Working Class

26
Sep

 

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Inventing the Egghead: the Battle over Brainpower in American Culture

Author: Aaron Lecklider
University of Pennsylvania Press

Reviewed by Todd Gitlin

Aaron Lecklider, who teaches American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, proposes to stand the last century of American intellectual life on its head, or at least on its side. In keeping with Antonio Gramsci’s project of looking beyond the world views of traditional intellectuals – the ones who get paid to write and talk – he wants to resurrect the working class’s organic intellectuals, the non-professionals who exercise ‘brainpower’ even if they’re not credited for it by snobbish conservateurs who carve out exclusive domains where cultural capital confers privilege upon the best and the brightest. Popular culture, Lecklider writes, has been for the last century ‘a critical site in shaping American ideas about brainpower’ (p. 225).

Intelligence, he argues, is contested domain. The town has as much of it as the gown. This is a clever idea, and Lecklider, frequently original, carries it a considerable distance—sometimes farther than the evidence warrants. His starting – and finishing – point is that the charge of ‘anti-intellectualism’ famously and exhaustively leveled by Richard Hofstadter against American culture is actually self-fulfilling, for Hofstadter and his allies, failing to acknowledge that intellectual life could be conducted by non-professionals, ‘opened historians to attack by ordinary women and men for attempting to preserve an elitist category, creating a cycle of misunderstanding that continues to manifest in contemporary American life’ (p. 222). Hofstadter, from this point of view, ‘bracketed off intellect from the brainpower of ordinary women and men and divorced intelligence from working-class cultural politics’ (p. 222). By implication, it’s no wonder the left has been crammed into the margins of history. But Lecklider has prepared a clever flanking movement. The conflict over who is entitled to be regarded as intelligent may even culminate in a happy ending:

    Reclaiming the history of an organic intellectual tradition in American culture represents a starting point for envisioning intelligence as a shared commodity across social classes; wrested from the hands of the intellectuals, there’s no telling what the brainpower of the people has the potential to accomplish (p. 228).

Lecklider begins his counter-history in the early decades of the 20th century.

Even as managers downgraded ordinary workers, adopting Taylorist methods to ‘transform’ themselves into ‘scientists’ (p. 26), vast numbers of working-class Americans refused to believe that managers and their hired hands held a monopoly on brains and intellectual interests. Institutions including amusement parks, comic books, public lectures, and summer schools cultivated the sort of intelligence that did not need – indeed, might actively resist – the sort of formal education on offer in the decades before 1920, when fewer than one 18–24-year-old in 20 was enrolled in college. Brainpower, Lecklider insists, was the subject of class struggle. Contra Hofstadter – who looms in the shadows as Lecklider’s foil throughout, emerging as an explicit bête noire in the epilogue—America as a whole was not ‘anti-intellectual.’ Rather, at least at the turn of the 20th century, ‘anti-intellectualism coexisted with representations of an intellectually gifted working class’ (p. 8). The history of intelligence in American culture, he argues, is ‘tortuous’, ‘considerably more complicated’ than the straightforward declinist narrative embraced by scholars such as Hofstadter, Lasch, Lewis Coser, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse and – odd company on this list – Reinhold Niebuhr (p. 224).

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Category : Education | Intellectuals | Technology | Working Class | Blog
6
Sep

Worker Self-management in Jackson, Mississippi

Chokwe Lumumba, Mayor of Jackson, MS

By Ajamu Nangwaya
SolidarityEconomy.net via Rabble.Ca

Ajamu Nangwaya participated in the recent Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy 2013, speaking about the potential for worker self-management in the City of Jackson, Mississippi, following the historic election Chokwe Lumumba as mayor. This article, Part 1 of 2, is based on Ajamu Nangwaya’s presentation to the conference, and is part of our ongoing focus on labour and workers’ issues [8] this week on rabble.ca.

Sept 3, 2013 – “We have to make sure that economically we’re free, and part of that is the whole idea of economic democracy. We have to deal with more cooperative thinking and more involvement of people in the control of businesses, as opposed to just the big money changers, or the big CEOs and the big multinational corporations, the big capitalist corporations which generally control here in Mississippi.” [1] – Chokwe Lumumba

"Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children." – Amilcar Cabral [2]

I am happy to be a participant at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy 2013 and to be in the presence of worker cooperators, advocates of labour or worker self-management [9] and comrades who are here to learn about and/or share your thoughts on the idea of workplace democracy and workers exercising control over capital.

Worker self-management or the practice of workers controlling, managing and exercising stewardship over the productive resources in the workplace has been with us since the 19th century. Workers’ control of the workplace developed as a reaction to the exacting and exploitative working condition of labour brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Many workers saw the emancipation of labour emerging from their power over the way that work was organized and the fruit of their labour got distributed.

I believe we are living in a period that has the potential for profound economic, social and political transformation from below. It might not seem that way when we look at the way that capitalism, racism and the patriarchy have combined to make their domination appear inevitable and unchallenged. But as long as we have vision and are willing to put in the work, we shall not perish. We shall win!

On June 4, 2013, the people of the City of Jackson, Mississippi, elected Chokwe Lumumba, a human rights lawyer and an advocate of the right to self-determination of Afrikans in the United States, as their mayor. That is a very significant political development. But that is not the most momentous thing about the election of Chokwe Lumumba. The most noteworthy element of Lumumba’s ascension to the mayoral position is his commitment to economic democracy, "more cooperative thinking" and facilitating economic and social justice with and for the people of Jackson.

The challenge posed to us by this historical moment is the role that each of you will play in ensuring a robust programme of worker cooperative formation and cooperative economics in Jackson. We ought to work with the Jackson People’s Assembly, the Malcolm Grassroots Movement and other progressive forces to transform the city of Jackson into America’s own Mondragon [10]. It could have one possible exception. Jackson could become an evangelical force that is committed to spreading labour self-management and the social economy across the South and the rest of this society.

The promotion of the social economy and labour self-management could engage and attract Frantz Fanon’s "wretched of the earth" [11] onto the stage of history as central actors in the drama of their own emancipation. By promoting the social economy/labour self-management and participatory democracy by civil society forces and structures (the assemblies), Chokwe and the social movement organizations in Jackson are privileging or heeding Cabral’s above-cited assertion that the people are not merely fighting for ideas. They need to see meaningful change in their material condition. The development of a people controlled and participatory democratic economic infrastructure in Jackson would give concrete form to their material aspirations.

Amilcar Cabral was a revolutionary [12] from Guinea-Bissau in West Afrika whose approach to organizing and politically mobilizing the people could provide insights and direction to our movement-building work. In order to build social movements with the capacity to carry out the task of social emancipation, we need to organize around the material needs of the people. The very projects and programmes that we organize with the people should be informed by transformative values; a prefiguring of what will be obtained in the emancipated societies of tomorrow.

