When 'Great Evasions' Promote an Invasive Primacy of Empire in History, Imperial Citizens Had Better Watch Out
In a fantasy realization of the perfectly integrated expression of the ideal and the material, a person could 'dial-up,' via his 'cranial linkage,' whenever he wanted to make a wager. Depending on the interest among other potential 'takers' online in the ether, he could then discover what his expected 'loss' or 'gain' would be for a particular proposition. But that's not going to happen, unless I write the science fiction yarn.
That said, I'd bet a small sum that dear JustMeans readers, if connected to appropriate instrumentation, would show at least a slight rise in physiological indicia of stress were someone to advance the simple interrogatory sentence, "Who wants to talk about Karl Marx?" Perhaps folks can see what I mean.
In addition, I'd happily 'put my money where my mouth is' again to venture that at most twenty per cent--and quite likely a vastly smaller proportion--of JustMeans aficionados have ever read an entire volume by the German thinker and communist whose statue looms so magisterially over Highgate Cemetery on the fringes of London. The point here is to make a couple of notes about ignorance and fear.
On the one hand, obviously, being fearful about the unknown makes perfect sense. 'Is that the bad kind of red and yellow and black snake, or the good kind?' 'Is the ax murderer going to find me in the closet or the basement?' Add to such pragmatic worries about our ignorance the general propensity to abhor uncertainty, even though it is the only honest condition we are permitted in regard to complicated matters of interpretation, and the cold sweats about ghosts and goblins and Karl Marx appear totally logical.
On the other hand, of course, generally speaking, the 'material basis' for worry, as it were, can be a straightforward matter of study, either to confirm or unravel: 'Yep! Red and yella will kill a fella.' Or, 'Nope! Red and black's all right for Jack.'
More pertinent to the matter of Uncle Karl, maybe we would find, 'Well, he's a monster! He wants to cut mothers into pieces and feed them to their children,' or something equally grotesque. Or, our examination might show, 'Well, he says some bizarre things, some interesting things, and seems to go on and on, but other than taking a strong stand in favor of wage-earners vis-a-vis business owners--which he admits, and tries to demonstrate is reasonable, I can't see much that should make a student fear the fellow.' Thus, this essay seeks, first of all, to proffer folks an overall introduction to one of history's greats, Karl Marx.
"Well now, I never!" my grandmother would say when a suggestion seemed particularly uncalled for. "Why in the name of heaven, here when I'm interested in sustainable business and corporate responsibility would I want to learn about that?" And the answer is simple.
"No other single thinker--not Freud, not Darwin, not Keynes, not Einstein, not Gandhi, nobody, has more useful things to say about the combination of social, political, and economic travails that trouble our collection of seven billion cousins on the planet right at the moment." That ought to proffer a strong basis for investigation.
Of course, these are assertions. And the asserter is a 'Marxist.' Furthermore, plenty of other important ideas and occurrences are absolutely necessary to study too. Well, duh, double duh, and triple duh.
Just on the basis of forty three essays that have contained some hypothetically useful information, inquiry, and ideas, however, one would think that if the humble correspondent who had produced such a tsunami of text said, 'this might be important,' that folks would say, 'Oh, OK, tell me about it.' I can't do anything about willful ignorance, other than to comment that it's not likely to be a winning strategy in a political dogfight.
Political economy forms the framework for understanding Marx, though it's not where he started his odyssey as a thinker. Especially following the publication of one of his easier-to-digest volumes, The Communist Manifesto, just as revolutionary upheaval looked like it was about to upend European politics, and then didn't, Marx's work focused on dissecting and being able to speak intelligently about the political economic underpinnings of society.
However, this was a practical decision, as opposed to a philosophical proclivity. He sought much more definitely to unravel the conundrums of commodities, wages, capital, price, and profit--the specific results of capitalist political economy, than he did to speak abstractly about human power and the necessities of life. Thus, while one can say that political economy does concern the way that power relations and productive relations always intertwine to produce social groups, and vice versa, Marx during the 1850's and 1860's was especially seeking to state clearly and accurately how such relations reproduced themselves under the conditions of capitalism then prevailing.
And of course, different, but still identifiably capitalistic relations continue to churn out more commodified life, more production based on wages, more markets that penetrate every sector of existence, and a further elevation of finance to the guiding role at the center of political and economic life, the same trends that Marx recognized and articulated in his primary intellectual labors. But Marx never was deterministic in his views about these basic matters of production and power.
This is why propositions about social class lie at the heart of Marx's work, even though he spent so much effort nailing down and detailing the inner economic and political machinations of capital. Most basically, this social ideation revolves around the notion that key relationships, among different sets of people, between those people and the way that they eat and provide for themselves, between members of a specific group and the natural world or society, and so on, all vary predictably, even as they tend to produce similar psychological evolution in the direction of alienation.
