Radical Ideology and Indispensable Goods

Towards the end of the manuscript of my book, in a chapter entitled “Producing Indispensable Goods,” I offer the example of an amateur theater group as a kind of proto-communist ideological practice.  At this point in the book, I have been arguing that capitalist arose because proto-capitalist practices were created to produce the indispensable goods not provided by the feudal mode of production, and eventually these practices spread and became the mode of producing all goods.  I take the term “indispensable goods” from Althusser, who argues that there are many things we need to flourish a human beings, beyond merely food and shelter.  This includes, but is not limited to, the ability to participate in deciding on our way of life, and the recognition (in a Hegelian sense) of other humans.  My suggestion is that something like an amateur theatrical group could provide some of these needs, which are not at all provided by the capitalist MoP.  Here’s part of the relevant chapter:

If ideology is a belief-in-practice that works to reproduce a mod of production (MoP), can there be non-capitalist ideologies in an overwhelming capitalist world?  The answer to this depends on whether there can be multiple MoPs, which is to say multiple concurrent ways of producing and distributing our human necessities.  I would argue that it is today clear enough that global capitalism is failing to meet the basic needs of most people, so a competing MoP would seem to be required. Can we find ways to produce our indispensable goods, or at least some of them, outside of the capitalist system?  

Because this is what I’m suggesting: that we begin by developing practices which will provide us with exactly those indispensable goods which the capitalist economy does not provide.  Certainly we should work to ensure that everyone has adequate food, shelter, clothing and health care.  These are the things that our dominant MoP has a monopoly on producing, even if the way they are distributed requires that someone make a profit and so requires that many people will not get access to them.  So people starve in our country even as enormous amounts of food get destroyed and landowning corporations are paid government subsidies to let their farms lie fallow in order to keep prices up.  These are the economic practices we should be actively struggling against.  But the greatest impediment to solving these problems lies in the beliefs of most people in America that there is no alternative—that any other manner of distributing our social surplus would be somehow “inefficient” or would lead to immorality in the form of promoting laziness.  

Those of us who have given serious thought to such things know the absurdity of these beliefs. We are often astounded when we hear them most passionately advocated by exactly the very homeless and hungry people who are most disadvantaged by them.  Nobody is more dead set agains socialism than the chronically underemployed.  Nobody is more passionately opposed to universal healthcare than those whose hundreds of thousands of dollars of life-sustaining medical treatments are paid for by Medicaid.  

We also know that there has never been a less efficient system than capitalism.  What its advocates seem to mean by “efficient” is that whatever you happen want is instantly available to you—even if that means we must produce enormous quantities of commodities that wind up as landfill just so that we will have on hand whatever someone with money happens to want.  In fact, as the examples of Walmart and Amazon would seem to indicate, the most efficient system is exactly what those opposed to socialism would have you fear most: an economy planned by a centralized bureaucracy.  

The point of this little digression into the obvious is simply to suggest that one of the greatest impediments to our thriving is our own ignorance, our inability to question the received wisdom we get from our parents, the media, our college professors, or common-sense wisdom.  One of the most important, and most lacking, of our indispensable goods is exactly our need to understand the workings of the world around us and be able to participate in constructing our Md world.  Until we have this basic good, we will never solve the problems of supplying the basic material necessities like food and shelter to everyone.  

This book, then, is addressed primarily to those who already have the minimal needs of physical survival.  The average college graduate today is not likely to be homeless or to go hungry. She probably has a smartphone and a car.  She may even have access to healthcare.  

And so she likely can’t figure out why she is still so miserable.  Or, if she does have an answer to this, it is probably that she just doesn’t have enough stuff yet. Maybe she thinks living with her parents and working at the Au Bon Pain is too constricting, or he thinks that not being able to afford to travel to Europe to play golf in Scotland or to buy that new Mercedes is what is really making him unhappy.  We think, that is, that more stuff will solve all our problems.  But what if it doesn’t? 

What if, like Tony Montana in the movie Scarface, we wind up with enormous wealth, with every thing we think we wanted, and find out we are still dissatisfied?  Most of us, of course, will never get there, and so the promise of imaginary plentitude still acts as a lure.  In fact, this promise is all the more important because we cannot even conceive of any other source of happiness than getting all the things we want without effort.  Nobody today remembers the discontent that arose in the fifties and sixties when the long postwar boom gave so many people houses in the suburbs, cars and televisions, retirement accounts and golf-club memberships…but somehow no contentment.  

