Excerpts from chapter two of Notes of an Underground Humanist
Anger.— I read an article [in 2006] about a middle-aged Lebanese man who had lost his wife, daughter and granddaughter in an Israeli airstrike. “Mr. Samra had been sitting with friends elsewhere. He raced to the building and frantically began to dig. He found his 5-year-old daughter, Sally, torn apart. Her torso and an arm lay separate from her legs. Another daughter, Noor, 8, was moving under the rubble. His granddaughter Lynn, not yet 2, had part of her face smashed. His wife, Alia Waabi, had died immediately.” After reading an article like that you have three options on how to live the rest of your life. You can accept that these things happen but detach yourself from them; you can spend every day until you die in rage and despair, from a too-deep knowledge that John Donne’s 17th Meditation expresses timeless truth; or you can emotionally detach yourself from the knowledge but devote yourself to fighting against war. When you remember that the article pointed out that the demolished building was the main office for the city’s emergency workers, and that it was targeted because a single Hezbollah official was suspected of living there, you’ll probably be tempted to choose the second option—with the emphasis on rage, though. Still, the only option you can choose with a good conscience is the third.
Ehud Olmert [at the time, prime minister of Israel] is a monster. The problem with him and most people in power is that they're bureaucrats. Bureaucrats and technocrats. Living in their bureaucratic bubble, they forget morality and let their egos seduce them into ignoring the world's “unpeople” and overseeing crimes against humanity. Like European monarchs in the 18th century, they see politics and war as games—extremely serious games, involving clever maneuvers for the sake of power and respect. One could draw parallels with chess. The world of these people really is nothing but a stage, and they are among the most dehumanized individuals on the planet.
“We’re Number One!”— Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (2008) is one of the most horrifying books I’ve ever read. But beautifully written, and a tour de force of investigative journalism. It enlightens you as to the human misery potentially embedded in the ground you walk on, the bricks in city buildings, stretches of deforested land, seemingly placid rural hamlets. America truly was built on the backs of slaves, chattel-slaves and wage-slaves, convict-slaves, immigrant-slaves—centuries of persecution, torture, forced labor, debt-slavery, human trafficking, genocide, imperial conquests, every horror imaginable.
In fact, the U.S.’s history ranks among the most violent of all countries or empires since the emergence of civilization. First of all, it’s one of the few countries founded explicitly on genocide—possibly the most effective genocide ever. It has fought dozens of wars in only two centuries. Its military is the most lethal killing-machine ever devised. During Lyndon Johnson and Nixon’s bombing campaign against Cambodia, more firepower was involved than was dropped by the Allies in World War II. The U.S. is the only country ever to have deployed nuclear weapons. In general, its government pursues a uniquely militaristic foreign policy. It is complicit, moreover, in the crimes of the regimes it has supported, hundreds of authoritarian governments all over the world from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.
Domestically, the history of labor has been uniquely repressive and violent (on the part of the ruling class). Nor should we forget slavery and the subsequent 150 years of black repression. Indeed, the rule of business is founded on a constant, daily reign of unreported violence, the suppression of rights in the workplace, the persecution of anyone who steps a little out of line, the segregation of millions in slums, etc. The U.S. violent crime rate is unusually high, and people have remarkable freedom to own guns. Images of violence pervade pop culture. Immigration and detention policies are appallingly arbitrary, despotic, and bureaucratic. The prison system, partly privatized, is a monument to inefficiency, cruelty, and racism. The “war on drugs” is horrifically unjust, little more than a continuation of repression and imperialism by other means. Since the late nineteenth century, undercurrents of semi-fascist discontent and violence have seethed. Nativism and xenophobia have always been unusually virulent. The list goes on.
Such are the fruits of hyper-capitalism.
The virtue of the vicious.— To feel kinship with people because I grew up under the same government as they? Because I must abide by the same laws as they? Because we’ve been taught that we have a “common history,” whatever that means? Because a line has been drawn between the expanse of land we live in and the expanse of land “other people”—“foreigners”—live in? Am I really expected to place my hand over my heart and take a solemn oath to renounce reason?
Political slavery.— The proper way to think about Republicans and Democrats is as follows. The Republican Party is just a slave to conservative sectors of big business. As Chomsky says, it isn’t any longer even a true party, a coalition of diverse interests; it is just a tool of the very wealthy (who are sometimes religious conservatives—which is the “other” set of interests the party is commonly thought of as representing). The Democratic Party is not quite a slave to big business; it is more like a serf, who on the day or two when he doesn’t have to slave for the lord can do some work on behalf of the other interests he is supposed to represent, such as women, the poor, minorities, immigrants, workers, consumers, the youth, future generations (hence environmentalism and nuclear disarmament), the rule of law, and the cause of internationalism. Most of the time these other interests get short shrift, but every so often the serf will throw them a bone, like he would to a dog.
