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Saturday, December 20, 2014

WTF

I left thirty-seven years in a reliably blue state, on a campus where even the stodgy conservatives were left-wing Democrats, to move to North Carolina, a red state trending purple, for the promise of hot summers and manageable winters which Susie would be able to navigate with her MS.

What I got was a purple state trending deep red, and this morning, SNOW.

WTF

Friday, December 19, 2014

GETTING IN ON THE CONVERSATION


Well, I seem to have achieved lift-off in this blog.  Which is to say, when one person posts a comment raising a question, another answers it before I have a chance.  Now I can just sit back and take credit for the whole shebang.

In response to my post on relative exploitation, Jerry Fresia and Chris had the following colloquy:

Chris:  I'm just trying to make sense of the argument, because I've had a hunch for a few years that theories of exploitation that see exploitation as a form of thievery are going to run into trouble.

Jerry:  Your phrase [i.e., mine,  not Chris's], "some individuals are both exploited and exploiters," seems troublesome to me, in many cases, given that the concept "exploiters" suggest an active, if not, conscious role. Might "passive exploitation" or "passive beneficiary of exploitation" (depending on the circumstances) be more appropriate than "relative exploitation?" I'm thinking of white semi-skilled workers who are exploited, have a tough time making ends meet, and who are clueless about any of this.

Chris:  Jerry, exploitation cannot involve a conscious role, under Marx's terms, since the majority of capitalists are not conscious of the fact that surplus value comes from production, and unnecessary labor time. As Marx shows, they think their surplus value comes from thrift, selling dear, and overall cunning, they are often overlooking the fact that it comes from the working class.

It being a slow Friday as we approach the weekend before Christmas, I thought I might weigh in.  The question Chris and Jerry raise calls for a rather complex response [and what is the point of being an eighty year old professional philosopher if you give simple answers to questions?]

The term "exploitation" as employed by Marx is deliberately and complicatedly ironic, as is everything he says about capitalism.  Recall that Marx, on the biographical evidence available to us as well as on the evidence of his writings, was someone who prized strength in men [and weakness in women, but never mind that for the moment].  Like Nietzsche, he viewed moral condemnations as the feeble responses of the weak to world-historical evils.  [Remember that Nietzsche compared Christ on the cross to bait wriggling on a hook to catch gullible souls.]  Marx is not, in the modern sense, a moralist.  He does not pronounce on what is good and what is evil.  Instead, as a strong man would, he simply states how things are.  And of course, he argues that the laws of motion of capitalist society are moving capitalism inexorably toward its overthrow and replacement by socialism.  This, he says, will happen not because weak-kneed moralizers pronounce capitalism to be immoral, but because capital will be driven by the forces of competition to centralize, to over-produce, and in an attempt to improve productivity, will bring together workers in factories in precisely the way that will facilitate their becoming -- as later students of Marx would put it -- a class for itself as well as in itself.

The morality of each age, Marx declares, like its religion, philosophy, art, and politics, is a reflection of the underlying structure of social relations of production.  Bourgeois morality is no exception [John  Rawls to the contrary notwithstanding.]   Now, by the fundamental tenets of bourgeois morality, the Prime Directive or Categorical Imperative of the market [choose your poison] is Give equals for equals.  And that is precisely, on average, what capitalists do.  They pay the fair market value for their inputs, and sell their outputs at the fair market value.  [To be sure, some of them cheat, but Marx quite properly sets them to one side when he is propounding his economic theory, for all that he details the skullduggery of factory owners in the great chapter ten of Capital.]   The full value of the day's labor-power purchased by the factory owner from the worker is the cost of its reproduction, which is to say the labor value of the food, clothing, and other necessaries that the worker must consume in order to be ready to do another day's work.  And that is exactly what the factory owner pays [or so Marx assumes, for purposes of analysis, in the early chapters of Volume One.]  How then can the capitalist exit from each cycle of production and distribution with a profit? 

