“In dark days, men need a clear faith and a well-grounded hope; and as the outcome of these, the calm courage which takes no account of hardships by the way.”
Thus begins “Political Ideals,” a short book by the famous British philosopher and champion of peace Bertrand Russell. Written during the depth of World War I, when it was starkly clear that the old politics had failed, Russell sketches a plan for a new political and economic system of the world. Today, as we roll along towards climate catastrophe, it is again starkly clear that our politics is failing. And, just as Russell sketched out, we have the basic problem of rapacious capitalism, and the possible solution of real democracy steering for individual liberty. So, let’s follow Russell’s thought from 97 years ago, and imagine that he is speaking to us today.
What is the goal of a political system?
The aim of politics should be to make the lives of individuals as good as possible. There is nothing for the politician to consider outside or above the various men, women, and children who compose the world.
What is the individual good?
To begin with, we do not want all men to be alike. We do not want to lay down a pattern or type to which men of all sorts are to be made by some means or another to approximate.
But … although we cannot say, for instance, that all men ought to be industrious, or self-sacrificing, or fond of music—there are some broad principles …
What are the broad principles for the individual good?
There are goods in regard to which individual possession is possible, and there are goods in which all can share alike. The food and clothing of one man is not the food and clothing of another; if the supply is insufficient, what one man has is obtained at the expense of some other man. This applies to material goods generally, and therefore to the greater part of the present economic life of the world. On the other hand, mental and spiritual goods do not belong to one man to the exclusion of another. If one man knows a science, that does not prevent others from knowing it; on the contrary, it helps them to acquire the knowledge. If one man is a great artist or poet, that does not prevent others from painting pictures or writing poems, but helps to create the atmosphere in which such things are possible. If one man is full of good-will toward others, that does not mean that there is less good-will to be shared among the rest; the more good-will one man has, the more he is likely to create among others.
What further principles?
… There are possessive impulses, which aim at acquiring or retaining private goods that cannot be shared; these center in the impulse of property. And there are creative or constructive impulses, which aim at bringing into the world or making available for use the kind of goods in which there is no privacy and no possession.
The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest. This is no new discovery. The Gospel says: “Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” The thought we give to these things is taken away from matters of more importance. And what is worse, the habit of mind engendered by thinking of these things is a bad one; it leads to competition, envy, domination, cruelty, and almost all the moral evils that infest the world. In particular, it leads to the predatory use of force. …
How should we judge a political system?
A certain kind of self-respect or native pride is necessary to a good life; a man must not have a sense of utter inward defeat if he is to remain whole, but must feel the courage and the hope and the will to live by the best that is in him, whatever outward or inward obstacles it may encounter. So far as it lies in a man’s own power, his life will realize its best possibilities if it has three things: creative rather than possessive impulses, reverence for others, and respect for the fundamental [creative] impulse in himself.
Political and social institutions are to be judged by the good or harm that they do to individuals. Do they encourage creativeness rather than possessiveness? Do they embody or promote a spirit of reverence between human beings? Do they preserve self-respect?
Why would we want a new economic system?
We may distinguish four purposes at which an economic system may aim: first, it may aim at the greatest possible production of goods and at facilitating technical progress; second, it may aim at securing distributive justice; third, it may aim at giving security against destitution; and, fourth, it may aim at liberating creative impulses and diminishing possessive impulses.
Of these four purposes the last is the most important. Security is chiefly important as a means to it. State socialism, though it might give material security and more justice than we have at present, would probably fail to liberate creative impulses or produce a progressive society.
Our present system fails in all four purposes. It is chiefly defended on the ground that it achieves the first of the four purposes, namely, the greatest possible production of material goods, but it only does this in a very short-sighted way, by methods which are wasteful in the long run both of human material and of natural resources.
Capitalistic enterprise involves a ruthless belief in the importance of increasing material production to the utmost possible extent now and in the immediate future. In obedience to this belief, new portions of the earth’s surface are continually brought under the sway of industrialism.
What place does capitalism have in our new economic system?
Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world.
Among the many obvious evils of capitalism and the wage system, none are more glaring than that they encourage predatory instincts, that they allow economic injustice, and that they give great scope to the tyranny of the employer.
What about state socialism?
The most dangerous aspect of the tyranny of the employer is the power which it gives him of interfering with men’s activities outside their working hours. A man may be dismissed because the employer dislikes his religion or his politics, or chooses to think his private life immoral. … This evil would not be remedied, but rather intensified, under state socialism, because, where the State is the only employer, there is no refuge from its prejudices such as may now accidentally arise through the differing opinions of different men. The State would be able to enforce any system of beliefs it happened to like, and it is almost certain that it would do so. Freedom of thought would be penalized, and all independence of spirit would die out.
