Author Archive

1
Aug

Panagiotis Sotiris and Thomas Goes

Viewpoint Magazine, May 7, 2018

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Thomas Goes: Why should we, today, study the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a theoretician who died almost 40 years ago? Or to put it differently, what can activists, organizers, and cadres within the anti-capitalist left learn from his writings that could be useful, indeed, even necessary to build a strong, promising left?

Panagiotis Sotiris: The work of Nicos Poulantzas is one of the most important contributions to a possible Marxist theory of the state and of class antagonisms within the state. His was a highly original, relational conception of the state — the state as not simply an instrument in the hands of the ruling class but as the “condensation of a class relation.” He offered invaluable insights into the complexity of state apparatuses, articulating multiple relations between the state and the terrain of class struggle including the realm of production, and the myriad ways that the state functions as a crucial node in the (re)production of bourgeois class strategies.1

Poulantzas’s final book, State, Power, Socialism, offers one of the most sophisticated conceptualizations of how the state plays a crucial role in the production and reproduction of repressive measures and ideological interpellations, but also shapes discourses, strategies and technologies of power, to borrow Foucault’s term. This approach is reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s integral state, the “entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules.”2 In this sense, Poulantzas’s theory is a tool to help militants understand what they are up against.

At the same time, Poulantzas’s relational conception of the state offers a way to theorize the effectiveness of class struggles. It is true that there has been a tendency to interpret this relational conception as a form of reformism, that it points toward a gradual transformation of the state by means of the struggles that are “interiorized” within it. I disagree with a reading that would turn Poulantzas’s work into something like Eduard Bernstein’s reformism. According to Poulantzas, state apparatuses are the “materialization and condensation of class relations.” So, we are talking about a class state inscribed with the strategic and tactical interests of the bourgeoisie.3 In any case it is neither fortress nor instrument but a terrain of class antagonisms. Subaltern classes can induce ruptures, openings, and gains as part of a strategy for hegemony, which in the end will also need a confrontation with the very materiality of the repressive apparatuses of the state (what in classical Marxist theory was described as the necessity to smash the state). This is yet another useful reminder for militants: radical politics is neither a long march through institutions nor a simple preparation for a final confrontation with the state. We might think of it instead as a complex dialectical process: of changing the class balance of forces in favor of the subaltern classes, creating conditions for working class hegemony and preparing for the confrontation with the class strategies materially inscribed in the state.

Lastly, I want to emphasize the importance of Poulantzas’s theorization of authoritarian statism. Poulantzas was one of the first Marxist theorists in the aftermath of the capitalist crisis of 1973-4 to suggest that the reaction of the capitalist classes and their political representatives in the state was the result of extensive capitalist restructuring (and the first signs of the neoliberal turn) along with an authoritarian transformation of the state. I think that this dual tendency has since been a constant feature of social and political power. On the one hand it is exemplified in developments within capitalist states e.g. the expansion of repressive surveillance, the move of the center of power from the legislative to the executive, insulation of the decision processes against any form of intervention by the popular classes, and reduction of the scope of political debate with important strategic choices presented as simply technical. On the other hand, it is evident in the authoritarian institutional framework of the European Union, in some ways the model par excellence of authoritarian statism in Europe.

TG: Maybe we can move on to Poulantzas’s class analysis. What is its importance for our activism today? Why should we distinguish between a working class and what he called the “new petty bourgeoisie” composed of different layers of wage earners?

PS: Poulantzas offered a theory of class structures grounded in three key points.

First, he suggested that social classes are unthinkable outside of the terrain of class struggle. He wrote that “social classes involve in one and the same process both class contradictions and class struggle; social classes do not firstly exist as such, and only then enter into a class struggle. Social classes coincide with class practices, i.e. the class struggle, and are only defined in their mutual opposition.”4

Second, he argued that relations of production are not simple relations of legal ownership but rather complex relations of power and control of the means and process of production.

Third, he said that when we deal with the relations of production and the formation of class we are not simply talking about “economic” aspects but also political and ideological ones. In this sense, we avoid both the narrow economism of many traditional Marxist approaches and, at the same time, the underestimation of the centrality of relations of production that characterizes neo-Weberian theories of class stratification.

