“Ars longa, vita brevis”

On the Myth of “Cultural Marxism”

America's cultural elite have been indoctrinated by sinister Marxists operating in academia... Or have they?

America’s cultural elite have been indoctrinated by sinister Marxists operating in academia… Or have they?

Across the paleoconservative blogosphere, on every “libertarian” forum and racist webpage, a strange concept is faulted for the turmoil witnessed in North America and Europe today, as well as for the alleged breakdown of Western social mores. ‘Cultural Marxism’ is the name these courageous right-wing dissidents have assigned this corrosive force.

So what exactly is cultural Marxism? And how is it that so many ostensibly capitalist societies haven fallen victim to it? The narrative varies depending on the political leaning of the individual disseminating it, but its standard rendition is as follows: a sect of European intellectuals, disillusioned by the failure of orthodox Marxist parties to mobilize the proletariat into conflict with the bourgeoisie, came to the conclusion that the original Marxist formulation was incorrect. Western workers possessed too conservative a disposition for communism’s egalitarian rhetoric to appeal to them. Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s dialectical theory of capitalism’s internal contradictions generating its opposite—communism—was flawed. The solution these thinkers arrived at was to replace class as the locus of struggle with culture.[1] In other words, the traditional Marxist Klassenkampf was to be entirely replaced by a neo-Marxist Kulturkampf.[2]

These men, many of whom were psychoanalysts of Jewish descent (a fact of particular interest to fascists), came to be known as the Frankfurt school—due to their affiliation with the Institute of Social Research at Goethe University, located in Frankfurt, Germany. The subversive ideas this faction of assorted academicians and literati conjured up had a profound effect on Western intellectuals and eventually infected the minds of North America’s and Europe’s cultural elite via university indoctrination, the story goes on, thereby leading to the liberal social movements and various projects of social engineering observed today, e.g., feminism, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism, and general political correctness. To quote the late conservative political commentator Andrew Breitbart:

We can call it cultural Marxism, but at the end of the day, we experience it on a day to day basis. By that I mean, a minute by minute, second by second basis. It’s political correctness and it’s multiculturalism.[3]

But how well does this chilling tale conform to reality? Not very. However, before describing the actual causes of the social maladies certain conservatives impute to ‘cultural Marxism,’ I believe it would be instructive to trace the origins of this conspiracy theory; for, in so doing, we shall discover that it is little more than the latest iteration of the right-wing’s ceaseless Red Scare effort.

Let us begin at the beginning, with Karl Marx himself. Marx’s influential critique of religion and his Jewish heritage caused a great deal of suspicion among the pious gentiles of his age and proved valuable facts for reactionary propagandists to later manipulate for counterrevolutionary purposes. One would think that Marx’s own criticisms of Judaism[4] and occasional regressions into antisemitism[5] would be sufficient enough to inoculate him from being the object of antisemitic conspiracy theories, but, alas, they were not. Indeed, antisemitism was so ubiquitous at the time that even fellow communists found the notion of Marx harboring ill intent for gentile workers, as a consequence of his ancestry, irrepressible. Mikhail Bakunin, for example, felt that Marx’s Jewish lineage was cause to be skeptical of the sincerity of his political philosophy and accounted for Marx’s relatively statist conception of revolution.[6] In the following passage, he even endeavors to draw a link between the Rothschild banking dynasty and Marx:

This whole Jewish world which constitutes a single exploiting sect, a sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organised itself, not only across frontiers of states but even across all the differences of political opinion—this world is presently, at least in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and of the Rothschilds on the other. I know that the Rothschilds, reactionaries as they are and should be, highly appreciate the merits of the communist Marx; and that in his turn the communist Marx feels irresistibly drawn, by instinctive attraction and respectful admiration, to the financial genius of Rothschild. Jewish solidarity, that powerful solidarity that has maintained itself through all history, united them.[7]

Another contemporaneous and influential communist, Eugen Dühring (the target of Engels’s 1878 broadside, Anti-Dühring), considered Marx the “scientific portrait of misery.”[8] Like Bakunin, he suspected Jewish involvement in the labor movement to be motivated by a selfish desire to position themselves as the managerial elite of the emerging cooperative commonwealth:

In that Jewish kingdom which calls itself communist, the members of the chosen people are liable to be in future managers of the common treasuries of the nations and to oversee their gold, their silver and their clothes, as they have done since their first social undertaking in Egypt.[9]

In addition to this theme being perpetuated by antisemitic conservatives and fascists to this very day,[10] Marx has since been accused of everything from being a satanist[11] to an agent of Freemasonry.[12] Generally ignored by those who subscribe to the antisemitic view is the fact that Marx’s closest collaborator—without whom Marxism as a distinct school of thought would never have materialized—Friedrich Engels, was a German gentile. On the rare occasions Engels is acknowledged, his role in the development of Marxism is either minimized or he is accused of being a Jew himself (albeit of the crypto variety). Another disregarded fact is that Marx married, and fathered children with, a German gentile—Jenny von Westphalen. Perplexing behavior for a supposed ‘Jewish supremacist.’

Pushing ahead in history, reactionaries devised new methods to taint communism’s reputation among workers. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II’s administration found the notorious antisemitic hoax The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion to be an especially invaluable document for the task of associating communism with a Jewish plot for world domination. The Nazis later emulated this effective strategy in their propaganda concerning ‘Jewish Bolshevism.’ For instance, in an attempt to posture themselves as the only legitimately socialist party in Germany, the Nazis would often defame their opponents in the German Social Democratic and Communist parties by accusing them of being unwittingly controlled by Jewish plutocrats.[13]

A Nazi election poster from 1932 which reads "Marxism is the guardian angel of capitalism. Vote National Socialist."

A Nazi campaign poster from 1932 which reads: “Marxism is the guardian angel of capitalism. Vote National Socialist.”

The majority of German workers were not persuaded by these vacuous pronouncements, but, unfortunately, enough were that it contributed to the Nazis electoral victory in 1933. The tragedy which followed is unnecessary to detail here, as its history is well known to all.

Unlike its European counterpart, the Red Scare in the United States was not as overtly antisemitic. What was stressed in its stead were communism’s atheistic and anti-patriotic components, as well as its claimed hostility to the family unit. All of these features of the doctrine were obviously exaggerated, in an attempt to frighten religious and/or nationalistic workers, and purposely omitted was the fact that communists have never possessed a unified stance on the national question, the family, or religion. Thus, while communists like Antonio Gramsci opined that monogamy would vanish upon the abolition of capitalism,[14] one can just as soon find Marxist theoreticians like James Connolly arguing that communism will, on the contrary, perfect the institution of monogamous marriage.[15] Likewise, while some communists believed that nations were destined to dissolve following the global ascent of socialism,[16] others held that national identity would be reinforced.[17] With respect to religion, the United States has been home to literally hundreds of religious communities which were internally organized more collectively than any Marxist has ever conceived of.[18] What is more, the vast preponderance of pre-Marxist communists were explicitly influenced by the gospels (e.g., Wilhelm Weitling, Étienne Cabet, and Karl Schapper). As for Marx’s own view on the matter, he was undoubtedly an atheist, but nowhere did he propose that communists eliminate religion by fiat. In fact, his major point of contention with the Young Hegelians concerned their idealistic view that mankind could transcend religious faith without first overcoming the conditions which gave rise to it, e.g., precarity and privation.[19] To the extent self-identified Marxist parties have attacked religion historically, they acted in defiance of the historical materialism that represents the very core of Marxist theory.

By the end of the First World War, the communist movement in the United States had been virtually obliterated. Leading labor organizers and leftist politicians had been imprisoned or deported on charges of sedition and/or violating the Espionage Act of 1917. American capitalism was soon to enter a period of prolonged economic crisis, however, which precipitated a revival in radicalism. And although New Deal legislation succeeded in significantly curtailing communist activities in the country,[20] the bourgeoisie were well aware of the dangers this newly class conscious proletariat posed. Enter Joseph McCarthy and the second American Red Scare. As always, fear was the strategy. This time, the ‘Godless Soviets’ were rapidly developing their economy and nuclear capacity and communist revolutions were igniting throughout the Third World. The United States was quickly becoming encircled by its enemies, secret operatives were subverting our democratic institutions domestically, and our lavish standard of living—never honestly communicated as having been achieved as a consequence of the United States becoming the leading manufacturing base following the Second World War, and secured by one of the most violent labor histories in the developed world—was being threatened by these hostile forces. The ensuing blacklists and mindless jingoism were enough to cause immeasurable harm to American socialism.