The technical term for extracting more value from a factor input than is contained within it is "exploitation."  Where then, Marx asks [ironically, as though he did not already know the answer], can the capitalist find an input into production whose consumption in the production process actually bestows more value on the output than is contained in the input?  Well, Marx says, in one of the great passages of classical [or neo-classical for that matter] Political Economy, "Moneybags must be so lucky" as to find such a commodity, and find it he does in labor-power. 

Technically, therefore, the capitalist exploits labor-power, DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE PAYS FULL VALUE FOR IT AND THEREFORE SATISFIES THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE OF BOURGEOIS MORALITY.

This exploitation is not a consequence of any moral failing on the part of the capitalist.   Indeed, he could not do otherwise and still survive in the cutthroat competitive environment of the capitalist marketplace.  He is not reprehensible, by bourgeois moral standards.  Quite to the contrary, he is to be praised and honored for his fair dealing, as indeed he is by the universities that award him honorary degrees, the churches that make him a vestryman, the art museums that woo his patronage, and the governments that bestow upon him their Medals of Freedom or even offer him high positions in  the halls of power.  To say otherwise is to trouble deaf heaven with our bootless cries.

Does this mean that Marx did not in fact care about the deep, institutional evil of exploitation?  OF COURSE NOT!!!  Only someone would suppose that who had what my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, would have called a one-dimensional mind.  If you are truly incapable of appreciating the deep, bitter irony of Marx's discourse, then at least compare him to an Old Testament prophet, not to a gutless, weak-kneed moralizer who can think of nothing more devastating  to do when confronted the evil of the world than utter the philosophical equivalent of tsk tsk. 

If indeed the structure of the working class has evolved in such a fashion as to exhibit relative exploitation, recognizing this important fact has nothing at all to do with handing out moral demerits.  Rather, the recognition of the fact, if indeed it is a fact, is a pre-condition to formulating a new strategy for transformation that acknowledges the obstacles to the forging of class solidarity.

 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

RELATIVE EXPLOITATION


The subject of today's disquisition is relative exploitation.  This is not the taking advantage of your cousin, as you might imagine.  The term was invented by Marxists trying to make sense of something that Marx got wrong.  Recall that when Marx wrote in the early and middle nineteenth century, he believed that he was looking at two complementary developments in the evolution of capitalism that would, in their interaction, eventually lead to a socialist revolution.   

The first development was the progressive merger of many small capitals into larger and larger firms.  Competition, Marx was convinced, would lead large capitalist firms to drive smaller capitalist firms to the wall.  Although the story of the last century is complex, Marx's intuition was essentially correct.  We live now in a world dominated by enormous multi-national corporations whose accumulations of capital dwarf even that of small nations.

Marx was also convinced that the displacement of traditional crafts first by the gathering of craftsmen into manufactories and then by the substitution of machinery for hand-crafting ["manu-facturing"] would progressively reduce the working class to a mass of easily substitutable semi-skilled workers who could with relatively little difficulty be shifted from one line of machine-tending to another as the forces of competition and supply and demand dictated.  There is no doubt that this process was under way when Marx was writing, and as Harry Braverman documents in a classic study, Labor and Monopoly Capital, the process continued well into the twentieth century.

However, the evolution of the working class has proceeded in a manner not anticipated by Marx.  What we find now in the capitalist world is stable, entrenched hierarchies of wage-and-salary earning workers whose work experiences, compensation, and life chances are so varied that nothing remotely resembling working-class solidarity has been able to develop and grow.  From a purely formal perspective, both the men and women who work on the loading-dock or the assembly line and the middle managers in suits who occupy the corner offices are wage-earning employees who do not owe their positions to ownership or control of the means of production, and who must sell their labor to live.

