Protest, Socialism, and Social Peace

Document Actions
The anti-war movement was objective proof that the normative idea of life can mobilize millions of people against immediate threats to life. Its failure is not explained by intrinsic theoretical or practical deficits, but by the terrifying dogmatism of the Bush cabal and the hysteria generated by September 11th.
Jeff Noonan

Issue #65, January 2004

... the friends of peace in bourgeois circles believe that world peace and disarmament can be realized within the present social order, whereas we, who base ourselves on the materialistconception of history, and on scientific socialism, are convinced that militarism can only be abolished from the world with the destruction of the capitalist class state.
— Rosa Luxembourg, "Peace Utopias," Rosa Luxembourg Speaks

Luxembourg wrote those lines three years before the outbreak of the barbarism that was World War One. I quote her in the late autumn of 2003, two years into the barbarism that is, in the words of former CIA Director James Woolsey "World War Four." According to Luxembourg, the success of the peace movement was contingent upon its understanding and opposing the imperialist causes of war. As Haliburton prepares Iraqi oil wells for American exploitation under the cover of US and British troops it would seem that Luxembourg's point still holds. What has changed, of course, is that there is no longer a vital 'scientific socialist' movement against imperialism. Is it the case, then, that one must conclude that the millions of anti-war activists who took to the streets in every country of the world, animated by the hope that mass democratic action could dissuade the tyrant of Texas from launching an openly illegal invasion of Iraq, were merely utopian?

Eight months into the war in Iraq the lies that justified the invasion have been exposed. There were no weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi people have not welcomed the invaders as liberators. Perhaps it is only because most of the land forces of the American Army are bogged down in Iraq for the foreseeable future that the neo-liberal council of killing surrounding Bush has had to sheath the sabres that it had been rattling toward Iran and Syria. Their schoolboy bully saying — "wimps march on Baghdad, real men march on Tehran" — can no longer be heard above the daily grenade attacks on American invaders. But if the Iraqi resistence has quelled, for the time, the gung-ho attitude towards invasion, it cannot really inspire much hope in the anti-war movement. Its political composition hardly inspires the dreams of universal liberation that motivated the socialist opposition to the First World War. As yet there remains no sign of an organized, democratic political opposition to the occupation. Considered in relation to the ease with which the anti-war movement was ignored and the rapidity with which it subsequently evaporated, it is hard for opponents of the war not to feel like the virtuous non-Christians who tell Dante in The Divine Comedy: "In this alone we suffer: cut off from hope, we live on in desire." Cut off from hope, because no one can believe any longer that there is a scientific argument that, if understood, leads necessarily to socialism. Living on in desire, because the memory of the electric mobilization of millions in defence of peace under the slogan "No blood for oil" was a reality. That memory spurs the present reflection on the contemporary relationship between peace and socialism. Whereas Luxemburg saw socialism as the outcome of a worldwide workers revolution, I want to explore the possibility of reconceiving socialism as human movement for social peace.

The idea of socialism as a movement for social peace is rooted in the deepest values that underlie the Marxist understanding of socialism. While not always explicit, the idea of socialism is rooted in a conception of the human being as both needy and self-creative. Unless our needs are met, however, the capacities through which our self-creative nature is realized cannot develop, and our potential for free existence is undermined. The liability to suffering the harm of need-deprivation, however, is not specific to or best exemplified by the working class; indeed, I will argue, systematic need-deprivation is the foundation of all forms of oppression. Thinking of oppression in terms of need-deprivation and harm thus uncovers a universal normative foundation upon which can be built a universal struggle for a social formation in which the social causes of harm are overcome.

First, I will examine how the classic conception of socialism as the historical mission of the working class failed to make clear the proper universality of the normative foundations and goals of the movement. This failure set Marxism in opposition to new movements against oppression that developed in the 1960s. Second, I will unfold the universal normative foundations of a possible social peace movement, explaining how these foundations entail a set of political goals that all oppressed groups can recognize as shared objects of struggle.

