Theory

31
Dec

By Marc Becker
Against the Current
No. 209, November/December 2020

WRITING IN THE 1920s, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui introduced a uniquely Latin American perspective on revolutionary socialist movements and theories. He famously noted, “we certainly do not want socialism in America to be a copy. It has to be a heroic creation.”(1) This political dynamism is what made him into an intellectual force with lasting relevance.

Mariátegui’s voluminous and perceptive writings as well as extensive political activism left an unmistakable and lasting impression on the political, social, and intellectual landscape of his country. Nevertheless, even as he has retained central importance for revolutionary socialism in Latin America, in the United States few people are aware of his contributions.

When Mariátegui died in 1930, his funeral turned into one of the largest processions of workers ever seen in the streets of the capital city of Lima, but in the United States his death was hardly noticed.

Waldo Frank, a prominent left-wing U.S writer, the first chair of the League of American Writers and a close friend of Mariátegui, declared that Mariátegui’s death plunged “the intelligentsia of all of Hispano-America into sorrow; and nothing could be more eloquent of the cultural separation between the two halves of the new world than the fact that to most of us these words convey no meaning.”(2)

Despite this lack of attention in the United States and writing a century ago and on a different continent, Mariátegui’s thought remains relevant for the struggles we face today.

Early Life

José Carlos Mariátegui was born June 14, 1894 in the southern Peruvian coastal town of Moquegua and grew up on outskirts of Lima. He was raised by a poor and deeply religious mestiza (mixed race) single mother, Maráia Amalia LaChira. She had separated from her husband, Francisco Javier Mariátegui, because, when she discovered that he was the grandson of a liberal independence hero, she wanted to protect her children from that liberal influence.

This did not prevent her son from becoming the leading Marxist thinker in Latin America, but it did seem to temper his attitudes toward religion.

Mariátegui was a poor and sickly child. He suffered from tuberculous, and when he was eight years old he hurt his left leg, disabling him for life. Because of a lack of financial resources, he only managed to achieve an eighth-grade education. As a result, he was largely self-taught, which later led him to quip that he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

Rather than continue his education, Mariátegui was forced to find a job to help support his family. At the age of 15, he began to work as a copyboy for the newspaper La Prensa. He soon rose through the ranks in the newsroom as he began writing and editing as well.

These experiences introduced him to the field of journalism, which he subsequently used both for his financial livelihood and as a vehicle to express his political views. Almost all of his voluminous writings originated as relatively short pieces that he penned for popular magazines.

Drawing on this journalistic experience, Mariátegui launched two short-lived newspapers, Nuestra Epoca and La Razón, that assumed an explicitly pro-labor perspective. His vocal support for the revolutionary demands of the workers soon ran him afoul of the Peruvian dictator Augusto B. Leguía, who in October 1919 exiled him to Europe.

Mariátegui later calls this early period of his life his “stone age” and ignored the literary output that resulted from it. As a result, his early writings have received little attention.

Marxism and Amauta
It was during his three-and-a-half-year sojourn in Europe that Mariátegui developed into a Marxist intellectual. Through a series of experiences in France and Italy he saw the revolutionary potential of Marxism. This trajectory and orientation later led his critics to condemn him as a “Europeanizer,” a rather ironic criticism for someone who has come to be generally applauded for adopting Marxist theories to a Latin American reality.

Mariátegui later commented that in Europe he picked up some ideas and a woman, the Italian Anna Chiappe with whom he subsequently had four children — all boys.

In 1923, Mariátegui returned to Peru “a convinced and declared Marxist.” He presented a series of lectures on the “history of world crisis” at the González Prada Popular University in Lima that drew on his experiences and observations in Europe.

He was a popular lecturer, but because of his lack of an academic degree he could not get a regular teaching appointment at the main San Marcos University. Indeed, he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

In 1924, the police arrested Mariátegui because of his alleged subversive activity at the González Prada Popular University. A strong international reaction led to his release, perhaps reinforcing in his mind the importance of the international dimensions to a socialist struggle.

In 1924, Mariátegui lost his (good) right leg, and as a result spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Even as his health failed (or perhaps because of that), both his intellectual output and efforts to organize a social revolution intensified.

Among Mariátegui’s literary activity, the most significant was the founding in 1926 of the journal Amauta (which means “wise teacher” in Quechua) as a vanguard voice for an intellectual and spiritual revolution. The journal moved beyond politics to include philosophy, art, literature, and science.

Amauta was a relatively high-brow publication that gained international renown. Two years later, Mariátegui launched a short-lived biweekly newspaper appropriately titled Labor as an extension of Amauta to reach out to the working class.

In 1928, Mariátegui published his most famous book 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality). The essays provide a broad sociological overview of key issues facing Latin America: economics, racial problems, land tenure, education, religion, regionalism and centralism, and literature (the last and by far the longest essay in the collection). This book quickly became a fundamental work on Latin American Marxism and established him as a founding light of Latin American Marxist theory.

In terms of his political activity, in 1928 Mariátegui founded the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP), served as its secretary-general and brought it into alignment with the Communist International as a vanguardist party designed to lead the proletariat to revolution. With that goal in mind, the party organized communist cells all over country. In 1929, the PSP launched the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) as a Marxist-oriented trade union federation.

During this entire time, Mariátegui continued to run into political problems with the Leguía regime. Mariátegui attacked working conditions at the U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco copper mine and Leguía feared that he was inciting workers.

In 1927, the police arrested and detained him for six days at a military hospital on charges of involvement in a communist plot. The police subsequently raided his house and shut down Labor.

Even as the labor and political organizations that Mariátegui helped found flourished, his health floundered. The person who came to be known as the Amauta died on April 16, 1930.

Mariátegui’s Ideology
Mariátegui was an integrative thinker who incorporated a broad range of factors into his political analyses and materialist conception of the world. Broadly, his intellectual contributions can be broken down along five lines: national Marxism, anti-imperialism, agrarian issues, racial matters, and religion.

Mariátegui is often seen as the first truly creative and original Latin American Marxist thinker who analyzed concrete historical realities in order to develop solutions to problems of non-European societies. Rather than a rigid and determi­nistic Marxism, he embraced an open and voluntarist revolutionary praxis that excelled in applying European doctrines to Latin American realities in new and creative ways. continue

Category : Latin America | Marxism | Theory | Blog
13
Dec

Limitations and Problems of the Western Doctrine

By Ai Silin & Qu Weijie
Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020

Abstract: The slogan “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” put forward by Western liberal scholars contradicts the principle of non-interference as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations. The Western conception of human rights includes two main justification methods—naturalism and bottom-lineism, but neither of them can substantively justify the universality of human rights going beyond reality. This also determines that the relationship between sovereignty and human rights is not an “either-or” one, but a dialectical and mutually reinforcing one. Human rights cannot be fundamentally guaranteed without the support of national sovereignty. The culture-centric mentality implied by the doctrine that human rights are superior to national sovereignty is not conducive to international cooperation. Only by engaging in dialogue in a non-coercive, inclusive, and equitable manner would it be possible to reach a bottom-line consensus that would be widely accepted by the international community.

