Story time: mystery and meaning
We all love a good story with its elements of drama, suspense, comedy and confrontation etc. – indeed it could be said that the telling of, and listening to, stories is one of the defining characteristics of our species. From the tales of Homer and Shakespeare together with the eponymous adventures of King Arthur, Robin Hood Boewulf and El Cid to the modern-day myths of Batman and Superman, we indulge ourselves in this vicarious catharsis of courage and adventure. There seems to be a deep need in us to understand ourselves and our world in terms of a narrative containing elements of motive, origin, action and resolution. Typically, these events take place within a chronology which may last a day, a year, a lifetime, a century or even the entire span of our species together with the very universe itself! But can this need for stories give us a distorted view of our society and the natural environment within which it resides? May the projection of a narrative onto events sometimes actually prevent an understanding of them? Let us look at two of the most influential stories that have defined and informed human existence to explore their impact in terms of either harmful delusion or insightful truth.
For Europe, and then subsequently the rest of the world courtesy of imperialism, trade and cultural contact, two of the most enduring and powerful stories have been that of the ‘Jesus Myth’ and its antithesis: the evolution of reason and science. One emphasises a continual battle between the forces of good and evil where human nature remains constant while the other insists on a progression of our species in terms of moral, technological and rational characteristics. They both share unimaginably exotic origin stories where either a capricious supernatural deity decides to create the universe or, as science has it, everything spontaneously exploded into existence courtesy of a ‘big bang’. An equally dramatic resolution is also imagined in terms of a final conflict (Armageddon) for the Christians and a ‘big Crunch’ or an equally depressing slow death for the universe, if it were to keep expanding, for the cosmologists of science. Most of us attempt to understand our lives and our world in terms of either one or other (and sometimes in an uneasy combination) of these narratives. Of course, it may turn out that both of these stories are equally erroneous but it cannot be denied that they are incredibly imaginative and exciting. This isn’t the place to go into the deep mystery of time itself but it is possible that a story or chronology of events might be purely an anthropological phenomenon which tells us little about reality. What does the story of socialism have to say about the two meta-narratives described above? It is undeniable that it shares some elements of both with its insistence on reason and the belief in progression which it shares with science but there is also an element of a final conflict with private property where the socialist revolution is somewhat reminiscent of the Armageddon of Christianity. The redemption of our species has obvious religious attributes although a socialist would argue that religion has obvious purely human roots.
The story of socialism (so far) begins with the ‘communism’ of prehistoric societies that lasted for many millennia until the invention of agricultural technology that produced a surplus of food which enabled, through its control and ownership, the rise of warrior elites with the power to enslave the producers. The subsequent history of our species is concerned with the different elites that have relinquished and gained this power. Capitalism is the most recent of these incarnations of economic systems that enslave the majority producers and it is to overthrow this inequality and return humanity to its default communism that socialists have dedicated themselves. Formally the idealists considered the struggle to be primarily based on morality whilst today, after the discoveries of Marx, it is now considered as a class struggle. The narrative of history is at the very heart of socialist consciousness where the changing modes of production formulate our understanding of who we are and what is to be done. It is an overwhelmingly optimistic ‘ideology’ which, with the help of a Marxian perspective, transforms itself from being merely an idealistic hope into a coherent scientific and non-ideological narrative. It shares with both religion and science the need for a storyline.
Humanity has a deep-seated horror of chaos for many reasons: if everything is arbitrary then there is no possibility of control; that we live and die for no reason is intolerable and only stories seem to give existence any meaning; that all our knowledge is based on narrative illusions. But the danger is that in our need for meaning we have clung to destructive ideologies that have turned our beautiful world into a hell for many – clearly there are different types of narrative, some of which depend on evidence and others solely dependent on faith. Will our stories die when our species does or, for instance, do the laws of nature pre-exist us? Do at least some of our stories provide an insight into reality? Was Marx merely just another example of an Old Testament prophet and is science a kind of secular religion with its white-coated operatives being a new priesthood? Are stories examples of our yearning for a truth that will always evade us? Religion, science and socialism are stories we tell ourselves to help make some sense of it all – only you can choose which the relevant narrative for your life is. To socialists the suffering in life mainly stems from the capitalist mode of production and it therefore must be replaced by socialism. We have nothing to lose but our chains, so let’s give it a try – whether or not the revolution will reveal the utility of grand narratives we cannot say. Until then we’ll just have to embrace the mystery.