Competition and Cooperation

The question of competition versus cooperation among humans has come up on my Twitter timeline again. It emerges every now and then, when someone desperate to find a defense for capitalism falls back on, “You socialists want to eliminate competition, but competition is a part of nature, so eliminating it is impossible.”

Okay, let’s talk about it. To take the easy answer first, I should point out that, while yes, nature is full of competition, it is also full of cooperation. Human beings in particular, by virtue of being born premature (ie, instead of taking days or weeks or maybe a few months before an infant can survive by itself, human beings must be cared for for years), we are required to be social animals. Cooperation is so fundamental to human biology, that I’d call it “human nature” if I weren’t allergic to that term.

But let’s go a little further.

Competition is such a vague word. What competition, under what conditions, for what stakes, against whom? The argument of those defenders of capitalism who say socialism wants to “remove competition” are simply confused. Competition in a market economy takes certain specific forms. The most significant for our purposes is that it assumes scarcity, which means the most basic competition is for those scarce resources necessary to life. But under contemporary conditions, where the only reason for the scarcity of the most important resources (food, shelter, medical care) is distribution rather than production capacity, then what becomes absurd is not competition as an abstraction, but those specific forms of competition.

What forms might competition take in a rational society, in which every human being had not only the basic necessities of life, but leisure to pursue his or her inclinations? We can’t know. I might guess—competition over different plans to improve our environment, or over who gets this or that luxury item, or over different plans for improving everyone’s life.  And I’m certain there will continue to be sporting events, games, and so on. But when it is not, as it is today, literally a life & death issue, might we not be permitted to hope and expect that such competition as still exists will be less toxic?

An Open Letter to Volvo Truck Workers in Dublin, Virginia

To the members of UAW Local 2069:

I don’t think you can realize how much of an inspiration you are to how many people.

The battle you’re fighting goes far beyond the immediate issues. We’re living in a world where you can’t open your eyes without seeing a cause for despair: the pandemic, first of all, with the refusal of public officials to keep schools and factories closed to prevent the spread. But it doesn’t stop there: endless war, abuse of immigrants, climate catastrophe, cops who commit murder with impunity, attacks on voting rights.  War criminals walk around free, while Julian Assange, who exposed them, remains in Belmarsh Prison. I could go on and on.

We look for political solutions, and what do we see? The Republicans are moving toward becoming an openly fascist party, while the Democrats, more frightened of mass resistance to fascism than of fascism itself, do everything they can to stifle opposition to the Wall Street bloodsuckers. And the Unions, which I grew up believing were the means of defense of workers right, are now entirely under the thumb of the very corporations they should be defending us against.

And this is when you stand up and say, “No, we’ll take you all on, the corporation, the corrupt union, and the political toadies.” It is inspiring, it is uplifting.

From my position, I can’t know how this battle will turn out—if this is the spark that ignites other auto workers, and from them, those in other industries both here and abroad, as you’ve already inspired your brothers and sisters in Belgium. But I’m watching, and hoping, and so are many, many others.

I’m a supporter, though not a member, of the Socialist Equality Party, and I read the World Socialist Web Site to help me get a handle on what’s going on in the world and what it means, which is how I’ve been following your fight. But what I’m saying to you now is not coming so much from a political stand, as an intensely personal one: You are giving me, and others like me, hope, and you ought to know that.

Warmest Regards,

Steven Brust

The Anatomy of Mr. Middle

“Being determines consciousness.” — Marx

The upper petit-bourgeois is a strange character indeed, his consciousness made up of a thousand pieces that are all at war with one another, producing a marvelous opportunity for study. All of modern society, one might say, is collected in this species, in various proportions, and various strengths, with different aspects predominating based on changes in his habitat (whether produced by him or by factors outside of his control).

To the upper petit bourgeois, nothing is more important than his own security and comfort. Such “activism” as he engages in cannot threaten the status quo, which means brushing aside or sometimes denying any problem that cannot be solved by a reshuffling among the upper ten percent—preferably a reshuffling that improves the status of Mr. Middle himself.