Since the late 20th century, and particularly since the Kosovo War in 1999 and Iraq War in 2003, Western powers have advocated the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” to legitimize starting a series of regional wars. However, the concept which lies behind this theory conflicts with a series of principles of international law as stipulated in the Charter of the United Nations, such as the principles of the sovereign equality of states and non-interference in internal affairs. According to Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, “This prohibition of intervention is indeed reaffirmed by the UN Charter; but from the beginning it stood in tension with the development of the international protection of human rights.”[1] This paper attempts to review the relationship between national sovereignty and human rights based on a critical reflection on the Western concept of human rights.

I. Two Ways to Justify the Western Concept of Human Rights: Naturalism and Minimalism

It is generally believed that the universalist concept of human rights has its origins rooted in the modern Western concept of natural rights. It must first be clarified, however, that no consensus has thus far been reached in Western political academia about how the concept of “right” first came into being. Probing into the evolution of the concept of “right”, Richard Dagger wrote that the English word “right” comes from the Latin word “rectus” (meaning “straight”), which in turn can be traced to “orek-tos” (“straight, upright”) in Greek.[2] At the beginning, therefore, the word “right” presumably did not indicate “a justified claim or entitlement, or the freedom to do something” in its modern sense, and the concept of right in a political sense did not emerge in the West until the late Middle Ages as the idea of “natural rights” took shape. Western political scholars such as Charles Beitz and James Griffin who were committed to studying human rights believed that despite the differences in connotation between the concepts of human rights and natural rights, from a historical perspective, the origin of the modern Western concept of human rights is closely linked with the theory of natural rights, which in turn is directly related to the natural law theory established by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. The influence of modern natural science and the Enlightenment Movement, however, led the natural law theory to gradually give way to Enlightenment rationalism, thus divorcing the theological elements from the concept of natural rights. From this point, the individual awareness in line with the nature secured its fundamental status in practical philosophy, and the secular concept of “human rights” emerged in the late 18th century. According to Beitz, “the most broadly influential contribution of the natural rights tradition to contemporary thought about human rights is the idea that human rights belong to persons ‘as such’ or ‘simply in virtue of their humanity’.”[3] Such justification for human rights is referred by Beitz as “naturalist” view on human rights, which is one of the most common ways to justify human rights. Its core argument is that the concept of human nature is regarded as evidence of the universality of human rights, while human nature is in itself in conformity with the nature. “Not as something evolving in the course of history, but posited by nature, because for them this individual was the natural individual, according to their idea of human nature.”[4] In the modern Western tradition of metaphysics, such an individual in conformity with the nature may either be presumed as a Kantian rational being or an experimentalist aggregate of feelings. Whichever presumption is made, the “demystified” concept of human rights attempts to justify its universalist appeal by naturalist theories.

However, the biggest weakness of the naturalist theory is that it neglects the historical aspect of mankind. To ensure the prioritization of individual rights, an individual is ridded of his social identity such as roles and status, and is translated into a moral agent in a metaphysical sense. Marx made the lucid statement that the concept of moral agent as constructed by modern Western philosophers was but a product of disintegration of feudal society and maturity of the civil society. Elaborating human rights from the perspective of an abstract and naturalist human nature has abducted human rights evolution from its historical dimension, and the understanding of rights thereof is non-historical. In fact, the emergence and application of the concept of human rights are inevitably based on certain social practices and historical conditions, and shall undergo changes correspondingly with changes in such social practice and historical conditions. The connotation and denotation of this concept remains in dynamic evolution, in which sense the naturalist view will inevitably be challenged by historicism. From a historicist perspective, political or moral concepts are neither inherent nor created at the discretion of any person; instead, any concept is a product of history and depends on certain social practice and objective historical conditions as a foundation. So is the case with the concept of human rights, which has evolved over a long history rather than remaining unchanged, As early as during the Enlightenment Movement, certain Western thinkers and statesmen made the statement that “all men are born equal”. However, this slogan is just a promissory note that cannot be cashed immediately as U.S. sociologist Robert N. Bellah argued.[5] Women were not granted the right to vote or to stand in elections until the 1920s, and the rights of African Americans were not sufficiently protected until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Even today, various social classes and groups in the West remain troubled by identity and economic gaps.

The naturalist concept of human rights can be viewed as a “top-down”[6] approach according to Griffin, i.e. deduction of human rights based on one or multiple abstract principles, and it is exclusively built on the metaphysical concept of “man himself” or “human nature”. In fact, the evolution of human rights indicates that human nature, whether deemed a factual or normative being, is not a sufficient condition of human rights. The factual concept of human nature of the normative concept of personality itself does not naturally and logically lead to the deduction of a set of concepts of plural rights. Instead, our understanding of modern concept of human rights depends more on a “bottom-up” approach: approaching the human rights theory from widely used concept of human rights in actual social interactions. Through investigation into various types of human rights, political theorists attempt to find a consensus from all known concepts of human rights that is universally accepted by all nations. The bottom-up approach differs from the top-down approach in that the former acknowledges in the first place that different lists of rights may be categorized as human rights by different thinkers, who may interpret and understand the same right in different ways. Charles Taylor believed that human rights consist of norms of conduct and underlying justification, the former referring to various rights stipulated in national laws and international conventions, and the latter referring to philosophical views on human nature and society from a metaphysical perspective that constitute the philosophical basis of the norms of conduct related to human rights. For Taylor, people with different cultural backgrounds may vary in the deep underlying justification of human rights, which, however, does not impede us from seeking consensus on the level of norms of conduct through dialogues and communication. Such consensus, similar with “overlapping consensus” suggested by John Rawls, is a minimum consensus acceptable by all parties. Taylor further pointed out that “one can presumably find in all cultures condemnations of genocide, murder, torture, and slavery”[7]. According to Taylor, such norms of conduct are deemed overlapping consensus in a culturally diversified world. This concept of human rights can be defined as minimalism. In the West, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian scholar of political science, is one of the first advocates of the minimalist theory of human rights, which he believes is tantamount to the “negative freedom” defined by Isaiah Berlin that protects individuals from physical harm.[8] Likewise, Western political scholars such as Michael Walzer, David Miller and Joshua Cohen all advocate minimalism of human rights, albeit to various degrees. Walzer proposes a set of “negative injunctions” that rules against murder, deceit, torture, oppression, etc.[9] as minimal morality for all societies.

A Kantian question is: how does the consensus in minimalism become possible? Is it possible to reach some degree of consensus in a non-coercive approach and come up with a list of human rights universally acknowledged by all countries? Many western scholars on human rights are optimistic, such as Griffin emphasizing that “We now, in these cosmopolitan times, tend to exaggerate the differences between societies.”[10] Empirical observations show that people in different countries may differ in religions, world outlooks, set of values and lifestyles, yet certain fundamental preconditions apply to all humans, as no one would deny the value of food, health and security in life, which may be translated into corresponding appeals for rights and summarize a minimalist list of human rights. Borrowing Walzer’s theory, this would be a “thin” list of human rights whose underlying justification does not build on “thick” and profound metaphysical or religious resources; instead, it proceeds from indisputable human needs or interests. In a world of complexity and diversity, many Western philosophers have come to realize that a “thick” list of human rights would unlikely be universally accepted unless by means of coercion or even violence. Yet obtaining a list of human rights by such means is in itself a violation and disrespect of human rights. It is therefore obvious that the minimalism of human rights with empiricism as the basic methodology conforms to our empirical observation. Problems arise, however, from empirical induction, and disputes over the contents of such a minimalist list of human rights have never ceased between countries and regions. Besides, the multitude of political, economic and social rights stipulated by various conventions on human rights are absent from the “thin” list of human rights as many of these economic and social rights rely on enormous public spending, and cashing these “checks” of pledged rights may incur an unaffordable cost on some developing countries.

