The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

How To Be An Optimist In A Fucked-Up World

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If you’re a middle-class American with a conscience, it is easy to look around and say, “No one cares.”  It certainly can seem that way.  It might seem like you and your immediate circle of real-life and internet friends are the only ones who notice there’s a problem.  The very idea of alleviating systematic oppression–much less solving it–might appear to you like a pipe dream.  Perhaps you find yourself cursing the greater portion of humanity, calling them stupid, decrying their apathy.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. The USA is not the world.  Greek workers have shown resistance.  They are fighting the US-backed dictatorship in Egypt.  The Palestinians, in spite of overwhelming odds and unconscionable brutality, haven’t given up.  And so on.  So, first step, read some international news: people are fighting back against oppression.  It is happening.  And, regarding the USA, we are living more and more in a world where what happens in one part affects everything else; the working class in this country cannot help but be affected by international events.

2.  Even in this country there are definite signs.  Most of us are outside the circle where these things are happening, making them easy to ignore.  The Occupy movement may have been ineffective, but it tells us there is outrage, and this outrage, when organized, can turn into action.  And we are just now seeing the first, early stirrings of the labor activity, in spite of the horribly fucked state of the US union movement.

3. Take the long view.  Over the course of human history in general, and US history in particular, the trend has been for more equality, more justice.   As a species, we are still in our infancy, yet we’ve made amazing progress.  On the one hand we have the entire sweep of human history, and on the other the current, temporary, limited (and possibly just wrong) view of what some group is thinking at the moment; to which one ought we give more weight? Progress is a thing.  It can be very hard, and certainly there is backward movement at times.  But there is no good reason to believe progress will stop.

4. Related to the above, and perhaps most important: Study history.  We have done amazing things.  We have built up productive forces to the point where there is no need for anyone to be hungry, or homeless, or without health care.  Democracy and equality–though frighteningly threatened–are broadly considered natural rights now.  Take some time to study the details of how we got there.  Notice how often great individuals appear when they are needed, and accomplish amazing things; notice how often the consciousness of the masses takes huge leaps and accomplishes even more amazing things.  Fight to understand the laws that guide these processes.  These laws are still in operation, and that is good news.

5. Science.  Just…science.  Look what we can do, what we can build, how much we understand.  We are beginning to understand even ourselves a little–and one thing about us human monkeys: when we understand things, we use that understanding, and (generally) use it to make things better.  And remember that the more we turn to science–the effort to understand the laws of motion of the objective world–to understand social processes, the more we will be able to use that knowledge to direct those processes.  Yes, such things are subject to abuse; what isn’t? But having more and better tools available is a good thing.

6. Do not forget human culture in the narrow sense, by which I mean the arts.  We’ve done amazing things, things that fill us with pride in being part of the species that did them: Hildegard, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Mozart.  And we’re still trying to do more, to create joy, beauty, and understanding that can be shared across cultures.

7. If you, like me, believe the way forward for humanity is through the destruction of capitalism, remember that every revolution in history has come as a complete shock to those who were not one of the main contending classes, and usually to those who were–even those who were most consciously preparing for it.  I don’t know what will happen, or when it will happen, but I predict that everyone, especially me, will be caught off guard when it does.

8. Democracy is the most efficient form of government–fewer police, cheaper in general. The ruling class would prefer to be able to exercise their dictatorship using democratic forms as much as possible, rather than having to support an immense infrastructure of domestic spying, national police forces, prison systems, censorship, and bureaucracy.  If the ruling class is trying to destroy democracy, it is a sign of weakness.  It means they’re scared.  And that means they have something to be scared of.  And that is good news for us.

So we keep our collective and individual chins up, support each other, do our work, fight to make sense of things, and try to make the world better.  The more we understand, the less reason there is for despair.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

43 Comments

  1. I agree that the power elites are running scared. There answer is suppression and an attempt to make us accept a police state. I’m getting awfully tired of that crap and wish we could be a free nation again.

