I am “bread-pilled” by Kropotkin’s vision of social utopia
I just finished reading The Conquest of Bread by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921). The book inspired Catalonia syndicalists in the Spanish Civil War; it motivated the Occupy movement but still… I wasn’t expecting anything, I thought I’d be very bored because the book was written in 1892, I was sure it was going to be outdated, irrelevant but, instead, to my surprise…
I was totally “bread-pilled,” astounded by the clear analysis of capitalism, the prophetic vision, the contagious optimism, the truthfulness, pragmatism and applicability to current events.
My favorite sections are the core depictions of what Kropotkin’s ideal society would look like. Are these scenarios actually possible in my lifetime? I believe they are, impelled by four current concerns: climate change, economic inequity, distrust in leadership, and yearning for community.
Below are three of his ideas that I regard as especially prescient:
Kropotkin criticizes the time inefficiency, fuel waste, and unfriendliness of today’s dining routine. Every night, he notes, 50 different households cook 50 different meals on 50 different stoves in 50 different kitchens to serve in 50 different dining rooms on 50 different tables. How much better it would be, he suggests, if these 50 different households cooked and ate together, using food in bulk, giants pots, just one or two stoves and a single long table. A communal kitchen and dining area. Energy, time, and expense would be hugely slashed, new friendships would be established, schemes and dreams would be shared.
In my twenties I regularly attended two community meals in Davis, California, and nowadays I volunteer for Food Not Bombs, preparing food for the homeless in People’s Park (Berkeley). Eating communally is thrifty and fun!
Internationally, communal kitchens seem to be most prevalent today in Brazil, Tamil Nadu (India), and Australia and in the Sikh langar. But really, they could and should be everywhere.
Squatting / Expropriation of Empty Dwellings for Housing
Kropotkin believes (as I do) that everyone deserves a decent dwelling to live in, and he noted that there is plenty of acceptable housing for everyone. The compassionate revolutionist saw the injustice of aristocrats meandering through their spacious palaces while working families in Paris and London slums were squished 8–10 per room in decrepit hovels. Kropotkin advocated for peaceful expropriation of the wealthy accommodations, to benefit the general public.
This situation is the same today. In San Francisco there are a reported 8,000 homeless people and 40,000 vacant homes. This doesn’t even include the thousands of empty rooms in public buildings or the unslept-in bedrooms in 5–9 bedroom mansions of wealthy widows and widowers now residing alone. (yes, my grandmother was one of them)
Let’s legalize squatting. Instead of tents crowding our sidewalks and parks, the un-housed people can and should be housed in vacant buildings.
Mutual Aid (solidarity not charity)
Kropotkin, as a biologist, saw collaboration between animals (including humans) as the most important factor in their ability to survive. He defined cooperation for the common good, i.e., solidarity, as “mutual aid.” His realization that this delivers the highest guarantee for survival counteracts the brutal “survival of the fittest” notion that was (and still is) used as a justification for colonialism, hierarchies, capitalism, and war.
Mutual aid appeals to me because I direct a nonprofit (Humanist Global Charity), that frequently causes huge frustration. Recipients of charity, I notice, are sometimes impelled by the philanthropic system to compete against each other for funding. Instead of aiding poor neighbors who also need help, recipients might send me emails claiming their neighbors are lying, misusing funds, fraudulent, secretly-rich-but-greedy, etc.
Kropotkin inspired me to move away from charity, and promote mutual aid instead, by helping only collectives that are willing to assist everyone in their community. We’ve now established mutual aid groups in India, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, and we’re helping already-existing mutual aid groups in Myanmar, Appalachia, and the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux.
More A+ Ideas
Are Kropotkin’s two ideas listed above… unreasonably radical? Are they ludicrous, absurd, too far out, beyond-the-fringe? Amazingly, they are probably the most mild suggestions in The Conquest of Bread. Communal kitchens and squatting are just little appetizers before the magnificent entrees of his anarcho-communist banquet.
His other egalitarian ideas to tenderly chew on include a 5-hour work day, equalization of all wages, abolition of money, abolition of private property, abolition of government, and — of course — abolition of capitalism, replaced by gift economy & mutual aid that has as its singular goal, “well-being for all.”
Kropotkin presents all these propositions with such impeccable statistics and logic, I thought my brain was going to explode.
Take the bread-pill, if you dare. The consequence is psychedelic. You won’t see the world the same afterwards. You will see the possibilities that Kropotkin saw.
You will envision a vastly superior potential political reality — a caring and sharing society, free of hierarchies and exploitation, contributing what we have because it feels good and right and natural, flying joyously in community with each other like a dazzling flock of starlings in harmonious leader-less murmurations.