Given what a remarkable success these Red Scares were, one cannot help but wonder why contemporary reactionary ideologues have decided that the cultural Marxist myth is necessary today. I suspect the impetus may be that many of them are concerned about the fading memory of past Red Scare campaigns[21] and they are becoming anxious about the growing instability of capitalism itself. The right-wing are also eager to attribute the increasingly vulgar and raunchy elements of our culture to something other than the mode of production they so cherish—lest they alienate their culturally conservative, working class electoral base—and who better to fault than their old foe Marxism?

Let us now return to the Frankfurt school. Was their influence significant enough to lend the cultural Marxist myth a modicum of credibility? First, it is important to note that what truly inspired figures like Theodor Adorno’s, Walter Benjamin’s, and Herbert Marcuse’s work was not a disillusionment with traditional Marxism’s failure to accurately predict the overthrow capitalism as much as it was an attempt to comprehend why authoritarianism in general, and fascism in particular, succeeded in gaining mass support in 20th century Europe. Their analysis, tainted as it was by fringe psychoanalytic concepts, was faulty, but certainly not baleful. With respect to its influence, it is difficult to gauge. Marcuse enjoyed some popularity for a time, and his writings influenced certain segments of the New Left in the 1960s. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that university professors continue to disseminate theories originating from Frankfurt school intellectuals. In my experience, professors in the humanities tend to be left-of-center social democrats with little interest in subverting the established order, cultural or economic, save for perhaps proposing futile reforms such as a universal basic income. (This is, admittedly, anecdotal, but, to my knowledge, no study exists quantifying the precise degree to which academicians espouse views derived from the Frankfurt school.)

But what of the Kulturkampf? From whence does political correctness and multiculturalism come, if not cultural Marxism? Why are television shows and mainstream music so raunchy? The answer to those questions is relatively simple: capitalism. Multiculturalism is the inevitable result of the domestic bourgeoisie demanding a flexible labor market—that is to say, having access to cheap labor imported from the Third World—and political correctness is a necessary condition for capitalism’s ideological self-justification to be adequately internalized by the masses. After all, if individuals continued to be discriminated against on the basis of their race or gender, the proletariat could not easily be deluded into believing that capitalism possesses a meritocratic class structure.[22] My stance on this issue will surely outrage many of my comrades because they are wedded to the erroneous view that capitalism is inherently racist and sexist. I encourage them to challenge that common misconception by considering the following statement by Noam Chomsky on the subject:

See, capitalism is not fundamentally racist—it can exploit racism for its purposes, but racism isn’t built into it. Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangeable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional. I mean, they may be functional for a period, like if you want a super-exploited workforce or something, but those situations are kind of anomalous. Over the long term, you can expect capitalism to be anti-racist—just because it’s anti-human. And race is in fact a human characteristic—there’s no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic. So therefore identifications based on race interfere with the basic ideal that people should be available just as consumers and producers, interchangeable cogs who will purchase all of the junk that’s produced—that’s their ultimate function, and any other properties they might have are kind of irrelevant, and usually a nuisance.[23]

Regarding the abundance of vulgar song lyrics, hypersexualized films and television programs, and YouTube videos of adolescent girls twerking, again, look no further than capitalism. Interestingly, Freudianism does bear some culpability in this development, though definitely not in its quasi-Marxian, Frankfurt school manifestation. No, instead the source can be traced to Sigmund Freud’s nephew, the elitist, so-called “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays. Bernays was hired by several large corporations during his lifetime to consult on ad campaigns, and one of his main contributions was to recommend that these companies appeal to mankind’s baser instincts in order to more effectively instill in the public a desire for their frivolous commodities.[24] His advice resulted in greater sales, and since then sexual themes have become one of the cornerstones of the capitalist marketing effort.[25]

By now Christian fundamentalist readers are likely wondering about what they perceive to be an intensifying assault on religion—perhaps being committed at the behest of cultural Marxist social engineers—but what is, in actuality, nothing more than the state enforcing its Constitutional mandate[26] to maintain secular public institutions. It is true that church membership is declining throughout the Western world, but a more plausible explanation for this phenomenon is what Marx predicted would occur in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), i.e., that an increase in material security is the source behind the surge of secularism among the masses.[27] That is not to say that people have become less spiritual in recent decades, though. Belief in some sort of deity remains quite high, and I conjecture that it will remain so for the simple reason that faith in an afterlife (irrational as it is) is an effective means of coping with our awareness of mortality. What people are finished with is the rampant corruption found in religious institutions and authority figures attempting to micromanage their personal lives.

So much for cultural Marxism. But let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that the conspiracy theory is true. How have the Frankfurt school’s nefarious efforts fared? Well, if their goal was to undermine the hegemonic culture in order to usher in an era of communism, as the theory suggests (the ‘Marxist’ element of the myth would not make sense were the goal anything else), then it has been an abject failure. Far from the means of production being collectivized and welfare provisions expanded in tandem with cultural degradation, we have witnessed the exact converse over the last 30 years in Europe and North America. The inspiration for the few progressive movements that manifested in recent years demanding that income inequality be reduced and student debt eliminated (e.g., the Indignados in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the United States) was the Great Recession—and the attendant austerity measures the state imposed in response. In orthodox Marxist fashion, economics was the catalyst. Thus we are forced to either accept the materialist explanation for ‘political correctness,’ unbridled hedonism, and multiculturalism outlined above; or search for another idealist offender—perhaps Rawlsianism. One’s choice will inevitably depend on their ability, or lack thereof, to think critically.

While it is amusing to ridicule those who adhere to this puerile myth, I implore those on the Left to refrain from trivializing the effects an espousal of the cultural Marxism myth can have as one would UFO, or other inane yet harmless, conspiracy theories. Recall that the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, believed that by massacring children at a Labour Party youth camp in 2011, he was preventing a new generation of “cultural Marxists” from undermining the values of his beloved fatherland. Numerous fascist organizations and reactionary militias feel their acts of terrorism are justifiable for similar reasons. It must be emphasized that Marxism is not a doctrine of authoritarian social engineering, but is rather a conceptual framework developed for the purpose of understanding history and political economy, which is additionally committed to realizing an egalitarian society wherein exploitation and oppression have been eliminated from human social relations in a democratic fashion. Furthermore, we must be clear that when we discuss issues such as what family life or nationality may be like after capitalism, we are merely speculating on the manner by which behavior might alter as a result of the substructure of society being transformed. Marxists are most decidedly not drawing blueprints for how governments should coercively mold their citizenry.

