Author Archive

18
Feb

Revisiting Patriarchy and Hegemony

 

By Martha Sonnenberg
Tikkun.org

I was 24 years old in 1970, when I read Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, a year younger than she was when she wrote the book. The book catapulted me from the limitations of the Left organization of which I was a member into the world of Women’s Liberation.  There was no going back once I saw and felt the chauvinism of the Left, how women’s issues were  seen as tangential to the more important priorities of  “real” radical politics, rather than seeing feminism as “central and directly radical in itself.” Women in my organization typically played a supportive role to the men, the theorists, the writers, the speakers—we made coffee, mimeographed pamphlets, passed out the pamphlets, sometimes we spoke at meetings, and even had a women’s caucus within the organization, but, as Firestone told us, we were still “in need of male approval, in this case anti-establishment male approval, to legitimate (ourselves) politically”.

When Shulamith Firestone died, at the age of 67, in 2013, ravaged by mental illness and forgotten by many, her sister, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone said in her eulogy, “She influenced thousands of women to have new thoughts, to lead new lives.  I am who I am, and a lot of women are who they are, because of Shulie.”  I was one of those women.

Recently, I took my dog eared copy of The Dialectic of Sex down from my bookshelf as the #MeToo movement evolved, and was once again astounded by the incendiary brilliance of the book, now nearly 50 years old.  Shulamith Firestone was the first, and maybe the only, to probe the depths to which a misogynistic patriarchy permeated our society, developing a concept of a “sexual class system” which ran deeper than economic, racial, or social divisions.  With prescient analytical perspective, she placed the traditional family structure at the core of women’s oppression.  She wrote, “Unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biologic family—the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled—the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated.”  While the establishment press characterized her ideas as preposterous, many of her notions of how patriarchal social organization would be “uprooted” have come to realization—in vitro fertilization, how children are socialized, children’s rights,  gay rights and the legalization of  gay marriage, the whole LGBTQ movement, ending traditional marriage roles,  the freeing of gender identity from biologic destiny.  And it is within the context of these historical developments, upending the socio-economic buttress of traditional gender roles and identities that #MeToo has emerged. These factors have given #MeToo  a power and force that previous “waves” of women’s liberation lacked, not because previous issues or efforts were any less important, but because they were unable to reach women in all levels of society, transcending class, race, profession, and age. #MeToo , with its revelations of the ubiquity of abuse and violence against women,has reached all these women.  Importantly, too, it  is a movement that began not with “leaders”, but from grass roots in communities all across the country, and, in fact, all across the world.

The history of #MeToo has been obscured by the media frenzy that concurrently emerged.  Tarana Burke, an African American woman, created a non-profit organization called Me Too in 2006, to help women of color who had been sexually abused or assaulted. This was not about naming perpetrators or holding them accountable; it was only to give the affected women a voice. This, the media ignored.  But in 2017 two things happened which did get media attention:  The New York Times published revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of Hollywood women, and following that, an actress, Alyssa Milano, who became aware of Tarana Burke’s work, wrote in social media, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”  What followed was the flooding of social media with stories of abuse and harassment, and a way for women to tell their experience and stand in solidarity with other abuse survivors. In the first 24 hours of Milano’s post, more than 12 million “MeToo” posts appeared.   All these aspects of #MeToo, its mass base and its revelation of the pervasive and perverse alignment of misogyny and power, make it dangerous to the established power structure.  Not surprisingly, that power structure has responded quickly in its attack on #MeToo.

Power and patriarchy defends itself

Efforts to maintain current power structures and cultures take multiple forms.  One of the most insidious forms of preserving the current power relationships lies with the established media.  While the “media” is not an autonomous entity, the individuals who contribute to it, the writers, the pundits, the “newsmakers”, promote in various ways the dominant culture of institutionalized sexism, and the undermining of #MeToo.  It does so in the following ways:

1) It focuses on individuals, primarily celebrities or people of power—thus, the “Harvey Weinstein” phenomenon, which unleashed multiple “outings” of famous  men who abused, assaulted or harassed women.  The focus on individuals took public attention away from the mass movement underlying #MeToo.  It made the problem one of famous “bad apples”, and ignored the systemic problems that #MeToo was revealing–not about famous people, but about abuse, violence and harassment in all workplaces, in families, in doctors’ offices, in schools, in churches and temples and mosques.

2) It separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. If there are “Bad Apples” among men, then the rest of them must be “Good Apples.”  There followed a flurry of more articles by men who professed their support of feminism, and who proclaimed they had never abused anyone, or weren’t aware that such abuse existed.  One is reminded of the white liberals who professed themselves free of racism, like the father in the film “Get Out”: “I would have voted for Obama a third time!” A few of these “good apples”, however, got caught in the media’s attention: Louis C.K., John Conyers, Al Franken. How, liberal pundits fretted, could #MeToo, take down such good guys? And it was true: none of these men had raped women. But they had engaged in various behaviors that would be considered harassing, from masturbation in front of women, to imposing unwanted kisses, to taking “comic” photographs touching the breast of a sleeping woman.  The pundits protested that these men were talented, creative, politically progressive men, and some allowance should be made. But when all was said and done, these protests were nothing more than a liberal version of the “Boys will be boys” meme, a widely held enabler of rape culture, and once again, left the underlying problems intact and unquestioned.

3) It focuses on consequences and punishment of these individuals, implying that once individuals were punished, or otherwise held accountable, the problem would be solved–A few firings, new policies, maybe some reforming legislation, and the problem would go away.  These punishments, however, also left the dominant power relationships and the social-psychology of misogyny/patriarchy unchallenged.

The anti-#MeToo “feminists”

In response to all of the above, a new wave of punditry evolved, this time mostly from other women, many calling themselves feminists, who attacked #MeToo for being a ”witch hunt”, “McCarthyism” and yes, totalitarian.  The most blatant example of this was the letter from 100 French women to Le Monde, and famously signed by Catherine Deneuve.  #MeToo was castigated for enslaving  women “to a status of eternal victim,” and further victimizing the  men “who’ve been disciplined in the workplace, forced to resign…when their only crime was to touch a woman’s knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about “intimate” things during a work meal, or send sexually charged messages to women who did not return their interest.”  This has led, the letter stated, “to a climate of totalitarian society.” The letter further defended the “freedom to offend” as essential to artistic creation and…”we defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom.”  Women, the letter states “need not feel traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway,” but rather should consider it a “nonevent.”  In a subsequent statement, published in Liberation, Deneuve said she signed the statement because she opposed the “media lynching” of men accused of inappropriate behavior.  One writer characterized #MeToo as responsible for the same “vigilantism” that characterized the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthyism….(Continued)

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Category : Democracy | Gender | Hegemony | Women | Blog
11
Feb

 

By Rod Such

The prominent Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, author of Orientalism and The Question of Palestine, admired the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci for his views on cultural hegemony. What might have transpired if these two intellectual giants were able to collaborate on strategy and tactics for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005, two years after Said’s death and 68 years after Gramsci’s?

This essay explores Gramsci’s concepts of moral leadership, common sense and good sense, cultural hegemony, superstructure, “taking inventory,” “war of position,” and the philosophy of praxis, their influence on Said’s thinking, and their relevance to the BDS movement. Underpinning this exploration, I seek to answer whether a Marxist or socialist perspective on BDS is even needed, let alone desired. Why is it not enough that socialists simply answer the call of Palestinian civil society and find ways to support the BDS movement in practical activity? Does Marxist theory contribute anything of importance to this movement? The conclusion reached is that both Gramsci and Said left behind a legacy that provides invaluable insights and reasons for why and how BDS can succeed in Western capitalist countries, particularly the United States, and become part of a global Intifada that works in tandem with Palestinian resistance on the ground in Palestine.

Marxism is unique as a philosophy that goes beyond merely interpreting the world by announcing that its intention is to change the world. This essay, therefore, also explores a three-year-long BDS campaign in Portland, Oregon. The goal is to determine if the Gramscian-Said legacy might have helped guide it. A dialectical relationship exists between theory and practice in which neither is complete without the other. Theory guides practice, and practice in turn deepens, corrects, and enriches theory. Theoretical precepts, according to this view, must be tested in the laboratory of human activity.

