Comment on the American Election
Does Hillary Clinton face enormous amounts of misogynistic abuse? Without doubt.
Is this a major issue? You betcha.
The rhetoric that has been lobbed at Clinton in this election cycle, and back in 2008 as well, by both the left and the right is reprehensible in the extreme and needs to be countered in every instance. It is damaging to women everywhere, working to preclude eligibility to the highest office in America, and by extension, one of the most powerful positions in the world, purely on the basis of gender. Attacking Clinton on this level has rippling effects that reach far beyond this single presidential race.
This is not to say, though, that Hillary Clinton merits the Presidency. Her attackers may couch their positions in sexist rhetoric, and their aims are betrayed by this, but attacked she deserves to be.
What are the crimes of Donald Trump? Unscrupulous business practices, likely tax evasion, the whipping up of racial animus the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation. These things have palpable, real consequences – hundreds of lives worsened or ruined, scores of individuals suffering physical assaults, businesses that people looked to for their livelihoods ripped apart. Donald Trump, while not a fascist in the ways we have known before, is a reckless, dangerous cretin, and to allow him access to the powers associated with the Presidency would be a grave mistake. What we have seen of him thus far, his blundering unpredictability, should give us pause.
How does Hillary Clinton stack up in comparison? The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that is all the more frightening for its mystery – we don’t know what he’d be able to achieve, how much damage he would be able to inflict. On the other hand, we know exactly what will come of an HRC presidency. She’s held enough high offices, been close enough to the power structure of the US now, for decades, to allay any questions one might still have.
Hillary Clinton is a murderous, corrupt, racist neo-con, and a presidency with her at the helm will be a continuation of the current murderous, corrupt, racist regime we’ve had for decades.
The damage that Donald Trump has been able to inflict upon the world pales to insignificance when compared with that of Hillary Clinton. When Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton supported the vicious military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Honduras, legitimating the violence and internationally-maligned illegal conduct of the actors. In the wake of this, violence against LGBTQ people has spiked, the economy has tanked, and organised crime has seized control of ever more of the country. Hillary Clinton has been hawkish for her entire political career – her opposition to regime change in Haiti in ’94 came not because she was averse to needless death but because the effort was ‘too disorganised.’ She voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, quibbling over her motivations only after the whole thing came apart at the seams. At the time, she vocalised her support for that most-American of policies, gunboat diplomacy: “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” Despite paying lip-service to not involving America in Pakistani engagements , the drone-strikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2008, all reservations evapourated upon being confirmed Secretary of State. She was a proponent of the surge of troops in Afghanistan under Obama and was for regime change in Libya. In Syria, she has been a supporter of dumping ever-more weapons into the ring, supposedly to aid the ‘moderate’ militias, in truth untraceable once they touch ground. It is plausible that a Clinton Presidency will raise tensions with Russia to the point of disaster.
Racism, particularly against blacks, has been woven into the cloth of America from its start. That said, it was the policy choices of the Clinton administration in the 90’s that set the scene for the current rash of institutionalised violence playing out now – with 102 unarmed black people murdered by police in 2015, and, at last count, 36 this year. Adding those that were armed with anything deemed a ‘weapon’ causes both numbers to multiply steeply. The heightening of the racist war on drugs, the implementation of the fundamentally flawed 1994 crime bill, the scapegoating of urban ghettos and those forced to live in them as source of all of society’s ills – these actions have brought America to where it is today. And Hillary Clinton, with her talk of young, black “super-predators” vocally supported it the whole time. While it was Trump that took ‘the Birther Movement’ to it’s farcical extremes through Obama’s two terms, but it was her campaign in 2008 that sowed the seeds of distrust, questioning Obama’s status as an America. We saw the same tactic used this primary season, with the Democratic National Committee – which we know to have been in cahoots with Clinton’s team due to leaked emails – actively triangulating to undercut Bernie Sanders on grounds of his Jewishness and his atheism. Clinton has shown again and again that she is shameless in her use of racist rhetoric to achieve her aims.
Trump, with his “small loan of a million to get on his feet,” his multiple bankruptcies, his dozens of failed businesses, exemplifies what it means to be part of the moneyed elite. His conduct, the fact that he is not held to account, is symptomatic of the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. It is Hilary Clinton, though, who is complicit in the creation of this situation. Clinton has been the tool of Wall-Street for decades, participating in the repealing of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 that lead directly to the financial crisis and world-wide economic recession of 2008. She has opposed efforts to reinstate it and has said that she will not do so if elected president.