[1] The patently un-Marxist lapse into idealism this entails never phases the purveyors of the conspiracy theory.
[2] Exponents of this legend frequently cite Antonio Gramsci as the progenitor of the Frankfurt school’s revisionism, but their only basis for the claim is a quote misattributed to Gramsci wherein he speaks of a “long march through the institutions of civil society” undertaken to subvert the status quo and therewith achieve communism.
[3] 18 December 2009, Hannity, New York City: Fox News Channel.
[4] In “On the Jewish Question” (1844) Marx infamously described Judaism as a religion of “Practical needs, egoism. . . . [and] huckstering.” Its secular God was but “money,” thus by transcending capitalism humanity would simultaneously be emancipating itself from Judaism.
[5] Though dismissive of racial theories of behavior, Marx often wrote of Jewish physical and psychological characteristics in unflattering terms. A striking example of this is found in his article, “The Russian Loan” (New York Tribune, January 4, 1856) in Eleanor Marx Aveling (ed.), The Eastern Question: A Reprint of Letters Written 1853-1856 Dealing with the Events of the Crimean War (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1897), wherein he writes: “Thus we find every tyrant backed by a Jew, as is every Pope by a Jesuit. In truth, the cravings of oppressors would be hopeless, and the practicability of war out of the question, if there were not an army of Jesuits to smother thought and a handful of Jews to ransack pockets. . . . The Hopes lend only the prestige of their name; the real work is done by Jews, and can only be done by them, as they monopolize the machinery of the loan-mongering mysteries by concentrating their energies upon the barter-trade in securities, and the changing of money and negotiating of bills in a great measure arising therefrom. . . . Here and there and everywhere that a little capital courts investment, there is ever one of these little Jews ready to make a little suggestion or place a little bit of a loan. The smartest highwayman in the Abruzzi is not better posted up about the locale of the hard cash in a traveler’s valise or pocket than those Jews about any loose capital in the hands of a trader. . . . Thus do these loans, which are a curse to the people, a ruin to the holders, and a danger to the Governments, become a blessing to the houses of the children of Judah. This Jew organization of loan-mongers is as dangerous to the people as the aristocratic organization of landowners.”
[6] Julius Carlebach, Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Judaism (London: Routledge, 1978), p. 312.
[7] Bakunin quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. IV: Critique of Other Socialisms (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989), p. 296.
[8] Dühring quoted in Rolf Hosfeld, Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013), p. 162.
[9] Dühring quoted in Shmuel Ettinger, “The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism,” in Michael R. Marrus (ed.), The Nazi Holocaust, Part 2: The Origins of the Holocaust (Munich: K. G. Saur Verlag, 1989), p. 226.
[10] David Duke’s Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question (Mandeville: Free Speech Press, 2003), for example, devotes a considerable amount of space to promulgating this asinine myth by way of quotes taken out of context, dubious source material, guilt by association, and blatant fabrications.
[11] Such is the thesis of Richard Wurmbrand’s transparently absurd book Was Karl Marx a Satanist? (Darby: Diane Publishing Company, 1976).
[12] On p. 20, fn 10 of So, You Wish to Learn All About Economics?: A Text on Elementary Mathematical Economics (New York: New Benjamin Franklin House Publishing Company, 1984), prominent cult leader Lyndon Larouche concocts a narrative wherein both Marx’s and Engels’s work was funded and orchestrated by the villainous Freemason Lord Palmerston.
[13] An early example of this can be observed in the founder of the German Workers’ Party (later renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party), Anton Drexler’s, autobiography My Political Awakening: From the Journal of a German Socialist Worker (Fairbury: Third Reich Books, 2010)—which Adolf Hitler cited as his chief motivation for joining the party in 1921. On page 51, Drexler criticizes the Social Democrats’ administration of the German economy by highlighting their failure to address the problem of finance capital. He proceeds to suggest it was because the party was controlled by Jews: “Amidst all the shouting ‘Down with capitalism,’ not a single black curly hair of stock market and loan capital has been harmed. Should one not come up with the idea that the curly-haired and their ‘German’ helpers meant by the slogan: ‘Down with the capitalism!,’ namely the German, English, Russian, French, American, and Italian capitalism and up with international Jewish capitalism?” Ironically, the Social Democrats had in fact nationalized several banks during their period in government which the Nazis later privatized—see Germà Bel, “Against the Mainstream: Nazi Privatization in 1930s Germany,” The Economic History Review, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 34-55 (2010).
[14] “It seems clear that the new industrialism wants monogamy: it wants the man as worker not to squander his nervous energies in the disorderly and stimulating pursuit of occasional sexual satisfaction. The employee who goes to work after a night of ‘excess’ is no good for work. The exaltation of passion cannot be reconciled with the timed movements of productive motions connected with the most perfected automatism.” Gramsci quoted in Michael Ekers, “Gramsci and the Erotics of Labor: More Notes on ‘The Sexual Question,’” in Ekers, Hart, Kipfer, and Loftus (eds.), Gramsci: Space, Nature, Politics (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2013), p. 222.
[15] See Austen Morgan’s James Connolly: A Political Biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), pp. 55-56.
[16] Such was Rosa Luxemburg’s position. See Horace B. Davis (ed.), The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976).
[17] The nationalist Marxist theorist Otto Bauer went so far as to hypothesize that “socialism will make the nation autonomous, will make its destiny a product of the nation’s conscious will, will result in an increasing differentiation between the nations of the socialist society, a clearer expression of their specificities, a clearer distinction between their respective characters. . . . Drawing the people as a whole into the national community of culture, achieving full self-determination by the nation, growing intellectual differentiation between the nations—this is what socialism means. The community of culture encompassing all members of the people, as it existed in the time of the communism of the clans, will be brought to life again by the communism of the great nations following the end of centuries of class division, the division between the members and the mere tenants of the nation.” The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 96, 98.
[18] Charles Nordhoff’s The Communistic Societies of the United States; From Personal Visit and Observation (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1875) is a fascinating empirical study of many of those early American religious communes.
[19] David Schweickart comments on the inaccurate characterization of Marx as an idealistic atheist in “But What is Your Alternative?: Reflections on Having a ‘Plan’” in Schmitt and Anton (ed.) Taking Socialism Seriously (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012).
[20] In Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), Adam Cohen documents the profound extent to which the depression radicalized ordinary American workers and the role the New Deal played in extinguishing those sentiments.
[21] One cause for alarm is a recent survey that found that Americans aged 18-29 have a more favorable reaction to the term “socialism” than they do to “capitalism” by a margin of 49 to 43 percent. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2010, May 4), “‘Socialism’ Not So Negative, ‘Capitalism’ Not So Positive: A Political Rhetoric Test.” Retrieved February 2, 2014, from
[22] Walter Benn Michaels does a superb job documenting this development in capitalism in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).
[23] John Schoeffel (ed.), Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: The New Press, 2002), p. 176.
[24] Frederick F. Wherry, The Culture of Markets (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), pp. 31-32.
[25] To see the deleterious effects this has had on children, I recommend viewing the 2008 Media Education Foundation documentary film Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. Online:
[26] The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is unambiguous: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
[27] Rates of participation in organized religion being the highest in economically deprived American communities, e.g., the Southeastern region and African American neighborhoods, supports Marx’s hypothesis.

At the Year’s End

What can we expect in 2014?

What can we expect of 2014?

2013 proved to be an extraordinary year in my personal life. Indeed, I never would have predicted that my life could change in so profound a way, let alone in so short a span of time. I am not one to celebrate, as it were, the ‘ringing in’ of a new year, but, in appreciation of the events that occurred, and in anticipation of what may transpire in the coming year, I will be making an exception tonight.

This is not the occasion to detail precisely how my life has changed—I suspect most of the individuals who follow this blog are generally more interested in my socio-economic analysis as it is. I shall, however, mention one of the negative developments of 2013.

Those who know me best know that my sole ambition since I was 16 years of age has been to become a professor in the humanities. Although the specific discipline I wished to specialize in frequently changed (originating in history and ending in philosophy), my commitment to a profession in the academy was resolute. But, alas, the neoliberal assault on higher education,[1] operating in conjunction with the economic crisis, has rendered that dream impracticable. The horror stories my many adjunct professors have relayed to me over the years have succeeded in causing me to question the very rationality of maintaining an aspiration for a career in education.[2] The conclusion I have reached is that, unfortunately, it is not a sensible goal to harbor any longer. Were I to hypothetically continue to pursue my treasured objective of becoming a professor, there would be no guarantee of employment (at least in a bearable location) after graduation; and even if I were somehow able to procure such work, the prospect of tenure for my generation of educators is highly unlikely. My journey in the humanities has been a most rewarding experience nevertheless, and I do not regret a moment I spent in the field.

Forever gone is the notion of attaining self-realization in work. As is the case for countless others, capitalism has rendered that an impossibility. Instead I will spend the remainder of my working years joylessly laboring in the one industry individuals can still obtain gainful employment: health care. I hope to be able to eventually return to the humanities in order to complete my degree in philosophy, thereby enabling me to publish in certain academic journals. Time will tell whether such a course of action will prove feasible, however.

Before closing this post, I would like to offer five brief speculations regarding the manner by which the class struggle will unfold in 2014.

1.) The political elite in North America and the European Union will remain steadfast in their determination to force the proletariat to bear the costs of the economic crisis via various programs of austerity. A few populist movements may spontaneously emerge in reaction to them, only to be suppressed by the authorities.

2.) Fascistic organizations will continue to expand in southern and eastern Europe due to the left’s inability to successfully organize working people along class lines.

3.) The housing and stock markets will, for the most part, sustain their upward trajectory until the mid-summer months, when demand evaporates as a result of the economy failing to recover for the preponderance of society.

4.) The bourgeois state apparatuses of the West will begin to more directly emulate China’s “social management” techniques.

5.) A combination of increased supply of labor and decreased demand in the tech industry will be the impetus behind a slight exodus of manpower and capital from Silicon Valley.

Let us hope these events do not come to pass (excluding #5) and we rather witness a substantive increase in class consciousness.

[1] Eloquently described in David Blacker’s latest book, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Alresford: Zero Books, 2013).
[2] An amusing video detailing the atrocious job prospects for aspiring academicians can be viewed at:

John Galt’s Modest Proposal

Bourgeois ideologue, Harry Binswanger, thinks it's time for the 99% to start paying tribute to their overlords in the 1%

Bourgeois ideologue, Harry Binswanger, thinks it’s about time the hoi polloi start paying tribute to their superiors in the 1%

While sitting in traffic the other day I happened to glance over at a nearby luxury vehicle’s bumper and noticed a single sticker placed prominently thereon. “Who is John Galt?” it read. Suffice it to say, revulsion instantly overcame me. (Unfortunately it was not the first I encountered the catchphrase in public.)

