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America’s Populist Moment

president-trump

The meaning of Donald Trump.

Donald J. Trump has succeeded in defeating Hillary Rodham-Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. The political establishment and Democratic voters alike are at a loss as to how such a seemingly incompetent opponent could accomplish one of the most unlikely victories in American history. As something of a left communist,[1] I have eschewed writing about this election cycle because I’m convinced working class participation in bourgeois ‘democracy’ is fundamentally misguided. Nevertheless, I spent a considerable amount of time examining the Democratic and Republican primaries, as well as the general election, and have discussed facets of it on The Value of Everything podcast, so I would like to take this occasion to summarize my views on the outcome. (I don’t intend on writing a scientific analysis of the event, so I ask that readers interpret what’s to follow as commentary. As such, this entry will be devoid of evidentiary citations for my claims, but I can furnish such if anyone should take exception to those positions which lend themselves to empirical validation.)

The moment it became evident it was mathematically impossible for Clinton to take the night, “white working class” immediately became the buzzword across the corporate media in the early morning hours of 9 November, and rightly so. This segment of the population, long demonized and claimed to be condemned to demographic extinction, once again demonstrated its numerical supremacy and willingness to assert itself as a coherent force in the body politic. The detestation of these men and women by bourgeois liberals is sure to intensify as a consequence of the outcome of the election, but I suspect their critics will think twice before marginalizing their political influence from henceforth. With that said, Trump’s strategy at appealing to, and cultivating support from, Caucasian proletarians is worth comprehending, for I’m convinced certain aspects of it will prove to be of paramount importance to organizations committed to the construction of a communist commonwealth in North America and Western Europe in the years ahead.

First and foremost, Trump was an attractive candidate because he never served in public office. Americans perception of career bureaucrats has never been particularly favorable, and in recent decades confidence in public institutions has been on the decline. Similarly, being a one term senator, Barack Obama simply didn’t have time to amass the history of corruption and controversial decisions which necessarily accompany the career of a state functionary, and this relative distance from the establishment was a definite asset during his presidential campaign. What’s more, being a haute bourgeois (successful or otherwise), Trump could convincingly claim to have personally witnessed the grotesque depths of corruption in the state apparatus, and therefore be poised to know precisely how to redress it—the fact he was complicit in such behavior himself could be excused on the basis that it has hitherto been a necessary condition of conducting business in the United States. In short, a career in so-called ‘public service’ at this stage in late capitalism is a disadvantage to one’s credibility, and this tendency will only increase with time.

Donald Trump was also able to broaden the base of the Republican Party and animate it to great effect. Almost from the outset, it was Trump’s explicit goal to transform the GOP into a “workers’ party,” even if it risked alienating the party’s neoliberal intelligentsia in the process. This was accomplished by way of denouncing the pernicious consequences of free trade and currency manipulation (e.g., the offshoring of manufacturing), exposing the fraudulent employment statistics cited by the current administration, and promising to leave popular welfare programs (e.g., social security) intact. Trump’s frequent criticisms of the United States’ military interventions in the Middle East and saber-rattling at Russia surely earned him the support of ordinary Americans weary of foreign entanglements as well, and the ire of the neoconservative contingent of the Republican establishment. Likewise, Trump’s staunch opposition to illegal immigration appealed to members of the working poor who have been enduring the competition and downward pressure on wages illicit foreign labor has precipitated for decades. Most importantly, Trump accomplished this without offending the sensibilities of the GOP’s other two chief constituencies: gun owners and evangelical Christians—mere rhetorical gestures (the sincerity of which I have my doubts) were sufficient to pacify them.

The Democratic coalition, by contrast, couldn’t mobilize around a candidate as unscrupulous and generally unlikable as Hillary Clinton. Even the incessant, hyperbolic narratives about a doomsday, proto-fascist scenario following a Trump presidency were to no avail. Moreover, the DNC’s bona fides as a party concerned with the interests of working people is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain under the weight of the ongoing economic crisis and aforementioned policies the Democratic Party has been instrumental in designing and enforcing for years. As the Wikileaks info. dumps revealed, the party elite actively conspired to deprive its sole populist member, the left-liberal Bernard Sanders, of its nomination, conclusively demonstrating the utter contempt the Democratic establishment has for anything even remotely approaching leftism. In its unparalleled hubris, the Democratic Party assumed the presidency could still be secured merely through the usual game of ‘lesser evil’ exhortations, but such appeals no longer carry the purchase they once did with the American people. Political pundits had been questioning whether the Republican Party could withstand the destabilizing impact of Trump’s candidacy, but a more legitimate question is whether the Democrats will be able to recover from this world historic defeat.

