Ken MacLeod's comments.
The title comes from two quotes:
“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”—Alasdair Gray.
“If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is as good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god.”—Graydon Saunders
Out of Ireland we have come;
much hatred, little room
W. B. Yeats, Apology for Intemperate Speech
As a political thinker George Bernard Shaw is mostly remembered for some deplorable flippancies about Stalinism's crimes. As an individual he was probably insufferable: it should be enough to mention that he was a vegetarian, a teetotaller, and an anti-vivisectionist. He was also one of the best-known advocates of Fabian socialism, and the one who wrote the book on it: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism. I've just read it, in its Penguin edition, whose title was needlessly stretched out to: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism. And an entertaining and instructive read it is.
Fancy yourself in a car which you do not know how to steer and cannot stop, with an inexhaustible supply of petrol in the tank, rushing along at fifty miles an hour on an island strewn with rocks and bounded by cliff precipices! That is what living under Capitalism feels like when you come to understand it.
One closes it with a taste of metal and a smell of paper, and a sense of that difference: between the machinery of production and the share certificates of ownership. Shaw was a sound money man, and clear on the political economy of rent: after reading his case for state or municipal ownership of utilities and of quasi-monopoly services, one is left with the suspicion that their privatisation might just be a terrible scam, that would leave us paying more for worse service ... oh, wait ...
The Fabian Society was from the start consciously and deliberately anti-Marxist, and anti-liberal. Marx, while 'one of our English prophets', was seen as a foister of economic fallacies, and an accomplice in the firebrand illusions of liberalism about such unscientific nonsense as the Rights of Man. Fabian hostility to Marxism was repaid in kind: "the Fabian Society is not a working class organisation and stands for state capitalism", said the Marxist Socialist Standard in its sixth issue, in February 1905. Shaw deplored the devastation following the Russian Revolution, ignorant as it showed the Bolsheviks to be of the inevitability of gradualness, but - like his fellow Fabians, the Webbs - saw in its Stalinist nemesis a sinister fulfillment.
All the more ironic, therefore, is Shaw's dark warning:
John Bunyan, with his deep but queer insight, pointed out long ago that there is a way to hell even from the gates of heaven; that the way to heaven is therefore also the way to hell; and that the name of the gentleman who goes by that road is Ignorance. The way to Socialism, ignorantly pursued, may land us in State Capitalism. Both must travel the same road; and this is what Lenin, less inspired than Bunyan, failed to see when he denounced the Fabian methods as State Capitalism.
Lenin is alleged to have called Shaw 'a good man fallen among Fabians', and, to someone who called Shaw a clown, to have snapped: 'He wouldn't be a clown in a revolution!' Shaw deplored revolution, and not because he was soft. It is genuinely hard to tell whether the following extracts aren't a profound moral insight, or another heartless flippancy:
[I]t may drive us mad if we begin to think of public evils as millionfold evils. They are nothing of the kind. What you yourself can suffer is the the utmost that can be suffered on earth. [...] Therefore do not be oppressed by 'the frightful sum of human suffering': there is no sum [...] Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. [...] Do not let your mind be disabled by excessive sympathy. What the true Socialist revolts against is not the suffering that is not cumulative, but the waste that is.
But all in all, and sharp as Shaw was, with him we are in a different world from that of the few revolutionaries to have come out of the Britain of his day, of Tom Mann and Eleanor Marx, of William Morris, of John Maclean and James Connolly, and even of Belfort Bax. Their every page breathes a spirit of rebellion from below, not reform from above, and when the chance came they entered the rapids of revolution with, if not always a clear head, a warm and not a cold heart: in the cases of Connolly and Maclean, until privation or the firing squad stopped their hearts. Shaw contributed next to nothing to the one revolution to which he could have given much.