Moral Leadership, Hegemony, and ‘Good Sense ‘vs. ‘Common Sense’

Gramsci’s concept of “moral leadership” is apt in this context. For Gramsci the working class was “economist” if it spoke only for itself. He urged Italy’s Socialist Party and later its Communist Party to take up the “Southern Question”—that is, the plight of the peasantry, particularly in the less-industrialized southern part of Italy. But Gramsci was not content with just a worker-peasant alliance. He called for the working-class parties to provide “moral leadership” for all “subalterns,” who he defined as anyone in a subordinate position in capitalist society or what today we would call the 99 percent.

Similarly, in his book Orientalism Said stakes out a viewpoint of moral leadership in his underlying theme of challenging the way Western colonialism and its literature dehumanized and denied agency to colonized peoples. Said’s critique of the West’s conception of the Orient is ultimately based on a radical understanding and rejection of the notion of superior cultures, placing the “Orientalist” framework firmly in the context of colonialism and imperialism.

Gramsci’s notions of common sense and good sense are intimately linked to his idea of cultural hegemony and superstructure. For Gramsci the advanced capitalist countries enforced their rule and control not just through the repressive state apparatus—the police, the courts, the prisons, the military—but also through the institutions that emerge in civil society. The state apparatus is primarily based on force and coercion to maintain capitalist rule while institutions of civil society—ranging from trade unions to churches to the media to what we call today nongovernmental organizations—often help manufacture consent with the established order of things rather than challenge that order.

The notion of cultural hegemony derives in part from Marx’s famous dictum in The German Ideology: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Gramsci pondered why workers succumb to these ruling ideas when their class interests are diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists. He invoked the ideas of common sense and superstructure to explain how ruling class ideas establish hegemony over society at large and make it seem as though the capitalist order is merely the common sense outcome of human affairs.

In a sense Gramsci anticipated by nearly 100 years Thomas Frank’s exploration in his best-selling What’s the Matter with Kansas of why voters in the state of Kansas, once a center of abolitionism and agrarian socialism, voted against their own economic interests by embracing the Republican Party’s social agenda.

To establish this cultural hegemony and to keep it functioning smoothly, the ruling class also helps sustain a superstructure, such as the academy, civil society organizations, and the media, to ensure that its ideas remain supreme. The chief architects of “common sense”are our media and academic pundits who manage to disguise or obscure the systemic nature of capitalist oppression and exploitation. People learn to embrace and accept ideas contrary to their own interests because they are surrounded daily by a virtual gestalt of hegemonic ideas that must be true because seemingly everyone believes them to be true. To be controversial is to be dissident, an outlier from the established order of common sense.

Edward Said and Common Sense

In The Question of Palestine and The Politics of Dispossession, Said deconstructs the “common sense” ideas that have buttressed the Israeli narrative for decades and made the existence of a Jewish state seem reasonable to many people. These include the argument that the crimes of the Holocaust left the Jewish people with no alternative but to establish a Jewish state of their own for their own protection and refuge. Palestinian resistance to Zionist displacement in the “common sense” narrative then became simply a continuation of the persecution of the Jews. Israel became heroic David to the Goliath of surrounding Arab countries, according to this hegemonic narrative.

To counter this narrative, Said applied “good sense,” as opposed to the prevailing “common sense,” unerringly dissecting every hypocrisy, lie, and contradiction within the Israeli narrative by showing how they contravened established ideas of human rights and democracy. In doing so, Said, along with many others, established the Palestinian narrative as a hegemonic alternative to the dominant paradigms.

In Orientalism, Said acknowledges the influence of Gramsci, calling out in particular the distinction Gramsci made between civil society and state institutions and the role played by civil society in establishing cultural hegemony. Said writes:

“Gramsci has made the useful analytic distinction between civil and political society in which the former is made up of voluntary (or at least rational and noncoercive) affiliations like schools, families, and unions, the latter of state institutions (the army, the police, the central bureaucracy) whose role in the polity is direct domination. Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent. In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West. It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far.”  continue

Category : Hegemony | Middle East | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
6
Jan

China’s Loose Canon

 

china-old
Qing Dynasty painting depicting Confucius presenting Buddha to Laozi

By Shaun Tan

China-US Focus

Many people are familiar with the Western canon, those core works of literature, history, and philosophy that are considered essential to the study of the subject. In the West, students of literature read Shakespeare and Cervantes, students of history read Herodotus and Thucydides, and students of philosophy read Plato and Aristotle. This canon is considered an integral part of Western civilization, and has shaped thinkers, artists, and statesmen for generations.

Yet few outside China know much about the Chinese canon, a canon that is as rich and valuable as its Western counterpart, that has been revered and reviled at different points in Chinese history, and which may be the key to consolidating the Chinese Communist Party’s authority – or destroying it.

In the field of literature, it includes what’s known as “the four great books,” The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Water Margin features 108 heroes who, renouncing a corrupt and unjust Song Dynasty, form a band of outlaws and live, Robin Hood-style, in a marsh, righting wrongs and defending the weak in accordance with their own (extremely violent) code of honor. It explores the theme of a just insurgency, with the heroes choosing to serve “the will of heaven” over the Song rule of law.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical novel, and follows the breakup of the Han Dynasty into three warring kingdoms. It relates the battles and the intrigues as the three kingdoms vie for supremacy. Its characters show strategic brilliance, nobility, and valor, but also hubris, stupidity, and self-destructive envy, in short, the full spectrum of human nature amidst triumph and disaster.

The Journey to the West is a fantastical account of the monk Tripitaka’s journey to bring Buddhism from India to China, in the company of an anarchic fighting monkey, a lustful pig demon, and a fearsome sand demon, and the adventures they have on the way. The central theme of the comic novel is the tension between temptation and virtue, between passion and discipline, as the heroes strive (or fail) to live up to Buddhist ideals.

The greatest of the four is Dream of the Red Chamber. This novel follows the doomed romance of the protagonist Baoyu with his cousin Daiyu amidst the decline and revival of the illustrious Jia family. Its excellence lies in its execution, in its witty and spirited characters, in its colorful depiction of life inside a great house peopled by relatives and servants and the complex, shifting relations between them. It is a meditation on the meaning of life, as Baoyu is caught between his natural romanticism, the stern Confucianism of his father, and the Buddhist detachment born of suffering and enlightenment. Blurring the lines between reality and illusion, it is a bittersweet tribute to youth and youth’s end.

In the field of history, the Records of the Grand Historian are widely regarded as the greatest classical work of history. Written by Sima Qian, the Records cover over two thousand years of Chinese history. Depicting rulers with all their virtues and vices, it’s the primary means by which we know of many of them today.

The Chinese philosophical canon begins with Confucius. Far from the patron saint of Asian authoritarianism, as he is so often made out to be by opportunistic Asian dictators and clueless Western commentators, Confucius actually counseled balance, reciprocal obligations between ruler and ruled, and integrity in the face of unjust authority.

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Category : China | Intellectuals | Philosophy | Blog
4
Jan

Base-Superstructure Theory (BST) is Marx’s guiding general theory, but is long misunderstood.  Deeply embedded in a monumental corpus of system-challenging analysis, it has become lost in secondary interpretations with partial takes and opposed propagandas militating against coherent comprehension. Within the last 35 years, there has also been a sea-shift of global culture to anti-foundationalist relativism which has uprooted the very idea of a common base or ground, Marx’s ‘economic base’ most vehemently of all.

By Prof. John McMurtry

MR-Online via Global Research

December 23, 2017

The Productive Base as the Ground of Society and History

One basis for life and another basis for science is an a-priori lie -–Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1845.

Within a dominant post-1991 cultural assumption that ‘Marxism is dead’, the BST has been essentially abandoned even by Marxists as ‘postmodernist’ and ‘identity politics’ tides sweep across the West. Yet Marx’s overall historical materialist principle remains intact within the academy – that the material conditions of historical societies – opposed to God or human concepts – determine human affairs. This first ontological step of Marx’s general theory repudiates the conceptual idealism of philosophy from Plato to Hegel which supposes that disembodied Ideas determine material reality, rather than the other way round.  Marx introduces this foundational principle of the BST (emphasis added as henceforth):

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, religion, or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.

