Category: Marxism

Toward a New Marxism

I’ve reentered school in the fall–a task which has kept me busy, however much I like it, and so I’ve let blogging fall by the wayside.  I really, truly, want to change that, to get back on the horse, so to speak.

The best way for me to start is to go where my heart has been in all this time since I’ve posted more regularly.

First of all, Egypt has inspired me.  From an internet based movement, sparked by the revolution and bravery of Tunisia, Egypt toppled a 30-year-old regime, despite opposition from the dominant party, precisely because regardless of difficulty, the Egyptian people never backed down, never resorted to violence, rape, looting (excepting the violence in defense from pro-Mubarak ‘supporters’), never strayed from message–they consistently would be placated with nothing less than ‘Mubarak, step down!’.  And step down he did.  That settled, and the military verbally guaranteeing reforms for a real democracy (whether they remain committed to such a vision remains to be seen), they proceed to clean up the mess that the protest has created.  This is how a protest should be–clear, revolutionary demands, without resorting to anarchy or being placated by red-herring false promises and impotent, minuscule changes.  And it was a neither a U.S. trained coup nor a militant, Islamist revolt against ‘secularization,’ but a multiparty coalition for democracy which has changed the face of the Middle East.  We should all learn from Egyptians. . . this is what hope and change look like.
In the West, we’ve gone so long without hope and change.  We’ve long felt impotent, and rationalized our inactivity.  “This is the way it’s always been. . . ” or “Americans aren’t willing to move with us for anything better. . . ,” or perhaps “It’s a Right Wing nation” or “Look at the obstacles to change!”  The leftmost phrase one can use to describe oneself is “progressive,” and that rather meaningless phrase is still labelled “Communist” in some crowds, depending on who you ask.  What does one do?
I am a committed Marxist, but not the “Old Left” or “New Left” kind.  The “Old Left” kind prioritized structures over agency, over the need to move in what Marxists called the “superstructure” to help people see the world they live in for what it is, and to pave a path to change it.  The “Old Left” prioritized class over gender, race, sexuality, environment.  The “New Left” hated the same systems of oppression, but saw gender, sexuality, race, and environment sometimes simultaneous to class, and sometimes instead of class.  They rejected authority, either Right or Left, and they fought for a world of TOTAL freedom.  But their overcorrection for the sins of the Old Left, their anti-authoritarianism, allowed them to descend into a rag-tag and decentralized band of competing struggles, each decidedly committed to their own ends and de facto competing against the ends of other New Left groups.  I consider the New Left generation of the 60’s to be the ‘Greatest Generation,’ whose war was not against fascism abroad but totalitarian unfreedom at home–fighting against alienation, homophobia, sexism, racism, capitalism, and for the oppressed, the exploited, the nonhuman animals.  But in their fight against all sources of oppression, the New Left so commonly devolved into a quasi-postmodern, infighting-prone, drug-dependent, and unprincipled band of uncoordinated movements, whose rejection of a capital-O Order resulted in the structural inability to meet their potential, their destiny.
It is our time to learn from their mistakes.  Inequality.  Environmental degradation.  Impotence in one’s workplace, country, city. . . life!  One drinks and lives vicariously through television and video games, playing Madden 2010 instead of football, watching James Bond instead of having martinis with beautiful women (or men, for that manner).  What went wrong?
I believe the New Left of the 1960’s had a lot right.  You cannot build a new society without abolishing racism, sexism, homophobia, traditional family structures, abandoning capitalism, reengaging the environment, seeking new spiritualities, rejecting war.  But the New Left maintained a definition of Freedom that was no more than an extension of the ‘bourgeois’ notion of freedom into wider realms.  The ‘bourgeois’ notion of freedom defines freedom loosely as the freedom to choose within a constrained choice set.  Let me be clearer.  ‘Bourgeois’ freedom argued that if a person’s society and nature keep them able only to choose between ‘A’ and ‘B,’ and prevents them from choosing ‘C,’ ‘D,’ etc. up to ‘Z’, when under other social rules one could have choices from A to Z, ‘Bourgeois’ or capitalist notions of freedom considers you free—because, hell, you have a choice, right?

The “New Left” extended this notion–they argued that no one has a right to make you choose only A or B, between Green Apple Antibacterial dish soap or Orange anti-grease dish soap, when you could have not only antibacterial AND anti-grease dish soap, but way more meaningful choices than soap at the end of the day.  They wanted you to be able to choose between A and Z. But they rarely connected the different systems of oppression, and they never looked at the effects of the systems of oppression and exploitation as a whole, ignoring that alongside the need to have self determination for your nation, your relationship(s), and your workplace, is the need to have self determination over your full self.  And this is not the Christian notion of feeling bad for every time you enjoy a piece of cake or a good lay, but the humanization of one’s desires, making them truly yours rather than enculturated or contradictory pursuits.  So they wouldn’t listen to each other (who are you to tell me what to do?) and they tuned out, and blew their minds.  What do we do?