Contemporary conservatism.— Republicans have, it is true, some things superficially in common with earlier conservatives, who espoused the positions, more or less, of classical liberals (while having forgotten the nuances, and to an extent the spirit, of liberalism). That is, Republicans want small government, like earlier conservatives—but only in relation to taking care of the population, unlike earlier conservatives. They want the death of the people’s welfare state but the growth of the corporate welfare state. No state for the people, statism for corporations. And that flatly contradicts turn-of-the-century conservatism. Or, to be even more precise, Republicans are not satisfied with a state in the service of corporations; they want corporations to become the state. They want most government functions to be privatized, so that inclusive democracy and public administration no longer exist. In a sense, this is the logical conclusion of twentieth-century corporate-statist trends. But it would horrify earlier conservatives, who detested the very existence of the corporation and especially the constitutional rights it had been granted by judicial activists.
Declension.— The state of our society and its trajectory since the 1930s are revealed in a simple juxtaposition: in the 1930s the government’s message was “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”; nowadays the message is “We have nothing to fear but a lack of fear itself.”
Slavery and capitalism.— We look back now at slave societies in astonishment, wondering how it was possible that it was seen not only as necessary but as good that some people were forced to sell themselves to other people just to survive. It doesn’t occur to us that what we have now operates on the same principle: people are forced to rent themselves to others in order to survive. If it is morally wrong to (be forced to) sell oneself, it is morally wrong to (be forced to) rent oneself. The Lowell mill girls in the 1830s were wiser than our elite liberal intellectuals now; they understood that wage-labor is essentially wage-slavery. Whether a black slave was treated well or badly by his master did not affect the principle of the thing; similarly, that an employee might make enough money to live doesn’t obviate the moral horror of having to rent oneself in order to survive.
Parasitism in pre-capitalist and capitalist forms.— I don’t see much difference, in principle, between ownership of capital and ownership of land: in both cases one derives unearned income from the bare fact of owning property. Others do the work that makes the property productive; the owner does nothing but supply some of the means by which the work is done (because he happens to have gained possession of these means, i.e., excluded others from possessing them; not because he has produced them). In principle he can lie on some beach and sip mint juleps as he collects the profits of others’ labor. And that is appalling. Unearned income, unless it is distributed among the people, is appalling.*
*That many owners of capital do various kinds of productive work—managerial, technical—is not essential to their ownership of capital considered in itself. It is this from whence they derive their profits.
Contrary to nature.— Throughout history it has been the parasites who have had the most power and wealth.
Pigs.— The role of police officers is not so much to protect people as to protect order, i.e., power-structures. First and foremost, they are agents of the ruling class—a truism that is borne out even by considering the origins of modern police forces in the U.S. and Britain (between the 1820s and 1850s).* To ensure people’s well-being is at most indirectly and derivatively related to the cop’s vocation, as shown by the regularity of police brutality, their implicitly or explicitly violent behavior not only in any kind of unusual situation but even on the daily beat (aptly named). In general, the police defend specific social relations between people more than people themselves.
Said differently, the police officer is the “bouncer” for society, whose role is to keep out undesirables, those who do not conform.
*As David Whitehouse, associate editor of the International Socialist Review, says, “To put it in a nutshell, the authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds—that was strikes in England, riots in the northern U.S., and the threat of slave insurrections in the South. So the police are a response to crowds, not to crimes.” You can hear his talk at http://wearemany.org/a/2012/06/origins-of-police.
Irony #973.— It’s perverse that selling yourself as a killing-machine to semi-capitalist institutions that send you across the world to slaughter people you don’t know for the sake of the profits and power of people you don’t know—whose minions indoctrinate you into complete ignorance of what exactly it is you’re doing—is considered praiseworthy, in fact heroic.
Upside-down.— People love the servants of power, the policemen and soldiers, for supposedly giving us our freedoms and protecting them, while they hate the radicals, the socialists, the workers, the feminists, who, because of their past struggles, are the real reason we have any freedom at all. What confusion! Worshiping authority for ensuring freedom, the one thing it violently opposes! The confusion is predictable, though: indoctrination works wonders, reason-defying miracles.
Anarchism.— “Anarchism” is a fancy name for a simple thing, a commonsensical thing that has been around for thousands of years among billions of people. Chomsky is right that it is not so much a worked-out political theory as a deep impulse in human thought and behavior. People don’t want to be subordinated to power-structures; they want to be free. Whenever they rebel against authorities, that’s anarchism in action. Whenever they come together to organize a grassroots democratic life, that’s anarchism in action. A pure anarchist society might not possible because every society, no matter how egalitarian, surely must contain "top-down" power-relations, but in principle we could approach such a society relatively closely.
The last will be first.— One of the ironies of history is that it’s the poor and oppressed, the workers, the slaves, the marginalized, and not the middle class or the privileged, who carry on in their struggles the exalted tradition of the Enlightenment, with its ideals of freedom, universal rights, humanity, and progress.