This is Marx’s ‘productive base’, usually referred to as Productivkraften or ‘productive forces’.  This production beyond Nature’s available provisions increasingly “subjugates Nature to its sway” (Capital, “On the Labour Process”). Yet Marx’s work takes on the revolutionary political edge for which he is most famous in the iconic Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. Here his philosophy of society and history moves to a sweeping 10-Point social program, much of it instituted within the next century – extension of existing industrial development to state ownership, graduated income tax, free education for all children by public schools, and a national bank.  Marx’s theory has been in this way largely proven in practice against the standard assumption to the contrary.

Yet it is not until his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that Marx defines his general theory with his base-superstructure model as “the guiding thread of my studies”. Since this canonical statement carried through in Das Kapital is widely misconceived as a mechanistic determinism in which all elements of society are uniquely determined by the ruling economic system, it requires close inspection.

In the social production which men carry on”, Marx begins his paradigm statement, “they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will.

While this is usually thought to be a statement against humanity’s free will, it is more modestly a statement of unacknowledged fact about the ‘free society’ capitalism is assumed to be. Wage or salary work must be done by the great majority to stay alive “independent of their will”. Their “definite relations” are materially determined by the employer who must achieve the lowest costs with ‘no choice in the matter’. And behind this “wage slavery”, Marx emphasises in Capital, lies the further unacknowledged horrific historical fact of the “great expropriation of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour – [by] violent  and painful methods”. They must sell their labour into servitude, or they do not survive. This servitude, Marx documents, is enforced by mass hangings, mutilations, floggings, pillories, and deprivation of children.

Yet Marx acerbically rejects any kind of voluntarism as an alternative.  The mode of production that produces a society’s means of life must, he argues, be developed to a stage where the direct producers are effectively organised to historically replace the ruling capitalist system of social production.  This is why he asserts as the guiding framework of his work:

production relations must correspond to a definite stage of development of men’s material powers.

This is ‘the productive base’ on which slave-owning, feudal or capitalist social systems are raised in their turn, but which ruling cultures assume as ‘everlasting’. Marx summarizes in this central statement of his general theory that the “the totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society– the real foundation [or base] on which the legal and political superstructurearises”.

Marx is opposed to the ruling determinism, but organises the facts as they are against ‘ideological illusions’ – the essential method of his base-superstructure theory. While many claim Marx denies the autonomy of individual consciousness, or free choice, or democracy, or all at once, his master verb for superstructure determination by the economic base is entsprechen- to correspond to or comply with. This means that the state and legal institutions of a society must comply with the ruling ownership structure society’s forces of production, or be selected out as materially unviable. This is why Marx says in his Preface to Capital,

My standpoint can less than other make the individual responsible for relations for whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them (emphases again added as elsewhere).

Marx insists against most philosophy that subjectivism is incapable of understanding the real world or changing it. This is why he ridicules Kant’s ‘moral will’ as an impotent deontology that excludes consequences a-priori; and why he mocks Max Stirner’s ‘Omnipotent Ego’, neo-Hegelianism, and all commentary which revolves within “consciousness in itself”. Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach is the iconic expression of this unprecedentedly activist ontology and epistemology and the philosophical ground of his base-superstructure theory:

The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a merely scholastic question (Thesis II).

Marx would be hard on most postmodernism, analytic theory, and academia in general today, and this may be why they are all inclined to pooh-pooh Marx. Yet his BST is most easily de-mystified when reading attends to its straightforward material model – a building foundation and a superstructure raised upon it. No superstructure can stand without a foundation, and this could be called an ‘inexorable law’. But this does not mean the superstructure conforms to the base by ruling out all alternatives within its range of permission.  Nor, conversely, does it mean that the base will change in virtue of those alternatives in the mind, even if socialist.  Superstructural phenomena must, in Marx’s BST, comply with the underlying mode of production, or face strong selective pressures to extinction. Thus Marx argues that the laws, policies and state in a society correspond to the productive base to survive, and why he disparages those who think a legal proclamation will change social reality if there are not the material conditions to enable it to occur. In logical terms, Marx’s meaning may be summarized without his militant mood: legal, state and ideological phenomena must be consistent with the society’s material reproduction at the established level of society’s productive provision of means of existence, or go under.

Social Being Determines Consciousness

Marx continues his BST ‘guiding thread’ to write that “definite forms of social consciousness correspond to a society’s mode of production”. This has led to many competing interpretations, dogmas and denunciations. Yet to test it, one may ask: where is there not correspondence in global capitalism between ‘ruling forms of social consciousness’ and ‘the economic structure’?  More specifically, do we find that the dominant meanings of “freedom”, “responsibility”, “productivity”, “and “justice” are do not comply with  the capitalist system? An easy refutation would be any published conception of these anchoring normative concepts which opposes, say, the rightness of private profit, or rejects the assumption that citizens must sell their services to employers as their duty to society.

Marx continues his explanation with perhaps the most controversial sentence of his base-superstructure theory.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.

For this, Marx is held to be declaring a materialist reductionism, or the epiphenomenal nature of human thought, or denial of moral choice, or undialectical simplification, or a soulless doctrine. In fact, Marx only repudiates any theory which excludes material foundations from its understanding. Thus received philosophers and press commentary, for example, are ridiculed by Marx and more specifically, religio-moral certitudes reflecting ruling-class interests. Yet since all words and languages are social constructions, Marx’s claim is obviously true in a now accepted way. The most studied philosophers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, declare language as the “home of Being” and “the limit of thought” respectively, and contemporary etymology usually presupposes language’s social and historical nature. Marx’s claim that “social being determines consciousness” is hardly controversial today except that Marx’s BST further argues that the social is y determined by the capitalist economic structure that must and will be overthrown. In Marx’s BST terms without his militance, this line of thought is rejected by official society as unacceptable. This is how, as Marx provocatively describes it in many different contexts, a realm of illusory cover stories and concepts blinker out the capitalist system’s oppressive exploitations while purporting the highest moral motives. Consider Marx’s bitingly witty asides in this light:

The Church of England will more readily pardon an attack on its Thirty-Nine Articles than 1/39th of its income.

This is the same Marx that in The Holy Family talks of religion as the “spirit of spiritless conditions, the heart of a heartless world” – thus resonantly affirming the spirit and the heart that he is said to deny. What he is in fact castigating is the capitalist church and its rich investments, rents and hypocrisies exploiting the populace and grinding the poor. Marx’s BST analysis also lays bare the institutionalised veils of doctrine masking the cupidity of the Conservative Party and its Lords: 

“The high Tory hymns the beauties of the British Constitution, the Crown and the Law until the day of danger snatches from him the confession that he is interested only in – Ground Rent.”

Marx’s base-superstructure method of laying bare private capital gain underneath moral pomposity and the robes of religion, the constitution, and the law still applies to, say, US politicians’ invocation of ‘God’s blessing’ and ‘our sacred Constitution’ – why Marx may be so abhorred by establishments across the world.

Freedom in Marx’s Base Superstructure Theory

Long the primary reason for repudiating Marx’s base-superstructure theory has been its alleged denial of individual freedom. Yet his work from the beginning is devoted to freedom as of ultimate value, preferring Epicurus to Democritus in his doctoral thesis solely because the theory of Epicurus allowed freedom into an arbitrary “swerve” of atoms against the “far more scientific” Democritus who is a mechanist.  Yet there is an implicit principle of ‘technological determinism’ as the ultimate regulator of Marx’s base-superstructure theory.  Few understand that this position rules out the success of state seizure for socialist revolution without a developed productive base to sustain it – as history since Marx has significantly confirmed. Marx also predicts social transformation to a “many-sided” working class “ready and able to meet any change of production;” as well as technological replacement of labour to allow “free time” from “the realm of necessity” – opposite positions to a denial of human freedom.