With the rise of the Tea Party and release of the two-part Atlas Shrugged motion picture, it certainly seems as though Ayn Rand’s Objectivist pseudo-philosophy is experiencing something of a revival. The reason is easy enough to deduce, given the persistence of the economic crisis and the demographic currently enamored with Rand’s sociopathic novels. The petite bourgeoisie has a history of being drawn to extreme philosophies when the vicissitudes of the market threaten their class position and the government attempts to tax their wealth in order to subsidize the increasing demands placed upon it for public assistance; so it is no surprise that the wealthier segments of that class are the impetus behind the sudden surge of Objectivist and “Libertarian” activism. The public acclaim being bestowed unto Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as of late is also endowing that segment of the population with an undue sense of superiority and entitlement, which Ayn Rand’s philosophy speaks to.

But despite the originality her devotees ascribe to her, Rand’s message was essentially little more than an elaboration and defense of what the American proletarian press in 1850 dubbed “the new spirit of the age”—succinctly described by the maxim “gain wealth, forgetting all but self.”[1] It conforms perfectly with the morality of the market, i.e., firms producing goods and services for which there is a demand gain profit, the capitalists who own said firms receive exorbitant incomes based exclusively upon that ownership, and the few workers fortunate enough to possess uncommon skills are rewarded with scarcity rents. Redistributive taxation imposed by the state, on the other hand, appears as an alien force interrupting this seemingly natural order. Worse, it can cause the individuals near the bottom of the system’s hierarchy to question the very justice of this particular economic arrangement. The latter phenomenon is precisely why ideologues such as Ayn Rand, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman have been necessary throughout the ages. All class societies require a group of people skilled in the art of deceiving the toiling masses into believing their oppression is virtuous. Harry Binswanger, an exponent of Objectivism and frequent contributor to the atrocious rag that is Forbes magazine, is an exemplar of this ignoble tradition.

Coincidentally, the very evening of the aforementioned traffic incident, I received an e-mail containing a link to Binswanger’s latest column, entitled “Give Back? Yes, It’s Time for the 99% to Give Back to the 1%”[2] And lest you think the title is just a bit of hyperbole intended to catch readers’ attention, a cursory glimpse through the article’s content will reveal that Binswanger’s thesis is just as appallingly elitist and inhumane as the title suggests. It turns out that the individuals partaking in the occupation of Zuccotti Park in the Autumn of 2011 and their sympathizers across the country were correct to be disgusted with the status quo, but their outrage was misdirected, if not utterly backwards. “Collectivism” is the real unjust blight on our culture, says Binswanger. Moreover, to remedy the maltreatment the bourgeoisie has had to endure at the hands of the state—acting on behalf of the inferior specimens that constitute the ranks of the proletariat and unemployed, according to this narrative—he advances the following “modest” proposal: “Anyone who earns a million dollars or more should be exempt from all income taxes.”

Binswanger faults Marxism for this scourge of collectivism, which society—itself a dubious concept to Randians—all too readily accepts, and the adherence of which will prevent his “modest proposal” from being adopted. Why? Because Marxism is allegedly premised upon the notion that “wealth is accumulated by ‘exploiting’ people, not by creating value.” Unbeknownst to Binswanger, what Karl Marx actually asserted, building off of the labor theory of value initially introduced to the study of political economy by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, was that the socially necessary labor time required to reproduce a commodity is the prime source of that commodity’s exchange value. (Incidentally, the labor theory of value has been logically[3] and empirically[4] validated in recent years by a number of radical economists.) It should be noted that this is a positive claim. Some Marxists additionally argue that the practice of wage labor, which capitalists utilize to accrue profit, is exploitative[5] and proceed to condemn it on normative grounds. Binswanger, however, contends that exploitation is illusory because “Voluntary trade, without force or fraud, is the exchange of value for value, to mutual benefit.” “There is nothing to give back,” he goes on, “because there was nothing taken away.” But Binswanger is clearly engaging in obscurantism. Apologists for the system have been regurgitating defenses of wage labor on the basis of its supposed “voluntary” nature from time immemorial. What many of the individuals who accept this asinine rationale neglect to realize, however, is that voluntarily selling oneself into slavery due to dire circumstances can be justified on the same exact basis.[6] The notion that contracts entered into by unequal parties are impervious to criticism is absurd.

As it happens, there are very persuasive analytical reasons for designating wage labor an exploitative practice, and Nicholas Vrousalis has elucidated them in a recent paper on the subject.[7] To summarize his argument, Vrousalis claims that bourgeois social relations are characterized by individuals (i.e., workers) in a position of relative vulnerability to other individuals (i.e., capitalists) being dominated by the latter for reasons of self-enrichment. This is precisely what the Binswangers of the world try so desperately to conceal: the bourgeoisie are able to instrumentalize the proletariat’s relative vulnerability due to their possessing hegemony in wage-for-labor-time contract negotiations by virtue of their ownership of the means of production, which enables capitalists to then extract surplus labor-time from their workforce and therewith appropriate the fruit of those workers’ labor. Thus, regardless of how voluntary wage labor may appear, the bourgeoisie are materially benefiting at the proletariat’s expense.[8] Binswanger’s remarks do not even begin to discredit exploitation so defined, nor has any other reactionary ideologue that I am aware of. And if domination for self-enrichment is held to be unjust (which I suspect most people would, upon reflection, agree with), and society is genuinely committed to the principle of equality, a project which aims to transform the prevailing bourgeois organization of production is in order.

Unlike communists of Vrousalis’ disposition, Karl Marx was somewhat skeptical of such deontological criticisms of capitalism[9] and instead favored a more Aristotelian method of evaluating modes of production. But rather than categorize Marx as a virtue ethicist, Richard W. Miller believes it would be more accurate to refer to Marx’s Weltanschauung as exhibiting a certain (non-utilitarian) consequentialism reminiscent of Aristotle’s:

Marx, like Aristotle, judges societies by the kinds of human lives they create. Sometimes, he directly describes the life mankind should ultimately promote, life in communist society. Usually, though, he describes the best life indirectly, by presenting the main features of its opposite, a life of alienated labor, in which workers’ labour power is put under the control of another.[10]

Marx refrained from casting moral judgement on historical class societies because he believed that, for many of them, “valuable activities, above all, cultural goods, could only be sustained through a social division of labor that oppress[ed] the vast majority, and [cut] them off from the enjoyment of those activities.”[11] In fact, he was only prepared to condemn capitalism because he believed “on empirical grounds, that socialism, in his time, had become a [feasible alternative to capitalism],” unlike during its nascent stage, when “important ultimate goods depended on human misery.”[12] Such is why Terry Eagleton refers to Marx’s theory of history as being intrinsically tragic:

Marxism is not generally seen as a tragic vision of the world. Its final act—communism—appears too upbeat for that. But not to appreciate its tragic strain is to miss much of its complex depth. The Marxist narrative is not tragic in the sense of ending badly. But a narrative does not have to end badly to be tragic. Even if men and women find some fulfillment in the end, it is tragic that their ancestors had to be hauled through hell in order for them to do so. And there will be many who fall by the wayside, unfulfilled and unremembered. Short of some literal resurrection, we can never make recompense to these vanquished millions. Marx’s theory of history is tragic in just this respect.[13]

Also like Aristotle, Karl Marx espoused a notion of eudaimonia, as I have mentioned elsewhere. (In short, it consists of mankind overcoming the alienation wrought by capitalism, cultivating his potential in ways the current system stifles, and finally achieving self-realization in labor.)[14]

Returning to the matter of value and Marx’s conception thereof, Binswanger is not uncovering an inherent weakness in scientific socialism by stating that, absent Henry Ford, the Ford automobile company and the assembly line would not have come into existence, and without Steve Jobs we would not be blessed with Apple products. Marx made a clear distinction between what he termed ‘exchange value’ and ‘use value’ throughout his writings. Again, it was only his contention that in economies engaged in generalized commodity production labor is the source of the former. Use values—the creation of goods and services to fulfill human needs and desires—however, are the product of the general intellect (i.e., the sum total of human knowledge), nature, and labor.[15] Marx intentionally omitted capital from this triad because private ownership of means of production and the institution of wage labor are unnecessary for the production and distribution of goods and services, centuries of bourgeois mythology notwithstanding.[16] Gar Alperovitz has done a considerable amount of research on this subject[17] and has found that, of the three, knowledge appears to be the most crucial to economic development:

A half-century ago, in 1957, economist Robert Solow showed that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the 20th century alone, from 1909 to 1949, could only be attributed to technical change in the broadest sense. The supply of labor and capital—what workers and employers contribute—appeared almost incidental to this massive technological ‘residual.’ Another leading economist, William Baumol, calculated that ‘nearly 90 percent. . . . of current GDP was contributed by innovation carried out since 1870.’[18]

And although it is seldom regarded as such, knowledge ought to be viewed as our common inheritance, for it is the product of a gradual evolutionary process of which individuals play but a minor role. Take, for instance, inventions. Are they not, as Peter Kropotin once wrote, “the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded [them]” thereby rendering each one a synthesis?[19] What is more, social institutions are the mechanism which preserve and transmit knowledge to each generation, and this gets to the crux of why, contra Binswanger, taxation is a legitimate practice. The alternative is to permit capitalists, or indeed workers (in the case of a hypothetical socialist commonwealth), to free ride off of society’s contribution to the joint product.

