S. E. Parker, Donald Rooum, Nicholas Albery, Adrian Williams, Joe Wright, John Murrell, Trevor Blake: Letters

Apropos your reply to the letter from Bob Black regarding Stirner. What you seem to me to be saying is that if someone tells you he has a ‘commitment to truth’ you will take any statement he makes as ‘true,’ whereas if someone says he has no such ‘commitment’ you will take any statement he makes as untrue. Surely, however, it is up to you to determine whether you have been told ‘the truth’ or not, instead of being swayed by the mere utterance of a verbal formula? – an utterance, moreover, that is ten a penny among those whose ‘sincerity’ is usually the most suspect? By what criterion do you decide that truth-telling is less likely among those who regard it as an expediency than among those who tremulously assert it as a ‘moral duty’? Nothing is more common in my experience than moralists violating their own professions, and I see no reason to suppose they do this less in respect of truth-telling than in other respects.

Incidentally, I do find it funny that you now see as ‘fun’ a book which, on your own admission, you have wrestled with ‘off and on for over a decade.’ That you found it so discomfiting over such a length of time does not sound much ‘fun’ to me.
Yours etc. S.E. Parker

We could hardly ask for a more complete confirmation of our final (so far) solution of the Stirner problem: that it is impossible to take seriously both the bulk of his book and his repudiation of a commitment to truth. This letter argues that we ought not allow the repudiation of commitment to truth to influence us; it takes the bulk of the book seriously and consequently finds itself obliged to deny the force of the repudiation.

All of us, Mr. Parker included, start with the assumption that people are telling the truth; we have to do this or communication breaks down. In particular cases evidence appears obliging us to doubt the assumption (sometimes to exchange it for the contrary), and expressed repudiation of a commitment to truth constitutes such evidence.
No, we did not find Stirner fun so long as we continued trying to take seriously both the bulk of his book and his repudiation of commitment to truth. Now we do, and we invite Mr. Parker and his fellow Stirnerians to share our enjoyment.

The Fertile Crescent was supposed for a long time to be the one place where agriculture originated. This was largely because it was the first place to be investigated archaeologically. Later investigations have uncovered ten areas of agriculture based on different crop plants: Northern China, South East Asia, India, Uzbekistan, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa, Central America, and the Andes. As the idea spread within each of these areas, the plants which were cultivated also spread. It seems unlikely that the idea would spread anywhere without the plants (for instance, that cultivation of wheat in the Mediterranean should give rise to the cultivation of potatoes in the Andes), and it is now generally accepted that there were several independent ‘cradles of agriculture.’ The oldest agricultural site so far dated is in Cambodia; the cultivar was rice.

It is interesting that monarchy, the scheme of social organisation in which supreme command is given to a sacred individual, was instituted in all the agricultural areas, and seems like agriculture itself to have started several times, independently. Writing was invented at least three times though alphabetic writing was invented only once.
On the basis of correlation (without attempting a causal hypothesis) agriculture and monarchy seem to belong together. They did not, however, begin at the same time. Cultivation appears to have been going on for at least a thousand years before the first monarchies were established.

Humanity is now in a period of transition to a third way of making our livings. Yes, I know history books say the industrial revolution occurred some time ago, but the pace of invention is accelerating. Foraging society was in equilibrium for tens of thousands of years. Agricultural society was in equilibrium for thousands of years. Industrial society has not yet reached equilibrium, and if ever it does we have no reliable clues about what it will be like.

Social institutions are still monarchic, except that instead of the monarch claiming a divine mandate, the quasi-monarch claims a popular mandate. Bigger changes than that seem likely.
Yours etc. Donald Rooum, London.
References David Bellamy Botanic Man Hamlyn 1978; Anthony Huxley Green Inheritance Collins 1984; David Diringer The Alphabet CUP 1950.

