In recent years, I've become increasingly interested in exploring the history of capitalism and the history of revolutionary movements and ideas. In studying the history of capitalism I am trying to find out several things. What systems did capitalism replace? How did it replace them? Crucially, what kind of resistance did it face? How was this resistance defeated? This is not simply an academic exercise for me, nor is it a nostalgic one--though I will admit that a certain nostalgic wistfulness can come over me as I read about customs and traditions that were crushed by the cold logic of capitalism, and when I read about the loss of clarity and loss of vital energies with the defeat of this or that revolutionary movement.
I am hardly alone in desiring serious, substantive change in the American political and economic landscape. Nor am I alone in desiring either an end to capitalism, or at least significant modifications to capitalism (which I see as valuable, but insufficient). There are, of course, many obstacles to be overcome before such changes could occur. One such obstacle--perhaps the key obstacle, aside from the tenaciousness with which capitalists will and do protect their ill-gotten gains--is that it is difficult for people to imagine things different than they are now, difficult, indeed, to even imagine that things could be different. To a huge extent, we believe Margaret Thatcher's insistence that "There Is No Alternative"--no alternative to neoliberalism, no alternative to capitalism. We tend to look on capitalism as the "natural" order of things. We are conditioned to view it as associated with freedom, part and parcel of liberal democracy (which, well, it is, with emphasis on the work "liberal", but more on that later). With the Protestant work ethic, we have internalized the idea that if we do not succeed, if we do not survive, under the current system, it is our own damn fault.
In the United States, movements against the system are strange and unfathomable, and eruptions of violence against it are all but incomprehensible--people don't understand. In a piece that originally appeared in 1970 in The New York Review of Books, and which now serves as an introduction to the NYRB edition of Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, John William Ward put it like this:
The American creed of an open, egalitarian society means that there can be no violent protest against the conditions of American society because there can be no real cause for it. The act of violence cannot be understood. It must be the act of a deranged and mad individual. It escapes historical understanding.I come here to neither praise nor condemn political violence. The point is that what Ward wrote holds in a broad sense for dissent in general. Later he says: "The insistence that all men are free and equal leads to the curious consequence of a mass conformity and a mood of intolerance for dissent in any form." This insistence leads also to the curious notion that the lives we lead are the consequence of our choices only, of necessarily rational, conscious exchanges between people of equally held rights and power.
A society which believes that it is the result of the actions of free and equal and self-reliant individuals has, logically, no reason to suppose that the state and the institutions of society are important. To the degree one believes that America is a uniquely free society, that each person is unencumbered by forces beyond the determination of his own personality, to the degree such an ideal has power over one's mind and imagination, there is no way to understand violence except as irrational and aberrant. Our difficulty in understanding violence in American is, in part at least, a consequence of our insistence that ours is a society of equality and opportunity and individual freedom. To ask questions about the reality of violence would force us to ask questions about the reality of our ideals.
Furthermore, our ideology, to the degree it is believed in and acted upon, leads to intense frustration which easily spills over into violent behavior when the social situation, the daily, lived experience of actual people blocks and prevents them from acting out what they are told is ideally possible.
So, to wrap up this post. I want to know more about what came before capitalism, and about how it unfolded, not because I desire to erase history and return to some unrecoverable, edenic paradise that exists only in my imagination, but because I'm interested in those aspects of what came before that were worth preserving and which could be incorporated into a way forward, a way out. And the nature of the various resistance movements against capitalism, how they fought, what traditions they drew on, how they lost--these I consider instructive (and inspiring), both as part of a need to learn from mistakes of the past, but also to learn from the limited successes and short-lived victories. Enter revolutionary movements and ideas. I hope to be able to continue writing about this, though I have proven to be poor at predicting what will happen on this blog, ambition aside. Obviously this particular plan requires a lot of reading in history and economics and political economy and so forth, which I've been doing, if slowly, slowly (recommendations are welcome). Some of the key works and thinkers I've barely skimmed the surface of (Marx, for instance) . . .
Much more to come.