may-day-1919

Insurgent Notes conference at CUNY Grad Center, Sunday (2.5.17)

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Re­post­ing here the ori­gin­al open call is­sued by In­sur­gent Notes back in Janu­ary, along with the up­dated agenda sched­ule they just re­leased. I’m plan­ning to at­tend, along with a bunch of oth­er people from all around the coun­try. Would be great to see any­one there; In­sur­gent Notes is one of the few present polit­ic­al projects that seems to me worth­while.

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We’re writ­ing to ask you to join us at a pub­lic meet­ing to dis­cuss the broad top­ic of “Build­ing a Rad­ic­al Left in the Age of Trump.” The meet­ing will be held at the CUNY Gradu­ate Cen­ter in New York City on­ Sunday, Feb­ru­ary 5, 2017. We’ll con­firm a date as soon as our in­quir­ies re­gard­ing a pos­sible site are answered.

We are call­ing this meet­ing be­cause, along with many oth­ers, we real­ize that we are en­ter­ing a time of great un­cer­tain­ties and great dangers — dangers that res­ult from what the gov­ern­ment does here and abroad and dangers that res­ult from the emer­gence of a vari­ety of new right-wing pop­u­list and na­tion­al­ist forces that can only be un­der­stood as pre­fas­cist or fas­cist. At the same time, we in­sist that the great ma­jor­ity of Trump sup­port­ers can­not and should not be tarred with such a brush. In­deed, as we wrote in our most re­cent ed­it­or­i­al, “There are people in the Hil­lary camp who are our en­emies, and there are people in the Trump camp who are our po­ten­tial al­lies.” Many people at­trac­ted to the Trump cam­paign, al­tern­at­ively, could be at­trac­ted to a con­sist­ent vis­ion of an al­tern­at­ive to cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, which up till now has not ex­is­ted. They will not, however, be at­trac­ted to a de­fense of the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs — no mat­ter how dressed up in no­tions of un­der­stand­ing, tol­er­ance and op­por­tun­ity.

We are con­vinced that the only way out of the ter­rible mess that this coun­try and the world are in is the de­vel­op­ment of a mass rad­ic­al move­ment — a move­ment that will chal­lenge the fun­da­ment­al bases and char­ac­ter­ist­ics of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety with a pro­gram for the rad­ic­al re­con­struc­tion of this so­ci­ety un­der the dir­ect demo­crat­ic con­trol of the im­mense ma­jor­ity of the people. Such a move­ment can­not re­strict it­self to par­ti­cip­a­tion in elect­or­al cam­paigns of any kind. We need to be clear — we do not be­lieve that such a move­ment can be built upon the legacies and tra­di­tions of lib­er­al­ism, pro­gressiv­ism, so­cial demo­cracy, or Sta­lin­ism-Trot­sky­ism-Mao­ism.

Over the course of the last six years, In­sur­gent Notes has pub­lished four­teen is­sues of its on­line journ­al. For the most part, we at­trac­ted mod­est levels of at­ten­tion and sup­port. Re­cently, we be­lieve in re­sponse to art­icles and ed­it­or­i­als fo­cused on the elec­tion and its out­come, we have seen a dra­mat­ic up­swing in the num­ber of vis­its to our web­site, the num­ber of com­ments pos­ted and the num­ber of new sub­scribers.

We feel com­pelled to seize upon that mo­mentum to find out how we might con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment of the move­ment that we so des­per­ately need. We re­cog­nize that such a move­ment will be the res­ult of the com­ing to­geth­er of in­di­vidu­als with dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ences and polit­ic­al con­vic­tions. To­wards that end, we also be­lieve that we need to come up with new forms of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion that can al­low for the defin­i­tion of fun­da­ment­al agree­ments, provide space for on­go­ing pro­duct­ive con­ver­sa­tions and en­able us to act in con­cert as events un­fold.

Let’s briefly de­scribe what our pre­lim­in­ary ideas are for the meet­ing:

  • The meet­ing would take up the bet­ter part of a day — per­haps from 11 am to 5 pm.
  • We hope to in­clude pan­el dis­cus­sions on at least the fol­low­ing ma­jor top­ics:
    • The world’s crises and the elec­tion
    • Class and race: is there any­thing new to say?
    • An anticap­it­al­ist vis­ion
    • Cre­at­ing a new lan­guage of hope and re­volt
    • Nam­ing and fight­ing male su­prem­acy
    • Ima­gin­ing new forms of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion.
  • We also hope to in­clude op­por­tun­it­ies for people to get to know each oth­er and to act­ively en­gage in con­ver­sa­tions about the most press­ing of the is­sues.
  • We’re go­ing to work hard be­fore and dur­ing the meet­ing to in­sure that present­a­tions and com­ments go far bey­ond the mere re­state­ment of pri­or con­vic­tions or the re-ar­guing of old de­bates.
  • We’d like to en­ter­tain sug­ges­tions for next steps after the meet­ing.
  • We’re hop­ing to spon­sor an in­form­al so­cial event at the end of the day.

Please feel free to cir­cu­late this mes­sage to people who you think might be in­ter­ested. We’ll be post­ing de­tails about the meet­ing on this web­site.

If you have any ques­tions, please write to us.

In hope­ful solid­ar­ity,
The ed­it­ors

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This com­ing Sunday join In­sur­gent Notes for a day-long series of dis­cus­sions around the Trump pres­id­ency and the way for­ward for the re­volu­tion­ary left. Here is the day’s pro­gram:

Agenda for In­sur­gent Notes pub­lic meet­ing

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Sunday, Feb­ru­ary 5, 2017
CUNY Gradu­ate Cen­ter
365 Fifth Av­en­ue/Room 5409

10:00 AM – 11:00 AM Cof­fee/re­gis­tra­tion/in­tro­duc­tions
11:00 AM – 11:30 AM Get­ting star­ted — Wel­come and re­view of agenda
11:30 AM – 12:30 PM Mak­ing sense of the elect­or­al cam­paigns and their res­ults: A con­ver­sa­tion between Claire Ca­hen, Loren Gold­ner, and Arya Za­hedi
12:30 PM – 1:15 PM Anti-fas­cism and the alt-Right: A present­a­tion by Mat­thew Ly­ons of Three-Way Fight
1:15 PM – 1:45 PM Lunch & in­form­al con­ver­sa­tions
1:45 PM – 2:30 PM For wo­men’s lib­er­a­tion in an age of re­ac­tion: A con­ver­sa­tion Zhana Kur­ti and Wilson Sher­win
2:30 PM – 3:15 PM Against white­ness again: A con­ver­sa­tion between Amiri Barks­dale, Shemon Salam, and Jar­rod Sha­na­han
3:15 PM – 3:45 PM Brief re­ports on or­gan­iz­ing projects
3:45 PM – 4:30 PM Open dis­cus­sion — Re­ac­tions to the meet­ing/un­answered ques­tions
4:30 PM – 5:00 PM Wrap­ping up — Pos­sible next steps
5:00 PM – 7:00 PM So­cial gath­er­ing