This observation would, therefore, predict such likely social facts as these. No Fortune 500 CEO's are likely to face prison time for crack use; a child attending an inner city school with lots of broken windows almost certainly breathes many more toxins in a day's imbibing of atmosphere than does a child in a suburban school with all its windows intact, and moreover the former child is astronomically more likely to have an unwillingly unemployed parent; an enlisted soldier facing regular incoming fire almost always comes from a family in which both parents are wage-earners, whereas a member of the general staff is quite likely to have a parent with a larger 'stake' in life.
Even more significant, for Marx and Marxists, this regularity and predictability concerning social relations, which boil down to definable 'class relations,' are not just descriptive, but evaluative as well. Thus, in a certain context, such as Europe late in the eighteenth century or the United States as the secession crisis unfolded, capitalists at all levels of society, many of them small shop owners and producers of handiworks or manufactures, take noticeable stands for social improvement--such as eliminating or attenuating, in the former case, the power of kings and queens, and, in the latter case, the political hegemony of slaveholders.
In other contexts, this same set of actors--say today, in the United States, is overwhelmingly likely to stand against 'progress' and for rolling back such elements of former 'progress' as public schools and social security. When one looks at working people's organizations, one finds that almost all aspects of 'middle class life'--minimum wages, safety rules, universal suffrage, overtime pay, an eight hour day, and so on(again, this is a nearly universal tendency)--originate in either trade unions or among communistic groups. JustMeans readers might check out the programmatic elements of the aforementioned Communist Manifesto for an eye-opening learning experience.
Again, however, even a brief glance at Marx's work disposes of any accusation of 'determinism.' His famous quip, "I am not a Marxist," was to distance himself from such mechanistic ways of thinking about society. In fact, his philosophical origins always informed his practical interests. And his philosophical roots were in the recognition of the dialectical dance that many thinkers associate with Hegel.
Dialectics, which has shown up on several occasions for readers to ponder, serves a dual role in Marx's output and input. In the first place, he started out as a philosopher with a particular interest in dialectics.
As I've noted before, an easy way to comprehend this terminology, of "(d)ialectical development is (as) a scientific notion, perhaps not as widely popularized as the theory of evolution, through natural selection, of adaptive individual differences, but nonetheless firmly grounded in reality and, at least at the most basic levels of physics and chemistry and other empirically observable descriptions of all-that-is, incontrovertible. That protons and electrons dance a balance, that catalyst ever ignites its opposite, that male and female do a 'Red-Queen' tango throughout nature, and on and on and on, are not matters of dispute."
I go on to note, "Such a view, that '(t)he laws of dialectics, which have arisen out of the investigation of universal processes of becoming and modes of being, apply to all phenomena,' is arguably accurate in every realm. 'Although each level of being has its own specific laws, these merge with general laws covering all spheres of existence and development.'
"'So too,' moreover 'at every juncture of friction and change, dialectics is at work in politics.' Only we don't see it, as often as not, number one because we don't make the fundamental choice to recognize its presence and our job to discern it, and number two, because all (sorts of) false dualisms (liberal and conservative; Republocrat and Demopublican) predominate the mediation of consciousness, under the rubric of rulers who don't necessarily want us to begin thinking like masterful dialecticians."
This dialectic engagement pervades Marx's work, from the very beginning to the utter end. But he also wants those who seek to comprehend and affect the world to be able to grasp and employ dialectical methodology as a practical matter, not merely as an intellectual exercise. This is the second way in which Marx insists on a 'dialectical process.'
It is also the final way that he completely rejects formalistic, artificially constructed thought processes. Instead, he grounds himself in the most obvious source of how to understand the basic elements of human existence in any 'present tense.' He first posits that all of these basic elements--the food that we eat, the houses where we live, the way we use our bodies to recreate the means of existence, and to procreate the means of existence, as well as all of our mental and linguistic functions--all occur in a sort of social stew consisting of identifiable political and economic elements, all of which relate to each other.
In this view, everything human is part of the 'material' of human life. Clearly, if push comes to shove, some material will inevitably take precedence--nakedness in a blizzard is simply not amenable to argument or prayer; yet, all of these human relations are material. Their tangible reality, and their interconnections are discoverable and demonstrable.
But this discovery, in any particular moment, abstracted from time, must lead back to some sort of overarching elevation of 'ideas over matter,' of 'theory over practice,' that was ever anathema to Karl Marx. So when I prattle on about how critical the task is for analyzing historical development and relations, I am following a Marxist program. I must say, at the same time, that, in similar fashion as many other 'pinkish thinkers,' I first discerned the outlines of the process and then stumbled upon Marx.
This only happened, I might add, when I left the realm of the public school, where even the mention of Marx's name can bring severe reprimands or ostracism to an instructor, and an attempt to teach a document like Wage Labor and Capital in an objective fashion is likely to elicit a crowd carrying pitch forks and setting up a bonfire around a stake. The number of public schools that have courses in Marx's thinking number zero or close to zero, at the same time that all elite prep schools insure that their charges receive this basic intellectual orientation.