Forgotten truisms.— The awesome power of business propaganda is revealed in the fact that most Americans (though far from all) scorn the idea of socialism, which is really just common sense. Essentially all it denotes is the ideal that working people should have control over their work, they shouldn’t have to rent themselves to multimillionaire bosses for eight or twelve hours a day in order to make more money for the boss. It is nothing but economic democracy, opposition to human exploitation; in this sense, even the mainstream American philosopher John Dewey was a socialist. As was Martin Luther King Jr., especially in his late years when he turned his attention to the economic oppression of both whites and blacks. The central intuition of socialism can be fleshed out in many ways, from anarchism of various kinds to democratic state ownership and operation of the means of production, but as long as the overriding principle is workers’ control of their economic life, it can be called socialism. Worker cooperatives, for instance, exemplify socialism on a small scale.
Communism is, if anything, an even more obvious moral principle than socialism, for it denotes the structuring of human relations according to the maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This is but a corollary of the Golden Rule, that you should treat people as you’d like to be treated. Our common humanity demands that when someone is in need, we help him or her. David Graeber observes in Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) that “all of us act like communists a good deal of the time.” We use our abilities to help others; i.e., we share and we cooperate, among friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. The fabric of every society is woven by this “baseline communism,” as Graeber calls it. The fabric of every society is constituted by this “baseline communism,” as Graeber calls it. In this sense, in fact, “communism is the foundation of all human sociability”; it can be considered “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.” Society is held together by this dense anti-capitalist fabric, into which the more superficial patterns of commercialism, the profit motive, and greed are woven. One might even reverse the typical judgment of apologists for capitalism: not only is capitalism not a straightforward expression of human nature (supposedly because we’re all naturally greedy, as a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayek might say); it is more like a perversion of human nature, which is evidently drawn to such things as compassion, love, community, respect for others, and free self-expression unimpeded by authoritarian rules in the economic or political sphere. Capitalism is parasitic on “everyday communism,” which is but a manifestation of human needs and desires.
A communist society, though, would be one in which the dominant mode of production and distribution is communistic; and this, on a very large scale, may well not be feasible. Or maybe it will be sometime in the distant future. History is unpredictable: no one in the eighteenth century could have predicted modern capitalism, just as no one in the present can plan out in all its details a future communist, i.e. moral, society. A prerequisite for such a civilization is the withering away of money in its present form and of the capitalist profit motive (both of which are relatively recent historical arrivals and have been unknown to the vast majority of societies throughout history). Be that as it may, the question of whether large-scale socialism or communism is feasible is one thing; the question of whether they are the ideals toward which we must strive is quite another. It is reasonable to deny the first proposition (although usually the grounds on which it is denied are absurd, referencing as they do “human nature” and demonstrating complete ignorance of anthropology), but it is decidedly unreasonable, or morally repugnant, to deny the second.
Irony #1048.— Cooperativism and quasi-“state socialism,” which help rectify the myriad market failures of capitalism, are what sustain the capitalist world-system, by keeping it relatively stable. For example, according to the International Cooperative Alliance, over 800 million people worldwide are members of cooperatives and three billion depend on them for their livelihood.
On neoclassical economics.— Milton Friedman wrote a famous article in 1953 called “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in which he argued that in science, the less realistic or more idealizing the model, the better.* A typically simplistic argument. But for a neoclassicist it served the function of making a virtue of necessity, thus allowing him to continue to believe his theories: since neoclassical economics is the most unrealistic, most idealized, most counterintuitive economic model of all, it’s the best! This Friedmaniacal methodology therefore lets economists retort to criticisms regarding the inability of their models to explain what happens in the real world, “That’s just because of the messiness and imperfections of reality! It doesn’t prove that our models are wrong. You policymakers simply have to make reality conform more closely to our logically beautiful models.” Sure. Make reality conform to models, rather than making models conform to reality. To quote Herman Daly, former Senior Economist at the World Bank: “My major concern about my profession today is that our disciplinary preference for logically beautiful results over factually grounded policies has reached such fanatical proportions that we economists have become dangerous to the earth and its inhabitants.”
When translated into policy, the fetish of a pure idea always leads to mass suffering. Nazism, Fascism, “Communism,” radical Islamism, and the Free Market ideology. Nothing is more inhuman than the urge to remake people and society in the image of an ideal model.
*“Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have ‘assumptions’ that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (in this sense).” Alan Musgrave refuted Friedman’s arguments in his 1981 paper “Unreal Assumptions in Economic Theory: the F-Twist Untwisted.”
On Milton Friedman.— On the one hand you have Gandhi: “The movement against war is sound. I pray for its success. But I cannot help the gnawing fear that the movement will fail if it does not touch the root of all evil—human greed.” Ideas we instinctively recognize as good and noble. On the other hand you have Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, and all the other ideological hacks doing the bidding of big business by defending greed, saying it’s inevitable and good, selfishness makes the world go round, everyone is necessarily greedy and should be. Reducing human life to a cost-benefit analysis, as vulgar and inhuman, anti-humanist, as the behaviorist ideology of stimulus-and-response. It would be a horrible thing if these deniers of humanity and compassion, creativity, love, solidarity and cooperation, were right. Fortunately they’re wrong. The world is not what their ideology implies it is, a dystopia of frenzied individualism. That sort of anti-paradise has been approximated only in Nazi concentration camps and such environments of sub-animal existence. Greed and selfishness—unless the concepts are broadened so much as to be meaningless—are in fact of marginal importance to human life. Ordinarily they’re recognized as pathological. They have no place in family life or between friends or lovers. Generosity is far more common on the level of personal relationships than greed and selfishness are. Cooperation and concern for others are universal, except in the perversely structured realms of the economy and politics in “civilized” societies (as opposed to tribal societies). The existence of greed has far more to do with warped social structures than human nature.