Please note:

  1. At least half of the time in all ses­sions will be re­served for par­ti­cipant dis­cus­sion.
  2. Lunch will be catered; we’d like to ask par­ti­cipants not to leave the build­ing dur­ing lunch.
  3. The Gradu­ate Cen­ter is wheel­chair ac­cess­ible.
  4. We will have a video con­nec­tion — via Google Hangout — to en­able re­mote par­ti­cip­a­tion. There will be an easy sign-in by way of a web link. In­ter­ested in­di­vidu­als should send a mes­sage to ed­it­ors@in­sur­gent­notes.com by Janu­ary 31, 2017 to re­quest the link.
  5. Con­tri­bu­tions will be so­li­cited to cov­er meet­ing costs.
  6. A pic­ture ID is re­quired for ad­mis­sion to the Gradu­ate Cen­ter.
  7. Preregis­tra­tion — we strongly en­cour­age preregis­tra­tion. Send an email mes­sage with name, best email ad­dress and cell phone num­ber to ed­it­ors@in­sur­gent­notes.com. Prefer­ably by Janu­ary 31, 2017.
  8. We hope to have au­dio, and pos­sibly video, re­cord­ings of the present­a­tions and dis­cus­sions.
  9. If you have any dif­fi­culties get­ting to the meet­ing, please send an email to the ed­it­ors’ ad­dress on Feb­ru­ary 7th to ob­tain as­sist­ance.
Not yet human, behind the scenes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey copy 2

Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx

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The earth will rise on new foundations.
We have been nothing; we will be everything.
’Tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place.
The International will be the human race.

— L’Internationale, 1871

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Universality today seems a lost cause, the mild resurgence of Marxism in recent years notwithstanding. A number of prominent theorists have championed this category in their critiques of multicultural neoliberalism, perhaps most notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, but have made little headway. Vivek Chibber’s noble (if somewhat flawed) 2013 polemic against Postcolonial Studies was made to suffer the indignity of a public scolding by whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who writes under the handle Of CLR James: “If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these ‘two universalisms’ [the universalism of capital and the universalism of labor] in order to denude the particular, to remove the particularity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal.” He claims that Chibber’s book is thus not even Marxist, since the real Marxists à la mode have already all accepted the legitimate points raised by postcolonial and decolonial theory and moved on:

The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is one which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that one which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities.

Obviously, there’s no accounting for fashion. And I won’t even touch the platitude about “meeting people where they are.” Loren Goldner is perhaps a little old-fashioned. In any case, he has little patience for this fashionable nonsense. Deploring postcolonial theory as “a relativizing discourse of cultural ‘difference’ incapable of making critical judgments,” Goldner argues that Marxist universality must be recovered, reasserted, and boldly upheld. “Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue),” he writes. “For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different ‘cultures,’ are ‘white male’ or ‘Eurocentric’ constructs designed to deny to women, people of color, or gays the ‘difference’ of their ‘identity’.”

Goldner’s fulminations against the influential Heideggerian idea of ontological difference and its French variations are well known. He suspects that the partisans of “the current climate of postmodern culturalism” are mostly disturbed by the fact the Marxian critique does not have recourse to its usual explanatory mechanisms: “What bothers them is that the concept of universality for Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in the metaphysics of ‘power,’ which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.”

Questions of fashion aside, it might still be asked whether the method described above by Taylor is the way Marxists actually approach matters of universal import. In what does the universality of Marx consist? Goldner tells us: “The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinguished by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population nature imposes on other species.” According to Marx, then, the special characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, or rather potentially sets it apart, is that humans exist historically. Unlike other species, knowledge and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next through record-keeping, allowing individual humans to participate in the past as more than just temporary embodiments of genetic code. “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s becoming man,” Marx concluded in Paris 1844. Élisée Reclus, a prominent nineteenth century anarchist and professional geographer, put it pithily: “Man is nature become conscious.”

One crucial detail is omitted in Goldner’s otherwise accurate formulation of Marx’s view, however: namely, that this uniquely human capacity manifests only at a specific moment in history, though perhaps it was always latent in its nature. By a confluence of factors, many of them fortuitous and by chance, a systemic logic took hold which would sweep away older forms of local community in the name of a global society founded on exchange. With the historic emergence of capital, new vistas of possibility are opened up (even if today they seem to have closed). Powers and capacities that did not hitherto exist become available for the first time. Continue reading

8_Las-Vegas-Cover-Image_The-transition-to-a-post-capitalist-environment-is-an-extended-process-that-will-involve-reinhabitation-of-our-existing-cities-and-structures.

Capital as civilization

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Few words arouse such controversy as “civilization,” which calls to mind the self-appointed mission civilisatrice undertaken by great colonial empires of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and politesse. It is thus historically tied to the sporadic growth of cities, population centers separate from the countryside which often doubled as the seat of political power. Amadeo Bordiga had this in mind when he briefly sketched the meaning of civilization in his polemical letter to the post-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil” (1951), initially defining civilization by way of contrast. “Barbarism is the opposite of civilization and also of bureaucracy,” wrote Bordiga. “Our barbarian ancestors, lucky them, did not have organizational apparatuses based (old Engels!) on two elements: a defined ruling class as well as a defined territory. Under barbaric conditions there were clans and tribes but not the civitas, meaning city as well as state. Civilization is the opposite of barbarism and means state organization, therefore necessarily bureaucracy; this is what Marxism says.” Henri Lefebvre, a French dissident Marxist, located “the political city at the point of origin on the space-time axis of total urbanization, populated primarily by priests, warriors, princes, ‘nobles,’ and military leaders, but also administrators and scribes.” (The Urban Revolution, pg. 8). Later the political city was supplanted by the mercantile city in Lefebvre’s schema, and this in turn was supplanted by the industrial city.

All this squared neatly with the Marxist classics, as Bordiga alluded to above. Friedrich Engels claimed in his work on Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that “the fixation of the antithesis between town and country as the basis of the entire social division of labor [is one of the] marks of civilization” (MECW 26, pg. 275). Karl Marx jotted down in one of many barely-legible polyglot scribblings that “about 850 BC civilization began unter the Asiatic Greeks.” Commenting on John Lubbock’s 1870 The Origin of Civilization and Lewis Morgan’s 1877 Ancient Society: Research in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, Marx noted the historic passage from gentility to civility: “Griechische society first comes under notice around time of… legislation of Cleisthenes, vorgehend Übergang von gentile in political (or civil) Organisation… Er hätte sagen sollen dass political hier Sinn des Aristoteles hat = städtisch und politisches animal = Stadtbürger, ζῷον πολιτικόν. Der Township, mit der fixed property it contained und people who inhabited for the time being, was to become the unit of organization; gentilis transformed into civis” (Ethnographic Notebooks, pgs. 196-197). Vere Gordon Childe, like Lefebvre, considered civilization the result of an urban revolution, calling the very notion of prebourgeois “civilization” a contradictio in adjecto. “There was never such a thing as neolithic civilization,” argued Childe (Man Makes Himself, pg. 65). Lefebvre, for his part, maintained that “cities have always been a place of civilization.” In another text, he continued: “By excluding the urban from groups, classes, and individuals, one also excludes them from civilization, if not society itself” (Writings on Cities, pg. 195).

