John Lanchester: Marx at 193

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
John Lanchester: Marx at 193

[quote]In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order. Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.[/quote]

[quote]He was right: no alternative has developed. Economics as a discipline has in effect become the study of capitalism. The two are taken as the same subject. If there were ever going to be a serious and sustained theoretical challenge to the hegemony of capitalism inside economics – a serious and sustained challenge subsequent to the one provided by what used to be called ‘actually existing socialisms’ – you’d have thought one would have come along since the near terminal meltdown of the global economic system in 2008. But all we’ve seen are suggestions for ameliorative tweaking of the existing system to make it a little less risky. We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism – a term which used to be a favourite of the Socialist Workers Party in describing the Soviet Union, and which only a few weeks ago was on the cover of the Economist to describe the current economic condition of most of the world. This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working.[/quote]

[quote]Marx’s model works like this: competition pressures will always force down the cost of labour, so that workers are employed for the minimum price, always paid just enough to keep themselves going, and no more. The employer then sells the commodity not for what it cost to make, but for the best price he can get: a price which in turn is subject to competition pressures, and therefore will always tend over time to go down. In the meantime, however, there is a gap between what the labourer sells his labour for, and the price the employer gets for the commodity, and that difference is the money which accumulates to the employer and which Marx called surplus value. In Marx’s judgment surplus value is the entire basis of capitalism: all value in capitalism is the surplus value created by labour. That’s what makes up the cost of the thing; as Marx put it, ‘price is the money-name of the labour objectified in a commodity.’ And in examining that question he creates a model which allows us to see deeply into the structure of the world, and see the labour hidden in the things all around us. He makes labour legible in objects and relationships.

The theory of surplus value also explains, for Marx, why capitalism has an inherent tendency towards crisis. The employer, just like the employee, has competition pressures, and the price of the things he’s selling will always tend to be forced down by new entrants to the market. His way of getting round this will usually be to employ machines to make the workers more productive. He’ll try to get more out of them by employing fewer of them to make more stuff. But in trying to increase the efficiency of production, he might well destroy value, often by making too many goods at not enough profit, which leads to a surplus of competing goods which leads to a crash in the market which leads to massive destruction of capital which leads to the start of another cycle. It’s an elegant aspect of Marx’s thinking that the surplus theory of value leads directly and explicitly to the prediction that capitalism will always have cycles of crisis, of boom and bust.[/quote]

[quote]The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat. There’s nothing even close. The proletariat is queuing to get into Foxconn, not to organise strikes there, and the great danger facing China, which is in a sense where the world’s proletariat now is, is the inequality caused by fractures within the new urban proletariat and the rural poverty they’re leaving behind. China also has tensions between the coast and the centre, and increasing problems with corruption and maladministration that erupt regularly in what are known as Mass Group Incidents, MGI – basically anti-authority riots which occur regularly all over China and seem never to be reported in the Western mainstream media. But none of these phenomena is to do with class, and given the emphasis put on organised class struggle in Marx’s work you have to file this under predictions which haven’t proved true.

Why not? I think for two main reasons. The first is that Marx did not foresee, as no one else did and I don’t think anyone could, the variety of different forms of capitalism which would evolve. We talk of capitalism as one thing, but it comes in many different flavours, involving different models. The contemporary welfare state – housing and educating and feeding and providing healthcare for its citizens, from birth to death – is a development which challenges the basis of Marx’s analysis of what capitalism is: I think he would have looked hard at the welfare state and wondered whether it fundamentally undermined his analysis, just because it is so different from the capitalism Marx saw operating in his day, and from which he extrapolated. Perhaps he would argue that what has happened is that British society in its entirety has become part of a global bourgeoisie, and the proletariat is now in other countries; that’s a possible argument, but not one that’s easy to sustain in the face of the inequalities which exist and are growing in our society. But Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France, which again is not at all like the curious hybrid we have in the UK, in which our governments are wholly devoted to the free market and yet we have areas of welfare and provision they haven’t dared address. Singapore is one of the most avowedly free-market countries in the world, regularly coming top or near top of surveys for liberalisation of markets, and yet the government owns most of the land in the country and the overwhelming majority of the population lives in socialised housing. It’s the world capital of free markets and also of council flats. There are lots of different capitalisms and it’s not clear that a single analysis which embraces all of them as if they were a single phenomenon can be valid.[/quote]

 

[quote]A final challenge to Marx’s model, and also to his picture of the future, comes from something he did see very clearly and prophetically, the extraordinary productive power of capitalism. He saw how capitalism would transform the surface of the planet and impact on the life of every single person alive. There is, however, a crack or flaw close to the heart of his analysis. Marx saw the two fundamental poles of economic, and social and political, life as labour and nature. He didn’t see these two things as static; he used the metaphor of a metabolism to describe the way our labour shapes the world and we in turn are shaped by the world we have made. So the two poles of labour and nature don’t stay fixed. But what Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite. He knows that there is no such thing as nature unshaped by our assumptions, but he doesn’t share our contemporary awareness that nature can run out. This is the kind of thing which is sometimes called ironic, but is closer to tragedy, and at its heart is the fact that the productive, expansionist, resource-consuming power of capitalism is so great that it is not sustainable at a planetary level. The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.[/quote]

