Gentlest breeze and sweet smell
the silent sentinel
at breath’s gate
Before the seat of the soul
mandalas flow and resolve
the orbit of a far off prayer
wheel their motive
the True Name
the Holy Name
is revealed once more
Gentlest breeze and sweet smell
the silent sentinel
at breath’s gate
Before the seat of the soul
mandalas flow and resolve
the orbit of a far off prayer
wheel their motive
the True Name
the Holy Name
is revealed once more
Einstein said “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” So I’d like to share three absurd ideas with you. If you study them, follow their implications and apply them to your daily activities, these absurd ideas are guaranteed to change your life, dramatically, and for the better.
Though these ideas may seem to be rooted in religious mysticism, I would encourage you to set any notions about religion or theology aside for the time being. These concepts are consistent with our best current scientific observations and thought.
This statement sounds like metaphor or hyperbole, but it is literally true. In fact, it is an understatement. All of what we perceive as material reality, things that seem so solid and durable, are actually vast chasms of emptiness. This is the case whether we are talking about a brick wall, or diamond ring, or the Rock of Gibraltar, or a planet or our own bodies.
When we take a close look at an atom, we see that it is not something “solid” at all. It is mostly vacuum, with itty bitty particles flying around at great speeds and at great distances from each other relative to their size. Even on this level, it would be accurate to say that they are “99% nothing.” When we delve to the subatomic level, things get even weirder and more ethereal. It becomes difficult to make a distinction between what is a particle, and what is a wave. Quantum theory suggests that what we perceive as matter is actually more a collection of fields of probability, rather than something certain and solid.
Although the experience of a baseball bat striking one’s skull will not seem less solid as a result, the fact remains that more than 99% of everything is nothing. It’s a bit imprecise, but not untrue, to say that it’s all essentially vibrations. When people refer to the “vibe” of a location, event or person, they can be speaking literal truth.
Which brings us to our next concept.
This one sounds like a very crunchy Hippie dream, doesn’t it? It reminds me of the old joke about a Buddhist Monk who walks up to a hotdog vendor and says “Make me one with everything.” Cliché though it may seem, this one is true as well.
These vibrations that are at the foundation of what we experience as the material Universe are, in fact, a single vibration. Our best theoretical explanation of how our Universe began describes an infinitely dense single point which contained all that would become time and space. From this initial singularity, energy was sent forth (in the “Big Bang”) which would create all things, sustain all things, and is all things. This sending forth continues today. The Universe continues to expand.
Think of the striking of a gong. Depending on where you stand in relationship to the gong, you will experience the feeling and the sound in a particular way, and you will experience variations as the sound waves travel through time and space. Someone close to the gong will experience something different than someone across the room, or down the hall. And everyone’s experiences of the sound and percussion will change with the passing of time, all from a single gong strike.
This is, I think, an apt metaphor for our Universe. Although things seem to be separate, there is an essential unity. The Universe isn’t filled with different things, as much as different expressions of the same thing. More than 99% of everything is nothing, it’s all vibration, and it is, in fact, a single vibration. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
I won’t go about citing the research here. It’s easy enough to access the scientific literature on all of this should you so desire. I’ll include a couple of links to very basic explanations at the end of this article. For now, suffice it to say that I am a skeptic, and I have become convinced of the truth of these statements.
The first two concepts lead to the third, and it is the one that can be applied practically to better our lives.
Since everything we experience as material reality is really a collection of vibrations which emanated from the single source, it follows that everything we experience is connected in ways that aren’t always immediately apparent to us. It may seem odd, at first, to consider that something “invisible” or “immaterial” such as a thought, can have an effect on material things. Perhaps it would be helpful to think for a moment about “invisible” forces such as gravity or magnetism which we know can exercise action at a distance. We also know from observations of a phenomenon called quantum entanglement that physical properties of paired subatomic particles remain correlated, even after they are separated by large distances in space (or even in time).
This third concept, admittedly, seems even weirder and New Agier than the first two, but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that it is true. For me, the very well studied and documented placebo effect alone is evidence enough. If thoughts do not become things, then there would be no need for double-blind studies, where results must be shielded not only from participants, but also from the intentions of observers and researchers.