Of course, many folks will have heard that 'communists don't believe in God; they're dialectical historical materialists.' This investiture with history represents the fuel that drives an unfolding Marxian conceptualization, which is itself a dialectical, and historically material process.
American history repeatedly shows this flow from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, as some Marxist thinkers are wont to state the rubric. But for the most part, overwhelmingly, except at the highest levels of the academy, where as many as half or more of the practitioners are one flavor or other of Marxist confection, this ongoing back and forth process fails to acknowledge the originator. This is precisely what William Appleman Williams terms a 'great evasion' that has continued, much to the detriment of both American society and the ability of Americans to think.
William Appleman Williams, for anyone who has been anything like a 'regular' in perusing these pages, is a frequent source of authority regarding the nature of empire under the auspices of America's rulers of capital and country. Williams did not emerge from a background that suggested a tendency toward such 'radical' formulations. Coming from a farming family, attending Annapolis, embarking on a career in the Navy cut short by injury, his entry into historical studies confronted him with enough uncomfortable contradiction that, in some sense, Marxism was the only sythesis that provided a way to conjoin so many disparate elements.
When he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, he so totally differentiated himself from the 'mainstream' of diplomatic studies and other examinations of the foreign policy of the United States that almost anyone who wanted to take a non-standard approach to examining this aspect of U.S. history, which Williams was to help prove was central to the development of U.S. society and political economy, came to him or sought him out.
The volumes that are now iconic, as well as iconoclastic, came out in a steady stream. Most, but not all, focused on foreign policy, and Williams increasingly consolidated his contention that U.S. foreign affairs reflected primarily or even exclusively an imperial process.
His first major work was American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947, which was not at all what cold warriors wanted to hear. Though most reviews were elliptical--after all, Williams was like a lawyer with most of the evidence apparently in support of his client, many was the reader who saw his views as "a matter of interpretation."
Similarly, America and the Middle East: Open Door Imperialism or Enlightened Leadership?, which came out two years after the Suez crisis, when the 'special relationship' was still in its youth, did nothing to endear Williams to established thinkers. By this time, with the publication of "The Choice Before Us, in The American Socialist, Williams was completely 'out of the closet,' but again his volume did not cause any firestorm of criticism.
The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, which came out one year later, only eighteen months before JFK's election, caused a certain 'squeaking' of the liberal conscience. Not only did most of the consideration of this work from fellow scholars praise the professionalism of the scholarship, but a sense of the discomfiture with what Eisenhower was getting ready to label the 'Military Industrial Complex' was almost tangible.
The Contours of American History, issued after Kennedy's inauguration, was a large overview text of the sweep of American history from a Marxist and dialectical historical point of view. One might note his sub-title, "History as a Way of Learning" and reflect on Marxian methodology, which is one never-ending positive feedback loop.
In The United States, Cuba, and Castro: An Essay on the Dynamics of Revolution and the Dissolution of Empire, Williams cooly and incisively dissected the U.S.'s pathetic barbarity in seeking to unseat Castro 'by any means necessary,' no matter how criminal or foolhardy. The Monthly Review Press, the quasi-official house of the American Communist Party, published this volume shortly after the Bay of Pigs madness, but before the moments of near nuclear pre-empt that would likely have eliminated the human condition from the earth.
The Roots of the Modern American Empire: A Study of the Growth and Shaping of Social Consciousness in a Marketplace Society, coming to light at the end of the 1960's when the likes of Don Harris and Mark Rudd and more felt a certain 'revolutionary' frisson, attempts to place the empire which is bludgeoning a big chunk of the globe right now in a context of the maturation and success of American Capitalism, especially the success of rulers in gaining ideological and political support from most, necessarily working class, citizens.
After a series of volumes in the 1970's that dealt more with American society as a whole and with issues of historiography and historical understanding, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America's Present Predicament, Along With a Few Thoughts About an Alternative arrived, just as the death of the U.S.-installed Shah of Iran ended a reign of terror that our leaders had initiated a quarter century before, but which left us with other difficulties in the land of Farsi and Persian pride.
One reviewer peeled away some of the psychic cover that may account for the easy acquiescence of many citizens to a government that is not only criminal but also likely sated on all it can plunder from most of the rest of the planet, meaning that the gaze of the imperialists must, inevitably turn inward. This is not a happy thought, for those who can conceive of thinking about Depleted Uranium and other cases of mass murder detailed in these pages.
This examination of Williams' last book started, "From the beginning, our imperial way of life seduced us into assuming that we could go on forever projecting the present into the future: that we could start over and over again. F. Scott Fitzgerald understood that when he had Jay Gatsby speak these lines: 'Can't repeat the past?!' he cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can.'"
And this implication, that 'chickens come home to roost,' is at the root of what Williams has to offer us today, twenty years after his death. He gives us an inkling, with his lovely lilting prose, from his final volume, of our profound error.
"At each moment of each day, we make the same mistakes... . (W)e consider that our own personal consciousness is the world." The Great Evasion: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance of Karl Marx and on the Wisdom of Admitting the Heretic Into the Dialogue About America's Future invites us to end the madness of evading an honest accounting. We might even imagine that we still have chances to transform things before the little cluckers settle down on their perches and cackle at a doom we all too richly deserve.