Poulantzas’s insight into the new petty bourgeoisie was essential.5 It was based upon a conception of the primacy of the social division of labor over the technical division of labor (which is the reflection of the primacy of the relations of production over the productive forces). For Poulantzas, “it is the social division of labor, in the form that this is given by the specific presence of political and ideological relations actually within the production process, which dominates the technical division of labor.”6

Consequently, he stressed the fact that the emergence of contradictory class positions that represent at the same time aspects of the collective laborer and of the collective capitalist was not a “neutral” technical evolution, but the expression of a deepening of the capitalist character of the labor process and of the political and ideological relations within the terrain of production. Despite certain shortcomings, such as Poulantzas’s tendency to identify the working class with productive labor (a choice that leaves out important working class segments), I think that this is an important contribution to any Marxist theory of social classes.

Moreover, I think that Poulantzas’s analysis can help us understand why treating these social strata as “working class” would mean taking for granted this form of the capitalist labor process and of the capitalist division between intellectual and manual labor. Moreover, it would also mean the incorporation of important elements of the petty-bourgeois ideology.

This does not mean that these strata could not be a part of the “people” as the alliance of the subaltern classes. Indeed one of the most important challenges today is gaining these strata in such political direction. In our time, contemporary capitalist restructurings tend at the same time to expand such positions but also to worsen their working conditions, thus polarizing them towards the working class. Organizing such strata, incorporating them in trade unions, engaging them in collective practices and demands and breaking the ideology that they are “middle class” or “professionals” is indeed one of the most important stakes of class struggles today.

TG: Poulantzas argued for a class alliance between the working class and the old and new petty bourgeoisie. He named it “the people.” So, first, how did he assume such a “people” develops? And what was, in his understanding, the role of the state and the party within this process? My impression is that his understanding of the party’s role was quite traditional.

PS: Poulantzas attempted a reconstruction of a theory of class alliances based upon his conception of the people as an alliance under the hegemony of the working class. In this sense, he offers a class-theoretical perspective of the people in contrast to current positions such as the ones associated with reading of the work of Ernesto Laclau that tend to treat the people as a form of interpellation and as a discursive construction.

It is true that Poulantzas treated the Communist party as the main terrain for the creation of the political conditions of such an alliance. He had in mind both the experience of the Greek communist movement, how the KKE became the leading force of the people in the Resistance and the Civil War, and the experience of the titanic Communist parties of Italy and France. He therefore also had in mind the idea of an alliance of the forces of the Left.

However, it is important to note that he did not restrict his view to the Party or parties. He also underscored the significance of autonomous social movements. In his last interventions, shortly before his suicide, we can find elements of a deeper apprehension of a certain crisis of the Western mass workers’ parties and an even stronger emphasis on autonomous social movements.7

Unfortunately, because of his untimely death, we cannot say to which direction his work would have gone. Nowadays, we know that we cannot deal with these questions simply within a traditional party-form. Social movements, especially new forms of political intervention also based upon the reclaiming of public space, such as the Movement of the Squares in Greece or Indignados in Spain, have enabled exactly this coming together of the different social classes and groups that the “people” is comprised of. However, I still think that the question of working-class hegemony within the articulation of such an alliance still requires a common political project and the organizational form that can support it, namely a novel form of the radical left front in its encounter with autonomous initiatives from below.

TG: How would you judge Poulantzas’s theoretical and political trajectory? One can easily recognize a Maoist inflection to his work, especially in Fascism and Dictatorship and in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. What was the precise influence of Maoism on Poulantzas?

PS: Poulantzas’s theoretical and political trajectory began with his experiences as a youth in Athens, within the Greek Left (the illegal organizations of the Communist Party and the legal organizations of the EDA) and then by his close experiences of the French developments surrounding May 1968. It also included a series of theoretical influences beginning with Jean-Paul Sartre and Lucien Goldmann before his turn to Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. Another important experience for Poulantzas was the particular way he experienced not only May 1968 in France, but also the split in the Greek Communist Party in 1968 and his participation in the Communist Party of the Interior.8

The traditional approach is to describe the rupture in the Greek Communist movement in terms of a split between the pro-USSR hardliners of the KKE and the more “eurocommunist” or “right-wing” approach of the Communist Party of the Interior (KKE-Es). However, many militants that sided with KKE-Es were looking for a radical or even revolutionary renovation of the strategy and tactics of the Communist movement, and did so in opposition to the more traditional and bureaucratic approach of the KKE.

The local organization of KKE-Es in Paris, of which Poulantzas was an active member, was far to the left of the leadership. At the same time, it is obvious that Poulantzas was also influenced by both the radical critique of economism and reformism not only by his experiences with May 1968 but by the Chinese experience, by Mao and also the Cultural Revolution. For example, his insistence on not treating the hierarchies within the labor process as “neutral” and “technical” echoes the Cultural Revolution’s critique against the capitalist social division of labor.