 

[quote]So the question is whether capitalism can evolve new forms, in the way it has so far managed to do, and come up with property and market-based mechanisms which deflect the seemingly inevitable crisis that will ensue, or whether we need some entirely different social and economic order. The irony is that this order might in many respects be like the one Marx imagined, even if he saw a different route to getting there. When Marx said that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction he wasn’t talking about climate change or resource wars. If we feel a natural gloom and despondency at the prospect of the difficulties ahead, we should also take comfort in the fact of our imaginative adaptability and the ingenuity which has brought us so far so fast – so far, so fast, that we now need to slow down, and don’t quite know how. As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.’ Limitless needs we see all around us and they’ve brought us to where we are, but we’re going to have to work on the flexible part.[/quote]

 

Good read by British novelist John Lanchester in the LRB. Some of the bolded points I agree with, some I disagree with and some I think are great distillations of difficult Marxian concepts. Thoughts from the babble hive mind?

 

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Bump? Paging the usual suspects -- M. Spector, ikosmos, NDPP, Slumberjack, Rosa L., lagatta and, vainly, skdadl.

Slumberjack

I'd like to hear from all of them as well.  Pure Marxology, minus the block wardens and secret police add-ons we've seen deployed wherever Marxist theory was put somewhat into practice, still doesn't doesn't provide an escape from all commodity relations.  It can certainly raise the floor or lower it depending on one's position within a pre-existing class structure.  If it is raised only marginally across the board for the majority of the planet's population, as Trotsky sought to accomplish through the spread of revolution, it wouldn't be very difficult to imagine how the ecology would fare after a century.  I'd have to give it more thought later on, over a spliff with any luck as I ease into a four day weekend, and attempt a purge of all the tiqqun stuff that's been jamming up in my head.

Slumberjack

Quote:
The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat.

There is a huge problem with the creation and dispersal of the proletariat around the world in locations where there are few avenues for organizing effective dissent against working conditions. In China for instance, the party, now connected part and parcel to the global economic system, performs the function of shop steward. The larger western based unions provide us with no relief either.  You need a well remunerated, politically and economically connected bureaucracy to run things on behalf of the workforce. Witness the nostalgic back room theatre of symbolically selecting one of the big three auto manufacturers for labour action when it came time to re-negotiate agreements across the entire sector. Adversarial bargaining became a chorus line. When the collapse finally came we can note how quickly the entry levels were offered up on the table before they could even speak on their own behalf. The economy itself became the greater cause as western based manufacturers, i.e., the workforce, became superfluous. At any rate I don't think it's reasonable to fault 19th century thought for failing to recognize the extent to which biopower would later preside over everything, including the destruction of the ecology upon which all biological forms depend.

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The first is that Marx did not foresee, as no one else did and I don't think anyone could, the variety of different forms of capitalism which would evolve. We talk of capitalism as one thing, but it comes in many different flavours, involving different models.......There are lots of different capitalisms and it's not clear that a single analysis which embraces all of them as if they were a single phenomenon can be valid.

This doesn't appear to be entirely accurate. He did see that the economy was capable of transforming itself in order to continue thriving regardless of the circumstances confronting it. De Gaulle finally took the steam out of 1968 by making a series of wide ranging social offers that the unions couldn't refuse, with the alternative of a bloodbath waiting outside Paris with tanks and machine guns. The New Deal was a protection racket. A desperate population can't be ignored for too long altogether. Some nations happen to be better at pre-emptive subjectification to the market.

Quote:
One of the ways this plays out is in the variety and complexity of our interests in this system. In February all the workers in Foxconn had their basic pay increased by 25 per cent overnight. That wasn't because of a feat of organisation and protest on the part of the workforce: it was because of an article about working conditions there in the New York Times.

Really? The New York Times? Champion of the oppressed everywhere, following in the footsteps of the nation and economic system that spawned it? Doesn't economic growth ultimately require more and more consumers with spare capital, or at least enough to collateralize?

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So the question is whether capitalism can evolve new forms, in the way it has so far managed to do, and come up with property and market-based mechanisms which deflect the seemingly inevitable crisis that will ensue...

The deflections are inadvertently taking place now, but not as something designed to stave off it's ultimate peril, and that of our species. A model involving far less consumption, which is being imposed in the Greek and wider European context as a profit extraction mechanism, is underway as well in the United States at the same time that consumption is ramping up in other places.

Quote:
As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.' Limitless needs we see all around us and they've brought us to where we are, but we're going to have to work on the flexible part.

I don't see how this is to occur so long as the Market exists. It's the Market itself that long ago brought us into both the paradigm and the paradox of limitless needs. I also don't see how Marxism deployed on a global scale has us faring any better in the longer run. What ultimate difference does it make if we wind up collectively owning all of the means if we're still producing and wanting the latest model products, while being tied to the machinery and it's quotas because we still have to feed the kids?