What was missing?

My suggestion is that you try to find that out.  Most college graduates today will wind up as part of what is sometimes called the precariat class: those who are not really poor, but are endlessly struggling on the verge of economic disaster, working short-term jobs and paying off enormous debt and never reaching the level of security their grandparents and parents saw.  Because you are part of the growing class of surplus people.  That is to say, the global economy requires fewer and fewer people to actually be members of the capitalist class.  As enormous wealth condenses in the hands of fewer and fewer multi-billionaires, they need fewer servants on call to fulfill their demands.  The rest are unnecessary people, who increasingly become nothing but a burden to the endless growth of great fortunes.  To put it bluntly, there needs to be a mass of people ready to do the bidding of the very wealthy, but there needs to be an even greater mass of people prepared to do this bidding but never getting a chance, because most of them will serve only as a threat to keep wages down. If there are fifty million underemployed adults with graduate degrees in STEM fields, those few with the good jobs have no real leverage to ask for more money.  

Okay, enough of the basic economic nightmare. What might we do about it?  

Instead of indulging futile dreams of one day becoming one of the very rich, or even one of the relatively affluent servants of the very rich, why not spend your time investigating exactly what is really missing when you have the basic material necessities of life?  What other indispensable goods do you really lack?  What if it isn’t stuff, but ways of acting in and understanding the world?  What if our human nature requires that we have the power to choose our collective social projects, to decide what will be meaningful for us?

We can do this not because we have anything like the kind of free will we usually think we have (remember Chapter 9).  That is, we cannot just freely decide what to do in some completely undetermined way and set out to do it.  We can only begin from where we are, notice the sources of limitation and dissatisfaction, and begin to make these explicit in some collective discourse (recall Chapter 5).  The history of humans is the history of our collective intentions—of which ones become dominant and which don’t, of the effects of those collective projects on all of us.  The meaning of the Enlightenment, in its most positive sense, is that we can begin to become aware of what those intentions and effects are.  We don’t need to assume only Mi things are causal; we can come to the understanding that Md things are causally real and can be up to us.

What I want to outline here, as a mere suggestion, is a practice we might undertake to make meaningful to ourselves the kinds of activities that might fulfill our human nature.  If, as I have argued, it is the goal of our current ISAs to convince us that we must merely adapt to the world we have been thrown into, because it is natural and inevitable…then the goal of this kind of practice would be to convince us that we can choose a new world.  Not only that, but that the act of choosing, even if we fail to carry out our collective projects, is itself one of the most fundamental needs of our human nature. And we must do it collectively; we need to understand that any social project will only be fully meaningful if we choose it in negotiation with other people.  Contrary to our ordinary assumption, caught as we are in a pervasive fear of sociality, it is not the case that actions will feel meaningful only if they are either imposed from without or chosen to individually without the need to consider others; instead, actions have meaning when we commit to them by choice as part of a collective intention.

The practice I go on to suggest, then, is amateur theatrics.  I intend this only as an example, an illustration.  But I have some concerns about this particular example.  Mostly, I am worried that it falls into the usual Romantic answer to all social ills: aesthetics.  I don’t want to promote the tired old illusion that art allows us to escape the suffocating trap of ideology or of the Habermasian “system.”  The idea, instead, is that art produces ideology, it never allows an escape from it (on this point I differ from Althusser).  But producing an ideology is a good thing—if we can produce non-capitalist ideological practices.  

So my question is, can anyone suggest other practices that might produce indispensable goods but which would not fall into the general bourgeois category of art?  Not that art is a necessarily bad example—Eagleton uses a jazz combo as his example in his book The Meaning of Life, for instance, very effectively.  But still, art does require an audience…and that leads to a whole other set of problems.  What about a practice that does not require an audience, only participants?  What kind of indispensable goods migh it fulfill?  What might it look like?  

In part, the end of the book is a challenge to the reader to come up with such practices for herself.  But I’d appreciate suggestions for even one other example, besides theater, I might offer.