The dialectical relationship between ‘I’ and ‘We’ – critical response to Michael D. Yates’ ‘Can the working class change the world?’

In the real world we live in – and never more so than in the modern era – it is not the “I” and the “We” but the I/We balance and how this has changed with economic and social development across the span of history.

Thanks to Tom Griffiths for the following article.

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Last year Michael D. Yates, the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press had his new book ‘Can the working Class Change the World?’ published. It was received, in leftist circles at least, to popular acclaim.

I came upon the book by accident as I was looking for something to give my son. Given my concerns about the relationship between the revolutionary left and the individual I consulted the Index and sure enough, an entry “individualism, under capitalism” directed me to pp 140-41. As it turned out the preceding three pages pp 137-39 were relevant contextually to what Yates concluded as the necessity of the working class waging “its own war against the I and for the We.”

The ambiguity contained in this conclusion and the manner in which the preceding pages framed it is highly problematic, exposing  as it does a pseudo Marxist and ahistorical understanding of the I/We balance and a frankly reactionary position of what this balance should look like if the working classes were in the driver’s seat. Beneath this ambiguity is an ambivalence about individuality per se that borders on hostility. Lukes’ ‘Individualism’ (1973) has done us a favor here as has MacPherson’s ‘The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism’ (1962). The latter details the development, based on need, of theories of the individual that justified the development and ascendance of capitalist property relations in the struggle to break free from feudal constraints. The former, riding on the back of modernity’s achievements, illustrated that individuality and individualism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes (well it/they would, wouldn’t they) some consistent with capitalist property relations and others not consistent. It takes a very selective reading of Marx to not get this. My thoughts on this form the substance of this piece and I should thank Yates for motivating me to post them.

But I would like to firstly clarify what are we talking about when we speak of the I/We balance. The contradiction between the “I” and the “We” – the individual and the family group/community/society, is transhistorical, predating the development of classes and going back to the dawn of human existence. Engels had this to say: “Impressive as the people of this epoch may appear to us, they differ in no way from one another, they are still bound, as Marx says, to the umbilical cord of the primordial community.”

What Engels and Marx were drawing attention to was the binding, caused not by choice, but by the harshness of circumstance, circumstance that did not allow the development of difference. This describes a frozen antithesis, any movement in the contradiction being glacial and occuring over centuries or millenia rather than decades. It has only been in the modern era that this frozen dialectic has melted and the relationship between the “I” and the “we” has not only become dynamic, but has been seen to become so.

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So let me look at the context and justification Yates provides for us, a context that I can most generously describe as a ‘softening up’ process and less generously as manipulative. He begins under a chapter sub heading, “The “I” and the “We”, and takes us on a folksy recount of a holiday spent with his wife at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. En route they passed through an agricultural area where “we choked on the pesticides … the air was so fouled we couldn’t see the mountains not far to the east.” This may be accurate enough of course but we are being led along a path where the destination is ….well, let’s read on. After references to Tom Joad and Francis Drake (he landed at Point Reyes in 1579 for ship repairs) he introduces us to the native population, the Miwok, the descendents of whom still inhabit the area. The Miwok “were gatherers and hunters, living peacefully in a land of great abundance.” James and Graziani’s California Indian Warfare paint a more nuanced picture pointing out, and providing evidence, that the word “peaceful” is an ambiguous term. Yes, the Miwok were generally a peaceful people but inter and intra tribal conflict were, shall we say, not unknown as was the stealing and raping of women. Indeed a rare surviving record of a war song eulogises this feature: “Leaders, let us go out to war! Let us go and capture a pretty girl.” Cherry picking, we need remind ourselves, is not an activity confined to orchardists.

