Monday, November 16, 2009

Folks Who Say: "We Can Put A Man On The Moon. Why Can't We...?"

The Question:
"We, in civilized societies, are rich. Why then are the many poor? Why this painful drudgery for the masses? Why, even to the best paid workman, this uncertainty for the morrow, in the midst of all the wealth inherited from the past, and in spite of the powerful means of production, which could ensure comfort to all in return for a few hours of daily toil?

The (Well-Known, Oft-Repeated) Answer:
The Socialists have said it and repeated it unwearyingly. Daily they reiterate it, demonstrating it by arguments taken from all the sciences.

It is because all that is necessary for production -- the land, the mines, the highways, machinery, food, shelter, education, knowledge -- all have been seized by the few in the course of that long story of robbery, enforced migration or wars, of ignorance and oppression, which has been the life of the human race before it had learned to subdue the forces of Nature.

It is because, taking advantage of alleged rights acquired in the past, these few appropriate today two-thirds of the products of human labor, and then squander them in the most stupid and shameful way.

It is because, having reduced the masses to a point at which they have not the means of subsistence for a month, or even for a week in advance, the few only allow the many to work on condition of themselves receiving the lion's share.

It is because these few prevent the remainder of men from producing the things they need, and force them to produce, not the necessaries of life for all, but whatever offers the greatest profits to the monopolists. In this is the substance of all Socialism."
By "the substance of all Socialism," the author (it'll be in the test) means that the conditions he describes above are the stimulants that give rise to "socialist" sentiments and politics. I parsed the answering paragraph to highlight the elements the author (Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread) already by 1892, had discerned as the trajectory of predatory "capital" in an 'evolutionary' framework. He had been fascinated with Darwin AND Wallace and, contrary to the Hobbesian/Malthusian readings of those texts in Western Europe, he came to the conclusion that intra-specific was much less common than the models that prompted the emergence, for example, of Social Darwinism overlooked or ignored considerable evidence that cooperation--especially within species--was a normative feature. The Europeans, he wrote:
"...came to conceive of the animal world as a world of perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals, thirsting for one another’s blood. They made modern literature resound with the war cry of woe to the vanquished, as if it were the last word of modern biology. They raised the pitiless struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biological principle which man must submit to as well, under the menace of otherwise succumbing in a world based upon mutual extermination.”

In 1902, btw, he gathered these ideas together in Mutual Aid, a Factor in Evolution, a work that has mostly disappeared down the Anglo-American memory hole. Yet his ideas on the cooperative nature of life on Earth, though radical in his time, have received greater support over the past 30 years. Life, it turns out, may even be more cooperative than Kropotkin thought.

Nobody reads the "old guys" anymore. It's been 30 years since I read him, I think.

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