The Myth of Reform

Occasionally workers get cheesed off with carrying out meaningless tasks for a meaningless system, with being systematically exploited and robbed of the power to determine how they work, with dragging themselves back to the storage units they call ‘home’ in order to dream of more classrooms and corridors, and they begin to express their frustration and anger in indifference, resistance to scheduling, sabotage, high turnover, neglect, abseenteeism, presenteeism (working to rule; doing no more than is contractually necessary and precisely following all regulations), hostility, rage or madness. The entire purpose and meaning of management is to devise ways to counter such rebellion, to replace the people the system uses with machines, to make men and women satisfied with their alienated confinement, or, at the very least, unable to effectively resist it, and to paralyse them with fear of official enemies (or official viruses). And yet, still, periodically, even the most ‘efficient’ management system falters and the slaves threaten their masters—then it is time for reform.

Reform is the emergency mode of the capitalist system when faced with widespread radical opposition; a means of releasing the steam of revolutionary pressure without changing the mechanism which produces it. It comprises three stages, each of which is carried out with great fanfare; 1. Wave money. The simplest and, in the long run cheapest solution to discontent is to chuck a few more bananas at the monkeys. Most men and women will swallow their principles for a pay rise, furlough cash or a tax cut. 2. Grant limited or superficial reforms. The second stage is to make a few limited concessions, pass a few laws that ease the burden, allow clients to fill out complaint forms, put a comments section on the website and hand out a few upbeat stickers. 3. Grant temporary reforms. Finally, if nothing else works, give in and wait. As long as the system itself is unaffected, it remains in charge and can bide its time until a more opportune moment comes to ‘roll back’ vernacular freedoms and traditional, contextual rights.

The key actor in the process of reform is, naturally, the reformist (a.k.a. stagversive or professional activist / leftist). This is an institutional employee, usually a journalist or elite academic, who makes a wage or diffuses her frustrations by pushing for change without criticising the host organisation (the company or government he or she works for), without seeking to remove the state and, critically (and this applies to unofficial leftists) without attacking the root of the system. This she does by focusing on secondary solutions to secondary problems. Intolerance, the glass ceiling, violence towards women, the erosion of civil liberties, digital addiction, bad science, corruption, financial speculation, paedophilia, unpleasant working conditions, the decline of the honey bee, unjust politics, anti-Semitism, lack of diversity and the rise of fascism are all fair game for, generally, the system opposes these things too.1 Redistribution of wealth, systemic exploitation of land and labour, thought control in a democratic society, radical self-knowledge, truthful utopia, genuine revolution, profound insurrection, unconditional love, the reality of death, consciousness and other terrifying ‘subjectivities’ are well off the menu for the ‘radical’ and her system.

Likewise, giving workers the power to vote for employee of the month, beer in the office, wacky Zoom avatars, gay bosses, community spirit, bean bags in the coffee room, amusing posters, sexual innuendo in the coffee room, family days, staff discounts, limited control over production, anarchist-trousers and, for the miserable millions building the profits of Amazon, Apple, Walmart, Primark, Cargill, Bechtel, Aramco, Ikea and Tesco, a slightly higher wage than they could find elsewhere—yep! Allowing workers the chance to control the entire production process, as men and women once did, by mastering craft, allowing them control over surplus, allowing them power over management, allowing them to take back control of their fates from professionalism, meaningfully integrating the company with the environment, and genuine, human spontaneity and generosity—no, no, no, no, no.

Although those in power make an immense fuss about the slightest stagversive activity, the system actually requires reformists in order to effectively function. It needs, above all, obedience (which it calls non-violence, community spirit, etc.) from everyone, whatever their colour, gender or sexual preference, and privileged ‘radicals’ are happy to serve by campaigning for tolerance, inclusion, trans-rights, equal pay and whatnot. Left-wing journos, market-friendly radicals and career leftists provide and even police the limits to acceptable discussion; any idea left of the liberal press is, ipso facto, insane. They are a lightning rod for genuinely revolutionary unease, channelling demands for a different system into inconvenient but, ultimately, harmless, amendments to the current one, such as endless bickering about the number of crumbs the poor should be served on the welfare table; a ‘debate’ which keeps left-wing politicians, trade unionists and liberal journalists nice and busy while society slowly, but safely, rots.