“Once the Europeans came…” the balance was destroyed. “Disease and extreme culture shock killed most of them” while our lust for land and gold took most of the rest. As he points out “The Miwoks’ “we” was no match for the white man’s “I”. One sidedness in any field of human endeavour always distorts and I make no claim of immunity, but Yates’ agenda blindsides him as he embraces (and promotes) a romanticised account of tribal and pre-modern life. Approvingly, he quotes the view of a contemporary Miwok, Kathleen Smith, who holds that her people have lived in “physical and spiritual balance” without feeling the need to go somewhere else for 8,000 years. This “requires restraint, respect, knowledge and assurance of one’s place in the world.” Not to mention a practical inability, borne of the historical constraints they lived under, to be aware, let alone assured, of any alternative.

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Idealising the past has a long history, of course. We saw it, for example, in the decades preceding the English Revolution and during the revolutionary decades themselves, where it was common for numerous radical voices to look to,  and promote, the Arcadian myth of jolly Olde England before the imposition of the Norman Yoke. As we now know they were marching into the future looking backwards, an understandable reaction given that they were at the dawn of the capitalist and modern era, territory that we have become a lot more familiar with. What was baffling novelty then is no longer baffling. So why, I ask rhetorically, does Yates feel the need to promote a Miwok (or native Indian) Arcadian myth while simultaneously presenting himself as a Marxist and historical materialist?

Once booked into the hostel the reader is subjected to more ‘softening up’. He describes a ‘conversation’ with an east coast law student that degenerated into a lecture, by him, about how California was a monument to waste. In response to her puzzlement he turned his fire onto agriculture, a field of production, she believed, California to be a world leader in. This, the student was to discover, was a view, be it true or not, that would have been best kept to herself.

“This set me off on a lecture about dams, stolen water, subsidized land and water, massive use of pesticides, polluted air and water and exploited farm workers. Measured in terms of energy in and energy out, or in terms of the costs imposed on society by California’s “factories in the fields” the state’s agriculture is not as productive as the Miwok’s gathering and hunting”.

Unsurprisingly she retreats into the next room and, somewhat abashed, Yates follows a few minutes later to “make amends for lecturing her”.

In TV game shows this would be a “but wait, there’s more” moment and Yates does not disappoint. On hearing that she is a law student he seizes the opportunity to tell her (note how the only one doing much listening is her) what a Law Professor tells first years: that lawyers had to learn to be vicious by being treated viciously, a process beginning at law school. After a terse response from her to the effect that at least everyone was on the same playing field, “The woman never spoke to me again.” But Yates is not done. Over the period of his stay he observes her behaviour, concluding that she was oblivious to anyone else’s needs and he and his wife “listened, in amazement as she flirted with a German man” and how “she skillfully led the conversation to her desired outcome” an outcome that enabled her to bask in the glory of the medal she had won at the Beijing Olympics. He paints her, in other words, as a narcissist, an example of the “I” the working class needs to wage war against. Indeed he ends this section with a view of her that is as uncharitable as it is undialectical: Her studies will see her “become firmly and permanently frozen in the “I” and cut off forever from the “we””. Leaving to one side for the moment his view that the “I” is a frozen antithesis, whether she is narcissistic or not is difficult to call because of the way Yates inserts himself in the ‘drama’ and how he needs her to be as he depicts her. In the world of psychotherapy there is a term, projective identification, that describes an unconscious phantasy in which aspects of the self are split off from oneself and attributed to another. In plain language, Yates is telling us a lot more about himself than he realises. In my judgement there is at least as much evidence to suggest that Yates is describing as aspect of himself as there is evidence that the student is a narcissist and doomed to be a frozen “I” cut off permanently from the virtuous “we”.

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Whether Yates’ hypothesis about his Olympian acquaintance (or mine about him so far as that goes) holds water, his folksy tour has brought us to the kernel of his position, contained in the slightly less than two pages the index had drawn me to. “CAPITALISM IS A SYSTEM of stark individualism” (presumably the high case was to ensure we got the point that capitalism is a system). He goes on to say that “the primary institutions of capitalist society work in concert to inculcate the “I” in everyone, with the corollary that the “we” is detrimental to human welfare…For capitalism to end the “I” must be suppressed and the “we” must come to the fore”.