The viewpoint that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is unlikely to constitute a minimal consensus among all countries on the human rights issue since minimalism requires overlapping consensus based on equal dialogue. As behind the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” lurks a unilateralist and interventionist approach in international affairs, which is unacceptable for other countries advocating equality of national sovereignty.

II. Boundaries of Humanitarian Intervention and Its Subsequent Problems

It was not until after WWII that a modern and secularized concept of human rights became globally influential. Traumatized by the unprecedented calamity of Fascism preying on all nations, and in particular the holocaust by Nazi Germany, many argued that a prospective international political theory shall be advocated to safeguard human rights. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sought to provide a generic and normative foundation to safeguard human rights worldwide by listing a series of rights that all shall be entitled to. It was in this very context that “human rights diplomacy” practiced by Western countries started to gain momentum across the world, and wars were started in the name of “humanitarian intervention”, which consisted a major challenge to the concept of human rights in classical international law. So, does safeguarding human rights necessarily require a thorough abolishment of non-intervention principle within international law?

To answer this question, Western political philosophers advocating minimalist human rights argue that approving humanitarian intervention does not mean abandoning the non-intervention principle in international relations, but rather “becoming aware of particular exceptional situations” which constitute the scope and boundaries of humanitarian intervention. Walzer was one of the first Western political philosophers that expounded on humanitarian intervention whose basic viewpoint grounded upon “the norm is not to intervene in other people’s countries; the norm is self-determination”.[11] In normal situations, the principle of non-intervention shall apply in international affairs; however, humanitarian intervention is justified when it is response to acts “that shock the moral conscience of mankind”[12] and no local political organization possess the means to end the status quo. Therefore, failure in exercising sovereignty is an essential condition for the deposal of a sovereign state; while a second essential condition is the occurrence of “exceptional situation” that shock the moral conscience of mankind. Therefore, justified humanitarian intervention is essentially negative with a very narrow scope of applicability. According to David Miller, the non-intervention principle would be set aside provided that the international community reaches a universal consensus on whether the human rights violation has gone beyond the boundary of tolerance. At present, “such agreement exists in the case of genocide”[13] where the victims are deprived of all means of resistance without foreign aid. In such a case, the non-intervention principle of the international law is temporarily disabled and the boundary of national sovereignty broken, and intervention by other countries is justified. This indicates that a rather high threshold for the execution of humanitarian intervention is defined by minimalist human rights theory.

Another crucial question is: is “regime transformation” included in the “exceptional cases” where humanitarian intervention applies? Some advocates of “human rights first” argue that in order to prevent or avoid humanitarian disasters, it is necessary to transform the regime of certain countries by military means into a regime in conformity with Western liberalist democratic institutions. For them, humanitarian intervention is of a hysteretic nature and represents a negative and passive response; to eradicate the possibility of humanitarian disasters, regime transformation must be executed in countries where such disasters are possible to mold them with Western democracy. In other words, do political and military actions aiming at regime transformation deserve the name of humanitarian intervention or constitute a legitimate reason of humanitarian intervention? Walzer emphasized that democracy and rule of law of a country does not provide a legitimate ground for intervening with its internal affairs, nor is democracy of the political system a precondition for intervention; the key, instead, is whether the sovereignty is in severely conflict with human rights, and the only purpose of such intervention should be putting an end to violence. Therefore, “humanitarian interventions are not justified for the sake of democracy or free enterprise or economic justice or voluntary association or any other of the social practices and arrangements that we might hope for or even call for in other people’s countries”.[14] Every country has its own historical traditions, values and cultural beliefs, and one cannot truly understand the emergence, evolution and operation of political systems without being personally immersed in these specific cultural tradition resources. Regime transformation in the name of humanitarian intervention reflects a cultural centralism, which, in any form or type, would be refuted by cultural pluralism from a theoretical perspective in a world highlighting cultural diversity. In its very essence, an institutional and cultural superiority lurks behind cultural centralism in violation of the liberalist morality of equality and mutual respect. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” constitutes a violation of basic liberalist moral principles such as equality, respect and pluralism, and is, therefore, a self-negation of the theory.

The minimalist theory of human rights is only in favor of humanitarian intervention under exceptional circumstances; however, as Walzer put it, since the Spanish conquest of Mexico with the pretext of putting an end to Aztec human sacrifices, the so-called humanitarian intervention in most cases has been risible. Even in a morally justifiable intervention, the country initiating such intervention might have a political agenda in mind apart from humanitarian aid, for example, seeking regional political hegemony in the name of humanitarian intervention. The absence of pure humanitarian intervention in reality is the essential theoretical dilemma of humanitarian intervention. Walzer distinguished between two types of humanitarian interventions: pure humanitarian intervention and humanitarian intervention with mixed motives, the former purely aiming at saving lives, while the latter referring to mixed cases where the humanitarian motive, among other considerations of political and economic interests, is one among several reasons for military intervention. There are few genuine cases of military intervention in which their purpose was purely humanitarian; although military powers play a crucial role in international political arena, states do not send their soldiers into other states, it seems, only in order to save lives. As Jürgen Habermas noted, “the program of human rights consists in its imperialist misuse”[15] when human rights politics is reduced to an ideological tool manipulated by major powers to cover up their political interests. Therefore, entering a country by military means always sounds an alarm, and reality has sufficiently proved that interventionism tends to end up in failure. Both the Iraq War in 2003 and Libyan War in 2011 started in the ideological frame of unilateralism and interventionism deviated from the tracks presumed by Western countries, as neither country has an effective human rights protection mechanism put in place, or achieved post-war reconstruction for a thriving economy and stable society; on the contrary, both countries are plunged into prolonged turmoil. Interventionism has produced large number of refugees in West Asia and North Africa, who are deprived of both human rights and national sovereignty by the intervention of external forces.

III. Re-examination of the Relationship Between Human Rights and National Sovereignty

The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” reflects the belief that individual rights and freedom are of a higher priority than national sovereignty, and that the respect and protection of human rights constitutes the moral foundation of legitimacy of national sovereignty. Again, “individual” here is a metaphysical presupposition, where individuals are viewed as atomic, independent moral agents entitled to the identical plural rights regardless of all identity markers such as nationality, ethnic background, culture and faith, as well as all social relations. Therefore from the perspective of philosophical foundation, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” relies on ontology where “the individual comes first, and society comes second”, on which critical reflections can be initiated in the following three aspects.