He resents and envies those in the layer above him, that is, the 1%; he despises and fears those below him, that is, the bottom 90%. There is nothing more threatening to him than the idea of the masses–those poor, ignorant, unwashed layers—standing up and demanding equality.  (Not that Mr. Middle opposes equality.  On the contrary, he is in favor of equality, provided it means, as Orestes Brownson observed, humbling those above him, not elevating those below him.)

And this brings us to one of the most interesting of the paradoxes that grow in Mr. Middle’s mind: the unions. First of all, he laughs (though it may be a nervous laugh) at the notion of the masses taking independent action. He might know something about the mass working class movements of the 30s and late 40s (although probably not; he prefers to get his history from journalists whose agendas match his rather than historians who might shake up his thinking); but even if he does, he relegates that to the past. Nothing like that can happen now. And yet, and yet, for all of that, he considers himself pro-union.

How do we resolve this paradox? Because, you see, to Mr. Middle, “pro-union” means support of the nationalist, pro-capitalist union bureaucrats who are doing everything they can to suppress the class struggle—that is, the very ones who have taken on the job of making sure the class battles of the 30s and late 40s don’t happen again. And these bureaucrats, of course, are all earning six-figures—above the table. So, it turns out not to be a surprise at all that they match Mr. Middle’s agenda; they are him in every way that counts. And when they come out with strong “social justice” positions that sound very progressive while never coming near to threatening the property rights of the elite, why, that’s just icing on the cake. Mr. Middle nods and feels very good about himself indeed.

Feeling good about himself is near the top of Mr. Middle’s agenda, second only to making sure his position isn’t threatened. But how do you feel good about yourself in a world whose foundations are crumbling and need replacing when nothing terrifies you more than a threat to those foundations? This is tricky.

Fortunately, Mr. Middle’s own position points the way out of this dilemma. Mr. Middle is not necessarily a selfish person; indeed, he is very likely known for his generosity. But his position makes him subjective—he cannot evaluate society objectively, because that evaluation would reveal all of the contradictions of his position. This subjectivity provides him the opportunity to project: if he must reject an objective analysis of his own position, he can simply apply the same principle to issues around him: there is no objective truth, only subjective feelings. Thus he can say that racism, for example, is purely subjective; you cannot have an opinion about whether something is racist unless you are non-white; you cannot have an opinion on whether something is antisemitic unless you are Jewish, you cannot have an opinion on whether something is sexist unless you are a woman.

And here, at last, we get the big payoff for Mr. Middle: because if racism, for example, is purely a subjective question—up to each individual’s feelings—then it is insoluble. And if it is insoluble, if it is “in the DNA of the country,” it is pointless for Mr. Middle to take any action beyond what is necessary to demonstrate that he is on the right side. Maybe “call out” a few people, or ruin Thanksgiving dinner, or jump in on a social media mob where someone has been accused of racism. Actually changing the material conditions that produce racial oppression requires objective analysis of those conditions, and this, you see, is impermissible.

Mr. Middle does not have the immense resources of the 1%; he doesn’t own a newspaper, or a major social media platform, or a television network. But he is not entirely without influence; he holds the most prestigious positions in the academy, he writes editorials for the New York Times, he speaks on MSNBC, he has twitter followers in numbers as great as his yearly income. If only he can convince enough of those below him to accept his view that the foundation of society are unshakeable, that is, of the permanence of capitalist property relations, then maybe, just maybe, he will be able to keep his balance during the earthquakes to come. And should it prove the case that there is no way to secure his position except through fascist dictatorship, rest assured that he will feel really bad about that.

And, yes, many do listen to him, and are deeply and passionately committed to programs that will keep them forever in chains. But the trouble is, the masses also have brains, and perceptions, and they see what is happening around them, and they start to think, and when they start to think, they start to act.

That is why the fight within the consciousness of the masses against the 1% also means a fight against Mr. Middle and all he stands for.