If he means bourgeois individualism, the kind of individualism that rests upon the individual’s right to own capital – and by extension to exploit the labor of others – and the particular distortions of individualism and individuality that come with this, he should say so. But he doesn’t, opting instead for the more ambiguous I/we dichotomy where, from my viewpoint, he persists in digging a hole for himself. Suppressing the “I” and valorising the “we”, he suggests, “would sound strange to gatherers and hunters who inhabited the earth for almost the entirety of human existence. They had no word for “I” and saw no difference between themselves and the natural world around them. Their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, and their rituals and institutions helped to ensure that these were maintained. For them the earth was the commons, the property of all. They managed their existence in ways harmonious with nature and kept the earth’s metabolism in balance with their own.” Now what was it that Engels was saying?

This is pretty standard Greenie fare with a touch of Gaia thrown in, the “I” disappearing into a romanticised past and embracing an equally romanticised “we”. But to suggest this is  revolutionary, a representation of Marxism and a synthesising pathway, is not only nonsense, it is reactionary nonsense, for while he is correct to assert that our clan and tribal forebears had no word for “I” and that their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, the ‘decisions’ he is implying they made, were in no sense free.

It is all very well for him to have a crack at the legal student, hypothesising that she was entering  a frozen “I” zone but what he describes here is an actual frozen antithesis that covered millenia and kept people, the “we’s” and the, at best, nascent “I’s” held fast within rigid and unforgiving constraints. Whether they realised it or not, they were trapped, their relationship with the natural world being precarious at best. What they did realise was that their task was one of survival and that the “we”, the family, clan or tribe, were survival units. As for the individual, the “I”, for millenia the water was simply too close to the gunnels for the individual to emerge, let alone be able to develop, stand up and rock the boat. And we can’t have the boat being rocked by unruly elements now, can we?!

Harmony was imposed by the strictures and violence of Nature, whose ‘metabolism’ by the way, insisted upon obedience. This was backed up by our own use of violence and by the development and ubiquitous use of shame as a social regulator. In this regard Hobbes’ pithy description of the natural state of humankind before the emergence of central governments as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’ was – and remains – much closer to the mark than Yates. It bears repeating that the first struggle for freedom was freedom from danger, the freedom to survive. For the individual this meant complete identity with the social unit.  The reason for the strength of this tie was simple – these are the groups from which the individual could expect help and protection when in dire need. The catch was also simple. There was no room to cherry pick the aspects of this system that one likes and discard the rest. There was nowhere else to go. The struggle, then, to wrest ourselves free from nature and to sever the umbilical cord, was contingent upon survival. It was upon this basis that the individual was able to emerge and is still in the process of emerging in the underdeveloped world.

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The antithesis has taken a long time to melt and we should certainly be grateful to our forebears for figuring out how to survive because our being here depended on it. This, however, is not an argument to go back, to refreeze. If we are to genuinely respect and thank our ancestors for the sacrifices they made – and they were innumerable and big – we need to move on, take the opportunities provided and seek new ones. Anything less would, in my view, be patronising and, frankly, insulting.

The embracing of the idea that traditional groups or societies (the more ‘natural’ or undeveloped the better) lived in a harmonious balance with Nature is our contemporary version of Arcadian myth and its emergence is not simply a sign of ideological crisis, although that is certainly a part of it. Strangely, perhaps, it is also a sign of our success, for at no stage in our history have we been as free from the clutches of the natural world than we are now. We have lifted ourselves above, and hence separated ourselves from, abject dependence to a more robust and, dare I say it, equal relationship. The whip that Nature’s metabolism cracks may well compel harmony but our nature has shown itself to be not so compliant. As Goethe’s Faust put it “Once I stand still I shall be a slave.” and it is not in our nature to be slaves. When Faust was weaving his magic it was a moribund feudalism that was being put to the sword. From at least the 20thC, before this in most of the West, we have had, or should have had, other targets in mind. With this Yates would agree; capitalism has got to go. But if he thinks that this involves getting rid of the “I”, the continued development of the individual, he is dreaming.

