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Saturday, December 11, 2010


I am very much in sympathy with the long, thoughtful, intelligent two-part comment by English Jerk [I really have trouble adjusting to the weird names perfectly sensible people adopt on the internet. It is, I am sure, a sign of age.] The distinction between the two forms of union action is very valuable. I am not above nostalgia for the Wobblies [and, as an educator, for the once vibrant tradition of worker education.] I have two responses.

First, as I have a number of times argued, I think -- following Marx's example -- it is valuable to spend some time trying to understand the direction in which modern capitalism is developing all on its own. As I suggest in my paper "The Future of Socialism" [on line somewhere], the inner logic of capitalist expansion leads it not in the direction of small, autonomous economic units, but rather in the direction of huge internally planned aggregations of capital, whose inner decision processes, in their structure but not in their aims, looks very much like a planned economy. This happens because it is necessary to capital accumulation and profit, and can therefore be expected to continue, even in the face of efforts by the state to limit the potentially destructive consequences of such aggregation. We emerge from a financial crisis with bigger banks, not smaller ones, for example. What conclusions can we draw from this observation, assuming that it is true? I fear that in this case, the old Scottish proverb, "many a mickle makes a muckle," does not apply. The world economy is now so enormous that it has plenty of room for collectives, worker owned firms, and other small-scale experiments in non-capitalist economic organization, but I simply do not see how bringing such experiments into being and making them work, for all that it is a worthwhile effort in its own right, will move us toward the replacement of global capitalism. I very much fear that the more likely result is that some enterprising capitalist will find a way to market the effort and make a profit from it [think Whole Foods].

The second response is this: despite all of that, English Jerk's impulse is, I believe, right. The only thing we can do is try, as imaginatively as we can, in our daily lives, to search for ways of being that embody as well as proselytize for our ideals and dreams. I am old, and not likely to start a collective or much of anything else, but many of you who read this blog are young, and have lifetimes in which to make this idea real.

A caution, born of that long lifetime of experience. Thinking is easy, so we tend to think big, since it takes no more energy than thinking small. Acting is hard, and it takes all the energy we have to do just a little something. Now changing the world will take the actions of scores of millions of people, no one of whom will be the crucial actor in all of this. So find a way of embodying your ideals in your actions that you enjoy. If you do, you will keep at it not only during the exhilarating times when things seem to be on the move, but also during the long winters of discontent when everything seems to be going the wrong way. There are lots and lots of things that need doing: helping to organize a union, writing pamphlets, standing on street corners, raising money, making bombs [well, maybe not making bombs ;) ]. All of them are necessary. I, for example, like writing books and I like raising money, but I hate standing on street corners or taking part in marches. So I do what I like and can do reasonably well, hoping that in some small way it will advance a larger cause.

I think of social change as being like an avalanche, not like brain surgery. In brain surgery, one slip or false move and the patient dies. In an avalanche, rocks and trees and dirt are tumbling down a hillside, helter skelter. If you are one of the little clots of dirt [as almost all of us are], what matters is that you are rolling down the correct side of the hill, and thus adding your tiny weight to the avalanche. In this life, we really cannot ask for more than that. With luck, you will meet some nice people rolling down the hillside with you.


Amato said...

I would add I think it is wise to study the successes and failures of other (non-labor) social movements. Different Pan-Africanist movements, for example, might have something to teach us on the left. Important about Pan-Africanism, I think, is that way it has gone about forging a collective socio-cultural identity. One might presume that a shared Pan-African identity was formed in opposition to European colonialism, and this is true, to an extent. But as I'm sure you know, Europe turned a classification of black or African into such damning designation that black people all over the diasporia, including Africa, sought to escape it. Thus, Pan-Africanism has struggled, and to an extent quite successfully, to forge a global racial-cultural identity among African decedents. Anyway, I think identity plays a meaningful role in a strong radical movement. It seems to me, those of us on the left want to preach political ideology, but forget how rapped up ideology and identity are.
Also, ill say that, historically, white lead labor movements have at best been insensitive to issues facing Africa-Americans particularly, and the African diaspora generally, and at worst downright racist (the slogan of the South African Communist Party (SACP) was "white workers of the world unite"). I think that the left needs to remember, or acknowledge, that exploitation through market forces is not the only form of oppression. We live in a very Eurocentric world, where Du Bois notion of Double consciousness still exists as a real problem. Until the whites on left acknowledge, and incorporate among their concerns, European cultural hegemony, and in particular the ways it inscribes what Victor Anderson calls ontological blackness--a designation or intellectual and cultural inferiority--I fear the left is going to leave out significant portions of the world’s population in their search for solidarity.

Cobb said...

I grew up as a black nationalist and I can tell you from personal experience that the black identity has proven to be a long-term handicap, and that Pan-Africanism didn't pan out. The essential problem is that these identity politics come in conflict with the American nationalism and patriotism. America is too far leveraged into global capital for any labor movement to be anything but global. If your aim is to undermine American patriotism, then go right ahead.

Check out my essay on MLK

Here is an excerpt:
So what am I saying? I'm saying that all 'Black' politics in America that have met with any success since the era of MLK has actually been Negro politics.

What does it take to satisfy a Negro? The fulfillment of the Reverend Doctor's Dream, and that dream has been fulfilled. Middle class merit in the middle of Middle America. That was and is the Promised Land, my fellow Americans. What complaint is left in these days that there is an African American in the big chair of the Oval Office? There is only the Black complaint of radical autonomy - and that is a complaint that, not ironically, fits snugly in the belly of today's multiculturalism. Except when it doesn't, because you'll not often hear anyone asking to rearrange the letters of the NAACP so that 'People of Color' become its primary focus. No, that is an organization which has, in the wake of King's Dream un-deferred sits ignored like a grape in the freezer. And now Blacks who work and hustle the Progressive agenda to increasingly deaf and bored ears find themselves overshadowed by even more loud and radical minorities.