In what has quickly become the take-away soundbite from Monday’s Presidential Debate, Clinton reeled off a list of her undoubtedly impressive accomplishments when questioned by Trump on her stamina. It is true, she is possessed of a strong fortitude, especially when we recognise that she has risen to her position in a system stacked against her as a woman from the start. But as we can see from the sample above, it is just these accomplishments that preclude her from deserving the Presidency. Or would do, if it were not the case that, in this day and age, the division of the American people, the grovelling abetment of the moneyed, the callous interventions into other nations’ governments is exactly what the President is meant to do.
Hillary Clinton, scion to war-criminal Henry Kissinger, canny fixer for Wall Street, inveterate racist, would, in any other pairing, be without doubt the villain. It is a sorry state of affairs that she looks the lesser of two evils.
In the continuing accretion of dolor following the Brexit Referendum, I’ve been reminded of something I read in the weeks leading up that might shed some light on the result. The result of both the referendum, and the shaping of society that has gotten us to this point, that is. Of all things, it was a puff piece on the actor Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout, for you Potterites). A short, Q&A style article, it spent the majority of its length ribbing received wisdom and PC shibboleths, but never to a truly threatening degree, which has become Margolyes’ trademark of late.
Amongst the various questions about her youth, her co-stars, her views on Western cultural practices and Middle-Eastern geo-politics, she referred to her class roots, saying ‘…my mother was uneducated and felt inferior. She was determined that I would go to university. She’d say, “I want you to be able to talk to anybody about anything” – and I can.’ Because I’ve a wide masochistic streak, I proceeded, upon completion, to read the first few comments “below the line.” Amidst the swathes of drek and sprinklings of misogyny, one commenter stated (well couched in sexist piffle) that ‘…the notion that only those who attend uni can debate and discuss any subject is not only inaccurate, but patronising to the vast number of working-class men who win any kind of argument with these individuals, even though they think they have an advantage over us because we’re not “educated”. Being vociferous and having the temerity to never back down or capitulate is a sign of a good orator, and Miriam hasn’t displayed these attributes, merely that she believes in social cleansing.’
I’m willing to give Margolyes the benefit of the doubt on this one, not in small degree because I would tend to agree with her, and assume that that is not what she meant, but our andro-centric commenter does have a bit of a point. At the very least, his invective taps into the sea of feeling that has driven us to these dark times, the frustrations of a large section of society made to feel lesser.
Earlier this week, I attended a pro-EU rally here in Cambridge. Weather was miserable, and the audio equipment was suffering, but the assembled local grandees were able to struggle through and pass along their message of condolence, of renewed effort, and all the rest. Everyone to speak was quite emphatic in saying that not all Brexiters were racists, not all were xenophobes. All the more jarring, then, the echo-chamber affirmation of disdain following the denunciation of prime-ministerial hopeful Michael Gove’s now-notorious line – “people have had enough of Experts!” Oh, yes, silly Gove and his distrust of experts, and silly Brexiters for being so gullible as to follow him. Because, of course, there is only ever one proper way to read things, statements only ever mean what they say on the surface, and Michael Gove and his ilk invariably deny the facticity of reality. That’s definitely what’s going on here. Let’s all have a good, self-congratulatory chuckle for knowing better than those clods, that facts are facts and that there are people who know them. Quite right.
Wait. What’s that you say? It’s not the facts people may have been tired of, but the hectoring, dismissive way they are so often delivered? Preposterous! People that know best know best after all! Leave everything to the professional professionals, and don’t worry your head about things you can’t understand anyways!
More seriously, you can see the overlap between the two issues without an overwhelming amount of effort, I think. The tacit assumption that those who haven’t been through the ivory-bound gates of the academy are precluded all knowledge, whether it be conversational or economic, is likely a bit overdone, but, as is often the case, it’s the way in which these subjects are presented that is at issue. The locking-out of people from the conversation, and the tone-deafness of the infrequent missives to these penned herds, have long been a problem, and it’s no surprise that it’s started to rankle.