First is the Marxist rebuttal of the metaphysical presupposition of the individual. Marx criticized such an atomic individual as “an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community”[16]. Human rights are thus established on the isolation rather than coalition of individuals. Isolation here refers to clear boundaries between one another that distinguish “me” from “him”. Taking property rights as an example, private property rights are defined as the possession and use of one’s own property without intervention from others, hence the existence of others is regarded as a restriction on individual rights rather than an essential element of materializing one’s individual rights. For Marx, human beings are a species being rather than enclosed and estranged “monad”. For an individual, society is a constitutive being—constituting the identity and main source of social relations of an individual—rather than a dissident being, The notion that an individual is an atomized being free of all historical traditions and social relations is but a philosophical fiction which in reality is untenable. An individual is an individual in reality, and the question of individual identity will not dispel by itself; therefore the “cosmopolitan citizen” imagined by liberalists is but a castle in the air. When one claims to be a “cosmopolitan citizen”, he/she would inevitably be questioned on his/her nationality, ethnic background, faith, etc., therefore voiding the claim of being cosmopolitan citizen. The existence of community (Gemeinschaft) makes identity possible for an individual, and all individuals in turn find themselves in existing political and cultural communities.

Second, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” fails to dialectically acknowledge the mutual complementarity between individual rights and national sovereignty. In fact, human rights and national sovereignty are in a dialectic and mutually complementary relationship rather than a dualistic one, and there would be no guarantee of human rights without national sovereignty. A review of the theoretical origins of Western political philosophy shows that despite the differences in their philosophical origins, the thriving development of both notions is closely related to the theory of social contract. The purpose of reaching a social contract is to ensure effective fulfillment of individual rights, which in turn relies on the sovereign authority constituted through social contract signed by the people. The principle of people’s sovereignty reveals that sovereignty is essentially constituted by the common will of all people in a political community and has, therefore, a view to safeguard public interests that are relevant to all people. Thomas Hobbes made it clear that the purpose of sovereignty is not only procuration of the safety of the people, but also guarantee that every individual subject to the sovereign be granted “all other Contentments of life, which every man by lawfull Industry, without danger, or hurt to the Common-wealth, shall acquire to himselfe”.[17] In other words, the theoretical constitution of the social contract reminds us that national sovereignty should not be severed from human rights. Should no guarantee be needed for the fulfillment of rights, the purpose of the constitution of social contract would be somewhat suspicious: since an individual has already possessed and fulfilled his/her rights, what is meaningful about sovereignty authority? Subjecting an individual under the sovereignty through social contract itself indicates that the fulfillment of human rights require a corresponding institution that materializes and safeguards human rights.

A functionalist opinion holds it that sovereignty authority will be weakened as globalization deepens. Globalization has given rise to massive flows of commodities, services, capital and workforce, delivering a heavy impact on the established lifestyles and ideologies of various countries; meanwhile, human beings are facing mounting global challenges from tackling the climate change to anti-terrorism and addressing regional security concerns, which is beyond the means of any single country. Common interests and community of destiny are therefore constructed for all countries by such reality. According to Jürgen Habermas, “this conception encounters difficulties in a highly interdependent global society.”[18] Such a functionalist view is undoubtedly based on the reality of economic globalization yet its conclusion is open to debate. In reality, from a realistic perspective, there is no global political institution whose legitimacy is universally acknowledged that is able to practically defend all rights, and nation states remain the dominant institution to safeguard human rights. Overriding the boundaries of sovereign states would likely fail to secure human rights and even cause greater harm to the human rights of other nations. Furthermore, as the US President Donald Trump openly declared “make America great again” as the guiding program of his administration, this slogan in itself indicates bitter controversies over the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” within the Western society itself. Opposite to what liberalist philosophers advocating universalism of human rights have presumed, localizationist and nationalist narratives are still exerting their far-reaching influence on the Western society.

Lastly, the theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” ensconces the hypothesis that the contemporary Western political and legal systems are more effective in defending human rights, and that the institutional pattern of developed countries in the Western hemisphere is the only right option for the development model of modern countries, behind which lies, undoubtedly, the mindset of Euro-American cultural centrism, which is powerfully challenged by the rise of cultural pluralism that calls for inclusiveness and mutual respect in addressing cultural differences, and pursues diversity rather than singularity. Confronting Euro-American cultural centrism, S.N. Eisenstadt and Taylor both advocated the concept of “pluralistic modernity”, emphasizing that various modern cultural patterns exist among different countries, that the Western culture is merely one component of the world’s pluralistic cultural system and that Europe is but a “provincializing Europe”[19]. As mentioned above, the modern concept of human rights in the West is a universalist value proposition based on so-called universal human nature or humanity. Yet, Alasdair MacIntyre was precise to the point as he commented on David Hume’s moral philosophy that “the appeal to a universal verdict by mankind turns out to be the mask worn by an appeal to those who physiologically and socially share Hume’s attitudes and Weltanschauung.”[20] To say the least, the fact that universalist value appeal is a typical feature of the Western culture does not necessarily eclipse the cultures of other countries or regions which are also entitled to appeal for universalization, as universality is not exclusively reserved for the Western cultural pattern. In summary, based on the normative requirements for inclusiveness and equality, Western cultural values cannot be taken indiscriminately as the standard against which value appeals in other cultures are measured. The theory that “human rights are superior to national sovereignty” is detrimental for international cooperation on an equal footing, as the cultural centrism behind it jeopardizes, rather than facilitates, the consensus on human rights. Only through joint participation in dialogues with a non-coercive, open and inclusive attitude will a minimal consensus acceptable to all stakeholders be possible.

(Ai Silin: Professor; Dean of School of Marxism, Tsinghua University; Changjiang distinguished professor, Ministry of Education.

Qu Weijie: Associate Professor, School of Marxism, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.)

This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

* This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.

[1] Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, edited by Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff. The MIT Press, 1998, p. 147.

[2] Terence Ball et. al. (ed.) Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 293.

[3] Charles R. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2009, p.59.

[4] Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58, “Introduction”, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 28, Lawrence & Wishart , 1986, p. 18.

[5] Robert Bellah, What Changes Very Fast and What Doesn’t Change: Explosive Modernity and Abiding Truth, Journal of Peking University (Philosophy and Social Sciences, 2012 Vol. 1.

[6] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.29.

[7] Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 106.

[8] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 173.

[9] Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, University of Notre Dame, 1994, p. 10.

[10] James Griffin, On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.138.

[11] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 81.

[12] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, Basic Books, 2006, p. 107.

[13] Lukas H. Meyer (ed.) Legitimacy, Justice and Public International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 249.

[14] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 69.

[15] Jürgen Habermas, The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 41, No. 4, July 2010, p. 477.

[16] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question,1844, Marx & Engels Collected Works. Vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart , 1975, p. 164.

[17] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 258.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Translated by Ciaran Cronin, Polity Press, 2008, p. 320.

[19] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University Press, 2004. p. 196.

[20] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 231.

Category : China | Democracy | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
20
Apr

Fromm was famous for this critique of consumer capitalism as well as for his penetrating studies of authoritarianism. He was a significantly influential figure on U.S. radical thought during the second half of the 20th Century.