As an anarchist, I am not a person who is hopeful or excited by initiatives coming out of the state or elected political actors. More often than not, we are likely to experience betrayal, collaboration with the forces of domination by erstwhile progressives or a progressive political formation forgetting that its role should be to build or expand the capacity of the people to challenge the structures of exploitation and domination. I am of the opinion that an opportunity exists in Jackson to use the resources of the municipal state to build the capacity of civil society to promote labour self-management.

Based on the thrust of The Jackson Plan [13], which calls for the maintenance of autonomous, deliberative and collective decision-making people’s assemblies and the commitment to organizing a self-managed social economy [3], which would challenge the hegemony or domination of the capitalist sector, I see an opening for something transformative to emerge in Jackson. As revolutionaries, we are always seeking out opportunities to advance the struggle for social emancipation. We initiate actions, but we also react to events within the social environment. To not explore the movement-building potentiality of what is going on this southern city would be a major political error and a demonstration of the poverty of imagination and vision.

Primary imperatives or assumptions

There are four critical imperatives or assumptions that should guide the movement toward labour self-management and the social economy in Jackson. They are as follow:

1. Build the capacity of civil society

We should put the necessary resources into building the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude needed by the people to exercise control over their lives and institutions. In the struggle for the new society, we require independent, counterhegemonic organizational spaces from which to struggle against the dominant economic, social and political structures.

In any labour self-management and social economy project in Jackson, we must develop autonomous, civil-society-based supportive organizations and structures that will be able to survive the departure of the Lumumba administration. If the social economy initiatives are going to operate independently of the state, they will need the means to do so. Therefore, the current municipal executive leadership in Jackson should turn over resources to the social movements that will empower and resource them in their quest to create economic development organizations, programmes and projects.

2. Part of the class struggle, racial justice movement and feminist movement

When we talk or think about social and economic change in the City of Jackson, it is not being done in a contextless structural context. We are compelled to address the systems of capitalism, white supremacy/racism and patriarchy and their impact on the lives of the working-class, racialized majority. It is critically important to frame the labour self-management and the solidarity economy project as one that is centred upon seeking a fundamental change to power relations defined by gender race and class.

The worker cooperative movement ought to see itself as a part of the broader class struggle movement that seeks to give control to the labouring classes over how their labour is used and the surplus or profit from collective work is shared. The solidarity economy and labour self-management will have to seriously tackle oppression coming out of the major systems of domination and allow our organizing work to be shaped by the resulting analysis.

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Category : Capitalism | Cooperatives | Elections | Solidarity Economy | Working Class | Youth | Blog
30
Aug

BOOK REVIEW: Two Volume study shows how the ‘White Race’ was invented, racial slavery became established in colonial America, and the consequences for working class organizing in the USA

By Sean Ahern

Via Substance News,  August 28, 2013

“I ask indulgence for only one assumption, namely that while some people may desire to be masters, all persons are born equally unwilling and unsuited to be slaves.” –The Invention of the White Race (I, 1).

BOOK REVIEW: Review of The Invention of the White Race, Volume I: Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America by Theodore William Allen (1994, 1997, New Expanded Edition, Verso 2012)

 The "White Race" was invented by colonial slave owners in order to thwart the alliance between British, Scottish and Irish and African indentured servants. The first big division say black skin as dooming a man to lifetime servitude, while "White" servants could be "free" after usually 21 years. As the centuries passed, the privileges of white working people, meager as they were, were often enough to head off any alliances against slavery — or later, in the South especially, against industrial and then finance capitalism.

Introduction

Theodore W. Allen’s ‘The Invention of the White Race’ (2 Vols., I: Racial Oppression and Social Control and II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America), has been recognized by increasing numbers of scholars and activists as a seminal work since it was first published by Verso Books in the 1990s. The second edition offers a number of entry points and is designed to attract a broader audience. It features an expanded index, an internal study guide, a selected bibliography and a biographical sketch of the author all prepared by Jeffrey B. Perry, Allen’s literary executor and author of the acclaimed Hubert Harrison The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, and editor of A Hubert Harrison Reader. The Invention of the White Race is a scrupulously documented, fairly argued, and profoundly radical history. Given the central place that race occupies in the corporate assault on public education and teacher unions, it will be of particular interest to readers of Substance, educators, students and working people interested in understanding the role of white supremacism and the white identity in the defeat of popular movements in our nation’s history. It contains the root of a general theory of United States history and the basis for a revolution in US labor history and in social history. Students of African American history, political economy, Irish American history, gender studies and colonial history will find in Allen’s work much of interest to recommend. For those considering the projected impact of demographic change in the 21st century, The Invention offers a lens through which to assess how the “white race” was invented and reinvented in the past and the ways in which ruling class-interests may seek to adjust, adapt or reinvent it in the present. After 300 years of functioning as a ruling class social control buffer, the US bourgeoisie will not, in this writer’s opinion, willingly abandon its tried and trusted guardian, the so called “white race.”

Genesis of the thesis

 Theodore Allen.Allen’s view of the history of class struggle in the U.S. was radically altered by his reading of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in the early1960′s. Dubois described Black Reconstruction as a “normal working class movement, successful to an unusual degree, despite all disappointments and failures.” Its final defeat was due to “the race philosophy” of white supremacy, which made labor-unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. Together with Esther Kusic, to whom the Invention is dedicated, Allen developed a new approach that placed the struggle against white supremacy and the white skin privilege system at the center of a strategy for proletarian revolution in the US.

Two quotations from Black Reconstruction identify key sparks of insight that eventually led Allen to write The Invention of the White Race:

“The south, after the war [Civil War], presented the greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw or is likely to see for many decades. Yet the labor movement, with but few exceptions, never realized the situation. It never had the intelligence or knowledge, as a whole, to see in black slavery and reconstruction, the kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the United States.” [emphasis added]

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Category : Marxism | Racism | US History | Working Class | Blog
19
Aug

 

The Burdens of Working-Class Youth 1

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

By Jennifer M. Silva

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Brandon, a 34-year-old black man from Richmond, Va., labels himself "a cautionary tale." Growing up in the shadow of a university where both his parents worked in maintenance, he was told from an early age that education was the path to the "land of milk and honey." An eager and hard-working student, Brandon earned a spot at a private university in the Southeast—finally, his childhood dream of building spaceships seemed to be coming true. He shrugged off his nervousness about borrowing tens of thousands of dollars in loans, joking: "Hey, if I owe you five dollars, that’s my problem, but if I owe you $50,000, that’s your problem."