[N]o one ought to be allowed to suffer destitution so long as he or she is willing to work. And no kind of inquiry ought to be made into opinion or private life. It is only on this basis that it is possible to build up an economic system not founded upon tyranny and terror.
What “ism” would help?
[O]rdinary work should, as far as possible, afford interest and independence and scope for initiative. These things are more important than income, as soon as a certain minimum has been reached. They can be secured by guild socialism, by industrial self-government subject to state control as regards the relations of a trade to the rest of the community. So far as I know, they cannot be secured in any other way.
The economic system we should ultimately wish to see would be one in which the state would be the sole recipient of economic rent, while private capitalistic enterprises should be replaced by self-governing combinations of those who actually do the work. …
The workers in a given industry should all be combined in one autonomous unit, and their work should not be subject to any outside control. The state should fix the price at which they produce, but should leave the industry self-governing in all other respects. In fixing prices, the state should, as far as possible, allow each industry to profit by any improvements which it might introduce into its own processes, but should endeavor to prevent undeserved loss or gain through changes in external economic conditions. In this way there would be every incentive to progress, with the least possible danger of unmerited destitution. And although large economic organizations will continue, as they are bound to do, there will be a diffusion of power which will take away the sense of individual impotence from which men and women suffer at present.
How should we deal with big government and big business?
Vast organizations are an inevitable element in modern life, and it is useless to aim at their abolition … It is true that they make the preservation of individuality more difficult, but what is needed is a way of combining them with the greatest possible scope for individual initiative.
One very important step toward this end would be to render democratic the government of every organization. …
Another measure which would do much to increase liberty would be an increase of self-government for subordinate groups, whether geographical or economic or defined by some common belief, like religious sects. … By a share in the control of smaller bodies, a man might regain some of that sense of personal opportunity and responsibility which belonged to the citizen of a city-state in ancient Greece or medieval Italy.
What should we do about education?
… The whole spirit in which education is conducted needs to be changed, in order that children may be encouraged to think and feel for themselves, not to acquiesce passively in the thoughts and feelings of others. It is not rewards after the event that will produce initiative, but a certain mental atmosphere. …
The state is justified in insisting that children shall be educated, but it is not justified in forcing their education to proceed on a uniform plan and to be directed to the production of a dead level of glib uniformity. Education, and the life of the mind generally, is a matter in which individual initiative is the chief thing needed; the function of the state should begin and end with insistence on some kind of education, and, if possible, a kind which promotes mental individualism …
… The object of education ought not to be to make all men think alike, but to make each think in the way which is the fullest expression of his own personality. …
How can we stop the tyranny of the employer?
[A]bove all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live.
The tyranny of the employer, which at present robs the greater part of most men’s lives of all liberty and all initiative, is unavoidable so long as the employer retains the right of dismissal with consequent loss of pay. This right is supposed to be essential in order that men may have an incentive to work thoroughly. But as men grow more civilized, incentives based on hope become increasingly preferable to those that are based on fear. It would be far better that men should be rewarded for working well than that they should be punished for working badly. This system is already in operation in the civil service … Sufficient pay to ensure a livelihood ought to be given to every person who is willing to work …
What other types of tyranny must we watch out for?
The tyranny of the majority is a very real danger. … Wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted. In such cases it will be found by those who consider past history that, whenever any new fundamental issue arises, the majority are in the wrong, because they are guided by prejudice and habit. Progress comes through the gradual effect of a minority in converting opinion and altering custom. … [I]t is of the utmost importance that the majority should refrain from imposing its will as regards matters in which uniformity is not absolutely necessary.
How should we balance labor and capital?
British trade-unionism, it seems to me, has erred in conceiving labor and capital as both permanent forces, which were to be brought to some equality of strength by the organization of labor. This seems to me too modest an ideal. The ideal which I should wish to substitute involves the conquest of democracy and self-government in the economic sphere as in the political sphere, and the total abolition of the power now wielded by the capitalist.
What trouble might we have in abolishing capitalism and the power of capital?
Unfortunately the distinction between the proletariat and the capitalist is not so sharp as it was in the minds of socialist theorizers. Trade-unions have funds in various securities; friendly societies are large capitalists; and many individuals eke out their wages by invested savings. All this increases the difficulty of any clear-cut radical change in our economic system. But it does not diminish the desirability of such a change.
How can we resolve conflicts between democratic groups?
… Liberty demands self-government, but not the right to interfere with others. The greatest degree of liberty is not secured by anarchy. The reconciliation of liberty with government is a difficult problem, but it is one which any political theory must face.