The labor force of a modern capitalist nation is segmented in a number of ways, by gender, by race, by age, and by educational credentials, none of which, not even the last of these, is directly related to their ability to do their jobs.  This segmentation of the work force is used by capital to intensify and solidify exploitation.   Examples abound:  the systematic paying of lower wages to women in comparable jobs;  the collaboration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century between white workers and employers to exclude black workers from industrial jobs, which gave the white workers protection from competition by black workers and enabled employers to pay those white workers lower wages;  the elaborately hierarchical system of education credentials that effectively excludes large segments of the working class from access to less physical wearing and better paying jobs.  And, perhaps most important of all, advances in transportation, shipping, and the scheduling of supplies for production that makes possible systematic outsourcing of jobs to any area of the world in which wages are low.

All of this raises a question that could not easily or naturally be posed within the theoretical confines of Marx's analysis of capitalism, viz, Does it make sense to speak of some well-paid employees in a corporate hierarchy as being both exploited by the owners of capital and also exploiters of those below them in the wage hierarchy?  In short, can we make sense of the notion of relative exploitation?

One way to think of relative exploitation is as an extension of Marx's claim that a variety of social or economic fragments -- land-owners, financiers, middlemen, bankers -- receive transfers of the surplus-labor extracted from the workers in the production process and realized as surplus-value in the market.  If profit is the monetary manifestation of this surplus value, and if some portion of that profit ends up in the pockets of persons who are not themselves owners of capital, then perhaps some of the high wages paid to corporate executives [not to speak of university professors] should be understood not as the cost of reproducing their labor-power but as a share of the surplus value extracted from less well-paid workers.

Does this mean that those in the middle or upper reaches of the wage hierarchy are not exploited, but are only exploiters, like the capitalists?  No, some modern Marxian analysts argue.  There is a structure of relative exploitation, more complex than Marx imagined, within which some individuals are only exploited [low wage workers], some individuals are both exploited and exploiters [high wage workers whose wages are secured and protected by the segmentation of the labor force,] and some individuals are exploiters only [owners of capital or those whom effectively control capital and use that control to direct some portion of the profits into their pockets.]

A classic analysis of this idea of relative exploitation, by my old friends and UMass colleagues Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, can be found in their 1977 article "The Marxian Theory of Value and Heterogeneous Labour: A Critique and Reformulation", Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 1(2), pp. 173-192.  [A warning.  The math is somewhat formidable for us novices.]
 
I shall try to find time to go into this in my course next semester.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

ABOUT TIME

The Huffington Post reports that the United States is moving to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.  This is clearly a direct consequence of the Cuba Protest Rally that Nadav Safran and I co-chaired at Harvard on April 26, 1961, nine days after the ill-begotten Bay of Pigs invasion authorized by John F. Kennedy and stage-managed by the C. I. A.  It is not often that private citizens like me are able to alter the course of world events, and I must say it feels good. 

BACK TO TWO FINGERS


Well, physical therapy didn't help;  Naproxin didn't help;  an arm strap didn't help;  Rolfing didn't help.  So I am just going to go back to typing with both forefingers and play through the pain, as they say in football.  Four weeks from now, I will get a cortisone injection under ultrasound.  If that doesn't work, I may try aroma therapy [not really -- that was a feeble attempt at humor.]  Time to return to the blog.

Let me thank all of you who posted thoughtful reactions to my meditation on privilege and luck.  I found the comments insightful and very interesting.  A few responses.

To Michael, it is certainly true that systematic anti-Semitic prejudice has almost evaporated in much of American life during my adulthood.  Growing up in a nominally Jewish family, I experienced very little of it directly or overtly, at least so far  as I knew [lord knows, there were enough other reasons to find me objectionable, so any rejections I suffered may have been over-determined, as they say in Althusserian circles.]  My casual impression is that anti-Semitism persisted a good deal longer in the business world and the world of public affairs [it played an important role, I believe, in Roosevelt's failure to do much of anything to save Jews from the Holocaust.]

