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Is it easier to end capitalism than to imagine the end of capitalism?

By Paul Watson on .

Being a brief discourse on the occult thinking of the 17th Century Digger and revolutionary Gerrard Winstanley, and the parallels with the writings of Mark Fisher, via Ursula K Le Guin and diverse others

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Ursula K Le Guin, in her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Ursula K Le Guin’s 2014 acceptance speech gets frequently reposted on social media, especially the line We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. It’s not surprising since it’s a concise and powerful quote, containing a germ of hope for the end of capitalism.

It chimes well with Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism, and the defining quote that …we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. (Fisher, p2)

There is a significant difference here, though: where Le Guin proposed that the power of monarchical absolutism seemed “inescapable”, the concept of capitalist realism is that escape is not just impossible (because of the socio-economic and military power structures propping up the status quo), but any alternative to the status quo is even unimaginable (because of what is basically a belief system that late-stage capitalism is the pinnacle of human society). This latter inability to imagine a different future is one important aspect that differentiates late-stage capitalism (or neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it) with Fordism, earlier forms of capitalism, or pre-capitalist socio-economic systems.

The question of whether this inability to imagine the end of the current socio-economic system is unique to late-stage capitalism has been nagging at me. Because if it isn’t something unique to late-stage capitalism then we can use our understanding of how it was overcome in the past to overcome this seemingly impassable obstacle now.

I tend to imagine that every previous massive change from one socio-economic system to a different one was imaginable in advance because, when reading history (usually popular history books), I know that it happened and there’s a neat historical narrative that leads me through the steps that happened from society A to society B.

But it’s not quite like that in reality. There’s a lot more aimless floundering around, helplessness, dead ends, and a general feeling of “what the fuck is going on?” back in history in the same way that we (or, at least, I) experience now.

I was recently reading Dr Francis Young’s new book Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain. It’s a very interesting and readable book detailing, as you might expect, the influence of the occult on politics in Britain from the Roman invasion to the present day, and it seemed a great addition to a small section of my bookshelves dealing with the combination of the occult/myth/folklore with radical politics (the only other one I had which was specifically about the occult and politics was Dr Erica Lagalisse’s 2018 book Occult Features of Anarchism which I also recommend).

Thoroughly enjoying it, I came to chapter 5 and read:

[Gerrard] Winstanley’s belief in alchemy allowed him to come to terms with the Diggers’ overthrow of the established hierarchy, because the political disruption of the 1640s could be interpreted in terms of God’s alchemical purification of human nature.

Young, p244

But why would Winstanley need to “come to terms” with his anarcho-communist revolution? Surely he was a revolutionary who, ahead of his time, came up with a proto-communist manifesto?

I first heard about the Diggers listening to Billy Bragg’s cover of Leon Rosselson’s The World Turned Upside Down on Bragg’s Between the Wars EP back as a 15-year-old. I read Christopher Hill’s 1972 book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (from which Rosselson took the title of his song) amongst several others, I’ve watched Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s 1975 film Winstanley. I felt I knew a reasonable amount about Gerrard Winstanley and his role in the Diggers — not to an academic standard of study, but to a reasonable general knowledge level — and had always perceived him as a proto-communist revolutionary, a driven man ahead of his time with ideas that would end up being adopted again centuries later. So I didn’t understand why he would need to “come to terms” with overthrowing the political hierarchy?

The single most cited source for the few pages about Winstanley in Young’s book was David Mulder’s 1990 book The Alchemy of Revolution: Gerrard Winstanley’s Occultism and Seventeenth-Century English Communism. That certainly sounds fit to join the strange section of my bookshelves! It’s unfortunately out-of-print, but I managed to track down a second-hand copy for about £20 for an explanation:

While [Winstanley] envisaged a transformation of English society on a scale that we would call revolutionary, he could not conceptualise the transformation in modern, direct revolutionary terms. The reason for this is that, as radical a thinker as he was, he never relinquished a belief in the fundamental elements of early-modern world-view. The cosmology he and his contemporaries inherited from the middle ages taught that any radical challenge to the political and social order also was a radical challenge to the divine order of the universe. Such a challenge was thought to be a rebellion against God which had horrendous, even chaotic consequences for mankind and for the universe itself.

Human rebellion, as an idea, was thus a stumbling block for radical thinkers in the early-modern period. Put simply, it was easier to make a revolution than to imagine one. To foment rebellion against a local landlord, to assassinate a royal minister, or even to execute a king was not as difficult as realising the radical implications of such actions.

Mulder, p47-48

In fact, as Mulder explains in detail through the course of the book, Winstanley mixed eschatology, hermetic/alchemical cosmology, and the idea of the Norman Yoke to evade the inability inherent in the early-modern world-view to imagine a society where the social hierarchy was abolished.

But one sentence stands out to me from the quotation above: Put simply, it was easier to make a revolution than to imagine one. And it stands out because it reminds me strongly of the quotation from Fisher’s Capitalist Realism that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

So what if we combine them a bit: is it easier to end capitalism than to imagine the end of capitalism? Fisher’s argument is that our inability to be able to imagine the end of capitalism is one of late-stage capitalism’s main defences - it has managed to protect itself by making the idea of anything else impossible to conceive. Any socio-economic system that needs to rely on stopping people thinking of any alternatives seems to me to be an inherently fragile one, one that wouldn’t take much to end. It leaves just a matter of finding a way to get around everyone’s inability to conceive of a better alternative future.

Going back to Winstanley, I don’t think that combining eschatology with hermetic/alchemical cosmology (with or without introducing the concept of the Norman Yoke) is going to be a successful contemporary way to evade the defences of late-stage capitalism! Although the fact that including eschatology - essentially imagining the end of the world - was part of Winstanley’s solution to the problem did make me laugh.

I’ve mused before (in various posts on this blog) about the possibility of art and writing and music as ways to bypass the mental block of imagining a better alternative to late-stage capitalism, and the discovery that this isn’t quite the first time that imagining the end of the current socio-economic status quo has seemed more difficult than imagining the end of the world at least gives me some hope that it can be done again.

Works Referenced

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative?. Zero Books.

Hill, C. (1972). The world turned upside down: radical ideas during the English revolution. Penguin Books.

Lagalisse, E. (2018). Occult features of anarchism: with attention to the conspiracy of kings and the conspiracy of the peoples. PM Press.

Le Guin, U. K. (2014). Acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters [Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/national-book-awards-ursula-le-guin

Mulder, D. (1990). The alchemy of revolution: Gerrard Winstanley’s occultism and seventeenth-century English communism. Peter Lang Publishing.

Young, F. (2022). Magic in Merlin’s realm: a history of occult politics in Britain. Cambridge University Press.