Socialists and Movements of the Oppressed: An Unmediated Dialectic

If the belief in scientific socialism cannot withstand the political experience of the twentieth century, the same cannot be said for historical materialism. The core premise of that theory is nicely expressed in Marx's famous aphorism in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, "men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please." As a tool of investigation historical materialism seeks out the objective limitations upon humanity's self-creative activity, not for the sake of positive scientific understanding, but rather to serve the goal of advancing human freedom beyond given social limits. But the historical foundation of Marx's materialist theory entails that it contains an essential political contingency. The achievements of political struggle against objective limitations on human freedom alter those limitations, with the result that the specific problems faced by a latter generation might be quite different from those faced by an earlier generation, even if at a general level an underlying structure of unfreedom remains more or less identical. Marx himself was quite aware of this contingency. Towards the end of his life he explicitly rejected crude attempts to systematise the premises of historical materialism. In one 1877 letter, he asserted that historical materialism did not yield "a universal key to a general historical-philosophical theory, whose greatest advantage lies in its being beyond history." The inferences that historical materialism permits develop along with the history that it criticises, even as it maintains the same general goal of orienting struggles for human freedom.

If we examine the project of realizing human freedom today we discover two fundamental impediments to its achievement. First, human freedom is impeded by a socio-economic structure that subordinates need satisfaction and capacity development to its own self-expansion. The globalized capitalist market is supported by a politico-military system that has grown more aggressively imperialist in the last two years. The globalized market system and its defence institutions are in turn legitimated by appeal to a closed value system according to which 'good' is equivalent to the expansion and protection of monetary value. As John McMurtry argues in Value Wars: The Global Market versus the Life Economy, "the corporate market system allocates resources in mindless disregard for long-term economic sustainability or satisfaction of life needs because it is the first article of final faith that all must come right by the optimum of equilibrium driven by monetary and consumption maximisation within the market's self-regulating, perpetual-motion machine." What serves the system is therefore judged to be good, what threatens it is by contrast bad, and these valuations are closed to refuting evidence. For example, in a private health care system what counts as good is not maximizing the health of the community that the system serves, but maximizing profits for private insurers and hospitals.

The strength of the hold that this underlying value system has on human consciousness should not be underestimated. It is this strength that in large part explains the second basic impediment to human freedom today. This second impediment is the absence of any large-scale, permanent, growing, social movement that consistently exposes the structural causes of need-deprivation. Marxism has historically claimed to be such a movement, but its own failure to consistently articulate its normative foundations in properly universal form prevented it from ever becoming a solidaristic movement for human emancipation. Its tendency to emphasise the centrality of the working class to the struggle for socialism thus alienated potential allies, and contributed to the discrediting of the very idea of a universal movement for human emancipation. It is essential to reflect upon this criticism if the argument for reconceiving socialism as a movement for social peace is to be plausible.

Marx understood socialism as the universal liberation of humanity, achievable through the actions of a specific class, the proletariat. He identified the working class as the universal class because, under conditions of capitalist production, he believed that the working class was universally deprived. While it remains true that absolute need-deprivation still exists, even in the richest countries of the world, and that capitalism still depends upon the exploitation of labour, a credible movement towards a socialist society can no longer insist upon the centrality of the working class to this struggle. Paradoxically for classic Marxism, the universality of capitalist relations of production and exchange today reduces the working class to one particular moment of a universal movement for human freedom. The truth of Marx's predictions about the globally expansionary nature of capitalism have come to pass, the scope of the problem that it poses for humanity is now truly universal, i.e., it poses a threat not just to the working class but to human life-activity in general.

Rudoplh Bahro, writing in 1978 in the midst of the Cold War, brought out clearly the fact that today the problem is not working class, but human emancipation. He argued in The Alternative in Eastern Europe that "today it is general emancipation that is the absolute necessity, since in the blind play of subaltern egoisms, lack of solidarity, the antagonism of atomised and alienated individuals, groups, peoples and conglomerates of all kinds, we are hastening ever more quickly to the point of no return." It is only by insisting on the universal, human dimension of the threat that globalized capitalism poses that socialism can become a unifying political force today. As a unifying force, however, socialism must supersede its historical origins as the theory and practice of a specific class, its outmoded distinction between exploitation and oppression, open itself to the positive implications of the arguments and experiences of different oppressed groups, and consciously ground itself in the universal normative foundation of life-value. Before explaining that foundation and its political implications, however, it is essential to understand the positive implications of the objections oppressed groups have raised against Marxist conceptions of socialism.