I have already responded to Derek and Magpie, both of whom contributed very thoughtful comments.  It is quite obviously the case that all of us who live in a wealthy first-world country benefit enormously from this fact, and if we were born here, we can claim no credit at all for our good fortune.  The hundreds of millions of men, women, and children who live in desperate poverty in this world are all, I would think, less fortunate than the least fortunate of us here in America, or than in Europe and large parts of Asia and Latin America.  There are really only two ways to respond to this fact.  The first is literally to obey Christ's injunction to "go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me."[[Matthew 19:21]  The other is to accept the privileged life that chance has given one, and find ways consonant with that privilege to make the lives of others better.  This used to be called noblesse oblige, and in America, it is frowned upon as implying a claim of superiority.  But facts are facts, and if you never have to worry about whether you have enough to eat, wearing pre-torn designer jeans and affecting a common touch does not alter the realities.

Monday, December 15, 2014

DOWN MEMORY LANE

on saturday, susie and i watched kentucky whip the unc tarheels in an away game.   on the sidelines, coaching kentucky, was john calipari, who began his coaching career at umass.  john looked pudgier than i remembered him, but otherwise unchanged.  for the last twenty-one years that i taught at umass, susie and i lived in a beautiful house that we had built in pelham, a tiny town just west of amherst.  we lived on a country lane, buffam road, and if you walked about a mile further out on buffam, you passed the modest ranch house where calipari lived.

umass is nothing much as a basketball school, but for a few glory years in there when calipari was coaching marcus camby, the team flourished, and even went to the final four one year.  until then, umass amherst, the flagship campus of the state university system, had benefited from the state legislature's benign neglect.  only one member of the entire legislature had actually gone to the state university, and inasmuch as our campus was eighty miles west of boston surrounded by asparagus fields, the legislature took no notice of us.  this caused some problems when there was a state budget crisis and the state university was the first agency cut, but all in all, it was just as well that they never noticed we had the best marxist economics department in the country.

then calipari and camby came to town, and suddenly state senators and reps were calling the chancellor for complimentary game tickets.  after a bit, camby and calipari both went to the nba and things calmed down.

i did not go down the road very often past the calipari house -- i was swimming for my morning exercise in those days -- but susie walked that way nearly every day, and got to know all the people along her route.

The outcome of the game on saturday was more or less foreordained, since kentucky is ranked number one and unc is a distant twenty-first.  it was a trifle unfair.  i mean, one of their players is seven feet tall.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

NIGHT THOUGHTS


one of the many curious characteristics of human beings is that we find it easier to bear adversity when we discover that others are similarly afflicted, especially so when what is besetting us has a name.  i am at the moment suffering from two minor afflictions, one physical and the other spiritual, each of which has been given a title, and somehow, that fact makes them bearable.  the physical problem is the persistent pain in my left arm, which, i am told by the doctors whom i have consulted, is called 'tennis elbow.'  [never mind that i do not play tennis, and would use my right arm if i did.  when i objected to the label, one doctor replied breezily, 'oh, ninety percent of the people who come to see us with tennis elbow don't play tennis.']  inasmuch as the specialist who  will give me an injection of cortisone under ultra-sound cannot see me until january 13th, i plan tomorrow to call a 'rolfer' [at the suggestion of my son ] to see whether he can help.

the spiritual problem is a general eeyore-like gloominess that comes over me each year as christmas approaches and displaces my customary tigger-ishness.  i associate this with the end of the academic year and the approach of the holidays with their interminable three-day weekends, but in all likelihood i am reacting in a primordial manner to the shortening of the daylight hours, which reach their nadir with the winter solstice, roughly on december 21st.  i think i was well into my seventies before i discovered that this affliction too has a name -- 'seasonal affective disorder,' or s.a.d.  how comforting that discovery was.  the mere fact of the name, i feel, gives me leave to wallow in my funk, cosseting myself with chocolate ice cream from the parlor across the street, or lying slugabed until five-thirty or even six in the morning.