As I said a moment ago, I would tend to agree with Margolyes – education is one of the few goods-in-itself, and I hope I’d be one of the last people one the list of anti-intellectuals. However (and I recognise that an off-the-cuff remark in a >500 word article isn’t likely to show nuance), I fear that the spirit of what she was saying about Universities, the ideal of them, doesn’t match the reality. Probably never has, unless for a very small slice. The blithe assumption that it does and that this is an effective way of cutting up society is, understandably, offensive. The idea, though, that University education ought to provide one with a richer, more vibrant life, a tool-set to explore deep interests and an exposure to the broader world, coupled with the universal access to these boons, now, there is something to strive for.
In his closing comments to the Oxford Student Union a year or so ago, Stephen Fry (another embattled anti-PC’er) quoted from Wilde’s De Profundis, the letter the poet wrote to his sometime paramour (and downfall) Lord Alfred Douglas, saying ‘That you failed to get a degree at Oxford is perfectly understandable. Many great minds have failed to get a degree. What is not forgivable is that you failed to acquire what is sometimes called the Oxford Manner, which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.’ So, we see that this conception of what Universities are for is not a new one, or rather, not one of the last half-century. While there are plenty of worthwhile careers built out of it, this is what a proper education in the Humanities is meant, or should be meant, to instill, the zest for life. The technical sciences, the professional courses, while they might have more obvious and immediate economic benefits, can only be augmented by the addition of this. Too much of the modern University, with its bloated bureaucracy and its efficiencies schemes and its slashed budgets, is aimed only at producing something quantifiable, and it is diminished by this in a fundamental manner.
Many of the people I’ve known who best exemplify the Oxford Manner, the ‘ability to play gracefully with ideas,’ the possession of a boundless curiosity about the world, have never had a lick of post-secondary. Conversely, I am acquainted with many people who have attended top-tier universities and are dumb as a stump, doubly uninterested and uninteresting. So, clearly a University education is not always necessary for these gains, nor does it always work. That said, it takes a very particular type of person to seek out such knowledge, to take on that mode, for themselves. Much more likely is it that, given the opportunity and the skillset to make good on it, people will take this on once shown how. While you may not be able to make a horse drink having brought it to water, it’ll certainly do better there than in the desert. We must expand education in our society, obviously for the concomitant economic benefits, but also to make of our society a collection of better humans, more involved with the world, more engaged with their lives and better able to take part in their communities. We cannot continue to shut the door on these opportunities and laugh at those locked out. We cannot continue to fob off on the economically disenfranchised the barest of educations, ‘streamlining’ them into becoming living tools for business’ gain and little else. We are beginning to see the unrest that this causes, the deserved distrust and anger that generations of this foolhardiness brings about.
Perhaps Brexit shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but hopefully it will provide the wake-up we so clearly need.
And so, here we are, in the Brave, New, Post-Brexit World. But not really – despite the slim majority (52%) on the side of the Leave vote, article 50 – the clause of 2007’s Lisbon Treaty that covers the exit of a member state from the EU – has not been triggered. And may never be so. Cameron, in a clever, if thoroughly spineless, move refused to act immediately on the results of the referendum, saying instead that he was stepping down and would allow the next Prime Minister to move the situation forward. Meanwhile, over in the Leave quarter, we’ve seen more back-pedalling. Nigel Farage has distanced himself from any firm statement on the allocation of that £350 million weekly delivered to the EU, not of course that he has the authority to do anything with it, but the suggestion that this might be redirected to the NHS played no small role in deciding the minds of many. Iain Duncan Smith, much closer to the levers of power, has also downplayed that particular “promise.” On the xenophobic side of the Brexit coin, the Conservative MEP that headed up the Leave campaign Daniel Hannan has admitted that, even with an exit from the bloc, they will not be able to stem migration. A gormless, squirming Boris Johnson has as much as said that he didn’t expect to win. All in all, a pretty pathetic showing from the Victorious.