However, later, particularly in the second half of the 1970’s we see a different political approach by Poulantzas. He opts for what he defined as a Left Eurocommunism and he seemed to be sympathetic towards both a strategy of left unity and democratic road to socialism. This is more obvious in the last chapter of his last book where he defended such an approach, where he insists on the possibility of combining a parliamentary majority with strong autonomous movements from below.9 This is indeed a contradictory position. Still, it is an attempt to think thoroughly about an important problem. Since we have the benefit of hindsight, we can say that at that particular moment he was overly optimistic about such possibilities. At the same time he did not discern how the socialist parties of that period (such as PS in France or PASOK in Greece), in the end, would end up implementing capitalist restructuring from the 1980’s onwards.

It is important to stress that this debate with the interventions of Poulantzas, Althusser, Balibar, the replies by Henri Weber or Daniel Bensaïd, the interventions by Christine Buci-Glucksmann, and the parallel Italian debate (see for example the texts by Ingrao) all represent the last major debate on questions of strategy regarding socialist transition as a real, not simply theoretical, question.10

TG: You mentioned Poulantzas’s critique of economism and reformism. What was his criticism exactly about? And how did it influence his own theoretical and strategic thinking? For example, in Fascism and Dictatorship we find a constant argument that the parties of the Third International had an economistic approach. But his only strategic suggestion is that a more mass line politics would have been necessary. For example, how did it influence the politics of the local group of the KKE-Es in Paris?

PS: Poulantzas’s critique of economism is evident in many aspects of his work. First of all, the very idea of attempting to elaborate on a complex theory of the state and its role is in contrast to any instrumental conceptualization of the state. Second, the critique of Third International economism is a crucial aspect of the argument he attempts to present in Fascism and Dictatorship. Third, his theory of social classes, which includes political and ideological determinations and insists on the primacy of social division of labor to the technical division, also represents a rupture with economism.

Regarding his critique of the Third International, it is very interesting how Poulantzas attempted to draw a line of demarcation with both “third-period” sectarianism but also a reformist conception of “popular fronts” and political alliances with “democratic” bourgeois parties. Having said that, I would like to draw attention to his interventions in the debates within the Greek Communist Party of the interior.

I would like to draw attention to a text he wrote under an alias in 1970, in Agonas (“Struggle”) the organ of the Paris local organization of the KKE-Es.11 This is an answer to an article by L. Eleutheriou, a member of the leadership of the Party who suggested a strategy of alliances from above with democratic parties (such as the parties of the center), based on the idea that these parties represented the petty bourgeois strata.

Poulantzas opposed this conception of political representation, rejected the idea of alliances only “from above” and insisted that the United Front tactic required work from below and an attempt from the communist parties to also work within the peasantry and other petty bourgeois strata. Since Eleutheriou evoked the 7th Congress of the Communist International and Dimitrov’s positions, Poulantzas uses his critical approach to these positions that we also find in Fascism and Dictatorship, to suggest that a different approach to political alliances was necessary.

I would like to stress here that the question of political alliances was very crucial in the debates of the Greek Left in the period of the 1967-74 dictatorship and the challenges that the Left faced such as how to create unity in struggle against the dictatorship while avoiding giving the bourgeois forces the hegemonic role in the anti-dictatorship struggle. This was also evident in his interventions after the dictatorship, in the debates around the strategy of KKE-Es where Poulantzas criticized “national anti-dictatorship alliance” that promoted, again, an alliance with bourgeois forces. In this sense, we can say that, in his interventions, Poulantzas was always to the left of the leadership of KKE-Es.

On the other hand, Poulantzas always referred to the communist movement, not to some form of heterodoxy. His positions were, by all accounts, to the left of European communist parties, and we can find, in his work, many positions that were critical of what we might call “communist reformism.” However, he never opted for a form of gauchisme [ultra-leftism] and his focus was on the communist parties. He never seemed to suggest that the solution was to adopt the positions of Maoist or Trotskyist groups of that period, whose positions he treated as one-sided; he stressed the importance of autonomous and radical mass movements.

continue

Category : Marxism | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Blog
25
Jul

By Bill Gallegos

Over the last several weeks, the Trump Administration has ramped up its ethnic cleansing campaign aimed at the forced removal of more than 11 million undocumented workers in the US. While the overwhelming majority of this population is Mexican@, it also includes significant numbers of Centro American@s, Asian, and African peoples. It even includes about 500,000 undocumented European immigrants.