But his light-hearted banter belies the long train of obstacles and uncertainties that have followed him at every turn. Unable to pass calculus or physics, Brandon switched his major from engineering to criminal justice. He applied to several police departments upon graduation, but he didn’t land a job.

With "two dreams deferred," Brandon took a job at a women’s-clothing chain, hoping it would be temporary. Eleven years later, he’s still there, unloading, steaming, pressing, and pricing garments on the night shift. When his loans came out of deferment, he couldn’t afford the monthly payments and decided to get a master’s degree in psychology—partly to increase his chances of getting a good job, and partly, he admitted, to put his loans back in deferment. He finally earned a master’s degree, paid for with more loans from "that mean lady, Sallie Mae."

So far, Brandon has not found a job that will pay him enough to cover his monthly loan and living expenses, and since the clothing company recently cut overtime and bonuses, he is worried. He keeps the loans in deferment by continually consolidating—a strategy that he said cost him $5,000 a year in interest. Taking stock of his life, Brandon is angry: "I feel like I was sold fake goods. I did everything I was told to do, and I stayed out of trouble and went to college. Where is the land of milk and honey? I feel like they lied. I thought I would have choices. That sheet of paper cost so much and does me no good. Sure, schools can’t guarantee success, but come on—they could do better to help kids out."

Brandon, like many blue-collar millennials, is stuck on a journey to adulthood with no end in sight. His own parents, who had just high-school degrees, were married, steadily employed at the college, and homeowners well before they reached his age. But working-class kids today are growing up in a world where taken-for-granted pathways to adulthood are quickly eroding. Since the 1970s, stable blue-collar jobs have rapidly disappeared, taking family wages, pensions, and employer-subsidized health insurance along with them. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who followed a well-worn path from school to the assembly line—and from courtship to marriage to childbearing—men and women today live at home longer, spend more time in school, change jobs more frequently, and start families later.

Working-class men and women have come to see their relationship with college as a broken social contract.

The answer to the time-honored question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"—or, more aptly, "What can you be when you grow up?"—is in flux. And as working-class families have grown more fragile, and communities, churches, and neighborhoods less close, men and women find themselves on their own when it comes to piecing together an adult life amid the isolation, uncertainty, and insecurity of 21st-century American life.

I spent two years interviewing 100 working-class 20- and 30-somethings in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond. I spoke with African-Americans and whites, men and women, documenting the myriad obstacles that stand in their way. Caught in a merciless job market and lacking the social support, skills, and knowledge necessary for success, these young adults are relinquishing the hope for a better future that is at the core of the American Dream.

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Category : Capitalism | Working Class | Youth | Blog
22
Jun

 

Bob Simpson looks at how the ability for arts and culture to thrive relies upon working people’s fight for a space of their own.

Picture

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” — David Harvey , The Right to the City

By Bob Simpson

Red Wedge

June 17, 2013 – The 1968 French student-worker uprising popularized the phrase “The Right to the City” from philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s book Le Droit à la ville. According to Lefebvre the right to transform the urban environment cannot be restricted to people who own substantial property, hold citizenship papers or are otherwise deemed to have a higher social status. It means all of us, regardless of race, gender, age, economic status or any narrowly defined category. The city is a place of possibilities and we have a basic human right to make those possibilities realities.

Lefebrve’s subsequent book, The Urban Revolution helped to expand on his Right to the City ideas. Written in 1970, the book speculates rather accurately how urban society would evolve. There is a now a World Charter for the Right to the City which came out of the Social Forum of the Americas held in Ecuador during July 2004. The Right to the City is a global movement as the urban dispossessed around the planet struggle to humanize their own cities.

I was reading Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution while riding the CTA Red Line on an April morning earlier this year. I was headed to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The economically and racially diverse Uptown community was fighting school closings and the forced exile of working class people to benefit wealthy real estate interests and corporate school privatizers.

 

Picture

View of Uptown from the Wilson CTA stop.

Led by a new organization called Uptown Uprising, Uptown’s embattled residents had called for a rally and march to show how the power of concentrated wealth was destroying a community. With blue skies overhead, I arrived at the Stewart Elementary School playground where Uptown Uprising was gathering. Stewart Elementary, along with Stockton Elementary in Uptown, was scheduled for closing. In Chicago, school closings are often closely linked with financial speculation and gentrification.
Reggie Spears, the Stewart music teacher, was leading his band students in a lively display of musical talent, while parents and students were making colorful signs on the playground’s artificial turf — for the city is a place of creation.

 

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Category : Capitalism | Culture | Organizing | Working Class | Blog
21
Apr

An Examination of Hardt and Negri’s Postmodern Mistakes

By Sean Sayers
Practice & Text, Nanjing University

ABSTRACT

Work in advanced industrial society is changing rapidly. According to Hardt and Negri industrial labour that produces material goods is being superseded by new post-industrial forms of work. These cannot be comprehended by Marx’s account of labour which is based on an industrial model. New concepts of `immaterial’ labour and `biopolitical’ production are needed. This paper criticizes these arguments from a Marxist perspective. Marx’s account of labour is explained, and Hardt and Negri’s criticisms of it are shown to be mistaken. Their account of post-industrial labour, it is argued, is confused and unhelpful. Properly understood and suitably developed Marx’s theory continues to provide a more satisfactory basis for understanding the nature of work in the modern world.

10 October 2006

In recent years the character of work in advanced industrial society has been changing rapidly. Production is being automated and computerized. The factory operated by massed workers is being superseded. Industrial labour is ceasing to be the dominant form of work. Work in offices that used to require intellectual skills is now done by computers. With the enormous growth of jobs in the service sector and the increasing use of information technology, new kinds of work are being created.

These changes are often summed up by saying that these societies are moving from the industrial to the post-industrial stage. In some important respects this notion is highly questionable. Arguably, the economic system is still industrial, but it now operates on a global scale. If industry is ceasing to be the predominant form of work in Western Europe and North America, that is mainly because it is being relocated to other parts of the world in a new global division of labour.

Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that work is changing. With the widespread use of computers and information technology new kinds of work have developed. Hardt and Negri’s (2000; 2005) attempt to theorize these changes has been particularly influential. The older industrial forms of labour which produced material goods, they argue, are no longer dominant. They are being superseded by new `immaterial’ forms of work involved in the media, management, public relations, information technology, the caring professions, etc.. Jobs in these areas do not make material products, rather they produce ideas, images and other symbolic and cultural contents, and they create and alter social relations. They are `biopolitical’ activities which produce `subjectivities’ and human relations rather than material goods.

