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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