Thoughts on the kind of moral universe we have to create in order to save the world.
We’re embarking on a revolutionary era, an era that promises to be more radical even than the 1930s. No society of overwhelming decadence and moral rot, luxuriantly productive of Stephen Millers and Steve Bannons, is destined to last very long. No society that can throw up such a pathetic man-child as Donald Trump as its leader has much of a future. As it parasitizes itself to death, new social forms are bound to sprout in abundance (through the energy of activists and organizers).
The core of the protracted revolution, of course, is to create new institutions, ultimately new relations of production. Every revolution is essentially a matter of changing social structures; the goal of transforming ideologies makes sense only as facilitating institutional change. Nevertheless, to spread new ways of thinking, new values, can indeed serve as an effective midwife of revolution, and thus is a task worth undertaking.
The fundamental moral transition that has to occur (in order, for example, to save humanity from collective suicide) is from a kind of nefarious egoism to a beneficent communism. This is the ideological core of the coming social changes, this shift from individualistic greed—“Gain wealth, forgetting all but self”—to collective solidarity. We have to stop seeing the world through the distorted lens of the private capitalist self, the self whose raison d’être is to accumulate private property, private experiences, private resentments, finally private neuroses, and instead see the world as what it is, a vast community stretching through time and space. Such a change of vision might facilitate the necessary institutional changes—which themselves, later, will naturally engender and instill this communist-type vision.
The very notion of “private property,” of “this is mine, and I alone earned it,” has to be recognized as a form of moral idiocy or insanity. Here, I would do better to quote the old anarchist Kropotkin than to offer my own formulations, which would pale beside his. In his classic The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin explained just how stupid is the idea of entitlement to a private piece of property (as though “no one else deserves it”):
Take a civilized country. The forests which once covered it have been cleared, the marshes drained, the climate improved. It has been made habitable. The soil, which bore formerly only a coarse vegetation, is covered today with rich harvests… Thousands of highways and railroads furrow the earth, and pierce the mountains. The rivers have been made navigable; the coasts, carefully surveyed, are easy of access; artificial harbors, laboriously dug out and protected against the fury of the sea, afford shelter to the ships…
Millions of human beings have labored to create this civilization on which we pride ourselves today. Other millions, scattered through the globe, labor to maintain it. Without them nothing would be left in fifty years but ruins.
There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property, born of the past and the present. Thousands of inventors, known and unknown, who have died in poverty, have cooperated in the invention of each of these machines which embody the genius of man. Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, have labored to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared. And these thousands of philosophers, of scholars, of inventors…have been upheld and nourished through life, both physically and mentally, by legions of workers and craftsmen of all sorts…
By what right then can anyone whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say – This is mine, not yours?
As he goes on to argue, the wage system itself, which is conceptually and institutionally a close relative of private property, is morally absurd. And not only because it’s repugnant for people to be forced to rent themselves to others in order to survive. Or because wage-earners necessarily can’t receive the full equivalent of the value they have produced (for then the capitalist couldn’t make any profit). Perhaps equally ridiculous is the idea that it’s possible to “measure” labor at all, to quantitatively compare workers’ contributions, when there are so many qualitative differences between the work that each person does. How can one say whose work is more valuable than another’s? Why should a plumber’s work be considered less valuable than an engineer’s? Why a financial consultant’s more valuable than a sanitation worker’s? (If anything, the reverse makes far more sense.)
The only principle that makes logical and moral sense is “to put the needs above the works, and first of all to recognize the right to live, and later on the right to well-being for all those who take their share in production.” Society has to be rid, once and for all, of the obsessive “who deserves what?” mentality, the apportioning mentality, the “mine vs. yours” pathology.
“If middle-class society is decaying,” Kropotkin writes, “if we have got into a blind alley from which we cannot emerge without attacking past institutions with torch and hatchet, it is precisely because we have given too much to counting. It is because we have let ourselves be influenced into giving only to receive. It is because we have aimed at turning society into a commercial company based on debit and credit.”
Actually, as I’ve written elsewhere (following David Graeber), even contemporary capitalist society, whose utopia is to make everyone an enemy of everyone else (that’s what thoroughgoing privatization would mean), couldn’t function without a substratum of implicit communism. Everything would instantly break down if people stopped giving what they could to those in need, whether money, time, free labor, gifts, advice, ideas, or encouragement. Social life itself is essentially communistic, based on community, generosity, and sympathy. The general systematization of private property is a perversion.
Kropotkin’s arguments suffice to answer the misanthropic refrain of conservatives that “it’s wrong to give something to people who have done nothing to earn it.” But other answers are possible. One might point out that people born into the middle or upper class have done nothing to “earn” their privileged position. The wealthy haven’t earned the inheritance they receive from their parents. White Americans didn’t earn their skin-color or the fact that they weren’t born in, say, a Haitian slum. People who benefit from charisma or physical beauty or intelligence did nothing to earn that; they were born with it. They deserve no credit for it. Somebody who happens to meet the right person at the right time and is launched on a successful career is the beneficiary of luck—as, in short, every “successful” person is, in innumerable ways.
Nor does any of this begin to address all the ways that the wealthy or corporations or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs benefit from state policy designed to give them what they want and to strip the poor of the right to live. Through the agency of the state (e.g., its corporate welfare programs, defense budget, patent and copyright protections, and, to some extent, interest payments on bonds), the population subsidizes the power and wealth of people whose ideology is to shame those who benefit from state programs. According to their own ideology, then, these “libertarians” in the business class ought to have their property confiscated, since, strictly speaking, they have “earned” none or little of it.
In fact, to the degree that our economy has become mainly a rentier economy, owned by parasites on the productive labor of others, it is sheer farce to talk about property-owners’ right to their wealth—which is to say their right to exclude others from ownership. For where would this right come from, if there isn’t even a pretense of their having earned all they own? How rich would Bill Gates be without the “rent” he receives from ridiculously stringent copyright protection for Windows and other Microsoft products? He is merely the lucky beneficiary of government policies that serve to hinder the diffusion of knowledge and wealth.
All this private property-exalting thinking, therefore, has to be cast aside onto the dung-heap of history. Rather than Reverence for Property, we ought to strive for something like the Reverence for Life that Albert Schweitzer wrote about and embodied. That is, we ought to explicitly embrace the moral communism (“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”) to which we’re already implicitly committed whenever we act as though guided by the Golden Rule, which is to say whenever we act morally at all. To be moral is, in essence, to act like a communist.
“Let us go then, you and I,” and bring forth the moral revolution.
 Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread and Other Writings, ed. Marshall Shatz (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 13¬–16. More concisely, “the means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them…and since it is not possible to evaluate everyone’s part in the production of the world’s wealth.”