Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Common Good

Why is it that capitalism has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome povertyand starvation? What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does wealth seem to go hand in hand with squalor? Is there is something in the nature of capitalism which generates deprivation and inequality. Capitalism has developed human powers and capacities beyond all previous measure. Yet it had not used those capacities to set men and women free of fruitless toil. On the contrary, it had forced them to labour harder than ever. We sweat every bit as hard as our ancestors. This, Karl Marx considered, was not because of natural scarcity. It was because of the peculiarly contradictory way in which the capitalist system generated its fabulous wealth. Equality for some meant inequality for others, and freedom for some brought oppression and unhappiness for many. The system's voracious pursuit of power and profit had turned foreign nations into enslaved colonies, and human beings into the playthings of economic forces beyond their control. It had blighted the planet with pollution and mass starvation, and scarred it with atrocious wars.

Were not Marx's ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labour camps and the loss of freedom for millions? The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the "communist" world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition. Marx would have scorned the idea that socialism could take root in impoverished, backward societies like Russia and China. If it did, then the result would simply be what he called "generalised scarcity," by which he means that everyone would now be deprived, not just the poor. It would mean a re-cycling of "the old filthy business"—or, in less tasteful translation, "the same old shit." Marxism is a theory of how developed capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve prosperity for their people. It is not a programme by which countries totally bereft of material resources, a democratic civic culture and heritage, or a skilled, educated work force might catapult themselves into the modern age. Marx was not foolish enough to imagine that socialism could be built in such countries without more-advanced nations flying to their aid. And that meant that the common people of those advanced nations had to wrest the means of production from their rulers and place them at the service of the wretched of the earth. Marx's goal is leisure, not labour.

Marx was not some utopian. He believed that the world could be made a considerably better place. In this he was a realist, not an idealist. Those with their heads in the sand are those who deny that there can be any radical change. The whole of human history disproves this viewpoint. A man who witnessed the horrors of England in the midst of the industrial revolution was unlikely to be starry-eyed about his fellows . He undrstood that there are more than enough resources on the planet to resolve most of our material problems. Socialism does not depend on some miraculous change in human nature.

The way we go about our business, the way we are organised in our daily life is reflected in the way we think about things and the sort of world we created. The institutions we build, the philosophies we adhere to, the prevailing ideas of the time, the culture of society, are all determined to some extent or another by the economic structure of society. This did not mean that they were totally determined but were quite clearly a spin-off from the economic base of society. The political system, the legal system, the family, the press, the education system were all rooted, in the final analysis, to the class nature of society, which in turn was a reflection of the economic base. Marx maintained that the economic base or infrastructure generated or had built upon it a superstructure that kept it functioning. The education system, as part of the superstructure, therefore, is a reflection of the economic base and served to reproduce it. This did not mean that education and teaching is a sinister plot by the ruling class to ensure that it kept its privileges and its domination over the rest of the population. There are no conspirators hatching devious schemes. It simply means that the institutions of society, like education, are reflections of the world created by human activity and that ideas arise from and reflect the material conditions and circumstances in which they are generated. Some of those who defended feudalism against capitalist values in the late Middle Ages preached that capitalism would never work because it was contrary to human nature. Some capitalists now say the same about socialism. No doubt there is a tribe somewhere in the Amazon Basin that believes no social order can survive in which a man is allowed to marry his deceased brother's wife. We all tend to absolutise our own conditions.

Marx explained that "each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones". Ideas become presented as if they are universal, neutral, common sense. However, more subtly, we find concepts such as freedom, democracy, liberty or phrases such as "a fair days work for a fair days pay" being bandied around by opinion makers as if they were not contentious. They are, in Marxist terms, ideological constructs, in so far as they are ideas serving as weapons for social interests. They are put forward for people to accept in order to prop up the system. Ideas are not neutral. They are determined by the existing relations of production, by the economic structure of society. Ideas change according to the interests of the dominant class in society. Gramsci coined the phrase "ideological hegemony" to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. For Marxists, this hegemony is exercised through institutions such as education, or the media. Again the important thing to note about this is that it is not to be regarded as part of a conspiracy by the ruling class. It is a natural effect of the way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed. The ideology of democracy and liberty, beliefs about freedom of the individual and competition are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. They are not neutral ideas serving the common good but ruling class ideas accepted by everyone as if they were for the common good.

Marx was against people setting themselves up as superior to ‘ordinary’ workers, as if they and only they had the ability, foresight and knowledge to discern what socialist society would be like. This elitism had no place in the socialist movement for Marx. Marx was keen to emphasise the creativity and spontaneity of the drive towards socialism, and to chart and assess the practical experiments of workers in this endeavour. Thus, for example, he enthusiastically followed the course of and wrote about the Paris Commune of 1871, where workers’ power was manifested in novel and exciting ways. The tragedy of labour is that we labour to create a vast, global social structure powered by capital (which depends upon us for its existence) that oppresses us, and limits and constrains human and social possibilities. We work to build our own cages. The struggle for communism is both the struggle against the constraints and limitations of capitalist social life and for a new form of human society. Alienation, boredom, the length of the working day, and so on can be key issues. Explaining the mode of exploitation in the capitalist labour process would be essential – how it is that value and surplus value are produced. The exploration of the perverted form of human life in capitalist society, and the ways that human life is being capitalised (the human as a form of capital – human capital). Any ‘anti-capitalist’ revolution worthy of the name would have to break with the totalising and all-consuming ‘logic’ of capital from day one of any revolutionary transformation. The ‘education of the future’ is part of the struggle for a new society

Marx believed in the uniqueness of the individual. The idea permeates his writings from end to end. He had a passion for the sensual. His so-called materialism is at root about the human body. Again and again, he speaks of the just society as one in which men and women will be able to realize their distinctive powers and capacities in their own distinctive ways. His goal is pleasurable self-fulfillment. To achieve true self-fulfillment, human beings must find it in and through one another. It is not just a question of each doing his or her own thing in grand isolation from others. That would not even be possible. The other must become the ground of one's own self-realization, at the same time as he or she provides the condition for one's own. At the interpersonal level, this is known as love. At the political level, it is known as socialism, a set of institutions which will allow this reciprocity to happen to the greatest possible extent, a socialist commonwealth, in which each person's participation in the project augments the welfare of all the others, and vice versa. This is not a question of some saintly self-sacrifice. The process is built into the structure of the institutions.

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