A similar function, on a smaller scale, is played by everyday cynicism, fantasy and even comedy. Ordinary men and women, living entirely conventional and brutally predictable lives of domesticated subservience frequently deal with their inhuman routines and herdlike consumption of spectacular drugs by mocking them—the stiffs, the weirdos, the others or those fools out there. ‘We’re different’, say the suburban couple, ‘we can laugh at the world’. ‘I’m different’, says the bank clerk, ‘I’m really an artist, a dreamer, a revolutionary, mad!’ Such attitudes strengthen the power of the system, which panders to a sense of specialness and actively encourages the irresponsible, ironic or marketable distance from the world that daydreaming,2 escapism, cynicism and irony open up.

Without the eco, female, ‘radical’, artistic, comic, cynical and philanthropic veneer of free speech created by stagversive care for minority rights, the environment, working conditions, corrupt politicians, fat cats and so on, the fundamentally repressive and iniquitous nature of the system would be easier to perceive. As it is, elites can point to their pinko chums in the newspapers and movie studios and say, ‘look how free our society is!’ That stagversive columnists also help pull potential radicals into the advert saturated pages of The Guardian and the New York Times just happens to be by-the-by.

If reformists ever do reach positions of power they find themselves forced, by the structure of society, to subdue and oppress those they dominate and to serve the needs of the system. As Michael Bakunin noted, this partly explains how ‘the most raging rebels become the most cautious of conservatives as soon as they attain to power’. It matters little whether the power is in a capitalist corporation, a professional hierarchy, a democratic parliament or a socialist trade union. Authority (the authority of power, that is, not the authority of presence, character, intelligence or experience) corrupts. A little work is required to deal with the bad dreams and guilt that authority entails—crusading convictions must be reshaped, whispers of conscience suppressed—but no biggie. A marvellous sense of mission, a swollen pay cheque, and the arousing energies of mass attention all carry the newly promoted effortlessly through their midnight doubts. For a while.

Some stagversives gain their power by being granted it from the ruling elites they oppose. One of the most terrifying sights for authority has long been a large, violent crowd, or the prospect of one. Rioting mobs intent on upturning the system can be suppressed, but a far more effective technique is to appoint powerful leaders and spokesmen, which automatically funnels attention towards tractable, manageable interactions. There is always the danger of the wrong kind of leadership arising though—one that refuses power, inspires the people to listen to the voice of their own conscience and freely act on it for themselves. That won’t do! What authority wants is the right kind of revolutionary; someone who will negotiate; or, failing that, someone who, if they gain power, will keep the basic structure of the system intact.

The archetypical reformist, who gave his name to the quintessential reformist movement, was Karl Marx. Marx was a brutal authoritarian, famously manipulative and an enthusiastic proponent of war, work and progress, all governed by classically Graeco-Judaic deterministic laws, filtered through the totalitarian scholastic jugglery3 of Georg Hegel. His attitude towards nature was domination, his attitude towards the peasantry and the urban poor was contempt4 and, crucially, his attitude towards an organised, central state was… that he was in favour of it. He simply added, to his contradictory declarations about the state, the proviso that it should eventually be run by workers and should vaguely aim to ‘wither away’. Meanwhile; ‘there can be no talk at present of achieving communism; the bourgeoisie must first come to the helm’. Marx detested those who actively opposed the principle of statism (that is to say, anarchists) and who sought revolution beyond the authoritarian bounds5 of his vanguard; upon one of whom, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Marx performed one of the most disgraceful hatchet jobs in intellectual history, and then stole his ideas (notably the surplus theory of value6). Finally, Marx had absolutely nothing meaningful to say about any matter of real importance to men and women outside of economics and the effects of capitalism.

Marx would not be revered as he is if what he had said had not contributed so much to the human library. Marx’s critique of capitalism contains many peerless observations, and the Marxist tradition contains some veritable masterpieces,7 but Marx’s plan for revolution (communism that is; hatched with his capitalist friend, Friedrich Engels), was the very model of self-seeking reformism, which explains all of its salient features; its record of catastrophic failure, megalomaniacal corruption, enervating compromise, state-capitalist exploitation of the working classes, obliteration of nature, cockeyed priorities,8 conspicuous disinclination to make the slightest change to the basic structure of the bureaucratic / technocratic system and rampant, unconscious, egoic groupthink.