And that is merely a portion of what’s going on with the Tories and UKIP. In the country more generally, we’ve seen a continually declining exchange rate for stirling – at a 12% drop last I checked, it represents the most abrupt depreciation for the currency ever, and the lowest rate in 35 years. £125 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within 5 hours Friday morning, with continuing damage to the FTSE 250. At close on Friday, markets worldwide saw the loss of approximately $2 trillion, which has only increased in the new week. Last night, the country lost its Triple-A credit rating with Standard and Poor (the last major credit agency to rate them so, others having reduced their rating in response to austerity measures in previous years – though they too reduced their already slashed values). In Scotland, which voted almost unanimously (by area) for Remain, Nicola Sturgeon has begun the drumbeat of Independence once more, whereas Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland have called for a uniting with the Republic, and Plaid Cymru, in Wales, is calling for their own national referendum. The PLP Blairites have, in their wisdom, taken this time to stage a (failing) leadership coup. The arch-quisling Hillary Benn was sacked over the weekend for initiating it, and that rational move has set off a cascade of resignations from the shadow cabinet – 35 at last count.
I was, rightly, criticised for passing over the subject of migration in my last piece. To be fair, I didn’t intend to offer a comprehensive gloss of the situation, rather a background for my more academic concerns, but it has proven to be such a pivotal issue in the whole farrago that to not mention it was a glaring omission. As if we needed proof that, for many, this is the key issue of the referendum, we’ve seen a disgusting uptick in racist rhetoric and action since the results came in Friday. There have been instances of cars and homes leafleted with anti-polish slogans; groups of non-ethnic English verbally harassed up and down the country, even just outside Cambridge; there have been Muslims told “you’re next.” Reports are still trickling in from the weekend of multiple acts of vandalism, windows smashed and exteriors vandalised. Huffpo have an ongoing collection of reports, and it is troublingly long. People, people who have lived here for generations, are afraid in their own country. Although it occurred before the referendum was actually held, I would be remiss not to mention the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist – Jo Cox who headed the all-party group Friends of Syria, focussing on Syrian refugee response. ANTIFA brigades are suddenly looking a lot less LARP-like.
This is something I struggle with in discussing these matters in conversation, choosing the level at which to frame them. Often times, I will, while holding to one level in the back of my mind, say something that accords with another, and later on foul myself up on the contradiction between the two. More to the point, the question – what of the rights of migrants? – has many answers, depending on how the question is framed. At the most normative level, the level of “what should the world be like,” the question is easily answered – acknowledging the illusory nature of borders and illegitimacy of existing power structures, digging into what ought to be available for people, yes, it is easy to say that there should be free movement of people and that they should be extended the protection and rights accorded to all humans vis a vis their humanity. Unfortunately, and this is particularly important when trying to convince someone sceptical of such a position, normativity is not sufficient.
In the world realpolitik, basic human rights, never mind those that are self-evident or supposedly God-given, get short shrift. As ever, freedom issues from the barrel of a gun and force rules the day. The legalese is good for little else than assigning blame once the damage is done, and arguing from a position of how-the-world-ought-to-be when your interlocutor holds to this is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. Thankfully, we haven’t (yet) sunk to that depth. However, there are still the circumstances on the ground to be considered when we ask the question.
In answer to this, then, at least on the level of ‘the hard-nosed, disillusioned realist,’ we must recourse to law. What law protects the rights of European migrants in the UK? Obviously, that of the EU. A set of laws that, if ever the Tories choose to take the plunge, will be rescinded. In this instance, what laws would the migrants have? None, other than those ensured by the UN and whatever invariably-odious writ the Government draughts to replace the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It’s a safe bet that the rights – economic and otherwise – granted to foreigners in this yet-to-come piece of legislation will be sparse. It is, or will be, a fait accompli, and to have a conversation about it, framed with those parameters, is to accept this. What of the rights of migrants? The rhetorical question presents itself – What rights?
So, as rudimentary as the above all is, it does go some way to illustrating my trouble with the question. But, for we who hold to ideas of a better future, isn’t it our job to push against the ‘facts on the ground,’ to push against the way things happen to be, until they align more closely with they way they ought to be? It is ours then to make the case for why the laws need to be changed, to strive to realign the balance of powers such that we have the weight on our side, the weight enough to actually matter in the realms of realpolitik. Assurances have come from the like of Boris Johnson, saying that the status of EU migrants already present in the country will no change – but, looking at even just his track record of the last few days, you’d be a fool to think he won’t change with the wind. We need to push back against the racism, the scapegoating, the lies, and, in some ways most disheartening, the silence on the part of those who should know better (Lexit campaign, I’m looking at you).