In spite of Marx’s failed prediction of ‘inevitable revolution’ in advanced industrial societies, Marx is rather prescient in anticipating the material possibilities of freedom by technological and worker development, and how they are ‘fettered’ by the capitalist economic structure within which all lower-cost benefits of technological advances like labour-saving machinery go to capitalists  as the working day increases. Marx’s evolving productive base is throughout grounded in humanity’s distinguishing feature as a species and the origin of human freedom: “the capacity to raise a project in the head before it is constructed in reality”. (Capital, “On the Labour Process”). A socially self-directing mode of production with socialist plan is the meta version of this built-in human freedom.

This distinguishing ground of historical materialism is brought into revealing alliance with Darwin’s classical Origin of the Species when Marx connects “nature’s technology” to human society’s “organs of technology” as the ultimate basis of historical development:

Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments as of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organization, deserve equal attention? (Capital, “The Development of Machinery”).

In his still under-theorized evolutionary theory, Marx goes beyond Darwin in arguing that:

the forces of selection are increasingly social, not natural, and organic instruments are evolved by creative cooperative production, not instinctual repertoires or genes.

Marx’s base-superstructure theory is the framework within which historical as opposed to natural evolution develops, and human capacity self-realization not species reproduction numbers is its logic of advance.

Economic Determinism, Darwinian Selection and Social Revolution

Marx’s implicit principle of economic determination by extinction of what does not fit the ruling property order is evolutionary biology at the historical level, As Marx says in his Preface to Capital,

the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history. 

In fact, however, history is not a natural process as its laws are made not found in nature, and Marx’s own theory implicitly seeks human society’s supersession of nature’s ultimate law of dominance by physical force.

Yet both evolutionary and historical materialist theories recognise selection and extinction of life forms that adapt or not, survive, flourish or die, in the struggle for continued life. Marx, however, argues for the revolutionary necessity of surpassing the brutality of natural evolution by working-class overthrow of the ruling class system of “hitherto existing society” which always “pumps out surplus labour from the direct producers” to enrich masters, lords or capitalists” (Capital III, “Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent”). Marx’s ultimate goal is liberation from capitalist class rule, in his theory the last to rule society against its common interests with productive development the material base of this revolution. For Marx’s BST, however, species liberation only becomes historically possible with industrial mass production to organise it. Human survival and extinction, class domination and overthrow are based on technological development which eventually outgrows the old form of control and appropriation of society’s means of production to bring about a higher stage of society led by the direct producers themselves.

Marx’s revolutionary theory is the most controversial element of his explanatory model, and has so many versions that it helps to define its inner logic in dispassionate terms:

a social revolution in a society’s law, politics and ideology is propelled by
ever more open class struggle to
achieve a higher stage of development of the productive base of society
than the prior ruling-class economic structure can manage
without forfeit of society’s stage of material production.

In the rare periods of successful social revolution, Marx offers an original causal explanation: Only when productive force development goes beyond the fetters of the established ruling-class relations of production can a social revolution occur.  Marx’s guiding framework is concisely stated by his ‘guiding thread’ (with possible application to contemporary society in square brackets:

At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production [think of the Internet] come into conflict with the existing relations of production – or – what is but a legal expression for them – with the property relations within which they had been at work before [private -profit copyright, patent and control over published meanings]. From forms of development of productive forces, these relations [of corporate ownership profit] turn into their chains. Then occurs a period of social revolution [the creators of knowledge deciding on commons publication and open access in cumulative transition from the for-profit ‘information economy’ to the ‘knowledge commons’].

At the macro level of interface with evolutionary biology, Marx’s BST suggests new technologies as the ‘organic extensions of human society’ outgrowing the ruling ownership ‘anatomy’ to necessitate society’s transformation to a higher and more productive form.  A society, he writes in introducing Capital, is an “organism always changing” while the “birth-pangs of revolution” presuppose a long process in “the natural laws of its movement” which “can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments the obstacles involved – – but can shorten the and lessen the birth-pangs”. The underlying common ground of both disjunctive and cumulative-transition understandings of this social transformation is that any uprising social organisation of material forces must be more efficient and productive than the one now ruling . This is an understanding that has, ironically, been seized upon by counter-revolutions across the world since wherein external capitalist powers deliberately destroy socialist life bases by armed and financial means – the converse of Marx’s revolutionary theory.  Marx asserts in his definitive BST explanation:

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions have matured in the womb of the old society.

Counter-revolutions prevent this evolution of the ruling mode of production ever succeeding.

Self-Maximizing Growth and Marx’s Aporia of Productive Object

 
Marx’s base-superstructure theory implicitly recognises that the ultimate value base and driver of capitalism is the “fully developed shape [of] the money form” in terms of which all decisions of what commodities to produce and how they are produced are made solely to maximize revenue returns to private capital owners in cycles of increasing accumulation: in general formula Money-Commodity-More Money or M-C-M1 . As Marx also argues, capitalist investors are “personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests”, and so are a-priori indifferent to what life is degraded, exploited and destroyed in multiplying private money profits with no cumulative limit (Marx’s Preface, Chapter I, and Chapter  XXV of Capital).

While Marx’s BST is confirmed by capitalist history, a deep-structural issue emerges. How can Marx or his followers believe that the results of this totalizing system of life oppression, immiserization and life capital rundown must “inevitably” result in a completely opposite outcome of “social revolution”, “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?  There is no clear definition of any step of this historical vision. Most deeply, there is no answer to the question: what is the criterion of the life needs that production is ultimately for?

Marx focuses rather on the socialist logic he sees built into competing large scales of capitalist production  – “an ever-expanding scale, the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour in instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with all this the international nature of the capitalistic regime” (Capital, Chapter XXXII). Marx’s  analysis here is breathtaking in scope, but what remains absent is the underlying life base and laws of any productive force development and exponential growth. That this development must be consistent with the universal needs and capacities of humanity, its natural biosphere and fellow creatures does not enter into Marx’s base-superstructure theory as an issue (nor mainstream theories today). As with the capitalist epoch in general, technological development seems to be a secular Providence that can solve any problem.

In Capital, Marx restricts the parameters to be considered to the technology used and collective wage labour as historical agency.

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails”, he writes in his first sentence of Capital presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities.

The commodities of which all wealth consists in capitalist society are always produced in accordance with the master organising principle of their production and profit, M-C-M1 , the capitalist value-system Marx first defines. This ‘immense accumulation  of commodities’ are the values of this system in whatever form they take, and are defined in the same first page of Capital as material use-values for wants – – – whether they spring from the stomach or fancy makes no difference”. Marx underlines this criterion of commodities by his approving footnote citing Nicholas Barbou’s subjectivist principle:

Want is the appetite of the mind and as natural as hunger to the body.

It is this commodity base – and all capitalist productive forces are commodities – which constitutes the productive forces to drive the ‘inevitable proletarian revolution’.  

Since all these productive and consumer commodities are driven ex hypothesi by systemic compulsion to sell anything to moneyed desires for the lowest inputs costs and highest profits over generations, there is a problem of transition to socialism that is not met. The depredatory effects on organic and ecological life systems of these capitalist productive powers and consumables across generations are not recognised or regulated to prevent them in theory or practice. With no defined  life standards or criteria to distinguish life-destructive from life-enabling productive forces and products, how can the cumulative looting and polluting of humanity’s and other species’ life support systems by global capitalism be reversed when they are conceived as “development” even by Marx?

Marx envisions in his Grundrisse notebooks to Capital a future state in which “once the narrow bourgeois form is peeled away”, there can be “the evolution of all human powers as such unmeasured by any previously established yardstick”. But what if the ‘bourgeois form’ cannot be peeled away because it built into the productive forces themselves? The life-base standards definable at every level do not exist. In Capital Volume II, Marx is poignantly unaware of the problem when he says (emphases added):

Regardless of whether such a product as tobacco is really a consumer necessity from the physiological point of view, it suffices that it is habitually such.

We see here the relativization of life necessity to habitual wants which can drive productive forces through the human organism and the biosphere with no life-carrying capacity limits defined in even Marx’s BST.