We should have known better. That ‘can be said with some confidence to have originated in the Fertile Crescent’ in IC 57 was asking for a knockdown. (Though Donald’s letter supports the main theme of the piece, that European contributions have played a smaller part in social development than appears at first sight). Accepting that cultivation (which includes horticulture) long preceded monarchy, it still seems to be the case that domination in pre-monarchic forms, such as chieftainship and perhaps the big man (a very in-between stage) appeared more or less together with dependence upon cultivation; two sides of the one ideological coin.

What has gone before: IC 56 carried an article entitled Work! Who Needs It? Social Inventions No. 26 reprinted a passage and commented that the approach would not calm the riot-prone inner cities, while their own invention of a Human Scale Basic Income would do so. IC 57 replied that the comment missed the point of the article and the invention was unlikely to achieve what was claimed for it. IC 56 and 57 are both available (please enclose a couple of stamps for each) and so is Social Inventions 26 [address].

Thanks very much for the debate about your no-work ideas and our Human Scale Basic Income proposals. In your previous article you did seem to argue that the tendency to take what one wants without working is the natural tendency, the supreme fulfilment of wishes, motivating every one of us, although some have repressed it. However overlaid since with other pro-work ideologies, presumably this implies that for all to rid themselves of this repression (a word with negative connotations) in due course would be a healthy thing to aim for. Yet in almost any imaginable complex society there will be some ‘work’ that needs doing – e.g. activities that not enough volunteers can be found to do – and it seems ethical to avoid adding to people’s repressions by sharing out this work as far as possible. It also seems sensible for politicians to do so, as otherwise the workers, however much they appear to ‘enjoy’ working, are going to resent the increasing numbers of non-workers.

Furthermore, the unemployed inner city kids in Los Angeles and elsewhere seem to me to need a sense that they can have a creative effect on their neighbourhoods without burning and looting. They may be work-free, but, unless to burn and loot is to ‘create,’ they hardly fit your category of non-workers of whom you write: ‘all of them create and many do so in an artistic sense, but they do so for private satisfaction, for their own pleasure or that of the small group with whom each one of us is personally identified.’

This ‘small group with whom each one of us is personally identified’ describes my vision of a neighbourhood of the future – perhaps a street of 500 or so people that has become like a loose network of friends (and enemies!) where you can be known, recognised and valued. The Human Scale Basic Income would be like a mini-Arts Council, where the distinction between what most people today would call work and non-work would be very much blurred; you could come to it and propose something you wanted to do, from a street party to starting a rock band, and the elected locals would say yea or nay as to whether this qualified you for your basic income (which would be like a luxury dole rate, with a normal dole rate which those not wishing to take part could fall back on). If you couldn’t think of something worth doing, the Council could propose jobs to you. There are many ways it could all be administered and financed, from schemes costing the same as present social security system (by further taxing employed non-participants) to much more luxurious versions, but the main principle is to give control of the social security behemoth to people locally who know each other and can make a better estimation of each other’s real needs and abilities.

Such a close neighbourhood may be some people’s nightmare, as they think back to claustrophobic villages of the past. But TV and cars are now destroying the vestiges of community, and there needs to be a force working in the other direction. Giving neighbourhoods real power over the distribution of social security money would do this. There would need to be safeguards: such as entrenched human rights and a right to ’emigrate’ to other neighbourhoods that more suited one’s lifestyle.
Yours etc. Nicholas Albery (Editor, Social Inventions) London.

Visions are like tastes; we each have our own and there’s little point in arguing about them. Discussion has to start from common ground – the world we live in, the way it changes, the limits it imposes and the opportunities it offers. A life without repression might be healthy – since nobody is known to have lived one it’s hard to be sure – but anybody who has changed a baby’s napkin knows it would be unpleasant for those around. Social life depends upon repression of primal tendencies and a great many people have repressed their tendency to live without working, repressed it so thoroughly that they now need work for happiness. Others continue to display, so far as circumstances permit, the original inclination away from work (or at least not towards it). For some 10,000 years the pro-work people have dominated, enabling humanity to realise a wide range of its potentialities. They have achieved this at the cost of imposing work on those not inclined towards it, but with mechanisation, automation and computers, the need for all to work becomes less acute. The way things are going the pro-work people will soon find it no trouble at all to maintain the others and may even be glad of the occupation. With each group living in the way it preferred, why should either feel resentment? Rather a touch of smugness, the attitude of the professional to the laity on one side, of the leisured to the worker on the other.

