Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Part 1)

Peter Kropotkin

Mendocino County

Parts |1|2|3|

August 12, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

seventeenth century anonymous

The Grand Inquisitor, in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, challenges Christ: humanity is “weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious … in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘make us your slaves, but feed us.’” Christ remains silent.

As Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, Gary Paul Nabhan, Gary Taubes, and others have chronicled in great detail, we Americans and increasingly those living elsewhere are enslaved by a food production system that is notorious for the waste of natural resources, destruction of environment, social decay, and damaging to health. This is only one symptom, although a major one, pinpointing that our society is sick both emotionally and physically. We are sliding toward a chasm edge beyond which these food sources and all the other goodies of our modern society will slip from our grasp. I won’t beat this drum any further and assume it is a given. If you can’t agree or at least imagine so, if you aren’t mad as hell and unwilling to stand it any longer, if you don’t care, don’t bother to read further.

Our overriding questions: how did we get in the fix and how do we escape? Southwestern writer Edward Abbey captured the answers in a nutshell:

“Money means power, not merely wealth. Money gives us power over others – to command their labor, their minds, even their souls. Even their behavior, conduct, attitudes. No wonder money possesses such a glittering attraction for those who crave power. If all people were self-reliant – a nation of artisans, craftsmen, hunters, trappers, farmers, ranchers – the rich would have no means to dominate us. Their wealth would be useless.

“Cities: the realm of masters and slaves.

“Our dream is to escape the hierarchical order; neither to serve nor to rule. The classic American dream. A society of equals.”

So ends, almost, “Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abby, 1951 – 1989”. I would add artists, healers, and sages to Abby’s list. This essay is about some of those sages and what they advised. I hope to change some opinions and provide a foundation for a healing response.

Back in the eighteenth century, crusty Scottish sage David Hume found “nothing more surprising” than “the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and to observe the implicit submission with which men reign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.” Hume capitalized “Force” – where is Luke Skywalker when we need him?

Recently, a photo of a multitude of protestors filling Tehran’s streets has been spread across the conventional media – though no mention is made of the many demonstrations taking place in this country. Everyone is condemning those horrible Muslims. Thank God, that could never be necessary here. Here, the only news that all that is necessary to get money flowing again and the banks, insurance, and auto companies thriving again is for us ordinary people to begin spending, going into debt rather than saving. They, “they”, haven’t noticed we have increasingly little to spend. So, they keep printing money to loan with the hopes whoever borrows it will spend it so that those who receive it will spend it so that those …. On what? Well, anything at all, as long as it costs money. How about the stock market? That is where much of the Fed’s is going.

In 2006, the top one percent of American households’ share of all disposable income amounted to almost a quarter of all households’ disposable income, according to Robert Hunter Wade, professor of political economy at the London School of Economics. Wade found the average income of the bottom 90 percent of the population remained almost stagnant after 1980, although consumption kept rising thanks to the build-up of private debt, the latter of which is now at record highs. So far during this recession, Americans collectively have lost $14 trillion in wealth. Unemployment and underemployment – and prisons – have become rampant. If all those working at part-time jobs who need full-time ones are added to reported unemployment numbers, we would find unemployment in the U.S. at over 18 percent, and arguably closer to 20 percent, 1 in 5 – and, it continues to rise. Meanwhile, the very large banks and corporations get bailed out with our tax dollars, actually with our long term debt at high interest rates, actually with our labor and that of our children’s, our grandchildren’s, …. Is this our America?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” So, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776.

I find many of my acquaintances to be angry, that they are concluding our governments at all levels and our shadow corporate governments are increasingly “destructive of these ends”. But, angry enough to go to the streets and tear barricades down? No way. It would never be allowed. Anyhow, we mostly have forgotten how to stand on our own two feet, if we ever knew. Besides, recall Seattle 1999 and the million person peace march in D.C., neither of which were considered news by our conventional media, and how little lasting effect they had. Most organized leftist efforts, such as those of Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, MoveOn, and an apparently infinite stream of blogs focus on tinkering with, patching, what we are told is our government and economic system. We are too dependent on “them” to clothe, house, and feed us to dare becoming too radical. When will we learn that the most we will get are crumbs, the equivalent of Roman bread distributions. But surely, let us not shake the boat; many of us still have jobs and we really like our electronic distractions and autos. And, we have a representative democracy, don’t we?