But Binswanger might require further justification for taxation. After all, much as one who misses the forest for the trees, he refuses to acknowledge society as a meaningful entity. So we can supplement our case with arguments found in luck egalitarian philosophy. Philosophers of this school of thought draw attention to the fact that, sans redistributive intervention, brute luck becomes the sole determinant of one’s lot in life. Obviously none of us have any control over the genetic endowment we inherit, nor the families or environments we are born into. Thus justice would seem to require that we compensate the victims of the cosmic lottery via redistributive taxation, while allowing individuals to gain only from those actions which are freely chosen (e.g., the intensity, relative conditions, and duration with which one chooses to labor). Unsurprisingly, only libertarian communism can achieve a state of affairs in which that ethic is upheld, which is why men like Binswanger restrict themselves from thinking in these terms.

In one of the more puerile sections of his column, Binswanger laments the fact that the memory of Mother Teresa is showered with more moral praise than Lloyd Blankfein receives, and he cannot comprehend why we live in a culture wherein Goldman Sachs is smeared as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” Allow me to elucidate the reason, dear sir. It is not because the public has yet to be properly educated to realize Goldman Sachs has channeled savings “to their most productive uses,” as you seem to believe. It is rather because that lovely little investment bank received a $10 billion bailout in 2008, while ordinary working people have had to weather this crisis of capitalism with minimal public assistance for well over 5 years now—and as a self-professed ‘defender of laissez-faire capitalism’ you should at least sympathize with their criticism of corporate welfare.[20] People also find it absolutely repugnant that Goldman Sachs’ bonus pool alone in 2010 alone was larger than, say, the entire GDP of Haiti, because it violates their innate sense of fairness. Simply put, the masses do not relish living in a world in which the blind forces of the market determine one’s access to the social product.

Although things seem bleak now, we can at least drawn comfort in the knowledge that, eventually, purveyors of false consciousness like Binswanger will no longer be able to stem the tide of righteous indignation which will usher in the coming Gütergemeinschaft.

[1] Gary L. Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer, 2013), p. 37.
[2] Harry Binswanger (2013, September 17), “Give Back? Yes, It’s Time for the 99% to Give Back to the 1%”, Retrieved September 25, 2013, from
[3] Andrew Kliman, Reclaiming Marx’s Capital: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
[4] See, for example, David Zachariah, “Labour Value and Equalisation of Profit Rates: A Multi-Country Study,” Indian Development Review, Vol. 4, pp. 1-21 (2006); W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, “The Scientific Status of the Labour Theory of Value,” IWGVT conference at the Eastern Economic Association meeting (April, 1997); and Anwar Shaikh, “The Empirical Strength of the Labor Theory of Value,” in R. Bellofiore (ed.), Conference Proceedings of Marxian Economics: A Centenary Approach (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 225–251.
[5] There is considerable debate among Marxist scholars as to whether or not Karl Marx considered capitalist exploitation to be ethically objectionable. See Norman Geras, “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” in Alex Callinicos (ed.), Marxist Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 211-267 for an overview.
[6] Indeed, the propertarian economist Walter Block argued precisely that in “Libertarianism: A Reply to Peter Schwartz,” Reason Papers, Vol. 26, p. 58 (2003), by way of a thought-experiment wherein desperate parents sell their child into sex slavery in order to acquire the means by which to feed themselves and the child—which he further argued is ethically permissible on both “libertarian” and Objectivist grounds.
[7] Nicholas Vrousalis, “Exploitation, Vulnerability, and Social Domination,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 131-157 (Spring 2013).
[8] Except, of course, during instances in which profit is not realized. Nevertheless, the bourgeoisie maintain autocratic control in managerial affairs during periods of unprofitability due to their workers’ position of relative vulnerability, which is equally exploitative on this account.
[9] Particularly in the latter half of his career, as is evidenced in such texts as the Critique of the Gotha Programme (Rockville: Wildside Press, 2008). Justin Schwartz, in “What’s Wrong with Exploitation?,” Nous, Vol. 29, p. 183 (1995), suggests that one of the ways Marx avoids matters of justice altogether in his appraisal of capitalism is by acknowledging that “Freedom is a concern logically prior to and independent of justice.” Hence capitalism was only objectionable to Marx because of the three forms of “unfreedom” it perpetuates. These unfreedoms are: (1) “workers are forced to work and denied effective power to realize desires they may have,” (2) “they are made to work harder than they might like to benefit capitalists,” and (3) they are “used for capitalist purposes regardless of their own.”
[10] Richard W. Miller, “Marx and Aristotle: A Kind of Consequentialism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 8, pp. 323-352 (1981).
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 61.
[14] This is the theme of Michael Lebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
[15] For example, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (Rockville: Wildside Press, 2008), p. 18, Marx writes, “Labour 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 labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power. . . . The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since from the fact that labour depends on nature it follows precisely that the man who possesses no other property than his labour 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 labour. He can only work with their permission, and hence live only with their permission.”
[16] The ideological foundation of bourgeois economics is, of course, that each of the three factors of production—land, labor, and capital—are compensated for their marginal contribution to production. But, as David Schweickart points out, “They [landlords and capitalists] merely grant permission for their land and capital to be used—in exchange for a healthy cut of the proceeds. But. . . . if the workers owned the land collectively, we wouldn’t say that part of their contribution to production is their labor, while another part is their granting permission to themselves to use the land. . . . So Marx’s question retains its bite. To produce material goods, we need human labor and we need nonhuman raw materials. But why do we need landlords? Why do we need capitalists?” After Capitalism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), p. 34.
[17] See Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, Unjust Desserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back (New York: The New Press, 2009).
[18] Gar Alperovitz (2011, October 29), “How the 99 Percent Really Lost Out—in Far Greater Ways Than the Occupy Protesters Imagine,” Truthout. Retrieved September 25, 2013, from–in-far-greater-ways-than-the-occupy-protesters-imagine
[19] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 16.
[20] The mutualist anarchist Kevin Carson describes the double standards frequently displayed by proponents of laissez-faire, like Harry Binswanger, as follows: “Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term ‘free market’ in an equivocal sense: they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate by the Adam Smith Institute arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because ‘that’s not how the free market works’—implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of ‘free market principles.’” Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Charleston: BookSurge Publishing, 2007), p. 116.

Book Review: Alternatives to Capitalism

Alternatives to Capitalism

A review of Elster and Moene (eds.), Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), $31.99.

(Originally posted on, 8/29/2012.)

“Alternatives”? Yes. “To Capitalism”? Not Quite…

Despite its rather controversial reputation among the more orthodox elements of the contemporary Left, there are aspects of the analytical Marxist tradition which I consider to have been valuable contributions to Marxist theory. G. A. Cohen’s political philosophy, for instance, is immensely useful for challenging the ethical dimensions of bourgeois ideology, as well as for envisioning how a just society might be organized.[1] And although I found John Roemer’s “coupon socialism” proposal utterly ridiculous upon learning of it years ago,[2] I had heard that other members of the September Group were proponents of worker controlled variants of market socialism, and even democratic economic planning. So I had anticipated Alternatives to Capitalism to consist of concrete proposals for transitioning away from capitalism and toward a socialist mode of production. Instead I was presented with a compendium featuring policy prescriptions which, for the most part, do virtually nothing to alter the manner by which goods and services are produced and distributed in society.

The first section of the book, erroneously titled “Alternatives,” consists of several essays on economic theory. György Sziráczki opens this section with an essay analyzing semiprivate, quasi self-managing entities—which were being experimented with in the People’s Republic of Hungary—known as “internal subcontracting enterprises.” Simply put, they were autonomous work-groups operating inside state-owned firms on a subcontract basis. Aside from explaining the history of their development and efficiency strengths, Sziráczki endorsed their further utilization. Not very inspiring or useful in today’s context, to say the least.