While the word is rooted in these ancient Latin words, “civilization” as a neologism dates only from around the age of Enlightenment. The timing of its coinage is no mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. Like “society,” it is a concept of the Third Estate, as Adorno liked to point out. Émile Benveniste, a French semiotician, discovered the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau. In its post-1765 usage, Benveniste observed that “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as a state of civilized society.” From there the concept was imported to Britain by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith, likely through their contact with the physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot in France. Anticipating Sigmund Freud’s later conceit that the civilization of society resembles the maturation of the individual, Ferguson in his Essay on the History of Civil Society postulated: “Not only does the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.” See Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents: “The development of civilization is a special process comparable to the normal growth of individuals.” Millar and Smith each felt civilization was marked by a complex division of labor, wherein “the human mind can be fully cultivated and expanded; man thereby rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.” Once again, this lined up with the earlier gloss on the word provided by Victor Riqueti, alias Mirabeau. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists,’ he began, ‘they would reply, “the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the place of laws of detail.”

Following the European discovery and conquest of the New World, maritime commerce expanded as cities again came to dominate the countryside. Seigneurial virtues like courage, magnanimity, and noblesse oblige gave way to entrepreneurial virtues such as cunning, austerity, and philanthropy. Contracts took the place of oaths. Norbert Elias has forcefully argued that certain conventions from prebourgeois European court life (manners, etiquette, dress codes, behavioral norms) were carried into bourgeois society out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although moral philosophers like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic selflessness with bourgeois self-love, these courtly vestiges in civic life account for the high premium placed on “courtesy” [courtoisie, cortesia] as well as “civility” [civilité, civiltà, Zivilität] among representatives of the rising middle class. Yet this legacy passed down from medieval court society was only part of what Elias called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, the process entailed a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this new regime of self-restraint. Some have suspected a similarity between Elias’ notion of civilized “restraint” and Michel Foucault’s concept of “discipline” through correct training, but this similarity is only apparent. Elias’ concept of self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression. Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias was quick to acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms or expectations associated with the workplace, rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis. The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Jean Starobinski, the Swiss philologist and literary critic, definitively showed that “the word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.” Denis Diderot, Marx’s favorite political author, was already using the term in exactly this sense around 1775, declaring that “civilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.” Lucien Febvre of the Annales school of historiography wrote in his 1930 essay “Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” François Guizot,

“The idea of progress, of development, appears to me the fundamental idea contained in the word, civilization. What is this progress? what this development? Herein is the greatest difficulty of all. The etymology of the word would seem to answer in a clear and satisfactory manner: it says that it is the perfecting of civil life, the development of society, properly so called, of the relations of men among themselves.”

Freud, Future of an Illusion: “Human civilization [Kultur], by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts — and I scorn to distinguish between civilization and culture — presents, as we know, two aspects to the observer.” Pg. 2.

Marx, Grundrisse: “all the progress of civilization, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production [gesellschaftische Produktivkräfte], if you like, in the productive powers of labor itself — such as results from science, inventions, division, and combination of labor, improved means of com­munication, creation of the world market, machinery etc. — en­riches not the worker but rather capital; hence it only magnifies again the power dominating over labor; increases only the pro­ductive power of capital.” (Pg. 308)

Spengler, Decline of the West: “the period of Civilization is that of the victory of city over country, whereby it frees itself from the grip of the ground, but to its own ultimate ruin” (Volume 2, Pg. 107)

“The word ‘Capital’ signifies the center of this thought — not the aggregate of values, but that which keeps them in movement as such. Capitalism comes into existence only with the world-city existence of a Civilization.” (Volume 2, pg. 493)

Humboldt: “In every survey of world history there is a progress… With the rise of man, the seed of civilization is also planted, and grows as his existence evolves. This humanization we can perceive in advancing stages.” On Language (1835)

Gilles Dauvé, “Crisis of Civilization”

Capitalism is driven on by a social and productive dynamism, and by an unheard-of regenerative ability, but it has this weakness: by its very strength, by the human energy and the technical power it sets into motion, it wears out what it exploits, and its productive intensity is only paralleled by its destructive potential, as proved by the first civilization crisis it went through in the twentieth century.

No value judgement is implied here. We do not oppose civilized people to savages (even noble ones) or barbarians. We do not celebrate “great civilizations” which would have been witness to the progress of mankind. On the other hand, we do not use the word in the derogatory sense it has with writers like Charles Fourier, who called “civilization” a modern society plagued by poverty, trade, competition and the factory system. Neither do we refer to those huge geohistorical sociocultural constructs known as Western, Judeo-Christian, Chinese, or Islamic civilizations.

The civilization we speak of does not replace the notion of mode of production. It merely emphasizes the scope and depth of a world system that tends to be universal, and is also capable of disrupting and then reshaping all kinds of societies and ways of life. The hold of wage-labor and commodity over our life gives them a reality and dynamics that were unknown in the past. Capitalism today is the only all-encompassing network of social relationships able to expand geographically and, with the respective differences being considered, to impact on Jakarta as well as Vilnius. The spread of a world capitalist way of life is visible in similar consumer habits (McDonald’s) and architecture (skyscrapers), but has its deep cause in the dominance of value-production, of productivity, of the capital-wage labor couple.

The identity of capital and civilization

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“Capital is only another name for civilization.” Marx quoted this dictum by John Wade repeatedly in the economic manuscripts, and with approval each time. Another quotation was usually situated nearby, this one by the Swiss Sismondian Antoine-Elisée Cherbuliez, whose writings on political economy Marx generally held in high esteem: “The capitalist is the social man par excellence; he represents civilization.” His reason for citing these remarks is opaque. Often they just hang there, like epigraphs awaiting excogitation. Reminders are attached: “Wade’s explanation of capital. Labor mere agency of capital… Civilization, together with my remarks about it” (Grundrisse, pg. 584). A clue is contained in another section of the Grundrisse, with suggestive allusions to free time: “Since all free time is time for free development, the capitalist usurps free time created by the workers for society, i.e. civili­zation, and Wade is again correct in this sense, insofar as he posits capital = civilization” (Grundrisse, pg. 34). Echoing this in his notebooks from 1861-1863, Marx later wrote that “surplus labor is on the one hand the basis of society’s free time, and on the other hand, by virtue of this, the material basis of its whole development and of civilization in general. Insofar as it is capital’s compulsion which enforces on the great mass of society this labor over and above its immediate needs, capital creates civilization, and performs a sociohistoric function.” Lenin similarly stressed the “luxury” generated by labor under capitalism: “The proletariat showed by deeds that modern civilization owes its existence to it and to it alone, that its labor creates wealth and luxury.”