Again, if you remain skeptical of this concept I would encourage you to look at the research yourself.
So, how can we use this concept to improve our lives?
At the top, I promised that if you incorporate these three concepts into your life, it will change dramatically and for the better. I know that this can happen, because it has happened to me.
As we pass through life (or, rather, as life passes through us) we accumulate experiences, associations, notions and memories. Whether we consciously attempt to make sense of it all or not, our minds and our bodies are drawing conclusions. We learn as best we can how to survive, how to avoid pain, how to enjoy pleasure. The problem is that some of the lessons that our minds and bodies assimilate, some of the habits of attention and daily activity, are neither necessary for survival nor conducive to happiness. We take in and practice patterns that become the stories of our lives. No matter how hard we strive to change, we find ourselves experiencing the same things over and over. “It figures,” we say. Over time, we program ourselves to obtain the results we obtain. To change the results, we have to change the programming.
If we want to change things for the better, we have to begin with confidence that our thoughts are inevitably, assuredly, creating our experiences. And the only way we can have that confidence, the only way we can know, is to discipline our minds and observe what happens.
There is a large variety of approaches and methods which have been demonstrated to be effective in changing mental programming. While I won’t presume to prescribe what will work best for you, I will be happy to share three simple practices which have worked for me.
Go on a mental diet. Uell S. Andersen recommends this in his book Three Magic Words. In practice it means dedicating yourself to thirty consecutive days without entertaining a negative thought, about anyone, anything, or any situation. It doesn’t mean that you won’t *have* negative thoughts, but you must not entertain them. Don’t feed them, don’t dwell on them and especially don’t express them. When a negative thought comes, immediately refocus your attention on something else. This can be difficult at first, and I’m not sure if I’ve actually completed thirty consecutive days yet. I do know that it is much easier for me to avoid nurturing negative thoughts now than it was only a few weeks ago.
Practice gratitude. I set aside several specific times each day to recount the things for which I am thankful, and I keep a gratitude journal as well. This has had the effect of bringing a wealth of positivity to my life. It may be the single most effective practice of these three.
Meditate every day. I had tried to meditate at other points in my life, but found it difficult. This time, I kept it very simple. I use some of tbe frequency audio recordings from Brain Sync, and also their guided meditations. I take a twenty minute break mid-morning from my work day, and sit with my eyes closed, listening to the Grace and Gratitude recording. Sometimes I also chant for a few minutes with a Tibetan mala that I’ve had for years. No worries about technique or formalities. Just sitting and trying as best I can to not let my mind attach itself to anything. I usually try to focus attention on the sensation of breath as is enters and leaves my nostrils. That’s it. I find that I’m so much more productive with the rest of my time that I don’t miss the twenty minutes from work. In the evening I’ll spend another half-hour sitting with one of the guided meditations.
I’ve not found any of these activities to be difficult or onerous in any way, and the improvements in the quality of my life have been tremendous.
In case you’re wondering, the ideas presented here are not original to me. They are part of a tradition of American thought that first found rise in the mid 1800s as Emerson and others began to study Indian monist thinking. I would encourage you to study and consider these ideas, and I welcome discussion about them.
In April of 2019 I began a daily practice of meditation. I believe that it has saved my life.
For years I had been in constant pain from joint inflammation (lower back, knees, feet). I often had heartburn. I suffered from high blood pressure. I was usually silently filled with rage. Any irritation during the day would prompt me to curse (sometimes audibly, sometimes under my breath). I routinely started my day with Alka Seltzer, typically followed by Tylenol, and later in the day threw in an Aleve or interic aspirin to manage pain and stiffness. Some days also required Hydrocodone or muscle relaxants. My systolic blood pressure reading averaged in the high 140s, though I took a daily dose of Valsartin. I was often depressed, and usually miserable.
Attempts at diet and exercise to help alleviate or manage these symptoms never seemed to help. I could never seem to walk enough, to eat enough raw fruits and vegetables, to deny myself enough to make things better. I had resigned myself to the idea that I was at the beginning of a long, inevitable decline. I would never get better. I would never get fit. I would never have any energy. I would always be in pain, and suffer from stiffness and limited mobility. I would suffer, more or less, until I died, and if I survived another decade, that would be more than I should expect.