The following essay was authored by Martin L. Weitzman, and it is a concise description of an economic model he has been promoting for decades called “profit-sharing capitalism.” Weitzman contends that if workers were to “receive a significant portion of their pay in the form of a profit-sharing bonus” full employment without inflation would be attainable (p. 69). This is so because “A profit-sharing system makes the marginal value of an extra worker exceed the marginal cost of hiring that worker,” thereby ensuring that the system “gravitate(s) towards an equilibrium with excess demand for labor” (p. 65). Weitzman dismisses the potential of labor-managed firms in his scheme due to his skepticism regarding their operational viability and potential to facilitate technological dynamism, and their alleged inability to produce full employment—all of which are inaccurate and adequately addressed in the theoretical literature on market socialism.[3] Overall, Weitzman’s proposal is interesting, but certainly not an alternative to capitalism.

Like the aforementioned Sziráczki essay, Tamás Bauer’s essay (“The Unclearing Market”) also concerns the Hungarian socialist economy; specifically the difficulties it was experiencing during its market reforms. He targets bureaucratic interference and inefficiency as the cause and suggests privatizations and further market reforms as the remedy. Why this essay was deemed worthy of inclusion by Elster and Moene is, quite frankly, beyond me. That is not to imply that Bauer’s views were without merit, but rather that they are not germane to the subject of alternatives to capitalism.[4]

Karl Ove Moene’s essay is, in my opinion, the most interesting economic analysis featured in the book. In it, he compares market socialism with a form of capitalism dominated by “strong unions”—an endangered species at this point, but still somewhat prominent in certain industries at the time of the book’s publication (1989). Moene argues that “worker influence exerted through pressure and threats,” as observed in trade unions, “may lead to perverse outcomes.” This is obviously true, since workers within capitalist enterprises have an incentive to work the least amount possible while demanding the most they can bargain for in the wage-for-labor-time contract. Unions, granting greater power to labor in wage negotiations and organizing shopfloor policy, can be expected to perform less productively than their cooperative counterparts—the reason being that the incentive structure of labor-managed firms are the exact inverse of capitalist enterprises, since workers are the firm’s residual claimants in the former. Unionized capitalist firms also invest significantly less in capital relative to labor-managed firms because “each increment of capital will increase the wage payment to the union later on” (p. 91).

Moene further provides a thorough refutation of Benjamin Ward’s classic critique of labor-managed firms.[5] As is well known to students of comparative economic systems, Ward had argued that labor-managed firms are faced with a perverse short-run supply curve, resulting in “the optimal number of members in the coop [decreasing] and the firm’s supply decreas[ing] the higher the output price” (p. 86). In practice, however, this does not occur because it violates the basic cooperative principles which labor-managed firms are organized around. “It can be shown that when the coop practices the principle of equal treatment in either an ex ante or ex post way, no one will vote for reductions in membership when faced with higher output prices,” writes Moene (ibid). Thus a perverse short-term output supply curve poses no threat to a worker controlled economy. Nevertheless, there are factors which limit the growth dynamic of labor-managed firms. For example, there are diminished returns to scale in worker cooperatives—since any increases in profit achieved therein would simply have to be shared among more members—thereby placing a definite limit on their growth potential. This would imply that companies in a socialist market economy would be relatively smaller than capitalist corporations currently are, and full employment would likely require state intervention (e.g., by implementing a policy wherein the government serves as the employer of last resort). But if full employment could be reached, a market socialist economy would be less prone to recession than capitalist market economies are because a decline in demand would not lead to increased unemployment, since labor-managed firms are more flexible under volatile economic conditions[6]—the exemplary manner by which the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (the world’s largest and most successful cooperative network) has managed to maintain remarkably high levels of employment throughout this economic crisis serves as an empirical validation of this.[7]

Alec Nove, renowned economic historian of the Soviet Union and market socialist theorist, spends a significant portion of his contribution to the book refuting the market fundamentalism overtaking British politics during the Thatcher administration—and his criticism of laissez-faire mythology remains as timely as ever. “[M]arkets and automatic economic forces cannot solve all problems,” Nove proclaims at the start of his essay (p. 99). He then goes on to list a variety of industries which, in his opinion, undoubtedly warrant central economic planning and price controls—e.g., electricity, oil, gasoline, and coal—due to their being natural monopolies. He also defended, contra Thatcher, maintaining public ownership of Britain’s social services circa 1989 (health care, council housing, transportation, etc.); the reason being that their efficiency (or lack thereof) was unrelated to their ownership structure, and they were/are vital for reasons of societal welfare regardless (pp. 102-103). Like most market socialists, Nove also suggested that a system of public banking replace capitalist financial markets and that workers’ control of the means of production be expanded to the greatest extent possible—though he expressed some reservations with respect to whether workers would be genuinely interested or content in participating in management (p. 103).[8] Perhaps suffering from a lack of imagination or class bias, Nove denied the possibility of a feasible model of comprehensive economic planning ever being devised which precluded a technocratic elite at the helm—just as he did in his earlier work, The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: Routledge, 1983). With that exception, his chapter was quite valuable.

Following Nove is the second section of the book, entitled “Criteria,” which features essays on political philosophy from G. A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and John Roemer. For me, this was the redeeming element of the book. Cohen’s chapter, “Are Freedom and Equality Compatible?”, is a critical analysis of Robert Nozick’s critique of socialism and defense of libertarianism (more appropriately referred to as ‘propertarianism’) on the basis of self-ownership. Propertarians like Nozick believe that unequal economic outcomes and private property logically follow from an acceptance of this theory, but Cohen demonstrates that what the Right generally considers “freedom”—broadly defined as meaning that an individual is the “morally rightful owner of himself, even if the existing legal systems do not fully acknowledge that fact” (pp. 113-114)—is not at all incompatible with socialist egalitarianism. “Self-ownership is, contrary to what Nozick says, compatible with equality of external resource distribution, since the inequality that Nozick defends depends on adjoining to self-ownership an inegalitarian principle of external resource distribution, which need not be accepted. When instead, self-ownership is combined with joint ownership of the world its tendency to generate inequality is removed” (p. 124).

Jon Elster’s essay defends an ideal featured in Karl Marx’s early philosophical writings. Those familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will already be aware of it: “self-realization”—which simply means “the full and free actualization and externalization of the powers and the abilities of the individual” (p. 131). It is a very Aristotelian concept, and one which is central to most socialist theories of distributive justice. Elster counterposes self-realization with the standard bourgeois concept of the good life consisting solely of possessive individualism (i.e., atomized consumption), and provides persuasive arguments for believing the former maximizes welfare to a greater extent than the latter. The purpose of consumption, Elster explains, is to “derive satisfaction” (as in reading a book, eating a meal, etc.), whereas the purpose of self-realization is to “achieve something, and satisfaction is supervenient upon the achievement rather than being the immediate purpose of the activity” (p. 130). Using the Solomon-Corbit theory of ‘opponent process,’ Elster then juxtaposes consumption with self-realization and proceeds to show that “Any given consumption episode. . . . has the pattern that it is initially pleasurable, but includes painful withdrawal symptoms once the activity ceases.” “The pleasure of consumption” therefore “tend(s) to become jaded over time, while the withdrawal becomes increasingly more severe.” Self-realization, on the other hand, produces the converse effect: “the attractions of self-realization increase over time, as the start-up costs diminish and the gratification from achievement becomes more profound” (pp. 134-135). Elster goes on to reject the marginalist approach to the utility of work because “work tasks are not made up of homogenous bits, but have a complex temporal structure” (p. 143).

In addition to discussing methods whereby work life can be utilized for advancing self-realization, Elster also considers political participation to be another promising avenue for achieving the same goal, arguing “The development of moral competence through rational discussion is a form of self-realization that ought to be valued as highly as self-realization at the workplace” (p. 147). But Elster warns of the possible hazards which lie in allowing any democratic institution to “degenerate into activist rule,” which results in individuals becoming mere means in other peoples’ pursuit of self-realization. To defend against this possibility, Elster suggests implementing a system whereby democratic processes are automatically “transformed from direct to representative. . . . when the level of participation drops below a certain level” (p. 154). It is clearly a thought-provoking essay and a well-argued defense of Marx’s conception of the good life.

John Roemer concludes the book with a discussion of private and public ownership, analyzing the welfare implications of each and finding the former difficult to reconcile with egalitarian principles (not surprising).