Trump’s victory represents a definitive break with free market orthodoxy and progressive paternalism. And his inevitable failure to deliver on his electoral promises—public policy is, after all, determined by a combination of ruling class prerogatives and the structural imperatives of capital accumulation—in conjunction with the havoc being wrecked by the unremitting economic crisis, is going to accelerate the erosion of bourgeois ideology still further, therewith opening up possibilities for radical sentiments (both left and right) to gain traction among the population. Whether communists will be able to seize the moment is an open question. Thus far, depressingly few Marxists have accurately assessed the populist movement behind Trump,[2] and the ability to do so is, in my estimation, critical to the potential success of that endeavor.

In closing, I must confess to experiencing a certain delight in the outcome of this election. The hysteria on display from assorted social justice warriors, liberal commentators and academics, and the establishment intelligentsia is music to my ears. They deserve all the anguish Trump’s politically incorrect, incoherent utterances elicit over the next 4 years. With any luck, they’ll retreat into their ‘safe spaces’ and remain there for perpetuity.

NOTES:
[1] I identify primarily with the council communist tradition, but also find a few aspects of Amadeo Bordiga’s work (to wit, his critique of anti-fascism) valuable.
[2] Chris Cutrone and Slavoj Žižek are the only two of any notoriety who come to mind, and the latter I have difficulty accepting as a Marxist.

Mr. Žižek Goes to Left Forum

Zizek_Left_Forum

No Platforming strikes Left Forum 2016.

Not long ago, Slavoj Žižek was the darling of the art house left. His excessive pessimism and mastery in conveying simple, if counterintuitive, observations in the similarly opaque parlance of the Lacanian and Hegelian traditions elevated his status to the very apex of the bohemian radical milieu (in an atmosphere where form often exceeds substance, such is hardly surprising). Žižek’s charmingly misanthropic and eccentric personality, in addition to his vulgar sense of humor—ever observable in his public lectures—also broadened his appeal to less academic audiences, atypical for someone from his intellectual background and significantly contributing to his fringe celebrity.

But the Slovenian philosopher’s reputation has suffered a precipitous decline, transitioning from relatively famous to infamous in a matter of months. Predictably, the source of discontent centers on the least objectionable aspect of his work, to wit, his cogent—albeit limited—critiques of political correctness and unrestrained immigration.

To summarize the controversy, over the last year, Žižek has criticized the effectiveness of speech censorship in fostering multiculturalism and questioned the wisdom of the lenient immigration policies a number of EU countries have adopted in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, both of which are tantamount to heresy on the New Left. With intimate knowledge of the utter hysteria this coterie has the capacity to exhibit, Žižek sought to forestall hostile reactions by repeatedly qualifying his statements and reassuring his audiences that he unequivocally shares their cosmopolitan values, thus emphasizing that his is merely a tactical dispute. But the old man critically underestimated the extent of their dogmatism. Anecdotes of non-white activists who concur with his assessment of political correctness, and cautioning that the New Left’s wholesale endorsement of lax immigration policies is, in point of fact, bolstering far-right parties across Europe, weren’t nearly adequate enough to prevent Žižek’s detractors from labeling him a “racist” and a “fascist.” (Suffice it to say, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the more assumptions one professes to share in common with these characters, the more viciously they assail, should one diverge from their specific conclusions.)

This rabid and concerted offensive against Žižek reached a new height at the closing plenary of the Left Forum on the 22nd of May, where he delivered a lecture entitled “Rage, Rebellion, Organizing New Power: A Hegelian Triad.” Amy Goodman provided a particularly nauseating self-righteous introduction, which consisted of the usual left-liberal ritual celebration of all things ethnic and fringe, presumably so organizers could establish distance between the Left Forum and Žižek’s controversial positions. Before the talk began, however, a handout was circulated among attendees, laced with unpopular quotes by Žižek and distorted synopses of his stances, in order to poison the well, as it were. What followed was a series of attempted interruptions engaged in by a segment of the audience, obviously undertaken in an effort to deplatform the man. Fortunately Žižek managed to successfully complete the lecture despite the shrieks and jeers wailed by these hypersensitive fanatics, but given the contemporary left-liberal reactionary opposition to freedom of speech and association, I suspect it won’t be long before this maniacal mob succeeds in either eliminating his ability to deliver public lectures altogether or in intimidating him to the point he can only salvage his career via self-censorship.