 

By Kieran Durkin
Marxist Sociology Blog

April 15, 2020 – Erich Fromm (1900-1980), who passed forty years ago March of this year, was a leading Marxian sociologist who made considerable contributions to U.S. sociology and to U.S. Marxism. Best known for books such as Escape from Freedom, The Sane Society, and The Art of Loving, Fromm’s account of authoritarianism and critique of mid-twentieth century “consumer capitalism” influenced millions both inside and outside of academia.

Prior to arriving in the U.S. in the early 1930s, amidst the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fromm, who was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, was a central member of the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. There he worked alongside Max Horkheimer on an interdisciplinary project that sought to mix social philosophy with the empirical social sciences. Having studied sociology under Alfred Weber (Max Weber’s less famous brother) at Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg, followed by training at the famous Berlin Psychoanalytical Institute, Fromm was given central responsibility for the Frankfurt institute’s attempts at synthesizing sociology and psychoanalysis.

One of the first manifestations of this synthesis was an innovative study of manual and white-collar German workers, which was led by Fromm along with Hilde Weiss. Through use of an interpretative questionnaire, Fromm and Weiss were able to reveal that while the majority of respondents identified with the left-wing slogans of their party their radicalism was considerably reduced in more subtle and seemingly unpolitical questions – pointing to what Fromm argued was evidence of an “authoritarian” character.

Although the study itself wasn’t published until the 1980s, under the title The Working Class in Weimar Germany – this was at least partly due to the breakdown in Fromm’s relationship with Horkheimer – it is clear that it shed considerable light on what transpired in Nazi Germany, as well as telling us something about the nature of the left-wing authoritarianism.

Escape from Freedom, Fromm’s most famous work, was published in 1941, after he had left the Institute (Fromm was effectively pushed out to make way for Theodor Adorno in 1939). The central theme of Escape from Freedom was that Europe, which had hitherto been marching towards greater and greater forms of political freedom, and even towards socialism, over the course of the preceding centuries, had capitulated to fascism. Fromm wanted to try to understand this process in order to explain how and why it was that Nazism had taken hold in Germany, and why so many individuals came to support Hitler.

Like most Marxist analyses at the time, Fromm focused on the role of the lower-middle classes. He argued that the decline of their socio-economic status in the face of monopoly capitalism and hyperinflation alongside the defeat Germany suffered in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles had a deep psychological effect, removing traditional psychological supports and mechanisms of self-esteem.

In an expanded Marxian account, in which ideas and emotions played an important mediating role, Fromm identified deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness in this class, which Hitler was able to capitalize on, with his sadomasochistic messages of love for the strong and hate for the weak (not to mention a racial program that raises “true-born” Germans to the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder), which provided the means of escape from intolerable psychological burdens experienced on a mass basis.

Fromm’s next engagement with Marxism came in the form of his The Sane Society (1955). The book is notable for its criticism of Marx, particularly of his account of revolution. Fromm argued that the famous statement that concludes The Communist Manifesto, that the workers “have nothing to lose but their chains,” contains a profound psychological error. With their chains they have also to lose all those irrational needs and satisfactions which developed because these chains were worn. Because of this, Fromm argued that we need a concept of “revolutionary humanism,” of revolution not only in terms of external barriers, but internal ones too, one that deals with the roots of sadomasochistic passions, sexism, racism, and other forms of character that aren’t necessarily going disappear immediately in a new society.

The Sane Society also contained an extended critique of mid-twentieth century U.S. capitalism, which for Fromm was an essentially bureaucratic form of mass-consumer capitalism. As part of this critique, Fromm put forward the notion of the “marketing orientation” to describe what he saw as the newly dominant form of personality that was associated with this stage of capitalism. A social psychological refraction of the Marxian notion of alienation, the marketing orientation for Fromm was one in which people experience themselves and others as commodities, literally as something to be marketed.

Fromm’s critique of contemporary capitalism continued a year later in The Art of Loving, perhaps his best-known work. Not the most obviously socialist or Marxist book (in fact, Herbert Marcuse criticized Fromm for supposedly betraying radical thought, and becoming a “sermonistic social worker”) Fromm was nevertheless adamant that “[t]he principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible,” and thus that the criticism of love (which, as he understood it, referred to the antithesis of narcissistic, racist, sexist and other forms of interpersonal relations) was also a criticism of capitalism and the ways in which it mitigated against genuine forms of love that would manifest in a more human society. Fromm believed that we must analyze the conditions for the possibility of realizing love and integrity in the present society and seek to strengthen them.

It is also during the 1950s that Fromm joins American Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation and seeks to rewrite its program. The resulting document, although rejected for this purpose, was published as Let Man Prevail (1958). It marks out Fromm’s distinctive form of Marxism, which he here calls “radical humanism” and characterizes as a democratic, humanist form of socialism. This analysis is deepened in 1960, in May Man Prevail?, an analysis of Soviet Communism that was intended to influence the move to unilateral disarmament during the Cold War.

Fromm’s most significant contribution to U.S. Marxism, however, was Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Containing the first full English translation of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, prefaced by a few short essays by Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man helped to popularize Marx in the U.S., as well as counteract some of the more common misinterpretations of Marx.

Fromm’s contribution to Marxism continued during the 1960s, with the publication of Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), in which Fromm developed his Freudo-Marxism social psychological theory of social character. Fromm was also responsible for the publication of Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (1965), an impressive global collection of humanist Marxists and socialists, largely from Eastern Europe (including many from the Yugoslav Praxis school) but also from Africa and India.

In the years that followed, Fromm was a prominent figure in the anti-War left, influencing Martin Luther King Jr. and writing The Revolution of Hope, an attempt to influence the 1968 Presidential election. Aware of criticisms of such apparent social democratic reformism, Fromm protested that “if one is not concerned with the steps between the present and the future, one does not deal with politics, radical or otherwise.” He also wrote, Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and To Have or To Be? (1976), all of which further developed his distinctive Freudo-Marxian inspired humanist sociology.

Looking back on Fromm’s legacy today, at a point where sociologists and Marxists are increasingly returning to his work, it is clear that what Fromm left us is a nuanced form of Marxian sociology that can help account for the relations between economic life, political movements, and inner emotional dynamism that underpin many of the changes that we are witness to in the current world situation. In a situation that is rapidly moving into dangerous territory, in what promises to be a recession as deep as 1929, we could do worse today than to look to Fromm for assistance.

Kieran Durkin is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellow at University of York, and Visiting Scholar at University of California Santa Barbara, where he is conducting the first dedicated study of the Humanist Marxist tradition. He is author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm, and editor with Joan Braune of Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future.

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
29
Dec

‘State Capitalism’? Or Socialist Market Economy? Which Shoe Fits Whom?

Qiushi Magazine
CCP Central Committee Fall 2018

The United States equates China’s economy with “state capitalism”, saying socialist market economy is not real market economy but state-led protectionist and mercantilist economy, which, it claims justifies the imposition of high tariffs on Chinese goods.

This is not the first time a Western country has labeled China’s economic model as “state capitalism”. Some people are re-circulating the term in the West now to hide the real reason why the US has resorted to trade protectionism and imposed high tariffs on Chinese imports, namely, their concern over China’s development road and economic system.