Despite its uniform pattern, capitalism maps unevenly onto preexisting cultures, producing multiform results. While this does entail peripheral variations on the central theme of capitalist production — which is, as always, the antagonism between labor and capital in the constitution of value — this surface heterogeneity belies a fundamental homogeneity. Marx called this “the great civilizing influence of capital, its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.” “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility,” he continued. “Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, …and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse, pgs. 409-410). All parochial relations brought into its fold are either swiftly dissolved or irrevocably modified. “It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, “introducing what it calls civilization into their midst — in a word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Elsewhere, in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dealt with this twin tendency of capital to both create and destroy, or create new conditions by destroying old ones. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed this double-edged property of capitalist production “creative destruction.” Polemicizing against Proudhon, who wanted to simply get rid of the bad byproducts of bourgeois society while retaining the good ones, Marx assigned priority to the negative or destructive moment of the value-relation. Famously, he argued that “history progresses according to the bad side” (the left communist group Il Lato Cattivo takes its name from the Italian translation of this passage). Destructiveness, negativity is what drives progress. Read now the following line from Marx’s Grundrisse in light of this: “It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labor which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests” (Grundrisse, pg. 287). Marx returns to this motif once more toward the end of volume three of Capital, in chapter on the trinity formula. Just before passing on to his discussion of socialism as the “realm of freedom,” he explained that “one of the civilizing aspects of capital is that it extorts surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” (Capital, Volume 3, pg. 958).

On this last point, Marx announced in an 1867 speech to Polish delegates of the First International in London that “Russia, by the emancipation of the serfs, has entered the family of civilized nations” (MECW 20, pgs. 199-200). Rosa Luxemburg almost five decades later welcomed the 1905 revolution in Russia with similar sentiments: “All lovers of civilization and freedom, that is, the international working class, can rejoice from the bottom of their hearts… For on this day the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilization in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action.” Her comrade August Bebel affirmed that same year that “it is not our object to destroy civilization… We do not wish to throw humanity back into barbarism; on the contrary, we desire to lift the whole of humanity to the highest thinkable plane of civilization.” This simply restated what Wilhelm Liebknecht stated thirteen years prior: “Socialism presupposes modern civilization. It does not run counter in any way — far from being the enemy of civilization, socialism wishes to extend it to all humanity.” Bebel died in 1913 and Liebknecht in 1900, before the wholesale relapse of capitalist society into barbarism, but Karl Liebknecht carried their message forward in an address to workers for May Day 1916. “Let us fight for everything that means the future triumph of the working classes, the future of humanity and civilization,” declared Liebknecht before he was arrested for agitation.

Postcolonial critiques

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Marx’s identification of capital with civilization, so often overlooked, has given rise to many misunderstandings. Postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said, for example, have taken exception to some of Marx’s journalistic writings on India from the 1850s. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India,” Marx wrote for the New York Tribune, “one destructive, the other regenerative — the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia. The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindu civilization” (MECW 12, pgs. 217-218). On this passage, Said disparagingly remarked that “Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking” (Orientalism, pg. 154). “In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution,” added Said (ibid., pg. 153). Aijaz Ahmad has already highlighted Said’s “anti-Marxism,” as well as his attempt to define “a postmodern kind of anti-colonialism” (In Theory, pg. 222) — in other words, a relativist anti-colonialism. However, it is enough to turn to Marx’s follow-up article on “The Future Results of British Rule in India” to understand the sweeping scope and grandiose scale of the history he sought to articulate. Note his implicit association of civilization with urban centers:

The centralization of capital is essential to the existence of capital as an independent power. The destructive influence of that centralization upon the markets of the world does but reveal, in the most gigantic dimensions, the inherent organic laws of political economy now at work in every civilized town. The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world: on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of material production into a scientific domination of natural agencies. Bourgeois industry and commerce create these material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the earth. When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch — the market of the world and the modern powers of production — and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain. (MECW 12, pg. 222)

Sadik Jalal al-’Azm perhaps came closest to grasping this underlying “civilizational” theme in Marx’s theory of capital, even if he did not explicitly name it as such. Capital’s civilizing effect consists precisely in its “development of the productive powers of man” and so forth. In his 1981 review of Said for the Marxist journal Khamsin, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” al-’Azm unequivocally upheld the superiority of British civilization at this historical juncture: “That nineteenth century Europe was superior to Asia and much of the rest of the world in terms of productive capacities, social organization, historical ascendency, military might and scientific and technological development is indisputable as a contingent historical fact,” he asserted. “Orientalism, with its ahistorical bourgeois bent of mind, did its best to eternalize this mutable fact, to turn it into a permanent reality — past, present, and future. Hence Orientalism’s essentialistic ontology of East and West. Marx, like anyone else, knew of the superiority of modern Europe over the Orient. But to accuse a radically historicist thinker such as Marx of turning this contingent fact into a necessary reality for all time is simply absurd.” Al-’Azm went further than this, even, claiming that “the fact that he utilized terms related to or derived from the Orientalist tradition does not turn him into a partisan of the essentialistic ontology of East and West any more than his constant use of pejorative epithets like ‘nigger’ and ‘Jew’ (to describe foes, class enemies, despised persons, and so on) could turn him into a systematic racist and antisemite.”

Kevin Anderson, whose 2010 book Marx at the Margins grapples with postcolonial criticisms leveled at Marx, concedes too much to Said on this matter. “Marx repeatedly extols the beneficial impact of Britain’s ‘higher’ civilization on India’s ‘lower’ one,” Anderson laments. “This problem needs to be acknowledged” (Marx at the Margins, pg. 20). Anderson is far too keen a scholar not to have noticed Marx’s equation of capital and civilization in his mature economic texts, and the greater nuance implied. He thus reluctantly granted the point raised by Spencer Leonard in their 2012 interview, regarding the relationship of these two terms. Leonard contended:

When Marx says England represents a higher civilization [than India], he is not really talking about the “Englishness” of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in such a way that the past can only be said to be so by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the battering down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.

Though civilization is certainly a loaded term, selections from Engels lend credence to this interpretation of Marx’s view: “Civilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.” Marx in his 1863 economic manuscripts chided the prerevolutionary French author Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who had criticized Voltaire, Rousseau, and the phisolophes, preferring Oriental tributary states to European absolutism. “Linguet is not a socialist,” wrote Marx. “His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie then beginning, are thus given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance, defending Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.”

