On the Venezuelan crisis

With the global fall in oil prices, Venezuela’s fifteen-year experiment in “petrol populism” seems to be winding to a close. Either the regime will collapse in short order, or it will maintain itself through increasingly bloody and repressive measures, as Maduro’s claim to represent the interests of the people grows even more tenuous. George Ciccariello-Maher, a seasoned apologist of Chavismo in the United States, writes in an article for Jacobin that the “enemies” are the ones who are out there “in the streets, burning and looting.” Socialists, he contends, should be supporting the recent state crackdown on the protestors, which has already left 130 or so dead.

Pavel Minorski, a Croatian left communist and trustworthy comrade, comments that “[Ciccariello-Maher’s latest piece] is basic leftism. There is good capitalism and bad capitalism. Good capitalism is run by The People, bad capitalism by (((the elite))). Eventually, of course, people will revolt against good capitalism. But don’t worry, those aren’t The People. They’re malicious, deluded, or both. Here’s how national developmentalism can still win!” For anyone interested, “Dialectics and Difference: Against the ‘Decolonial Turn’,” my polemic against Decolonizing Dialectics by Ciccariello-Maher just came out, and can be read over at the Insurgent Notes website.

Michael Roberts’ analysis of “The Venezuelan Tragedy” paints a much bleaker picture. The numbers are just brutal. “Income poverty,” observes Roberts, “increased from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Venezuela’s three most prestigious universities.” Chávez, like every other leader who came before him, was content to rake in profits when times were good, i.e. when the price of oil was high, funding ambitious social programs with the profits as part of his wedge electoral strategy. He didn’t bother trying to diversify the country’s production, so when its sole export monocommodity plummeted in value, the whole country went tits up.

Sergio López of Kosmoprolet saw this coming as early as 2009. “21st-century socialism? Charitable kleptocracy! A kleptocracy, indeed, which is steering the country to its next economic and social crisis.” López noted then, at the pinnacle of Chavismo, the popularity of slogans such as “Chávez is the People!” and “President Chávez is a tool of God!” “Postmodern Bonapartism,” as Marco Torres dubbed Bolivarianism in a 2010 piece, is “a bricolage of thirties vintage pop-frontism together with nineties antiglobalization, molded upon sixties developmentalist Third Worldism.” Continue reading

Cognord: The Syriza trilogy

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COGNORD
is unfortunate enough to have been born in Greece, and fortunate enough to have participated in the social movements which attempted to put a halt to the capitalist devaluation of that country. Shortly after the farewell party of the movement (the magnificent general strike and intense riots of February 12th, 2012) he left Greece and settled in a cold place. Occasionally, he writes articles about his native land. He is also a member of the Communists in Situ collective, whose blog everyone should check out.

In my opinion, Cognord’s articles provide far and away the best Marxist analysis of Syriza and Greece.

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Is it possible to win the war after losing all the battles?

Cognord
Brooklyn Rail
February 2015

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Prehistory of a success

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The announcement of national elections in Greece, roughly two years before the coalition government of New Democracy and Pasok completed their term, immediately sparked a renewed interest in this southern and economically peripheral European country. The relative silence that preceded this novel attention for the last two years was, at least in media terms, understandable. If Greece enjoyed an earlier moment of fame, it was primarily due to the unprecedented austerity measures imposed by the troika — the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) — in exchange for new loans, designed to “assist” the Greek state after it officially announced, in April 2010, that it was unable to repay its existing, “non-viable” sovereign debt (120 percent of GDP at the time). The reactions to the implementation of the austerity program were also pivotal in bringing Greece into the spotlight: general strikes, violent demonstrations, and the movement of the squares ensured, between 2010 and 2012, that the future of Greece’s “fiscal consolidation program” (to borrow the official economic jargon) was seriously threatened. Along with the memorandum imposed by the troika, what came under attack was the legitimacy of the political system,1 generating wild speculation about the future of Greece’s membership in the Eurozone, as well as the unpredictable consequences this could have for the EU, not to mention the global economy.

However, the movement which tried to halt the austerity program failed. The reasons are varied, and it is not within the scope of this article to explain them in detail. Suffice it to say that, as in every other social movement, this failure should be traced to both the violent determination of the government(s) to proceed with austerity at all costs (for which the ruling factions have paid a price) and the inability of the movement to transform itself from a defensive mobilization to protect existing conditions into an offensive attack on the conditions that created the crisis.