Hardt and Negri situated their thought within the Marxist tradition. However, they maintain, Marx’s ideas need to be rethought in the light of the new conditions of post-industrial society.  Marx takes material production as the paradigm of work, his concept of labour is based on an industrial model. In order to describe the new post-industrial forms of work, Marx’s account must be supplemented with the concepts of `immaterial’ labour and `biopolitical’ production.

My aim in this paper is to criticize these ideas. First I will explain Marx’s account of labour and show that Hardt and Negri’s criticisms are based on a fundamental misreading of his thought. Then I will argue that Hardt and Negri’s own account is confused and unhelpful. Properly understood and suitably developed Marx’s concept of labour continues to provide a more satisfactory basis for understanding the nature of work in the modern world.

I MARX’S CONCEPT OF LABOUR

According to Marx, labour is an intentional activity designed to produce a change in the material world. In his early writings, he conceives of work as a process of `objectification’ through which labour is `embodied and made material in an object’ (1975, 324). Later he describes labour as activity through which human beings give form to materials and thus realize themselves in the world. In the labour-process

. . . man’s activity, with the help of the instruments of labour, effects an alteration, designed from the commencement, in the material worked upon. The process disappears in the product, the latter is a use-value, Nature’s material adapted by a change of form to the wants of man. Labour has incorporated itself with its subject: the former is materialized, the latter transformed. (Marx, 1961, 180)

This account is often taken to assume a `productivist’ model that regards work which creates a material product as the paradigm for all work. It is much criticized on this basis. Hardt and Negri along with many others point out that many kinds of work do not seem to fit this picture, some with which Marx was familiar, others that have newly developed.

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Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Philosophy | Working Class | Blog
18
Mar

Legacies of the Musical Cultural Front:

Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger [1]

By Harry Targ
Purdue University

This paper was a presentation at “Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie’s Legacy to Working Men and Women”, a conferences at Penn State University, September 8-9, 2012 [2]

Introduction

Several key concepts in the Marxian tradition influenced the consciousness and political practice of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. First, all three were historical and dialectical materialists. They conceived of the socio-economic condition of people’s lives as fundamental to the shaping of their activities and consciousness. They were historical materialists in that they understood that the material conditions of people’s lives changed as the economic system in which they lived changed. And they were dialectical in that they were sensitive to the contradictory character of human existence.

Second, class as the fundamental conceptual tool for examining a society shaped their thinking. Increasingly they realized that class struggle was a fundamental force for social change. Given the American historical context they saw that class and race were inextricably interconnected.

Third, all three addressed a theory of imperialism which they regarded as critical to understanding international relations. Living in an age of colonialism and neo-colonialism all three performer/activists, but particularly Paul Robeson, saw imperialism as a central structural feature  of relations between nations, peoples and classes. They were inspired by those resisting the yoke of foreign domination.

Fourth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger saw that community, harmony, and socialism would represent the next stage of societal development. They believed that the vision of socialism had the potential for improving the quality of life of humankind. Robeson’s experiences in the Soviet Union led him to a greater degree to regard the experience of existing socialist states as free of the kind of racism endemic to the United States.

Fifth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger emphasized the connection between theory and practice. Each artist in his own way articulated what Robeson proclaimed in 1937 in the context of supporting the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War that every artist must take a stand. The artist (i.e., the intellectual) must act in the context of a world of exploitation. One was either on the side of the ongoing oppressive order or on the side of change.

Armed with these insights, the three folk artist/activists discussed below committed themselves to action; action grounded in the struggles of their day. In Gramsci’s terms, they were organic intellectuals. They joined anti-racist, anti-colonial, labor and peace struggles. They walked picket lines, entertained Spanish Civil War loyalists, striking workers and other protesters, and sought to lend support to international socialist solidarity. Being an organic intellectual in the 1930s and 40s, and in the case of Pete Seeger the 1940s and beyond, meant participating in what Michael Denning called “the cultural front.” The ambience of the CIO, the Communist movement, civil rights and anti-war struggles, and building the New Deal provided the social forces out of which Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger could thrive and grow.  The three,–Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger–artists and activists, were both agents and products of Marxist ideas engaged in practical political work as organic intellectuals participating in a broad cultural front.

Each artist/activist projected an image of human oneness. They saw the connections between the defense of democracy in Spain and the U.S. South and the necessity of building a peaceful and democratic post-World War II order to achieve justice for the working classes of all lands.  Robeson’s consciousness was shaped by the vision of a common pentagonal chord structure in the world’s folk music; a metaphor that privileges difference and unity. The musical visions of Guthrie and Seeger celebrated what was common in the human experience as well.

In sum, the remarks below address the implicit Marxist lens that shaped the consciousness and behavior of three giants-Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. It addresses how their artistic and political work was shaped by and shaped the social movements of the period from the 1930s to the present. It draws upon cultural theory, particularly Michael Denning’s idea of a multilayered “cultural front.” And it links the theory, practice and context to the political strategy of the “popular front.”

Finally, the paper suggests that the theory and practice of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger represent a model for building contemporary mass movements in the face of economic and political crises. Over the past two years the world has seen mass mobilizations against dictatorship in Middle Eastern regimes; emerging new socialist forces in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark; mass movements against wars on workers, women, and minorities in the United States; and the emergence of grassroots mobilizations, particularly the Occupy Movement, all across the North American continent. The framework of struggle-the 99 percent versus the one percent-while not expressly Marxist, can have the same animating effect on workers, youth, minorities, and women, that the songs of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger did from the 1930s to the present time.

Marxist Ideas: Historical and Dialectical Materialism

Marxist analysis begins with the presupposition that humans create the conditions for the production and reproduction of life. These involve the satisfaction of basic needs. To do so requires the organization of production: of human labor, technology, science, and society. “This connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a ‘history’ independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which in addition may hold men together.” [3]

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Category : Culture | Hegemony | US History | Working Class | Blog
1
Feb

The AP’s High-Impact Three-Part Series on Joblessness and Stalled Recovery

Middle-Class Jobs Cut in Recession Feared Gone for Good, Lost to Technology

By Associated Press

NEW YORK, Jan 25 2013 — Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries the world over.

And the situation is even worse than it appears.

Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What’s more, these jobs aren’t just being lost to China and other developing countries, and they aren’t just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.

They’re being obliterated by technology.

Year after year, the software that runs computers and an array of other machines and devices becomes more sophisticated and powerful and capable of doing more efficiently tasks that humans have always done. For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines; an Associated Press analysis finds that the future has arrived.

“The jobs that are going away aren’t coming back,” says Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of “Race Against the Machine.” ‘’I have never seen a period where computers demonstrated as many skills and abilities as they have over the past seven years.”