All those are nice and stirring words, but that is about the sum of it without an actual, achievable, plan. Well and good to say that, after the Revolution, everyone will be treated justly and graciously, but it won’t be slogans alone that get us there. Demonstrations, and I stress that they are useful in some, limited, respects, don’t stop wars. We need to grapple with the situation, and that is one of parliamentary democracy. There is still hope for a Labour party run in a social democratic way – far from ideal, but this is about damage control now. There are accusations that Corbyn and his team didn’t do nearly enough for the Remain campaign, and even that they actively scuttled efforts amongst the Labour wing. The fact remains, two thirds of Labour voters, despite the obvious incentives of voting out (generational disenfranchisement, economic punishment by elites, continuing disposable status under the status quo – not all reasons for Brexit were racist) voted remain. Comparing this with 46% of Tory voters who voted to stay in the EU, it seems farfetched to say that Brexit was Corbyn’s fault, that he didn’t deliver (as if the votes of an electorate are some packaged object to be shuttled back and forth) the Labour constituents.
There is likely to be a leadership race within the Labour party, and, as far as the rights of migrants go, never mind a whole host of other issues, our best bet is to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. But then we must hold his feet to the fire – it is not enough to simply elect and assume the job is done, we must hold him to his promises. Whatever his past malfeasances, large or slight, unfortunately, there’s no one else in the Labour party who is a better candidate.
While it’s true that I’ve been, for some time, in a state of flux when it comes to ethics and how I view the world, I’ll admit that I still find myself slightly allergic to ends-oriented systems. I’ve the gut feeling, the intuition – as much as I might disdain them as quanta of ‘proper’ knowledge – that the necessary causal link between the action and the desired outcome just doesn’t hold up. Nothing so far reaching as a Humean denial of the whole apparatus, I simply can’t put to rest anxieties cropping up from the unknowable nature of the future. We can at best guess at what our choices will result in, and that doesn’t cut the mustard for the big decisions.
That all said, recent political events here in Britain have (further) shaken my confidence in Kantian, maxim-based deontology. Tomorrow marks the day of referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union, riding under the rather facile portmanteau ‘Brexit.’ Appropriately, I would imagine, the vote is closed to Europeans living in Britain, but, and this I don’t quite understand, it is open to Commonwealth citizens who’ve been living in the country for the requisite period. Thus, I am faced with the three choices – Brexit, Bremain (and you thought the former was a neologistic nadir!) or abstain.
The run-up, while it has grown a bit tedious of late, has energised public discourse in a way that one doesn’t often see in usual elections. Perhaps this is explained by the largely-populist nature of the Brexit campaign – the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have for several weeks now been resorting to dog-whistle, and in some cases blatant, racist tactics to stir up opposition to the EU. The existence of UKIP as a party is based on the hindbrain vapours of a slice of the populace, and proof of this has only been reiterated over the last few weeks. But, depending on the day, the Leave side surpasses that of the Remain in the polls, so there is more going on here than just abject bigotry. Some portion has to be chalked up to the dismal, dirge-like nature of the In for Britain campaign, a campaign who have relied almost entirely on the tactic of economic fear mongering, delivered up by panels of rich business people, moneyed luvvies, and pompous bureaucrats – the very elites that set the average punter’s blood to boil.
There is, also, a principled reason to exit the Union. From its start, it has been and continues to be an inflexible, undemocratic monolith catering to the needs of multinational corporations. While some worker’s rights, some environmental and safety standards, some crumbs from the tables of our fiscal superiors are codified by the EU, every tangible gain for workers has come through struggle, as is ever the case. The EU, for all its vaunted protection of European citizens, has been systematically eroding the rights of workers for decades. One need look no further than the South of the continent for that, where the ongoing punishment of Greece looms particularly large. The EU, and its destriers, the IMF and the ECB, are not our friends. We would do well to be rid of them.
We would, that is, if their absence wouldn’t leave us even worse off. The country has a unipolar economy directed entirely towards finance, and most of that focussing on funneling money into Frankfurt. The Tories, though it has been amusing to watch this referendum split their party most acrimoniously, are still in power, and any arguments that we will be better positioned to argue against TTIP, to redirect the funds we send to the EU to shoring up the faltering NHS, are belied by that. We have no unified Left-opposition, as Corbyn/McDonnell continue to allow the Parliamentary Labour Party Blairites to run wild, and the radical Left remains in complete disarray, suffering delusions of mass insurrection every time George Galloway or Alan Woods feel dyspeptic. No, leaving the European Union in present circumstances would sink the economy of Britain (we’ve already seen sizeable fluctuations in the pound’s exchange rate, and there are rumblings of a second Scottish independence vote to come, should Leave triumph) and it is ever the working classes that suffer most acutely in such situations.