The US is a self-proclaimed representative of free market economy and free market capitalism, but the government’s role has been particularly important in its economic development. Let us not forget, the US has resorted to protectionism from its founding to the end of World War II.

Using free market as a ploy to make profits

In the postwar period, too, the US administration has intervened in the economy to fulfill its self-interests even while promoting trade liberalization, as Keynesianism came to play the dominant role in US economic policymaking. For example, the US’ total government spending increased from 26.8 percent of GDP in 1960 to 41.3 percent in 2010, and the number of its government employees increased from more than 4 million in 1940 to more than 22 million in 2010.

Some experts on innovation say, despite advocating “small government” and “free market”, the US has been running massive public investment programs in technology and innovation for decades, which have brought the US great economic benefits. In fact, the US government has always been a central driver of innovation-led growth, from internet to biotechnology and even shale gas development. After the outbreak of the 2008 global financial crisis, the US once again resorted to state interventionism, and introduced huge financial rescue and fiscal stimulus packages to stabilize its economy. continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Keynes | Marxism | Socialism | Theory | Blog
10
Dec

 

Stacy Czyzewski checks a machine that can manufacture complex aerospace components at Pioneer Service Inc. in Addison, Ill. Photographs by David Kasnic for The Wall Street Journal

THE NEW LEFT’S ‘NEW WORKING CLASS THEORY’ FROM 1968 HAS FINALLY SHOWN UP. Within three years, U.S. manufacturing workers with college degrees will outnumber those without

By Austen Hufford
Wall Street Journal

Dec. 9, 2019 – College-educated workers are taking over the American factory floor.

New manufacturing jobs that require more advanced skills are driving up the education level of factory workers who in past generations could get by without higher education, an analysis of federal data by The Wall Street Journal found.

Within the next three years, American manufacturers are, for the first time, on track to employ more college graduates than workers with a high-school education or less, part of a shift toward automation that has increased factory output, opened the door to more women and reduced prospects for lower-skilled workers.

“You used to do stuff by hand,” said Erik Hurst, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. “Now, we need workers who can manage the machines.”

U.S. manufacturers have added more than a million jobs since the recession, with the growth going to men and women with degrees, the Journal analysis found. Over the same time, manufacturers employed fewer people with at most a high-school diploma.

Employment in manufacturing jobs that require the most complex problem-solving skills, such as industrial engineers, grew 10% between 2012 and 2018; jobs requiring the least declined 3%, the Journal analysis found.

At Pioneer Service Inc., a machine shop in the Chicago suburb of Addison, Ill., employees in polo shirts and jeans, some with advanced degrees, code commands for robots making complex aerospace components on a hushed factory floor.

The Factory floor at Pioneer Service Inc.

That is a far cry from work at Pioneer in the 1990s, when employees had to wear company uniforms to shield their clothes from the grease flying off the 1960s-era manual machines used to make parts for heating-and-cooling systems. Pioneer employs 40 people, the same number in 2012. Only a handful of them are from the time when simple metal parts were machined by hand.

“Now, it’s more tech,” said Aneesa Muthana, Pioneer’s president and co-owner. “There has to be more skill.”

How can U.S. manufacturing workers be saved from the spread of robots? Join the conversation below.

Pioneer, which makes parts for Tesla vehicles and other luxury cars, had its highest revenue last year, Ms. Muthana said. The company’s success mirrors that of other manufacturers that survived the financial crisis. continue

Category : Capitalism | Technology | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog
1
Dec


 

October 2018:An exchange prompted by the essay 

The Precariat: Today’s Transformative Class? 


A headshot of Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher
Taking a long view of precariousness as an inherent feature of capitalism can shed light on the contemporary debate on “the precariat.”
 Read


A headshot of Nancy Folbre

Nancy Folbre
The focus on “the precariat” is useful but limited: the fight over distribution isn’t just between labor and capital.
 Read


A headshot of Azfar Khan

Azfar Khan
A universal basic income is key to delivering security and autonomy to people in a precarious world. 
Read


A headshot of Alexandra Köves

Alexandra Köves
Beyond policies like a universal basic income, a transition to a equitable and sustainable society requires the redefinition of well-being, needs, and work itself.
 Read


A headshot of George Liodakis

George Liodakis
There is no “precariat,” per se—the working class as-a-whole remains the necessary agent for transformation.
 Read


A headshot of Ronaldo Munck

Ronaldo Munck
Work in the Global South has always been precarious, but the resurgence of global labor organizing offers a way forward.
 Read


A headshot of William I. Robinson

William I. Robinson
The “precariat,” rather than a new class, is part of the global proletariat, on whose struggle with transnational capital our fate depends.
 Read


A headshot of Pritam Singh

Pritam Singh
A basic income alone is not transformative, but a feature of a broader ecosocialist vision of dismantling capitalism. 
Read


A headshot of Eva-Maria Swidler

Eva-Maria Swidler
Workers in the Global North have a lot to learn from the past struggles of workers in the Global South (as well as in their own countries). 
Read


A headshot of Evelyn AstorA headshot of Alison Tate

Alison Tate and Evelyn Astor
Labor unions must continue to play an important role in the fight for economic justice and against precariousness. 
Read



A headshot of Guy Standing

Author’s Response
Guy Standing addresses points raised by the contributors to this roundtable. Read
 

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Hegemony | Marxism | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog
25
Nov

By Guy Standing

October 2018

Since 1980, the global economy has undergone a dramatic transformation, with the globalization of the labor force, the rise of automation, and—above all—the growth of Big Finance, Big Pharma, and Big Tech. The social democratic consensus of the immediate postwar years has given way to a new phase of capitalism that is leaving workers further behind and reshaping the class structure. The precariat, a mass class defined by unstable labor arrangements, lack of identity, and erosion of rights, is emerging as today’s “dangerous class.” As its demands cannot be met within the current system, the precariat carries transformative potential. To realize that potential, however, the precariat must awaken to its status as a class and fight for a radically changed income distribution that reclaims the commons and guarantees a livable income for all. Without transformative action, a dark political era looms.

Introduction

We are living in a painful time of turbulent economic change. A global market system continues to take shape as the United States petulantly threatens the international order that it helped to create and from which it has gained disproportionately. This era, which began around 1980, has been dominated institutionally by American finance and ideologically by the economic orthodoxy of “neoliberalism.” A hallmark of this transformation has been the increasing redistribution of wealth upwards as rents to those owning property—physical, financial, and “intellectual.” As “rentier capitalism” has risen, working classes have foundered, as those relying on labor have been losing ground in both relative and absolute terms.

In brief, during the past forty years, the global economy has been shaped by neoliberal economics, which, accentuated by the digital revolution, has generated two linked phenomena: global rentier capitalism and a global class structure in which the precariat is the new mass class. Rentier capitalism is making the hardships borne by the precariat much worse.