I thought that this was normal.
Through a series of seemingly chance happenings, I began reading a book on the Chakras called “Wheels of Light” and I came to the notion that I had an energy blockage at the Root Chakra. The sorts of symptoms that I experienced are often associated with such a blockage (all that fire has to go somewhere).
When I learned that there might be a relationship between this energy blockage and my poor condition, I went looking for a way to get myself aligned and unblocked. Though I knew relatively little about such things, I was vaguely aware that Kundalini practices were connected to Chakra health. Since I was familiar with the audios from Brain Sync, I decided to start with their “Awakening Kundalini” program. I had no idea of what to expect, and no real hope that it would help, but figured that it was worth ten bucks and a half an hour of my time to find out.
The first time I did the meditation, I felt incredibly light afterwards. Glancing in the mirror, my eyes seemed softer, somehow, and it seemed like my brain was moving in slow motion. It wasn’t that I was confused or dull, more that I was very relaxed and taking time to just experience what was going on, instead of thinking about everything. I had no idea what I was doing or what was happening to me, but I felt calm and hopeful.
So I began to devote a half an hour every day to the practice. At the end of the workday, instead of mixing a cocktail, I brewed a cup of tea, lit a stick of incense and put in my earbuds.
A few weeks later, again through a series of chance happenings, I stumbled on the movie The Secret which focuses on something called the “Law of Attraction.” I was more than a little skeptical about some of the claims, but also intrigued by the idea that we attract what we think about. One of the simple suggestions in the movie was to focus on gratitude, including gratitude for things we desire that haven’t come to us yet. I decided to stop thinking about how fat I was, and how I was angry and frustrated, and how high blood pressure was going to kill me. Instead, I would be thankful for increasing good health, and for calm, and for all of the blessings in my life. I began to keep a gratitude journal.
I also remembered that Brain Sync had an entire catalog based on the Law of Attraction. On April 29th I downloaded Kelly Howell’s “Gratitude” audio, and her “Universal Mind” as well. Both of these required no participation other than listening, and could even be used while falling asleep. Again, I figured that they couldn’t hurt, and I was already feeling a lot better from using the Kundalini audio every day, so I thought these may help me too.
I listened to the Universal Mind while falling asleep each night, and began to carve out time to listen to the Gratitude recording (which uses subliminal messages rather than audible prompts) during the day a couple times a week.
I also began reading the book that was the source material for some of Kelly’s affirmations, Three Magic Words by U.S. Andersen. One of the things that he recommended was to go on a “mental diet” for thirty days, during which one absolutely banishes negative thoughts or words, directed toward anyone or anything. I confess that I haven’t been able to achieve the thirty days yet, but I did find myself becoming aware when frustration started to turn to anger, and found that I was able to stop myself from cursing or feeding the anger most of the time. I was beginning to feel calm, centered, positive, relaxed, joyful even – as if these feelings were choices, or habits that could be cultivated.
At some point I noticed that my blood pressure was trending lower, and I wondered what would happen if I quit taking the medication that I’d been on for more than a decade. Knowing that I could monitor it daily and resume the medication if needed, I decided to give it a try. I did well for several days, then had a frustrating day at work and began to worry that it was going to have a bad effect. I took my BP and sure enough it was high. I began to doubt and panic. What if I had a stroke or heart attack in the night because of my foolishness? I took a pill that evening.
By the light of the next day, I realized that the “high” reading from the evening before was lower than my usual daily average had been from when I was taking the medication. I decided to not yield to doubt and fear again, unless the reading got dangerously high.
I began to set aside an additional half hour each morning to the gratitude audio. Since the audible portion is only ambient sounds, I started using a mala to chant either the Om Mani or the Adi Mantra while listening to the recording. This only takes five or ten minutes. I devote the rest of the time to calling to mind things for which I am grateful, fond memories, or sometimes just letting my mind drift. I generally try to do this mid-morning as a break from the workday.