There's also the problematic where it concerns western based discourse surrounding the global population and if there's ultimately enough to go around for everyone, which more often than not comes across as a question asking if there'll still be enough for 'us.'  As far as population control goes, China, and the Catholic Church in Africa, appear to be doing all they can in that regard.  We seem to be the laggards with our quest to reach as near to immortality as certain industrial products can bring us.

Slumberjack

Did I fart in this thread or something.

Fidel

It's a system that lied its way through a cold war. The promise of mcmansions, two cars and disposable income is increasingly seen to be the monumental lie that it always was. Capitalism is devolving to neofeudalism. The cold war shine is off, and their political capital with voters is on the wane. Their only hope is our greatest fear and vice versa. Their global war on democracy continues.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Slumberjack wrote:
Quote:
The first is that Marx did not foresee, as no one else did and I don't think anyone could, the variety of different forms of capitalism which would evolve. We talk of capitalism as one thing, but it comes in many different flavours, involving different models.......There are lots of different capitalisms and it's not clear that a single analysis which embraces all of them as if they were a single phenomenon can be valid.

This doesn't appear to be entirely accurate. He did see that the economy was capable of transforming itself in order to continue thriving regardless of the circumstances confronting it. De Gaulle finally took the steam out of 1968 by making a series of wide ranging social offers that the unions couldn't refuse, with the alternative of a bloodbath waiting outside Paris with tanks and machine guns. The New Deal was a protection racket. A desperate population can't be ignored for too long altogether. Some nations happen to be better at pre-emptive subjectification to the market.

Yeah, I agree SJ. There aren't "many different flavours" of capitalism; there's one capitalism, and it comprises many things. One of the arguments I repeatedly encounter when I'm drunk enough to try to convince someone of socialism is the usual "it's just a question of whether you want individual freedom or communal strength" or some variation of that, frequently employing some characture of an anarchist, replete with spherical bomb with a lit fuse, Slavic accent and oiled mustaches (Sven? Sven?). My response nowadays is that the choice such a person offers me is not "capitalism" vs "socialism," or "liberalism" vs "communism," but that the choice itself is capitalism. You can't choose between socialism and capitalism because socialism will annhiliate the untenable crises innate to capitalism. If you think there's a choice, it's because capitalism has fooled you, prole.

Quote:
Did I fart in this thread or something.

Well, you did say "biopower." In Europe Foucault got me laid; on babble it gets me mocked, pilloried and (likely, eventually) banned.

Slumberjack

Catchfire wrote:
In Europe Foucault got me laid;

Well you're much older than I thought.  Heh...biopower.

Slumberjack

Catchfire wrote:
My response nowadays is that the choice such a person offers me is not "capitalism" vs "socialism," or "liberalism" vs "communism," but that the choice itself is capitalism. You can't choose between socialism and capitalism because socialism will annhiliate the untenable crises innate to capitalism. If you think there's a choice, it's because capitalism has fooled you, prole.

Yes, it's clear today that the perks handed down under the paradigm of economy are not sustainable.  Those perks, all blessings upon them aside, ultimately represent the colour scheme Ford preferred for his Model T.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

This reminds me. The "Unrepetant Marxist" posted a response to Lanchester's article: 

British liberals versus Karl Marx; Marx wins by a TKO

Quote:
Oddly enough, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the general decline of a revolutionary movement are not enough to assuage them. Could it be possible that if there was only a single human being committed to socialism living on the planet Earth at some point in the distant future, outlets like the London Review of Books and Crooked Timber would still be writing broadsides against this “irrelevant” movement? What the liberal intelligentsia fails to understand is that Marxism will exist as long as there is capitalism. Capitalism generates its negative critique—Marxism—through the creation of class antagonisms born out of the brutal reality this unnatural social system generates. If Karl Marx had never been born, someone else would have come along to develop an analysis of the capitalist system and a program to eliminate it. That’s the dialectic the liberals cannot understand.

Quote:
Turning now to John Lanchester’s essay, you can at least be grateful to him for providing so many examples of how not to read Marx. It is a kind of clinical study in liberal confusion, mixed with deliberate misrepresentation, starting with the nonsense about the disappearance of the working class as a “centralized” and “organized” force. Perhaps the only thing worth stating at this point is if nobody ever wrote a single word from a Marxist standpoint after Marx’s death, Lanchester’s comments would be valid. However, Marxism continued after Marx’s death—surprise, surprise. While Lanchester refers to David Harvey in his essay (see below), he does not seem to have grasped his key theoretical contribution, namely the ability of capital to decentralize the working class through geographical displacement of its internal contradictions. With respect to it being “organized”, we can only say that this is not Marx’s responsibility—it is ours.

His essay tries for the umpteenth time to refute some of the basic precepts of Capital, especially Marx’s concept of value:

Quote:
There are obvious difficulties with Marx’s arguments. One of them is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is. David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, for instance, the best beginning for anyone studying Marx’s most important book, are of immense value but they’re also available for free on the internet, so if you buy them as a book – you can take in information much more quickly by reading than by listening – the surplus value you’re adding to is mainly your own.

Huh?

