A Bit of Politics

spectators with 3D glasses

Just a Bit of Politics. 16 Theses on the Good Society

One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

– Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891)

1. The Good Society. To save the planet, civilisation and the human spirit from extreme suffering and almost-extinction, ‘all’ that is needed is the institutionalisation of the ‘good society’.

2. Presence. For the emergence of the good society, ‘all’ that is needed is the liberation of the ‘good society’ that is already present, as seed, bud or flower, wherever and whenever people spontaneously practice solidarity, mutual aid, cooperation, non-violent direct action and civil disobedience, collective ‘autonomy’.

3. Autonomy means self-government, i.e. the negotiating of rules, order, laws (‘nomos’) by the people themselves in direct democracy (e.g. assemblies). The opposite is ‘heteronomy’: the rule of some over others (‘hetero’).

4. Politics. What most usually understand (and distrust and dislike) as ‘politics’ are various versions of heteronomy, even when labelled ‘democratic’ or ‘progressive’: a tedious jockeying amongst a separate political class for positions of status, privilege and power over others.

5. Human Nature. Autonomy, solidarity and disobedience are always present aspects of human nature and potential , in all cultures and at all times. There is a long and inspiring transcultural legacy of autonomous social movements, thinkers and artists throughout history.

6. Heteronomy. Like its various expressions ‒ possessive individualism, egoism, xenophobia, power-hunger, obedience, authoritarianism, voluntary slavery ‒ heteronomy is also always present as an aspect of human nature and potential.

7. Alienation. Patriarchy, the State and capitalism are, by definition, repressive institutions based on heteronomy, the reinforcing of the alienation of human nature and potential for autonomy, solidarity, mutual aid, cooperation. This alienation from our human nature is a version of our alienation from nature, an alienation of our deep selves.

8. Patriarchy. The patriarchal family, clan and tribe developed into patriarchal war-lordism, monarchies, empires, modern states, all firmly anchored in patriarchal kinship relations, religions and violence. No longer necessary for class domination, modern states and capitalism now continue to de-patriarchalise and feminise their kinship, wealth and power structures.

9. The State has always been based on, and cultivated, heteronomy and tribal/national xenophobia mainly for the purposes of maintaining its ruling power elites. War, expansion, colonialism, imperialism have always been coterminous with the State: ‘War is the health of the state’ (Randolph Bourne).

10. Even the parliamentary modern state represses our autonomy: it wants us to live as isolated taxpayers, mere voters, party members and passive consumers of political spectacles and, when necessary, obedient cannon fodder.

11. The alternative to the State is participatory democracy, an institutionalisation of collective autonomy. This is the grassroots political form of the good society in which the people directly make the rules and call the shots. Any delegation is temporary, specific, recallable, rotational.

12. Capitalism has always been based on, and cultivated, heteronomy and competitive and possessive individualism for the purposes of maintaining the wealth and power of its class elites. Advanced capitalism represses our autonomy: it wants us to live as distracted, isolated consumers and over-worked, competitive workers without solidarity and community or any say whatsoever in investment, production, allocation, workplaces, technology.

13. The alternative to capitalism is worker and consumer self-management in production, allocation and consumption, an institutionalisation of collective autonomy. This is the grassroots economic form of the good society, direct democracy in the workplace and neighbourhood, and where wider coordination may take the form of self-federation from below.

14. The Abyss. The dynamics of this double institutional alienation, the State and hyper-industrial capitalism, are now leading humanity, civilisation and the planet to the abyss of almost-extinction and extreme suffering.

15. Emergence. The ‘good society’ is globally emergent, and absent. Like most of us, it needs to ‘find itself’, expand and develop consciousness of itself and its tasks, network and communicate more intensively. From this global-local process, this diverse and evolving super-complexity, something qualitatively new, and old, could emerge that might just save us and the planet.

16. The Choice. No tinkering within the old state institutions and capitalist mind-sets that have led us to the abyss can save us. It’s the ‘utopia’ of the good society, or it’s the dystopia of barbarism and/or oblivion. It is the choice between our autonomous and heteronomous natures.

Notes and Quotes

Ad 4. Many polls over the years have shown majority distrust of politician, albeit in fluctuating patterns. In Australia, the shift from the Rudd Labor government to the Abbot Coalition government resulted in a massive decline in trust, with only 27% in 2013 saying they ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time’ trusted the government as against 48% still trusting the government in 2009. The poll’s author, Professor Andrew Markus was quoted as saying that, in terms of distrust, ‘The politicians are nudging real estate agents for bottom position.” (C. Lucas, ‘Trust in the nation’s government and politicians has fallen to record lows, study finds’, SMH 21/10/2013, p. 10).