Re-Setting Base-Superstructure Theory to the Life Ground

Marx’s base-superstructure theory begins with humanity distinguishing itself from other animals by production of the means of life. Yet ‘means of life’ disappears as a category after 1847 in Marx’s corpus, and is replaced on the first page of Capital by commodities serving desires not needs. Productive forces since increasingly mass-manufacture commodities which are disabling and addictive in their consumption – even in a communist-party society moving from mass bicycle riding to fossil-fuel motors toxifying the air and environment. Marx conceives commodities as values because they embody labour hours. Yet if we take into account the life and life capital effects of industrial commodities from extraction through processing to product through consumer bodies to wastes through the biosphere  – all in motion in Marx’s day – a darker picture emerges than ‘productive force development’ and ‘‘immense wealth of commodities’ to ground socialist revolution. Nowhere does any measure of life capital enter into theory or measure. True productive value measured by the yardstick of life capacity gained versus lost is not conceived.  As in capitalism before and since, the “precision of natural science” Marx attributes to “the material mode of production” lacks any criteria which we may call life capital standards to meet this fatal problem.  Life-degrading commodities and machines cannot be selected against even by revolutionary socialism if there is no regulating principle whereby to recognise them. It seems that Marx’s first principle in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts has dropped out of view:

One basis for life and another basis for science is an a-priori lie.

The Missing Life Capital Base of Marx’s Base-Superstructure Theory

 
Re-set of Marx’s base-superstructure theory to principled consistency with life capital standards is the missing foundation, and the measure of life capital necessity is undeniable once defined. Any material need or necessity is that without which life capacities of any kind are reduced or die – from oceans to songbirds to human brains. While Marx’s BST abstracts out this life base of the productive base, it seems implicitly presupposed in both his attacks on the capitalist system and his revolutionary alternative to it. One may test the italicised principle by seeking any denunciation or affirmation of Marx’s analysis which does not conform to it. So can Marx’s BST be re-set to include this life base and measure?  There is only way do so, and that is by comprehension of the following three moments of any coherent value system that

(i) produces more life value

(ii) without loss and

(iii) with cumulative gain.

The sole concept which comprehends these three moments is life capital – what may also be called true capital – whose collective form includes every social asset through time from the sciences and arts to stable hydrological cycles to a public healthcare system to pollution-abating and recycling technologies to regional biodiversity and arable lands to aquifers, rivers, sewers and filter systems. In fidelity to Marx’s method which understands social systems in terms of social relations rather than atomic aggregates, this missing concept may be modified as ‘collective life capital’.  In onto-axiological terms, any life capital at all is only coherent if it reproduces and gains consistently with other life capital: as follows from Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

The Productive Agency of Social Transformation 150 Years after Capital

Marx believed that industrial workers (the proletariat) would rise up around the world (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the heart of Marx’s base-superstructure theory, the concluding pages of Capital contend that the industrial working class or proletariat is “disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself” to revolt against it.  Yet a logical slippage occurs here. For within “this very mechanism of capitalist production”, no purpose is allowed but to serve the M-C-M1 “law of motion of modern society” which, by Marx’s own description, operates solely to lower money costs for capitalists to pump out maximum profit. What has gone unnoticed is a fallacy of equivocation between the production process of workers bound to strict servitude within the industrial workplace and workers joining together outside this workplace on the basis of their collective life interests. As Marx himself says in Wage Labour and Capital,

Life only begins for the labourer where his bought labour ceases.

Marx further claims in this signature passage that the industrial proletariat is “growing in revolt” and “always increasing in numbers”. Here the error is not logical, but historical. The industrial proletariat since Marx’s Capital has been increasingly replaced by automated systems which in the last half century have multipled industrial job reduction, separation of work functions into globally scaled assembly-lines, and deprivation of collective worker leverages of strike, union association, local market demand, and job security. Here again Marx’s base-superstructure theory of social transformation needs to be re-set to remain applicable. The class most superseding and displacing the industrial proletariat is one of knowledge workers who emerge everywhere that symbolic practices replace physical inputs in production. Yet Marx’s First Preface to Capital where his general theory is most evident as in his previous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (bear in mind that a Preface is a traditional location for a work’s lodestone of meaning to be generically defined) is far-seeing in a way that has not been recognised. Marx implicitly conceptualises the leading edge of the knowledge class and its public- sector economic base as a transformative agency of developed industrial society across life domains:

where there are plenary powers to get at the truth (Marx’s emphasis): if it was possible to find for this purpose men as competent, as free from partisanship and respect of persons as are the English Factory inspectors, her medical reporters on public health, her commissioners of inquiry into the exploitation of women and children, into housing and food”.

Observe how encompassing these ‘plenary powers to get at the truth’ are. Observe how even in a capitalist society Marx supports the knowledge-formation capacities of public servants to be competent, free from bias, and respectful of persons. Observe how he exactly endorses their existing capacities to seek the facts across the most basic domains of human life production and reproduction of the working class. Little known in contemporary culture, Marx’s base-superstructure theory implicitly calls for life-capital knowledge evolution as the ultimate species advantage led by public authority with ‘plenary powers to get at the truth’.

John McMurtry Ph.D (University College London) is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Professor (emeritus) of Philosophy.

Source
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. 1975-2004. Collected Works.  Lawrence and Wishart Ltd./Progress Publishers: New York/Moscow.

The original source of this article is Global Research
Copyright © Prof. John McMurtry, Global Research, 2017

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Theory | Blog
3
Dec

slave-family

Enslaved family harvesting cotton

Reference: Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order’ By Michael C. Dawson

 

The ‘Two Exes’ Required for a Full Picture of Our Capitalism

By Nancy Fraser

New School for Social Research

With Michael Dawson, I hold that exploitation-centered conceptions of capitalism cannot explain its persistent entanglement with racial oppression. In their place, I suggest an expanded conception that also encompasses an ongoing but disavowed moment of expropriation. By thematizing that other “ex,” I disclose, first, the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree and dependent labor, which is expropriated, as opposed to exploited; and second, the equally indispensable role of politically enforced status distinctions between free, exploitable citizen-workers and dependent, expropriable subjects. Treating such political distinctions as constitutive of capitalist society and as correlated with the “color line,” I demonstrate that the racialized subjection of those whom capital expropriates is a condition of possibility for the freedom of those whom it exploits. After developing this proposition systematically, I historicize it, distinguishing four regimes of racialized accumulation according to how exploitation and expropriation are distinguished, sited, and intertwined in each.

Michael Dawson offers many powerful insights about the relation between capitalism and racial oppression. In this article, I aim less to dispute his claims than to develop them, while focusing on three main points. Dawson contends, first, that my expanded conception of capitalism as an “institutionalized social order” is better than more familiar conceptions for theorizing the structural imbrication of race with capitalist society. He also claims, second, that I have not realized my model’s potential in this respect. Dawson contends, finally, that were I to do so, I would have to revise my view that there is no legitimation crisis in Habermas’s sense in the United States today.

I agree emphatically with the first two points, and I welcome the occasion to develop them here. Thus, I shall devote the bulk of my response to explaining why and how my expanded view can clarify capitalism’s systemic entanglement with racial oppression—in part by building on Dawson’s own insights. I am less convinced, by contrast, of his third claim that present-day struggles over race portend a crisis of legitimation in the United States. In a brief conclusion, therefore, I shall explain my doubts about that proposition.

I. From Exchange to Exploitation to Expropriation

Capitalism is often understood narrowly, as an economic system simpliciter. Certainly, that is the mainstream view, which equates it with private property and market exchange. In part because it naturalizes and dehistoricizes those categories, this approach has been roundly criticized. Left-wing thinkers in particular have faulted it for obfuscating the system’s distinctive mechanisms of accumulation and domination. Elaborating “critiques of political economy,” they have proposed broader and far less rosy understandings of capitalism.

