laid bare when the cracks in its logic – the exceptions – become the cannibalistic whole. We are slouching toward Ouroboros.

There was once a time, within the golden age of Keynesian social-democracy, that the future was an option. Science fiction, modernist architecture, the space race, and the designs of Buckminster Fuller all pointed to a bright future. John Maynard Keynes himself believed that by the 1970s labor would be reduced to near utopian terms through automation. Now, in pop-culture, the future is always dystopian. It brings only barren destruction and inequality whether it be Mad Max, The Hunger Games, Elysium, Children of Men, or even WALL-E. It is in this moment that we should strap utopia to a chair and beat it until it gives us answers. In order to do this, we have to look into history. History itself has been ruined by the sclerotic rot of positivism and technocratic sycophantism, but in the large shifts of the past – between the cracks – one can see a sliver of the future; not the future we have, but one which is still waiting for us.

For a majority of human history, we have lived under some form of communism. This may come as a shock to the reader for we, as a whole, suffer from extreme historical amnesia. Marx dubbed this mode of production “primitive communism”:  a system whereby labor is equally performed and production is universally consumed. Within this historical space there is no private property, aka productive means which are held privately for others to use (to be fiercely distinguished from personal property). Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics is a good resource for understanding this era of human history. The goal of the modern communist is to look at history from the largest vantage point possible, collect the most liberatory and egalitarian features of each phase, and understand how each can be synthesized today.

Our amnesia has even caused us to forget capitalism’s uniqueness. Capitalism has not always just been there, nor was it lurking in the shadow of every exchange within the feudal mode of production. Capitalism was and is one of many possibilities of human organization. Capitalism is a relatively young phenomenon which originated in England, whereby the desire for increased productivity by landowners forcibly pushed peasants off the land. Whereas formerly the wealthy mercantile drive was of buying low and selling high, the new impulse was of productiveness, increased output, property, and enclosure. This has not changed. The peasants who once made for themselves, paid tax, and owned their tools were now forced into abject poverty in the countryside and often moved into cities where the first factories were sprouting. This was the very beginning of the industrial age. Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism details this moment well. With capitalism came increased colonialism, slavery, and robust defenses thereof. The laws conformed to this new trend, bringing property rights for the wealthy and slavery for the dispossessed. Freedom became the foremost value of the bourgeoisie, but only for the bourgeoisie. Karl Marx outlines this in the first section of The Communist Manifesto.

Photo by Pawel Janiak

Wherever capitalism went, reaction was sure to follow. Not only were there intense peasant revolts in England, there were also proto-communists – aggrieved by the trend of private property and wage slavery. Historian Christopher Hill  writes thusly of the early communist Gerrard Winstanley and the “Diggers” movement:

An important aspect of the battle of ideas (was) the abolition of wage labour…Winstanley wanted to organise a national strike of wage labour so that the rich wouldn’t be able to get their lands cultivated, wouldn’t be able to sell the proceeds and so would be reduced to the level of everybody else. If they chose to turn their land into the common stock they might get some compensation, but this would be a voluntary cession of their land.

Winstanley himself writes in his 1649 tract The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.

The French Revolution also gave way to dissenting proto-communists. The most famous is Gracchus Babeuf who masterminded the “Conspiracy of Equals”, a failed coup in 1796. Babeuf, disgusted by the bourgeois plutocrats, wanted to remake the republic in the people’s image. His programme remains extraordinarily radical and is not unlike Engels’ programme in The Principles of Communism:

Economic decree:

  1. There shall be established a great national common wealth.
  2. It will take ownership of the nation’s unsold goods, the assets of enemies of the revolution, public buildings, commonly-owned goods, almshouses, and assets abandoned by their owners or usurped by those who have used their posts to enrich themselves.
  3. The right of inheritance is abolished. All goods will return to the common wealth.

On work for the common wealth:

  1. Every member must work…
  2. The administration will promote the use of machines and the procedures necessary to reduce the burden of work…
  3. Workers will be deployed by the administration according to their understanding of necessary tasks.

After the industrial revolution proper, wherein peasant universally became proletarian, there was an even greater appearance of socialist ideals in the face of capitalism’s ravages. Robert Owen was a former capitalist who, after taking possession of cotton mills in Scotland, was so horrified by the conditions and lives of his workers that he decided to make a more just society with capitalism. Children were habitually orphaned, women worked to death while pregnant, and the men were abject drunkards. Owen initially cut their hours, increased their wages, and educated their children. Unfortunately, these early Utopian Socialist (as Marx would call them) projects were doomed to eventual failure. Though Marx greatly respected these socialists, he dreamt of something larger. This eventually led to his scientific diagnosis of capital in Das Kapital.

Photo by Jayphen Simpson

Where does this put us? Though the West no longer lives in total wretched misery like the average Victorian wage laborer, the general structure of capitalism is still present. The most horrid conditions capitalism brings have been outsourced to the Global South through centuries of extractionary imperialism and brute force. Neoliberal hegemony is for the subaltern a diseased gifter; and the third world is blessed to win its favor. An economic offer no one can refuse, as to do so brings sanctions, embargoes, and discipline. At any time the skeleton holding up our society could be made bare and those with will become distinct from those without. The Gilded Age only feels over. We still have our Carnegies and Fords, but they are now called Bezos and Musk. This social relation has been palliated, pacified, and smoothed out by false consciousness, gaudy luxury, increasingly decadent entertainment, and all-consuming advertisement – but it remains the same. America is a high budget third-world country and when the destruction is reaped from the crop currently sown, the ideology of the system – its violence and irrationality – will be naked. Class society is still the structure under which our lives are led and the need for a truly democratic and equal global society is not forfeit.

Almost all of us feel cheated, because we are. Even in America, where socialism is perhaps the only worst thing next to atheism, class consciousness is ever-present. The irony is, the bourgeoisie have managed to use the language of class to obfuscate it. Republican leaders talk incessantly about the “elites” and “globalists”, but have tied those terms strictly to the Democratic Party, a party for which this is true. Gore Vidal once said, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” For the Republican solutions are in further neoliberal privatization: class preservation through working class extraction. American conservative ideology is sadomasochistic: they want freedom and maybe equality, but they listen to their slavemaster’s solutions. Therefore, Wayne LaPierre, executive of the NRA, can gleefully chastise “the elites” and weave them into denunciations of socialists while precisely being the “elites” he criticizes. The latest GOP tax bill, Citizens United, constant privatization – all to benefit whom exactly? False consciousness is the “American Dream”.

Utopian thinking is not a luxury, it is a necessity. With global eco-holocaust threatening the existence of most living creatures on earth, it is our responsibility to think of alternatives past capitalism. We must take heed Winstanley’s ancient words: to be true stewards of our earth – taking care not to poison it for profit – and live absent of the unnecessary hierarchies which place power, wealth, and choice in the hands of those most willing to commit evil. Mark Fisher quotes Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson in Capitalist Realism, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Jameson himself recently published his own answer to utopia in his work An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Within it he lays out a programme involving universal conscription into the army, a transformation in class relationship, the subversion of the political as such. It is this sort of imagination we need for a post-capitalist society. Soon, though, we won’t have to merely imagine, and when that moment comes, we should be prepared to fight those who control our world and create the impossible: utopia.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.