As mentioned above Yates called this section “The “I” and the “We”, setting them up in lifeless opposition. Given the pages that followed his title accurately reflected content. In the real world we live in – and never more so than in the modern era – it is not the “I” and the “We” but the I/We balance and how this has changed with economic and social development across the span of history. From a historical materialist point of view this is not only developmental, but an unfolding dialectical process. During the Stone Age, for example, the meaning of ‘we’ was single layered and, as Yates correctly points out, there was no word for “I”, although he lets slide by, or fails to realise, that this was so because there was no ‘room’ or capacity for the “I” to exist. If Yates wishes to promote this, or something like it, as a ‘lifestyle’ to aspire to, he is welcome to it, but he will have Buckley’s chance in convincing the rest of us – the modern “I’s” and the modern “we’s” to tag along, either voluntarily or under coercion.  

In modern societies ‘we’ has many layers including, of course, class, as well as many layers within and between classes. This many layered aspect is significant because it is both a reflection of, and in turn an enhancer, of individual expression and development. Our  ‘we-ness’ now extends in a multitude of ways formerly unimaginable. Norbert Elias sums up the significance of the options this development opens up in his The Society of Individuals: “From a certain age the individual can usually withdraw from the family [or group] without forfeiting his or her chances of physical or social survival.” In other words, there is somewhere else to go. But more than this – and this is something that Yates seems not to get at all – not only are there loads of somewhere elses to go to, there are loads of someone elses to go to, or find, as well.

Unlike the “frozen I” that Yates imagines (and needs in order to support his anti “I” distortions) the development of the individual in modern societies is necessarily accompanied by the development of society itself, of, compared to any previous social formation, a multiplicity of choices in how we can be ‘we’ as well as ‘I’. ‘We’ relationships are no longer necessarily permanent and inescapable, no longer confined to family or small community and hence no longer an inescapable impediment to the development of who we choose to relate with and how we choose to do it. Elias adds that “…in combination with a reduction in the power differential (not to be confused with equality of power), the greater variability of relationships forces individuals to take a kind of repeated inventory, a test of relations which is at the same time a test of themselves. They have to ask themselves more often: how do we stand in relation to each other? As the forms of relationship across the whole spectrum, including those between men and women and children and parents, are comparatively variable, or at least not inescapable, their exact form is increasingly the responsibility of the individual partners.” Individuals being increasingly responsible for the type and form of their relationships …? Now we can’t have that, can we? Well, not if the “we” is a Yates “we” in any case.

At least on this reading Yates seems unable to understand that as the “we” develops and becomes more complex, so too does the “I”. Each contains the other and it is important that revolutionary movements, if they are to reemerge, understand this and struggle to overcome a longstanding uncertainty cum ambivalence about the place and role of the individual, be that within groups/parties, the working classes broadly or society as a whole. It is not as if Marxism is a stranger to this aspect – I give examples below – although if one were to confine oneself to much of what passes itself off as the real deal, one could be forgiven for missing this.

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One of China’s Gang of Four, Wang Hung-wen, commented during the 10th Congress of the CPC that “A true communist must act without any selfish considerations and dare to go against the tide, not fearing either removal from his post, expulsion from the party, imprisonment, divorce nor guillotine.” As a young man at the time I was impressed by the comment but it was not until much later that I came to realise how profoundly radical it was and how relevant to the substance of this post. Yes, he was addressing a Congress, a great big political “we” and through media, broad sections of the Chinese population, an even bigger “we”. But within that context he was aiming his comments at the “I”, at the individual communist or communist sympathiser. In my view, it is only possible to swim against the tide, to be able or prepared to do as Wang suggests, if you are an autonomous individual prepared to put the interests of self aside and stand up, alone if necessary, and take come what may. In fancier jargon we can call this, appropriately, taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences they invite. It should be noted that part of this responsibility lies in seeking unity in organisational form with others, but is not confined solely to it, as Wang was fully aware.