A SLENDER VOLUME CRITICIZED FROM BOTH ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM AND YET STILL CAPABLE OF INSTRUCTING US
Introduction--Moral Dimensions of a Yankee Demurral
In an interview with Duke University's Radical History Review, Williams drew attention to the centrality of cohesive community in his Iowa youth. in all of his writing--as he contemplated the thought-processes of Presidents and the profit-motives of big business and beyond--this sense of community remained a touchstone.
He begins The Great Evasion, his offertory for human survival, with this statement. "America's great evasion lies in its manipulation of Nature to avoid a confrontation with the human condition and with the challenge of building a true community."
Williams examines, in these introductory pages, both the false front and the real purpose of 'frontiers,' the philosophical and epistemological and political compromises and skirmishes that underlie this attempt to finesse the 'city on the hill' that the first interlopers here said they were seeking, and the complete and intentional misunderstanding of Marx--turning him into an apology for all that was wrong with Soviet Russia, in order to eject him from our social conversation.
|"Americans have never confronted Karl Marx himself. We have never confronted his central theses about the assumptions, the costs, and the tree nature of capitalist society. ...predicated upon an overemphasis and exaltation of the individualistic, egoistic half of man functioning in a marketplace...that overrides and crushes the social, humanitarian half of man. ...And we have never confronted (Marx's) argument that capitalism cannot create a community in which how much men produce and own is less important than what they make, less important than their relationships as they produce...less important than what they are as men, and less important than how they treat each other."|
Marx's Challenges--Again, Beyond the Political and Economic
Most readers, due in large part to the manipulations of the commodification of Uncle Karl by capital and in small part to their own laziness, think of Marx as the twin brother of Stalin and the father of Lenin. Folks should make no mistake; many is the time that this humble correspondent has pored over a text by one of those other died-in-the-wool Reds and thought how incisive and brilliant were these erstwhile demons of the American prospect.
But Marx constitutes a force of nature in his own right, one which we might investigate with an awareness of how we already have blockades that impede listening and comprehension. And Williams makes transparent that "Marx's asumptions, axioms, and methods, and his broad analysis, rather than any particular or detailed prognostication...are the crucial elements of his contribution."
In spinning a Marxian fabric that more or less matches what I have proffered to readers here today, Williams writes, "Marx's work flowed from the methodological axiom that reality and change could be explained, and prognostications offered, by reference to the tension, conflict, and contradictions between the methods of production and the relations of production." As do I above, Williams emphasizes Marx's recognition as ideas themselves as a material force, though they do not exist independently of the underlying matter.
Williams intends, in this section, to mandate that any consideration of Marx's critiques--about empire, the growing relative impoverishment of working people, and the utter alienation from community--do not employ false assumptions or depend on false leads. Such errant approaches might result from just a few other miscues, Williams suggested.
Readers cannot pillory Uncle Karl for being one-sided or totally negative, because of Marx's many bows to bourgeois achievements. No rejection of Marxian thinking, on the basis if prediction errors, is generally possible on the basis of the incorrect predictions alone; the analyst must debate Marx's perspectives, and not rely on the fact that particular guesses did not come to pass. In the remainder of his book, then, Williams examines the three central elements of a Marxist critique already listed, with an eye to evaluate whether these ideas appear primary valid or overwhelmingly off base, or somewhere in between.
Markets and Empires
Much of Williams' oeuvre as a historian acts as evidentiary and conceptual brief for the notion that the standardized operation of American rule, from very early in the unfolding of the Republic, served to define and consolidate a 'tragedy' of empire in American diplomacy. Therefore, given Williams' powerful grounding in the facts and theory of this work, he more or less rigorously demonstrates that Marx's projections about capital as an international force were comprehensively correct.
A note that Williams points out repeatedly is that the most sacred proponents of the bourgeoisie also recognized this tendency toward empire, starting this lengthy section of the book with an extensive quotation from The Wealth of Nations, concerning the inevitably dominance of manufactures and finance over agriculture and extraction. Keynes, another apologist for slight modifications of the bourgeois paradigm, made this point more concisely. "Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone."
Williams shows the two underlying notions in Marx's core expression that are the predecessors to a Marxian conception of empire. The first, the split that grows ever greater between the metropolis and the hinterland, glares at Americans from the lighted canyons of New York City and Los Angeles, even as the blighted streets of Detroit or Cleveland or Las Vegas invite the populace of those places to contemplate a more communitarian set of relationships to revitalize what has been sucked away from what those cities once were.
The second 'underlying notion,' that the market's growth itself outstrips local capacity to consume production explicates with mathematical acuity the U.S. insistence for one hundred twenty years on a 'free-trade' manifestation of empire, which has in fact replaced the earlier mechanisms of England and France and Japan and more. Globalization and 'free-trade zones' retain their allure at all the highest levels of capitalism, from the IMF to the U.S. State Department, and beyond.