Undoubtedly, Marx’s is the most influential of these critiques and, to my mind, the most convincing. Famously, his account penetrates beneath the market perspective of the system’s apologists to the more fundamental level of commodity production. There it discovers the secret of accumulation in capital’s exploitation of wage laborers. Importantly, these workers are neither serfs nor slaves, but unencumbered individuals, free to enter the labor market and sell their “labor power.” In reality, of course, they have little actual choice in the matter; deprived of any direct access to the means of production, they can only secure the means of subsistence by contracting to work for a capitalist in exchange for wages. And the transaction does not redound principally to their benefit. What from the market perspective is an exchange of equivalents is from this one a sleight of hand; recompensed only for the socially necessary cost of their own reproduction, capitalism’s workers have no claim on the surplus value their labor generates, which accrues instead to the capitalist. And that is precisely the point. The crux of the system, on Marx’s view, is the exploitative relation between two classes: on the one hand, the capitalists who own the society’s means of production and appropriate its surplus; on the other, the free but propertyless producers who must sell their labor power piecemeal in order to live. This relation defines the essence of capitalism as a mode of accumulation that is simultaneously a system of domination. Capitalism, on Marx’s view, is not an economy but a social system of class domination. Its cornerstone is the exploitation of free labor by capital in commodity production.

This perspective is immensely clarifying—as far as it goes. But absent some supplementation and revision, it cannot fully explicate Dawson’s point that capitalism is deeply entangled with racial oppression. The trouble is, the Marxian perspective focuses attention on capital’s exploitation of wage labor in commodity production; in its usual guise, therefore, it marginalizes some equally fundamental processes that are bound up with that one.1 Two such processes are essential for theorizing the racial dynamics of capitalist society. The first is the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent, and unwaged labor—by which I mean labor that is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, subject to domination unmediated by a wage contract. The second concerns the role of political orders in conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on “workers,” while constituting others as lesser beings—for example, as chattel slaves, indentured servants, colonized subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations,” debt peons, felons, and “covered” beings, such as wives and children, who lack an independent legal personality.

Evidently, both of these matters—dependent labor and political subjection—are fundamental for understanding “race.” But both are also integral to the constitution of capitalist society. In a nutshell, as I shall explain, the subjection of those whom capital expropriates is a hidden condition of possibility for the freedom of those whom it exploits. Absent an account of the first, we cannot fully understand the second. Nor can we fully appreciate the nonaccidental character of capitalism’s historic entanglement with racial oppression.

To develop this claim, I shall draw on my expanded conception of capitalism, which is broader even than Marx’s. In place of the two-level picture he gave us, which comprises the apologists’ level of exchange plus the “hidden abode” of exploitation, I shall make use of a three-tiered model, which also encompasses the even more obfuscated moment of expropriation. By adding this third, noncontractual “ex,” I shall disclose the centrality of racialized dependent labor to capitalist society. The effect will be to shift our gaze from the political economy theorized by Marx to the latter’s “non-economic” conditions of possibility. From that perspective, capitalism appears as an institutionalized social order in which racialized political subjection plays a constitutive role. Together, these revisions will provide at least some of the conceptual resources we need to clarify capitalism’s deep-seated entanglement with racial oppression.

II. Expropriation as a Mode of Accumulation

Let me begin with expropriation. Distinct from Marxian exploitation, but equally integral to capitalist development, expropriation is accumulation by other means. Dispensing with the contractual relation through which capital purchases “labor power” in exchange for wages, expropriation works by confiscating capacities and resources and conscripting them into capital’s circuits of self-expansion. The confiscation may be blatant and violent, as in New World slavery—or it may be veiled by a cloak of commerce, as in the predatory loans and debt foreclosures of the present era. The expropriated subjects may be rural or indigenous communities in the capitalist periphery—or they may be members of subject or subordinated groups in the capitalist core. They may end up as exploited proletarians, if they’re lucky—or, if not, as paupers, slum dwellers, sharecroppers, “natives,” or slaves, subjects of ongoing expropriation outside the wage nexus. The confiscated assets may be labor, land, animals, tools, mineral or energy deposits—but also human beings, their sexual and reproductive capacities, their children and bodily organs. The conscription of these assets into capital’s circuits may be direct, involving immediate conversion into value—as, again, in slavery; or it may be mediated and indirect, as in the unwaged labor of family members in semi-proletarianized households. What is essential, however, is that the commandeered capacities get incorporated into the value-expanding process that defines capital. Simple theft is not enough. Unlike the sort of pillaging that long predated the rise of capitalism, expropriation in the sense I intend here is confiscation-cum-conscription-into-accumulation.

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Category : Financialization | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
16
Nov

By Roland Boer

Stalin’s Moustache Blog

An article of faith among some ‘Western’ Marxists is that the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76) expressed the core communist position of Mao Zedong, indeed when communism itself began to be realised. Subsequently, the ‘revisionist’ Deng Xiaoping undid Mao’s legacy, engineered an about-turn and set out on the road to capitalism. After all, did not Mao dub him a ‘bourgeois’ and a ‘capitalist roader’? Case closed …

What if this is a misreading of the situation, part of the myopia or narrative of betrayal characteristic of much European-derived historiography?

After some fascinating discussions and much rethinking as a result, I have come to change my mind on this period. I used to argue that the Great Cultural Revolution was a necessary process that shook up China from top to bottom so that the reform and opening up could happen afterwards. I thought this was enough of a challenge to misguided ‘Western’ efforts, but every Chinese person to whom I have mentioned this theory has looked doubtful indeed. Instead, I have come to appreciate the carefully argued position of the vast majority of my Chinese interlocutors. Thus, in his old age Mao lost his way and it was only after the turmoil and destruction of the time that the line he had developed earlier was taken up again. In other words, the continuity was from Mao’s earlier thought, up the early 1960s, to Deng Xiaoping and afterwards. In between was the deviation.

There are a number of ways to understand this proposal.

One is to deploy a conventional communist approach and call it a phase of revisionism or perhaps opportunism. I do not need to go into the details of what revisionism entails, suffice to note that it marks a departure from the main line that had been agreed upon before. So it was with Mao in the mid-1960s. There is some merit to such an argument, since it counters the ‘Western’ claim that Deng Xiaoping was the revisionist. However, the catch with using such a category is that the main line itself shifts depending on the situation, so what counts as ‘revisionist’ also shifts. And it depends on who is deciding what counts as the core, for each side in crucial debates will call each other revisionist.

A second suggestion is that Mao fell into the trap of becoming a quasi-emperor (huangdi). After all, it had barely been more than 50 years earlier that the imperial system itself was finally abolished, a system with a long history indeed in China, with its associated cultural assumptions. Thus, during the Cultural Revolution the deference to Mao, the belief that he could make no mistakes, indeed the ‘faith [xinxin]’ in him all indicate such a development. And there was also the reality that Mao, the revolutionary leader, would not hand over the near solitary power he had attained in his old age until he died.

A third approach is to point out that the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism took over during this time. This is an absolutely necessary feature of Marxism, with its focus on the ‘heart’, on feelings and emotions, on idealism and hope. But it should always be in close connection with the ‘cold stream’, the one of rational and scientific analysis of any situation. At their best, we find such combinations in Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin and the communist party the latter two led. And we find it with Mao before the mid-1960s. But after that, the warm stream dominated, revolutionary fervour leapt ahead of careful analysis of the situation, disaster loomed and much suffering ensued.

A fourth suggestion concerns the tension between old and new. A revolutionary movement like communism obviously seeks to abolish the old and replace it with what is new, for otherwise one would not undertake revolutionary action. The problem, however, is how one relates to what has gone before. One side seeks to abolish everything related to the old order: its economics, politics, ideology, culture. After a revolutionary period, one begins completely anew. Another side argues that one cannot simply build from scratch, but one must build on the foundations of the old.

Indeed, all that is best in the old order needs to be taken up and transformed dialectically within the new. This debate raged after the Russian revolution, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks eventually siding with the second approach and one finds it also in its own way in relation to the Chinese revolution. Mao evinces both dimensions in his thoughts and actions. At times, he argues that Marxism cannot be understood without the concrete situation in China, in terms of its long history and its culture – from ‘Confucius to Sun Yat-sen’ he observes in 1938, ‘we must sum it up critically, and we must constitute ourselves the heirs to this precious legacy’. This is the basis for the sinification of Marxism (Makesizhuyi zhongguohua) that would be taken up again after the Cultural Revolution by Deng Xiaoping. Obviously, the period of the Cultural Revolution was a break from this approach, giving vent to Mao’s tendency at times to abolish all that had gone before.