The Turkish poet and communist Nazim Hikmet spent 18 years of his adult life in gaol for his political activities and the last 13 years of his life in exile. Much of his best poetry was written ‘inside’. A few lines from two of these will suffice: From It’s This Way: “It’s this way/being captured is beside the point/ the point is not to surrender.” And from Galloping Full Tilt from Furthest Asia: “To live free and single like a tree/and in fraternity like a forest/this longing is ours.”

The Czech communist Julius Fucik, captured by the Nazis in 1942 and executed in 1943, wrote on single scraps of paper, smuggled out of prison, what was to become Report from the Gallows. George Lukacs remarked that the ‘New Man’ appears most powerfully and richly in it and it is an extraordinary testament and example of what Wang was getting at. It can still be found on internet bookshops and I would advise readers to find it.

And lastly, going back a little further to the English Revolution (no, not the ‘Glorious’ one, but the real one) there is the example of the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, the most radical voice of the time, as well as being about 200 years ahead of it, who said, circa 1650, “Freedom is the man who turns the world upside down, and he therefore maketh many enemies.” He knew what he was talking about.

There will of course be many other examples and I have only cited these because they were (are) all in my head. What unites them all, what has them singing from the same song sheet, is that they demonstrate the dynamic between the “I” and the “we”, that the development of them as exemplary individuals was enhanced by their engagement in and commitment to the cause of revolution, to the “we”. This was not only where they found themselves, it was where they made themselves. In other words we unite or seek unity on the basis of our pre existing – and valued – individuality, not in spite of, or in opposition to it. Unity (or ‘weness’) of this type, is an expression of our individuality. It does not lose itself in the ‘we’ but finds itself at a higher level of expression. It is a synthesising process of development in other words and it is this feature that is absent from Yates’ understanding of both the “I” and the “we”. His is not a model that speaks of the future.

When asked by a journo where the best place to find comedy was, Australian comedian Barry Humphries, better known, perhaps, as Dame Edna Everage, replied “under one’s nose”. It is good advice and has far broader application than just comedy for this too is where to look for the future, or its seeds, and we would do well to take heed. Looking where Yates is looking will get us nowhere.


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Some fighting words for International Women’s Day



The Russian Revolution began on International Women’s Day of February 23, 1917 (according to the Julian calendar, March 8 in the West). After the revolution and the winning of suffrage by women, Soviet Russia adopted ‘Working Women’s Day’ as an official holiday in 1917. The move was instigated by the world’s first woman to be a minister of state, Alexandra Kollontai, and by Lenin.

In 1920, Kollontai said:

‘The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us’.

At the turn of the C20th, Lenin, as a Marxist, understood the progressive transformative aspects of developing capitalism, in the context of a largely feudal society:

‘Large-scale machine industry, which concentrates masses of workers who often come from various parts of the country, absolutely refuses to tolerate survivals of patriarchalism and personal dependence, and is marked by a truly contemptuous attitude to the past.

‘It is this break with obsolete tradition that is one of the substantial conditions which have created the possibility and evoked the necessity of regulating production and of public control over it. In particular, speaking of the transformation brought about by the factory in the conditions of life of the population, it must be stated that the drawing of women and juveniles into production is, at bottom, progressive. It is indisputable that the capitalist factory places these categories of the working population in particularly hard conditions, and that for them it is particularly necessary to regulate and shorten the working day, to guarantee hygienic conditions of labour, etc.; but endeavours completely to ban the work of women and juveniles in industry, or to maintain the patriarchal manner of life that ruled out such work, would be reactionary and utopian.

‘By destroying the patriarchal isolation of these categories of the population who formerly never emerged from the narrow circle of domestic, family relationships, by drawing them into direct participation in social production, large-scale machine industry stimulates their development and increases their independence, in other words, creates conditions of life that are incomparably superior to the patriarchal immobility of pre-capitalist relations.” (The Development of Capitalism in Russia – V.I. Lenin)

The earliest (unofficial) observance of the day, known as Working Woman’s Day, occurred in New York in 1909, under the auspices of the Socialist Party of America.

International Women’s Day became a global event in 1975, when it was adopted by the United Nations.

In March 1921, Lenin wrote that,

‘…under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly—and this is the main thing—they remain in household bondage”, they continue to be “household slaves”, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household’.