The global economy is being reshaped by machines that generate and analyze vast amounts of data; by devices such as smartphones and tablet computers that let people work just about anywhere, even when they’re on the move; by smarter, nimbler robots; and by services that let businesses rent computing power when they need it, instead of installing expensive equipment and hiring IT staffs to run it. Whole employment categories, from secretaries to travel agents, are starting to disappear.

“There’s no sector of the economy that’s going to get a pass,” says Martin Ford, who runs a software company and wrote “The Lights in the Tunnel,” a book predicting widespread job losses. “It’s everywhere.”

The numbers startle even labor economists. In the United States, half the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. But only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained since the recession ended in June 2009 are in midpay industries. Nearly 70 percent are in low-pay industries, 29 percent in industries that pay well.

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Category : Capitalism | Technology | Working Class | Blog
27
Jan

 

Economic crises do not automatically undermine capitalist power and lead to working class victories. Chris Walsh looks at Antonio Gramsci’s theories about capitalism, hegemony, and an effective working class strategy.

 

By Chris Walsh
International Socialist Group
Aug 37, 2011

Capitalism is currently experiencing the worst crisis in living memory.  Austerity packages across the Western world are the deepest and most savage for generations.  Millions are being thrown out of work; working conditions are constantly under attack; wages have stagnated (in real terms) for years; the cost of living continues to soar.  Surely the economic conditions are ripe for a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system? Yet seizing the assets of the rich is only on the agenda for a minority of the working class. Why is this?

Consent and Class Leadership

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted that since the dawn of capitalism there had been many crises, but very few had resulted in any serious attempt by the workers to overthrow capitalism.  Economic crises, on their own, were not enough to lead to a workers revolution.  Gramsci states that in a class-based society, the dominant class maintains its authority through a combination (to varying degrees) of force and ideological persuasion.  He called this two-pronged approach ‘authoritarian-populist hegemony’.

On the one hand there is the systematic use of force or coercion by the state, what Lenin described as "special bodies of armed men, prisons etc." In this way, the state ensures its domination over the workers.  Even in advanced capitalism, the infliction of violence, or the even the ambient threat of violence, are a continued reality as a means of exerting mastery, e.g. the imprisonment of political activists or the deployment of the police or army to break up strikes.  However the threat of violence is often concealed and social order is maintained through leadership in the field of ideas.

Thus, the dominant class rules by inflicting force where necessary, but winning consent where possible.  Consent is negotiated by convincing the workers that the demands of the present order are ‘natural’ or at least the best case scenario for all.  The ruling class competes, for instance in the sphere of parliamentary politics or journalism, to prove themselves worthy of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’.  This is not the function of the state proper, but of ‘civil society’, the institutions of cultural and ideological production (schools, universities, the media, the family etc.).  Since the ruling class largely controls the institutions of learning, media etc, it is able to win the consent of the subordinate classes and thus maintain the system in its present form.  By these means it is able to ride through economic crises and protect its position as the dominant class in society.

Consent is only achieved by a day-to-day negotiation between the immediate aims of the workers and the ideological leadership of elements of the dominant class.  Gramsci repeatedly emphasizes that the masses are not intellectually passive:

There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher’, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.

The aim of the ruling class is to persuade the masses that their agenda represents ‘common sense’.  They can achieve this by making analogies – often spurious analogies – between policies and the daily experience of ordinary people.  For instance, British politicians and pundits have successfully convinced some workers that cutting the deficit is the most immediate and urgent problem for any government (e.g. because sovereign debt is "like a credit card").  Actually, this is nonsense.  Sovereign debt is not directly comparable with any form of private debt, least of all credit card debts.  Furthermore, the idea that unleashing harsh austerity upon the working class will directly cut the deficit is highly contestable.  Even many ruling class economists now reject this argument and predict that austerity will only stunt economic growth and produce ‘blowback’ in terms of a double-dip recession.  Thus, the ruling class is perpetually divided between competing strategies: an all out ideological offensive to put a populist spin on austerity; and the incorporation of elements of dissent on particular issues, e.g. new taxes on the bankers and the billionaires.  Ideological leadership thus involves negotiation and brinksmanship, between competing capitalist interests on the one hand, and the workers’ material needs and common sense ideas of ‘fairness’ on the other.

Dominance and Incorporation

We are surrounded by a system of indoctrination that serves to legitimize the backward institutions of the capitalist order, like private property, the family, and wage labour.  From birth, almost everything that a member of the working class is exposed to, from nursery rhymes to school textbooks to newspapers, reinforces either subtly or explicitly the validity and superiority of the current system.  The oppressed masses accept their lot consensually because of the success of capitalist hegemony.  This explains why the majority of people in 21st century Britain do not want, nor recognize the necessity for, a revolution that will overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a workers’ state.  Capitalist ideology is inescapable.

However, it would be crude to suggest that hegemony is simply ruling class ideology enforced upon the workers in order to make us think the way they do.  It’s more nuanced than that.  Hegemony is a set of contested ideas, constantly in flux, striving for the continued acquiescence of the workers through demonstration of the ruler’s right and ability to rule.  The ideas within ruling class hegemony have to change in order to maintain the popular support of the masses.  This is done by making concessions to the workers and addressing, or at least seeming to address, some of their needs and wants.

Historically, the ruling class have kept workers’ revolts at bay by allowing economic concessions to their needs or popular desires (wage increases, welfare provision etc.) but such allowances have to be made in terms of culture and ideology also.  For instance, the media will play on the concerns or fears of elements of the working class by including them in the cultural output of the ruling class. 

Consider crime.  Many workers have a ‘common sense’ fear of crime, and bourgeois hegemony mutates to reflect and also to lead these concerns.  There are a whole host of television programmes about the tackling of crime and the restoration of law and order: Cops, Crimewatch, Police, Camera, Action, Night Cops, Cops With Cameras, the list goes on, seemingly, ad infinitum.  In showing programmes like these, the ruling class simultaneously stoke the fears of a layer of the working class whilst attempting to resolve these fears by visualizing the victorious reconciliation of social order.  In this way, they can make political capital and solidify their competence as society’s ‘intellectual and moral’ leaders.

If we consider the recent riots in London and other parts of the country, the backlash from the government and the media is a classic case of authoritarian-populist hegemony.  The response of the State can only be described as brutal.  Incredibly harsh sentences were dealt out to anyone having anything to do with the riots, including 2 young men who were sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for suggesting on Facebook that people in their own towns should emulate the uprisings in London.  Had the unrest gone on any longer; the government was prepared to use rubber bullets and water cannons on our streets.  Coupled with the State’s draconian backlash was a hysterical outcry by civil society, particularly the media.  It was almost impossible to find any voice in the media addressing the real causes of the events.  Instead we were subjected to newsreel after newsreel, article after article decrying the moral decay of certain parts of the country and in particular the young people of today’s Britain.