But at least Friedman, Hayek and their like were consistent: rather than recoil from repulsive personifications of their ideology like Pinochet and military juntas, they embraced them and facilitated their brutality, advising them, giving them the cover of intellectual respectability. Hayek was very impressed by Pinochet, and Margaret Thatcher became his firm friend. And when the ideology led to worldwide misery, Friedman maintained “the courage of his convictions,” like George W. Bush, and never recanted or modified his position. Doggedly loyal to his vision of greed and selfishness.
A famous mediocrity.— One of the ironies about Ayn Rand is that her philosophy of extreme selfishness and individualism would, if taken to its logical conclusion and realized in the world, result in a society that bore resemblances to the totalitarianism she fled when fleeing Russia. Let’s leave aside her stupid love of laissez-faire capitalism, an impossible economic order that, to the extent it could be approximated, was responsible for the Great Depression and thereby the rise of Nazi collectivism. ....Or, on second thought, no, let’s look at this laissez-faire capitalism, since it is one manifestation of her vision. If a pure version of it were possible, it would be something like Murray Rothbard’s “anarcho-capitalism,” which, to quote Chomsky, is “a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it.” As someone once said, the closest we’ve ever come to a society of pure selfishness and individualism was Auschwitz, which was the culmination of a kind of totalitarian collectivism. The ironic parallels between Nazi (and Soviet) collectivism and Randian or Rothbardian individualism are significant: they’re due to the profound atomization that each entails. In the latter, the individual is to treat everyone as a means to his end; in the former, the individual is to treat everyone as a means to the state’s (or the movement’s) ends. In both cases, no human connections are allowed, no treating the other as a being with his own value and his own claims on one’s respect. Hate, mistrust, and misery are the inevitable consequences of both these dystopian visions.
Needless to say, people like Rand and Rothbard are not to be taken seriously, except as symptoms. But it’s fun to glance at them sometimes because of all the little ironies you’ll notice.
Chomsky speaks.— “In a market system, your dollar is your vote. You have as many votes as you have dollars. If you have zero dollars, you have zero votes. Unborn generations have zero dollars, so what happens to them is of zero significance in a market system. What’s done today, they have to live with. If we destroy resources, they have to live with it. So to the extent—the limited extent—that market systems are allowed to function, they’re just guaranteed to self-destruct. That’s why if you take a look at modern history, in countries that were more or less organized and functioning they never allowed market systems to function. In Britain there was an experiment with laissez-faire around the 1860s and 1870s, but it was called off very quickly by the business world because they saw it was going to wipe out communities and the environment. What they instituted in its place was a kind of social democratic system.” See Karl Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation.
Thoughts inspired by Naomi Klein.— An obvious truth you’ll never encounter in the mainstream media: “Chicago School economics [is] particularly conducive to corruption. Once you accept that profit and greed as practiced on a mass scale create the greatest possible benefits for any society, pretty much any act of personal enrichment can be justified as a contribution to the great creative cauldron of capitalism, generating wealth and spurring economic growth—even if it’s only for yourself and your colleagues.” Why else do you think neoliberalism is orthodoxy? Because of its truth or intellectual integrity? Ha. Even if it were true or had such integrity, that would have nothing to do with whether it would become “the Washington Consensus.” It is simply the best system of ideas ever devised to justify an elite’s orgiastic indulgence in greed and profit-mongering. ‘The best thing for society is to let big capitalists do whatever they want.’ It’s so shameless and so contrary to common sense that you need the elaborate mathematical fantasies of neoclassical economics to make it remotely plausible, and you need to drum these fantasies into the heads of students in every major university in the world. The students really talented in the art of self-deception and theoretical perversity fused with verbal dexterity and confidence will go on to get jobs at the IMF, the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury, or top universities, so as to fulfill their function of providing a veneer of intellectual respectability for business’s smashing of civil society and democracy all over the world.
When you read accounts in the mainstream media about how this or that measure favored by business will “create jobs,” remember that what’s really being said is it will generate profits. “Jobs” = “profits” in business-speak. Business has little interest in creating jobs—often its interests lie in cutting them—and usually the number of jobs created by its activities is paltry compared to the number that could be created through public spending, which would also direct funds to where they’re needed most. Think of the successes of Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority and Works Progress Administration.