Much has been achieved by women since then, pretty much everywhere (save for societies that still have feudal and tribalist cultures and property relations), though the ‘survivals of patriarchalism’, as Lenin put it, also are to be found pretty much everywhere and still need to be exposed and defeated.

Helen Reddy’s song, ‘I am Woman’ (1971), became an anthem for the 1970s women’s liberation movement in many countries. It is defiant, stirring and confident – with no hint of victimhood ideology. It remains a great anthem, into the twenty-first century. The Bolsheviks would have approved.

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman
You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am



Twilight Zone Trump

Politics today frequently makes me think I’m in the Twilight Zone. The words were made famous by a television anthology series that I loved in the 1960s and continue to re-watch today (on DVD). It dealt with bizarre and fantastic themes, often in a social realist setting and with a twist at the end.

Rod Serling, the show’s creator and main writer, was a small ‘l’ liberal. He was progressive on some key issues in the 1950s and 1960s, such as civil liberties and opposition to racism, and opposition to the US war in Vietnam. I’ve read a few biographies about him and he was an internationalist, cosmopolitan, opponent of tyrants and supporter of basic democracy: all values that Trump opposes. Serling would be in the globalist camp today.

This meme is too good not to share…

Serling on Trump meme


Reminder of the spirit

Here’s something from my old files, from 1972, when Fergus Robinson and Brian Pola and I were imprisoned at Pentridge Gaol in Melbourne for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

I love the spirit in which my father, Loreto, wrote it – and the fact that he wrote it at all.


loreto york letter to vice chancellor myers, published in vanguard 13 july 1972

Word meanings and the left

We shouldn’t be so squeamish about terms originally developed, adapted or appropriated by religious minds as they sought to explain external reality and human experience. Granting religion defacto monopoly rights over words like spirit, effectively allowing them to turn appropriation into expropriation, is another matter.



James Brown was the Godfather of Soul.


Word meanings and the left

By TomG

The following thoughts on word meanings originated from a written or online comment contained in communication between old comrades some twenty years ago. I transcribed my response, filing it away on the cloud, many years later but the issues raised remain pertinent, hence this post. The disagreement was over a discomfort or ambivalence with the word ‘spirit’, and no, we were not talking about a stiff drink.

I have forgotten the precise gripe that this word raised – it will have had something to do with religious or idealist connotations – but I have not forgotten my irritation with the gripe and my liking of the word’s ambiguity, containing as it did the germ of all its definitions, idealist or materialist, secular or religious. Contradictions aplenty. And contradictions, how they emerge and relate to one another in their development, is supposed to be something we are both in favour of and up to speed with.

Two things in particular struck me about this:

1. What words mean, how we understand and use them, is developmental. Spirit, always about human vitality, human essence, be that defined idealistically or materialistically, was first thought of by the ancient Greeks to be about the breath. Not a bad stab at it given the constraints they operated under and not devoid of contradiction either. Was spirit extrinsic or intrinsic? did it come from within or without? delivered to us or created by us? As we know it then came to be predominantly associated with, indeed exclusively appropriated, by religion in its uses and interpretations. Since the scientific revolution of the 17thC and the Enlightenment of the 18thC, the tide has turned and by the 20thC non religious uses and interpretations were becoming common and predominant, liberated from the religious constraints spirit had suffered under.

2. The other thing is its identification with consciousness, about what is vital, quintessential, in people. So, what is consciousness? This is certainly something that, historically, has been seen to involve not just cognition, but notions of soul, spirit and heart. Use of the word ‘heart’ has been long liberated, and we probably have Harvey’s work in the 17thC on circulation of blood to thank for this. We all can and do, use ‘heart’ figuratively, without any angst or confusion. The same applies to ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ although for reasons I have only recently bothered to think about these continue to cause squeamishness among some radical circles. Recent advances in the neurosciences have added substantial weight to the materialist view advanced by Feuerbach in the 1830’s and it’s about time that the radical cum revolutionary left caught up. “The spirit develops together with the body, with the sense. …whence the skull, whence the brain, thence also the spirit; whence an organ, thence also its functioning. The spirit is in the head.”