In closing, I was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised with this book. Disappointed because, as I previously mentioned, the title and introductory chapter led me to believe that this work would focus more on actual alternatives to capitalism, but surprised by the caliber of its philosophical essays. With that said, the book would have benefited greatly by including contributions from the leading theoreticians of socialism today, e.g., Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel (the progenitors of participatory economics[9]), W. Paul Cockshott and Allin F. Cottrell (who advocate cybernetic economic planning[10]), and David Schweickart (an important market socialist theorist[11])—all of whom were publishing work on socialism in 1989.

[1] G. A. Cohen’s blistering critiques of John Rawls and Robert Nozick—the hegemonic thinkers in contemporary liberal political philosophy—published in If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), respectively, remain unsurpassed in the field. Why Not Socialism? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) is also an engaging text which analytically explores the desirability and feasibility of a socialist commonwealth.
[2] It can be found, in excruciating detail, in John Roemer’s dreadful A Future for Socialism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).
[3] I recommend David Schweickart’s Capitalism or Worker Control?: An Ethical and Economic Appraisal (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1980) to those interested in the subject.
[4] Interestingly, opinion polls conducted in Hungary continue to indicate that “80% of those 50 years of age or older consider the time before the change of regime happier,” while “Nearly 75% of those aged 40-49, and 55% of those who were students and young adults during the late 1980s concur.” See Pál Tamás’s research for more on this phenomenon.
[5] Featured in his paper, “The Firm in Illyria: Market Syndicalism,” American Economic Review, Vol. 48, pp. 566-589 (1957).
[6] Giles Tremlett (2013, March 7), “Mondragón: Spain’s Giant Co-operative, Where Times are Hard but Few Go Bust,” The Guardian.
[7] Moene, however, appears to endorse an underconsumptionist theory of capitalist crisis in his essay, whereas I believe the evidence better supports the traditional Marxist explanation of a secular fall in the rate of profit generating systemic instability. A decent exposition of the underconsumptionist position is Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966). Michael Roberts’s The Great Recession: Profit Cycles, Economic Crisis—A Marxist View (Raleigh: Lulu Press, 2009) and Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (London: Pluto Press, 2011) are cogent works which explain the current economic crisis through the aforementioned falling rate of profit paradigm.
[8] Although most studies conducted on workers’ self-management indicate that there is a positive correlation between managerial participation and overall job satisfaction. See, for example, Gerry Hunnius, G. David Garson, and John Case (eds.), Workers’ Control: A Reader on Labor and Social Change (New York: Vintage Books, 1973); Chris Barker and Brian Martin, “Participation: The Happiness Connection,” Journal of Public Deliberation, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2011); Samuel Dolgoff (ed.), The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939 (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1974); and Lavaca Collective, Sin Patrón: Stories from Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007).
[9] See Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
[10] See W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 1993).
[11] Schweickart’s latest work on the subject is After Capitalism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

Anarchists in the Dungeon

I had started this piece in March, when the topic was still relevant, but I did not have the opportunity to complete it until now. I assure readers that I am not deliberately attempting to avoid controversy, nor am I trying to be fashionably late, by posting this well over a month after the event occurred.
Forget free love, some Bay Area anarchists are prepared to endorse outright libertinism à la de Sade.

Forget free love, some Bay Area anarchists are prepared to endorse outright libertinism à la de Sade.

Prior to the 18th Annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair the left-wing blogosphere was embroiled in fervid debate over the organizers’ decision to rent space in the San Fransisco Armory to host the event. For those of you who are unaware, the Armory is currently owned by the hipster entrepreneurs responsible for—a pornographic website specializing in BDSM and related fetishes. The Book Fair Committee realized that their decision would be divisive within the anarchist community, and claimed budget constraints were the primary reason for choosing the venue.

I am moderately familiar with the Bay Area anarchist milieu (the people I encountered at the Bound Together Anarchist Collective Book Store on Haight Street, for example, were nice enough), but I have yet to attend one of these book fairs. I trust that the members of the Committee were conflicted about the choice in venue and would have preferred a less alienating location. However, I believe the event should have been canceled since a suitable neutral site could not be arranged; the choice was controversial enough among committed anarchists, I cannot begin imagine how such a venue would be judged by the general population—who the organizers, presumably, wished to attract. Of course, one can find fault in any conceivable location in late capitalist America, but there is an undeniable qualitative difference between hosting an event at, say, a local park, and hosting it in property owned by people who amass profit from the torture (whether simulated or actual) of the psychologically damaged,[1] economically desperate, and naïve segments of society.

With that said, I am less concerned with the Committee’s rationale than I am over some of the arguments anarchists made in defense of hosting the book fair at Kink’s sex dungeon. “Sex positive” feminists and their allies (often male porn aficionados) across the blogosphere chose to frame the debate as one between the audacious avant-garde who support sex workers and the prudish, quasi-conservatives whose fear of sexuality leads them to neglect the rights of said workers. Needless to say, that was a preposterous straw man argument. By way of comparison, an opposition to the wanton deforestation the lumber industry engages in does not necessarily mean that one overlooks the plight of the workers involved in that occupation. Radicals are ever mindful of the interests of all workers, including those employed in professions we seek to abolish.

Being that I am a syndicalist, the sex industry’s exploitation of labor is reason enough for me to oppose it.[2] But even within a hypothetically non-exploitative setting,[3] the production and consumption of pornographic material would continue to harm women and distort sexual social relations. For instance, studies routinely find that pornography has a deleterious effect on relationships,[4] exacerbates sexist attitudes among men,[5] and engenders callous responses to rape and other forms of abuse directed against women.[6] As it happens, violent porn—of the sort produces—does the most to generate these outcomes.

What is missing in the analyses of the anarchists supportive of the sex industry is an acknowledgement of these negative externalities, and that betrays a fundamentally liberal approach to examining the subject on their part. Of course, the “sex positive” anarchists could respond by arguing that monogamous unions are an epiphenomenon of capitalism and, therefore, whatever might disrupt them is unworthy of concern. I happen to find such a notion unpersuasive,[7] but even if one were to grant that economistic assumption, it would still fail to address the other two harmful effects pornography has been empirically shown to cause, namely: exacerbating sexism and inducing indifference towards sexual assault. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the polyamorous relationships many of these anarchists favor are genuinely more radical than monogamous ones. The French revolutionary syndicalist Édouard Berth put the matter thusly:

The fact that the anarchists only represent bourgeois social decadence emerges with complete clarity if, disregarding for the moment the metaphysical theses concerning the reality or non-reality of social existence, we examine their way of addressing the question of the family, that primary manifestation and unmediated form of social life. . . . [E]veryone knows that anarchism conceives of the sexual partnership as a free, temporary and ephemeral union; and that, as a result, love is reduced to a volatile passion and marriage to a revocable ad libitum contract, a civil contract of the same nature as other contracts, lacking any sacred or religious character. . . . Anarchism, then, puts its denial of the social idea into practice; the idea of freedom, raised to the status of an absolute by anarchism, dissolves the family [and] nothing remains but the individual with his ephemeral passions and his disordered romanticism. And who would dare to deny that this is a frantic and decadent bourgeoisism? It will be objected that [our thesis of the] sexual union [as] an irrevocable and indissoluble union. . . . [of] love [being] subordinated to justice by marriage, because the very symbol of justice is the androgynous couple. . . . [is an] ultra-reactionary idea and that both the socialists and the anarchists have [instead] adopted, with regard to the issue, the extravagant ideas of Fourier. In any event, this is not to the credit of socialism, which in regard to this as to many other questions has deplorably followed in the footsteps of the bourgeois tradition rather than the working class tradition and has sought to inoculate—as Jaurès said—the emerging proletariat with the corruption of the moribund bourgeoisie.[8]

Similarly, Vladimir Lenin was unconvinced that polyamory was to be the end result of the dialectical processes of history. In fact, contrary to the views of “sex positive” leftists, he believed promiscuity was a residuum of bourgeois excess. His opinion is worth quoting in full:

The changed attitude of the young people to questions of sexual life is of course based on a ‘principle’ and a theory. Many of them call their attitude ‘revolutionary’ and ‘communist.’ And they honestly believe that it is so. That does not impress us old people. Although I am nothing but a gloomy ascetic, the so-called ‘new sexual life’ of the youth—and sometimes of the old—often seems to me to be purely bourgeois, an extension of bourgeois brothels. That has nothing whatever in common with freedom of love as we communists understand it. You must be aware of the famous theory that in communist society the satisfaction of sexual desires, of love, will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water. This glass of water theory has made our young people mad, quite mad. It has proved fatal to many young boys and girls. Its adherents maintain that it is Marxist. But thanks for such Marxism which directly and immediately attributes all phenomena and changes in the ideological superstructure of society to its economic basis! Matters aren’t quite as simple as that. A certain Frederick Engels pointed that out a long time ago with regard to historical materialism.