What needs doing, beyond provision of the biological necessities, is, and seems likely to remain, matter for debate, with the capacity of the planet, rather than any failure of human productivity, setting the limits. Already millions of nonworkers are being maintained, but they include many who would rather work, they suffer intentional deprivation and imposed inferiority; small wonder that a few of them occasionally go on the rampage.

To speak as if the unemployed and the rioters do not create is to discount the greater part of their lives. They, like everybody else, engage in creative activity every time they cook a meal, take part in a conversation, join in a game or select their clothes to produce an effect. Directed as it is towards personal satisfaction rather than public service or improvement of the neighbourhood, this panhuman creativity does not win the approval of the Social Inventions people. They do not fully respect the life in which creativity remains personal, they want to impose socially-directed activity (work) upon it. This disvaluation of (to use their word) a ‘lifestyle’ more deeply rooted in history than their own, and far more popular, limits the value of their Basic Income proposals.

Everyday experience shows that few of us, perhaps none, identify personally with as many as five hundred people. Personal response is limited to those we know as persons – kin, lovers, friends, perhaps some of the closer neighbours – and these seldom number much over about fifty. Outside this circle we deal less with persons than with social roles, with shopkeepers, employers, fellow-workers, policemen, strangers, more distant neighbours and so on; here one person often gets replaced by another without much affecting our response. These impersonal figures represent society, and internalisation of responsibility towards them comes as part of the ideological transition that brings a need to work; people not having taken this step may also treat society in the approved fashion – for the most part they do – but from expediency rather than on principle.

They remain free of commitment to any group outside their personal circle, complying with its requirements only so long as it suits them to do so, and this brings us back to the question asked in IC 57, still to be answered: Under the arrangements proposed by Social Inventions, what happens when compliance is refused? These new, smaller, neighbourhoods are to have ‘real power over the distribution of social security money.’ This suggests the withholding of social security payments from recalcitrants, an action likely to calm the inner cities the way petrol puts out a fire.

Modern technology offers escape from the ancient curse, enabling us to choose whether to sweat for our bread or not. This is now the big opportunity, but it does not rule out immediate improvements in other areas. The Institute has reported some of its ideas working successfully, and the Human Scale Basic Income proposals may well have an important contribution to make, although they do seem to need more thought.

I was pleased to see the article on correspondences between s.i. and post-modernism in IC 55 because I have pondered them myself, though I only know enough about post-modernism to add one thing to the comparison.

One sentence in the article has bothered me. Towards the end the author says ‘For s.i. offers a system of thought in itself and enjoys the coherence of its structure of assumptions and of its self-definition.’ Does this perhaps omit a significant feature? S.i maintains that self-contradiction permeates the ideological system, appearing with increasing clarity towards the eidodynamic extreme and attaining acceptance in s.i. itself, where the assertion that nothing is absolutely true ascribes relative truth to both sides of every contradictory pair. Although coherent, s.i. is also explicitly self-contradictory. This is set out in the short item ‘Contradiction’ in IC 54, but that falls far short of an adequate treatment. This basic point is rarely mentioned in IC and I don’t know where to find a comprehensive treatment of it.

As far as I know post-modern theorists will find and display the contradictions in any wide-ranging theory (the sort that social theorists call grand theories) but they never make the leap to acknowledging that all such theories must be self-contradictory and a theory as comprehensive as s.i. must be explicitly so. The most that they are likely to say is that finding all theories to be self-contradictory leads to an acceptance of the legitimacy of many points of view. Conversely, the critics of post-modernism are likely to say that it leads to paralysis of thought and an inability to judge other people’s proposals for political action. Can we have some comment?
Yours etc. Adrian Williams, London.