Relapse into barbarism

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After the revolutionary cycle of 1917-1923 drew to a close without spreading westward, the USSR was surrounded, encircled, and besieged. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 attempted to transform the world war between nations into an international civil war, the idea being that relatively backward countries like Russia represented the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Everything depended on successful revolution in the advanced capitalist core, however, especially in Germany. Uprisings broke out across Europe, but all of them save the Russian Revolution were eventually crushed. Lenin recognized the desperate situation in which the fledgling Soviet Union now found itself, and framed the possibility of socialism’s victory as resting on civilization. “To ensure our existence until the next military conflict between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, compromise the majority, this majority must become civilized,” wrote Lenin in 1923. “We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requisites for it [Нам тоже не хватает цивилизации для того, чтобы перейти непосредственно к социализму, хотя мы и имеем для этого политические предпосылки].” Here again civilization signifies a certain level of economic development brought about by capital, which constitutes an objective conditio sine qua non for socialist transition.

Nevertheless, Marx and his followers were never blind to the violence of capitalist accumulation, particularly along its periphery. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” he declared in 1853, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” (MECW 12, pg. 221). Barbarism is in no sense extrinsic to civilization, qua capital. It is an ever-present possibility intrinsic to its development from the start, and exists in dialectical tension with capital’s civilizing qualities. Lenin conceptualized this dialectical tension as “civilized barbarism” in a 1913 article. Discussing the proposal to connect England and France via an underwater tunnel, amidst fears of invasion, he remarked that “the civilized nations have driven themselves into the position of barbarians. Capitalism has brought about a situation in which the bourgeoisie, in order to hoodwink the workers, is compelled to frighten the British people with idiotic tales about ‘invasion,’ …in which a whole group of capitalists who stand to lose ‘good business’ from the tunnel are doing their utmost to wreck this plan and to hold up technical progress. On all sides, at every step one comes across problems which man is quite capable of solving immediately, but capitalism is in the way; capitalist barbarism is stronger than civilization.” As Marx and Engels had before him, Lenin recognized in 1913 that capitalism had actually become an impediment to further progress.

Following Lenin’s lead, Adorno would also write of “civilized barbarism” in his 1951 essay on Kulturkritik: “Were mankind to possess the wealth of goods [produced by capitalism], it would shake off the chains of that civilized barbarism which cultural critics ascribe to the advanced state of the human spirit, rather than to the retarded state of society.” Along with Horkheimer, he endeavored to “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. xvi). Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.

this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights. After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as  Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery.

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”

August Bebel

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Hendrik en Robert (Bob)de Man in Antwerpen-Burght. Mei 1907

All in the family: Hendrik de Man and his nephew, Paul

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Texts by Paul de Man

  1. Aesthetic Ideology
  2. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
  3. Critical Writings, 1953-1978
  4. Notebooks
  5. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism
  6. The Post-Romantic Predicament
  7. The Resistance to Theory

Texts on Paul de Man

  1. The Political Archive of Paul de Man: Property, Sovereignty, and the Theotropic
  2. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory

Texts by Hendrik de Man

  1. The Psychology of Marxian Socialism
  2. Beyond Marxism: Faith and Works

Texts on Hendrik de Man

  1. Zeev Sternhell, The Idealist Revision of Marxism: The Ethical Socialism of Henri De Man
  2. José Carlos Mariátegui, A Defense of Marxism

Texts on Paul and Hendrik de Man

  1. Dick Pels, The Intellectual as Stranger: Studies in Spokesmanship

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Hendrik and Paul de Man

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In a 1973 article on “Semiology and Rhetoric,” the literary theorist Paul de Man raised a question posed by Archie Bunker: “What’s the difference?” Bunker was of course the lovably racist protagonist of the popular sitcom All in the Family. Playing on the character’s last name, de Man therefore continued: “Suppose it is a de-bunker rather than a ‘Bunker,’ and a de-bunker of the arche (or origin), an archie Debunker such as Nietzsche or Derrida for instance, who asks the question ‘What is the difference?’ — and we cannot even tell from his grammar whether he ‘really’ wants to know ‘what’ difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn’t even try to find out.”

Deconstruction takes, or took, such punning deadly serious. One hesitates over the tense because, well, it’s unclear whether deconstruction is taken too seriously anymore. After all, the term is usually taken to derive from Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion, as Derrida made clear in a 1986 interview: “It was a kind of active translation that displaces somewhat the word Heidegger uses: Destruktion, the destruction of ontology, which also does not mean the annulment, the annihilation of ontology, but an analysis of the structure of traditional ontology.” (Later Derrida would trace the concept further back to the thought of another German named Martin: namely Luther, whose word destructio prefigured its contemporary use by several centuries. This is somewhat beside the point, however).

Paul de Man accusations leveled against him

Skeletons in the closet

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Ever since the publication of Victor Farías’ incendiary, if imperfect, 1985 exposé Heidegger and Nazism, the great German thinker has fallen into disrepute. Numerous titles were released in the wake of this bombshell, by scholars like Hans Sluga, Tom Rockmore, and Domenico Losurdo. Recently the discovery of the so-called Black Notebooks, which contain Heidegger’s lecture notes for 1933 up through 1935, has added to the mountain of evidence proving he was a committed fascist and virulent antisemite both in private and in public. Translation into English is slated to come out this year from Indiana University Press, but a lengthy commentary and introduction by Emmanuel Faye has been out since 2009.

Many of the criticisms made since Farías reignited the controversy have simply confirmed the judgment already passed on fundamental ontology by figures like Günther Anders and Theodor Adorno. As early as 1948, Anders accused Heidegger of nihilism: “He had no principle whatsoever, no social idea: nothing. When the trumpet of National Socialism started blaring into his moral vacuum, he became a Nazi.” In 1963, Adorno polemicized against The Jargon of Authenticity (by which he meant Heidegger’s philosophy). “Jargon even picks up banal [words], holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements.”

Jean-Pierre Faye, father of Emmanuel, further implicated Heidegger’s French admirers in the camp of deconstruction already in the 1970s. Unlike Anders or Adorno, who primarily addressed a German and American readership, Faye extended his critique of Heideggerianism to the Francophone world. Loren Goldner, a left communist and outspoken opponent of poststructuralism, explained the substance of his critique in a review entitled “Jean-Pierre Faye’s Demolition of Derrida”:

[He] shows that the famous word Dekonstruktion was first used in a Nazi psychiatry journal edited by the cousin of Hermann Göring, and that the word Logozentrismus was coined (for denunciatory purposes) in the 1920s by the protofascist thinker Ludwig Klages. In short, sections of French and, more recently, American academic discourse in the “human sciences” have been dominated for decades by a terminology originating not in Heidegger but first of all in the writings of Nazi scribblers, recycled through Latin Quarter Heideggerians. Faye zeroes in with surgical skill on the evasions of those, particularly on the left, for whom the “greatest philosopher” of the century of Auschwitz happened to be — as a mere detail — a Nazi.