Like I said, I am neither an Old Left nor a New Left Marxist, but there is value to each.  Perhaps you could call me a Now Left Marxist. Here is a part of where I stand (and if you happen to want the theoretical backing, quotes and such, leave a comment).
Meaningful freedom is more than what you can do with a limited choice set–freedom is both external (your liberty to do what you want without external barriers) and internal (your liberty to do what you want without mental or habitual limitations).  One creates oneself through habituation (among other things), and so either external or internal limitations cripple the self–you are limited in your own self-creating potential.  And there are two types of barriers, natural and social, which can affect either internal or external freedom (I’m sorry if this is too heady, I just have faith in you–if you need clarification, please comment).  I’ll probably expand upon this later, but for now suffice to say that the ultimate freedom is both democratic influence over all the external factors that constrain your choices (social or natural, and for all external structures) and over all internal factors (ideologies, command over one’s own inclinations, habits, desires, etc).  This latter part, I believe, is a fundamental component of Marx’s ultimate project, as well as my own, extending into one’s relationships, consumer activity, etc., and most particularly NOT resulting in a denial of one’s desires, i.e. towards sex, drink, etc., but merely the use of all things as informed by ones fully free choices.

The point is making oneself fully the person one wants to be.  That is freedom.  And advocates of a limited freedom–libertarians, Republicans, capitalist apologists–they don’t advocate full freedom.  They advocate a conception of the lowest level of external freedom–choice within social and natural constraints–but even then an inconsistent version, where one’s external freedom can limit the external (and internal freedom) of another, but for no good reason.  For example, a speculator can buy the property of a family facing hard economic times, and use that power to raise the family’s rent until they can no longer pay.  The speculator has external freedom–no government or external force prevents them from buying the house–but their freedom to do so violates the freedom of the family to stay in their house, and that limitation is first social (social rules backed by force allow the speculator to take the family’s house) and natural (that force, personified by police, can remove the family at a very real physical danger to their lives). People who equate capitalism to freedom don’t get freedom–and I don’t think they want to.  But my Marxism, and I believe it stems from Marx himself, is founded in a fully, consistent, internal and external freedom.

You should be free in your work, government, relationships, beliefs, and over yourself.  You should be connected with your true goals, loved ones, community, environment.  You should manifest your creative power and develop yourself in all aspects of life, be it work or sex, eating or playing, or anything else under the sun, so long as at the end of the day it helps others do the same, rather than hinders them.  Now Left Marxism is feminist, queer, antiracist, environmentalist, and Buddhist (in its emphasis, with Buddhism, on control over the self), and founded in a demand for full democratization and full liberation.  It is this philosophy that I hope to develop here, and I invite comments.  Let Egypt show us that true change is possible, and lesson learned, lets change the world ourselves.

After a solid month of visiting various friends and family members, I am now ready to start blogging more regularly again.  With all vacations, I emerged appreciating life more. . . which means I am going to take a break from reading classics of libertarianism for at least this week.  Today, I am going to do a brief review of Hannah Arendt’s Antisemitism, and proceed to draw out some of its implications for a Marxist theory of racism.

Arendt’s book is not about Marxism in any way;  it is an account of antisemitism, the ideology, itself.  The history of the phenomena, as Arendt explains it, begins with the slow development of the nation states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Individual Jews became strongly associated with the state in these periods, as Jewish bankers became often the sole source of financing for state activities.  This gave European Jews both inroads into the inner circles of the state (without themselves gaining actual political power) and a corresponding dependence on the state for their protection in a society which is otherwise hostile towards them.

After the French Revolution, nation states emerged large enough to require more capital than any individual Jewish banker could supply.  Consequentially, the combined wealth of the wealthier Jews provided financing for state activities, which accorded special privileges to the Jews.  At this stage, wealthy Jews were fully integrated into the state as a sort of ‘financial arm.’  This period ended with the nineteenth century rise in imperialism, where capitalist expansion involved the direct aid of the state.  Early in this period, bourgeois businessmen saw the profitability of financing state activity and displaced Jewish bankers as the dominant source of state revenue.  This removed their long-standing state function, leaving them relatively unprotected yet with large remaining sums of useless wealth.  Additionally, despite the fact that Jews gradually lost their state function, and with it what social power they had (which, in reality, was shared only by rich individual Jews, not distributed to Jews as a group), their prior position as the prime source of financial revenue, and integration into political circles in every European country, connected them directly in the mind of most classes in society to the state independent of their actual position or power.  Thus, as discontent grew against the state, discontent grew against Jews as a race as representatives of the state.  Thus, the rise of Antisemitism, in short, is really a reaction against ‘the state’ which became a reaction against European Jewry.