The perpetrators of this particular challenge to the status quo were immediately locked up, preventing them from creating any more trouble for the ruling class and also sending a message to anyone who might consider doing something similar in the future.  As well as being imprisoned, the rioters have undergone a mass character assassination from both the State and civil society.  Cameron has described the communities that rioted as "broken" and "sick", whilst elements of the media have painted anyone involved as simply criminals who took to the streets because they enjoy behaving badly.  It was not uncommon to hear broadcasters suggest that the army be deployed on the streets.

The real issue of the economic crisis and the harsh austerity that has destroyed the communities that most of the rioters came from and robbed them of any real opportunities in life, is deflected.  The uprisings in London should have been a series of events that working class people across the country could sympathize with and rally around; but instead, bourgeois hegemony has allowed for a mass condemnation of those involved and an opportunity for the State to prove its ability to rule because it is "tough on crime" and can keep people safe from such disturbances in their own areas.

Strategy and Power

Having considered the role of both the State and civil society in keeping the workers subordinate to the bosses, it is now useful to consider Gramsci’s military strategy.  Gramsci stated that in any attempt to win state power there are two forms of struggle that revolutionaries can engage in: a War of Movement and a War of Position.  The former is a swift attack, directly upon the seat of state power, with the objective of immediate overthrowing the government and replacing it with a workers’ state.  This strategy is clearly inapplicable to the conditions of Britain or any form of ‘advanced capitalism’ today.  A War of Movement can only be launched if civil society is weak and there is thus popular support from workers for an insurrection.

But a War of Position is a feasible strategy.  This is a revolutionary struggle within and against (and perhaps, to an extent, for) civil society, set over a longer period of time, against the hegemony of the ruling class.  (As long as this hegemony remains stable, a workers revolution cannot even be considered).  In a War of Position, we must recognize that set-backs and retreats are inevitable.  If the War of Movement is a sprint, the War of Position is a marathon; not simply an event, but a process.  It is through this protracted struggle that we aim to create working class hegemony.  We must aim to undermine ruling class hegemony and garner mass support and subscription to working class ideology.

It would be naïve to think that the best strategy for revolutionaries to gain influence and bolster working class hegemony today is to depose the ruling class from the institutions of civil society.  The links between the State and civil society are far too deep and intricate for this to be a realistic possibility.  The heads of the capitalist institutions of hegemony (schools, universities, television stations, newspapers, news websites etc.) are, for the vast majority, of the same class background as the heads of State. 

Such positions are nearly always filled by people coming from a private school background, very often from Oxford and Cambridge, the same as most of the millionaires in the current cabinet.  These positions are rarely open to anyone from a working class background. The recent Newscorp scandal proves just how deeply the connections between the State and civil society run.  To try and fight the establishment to take control of civil society as it stands would be to fight the ruling class on its own terms and its own soil.  This is not a viable strategy to break bourgeois hegemony.  Instead, we must create our own working class institutions, in the workplace and beyond and demonstrate our own abilities as a class and present an alternative to subversion to greedy managers and politicians. In attempting to hegemonize society with working class ideas we must cast the net wide and draw in as many working class people as possible to the struggles that concern or affect them.  By increasing workers’ participation in political struggles, we can promote, and prove in practice, the possibility of working class self-organization and self-determination.  In this way we can prove that, as a class, we are capable of running society and that the bosses are superfluous to our needs.

United Front

As a means of drawing workers into struggles, Gramsci, like Lenin and Trotsky, was a great exponent of the united front.  By drawing working class people together around one particular issue or campaign, revolutionaries are able to have a far greater influence on society than if they only relate to ‘card-carrying’ Marxists.  In terms of today’s struggle: millions of people in Britain are opposed to the cuts but only a handful would describe themselves as Marxists or revolutionaries; they may hold very different beliefs, on any number of issues, to a revolutionary socialist but this is of no importance.  If these people can come together and form a united front around the one issue of opposition to the cuts, then we have a far larger and more powerful oppositional force to the ruling class than if we squabble over whatever petty differences we may have.  Gramsci recognized the centrality of the united front to revolutionary organization.  He believed that the united front was not just a tactic to be utilized in one particular campaign and then jettisoned, but an on-going strategy to constantly draw more and more working people into struggles against the ruling class.  Only through the continuation of this strategy can we hope to build serious influence in society and seek to undermine ruling class hegemony.

We must also seek to spread our ideas to as wide an audience as possible through the media.  The function of propaganda cannot be underestimated.  We have already noted that the mass media is almost exclusively a platform for ruling class ideas to be broadcast.  However, with the recent exposure of corruption and malpractice within news outlets; the constantly growing new forms of media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, live blogs etc.); and the realisation by more and more people that institutions like the BBC are far from impartial (note the reportage on Palestine and the recent public sector strikes to name but a few), we have a terrific opportunity to promote our own ideas to a mass audience.  The news outlets of the establishment are losing credibility rapidly and people, in growing numbers, are looking to alternative ways of following the news.  Videos on Youtube can ‘go viral’ in a matter of hours and Twitter is growing at a spectacular rate.  These are just two examples of ways in which radical ideas can be broadcast to the masses and working class perspectives can penetrate a massive audience like never before.

It may seem that we have a considerable way to go before working class counter-hegemony can begin to rival that of the capitalist class, but class struggle develops unevenly.  As Lenin said, "Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen".

The capitalist class is in deep crisis.  Ruling class ideology is being questioned by greater numbers of people every day; the bourgeois media is increasingly being seen as the propaganda machine that it truly is; and people are genuinely looking for an alternative to the crisis-ridden capitalism that drives them increasingly deeper and deeper into poverty.  Now is the time to organize and build within workplaces and communities and not allow the capitalists to ride through yet another crisis unscathed.  The ground is fertile for revolutionaries to engage the masses in class struggle against our oppressors, and this is what we must do. The united front must be utilized in a serious and genuine way in the months and years ahead.  It is our only hope for victory.

Category : Hegemony | Marxism | Strategy and Tactics | Working Class | Blog
15
Jan

Michael Lebowitz: Socialism for the 21st Century — Re-inventing and Renewing the Struggle

[The following presentation was delivered to launch La Alternativa Socialista, the Chilean edition of The Socialist Alternative, in Concepcion, Santiago and Valparaiso, November 2012.]

By Michael A. Lebowitz
SolidarityEconomy.net via Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

Jan 9, 2013 – Every socialist in the 21st century should try to answer two questions.