Good luck, Mr. Middle. You’re going to need it.

On Trump’s Twitter Ban

President Trump has been banned from Twitter as a result of the January 6th putsch, and I gotta say something, because what I’m seeing on my twitter timeline here has gotten both absurd and toxic.  It isn’t as simple as some are making it.  I am not a free speech absolutist, and if there is any time for censoring someone, it is when that person is using a public platform to organize a fascist coup.  Moreover, on a personal level, it is hard not to feel a certain glee, both at how frustrated it must make him, and because I will no longer see people I follow quote-tweeting him in order to express pointless (if deserved) obscenities about his tweets.

But there are things we must not forget: He is being censored—this notion that its only censorship if carried out by a government ignores the entire history of censorship.  Are any of you old enough to remember when television networks would bleep out anything entertainers said against the Vietnam war?  If there is a term for that other than censorship, I’ve never heard it. Maybe censoring Trump is the right thing to do, as I said above, but let’s at least call it by its right name.

Second, he is being censored by a multi-billion dollar corporation, and anyone who thinks such a corporation has the same interests as the oppressed and exploited is being foolish at best.

Censorship, whether by government or corporation, is guaranteed to be used against the most oppressed layers of society—after all, it is those layers who carried out the fight for free speech in the first place.  So long as we live in a world controlled by an elite, that elite will use censorship as one of the tools to maintain their privileges. And it is harder to fight for the right of the oppressed to speak when the reactionaries can say, “Hey, you didn’t have a problem with censoring so-and-so just because you don’t agree with him.”  Can we please keep that in mind?

Another point is when those who call themselves leftists justify the action by saying, “But Twitter is a private corporation.”  There’s a term for this: it is called placing property rights above human rights. Are you really okay with that?  It is also answering the question, “Is it wrong?” by saying, “it’s legal.” Are you okay with that?

We are already seeing the worst aspects of this: There are attacks on the ACLU from those calling themselves leftists, there are attacks on the entire concept of free speech. There is mockery—mockery—of what the oppressed fought and died for. This is not healthy.

I want to repeat that: People identifying as leftists have mocked the very concept of free speech, and do not see anything wrong with that.

If you’re certain your speech will not be suppressed, it can only mean that you have no intention of challenging the powerful.

Once again, we are seeing the chronic disease of the political dilettante: the refusal to think things through, to examine consequences, to, as Sturgeon said, “Ask the next question.”

Bottom line: Yes, I think, under these conditions, Trump’s ban was necessary.  The right to speak is a human right, but under extraordinary conditions, human rights, even the right to life, must sometimes be set aside, and a fascist coup is an extraordinary condition if anything is.  But we need to be very careful about celebrating it, and even more careful about the generalizations we draw in order to justify it, and about when censorship is appropriate, and we need to be aware that these measures some are so pleased with will be used to muffle leftists, and anyone who takes aim at the status quo.

A Brief Thought on Disbanding the Police

First of all, I’m not going to say much about the cry to “defund the police” because I’m not sure what it means. If by “defunding” they mean entirely removing its budget, that’s identical to disbanding; if not, it means they’re talking about what they did in LA, which is reduce it’s budget by a tiny fraction, probably causing them to drop their “community outreach” programs that never did anything anyway.

What struck me about the other demand, to disband the police, is its contradictory nature.

When it is put forward by capitalist politicians, it means, “We are going to totally remove the police department and replace it with one that is identical except for cosmetic changes and we hope this will make you people shut up and quit trying to actively change things.”

But when it is put forward by masses of outraged protesters, it has a revolutionary content.  They are not thinking cosmetic change, they are talking—no matter to what degree they consciously realize it—about striking at the violent coercion that permits the existence of class society, particularly capitalism.

The danger, then, is obvious: that the desires of millions of protesters will be harmlessly funneled into a dead end producing apathy and hopelessness.  But simultaneously, the opportunity for true revolutionary change—worldwide, as are the protests—has never been greater.