Chomsky has a nice way of taking us outside our subjective outlooks and considering matters from something like an objective viewpoint: he invokes hypothetical Martians surveying our planet from afar. For example, consider Martians encountering Earth for the first time. Think about what they’d see, the super-Gilded-Age inequality within countries and between countries. Millionaires and billionaires riding private jets over Somalian-type poverty and misery; “oligarchs racing around in black Mercedes convoys, guarded by top-of-the-line mercenary soldiers,” as the homeless are curled up in blankets on the street; people in suits hurrying past hungry children in the street; politicians, lawyers, doctors, businessmen living in opulent suburbs as a billion people live in slums. Would these Martians not have the impression that our world is, at least to a first approximation, divided up between a class of cartoonishly evil power-brokers and a much larger class of the cartoonishly unfortunate poor?
in the leaden heat of tradition-drenched climates
across the swamp of American suburbia,
that ooze “no”s and “I don’t care”s and
such polluted cynicism.
knocking on doors and opening pores
that seep fetid
in the curled snarls
on the fat and aging faces, gargoyles
twisted into the woodwork.
On mainstream American liberalism.— Richard Goodwin, one of the Best and the Brightest, speechwriter and adviser to John F. Kennedy. His celebrated book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (1988), a flabby liberal whitewashing of history. Hero-worship of a young pretty personification of charismatic egomania whose 1963 assassination was in fact not all that tragic—far less so than King’s, X’s, and Fred Hampton's. (Tragedy requires a contrast between promise and reality.) The intelligence of the “good and bright” overwhelmed by an utter lack of wisdom. A McNamaran absence of moral imagination. The Vietnam War was an “error,” the Bay of Pigs invasion a “miscalculation,” the Reagan terrorism in Central America a “terrible error,” and so forth; none of this was fundamentally wrong, because by definition everything we do is done with good intentions. And through it all, this litany of apologetics and qualified self-criticisms, is an abdication of responsibility (even when momentarily admitting that “we liberals” were, despite ourselves, responsible for an error or two): the ultimate truth is that our good intentions were ineffectual in the face of reality, fate, bureaucracy, inertia, whatever abstraction comes to Goodwin’s mind. It’s a rotten book, disgusting.
And the platitudes, my God the pieties! Kennedy the symbol of the American idea, the Great Man who could have led the country to moral greatness, the “exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy,” the man who “fueled the smoldering embers” of the 1960s (terrible writing), who could do no wrong even when he did wrong because at heart he was a hero for the ages, and of course don’t forget the gloriousness of America as a symbol, an eternal beacon of light, the ideal of a restless, searching people who expanded to occupy a continent (let’s not talk about those other people who had already occupied it for millennia).... But now, alas, we’ve become a nation of cynics! Ah, if only we had continued to follow the light of reason, the inner American in us all! Woe are we who have lost our faith! —This nostalgic liberal apotheosis of Kennedy and America and democracy and freedom evinces a mind-boggling moral and intellectual immaturity, a stunning childishness in thought and deed. It signifies little more than the liberal intellectual’s celebration of himself, his defense of himself: ‘Yes, some of the things we did were wrong: we were too idealistic! We didn’t understand the evils of the world. We thought we could use reason to remake the world, but alas, the world is an unreasonable place.’ Astonishing, despicable shallowness, being so self-blind as not to see that one’s effusive praise of the so-called American idea is nothing but effusive praise of oneself. It’s also totally stupid in its own right. Christianity is a far more rational religion than this liberal American one.
The book is enlightening, however, as a window into the mind of the Harvard liberal, revelatory of the sort of thoughts this person has, his worldview. Liberalism from the inside. A prettified ideology, bland but appealing, with the reference to spiritual truths, reason, ideals of harmony and peace, a rising tide lifting all boats, the fundamental compatibility of all interests in society (except for those we don’t like, of course), the nonexistence of class struggle, government’s ability to solve all social ills, history as a progressive battle between knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, reason and unreason, open-mindedness and bigotry, and any other set of binary abstractions you can think of. The whole ideology hovers above reality in the heavenly mists of Hope and Progress. It’s all very pretty, hence its momentary resurgence—which succumbed to disillusionment—with Barack Obama. And hence its ability to get through the filters of the class structure, to become an element in the hegemonic American discourse, floating above institutional realities like some imaginary golden idol one worships in lieu of common sense. It serves a very useful purpose for business, averting people’s eyes from the essential incompatibility of class interests toward the idea of Gradual Progress by means of tinkering at the margins, making nice policies.
One is almost surprised at the contradiction in people like Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., on up to Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, between native intelligence and blind liberal stupidity. But institutions mold people to fit into them—or rather, they mold those people who are willing to be molded, i.e., who are ambitious and obedient. However intelligent you are, if you’re ambitious you’re going to have to let yourself be taught to believe what you have to believe in order to fit into your chosen institution. Thus arises the phenomenon of apparently brilliant people who you suddenly notice have this gigantic blind-spot in their mind that underpins their brilliant maneuverings.