After 1933, under pressure from Nazi polemics, Heidegger began to characterize the prior Western metaphysical tradition as “nihilist” and worked out the whole analysis for which he became famous after 1945: the “fall” in the Western conception of Being after Parmenides and above all Aristotle, the essence of this fall in its modern development as the metaphysics of the “subject” theorized by Descartes, and the evolution of this subject up to its apotheosis in Nietzsche and the early Heidegger of Being and Time. Between 1933 and 1945, this diagnosis was applied to the decadent Western democracies overcome by the “internal greatness” of the National Socialist Movement; after 1945, Heidegger effortlessly transposed this framework to show nihilism culminating not in democracy but…in Nazism. In the 1945 “Letter on Humanism” in particular, Western humanism as a whole is assimilated to the metaphysics of this subject The new project, on the ruins of the Third Reich, was to overthrow the “Western humanism” that was responsible for Nazism! Thus the initial accommodation to Krieck and other party hacks, which produced the analysis in the first place, passed over to a “left” version in Paris, barely missing a step. The process, for a more American context, goes from Krieck to Heidegger to Derrida to the postmodern minions of the Modern Language Association. The “oscillation” that Faye demonstrated for the 1890-1933 period in Langages totalitaires has its extension in the contemporary deconstructionists of the “human sciences,” perhaps summarized most succinctly in Lyotard’s 1988 call to donner droit de cite a l’inhumain.

Faye is tracking the oscillation whereby, in 1987-1988, it became possible for Derrida, Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and others, to say, in effect: Heidegger, the Nazi “as a detail,” by his unmasking of the nihilistic “metaphysics of the subject” responsible for Nazism, was in effect the real anti-Nazi, whereas all those who, in 1933-1945 (or, by extension, today) opposed and continue to oppose fascism, racism, and antisemitism from some humanistic conviction, whether liberal or socialist, referring ultimately to the “metaphysics of the subject”-such people were and are in effect “complicit” with fascism. Thus the calls for an “inhuman” thought.

Paul de Man’s reputation in the meanwhile has suffered a fate similar to that of Heidegger. Shortly after his death in 1983, it was revealed that he enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Between 1940 and 1942, de Man contributed a number of articles to Le Soir while the newspaper was under the management of fascist ideologues. One of the articles, on “The Jews and Contemporary European Literature,” was extremely antisemitic. Coming fresh on the heels of the Heidegger controversy, defenders of deconstruction were now faced with another scandal. De Man’s friends and co-thinkers rallied to defend his memory, organizing conferences in the vain hope that his legacy might yet be salvaged. Though several essay collections resulted from this engagement, featuring heavyweights from across the theoretical spectrum, de Man’s writings are no longer fashionable. Not the way they once were.

DoubleLifeofPauldeMan

Last year, though, Evelyn Barish released a biography detailing The Double-Life of Paul de Man. Suzanne Gordon, one of his former students, wrote a piece for Jacobin in which she denounced de Man as “a Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, serial deadbeat, and fugitive from justice in Belgium.” Here is not the place to wag fingers at de Man’s extramarital affairs, lackluster parenting skills, or casual misappropriations. While public interest in these aspects of his life is perhaps to be expected, as is its craving for salacious details, a lot of the information in Barish’s book is pure tabloid. Rumors and gossip do not merit serious consideration in the evaluation of a person’s work. Biography is not destiny.

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From James Joyce to Howdy Doody: Deconstruction and deindustrialization after 1968

Loren Goldner was an angry island of Marxian critique surrounded in the 1980s and 1990s by a sea of poststructuralist and postcolonial hogshit. Even ostensibly Marxist parties like the ISO internalized a lot of the relativist garbage of this period, however much they might claim to reject it. I think Goldner is a bit unfair in lumping the Frankfurt School in with all the other stuff he discusses in this essay, but in terms of its reception by the Anglophone academy he has a point. One might quibble with Goldner’s characterization of this or that thinker, or some of his generalizations, but this is deliberate and calculated for polemical effect.

This essay was originally published in 2001, and can be read over at his website. I’ve taken the liberty of correcting the various misspellings that appear in it, and added first names of authors who might otherwise seem a bit obscure. You should also check out his essay on “The Universality of Marx” reposted by Comin Situ a few months back, an incisive critique of Edward Said and Samir Amin.

Foucault Deleuze Sartre

Deconstruction and deindustrialization
Ontological “difference” and the neoliberal war on the social

Loren Goldner
Break Their Haughty Power
January 21, 2001
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Ars sine scientia nihil. — Jean Mignot
[Art without knowledge is nothing]

It was 1971. We were in our early twenties and we were mad. After the seeming prelude to apocalypse we had just lived through, who, at the time, would have believed that we were at the beginning of three decades (and counting) in which, in the U.S. at least, mass movements would all but disappear from the streets? Even today, the evanescence of the world-wide mood of 1968 seems slightly incredible. The funk of 1971 turned Wordsworth on his head: “Terrible in that sunset to be alive, but to be young was hell itself.”

The “sixties,” in their positive impulse, were over. In the U.S., the mass movement in the streets of 1965 to 1969 was quickly turning comatose. The ultra-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party captured SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), but captured only a corpse made up only of its own rapidly-dwindling members. The stock market crashed, Penn Central went bankrupt, and the financial markets seized up in a general liquidity crisis (it would not be the last). Not many people of the 1960s New Left paid much attention to these economic developments at the time, and fewer still understood that they signaled the end of the postwar boom. But a sense of the end of something was in the air. The December 1969 Altamont concert of the Rolling Stones had turned ugly, as the Hell’s Angels guarding the bandstand had beaten a young black man to death with pool cues. The Chicago police murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton in his sleep. Charles Manson’s collective had earlier murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and other partygoers in the Hollywood hills, leaving a fork in Tate’s stomach, and the Weathermen made the fork into a symbol of struggle at their next conference. Some Weathermen, in turn, blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village penthouse, though Bernadine Dohrn and the others would continue to plant more bombs and to put out their demented manifestos for some time afterward. The postal workers struck militantly and the government sent the National Guard — futilely — to deliver the mail before caving to the strike. Nixon and the U.S. military invaded Cambodia; the Teamsters wildcatted in Cleveland and elsewhere; the National Guard unit which had confronted the Teamsters went on to Kent State with little sleep and killed four anti-war students. A national student strike followed, but it was (significantly) taken over in many places, for the first time in years, by left-liberals who tried to turn its energy to liberal Democratic politics for the fall 1970 elections. Huey Newton, head of the Black Panther Party (BPP), was released from jail in summer 1970, announcing at the ensuing press conference his intention to “lead the struggle of the people to a victorious conclusion,” apparently unaware (after serving 2½ years on manslaughter charges for killing an Oakland cop) that the “struggle of the people” in the U.S. was, for the foreseeable future, folding up the tent. The sleaze and rot of the end of the sixties were not a pretty sight: Tim Leary, the former P.T. Barnum of LSD, held prisoner by the breakaway Eldridge Cleaver faction of the BPP in Algiers; the burnt-out meth freaks scrounging spare change; the grim determination, in dour New Left milieus, to “smash” everything bourgeois.

