Review of ‘Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi’ by Mark Boyle – part 1: reformism and the Transition movement

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Posted Jan 2 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
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This was a very challenging and thought-provoking read. Mark lived without money for three years, and wrote the Moneyless Manifesto, published in 2012. This is his latest book about the corporate ‘Machine’ and appropriate responses to it. He came to visit me a few months ago, and it was refreshing to be able to launch into a conversation without having to dance around the question of power in society. He knows where power resides – in corporate boardrooms, with governments reduced in effect to playing the role of local managers of corporate power. We could cut to the chase and start to discuss what the appropriate response to that might be.

I’m going to review the book in three parts, covering:

  1. The Machine, and how it can’t be reformed, only replaced.
  2. How we replace it, whether violence plays a part, and what we mean by that, exactly.
  3. So what are we going to do?

What he calls the Machine I call ‘the Empire‘, but if you don’t know what either of us means by those terms, then you might struggle with this book. To put it another way, if you think: that we’re headed in more-or-less the right direction but with some environmental and social problems to be sorted out; that because we live in democratic societies, all we have to do is to persuade the majority of the rightness of our position and elect honest politicians to put us on the best path; that technology is going to help us solve our environmental problems; that we can incrementally change direction towards a sustainable, democratic future; and that the corporate Machine / Empire is going to stand by and allow us to do that, then this book isn’t going to make much sense to you.

But if you look at the world and you see a giant, profit-seeking beast called corporate capitalism, with its tentacles reaching into every High Street, sucking money out of your community to pay its (already wealthy) shareholders, to fund an enormous lobby industry, to pump money into our political system and to provide cushy jobs for politicians, then you’re going to understand exactly where he’s coming from, and his arguments are at least going to make sense to you, even if you don’t agree with all of them.

His message is fundamentally anti-reformist. He believes, as did Henry David Thoreau, that reforming a bad system makes it more tolerable, and therefore prolongs its life. I agree entirely, but I’m not as good as Mark at putting things into magnificent prose. I was finding that often, his words expressed beautifully something that I’d been feeling for a long time. For example, below is a passage about the Transition movement, my relationship with which has been troubling me for some time, but I couldn’t find the right words to express my frustration. Mark found the words:

Projects such as Transition Towns, a global movement of localised initiatives whose goal is to inspire and encourage communities around the world to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels and become more resilient to external shocks in the process, are another example of a reformist approach to change. The Transition Network is one of the few movements of recent times that has a genuine ability to harness the power of communities, across a wide age demographic, to face issues like ecocide and communicide in an empowering way, and for that it has to be applauded. However, unless it is undertaken within the context of a much wider resistance movement, which has as its goal a revolutionary changing of the political and economic guards, there is an argument to be made that its ability to make the intolerable a bit more tolerable, something admirable and desirable on many levels, could in fact render it counterproductive when viewed through a wider lens.

While staying out of politics, as far as one can, enables a movement to be inclusive of a wide spectrum of people in each local community, it inevitably means that a lot of people who are genuinely interested in deep and radical change have their limited time and energy taken up by endeavours that could well be deemed criminally inadequate by future generations. If the Transition movement becomes an informal part of a wider resistance movement, one that has a revolutionary overhaul of the politico-economic system as its long-term goal (and many within such movements understand that capitalism and industrialism are inherently unreformable), then it has strong potential to serve life on Earth to its fullest. Otherwise, it could just become a well-meaning distraction that sidetracks those who desperately want deep-rooted societal change.

I think he’s really tried to say it in a non-confrontational way – to persuade rather than to scold. I’m not sure whether he will have succeeded, but I’ve shown that passage to a few people in Transition and they thought it was extremely well-written and absolutely right. There’s something I find fascinating about Transition – the way it’s spread into communities and around the world. It’s inspirational, even though it really frustrates me (which is not necessarily a bad thing). It needs to be a pillar of something new – a co-ordination of networks, including community energy, community-supported agriculture, credit unions, housing and worker co-ops, open source and more – the basis of a new economy that’s controlled by communities rather than the Machine. The reason that Transition is so important I think, is the fact that it can bring concerned middle-class people with money to the fray. They’d like to be more diverse, but certainly working-class members are few and far between. I don’t see this as a problem. The working class are not going to rise up and throw off their chains any time soon, and the middle-class have the advantage of being able to move their money to support non-corporate initiatives. Their financial support would allow us to a) provide things for ourselves, b) stop feeding the corporate beast, and c) build a local, resilient, community-owned sector.

