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Monday, November 24, 2014


The responses of Jerry Fresia and Magpie to yesterday's post raise so many  important issues that I scarcely know where to begin.  Let me start with the term banausic, an adjective translated [or virtually transliterated] from an ancient Greek term for the labor of common workmen, and by extension, for the workmen themselves.  It  is a term of contempt, sometimes translated "mechanic," or "mechanical."  Plato and Aristotle believed that the labor of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants corrupted their souls and made them unfit for full participation in the deliberations of the public sphere.  One finds a very similar attitude in the writings of Hannah Arendt [suitably cleaned up, as it were.]  There is an interesting echo of this attitude in John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures, one of his revisions of the simple utilitarianism on which he was raised by his father and his godfather [Jeremy Bentham.]  Mill assumes without argument that the common folk are capable of enjoying only the lower pleasures, whereas the elite, such as himself, can appreciate both the lower and the higher pleasures, and hence are in a position to judge that the higher are better.[[One is reminded of the old definition of Jewish foreplay -- half an hour of nagging.]  By describing the labor of common workers in language customarily reserved for the analysis of the act of artistic creation, Marx accomplishes a brilliant transvaluation of values [to steal a phrase from that virtuoso of dismissive contempt, Friedrich Nietzsche.]

The celebration of manual labor appears in many places, such as the early Israeli Kibbutzim, various nineteenth century American transcendentalist utopian experimental communities, and the writings of such twentieth century authors as Carl Sandburg and Paul Goodman.  It also famously crops up in the late writings of Leo Tolstoy.

Although it is only tangentially relevant, I cannot resist the temptation to quote the glorious last paragraph of Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution:

"It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the height to which he may carry his technique.  Social construction and psycho-physical education will become two aspects of one and the same process.  All the arts -- literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form.  More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point.  Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler;  his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical.  The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic.  The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.  And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

A very large portion of Volume One of Capital is devoted to spelling out in rich circumstantial detail the ways in which first the substitution of manufacturing [literally "making by hand"] for traditional handicrafts and then the substitution of machine production for manufacturing robs labor of its natural rhythms and its fusion of hand and head and transforms it into a rote activity that is deadening and life-destroying.

The division of labor into handwork and headwork, with its implications for class stratification,  is one of the most distinctive "achievements" of capitalism, and the overcoming of the division has been a goal of revolutionaries in many countries.  In the South Africa that I first discovered in 1986, and with which I fell in love, this took the form of a call among radical academics for the granting of formal educational credentials to those township residents who, despite being denied access to higher education, had demonstrated in their work lives a mastery of the skills and concepts that school learning was intended to instill.  It was argued, for example, that those who managed the informal township councils of Soweto, Alexandra, or Mamelodi had acquired as much understanding of government as those who had studied Public Administration at university, and should therefore be awarded the appropriate university degree.  Needless to say, this, like so many other inspiring revolutionary goals, became a dead letter once the apartheid  regime was overthrown.

Here in the United States, the popular slang for this division used to be "suits and shirts," until in the '60s dress ceased to be a reliable marker for social class.


Magpie said...


Your exposition makes me read Keynes' "A Short View of Russia" (1925) in a new light.

Keynes first boasts of his very Nietzschean disdain for the "mud" and the "boorish proletariat", as opposed to "the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement" then, a few paragraphs later, remarks with evident concern that in Soviet Russia they are attempting to "construct a framework of society in which pecuniary motives as influencing action shall have a changed relative importance, in which social approbations shall be differently distributed, and where behaviour, which previously was normal and respectable, ceases to be either the one of the other."

The difference with Nietzsche and Stirner being that, in Keynes' appreciation, the elite was no longer strictly artistic/cultural (like his Bloomsbury buddies) or the old aristocracy, but now included the bourgeoisie.

Keynes, however, is entirely oblivious to the contempt Nietzsche and Stirner also felt for his beloved liberal bourgeoisie.

In a way, he reminds me of Moliere's bourgeois gentleman.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Wondering, in the passage in Chapter one where Marx remark's that Aristotle could not apprehend that value is equal human labor because Greek society was founded upon slavery, the style seems more like that of Value, Price and Profit. Is there a stylistic fluctuation here? If so, what's up with that?

formerly a wage slave said...

I wonder if this is right about Plato: "Plato and Aristotle believed that the labor of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants corrupted their souls and made them unfit for full participation in the deliberations of the public sphere". Given the parts-of-the soul doctrine he enunciates in the "Republic", I would have thought some individuals were best suited for, say, craftswork--and their limited power to comprehend was a prior fact, though perhaps made worse by the work. Secondly, though it may be complicated, Socrates of the "Apology" has rather more respect for those who perform crafts, even if, in the end they fail to possess wisdom.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You are right that the story is more complicated thaan my quick remark indicates, although I do not think the doctrine you allude to from the REPUBLIC really allows for a very exalted view of the masses. As for Socrates, I suspect you are right. His mother, after all, was a midwife, or so I have read.

Magpie said...

If you ever need to illustrate how the good and mighty (i.e. they) see the rabble (i.e. the rest of us), you can use this video clip:

It's a scene from a sci fi movie named Snowpiercer. It's actually good.