Returning to ethical concerns for a moment, my quandary becomes a bit clearer – can a maxim, in its successful execution, reflexively undermine the purpose that animated it? I’m not unaware of the irony here – that I should start by saying I’m wary of ends-oriented systems, and then problematise deontology by soiling it with the mere possibility of results. However, I still feel as if there is more to it than that, that this hangs more on Kant’s own formulation – to will the success of an event is to will the means for it – and if there is something mangled about those means, surely this is a problem. I suspect that the issue could be dodged by reframing – maxims are meant to be simple, categorical affairs, and the presentation I’ve provided here – even if boiled down to handy slogans like ‘Avoid acts resulting in Class collaboration’ or ‘Do not undermine the emancipation of working people’ – is incompatibly complex.
There are, of course, cogent criticisms of the maxims and, despite what Kant thought, their tendency to snarl one another and themselves. If the above count as proper maxims, this then looks like one of those cases. If not, then this particular snag is avoided, but at the cost of leaving us wondering how we build a useful system out of the infinitesimals maxims would surely be reduced to, to avoid fouling themselves up.
Whatever the fall-out of these systematic concerns, the fact remains that this is a no-win scenario. At best, we have lose-less and lose-more on the table before us, and, in the interests of damage control, I suspect I’ll be voting, with clenched teeth, for Bremain tomorrow. In the interim, I’ll try to dig out my copy of the Groundwork, and tighten up what is, I admit, a rather sophomoric interpretation of the situation.
Authenticity and the African Answer
Not quite yet, but, soon, my reason for living in the UK will be coming to an end. As such, we’ve begun to have a look at what comes next – where to go, what to do. Given that we are here as “Europeans,” the upcoming Brexit vote could have major implications for whether we stay on or not – granted, it’d be remarkably dumb to not grandfather any changes following a mandate to distance the UK from the Euro-zone, but, stranger things have been known to happen.
Irrespective of that, on the whole, we’ve started looking into whether a move back to Canada would make sense. Certainly nothing has been set in stone yet, but a move to Montreal looks possible. My initial reaction to the prospect was telling, and worth interrogation. I’ve mentioned it before, my reservations regarding being/appearing demonstrably foreign, and the alienation that that causes, but I can unpack this in more of a pointed manner.
I should start by saying, that, of course I don’t regret my decision to move to the UK – it’s afforded me a great many opportunities that would have been otherwise closed to me, culturally, geographically. It’s also done a good job at dispelling misguided assumptions of mine – what it’s like here on the ground in England, what the general political dynamics are and how engaged the average person is. Surprise surprise, things look a lot like they do back home. Turns out, Anglo countries are similar. Despite that, though, I still feel as if I’m somehow on the outside of things.
What excited me most about the possibility of a move to Montreal/Quebec is the opportunity for an “authenticity” that that would provide. Which is in itself a bit troubling. I’m no fan of identity politics, as I’ve said numerous times, but this is a tough one to get past – the position I’m trying to describe is relational, in that it isn’t merely up to me as to what I am, I need to be accepted by others to become a legitimate part of the community. When I was still considering involvement in the Labour party/Momentum, one of my reservations was the belief that, as a foreigner, I had little right to speak to English people on this level. That there would have been something fraudulent about it, that I wasn’t part of the community in a real sense. I’m open to the idea that this concern was merely a convenient excuse for something I didn’t want to do anyways – I’ve distanced myself since, but largely due to ideological differences as opposed to feeling disingenuous or something of that nature. Hopefully, the better reason.
For all they will have rippling effects, effects that either support or reduce struggles elsewhere, I still have a tough time believing that the fight to protect the NHS, the push to re-nationalise the rail system, the cleaning out of Blairite scum from the party, that these are fights that I should involve myself in. To do so seems like it would have an unhealthily performative aspect, a LARP-style leftism that is far too common these days. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to my fair share of demos, marches and talks while I’ve been here, but, to do more than offer what little help I may – to insert myself into these things as if they were my own – simply feels wrong.