But what especially outraged the souls of most people in the US and the world is the humanitarian crisis caused by the kidnapping and incarceration of 3000 children from Latin@ families seeking refugee asylum, fleeing the danger of criminal violence or domestic violence. Jeff Sessions, the outrageously racist US Attorney General, has instructed the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to no longer honor asylum requests based on such violence. With no planning, children ended up in holding centers on the other side of the country sometimes in dog-kennel like facilities, where no one spoke their language (many spoke indigenous languages) or, in the case of babies, they could not talk at all, only cry. There was no plan as to how to re-match these children with parents after the indefinite incarceration period as if that was not important.

After several months of separation, a federal court ordered the Administration to restore the children to their families post haste. But even after the July 10 deadline for children under 5, many are still misplaced, or their parents already deported. Trump’s avowed aim with this cruel policy was to discourage Latin@s from seeking refuge in the US. This is state political terror: threatening to harm a child if the adult does not cooperate. The imprisoned children are held hostage to Trump’s demands for a border wall, greater militarization of the border, and massive reduction of legal immigration. The Party of Christian and “family values,” like the slave owners of the past, do not believe non-white families are fully human.

These horrendous violations of human rights have inspired broad and sustained resistance throughout the US., spearheaded by Chican@-Mexican@s and Latin@s, but including a broad cross-section of the US population, from Black Lives Matter, to elected officials, to media personalities, to labor unions, Indigenous networks, and even the Prime Minister of Canada, who has said that Canada would accept these refugees. Literally, thousands of resistance actions have taken place throughout the US since the kidnapping began.

But while this is just the most egregious of immigration policies, and while xenophobia has found open expression and action in Trump’s administration, the detention and deportation of immigrants, often causing family separation, is not new. The Left must fight for an end not just to the kidnapping of children, but all of the injustices embedded in our immigration and refugee policies. At bottom, it is a fight against hatred, fear, and selfishness. We will win through unity, courage, and acting on our knowledge that an injury to one is an injury to all.

10 Points of Analysis

1. White supremacy is “in,” vociferous, open, encouraged, rewarded. New- Confederate ideology is dominant; that is, a belief that this is a white country, that Black and Brown lives don’t matter, and that everything and anything must be done to keep America white and unequal. This includes repression of citizens of color, making it lengthy, difficult, and expensive for legal immigrants to gain citizenship, tracking and deporting all without papers, using harsh measures such as the snatching of the children to make immigration as terrible as the situations in the home country, and stopping the entry of people seeking asylum due to documentable threats of violence from political or social oppression. continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
22
Jul

“All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up; the rivers of revolution return to whence they came, only to flow again.” – Guy Debord1

By Paul Saba

July 19th, 2018

Will the ongoing revival of American socialism stimulate interest in one of its lesser known antecedents? Verso Books certainly hopes so. That’s why they’ve reissued Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air, originally published in 2002, now with a new foreword by Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter. The book chronicles the history of the US “new communist movement” (NCM) from the late 1960s through the 1980s, when thousands of young activists, radicalized by the Vietnam War, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and liberation movements in communities of color at home and abroad, embraced Marxism-Leninism and committed themselves to changing the world.
When Revolution in the Air was written, George W. Bush was President and 9/11 and the “war on terror” were still in the future. The American left was in disarray and on the defensive. Behind it were a long series of defeats – the neo-liberal transformations inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied regimes, China and Vietnam’s increasing adoption of capitalist forms of economic development, the retreat of liberation movements across the Third World.

Nearly two decades later, the international balance of forces still favors the right, but the prospects of the US left appear to have significantly improved. Bernie Sanders’ electoral campaign saw millions of Americans voting for a candidate who openly called himself a socialist. Thousands of young people have swelled the ranks of DSA. Workers are organizing and striking. Class struggle is back on the agenda.

Elbaum wrote Revolution in the Air in 2001 to reclaim the lessons of the new communist movement for contemporary militants who, like their early sixties’ predecessors, became activists when the radical left was fragmented and weak. How relevant is this history and the lessons he draws for us now, in this new period of left upsurge?

I. Revolution in the Air’s Strength: A Clear Chronological Narrative

The greatest strength of Revolution in the Air is its compelling chronological narrative of the origins, rise and proliferation of various NCM groups and their subsequent crises and decline. Elbaum carefully tracks the arc of NCM history from the initial burst of energy that birthed the first organizations, to the stillborn unity initiatives of the early 1970s, to the growing difficulties and splits of the mid- and late-1970s, to the decline/collapse of many groups and the movement as a whole in the 1980s.