A fifth angle is to point out that Mao lost sight of some of his crucial earlier insights. I think in particular of the category of ‘non-contradictory contradictions [feiduikangxing maodun]’. Mao picked up this idea from Soviet debates during the intense period of study at Yan’an in the 1930s. The Soviet communists had begun developing the idea to deal with the question of contradictions under socialism. Mao seized upon it in his lectures on dialectical materialism at the time and it became the final section of his crucial essay ‘On Contradiction’. Why? The idea of non-antagonistic contradictions connected with a long tradition in Chinese philosophy, which gave Mao the opportunity to develop the theoretical foundations of sinified Marxism. Twenty years later, he developed the idea much further in the essay, ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’. Here he pointed out that contradictions under socialism would certainly continue, but they need to be addressed so that they do not become antagonistic and lead to struggle and conflict. This essay appeared in 1957, after the revolution and in the early stage of beginning to construct socialism. However, a decade later he clearly forgot this key insight, instigating antagonistic contradictions in the name of inner-party class struggle.

As I mentioned at the beginning, these different angles – which are not mutually exclusive – arose from a series of intense and very open discussions about the Cultural Revolution. And I have found that it a very rare person indeed in China who wishes to defend Mao’s mistake in his last years.

Perhaps Xi Jinping expressed it best in 2013: ‘Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. We cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes’.
___________________________________________________________________________________
Roland Boer is Xin Ao Professor of Literature at Renmin University of China and research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and the author of numerous books.
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Category : China | Marxism | Blog
1
Nov

Bacon and rebels vs Virginia aristocrats

Theodore W. Allen’s Legacy

By Jeffrey B. Perry
Solidarity

THEODORE W. “TED” Allen (1919-2005) was an anti-white supremacist, working-class intellectual and activist, whose work on the centrality of struggle against white supremacy is growing in importance and influene 98 years after his birth.

With its focus on racial oppression and social control, Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race (1994, 1997: Verso Books, new expanded edition 2012) is one of the 20th-century’s major contributions to historical understanding.

Allen’s study presents a full-scale challenge to what he refers to as “The Great White Assumption” — the unquestioning acceptance of the “white race” and “white” identity as skin color-based and natural attributes rather than as social and political constructions.

His thesis on the origin, nature and maintenance of the “white race” and his contenion that slavery in the Anglo-American plantation colonies was capitalist and that enslaved Black laborers were proletarians, provide the basis of a revolutionary approach to United States labor history.

On the back cover of the 1994 edition of Volume 1, subtitled Racial Oppression and Social Control, Allen boldly asserted “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”

That statement, based on 20-plus years of primary research in Virginia’s colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691.

As he later explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’ White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

In this context Allen offers his major thesis — that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later (civil war) stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77).

To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and to implement a system of racial oppression, and 2) the consequence was not only ruinous to the interest of African Americans, but was also disastrous for European-American workers.

The Story of an Invention

Volume II, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, tells the story of the invention of the “white race” and the development of the system of racial oppression in the late 17th and early 18th century Anglo-American plantation colonies.

Allen’s primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony. He pays special attention to how tenants and wage-laborers in the predominantely English labor force were reduced to the status of chattel bond-servants beginning in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from long established English labor law.

He argues that this was not a feudal carryover, rather that it was imposed under capitalism, and an essential precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery.

Allen describes how, throughout much of the 17th century, the status of African Americans was indeterminate (because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants.

He also documents many significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Of great significance is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion when thousands of laboring people took up arms against the ruling plantation elite, the capital Jamestown was burned to the ground, rebels controlled sixth-sevenths of the Virginia colony, and Afro- and Euro-American bond-servants fought side by side demanding an end to their bondage.

It was in the period after Bacon’s Rebellion that the “white race” was invented. Allen describes systematic ruling-class policies, conferring “white race” privileges on European Americans while imposing harsher disabilities on African Americans resulting in a system of racial slavery, a form of racial oppression that also imposed severe racial proscriptions on free African Americans.

He emphasizes that when free African Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia, and Governor William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia Assembly had decided upon this curtailment of the franchise in order “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos,” this was no “unthinking decision.”

Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie and a conscious decision taken in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it entailed repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.

The “White Race” — A Ruling-Class Social Control Formation

Key to understanding the virulent racial oppression that develops in Virginia, Allen argues, is the formation of the intermediate social control buffer stratum, which serves the interests of the ruling class.

In Virginia, any persons of discernible non-European ancestry after Bacon’s Rebellion were denied a role in the social control buffer group, the bulk of which was made up of laboring-class “whites.” In the Anglo-Caribbean, by contrast, under a similar Anglo ruling elite, “mulattos” were included in the social control stratum and were promoted into middle-class status.

This difference was rooted in a number of social control-related factors, one of the most important of which was that in the Anglo-Caribbean there were “too few” poor and laboring-class Europeans to embody an adequate petit bourgeoisie, while in the continental colonies there were “too many” to be accommodated in the ranks of that class.

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Category : Marxism | Racism | Slavery | Strategy and Tactics | US History | Blog
28
Oct

Marx in the United States: An Interview

Editor’s Note:The following is a guest post by Tobias Dias & Magnus Møller Ziegler, who transcribed the following interview that they did with me and who will be translating it into Danish. I publish it here with their permission.

At the end of May 2017, Dr. Andrew Hartman visited Aarhus University in Denmark to give a talk entitled ‘How Karl Marx Challenges the Liberal Tradition in American Intellectual History’. Magnus Møller Ziegler and Tobias Dias, editors of a special issue on Karl Marx from Slagmark, the leading Danish Journal for the history of ideas, took the occasion to ask Hartman about Karl Marx’s intellectual legacy in the US, a topic that he is currently working on for a book project due in 2019 from the University of Chicago Press.

In the forthcoming book, Hartman deals with the complex task of collecting the puzzle pieces for a particular American Marx, however multifaceted and colourful this puzzle may appear. Because what really characterizes an American Marx? How American and Marxist is this Marx? In what ways has Marx served as a catalyst for radical thinking and praxis or a placeholder for the ideas of others? And vice versa: Is Marx something more to the US than just the ‘evil genius’ and antithesis to the American liberal project, is his thought in fact intimately linked with the historical development of the US itself?

Without claiming to give an exhaustive answer to these questions, the interview with Andrew Harman unfolded as a conversation about the broader historical picture of the reception of Marx and Marxism in the US, from Marx’s early writings in the 1850’s for a New York newspaper to the contemporary uses of Marx since the 2008 economic crash. Slagmark began this unfolding by asking professor Hartman about his upcoming book.

Slagmark: Why are you writing this book on Marx in the United States?

Andrew Hartman: I decided to write this book for two reasons, one personal, one political. Personally, when I was 19-20 years old I got really into Marx and Marxism. I was in some ways a political radical; I had become interested in history and philosophy and got hooked on Marx, I joined Marxist reading groups and read Marxist literature. I have always kept that interest, but as I pursued my PhD in US History and have written books on other topics it has been side-lined. But now I am a full professor, and I decided that I want to write a book about a topic that I have a personal passion for. It takes five years to write a book like this, and I want something that is going to keep me interested and fascinated and it has certainly done that so far.

But I think there is a larger social and political reason for why this book is well timed. The reading of Marx in the United States ebbs and flows, sometimes he is really hot, sometimes not so much, and I think we are in one of those hot moments where a lot of people are picking up Marx again. You have seen book sales increase, a lot of people are reading Capital, even the Grundrisse and other works, and part of this has to do with a reaction to the economic crash of 2008. Ever since then, we have seen the rise of new left-wing media such as Jacobin magazine and they have somewhat of a Marxist bent, so it is sort of in the air in the US again and, I think, maybe elsewhere. So, I think there will be a lot of interest in this, and what would be interesting to people is that this isn’t new: There has been other waves of interest in Marx in American history since the 1860’s. So, hopefully, it would be a service to people as well.