Looked at from the standpoint of oppressed identities, the Marxist insistence upon the universality of the working class appeared, in the firmament of the 1960s, as no more than the false universalization of one particular interest. Radical feminists, black nationalists, newly mobilized gay and lesbian militants, and others did not see their specific interests taken into account by leftist theory and practice. As the political vitality of the 1960s faded, these practical divisions became the subject of often abstruse but nonetheless important theoretical debates over the political implications of "essentialism" and "universalism," a debate began in earnest with the 1985 publication of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. The core argument of theoretical spokespersons of the new social movements was that universals are always particulars that take on the appearance of universality only in alliance with power and only by excluding the specific interests of different groups. Thus, the universality that Marxists assigned to the working class owed nothing to the nature of the working class and everything to the exclusion of feminist, black, and gay and lesbian experience. The merit of this argument is that it brought to light content suppressed by an abstract assertion of working class universality. That is, it enriched our understanding of oppression as a concretely experienced reality under racist, sexist, and homophobic social and cultural conditions. Its weakness, however, was that it confused the problem of abstract universality (a universal produced by excluding differences) with the nature of universality as such (a common foundation to activity that is realized in specifically different ways).

When the idea of humanity is asserted as an abstract universal it simply asserts someone predicate of humanity as its truth (the essence of humanity is rationality, or self-interest, etc.) The truth of humanity as a universal idea, however, is not explicable through someone predicate. The universality of humanity is concretely expressed through the variety of self-creative practices of actual human beings in their different cultural, sexual, and gendered modalities. The postmodern critique of universality thus ignored the difference between abstract and concrete universality, between a universal that is a generic concept and a universal that is the achieved unity of differences arrived at through mutual negotiation and experience. Nevertheless, by giving voice to particular differences the new social movements made possible the development of a concretely universal movement.

This possibility, however, has not yet been developed. In the initial response to the postmodern critique, Marxists were quick to seize upon the serious philosophical weaknesses evident in the attempt to unite outre French theory and radical politics. Those criticisms were thoroughly justified, but the practical problem — the fragmentation of progressive movements — was left unresolved. Still, Marxists did begin to rethink the relationship between the exploitative dynamic at the heart of capitalism with the other forms of oppression (in particular, sexual and racial oppression) that are also at the heart of capitalist society. Despite sincere efforts however, this attempt at best yielded "additive" proposals to include other forms of oppression alongside of the demand for socialism. That is, without fundamentally rethinking the structure of the objective limits that capitalism places upon human life-activity, Marxist began to "add-on" to their platform demands for sexual and racial liberation, always with the coda that 'human' freedom could not be achieved within the limits of a capitalist world order. While a step forward, these efforts did not produce a genuine synthesis of critical horizons or the type of unity that contemporary political conditions demanded.

By calling the relationship between Marxism and the new social movements an unmediated dialectic I wish to foreground the lack of middle term through which each could recognize the other as fighting for essentially the same goal. This middle term would be the idea of humanity as the concrete universal in which feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic and socialist struggles would recognize their common foundation. In the absence of a principle through which mutual recognition could take place, the poles remained apart, if not outright hostile to each other. Thus, rather than socialists seeing in the new social movements the particularization of the idea of human emancipation, and the new social movements seeing in the Marxist idea of self-realization the universal concept at the basis of their particular struggles, each saw in the other pole simply a difference that was to be repudiated or incorporated.

In fact, however, this middle term was present all along, but overlooked because of an over reliance upon theories disconnected from successful practice. This middle term is the idea of humanity, understood as a needy life-form, but one defined essentially by its self-determining capacities. Human life needy and self-determining is the foundational value that animates, albeit in hidden form, all struggles against oppressive and exploitative structures. That is to say that different oppressed groups are oppressed for the same reason: some arbitrary determination (their sexuality, their colour, etc) marks them in such a way that the social formation in which they exist is able to deprive them of need-satisfying resources. The deprivation they suffer thus impedes the full realization of their general human capability to determine their own horizons and life-projects. Thought through in this way, the struggle of women, for example, is a historically specific struggle for the social conditions in which women would be free to develop their human capability for free self-development. As such, feminist struggle is one concrete moment of the struggle for universal emancipation. In so far as being women constitutes a specific form of being human, women have had to organize independently of other movements in order that the complexities of that experience can become manifest. However, as a moment of being human, the struggle of women is not radically distinct from other forms of anti-oppression struggle; each is implicitly linked to the other by the demand for the resources needed to ground the free development of the self-creative capabilities of the people concerned. In a theoretical context dominated by the critique of universality, however, the human foundation of feminist struggle remained obscured.

