2020s >> 2021 >> no-1408-december-2021

Pathfinders – The Theory of Everything

In one lesser-known corner of the BBC website is a section called Ideas, in which is a lovely little 5-minute video featuring theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, on the subject of string theory, a proposed ‘theory of everything’. The video represents elementary ‘particles’ in Pythagorean terms as strings vibrating at different pitches, or musical notes (bbc.in/2YJBBXO). It’s a nice idea, well presented and accessible. But Kaku also offers a thought-provoking postscript, which is that physics gets simpler the deeper you go.

This rather skates over the awkward detail that string theory only works if space has ten dimensions instead of three. But nonetheless, the basic insight is valid, and not just for sciences.

The same could be said of the world around us. On the surface, it can be baffling, an impenetrable complexity of problems and pressures that seem to contradict each other, with ideas and echo chambers and political speeches swirling and blowing about in all directions to add to the confusion. Small wonder that political activists are tempted to focus on just one small, definable element in all this.

For socialists though, it gets simpler the deeper you go. At lower levels, there are no single issues. Everything is connected. Everything is interdependent. All forces and forms of oppression are interlinked. Drill down, and the more the trace lines converge until you realise that things that seemed to have nothing to do with each other, like for example climate change and violence against women, or big-corporation tax avoidance and what’s on the telly tonight, are in fact aspects of the same phenomenon.

At the very deepest level lies a strange contradiction. And it has to do with possession.

To put this in context, we’re all familiar with the idea of sharing. Humans are great at sharing. Sharing is fun, it saves individual labour and resources, it’s excellent for your mental health, for your relationships and your social life, and it’s been a fantastic collective survival strategy. Anthropologists say that for nine-tenths of the time modern humans have existed – around 300,000 years – communal sharing has been the norm. But in the last fraction of that time something changed. Hoarding arose, also known as private property, because of material scarcity caused by growing populations, or rather, by growing populations outstripping the pace of productive technology. Humans are not devils but we’re not angels either. When there’s enough, we share. When there isn’t, we’re driven to hoard, fight and create hierarchies. In other words, scarcity leads to ‘bad’ behaviours. It led to property societies, and they led to capitalism.

Today technology has more than caught up with material scarcity, and in fact exceeded our wildest dreams. The average person in a developed country has access to information and resources that were unimaginable a few decades ago. The global population is still growing in some areas, but the trend is stabilising or reversing wherever material standards of living have improved. The Food and Agricultural Organisation says there is already enough food to feed everyone in the world, and that’s with its current wasteful big-ag methods and bio-crops.

In short, we have the means for material sufficiency, meaning that we can release ourselves from all the ‘bad behaviours’ imposed on us by scarcity, and do what we always used to do, live communally by sharing the work and the world’s resources. In effect, we can make everything free, and get rid of prices, rents, mortgages, bills and wages, and all the problems that go with them.

We can do this, but we haven’t yet, and that’s the central contradiction. We’ve come to believe, via subliminal or overt messaging, that private property and its money tokens are really the hallmark of true civilisation, that they are an ‘inalienable right’, an integral part of our freedom, as natural as breathing.

The fact that a tiny few are allowed to be stupendously rich amid a global ocean of poverty and squalor should be astonishing but is treated as normal and unremarkable. The only thing that excites complaint is that some of them don’t pay their taxes. The messaging tells us that the rich ‘create wealth’, and that they deserve their wealth because, unlike us workers, they worked hard for it. It says that we don’t deserve to be equals anyway, we’re shiftless and violent and need to be ruled – just look at all the cop shows on TV!

Where does this messaging come from? From the other side of the class war, the side of the rich. They don’t really create wealth – us workers do that – but they do manufacture a relentless and effective self-justifying propaganda which they drip-feed to us via their politicians and their entertainment media.

Somehow, without us even noticing, the idea of living communally and sharing has been reframed as an impossible utopia advocated by idiots which would never work because of something with no scientific basis known as ‘human nature’. The vast ages of human communal living are systematically airbrushed out of our collective memory. Capitalism, or something like it, is said to have existed forever. If you want an alternative, treat yourself to the ghastly experiment of soviet-style totalitarianism.

And so, from this central contradiction, emerge the myriad contradictions in which everyone today is enmeshed. We submit to the laws of capitalist markets and prices which make our lives a misery. We despair about climate change while accepting the endless race for profits which is ruining the planet. We suffer constant economic insecurity and mental health problems, and assume it’s our own fault. We fight each other in murderous wars on behalf of the rich, and in bitter social wars over race and gender identities. We see everything that humans value, even love and sex, marketed as commodities. We see the hatred, jealousy and rage of the powerless. We see endemic violence against women. We forget our social and hospitable traditions and wallow in nationalist xenophobia and fear of the ‘other’.

And all because we permit the private ownership of things that humans collectively need. Once a desperate expedient in the face of scarcity, hoarding has now outlived its time. Yet in a supreme irony, capitalism destroys food and goods in order to artificially maintain scarcity and keep prices high.

Billionaire Warren Buffet once remarked that there is a class war, and that his side, the rich side, are winning it. And they’ll go on winning it until we, the vast majority of workers, resolve to end it once and for all. It is in the common interest of humanity and the planet to live cooperatively and share communally. We can do that best by organising peacefully and democratically to abolish the ‘right’ of anyone to privately hoard what we all need. That, if you like, is the socialist ‘theory of everything’, and it’s as basic as it gets.

PJS

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