We shouldn’t be so squeamish about terms originally developed, adapted or appropriated by religious minds as they sought to explain external reality and human experience. Granting religion defacto monopoly rights over words like spirit, effectively allowing them to turn appropriation into expropriation, is another matter. Given that we have no problems about expropriation in other areas, we should have no qualms about re-expropriating here. (By the way, Shakespeare was a master at appropriating novel and common vernacular and his is a good example to follow). The word ‘fuck’ is a prime example and I don’t know anyone who is without sin, and happily so, in using it freely. Indeed it has now become respectable (almost) and we hear it uttered on radio and TV shows daily. Adapting language, actually developing language, is something people have been doing forever and we shouldn’t be shy about it.
Soul and faith are two words that carry heavy religious baggage, soul denoting the seat of our corporeal self and faith denoting acceptance, in the absence of any evidence, of God’s divine providence. How else could God move in mysterious ways, I say unto you?

But in the real, material world, populated by the proverbial common man or woman and in particular by the common adolescent or young adult, word use and adaptation reflects the dynamism we associate with the modern world, with modernity itself. And the old, original (if that’s what they were) religious meanings? Seriously, they’re terminal and on life support and I see little point in radicals – genuine or even pseudo – playing a role in keeping the life support switched on. Let me give three examples of what I’m talking about:

1. “Today’s music ain’t got no soul; give me that old time rock and roll.” belts out Bob Seeger and it’s pretty clear that he’s not referring to what the God botherers mean.

2. And what about Rubber Soul, courtesy of The Beatles? Try as I may I fail to detect God’s ineffable presence.

3. Faith’s principle meaning is now confidence or trust in a person or thing. While this is somewhat ambiguous, containing as it does contradiction, we identify with that aspect that reflects social being and scientific understanding. It is on this basis that we can say that we have faith in the masses (don’t we?), in the general direction of historical development, in scientific method, and that among the numerous ‘revolutionary’ grouplets or sects there will be a higher percentage of killjoys than among the general population etc

As mentioned above the meaning of words change and new ones invented, language being subject to similar developmental pressure and opportunities that are at play generally. The left’s distancing itself of words like spirit has not stopped this; it has only stopped our engagement with it and, more tellingly, with the throb of life associated with it. ‘Out there’, among the throng of real life inhabited by the working classes that we purportedly identify with, people engage with this process, be they conscious of this or not. It’s what gives etymologists a job.

We do not need to be etymologists of course but we can certainly take a leaf out of their book and be open to, and engage with, the ongoing process of how word usage and meaning changes. This is happening anyway and will continue to do so whether or not we engage with it ourselves. I just think it’d be a good idea for us to be conscious of and open to this process. While not a big deal in itself (no, we don’t have to lose sleep on where words may be heading) it is symptomatic of something that we should be losing sleep over: do we move with the times, consciously, trying to effect speed and direction, or do we stay behind the pack, whining about the packs backwardness and kidding ourselves that our position is actually in front?

When the state is unjust, citizens may use justifiable violence

The following is written from a classical liberal point of view but one does not have to be a liberal to agree with the conclusions. It brings to mind some of the thinking, and arguments, we had on the left back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when police routinely framed and/or beat people up on political demonstrations with a view to thwarting the developing mass movement and growing influence of revolutionary socialist ideas.

Article republished from Aeon under Creative Commons, written by Jason Brennan

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If you see police choking someone to death – such as Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black horticulturalist wrestled down on the streets of New York City in 2014 – you might choose to pepper-spray them and flee. You might even save an innocent life. But what ethical considerations justify such dangerous heroics? (After all, the cops might arrest or kill you.) More important: do we have the right to defend ourselves and others from government injustice when government agents are following an unjust law? I think the answer is yes. But that view needs defending. Under what circumstances might active self-defence, including possible violence, be justified, as opposed to the passive resistance of civil disobedience that Americans generally applaud?