This section of the book proceeds chronologically, displaying the steps--from the internal expansion of the early Republic, and the attendant annihilation of Native American communities, to the outpouring of capital in the aftermath of WWII, when the Marshall Plan and other 'gifts' laid the basis for the American preeminence that, as Williams foresaw, is so spectacularly collapsing on all fronts in the current moment. Williams makes the connections that permit a careful student to view the specific operations of capital, in ways that Marx described, to yield this two century process of growth and crises, resurgence and collapse, which we are experiencing in our lives at this very moment.
Throughout this process, of course, the established POV has remained both that the United States of America will somehow finesse the contradictions that are haunting us again, and, for most of the entire time that Karl Marx was so fundamentally flawed that he had nothing of use to offer the ultra, extra, completely special USA. Anyone who listens to Marx himself can see the idiocy of this second contention. As to the first, whether one observes the Tea Party or the significant chunk of Democrats who complain about America's 'decline,' the first belief appears untenable.
Williams closes gently. "The cost of continuing the effort to prove Marx wrong is thus exorbitant even by capitalist standards. Indeed, it wold seem time to honor the old capitalist axiom of cutting our losses and investing our capital in more promising ventures." That Marx speaks to the interrelated world that he described and foresaw is obvious; that we might benefit from including his collection of analysis in our pondering of the current pass is clear.
An Emiserated Proletariat
Whatever capitalism has touched, it has impoverished, though at times this has not taken the form of penury so much as ennui and listlessness and the loss of life force. When Williams published this volume, at the very apogee of America's postwar potency, this statement often seemed absurd, despite the pervasive backwardness of the South, the recently released evidences of Michael Harrington, and the general prevalence of hunger and depredation in the former colonies of Europe and other 'underdeveloped' regions.
Today, perhaps not so many people would derisively dismiss this Marxian contention about the necessary widening of social gulfs amid the disparity-producing convulsions of capital. Certainly, in looking at Dixie, at Appalachia, at smaller communities beset by environmental injustice, at Native American struggles, and much more, this correspondent has attested to the nature of present-day emiseration in America.
While my particular work has not focused as much on empire, its oppressive and economically depressing tendencies have shown up repeatedly in these pages as well. Moreover, since this arena is the life work of William Appleman Williams, which constituted a thoroughgoing critique of American righteous buccaneering and murderous manipulation that has never undergone thorough refutation because such a rebuttal is impossible, the reader may well imagine that this longest section of The Great Evasion provides close and copious proof of the evils of empire.
Today, as in 1964, the response from the upper crust to such discussion is to call for better and more extensive administration. "The system, they argue, must be administered as a tightly...coordinated unit," from Afghanistan to the Mexican border, for example, from the U.S.-patrolled border between the Koreas to the DU laced battlefields of Southern and Central Europe.
Williams identifies the nub of such thinking, anti-democratic and presumptuous, that I have ever spoken against. Corporate rule, as now articulated, cannot coexist with democracy and community.
|"As th(e) approach(of rulers) implies, most of the(m) are elitists. Candidly or otherwise, they advocate further restricting the areas in which the citizenry exercises significant influence in and upon the decision-making process. ...(T)his attitude of the upper-class leadership (again) raises the fundamental question of whether or not American capitalism...can create an ethical and equitable community."|
Capital and Community
From Horatio Alger to Corporate Social Responsibility, capital's henchmen and brokers have sought to soften its fierce image of drooling readiness to eviscerate 'the competition,' which includes everyone not on the board of a big firm or in the position of an important stockholder, or the respective family and friends and henchmen thereof. This second longest portion of the volume examines four methods that both capital and its opponents have advanced to reform capitalism and save it at the same time.
The most common and longest standing is one version or another of the rags-to-riches fantasy. It happens too. My father and my sister illustrate its operation in different ways. But when we properly investigate empirical reality, this view is unsustainable, as the stalwart analysis of Gabriel Kolko, and others cited by Williams, demonstrate. For the most part, the rich come from the ranks of the rich; for the most part, these ranks diminish over time.
To give credit where credit is due, the ranks of government do not always disdain such analysis. Part of the ability to govern stems from a willingness to consider what is ugly and find a way to package the ugliness in more palatable terms, or, possibly, to ameliorate what is uncomely and harsh.
The second method for bypassing the persistent downturn into which capital inevitably devolves is through what Williams call 'Feudal Socialism.' In some ways, such visionaries as Wendell Berry and Don Harris emulate this type of approach. Williams, like me, does not decry the spirit of such ideation. But both Williams and I express a skepticism that such 'back-to-the-earth' or other retrenchments can either stand up to the invasive force of capital or provision communities in such a way as to permit seven billion cousins to continue feeding and clothing themselves.
The third sort of 'uprising' against capital shows up as populism. Adolf Hitler was just such a one. So was Huey Long, supposedly. The Populist Party was full of colorful grassroots leaders, and American history generally has a substantial lexicon of biographies and assessments of such men and women.