However, in the new political context coloured by more intense globalization and the return of imperialist war the reality of the global system as a threat to life is becoming increasingly apparent. I contend that this universal value of life as free self-development forms the normative basis of the two great mobilizations of the early twenty-first century — the anti-globalization movement and the anti-war movement. Against the subordination of need-satisfaction to the system-imperative of profit maximization the anti-globalization movement has asserted that the true function of an economy is to ensure the health and develop the capabilities of the citizens that it is supposed to serve. Against the truth-blind rush to war the peace movement stood in moving solidarity with the long-suffering people of Iraq. Yet both have seen their numbers rapidly decline in the past year. This fact raises the problem of how a sustained mobilization can best be built. I will attempt to address that question by way of spelling out the principles of a social peace movement.

Movement for Social Peace

I was led to the idea of a social peace movement as a participant in the movement against the war in Iraq. On a normally apolitical campus in a small southwestern Ontario city we were able to mobilise hundreds of people against the war. Exciting as that experience was, however, the knowledge that we were only a small part of a global mobilisation of literally millions of people was even more intellectually and politically energizing. No commentator anticipated the massive scale of the demonstrations on February 15th, 2003. If the idea of peace could catalyse so many in such a short period of time, I thought, perhaps it is the idea that progressive activists could draw upon to unify the disparate struggles against oppression. In order to realise this possibility, however, it is necessary to develop a conception of social peace.

Peace in general may be defined by contrast with violence. Violence, thought through philosophically rather than legally, is the wilful impairment or destruction of a life-capability or life itself. Life here is understood as a system of self-organizing activity dependent upon external resources (need-satisfiers) for its existence and development. A need is distinct from a desire in so far as the deprivation of a needed resource always causes damage to life-capability. Thus, a need can be distinguished from a mere desire according to the following criterion derived from John McMurtry's The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: "a need ... is a need to the extent that deprivation of it regularly results in reduction of the ability to move, to feel, or to think." Movement, sentience, and self-conscious thought are the basic capabilities of the human life form. Higher-level specific achievements are complexes formed out of these three basic capabilities. A ballet, for example, combines the conscious thought of the choreographer, with the cultivated movements of the dancers, and produces in the audience an emotional and cognitive response. Freedom for human beings refers to the degree to which social structures permit or restrict the development of life-capabilities. Human beings are thus free to the extent that they have access to the need-satisfiers necessary to the development of those three basic capabilities, out of which specific activities can then be pursued as life-projects. Those basic capabilities do not differ from group to group, but establish the human foundation of free existence. The specific achievements of definite individuals may of course also be a function of their experience of the world, which is mediated by group membership. That is a difference of content, however, not form. However, groups do experience fundamentally different degrees of access to need satisfiers, and this difference, as I noted above, is the foundation of oppression. Since oppression is essentially structured need-deprivation, and need-deprivation reduces life-capability, we can understand violence as need-deprivation.

Peace, in contrast, would be a structure of social existence that is maximally conducive to the development and expression of life capabilities. Social peace, in turn, may be defined as the precise institutional conditions for the free self-development of human individuals within the different communities to which they belong. The limits of both individual and group activity are discovered by inference from the universal value of maximal life-flourishing. Group expressions that depend upon the subordination of other groups are illegitimate because they contradict the normative implications of the general idea of peace as the state in which human beings can realize their capabilities to the greatest possible range.

That the preceding reflection is nothing more than a prioristic theorising may be proven by reference to the anti-war movement. If we reflect upon what its normative foundations were, we can clearly see this idea of life at work. First, however, we must isolate the cause of the movement. The proximate cause was the unprovoked drive to war initiated by the neo-liberal advisers of the Bush government. The range of political positions in the movement was diverse, from the usual suspects (long-time peace activists and anti-imperialist leftists) to ordinarily unpolitical people who argued against the war on the basis of naive faith in international law and the United Nations. Everyone was united, however, in rejecting war as a legitimate means of resolving geo-political tensions because war inevitably brings in its train the destruction of innocent life. The normative foundation of the anti-war movement, stated negatively, was thus a rejection of killing as legitimate politics.