There is so much confusion packed into this brief paragraph that it would take a week to draw out and dissect it. To put it briefly (and this is all it deserves), the books, music and videos available for free on the Internet were either created originally through the process of surplus value creation (just ask the NY Times reporter if his work was originally “for free”) or by schnooks like me who want to win friends and influence people on a pro bono basis. If the writers, artists, and film-makers whose stuff gets circulated on Huffington Post never got paid, there never would have been anything to look at (except of course for the bloggers who got conned into writing for free.) How this invalidates Marx’s theory of value is anybody’s guess.

Lanchester also believes that when you carry your own bags at the airport for free, you are proving Marx wrong:

Quote:
Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly.

The same thing is true for the CVS pharmacy across the street from me that replaced most of its sales clerks with scanning machines. I ring up my scanned goods and pack them myself. But this is not what CVS is about. Mostly it is about commodities stocked on the shelves that are the products of alienated labor.

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How odd to see someone pointing to the welfare states of Europe nowadays when all of them are on a forced march to resemble the United States, with Greece a prime example of the fate that befalls them all—Germany and the Scandinavian countries to follow suit. All of them are under pressure to compete in a global market that is putting immense pressure on the more prosperous countries to drive down the wages of their workers so as to compete with the less prosperous.

It should be understood, however, that the existence of these welfare states is predicated not on the tendency of the bourgeoisie to operate against its own class interests. Historically, they came into being only because they were seen as a way to preempt proletarian revolution. In some ways, German’s Bismarck paved the way for FDR, the Scandinavian and British welfare states and all the rest.

Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

He sponsored such legislation only because the German socialists were building a counter-force to German capitalism that had the potential to eliminate it. Even when he was pushing through welfare-state legislation well ahead of his time, Bismarck made sure to enact anti-socialist laws that resulted in the closing of 45 newspapers.

FDR was not that different. Widely recognized for fighting against the capitalists in order to preserve their own system, he made sure that the only threat to the status quo—the Trotskyists—ended up in prison at the beginning of WWII.

6079_Smith_W

I'd say my only criticism of this analysis is that the idea that every reform is just a callous attempt by the ruling class to cool down the drive toward revolution is itself rather biased. 

There are, after all,  many valid positions between the two poles, even though people on the far end of both sides would like to think they are the only ones in the room.

As well, running a country is often not so much a matter of imposing one vision, as balancing between a number of them.

Roosevelt said as much himself:

 "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

Unionist

Hey Catchfire - I'm no Marxist scholar like the others you named - can I participate anyway?

I'm glad your Unrepentant Marxist highlighted this gem from Lanchester:

Quote:
There are obvious difficulties with Marx’s arguments. One of them is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is. David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, for instance, the best beginning for anyone studying Marx’s most important book, are of immense value but they’re also available for free on the internet, so if you buy them as a book – you can take in information much more quickly by reading than by listening – the surplus value you’re adding to is mainly your own.

Unrepentant focuses on the fact that there is indeed accumulated labour in David Harvey's lectures (and all the other virtual stuff), and that they originally may have been created for the purpose of benefiting from surplus labour, exchanging them for gain, etc.

In fact, if David Harvey's lectures are now freely available to almost anyone with no effort, then they no longer have any exchange value. That's what Marx said, and there's no reason to be shy about it.

It takes lots of labour to deliver relatively clean tap water in Toronto. Try selling someone a glass of it. Does that means there's no labour accumulated in it? Or that it has no use value?

Lanchester seems just plain confused - or, he's trying (ineptly) to come up with new angles on Marx in order to make a sale. I didn't find anything in his piece that seemed to me to be simultaneously original and sound. But I'm not the expert - I wish the experts would weigh in!

 

 

Slumberjack

Jeez...this confusion of Lanchester's seems to be contagious.  CF called us suspects, not experts.

Unionist

Yikes, sorry SJ, I didn't mean to exclude you from the suspects (or experts, you're right) list! I just want more!

 

Slumberjack

Well, if we're agreed on 'suspects' then, I find there's no particular need of you asking for permission.

6079_Smith_W

 

Slumberjack wrote:

 

 It wasn't so much the Age of Enlightenment that sped up the process of self serving altruism on the part of Europe's ruling class; as much as those seeds were sown during that era; as it can be attributed to the ideas of Marx and others being spread around like out of control wildfires.  

 

It was both. I don't think gangs of babies marched in the streets to force introduction of the first foundling hospitals. 

And there are arguments that Louis sowed the seeds of revolution himself through the reforms he enacted when he had nothing to fear. Certainly one of the major sparks was his actions not against the poor, but against his rival. Oh.... and the perennial power of misogyny focusing on the unfortunate target of his foreign wife.

http://teaattrianon.blogspot.ca/2007/01/reforms-of-louis-xvi.html

I don't discount the powerful role of socialism in modern reform, nor the fact that some of the reforms made by others are in reaction to it. But sorry, Socialism doesn't have a trademark on reform, nor was every promoter of reform a socialist. 

I just object to the notion that any reform that which doesn't fit certain textbook conditions (that is, it doesn't serve our other purposes) isn't real.