Elbaum does a good job of identifying the NCM’s strong points:

The movement’s strengths centered on three crucial issues that – albeit in altered form – remain pivotal to any future attempt at left renewal: commitment to internationalism and anti-imperialism; the centrality of the fight against racism; and the urgency of developing cadre and creating organizations capable of mobilizing working people and the oppressed.2

The NCM combined ‘60s moral fervor with a degree of ‘30s political realism. Its anti-imperialism “led to practical activity that materially and politically aided popular movements in other lands and that benefited oppressed people in the US by weakening the common enemy.” It “put the fight for equality at the center of its politics,” “insisted that challenging the oppression of peoples of color lay at the heart of the revolutionary project,” and “stressed the importance of winning whites to self-conscious opposition to racism.” The NCM demonstrated a dogged commitment to developing cadre and forming disciplined organizations. Emphasis on the vanguard nature of its organizational forms “encouraged activists to think in broad, long-range terms; to ponder all dimensions of the class struggle; to take their work and themselves seriously; to assume a great deal of responsibility and push themselves to their limits.3

These strengths enabled the NCM to both significantly influence the broader left milieu of its time and to “maintain a militant, anti-capitalist current for longer than most other tendencies that came out of the upheavals of the 1960s.”4

But Elbaum is alert to the movement’s weaknesses as well – its ultra-leftism, dogmatism and sectarianism – and its fragility. The NCM was continuously buffeted by centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. Organizations sought to come together in unifying party-building initiatives and were driven apart by numerous political and ideological differences, with many smaller groups resisting the pull of both dynamics. Of necessity in a book of this length, the focus is on the major NCM formations and their initiatives. However, something of the genuine breadth and diversity of the movement as a whole is lost in the absence of more attention to the less well known, out-of-the-way groups.

The NCM preached the importance of building multi-national organizations. Yet for much of its history, groups of white communists and communists of color evolved on separate but parallel tracks – the first primarily emerging out of student, anti-war and anti-draft movements; the second out of liberation movements in the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Asian American communities. The very different origins of the movement’s two components had profound repercussions for their long-term prospects.

For all groups, the challenge was to create and maintain stable and growing organizations while implanting themselves in the working class and/or local communities. Often these tasks were summed up in the slogans “unite Marxist-Leninists; win the advanced to communism.” Both tasks proved to be extremely difficult, in no small part due to the ways militants undertook to implement them.

Every serious group, no matter how small, considered itself a new communist party in embryo (or at least a part thereof). Hence the need to formulate positions on all important issues. But the more issues a group had a position on, the more opportunities existed for differences and disagreements to arise over them – internally, in relation to other groups, and in relation to the “advanced” they were trying to recruit. Elbaum puts much of the blame for the resulting disputatiousness on the NCM’s Maoism but this is a problem that has plagued every branch of the communist movement, as anyone familiar with the fissiparous history of Trotskyism can attest.

The early NCM groups strongly identified with the Chinese revolution and the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), just as the first communist parties at the dawn of the twentieth century had strongly identified with the Bolshevik revolution and the new Soviet state – and for the same reasons. The Chinese line seemed to offer the best chance of defeating imperialism and promoting world revolution, and China’s prestige and attractiveness to revolutionaries worldwide was expected to rub off on its American supporters.

Had the NCM seriously studied the lessons of the first communist parties’ unwavering adherence to Soviet policy they might have avoided the pitfalls of this model. In the early 1930s, particularly in the depths of the Great Depression, capitalism seemed to be faltering while the USSR’s economy was taking off. The Soviet example drew many Americans to communism (“I have seen the future and it works” – Lincoln Steffens) and to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Likewise, the Soviet Union’s militant anti-fascist policies attracted opponents of developments in Italy and Germany who might otherwise have shown little interest in the communist experiment.

But as the 1930s wore on, Soviet prestige began to wane under the impact of internal purges and great power politics. The low point was reached in the 1939 with the Soviet-German non-aggression pact and the concomitant demand that the Communist International abandon its anti-fascist priorities. A close association with the Soviet Union now turned from an asset into a liability. Soviet prestige was briefly restored during the war years, but, with the onset of the Cold War, the CPUSA’s ties to the USSR became an enormous millstone around the Party’s neck, one that almost finished it off when Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech on the Stalin period became public.

A similar process occurred over the life of the NCM. China’s championing of world revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the example of the Red Guards – millions of Chinese young people taking history into their own hands – initially thrilled American leftists, many of whom were being radicalized in the fight against US imperialism in Vietnam. Here, unlike the post-Stalin Soviet Union, was a country ready and willing to confront the “main enemy of the peoples of the world.”