  2. Damn fine list. I was going to quibble, then realized that’s just not in the spirit of the post. But adding to the list would be mighty nice. I can think of one:

    9. Young Americans have a much more favorable opinion of socialism than old ones do.

  3. “8. Democracy is the most efficient form of government”

    Efficient is a word not often connected with democracy. Could you support this with some historic examples? Virtually all purely democratic societies seem to fail once they reach a critical mass, if they even survive long enough to practice pure democracy – various utopian communes of the 17th and 18th centuries come to mind. Even the smallest groups tend to splinter time and again as personalities drive people apart, e.g. the multitude of socialist groups that broke away as people decided to do their own thing. Pure democracies don’t do well in wars, as even Trotsky notes in “The Revolution Betrayed”, when he agreed the prohibiting opposition parties was necessary under “conditions of civil war, blockade, intervention and famine”. Under what conditions has democracy been shown to be the most efficient method of running a society?

  4. “If the ruling class is trying to destroy democracy, it is a sign of weakness.”

    This I agree with.

  5. skzb

    “Under what conditions has democracy been shown to be the most efficient method of running a society?”

    Under conditions where there is neither war nor civil unrest. By efficient, I refer to cost to run it. Police states are horribly expensive.

  6. Concerning point 4 — I would say that great men appear at turning points because the forces of history shape their consciousness. Thus Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson. In the current period, especially right now, the ruling forces attempt to destroy consciousness rather than allow it to develop. Hence the frightening attempts to re-conceptualize the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Hence the need for a conscious and trained leadership. Perhaps now even more so than in the time of Lenin and Trotsky, because so much damage has been done to conscious thought. I do not believe that great figures will just emerge in this period, although great heroes no doubt will. Those who would lead must prepare themselves, above all by relearning how to think.

  7. skzb

    Will: Agreed regarding point 9.

    Cynthia: I can accept that. But it seems to me that during an epoch of the decay of a system, the great figures are more likely to rise in the fight against that system. But no argument about relearning how to think. I plan to do that myself–next week.

  8. I tend to agree that increasing freedom in a republican system makes things cheaper and easier for whoever is in charge. But these people — the inheriting class or even the occasional technocratic group — are always going to be whipsawed by their urgent desire for control. And members of the ruling party always have that desire, or they wouldn’t be the ones in charge. Right now all through the West, the urge to control has obviously overcome almost everyone in all major parties. It seems like every new law and supposed reform becomes an onerous burden, and every new government policy seems to eat away at the remaining liberties allowed to the people.

    I’m not sure if this is necessarily a sign of weakness in the ruling parties or if it’s a sign of their stupidity and malice coupled with their disdain for passive populations who have partially succumbed to many years of big lie media tactics. I don’t say that the working class will suffer this sort of abuse forever, but you just have to visit a typical mainstream news comment section — in most any country — to see what a great many people really honestly believe to be truth. Without that large base of people who completely buy the lies they are told, the control program would not be able to continue to function.

  9. ” ‘Under what conditions has democracy been shown to be the most efficient method of running a society?’

    Under conditions where there is neither war nor civil unrest.”

    In light of your fourth item (“Study history”), I’ll rephrase my question. At what point in history has a democracy existed that was shown to be more efficient than its neighbors, or any other form of governance in use at the time?

    “By efficient, I refer to cost to run it. Police states are horribly expensive.”

    Those two are not diametrically opposed. Lynch mobs and vigilante groups were often the result of the majority of citizens in a given location deciding to take action, thus they were democratic movements which displayed the worst aspect of the police state, the willingness to destroy those who didn’t fit in.

    I would disagree with using the “cost to run it” as the criterion for efficiency. A society in which the office holders pay their own way would be much more efficient in terms of public finance, but most people wouldn’t point to Sparta or Rome up as exemplars of democracy.

    I’m not just nitpicking. You say to “[t]ake the long view” and observe “the entire sweep of human history” (#3), but nothing that I know of in history points to democracy as being the most efficient basis for government, whether measured in purely financial terms or by day-to-day accomplishments, and I’d be interested in knowing of such a society.

  10. skzb

    L. Raymond: All right, then. Feel free to replace “efficiency” with something else. Cost to run it is what I’m talking about, and what is significant for the point I’m making.

  11. I would also add to the list. Get involved with people who are fighting back on a person to person (not just electronic) level. Hold a sign on a labor picket sign. Escort women past the harassers into a Planned Parenthood Clinic. Take part in a rally for a cause you believe in Do something where you are. Do something where *you* are. . Actually taking part in day to day struggle, at least occasionally, is tiring, but very energizing as well. Probably most of those reading this know this already from personal experience. But if you have not tried, or if you used to do that sort of thing and drifted away, remember that taking part in democratic struggles energizes and grounds. It not just giving; you gain as well. Single best way I know to remain optimistic.