I think this glass of water theory is completely un-Marxist, and, moreover, anti-social. In sexual life there is not only simple nature to be considered, but also cultural characteristics, whether they are of a high or low order. In his Origin of the Family Engels showed how significant is the development and refinement of the general sex urge into individual sex love. The relations of the sexes to each other are not simply an expression of the play of forces between the economics of society and a physical need, isolated in thought, by study, from the physiological aspect. It is rationalism, and not Marxism, to want to trace changes in these relations directly, and dissociated from their connections with ideology as a whole, to the economic foundations of society. Of course, thirst must be satisfied. But will the normal person in normal circumstances lie down in the gutter and drink out of a puddle, or out of a glass with a rim greasy from many lips? But the social aspect is most important of all. Drinking water is, of course, an individual affair. But in love two lives are concerned, and a third, a new life, arises, it is that which gives it its social interest, which gives rise to a duty towards the community.

As a communist I have not the least sympathy for the glass of water theory, although it bears the fine title ‘satisfaction of love.’ In any case, this liberation of love is neither new, nor communist. You will remember that about the middle of the last century it was preached as the ‘emancipation of the heart’ in romantic literature. In bourgeois practice it became the emancipation of the flesh. At that time the preaching was more talented than it is today, and as for the practice, I cannot judge. I don’t mean to preach asceticism by my criticism. Not in the least. Communism will not bring asceticism, but joy of life, power of life, and a satisfied love life will help to do that. But in my opinion the present widespread hypertrophy in sexual matters does not give joy and force to life, but takes it away. In the age of revolution that is bad, very bad.[9]

I realize that the mere mention of Lenin can elicit the ire of anarchists, and I certainly share their antipathy for the direction the Bolsheviks steered the Russian revolution,[10] but one must be careful to avoid committing the genetic fallacy when evaluating the arguments of people one dislikes.

Allow me to forestall some of criticisms this post may receive by clarifying a few things. Firstly, I do not favor completely banning pornography, nor do I suggest that we empower the bourgeois state to further regulate the content of what we watch. I can, however, envisage people in a future socialist commonwealth democratically deciding to prohibit the use of society’s means of production for the purposes of creating pornography, and perhaps insisting that information about the harmful consequences that can obtain from the consumption of pornographic materials be included in sex education and gender studies courses, but that is the extent of it. There will always be a few eccentric individuals who find it titillating to record their sexual escapades and upload the content to the internet, and attempting to regulate such behavior would be far too intrusive for a democratic society to consider. Secondly, despite my defense of monogamy, I am not opposed to the practice of free love (though the two are by no means mutually exclusive). What I disagree with is the utter disregard for the societal damage that can manifest from seemingly private interactions which some proponents of free love demonstrate, and I have nothing but contempt for those who use the term as a synonym for libertinism.[11] One of the anarchists featured in Jerome R. Mintz’s ethnographic study of Andalusian anarchism summarized the principle in the following way:

Free love does not mean having different women, having different lovers. Free love means that a woman has the same rights as a man. But to have free love one must be educated, one must have intellectuality. If a woman offers herself to a man out of her passion for him, well, today a man simply takes advantage of her and then leaves her bereft of her virginity. If one does not have equal passion, one must not take advantage of a woman. One has to have this determination.[12]

That is free love as I practice it.

To conclude, I must confess that I find it somewhat ironic that anarchists, obstinate anti-authoritarians that they are, would so adamantly defend a website wherein the crudest sort of authoritarianism is incorporated into sexual performances. From a purely aesthetic perspective, you would think that anarchists would overwhelmingly find sadomasochism repellent. One could reasonably speculate that those who do not may actually exhibit a latent fascination with authority and domination, and that should, at the very least, cause them pause.

[1] A link has been established between individuals who have suffered some form of abuse and their willingness to engage in sadomasochistic sex acts. See Niklas Nordling, N. Kenneth Sandnabba, and Pekka Santtila, “The Prevalence and Effects of Self-Reported Childhood Sexual Abuse Among Sadomasochistically Oriented Males and Females,” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 53-63 (2000) and Stephen Southern, “The Tie that Binds: Sadomasochism in Female Addicted Trauma Survivors,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 209-229 (2002).
[2] I seriously doubt the Book Fair Committee would have hosted the event in a venue owned by, say, Walmart, were such an option available, so what rendered, an equally exploitative capitalist enterprise, acceptable? I suspect the answer may reduce to something as trivial as the fact that some of’s owners are countercultural.
[3] Collectively owned, labor-managed firms which produced pornographic materials, while not technically exploitative institutions, would be just as socially harmful as their capitalist counterparts. The criticisms I level against the sex industry would also obtain within a communist society that permitted its resources to be used in the production of pornography.
[4] Susan M. Shaw, “Men’s Leisure and Women’s Lives: The Impact of Pornography on Women,” Leisure Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 197-212 (1999); Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Pornography’s Impact on Sexual Satisfaction,” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 5, pp. 438-453 (1988); Jill C. Manning, “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, Vol. 13, No. 2-3, pp. 131-165 (2006); Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), Chs. 4 and 5.
[5] Jane D. Brown and Kelly L. L’Engle, “X-Rated: Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with U.S. Early Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Media,” Communication Research, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 129-151 (2009); Sheila Garos, James K. Beggan, Annette Kluck, and Amanda Easton, “Sexism and Pornography Use: Toward Explaining Past (Null) Results,” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, Vol. 16, No.1, pp. 69-96 (2004).
[6] Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Pornography and Sexual Callousness, and the Trivialization of Rape,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 10-21 (1982); Gert Martin Hald, Neil M. Malamuth, and Carlin Yuen, “Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies,” Aggressive Behavior, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 14-20 (2010); Catherine Itzin, Ann Taket, and Liz Kelly, “The Evidence of Harm to Adults Relating to Exposure to Extreme Pornographic Material: A Rapid Evidence Assessment,” Ministry of Justice Research Series (2007); Mike Allen, Tara Emmers, Lisa Gebhardt, and Mary A. Giery, “Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of Rape Myths,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 5-26 (1995).
[7] The general consensus among sociobiologists is that men are naturally more promiscuous than women due to the former’s nearly infinite supply of sperm; the finite number of eggs females possess causes them to be more selective about who they choose to mate with, according to this view. Contrariwise, some evolutionary psychologists have argued that females evolved to be just as promiscuous as males, thereby lending weight to theory that monogamy is an epiphenomenon of capitalism. Robin Baker’s Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles (New York: Basic Books, 2006) and, more recently, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011) are examples of the latter view. I believe that both approaches are mistaken, and that humans, like numerous other mammalian species, have evolved the capacity to form monogamous unions via sexual selection. David J. Buller explains the Smuts-Gubernick hypothesis, which advances that position, as follows: “According to Smuts and Gubernick, long-term male parental care evolved because of sexual selection by females for males who provided child care. As in the traditional view, females stood to benefit by choosing care-giving males because of the enhanced survivability and subsequent reproductive success of their offspring. So it paid females to select for care-giving males. But why did males go along with this deal and become care-giving? Because females rewarded care-giving males with ongoing mating opportunities, hence ongoing opportunities for paternity of offspring. Thus, males evolved to provide long-term parental care not because of the direct fitness benefits that accrued to their offspring because of that care, but because of the increased opportunities for paternity that they earned from the mothers of the offspring to whom they provided care. In short, according to Smuts and Gibernick, long-term male parental care actually evolved as a form of mating effort, not as a pure form of parenting effort” [Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), p. 267 (emphases in original)]. This does not imply that monogamy is the only method human beings can or have utilized to organize sexual relations; it simply means that monogamous pair bonding is a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation which, given the appropriate environmental setting (e.g., a balanced sex-ratio and egalitarian culture), can be expected to develop between the sexes.
[8] Édouard Berth, Les Nouveaux Aspects du Socialisme (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1908), pp. 49-50.
[9] Lenin quoted in Harry Pollitt (ed.), Women and Communism: Selections from the Writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1950), pp. 94-97.
[10] The Bolshevik’s suppression of the independent soviets and the Ukrainian Free Territory was inexcusable, in my opinion. For excellent analyses of this history, see
Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, 1917-1921: The State and Counter-Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), Paul Avrich, Kronstadt, 1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno, Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1917-1921 (Oakland: AK Press, 2004).
[11] A
contributor to Tierra y Libertad (April 28, 1915) put it well when he wrote, “How harmful it is to abuse free love, that is, to commit libertine actions in the name of free love.”
[12] Pepe Pareja quoted in Jerome R. Mintz, The Anarchists of Casas Viejas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 91-92.

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