First, why don’t workers put an end to capitalism – given its destruction of human beings and the environment (something Marx was so conscious of). In particular, given the declining standards of life for decades in the United States, the economic disaster in Europe and the current crises, how is it that the system is reproduced without a significant challenge by the working class?

Second, why did the working class within what has become known as “real socialism” [the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe] allow those systems to revert to capitalism without resistance from the working classes, who were presumably its beneficiaries?

These two questions are interrelated both in practice and theory. In terms of practice, the failure within capitalism certainly had its impact upon the shaping of “real socialism”. And, in turn, the character of “real socialism” contributed to the view of workers in capitalism that socialism was not a desirable alternative. I can recall many arguments about socialism with my father, who was a machinist, and I remember in particular his comment, “Why would I want a bigger, stronger boss?”

On the theoretical level, the two questions are linked because we rarely explore the question of what kinds of people are produced under particular relations of production. There is no lack of discussion, for example, among Marxists about the rate of profit in capitalism, economic crisis, the intricacies of the so-called transformation problem, and indeed the process of exploitation itself. But there’s little examination of the working class as subject and how that subject is shaped within capitalist relations of production.

Capitalism cripples workers

Marx certainly didn’t make that mistake. In his book, Capital, he explained what capital is — that it is the result of the exploitation of workers. But, in addition to demonstrating that we are dominated by our own products, he also described at length what happens to workers within capitalist relations of production. Workers dominated by the logic of capital are merely the means to capital’s goal, the goal of profits. And in the process, they are crippled. The capitalist division of labour under the system of manufacture deformed workers. Did the introduction of machinery, though, change the one-sidedness that this division of labour produced? Marx answered: no, it perfected it. It completed the division between thinking and doing; it completed that deformation of workers.

This was the source of Marx’s passion. This was the source of his hatred for capitalism. Not simply the exploitation that creates capital but the deformation and destruction of human beings who are merely means for capital. Our products are a power over us — but not simply because they are a power. It is also because we are not. Capitalism does not simply impoverish us because it extracts from us the things we produce. It impoverishes us because of the people it produces.

And, Marx looked to an alternative – an alternative which he articulates in Capital. Indeed, that alternative is the premise of his book. He evokes there a society characterised not by the capitalists’ impulse to increase the value of their capital but by “the inverse situation in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development”. This “inverse situation” is the perspective from which Marx persistently critiques capitalism. He talks about capitalist production and how the means of production employ workers as “this inversion, indeed this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production”.

The spectre haunting Marx’s Capital is the vision of a society oriented to “the worker’s own need for development”, the inverse situation. It is a call to invert the capitalist inversion, a call to build a society oriented toward human development, one which recognises the necessity for the workers’ own needs for development.

Marx pointed to the need to create new relations that end the division between thinking and doing, the need to develop what he called “rich human beings”, that rich individuality that is all sided in needs and capacities. Very simply, it is the call to build a society of associated producers, a socialist society with productive relations through which people are able to develop. But that’s not so easy. If it were only a matter of calling for the negation of capital, capitalism would have ended long ago.

Marx grasped something that so many have failed to see since — that capital has the tendency to produce a working class that views the existence of capital as necessary. “The advance of capitalist production”, he stressed, “develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of this mode of production as self-evident natural laws”.

Here is the crux of the problem: capital tends to produce the workers it needs, workers who look upon capitalism as common sense. Given the mystification of capital (arising from the sale of labour-power), which makes productivity, profits and progress appear as the result of the capitalist’s contribution, Marx argued that “the organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance”. That is strong and unequivocal language; and Marx added that capital’s generation of a reserve army of the unemployed “sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker”. Accordingly, he proposed that the capitalist can rely upon the workers’ “dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them”.

Of course, we often struggle. Workers struggle over wages, working conditions and the defence of past gains. But as long as workers look upon the requirements of capital as “self-evident natural laws”, those struggles occur within the bounds of the capitalist relation. Subordination to the logic of capital means that, faced with capitalism’s crises, workers sooner or later act to ensure the conditions for the expanded reproduction of capital. And that’s why capitalism keeps going. It keeps going because we are convinced that there is no alternative — no alternative to barbarism. As a result, the “realistic” left, the so-called good left of social democracy, tells us that the best we can get is barbarism with a human face.

Alternative common sense

To go beyond capitalism, we need a vision that can appear to workers as an alternative common sense, as their common sense. To struggle against a situation in which workers “by education, tradition and habit” look upon capital’s needs “as self-evident natural laws”, we must struggle for an alternative common sense. But what is the vision of a new society whose requirements workers may look upon as “self-evident natural laws’? Clearly, it won’t be found in the results of 20th century attempts to build socialism, which, to use Marx’s phrase, ended “in a miserable fit of the blues”.

“We have to reinvent socialism”. With this statement, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, electrified activists in his closing speech at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union”, he stressed, “but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition”. If we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world, capitalism must be transcended, Chavez argued. “But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.”

There, at its core, is the vision of socialism for the 21st century. Rather than expansion of the means of production or direction by the state, human beings must be at the centre of the new socialist society. This is a return to Marx’s vision of the “inverse situation” oriented to the worker’s own need for development, a return to the vision of a society which would allow for “the all-round development of the individual”, the “complete working out of the human content”, the “development of all human powers as such the end in itself”, a society of associated producers in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

But the focus upon full development of human potential was only one side of Marx’s perspective. What Marx added to this emphasis upon human development was his understanding of how that development of human capacities occurs. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx was quite clear that it is not by giving people gifts, not by changing circumstances for them, not by populism nor by those at the top deciding for us. Rather, we change only through real practice, by changing circumstances ourselves. Marx’s concept of “revolutionary practice”, that concept of “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change’, is the red thread that runs throughout his work.

One aspect of this, certainly, was his explicit recognition of how the struggles of workers against capital transform “circumstances and men”, expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world. But there was more. In the very act of producing, Marx indicated, “the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language”. And, of course, the relations within which workers produce affect the nature of the workers produced. After all, that was Marx’s point about how capitalist productive relations “distort the worker into a fragment of a man” and degrade her/him and “alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process”.

Indeed, every human activity has two products; every human activity has as its result joint products — both the change in the object of labour and the change in the labourer themselves. In my book, The Socialist Alternative, I identify this combination of human development and practice as Marx’s key link. And, if we grasp that key link, we can see its obvious implications for building socialism. What are the circumstances that have as their joint product “the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn’? To develop the capacities of people, the producers must put an end to what Marx called, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour”.