So this has become routine, now. Half an hour of gratitude in the morning, half an hour of Kudalini guided meditation after work, and listening to another audio while drifting off to sleep at night. I’ve added a few other of the audios to my collection to keep things fresh. It’s not a chore, just a habit. If I’m unable to do one of the sessions for the day, I don’t beat myself up about it. I know that I’ll at least get the other two in. 🙂
I have not done anything else thus far, at least intentionally, in terms of dietary restrictions or increases in exercise, etc. I did decide along the way to leave off alcohol, but that’s another story. I have denied myself nothing, and have not found this routine to be burdensome.
My blood pressure readings now are generalły 125 or less over 75 or less. I no longer suffer from heartburn. I have less stiffness and pain, and find that even after strenuous activities (yardwork and such that would have required pain meds and an ice pack a few months ago) I seldom need so much as an aspirin. I have yet to have an episode of depression since I began this regimen, and those were common before. I have lost 15 pounds so far in about two months time.
Most important is that I am no longer just waiting to die, and counting on a steady decline. I have every reason to think that I will continue to get fitter, feel better, and improve in energy and well being every day.
Is this a miracle? If not, it’s certainly a wonder.
My Fren is at the door.
Knock knock I can’t wait.
I run to door. I run to window. See!
I bark! I jump! Oh, Fren Fren Fren!
I jump on Fren’s leg.
They make me down.
I follow Fren to chair.
Fren says okay and I put paws on knee.
Fren touch my head and has soft voice.
I am good boy.
Fren says okay. I snug on lap.
Fren smells good like my favorite smell. Fren, oh Fren, oh Fren!
One day, Fren walks with stick.
They make me down.
Fren says down.
I go to Fren’s chair. Fren says down and pushes with stick.
I am bad boy.
Oh, Fren, I want sniffy sniff.
One day, Fren walks slow with stick.
Where is my good Fren favorite smell?
I down. They wag finger and say “Louie” at me. Mad at bad me.
I want one sniffy sniff.
Fren makes me down.
Why Fren punches my head?
it was one school drop-off that set me back
the entire week stopped at the grocery store
the car pulled up, and blocked my delicate balance
several things happened
distributing might be easily upset
my mother always bit, despite working
people who do, and who are
tire others among us
just at the end of just down the road a ways
he made eye contact
being silently filled with rage at symbolized justice
I watched him walk on people who possess it
We all know the cliché image of a fortune teller, often in Gypsy garb, turning up cards to predict someone’s future. Many a movie plot is hung on such a scene. For people unfamiliar with the Tarot, this is the image that likely first comes to mind when it is mentioned.
I have come to think of the Tarot in a different way. I think of it as a practice which allows me to bring to the surface issues and ideas that are significant in my life, but may be hidden from my conscious thoughts.
I won’t go into further detail on that at the moment, because I think it’s important first to approach the question posed in the title of this essay. Divination is considered by many to be equivalent to conjuring demons, and by many others to be firmly in the realm of charlatains, the ignorant, the foolish and the superstitious. So its reputation as a vehicle for fortune telling casts a shadow of suspicion on the Tarot. Before we can discuss other uses of the cards at any length, it seems to me that we ought to answer this basic and fundamental question. Can the Tarot be used to predict the future?
First, let me ask a rhetorical question. If you see your child with a shoe untied, and you warn them that they had better tie their shoe, or else they will trip and fall – and they don’t tie the shoe, and they do trip and fall – did you predict the future? Obviously, literally, you did.
More precisely, you observed a set of circumstances, and noticed that a particular outcome was possible (or maybe even likely). There was nothing unnatural or abnormal about this. In fact, most of us do it all of the time. Each time we get in a car, and choose the route to a destination, we’re doing our best to predict the future. Should I avoid 5th Avenue because there may be a train at the crossing this time of day that will delay my arrival? Do I have time to stop for a cup of coffee, or will that make me late to work? How long is the line at the Starbucks drive through? Should I be especially attentive to my driving along this stretch of road, since it’s known for speed traps?
We’re constantly using what we remember and what we observe to make decisions in order to predict (or perhaps to create) the outcomes that we desire. Whether it’s a trip to the grocery store, or retirement planning, this sort of activity is such a fundamental part of our normal, everyday lives that we scarcely even notice it.
So we’ve established that we all do our best to predict the future much of the time. We actually accomplish this feat much of the time too, from predicting that when we rotate the faucet on the left the water will get warmer, to predicting that our intended will make a suitable mate. Perhaps there are no guarantees that our predictions will be correct, but an awful lot of the time, they do seem to be.