Anyway... sorry for the side-track , I'm waiting with my popcorn for the experts.

 

 

Slumberjack

And then there was Iron Chancellor Bismarck as CF's post illustrates, who despised the socialists so much that he, the Junker conservative class, and the industrials became avante-gardes for socialist programs such as health and disability insurance, retirement pensions, and unemployment insurance.  You would have to look to history and examine instances where a traditional ruling class had relinquished a few rights and benefits to the working and poor masses, and the reasons why they did so.  It wasn't so much the Age of Enlightenment that sped up the process of self serving altruism on the part of Europe's ruling class; as much as those seeds were sown during that era; as it can be attributed to the ideas of Marx and others being spread around like out of control wildfires.  This was set in motion at a time when the proletariat were receiving just enough education to enable them to operate the machinery of the Industrial Revolution.  They were already legally gathered into groups as a result, either in schools or in factories, where being taught to read had all sorts of unintended consequences for their rulers.

Slumberjack

6079_Smith_W wrote:
I don't think gangs of babies marched in the streets to force introduction of the first foundling hospitals. 

I don't discount the powerful role of socialism in modern reform, nor the fact that some of the reforms made by others are in reaction to it. But sorry, Socialism doesn't have a trademark on reform, nor was every promoter of reform a socialist. 

I just object to the notion that any reform that which doesn't fit certain textbook conditions (that is, it doesn't serve our other purposes) isn't real.

No, probably not the result of militant babies. But what status might we assign to the period between what the authorities once did with sick people for centuries, which was to banish them or to confine them on pain of death within their houses, usually located in walled off ghettos for registration and re-counting purposes, and the founding of clinics and hospitals at the dawn of the industrial age, where categorizing the population in terms of their labour value became an important consideration from the standpoint of maintaining as many productive workers as possible, including successive generations of workers. What could we say about the influence that competition between the imperial powers might have had upon an acquired interest on the part of the authorities in lowering mortality rates among the respective populations, and the need to have a steady supply of subjects fit enough for both industrial production and imperial expansion?

Similarly, how do we explain the change from the centuries old practice of torturing offenders to death in the town squares to set the example for others, in some instances practiced right up to and well into the beginning of the 19th century, and the subsequent creation, in the space of a remarkably short period of time; a time when the fragrance of revolution was in the air from one end of continental Europe to the other; of prison industries and the evolution of relatively more humane punishments and execution techniques. We might come to suspect in part that the age of reason produced the basis for clearer lines between the oppressed and their oppressors, to the extent that eventually the tortured and executed figure became an object of popular sympathy, or in some instances they might serve as objects to rally certain subversions within in the population. This is all before we begin to talk about classic socialism per se, defined as far better organized collective struggle in other words, and the more significant popular concessions that followed later in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Winston, "socialism" is not responsible for the social reforms we've seen under capitalism, and Proyect's argument isn't one centring on intent, as if some conniving ruling class saw signs of its own destruction and clamoured to institute women's suffrage or a national pension plan. Again, capitalism isn't part of a dialectic with socialism; capitalism is dialectical. Crisis is its constituitive structure, which means that the soft power solutions to inequality and oppression are just enough to maintain the hierarchy of the status quo. This doesn't demphasize the struggles of the working classes or activists who lobbied for these changes: Proyect's only point is that we're conditioned to think of social security et al. as products of liberal democracy. In a way, that's true--but Proyect is saying that there is no evidence that their relation is causal, only correlative.

As for my take on the article, I agree with Proyect that it's an example of liberal concern-trolling: "what is it with this Marx fellow?" He gets some major points wrong (like his bewildering take on accumulated labour and the internet), most critically in his fundamental misunderstanding of the diffusive and multivalent form of capitalism (singular). But I think there are some good glosses in the article on, for example, surplus value, Marx's anti-empiricsm (which he promptly disavows) and crisis-structure of capital.

Slumberjack

Overall I thought Lanchester made some good points in his article, but I don't see it as a convincing argument to say that Marx's theory bears the responsibility for a lack of vision; the result of his failing take into consideration late 20th and early 21st century environmental concerns.

RosaL

Catchfire wrote:

Bump? Paging the usual suspects -- M. Spector, ikosmos, NDPP, Slumberjack, Rosa L., lagatta and, vainly, skdadl.

 

I checked in today as a procrastination tactic and was touched to see myself remembered. I am tempted, I must say, to come back. I'll go read the article and when I've digested it, I'll come back and comment - if I think I have anything useful to say, that is. 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I'm glad it found you, Rosa L. And of course you're remembered. And missed!

6079_Smith_W

@ CF

My point is that reforms have not always stopped just at the point at which status quo is maintained (indeed, what do we mean by status quo?), and there are enough cases which were driven by moral values rather than class. 

And I would agree that you can't draw an abolute relationship between social change and any movement. Sometimes it is a matter of sheer happenstance. If old King Henry had had a male heir with his first wife would the supremacy of parliament been finalized 150 years later? 