“Representative democracy” is an oxymoron. Do you know of any of your elected representatives who “represent” any of your viewpoints? Have they ever asked you? Did they represent your views about bailing out the giant banks or giving subsidies to the giant petroleum companies? Oh, polls are done, from the results of which they learn to say the right words in order to gain a majority in the next election. But, I’m asking about actions. I’m speaking not just about the U.S. federal government, but state and local governments, even quasi-government boards of various types. Is it not a rule that they’re performing clowns at best and often thriving as a result of “serving”? (Too harsh? Surely there are rare exceptions.) Can we really think our “representatives” are more competent than we? Could we not do as well or better, given the resources? A better question: could we do worse? Maybe this approach can never work for the well-being of all no matter how honest and aware the participants are if simply because the problems that must be confronted are too immense for our minds to wrap around, especially if any decisions result from “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” compromises, lobbyist distractions, and all that noxious crowd insisting that their multitude of viewpoints be represented.

Two headed three armed Zaphod Beeblebrox is President of the Imperial Galactic Government five hundred thousand light years across the galaxy from Sol. He wields no power whatsoever. His job is to draw attention away from those who do, which he does very successfully – he has already spent two years of his ten presidential term years in prison for fraud. Very very few people realize the President and the Government have no power at all, and of those people only six know whence ultimate power is wielded. Most of the others on the Council secretly believe that the ultimate decision-making process is handled by a computer. They couldn’t be more wrong. So begins Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Reading this book is required homework. Adams has a very twisted sense of humor, which is exactly appropriate for our situation.

Of course, the previous paragraph is a distraction, but so is the one before. We all truly know that the real government is Capital, as has surely become evident to all who have been watching in recent months. Has none noticed that the Federal Reserve System is owned by a collection of huge international banks, some of which are getting large subsidies from it and the U.S. federal government using funds raised by selling U.S. Treasury bonds to, guess, the Fed and banks funded by the Fed? We have no votes, no representation, on its boards. It waves representative government in our faces the way a magician waves his right hand while pulling the switch in his left. Yet, if we know this, we still don’t know the ultimate source of power. Does anyone? Does it matter?

If I were to stop here, our situation would seem hopeless. Can’t we get it though our heads, is it not evident, we can’t fight this wealth and power on anything resembling equal terms? Aw, but, here is one escape left to us that they can’t deny us, as Edward Abby noted. Is it not apparent that our most significant response is refuse to play its game however we are able? How is it that they can force us to consume? Is it not clear that we must simplify our lives, our relationships, must concentrate on life’s essentials and self-reliance? Allow me to get serious for a bit, if these fun-and-games they want us to play can truly be taken seriously; allow me to spin some tales about means of escape.

In 1848, the U.S. invaded Mexico with the barely concealed intention of stealing California and the southwest. Abraham Lincoln, who was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, objected. He announced on the House floor, “Any people, anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right, a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit.” Because of such remarks, he was not reelected. As we all remember, later he changed his mind.

I read that California, if it seceded, would be the seventh largest country in the world. It sends much more tax revenues to the U.S. than it receives value in return. If it were able to contract long term debt as do other counties, its present debt “crisis” would be seen to be miniscule when compared to that of the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Indeed, if California refused to subsidize corporations, via Proposition 13, its debt would shrink even further. But, while They love to mock us, They will never let us go while They are able. Wait, maybe this county could secede? Why not our individual communities, if we could learn to stand on our own, to grow up? Suppose we become self-reliant, switch to barter, and have no taxable income?

Henry David Thoreau reacted to the Mexican war by writing an essay, “Civil Disobedience”. His first paragraph sets the stage:

“I heartily accept the motto, — ‘That government is best which governs least’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.”

Noam Chomsky, after much searching, could find no other instances where American public figures mentioned the word “revolution” in regard to the United States other than in praising the one of 1776. In the 1830s, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville – author of “Democracy in America” – identified some American traits, including rampant materialism, religious fervor (and competing denominations), and fierce patriotism – these traditional values of unbridled “follow the leader” remain alive and well to this day. Revolution was/is furthest from almost all American minds. Will nothing ever change as we spiral down the well of poverty, resource depletion, and climate change? An acquaintance, whose life would be devastated if he lost his job, proposed that we aren’t interested in change, because we are so well off compared with, say, the Iranians. But, he feels very insecure and says he would never question is employer. Sad! Suppose, however, the great economic crash many expect occurs and he and the rest of us are given no choices? We humans are remarkably resilient, given the necessity. Would it not be foolish to wait until it occurs?