Let me ask another rhetorical question. If there was a way to obtain additional information that might be relevant to the question at hand, would that change the essential nature of this process of predicting the future? Let’s say that you could add a radio traffic report to the mix during your morning commute, or a GPS device. Would there be anything fundamentally different about the way the process works? Anything weird or spooky or paranormal about the increased accuracy of your predictions then? Of course not. You’re just expanding your view, and making use of information to which you didn’t have access before.
So here’s one final rhetorical question. What sort of information might a deck of cards offer that could possibly assist in this process? Since we’ve already established that we do, indeed, literally (and almost effortlessly) predict the future with varying degrees of accuracy every day, the key to the question at the top of this essay is whether or not the Tarot can reliably add any valuable information to the process.
I suspect that it can.
Remember our cliché Gypsy, telling fortunes in a tent or a creepy shack? Here’s what’s wrong with that picture. It gives the impression that the information we seek belongs to a realm that is apart from the natural world, and apart from us. In fact, the information that we can access through the Tarot, although “extraordinary” in a sense, isn’t unnatural or unusual at all. It’s just information that most of us are unaware of or tend to ignore much of the time.
If you’ve ever had the experience of misplacing an item, looking all over for it in frustration, finally giving up, relaxing about it, and then walking into another room and immediately finding it right there in an obvious place, then you know precisely what it is like to gain insight from the Tarot. Your unconscious mind knew all along where that misplaced item was. After all, you’re the one who placed it there! The knowledge of where you had put the item was with you all of the time. You were just temporarily unable to bring that knowledge to your conscious mind. The harder you tried to remember, and to retrace your steps, the more inaccessible the information became. Once you gave up, relaxed, and your unconscious mind was able to work without interferance, it led you right to the misplaced object.
In the same way, the images and traditions of the Tarot, like so many other such systems from cultures the world over, offer an opportunity to delve into information that is waiting there for us in our unconscious minds. The information isn’t unnatural or apart from us. It doesn’t come from demons or ghosts or the Gypsy. It’s right there inside of us all the time. It’s just that as we go about our ordinary lives, most of us don’t take the time to explore the tools that can help to bring this information to bear on our conscious thoughts and decisions.
Just how it is that the Tarot works to help us access the thoughts and patterns of the unconscious mind is a subject for another article, perhaps. For now, I’ll only say that I have found that it does so in my own experience.
There is also the notion put forth by Carl Jung that there exists a vast “collective unconscious” where unconscious minds of all times and locations meet in some way. I won’t argue that possibility one way or the other, but it’s certainly interesting to consider the storehouse of knowledge and experience that might be waiting should such a notion be true. For me, it’s plenty enough to be able to explore my own puny little personal unconsciousness.
Before we close, I’d like to add one other note about our Gypsy friend. I want to make it clear that I don’t mean to denigrate her, or the many brilliantly skilled real life practitioners of the art of interpreting the Tarot. There are legions of Tarot readers who are gifted, serious, and dedicated to helping others plumb the depths of special knowledge that awaits in the psyche. You’re more likely to find one of these marvelous people at a table in your publc library than in that shack at the edge of town these days though.
So, can the Tarot predict the future? Maybe not like in that movie scene where the Gypsy turns up the Tower card, there’s a dramatic music crescendo, and then a cut to a burning building. But if we accept that we routinely use information available to us to “predict the future,” and also accept that the Tarot can help us uncover another source of useful information, then I believe we have our answer.
What do you think?
Learn more about the Tarot at my Cards of Light website.
I was not one of those who were anxiously hoping for another Sanders campaign. The Democratic Party has been rightly called a “corporate-funded dumpster fire,” and by choosing to run for its Presidential nomination, Bernie will conceivably bring hundreds of thousands of folks into the Democrat fold. These hundreds of thousands ought to instead be working to create the independent socialist workers party that we so desperately need. There are numerous other legitimate criticisms to be made of Sanders’ politics. His lack of anything approaching a coherent anti-imperialist foreign policy, his focus on economic oppressions almost to the exclusion of all else, his vague definition of what socialism even means, his lack of affiliation with (let alone commitment to) an actual socialist organization beyond his own campaign – all of this and more are reasons for concern. The prospects for what might happen if he were to actually win the nomination and the Presidency might also give one pause. We will still have a Congress that is owned by Corporate America. There are any number of scenarios one can imagine where Sanders’ success would actually be detrimental to the socialist cause.
