“The Arts, and all things in common” was William Blake’s chief political formula for the Good Society. For Blake, individuality was a matter of creativity and the Imagination. The individuation of Imagination, expressed as creativity, was the inviolable birthright of the individual, the basis of its authenticity. True individuality was creativity, and the individual was distinguished, not by what they managed to hoard by way of private property, but by what that creativity contributed to the Commonwealth, or what we today call “Public Domain”. Protecting the Imagination and its creativity from predatory interests was the defence of individuality.
But actually, “commonwealth” is a better term than “public domain”.
“A rising tide lifts all boats” is actually truer of the commonwealth than it is of the privatisation of wealth that is the current screed called “neo-liberalism”. The “boats” here are the individual and the family unit. But they float upon a broader sea called “the commonwealth”. How many people have the smarts to include in their individual or family “net worth” also their share in the commonwealth? Very few. But it is a very large part of “net worth” generally.
Among the symptoms of the current “dis-integration” is the fracture and dissolution of the commonwealth by privatisation schemes and private interests, which is the pursuit of self-interest now run amok and wrecking havoc with the commonwealth. I’ve written before that the austerity policy was a fraud, also an aspect of “rigging the game” or gaming the system and only a cover and disguise for predation. As you may have noted, some folks have become very, very wealthy through all this “austerity”, and many became so not by “merit”, but by gaming the system, with the help of the politicians, and grabbing more than their share of the commonwealth as private wealth.
The commonwealth doesn’t just include what can be monetised or marketised or privatised and converted into exchange value. It includes the wealth of symbolic forms and other artefacts that are broadly deemed “public domain”. An example of the current attack on the public domain or commonwealth was the reported attempt to copyright the traditional song “Happy Birthday”, also reflected in the attempt of the Conservative Party of Canada to exploit and expropriate the legacy of Terry Fox for partisan purposes.
These things may seem like small potatoes, but they are events which reflect a broader problem — the rapid fracture and disintegration of the commonwealth by private or partisan interests. Everybody today expresses concern for the contraction or narrowing of the so-called “middle class”, while few seem to make the connection that, if the middle class is contracting or springing leaks all over the place, it is also due to a “deficient perspectivism” which fails to see how the “middle class” is supported by the surrounding or underlying commonwealth, as a boat is kept afloat by the sea.
“Proletarianisation” of consciousness can take many forms, not just the explicit form that was the perversions of Stalinism or Maoism. At root, that was Orwell’s great fear in Animal Farm or in 1984. This proletarianisation of consciousness is what lies hidden in the term “mass society” or “herd mentality”, or in the current term “the Precariat“. The Precariat is, in fact, a symptom of the disintegration of the commonwealth itself — the draining of the sea. The problem of socioeconomic inequality has very little to do with “merit”, and much more to do with the pillaging of the commonwealth by rigging the game or gaming the system. And it is a serious problem, because it was one of the chief symptoms of the decline and fall of the Roman Republic — everyone grabbing, or attempting to grab, more than their equitable and fair share of the commonwealth. The notion of “citizenship” includes one’s birthright as a share in the commonwealth, so the shift in emphasis and accent from “citizenship” to “consumerism” or clientelism is propaganda in support of privatising the commonwealth, which is dissolution of the commonwealth.
The Proletariat in Rome was a class that was considered fit only to exploit for labour and to breed new labourers — breeding and serving. Karl Marx considered the labouring classes in the capitalist system as a new proletariat, and his philosophy was really about emancipating the working classes from the condition of proletarianisation or “alienation”. In implementation, however, the exact opposite occurred in Stalinism or Maoism — the individual was proletarianised. Marx was turned on his head, as it were. But then, Russia and China were both feudal and serf societies, so that “proletarianisation” probably looked like industrialisation, modernisation, and progressive. They really weren’t Marxian revolutions at all. They were modernising revolutions that ruthlessly attacked everything considered “backward” and everyone and everything that didn’t conform to the notion of “modern”.
One of the ironies of China’s contemporary history is that Confucianism was violently attacked for having kept China weak, vulnerable, and backward relative to Europe or Japan, which underwent its own “modernisation” during the Meiji Period. Confucianism is a very conservative philosophy. The Maoists set out to liquidate everything and everyone tainted by Confucianism through the Cultural Revolution. Today, Confucius has been rehabilitated and restored. China, today, promotes its political and economic model as the most appropriate model for the global era through its Confucius Institutes. Yet many people stupidly believe that what is in fact an extremely conservative and even reactionary philosophy is “communism”.
The failure of Marxism as a political system was really the failure to overcome the condition of proletarianisation and alienation. It wasn’t about economics. Russia and China today are modern industrial states or an economic powerhouse. In just a couple of generations, they went from medieval societies to putting men and women into space. The price for that “leap” was horrendous. But the theory and practice of revolution — that is probably the chief cultural export of the West.
We shouldn’t be so glib about this ourselves. Behind phrases like “human resources” or “human capital” is also a theme of proletarianisation. A proletariat existed in the condition of industrial capitalism and in Rome because while it contributed to the commonwealth, it received no share in that commonwealth in return. So, we should be very concerned about schemes that seek to disenfranchise or privatise (through copyright, austerity, privatisation, etc) the commonwealth, and which have as a result the psychological problem of alienation. In some crucial ways, the problem of alienation and the issue of “the culture of narcissism” are quite intertwined. “Survivalism” is also a reflection of alienation, and of the disintegration of the commonwealth.
Blake’s formula for politics and the good society is actually quite profound, in a few words. “The Arts and all things in common” attests to the great value of building up the “commonwealth” or “public domain”, but preserves the dignity and integrity of the individual as the free Imagination and free creativity, and the greatest individuals as being those who contribute the most to the commonwealth, not those who accumulate more or most of the commonwealth to themselves.
Our social philosophy is so wrong-headed, so topsy-turvey, that I can’t see how it cannot result finally in complete breakdown and collapse.