Inevitably, if we are to experience any manner of long-term success, our efforts have to be internationalist. Recognition of this fact further troubles my position here – it shouldn’t matter where I’m from or where I find myself, the struggles we engage in ought to be those that supersede national boundaries and reactionary notions of identity and personhood – the reality of neoliberal capitalism does, so too must we. A large part of my unease is likely to also come from the ambivalent position I find myself in. I’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern over the last year, not really committing to setting down roots – if this were otherwise, I might feel as if I could set something up here, difficulties be damned.
Though I’ve been mulling this over for a while, what crystallised my concerns most recently was an episode of Philosophy Bites, featuring Professor Flikschuh of the LSE, talking about philosophy in Africa. Of course, “Africa” is a nebulous concept – huge place, with any number of different viewpoints, traditions and cultures – and Flikschuh and her interlocutors recognise this. That being said, there are a few currents that could be described as a trans-continental school or research program.
As could be anticipated, most philosophical work does seem to draw from colonial predecessors, whether that be Anglo-analytic or French-continental, depending on the local context. Many of the established theorists and professors are Euro-trained, several of the names Flikschuh references are Oxbridge alums. Unfortunately, the recording was a short one – it’s not called Bites for nothing – and the breadth of the topic didn’t allow for much depth in discussion, but what I found most interesting, and certainly most relevant to this, was the division between individuals and community, and the way that local history plays into this.
By-and-large, most of the areas discussed are post-colonial territories, and, as we all know, the history of the areas, and their relationship with Europe, is fraught. This was particularly highlighted with reference to discussions on human rights. There are some, says Flikschuh, who are quite critical of “human rights” as they are considered under the Euro rubric, seeing them as an element of neo-colonialism, an acceptance of a foreign, alien mode of thought inappropriate to the cultural context, “…the trap of the possible neo-imperialism or neo-colonialism, whereby African states are simply constrained to taking on the whole liberal-democratic value package.” I certainly wouldn’t go that far – I think that the Enlightenment project, whatever that might mean today, needs to be critiqued, but that there were plenty of beneficial and progressive things to come out of it.
I am interested, though, in the idea that there should be more stress on the duties, and the ways in which these duties form the identity, of the individual in relation to the community. As Flikschuh puts it, “[the idea] of the person owing their identity to their community. You become a person through taking on obligations and entitlements, playing a role in your community, and that’s what makes you a moral person.” A “moderate communalism,” as opposed to some of the ways human rights are articulated in the West, whereby they position the individual against the community. One of the more insidious elements of neoliberalism is the thorough-going atomisation of the person, the carving up of class, community, gender and what have you, to the point where we are all left horribly alone with only our isms for company. If there is a way of pushing back against this, of regaining the ability to struggle as a collective, it will be necessary to foster it. Marxism has always been an international effort, and we would do well to learn our lessons from whoever can best teach us, without prejudice or preconceived notion.
It is in this vein, then, that I’ve become worried, or, perhaps, have begun to articulate pre-existing worries, about authenticity. To my mind, part of the project, one of the goals, of communism is to re-situate the individual in terms of their experience of the world and the community. We’ve seen that this cannot be a top-down affair, cannot be autocratically imposed. The obvious answer, then, is that this must be organic. I suppose the idea of resuming my Canadian-ness, despite its artificial and divisory nature, seems like it removes at least one impediment to the development of that organic community position. Maybe I just want to experience a full battery of seasons again, and do away with this grey-scale monotony they call weather here. One or the other, probably.
White Supremacy at Western, Cultural Chauvinism at Ottawa: Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Over the past week or so, we’ve seen some frankly bizarre things coming out of Canadian Universities. I’m talking, of course, of the rash of “White Student Unions” opening en masse throughout Canada and to a much greater extent in the States, and the banning of a <free> yoga class, for students with disabilities, at the University of Ottawa. The two look dissimilar on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to see that they’re sourced from the same ugly place.
The student union shenanigans came to my attention by way of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario – or as it calls itself now, “Western” (West of what, you may ask? It’s a mystery to me, situated as it is in decidedly the East of the country). It didn’t take long before the truth came to light, that this was a semi-elaborate hoax by a number of people via the more vile sections of the Internet. Initially, I didn’t think it worth writing on. With the second situation, though, it became worthwhile to at least highlight their mutual basis.