While under the conditions that cause an actualization of political strength, without either the decimation or the cooptation of class conscious leadership and activism, such outbursts can in fact lead to transformation, or at least to lasting and deeply impactful reform, on every occasion that they have exploded onto the American scene, they have both diverted motion away from real reform--toward despising immigrants or fetishinzing metals, for example--and lost whatever political muscle that they initially showed the potential to build up. And, lurking alongside such eruptions, ever some new Adolf seeks to claw and slouch her way 'toward Bethlehem' again.
The final attempt to potentiate fixes to capital's contradictions are the most popular in the U.S., where, despite the lack of an aristocracy, the ruling class arguably maintains the most arrogant and elitist grip on the reins of power. These methodologies often use the adjective 'New' in a tired old way, as in another 'New Deal.' They often also speak in the language of sales and gambling, 'deals' and 'chances' and 'opportunities' and 'options' ubiquitous in the wording of such eventualities.
And only the trollish fringe of the 'intelligentsia' would go so far as to call, as a case in point, the 'New Deal' of FDR worthless. The likes of this correspondent, of William Appleman Williams, and all those of a Marxist bent, can see both the real struggle for progress inside a WPA or a TVA, and the corporatist machinations that, with seemingly irresistible logic, take over such efforts, whether in Food Stamps, Charter School Vouchers, TARP's, or any other manifestation of government largesse to improve capital's operational procedures.
Thus, Williams is able to end this part of his book with Marx's indictment intact. "(T)he capitalist, operating on capitalist principles...has demonstrated the limitations of capitalism. All the critic is doing is judging the system as created and sustained by its own proponents, and concluding that its acknowledged achievements and benefits include a demonstration that man cannot be defined in terms of his possessions. Marx was absolutely correct in his arguments of a century ago that man does not live by production and commodities alone." Moreover, forty-six years after Williams issued his tome, the 'acknowledged achievements' have worn thin indeed.
A Central Utility of Marx
Williams initiates his concluding remarks with three quotations from Marx. One is apt. "Finally, let us consider, by way of change, a community..."
He continues, "The central utility of Karl Marx...is that he is a heretic who helps us by bringing our capitalistic ego into a confrontation with our capitalistic reality." Can anyone say 'sustainable business,' as currently promulgated through Nike and Microsoft, without a twinge of irony?
Nothing but anti-depressants and tasers is available, outside of something Marxian or its ideological 'Sieg-Heil!' opposite, to counter the "increasing signs, overt and unconscious, of alienation, disorientation, and anti-social behavior. Today's readers may ponder that Williams wrote this three decades or more before Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the prancing, mincing presumption of a legion of Paris Hiltons in their trust fund ghettoes, replete with stops in jail cells and rehab centers.
Williams pointed, as I have done, to Blacks, Native Americans, and Southerners--and today we might add the hounded close cousins of the Indian who came here from Mexico with a 'wink' of the bourgeoisie--none of whom have manifested the 'miracle' of the market in anything like the pretended success story that its promulgators promote. Marx predicted this disconnect, repeatedly.
Williams also focuses on the increasing pace of automation, which has now assumed the proportions of Noah's flood plus an unprecedented monsoon season, as containing still further seeds the sowing of which would yield an unpleasant harvest, to say the least, later to reap. And here we are. And, in this humble correspondent's estimation, this is the only juncture at which William Appleman Williams goes astray, albeit the error is truly of hideous proportions.
For now, this essay will just maintain that any reliance on 'cybernated production' to salve the problems so amply and aptly portrayed here, and in the works of Marx and this humble correspondent, will on its face be completely inadequate, unless a strongly democratic, community-led, grassroots movement precedes and chooses just that pathway. That Williams strayed in this direction, given that he--as is the case with all of us--wanted results, is understandable. That such a sidetrack spells doom, except under the conditions of working class consciousness and leadership that Marx called for, is ineluctable.
Nonetheless, in passionate prose that delves the parameters of ethics and society as well as providing empirical argument in support of such 'softer' approaches to human analysis, Williams imprecates that readers can ignore Marx, and those who would integrate him into our dialogs, only at the peril of both democracy and prosperity, both power and survival. Such social and democratic movement is both beacon and harbor.
|"(W)hether one calls this socialism or civilization...matters little. The issue is what kind of people we want to be and what kind of a world we want to have." Only if we admit the real potency of Marx's critique can we achieve anything akin to a humane community of cohesive cousins. "If we meet that test, then we can get on with the task of transcending Marx's prophecy by creating an American community that will be beyond even his noblest dreams."|
My mother used to say, fairly regularly, that "any port in a storm" was a welcome respite. I have struggled, interminably, to avoid the allure of opportunism of one sort or another, so in a subjective sense, I maintain a high degree of wariness any time that someone intones, "Let's try this; what harm could it do?"