  12. Just for the record, I am an expat living in Montreal. But I grew up in the US and have three children and six grandchildren living there, so I feel qualified to comment.

    I wish I were as optimistic as you. What I see is people paying more attention to Kim Kardashian than to the plight of ???? Manning. On one site I frequent, populated mainly by self-described liberals, 55% think he either got the appropriate sentence or it was too lenient. Elections are mostly decided by who spends the most money; the house is heavily gerrymandered and more and more the poorest will not be permitted to vote. That might be a sign of weakness, but so are the actions of the Egyptian generals.

    It is worth noting that France spent a large part of the 19th century oscillating between a monarchy that tried to restart the ancien regime and a dictatorship, until they finally built some sort of republic. I am not sanguin about socialism either. It can too easily turn into an utter corruption. The best, the absolute best we could hope for was a regulated capitalism. But we have just seen how easy it is for the regulated to take over the regulators and destroy the system.

    Then there is the disdain for science and the anti-intellectualism. Even some members of the academy dismiss science as just another cult. I despair.

  13. I feel tempted to make a long reply, but am stomping on my impulse, cause I’m trying to to use limited energy productively. However, the short reply is the future is always uncertain, and that is as much a reason for hope as for despair. And because you can never predict when and where the system will weaken, best to push from as many directions as possible. That way, when a weakness develops, there will already be pressure on the weak spot.

  14. Big Mike: Jesus. Did you even read the post?

  15. Big Mike, what is your purpose in trying to predict the future? It is to affect your choices, right?

    And the choice I see that you should use your prediction for, is “Should I commit suicide today?”.

    If you are pushing yourself way too hard, your body will try to persuade you to slow down by making you depressed. You’ll start having feelings that tell you it’s all worthless, why try, better to just give up. Better to pace yourself, and get enough rest.

    If you are going to be in the world, better to have some fun. Look for examples where good things happen. Create some examples. Every good thing is a little victory, a step in the right direction. Don’t so much look for examples where bad things happen and get upset that you live in a world where bad things can happen. Unless you like that kind of thing.

    When I look at conservative media, what I mostly see is people coming up with horrible examples of government abuse, and they talk at length how horrible it is. They try to get people to rage about it. It’s designed entirely for people who enjoy being outraged.

    I’ve been seeing increasing amounts of that on liberal sites too. They give examples of horrible miscarriages of justice, and rage about how horrible it is that we live in a world where such things can happen. If you look at that sort of thing and you get depressed instead of angry, then the weapon has turned in their hand. They want you to be so angry that you identify with their tribe without thinking. They don’t want you to give up and be a puddle of apathy.

    But I say, why let them manipulate you that way? We live in a world where bad things can happen. We can try to make good things happen. We will probably never create a world where nothing bad ever happens, so you will always have examples you can use to fuel your rage or despair. If that’s what you want….

    And again, the main reason to decide whether you’re losing is the choice whether to give up….

  16. Great list. Reason 10: The divisions among “capitalists” are becoming more pronounced.

    For example, there’s a distinct rift between those who place a priority on the free market functions that lead capitalist economies to succeed and those focused on preserving accumulated capital which they’ve inherited as a result of their ancestors succeeding.

    Those who place more value on preservation of accumulated wealth rather than upward mobility and free market systems have begun using government to try to preserve their wealth and are attempting to justify it as capitalism, even though classical economic definitions would suggest a system that runs on bailouts, subsidies and targeted tax breaks is degenerating towards a fascist economy (if not political system).

    If you believe, as I do, that free markets create efficiency, innovation and choice, and that those are all desirable outcomes that are threatened when privilege accumulates to those who didn’t earn it simply because their grandparents did, then awareness of this distinction is a critical precursor to reinstating true free market systems.

    If you believe (as I think Steve does, but don’t want to put words in his mouth), that accumulation of capital across generations and the resulting inequalities is an inevitable outcome of a free-market system, then that split represents a weak point within capitalism that could be exploited for more radical change.

    Either way, it’s bad news for the Romneys of the world.

  17. “If you believe, as I do, that free markets create efficiency, innovation and choice, and that those are all desirable outcomes that are threatened when privilege accumulates to those who didn’t earn it simply because their grandparents did, then awareness of this distinction is a critical precursor to reinstating true free market systems.”

