Monthly Archives: December 2011
My twenties begin with the end of Battle For Settle, 9-11, and marriage and ended with divorce, expatriation to East Asia, and occupy wall street. At thirty-one, I feel like the new normal’s prolonged adolescence is finally over. This year I have spent dating, traveling East Asia, and protesting. Sounds glamorous, but in reality in is slog better left to de-romanticization instead of the travel writing of discovery that leads to such tripe as “Eat, Pray, Love.” I have also been deeply studying Marxist and Anarchist theory as well as history of fascism and neo-paganism. There are interviews on Marxist Economics, Reconstructionist Paganism, Critical Theory, and Marxian Anarchism coming to the blog. Oddly, the first part and the second part of this paragraph are related.
This year, for me, it is time to start building both the theory and the action: Times they are a-changing, and like the book-ends of my twenties, we’re going to change with them.
The Holidays have hit and a loved one is ill. I have four interviews I keep trying to get formatted for you that are completed. When life stops hitting me in the face, I’ll get them up. Until then, its holidays and bed-side hospitals for me.
Lenin and Adam Smith, the founder of the first “successful” Marxist and founder of modern political economy, book end the ghosts that haunt the left right now. Why do I say this? I think Chris Cutrone’s recent lecture on the Importance of Lenin and Spencer Leonard speech on Marxists relationship to the basic assumptions of Adam Smith really bring the point home. Both figures, it seems, are misread by their friends and enemies book-end the early phase of our modernity. Both figures seem to haunt the left now: Do we abandon all that was good in Smith or do we allow ourselves to regress? Is it as simple as merely opposing capitalism, or do we have to undo it to save its first liberating possibilities. Furthermore, do we abandon all that is good in Lenin because of his historical oversteps or, worse, see him as teleological necessating Stalin or Pol Pot?
The simple answer is not simple: we need to go back to the sources while also realizing we do not live in that time. It’s a dual move. A very difficult one. We have to combat liberalism, not because anything liberal is bad. It is not. It is that the liberal is regressing nearly infinitely into something that resembles technocratic feudalism, and in the capitalist class is deposing of itself within the structure. In this sense, all regressions are indeed failures of the left. Let’s acknowledge our ghosts while moving on.
2. “In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the capitalist class; the resulting dependence of the working class is the cause of misery and servitude in all forms.”
This sentence, borrowed from the Rules of the International, is incorrect in this “improved” edition.
In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the landowners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital) and the capitalists. In the passage in question, the Rules of the International do not mention either one or the other class of monopolists. They speak of the “monopolizer of the means of labor, that is, the sources of life.” The addition, “sources of life”, makes it sufficiently clear that land is included in the instruments of lab.
One forgets that land-owners, the preoccupation of the American Georgists, is vital. The ownership of land is also a primary function and the ownership of land almost always comes into being by the enclosure by one class on another in a given society. Forgetting this one gets into a new series of problems. Any platform that obscures this is obscures the primary function of the way most societies actually work.
What is “a fair distribution”?
Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only “fair” distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise out of economic ones? Have not also the socialist sectarians the most varied notions about “fair” distribution?
To understand what is implied in this connection by the phrase “fair distribution”, we must take the first paragraph and this one together. The latter presupposes a society wherein the instruments of labor are common property and the total labor is co-operatively regulated, and from the first paragraph we learn that “the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”
“To all members of society”? To those who do not work as well? What remains then of the “undiminished” proceeds of labor? Only to those members of society who work? What remains then of the “equal right” of all members of society?
Again, we see how the these semi-cognitive and prospective-driven slogans don’t lead anywhere? Reading this one is see the current liberal rallying over a “fair wage” is actually quite deceptive. This rhetoric is easily co-opted by both the generic “right” (GOP, reactionaries, even anti-capitalist reactionaries) and capitalist movement itself.
Another notion we see in that society, even though it is produced from labor, cannot be defined by it. Society defined by labor will not be able to survive technological removal and reduction of the need of the labor processes. This is clear and obvious if one looks at the mechanization of the factory, something that was implied in Marx’s even though he was at the beginning of the industrial era.