Industrial capitalism produced a property-owning bourgeoisie and the proletariat; contemporary capitalism is roiling this class structure. Today, the mass class is the precariat, characterized by unstable labor, low and unpredictable incomes, and loss of citizenship rights. It is the new “dangerous class,” partly because its insecurities induce the bitterness, ill-health, and anger that can be the fodder of right-wing populism. But it is also dangerous in the progressive sense that many in it reject old center-left and center-right politics. They are looking for the root-and-branch change of a new “politics of paradise,” rather than a return to a “politics of laborism” that seeks amelioration within dominant institutions and power structures.

The precariat’s needs cannot be met by modest reforms to the existing social and economic system. It is the only transformative class because, intuitively, it wants to become strong enough to abolish the conditions that define its existence and, as such, abolish itself. All others want merely to improve their position in the social hierarchy. This emergent class is thus well-placed to become the agent of radical social transformation—if it can organize and become sufficiently united around a shared identity, alternative vision, and viable political agenda.

The key to understanding the precariat’s transformational position lies in the breakdown of the income distribution system of the mid-twentieth century. To succeed, a new progressive politics must offer a pathway to an ecologically sustainable system that reduces inequalities and insecurities in the context of an open, globalizing economy.

The Rise of Rentier Capitalism

Between 1945 and 1980, the dominant socioeconomic paradigm in industrialized countries outside the Communist Bloc was social democratic, defined by the creation of welfare states and labor-based entitlements. Although there were modest falls in inequality coupled with labor-based economic security, this was no “golden age,” as some historians label it. The period was stultifying and sexist. Putting as many people as possible (mainly men) in full-time jobs under the banner of Full Employment was hardly an emancipatory vision worthy of the Enlightenment values of EgalitéLiberté, and Solidarité.

As the social democratic era collapsed in the 1970s, an economic model emerged now known as “neoliberalism.” Its advocates preached “free markets,” strong private property rights, financial market liberalization, free trade, commodification, privatization, and the dismantling of all institutions and mechanisms of social solidarity, which, in their view, were “rigidities” holding back the market. While the neoliberals were largely successful in implementing their program, what transpired was very different from what they had promised.

The initial outcome was financial domination. The income generated by US finance, which equaled 100% the size of the US economy in 1975, grew to 350% in 2015. Similarly, in the UK, finance went from 100% to 300% of GDP. Both countries experienced rapid deindustrialization as the strength of finance led to an overvalued exchange rate that, by making exports uncompetitive and imports cheaper, destroyed high-productivity manufacturing jobs. Financial institutions, most notably Goldman Sachs, became masters of the universe, their executives slotted into top political positions in the US and around the world.1

Finance linked up with Big Pharma and Big Tech to forge a global architecture of institutions strengthening rentier capitalism, maximizing monopolistic income from intellectual property. The pivotal moment came in 1995 with implementation of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), in which US multinational corporations helped secure the globalization of the US intellectual property rights system. This shift gave unprecedented rent-extracting capacity to multinationals and financial institutions.

Patents, copyright, protection of industrial designs, and trademarked brands have multiplied as sources of monopolistic profit. In 1994, fewer than one million patents were filed worldwide; in 2011, over two million were filed; in 2016, over three million. By then, twelve million were in force, and licensing income from patents had multiplied sevenfold. Growth was similar with other forms of intellectual property.

The rent-extracting system was enforced by over 3,000 trade and investment agreements, all entrenching property rights, topped by a mechanism (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) that empowers multinationals to sue governments for any policy changes that, in their view, negatively affect their future profits. This has had a chilling effect on policy reform efforts, notably those seeking to protect health and the environment.

Rentier capitalism has also been bolstered by subsidies, a financial system designed to increase private debt, privatization of public services, and a plunder of the commons. But it contains two possibly fatal flaws. First, the rentiers have been winning too much by rigging the system, raising questions about social and political sustainability. Second, the architects proved mistaken in thinking this framework would bolster the US economy, along with other advanced industrial economies to a lesser extent, at the expense of the rest of the world.

In particular, they underestimated China. When TRIPS was passed, China was inconsequential as a rentier economy. After it joined the WTO in 2001, it started to catch up fast. In 2011, China overtook the US in patent applications; by 2013, it accounted for nearly a third of global filings, well ahead of the US (22%). In 2016, it accounted for 98% of the increase over 2015, filing more than the US, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the European Patent Office combined.

The main outcome of rentier capitalism, exacerbated by globalization and the digital revolution, is an inexorable erosion of the income distribution system of the twentieth century—the implicit sharing of income between capital and labor that emerged after the Second World War, epitomized by the 1950 pact between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors known as the Treaty of Detroit. Now, all over the world, the share of income going to capital has been rising; the share going to labor, falling. Within both, the share going to forms of rent has been rising.

The social democratic consensus was based on implicit rules. When productivity rose, so did wages. When profits rose, so did wages. When employment rose, so did wages. Today, productivity and employment are rising, but wages remain stagnant or falling.

One factor depressing wages has been the growth of the global labor force, which has expanded by two billion during the past three decades, many of whom have a living standard that is a tiny fraction of what OECD workers were obtaining. Downward pressure on real wages will continue, especially as productivity can rise faster in emerging market economies and the technological revolution makes relocation of production and employment so much easier. Meanwhile, the rentiers will be protected. Antitrust legislation will not be strengthened to cut monopolistic rent-seeking, since governments will continue to protect national corporate champions.

Without transformative changes, those relying on labor will continue to lose; no amount of tinkering will do. Average real wages in OECD countries will stagnate, and social income inequalities will grow. Progressives must stop deluding themselves. Unless globalization goes into reverse, which is unlikely, trying to remedy inequality by forcing up wages, however desirable, will not do much. Raising wages substantially would merely accelerate the displacement of labor by automation.

A Global Class Structure

Just as industrial capitalism ushered in a new class structure, so, too, has rentier capitalism. The emerging structure, superimposed on old structures, is topped by a plutocracy, made up of a small group of billionaires who wield corruptive power. Although mostly in the West, a growing proportion of plutocrats are in Asia and other emerging market economies. Under them is an elite, who serve the plutocracy’s interests while making substantial rental income themselves. Together, these comprise what is colloquially known as the 1%, but, in fact, is much smaller than that.

Below them in the income spectrum is a salariat, a shrinking number of people with labor-based security and robust benefits, from health care to stock ownership. In the post-1945 era, economists predicted that by the end of the twentieth century, the vast majority in rich countries would be in the salariat, with growing numbers in developing countries joining them. Instead, the salariat is shrinking. It will not disappear, but its members are increasingly detached from those below them in the class spectrum, largely because they too gain more in rentier incomes than in wages. Still, their politics may be shaped by what they see happening to their sons and daughters, as well as their grandchildren.

Alongside the salariat is a smaller group of proficians, freelance professionals, such as software engineers, stock traders, lawyers, and medical specialists operating independently. They earn high incomes selling themselves frenetically, but risk early burnout and moral corrosion through excessive opportunism. This group will grow and are influential beyond their number, conveying an image of autonomy. But for the health of this untethered, hard-driving group—and society’s—they need social structures to enforce moral codes.

Below them in income terms is the proletariat, the epitome of the “working class” in the European sense, the “middle class” in the American sense. In the twentieth century, welfare states, labor law, collective bargaining, trade unions, and labor and social democratic parties were built by and for this group. However, it is dwindling everywhere and has lost progressive energy and direction.