Likewise, SJ, the events of 1848/49 notwithstanding, I think reform was a bit more a matter of fits and starts which started long before that. Sure the republicans banned torture (and in fact, the last victim was an aristocrat who unfortunately got drunk one night and threw mud at a public crucifix) but as we all know, it didn't really end torture, nor did it even stop the Republicans from killing people by mass-drownings.

(edit)

Actually it is kind of funny that some people might be surprised that someone who wrote 150 years ago might not have a picture perfect view of our current state of affairs.

as near-perfect as his view was, of course.

 

 

 

 

Slumberjack

I'm confident that someone that uses RosaL for a name will have all kinds of useful things to say about the article and about Marxism.

RosaL
6079_Smith_W

RosaL wrote:

[url=http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/british-liberals-versus-kar...'s [/url] what Louis Proyect has to say.

I found some of the differing opinions on his piece quite interesting.

Too bad this thread hasn't been picked up, because I think the question of Marx's relevance is a good one, and I'd be interested to read the opinions of people who have studied it and are more familiar with it than I am. 

From my non-learned perspective, it's not that I think that socialism is inferior to capitalism - quite the opposite. I just don't see it as less vulnerable to corruption. Also, I have read many times that part of the problem is socialism existing alongside capitalism, and being forced to compete, in some cases not well enough, and in at least one prominent case too well.

Where do people see this going then, when it is highly unlikely that socialism will ever exist in isolation? After all, we have had developing and changing societies for millennia, with some very new systems, yet very ancient practices like slavery, feudalism and genocide still persist, and are in some cases growing.

And I'd say it is a toss-up which scenario I see as less likely - a worldwide revolutionary utopia, or the arrival of Jesus Christ in a scarlet robe and crowned with flame.  Again, from my non-learned perspective, I think we will always be dealing with a situation which is to some degree mixed and imperfect. Similarly, as accurate and incisive as Marx's critique may be, I think translating it into practical application is a bit more difficult.

I think the wider question of which philosophies are seen as modern and vital, and which ones are dated is also a good one. Personally, I think it says at least as much about the critic as it does about the subject.

 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Thanks, Rosa--although I linked to and quoted Proyect's blog above.

Winston, I think you're confusing socialism viz. neo-liberalism (system of governance) for socialism viz. capitalism (totalizing heuristic [or mode of production if you like] encapsulating, defining and producing social, cultural and economic relations). For example, "capitalism" isn't "prone to corruption." How could it be? Such an idea doesn't really make sense. Neither, then, could socialism, which is basically a placeholder for the heuristic that will replace, is replacing capitalsm.

Your caricature of revolution is similarly flawed. For one thing, the revolution is ongoing, indeed, it's built into the form of capitalism itself, as Marx elegantly states in Manifesto and Lanchester glosses above (or consider John Dos Passos: when asked if he thought the failure and collapse of capitalism was inevitable, he replied, "Of course. We've already got the failure. What I don't see is the collapse"). Just because we don't see it happening in North America (itself a dubious claim) doesn't mean it isn't happening in globally disenfranchised and impoverished areas.

Your derision of utopia, while perhaps offhand, is particularly apposite here. Capitalism has effectively strangled utopian thinking in the West ("There is no alternative," she said); or, at least, relegated it to diluted forms like sentimentalism. Yet thinking utopia keeps a post-capitalism world a reality. So by ridiculing it is exactly what neo-liberalism "wants" you to do.

6079_Smith_W

Sorry Catchfire, but unless that is just a fancy way of saying capitalism is by definition corruption, we both know that is not true. 

And I think even within the capitalist system, there are some honest brokers. After all, the roots of that system emerged as a challenge to feudal and monarchal power.

But no, I don't think I am confusing socialism with anything, because my point is that from what more educated people than me seem to be saying, it doesn't exist yet (correct me it I am mistaken here).

My question is, how do you see it coming about? Just looking at the historical record, I have not seen one social or economic system which hasn't fallen prey to human greed and corruption in some form. 

Hence my honest opinion about utopia. I wish it were otherwise, but I do not see it. I think the forces we are struggling with now will always be with us in some form.

And again, I think these criticisms say as much about the critic as the subject - a point Proyect seems to allude to as well.

 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

No, you are mistaken. And no, I am not saying that capitalism is corruption, fancy-like or otherwise. If indeed you understand, you'll have to show me with what you write. The greatest panegyric to capitalism we have is Marx and Engel's Manifesto. Raymond Williams has said that socialism is not simpler than capitalism, but rather even more complex.

As for your appeals to human greed and corruption, as if they are natural states, is further wrongheaded. These have specific characters under capitalism since, of course, capitalism produced them. With a different mode of production, they would have different characters, different forms. If you believe there is no alternative to greed, why do you get up in the morning?

6079_Smith_W

I bumped this because I think it is unfortunate that those who have more booklearning and investment in this subject than me haven't come forward, because I'm honestly  interested in what they might have to say about it. 

As for me, I don't have to demonstrate anything, because I am asking admittedly ignorant and honest questions. 

Of course I believe there is an alternative to greed, but I think the struggle always has been, and always will always be there. From the opinions I have read, the pursuit of real revolutionary change seems to be continually thwarted because of it. 