Marx’s Own Time and the Late 19th Century

Slagmark: Let us go back to the 1850’s then and start our little journey through the history of Marx in the US with Marx himself. It is well known that Marx wrote articles for the New-York Daily Tribune as its European correspondent, and even exchanged letters with President Lincoln. How did people in the US receive Marx’s ideas in his own lifetime?

Hartman: For about four years in the 1850’s Marx wrote for a New York newspaper and this was his main source of income for those years, and he really relied upon that. He was, as you know, a poor man living in London. He was mostly writing about European politics and his articles were well received. However, the people in the US reading those articles did not necessarily think of him as a great revolutionary philosopher, more as a knowledgeable reporter on European affairs and politics, which was largely what he wrote about. But then when the civil war began in 1861 – and even in 1860 with the rise of the crisis when Lincoln was elected – he was fired from that position, because there was not a lot of money and the newspaper had to dedicate all their resources to reporting on the crisis. That was when he got the position to write for the Austrian paper, Die Press, and that is when he started writing about the civil war for a European audience, particularly for a left-wing radical European audience. I will argue that in his civil war writings, which make for great reading, he was extremely smart about the US civil war and extremely well-read on American politics. A lot of this had to do with his conversations with Engels who was very fascinated with the war, particularly the military aspects of it. But it was also because Marx had long standing correspondences with some of the German 48’ers, his comrades who had emigrated to the United States following the revolutions of 1848. What I will argue is important about these civil war writings are a few things.

The first argument is, that they helped convince a European audience of radicals that the Union was worth supporting. Because many European radicals up to that point either had no interest, or because they had a sort of politics of self-determination, a national determination that was in part grounded in the struggles of Ireland. They were not in favour of the Union, and sometimes they were even arguing in favour of Confederate self-determination. Marx convinced them that the war was about slavery first and foremost, so there was a moral imperative not to support the Confederacy. But he also convinced them that Union victory would be good for the cause of the working-class struggle because it would destroy slavery and so the working class in both Europe and the US would not have to compete with slave labour, so they could better organize working class consciousness. So, he was hugely convincing to a European audience.

The other argument that I am making – and I am not the first, a few people have made this – is that his close attention to the civil war and the politics of revolutionary class struggle and capitalism helped form his ideas for Capital.

So, that is really where the story starts, with his civil war writings and how they helped shape his ideas more broadly. His civil war writings did not have an American audience, it was a European audience, but they shaped his thinking on capitalism. And later, as the story proceeds through the 20th century, his civil war writings would become extremely influential on how American historians would think about the civil war. In short, at the time, there is not that influence, but it comes later.

Slagmark: Can you go a bit more into on how this experience of the civil war influenced Capital?

Hartman: Sure, that is a puzzle I am working on and trying to piece out. One of Marx’s long-standing arguments about capitalism is that it is both progressive and horrible. It is better than feudalism, because it is revolutionary and unleashes energies and spirits that are progressive and will lead to something better, and it destroys the traditional feudal ties that has kept people in bondage for millennia, but on the other hand, it is horrible because it impoverishes people as a proletariat. And one of the things he noticed about the US civil war is, that not only had the Union come to a different politics because of its different attitude towards slavery, but that it came to this because of its different attitudes about labour, free labour versus slave labour, and how the free labour system, which was the basis of Union political economy, was in direct tension with the slave labour system, which was more traditional and feudal. And these progressive energies unleashed by the Union were a good thing, a revolutionary thing, and he had hoped it would eventually lead to the kind of working class consciousness that would cut across these feudal or traditional boundaries. He had already been working with these ideas, but they were made more concrete by his close study of the US civil war. Many scholars in the US since has disagreed with that, but I think it helped shape his ideas.

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Category : Marxism | Slavery | US History | Blog
5
Oct


We need a socialism that goes beyond capitalism. And not just for moral reasons


By Joseph M. Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara
Jacobin

Oct 3, 2017 – John Judis has all the right intentions. He’s looking at the resurgence of openly democratic socialist currents in the United States with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because he knows how desperately the country’s workers need social reforms. Trepidation, because he worries that the new left might fall into the familiar traps of insularity and sectarianism.

But while Judis wants us to change society for the better, his response to the failures of twentieth-century state socialism would lead us into the dead end of twentieth-century social democracy.

In his New Republic essay “The Socialism America Needs Now,” Judis makes a passionate plea for the rebuilding of a social-democratic movement — or what he calls “liberal socialism.” He contends that the welfare state and democratic regulation of a capitalist economy should be the end goal for socialists, as past efforts at top-down nationalization and planning yielded the repressive societies and stagnant economies of the Soviet bloc. In contrast, Judis argues, the Scandinavian states are dynamic capitalist economies that are still far more equitable and humane than the United States.

For him, socialism — democratic control over workplaces and the economy — consists of “old nostrums” whose days have past.

Of course, we urgently need the reforms that Judis and the movement around Bernie Sanders advocate for. No democratic socialist could oppose efforts to guarantee public provision of basic needs and take key aspects of economic and social life like education, health care, and housing out of the market. It would, as Judis writes, “bring immeasurable benefit to ordinary Americans.”

But we have moral reasons to demand something more. After all, we can’t have real political democracy without economic democracy. Corporations are “private governments” that exercise tyrannical power over workers and society writ large. The corporate hierarchy decides how we produce, what we produce, and what we do with the profits that workers collectively make.

To embrace radical democracy is to believe that any decision that has a binding effect on its members — say, the power to hire or fire or control over one’s work hours — should be made by all those affected by it. What touches all, should be determined by all.

At minimum, we should demand an economy in which various forms of ownership (worker-owned firms, as well as state-owned natural monopolies and financial institutions) are coordinated by a regulated market — an economy that enables society to be governed democratically. In an undemocratic capitalist economy, managers hire and fire workers; in a democratic socialist economy, workers would hire those managers deemed necessary to build a content and productive firm.

They Won’t Let Us Keep Nice Things

This, however, isn’t a debate about the contours of the world we would like to see. While Judis rejects the desire of socialists (and the historic goal of social democracy itself) to create a radical democracy after capitalism, he does so largely on pragmatic grounds. The old vision, for him, is “not remotely viable.”

Yet history shows us that achieving a stable welfare state while leaving capital’s power over the economy largely intact is itself far from viable. Even if we wanted to stop at socialism within capitalism, it’s not clear that we could.

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Category : Democracy | Socialism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
4
Sep

Henry A. Wallace, right, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940
George R. Skadding / Associated Press

My grandfather, Henry A. Wallace was asked to write about "The Danger of American Fascism." And in my view, he predicted President Trump.

By Henry Scott Wallace
New York Times

May 12, 2017 – Seventy-three years ago, The New York Times asked the sitting vice president to write an article about whether there are fascists in America, and what they’re up to.
 
It was an alarming question. And the vice president took it quite seriously. His article, “The Danger of American Fascism,” described a breed of super-nationalist who pursues political power by deceiving Americans and playing to their fears, but is really interested only in protecting his own wealth and privilege.
 
That vice president was my grandfather, Henry A. Wallace. And in my view, he predicted President Trump.
 
To be clear, I don’t think the precise term “fascism” — as in Mussolini and Hitler — is fairly applied to Mr. Trump. Mussolini was a proponent of “corporatism,” defined by some as “a merger of state and corporate power.” And through that lens, using that term, my grandfather’s warning looks prescient.
 
My grandfather warned about hucksters spouting populist themes but manipulating people and institutions to achieve the opposite. They pretend to be on the side of ordinary working people — “paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare,” he wrote. But at the same time, they “distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity.”
 
They invariably put “money and power ahead of human beings,” he continued. “They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest.” They also “claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.”
 
They bloviate about putting America first, but it’s just a cover. “They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.”
 
They need scapegoats and harbor “an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations.”
 
The 19th century saw the political rise of wealthy Prussian nobility, called Junkers, who were driven by “hatred for other races” and “allegiance to a military clique,” with a goal to place their “culture and race astride the world.”

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Category : Democracy | Fascism | US History | Blog