More diffusely but with more of a future, at least in the professional middle classes, the “new social movements” were gathering momentum: women rejected their second-class roles everywhere in society, including in the 1960s New Left; gays rode the momentum of the 1969 Stonewall riots; an important minority of blacks and Latinos moved into the middle class through affirmative action programs, the Club of Rome report on Limits to Growth and the Rockefeller-backed Zero Population Growth gave the ecology and environmental movements (and more diffusely, a good part of society) the Malthusian agenda they have never really shaken off. Continue reading

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A Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality theory

Eve Mitchell
Unity & Struggle
Sept. 12, 2013

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Eve Mitchell’s “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory” is a rigorous, excellent contribution to the emerging body of leftist literature critical of the sudden adoption of the notion of intersectionality among radicals, cribbed from bourgeois legal theory, postmodern discourse, and Derrick Bell’s critical race theory (CRT). Prior to 2011, intersectonality was seldom addressed, let alone endorsed, by Marxist or socialist theorists. Outside of the academy, the notion had some currency among anarchist and activist circles. (Patricia Hill Collins is a notable exception to this rule). The reasons behind intersectionality’s renewed salience, whether real or imagined, is something I’ve also been interested in lately.

Mitchell’s piece is especially valuable, in my mind, not only in terms of its original argumentation — though she should be praised on this score as well — but in her careful synthesis and application of a number of overlooked theoretical developments that took Marxism, or historical materialism, as a methodological point of departure. For example, Mitchell employs John D’Emilio’s outstanding 1981 article “Capitalism and Gay Identity” to situate identity as a specifically bourgeois category, owing to the rise of the individual as the main economic and political unit of bourgeois subjectivity. D’Emilio’s article is seldom read today, sadly. Second, Mitchell goes over Frantz Fanon’s first major book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), a work often overshadowed by his later text Wretched of the Earth. A few months ago I posted Sunit Singh’s review of the new translation of this book. Last but not least, she leans on the work of one of the better living Marxist theoreticians, Loren Goldner, a left communist and editor of Insurgent Notes. Goldner appeared on the “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis” event in New York, which I moderated.

The one caveat I would perhaps mention is the same as came up in connection with James Heartfield’s piece on “Intersectionality, Or Just Sectarian?” I’ve told James in the past that I disagree with his framing of the humanist/anti-humanist dichotomy, which strikes me as an extremely unhelpful and peculiarly French leftover of debates within Marxism from half a century ago. The proletariat is radical because it takes as its root the self-transformation of humanity itself (“to be radical is to go to the root of things, but for man the root is man”) — a humanity which everywhere remains an ideal and is nowhere yet an accomplished reality. No one is yet human, nor can they be in an inhuman world. Enjoy.
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I am a woman and a human

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In the United States, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a specific set of politics among the left reigns king. Today, you could go into any university, on any number of liberal-to-left blogs or news websites, and the words “identity” and “intersectionality” will jump out you as the hegemonic theory. But, like all theories, this corresponds to the activity of the working class in response to the current composition of capital. Theory is not some cloud that floats above the class, raining down thoughts and ideas, but, as Raya Dunayevskaya writes,”the actions of the proletariat create the possibility for the intellectual to work out theory” (Marxism and Freedom, 91). Therefore, in order to understand the dominant theories of our age, we must understand the real movement of the class. In this piece, I will look at the history of identity politics and intersectionality theory in effort to construct a Marxist critique of intersectionality theory, and a offer positive Marxist conception of feminism.

Detail of ancient Greek cup with two athletes wrestling, by Epictetos

Detail of ancient Greek cup with two athletes wrestling, by Epictetos

The context for “identity” and “intersectionality theory”

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In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US. More specifically, since “intersectionality theory” primarily developed in response to second wave feminism, we must look at how gender relations under capitalism developed. In the movement from feudalism to capitalism, the gendered division of labor, and therefore gender relations within the class began to take a new form that corresponded to the needs of capital. Some of these new relations included the following:

(1) The development of the wage. The wage is the capitalist form of coercion. As Maria Mies explains in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, the wage replaced serf and slave ownership as the method to coerce alienated labor (meaning labor that the worker does for someone else). Under capitalism, those who produce (workers) do not own the means of production, so they must go to work for those who own the means of production (capitalists). Workers must therefore sell the only thing they own, their ability to labor, or their labor power, to the capitalist. This is key because workers are not paid for their sensuous living labor, the act of producing, but the ability to labor. The labor-labor power split gives rise to the appearance of an equal exchange of value; it appears as though the worker is paid for the amount of value she produces but in essence she is paid only for her ability to labor for a given period of time.

Furthermore, the working day itself is split into two parts: necessary labor time and surplus labor time. Necessary labor time is the time it takes the worker (on average) to produce enough value to buy all the commodities he needs to reproduce himself (everything from his dinner to his iPhone). Surplus labor time is the time the worker works beyond the necessary labor time. Since the going rate for labor power (again, our capacity to labor — not our actual living labor) is the value of all the commodities the worker needs to reproduce herself, surplus labor is value that goes straight into the capitalist’s pocket. For example, let’s say I work in a Furby factory. I get paid $10 a day to work 10 hours, I produce 10 Furbies a day, and a Furby is worth $10 each. The capitalist is only paying me for my ability to work 1 hour each day to produce enough value to reproduce myself (1 Furby = 1 hour’s labor = $10). So my necessary labor time is 1 hour, and the surplus labor time I give to the capitalist is 9 hours (10-1). The wage obscures this fact. Recall that under capitalism, it appears as though we are paid the equivalent value of what we produce. But, in essence, we are paid only for our necessary labor time, or the minimum amount we need to reproduce ourselves. This was different under feudalism when it was very clear how much time humans spent working for themselves, and how much time they spent working for someone else. For example, a serf might spend five hours a week tilling the land to produce food for the feudal lord, and the rest of her time was her own. The development of the wage is key because it enforced a gendered division of labor. Continue reading

Housing development Ciudad Jardin Soto Real. 312 empty houses, 1169 houses not even built. 1

Radical interpretations of the present crisis

New York University
November 26, 2012
Platypus Review
56
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..Loren Goldner | David Harvey
Andrew Kliman | Paul Mattick

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Last au­tumn, chapters of the Platy­pus Af­fil­i­ated So­ci­ety in New York, Lon­don, and Chica­go hos­ted sim­il­ar events on the theme of “Rad­ic­al In­ter­pret­a­tions of the Present Crisis.” The speak­ers par­ti­cip­at­ing in New York in­cluded Loren Gold­ner, Dav­id Har­vey, An­drew Kli­man, and Paul Mat­tick. The tran­script of the event in Lon­don ap­peared in Platy­pus Re­view 55 (April 2013). What fol­lows is an ed­ited tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion that PAS-NYC hos­ted on Novem­ber 14, 2012 at the New School.