On the other hand, as the entire globe reels from pillar to post from the shocks and blows of capital's apparent incapacity just now, an interested observer would have to be fairly obtuse, or incredibly obdurate, not at least to think about ways of framing the present pass that might provide some assistance or insight. Thus, in times of crisis, radicals and persona non grata sometimes receive an opportunistic hey-ho as the gatekeepers mutter about lower standards and cross their fingers that maybe something useful will result.
I am asking for a deeper engagement. Instead of either folks being willing to 'try anything,' inasmuch as the crises that confront us are so deep and ugly, or their at least acceding to ignore the occasional, silly, humble correspondent who insists on babbling on about empire and community and democracy and how we can't get what we want--whether in the way of renewable energy or sustainable business--unless we stop the one and practice the other two, I am asking for actual engagement.
No surprise there, I suppose; that's been my rallying cry since "Howdy, Howdy, Let's Get Rowdy" eleven weeks ago. But with today's story, all of the elements are extant in what I've presented. Anyone who wants to grapple with the intellectual task, in any event, of analyzing where in the fullness of time and tide we have traveled, now has a complete set of tools with which to work, with the possible exception, of course, of the motivational materials.
That's always been my weakness. "You couldn't close a sale to a starving man if you were giving away hamburgers," one boss growled at me, when I was working my third or fourth 'shift' as a proletarian teenager of fifteen. I resented the remark, but he had a point.
Marx offers a little comfort, though it's a cool cloth at best. "The writer may very well serve a movement of history as its mouthpiece, but he cannot of course create it." The best that I can hope for is to put some helpful words together; the job of transformation has to be the citizenry's--or, heaven forbid, the ruling class's, as in Ralph Nader's unintentional dystopia in Only the Rich Can Save Us.
But seriously folks, even if, admittedly, this is a sea of text, the ocean here is rich with flora and fauna filled with vitamins and minerals for proper thinking. I promise. William Appleman Williams, Karl Marx, and all the rest of the cousins, living and dead, who have traipsed across these pages are beckoning to readers to come along and get what they need in order to act like citizens.
How bad could that be? And, imagining the alternatives in store, how bad it might be doesn't matter. The alternatives--at best a slow devolution into the depths of despond and some swamp or other of totalitarian nightmare, will be worse.
A very conservative comic strip artist, Scott Stantis, whose intellectual honesty is delightful, recently made me crack up with glee in one of his "Prickly City" interludes. He clearly finds both the insanity of the Republocrats and the cool thuggishness of the Demopublicans 'beyond the pale.' But he had been maintaining a facade, with Winslow the coyote standing in for Rahm Emmanuel or someone similar, cheerily clueless of the bankruptcy of SOP policy now the 'party line' among Dems, while Carmen, the cute everywoman only wants to 'get my point across' about how 'unsustainable' this all is.
But something at the end of September must have snapped. The strip was straight out of the fantasies of this humble correspondent and the beaming spirit of William Appleman Williams.
In the first panel, Carmen offered, "People are scared, Winslow," while he looked on dispassionately, or cluelessly--these can be indistinguishable.
The next panel showed them walking through the valley of the shadow, as Carmen states, "Employers can get away with making them do the work of three others and cutting their pay..."
The third drawing has them back in the light, with Carmen continuing, "...While making bigger profits than ever."
Then Winslow, the Democrat here, finally says something--the truth too, but heartless: "Sounds like the free market to me, Carmen."
And the final panel has the almost always equable stand-in for John and Jane Doe just exploding, 100% committed, "Workers of the world, UNITE!!"
Winslow, an ideal Demopublican, closes. "You're creeping me out, Carmen."
But Ms. Carmen is right; we "have nothing to lose but our chains." And we have a world and our humanity to win. Or, we could wait for the ax to fall. "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."
Alienation, as Bertell Ollman's subtitle contends, represents "Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society." I mention above how important this concept is in Marx. For a fairly robust contemplation of this point, one might turn to my earlier posting, "We're All Cousins, After All," the first of my 'energy columns' not so concerned with energy, of which this is the second.
That earlier essay was about the insane ideological and nonsensical scientific underpinnings of 'race' and any belief in 'racist' fantasies. Such an 'alienating' circumstance, in which a person rejects a cousin on the basis of false and foolish categories, is arguably at least first among equals in the pantheon of alienating aspects of life today.
Today's story, in presenting most readers with an important thinker whose profound insights the citizen's own leaders have consistently and consciously evaded, deals innately with another key sort of alienation: the making foreign of one's own natural inclinations to seek to understand the world and act in one's own best interest. The upshot is fairly simple. Upon receiving a friendly introduction to material of critical import for survival, a reader has the opportunity to consider a choice: to shrug and turns away accepts and extends the alienating environment; to attend and engage leads to a different end, arguably inherently more personally satisfying, if nothing else.
Karl Marx's genius is scary at times; someone like this humble correspondent stumbles across something that ought to represent yesterday, or tomorrow. The turn of phrase and the thought processes just seem so elegant and fresh. One looks at the attribution, and it's Uncle Karl, from five or six generations ago.