But all too soon, things began to change. In 1974, when China first put forward its “Theory of Three Worlds,” few recognized the implications for Chinese foreign policy or the impact it would have on the NCM. Step one was elevating the USSR to a “social-imperialist superpower” on the same level as US Imperialism. From there it was only another small step to characterizing the USSR as the “more dangerous” of the two superpowers, the one against whom the main fire of revolutionaries had to be concentrated. The consequences of these formulations were profound. China, whose prestige had been tied to its anti-imperialist, revolutionary stance, was now backing reactionary regimes and movements around the world if they took up anti-Soviet positions and moving toward a de facto alliance with the United States.

These policy changes, together with the fall of the “Gang of Four” after Mao’s death and the CPC’s subsequent repudiation of the Cultural Revolution, tarnished China’s revolutionary credentials internationally and sparked an increasingly acrimonious debate, not only within the broader American left milieu, but within the ranks of the NCM itself. At issue was the extent to which the movement could continue to describe itself as Maoist or maintain its allegiance to CPC positions.

What began as debate soon became a crisis, manifesting itself in different ways in different organizations. One of the largest groups – the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) – underwent a debilitating split. Other groups, forsaking the CPC, looked for an alternative leading center for the world communist movement. When China and Albania had a falling out, some found it in Tirana. Still others, identified as “anti-dogmatist/anti-revisionists,” seized on the crisis to challenge the NCM to rethink its basic allegiances and its theoretical foundations. Line of March, Elbaum’s own former group, progressively abandoned its anti-revisionist identity and moved toward openly pro-Soviet positions. Other organizations, like the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) (CPML), remained loyal to China and tried to carry on as if no crisis existed.

Had this crisis erupted at a time when NCM groups were otherwise enjoying successes in recruitment and base building its impact might have been less severe. However, in this realm, too, many organizations were beginning to experience a crisis of a different character. This one was generated by the cumulative effects of their own organizational weaknesses and isolation. Disillusionment with a lack of progress was setting in, memberships were falling, and confidence in old certainties was beginning to wane.

These twin crises hit the predominantly white NCM organizations harder than those groups composed primarily of people of color. As noted earlier, white communists in the main came out of the student, anti-war, and anti-draft struggles. These were all conjunctural struggles, born of a particular moment in history and largely disappearing once that moment had passed. By the late 1970s the two main predominantly white groups – the CPML and the RCP – were feeling the combined effects of the melting away of the mass base from which they had emerged and their lack of real successes in building a new one in the working class.

The CPML, which, of all the Maoist groups, had secured the “China franchise” from CPC leaders, was most affected by the crises.5 In 1980 it entered a terminal decline and expired the following year. The RCP, already much weakened as a result of the 1977 split, pinned its hopes on championing Mao’s legacy and defending the Gang of Four against the post-Mao Chinese leadership. But, forsaking the working class for youth and lumpen elements, its practice quickly degenerated into a series of ultra-left campaigns and media-events. Membership declined, and a growing focus on the writings of Chairman Bob Avakian pointed toward the leader-cult groupuscule the RCP would soon become. continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
16
Jun

The Communist Manifesto foresaw the predatory and polarised global capitalism of the 21st century. But Marx and Engels also showed us that we have the power to create a better world.

By Yanis Varoufakis

The Guardian

April 20, 2018 -For a manifesto to succeed, it must speak to our hearts like a poem while infecting the mind with images and ideas that are dazzlingly new. It needs to open our eyes to the true causes of the bewildering, disturbing, exciting changes occurring around us, exposing the possibilities with which our current reality is pregnant. It should make us feel hopelessly inadequate for not having recognised these truths ourselves, and it must lift the curtain on the unsettling realisation that we have been acting as petty accomplices, reproducing a dead-end past. Lastly, it needs to have the power of a Beethoven symphony, urging us to become agents of a future that ends unnecessary mass suffering and to inspire humanity to realise its potential for authentic freedom.

No manifesto has better succeeded in doing all this than the one published in February 1848 at 46 Liverpool Street, London. Commissioned by English revolutionaries, The Communist Manifesto (or the Manifesto of the Communist Party, as it was first published) was authored by two young Germans – Karl Marx, a 29-year-old philosopher with a taste for epicurean hedonism and Hegelian rationality, and Friedrich Engels, a 28-year-old heir to a Manchester mill.

As a work of political literature, the manifesto remains unsurpassed. Its most infamous lines, including the opening one (“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”), have a Shakespearean quality. Like Hamlet confronted by the ghost of his slain father, the reader is compelled to wonder: “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune bestowed upon me by history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join these forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?”

For Marx and Engels’ immediate readership, this was not an academic dilemma, debated in the salons of Europe. Their manifesto was a call to action, and heeding this spectre’s invocation often meant persecution, or, in some cases, lengthy imprisonment. Today, a similar dilemma faces young people: conform to an established order that is crumbling and incapable of reproducing itself, or oppose it, at considerable personal cost, in search of new ways of working, playing and living together? Even though communist parties have disappeared almost entirely from the political scene, the spirit of communism driving the manifesto is proving hard to silence.

To see beyond the horizon is any manifesto’s ambition. But to succeed as Marx and Engels did in accurately describing an era that would arrive a century-and-a-half in the future, as well as to analyse the contradictions and choices we face today, is truly astounding. In the late 1840s, capitalism was foundering, local, fragmented and timid. And yet Marx and Engels took one long look at it and foresaw our globalised, financialised, iron-clad, all-singing-all-dancing capitalism. This was the creature that came into being after 1991, at the very same moment the establishment was proclaiming the death of Marxism and the end of history.

Of course, the predictive failure of The Communist Manifesto has long been exaggerated. I remember how even leftwing economists in the early 1970s challenged the pivotal manifesto prediction that capital would “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere”. Drawing upon the sad reality of what were then called third world countries, they argued that capital had lost its fizz well before expanding beyond its “metropolis” in Europe, America and Japan. continue

Category : Uncategorized | Blog
29
Mar

By Wilfred Burchett

A sense of realism is one of the great qualities of the Vietnamese leaders, which impresses all who have come in contact with them in Hanoi or the jungles of the South. This viewing of things as they are, together with their extreme sincerity and modesty, derives from the personality and style of work of President Ho Chi Minh, with whom most senior cadres have been closely associated for 30 or 40 years. Vietnamese leaders, of both the DRV and NLF, have never sought short term results by creating false optimism among the people. Two generations of Vietnamese have been educated to look danger and adversity squarely in the face; and the results are clearly demonstrated by the youths and girls of the defense militia, calmly and unflinchingly aiming their rifle sights at diving, strafing jets, awaiting the precise moment to squeeze the trigger. Although the difficulties to be confronted and the need for sacrifices are never minimized, there is, at the same time, great insistence on the power of the people and inevitability of final victory. To instill these principles in people’s minds, to give them confidence in their own power, has been a primary task of the armed propaganda units.

Wilfred Burchett interviews General Giap, Hanoi, May 1966.

“Armed propaganda consists in using the armed forces to carry out political propaganda, to sow confidence among the population so they will be convinced that our forces are powerful. After this confidence is established, it must be transformed into political consciousness. Let our people have confidence in the solidarity of our people. To irresolute or undecided they refuse to mend their ways despite warnings, we must resolutely wipe them out.”

In the actual cases I learned about in the South, except for a few persons like the monstrous Chau, who collected human ears (referred to in an earlier chapter), three warnings were usually given before execution and in 90% of such cases the warnings themselves were sufficient.

“Usually people find the revolutionary forces are well armed,” continues Giap, “and it is when they start paying attention to the weapons that the moment comes to give some simple advice, explaining that the power of weapons is only of secondary importance whereas the power of the whole people is invincible, unbeatable. If we do not succeed in convincing people by such explanations, they will be left with some superstitious belief in the power of weapons alone. In this case we will not have achieved our aim of armed propaganda…”

In most other armies a display of arms, a display of force is always intended to dazzle or intimidate people with the all-powerful nature of weapons and those who hold them. But it was typical of the leaders of Vietnam’s armed forces, even from the first moment they had weapons in their hands, to refrain from any boasting. All of General Giap’s writings reflect the absolute certitude that the people were all potential allies and that the armed forces were really a “people’s army” with aims completely identified with the aspirations of the people.

“When the people find that the revolutionary forces have arms in abundance, they will start to think the revolution will succeed easily. This is the moment to explain in a way that people will understand that the business of revolution is full of dangers and difficulties. The imperialists may undertake very violent, very savage acts of repression. Along the path of our struggle, it is possible that we will have temporary setbacks. It is very necessary also to educate people in the sense that if secrets are revealed, we will immediately be subject to the enemy’s terrorist activities. One must not hesitate to say this,” advises Giap, and he then gives some concrete details of another aspect of armed propaganda work:

“After the propaganda activities, the work of consolidation follows. Certain of the most ardent young people can be selected and given some training. For armed propaganda teams on the move from one place to another, training is not easy. Two methods are necessary, one to support the movement in the given locality, the other to form regional cadres as rapidly as possible, that is to say, to recruit into the ranks certain young people; they will be trained as opportunity presents itself while moving around with the armed forces. If necessary we will send them back to continue their activities in their own villages. This process of consolidation is very effective. It should be followed when one wants to establish extensive bases in as short a term as possible. These are the general principles of armed propaganda among the population. For vacillating elements, armed propaganda skillfully utilized can be a two edge weapon.