There is no negative, however, save by contrast with a positive. If the anti-war movement was motivated by a rejection of the legitimacy of political killing then it follows, as a corollary, that it was equally an affirmation of the positive value of life. Moreover, since the anti-war movement was active in every country, in support of a people whose survival would not lead to any direct material benefit redounding to anti-war activists, the positive affirmation of life at the heart of the anti-war movement was not chauvinistic or self-interested, but genuinely universal, i.e., human, crossing differences of nationality, race, gender, sexuality, and class. This positive value was most eloquently summed up in a placard carried by a pregnant demonstrator in New York City on February 15th, 2003. The sign stated simply, "Power is in giving life."

The normative foundation of the anti-war movement may be summed up as an affirmation of the universal value of human life, and its protection as the overriding imperative of legitimate politics. As such, the anti-war movement was the most extensive manifestation in recent years of what McMurtry calls "the life-ground of value." The life-ground of value is a pre-philosophical and pre-theoretical capacity of people to normatively identify across differences on the basis of recognizing the value of other people (and animals) as living entities. This capacity usually operates beneath consciousness, but it becomes a conscious principle of action when we become aware of the unjustified suffering of other people. Unjustified suffering, in turn, means need-deprivation in the sense of need given above. As McMurtry explains in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, "Such responses cross classes, cultures, races, and genders, and are grounded in a civil commons identification which admits of any degree of development or breadth of range. If people observe or know of the destruction or brutal reduction of vital life ranges, where no corresponding gains in security of other life can explain it, they rebel from it within, as if there were an acquired structure of thought that put them 'in common' with the lost life, and the life that remains." This normative identification across differences united the diverse activists of the anti-war movement with the long-suffering Iraqi people.

Yet, as we know all too well, this life-grounded normative identification was unable to stop the war. Worse, it seemed to melt back into national chauvinism (in the US and the UK) or indifference once the actual invasion commenced. The retreat to chauvinism can be explained by the fact that while the life-ground admits of universal expansion, it can also be exploited to produce a stronger identification with life that is made to appear more valuable because it is 'closer to home.' The second response — a retreat to political indifference — can be explained as the inevitable result when any movement lacks a credible explanation of a way forward against an opponent that appears invulnerable. Neither problem is intractable, however, and both find the beginnings of a common solution in a politics of social peace. With regard to the first problem, the politics of social peace, by spelling out the universality of the life-ground, reveals that real security of life presupposes the conditions of universal peace. With regard to the second problem, the politics of social peace identifies innumerable institutional causes of oppression that can be challenged and successfully transformed today at the local, national, and international level, and thus provide the achievable targets for political progress indispensable to sustaining activists' energy. Each response presupposes the other. Activists from a diversity of movements will be inclined to understand themselves as social peace activists only if they accept the universality of the life-ground as the necessary foundation of their particular struggles. In turn, they will accept the universality of the life-ground as the necessary normative foundation of their struggles only if it can be shown to achieve results, measured both in terms of victories and stronger and more extensive bonds of solidarity. I will address each moment of this dialectic in turn.

As a unifying principle of particular struggles the life-ground of value seems to immediately invite the charge of reductionism. That is, it seems to demand that oppressed social differences drop their claim to specificity and comprehend their oppressions as one component of the repression of the potentialities of an amorphous concept of 'life.' This concept might seem at first glance to be incapable of explaining just that which needs explanation, namely, why particular differences are singled out, demonised, attacked and destroyed. This criticism is serious and can only be met by reflecting more deeply on what is meant by 'life' in the relevant normative sense.

As we noted above, life is essentially self-organizing activity articulated into the three basic life-capabilities of movement, sentience, and thinking. To conceive of oppression on life-grounded terms is not at all to demand that the specific structure of oppression faced by different groups be reduced to a generic abstraction, but rather to disclose that what is oppressed in specific instances is just what makes life valuable. When a black man is denied housing or when a single white mother cannot find daycare what is oppressive about the situation is that each fails to satisfy a need. Because the need goes unmet, the capabilities definitive of their lives are restricted. Because those capabilities are restricted each suffers violence. That this violence is experienced relative to each concrete identity is not in dispute. All that the life-ground maintains is that what is valuable in life is the same for all life-forms; realizing their defining capabilities. The content can and does (and should) differ. The form of oppression, however, remains the same. Thought of in these terms the foundations for solidarity become apparent. Need depriving social structures do violence to those whose needs are deprived. This violence is not the spectacular violence of a cruise missile strike, but the mundane violence of need-deprivation that is so ubiquitous it generally passes without notice. When, however, we focus attention on the scale of need-deprivation it becomes apparent that a social peace movement directed against the universal causes of need-deprivation is necessary.