All forms of Marxism, communism, trade unionism, authoritarian, democratic, Fabian, parliamentary and ‘eco’ socialism, along with syndicalist forms of anarchism, are, in these respects, identical to capitalism, feudalism and fascism. If one evolves into another, nothing changes. That socialist movements often comprise decent folk; that socialist states, trade unions and syndicates do occasionally offer vital protection against extreme forms of [private] capitalism9; that communist critiques of capitalism are often superb; all this is, ultimately, irrelevant. None of the political systems of the so-called left have, despite lip service, any interest in doing away with the entire system, nor are their ideological priorities fundamentally in any kind of conflict with it. The left wishes to preserve property rights, professionalism, money, progress, work, iniquity (either centralised state power or artificially distributed corporate-technocratic power) and all the other foundational components of the anti-world. This is why kindly, fair, compassionate socialism so frequently ends up looking like a classic totalitarian nightmare. You would have to be raving mad to oppose the NHS, or higher pay for teachers, or more welfare for the poor, or unconditional UBI, or higher corporation tax, or more council homes, or more jobs for the working classes—indeed it usually is nutters who do oppose them—but all of these initiatives strengthen the second most totalitarian institution in world history; the state. That the most totalitarian institution in world history—the capitalist corporation—makes much the same criticisms, and rushes into the breach when socialist states are dismantled, does not make them any less true, or any more right wing. The fact is that, despite their protestations to the contrary, their individual good nature and sympathy for the poor, the good they do fixing people’s teeth10 and providing bike-lanes, and, in many cases, their enthusiastic flashing of radical credentials, socialists are engaged, usually from positions of extraordinary privilege, in the task of organising, from the top down, a bearable system. They are thus bound, forever, to futility, contention, repression, exploitation, ruinous technical progress and stultifying compromise with technocratic power, constant interference in people’s lives and proliferating bureaucracy; in short to totalitarian fascism.

A fact of history which socialists are keen to forget, or to excuse, is that fascism originated, at least to some extent, in Italian socialism. It was first branded ‘right wing’ by the Soviets in Russia in order to distance the ‘right’ kind of socialism (their own; Lenin’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s) from the ‘wrong’ kind (Hitler’s and Mussolini’s), a definition taken up, with added emphasis on hyper-nationalism and morbid romanticism, by Roosevelt (a fascist) and Truman; but, despite their foundational capitalist elements and their reliance on the support of capitalist landowners, all these polities were based on powerful, ‘classless’ states (Mussolini and Hitler both had massive support from workers, managers and owners; if anything it was the capitalist class, unhappy about rising wages, who were least enthusiastic), generous nationalised welfare (health insurance, public housing, etc.) unionised workplaces11 (Mussolini’s unions were called fascio, hence fascism), ‘social justice’, democracy,12 technocratic progress and other such left-wing-friendly initiatives.13

‘Oh, but that’s the wrong kind of socialism!’ cries the reformer, who wants a national health service, heavily unionised workplaces, a powerful professional-class, mass democracy, money markets, [green] industrial technology and a profligate welfare state, but also, magically, a reality in which these unnatural, anti-human techniques and institutions somehow give power to nature and to human nature. It doesn’t matter what reformists say, or how nice they are, when their actions inevitably strengthen authoritarian, hierarchical systems, radical monopolies and dehumanising tools which create forms of control that, functionally—actually—are no different to those which private capitalists, centrists, [neo] liberals and company stooges brazenly extol. Leftoids either do this unwittingly, or, with varying degrees of shiftiness, they suppress their awareness of the disastrous consequences of what their instincts to do good end up producing when channelled through the state, or through technocratic institutions. Castro’s Cuba is, quite obviously, nothing like Mussolini’s Italy, and clearly Podemos is not headed towards National Socialism, and, while we’re at it, obviously Corbyn is not Lenin. The point is, their systems ruin man and nature for the same reasons that capitalist, feudal and totalitarian systems do.