Nonetheless, the attention that Greece received was justifiable. Without exaggeration, one could argue that many of the political strategies of resistance which the international left has only read about in books were tried and tested in Greece in the years after the crisis: general strikes with massive participation, bringing economic activities to a halt; militant and violent demonstrations with constantly growing numbers of participation; neighborhood assemblies that sought to act as minuscule formations of self-organization, attempting to deal with immediate issues caused by the crisis; one of the most militant squares movements, which managed to call for two successful general strikes; a climate of continuous antagonism that gradually but steadily involved more and more people.

It is, however, no exaggeration to say that none of these inspiring moments managed to counteract the effects of the crisis and its management by the state. However exhilarating, promising, and tense these outbreaks were for those of us who participated in them, it has become imperative to understand their failure to achieve even a small (however reformist) victory.

In official terms, the crisis has only become worse in the last years. Overall unemployment has risen to 27 percent (from 12.5 percent in 2010), primarily hitting young people (60.6 percent for those aged 17-25); wage cuts across the public sector are between 30 and 40 percent, while in the private sector the number is only slightly lower (25 percent on average).2 Small businesses (the backbone of the Greek economy, constituting around 95 percent of all business activity) have been devastated by the crisis and the austerity measures (more than 250,000 have been closed), while cuts in the Health and Education budgets amount to more than 25 percent. Total GDP losses amount to 24 percent, while despite these cuts (or, as some would say, as a result of them), state debt in Greece has dramatically risen from 120 percent in 2010 to 176 percent of GDP today.

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On the work of Friedrich Pollock

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Jake Bellone, a comrade currently living in Canadian exile, has scanned the early Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock’s 1956 work
 Automation: A Study of Its Social and Economic Consequences. I’ve digitized and uploaded it here for anyone who’s interested. You can download it by clicking on the link in the title above.

As far as I know, this book has been virtually forgotten in terms of the history of economic literature. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it’s a workmanlike survey of a number of studies and publications on the subject of automation. Counter to the prevailing optimism of the period, riding the long postwar boom, Pollock foresaw increasing technological unemployment ahead in the field of industry as automation became further generalized. Here he distinguished full-scale automation from the earlier phenomenon of mechanization, a process well known to political economists since Ricardo.

Pollock’s book has perhaps had a subterranean influence that has generally gone unnoticed. Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist economist, cites it repeatedly in his celebrated book on Late Capitalism. An online acquaintance of mine, Elliot Eisenberg, who is close friends with Moishe Postone and studied with the brilliant Soviet Marxist economist Karl H. Niebyl back in 1961, went so far as to claim that “one cannot understand Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization without Pollock’s Automation.” This would seem to accord with Postone’s own estimation of Pollock’s significance:

Pollock’s work in the 1930s provided the implicit political-economic presuppositions of the pessimistic turn in Horkheimer’s theory and the changes in his conception of social critique. More generally, on the basis of an examination of Pollock’s investigations, I shall discuss the intrinsic relation of the political-economic dimension of Critical Theory to its social, political, and epistemological dimensions.

Here Postone mostly has in mind Pollock’s seminal 1941 essay on “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” as well as his consideration of the question “Is National Socialism a New Order?” later that same year. But I see no reason not to extend this observation to the Institute’s work during the 1950s.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno dedicated their jointly-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Pollock. Now that I think of it, this work was translated and made available just a year after it was first published in German, in 1956, when Horkheimer and Adorno were still virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. (Outside of the few works they wrote in English, that is). Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Pollock is rather coy when it comes to openly expressing his Marxism. He never mentions Marx by name, but talks about “relative surplus population,” fixed vs. circulating capital, and other concepts clearly derived from the critique of classical political economy. Similarly, early members of the Frankfurt School used “critical theory” as a kind of codeword for Marxist theory, both in order to disguise their communist sympathies and to emphasize a critical dimension that had been lost in the dogmatization of DiaMat in Moscow during the 1930s.

What follows is Rolf Wiggerhaus’ brief biographical sketch of Pollock, taken from his monumental study of The Frankfurt School. My only comment is that Wiggerhaus misleadingly suggests that Pollock and Horkheimer came to agree with SDP’s position on organized “state capitalism,” as if Hilferding had anything original to say on the matter. The Bolsheviks would have readily agreed with Hilferding’s remarks — at least prior to 1928, when Stalin combined Preobrazhenskii’s position on collectivization from the Left with Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country” from the Right.