For the terrible revolution whose spectre stalks Shaw's pages is not the Russian, of which he understood little, but the Irish, which he knew to the bone. Between his lines one sees, as in crime-scene photographs, burned-out mansions and RIC men dead. What made a stone of his heart may not have been too long a sacrifice, but too comfortable a room.
Last night in the Angel Cafe, the basement bar of the Roxy Arts Centre, Charlie Stross and I did our bit for the excellent series of free events - a sort of fringe to the Fringe, as well as to the Book Festival - organised by Edinburgh's radical bookshop Word Power. We each read a passage from our work and then we launched into a discussion about SF and politics. Word Power used the joke of the Scottish Socialist Science Fiction Vanguard Party in its publicity leaflet, but a joke it definitely is: Charlie, as he said firmly last night, is not a socialist, and I've been out of the vanguard-party construction business for the past thirteen years.
We, and a small but interested audience, talked about a lot of things, from the information economy and globalisation to the question of why (or whether) more men than women read science fiction. The audience even came back after the event was interrupted half-way through by a fire alarm, and the Word Power people seemed happy with how it all went, and keen to put on events with us again. Thanks to them, and to all who attended.
If the discussion had ambled differently, I might have talked about some related matters that have been on my mind recently. So I'll just do it here instead.
Looking back on that past thirteen years, part of what I've been doing in terms of writing both fiction and non-fiction can be seen as a political project. Here's a sample of what that project has been about:
A British Marxist, Mike MacNair, has written a short series of long articles on the nature of present-day imperialism, closely reading the arguments of theorists deservedly famous and deservedly obscure. Not light reading, but of particular interest for an original and striking suggestion, which at once locates imperialism within the long view of history and coincides with certain classical liberal and libertarian critiques of imperialism: namely, that the definitive symptom of a system in decline is an increasing dependence on, and hypertrophy of, the state.
This is an example of the sort of thing I would at one time have made much of.
It seemed to me, once, that some radical libertarians were saying, in one language, something that radical leftists had been saying in another language. It seemed to me, once, that the obscure Marxist sects had kept alive a continuity with the radical, democratic and anti-state elements of classical Marxism, elements long familiar to serious scholars and obvious to unprejudiced readers, but obscured by Stalinist monolithism and Cold War fog. Likewise, it seemed to me, the libertarians had pertinent points to make about issues that, while perennial, had become urgent after the Soviet collapse: the critique of central planning, and the defence of civil and personal liberties.
To the extent (in fact slight) that any of the characters in my books 'talk about politics in pubs', this, or something close to it, is usually what they're talking about. I didn't drag these conversations in by the hair - they usually tell us something relevant about the characters and advance the plot. But they were also the kind of dialogues I hoped the books would advance in real life. And, indeed, I engaged in such dialogues myself, arguing with Trots about planning and porn and guns, and with libertarians about workers' co-ops and market socialism and What Marx(ists) Really Said and what did or didn't happen in Russia.
What a schmuck!
So, on to other matters.
It's recently struck me that the moderate, liberal, democratic and humane response to the build-up to the Iraq war should have been to argue for the West to arm Iraq. It's not merely the case that invading Iraq was a distraction from fighting Al-Qaeda: it was objectively fighting on the same side as Al-Qaeda. If you're serious about fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, the last thing you'd want to do, on the face of it, is overthrow - or even weaken - one of the few regimes in the region that was capable of and interested in crushing them within its borders. But that's what the US and UK did. The conclusion must be that they have other priorities that come higher than fighting Al-Qaeda.
The Brits have just charged eight men with conspiring to commit heinous terrorist acts. It seems that the arrests had to be made before enough evidence could be gathered to really nail them, but time will tell. Juan Cole has the story. It's a case study of the other priorities. Feel free to argue about it in a bar.
Avedon wonders if Mark Ames is 'that lefty I've been hearing so much about', and praises with just a hint of bemusement his savage insight into 'The Spite Vote'.