    I believe that you are describing a complicated problem and it’s hard to measure solutions.

    Efficiency, innovation, choice. You want to further three goals and it’s hard to even measure the trade-offs among them.

    Imagine this — you own a factory. You must pay for maintenance, and it slowly wears out. You have a sense how fast it is wearing out, and ideally you will build a new one to be ready to run just about the time the maintenance on the old one becomes too costly. That is the most efficient approach.

    The time for big innovations is when you build the new factory and you can set it up however you want, within broad limits. It’s harder to make big innovations that must fit the constraints of your old choices. So for example automobile companies traditionally made their big design changes every three years, because their drop forges wore out in about 3 years. Lots of choices, including encouraging people to buy new cars every three years, came as by-products of that fundamental fact.

    So, it costs you extra if you build an innovative new factory before the old one is fully depreciated. But if it’s somebody else building the new factory to compete with you, they don’t care at all about your losses. If you lose a whole lot of money and go bankrupt, that’s fine with them. And if a third competitor comes up with even more innovations and drives the second guy out of business before the second factory is depreciated, the third guy doesn’t care at all either.

    With free competition we can easily get so much innovation we lose a whole lot of efficiency. On the other hand, if one competitor mostly wins out, he can innovate slower. Or maybe not slower — he can plan carefully and make lots of changes whenever he’s ready to rebuild a factory, but he doesn’t have to face the sort of competition that makes him throw away stuff that works early, just because it can’t compete.

    Choice — you can choose among lots of products with differences, because competitors each want something they can market as better than the rest.

    Innovation — Lots of new products, though it’s hard to make something that’s actually better until you’ve studied the problems with the last generation.

    Efficiency — There can be more product produced, and cheaper, if there isn’t too much wasted investment.

    How do you decide what’s the right mix among those? How do you decide how well your chosen economic system is doing at all of them?

    It’s a tough question. You can suppose that the companies that compete best in a free market might be somehow the companies that are the best at doing whatever is most important, but how does that create the right amount of investment versus consumption, or the right amount of innovation versus efficiency, etc?

  18. People care about their peers. For a few centuries the elite benefited (relative to their peers) by having communities that produced wealth. Because of this the communities benefited. I see signs that this blip in history may be ending (depending on how we define “community”).

  19. “All right, then. Feel free to replace “efficiency” with something else. Cost to run it is what I’m talking about, and what is significant for the point I’m making.”

    I was really hoping you had a historical example of such a government since I’m not aware of one and new info is always interesting to me.

    Without examples to the contrary, I can’t agree that a pure democracy can ever be considered the most cost-effective, or even best, form of government, but that’s neither here nor there. My own contribution to a list of reasons to be optimistic is that people are slowly but surely dropping the need for myths in some aspects of life, noticably religious myths, and I have hope that trend will continue into political life as well.

  20. skzb

    A government that backed off from dictatorship when it felt it safe to do so? Just off the top of my head, post WWII Spain and Greece are the first, easiest examples.

  21. There are various classical and ancient examples of governments that retreated from dictatorship — after all the original post of dictator was an emergency position.

    More recently there have been some other cases, including South Korea, Cambodia, and Myanmar (not there yet, but better than before anyway) to name a few. None of these are completely free and democratic, but they are more or less pointed in that direction, at least.

  22. And duh, a raft of South American countries as well. Sometimes I go blank on entire world regions, very distressing.

  23. Chile, South Korea. South Korea looks to me like a particularly good example. Lots of people were upset to have a dictator so they got a sham democracy, and the sham has either gradually gotten more real, or the rulers have gradually gotten better at disguising themselves.

  24. Regarding point 5: I agree with what was said; however, corporations and those with money are truly the driving force behind scientific research to the detriment of those without.

    Case & Point: Cancer research – There is a scientist in Canada who has developed a substance which could possibly cure cancer outright. No chemotherapy, no drug cocktails, just undergo treatment for a little while, and the cancer is gone forever. Said scientist needs funding to be able to move on to human trials and the eventual aproval for human use. However, he will never get that funding, because those with power and money aren’t interested in cures, because there is no money in it. Those with money capable of funding such research are only interested in treatment of symptoms and making people more comfortable, because people will always be coming back for more of that. A cure doesn’t leave room for repeat business, and cancer is BIG business.