This is a world-wide phenomenon. The Guardian Weekly 23-29/9/2005, p. 7 contained the following article:

“Worldwide poll –
Politicians least trusted people

Most people believe that their government does not act according to their wishes, a worldwide opinion survey shows. Lack of confidence in governments is highest in the former Soviet bloc, where 75% say their country is not governed by the will of the people. But similar views are held by most Europeans (64%) and North Americans (60%).

Commissioned by the BBC World Service, Gallup interviewed more than 50,000 people in 68 countries, representative of the views of 1.3 billion people. […]

Overall, slightly less than half of those surveyed (47%) felt that elections in their country were free and fair. […]

Worldwide, politicians represent the least trusted occupation, scoring only 13% [i.e. percentage willing to affirm them as trusted people, PLN]. […]

There is a low level of trust in all types of leaders in Europe, and particularly [in] the media. Religious leaders are most trusted in Africa […]. In the US 50% trust religious leaders and 40% would give them more power.”


No wonder such polls are not front page or prime time news, but hidden away in small articles on page seven of intellectual broadsheets like the Guardian Weekly. In any true democracy the ramifications of such a poll would be devastating. They show that the systems officially called ‘democratic’ are not felt to be such at all by clear majorities. This would also be a rational explanation for a widespread disinterest in (or even disgust with) voting and party politics in most developed countries, even, or especially, where voting is compulsory. It is sometimes comforting to know one’s own views are ‘mainstream’ rather than ‘fringe’; that it is in fact the system-believers who are ‘fringe’.

If this apparent disbelief in the system is so widespread, it would, however, seem to often strangely co-exist with people’s widespread belief in leaders and elections and a belief in leaders’ willingness and ability to solve their problems for them. This may just be another version of widespread ambivalence and cognitive dissonance about people’s own power, confidence and responsibility, and lack thereof; an internal struggle between the inner-directed autonomy of the ‘inner adult’ and the outer-directed heteronomy of the ‘inner child’ perhaps. The role of anti-authoritarian social and cultural activists would then seem to be to find practical and creative ways of facilitating the strengthening of the former over the latter, both in themselves and in others.

As for the heteronomous, anti-democratic nature of mainstream party and parliamentary politics per se, here for example is an ex-minister of the Australian Labor Party on the real nature of the ALP (and mutatis mutandis all ‘democratic’ parties in one way or another):

“Every factional operative is a liege of the union. The careers of those who have risen to the top of the ALP are built on a sea of apathy. Some come directly through union staff; others via ALP and ministers’ staff. An executive placement agency – a cabal of operatives selecting people in their own image – determines who gets what, and where. The price is unquestioning upward loyalty. […] An iron law of NSW Labor politics is that no important decision requires the attendance of a greater number of people than can sit comfortably around a table in a Chines restaurant. The diners are union officials and their lieges.”

(R. Cavalier, ‘Union cabal keeps Labor in death grip’, SMH 21/10/2013, p. 19).

For more on this cf. also my article ‘Political Myths We Live by’.

Ad 5. Cf. the list of thinkers in my articles ‘Credo quia absurdum’ and of social movements in ‘Echoes of Autonomy’.

Ad 6. As a recent expression of widespread xenophobia and heteronomy in Australia, the land of the ‘fair go’, a poll in January 2014 had 60% urging the Abbott government to actually ‘increase the severity’ of government policies towards asylum seekers, as if the brutality and abuse of human rights on Manus and Nauru were not inhuman enough. (W. Aly, ‘The point of detention is to horrify’, SMH 21/2/2014, p.20)

For an example of cultural heteronomy, here an example from Japan, after the Kobe earthquake in 1995:

“In your article on the earthquake, you rightly praised Kobe’s citizens for refraining from looting and for queuing patiently for food and blankets. But you overlooked other, equally revealing responses, of which the most remarkable was the lack of group solidarity. Most Kobe citizens who survived the quake unhurt stayed home or fled to shelters, thinking that the authorities would take care of those left behind. As it became clear that rescue teams could not cope with the situation, these people continued to cling to their own safety. Had they joined the rare volunteer emergency crews or formed their own, hundreds of their fellow citizens might have been saved. In the critical hours after the quake, those trapped in the debris could have done with a little less law and order and a little more disorderly, spontaneous cooperation and help.”

(R. Mencken in Tokyo, letter to Time Magazine, 27/2/1995, italics added.)

Ad 13. According to a federally funded research centre at the University of Melbourne, 75% of surveyed employees in Australia believe their workplace suffers from poor leadership and needs better management. 75% also believe they have the knowledge to be a good leader. 84% said they used their own initiative to carry out tasks not required as part of their job. (C. Lucas, ‘The boss sucks: study reveals most workers feel they should be in charge’, SMH 20/2/2014, p. 2)

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 22, 2014.