When the socialist state, academy or guild has completed its work, it is, firstly, entirely run by the kind of people able to force their way up the immense authoritarian hierarchies that states entail, and eliminate opposition (Stalin, Kissinger, Blair, etc.) and, secondly, and more importantly, it is still an institution; which is to say, a system-integrated conglomeration of enforced habits. Institutions control by creating and compelling people into pre-defined patterns of conduct; system-friendly cliches. The specific laws, processes and players are irrelevant. The institution, by forcing people into institutional habits, automatically destroys spontaneity—which is to say conscious response to the context, which is to say humanity—through existing in and as the system, making any kind of structural reform completely futile. Add to this the overwhelming dominance of the modern technocratic market system, upon which all institutions (and therefore all habits within them) are completely dependent, and the ridiculous futility of socialist reform, of changing this or that law, of voting for this or that nice guy, of protest and petition, becomes clear.

Think of it this way. You can have a socialist in charge of an oil tanker, the kindliest old captain imaginable; but to what end? Oil tankers are vast machines, which can only run on and transport equally vast quantities of poisonous crude oil. While we are forced to work on oil tankers, only a fool would vote for a capitalist captain; but what good can a socialist captain actually do with this ship? Can he use it to transport people? Fish for crabs? Can it be ‘scaled back’? Can he use it for anything on a human scale? He cannot. No matter how fair and friendly the captain is, the time comes when we need to stop listening to what the company tells us to do, take our tanker to a country where people know what to do with scrap metal, and then smash the damn thing up.

In opposition, reformists, who are either keen to essentially preserve the system or are simply too cowardly to radically oppose it, tend to extol entertaining, celebratory, largely passive forms of protest (‘Great day out at the march! Twitter storm tomorrow guys!’) along with quietest philosophies of complete pacifistic acceptance; an approach which has always been tremendously popular with power. Quiet reflection, meditation, godliness, good-hearted simplicity, peacefully loving the police and the like have been praised by princes and kings—and, obviously, by their professional, priestly, employees—since the dawn of history. Pacifism and ‘being nice’ are, in their place, terribly good for business,14 although nowadays mindfulness is the thing; using ancient (and potent) techniques of self-mastery and acceptance to suppress the conscience, rage, fear, despair—and, most horrifying of all, the urge to dispel them with action—which prostituting oneself to a dystopian cyborg evokes. Much better to do a bit of yoga or mass-meditate with breast-feeding mums than blow up a dam or take down a power station. Co-opting such techniques, and the perennial philosophy they are built upon, also persuades would-be dissidents of their ‘self-indulgent’, ‘introspective’ uselessness, and deprives potential miracle workers of the incandescent essence of revolution; their own conscious—and utterly subversive—experience.

Such experience, despite being the wellspring of actually effective revolution, plays at best a secondary role in reform. For reformists it is, first of all, society which must change—through the actions and plans of states and professionals. Those with a yen to change society through law, policy and command like to believe that society is relatively simple thing, that the effects of tinkering with it can be predicted, that there will be no unforeseen side effects of their actions, that it is possible to gain actual, meaningful power over large numbers of people and that entrenched self-interest and the power conferred by money, property and institutional status can be overcome—that all we need to do is to replace the baddies in charge with goodies—while ego, money, property and professional institutions continue to exist. Most absurdly, they believe, or act as if they believe, that the dominance of the technocratic system is a secondary concern, and need not be considered when campaigning for political change. History, science, the wisdom of people who understand how the world works, all available evidence and common sense say otherwise, but nevermind all that. Reformists aren’t interested in seriously considering reality, or civilisation, or the ultimate point of their activity, any more than doctors are, or teachers, or politicians, or academics, or journalists. The lovely sense of purpose they get from their work, the day to day hustle and bustle, the nice system-friendly ideology they base their articles and even their personalities on; all of this would crumble if they turned their minds to ‘paradigm disputes’. That it is the system which is in charge of society, that society can never be rationally controlled, shaped, planned or designed without unforeseen catastrophe, that the most powerful autocrats, the fastest computers and the most benevolent and moral crusaders are completely impotent before the forces of society, nature and the global system in which they are constrained, that it is rank futility to appeal to kings, governments, CEOs, bureaucrats and other leaders to solve the problems of the system they depend on for their power; all this is heresy of the first order for the reformist, and to even suggest such a thing in her presence makes her quake with anxiety.