I well understand the grounds for Adrian Williams’ concern; as he says, post-modern theorists ‘will find and display the contradictions in any wide-ranging theory.’ S.i. recognises and accepts contradiction, and I had in mind an inclusive coherence which took this into account. The various meanings of ‘coherent’ given in the Shorter Oxford centre around the idea of sticking together, and few things do this more consistently than the poles of a contradiction. Not ‘contradictory’ but rather ‘incoherent’ is the antonym of ‘coherent.’ I understand s.i., taken as a text, to provide a coherence that incorporates contradictions. In comprehending the various ideological archetypes it embraces also their contradictions, recognising contradiction as the source of change and development. Derrida’s work seems relevant here; that is not an easy text to read, but if I understand it correctly it uses this conception of contradiction coherently presented; it has to do so to be comprehensible.
Yours etc. Diana Keller (Israel).

Thank you for sending the complimentary copies of IC; I’ve now taken out a subscription. I must say, though, that I was seriously put off by the opening sentences of your leaflet Exploring Ideology: ‘Ideology used to mean false consciousness, distorted thinking, and inability to change. For Marx, it meant reaction.’ As an example of cramming the maximum amount of rubbish into the smallest possible space, this takes the biscuit.

Ideology was one of the intellectual by-products of the 18th century Enlightenment. (Elemens d’Ideologie, by Destutt de Tracy, came out between 1800 and 18l5; Thomas Jefferson hoped that it would become a handbook for students and statesmen.) It was essentially an attempt to bring to bear a small number of simple ideas on the problems of human development and betterment, and is behind most of the progressive thinking of the 19th Century, including Marxism. Your description could hardly be more of an absolute travesty.

The German Ideology by Marx and Engels is not a condemnation of ideology as such, but an attack on a particular German ideology, which M & E found reactionary… I really do think you ought to have another shot at defining what IDEOLOGY is.
Yours etc. Joe Wright (Eastbourne).

‘Travesty’ we might have pleaded guilty to, but an ‘absolute’ one never. With a couple of obvious exceptions, everything said in this letter is accepted; the only puzzle is why the writer should think he is contradicting or challenging the leaflet Exploring Ideology. This does not say that ideology originally meant false consciousness etc., only that at some unspecified period it used to do so; that period in fact began well after de Tracy wrote. Our own copy of his book is the second edition (Volume 1 dated 1804). To judge from that Joe Wright’s comments are fully justified, though a more extended account of the origins of the concept would need to take account of Condillac, Cabanis, Helvetius and perhaps some others. Similarly with The German Ideology; the letter speaks truly and does not contradict the leaflet. To stress that De Tracy’s concept of ideology was indeed a long way ‘behind’ most 19th Century progressive thinking would be a tricky play on words, but it is legitimate to point out that Marx, in particular, was far ahead of him.

The leaflet contains no definition of ideology; definitions as they appear in dictionaries may often be helpful, but no snappy sentence can encapsulate what is now meant by ideology. Everything published in connection with systematic ideology, from Walsby’s Domain of Ideologies in 1947 to Beyond Politics and this issue of IC constitutes an extended definition of ‘ideology’ as used in this study. We’re not finished yet, and in the course of this activity that meaning will change. The implication throughout the letter, that ideology remains the same yesterday, today and forever, comes strangely from one writing on behalf of Marxism, a theory holding that thinking varies historically and (on hopelessly insufficient evidence) that it does so in a way fundamentally determined by development of the means of production.

On the article Science in its Place, in IC 57. It could be that science is in a different place from everyday life. In fact this must be so, because you are competent to switch on a light bulb but not to design an improved one. Skinner says that science is recorded observation, prediction and control of phenomena. That leaves out theory, which acts as a store of data and an explanation of it which generates successful prediction.