To be clear, I’ve long been of the opinion that Žižek deserves to be challenged on a number of fronts. Inter alia, his unjustifiable rejection of value theory and historical materialism, unsubstantiated dismissal of libertarian communist economic models, and elitist Lacanian perspective on “ideology,” all seriously call into question Žižek’s Marxist and, indeed, communist bona fides, as far as I’m concerned. The proper terrain to conduct this campaign, however, is in the written word, formal debate, and/or organized speeches. Succumbing to the strategy the right pioneered, i.e. speech censorship, will do precisely nothing to actually demolish those views. As blasphemous as it will sound to many, I will even go so far as to contend that the no platform policy was never a sensible tactic. Incorrect and dangerous ideas are not extinguished by fiat, they are vanquished only by superior ideas; hence, in the eyes of the public, those who attempt to censor speech appear to require force out of sheer intellectual ineptitude.

In an environment as irrational and toxic as the radical so-called ‘left’ has become in Western Europe and North America, perhaps Žižek can take solace in the fact that virtually every heterosexual Caucasian male is, at some point, suspected of harboring racist, sexist, and fascistic sympathies. I will surely be, once my own papers on immigration, intersectionality, and the national question are complete. So be it.

The Intensity of False Consciousness

Climbing to utopia

Climbing to utopia

The other day, while I was opening at work, a talkative customer approached, inquiring as to my ethnicity (apparently he had overheard me speaking to a previous customer and detected an usual “accent”). I informed the gentleman that I’m of northern Spanish descent, which delighted him as he claimed to possess some amount of Iberian ancestry as well. After a brief exchange regarding Spain’s cultural diversity, we drifted into a conversation about the company I work for. The customer was curious if they offered stock options to employees or any other benefits beyond basic health care packages or 401(k) plans. They don’t, of course, and in my response the man could sense that I harbored pessimism regarding the economy in general, and dissatisfaction with my corporate employer in particular. He assured me “ethical” companies exist, citing a few popular examples, and encouraged me to seek employment with them, if I was genuinely discontent where I was. Such proposals are of no interest to me, but I didn’t want to come off as unappreciative of his empathy by dismissing his suggestions out of hand, as it were.

The conversation then took something of a biographical turn. Judging from his tattoos and choice in apparel, in addition to the slang terminology he occasionally employed in the course of our conversation, I conjectured the customer with whom I was speaking was of a lumpenproletarian background. My suspicion was soon confirmed when he admitted to being a former convict. He claimed his criminal past has been an obstacle for him when seeking employment, and, assuming (perhaps erroneously) his crime was non-violent, I expressed sympathy for his predicament. But the prideful man would accept no pity. From his perspective, this impediment had motivated him to improve himself, which will ultimately serve to make him a more attractive prospect to employers seeking applicants in the future. The depth of this individual’s false consciousness was becoming more apparent with each sentence.

Anecdote after anecdote of successful entrepreneurs who began from positions not dissimilar to his own, and nevertheless went on to attain massive fortunes in the market, were adduced. The customer was of the opinion that one’s educational attainment, familial connections, and/or brute luck were simply immaterial to success under capitalism; a positive mental attitude and solid work ethic are all that’s necessary. I asked what the man’s current employment status was, in an effort to see if I could push back against some of these fantasies. He responded that he’s currently involved in construction labor, but aspired to becoming a haute bourgeois (not his words). After gathering this information, I attempted to see if I could prompt the man to evaluate matters from a strictly class perspective, but it was to no avail. Every piece of counter-evidence I cited was met with another bromide. His immediate material interests would simply not take priority over his dreams of wealth and status. I could have approached the issue from an ethical standpoint, to see if it would yield superior results, but I had neither the time nor inclination to do so.

I’m certain the lumpenproletarian environment he was reared in, as well as his peculiar personality, account for much of the man’s inability to evaluate these subjects rationally, but it would be a mistake to ignore the significance of bourgeois ideology here. The brilliance of the latter lies in its astonishing ability to effectively persuade the toiling masses that they can extricate themselves from the indignity of wage labor through tireless effort alone. There are enough rags to riches tales circulating in our society to render the myth of capitalism’s meritocractic class hierarchy plausible to many, causing working people to utterly ignore the exploitation and alienation they endure on a daily basis, in the naive hope they too can one day climb to a position of relative authority and wealth.

The Frivolous Trends and Commodities of Late Capitalism: or, Aesthetic Justifications for a Communist Mode of Production

Ethical objections to economic exploitation and artificial (e.g., class) authority,[1] in conjunction with an adherence to the materialist conception of history, are the principal sources of my communist political philosophy. A secondary source of disaffection with capitalism, however, is aesthetic in nature. At times, these relatively superficial concerns I harbor can feel just as salient as my moral considerations, so I’ve decided to share a few of them with you.

As the title suggests, this post will list (in no particular order) a few of the most repellent trends and commodities capitalism has generated in my lifetime. Perhaps they will solidify your opposition to this detestable mode of production—or contribute to your establishing such an opposition, depending on where you currently stand.