  25. I hate defending capitalism or capitalists, but sometimes I gotta. I don’t think the medical industry would prevent anyone from curing cancer. (The reversible vasectomy, yeah, they might’ve blocked that.) They would like a cure for cancer that they could sell because cancer is so awful and it affects medical folk, too. Don’t assume capitalists are purely heartless, and never assume they don’t get self-interest. What the medical industry, if motivated purely by profit, would want to prevent anyone from curing is the common cold.

  26. “However, he will never get that funding, because those with power and money aren’t interested in cures, because there is no money in it.”

    You argue that the problem is funding for human trials. There could be government funding. That’s limited and his project might not get the highest priority, but it could work. And there is foreign funding. There are lots of foreign governments and any one of them might fund human trials out of sheer governmental caprice. Not all countries have the same standards for human rights in their human trials, either.

    The other side of it is that big businesses with political connections might not only choose not to fund his research, but might use their connections to make sure nobody funds it. This would be necessarily secret. In any particular case, one scientist will think that his own research is important, and other prestigious scientists will disagree. If he doesn’t get funded is it because the anonymous independent reviewers correctly refused it, or because there was political interference? How would anybody know?

    Here is my thought to correcting the problem. Let anybody sign up for Medicaid, if they want to. And when they do, they are included in medical trials. They may be given any medical treatments that is not known to be inferior to standard practice. Many of them would get standard treatment, to be the control groups. As soon as an experimental treatment is shown to be worse, it is dropped and replaced by a new experimental treatment. As soon as an experimental treatment is shown to be better (better medical results or equivalent medical results cheaper) it replaces the standard treatment for Medicaid patients and collects even more statistics.

    Accepting Medicaid becomes not an undeserved privilege but a public service.

    And it is absurd to have the companies that develop new treatments be the ones who measure how effective they are. That’s like hiring the fox to guard the henhouse. It’s like asking your barber whether you need a haircut. It’s like asking the general in charge of the Afghan war whether we should admit defeat and pull out.

  27. For a while I thought that we could get some sort of universal health care in the U.S. by extending the eligibility of veterans and their families, merging with Medicare. But it appears that veterans aren’t immune to the New Right. (How can the Right claim to be Christian is incredible unless we know history).

  28. @howardbrazee – True enough. The government (or at least the right side)has shown that it doesn’t even care about the soldiers who are still in the military fighting their wars, let alone the veterans who have paid a price while fighting their wars. Things are more likely to get worse than better as far as health care is concerned.

  29. Really seriously, we depend for medical treatment on research done by the companies who have a vested interest in a particular outcome. Relatively small studies. Then later maybe we do bigger epidemiological studies at great expense, finding over a period of maybe 5 years or more that the methods of 5 years ago were in fact not helpful on average. During those 5 years the treatment changes and proponents claim that the new version is in fact a good thing, taking maybe 5 years more to show it isn’t….

    This would be a primary application for Big Data except that we have peculiar ideas of privacy. So anybody who gets access to the right insurance terminal can get full access to your medical record if they pretend they are considering selling you insurance. But researchers who need to know get only carefully sanitized and limited data. It’s absurd.

    Set up Medicaid as a giant research database. Provide enough sanitizing that people would have to work at it to identify patients. And let anybody run statistics on their hypotheses on that database. What would we really lose?

    When individuals pay for whatever medical care they want, themselves, let them get whatever they like. But when the government pays for medical care we should make an attempt to actually have it be effective. That requires feedback. Here are the prequelae in a lot of cases, here are the treatments, here are the outcomes.

    What possible excuse can there be not to do this? Insurance companies have the excuse that their function is only to make money, so they only need to predict expenses so they can set premiums….

  30. @skzb “A government that backed off from dictatorship when it felt it safe to do so? Just off the top of my head, post WWII Spain and Greece are the first, easiest examples.”

    Not sure if this was directed at me, but I’ll guess from the proximity it was. Democracy and dictatorship aren’t the only two options; not having one doesn’t equate to having the other. But to go into why I posted my initial query to begin with:

    Item 8 raises the question, since the ruling class can subvert a democracy for its own ends, how does a democracy prevent that while respecting everyone’s rights? What society has prevented such a take over in a way you feel was replicable elsewhere? That was why I asked about a historical example; it was meant to be a quick and dirty way to get that info.