Friedrich Pollock

Friedrich Pollock

Rolf Wiggerhaus
The Frankfurt School
Munich, 1986 (1995)
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The frank, limitless enthusiasm which the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Pollock had for Karl Marx was somewhat artless, although it did have its own appeal. Marx, when he was thirty, had `worked out his philosophical, sociological and political views so clearly that, right to the end of his life, there was never anything he had to retract’, according to Pollock. Marx had “struggled untiringly right up to his death for the proletariat, regardless of obstacles.” This homage to Marx was published in 1926 in a discussion of a pamphlet on Proletarian Socialism [Der proletarische Sozialismus] by Werner Sombart, a former supporter of Marxism and correspondent of Engels. During the 1920s, Sombart had begun to support a “German” form of socialism, and had become an anti-Semite with intellectual links to Oswald Spengler, Johann Plenge, and Othmar Spann. Pollock objected to Sombart’s reference to the phenomenological “intuiting of general essences [Wesensschau],” demanding empirical research instead. He rejected Sombart’s claim that Marx and Engels subscribed to “plebeianism” as a “basic value,” asserting that scientific socialism had the character of a natural science. And he rejected the accusation that materialist dialectics was part of an exclusively proletarian metaphysics of history, mainly by appealing to references in Engels’s Anti-Dühring showing that Marx and Engels had been convinced that dialectics had universal validity.

All of this was characteristic of Pollock. He was born in Freiburg in 1894, and it had originally been intended that he should take over his father’s business, as in Horkheimer’s case. With his indifference towards Judaism and certain conventions — qualities instilled by his upbringing and reinforced by his simple, phlegmatic manner — Pollock made a lasting impression on the sixteen-year-old Horkheimer, and they began a peculiar, but lifelong, friendship. Pollock was less horrified by social injustices than Horkheimer was, but he was also less apprehensive than Horkheimer about committing himself openly to Marxism and communism: when the Munich Soviet Republic was crushed in May 1919, he gave his passport to a Russian who was hoping to escape abroad; the refugee was caught, and Pollock got into trouble with the police. Although Pollock, like the others, studied philosophy, it was only a minor subject alongside his principal interest, economics, in which he took his doctorate in 1923 with a thesis on Marx’s monetary theory. In an article “On Marx’s Monetary Theory” published in 1928 in [Carl] Grünberg’s Archiv, he complained about the “unhappy division between the economic and philosophical elements in Marx’s system.”  But he had a lifelong, philistine contempt for philosophical theory, and held to a pre-Leninist form of Marxist orthodoxy.

At the invitation of David Riazanov, Pollock travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 to take part in the celebrations on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the results of the visit was his book on Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917-1927, with which he took his Habilitation in 1928. The book was published as the second volume in the Institute’s publications series, the Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung, and was written in a style similar to that of Carl Grünberg, the “master of historical realism in the investigation of social existence,” as Max Adler described him in 1932 in the Festschrift published on Grünberg’s seventieth birthday. In the preface to his book, Pollock acknowledged his debt to his “friend, teacher, and father-figure, Professor Carl Grünberg.” The reader was informed in the first sentence of the preface that “a theoretical analysis of the material will follow in a later work,” but this was never published. Pollock described the particularly unfavorable conditions which the Russian revolutionaries had faced at the outset, their tremendous, continuing difficulties, the often glaring mistakes they had made, and their constant changes of direction and frequent reorganizations. In the penultimate and longest chapter of the book, `The State Planning Commission [Gosplan] and its Work,” he used all of this to show how plans had been formulated in an absurdly inadequate way from the start, and had only gradually become more realistic. The book’s style was soberly informative, but it nevertheless clearly indicated the sympathy, patience, fascination, and even admiration which Pollock had for the “heroes and martyrs of the planned economy” and their tireless efforts to construct “a complete whole” out of various different plans, one which would, “at its fullest stage of development, consciously and totally incorporate the entire economic process” and gradually guarantee “the conscious structuring of the entire economic process and all of its parts.”