This process shows its implications for Marxist theories of race after a few facts are introduced.  Jews became enmeshed in banking as a result of Christian prohibition of usury in the middle ages.  Jews were religiously persecuted, and commonly forbidden from traditional occupations, while in those same Christian regions usury (the reception of interest after the loaning of money) was prohibited to, essentially, everyone except the Jews.  The obvious consequence is that, in order to make a living, Jews had to engage in loaning money and receiving interest, a practice that was actually looked down upon rather than empowered (as is the case with modern financial capitalists).

The religious persecution of Jews (rather than racial persecution) resulted, thus, in the system of Jewish banking, that itself led to the process Arendt describes.  This gradually codified into persecution of Jews by race, and throughout this process the finance capitalist Jewry were essentially forced into this degraded class status until its power and profit potential was realized by the bourgeois;  at that point, the Jews could no longer serve this function, and they lost the only protected class status that any Jews had attained.  In short, the fact that Jews were Jews, first religiously then racially, forced them into subjugated economic positions, then forced them out when those positions were no longer subjugated.   Racism, here in the form of antisemitism, seemed to be a tool to force a group of people into a subjugated (yet functionally necessary) economic class.  This insight, though undeveloped, might be the foundation for a strong Marxist analysis of racism.

From today forward, I will post regular, weekly updates three times a week (and, in light of important future news, occasional analyses of important current events.  Mondays I will blog about something important in the news.  Wednesdays I will post about a book or article I am reading or have read–it could be a straightforward review, an analysis of some part, or even an application to something happening in the world.  Fridays I will blog about something philosophical–it could be about a specific philosopher or work of philosophy, an analysis of a concept or argument, or an argument of my own.  There is certainly going to be some conceptual overlap; expect my analyses of current events to pull from literature or to contain arguments, my ‘book reviews’ to contain references to news or philosophical argument, and my philosophy to pull from others’ philosophies.  My point here is to mention that I will be posting regularly, and expect for certain something about current events on Monday, something about a book or article on Wednesday, and something about philosophy on Friday.  Additionally, I check every comment and reply whenever possible, so if anyone has a suggestion of something in the news that deserves mention, a book that should be looked at, or a philosopher or philosophical argument that should be analyzed, as well as any other comments (or criticisms/rebuttals, for that matter), feel free to post.

Today, I want to take some time to explain Marx’s theory of history, referred to as either historical or dialectical materialism.  Some make a distinction between historical and dialectical materialism, but for the purposes of this blog post, I will only be referring to the theory as ‘historical materialism’. 

In Marx’ s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he summarizes historical materialism as follows:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.  The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.”

I’ll stop quoting here, and explain.  In short, Marx is saying that economic structure of society is the driving force behind society (including other institutions, such as religion and the state).  But Marx’s conception of the economy is much more complex than our own.  Nowadays, when we reference ‘the economy’ in public discourse, we’re contrasting the realm of private exchange with the forms of the public sphere, because in capitalism the state and other public institutions ought to be removed from the exchange process (so they argue). It should be mentioned, however, that capitalism is the first economic system in human history where the realm of exchange is notembedded in the public sphere (for this point, see Karl Polyani, the Great Transformation).  But to Marx, the ‘economic structure of society’ consists of ‘the relations of production’ that men fall into ‘independent of their will’.  What does he mean by that?

A society is successful for its members and as itself if it survives, i.e. if at least as many people enter society (from birth or from outside it) as exit it.  Society is thus successful if it can, at the very least, secure its members sustenance and promote their reproduction.  Engels confirms this in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State  in his First Preface.  He writes that “the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life.” This basic condition, that society is successful when it helps its members, overall, to live and reproduce, is contingent upon two factors, the forces of production (also referred to as the means of production) and the relations of production. 