The dynamics that cause racial, sexual, and homophobia must of course be studied in their specificity. But the movement against them can only succeed if it addresses the deep-structural problems that cause these specific forms of need-deprivation. The deep-structural problem is essentially the life-blind value system that we discussed in the first section. That is not to say that there is an essentially economic cause to, say, homophobia. It is to say that homosexuality as a legitimate means of human self-expression is compromised in a social structure whose sole value is expansion of the profit-making system itself. A life-grounded value system, on the other hand, regards any non-life harming mode of expression as legitimate, valuable, and enriching. The struggle for a new normative foundation for society is thereby directly a struggle for the release of the resources every group and individual needs in order to realize their general life-capabilities in specific life-projects. The struggle for social peace is thus a struggle for the conditions of maximal living diversity. This struggle thus focuses on the social grounds of need satisfaction, what McMurtry calls the "civil commons." The civil commons does not reduce the individual to a function of its own reproduction (as in totalitarian systems) but rather is "the basis and guardian of individual life from which the individual differentiates as a unique and unrepeatable bearer of value." This cannot be the goal of the social so long as all-round need satisfaction is not its primary objective, and it cannot be its primary objective so long as consciousness of life-value is impeded by the operation of different forms of oppression. When, however, we see oppression as social violence, and social violence as need-deprivation, we can see that social peace is the political form of the solution. Just as the demand for peace united opponents of the war across barriers of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, so too, it may plausibly be hoped, may a social peace movement emerge out of the specific and on going struggles against oppression.

Thus, to return to the practical problem from which this reflection began, namely, the problem of why conceiving of oppression on the basis of the life-ground of value is important to particular oppressed groups, we can say that this conception is presupposed by all oppressed groups, although it is not always recognized. Oppression means need-deprivation justified by appeal to some (normatively) arbitrary feature of groups. The particular history of oppressions does differ, but their structure and consequences for the different groups is the same. Recognizing this common structure as a structure of need-deprivation and capacity disablement thus brings to light a genuine commonality in the lives of the oppressed. The shared reality of need-deprivation in turn constitutes the material basis of solidarity. More importantly, it identifies a non-dogmatic normative goal that can provide the organic link between distinct movements. Hence the theoretical disputes that have divided progressive movements from one another can be overcome without any group having to dissolve its particular struggle into another particular struggle (feminism into socialism, for example). Each struggle simply reconceives itself as one essential moment of a comprehensive struggle for the social conditions in which its possibilities for self-creation (and the creation of new capabilities) are expanded. Practical alliance can evolve in definite contexts and grow outwards from local struggles once this basis of unity has been recognized.

Yet, as was noted above, the philosophical possibility of reconceiving progressive struggles on the basis of the life-ground is not itself sufficient. There was a dialectical relation between accepting the life-ground and seeing positive results of struggles. We must now examine this second pole of the dialectical relation. To begin with, we must clarify, on the basis of the understanding of violence provided above, just what types of threats all oppressed groups face today. Social violence was understood as any harm caused to the fundamentally valuable capabilities of human life by the normal operations of social systems. More specifically, social violence exists when institutions and social dynamics are arranged such that they compromise the life-conditions of definite groups of citizens. The degree of social violence can be ranked according to the threat-level to life that it poses. Thus, at the top of the hierarchy are direct threats to life. This level can in turn be sub-divided into immediate threats (war, starvation, etc) and mediate threats (long-term environmental damage that threatens ecosystems, for example). The next threat-level comprises economic dynamics that subordinate fundamental need-satisfaction to system expansion. Again this level can be subdivided in to immediate threats (socially-induced famine, lack of health care) and mediate threats (poverty wages and anomic work conditions). The third threat level is constituted by political systems that are indifferent to the expressed interests of the majority of the world's population. As above, this threat level can be subdivided into immediate threats (totalitarian structures) and mediate threats (formally democratic structures that in reality respond for the most part only to market imperatives). The fourth and final threat level is comprised of cultural practices that depend upon ideologies of exclusion, inferiority, and domination. This level can be sub-divided into formal threats (officially taught in schools) and informal threats (the 'common sense' of segments of the population).