Marxist materialism, i.e., common sense.— It’s funny that people often deprecate Marxian materialism as an explanation of society and human behavior, given that virtually no one cares much about ideas. People think they do, but basically they’re wrong. They insist that ideas, ideological motivations, and spiritual matters are very important....but then proceed to ignore them in their lives. Just listen to people talk and you’ll see they’re essentially unfamiliar with ideas and don’t think about them very often. Their understanding of the world is utterly superficial; their ideological commitments exist mainly on the level of words; quotidian personal interests are what preoccupy them. Food, money, success, power, relationships, entertainment, etc. Every so often religion or politics will come up in conversation and people will get strangely animated for a few minutes, but that isn’t very significant. Anyway, most of the time a person’s commitments to certain ideas, such as they are, derive from their reflection of his or her interests, or their being a sublimation of his or her interests. Some selflessness might be involved—and with activists that can be a very important element—but even then, of course, the ideas are merely abstract reifications of concrete interests or feelings or modes of interaction with others. “Material” realities, that is. But I’ve strayed from my original point.
I’d also note, incidentally, that often when people object to “ideas” they’re really objecting to changing their way of doing things. Religious conservatives oppose liberal reformers in large part because they’re used to doing things (rituals) a certain way, and the thought of changing that makes them profoundly uncomfortable. The human mind/brain, after all, like that of other animals, is a pretty “conservative” thing: it finds comfort, so to speak, in patterns, habits, routines, rituals repeated again and again, such that encountering or doing new things can be very disturbing. Not always, especially not in the case of children (although observe how they react upon meeting strangers or when their parents force them, for whatever reason, to change some habit or discard some toy they’re used to). Curiosity and learning can be a source of great pleasure. But changing one’s behavior or attitudes is hard, sometimes impossible. Sartre notwithstanding, the self is not “free” in this way. Therefore many people object to the “idea” of gay marriage, because it hasn’t been a part of their routine. It isn’t how they have lived their lives—they find it challenging to their ways of acting and thinking—so they oppose it.
Religion and materialism.— People usually think of religion as an example of the importance of ideas, and to an extent they're right. But not to the extent that is commonly thought. Religion is not only ideas, after all, but also institutions. Social roles. Modes of interaction. And simply an excuse to get together with people once or several times a week, to socialize and act out rituals that reaffirm community. These kinds of behavior, as opposed to mere thinking about various transcendental ideas, are the most important aspect of religion for most people. And one reason why religion is so tenacious in the modern world is that institutions are tenacious, especially institutions with a lot of power and resources backing them up (such as conservative sectors of big business, which have subsidized conservative religion). It isn’t only “ideas”; it is generation after generation being socialized into institutions, to respect power-structures centered around priests and bishops and reverends and pastors and so on—an especially easy thing to do because such respect gets people communal affection and allows them to participate in a significant part of social life. In the light of so many satisfying and self-affirming communal rituals molding one from one’s childhood, it is easy to understand why millions would believe in God and try to act as he wants (because that means acting as the community wants). “Ideas” are in this case, as in most others, little more than reflections or residues of social behavior. By being influenced by the idea of God, one is being influenced by social structures that one has internalized.
Class, race, and gender.— The significance of each of these is multidimensional. Class, however, has a unique sociological importance insofar as class structures, or economic structures, constitute society’s essential “infrastructure,” the skeleton that is fleshed out in culture, politics, ideological trends, etc. Race and gender, by contrast, are primarily subjective identities, not objective structures rigorously defined and enforced in the ways that capitalist class-relations are.* In imagination, one can picture rearrangements of the occupants of positions in class structures; black people could occupy capitalist positions and whites occupy wage-earning positions, or the current relative places of most women and men could be reversed in the same way. And society would continue to have basically the same institutional configuration it does now, with lower wage-earners viciously exploited—only these would be white men. In fact, African-Americans and women have made some advances along these lines since the 1960s, even as the real sources of mass oppression have barely been touched due to the lack of institutional change. To change the institutional structures and so really change society, capitalist class-relations have to be abolished.
*To be more accurate, race and gender are “objective structures” to the extent that they more or less coincide with economic relations. Forms of racial oppression fit into forms of class oppression.
Summing up.— Concentration of power and resources has, from the very beginning, been the overwhelming source of the world’s ills. (Not religion, as Richard Dawkins et al. would have you believe.) Abolishing it is the sine qua non for establishing a humane society. –Yes, it is that simple. All the sophisticated analyses of historians and economists and philosophers boil down to the fact that it’s imperative to abolish the concentration of wealth, and therewith the concentration of power.
The fulfillment of the prophecy.— As capital has become more mobile internationally since the 1970s (the era of advanced globalization), undermining national boundaries and cultures, and has accumulated in ever-larger concentrations, undermining the “relative independence” of the state and producing a global proletariat (or “precariat”), the world has approximated ever more closely the pure model of capitalism that Marx described in Capital. The West slowly approaches the deprived level of the “Rest,” and the Rest—its peasantry dispossessed—is finally completely conquered by capitalist relations of production. The global North partially deindustrializes and sees its infrastructure deteriorate as the privatization crusade progresses, while the South becomes almost as urban and in most respects as capitalistic as the North. Class polarization increases on a global scale: conditions everywhere tend to converge, with a hyper-elite set against an enormous reserve army of labor. A revolutionary situation ripens as the world becomes more uniform and the middle class, that historical bastion of conservatism, disintegrates.
