Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

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Finally, after years of near-orgiastic celebrations of the internet of things—including, of course, Jeremy Rifkin’s extravagant claim that it would move us beyond capitalism and usher in the “democratization of economic life”—commentators are beginning to question some of its key assumptions and effects. What they have discovered is that the internet of things is, “in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Nathan Heller, for example, finds that, while the gig economy can make life easier and more financially rewarding for many “creative, affluent professionals,” it often has negative effects on those who do the actual work:

A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.

On top of that, the fact that the so-called sharing economy has become a liberal beacon (including, as Heller makes clear, among many Democratic activists and strategists) has meant the displacing of “commonweal projects that used to be the pride of progressivism” by acts of individual internet-based exchange.

Perhaps even more important (or at least more unexpected and therefore more interesting), Adam Greenfield focuses on the problematic philosophical assumptions embedded in the ideology of the internet of things.

The strongest and most explicit articulation of this ideology in the definition of a smart city has been offered by the house journal of the engineering company Siemens: “Several decades from now, cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service … The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

There is a clear philosophical position, even a worldview, behind all of this: that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, this is effectively an argument that there is one and only one correct solution to each identified need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something that can be encoded in public policy, without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)

As Greenfield explains, “Every aspect of this argument is questionable,” starting with the idea that everything—from users’ habits to energy consumption— is perfectly knowable.

Because that’s the promise of the internet of things (including the gig economy): that what individuals want and do and how the system itself operates can be correctly monitored and measured—and the resulting information utilized to “provide optimum service.” The presumption is there are no inherent biases in the monitoring and measuring, and no need for collective deliberation about how to solve individual and social problems.

The ideology of the internet of things is shorn of everything we’ve learned about both epistemology (that knowledges are constructed, and different standpoints participate in constructing those knowledges differently) and economic and social life (that the different ways the surplus is produced and distributed affect not only the economy but also the larger social order).

It seems the conventional ways of thinking about the internet of things are merely an extension of mainstream economists’ ways of theorizing the world of commodity exchange, allowing a definite social relation to assume the fantastic form of a relation between things.

That’s where metaphysics and theology leave off and the critique of political economy begins.

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CEO salaries continue to soar—last year reaching a ratio to average-worker pay of 347 to 1.

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While the profits of U.S. corporations have reached historic highs.

But corporate CEOs and boards of directors still want more—more deregulation, more tax cuts. And, as Matthew Goldstein explains, since his inauguration Donald Trump has met with hundreds of executives, including at least 41 of last year’s 200 best-paid CEOs.

Back in 1848, it was already clear that

The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

 

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Apparently, “late capitalism” is the term that is being widely used to capture and make sense of the irrational and increasingly grotesque features of contemporary economy and society. There’s even a recent novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford.

A reader [ht: ra] wrote in wanting to know what I thought about the label, which is admirably surveyed and discussed in a recent Atlantic article by Anne Lowrey.

I’ll admit, I’m suspicious of “late capitalism” (like other such catchall phrases), for two main reasons. First, it presumes and invokes a stage theory of development, which relies on identifying certain “laws of motion” of capitalist history. That’s certainly the way Ernest Mandel understood and developed the term—as the latest in a series of necessary stages of capitalist development. For me, the history of capitalism is too contingent and unpredictable to obey such law-like regularity. Second, “late capitalism” is meant to characterize all of a certain stage of economy and society, thereby invoking a notion of totality. Like other such phrases—I’m thinking, in particular, of “globalization,” “empire,” and “neoliberalism”—the idea is that the entire world, or at least what are considered to be its essential elements, can be captured by the term. As I see it, capitalism exists only in some parts of the world, some but certainly not all economic and social spaces, and, even when and where it does exist, it assumes distinct forms and operates in different modalities. Using a term like “late capitalism” tends to iron out all those differences.

So, I’m wary of the notion of “late capitalism,” which for both reasons may lead us astray in terms of making sense of and responding to what is going on in the world today.

At the same time, I remain sympathetic to the idea that “late capitalism” effectively captures at least some dimensions of contemporary economic and social reality. Here in the United States, there’s clearly something late—both exhausted and exhausting—about contemporary capitalism. In the wake of the worst crises since the first Great Depression, growth rates remains low, leaving millions of workers either unemployed or underemployed. Wages continue to stagnate, even as corporate profits and the stock market soar. And the unequal distribution of income and wealth, having become increasingly obscene in recent decades, has ushered in a new Gilded Age.

As Lowrey explains,

“Late capitalism” became a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism. Nordstrom selling jeans with fake mud on them for $425. Prisoners’ phone calls costing $14 a minute. Starbucks forcing baristas to write “Come Together” on cups due to the fiscal-cliff showdown.

And, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

What is less clear is if “late capitalism” carries with it a hint of revolution, whether it contains something akin to the idea that the contradictions of capitalism create the possibility of a radical alternative. Even if contemporary capitalism is exhausted and we, witnessing and being subjected to its absurdities and indignities, are being exhausted by it—that doesn’t mean “late capitalism” will generate the political forces required for its being replaced by a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

But perhaps that’s asking too much of the concept. If it merely serves to galvanize new ways of thinking, to recommit us to the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” then we’ll be moving in the right direction.

The original premise of this post was going to be the fact that, finally, we find ourselves beyond the Red Scare. Thus, the space had been created to “move forward without forgetting” the positive role that Communism and Marxist ideas have played in the United States.

And then I read about the case of Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate in New York City, who’s being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations.

The representative told Ms. Bloomberg that she could not tell her the nature of any allegations, nor who had made them, but said that she would need to interview Ms. Bloomberg’s staff.

Then one of her assistant principals, who had met with an investigator, revealed to her exactly what the allegation was, one that seemed a throwback to another era: Communist organizing.

It seems, then, we haven’t moved entirely out of the shadow of the period (from 1930 to 1975) when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated a wide variety of public employees and private citizens, including (in 1947) the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, for their suspected “disloyalty and subversive activities.”*

It is perhaps even more remarkable then that, in 2017—which, lest we forget, marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of volume one of Marx’s Capital and the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution—the New York Times published Vivian Gornick’s piece titled “When Communism Inspired Americans.”

In that essay, Gornick reminisces about growing up in a world of “progressives,” at the center of which “were full-time organizers for the Communist Party, at the periphery left-wing sympathizers, and at various points in between everything from rank-and-file party card holders to respected fellow travelers.”

They were voyagers on that river, these plumbers, pressers and sewing machine operators; and they took with them on their journey not only their own narrow, impoverished experience but also a set of abstractions with transformative powers. When these people sat down to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them; above all, History sat down with them. They spoke and thought within a context that lifted them out of the nameless, faceless obscurity into which they had been born, and gave them the conviction that they had rights as well as obligations. They were not simply the disinherited of the earth, they were proletarians with a founding myth of their own (the Russian Revolution) and a civilizing worldview (Marxism).

They also knew that Communists and fellow travelers had, during the party’s 40-year existence, played an important role in every progressive movement in the United States.

every rank-and-filer knew that party unionists were crucial to the rise of industrial labor; party lawyers defended blacks in the South; party organizers lived, worked, and sometimes died with miners in Appalachia; farm workers in California; steel workers in Pittsburgh. What made it all real were the organizations the party built: the International Workers Order, the National Negro Congress, the Unemployment Councils.

All of that came to end, of course, with the second Red Scare, the McCarthy witch hunts and the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (Nikita Khrushchev revealed the incalculable horrors of Stalin’s rule). But, now that we are partly overcoming our historical amnesia, we can begin to remember the enormous contributions of the Party and its sympathizers in many different political, cultural, and media projects that promoted peace and economic and social justice in the United States.
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So, where does that leave Bini Adamczak’s new book, Communism for Kids? On one hand, it was issued not by some small left-wing publishing house, but by MIT Press.

Once upon a time, people yearned to be free of the misery of capitalism. How could their dreams come true? This little book proposes a different kind of communism, one that is true to its ideals and free from authoritarianism. Offering relief for many who have been numbed by Marxist exegesis and given headaches by the earnest pompousness of socialist politics, it presents political theory in the simple terms of a children’s story, accompanied by illustrations of lovable little revolutionaries experiencing their political awakening.

And yet, as Zachary Volkert reports, the book is “getting a heavy push back from conservative media.”

Does that mean we’re back to where we started? In many senses, yes. Just as the attack on the labor unions in the 1920s and the ravages of the first Great Depression created fertile ground for the Communist Party and other left-wing movements in the United States, similar events in recent decades have left us with many people who yearn “to be free of the misery of capitalism.” And both periods have witnessed right-wing reactions against those progressive movements and ideas.

Now, of course, we live in an age marked by a right-wing president and the most popular politician who happens to be on the Left—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

I still believe only the latter represents the way forward.

 

*The title of this post is a line from the “Solidarity Song” (written for Brecht’s play “The Mother”), which subsequently became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe.

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Just a few years ago, students at Oberlin College protested the college’s decision to fund a talk by Jeffrey Sachs, whom they considered to be a “neoliberal imperialist liar.”

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite sympathetic with the Oberlin students’ concerns. I have called Sachs to task on many occasions (e.g., herehere, and generally here).

But it’s also true Sachs is changing his tune, at least on some issues. Here he [ht: ja] is on interventions by the United States in the Middle East:

It’s time to end US military engagements in the Middle East. Drones, special operations, CIA arms supplies, military advisers, aerial bombings — the whole nine yards. Over and done with. That might seem impossible in the face of ISIS, terrorism, Iranian ballistic missiles, and other US security interests, but a military withdrawal from the Middle East is by far the safest path for the United States and the region.