These are my writing notes for a discussion group on “The Critique of the Gotha Program” by Marx. Some of this is very intriguing. I will go through the subject matter piece by piece, and then I will give a run down post on various readings of this critique. A close reading of a critique can become slightly over edge of the precipitous cliff of meta-analysis–given that the critique is itself a close reading of a nearly forgotten text–but it is clear given the Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program.
The first point is something that is often missed, Marx states “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.” We immediately note that this goes against the assumption in most liberal and socialist thinkers that it is labor that defines wealth in so that labor defines value. This is absolute essential to thought of John Locke as it is to much vulgarization of Marx. The labor theory of value does not postulate that labor is the source of wealth–material reality is the source of wealth–it is the source of value, which is to say, it is the ability to use that wealth. In fact, this is not just a statement of a problem or source, but of a dialectic, to which Marx makes clear:
“The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.”
One can see much of Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic implied in this critique–not of mere contradiction being reconciled, but clearly of sublation. It is the material conditions of labor to which the capitalist has entitled himself/herself by its use, a use which the capitalists then denies the other in a struggle even though the capitalist not longer is the primary user of those material aims which his/her labor power. Now this is a pathology hidden in the Lockean mythos–even if we accepted Lockean mythos, this would still be the result. The reality that the nation state was always key to the enclosure of land and that imperialism–in both the mercantile sense and the capitalist sense was actually key to the foundation of capital through the primitive accumulation of capital. Still following dialectical logic, the tension and sublation there would be true even if the ideologies myths created in capital were true.
Marx’s next move is interesting: “According to the first proposition, labor was the source of all wealth and all culture; therefore no society is possible without labor. Now we learn, conversely, that no “useful” labor is possible without society.” Marx does allow for logic to be inverted for means of simple polemic or practical logic. Marx would have had no tolerance for incoherent sloganeering. But the next move is practically interesting:
A savage — and man was a savage after he had ceased to be an ape — who kills an animal with a stone, who collects fruit, etc., performs “useful” labor.
So there is slippery modifier, but a modifier about assumptions. Marx does not handle things that seem to clarify but actually mystify. He has no patience for the non-cognitive phrase. Of course, this also seems interesting in light of a regressive romantic tendency in socialism prior to Marx that are reoccurred more prominently as societies operating under capitalism have degenerated. One can see this nonsense in Zerzan. These sorts of remarks shows how Marx would have had absolutely not patience for that.
I will discuss one more bit of The Critique of the Gotha Program:
Thirdly, the conclusion: “Useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”
A fine conclusion! If useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong to society — and only so much therefrom accrues to the individual worker as is not required to maintain the “condition” of labor, society.
In fact, this proposition has at all times been made use of by the champions of the state of society prevailing at any given time. First comes the claims of the government and everything that sticks to it, since it is the social organ for the maintenance of the social order; then comes the claims of the various kinds of private property, for the various kinds of private property are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases can be twisted and turned as desired.
Note again that Marx shows how easily logic that seems to be socialistic can be twisted into new ideas. Hollow phrases cannot be a placeholder for a revolutionary subject–given how much meaningless phrases have emerged from both the liberal, socialist, and anarchist left. Mystification cannot be used against obfuscating tendencies.
Anarcho-communists and Marxists, including Marxists of the anarchist variety, have had a long running dialogue that debates back to the First International. The Marxist perspective is that Bakunin did not rightfully recognize the universal nature of the Proletariat, that his involvement with Nechayev discredits him, that his international brotherhood was elitists, that propaganda by the deed by not a poor recourse, that one should not side with specific powers in international wars like Bakunin did with France, and that Bakunin lacked a coherent message due to a lack of methodology, dialectical or otherwise. The Bakunin anarchists would say generall Marx’s myoptic Hegelianism limited him, that there is no need for a complete rupture with present conditions by a socialist state transition or “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that Marxian statism was dangerous, and that there was no need to posit a specific class against which all others above and below would have to rely on for communism. One can see both of this play out in Louis Proyect’s critique of Bakunin as well as the anarchist response to it.