20 Responses to “A Bit of Politics”

  1. not so easy to catch all the meanings, but here some news from Europe.Die Destabilisierung eines weiteren Staates scheint erfolgreich zu sein. In der Ukraine ist heute der Praesident geflohen, nun ist Platz für die kapitalistischen Heuschrecken hinter den Marionetten in Kiev. So könnte man es zumindest auch sehen, aber davon berichtet in Deutschland KEINE Zeitung. Was würde Machno und Bakunin sagen? Sie waeren sicher auch froh, dass der Praesident weg ist aber mit dem was kommt, wollten sie wohl auch nichts zu tun haben.
    Oekologie: Gegen den Willen der Bevoelkerung Europas werden nun genetisch manipulierte Pflanzen zum Anbau zugelassen. Das ist die erste Auswirkung mit dem Handelsabkommen der USA. Soviel aus Good Old Europe….. Euer Ernesto AVANTI

    • Was wuerde Machno oder Bakunin zur Ukraine sagen…gute Frage Christoph…vielleicht so aehnlich wie James Joyce ueber die irischen Unruhen: ‘two bloody Irishmen beating their bloody heads in over bloody nothing’?

  2. as usual peter, you make it so clear…and imperative…
    i don’t suppose the above post by e. avanti translates into english…for this lazy american who never learned another language…

    • Thanks Kristi. Ernesto is just reporting on the situation in Europe: the Ukraine crap, and the fact that apparently GM crops will now be allowed in Europe despite massive popular resistance, the first result of a free trade deal with the US, he says.

  3. Many thanks Peter for a timely post. We are swimming in a murky sea of a state election in South Australia & so good to be reminded of what is really important! 🙂

    • Thanks, Julie. Can’t help myself unfortunately. (Also going to try and use the theses in a ‘convivium’ at our place next week: it’s pot luck dinner, usually 10-20 people, with one person talking about their passion(s) each month. Things like poetry, woodworking, plants, painting, sculpture, language, photography, birdwatching, music… This one I don’t expect much resonance from, actually, probably way beyond most people’s memes…)

      • Combining talking with food is a great idea, we have a Monthly Shared Community Meal (all bring a plate) at our local Community Centre, between 15 – 30 folks on average. Beside lots of local updates & gossip, we often share stories on themes. We have a reasonably diverse group who attend & I think it’s a great way to introduce things that people might not have considered before. This gives me hope for the future!

      • Sounds great, Julie.

  4. Agree that the time for tinkering is long past. In the spirit of philosophical inquiry I would add that if the struggle is over language, the left should reclaim politics as a key site. For me, politics is precisely that “negotiating” process you mention in point 3 , and the recognition of our diverse and often antagonistic subjectivities/identities. “Politics never attains ends. It leads to plateaus of transient equilibrium.” Jean Luc Nancy

    As for the state, I’m an old egalitarian democrat who believes the Good Society requires a Good State which can only be achieved when the political sphere of participatory democracy is separated from capitalist relations. Content vs Form.
    Here I agree with Wendy Brown : “Democracy detached from a bounded sovereign jurisdiction (whether popular or supervenient) is politically meaningless: for the people to rule themselves, there must be an identifiable collective entity within which their power sharing is organized and upon which it is exercised.” A state by any other name is just as sovereign…simply a necessary political form and container IMO.

  5. One’s joy is that music should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he can freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he strikes the true pleasure and joy of living.

    And one to dance freely

  6. Kristi, I think the participatory economy would definitely be one site for collective political interaction, as would Parsoc. The question is: beyond the producers and consumers councils, where are inter-council issues adjudicated? Disputes between “participants” outside of the economic sphere?

    • Dave, why should the political and economic ‘spheres’ be separated at all, as seemingly in Parecon? Why cannot social decision-making (now done by a separate political-bureaucratic class enemshed with the economic ruling class) and production both be re-embedded in the networks of self-managing communities, themselves re-embedded within their local ecologies, whatever specific orgs/councils those communities decide to create? And why couldn’t a liberated network of self-managing communities be capable of developing means of resolving their conflicts, including the possible creation of an elected/delegated, rotating yet independent, ajudicating body if deemed necessary?

      • far be it from me to assume i have a clear understanding of parecon…or more generally, parsocs…being that i’m still in the learning stages…but it does seem from reading fanfare’s occupy vision, that it’s in accord to what peter just wrote…the stuff about parpolity in particular and creating values-based instituions…but your question, dave, makes it apparent that in order for me to “plant those seeds”…i better do some re-reading !