And then Sachs ups the ante: “America has been no different from other imperial powers in finding itself ensnared repeatedly in costly, bloody, and eventually futile overseas wars.”

That’s right: Sachs is accusing the United States of acting today as an imperial power—in a long line beginning with the Romans and continuing in modern times with the British, the French, and the United States itself in previous periods, from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines through Vietnam and increasingly in the Middle East. In fact, in all these cases, the United States took up the preceding wars of other imperial powers, including Spain, Britain, and France, thereby extending imperial adventures that have been “both futile and self-destructive.”

Sachs is led therefore to conclude,

The United States should immediately end its fighting in the Middle East and turn to UN-based diplomacy for real solutions and security. The Turks, Arabs, and Persians have lived together as organized states for around 2,500 years. The United States has meddled unsuccessfully in the region for 65 years. It’s time to let the locals sort out their problems, supported by the good offices of the United Nations, including peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. Just recently, the Arabs once again wisely and rightly reiterated their support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians if Israel withdraws from the conquered territories. This gives added reason to back diplomacy, not war.

We are at the 100th anniversary of British and French imperial rule in the Mideast. The United States has unwisely prolonged the misery and blunders. One hundred years is enough.

I can only agree.

Even more: give Sachs another decade or two and he might actually become a Marxist.

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Those of us of a certain age remember the right-wing political slogan, “America, love it or leave it.” I’ve seen it credited to journalist Walter Winchell, who used it in his defense of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. But it’s heyday was in the 1960s, against the participants in the antiwar movement in the United States and (in translation, ame-o ou deixe-o) in the early 1970s, by supporters of the Brazilian military dictatorship.*

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that slogan in reading the recent exchange between the anonymous author of Unlearning Economics and Simon Wren-Lewis (to which Brad DeLong has chimed in, on Wren-Lewis’s side).

Unlearning Economics puts forward an argument I’ve made many times on this blog (as, of course, have many others), that mainstream economics deserves at least some of the blame for the spectacular crash of 2007-08 (and, I would add, the uneven nature of the recovery since then).

the absence of things like power, exploitation, poverty, inequality, conflict, and disaster in most mainstream models — centred as they are around a norm of well-functioning markets, and focused on banal criteria like prices, output and efficiency — tends to anodise the subject matter. In practice, this vision of the economy detracts attention from important social issues and can even serve to conceal outright abuses. The result is that in practice, the influence of economics has often been more regressive than progressive.

Therefore, Unlearning Economics argues, a more progressive move is to challenge the “rhetorical power” of mainstream economics and broaden the debate, by focusing on the human impact of economic theories and policies.

Who could possibly disagree?

Well, Wren-Lewis, for one (and DeLong, for another). His view is that the only task—the only progressive task—is to criticize mainstream economics on its own terms. Even more, he argues that we need mainstream economics, because there should only be one economic theory, on which everyone can and should agree.

Now imagine what would happen if there was no mainstream. Instead we had different schools of thought, each with their own models and favoured policies. There would be schools of thought that said austerity was bad, but there would be schools that said the opposite. I cannot see how that strengthens the argument against austerity, but I can see how it weakens it.

The alternative view is that the discipline of economics has a hegemonic economic discourse (constituted, at least in the postwar period, by an ever-changing combination of neoclassical and Keynesian economics) and a wide variety of other, nonmainstream economic theories (inside the discipline of economics, as well as in other academic disciplines and outside the academy itself). Reducing the critique of austerity (or any other economic policy or strategy) to the issues raised by mainstream economists actually impoverishes the debate.

Sure, there’s a mainstream critique of austerity: cutting government expenditures in the midst of a recession reduces (at least in most cases) the rate of economic growth. But there are also other criticisms, which don’t and simply can’t be formulated by mainstream economists. From a Marxian perspective, for example, austerity (of the sort we’ve seen in recent years in Europe and even to some extent in the United States, not to mention all the other examples, especially as part of IMF-sponsored stabilization and adjustment programs, around the world) often serves to raise the rate of exploitation. Feminist economists, too, have lodged criticisms of austerity, since it often shifts the burden of adjustment onto women. Radicals, for their part, worry about the effects on power relations. And the list goes on.

They’re all different—perhaps overlapping but not necessarily mutually compatible—criticisms of austerity policies. They raise different issues, precisely because they’re inspired by different, mainstream and heterodox, economic theories.

Wren-Lewis, in his response to Unlearning Economics, wants to limit the debate to the terms of mainstream economics, which is the disciplinary equivalent of “love it or leave it.”

 

*There’s also the awful song by Jimmie Helms, recorded by Ernest Tubb:

It’s alive!

Posted: 29 March 2017 in Uncategorized
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