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Saturday, October 25, 2014


I am afraid that a phrase I wrote facetiously in a previous post triggered a series of comments that somewhat missed the point I was trying to make.  Since the point is actually rather important, I am going to try to spell it out at sufficient length to make it clear and avoid misunderstanding.  One of the drawbacks of communication by blog post and comment is that people tend to read quickly and not reflect on the deeper meaning of what is being said [perhaps because so often there is no deeper meaning.]  The offending passage in my previous post was this:

“The simple truth is that none of the “liberation” movements had an economically radical thrust.  In effect, their demands were variations on the same theme:  We Want In!  We demand to be and to be treated as first-class citizens, not second-class citizens, of this capitalist society – which is, after all, just another way of saying We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!

Marx quite correctly judged Capitalism to be a radically revolutionary social formation, invading and transforming every corner of the society in which it grows and flourishes.  He observed Capitalism destroying the age-old division between the city and countryside.  He observed it destroying the old craft traditions and replacing them with machine production requiring nothing more than interchangeable semi-skilled laborers.  He observed Capitalism eroding the authority of the church and the throne, expanding across national borders and erasing cultural differences that in some cases were millennia old.  One hundred and fifty years after he published Capital, we can see this process of destruction still at work on a global scale.

Despite the corrosive and transformative effect of the spread of Capitalism, there remain in the contemporary world a number of institutions and practices that exhibit what we might call pre-capitalist norms and structures.  Many of the calls for change or movements to transform existing institutions and practices are, in one way or another, efforts to complete the work of Capitalism, eliminating pre-capitalist formations and perfecting, so to speak, the triumph of Capitalism.

Let me give some examples of these processes of change, which are sometimes judged politically progressive and sometimes judged politically reactionary, but which are au fond instances of the same historical process.

If we look around us, we see a number of institutions that exhibit traces, and sometimes more than traces, of pre-capitalist norms and structures.  [Now, right here, I want you to pay close attention and not jump in with clever comments to the effect that these institutions are not really free if the effects of Capitalism.  You are just going to have to trust that I do know that, and that I am trying to make a deeper point that cannot be countered with a snappy radical-sounding comment.  Really.]   Think for a moment about three such institutions:  the Church, the military, and the university.  Each of these social institutions is older than Capitalism – in some cases many millennia older.  Each has internal norms and ideals that are thoroughly pre-capitalist.  And each has, in quite different ways, been invaded and partially transformed, as it were, by Capitalism.

The Church [either the Roman Catholic Church or the various Protestant churches] is a quintessentially pre-capitalist institution whose norms are prior to, and in many respect antithetical to, Capitalism.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, in some of its iterations, has been deeply opposed to Capitalism, especially but not exclusively in South America.  Protestant churches in the United States are notorious for fostering money-making scams and sects, but these are not capitalist in their organization and norms, for all that they are epitomes of greed.  We are instinctively offended by priests or pastors who view their pulpits as little more than cash registers, whereas we are not in the same way [please note the words “in the same way” and their meaning] offended by corporate C.E.O.’s who treat their corporations as money-making operations.  We expect a corporation to seek to make money, for all that we may disapprove of corporations as social formations.

The military, at least in America, has very considerably resisted efforts to transform it into a capitalist institution.  Its highest ranked officers make salaries no larger than those of corporate middle managers; it celebrates and honors those who exhibit courage under fire, regardless of whether those actions are in any sense economically efficient; it announces and to a quite remarkable degree abides by norms of behavior that are thoroughly pre-capitalist, for all that many of its most successful upwardly mobile middle rank officers look and sound more like MBA’s than fighting men and women.  Once again, I beg you not to respond to these lines with knee-jerk anti-military snarks.  I don’t care whether you like the Army or hate it.  I want you to look past that and see that the norms and behavior of those in the army are different [not better or worse, different] from those in a capitalist corporation.  If you are simply unable to grasp that simple fact, then go off into the woods with a copy of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft for several months and learn from Max Weber.

A fascinating case study of what I am talking about is the university, a late medieval institution whose internal norms and ideals are currently under assault by the forces of capitalist transformation.  The recruitment of corporate types as senior university administrators, the substitution of cheap labor for a tenured professoriate, the use of such metrics as FTE’s [fulltime equivalent student enrolments], the demand that professors “pull their weight” by securing external funding for research are all examples of the attempt to “put universities on a sound actuarial footing," which is to say to transform them into capitalist institutions.

Now, the point of my previous post was to call attention to the important fact that many recent social movements that have been widely understood as politically progressive or even revolutionary are in fact efforts to replace pre-capitalist practices and norms with capitalist practices and norms.  Capitalism treats those who sell their labor for wages as inputs into production, no different either in their balance sheets or in their factories and offices from other inputs such raw materials, machinery, or electricity.  Distinctions within the labor force grounded in race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or age are, from the perspective of pure capitalist calculation, market imperfections that interfere with “the efficient use of scarce resources with alternative uses,” to quote a classic definition of the subject matter of the science of Economics.  [This is so even though Capitalism has from time to time used “imperfections” to hold down wages.]

Thus, the long and successful Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the premier liberation movement of my lifetime, was never an attack on Capitalism [although many of its heroes and heroines, most especially W. E. B. DuBois, understood the connection between Socialism and genuine liberation].  The Women’s Movement, which took dead aim at the injustices and inequalities of the oldest pre-capitalist social institution, the Family, sought from the beginning the complete incorporation of women into Capitalism, by way of inclusion in the workplace and the political sphere, never the liberation of women from Capitalism.  And the same is true of the Gay Liberation Movement that has recently achieved such remarkable success.

That is what I was trying, unsuccessfully, to say in my previous post.  I hope it is all bit clearer now.

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