I know that I may not seem like an ally on this, and in truth I am somewhat skeptical of the doctrinaire approach, because there are a number of ways in which it does not seem to jive with what I see in the real world. 

But even though I disagree in some things I am honestly listening, if someone is willing to make the pitch. And it has to be a little bit better than telling me I don't understand. I am aware of that. 

In fact, I think it gets to the heart of the question of why some are challenging the relevance of Marx, and perhaps getting away with it.

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Yes, well it's difficult to get in a conversation with you since you keep misrepresenting and denying the points made and then taking your own starting points, which you claim come from ignorance, instead of the ones offered you, which don't.

"How does Marxism work, since A?" asks Winston.

"It's not A, it's B," he responds.

"Yes, I see that, but how will it work, since A?"

Do you think you will get the response you're looking for with that kind of exchange?

6079_Smith_W

Fine, CF. I'll shut up for another five days and listen.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Better would be to comment on what's already been said, allowing for the possibility that it might be true. Or at least uttered aloud.

6079_Smith_W

Look CF, I'm not John Lanchester. and I have not said that anything should not be spoken about; quite the opposite.

Over and out.

 

Slumberjack

Catchfire wrote:
As for your appeals to human greed and corruption, as if they are natural states, is further wrongheaded. These have specific characters under capitalism since, of course, capitalism produced them. With a different mode of production, they would have different characters, different forms. If you believe there is no alternative to greed, why do you get up in the morning?

Yes the mornings.  Some people might like to look forward to experimenting with a little less greed in their daily lives, just for the heck of it.  It's been mentioned quite convincingly in the historical and contemporary discourse that the familiar elements of greed and corruption should no longer present a question in term of a supernatural good vs. evil bipolar debate.  However; they appear to have existed long before capitalism as we've understood it for the last 100 years at least.  Where did they come from then?  If not from the spiritual or from 19th Century Capitalism, up to and including today's experience with it, from which economic model did greed and corruption originate from.  Back to the far earlier models indicated on parchments, clay tablets and cave drawings?  It doesn't appear that we know where greed and corruption comes from exactly, except for some vague and suspect references to evolutionary traits.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Slumberjack wrote:
Yes the mornings.  Some people might like to look forward to experimenting with a little less greed in their daily lives, just for the heck of it.

Heh.

Quote:
It doesn't appear that we know where greed and corruption comes from exactly, except for some vague and suspect references to evolutionary traits.

In Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels speculates that patriarchy and class oppression have their roots in the progression of human production, specifically when civilizations were technologically advanced enough to produce a surplus of food. Men seized control of the surplus which shifted control of the home from women to men. To protect societies from famine and future shortfalls, the surplus was "entrusted" to a ruling class, who could then exercise their power over the serf/farming classes to defend the state from invading groups, or wage war against weaker states to seize their surplus. This sounds to me (among others) that greed as such is produced by the economic situation in which human society finds itself. All affects are socially determined--why should greed be any different?

Unionist

I dunno, CF. I've heard that human beings are born just plain bad, something to do with this ancient couple eating fruit from a tree of knowledge after having received a very specific memo prohibiting such snacking. And then, of course, once humans are evil, human society would exhibit those traits accordingly, no?

Your Marxist thing seems to put the cart before the snake.

 

Fidel

6079_Smith_W wrote:
Where do people see this going then, when it is highly unlikely that socialism will ever exist in isolation?

Likewise, where has pure laissez-faire capitalism worked anywhere in this hemisphere since 1929 America and Canada, or even 1985 Chile? It hasn't. 

Today one would have to travel to the democratic capitalist third world to really get a feel for leave everything to the market capitalism. There is very little socialism in capitalist India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Haiti, the "freest trading nation in the Caribbean" according to Washington ideologues.

Slumberjack

Catchfire wrote:
Men seized control of the surplus which shifted control of the home from women to men. To protect societies from famine and future shortfalls, the surplus was "entrusted" to a ruling class, who could then exercise their power over the serf/farming classes to defend the state from invading groups, or wage war against weaker states to seize their surplus. This sounds to me (among others) that greed as such is produced by the economic situation in which human society finds itself. All affects are socially determined--why should greed be any different?

Economic systems certainly haven't helped to alleviate the baser instincts, but I think they were already present. A situation similar to a hot branding iron before its application to a cow's rear end packed with pain receptors. As societies developed power and economic relations, they carried forward and exacerbated the human propensity to be concerned primarily with ones own condition or one's own immediate circle of intimates and followers. It's fair to say that Capitalism consistently reaches new pinnacles in bringing these human characteristics forward into the modern era as part of its sustaining endeavor. One day if people are lucky enough to finally crawl out from underneath the smoking ruin of Capital, this might be widely regarded as its prime legacy, preying upon our primal instincts.  Aside from leaving behind an uninhabitable planet that is.

RosaL

Catchfire wrote:

Thanks, Rosa--although I linked to and quoted Proyect's blog above.

 

Yes, I noticed that this morning. Sorry. I hate it when people do that to me. (I don't have time to read, obviously. Maybe later. Carry on.)