This hierarchy of threats thus identifies the objects of struggle of the social peace movement. Corresponding to the first threat level is opposition to war as a legitimate means of political conflict resolution, to the system dynamics that can be shown to be war's deep cause, as well as to the forces responsible for continuing environmental despoliation. Corresponding to the second threat level is a complex array of demands designed to re-anchor the economic system in its life-grounded presupposition: the satisfaction of fundamental human needs. The politics of social peace should break with the antithesis 'reform or revolution' as meaningless in the contemporary climate, and instead insist on making radical demands that are achievable in the present. These radical demands should be focussed at the local level, both because the concrete experience of reality is local and because victories at the local level can be won now. "Radical" in this context means two things.

First, it means shifting control over productive resources to direct producers and communities, rather than simply re-distributing income. In the factory this means struggling for greater control over decision-making processes, for shorter working hours, and for a greater share of corporate resources to be channelled to life-promoting social infrastructure. In the community this means establishing democratic control over unused space (empty buildings, vacant lots, etc) and transforming them into need-satisfying and life-enhancing uses. Second, it means gradually supplanting the life-destructive logic of global capitalism by a system of production, exchange, and distribution governed by the two-sided imperative of protecting life and maximizing its possibilities for self-development. Corresponding to the third threat level is the development of neighbourhood based political associations that are focussed on establishing democratic control over the local environment in the short term and at becoming a counter-weight, and eventual substitute for, the ossified and unresponsive institutions of national forms of politics. These neighbourhood associations would have to be consciously steered away from their tendency to devolve into middle-class councils of social exclusion. The best way to combat exclusion, however, is to counter it head on. In genuine political argument people's horizons can expand, and the struggle between differences cannot be sublated into a universal movement of differences unless people meet face to face and learn through new experiences. Corresponding to the fourth threat level are struggles to develop new spaces in which oppressed differences can meet amongst themselves, develop perspectives on their own oppression, and, most importantly, communicate these to the wider social body as a step towards the self-transformation of oppressed and oppressors. The third and fourth objects of struggle can clearly work together in fruitful ways.

The anti-war movement was objective proof that the normative idea of life can mobilize millions of people against immediate threats to life. Its failure is not explained by intrinsic theoretical or practical deficits, but by the terrifying dogmatism of the Bush cabal and the hysteria generated by September 11th. Its rapid dissolution shows, however, that people will not remain engaged in politics unless they achieve victories. That is the reason why the politics of social peace must be built from local contexts. When people are made to hear of the social violence that exists in their own communities they can escape the gravitational pull of blinkered egoism and begin to work together. Establishing a cooperative in an abandoned building may seem insignificant when measured against the scope of global problems, but it can give people an experience of winning, an experience of solidarity, new insight into the perspectives of their neighbours, and new insight into the dynamics responsible for social problems. Without the insight gained by experience people will remain closed to one another's differences, and without the experience of victory people will withdraw into apathy and the various forms of oblivion contemporary society offers in abundance.

Marx spent little time explicating the normative foundations of his critique of capitalism and conception of socialism. In his earliest, and to my mind most profound attempt at explaining them, he invoked precisely the value of life. Discussing the 'species-being' of humanity he wrote that its nature was 'productive life.' By this term he meant not any crude economic production, but the production of life itself, "life engendering life," to quote him precisely. Life engendering life for human beings, he writes in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, is "free, conscious activity." Free conscious activity can be impeded in at least the four ways discussed above, and these impediments are the structural causes of oppression. No matter what form oppression takes, it is an impediment to life engendering life, free conscious activity, and thus meets its political antithesis in a politics that affirms life and the growth of its defining capabilities. This political antithesis of the modern death drive is, in its deepest normative roots, socialist, but not a scientific socialism, or the standard held before the masses by a 'vanguard. It is the spontaneous socialism that emerges from people resisting threats to life; a spontaneity that can be harnessed in a new movement, a social peace movement, whose primary objective is the creation of the social conditions for free self-creation.

Jeff Noonan is assistant professor of philosophy at University of Windsor in Canada.

Copyright © 2004 by Jeff Noonan. All rights reserved.

Personal tools