this year, my s.a.d. has been made more intense by such unrelated matters as the mid-term defeats and the release of the congressional report on official united states torture.  last night, as i lay awake, kept from sleep by the physical pain and kept from pleasant daydreams by my spiritual distress, i distracted myself by composing in my head a lengthy meditation on an odd fact about my life that has long posed for me a puzzle.  this blog post, even more self-referential than is my custom, is a report of that meditation.

the puzzle quite simply is this:  how am i to think about the fact that neither i nor my immediate family, for almost a century, has been adversely affected in our personal lives by the flood of terrible things that have happened to our country and that our country has chosen deliberately to do?  needless to say , i am grateful that we have been spared, but our immunity gives to those evils, for me, a hypothetical or merely conceptual character, as though i were contemplating the problems of some alternative world.  since i have for much of my adult life been a passionately engaged ideologue, it seems to me, how shall i say it, inappropriate that none of the evils against  which i have railed have affected me personally.  the incongruity is made all the worse by my embrace of karl marx's scorn for what he and engels called 'utopian socialism,' the speculations about better societies ungrounded in the realities of this one.

my father was too young to be called to serve in the first world war, and too old to serve in the second.  indeed, only one person in my extended family, a very distant cousin named joe singer, spent any time in uniform before i enlisted in the massachusetts national guard in 1957.  [joe sat out the war on a weather station in burma, and as a little boy, i contributed to the war effort by writing v-mail letters to him.]  my father went to work as a substitute teacher in the new york city school system upon receiving his master's degree from columbia, and from that time, roughly 1924, until his retirement from that same school system in the late sixties his employment was never in doubt.  because he came from a socialist family, he never invested in the stock market, a fact of which he was very proud, so the crash of '29 did not touch him.  i was born in 1933, in the depths of the great depression, but nothing in the circumstances of my family suggested that the country was being torn apart by drought and unemployment, by economic misery more severe than it had ever known.  my own working life as a college professor coincided with a period in american history during which tenure was secure and virtually unbreakable.  tenure is a recent phenomenon in academia, a post-world war two phenomenon really, and it is now under an assault that will probably destroy it at all but the elite rich private institutions.  but from 1964, when i was hired as a tenured associate professor at columbia university, until 2008, when i retired from a tenured professorship at the university of massachusetts, my employment was absolutely secure, regardless of how far i strayed from the field in which i had earned my doctorate or how controversial were the views i expressed.  in america, only independent wealth or ordination in the roman catholic church offer comparable security.

the raging inflation of the 1970's, which wreaked havoc with many lives, served simply to reduce the real economic burden of my mortgage, and inasmuch as my salary more or less kept pace with the official consumer price index, the net effect on my financial status was positive.  the great recession of the past six years has indeed reduced the market value of the condominium in which i now live, but since i plan to stay here until i die, and my sons are both quite successful on their own, that paper loss will merely reduce somewhat their inheritance when i die.

i am white, not black, so i have been personally untouched by the deeply rooted systemic racial discrimination and oppression on which this country is built [save to benefit silently and invisibly from it, of course.]  although i am nominally jewish, i entered the academy just as the long-established discrimination against jews subsided. 

in short, i and my family have lived charmed lives in a world awash in ugliness.  since there is a voice in my head that is constantly challenging me to justify myself -- have i worked hard enough, have i done what i ought to help those less fortunate than myself, what have i done lately -- i cannot honestly say that this completely unearned good fortune gives me great comfort.  but it is a fact.

those of my actions that others might view as supererogatory have in truth been more self- than other-regarding.  i spoke out against nuclear weapons because i enjoyed the attention it brought me.  i raised money for students in south africa because it flattered me to be received so warmly when i traveled there to meet the students who had received the scholarships.  there were some who were so foolish as to imagine that i left the philosophy department at umass to join the afro-american studies department out of some moral conviction, but the simple truth is that i, like most philosophers, care more about sheer intelligence than anything else, and when i noticed that the members of the afro-am department were, on average, smarter than the members of the philosophy department, the decision was a no-brainer.

it was about at this time that the acetaminophen finally eased the elbow pain, and i drifted off to sleep.