Those who pine for the proletariat should reflect on the downside of the proletarian life and what most had to do just to survive. There should be respect for what it achieved in its heyday, but nostalgia is delusional. In reality, many are falling into the emerging mass class, the precariat, which is also being fed by college graduates and dropouts, women, migrants, and others.

Understanding the Precariat

The precariat consists of millions of people in every advanced industrial country and in emerging market economies as well.2 It can be defined in three dimensions: distinctive relations of production (patterns of labor and work), distinctive relations of distribution (sources of social income), and distinctive relations to the state (loss of citizenship rights). It is still a “class-in-the-making” in that it is internally divided by different senses of relative deprivation and consciousness. But in Europe at least, it is becoming conscious of itself as a coherent group opposed to the dominant power structure (a “class-for-itself”).

The distinctive relations of production start with the fact that the precariat is being forced to accept, and is being habituated to, a life of unstable labor, through temporary work assignments (“casualization”), agency labor, “tasking” in Internet-based “platform capitalism,” flexible scheduling, on-call and zero-hour contracts, and so on. Even more important is that those in the precariat have no occupational narrative or identity, no sense of themselves as having a career trajectory. They also learn they must do a lot of work-for-labor, work-for-the-state, and work-for-reproduction of themselves.3 The need to adapt capabilities in a context of uncertainty leads to the precariatized mind, not knowing how best to allocate one’s time and thus being under almost constant stress.

The precariat is also the first mass class in history in which their typical level of education exceeds that required for the kind of labor they can expect to obtain. And it must work and labor outside fixed workplaces and standard labor hours as well as within them.

The precariat exists in most occupations and at most levels within corporations. For example, within the legal professions, there are elites, a squeezed salariat, and a precariat of paralegals. Similar fragmentation exists in the medical and teaching professions, with paramedics and “fractionals” (i.e., those remunerated for only a fraction of full-time). The precariat is even spreading into corporate management with a concept of “interim managers,” some of whom are well-paid proficians (depicted by George Clooney in Up in the Air), others of whom fall in the precariat.

Along with the rise of unstable labor, the second dimension is distinctive relations of distribution, or structures of social income.4 The precariat relies mainly on money wages, which have been stagnant or falling in real terms for three decades, and which are increasingly volatile. The precariat’s income security has fallen correspondingly. Also, as many must do much unpaid work, the wage rate is lower than it appears if only paid labor time is taken into account. This trend will only intensify with the spread of “tasking” through online platforms.

Further, the precariat has been losing non-wage forms of remuneration, while the salariat and elite have been gaining them, making the growth of social income inequality greater than it appears in conventional income statistics. The precariat rarely receives paid holidays, paid medical leave, subsidized transport or accommodation, paid maternity leave, and so on. And it lacks the occupational benefits that came with belonging to a professional or craft guild.

The precariat has also lost entitlement to rights-based state benefits (welfare). The international trend towards means-testing and behavior-testing has hit them hard and engulfed many in regimes of workfare. Means-testing creates poverty traps, since benefits are withdrawn when earned income rises. Going from low state benefits into low-wage jobs on offer thus involves very high marginal “tax” rates, often over 80%. The precariat also faces “precarity traps”: obtaining benefits takes time, so if you succeed in obtaining them, it would be financially irrational to leave for a low-paying short-term job alternative.

The precariat has also been losing access to family and community support, as well as to commons resources and amenities, all of which have been underestimated sources of income security for low-income groups throughout the ages. For the precariat, they are just not there. Instead, many are driven to food banks and charities.

Key to the precariat’s income insecurity is uncertainty. Uncertainty differs from contingency risks, such as unemployment, maternity, and sickness, which were core focuses of welfare states. For those, one can calculate the probability of such events and develop an insurance scheme. Uncertainty cannot be insured against; it is about “unknown unknowns.” The social security part of the distribution system has also broken down, and social democrats should stop pretending it could be restored.

The precariat also suffers from an above-average cost of living. They live on the edge of unsustainable debt, knowing that one illness, accident, or mistake could render them homeless. Needing loans and credit, they pay much higher interest rates than richer folk.

The third defining dimension consists of the precariat’s distinctive relations to the state. The proletariat went from having few rights to having a rising number—cultural, civil, social, political, and economic. By contrast, the precariat is losing such rights, often not realizing so until need for their protection arises. For instance, they usually lack cultural rights because they cannot belong to communities such as occupational guilds that would give them security and identity. They lack civil rights because of the erosion of due process and inability to afford adequate defense in court; they often lose entitlement to state benefits on the whim of unaccountable bureaucrats. They lose economic rights because they cannot work in occupations they are qualified to perform.

The loss of rights goes with the most defining feature of the class: the precariat consists of supplicants. The original Latin meaning of precarious was “to obtain by prayer.” That sums up what it is to be in the precariat: having to ask for favors, for help, for a break, for a discretionary judgment by some bureaucrat, agent, relative, or friend. This intensifies uncertainty. To be in the precariat, it has been said, is like running on sinking sand.

Experience of supplicant status leads to the precariat’s growing consciousness. Chronic insecurity induces anxiety, but as with all emerging classes, there are different forms of relative deprivation. The precariat is split into three factions, which has hindered its becoming a class-for-itself and is challenging for those wishing to develop and organize a progressive response.

The first faction is the Atavists. They have fallen out of the proletariat, or come from old working-class families or communities whose members once depended on full-time jobs. Some are young; many are older, looking back wistfully. Their deprivation is about a lost Past, whether real or imagined. Having relatively little schooling or education in civics, history, or culture, they tend to listen to the sirens of neo-fascist populism.

They have been voting for the likes of Trump, Putin, Orban, Marine Le Pen, Farage and other Brexiteers, and the Lega in Italy. It is not correct to call them the “left behind,” since they are expected to function inside a new labor market. But they are bitter, eager to blame others for their plight. Those they demonize comprise the second faction of the precariat, the Nostalgics. This group is composed of migrants and minorities, who feel deprived of a Present, with nowhere to call home. For the most part, they “keep their heads down,” doing whatever they can to survive and move forward.

The third faction is best described as the Progressives, more educated and mainly young, although not exclusively so. Their defining sense of deprivation is loss of a Future. They went to university or college, promised by their parents and teachers that this would lead to a defining career. They emerge without that, often with debt stretching into that future. Beyond their own future, more and more despair about the planet’s ecological future.

A challenge for aspiring politicians is to build a broad policy strategy for bringing all three factions together in common cause. That is beginning to happen, so it is unnecessarily pessimistic to think a new progressive politics cannot be forged for the precariat as a whole.

The Dangerous Class

The precariat is today’s “dangerous class,” because it is the part of the emerging class system that could carry forward social transformation. For Marxists, the term “dangerous class” is associated with the “lumpen-proletariat,” those cut off from society, reduced to crime and social illness, having no function in production other than to put fear into the proletariat. But the precariat is not a lumpen. It is wanted by global capitalism, encapsulating new norms of labor and work. continue

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog
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.

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Category : Marxism | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Blog
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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

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