Despite all of these misgivings, I believe that socialists ought to support Bernie for 2020. Here’s why.
Sanders is the face of socialism in America. Bernie is not only the most prominent figure on the American left of our time, he is the most visible (at least nominally) socialist leader in two or three generations. You’d have to go back to Eugene Debs to find another American socialist who could draw millions to the ballot box. There’s certainly a contrast to be drawn between Debs (whose efforts were rooted in the labor movement, and who kept a commitment to independent socialist organizing through his life) and Sanders (not so on either count). But the cold fact of the matter is that we do not have a Eugene Debs at the moment. I hope for the day that we do. At the moment, Bernie is the leader we have. His influence is huge, and the potential for his 2020 campaign to win millions to our side is heartening. The downside of missed opportunities is too steep to pursue.
What’s the alternative? Is there another way to engage with the Presidential Election of 2020 that will better help to advance the cause of socialism? If there is, I don’t see it. In 2016, many of us saw the Green Party’s campaign as our best opportunity for organizing and holding up an alternative vision during the elections. It would also certainly be nice if an explicitly socialist party such as SPUSA were poised to command people’s attention. But with Sanders already positioned as frontrunner for the Democratic nomination this cycle, it’s hard to argue that the third party campaigns will add anything to the debate, or will offer much in the way of opportunities for organizing or building the strength, confidence and consciousness of the working class. I would genuinely love to hear other perspectives on this, though.
Here’s where we should draw the line. Absent a Sanders nomination, socialists should abandon the Democrats’ 2020 Presidential Campaign. Despite the lure of “lesser evilism” we simply ought not support a candidate whose policies and track record are not aligned with our ideals. There is, as yet, no one in the Democratic field other than Bernie who deserves our support.
What else should socialists do? In terms of other work that can be done to move things forward, socialists who don’t choose to support Bernie will still find a lot to do, and bless them. They can continue to organize, to agitate, to educate, to support the struggles of the oppressed. In fact, this is where the bulk of our time ought to be spent even during the campaign cycle. Struggle raises consciousness and confidence in ways that an election campaign cannot.
I just don’t think that sitting on the sidelines of the entire election cycle proclaiming a message of “Bernie’s campaign is problematic” (though this is certainly true) will do a lot toward building the sort of mass movement for socialism that we need. If we don’t find ways to engage positively with Bernie’s campaign, we’ll be looking back with regret in a couple years.
This essay began as another in the series of articles meant to explain socialism to kids. I intended to draft it as best I could, and then rework it with simpler language for the younger audience. I may still do that, but decided to publish it here, as is, for adults. Questions and constructive feedback are welcome, as always, in the comments.
Common Arguments Against Socialism
Over the years since people first began talking about socialism, there have been many arguments made against it. Here are the three most common arguments made against socialism today, and some responses from a socialist’s point of view.
Capitalism is already the best imaginable system.
Folks sometimes argue that, for all of its faults, our current system is the best that could ever possibly be imagined. They say that the “free markets” under capitalism create the most wealth and freedom possible. They say that the system rewards hard work and genius, and gives us all of these marvelous products that make our lives better. Medical breakthroughs, iPhones, interesting foods – anything that we can dream, we can have – quicker, better and cheaper than ever before. Under capitalism, they say, the common working person lives like a king, and things just keep getting better and better. The “hidden hand of the market” is wise, and if we just let it do its work without interfering, everyone will be happier, healthier and more fulfilled than at any other time in human history. They will also often cite examples of people who grew up in extreme poverty and rose to great heights of wealth and power under capitalism, and then tell us that this would not be possible under any other system. If they can make it, we can too!
It is true that many people, especially people in the United States and other “developed” countries, seem to be doing pretty well. We have enough to eat, homes, cars, gadgets, and plenty of free time to enjoy them. So for a lot of us, this argument rings true. But when you step back and look at the facts, you see a very different story.