The forces of production, generally, consist of the tools and technology at man’s disposal to produce what he needs, as well as the raw materials and natural resources needed to produce or meet needs.  For example, in early hunting-based societies, people needed spears, eventually bows and arrows, in order to meet their needs.  These were forces of production.  But in the process of society’s organizing to meet needs, different individuals begin to serve different functions in the productive process.  These relations are what Marx refers to as the relations of production, and they are the origin of class society.  Different classes are groups of people with different relationships to the forces of production, and these are expressed in the form of property rights (and not necessarily pure private property rights, as exists in capitalism today). The dominant class is the group of people who have ‘rights’ to the things people need in order to produce their sustenance.  They use the power their ownership confers to get nonowners to produce in their stead; i.e. the actual producers or laborers produce are given the tools and resources to produce by the ‘owner’ of those tools and resources, and are then required to produce more than their own sustenance.  This excess production, which serves no needs for the producers is surplus value given to the owner of the forces of production.  This condition, where individual laborers are forced to work for another class because of the monopoly over the forces of production that another class has, is referred to as exploitation.  Marx notes that, historically, the only time in our human past without these exploitative class relationships was primitive communism, and ever since all economic systems have been class systems.  These relations of production are what arrange production that meets man’s needs.  This is what Marx means when he refers to the economy as “the totality of the relations of production”, and people fall into these roles independent of their will because people are born into society, where class structures are already formed, and given the advantages the dominant class has in keeping their position safe, it is far easier to be funneled into the exploited class than the dominant class.  Furthermore, when Marx claims that the superstructure (i.e. the state, religion, etc) is, essentially, subservient to the economic structure of society, he is merely saying that these ideological forms must, overall, support the economic structure, i.e. must allow more people being able to survive and reproduce than not.  For example, if the state in a society kills all the workers, then society collapses, or if the dominant religion in a society believes that it is impious to have children, then society stops reproducing.  These superstructural features cause society to fail because they work against the two things it needs to do to be successful.  The superstructure, then, is dependent upon the economy in the sense that it must promote, overall, the survival of society.  Engels clarifies this in a letter written September 21, 1890, where he says:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.

In other words, elements of the superstructure are constrained by the economic system, and the dominant ideologies are ideologies of the ruling class, who both have the means of promoting ideologies and, in legitimating their class domination, have the need for it.  Additionally, elements of the superstructure (like, again, the state, religion, or moral and philosophical theories) exhibit some independence from the economic base, because they are not wholly determined, and can quite often remain after changes in the base, regardless of their essential obsolescence.

If the ruling class holds the means of production, and therefore people’s ability to survive, backed by the coercive power of the state, and supported by superstructural ideologies that hinder social change and support the status quo, how is change possible?

Marx states that society changes–marked most determinately by a massive change in the economy, i.e. the class structure–when “the material forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or . . . with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.”  This is because “no social order is ever destroyed before all the all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”  What this means, in essence, is that social revolutions occur when the productive potentialities of the existing forces of production is limited by the existing class structure and relations of production.  The organization of society, in other words, stands in the way of its potentiality for meeting society’s needs; its organization is standing in the way of its success, as we mentioned earlier.  When this occurs, a revolution must occur if society is going to continue on, rather than die out.  In the Communist Manifesto, after the famous quote that “,” Marx proceeds to argue that “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”  In other words, class struggle ends in either a change in the economic system such that solves the contradictions of the old, or everybody loses and society dies out.  In short, Marx’s point here, I argue, is to show that societies reach a point in their development where they must either have a social revolution in their class structures or they will dwindle and die, and not the common misconception that Marx thought that successful changes from one economic system to another are inevitable.

Capitalism as a command economy

So many critiques have been leveled at socialism as being necessarily “planned,” and capitalism is “free.” Ignoring the critique that capitalism restricts freedom through concretization of private property, inequality, and differential power and life chances, this characterization is still false.

First of all, there is a strong possibility for a market socialism, or at least markets in certain sectors of the economy (such as a market in labor but not goods, or goods but not labor, etc. That first option makes little sense to me but it is logically possible). Maintenance of inequality does not require micromanagement of human action, it simply requires the setting up of reward systems that don’t produce inequality, say, in power or wealth. In short, socialism must not be planned. Not that I think planning is inherently bad, but thinking that all socialisms must be planned is a huge flaw in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

Second, between corporations there is transactional freedom, but vertically a corporation is a command economy, a little government, where a rigid top-down hierarchy (rigid by the position, not the people who fill it. . . you can [theoretically] move up to a manager or down to a clerk, but the power of a manager can never have less power than a clerk) is in place. The CEO and board of directors (with, sometimes, pushes from shareholders) make dictates based on where they think they will succeed in the market, and everyone else follows. They are no less planned, or command economies, than Soviet socialism. A corporation is a command economy, where even some of your constitutional freedoms aren’t protected because of being employed within their ‘private property’ . . . try to exercise complete free speech at work. Protest Wal Mart wages inside a Wal Mart. Exactly.

In short, keep this in mind: Socialist economies don’t have to be planned in economic transactions, and inside the primary actors in capitalism, corporations, is a structure at least as planned, rigid, and dominating as Soviet socialism.