“There are people who doubt our revolutionary strength, but they will come over to our side when they see our weapons. They are the consciously vacillating elements. But there are also irresolute elements who hate the revolution; they only want to sabotage it but lack the courage to expose themselves as out-and-out reactionaries. Sometimes, frightened at our armed strength they either improve a bit, or they are horror-struck and become complete reactionaries, even conscious traitors. Therefore, in carrying out armed propaganda toward doubtful elements, we must carefully measure our words. We must come to understand fully the local situation, after which everything must be examined carefully, every possible scrap of information must be collected, in case of incidents. We must always act with restraint.”

Giap then deals with the execution of traitors, one of the most delicate of all questions, the one for which the NLF is most attacked, and the implications of which are used by American congressmen and columnists as a pretext for justifying the indefinite American “presence” in South Vietnam. The Western Armies after World War II had no scruples about trying Nazi and Japanese war criminals and hanging them. It was considered absolutely normal for the Norwegians to execute their Quislings, the French their Lavals and other Western countries their respective traitors, but Vietnamese are supposed to “forget and forgive” their Quislings and Lavals. It was considered a laudatory expression of patriotism in World War II for those living under the Nazi scourge to assassinate with whatever means possible any member of the hated occupation regime or any traitor-collaborators without any legal formalities of peacetime laws. But Vietnamese execution of traitors is labeled “Vietcong terrorism.”

Actually, in the South today as in Vietnam during the period about which Giap writes, grounds for executions have been far more limited than was the case with the West European resistance movements. This is explicable because of the essentially political motivation of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle. The possibility of “mass reprisals,” a blood bath for tens of thousands of those who had collaborated with the Americans in South Vietnam, is only conjured up by those who want to justify perpetual American occupation of South Vietnam.

“Concerning the extermination of traitors,” writes Giap, facing up to things with his habitual frankness, “we should execute them more resolutely and also more discriminatory. If we are not resolute, there will sometimes be disastrous consequences. But if we are not careful, executions may be unjustified and the effects could be no less fatal. The principle must be applied that only those guilty of high treason should be executed, only really incorrigible traitors and even then only after all possibilities of convincing them to mend their end ways have been exhausted. In order that such executions should have a correct influence, great attention must be paid to public opinion towards the traitor; one must be guided by the people’s will. Things must be handled in such a way that the population fully understands all the crimes of the condemned person; that they understand the tolerance and patriotism of revolutionary militants… In the case of execution of traitors, if the indictment is not exact, if the proceedings have not been given due attention because of lack of wisdom, firmness of care, the result will be the opposite to that intended…”

To apply in practice rejection of indiscriminate reprisals against known collaborators and traitors who have harmed the onward march of the resistance forces, implies strong political control at all levels of the armed forces. Thus it is necessary to clarify the nature of this political control before exploring other aspects of armed propaganda.

The armed propaganda units were the precursors of the three types of armed forces: self-defense guerrillas, regional troops and mobile regular troops. Political leadership within these units, as they were set up, was ensured by political cadres who were given parallel status at all levels with military commanders. This system is utilized today by the Vietnam People’s Army in the North and the Liberation Army in the South. This dual control is possible only when political and military aims in a given struggle are completely identical, integrated and coordinated, which in practice means that the political and military strategies must be decided at the same headquarters; and the political and military leadership share the same headquarters.

Régis Debray has justifiably criticized situations in which political cadres interfered in military affairs while the political leaders, as in certain countries in Latin America, were sitting in the cities trying to maintain a legal, political existence while the military leadership was in the mountains enduring the hardships of illegal existence. In such a case military activity is reduced to some sort of weight to be thrown onto the scales whenever the political leadership deems it expedient in its dealings with other political forces. Such a situation, I was told by certain guerrilla leaders from Latin America,[1] leads to a “legal” political leadership ordering all sorts of impractical military activities just to bring pressure to bear on some specific deal in the making; to secure an advantage in some temporary alignment of parliamentary forces, for example; or to bargain over the possibility of a few seats in a government. Armed insurrection is not something that can be switched on and off by a control, especially a control that is out of contact with the whole forward movement.

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Category : Marxism | Vietnam | Blog
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.

continue

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