That is not what interests me particularly as I see validity in both critiques–even if I am ultimately a Marxian thinker on methodological grounds–the more interesting reading is to notice that both Marx and Bakunin accused on the other of authoritarianism. In this sense, both were also right. The best writer on this is probably David Adam’s. His exploration of this at lib-com is definitely worth a read:
Since Marx can be “united” with the Rothschild banking dynasty, Bakunin has no problem at all identifying Marx with someone like Lassalle, who had very different politics from Marx. For example, Bakunin writes, “Conforming strictly to the political program Marx and Engels had set forth in the Communist Manifesto, Lassalle demanded only one thing of Bismarck: that state credit be made available to the workers’ producer associations.”57 As it turns out, in Marx’s mind there was a clear distinction between what Bismarck could do for the workers, and what the workers could do for themselves. Marx was quite hostile to Lassalle’s socialism-from-above. As he wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, criticizing Lassallean influence on the Gotha Programme,
Instead of the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the ‘socialist organization of the total labour’ ‘arises’ from the ‘state aid’ that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the worker, ‘calls into being.’ This is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that one can build a new society by state loans just as well as a new railway! . . . That the workers desire to establish the conditions of co-operative production on a social, and first of all on a national, scale in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned they are of value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the government or of the bourgeoisie.58
While Marx’s critique of Bakunin’s autitarianism is often ignored, Bakunin’s critique of Marx is often praised for its prescience, despite its complete distortion of Marx’s ideas.
Some of Bakunin’s criticisms of Marx are truly bizarre. Bakunin believed that “doctrinaire revolutionaries” like Marx and Engels think “that thought precedes life, that abstract theory precedes social practice, that sociology must therefore be the point of departure for social upheavals and reconstructions,” and therefore come to the conclusion “that since thought, theory, and science, at least for the present, are the property of a very few individuals, those few must be the directors of social life.”59 After quoting at length Bakunin’s charges that Marx was using the First International to impose on the world a “government invested with dictatorial powers,” Daniel Guerin comments, “No doubt Bakunin was distorting the thoughts of Marx quite severely in attributing to him such a universally authoritarian concept, but the experience of the Third International has since shown that the danger of which he warned did eventually materialize.”60This is a curious justification for Bakunin’s criticism: because people have done authoritarian things in Marx’s name, Bakunin’s elaborate straw-man argument becomes retroactively vindicated. Another commentator writes, “Bakunin’s conception of the Marxist state he saw waiting in the wings of history was disturbing but correct. . . . history seems to have been on Bakunin’s, not Marx’s, side. . . .”61 Praise for Bakunin’s prophetic powers has served to gloss over the inaccuracy of his portrayal of Marx’s ideas.
Marx characterized the International as “a bond of union rather than a controlling force”62 and considered it “the business of the International Working Men’s Association to combine and generalize the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever.”63 On the basis of this vision, Marx opposed secret groupings in the International and held that this type of organization “is opposed to the development of the proletarian movement because, instead of instructing the workers, these societies subject them to authoritarian, mystical laws which cramp their independence and distort their powers of reason.”64 This perspective bears little in common with the caricature of Marxian authoritarianism that has become so widespread. Writing to Blos in 1877, Marx asserted that when he and Engels first joined the Communist League, they “did so only on condition that anything conducive to a superstitious belief in authority be eliminated from the Rules.”65 Marx’s opposition to authoritarian methods of organization reflects his long-standing belief in the importance of workers’ democracy. This was thus the basis for his rejection of Bakunin’s brand of vanguardism. As we have seen, Marx considered Bakunin’s emphasis on a tightly knit revolutionary general staff to be misguided. Far from being a consistent critic of authoritarianism, Bakunin mixed his elaborate praise for abstract liberty with an authoritarian organizational outlook.
Ironically much of the authoritarianism in the vanguardist ideology that most bothers anarchists was actually embodied in Bakunin’s organizational methods. Yet one does wonder if Marx’s faith in a transitional state was itself a problematic to which Bakunin was right. If one drops the historical polemics and looks at the actual events of the First International, the two bearded fore-bearers of different schools of communist both have egg on their faces historically. We need to learn from both–a good Marxian thinker does not dismiss Bakunin for opposing Marx, but looks at the historical issues and decides the merit on each specific historical issue.
Furthermore, when it comes to organizing communists today–Marxist or otherwise–it is time to learn from the First International instead of parrot it.