[A]lthough individuals and societies should have the utmost freedom as regards their own affairs, they ought not to have complete freedom as regards their dealings with others. To give freedom to the strong to oppress the weak is not the way to secure the greatest possible amount of freedom in the world. This is the basis of the socialist revolt against the kind of freedom which used to be advocated by laissez-faire economists.
How long should the work day be?
… By a few hours a day of manual work, a man can produce as much as is necessary for his own subsistence; and if he is willing to forgo luxuries, that is all that the community has a right to demand of him. It ought to be open to all who so desire to do short hours of work for little pay, and devote their leisure to whatever pursuit happens to attract them. No doubt the great majority of those who chose this course would spend their time in mere amusement, as most of the rich do at present. But it could not be said, in such a society, that they were parasites upon the labor of others. And there would be a minority who would give their hours of nominal idleness to science or art or literature, or some other pursuit out of which fundamental progress may come. In all such matters, organization and system can only do harm. The one thing that can be done is to provide opportunity, without repining at the waste that results from most men failing to make good use of the opportunity.
What types of activity should government regulate and discourage?
The whole realm of the possessive impulses, and of the use of force to which they give rise, stands in need of control by a public neutral authority, in the interests of liberty no less than of justice. Within a nation, this public authority will naturally be the state; in relations between nations, if the present anarchy is to cease, it will have to be some international parliament.
What types of activity should government protect and encourage?
[T]he creative part of a man’s activity ought to be as free as possible from all public control, in order that it may remain spontaneous and full of vigor. The only function of the state in regard to this part of the individual life should be to do everything possible toward providing outlets and opportunities.
How can society make progress?
[T]hose who actually achieve much … have … something in their nature which inclines them to choose a certain kind of work as the road which they must travel if their ambition is to be satisfied. This artist’s impulse, as it may be called, is a thing of infinite value to the individual, and often to the world; to respect it in oneself and in others makes up nine tenths of the good life. …
… In a human being, provided he has not been crushed by an economic or governmental machine, there is … something distinctive without which no man or woman can achieve much of importance, or retain the full dignity which is native to human beings. … Any society which crushes this quality, whether intentionally or by accident, must soon become utterly lifeless and traditional, without hope of progress and without any purpose in its being. To preserve and strengthen the impulse that makes individuality should be the foremost object of all political institutions.
How can we make this radical change?
[I]t is perfectly possible to proceed step by step towards economic freedom and industrial self-government. It is not true that there is any outward difficulty in creating the kind of institutions that we have been considering. If organized labor wishes to create them, nothing could stand in its way. The difficulty involved is merely the difficulty of inspiring men with hope, of giving them enough imagination to see that the evils from which they suffer are unnecessary, and enough thought to understand how the evils are to be cured. This is a difficulty which can be overcome by time and energy. But it will not be overcome if the leaders of organized labor have no breadth of outlook, no vision, no hopes beyond some slight superficial improvement within the framework of the existing system. Revolutionary action may be unnecessary, but revolutionary thought is indispensable, and, as the outcome of thought, a rational and constructive hope.
Political Ideals “Political Ideals” by Bertrand Russell; 1917
Bertrand Russell “Bertrand Russell” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; 1995 and 2013
climate catastrophe “Oct. 29, 2012 – NASA Examines Hurricane Sandy as it Affects the Eastern U.S.” – NASA
NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Sandy battering the U.S. East coast on Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 a.m. EDT. Sandy’s center was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City. Tropical Storm force winds are about 1,000 miles in diameter. (Image Credit: NASA GOES Project)
rapacious “Koch Brothers’ Political Activism Protects Their 50-Year Stake in Canadian Heavy Oils” by David Sasson; Inside Climate News; 2012-05-10
Over the last decade, Charles and David Koch have emerged into public view as billionaire philanthropists pushing a libertarian brand of political activism that presses a large footprint on energy and climate issues. They have created and supported non-profit organizations, think tanks and political groups that work to undermine climate science, environmental regulation and clean energy. They are also top donors to politicians, most of them Republicans, who support the oil industry and deny any human role in global warming.
What is less well documented are the many Koch businesses that benefit from the brothers’ efforts to push the center of American political discourse rightward, closer to their own convictions. At the top of the list are the Koch family’s long and deep investments in Canada’s heavy oil industry, which have been central to the company’s initial growth and subsequent diversification since 1959.
Bitumen from Canada’s tar sands is dirtier and thicker than conventional oil. Extracting and processing this unconventional fossil fuel creates far more greenhouse gases than drilling for the light, sweet oil most Americans are familiar with. …
capitalism “BP Big Boss, Blind to Damage, Downplays Gulf Gusher” – The Paragraph; May 23rd, 2010
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