Half of the world’s children, 1.1 billion kids, live in poverty. 736 million people around the globe live in what is defined as “extreme poverty,” surviving on less than $1.90 a day. Even in the United States, a relatively wealthy nation, almost 50 million people, including 16.2 million children, live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. One out of every five children in America go to bed hungry at some point each year.
Under capitalism, competition for access to natural resources, especially fossil fuels, has led to war after war for more than a century. Seizing Iraq’s oilfields was one of the main objectives of the British during World War I. The oilfields of Indonesia were a major motivation for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to enter World War II. Over the last five decades, as many as half of all the wars between nations have been linked to oil, and oil-producing nations are also more likely to face civil wars over control of the oil field profits.
Beyond the wars (and terrorist acts) linked to oil, we also know what the addiction to fossil fuels is doing to the climate on our planet. It is not unreasonable to say that the human race could be facing near-term extinction due to climate change, and the capitalist system is directly responsible. According to the Climate Accountability Institute, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions which are driving the disastrous warming of our climate.
Poverty, war, terrorism and climate disaster are just a few examples of things that make socialists doubt that capitalism is “the best system anyone can imagine.” In fact, we dare to imagine a better one. Socialists dare to imagine a world where no one ever has to go to bed hungry. Socialists dare to imagine a world where the profits of a few dozen companies don’t threaten the very existence of life on the Earth.
Okay, capitalism has its problems, but under socialism, nobody would do anything and we’d all starve.
Another common criticism of socialism is that if everyone’s basic needs were met, nobody would work, and the whole society would break down. There would be no punishment for laziness, and no reward for working hard or being smart. The system would basically take things away from hardworking people who deserve them, and give those things to lazy people who don’t deserve them.
This criticism says more about life under capitalism than it does about socialism. Under capitalism, we are conditioned to compete with each other. The idea is that if we work harder than other people, or are smarter than they are, or more creative, that we’ll get a reward. We’ll get the reward because we deserve it. So, by definition, people who don’t get the rewards are lazy and stupid and lack imagination. So, naturally, we think that a system set up to meet human needs can’t work, because people are naturally lazy and stupid and if someone isn’t cracking a whip over them all the time, they won’t do anything, because “that’s just human nature.”
There are a lot of things wrong with this argument, but I’ll point out three of the major flaws.
First, it’s just not true that under capitalism the people who work hardest or are smartest or otherwise most deserving get the rewards. Some of the smartest, most creative, most conscientious, most hard working people in the world have barely enough to survive and to take care of their families. And some of the laziest, dumbest, most good-for-nothing slackers on the planet have all the wealth you can imagine. Go say hello to anyone working in a warehouse or at a fast food restaurant, and you’ll see an example of hard work that isn’t properly rewarded. Turn on your television, especially when our President is speaking, and you’ll see an example of the opposite.
Second, people already do things all of the time out of a sense of duty, or obligation, or love, or joy, without any thought about monetary reward. Every time that someone in your household cooks a meal for you, or cleans house, or folds laundry, or takes a dog for a walk, that’s an example. Some of the most meaningful and important work that people do every day is not motivated by the prospect of a paycheck or the threat of starvation.
Third, we know from history that there were societies based on cooperation and meeting everyone’s needs. Life may have been hard sometimes for these “primitive communist” societies, and they had their problems like everyone else, but they managed to survive and be happy without the need to coerce people to get them to work. People worked hard, and worked together, because it was their way of life, not because of threats or incentives.
So the notion that once our basic human needs are met that we would all just put our feet up on the couch and watch Netflix all day has no basis in fact, except for the cruel facts of life under capitalism. We dare to imagine a better world.
But socialism never works. It always ends up with people standing in line for hours just to get a loaf of bread. And it also always ends up with horrible monster dictators like Stalin and Mao, and they kill millions of people. Nobody is ever free under socialism.
Attempts at establishing socialist societies have definitely failed. And some of the boldest and most promising experiments have turned out the worst. But this does not mean that all attempts at socialism are doomed. The failures of the past have had their roots in the conditions of a particular time and place. There’s nothing baked in to socialism that makes it more vulnerable to social problems or murderous tyrants than other systems.