There are often two reactions to Kim Jong-Il: one in support of the predominant US narrative on North Korea and the other on defending it as a socialist power against US Imperialism. While the US narrative predominates in capitalistic media, it is important to put North Korea in its context. Kasama Project is right to say that it is both an oppressive state and in danger:
Kim Jong Il has long been head of the oppressive and isolated state ruling northern Korea — locked in a seemingly permanent state of war against the southern Korean state (which was occupied by the U.S. after world war 2). The North Korean regime,which calls itself the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), may well be weakened by Kim’s death and by long-brewing power struggles within the North Korean ruling circles.
There is both danger and opportunity in those possibilities of instability.
Certainly the people of northern Korea and their compatriots in the southern Korea’s peninsula have every interest in helping radical changes sweep their peninsula. They deserve the freedom to make their own difficult future choices freed from the interference and domination of great powers.
At the same time, any turmoil or instability in North Korea will signal intense and self-interested interference by the United States, and by those great powers (China, Russia and Japan) that border Korea.
Over and over Korea has been invaded, occupied, colonized, brutalized, exploited and threatened by outside powers — specifically Japan and the United States during the 20th century.
As I have pointed out, the name indicates quite a bit. In Korean, North Korea is 조선민주주의인민공화국. In it you see the name of the Confucian Dynasty prior which one does not see in the name of South Korea in Korean, 대한민국. As B.R. Meyers points out, North Korean propaganda doesn’t resemble even Stalinist propaganda of socialism in one nation, but has a very similar character to the Confucian propaganda used by the Japanese fascists. Yet it does inspire many North Koreans through appealing to a rather conservative ethnic nationalism that is concerned with purity. Furthermore, the cult of personality around the Kim Jong-Il has more in common with Hirohito’s cult than with Mao and Maoist personality ideology used by his father. I have my critiques of that as well, but it is not what is going on in the current DPRK. There is a continuity of the Confucian patriarchy and a deliberate inversion of Confucian male values. DPRK propaganda is interesting in that sort of duel nature: a refutation of Confucianism and an acceptance of it by mere inversion. Furthermore, it is a refutation of Marxist-Leninism while claiming to have “further” developed it. You don’t have to be a Trotskyists to see the problems there. Also, the racial propaganda in North Korea is anti-internationalist even against other socialist peoples, but the racial ideology is uniquely pulled from a Japanese colonial ideology which itself borrowed from Germans. Furthermore, Gary Leupp has been quite telling:
Still, those portraits of Marx and Lenin are there in Pyongyang. DPRK propaganda continues to describe the late Kim as “a thoroughgoing Marxist-Leninist.” Juche is described as a “creative application of Marxism-Leninism.” The Korean Workers’ Party continues to cultivate ties with more traditional, perhaps more “legitimate,” Marxist-Leninist parties including the (Maoist) Communist Party of the Philippines.
Some material by Marx, Engels and Lenin circulates in North Korea, and the Marxist dictum, “Religion is the opium of the masses” is universally known. But according to a Russian study in 1995, “the works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin are not only excluded from the standard [school] curriculum, but are generally forbidden for lay readers. Almost all the classical works of Marxism-Leninism, as well as foreign works on the Marxist (that is, other than [Juche]) philosophy are kept in special depositories, along with other kinds of subversive literature. Such works are accessible only to specialists with special permits.” (One thinks of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages restricting Bible reading to the trusted clergy, and discouraging it among the masses.)
I imagine some with those special permits are able to read Marx’s famous 1844 essay in which the “opium of the masses” phrase occurs:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”
Maybe the rare North Korean student of Marxism, acquiring some real understanding of the Marxist view of religion, can see all around him or her conditions which require mass illusions and delusions in order to continue. There are some signs of resistance here and there to the Kim cult, which would seem to be a good thing.
Having said that (and always trying to think dialectically), I don’t believe that life in the DPRK is quite the hell—another religious concept—that the mainstream media would have us believe it is. One should try to look at things in perspective. We hear much of the terrible famine that lasted from about 1995 to 2001, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions. But North Korea was not always a disaster. As of 1980, infant mortality in the north was lower than in the south, life expectancy was higher, and per capita energy usage was actually double that in the south (Boston Globe, Dec. 31, 2003). Even after the famine and accompanying problems, a visitor to Pyongyang in 2002 declared:
“Housing in Pyongyang is of surprising quality. In the past 30 years–and mostly in the past 20–hundreds of huge apartment houses have been built. Pyongyang is a city of high-rises, with probably the highest average building height of any city in the world. Although the quality is below that of the West, it is far above that found in the former Soviet Union. Buildings are finished and painted and there is at least a pretense of maintenance; even older buildings do not look neglected. Nothing looks as though it is on the verge of falling down. . .