Mark Ames, steeled by his years over there in the glorious post-Soviet future-and-it-works, is an original and offensive left gonzo journalist. Here's his unforgettable takedown of the response to 9/11 of the pseudo-anarchist liberal Chomsky :
The lack of dynamism or discovery is why, in spite of appearing so "radical" to more dull-witted crackers, Chomsky comes off as flat, fake, ineffectual, especially now, when something new and interesting is required.
Contrast this with real radicals from the past, people of words and action, who were confident enough in their radicalism to adapt and change when paradigm-shaking events overtook them, rather than merely acting out their narrow role. There's the example of the Jewish-Italian anarcho-syndicalist Camillo Berneri, who in 1917 eagerly rushed to the front on behalf of a bourgeois regime he was trying to overthrow, writing: "There are occasions when to get oneself killed is the most logical solution, and to get oneself killed becomes a moral necessity. Cases of conscience are more terrible than Austrian bullets or asphyxiating gases." Or Paul Nizan, the most bilious of all of France's France-hating Marxist intellectuals, who volunteered for and died at the front in 1940.
It's the Nizan ref that's the clincher, for anyone who's read The Watchdogs, a book that did for philosophy what a dead cat through a closed window does for a church.
I'd moved to Louisville with not even a fork or a spoon. Wal-Mart sells all that -- hamper, dishes, utensils, dish rack, sheets, telephones, you name it -- for prices so incredibly low that I was genuinely grateful. I thought about Wal-Mart's union busting, its abused work staff of geriatrics and economically desperate wage slaves, its stocks of Third World products which in turn further destroyed America's manufacturing, it's aesthetic Sovietization of America... and then I thought about my own shitty fiscal situation. Conclusion: "Fuck 'em."
Wal-Mart is one of the few bones with a little meat on it that America throws to its tens of millions of lower-middle and semi-middle classes. Goods that once may have been unattainable are now attainable, almost free, thanks to union busting, employee abuse, Third World slave labor, the destruction of over-priced ma and pa stores, the homogenization of Middle America and every other horrible sin. When I said "Fuck 'em," I didn't mean it in the sense that I'd turned coat and gone right-populist like some David Horowitz. I just meant that I needed those cheap dishes.
Ames goes on to give a cogent analysis of the vicious circles of globalization, stuffed to the gills with quotable quotes ('The rightwing oligarchy and its mandarins explain away globalization's savage effects on the lower classes as all part of prophet Adam Smith's wonderful plan for humanity'), glances at the role of the Russian intelligentsia (the only class to have destroyed the same state twice, and itself twice with it) and concludes with the intriguing hypothesis that the American hard left fails to connect not because it's elitist, but because it's not elitist enough. (Dress like somebody whose lifestyle people might aspire to, not like somebody they would cross the road to avoid.) And there's plenty more where that came from. Not all of it is by Ames, and not all of it can be recommended to those of a sensitive disposition. Nevertheless, the eXile holds out a glorious vision of a future liberated America:
The task facing UN forces now is "De-Bushification" of the occupied US. UN Courts will soon convene to try several thousand Yankee suspects held for Crimes against Humanity that claimed as many as 60 million victims from Kuala Lumpur to Oslo. Some of the most influential "chickenhawks," including Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney, have agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. A British military lawyer preparing the UN's case says, "This lot have turned on each other like rats in a trap, squealing at full pitch."
While the top Bushites face stiff sentences, the ordinary Yankee will be treated with mercy. UN officials who have researched pre-war Yankee psychology stress that the ordinary Yankee "kubik" (derived from "cubicle-slave," a derisive term for Yankee workers) was a victim of the Bushites. "The kubiks were virtual serfs, working 70 hours a week with no medical care or childcare. There was daily propaganda designed to keep them in a state of terror. Anyone who spoke up was punished. They had no choice but to obey."
Nice to see that even in these troubled times the eXile doesn't get all bitter and twisted. Read it regularly, if it survives its latest outrage. If it doesn't, and even if it does, you can always browse its archive.