In 1868, for instance, a year following his publication of the first volume of Capital, one of the foundation texts for anyone hoping to grasp reality in a useful way, he wrote(http://www.harley.com/people/karl-marx.html) to his lifelong friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels. "It is absolutely impossible to transcend the laws of nature. What can change in historically different circumstances is only the form in which these laws expose themselves."
An L.A. Times columnist, noting a recent tendency to look more carefully at Marx's ideas, tells a tale of a fake quotation that Marx never said, though the editorialist does acknowledge Marx's prescience. He advises readers, "for genuine Marx quotes apropos of the current economic and financial-system mess, here’s one: 'In every stockjobbing swindle every one knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society.'"
This tidbit, from Capital, illustrates Marx's gritty political economic capacity. Of primary concern in this arena is some determination of the source of the value that the study of political economy necessarily entails. For Marx, and this humble correspondent would argue for anyone who wants to consider the human pass as it is rather than contemplating a universal navel centered heaven knows where, the source of that value must always be labor.
Air is sweet, but we do not put a price on it until someone finds a way to package it, whether in the form of a tour or an oxygen tank. A recognition of this arguably inherent relationship allows one to note that all capital--whether in the form of a stack of $100 bills, a nuclear power reactor, an assembly line, or a coal mine--is embodied labor, from which Marx made many metaphorical points apropos of life on the planet earth today.
|"As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour. Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him."|
Marx devoted more than two decades of his life to figuring out the inner workings of capital and commodities and labor in the society that surrounded him, the progeny of which surrounds us now. Anyone wanting a more clueful orientation might take a peek at this monumental output.
But clearly, more than masterful assessment of capital's big poker game glistens in the treasure trove of his efforts. Another core component of 'getting it,' seeing how the flow of life on earth fits together and makes sense, is a clear appreciation of both the descriptive impact of social class analysis and an acceptance of the moral or ethical dimensions of seeing the class dialectic that courses through society.
In the following excerpt from the preface to the first German edition of Capital, a reader can, if he or she delves deeply into these words, view both this descriptive and evaluative aspect of class relations in Marx.
|"My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them. ...(In a sense), individuals...are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests."|
In reflecting on the dashed hopes of the Paris Commune, our hirsute Uncle Karl proposes that, "Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people," then representative democracy might actually overcome social class conflict.
And in the same document, Marx develops the heart of the paradox that has presented itself across the last several hundred thousand words that this humble correspondent has penned. "But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."
Political economy, social class analysis, a recognition of and grappling with one's own tendencies toward alienation, which in turn grips the hearts and minds of everyone who lays eyes on a Prozac commercial or CNN's most recent account of a drone bombing of a school in Pakistan, these gifts from Uncle Karl, a dear cousin indeed to those willing to pay attention, are powerful tools to employ in our doing of our human job.
A recent commentator from the blogosphere conveyed a probing portrait of Marx's gifts to humankind, including therein our 'heroes' contentions in regard to a person's responsibilities.
|"Even as a young man, Marx had a thoughtful, philosophical bent. When he was 17 years old, he wrote ... to his father, ... ponder(ing) the choices that a young person must make . ...'But the chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection. It should not be thought that these two interests could be in conflict, that one would have to destroy the other; on the contrary, Man's nature is so constituted that he can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good, of his fellow men.'"|
And the integrative fabric of all of this ideation, without which it all evaporates like so much spilled alcohol in the windy sunshine--potent and heady, but evanescent in its rapid dissolution--is the study and attempt to see history, even though the view must always be blurry and partial. That juncture, of the absolute indispensability of the past, is where William Appleman Williams comes back into the picture. That a fellow who so loved the wrestling match with the past that great historical thinking always involves truly honored Karl Marx makes perfect sense.
From very early in his career, Marx saw that only through the annals of what has passed by was any useful discovery plausible. Anything missing this component would end up either hideously oppressive ideology or noisome abstraction. Marx devoted a good portion of The German Ideology to this point.
"We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted conception of this history or to a complete abstraction from it. Ideology is itself only one of the aspects of this history."
William Appleman Williams, another wounded warrior of imperialism who turned his prodigious intelligence and vast energies toward the unhinging of what he once sought to serve, implores us to investigate this matter of Marx. He begs readers to make a 'Marxism' that can advance humankind from the present mire of depression that, should citizens fail to promote a solution, might with equal likelihood result in the rulers of society's once again imposing their imprimatur on matters.
Marx nods assent. "History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this. . . . It is not 'history' which uses men as a means of achieving--as if it were an individual person--its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends."
And whether we become conscious of such goals, our relationships with each other that can allow their accomplishment, or not, can only be a matter of our actually coming to consciousness and acting. Now that would help define 'business better.'
Or perhaps folks prefer the harmonies of Yeats
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand...
A shape... Is moving its slow thighs...
vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
For my part, I can only remain the humble correspondent that I am. The Great Evasion impelled my attention thirty five years ago, and I'm open to the potential that it might command others to take note now.