What happened? Blackness as ideological platform failed, but as an existential mask, it succeeded. You don't need to look up in Wikipedia what 'Angry Black Man' means. That pose is well-defined, because it has been well-maintained in our culture. Everybody gets to try it because it's so easy. And because it is so easy to adopt it is also easy to ignore - it is a mask whose shape has not changed or become more relevant as times have changed. It has become like our own panto with Black Mr. Punch struggling against the Devil of America. And because it is so easy to pantomime, it is also trivial to ignore, which is why it's so easy to be called a 'sell-out' or 'Uncle Tom'. What that means most of the time is 'Negro', if it means anything at all. A Negro can be satisfied in the middle of an imperfect America and has no need for radical Black economic, political or cultural autonomy.

English Jerk said...

Thanks for this thoughtful response. I read the "Future of Socialism" paper when you first mentioned it a while back, and I must admit I've grown a tad fuzzy on the details (probably thanks to the mountain of papers I've graded in the interim). But I have two basic reservations (which hopefully aren't just the result of missing the point!): a reservation about the level of determinism involved in this analysis, and a reservation about the time-frame of the future (the end-of-history problem, in a way).

(1) Marx's account of history depends on the idea that the current state of affairs (at any given moment) determines what is possible in the immediately following state of affairs. But how much does it determine it? Marx gets this basic idea from Hegel, and Hegel, in turn, gets it from Aristotle's Metaphysics. To rehearse the trajectory: Aristotle evades the problems involved in the split between form and matter (e.g., in Plato) by redescribing morphe and hyle as energeia (actuality) and dynamis (potentiality). The key for Aristotle is that dynamis is already pre-formed in the sense that any potentiality is a potentiality for some specific array of actualities (a chunk of wood can be made into a spoon or a chair but not into a spaceship or a ferret; a puppy grows up into a dog and not into a sheep; etc.). But Aristotle's view depends on the idea that potentialities can still permit some range of actualizations, and, when Hegel transplants this aspect of Aristotle's views into the core of his metaphysics, he makes the contingency of that range a key feature of his account. In fact, Hegel goes so far as to say that contingency is (metaphysically) necessary. This is important because, from what I understand of Marx (which is limited, to be sure), Marx neglects this point and conceives of history in a way that's ultimately more deterministic than Hegel; my guess is that it's a result of trying to reconcile Hegel with some kind of eliminativist materialism based on Newtonian science (though I must say that I'm attracted to Michel Henry's weird reading of Marx in which he's doing nothing of the kind). So, in this context, it's not clear to me how much the "inner logic of capitalism" as it is needs to determine what comes next. The massive centralization of capital that you describe introduces, among other things, massive inefficiencies at a variety of levels. Those inefficiencies might mean that the system gets more vulnerable to total collapse as it gets more centralized, and in that case a planned economy wouldn't resolve the existing system's objective contradictions because it would have the same defects. Those inefficiencies could also create gaps for the sort of small-scale projects you describe: if those projects can make themselves wholly autonomous, then I hardly see how they could be co-opted by capital in a way that would defuse them. If corporations did, say, start constructing artificial autonomous communities and selling them off like condos, then wouldn't that be precisely capitalism laying the groundwork for a politically decentered localist future? My point here is just that I'm not sure that, when we're talking about our long-term goals, we should be too fatalistic about the degree to which the present determines the range of possible futures. (Needless to say, I absolutely agree that we need to take the facts about the present seriously when thinking about our short-term goals.)

Number 2, in a moment...

English Jerk said...

(2) When we're thinking about our long-term goals, how far in the future should we look? The account you offer suggests that our long-term goals should be restricted to the phase of history immediately following the present one (the move from Capitalism to Socialism, say). But why? On Marx's account, though it's admittedly a very vague account, the planned economy of Socialism eventually (somehow) goes away and is replaced by (some kind of) stateless society, i.e., Communism. So aren't the long-term goals for Marx determined by the final stage of history, not by the next in line? And why should we accept Marx's (and Hegel's) view that we're nearing the end of these historical transformations; why not suppose that there are many transformations yet to come and that we could find ourselves in all kinds of unanticipated distant futures (if capitalism doesn't exterminate the human race first, a big if)? Keeping things anchored to the conditions of the present has the advantage of giving us some criterion by which to choose between proposed long-term goals (e.g., whether they look feasible in light of the inner tendencies of capitalism). But it seems to me that adopting that approach makes our long-term goals awfully short-term, and so, potentially, short-sighted in a dangerous way. We'll still need some criteria to evaluate proposed long-term goals, but I don't see why those criteria can't be moral or logical rather than, so to speak, sociological. After all, if we find the present world intolerable (as any sane, informed person would), it seems undesirable to keep our goals too closely tied to the present.

Such are my tuppence. Thanks for a very interesting blog, by the way. And I should mention that one of the things that makes it interesting reading, for me, is that there's genuine disagreement. Far from being a sign of unhealthy fragmentation, that disagreement, to my mind, indicates a genuine interest in thinking through the problems involved. To dispute someone's claims on rational grounds does, after all, presuppose their rationality and good faith, so I'd take it as itself a sign of solidarity and of affection.