Elsewhere, Thoreau’s essay would ring like a bell down the years. Mohandas Gandhi wrote, “Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practise in himself. … He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.” These ideas would set the stage for driving the British oppressors out of India.

Thoreau’s phrase “That government is best which governs not at all” became the motif of the American anarchist movement – oh, everyone hide, I used the a-word. RED SCARE! CLASS WARFARE! Call Homeland Security! Call out the troops! Those in power insist that anarchy is synonymous with chaos. I hope to change your opinion, that a rose is a rose is a rose, that it has been more familiarly referred by terms such as equalitarian, self-reliant, anti-authoritarian, cooperative, and small ‘d’ democratic, with the understanding that small ‘d’ democracy can only exist in a small ‘c’ community. This is an old American dream. An example:

In the early eighteen forties, one pair of my wife Marlene’s great, great, great grandparents migrated from Tennessee to Hickory County, Missouri. As the story was recorded later, in those days the nearest trading post had only sugar, coffee, and powder and ball. Neighbors were typically fifteen miles or so apart, while always available to help. There were no cobblers or tanners, so shoes were made with rawhide that stiffened when dry and stretched when wet. Children had no shoes until they were old enough to work, so they remained inside in the winter. All clothing had to be made from hand. There were no doctors, no law, no sawmills, no millers to grind grain. Yet, they didn’t return to civilization. I’ve discovered that this tale was not an unusual one for either lines of our ancestors. Always they appeared to be escaping, until the frontier escape routes closed.

To avoid the a-word is to fail to notice history pertinent to our situation. Indeed, it is increasingly recognized in the new complexity sciences that creativity emerges out of chaos, but is quite incapable of doing so when constrained by a straightjacket. Thoreau threw down a challenge with the next sentence, “when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” Mohandas Gandhi provided an answer as to how we may become prepared.

Gandhi’s approach was constructed around several ideas: satyagraha civil disobedience; swaraj that may be translated as self-governing, taking personal responsibility; swadeshi that may be interpreted as self-making and intends self-reliance; sarvodaya inclusion, and ahisma or doing no harm in its deepest environmental form. “As long as the superstition that people should obey unjust laws exists”, he wrote, “so long shall slavery exist.” His way was centered on building small self-sufficient self-governing communities. Gandhi’s ideas, suitably tailored to many contexts, promises a way by which we may prepare for a new world. Gandhi summarized, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

Gandhi didn’t set out to revolutionize government practices, but to shove British impositions aside. His movement pointed back to a traditional Indian village culture that had prevailed for millennia. Similar cultures were the rule all over the Earth until the arrival of the modern state centered on cities. Cities relied on reaping the production of the villages, which traditionally had little if any excess or any urge to produce such. The burden of such demands has been the downfall of village cultures throughout the world. In the past few decades, they have almost destroyed American agriculture. How can cities and their civilized culture be self-sufficient? Must they not drain the world of resources? Must this not require force? Thoreau described and Gandhi demonstrated a potent response.

It is important, I think, that we understand Gandhi didn’t magically create his movement out of whole cloth, even if he was so constructing his own clothing. While he was still in South Africa, he was exchanging mail with Russian Count Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy not only referred Gandhi to Thoreau, but also to anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s “Fields, Factors and Workshops”, which Tolstoy considered as the basis for kick-starting a recovery of Russian agriculture. In the nineteenth century, Russian peasants had been reduced nearly to the level of Roman agricultural slaves, a situation Tolstoy attempted to change. He saw in Kropotkin a man who had actually practiced the renunciation that he himself had been able to achieve only in thought and writing. Tolstoy was also very familiar with anarchism; Jules Montels, one of the leaders of the Paris Commune, tutored his children from 1877 to 1880.

Peter Kropotkin was a child of disintegrating Russian feudalism who had escaped into the army. Early in his career, he served in the Czar’s household, which he found shocking. To escape this, he volunteered for extended duty in Siberia where he became a skilled geographer. Siberia in the nineteenth century was far from the centers of power and the residents were largely left on their own, tossed out into the outer darkness or so the Russian government thought. The self-sufficient communities that were formed by the Russian rejects and indigenous peoples struck Kropotkin as remarkable. Subsequently, he was assigned to the Russian repression of a Polish rebellion and was impressed by the Polish insurgents’ urges for freedom. By this time, he had become thoroughly radicalized.

After he left the Russian army, Kropotkin emigrated to the west. Not long after arriving, he was immersed in anarchist literature, including Thoreau and much else written by Russian expatriates. Given his background, these ideas resonated. In the next few years, he spent time in a French prison and was driven out of several countries in payment for his activities and writings. In his later years, he lived with his family in England, where he wrote “Fields, Factors and Workshops” and the many other works, some of which are described below. He traveled to America twice and much admired the Declaration of Independence and Revolution and writings of Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, Bret Hart, and of other Americans. Kropotkin, however, condemned the “travesty” of American democracy, which he claimed was a “plutocracy”. He also noted that somehow the instinct for cooperation had become withered in England. He found that culture odious, but they allowed him to write without jailing him in response.

Kropotkin was fluent in English and conversant with much of the science of his day. Shortly after Darwin’s “Origins of the Species” was published, Kropotkin obtained a copy and began to explore “struggle for existence” and found few examples either among men or animals. In 1888, Darwin’s “bulldog” T.H. Huxley published an influential article with the same title, “The Struggle for Existence”. Huxley argued that “life is a continual free fight”, that this is not merely a law of nature but the driver of progress. The social Darwinists carried this to obscene ends, attempting to rid the world of those they thought were unfit: the mentally ill, the less intelligent, those of the wrong color or origin, …. To Kropotkin, this was a grotesque distortion of Darwin’s thought and of reality. In a series of articles including many examples, he replied to Huxley that mutual cooperation was central, rather than competition. These were collected in his “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”, written in English in 1902

That book begins with “it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience – be it only at the stage of an instinct – of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.” Kropotkin doesn’t mean just other Russians, nor Europeans, nor those who are somehow civilized and have the right religion, but everyone. This work is now recognized as one of the first to present an authoritative long-view of ecology before that word was ever used.

Thus, Kropotkin’s work ultimately prepared a scientific foundation for an essential feature of anarchism by demonstrating that mutual aid – voluntary cooperation – is an even stronger tendency in human evolution than aggression and domination. This has recently been supported in spades by evolutionary scientist Lynn Margulis’ work described in her “Acquiring Genomes – A Theory of the Origin of the Species”. She is not alone. Evolutionary theory is roiling and Huxley’s and neo-Darwinian genetic hypotheses are increasingly seen as nonsense, but with no aid to the creationists.

In his essay entitled “Kropotkin was no crackpot”, available in his “Bully for Brontosaurus”, evolutionary scientist Stephan Jay Gould explained how he came to appreciate Kropotkin’s insights. Darwin was much impressed by Thomas Robert Malthus and his theories of population and competition for resources. To quote Noam Chomsky’s summary of Malthus’ thinking, “The new science [of economics] demonstrated that the ‘right to live’ was a simple fallacy. It had to be patiently explained to misguided people that they had no rights, other than to try their luck in the market. A person who lacks independent wealth who cannot survive in the labor market ‘has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact has no business to be where he is’.” England, in the late eighteenth century as earlier was overrun by those who had been literally thrown away, and those others in control sought every means to get rid of them, even starvation if necessary. On the other hand, Gould notes, this “was foreign to their [the Russians’] experience because Russia’s huge land mass dwarfed its sparse population. For a Russian to see an inexorably increasing population inevitably straining potential supplies of food and space required quite a leap in imagination.”

“There are no shortcuts to moral insight.” Gould concludes, “Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort and solace in human terms …” But, wait. Cognitive scientists Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce have just published a book, “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals”, in which they cogently “argue that nonhuman animals are also moral beings – with not just building blocks and precursors of morality, but the real deal”. Our ancient wild tribal ancestors would have agreed.

Malthus had a point about what happens when too many people contend for too few resources, even if his prescription was mistaken: those societies that ignored the imperative for moral restraint – delayed marriage and celibacy for adults until they were economically able to support their children – would suffer the deplorable “positive checks” of war, famine, and epidemic, the avoidance of which should be every society’s goal. The Earth’s human population continues to explode and is eating itself out of soil, water, air, …. It is being said that the next poor crop year, which may be the next one, will be followed by massive starvation. Given the present collapsing economy, who will get fed? Wouldn’t be wise to be prepared to feed ourselves? How many will be sufficiently fit to survive without the support of a self-reliant community? It appears to me Peter Kropotkin struck a big sword through Malthus’ “survival of the fittest” heart, but not his concerns. It is for us to take the next steps without delay.

To set the stage for his discussion, Gould writes, “We must shed the old stereotype of anarchists as bearded bomb throwers furtively stalking about city streets at night. Kropotkin was a genial man, almost saintly according to some, who promoted a vision of small communities setting their own standards by consensus for the benefit of all, thereby eliminating the need of most functions of a central government.” Still, non-violence is a shibboleth.

Gandhi was not persuaded violent acts might not be necessary in other contexts, just that they would be counterproductive in his situation. Thoreau supported John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. As was true in Gandhi’s India, I see no value in a violent revolution here, because they have all the cards – we may need to protect our communities. They, “they”, promote non-violence for others, but surely not for themselves – need I examples? The Soviets, German and Italian fascists, and Western democracies combined to defeat the Spanish anarchist revolution because, as Winston Churchill noted, should the anarchists win “the entire structure of civilization and social life is destroyed”. If anarchism ever wins in a country, authoritarianism will be threatened all over the world, which won’t be tolerated – yet.

I’m reminded of the final scene in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. The knave is being tried by the King and Queen and Alice is testifying. Alice has grown full sized and mocks the procedure. “Off with her head.,” the Queen shouts at the top of her voice. “Who cares for you?” Alice replied, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” The pack rose up and came flying down upon her – at which point she woke up and found herself lying on a pleasant shady stream bank. Suppose that at the best of our abilities, we wake up, change our opinions, and refuse to play their game? Let them play with themselves.

Subsequently, Kropotkin wrote “The Conquest of Bread”, which was accessible to a wide audience, with the aim to show how a social revolution can be accomplished and how a new society, organized on anarchist principles, can be constructed on the ruins of the old. He refused to force the natural evolution such a society might take into a firm mold, but was content merely to sketch an outline and allow communities to emerge in their own ways. This wisdom is now becoming widely shared in community development circles. His books and other writings were translated into many languages and became the bedrock on which anarchism later became established. His many works are erudite and appropriate for world literature, political science, and history courses, but you will never find them there.

One Comment

I have little time to comment, stumbled upon this blog while researching for a project. I’m in eureka, CA and thought these essays a good and thoughtful report of the situation as it stands now. I think also that the only real option for most people who are “trapped” in the insidious structures of capital, who have lost connection to and with one another and the very place of their creation (the world, the earth), is to endeavor to become revolutionary not so much in terms of what they DO but what they begin to REFUSE to do: consumption, debt, technological distractionism…and then if they can, to find others who are on the same journey and begin the very difficult task of becoming self reliant, as much as possible and to keep pushing themselves toward that way of living in cooperation with others, not just sustainably or in the convention of green capitalism but more radically to live with subsistence in mind. In the present paradigmatic tendencies of Capital, some of us were born to be slaves, others of us masters and many of us found we couldn’t stomach the notion of mastery, which requires (and do not doubt it) that you participate in the enslavement of other peoples and species, much as we see today the citizens of the US persistently enslaving those from other nation-places, and of those ecosystems. In this instance and in much the same way that Lincoln and other great ethicists learned these lessons, any man or woman who has been offered mastery, if they dare to revolt against it, will be just as quickly cast into slavery, having all their “powers” of privilege stripped of them if they themselves have not sacrificed those powers freely. There are countless heroes now, who are unnamed and unsung, like those who lost their jobs or sacrificed their careers during the Bush years because they could not abide the ethical compromises being asked of them, and those who were assassinated for their political views–well assassination happens in a different way now, it has more to do with defamation and loss of opportunity than loss of life. And of those who sacrifice “power” willingly, the list is shorter of course, especially today, but we can remember Gandhi, who having traveled up the stair of education, political power and privilege, hastened to follow it back down and halted at the bottom, where he realized our ethics must finally root us, back toward simplicity, to the soil and water from whence all that is vital and necessary comes to us. Thank you so much for your passionate and insightful essays…