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Tuesday, August 30, 2016


While I am waiting for the video of my first Kant lecture to be posted on YouTube so that I can give the world a link, I thought I would draw together several stories I have been reading about and give them a Marxist gloss.  [Think of this as a stroll down memory lane.]  The three stories are the kerfuffle about the Clinton Foundation, the welcome decision by the French high court to overturn the ban on so-called burkinis on French beaches [cover-up swimming outfits favored by Muslim women], and a very interesting account of an aspect of the TPP with which I was completely unfamiliar.  All three affairs strike me as examples, in very different ways, of what we might call the perfection of capitalism.

One of Marx’s many useful insights was his description of the revolutionary impact of capitalism on eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and by extension the rest of the world.  Capitalism, Marx observed perceptively, corrosively eats away at all existing long established institutions and arrangements, destroying everything that stands in the way of its relentless expansion.  It is for this reason that he describes capitalism as the most revolutionary force ever loosed upon the world.  Capitalism broke down the age old division between the city and the countryside; it hollowed out and eventually brought down both aristocracy and monarchy; it destroyed traditional craft skills, replacing them with semi-skilled machine labor; it ate into the structure of the family; and it reduced religion to a weekend amusement, turning cathedrals into tourist attractions and priests into serial child abusers.  Capitalism flirted with racial disparities, using them when it could to drive down wages, but its inner logic pushed it eliminate racial distinctions, because they reduce the size of the available work force, thus keeping wages aloft.  Capitalism broke down patriarchy, and tried its best to bring childhood to an end, all in the service of expanding the labor force.  Capitalism’s most formidable enemy has been the autonomy of the nation state, but even that is now beginning to crumble.

The Clinton Foundation is not different from other charitable foundations in its essential functions, but it has been strikingly successful at undermining the walls between capital and state.  An enormous accumulation of money acquired from foreign government officials and deployed on the world stage by a former United States President and a sitting United States Secretary of State on her way to the Presidency is almost a cartoon diagram of the social relations of production, as Marx called them, integrated with the political and ideological superstructure.  Am I shocked by the revelation that foreign government officials made multi-million dollar donations to the foundation and then sought access to the American government in   return?  Only about as much as Claude Raines was shocked in Casablanca to learn that there was gambling at Rick’s saloon.

The TPP story is rather more complex, involving as it does an obscure provision of the treaty.  This link to a Truthdig story tell you everything I know about the matter.  It details the way in which the treaty allows private companies to sue and extort money from sovereign nations, thus furthering the subordination of the state to capital.

As for the burkini matter, it is a micro-example of capitalism’s success in destroying religion.  The conflict between church and state has a long history in the west, going at least as far back as the fourth century conversion of Constantine and Charlemagne’s decision to crown himself head of his newly formed empire on Christmas Day in the year 800 A. D.  I confess that I have always been offended by France’s efforts to enforce secularism.  The case of the burkini ban and that of the hajib as well strikes me as especially egregious.  In effect, the French state says that if a young woman chooses to sunbathe topless in a thong, with nipple rings, obscene tattoos, purple spiked hair, and pierced ears, nose, and tongue, that is her inviolable right, but if another young woman chooses to dress modestly in a bathing costume that would have been considered de rigeur a century ago, the full force of the state must be brought to bear to stop her from so scandalous a display.  Puleeeze!

And there you have it, my meditation for the day.  Now to check on that link.


David Auerbach said...

Capitalism's elimination of childhood seems to have, more than your other examples, suffered a reversal. Any thoughts on why? (I have armchair theories backed up by no data whatsoever.)

Mikey said...

Prof Wolff,

The TruthDig article in the link is about the burkini controversy.

They have many articles on the TPP:

Which one were you wanting us to check out?


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Rats. I screwed up. Let me go looking and see whether I can surface the piece I read. Sorry about that.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm not sure that capitalism eliminated childhood. In pre-capitalist societies and even in much of the 3rd World today children begin to work very early, at least among the classes which need to work for a living and that includes store-owners, craftspeople, small merchants, agriculture, etc.

What capitalism did, as far I know, was to throw these children into unhealthy factory conditions, where many lives were destroyed. However, children that came from traditional farms or crafts families or merchants never enjoyed the kind of childhood one thinks of today, without working, playing with toys or playing sports, full-time studies, etc.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good point, S. Wallerstein.

Tom Cathcart said...

I'm curious how capitalism turned priests into serial child abusers. I would have guessed celibacy. : )

ES said...

I'm afraid I disagree on the burkini ban being given a Marxist twist.
It's not an enforcement of secularism in any sense but rather a banal example of European islamophobia. If this were really a secularist proposal, where is the ban on nuns' tunics on beaches?
Furthermore, it is a blatantly misogynistic tendency in that it wants to tell women what they can and cannot wear or how they ought and ought not behave in public. This is the main sense in which it is congruous to the situation from a century ago (see

Now, a more appropriate Marxist twist could be made if the "legislators" (primarily reactionary mayors in coastal towns) held precisely these islamophobic and misogynistic beliefs but disguised them as belonging to France's (putative) secularist and feminist traditions. Alas, the claim that the policing of women's bodies will ever be emancipatory rather than misogynistic is easy to see through.

But this is precisely the danger of fascism (and here you might disagree with me; it's the Frankfurt in me coming out): that it no longer cares to obscure its true intentions. Blatantly, from the start, it enters into public debate as undisguised islamophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, etc.

This is as worrying now as it was 90 years ago. But it is not nearly as worrying as its amount of followers.

(I apologise for this rant. I really needed to let this out and I don't have my own blog. But I am curious what you think.)

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

You wrote: capitalism
"reduced religion to a weekend amusement"

Do you consider the Roman Empire to have been quasi-capitalistic in composition? The early church, according to Luke's Book of Acts, was socialist in composition. In The History of the Church (book 3 chapter 33), Eusebius points out that in a correspondence between the Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger, the Christian community woke up each dawn for worship time. And if you read Pliny's book 10, the idea in one of the letters Pliny writes to Trajan is that it is only one day of the week that the Christians gather together at dawn. Trajan reigned between 98-117 AD and the christian community of Luke's Acts began around mid to late 30s AD. So if the Roman Empire was not capitalist, according to your modern definition, and Christianity became a weekend religious service for believers, from once being a week long socialist occupation (in less than 70 years) is it fair to say other forces than capitalism were at play? By the way, I also do not understand the need for a ban on burkinis. If Muslim women want to enjoy the beach while being true to their faith, well more power and kudos to them for doing so.

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