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

"b/c they control the modes of production"

RosaL

Further to that excellent graphic, it kind of surprises me that a man who apparently doesn't understand what Marx meant by "the bourgeoise" would presume to write a critique of Marx. But, really, I've seen enough that I shouldn't be surprised at all. Lanchester seems to believe that Marx was referring to what people in America and the UK (non-Marxists) call 'the middle class'; he believes that the majority in 'the West' are 'the bourgeoisie'. I suppose it's two related things: a failure to understand Marx and having succumbed to the dominant propaganda, i.e., he is, as Proyect asserts, a liberal. 

Slumberjack

Everything seems to be done in the name of our peace, security, and our right to consume.  The western middle class in the context of the world's population, the majority working class when taken as a whole, resembles the bourgeoise because ownership of the global means of production and global resources are undertaken and enforced on our behalf, as the story goes.  We may not agree with it because in actuality it isn't true, being just another lie, except for the consumption part, but that is the framework that they've built this shit called Capitalism on.

Mike Stirner

The most overated thinker in perhaps all of history

Fidel

Capitalism is proven to be a threat to living things in general.

TheStar wrote:
Around the world, animals are disappearing at an alarming rate. Of the world's 5,499 types of mammals, 79 have become extinct or extinct in the wild, 194 are listed as critically endangered, 447 are endangered and 497 are vulnerable, according to the "red list'' of threatened species issued by a widely respected environmental group, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.

Marx was right, capitalism is a nightmare.

Slumberjack

Mike Stirner wrote:
The most overated thinker in perhaps all of history

Overall I think no serious reading of Marx can come away with anything less than an impression of brilliance. He laid down a compelling blueprint after all in an attempt to deliver workers from underneath the arbitrary will of the contemporary owners of the means of production. What he wasn't as clear about is how easy it is to switch from owner to central committee member, to oligarchy to owner once again. He didn't see that the market, and more specifically the levers of control, have the ability to adapt and can reconfigure themselves in chameleon fashion as the need arises. When under threat for its very existence, there are certain levels that the ownership class is willing to consist in, until the time is right to once again cast away the slogans dealing with worker emancipation, and to reveal themselves in their more traditional form by standing openly on the terrain of class warfare.

Unionist

Mike Stirner wrote:

The most overated thinker in perhaps all of history

He may not have been entirely ascetic, but to comment on his eating habits is really rather to lower the level of the discussion, don't you think?

 

6079_Smith_W

@ SJ

But aside from Marx leaving out a few of the details, and the fact that those sneaky capitalists can exploit anything, you expect it's all going to wind up the way he said it will? 

 

Slumberjack

I would say the details revealed themselves at a later stage, as the experimentation and application of various economic models were rolled out, rather than a 'leaving out' as it were. I don't actually know how things will unfold, only that this generation and those who follow are undoubtedly the beneficiaries of having had both systems painstakingly vetted through practice.

6079_Smith_W

@ SJ

That makes perfect sense to me, since the more equitable control of resources and business would seem to be a natural progression. 

Where I am not so sure is in the idea that private business - even some big business - and private ownership will fade away entirely. I just don't see it happening, especially since that ability to adapt that you mention is not just a negative but also a positive attribute.

And again, the argument I often hear - that the problems that have come up with many socialist and communist experiments have to do with their co-existence with capitalist structures - would seem to be a major hurdle. Dare I say, it is one of apocalyptic proportions. And based on the record of past revolutions, collapses and power struggles, I think we are looking at fairly long odds.

Slumberjack

6079_Smith_W wrote:
That makes perfect sense to me, since the more equitable control of resources and business would seem to be a natural progression.

It would, but we now seem to be at the speed of stone in that regard.

Quote:
Where I am not so sure is in the idea that private business - even some big business - and private ownership will fade away entirely. I just don't see it happening, especially since that ability to adapt that you mention is not just a negative but also a positive attribute.

How do you qualify the global commodity's ability to adapt as a positive?  Or at least point to some general indicators so that I might go and have a look.

Quote:
And again, the argument I often hear - that the problems that have come up with many socialist and communist experiments have to do with their co-existence with capitalist structures - would seem to be a major hurdle. Dare I say, it is one of apocalyptic proportions. And based on the record of past revolutions, collapses and power struggles, I think we are looking at fairly long odds.

Long apocalyptic proportions either way.  It's been shown more than once that when the respective bloodbaths are done, and as soon as it becomes necessary to once again mediate consumer demand as is the prerequisite for an economy, you require a set of rules and administrators to monitor compliance, a central authority in other words.  Everything that went away or suffered to be reasoned with came back even stronger under a new and improved banner, selling Che Guevara tees, default swaps and securities.

The constant simmer of revolt on the backburner served in certain European jurisdictions, including Greece for many years before globalization and integrated currency, to even things out somewhat between economic growth and the population.  We barely have a simmer of anything, including an opposition.  $114B Cdn to the banks during the last few years says the CCPA, and not a peep out from under the political cone of silence that the opposition benches appear to have fashioned into hats.

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