We shouldn’t dismiss the criticisms or make excuses for failures and atrocities, but we also shouldn’t allow the dream of socialism to be defined by those failures and atrocities. Early attempts at difficult and complicated things often fail. We can learn from those mistakes and begin again.
When someone brings up the issue of “freedom” under socialism, there are several questions that should be asked. Freedom for who? For everybody? Is everybody really free under capitalism? Are people free to leave a job that they hate? A job that stresses them out? I suppose so, at least in theory. And they are free to starve too. In theory we’re free, but in reality not so much.
Under socialism the goal would be a society where people are truly free to develop themselves to the limits of their potential. Is that even possible? Frankly, we don’t know, but we do dare to imagine a world where, in the words of the Communist Manifesto “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
The goal of developing a truly democratic global socialist society is daunting, there is no doubt. Karl Marx believed that it is through the process of struggle, the process of revolution, that we will become “fit to rule.”
So let us begin.
A dear friend and correspondent of mine, Alan Hodge, sent me some food for thought this weekend. It was essentially a criticism of the orthodox Marxist notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
As a person with a deeply ingrained anti-authoritarian bent, I have studied this question for quite awhile, and continue to struggle with it. Here are some notes outlining my current reasoning of the matter.
Is the establishment of a workers’ state necessary to the project of human liberation?
First, let’s be clear about what we mean by “the state.” It is essentially an institution which uses force or the threat of force, implicit or explicit, to coerce people into obedience. This sounds inherently evil to a lot of us, and we’ve certainly witnessed real life evil perpetrated by the state throughout history and in our own lifetimes. No wonder that it is tempting to simply dismiss any approach to revolution which advocates seizing and wielding state power as part of the plan.
Here’s why we must not only resist, but reject that temptation. The current ruling class already has these means of coercion at their disposal, and time and again have shown no hesitation to employ them. They will not give up their position voluntarily. They will cling to power down to the last tooth and nail.
Imagine what would have happened if, after the October revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks had said “Okay, we’re all free now. Everybody cooperate with each other. The state no longer exists.” The old ruling class or another aspiring ruling class would have immediately asserted themselves and seized power. In fact, even with the (albeit deformed) workers’ state in place to act as a bulwark, this is precisely what the reactionary forces, Russian and international, set out to do.
It would be nice to believe, as the anarchists do, that we can establish purely voluntary associations, free of any coercion, to govern society, and that once these organizations are established and federated, an ideal socialist society would take root and flourish without the need for a state. It would be nice to believe in the efficacy of any number of other approaches to worker ascendence, be they cooperatives, or plans to vest workers’ pension funds with control of existing companies’ stocks, or whatever. The fact remains that under any such arrangement there will still be a wealthy and powerful ruling class with which to contend all along the way – a ruling class which enjoys their position of privilege, and will do whatever is in their power to keep it.
Whether we like the idea of a coercive state or we don’t, if we’re going to abandon it as part of the quest for liberty and equality, then we have a responsibility to solve the problem of how to otherwise mitigate the forces of reaction. I’ve not seen a feasible alternative solution proposed to this problem, and, frankly, cannot imagine one.
For those of us who believe that the power of a state will be needed, at least temporarily, in order to achieve human liberation, how can we best ensure against the emergence and entrenchment of new ruling elites?
The notion that Stalin was inevitable has been a part of ruling class ideology and propaganda for three-quarters of a century or more. It is important to reject the inevitability of Stalinism, while at the same time recognizing the danger of Stalinism. The challenge involved in creating deeply democratic structures of power and governance which prevent a new ruling class from putting down roots is daunting. But it begins with how we configure our own organizations of resistance and struggle today. We mustn’t fetishize the models of the Paris Commune or the Russian workers’ councils (“soviets”), but I do think that we can look to them for inspiration. We also need to continue to look at the lessons of history, examine where revolutionaries went wrong in the past, and do our best to create not only structures but cultures of democracy right from the beginning.
Marx believed that it was through the revolutionary struggle itself that the working class would become fit to rule. This may well be the case. It’s not a question to which we yet have a fully satisfactory answer. But unlike the question of the need for a state, there remain, at least, possibilities.
Join us at the Courthouse at 1 PM on September 1st.
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