    The simple fact is I was hoping you would identify a society with a democratically elected government of which you approve so I could compare its history to that of the US government, which I believe you consider a police state, despite having been democratically elected. Of course, I could simply ask at what point you feel the US government went astray, or even if you feel it never had an acceptable form of government, and if not, what should have been done differently. But that’s asking for a complete thesis, when all I wanted was a pointer to follow up on.

    I’m interested in what people who are, or consider themselves to be, politically active think about government. They all know what they’re against, but so many don’t know what they want instead, and generally when they do, they don’t offer concrete data or practical plans of what, exactly, they need to do. When someone I know personally or whose column I read (yes, that’s how I view a blog) brings up an interesting point about government, I like to ask about details. When doing so would be an imposition – as I said, I could request a thesis but it’s not rational to expect one – I try to get a few data points to work on. Honestly, that’s the only reason I was asking about a historical example.

  31. “Item 8 raises the question, since the ruling class can subvert a democracy for its own ends, how does a democracy prevent that while respecting everyone’s rights? What society has prevented such a take over in a way you feel was replicable elsewhere?”

    I don’t speak for Steven, but you are going beyond what he said.

    If there is a ruling class that can act behind a pretend-democracy, they get various efficiencies by doing it. They don’t have to put down revolts so much, because when they make a decision most people believe that The People Have Spoken and they accept it and try to persuade more voters to do things their way. They don’t need a secret police because the people who would try to subvert the government believe they can say anything they want in public, and they do, and nothing happens.

    There doesn’t have to be a way to prevent that, and there doesn’t have to be a society which has prevented it. It would be nice if there is.

    If you assume a ruling class which has secretly been ruling things, it could be a ruling class which is sometimes weak and ineffectual. Sometimes it gets itself organized well enough to control the nation and the world. Other times it falls apart and things run on autopilot for awhile, and the regular citizens can’t tell the difference!

    So what we have now could be a ruling class which is tremendously divided among itself. They see a crisis coming and they can’t decide what to do. All they can agree on is to increase repression of the lower classes. We would see that as Congress being paralysed and ineffectual, and we would assume the problem is the public divided so much that nothing happens.

    Steven talks as if this is a hopeful sign, because the (hypothetical, but plausible) ruling class is running scared. They are doing things which make it harder for them to deny they exist, which reduce the amount of wealth available to spread around, things which are obvious mistakes unless all their other choices are even worse. It’s a sign that they are more likely to fail.

    I would regard it as hopeful if what they are scared of is the public rising against them.

    But what if they are instead scared of something else? Depleted energy sources? Food production? If they are facing some horrible problem that they don’t know how to solve, then it would be necessary to first remove their power and then solve the problem given even less time than they have had, while building a new consensus. That’s scary.

  32. There is at present no democracy that is not capitalist, so, no, there is none of which I “approve.” I do not consider the US to be a police state, though there has been movement in that direction.

  33. The comment above was Steve using my laptop. #powersupplyissues #fyie

  34. @ 2)

    The Occupy movement was a disgusting hodgepodge of radical femininists, criminals, and racists (mainly of the white hating variety) whos sole effect on advancing socialism and anti-capitalism rhetoric was to reverse both and make people hate them and the ideologies they claimed to associate with. If it ever was an indication of anything at the beginning before it got hijacked by a dozen groups with conflicting agendas, then it was dissatisfaction with the government, rather than any economics system.

  35. “There is at present no democracy that is not capitalist, so, no, there is none of which I ‘approve’.”

    Looking at history, socialist democracies don’t seem to do well. That is, no society I know of that had universal suffrage and joint ownership of real property has succeeded in the long run. Some, like the Paris Commune, didn’t even get off the ground and others, like those utopian communes, didn’t survive for a whole generation, or even a decade in some cases. Such a thing may be an evolutionary dead end, if I can use that as a social term.

    “I do not consider the US to be a police state, though there has movement in that direction.”

    I’m sorry, I had misunderstood an earlier comment.

  36. The Paris Commune didn’t get off the ground because it was crushed by capitalists, and utopian communes tried to exist within capitalist societies, like monasteries but without a rich church to support them–it’s right to learn from those attempts, but to suggest they prove anything about socialist democracies seems odd. Well, other than that capitalists will do their best to destroy them.