Reformists and leftists have no interest whatsoever in discovering what the system really is or how to actually overcome it. It doesn’t matter that the ideology of professional minds is heading towards some kind of marvellous multicultural paradise and that of thick-skulled nationalists is heading nowhere; because ideology is irrelevant to what actually happens in the world, just as what a man says about himself is irrelevant to who he actually is. Leftists say they want love, peace and harmony, they say they want the same thing as genuine anarchists—a stateless, classless (and possibly even low-tech) world—but who they are, how they think and what they do, serves the system. They are every bit as pathetically servile before its needs as capitalists and rightists are, every bit as uptight and mediocre, every bit as violent; just clever about it, and clean. Neither group has the slightest real awareness of their own conscious self, nor do they have any interest in allowing humanity to create, from the bottom up, a world formed by its own hands. The prospect of allowing the intelligence of nature to intelligently guide ordinary people terrifies them; and it will continue to terrify them until they are on the bottom, and forced to use their own conscious self to build something meaningful with their own hands.

This is a chapter from 33 Myths of the System

A more detailed critique of Marx will appear when my blog restarts in October. Sign up to my mailing list to hear of that.

Notes

  1. See T. Kaczynski, The System’s Neatest Trick.
  2. ‘We may be startled to find that the person in the office next door, whom we had always pitied as a pathetic ‘unreflective accomodator to routine’, is not only busy distancing himself madly from all around him, but is doing so in exactly the same way as we are… We are [all] trapped again in routine, the routine of distancing’. S. Cohen and L. Taylor, Escape Attempts.
  3. Schopenhauer’s words.
  4. The lumpenproletariat was his dismissive term for the latter; although he believed that all men were, faced with the ‘forces of history’, dispensable.
  5. Bakunin put it this way; ‘Marx is an authoritarian and centralising communist. He wants what we want, the complete triumph of economic and social equality, but he wants it… through State power, through the dictatorship of a very strong and, so to say, despotic provisional government, that is by the negation of liberty. His economic ideal is the State as sole owner of the land and of all kinds of capital, cultivating the land under the management of State engineers, and controlling all industrial and commercial associations with State capital. We want the same triumph of economic and social equality through the abolition of the State and of all that passes by the name of law… We want the reconstruction of society and the unification of mankind to be achieved, not from above downwards by any sort of authority, nor by socialist officials, engineers, and either accredited men of learning—but from below upwards, by the free feder­ation of all kinds of workers’ associations liberated from the yoke of the State’.
  6. Marx, of course, like all writers, great and small, took an enormous amount from all kinds of people (Blanqui, Fourier, Saint-Simone, etc.). The point here is that he took key ideas from the very man he was pillorying and misrepresenting.
  7. The works of Mumford, Ellul, Braverman, Illich and Chomsky for example may or may not be ‘Marxist’, but they certainly draw from Marx’s well, as do I.
  8. Such as seizing the means of production, for example, in a late-capitalist world in which everything is a means of production, or placing revolutionary action almost entirely into the hands of workers, with everyone else relegated to a support role; an approach also favoured by anarcho-syndicalists.
  9. I myself have, out of sheer desperation, voted for socialist leaders and mooted unionising at work.
  10. Including mine, by the way. I use the NHS, have benefited from state hand-outs and had lovely teachers. I’m not an unlovely teacher myself, although I have noted, time and time and time again, that the only people who can be taught anything are those in no need of teaching.
  11. Hitler’s semi-socialist unions, the German Labour Front, replaced independent trade unions.
  12. Hitler and Mussolini were both democratically elected (and had the overwhelming support of ordinary people, who rarely felt any sense of ‘oppression’) although both immediately took steps to dismantle the possibility that they could be democratically ousted (common behaviour for democracy-enthusiasts), or that their plans could be significantly interrupted.
  13. Nazi animal welfare policy, for example, was the best in the modern world.
  14. Pacifism at home that is; all that loveliness is rapidly defenestrated when it’s time to butcher baddies abroad who, coincidentally, are sitting on an underground ocean of oil.