  7. Dear friends in Australia. I´m happy to announce that our film BUTTERFLY STORIES is nominated as “BEST ENVIRONMENTAL FILM” at the Byron Bay Film Festival. So, if you can make it there, take a seat around noon on march the 4th. Would be great to tell this your friends in BB.
    Kind regards Chris
    Session 14
    Tuesday, 4 March 12.30pm
    Price: $8
    Venue: Byron Community Centre

  8. I might just be quibbling over semantics, Peter, but since I started by saying the struggle is partially over language…in essence I am defending the term “state” from anarchistic revulsion. If those “networks of communities” have a “body” with jurisdiction and authority/power to govern sovereign individuals – and they have boundaries- why are they not a state? And if you take away the “political-bureacratic class” and the “economic ruling class” why would this not be the Good State? The current content is corrupt because of capitalism, but is the form inherently corrupt?

    I agree that a democratic decision making process of economic planning is the very essence of “the political” and the term spheres indicates barriers or limits, so maybe it is not useful outside the realm of the conceptual. In practice these areas ( kinship, polity, economy, etc) are interconnected, inter-sectional, but sometimes it helps to pull them apart to think about them.

    • Interesting, Dave. Maybe a question of semantics, as you say. To me, and the anarchists, the term ‘state’ is identical with heteronomy, the power of some over others, and contrasts with autonomy, self-government, self-management, self-activity, participatory democracy. Although there can of course be better or worse states (modern parliamentary oligarchic states of course infinitely preferable to outright autocracies and dictatorships for example), just like there can be better or worse capitalisms, there’s no ‘good state’ as there’s no ‘good hegemony’, no ‘good domination’, no ‘good exploitation’, no ‘good corruption’ etc (in politics, some necessary heteronomy in parenting etc). “And if you take away the “political-bureacratic class” and the “economic ruling class” why would this not be the Good State?”. If you took them away, the order-givers and power-holders, you’d take away the the essence of what is normally/commonly called the ‘state’ because you’d have the possibility of autonomy, of self-government. Would have thought that wobblies took that as self-evident, but maybe that ‘troutsky’ isn’t quite ironical after all, camerado? Then again we might easily find common semantic ground when we look at historical city states… If they’re ‘states’, fine by me. E.g. here’s good ole Kropotkin on self-governing town communes as sovereign ‘states’:

      P. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid (1891), pp. 147ff: “The same wave of emancipation ran, in the twelfth century, through all parts of the continent, involving both rich cities and the poorest towns. And if we may say that, as a rule, the Italian cities were the first to free themselves, we can assign no centre from which the movement would have spread. […] Self-jurisdiction was the essential point, and self-jurisdiction meant self-administration. But the commune was not simply an ‘autonomous’ part of the State – such ambiguous words had not yet been invented by that time – it was the State itself. It had the right of war and peace, of federation and alliance with its neighbours. It was sovereign in its own affairs, and mixed with no others. The supreme political power could be vested entirely in a democratic forum, as was the case in Pskov […], or it was vested in, or usurped by, an aristocracy of merchants or even nobles, as was the case in hundreds of Italian and middle European cities. The principle, nevertheless, remained the same: the city was a State and – what was perhaps still more remarkable – when the power in the city was usurped by an aristocracy of merchants or even nobles, the inner life of the city and the democratism of its daily life did not disappear: they depended but little upon what may be called the political form of the State. The secret of this seeming anomaly lies in the fact that a medieval city was not a centralized State. […] The medieval city thus appears as a double federation: of all householders united into small territorial unions – the street, the parish, the section – and of individuals united by oath into guilds according to their professions; the former being a product of the village-community origin of the city, while the second is a subsequent growth called to life by new conditions.”

      [This a quote from the updated version of my Echoes of Auntonomy list of historical cases of participatory democracy, which I’ll upload to IOPS Resources].

  9. James, guess who gets to go see Methany, Bobby Watson and Wynton Marsalis in three days? Oh yea. Portland Jazz fest, be there or be square.

    • Well Dave, I hope you find that groove that is such a better place to be than the one Oscar is talking about. Metheny is a monster really. At 15 yrs he went up to Gary Burton at a concert and asked if he could play with his group. Burton said no, chuckling at the pimply faced kid. Two years later he was in the band. Wynton is also a giant. Although I do get a laugh remembering when Miles’, reacting to him when he first started, wearing suits and playing all the old standards, said, “If Wynton had his way, we’d all be back on the plantations singing field hollers”. Or something like that. Don’t know much about Bobby Watson, but have a great time and I hope you groove your arse off, coz I’m sure the musos will be.

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