Also science, all science (I think) is statistical. Physical sciences use lots of molecules and the results misleadingly get described as unitary – i.e. if 90% of iron molecules in a lump get rusty in dampness then we say ‘iron rusts.’ In social science the proportions are lower and the error-margins greater, because we use fewer subjects. Improvements in precision of predictions are then frequently logical and not directly quantitative. Also, if predictions are statistical and in everyday life we are faced with unitary events, then we have to make a logical leap from proportions to probability. For example, I could survey 10,000 men and find that red-headed men admit to being bad-tempered more often than do men with hair not red. That is how the Daily Mirror would report it. If the proportion I find is 52% of red-headed men making this admission and I set a high level of certainty I will get a margin of error of 2%. 52% would be my point estimate, and while this might be theoretically useful it’s not helpful in real-world action.

Proportion to probability. Given my 52%, if you were faced with one red-headed man you might expect a 0.52 probability of his proving bad-tempered. That’s poor logic but the best use of the data. I think Bertrand Russell says that theory is probabilistic but action is certain.

I might be able to improve my precision by subdividing red-heads into orphans and non-orphans. Then I might find that red-headed orphans may say they’re bad-tempered in 98% of cases and the others in 40%. That would improve precision but not usefulness because we generally don’t know whether people are orphans or not.
You also omit objectivity as a sine qua non of science. That’s easy to do in physics but it’s important in social science. One final remark: I think you’re sliding towards probability in social science in your last paragraph, when you speak of ‘a complex of tendencies restraining but not prohibiting’… Observed proportions are facts, predictions are probabilities.
Yours etc. John Murrell (Oxford).

With all respect to Dr. Skinner, neither prediction, control nor recorded observation is distinctive of science. Fortune-telling predicts, management controls, a secretary records. The difference, between ‘hard’ science and the studies known as social sciences, does not seem to arise only from use of fewer subjects. When (for example) some sociologists accept Marxism while others, rejecting it, reach different conclusions, whose work are we to accept – and why?

The outline of ideological sets (IC 56 p.2) gives each a name, lists a few main qualities, and a few representative examples that can be read to indicate when they’ve occurred in history. I think that’s the way it should be, because it emphasizes the nesting nature of the sets, each blossoming from the center of the previous one but not cancelling it out. However, in the eidodynamic ‘Revolution’ set you’ve added: ‘Attempts to impose Marxist communism but fails for lack of support.’ I don’t see any other place where you cancel out a set, and I think this one is out of place…

Some might think the progression of ideologies in ‘MEET S.I.‘ implies that those closer to the ideology of ideology are somehow ‘better’ than the others… Adding the third paragraph from ‘The Ideological Pyramid’ to the side-bar of ‘MEET S.I.‘ might thwart that misinterpretation. I’d suggest replacing the word ‘development’ with ‘complexity,’ which I see as being more neutral…

I envision the systematic ideological model as concentric rings rather than a pyramid, with expediency being the larger outer ring and ideology of ideology closer to the center. From this I envisioned a stone dropped in a pool, with the first waves moving out from it being expediency, then principle, etc….

The quote from an Albanian (IC 56 p.4) reminds me of one from a child in one of the English experimental free-form schools: ‘Do we have to do anything we want to again today?’

Reading Angles on Anarchism my first thought was ‘Now I don’t have to write it’… I shall be sending a few dollars so you can send copies to a friend or two who will also enjoy it… I think another possible ‘proof’ of a systematic ideological interpretation of anarchism is the fact that the anarchist ‘movement’ exists for the most part (at least in North America) as anarchist magazines that are usually circulated among other anarchist magazine publishers. This is a movement high on theory, low on practice or precedent…

I enjoyed Beyond Politics, and was convinced there was enough overlap in s.i. and my views that the two could be merged (until something better knocks them all loose again).
Yours etc. Trevor Blake

There’s no rule that says we mustn’t report the bouquets as well as the brick-bats. The suggestions in the first two paragraphs are bang on and have been adopted. (We have given only extracts).

from Ideological Commentary 58, November 1992.