  37. I think the Iroquois had a working communist-council sort of state for quite a while — not Marxist by any stretch of course. Maybe some weird combo of anarcho-syndicalism with a central authority representing the clans of the various federal nations within the state might describe it. Apparently there is scholarly dispute about just what the form of government actually was, but they were a populous, wealthy, and fairly long-lasting polity dominating a large territory.

  38. @shetterly: “The Paris Commune didn’t get off the ground because it was crushed by capitalists,…”

    Capitalists didn’t have to crush anything; the Commune argued and debated itself to death. It was a sterling example of what is wrong with most would-be revolutionary organizations once they get any responsibility. The childish behavior surrounding the Committee of Public Safety is a prime example, even after one ignores the discussion of the name itself.

    Despite claims to believe in democracy, the members opposed to the creation of the Committee announced they “will not sit on the Assembly except in cases when it shall constitute itself info a court of justice to try one of its members”, and that they would “withdraw to our arrondissements, which we have neglected too much of late,” because they were outvoted. The majority ruled, and they pouted.

    When the Commune broke up into majority and minority parties, each held separate meetings; the majority even blocked the minority from attending its meetings. Rossel, the Minister of War, resigned in disgust because the commune talked and debated endlessly about politics, power and applying the one to the other, but never made any decisions. Many military commanders bypassed any form of hierarchy and addressed the Commune directly on military matters, cutting generals out of the loop altogether, and the Commune supported that. They appointed a die hard revolutionary with no military experience to succeed Rossel, which meant they had to depend on the barricades alone, since they had proven utterly unable to formulate a plan of defense, much less an overall plan of government.

    They were also a little schizoid. Resolutions published by the Vigilance Committees, the backbone of the Commune, include: “…[we] consider the Republic is more important than majority rule and therefore do not recognize the right of majorities to deny the principle of popular sovereignty…the only government of Paris [we] recognize is the revolutionary Commune formed by the Revolutionary Socialist groups of the city.”

    Popular sovereignty generally means the people decide for themselves what they want to do via some sort of vote, which means the majority wins, which means they’re denying the principle of popular sovereignty, or some such nonsense. They also declared that they “demand and seek by every means the abolition of privileges of the bourgeoisie, its elimination as a ruling caste…in a word, social equality” but they’re ready to “resist, by force if necessary, the formation of a Constituent Assembly or other alleged National Assembly”. After all, they know what’s best for the common worker, far better than the workers do themselves.

    Had there been no Thiers, they most likely still would have collapsed under their own incompetence and egos.

    (Quotes are from “The Communards of Paris, 1871”, from Cornell University’s Documents of Revolution series, 1973.)

  39. @Miramon: I grant I’m not well versed in native history, but I think you’re right in that the Iroquois are an excellent example of a stable democracy. Unlike the Athenians, they managed it without needing slaves to manage the day-to-day minutiae while they deliberated.

  40. Well, Marx said they were pussies who should’ve seized the national bank instead of trying to play fair with the capitalists. (I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s a fair summary.) One of the problems with democracy is it takes time to sort things out, and the Paris Commune only had two months. Still, I kinda think the capitalists slaughtering 30-50,000 communards might’ve had a wee bit to do with its failure.

  41. Wow, you called them women, so they must really have been worthless, useless scum. Your use of such a term as an insult suggests you’re not going to consider another point of view, but simply put, had they truly been pussies, that is, reasonable women with an understanding of the work it takes to establish a government and act as leaders rather than as a bunch of egotistical, elitist fools, the killing of so many of the people who remained in Paris would not have been inevitable. But the clueless Communards were so busy playing their games and enjoying their “festival of the oppressed” they couldn’t be bothered to deal with the serious work that needed to be done.

  42. Are you being sarcastic? A pussy may be used as a gendered insult, or it may be a reference to fraidycats. I think you’re guilty of what’s called cultural imperialism here when you impose your definition on others.

    Marx’s implication was that the communards were too timid, not too “womanly” in any way you care to interpret that.

  43. P.S. I suspect I used the word because I’m reading Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, and came across this sentence: ‘Put the saltcellar straight, miss, and don’t be a dowdy little puss.’ The word could be used affectionately or insultingly. It should be remembered that the first pussies were cats. The most famous, Puss In Boots, is male.

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