For the development of rich human beings, the worker must be able to call “his own muscles into play under the control of his own brain”. And, not by themselves but through a democratic, protagonistic process. When workers act in workplaces and communities in conscious cooperation with others, they produce themselves as people conscious of their interdependence and of their own collective power. The joint product of their activity is the development of the capacities of the producers — precisely Marx’s point when he says that “when the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species”. Here, then, is the way to ensure that “the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly’.

Creating the conditions in workplaces and communities by which people can develop their capacities is an essential aspect of the concept of socialism for the 21st century. But it is only one element. How can the workers’ own need for development be realised if capital owns our social heritage — the products of the social brain and the social hand? And, how can we develop our own potential if we look upon other producers as enemies or as our markets — i.e., if individual material self-interest is our motivation?

Capitalism is an organic system, one which has the tendency to reproduce the conditions of its existence (including a working class that looks upon its requirements as “self-evident natural laws”). That is its strength. To counter that and to satisfy “the worker’s own need for development”, the socialist alternative we envision also must be an organic system, a particular combination of production, distribution and consumption, a system of reproduction. What Chavez named in January 2007 as “the elementary triangle of socialism” (social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs) is a step forward toward a conception of such a system.

Consider the logic of this socialist combination, this conception of socialism for the 21st century:

1. Social ownership of the means of production is critical within this structure because it is the only way to ensure that our communal, social productivity is directed to the free development of all rather than used to satisfy the private goals of capitalists, groups of producers or state bureaucrats. But, this concerns more than our current activity. Social ownership of our social heritage, the results of past social labour, is an assertion that all living human beings have the right to the full development of their potential — to real wealth, the development of human capacity. It is the recognition that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

2. Social production organised by workers builds new relations among producers — relations of cooperation and solidarity. It allows workers to end “the crippling of body and mind” and the loss of “every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity” that comes from the separation of head and hand. Organisation of production in all spheres by workers, thus, is a condition for the full development of the producers, for the development of their capabilities — a condition for the production of rich human beings.

3. Satisfaction of communal needs and purposes as the goal of productive activity means that, instead of interacting as separate and indifferent individuals, we function as members of a community. Rather than looking upon our own capacity as our property and as a means of securing as much as possible in an exchange, we start from the recognition of our common humanity and, thus, of the importance of conditions in which everyone is able to develop her full potential. When our productive activity is oriented to the needs of others, it both builds solidarity among people and produces socialist human beings.

There’s an old saying that if you don’t know where you want to go, then any road will take you there. I disagree. If you don’t know where you want to go, then no road will take you there. A vision of a socialist alternative such as that organic system summarised by the socialist triangle is essential if we are put an end to capitalism. Of course, knowing where you want to go is not the same as getting there. But, it is essential for indicating where you don’t want to go. And one place we don’t want to go is to a 21st century version of “real socialism”.

‘Real socialism’

To explain the nature of “real socialism” from the 1950s through the 1980s, I introduced (in my new book, Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’) the concept of vanguard relations of production — a particular set of productive relations characterised by a vanguard whose logic was to deliver socialism to the masses from above and to do so without permitting that underlying population to develop its own capacities through practice and protagonism. There were definite benefits for workers. In particular, there was a social contract whereby the vanguard promised, among other things, full employment, job security, subsidised necessities and rising income over time — as long as the working class accepted its lack of power and the opportunity to develop its capabilities in the workplace and society.

Precisely because of the nature of vanguard relations, though, the workers produced were not subjects able to build a new society nor, indeed, able to respond as the system ran into problems. But, there were further implications of this crippling of workers. In The Socialist Alternative, I noted that if workers don’t manage, someone else does; and, if workers don’t develop their capabilities through their practice, someone else does.

In ‘real socialism’, it was the enterprise managers who developed capabilities, and they emerged as an incipient capitalist class – a class oriented to the logic of capital but constrained by the logic of the vanguard. Their ultimate victory brought with it a very significant loss for the working class — the jettisoning of the social contract, i.e., the ending of job security, full employment, subsidisation of necessities, etc. — the loss of all the benefits that workers obtained within vanguard relations in this period. That loss was significant, and there is much nostalgia among workers about that period. But the point is not to return to it. “Real socialism” was never the alternative to which Marx looked — that “inverse situation in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development”.

We need to be explicit that “real socialism” is not where we want to go in the 21st century. We need to identify what we do want — we need the vision of a socialist alternative. Like the worst architect, for the revolutionary labour process we must build the goal in our minds before we can construct it in reality. But that is not enough — knowing where you want to go is not at all the same as getting there. Indeed, how is it possible to get there given that capital has the tendency to produce a working class that by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of capital as “self-evident natural laws”?

Struggle

The answer, I suggest, is that people do struggle even though mystified by the nature of capital. They struggle for what they see as fair, and they struggle against violations of their conception of fairness. This moral economy of the working class points to possibilities. Even though their goals in these struggles may be limited to ending the immediate violations of norms of fairness and justice and may be aimed, for example, at achieving no more than “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”, people change in the course of struggle. Despite the limited goals involved in wage struggles, Marx argued that they were essential for preventing workers “from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production”; without such struggles, workers “would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation”.

People, in short, struggle over their conceptions of right and wrong, and what Marx attempted to do was to explain the underlying basis for those struggles. By itself, the moral economy of the working class can never explain its basis — why those particular beliefs as to what is fair are present — and thus why those norms can change. Accordingly, it is essential to recognise the importance of the moral economy of the working class but also to go beyond it. To grasp the conditions which underlie concepts of fairness at a given moment, it is necessary to move from the moral economy of the working class to the political economy of the working class.

In short, the starting point should be real people with particular ideas and concepts. To articulate what is implicit in their concepts and struggles and to show how these contain within them the elements of a new society is essential. To see the future in the present is what is needed if we are to build that future.

In The Socialist Alternative, I propose the importance of linking existing struggles to a focus upon the right of everyone to full development of their potential. I am convinced that this focus allows us to link separate struggles and to demonstrate the importance of a socialist alternative.

Accordingly, I introduced there the idea of a Charter for Human Development. The goal of such a charter is to try to redefine the concept of fairness. To stress that it is unfair that some people monopolise the social heritage of all human beings, that it is unfair that some people are able to develop their capacities through their activities while others are crippled and deformed, and that it is unfair that we are forced into structures in which we view others as competitors and enemies.

Is it possible to redefine the concept of fairness and to build a new moral economy of the working class? Certainly, it is not inevitable. But in this period of economic and ecological crisis, there is no alternative but to try. We are at the point when Marx’s statement that capitalism destroys human beings and nature has taken on a new urgency.

The choice before us has been noted often: socialism or barbarism.

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Socialism | Working Class | Blog