But I can’t believe that Transition members don’t see that there are powerful interests in this world that don’t want that to happen. They don’t want wealth and power (and autonomy when it comes to providing the necessities of life) to be spread amongst local communities. They want it to be concentrated – and concentrated in their hands. And they are much, much stronger than us. They own our financial system, our media and our energy and food supply. They own our houses. We work for them – we help them make profit, either directly or by facilitating the system that they control. And we give our salaries back to them, and often more, by falling into debt. Surely we can discuss the desirability of this within Transition, and whether reform is appropriate or feasible? I understand the need to appear upbeat and not be seen as confrontational. Maybe there’s something about wanting to appeal to both ends of the political spectrum – but I’ve had conversations with our prospective parliamentary candidate for the Conservative party who says (and I believe him – I actually met him at an event to try to stop Tesco taking over a local pub) that he’d prefer a High Street full of local, independent businesses rather than corporate chains, and he’d welcome an initiative that helps build a non-corporate sector. We’ve even had discussions about how to keep independent businesses independent – i.e. to prevent the corporate sector swallowing them up, like Green & Blacks, Ben & Jerry’s, Innocent Drinks or the Body Shop. All those companies were supposed to be about building a new economy – a whole new way of doing business, and now they’re all owned by the Empire. Ideas below if you have any please, but as far as I can see, the solution has to be through some combination of co-operatives and sole traders (but without the option of taking on other people apart from apprentices or by forming a co-op). Writing that is much easier than achieving it.

I know that individual Transition members understand the nature of the Machine because of the kinds of events I know they’ve attended, because of the books that I know they read, and from personal conversations. I do appreciate the desire not to scare off apolitical people, but I think that focusing on building a co-operative, community-owned sector is something that Transition could embrace without compromising their non-confrontational stance. I’d hope so anyway, otherwise they’d find themselves in a less radical position (radical: from the Latin, to look at the root) than some conservative MPs – not a good place to be, generally.

If reformism makes corporate capitalism appear better, then it makes it more difficult to replace it. And replace it we must, unless we want to slide tamely towards extinction. I had a conversation with a woman whose job involved helping PepsiCo source all of its potatoes for their chips from the UK. That’s good, isn’t it? Yes, in terms of short-term environmental gain, but not when it comes to long-term opposition to the Empire / Machine. And yet she didn’t understand the need to oppose the Machine. She called herself an environmentalist, but was not radical enough to see the root of the problem in the corporate capitalist system. It can’t be reformed. In that I’m in total agreement with Mark. If we are to a) survive and b) be truly free, then it has to be replaced.

Where I dissent from Mark’s position is that there are some trappings of industrialisation that I wouldn’t want to lose. Anaesthetic, for example – if I need an operation or an amputation, I don’t want to be given a slug of rum and something to bite on. And without glasses I wouldn’t see very far. Also, I think that the internet prevents people from other countries and cultures from being demonised, and it’s probably our greatest tool when it comes to opposing the Empire and building alternatives. In more environmentally-friendly times in history, the more sustainable nature of society didn’t prevent us from regularly massacring each other. Again, the problem was Empire, which is why I prefer to use that term. From the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago, Empire has been the dominant institution in the world. It’s time we moved into a post-Empire era. You may point out that it’s not possible to have a laptop or smartphone to access the internet without the Empire, but it’s not true. There are high-tech co-ops, like the Scott-Bader Commonwealth or Mondragon in the Basque Country. There is nothing at all that can only be provided by the Machine, apart from Empire.

However, we can’t have laptops or anaesthetic without some environmental damage – in fact there’s very little that we can have without environmental damage to some extent. Mark might not agree with me on this point, but small amounts of anthropogenic damage the biosphere can cope with – in the same way that the biosphere can cope with volcanic activity or asteroid impacts. They may well reduce biodiversity or damage Gaia to some extent, but as long as that damage is limited, nature will repair it. I feel the same way about human activity. Repairable damage is one thing, but the damage that the Machine is currently causing has crossed a line. We’re now irreversibly damaging the biosphere, and especially diversity, in ways that are going to make us less healthy at best and extinct at worst. It’s very unwise.

So I agree with Mark that we are faced with a Machine, an Empire that is unreformable, a) because it has the raw power to stop us reforming it, b) because it’s primed to grow, which is incompatible with living sustainably on one planet, and c) because it concentrates wealth and power so much that it destroys democracy, cutting off most avenues of meaningful reform. But should violence be one of the tools we use to try to bring about real change, and what exactly do we mean by violence? I’ll cover that in part 2, coming soon.

Meanwhile, you can get the book here.