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Some preliminary thoughts on Endnotes’ critique of Platypus

On materialism and idealism

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Image: Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) 
grenzt sich mit dem Begriff „Bildungstrieb“ (1781)

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A few ruminations on Endnotes’ critique of Platypus, as laid out in the closing plenary to the 2013 Platypus International Convention. These are just my thoughts, and as such are not necessarily indicative of anyone else’s opinion.

The contraposition some have latched onto lately  ⎯ whereby the focus on politics/history of the Left = “idealist” while the focus on economics/history of the capital’s transformations = “materialist” ⎯ is more than a little crude. Of course, this is not at all to suggest that those members of Endnotes who first advanced the critique fall victim to such an unnuanced view. Considerably more intractable problems arise, however,  for those who’ve tried to assimilate this critique to their own polemics against various “idealist” groupings they’ve recently vowed to destroy. Since their own aspiration is simply to erect a new international propaganda tribune (webzine) from which to spread socialism to the ignorant masses, they are forced to confront the embarrassing logical consequence of programmatic politics’ impossibility that the argument implies.

Doubtless, the argument is to be taken seriously. Its validity or invalidity cannot just be assumed. It would be overhasty to dismiss the thesis advanced by Théorie Communiste and others regarding programmatism out of hand. Part of the interest in critically engaging with the various currents of communization theory is that I feel there is quite a bit of common ground in our diagnosis of the present state of politics, especially as regards the (non-)viability of working-class militancy or mass forms of organization today. This remains so even if the emphasis we lay on the accumulation of past political defeats versus Théorie Communiste’s (and others’) emphasis on subsequent (post-1917, post-1968) transformations within capitalism’s mode of subsumption, real vs. formal, is somewhat different. Continue reading

Man and Nature, Part II: The Marxist Theory of Man’s Alienation from Nature

Still from Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979)

When Marx wrote his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he was likewise concerned with the problem of man’s (specifically, the worker’s) relationship to nature.  It was part of the worker’s fourfold alienation under capitalist modernity: his estrangement from nature, from the products of his labor, from other people, and from himself.  As Marx explained, with respect to nature: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world.  It is the material in which his labor realizes itself…”[1] However, as the products of the worker’s labor are expropriated, nature is reduced to a mere means of subsistence.  “In a physical sense man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc.…Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body.”[2] The natural world is further and further removed from the worker, and arrives then only in a relatively processed, mediated form.  The immediacy of nature has been lost, and nature confronts humanity as an alien, unknown entity.  This alienation is exacerbated by the shared estrangement from nature that the individual sees in other men: “Every self-estrangement of man from himself and nature is manifested in the relationship he sets up between other men and himself and nature.”[3] Or, as the Marxist theorist Max Horkheimer would later put it, echoing Marx, “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.”[4]

Clearly, the alienation felt by the Romantics toward nature was a real one, Marx recognized, but he did not see it as the result of some sort of spiritual downfall or fall from grace.  Rather, he understood it to be symptomatic of the rise of a new social formation — namely, capitalism.  That is to say, the alienation from nature that was registered ideologically (in poetry, philosophy, and art) by the Romantics was indicative of a deeper shift in the socioeconomic substructure of their time.

Although humanity’s alienation from nature was clearly a central concern of the young Marx, most of his later work was solely devoted to the analysis of class relations under capitalism and the critique of political economy.  It was thus Engels, rather, who would eventually take up the subject of nature again in his writings.  Not only in his 1883 Dialectics of Nature, a text that remains controversial within the annals of Marxist literature, but even in other works like Anti-Duhring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels discussed the way in which humanity became further estranged from nature even as science began to discover its innermost workings.  For rather than encountering nature in an organic, holistic fashion, natural science was methodologically microscopic, isolating individual phenomena from their original context and observing their operation in abstraction from the whole.  This entailed, as Bacon had already himself admitted, a certain domination of nature.  And this, in turn, implied an equal degree of alienation from nature.  Engels explained the historical unfolding of this process as follows:

The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.[5]

Although Engels himself repudiated the French materialists and natural philosophers like Bacon and Locke for their “metaphysical” approach to nature, and considered the mechanistic view of the world to have been superseded by dialectical thought, it was the mechanistic worldview that eventually won out in the field of the natural sciences.  It remains down to the present day — for better or for worse — the predominant mode of thought amongst the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology.  This is a large reason why Engels’ later Dialectics of Nature has subsequently been so disparaged by scientists and philosophers, despite the fact that some of its content is both salvageable and valuable to Marxist literature.

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