Pre­lim­in­ary re­marks

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Loren Gold­ner:
The title of my talk to­night is “Fic­ti­tious Cap­it­al and Con­trac­ted So­cial Re­pro­duc­tion.” It is im­port­ant to note that as we con­vene to­night, there are gen­er­al strikes across the south­ern flank of Europe, the miners’ strikes in South Africa, and at least 50 strikes a day in China. While we con­vene to talk about the crisis, there are people in mo­tion try­ing to do something about it.

Marx writes in his Grundrisse, “Cap­it­al it­self is the mov­ing con­tra­dic­tion, [in] that it presses to re­duce labor time to a min­im­um, while it pos­its labor time, on the oth­er side, as sole meas­ure and source of wealth.”[1] Un­pack­ing that one sen­tence can get us very far in un­der­stand­ing the crisis and the his­tory of at least the last hun­dred years.

Cap­it­al can be broken down in­to Marx’s cat­egor­ies: sur­plus value (s), vari­able cap­it­al (v), and con­stant cap­it­al (c). With­in con­stant cap­it­al there is a break­down in­to (i) fixed cap­it­al, which refers gen­er­ally to ma­chinery and tools, and (ii) cir­cu­lat­ing cap­it­al, which refers to things such as raw ma­ter­i­als.

With these cat­egor­ies I would like to ad­dress the ques­tion of fic­ti­tious cap­it­al, which I define as claims on the so­cial wealth and so­cial sur­plus that cor­res­pond to no ex­ist­ing so­cial sur­plus. The ori­gins of fic­ti­tious cap­it­al are the ad­van­cing pro­ductiv­ity of labor in cap­it­al­ism, which is an an­arch­ic sys­tem, one that is con­stantly de­valu­ing the con­stant cap­it­al in­ves­ted by the cap­it­al­ist class. Cap­it­al volumes 1 and 2 de­scribe a pure cap­it­al­ist sys­tem, in which there are only two so­cial classes: the wage-labor pro­let­ari­at and the cap­it­al­ist class or the bour­geois­ie. Oth­er classes enter the pic­ture, for in­stance peas­ants, in the long his­tor­ic­al chapter on ac­cu­mu­la­tion. But Marx is try­ing to set up a pure mod­el and then move on to the more every­day ap­pear­ances of the sys­tem. Continue reading

Video from Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis [11.14.2012]

A panel event held at the New School in New York City on November 14th, 2012.

Loren Goldner ┇ David Harvey ┇ Andrew Kliman ┇ Paul Mattick

What does it meant to interpret the world without being able to change it?

Featuring:

• LOREN GOLDNER

// Chief Editor of Insurgent Notes; ┇ Author: — Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977 (2000), — “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the U.S. From the 2008 Crash to the Eve of Occupy” (2011)

• DAVID HARVEY

// Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the CUNY Grad Center; ┇ Author: — The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), — A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), — “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (2008) — The Enigma of Capitalism (2010)

• ANDREW KLIMAN

// Professor of Economics at Pace University; ┇ Contributing author to the Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s (MHI’s) With Sober Senses since 2009; ┇ Author: — Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007), — The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the “Great Recession” (2012)

• PAUL MATTICK

// Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Adelphi University; ┇ Contributor to The Brooklyn Rail ┇ Author: — Social Knowledge: An Essay on the Nature and Limits of Social Science (1986), — Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011)

Flier for Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis event at the New School, designed by Chris Mansour

“Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis”: A panel discussion with Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman, and Paul Mattick

Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis

LOREN GOLDNER ┇ DAVID HARVEY ┇ ANDREW KLIMAN ┇ PAUL MATTICK

// November 14th, 2012
7-10PM

// Wollman Hall
Eugene Lang building, 6th floor
65 W 11th St
New York, NY 10011

Join the Facebook event page.
Download an image file of the event flier.
Download the PDF version of the event flier.

The present moment is arguably one of unprecedented confusion on the Left.  The emergence of many new theoretical perspectives on Marxism, anarchism, and the left generally seem rather than signs of a newfound vitality, the intellectual reflux of its final disintegration in history.  As for the politics that still bothers to describe itself as leftist today, it seems no great merit that it is largely disconnected from the academic left’s disputations over everything from imperialism to ecology.  Perhaps nowhere are these symptoms more pronounced than around the subject of the economy.  As Marxist economics has witnessed of late a flurry of recent works, many quite involved in their depth and complexity, recent activism around austerity, joblessness, and non-transparency while quite creative in some respects seems hesitant to oppose with anything but nostalgia for the past the status quo mantra, “There is no Alternative.”  At a time when the United States has entered the most prolonged slump since the Great Depression, the European project founders on the shoals of debt and nationalism.  If the once triumphant neoliberal project of free markets for free people seems utterly exhausted, the “strange non-death of neo-liberalism,” as a recent book title has it, seems poised to carry on indefinitely.  The need for a Marxist politics adequate to the crisis is as great as such a politics is lacking.

And 2011 now seems to be fading into the past.  In Greece today as elsewhere in Europe existing Left parties remain largely passive in the face of the crisis, eschewing radical solutions (if they even imagine such solutions to exist).  In the United States, #Occupy has vanished from the parks and streets, leaving only bitter grumbling where there once seemed to be creativity and open-ended potential.  In Britain, the 2011 London Riots, rather than political protest, was trumpeted as the shafted generation’s response to the crisis, overshadowing the police brutality that actually occasioned it.  Finally, in the Arab world where, we are told the 2011 revolution is still afoot, it seems inconceivable that the revolution, even as it bears within it the hopes of millions, could alter the economic fate of any but a handful.  While joblessness haunts billions worldwide, politicization of the issue seems chiefly the prerogative of the right.  Meanwhile, the poor worldwide face relentless price rises in fuel and essential foodstuffs.  The prospects for world revolution seem remote at best, even as bankers and fund managers seem to lament democracy’s failure in confronting the crisis. In this sense, it seems plausible to argue that there is no crisis at all, but simply the latest stage in an ongoing social regression. What does it mean to say that we face a crisis, after all, when there is no real prospect that anything particularly is likely to change, at least not for the better?

In this opaque historical moment, Platypus wants to raise some basic questions: Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort — political? economic? social? Why do seemingly sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, can the world be thought intelligible without our capacity to self-consciously transform it through practice? Can Marxism survive as an economics or social theory without politics? Is there capitalism after socialism?

Featuring:

• LOREN GOLDNER

// Chief Editor of Insurgent Notes; ┇ Author: — Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977 (2000), — “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the U.S. From the 2008 Crash to the Eve of Occupy” (2011)

• DAVID HARVEY

// Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the CUNY Grad Center; ┇ Author: — The Limits to Capital (1982), — The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), — A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), — “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (2008)

• ANDREW KLIMAN

// Professor of Economics at Pace University; ┇ Founding member of the Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) in 2009; ┇ Author: — Reclaiming Marx’s Capital: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2006), — The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the “Great Recession” (2011)

• PAUL MATTICK

// Professor of Economics, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Adelphi University; ┇ Editor of The Brooklyn Rail ┇ Author: — Social Knowledge: An Essay on the Nature and Limits of Social Science (1986), — Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011)

Event space: