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Book Reviews: 'Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation', 'Why Genes Are Not Selfish', & 'Anarchism: Volume 3'

So Happy Together

Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, by Richard Sennett. Penguin. £9.99

Socialist society will be based on co-operation: people working together to meet human need and so benefiting each other. This is preferable to both isolation and competition. But, as sociologist Richard Sennett points out here, co-operation can be destructive when it is us-against-you and so becomes collusion (as with insider deals).

One of his claims is that modern society has weakened co-operation in various ways. This may involve increasing the extent of short-term employment, so that people have less chance to get to know their fellow-workers and so learn how to work with them. Or increased inequality has led to greater social distance between people. Moreover, society has produced ‘a new character type’, which insists that everybody is the same and so undermines the prospects of co-operating with people who differ in some way. People withdraw into themselves and interact as little as possible with others. Overall, ‘modern society is “de-skilling” people in practising cooperation’.

These are quite grand and interesting ideas, but unfortunately relatively little is said in support of them. Sennett also claims that co-operation has in recent times been perverted ‘in the name of solidarity’. The ‘Left’ have supposedly responded to the evils of capitalism by means of solidarity rather than co-operation, especially the destructive solidarity of us-against-them. Marx is singled out for criticism. His Critique of the Gotha Programme is said to have encapsulated the refusal to co-operate, seeing the policies it attacked as insufficiently revolutionary.

But this raises the question of when co-operation is appropriate and when it is not. People can work together without necessarily having the same goal in mind, but in a political movement there must be a shared aim; otherwise working together is scarcely practicable. When the Socialist Party’s Declaration of Principles states that we are ‘hostile to every other party’, this is a straightforward statement of policy. We do not work with parties that, even if ‘alleged labour,’ in fact stand for the continuation of capitalism and its oppression. Moreover, we expose such parties as supporters of capitalism and hence enemies of the working class. This principled approach to co-operation is not what Sennett dismisses as collusion, for it is in the interest of the overwhelming majority. 

PB

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So Hippy together?

Why Genes are not Selfish. Colin Tudge, Floris Books, 2013, £16.99 .

‘…our politics is unjust, our economic system borders on the insane, our governments for the most part are not on our side, our science which should be our great liberator has become the handmaiden of big business, while religion is all over the place…’ writes Tudge in this over-priced book.

So who is to blame? Comes the answer: Richard Dawkins or to be more general, neo-Darwinism or alternatively atheist-materialists, apparently all much the same).

And what shall we do? Answer: Get God! Or, as Tudge puts it, transcendence, meaning a sort of generalised metaphysical religion.

The most part of this book is an attempt to illustrate the extent of altruistic and cooperative behaviour in nature. This is done far better by Kropotkin in Mutual Aid, once essential reading for socialists, who is, of course, unacknowledged. Mutual Aid has been criticised by some Marxists, e.g. by Mattick (http://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1956/kropotkin.htm), despite a recent defence by Stephen Jay Gould (http://www.marxists.org/subject/science/essays/kropotkin.htm).

The focus of the book is on the alleged errors of Dawkins and his supposed social-Darwinism. This seems a little unfair considering the chapter entitled ‘Nice guys finish first’ added to the second edition of his classic The Selfish Gene. And there is little evidence that neoliberals (the villains of the piece) read beyond the first few pages of The Selfish Gene.

Have Dawkins and his fellow neo-Darwinists really been that influential? Could they really have called into being the modern face of capitalism, referred to in the book as neo-liberalism? Of course not: the notion is absurd. Ideas create reality only if Descartes’ axiom ‘I think therefore I am’, referred to several times in the text, applies. On the contrary reality, in the shape of hard Gradgrind facts, shapes our ideas. How could it be otherwise? The economic system we call capitalism, for instance, did not arise from any idea, social-Darwinist or otherwise, but as a development of forces already existing in society (which is why it is so difficult to give an exact date as to when feudalism became capitalism). Similarly, the neo-liberal programme, so far as it differs from any other form of capitalism, was already well developed, if not implemented, when Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene. Wasted words, however, to the author: any form of joined up thinking is anathema to Tudge-ites, who extol the virtues of intuition (I do not need to think: I already know).

Our critics may well chide us for attacking a work extolling unselfishness and condemning conflict. But to the worker, unselfishness means joining the ranks of what Robert Tressell called the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: working ourselves to an early grave so that others may enjoy the high life. We socialists are irredeemable materialists, which necessarily invokes atheism, as Tudge correctly deduces. We look out, collectively and cooperatively it is true, for our own material interests. We also do not shun conflict. Fighting the class war through the unions and other similar organisations, and bringing that war to a successful conclusion through political action, is our business.

Despite his talk of rethinking ‘‘the big ideas’’ that underlie the modern world, Tudge does not repudiate capitalism or the state. He questions nothing, including religion, the biggest of the big ideas. In effect, he and his peers, represent ‘nice’ capitalism, the old ‘social-democratic’ welfare state, which, when capitalist interests find it burdensome, can be shrugged off like an old blanket, or the small-scale organic food opt-out, which even now lies in wait, the ‘nice’ policeman to neo-liberalism’s head-buster. We emphasise that capitalism cannot be changed to operate in the interest of the working class, not by legislative reform and certainly not by the infusion of religion. Only the overthrow of the ruling class can do that. Tudge and his buddies are at best irrelevant and at worst road blocks on the highway to revolution.

KAZ

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Bumper Anarchism

Anarchism: Volume 3 (1974-2012). Ed Robert Graham.Black Rose Books, 2013. £19.99

‘There is always room and occasion enough for a true book on any subject; as there is room for more light [on] the brightest day, and more rays will not interfere with the first.’ (Thoreau)

Does this book really illuminate the darkness of our souls? Or more prosaically, is there room on our bookshelves for another Bumper Book of Anarchism? The answer is probably no. There are, it must be said, some interesting essays in this work, subtitled ‘A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas’. Some like Ashanti Alston’s personal history of ‘Black Anarchism’ are even inspiring. Others are a useful potted history of recent events, eg. the Interprofessional Workers’ Union account of ‘Russian Capitalism’. However, outside the borderlands where the spark of Malatesta and Goldman clearly still burns bright, it would seem from this book that contemporary anarchist commentary is little more than an academic sport. It comes as no surprise that the first item in Graham’s selection is from the New Left Review, Britain’s premier distributor of intellectual flannel.

The selection and arrangement of material are by no means objective. Indeed, it is markedly obvious that the author has a hidden agenda. This is particularly noticeable in the core section on ‘Libertarian Alternatives’. In the author’s mind, this is doubtless supposed to pose the classic anarchist dilemma of mutualism versus collectivism. That the terms have no particular meaning or interest to a revolutionary is made abundantly clear by the concise contribution jointly authored by Socialist Party member Adam Buick and the late John Crump. The final article in the sequence comes down firmly in favour of mutualism, the nonsensical ‘exploration of forms of market capable of moving beyond the capitalist market’, or as we might term it ‘Capitalism writ small’. Given this preference, socialists should by no means imagine that anarchists per se are naturally ‘on our side’.

KAZ