Two possible paths lie ahead: either barbarism, or socialism. Either a Hobbesian state of nature, or a global backlash against corporate capitalism. Stated graphically, on one hand we have the repulsive, vomitous visage of Donald Trump blown up to global proportions, swallowing us all in its shouting, gaping maw; on the other hand we have something like the compassionate and intelligent countenance of Rosa Luxemburg, guiding us forward like the North Star. One can only hope that, sooner or later, humanity chooses the second avenue, not the first.
There is hope!— Here’s a simple way to think about the downfall of capitalism: for over a century, oppressed people all over the world have risen up again and again, year after year, decade after decade, to overthrow institutions either integral to or, if residual from the feudal past, temporarily strengthened or made harsher by capitalism. And people will continue to do so, each generation continuing the fight. Their prospects for revolutionary success, however, have been limited as long as the core of capitalism in the West has had a fairly stable social structure and intact civil society. As long as the richest states have not faced insurrections themselves but have been able to intervene (usually successfully) whenever such insurrections threatened elsewhere, global capitalism has been more or less safe. Only when, finally, insurrections elsewhere coincide with massive popular movements in the core—resulting in part from the decline of an integral civil society—can capitalism fall. This condition wasn’t really fulfilled even in the 1930s. Only now is it beginning to come to fruition.
The throes of transition.— A society in which a Donald Trump can become president is dying, and deserves to die.
2011 vs. 1968.— Despite what people may be inclined to think, 2011 was in many ways more globally revolutionary than 1968. Everything that happened—the Arab Spring, the Wisconsin protests, Occupy Wall Street, protests all over Europe, demonstrations in Russia—it was all just the beginning of something very big; 1968 was basically the end, or at least the climax. 2011 was a manifestation primarily of elemental economic grievances, even in the Arab world; 1968 was a manifestation largely of the youth’s cultural discontent, European universities’ dysfunctionality, anti-war sentiment, and, yes, young workers’ dissatisfaction with conditions of production. 2011 targeted society’s central power-structures, namely big business, especially financial institutions (and, outside the West, political dictators); 1968 was directed against....authority in general. Its diffuseness indicated its political immaturity. The point is that 2011 was a symptom of a world order’s descent into long-term crisis, whereas 1968 was produced by a variety of less systemically portentous developments. 2011 was the beginning of the real revolutionary period (two hundred years long?) of capitalism’s decline.
Thoughts on socialist revolution.— In retrospect it’s obvious that something like socialism couldn’t have happened until the nation-state system had disintegrated (which it’s starting to do now), because the nationality principle conflicts with the class principle. Marx thought the latter was more powerful and important than the former, and in many ways he was right. But not in the way he wanted: business tended to be more loyal to class than to the nation, and it used the idea of nationality to divide the working class. Only when capitalism and the nation-state began to decline together according to their internal dynamics and not due to some voluntaristic, opportunistic Leninist coup from the outside would the wage-earning classes have the chance to supersede capitalism and its instrument the nation-state.
To say it more simply, Marx’s main mistake was not to foresee the twentieth-century apotheosis of the nation-state period of history. He didn’t foresee the welfare state. He overestimated the power—at least in the short run—of capitalism’s class-polarizing tendencies; he didn’t understand that other tendencies would for at least a hundred years be able to mitigate class inequality, tendencies such as that toward the assimilation of the working class into the dominant order, toward “pure and simple trade-unionism” (mere reformism), toward the state’s stabilizing management of the economy, as well as the pressures for workers to identify not only with the abstract notion of a social class that spans continents but also with the more concrete facts of ethnicity, race, occupation, immediate community, and nation. All these pressures interfered with the revolutionary dynamics Marx analyzed.
With respect to the very long run, though, he was always right that capitalism is not sustainable. There are many reasons for this, including the contradiction between a system that requires infinite growth and a natural environment that is finite, but the reason most relevant to Marxism is that ultimately capital can never stop accumulating power at the expense of every other force in society. It is insatiable; its lust for ever more profit and power condemns it to a life of Faustian discontent. It can never rest. Any accommodations, therefore, between the wage-earning class and capital—such accommodations as the welfare state and the legitimization of collective bargaining—are bound to be temporary. Sooner or later capital’s aggressiveness will overpower contrary trends and consume everything, like a societal black hole (to change the metaphor). Everything is sucked into the vortex, including social welfare, the nation-state, even nature itself. The logic is that nothing will remain but The Corporation, and government protections of the people will be dismantled because such protections are not in the interest of capital. This absurd, totalitarian logic can never reach its culmination, but it will, it must, proceed far enough, eventually, that an apocalyptic struggle between the masses and capital ensues. A relatively ‘mild’ version of this happened once before, in the 1930s and ’40s, and [in the West] a compromise—the mature welfare state—was the result. But then, as I said, capital repudiated the compromise (or is doing so as I write these words), and the old trends Marx diagnosed returned with a vengeance, and so humanity could look forward, this time, to a final reckoning. A final settling of accounts will occur in the coming century or two.