Hurl1.) “TWERKING”

Nothing bears the indelible stamp of our lowly origin quite like this spectacle. Women lacking any sense of self-respect, essentially emulating primitive mating calls—their dirty nalgas colliding into one another at high velocity, all for the male gaze. If not for the music industry glorifying this primal behavior for purposes of profit, I think it’s safe to assume the act would have perished long ago in whatever urban cesspool spawned it in the first place. It will nevertheless be interesting to observe how much longer this novel form of objectification will endure in popular culture.

NGO2.) NGOs

The institutional form most favored by self-righteous idealists (and apolitical drifters) incapable of understanding the structural sources of the injustices they wish to ameliorate. These were the kids whose parents insisted their elementary schools admitted them into their little “gifted” programs—erroneously assuming they possessed an above average fluid intelligence—whose later gestures in these enterprises will do precisely nothing to significantly improve the world .

The Peace Corps is where this sort used to agglomerate, but evidently they’ve moved on to bigger and worse endeavors.

Adult men and women camping outside an Apple Store in order to be the first to purchase the latest iPhone.

Adult men and women camping outside an Apple Store in order to be among the first to obtain a phone.

3.) “SMART” PHONES

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s certainly impressive most of a computer’s functions can now be performed on a small, handheld device also capable of making phone calls. Nauseating, however, is the absolute fetish society has made out of purchasing the latest version Apple releases each year, which is trivially different from the preceding model (to say nothing of the undue praise the utterly unremarkable, degenerate entrepreneurs and engineers in Silicon Valley receive). People of modest incomes will brave the elements for days on end, and waste hundreds of dollars, just to buy one of these toys solely for their utility in status signaling. It’s conspicuous consumption at its absolute worst.

The phones may be “smart,” but their owners, more often than not, are anything but.

Cinnabun Cereal4.) EXCESSIVE VARIETY

If this image doesn’t immediately invoke shock, disgust, and/or embarrassment in you, you’re the living embodiment of the ideal consumer advertising agencies have been carefully cultivating for decades—what Erich Fromm termed “homo consumens.”

It’s not only the increasingly unhealthy foods being marketed to the population that is so distressing, but the ridiculous number of brands and superfluous variations of the same product on shelves. Honestly, how many toothpaste companies or flavors of cereal does humanity require? And is it truly an infringement upon our liberty to set a limit, as capitalist ideologues often say in response to the suggestion? One Direction Fans

5.) TWEENS

Another abominable concoction of advertising agencies commissioned to expand opportunities for capital accumulation. Children are no longer permitted to lead a relatively carefree existence for their first few years on this planet. Instead, they must be concerned about the status their clothing and accessory choices convey among their peers, and they’re also expected to navigate the psychological complexities of objectification, because profit can be obtained by companies in the process.[2]

Bourgeois economists often cite the fact entrepreneurs in a capitalist economy can enter the market with relative ease to peddle their wares as a chief source of capitalism’s “dynamism.” And while that may well be the case, it would be dishonest to omit the immense waste of resources this exercise also contributes to. What’s more, the firms which succeed in the competitive struggle of the marketplace don’t necessarily do so because they provide consumers with what they desire. Billions of dollars are invested every year to engineer the aforementioned trends and artificially instill in consumers a desire for these commodities.

But even granting the dubious assumption these trends and products derive from our human nature, at least communism wouldn’t reward people with exorbitant incomes for producing them. In fact, since remuneration would be socially determined, nations could draft legislation which only rewarded those exceptional individuals who contribute to innovations which truly improve the human condition (e.g., life saving technologies) with incomes above the social average. And economic planning would provide the space for society to deliberate on how its means of production and labor power are utilized, which has the potential to lead to more rational forms of consumption being adopted.

There are, of course, hundreds (if not thousands) of other products and trends I could critique, but I’ve exhausted the time I currently have to devote to the subject. I might continue the list on a future post.

Notes:
[1] Saul Newman aptly describes the distinction figures like Mikhail Bakunin made between “natural” and “artificial authority” in From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007), pp. 38-41. Simply put, the former is derived from intrinsic—and, consequently, inescapable—natural laws which shape various aspects of human nature, while the latter is extrinsically imposed by individuals and institutions exploiting asymmetries of power in society.
[2] To gain an appreciation of how distorting this commercial construct is, view the 2008 Media Education Foundation documentary film Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. Online: http://www.mediaed.org/cgi-bin/commerce.cgi?preadd=action&key=134

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.

NOTES:
[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%”, Forbes.com. Retrieved September 25, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/harrybinswanger/2013/09/17/give-back-yes-its-time-for-the-99-to-give-back-to-the-1/
[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 http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/4253:how-the-99-percent-really-lost-out–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.

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