“Although a bit dreary, the shops in Pyongyang are far from empty. Each apartment building has some sort of shop on the main floor, and food shops can usually be found within one or two buildings from any given home. Apart from these basic, Soviet-style shops, there are a few department stores carrying a wide range of goods. . . “While not snappy dressers, North Koreans are certainly clean and tidy, and exceptionally well dressed. . . There is no shortage of clothing, and clothing stores and fabric shops are open daily.”
There’s apparently one hotel disco and some karaoke bars in Pyongyang. No doubt Kim Il-songism can provide some with the “illusory happiness” about which Marx wrote, and it is possible that genuine popular feelings as well as feelings orchestrated from above have contributed to the production of the North Korean faith. The DPRK might not be all distress and oppression. But neither is it a socialist society in any sense Marx or Lenin would have recognized, to say nothing of a classless, communist society. It is among other things a religious society in a world where nations led by religious nuts are facing off, some seemingly hell-bent on producing a prophesized apocalypse. I find no cause for either comfort or particular alarm in the Dear Leader’s October 9 nuclear blast; if it deters a U.S. attack it’s achieved its purpose, and however bizarre Jong-il may be he’s probably not crazy enough to provoke his nation’s destruction by an attack on the U.S. or Japan. I’m more concerned that Bush will do something stupid in response to the test.
In any case, the confrontation here isn’t between “freedom” and “one of the world’s last communist regimes,” nor even between fundamentalist Christian Bush and Kim Il-songist Kim Jong-il. It’s between a weird hermetic regime under threat and determined to survive in its small space, using a cult to control its people, and a weird much more dangerous regime under the delusion that God wants it to smite His enemies and to control the whole world. Both are in the business of peddling “illusions of happiness.” Neither is much concerned about the “real happiness” of people. Both ought to be changed—by those they oppress, demanding an end to conditions requiring illusions.
Now, living in South Korea, I must say that the US influence here can be pretty distorting as can the dominance of several major corporations. But one must be honest and say that this is not even a vulgar Stalinist version of Marxism, but a regression to something far more primitive. Still one cannot argue that this is sound grounds for any US action. The fate of Korea is for those who live here to decide. It is not for the US to toy with.
Sometimes you wonder if congress wants a violent revolution to test out their security apparatus. Take for example this problem: Orman is getting to the point.
Make no mistake, we are still in crisis mode. The unemployment rate didn’t drop from 9 percent to 8.6 percent because there were a ton of new jobs for the unemployed to step into. Much of the decline in the rate is attributed to the fact that more than 300,000 of the unemployed have stopped looking for work, so they no longer get counted in the math of the unemployment rate. We in fact added only 120,000 new jobs in November. At that pace it would take more than four years for private-sector employment to get back to where it was in late 2007. That’s not exactly a rosy picture.
Now of course, what will probably happen — though with this Congress who knows — is that sometime between now and Congress’ Christmas recess we will get word that the bickering has subsided enough and that long-term benefits will in fact be extended for 2012. But every day that we don’t yet have a deal is another day of congressional failure to serve its constituency. I am not talking solely about the 5.7 million. This speaks to what we as a nation stand for. I refuse to believe we are a country that wants to abandon our unemployed, or use them as political leverage. Yet here we are.
Concerned at the cost? Well, keep in mind that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has previously noted that extending unemployment benefits packs the most stimulative bang for the buck. Give someone with a job some money (through a tax break, say) and they might save it, or they might spend it. Give an unemployed person assistance and odds are very high that money quickly gets poured right back into the economy. That’s something that benefits all of us, at a time when the economy remains perilously fragile. And most important, it provides some relief for those who are struggling most.
However, this also illustrates something else: the battle between Neo-liberal and Neo-Keynesian ideology and practice, both are ultimately unsustainable. Why? Well, quick stimulus can’t address long-term systemic failure. But then just hoping jobs manifest is not a way: the idea the job shortages are a matter of lack demand in the labor market because people would rather just not work is frankly, objectively, insane.