Saving Marxism from Lenin.— Peter Kropotkin’s essay “The State: Its Historic Role.” L’état, c’est la guerre. One of the state’s historic roles, of course, has been to transplant the peasantry from the countryside to the cities so as to facilitate industrialization (i.e., to create Marx’s “reserve army of labor”) and make possible the exploitation of land for profit. This is one of the ways in which the nation-state and capitalist industrialization go hand-in-hand. China is doing it now, moving hundreds of millions of peasants to cities—the greatest urban-planning project in history. European states did it from the 1500s to the 1900s, in England with the enclosure acts, in France with the laborious destruction of the village communes, in Russia with Stolypin’s legislation and then Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, etc. There are other ways too. Chomsky discusses in one of his early essays the historic function of the Vietnam War in destroying on a colossal scale the peasant villages and sending former inhabitants to the cities, where they would become cheap labor for capital to exploit. This massive removal of the peasantry from the countryside is a prerequisite for capitalist development, indeed for industrialization of whatever kind. And it isn’t “automatic,” proceeding from purely market-driven causes, as bourgeois ideologists proclaim. It’s intentional, political, brutal, the forced uprooting of hundreds of millions.
Kropotkin was always right that the regeneration of society, the anti-capitalist social revolution, couldn’t be carried out primarily by the national state but rather by grassroots and quasi-grassroots movements (which of course can have leadership structures and some degree of power-centralization). The state is mainly an institution for domination, destruction, and “law and order”; it is not very socially creative, at least not on the required scale. Anarcho-syndicalism, likewise, was right that present economic structures will inevitably leave their mark on institutions built after the workers’ political revolution—and therefore that the social (economic) revolution must substantially take place before the final conquest of political power, not after it. In the latter case it will fail, since capitalist holdovers of domination and exploitation will influence the “new society.” (Cf. the history of the Soviet Union, even its earliest phases.) But this truth is also implicit in Marx’s dictum that politics follows in the wake of economics. A post-capitalist social revolution can’t be politically imposed, because in that case economic relations are not ripe for it. The new relations have to have already “matured,” at least somewhat, under the old political regime, as happened during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Rightly understood, then, Marx was a kind of modified anarcho-syndicalist—or rather he should have been, logically speaking.* From his premises, the proletarian dictatorship’s task could only be to finish the job, not to start it, as Lenin tried. Workers’ groups would have to do much of the societal restructuring beforehand; their subsequent political decrees would formalize and consolidate the institutions that the workers had already begun to create. Otherwise, given the foundation of the political in the economic, the new government’s acts would inevitably have the taint of capitalist, bureaucratic structures that still survived. More than the “taint,” in fact.
In short, despite himself, Marx knew that the attempt to politically will new liberatory institutions into existence wouldn’t succeed (as Lenin and Mao attempted). They have to emerge slowly, through popular struggle; otherwise they’re artificial, “inorganic,” bureaucratic, and coercive, since economic conditions aren’t ripe for them.
*Anarcho-syndicalists believed that workers had to create in the womb of the old society the institutions of the new. Socialism, they thought, would be structured around workers’ councils and unions that had developed in the later stages of capitalism. They also rejected the idea of a “workers’ state,” proclaiming it to be impossible, and believed that the general strike was the most effective tool of revolution—two respects in which Marx would have disagreed with them. But arguably he shouldn’t have. From his perspective there is no good reason to disavow the use of the general strike. Even his support for the idea of a workers’ political party, which anarcho-syndicalists rejected (because they rejected all politics), is not particularly “Marxist,” since political parties are usually forced to work within the confines of the parliamentary system and thus make compromises that blur the antagonism between labor and capital, in the end leading to the co-optation of the labor movement as a prop for the stability of the system. This was a danger that Marx and Engels were aware of, but they didn’t take it seriously enough. Marx also could have made more explicit his support of direct action, which anarcho-syndicalists of course advocated. Nothing is more “Marxist” than direct action (which, like Marxist theory, tends to privilege material social relations over high-level politics).
At this point, for an in-depth discussion of Marxism and revolution I suggest you turn to this book. It may be overly optimistic about the potential of worker cooperatives, but its revised-Marxist conception of the historical logic of revolution is worth thinking about. In the long run, it's necessary to build a new economy, and thus a new society, from the ground up, not solely from the top down. This is an important conceptual revision to Marxism, however commonsensical it may be; but I base it in the logic of Marxism itself, so it's really a "purification," not a revision. Be that as it may, as neoliberalism, and hence capitalism, crumbles in the next generation, what we're likely to see—finally!—are the beginnings of a more cooperatively organized economy. The catastrophes of climate change will not prevent this (very protracted) transformation from occurring; indeed, they may even accelerate it, inasmuch as social and economic cooperation/coordination will become ever more essential for survival. We're on the cusp of epochal changes.