Civil disobedience is a public act that aims to create social or legal change. Think of Henry David Thoreau’s arrest in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes to fund the colonial exploits of the United States, or Martin Luther King Jr courting the ire of the authorities in 1963 to shame white America into respecting black civil rights. In such cases, disobedient citizens visibly break the law and accept punishment, so as to draw attention to a cause. But justifiable resistance need not have a civic character. It need not aim at changing the law, reforming dysfunctional institutions or replacing bad leaders. Sometimes, it is simply about stopping an immediate injustice­. If you stop a mugging, you are trying to stop that mugging in that moment, not trying to end muggings everywhere. Indeed, had you pepper-sprayed the police officer Daniel Pantaleo while he choked Eric Garner, you’d have been trying to save Garner, not reform US policing.

Generally, we agree that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate, destroy property or attack people. But few of us think that the prohibitions against such actions are absolute. Commonsense morality holds that such actions are permissible in self-defence or in defence of others (even if the law doesn’t always agree). You may lie to the murderer at the door. You may smash the windows of the would-be kidnapper’s car. You may kill the would-be rapist.

Here’s a philosophical exercise. Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise. But it turns out that the leading arguments for special immunity are weak.

Some people say we may not defend ourselves against government injustice because governments and their agents have ‘authority’. (By definition, a government has authority over you if, and only if, it can oblige you to obey by fiat: you have to do what it says because it says so.) But the authority argument doesn’t work. It’s one thing to say that you have a duty to pay your taxes, show up for jury duty, or follow the speed limit. It is quite another to show that you are specifically bound to allow a government and its agents to use excessive violence and ignore your rights to due process. A central idea in liberalism is that whatever authority governments have is limited.

Others say that we should resist government injustice, but only through peaceful methods. Indeed, we should, but that doesn’t differentiate between self-defence against civilians or government. The common-law doctrine of self-defence is always governed by a necessity proviso: you may lie or use violence only if necessary, that is, only if peaceful actions are not as effective. But peaceful methods often fail to stop wrongdoing. Eric Garner peacefully complained: ‘I can’t breathe,’ until he drew his last breath.

Another argument is that we shouldn’t act as vigilantes. But invoking this point here misunderstands the antivigilante principle, which says that when there exists a workable public system of justice, you should defer to public agents trying, in good faith, to administer justice. So if cops attempt to stop a mugging, you shouldn’t insert yourself. But if they ignore or can’t stop a mugging, you may intervene. If the police themselves are the muggers – as in unjust civil forfeiture – the antivigilante principle does not forbid you from defending yourself. It insists you defer to more competent government agents when they administer justice, not that you must let them commit injustice.

Some people find my thesis too dangerous. They claim that it’s hard to know exactly when self-defence is justified; that people make mistakes, resisting when they should not. Perhaps. But that’s true of self-defence against civilians, too. No one says we lack a right of self-defence against each other because applying the principle is hard. Rather, some moral principles are hard to apply.

However, this objection gets the problem exactly backwards. In real life, people are too deferential and conformist in the face of government authority. They are all-too-willing to electrocute experimental subjects, gas Jews or bomb civilians when ordered to, and reluctant to stand up to political injustice. If anything, the dangerous thesis – the thesis that most people will mistakenly misapply – is that we should defer to government agents when they seem to act unjustly. Remember, self-defence against the state is about stopping an immediate injustice, not fixing broken rules.

Of course, strategic nonviolence is usually the most effective way to induce lasting social change. But we should not assume that strategic nonviolence of the sort that King practised always works alone. Two recent books – Charles Cobb Jr’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (2014) and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back (2013) – show that the later ‘nonviolent’ phase of US civil rights activism succeeded (in so far as it has) only because, in earlier phases, black people armed themselves and shot back in self-defence. Once murderous mobs and white police learned that black people would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and black people in turn began using nonviolent tactics. Defensive subterfuge, deceit and violence are rarely first resorts, but that doesn’t mean they are never justified.Aeon counter – do not remove

Jason Brennan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.