My initial reaction to news of the White Student Union – similar, I assumed, to the original example coming out of Maryland – was one of disappointment, and a bit of surprise. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is a deeply racist place, and somewhere like Western, with an incredible amount of privilege in stark contrast to the city it dominates (a city that is statistically above the national average, by every metric, when it comes to poverty), breeds a very particular kind of racism. But Canada’s history, and, flowing from that, its race relations are different than the United States’. We don’t have nearly as much organised white supremacy, certainly none so forthright as the KKK or an equivalent. While we certainly have our fare share of racial animus, particularly in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, racists in Canada seem much more secure in their societally-structured superiority than their American cousins. Content to continue their oppression behind the veil of the dominant culture, they are less strident, less vitriolic. So, why, all the sudden, this decidedly American turn? What threat did they feel that drove them out into the light?
Of course, the fact that this whole thing seemed so weird showed it up for what it was – a hoax. My feelings on this are mixed. First, and mostly, I’m glad that it is a hoax, as it’s not especially good to have an organised hate group with free reign on a campus, let alone a society. Make no mistake, White Student Unions are hate groups, and it’s only a fool or provocateur that says otherwise. My second, lesser, reaction is one of regret – while, as I said, it’s not beneficial for these groups to be able to present their misinformation under the assumed imprimatur of a University, it would at least be useful to know who they are, and to have their existence underlined in the eyes of the public. It’s too easy for groups like this to remain in the background, out of sight, and for the rest of society to carry on in ignorance. If this were a legitimate front, at least it couldn’t be ignored, swept away like a bogey-man. At least then Canadian society would be forced to look in the mirror and reckon with its reflection.
Before wrapping up the first issue, I’ll turn to the second. Seemingly on grounds of cultural appropriation, a free yoga class has been cancelled at the University of Ottawa. This has come to light only in the last week or so, as it has been under discussion since September, the start of the semester. The ridiculousness of this has been picked up internationally, it’s so preposterous. It’s been a while since I read anything in-depth on Indian culture or history and I’m hesitant to tread without the requisite research, but as others have pointed out, the appropriation of Yoga in particular is a pretty absurd target for moral outrage. Yoga, as we know it today, was developed specifically for export and cultural miscegenation centuries ago. To turn around now and blame white practitioners for its uptake? It’s this kind of bleeding-heart, shoot-from-the-hip, ill-educated foolishness that deserves mockery of all and sundry.
This calls to mind the recent flare-up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where kimonos were provided during a Monet exhibition for visitor photo-ops. People, mostly uni-aged students, protested this as racist appropriation. In a turn of the surreal, a counter-demo was held, mostly comprised of elderly Japanese immigrants, in defence of the kimono use. Hilarity ensued. Once again, the group protesting was incredibly ill-informed on the subject they were inveighing over. Kimonos, much like the practice of Yoga, were and continue to the reserve of the upper echelon of their respective societies. Throughout their history, the vast majority of Japanese people were unlikely to see a kimono in their lives, let alone wear one. All those mystics and swamis that so typify the Orientalist conception of India? A slice of a strata in a horribly oppressive caste system. Find me the suicidally debt-burdened farmer in Uttar Pradesh that opens his day with a salute to the sun, and I’ll let you have your little (mis)appropriation lockout.
To wrap up, I’ll try to show how, while ostensibly distinct, the two originate from the same place. Both of these events, very clearly, come by way of Identity politics. The White Student Union in Maryland was initiated using the same rhetoric and motivations as other sectarian student groups. The difference being, rather glaringly, that the majority of American society is a White Student Union, whereas minority groups to a degree require and benefit from clear delineations of intent and representation. The recent hoax, the mushrooming of fake White Student Unions, served a dual purpose – both to stir up anger and distress within the progressive portion of society, and to disseminate the ideas of white supremacy. The yoga class debacle too comes from Identity politics, which often sees the policing of dialogue, of space, and of conduct to the point of choking all discourse. This, and the kimono case, are just single passages in an incredibly tawdry book. Racism needs to be opposed, and past wrongs redressed, but to do this by way of cultural chauvinism or dilettantish victim pageantry is a gross misstep.
Identity politics, whether employed by white racists or misguided social justice warriors, even multiculturalism itself, they are products of divisive, obscurantist ideology. Writing in the wake of Zizek’s racist remarks on the Euro migrant crisis, Sam Kriss sums up the failings of multiculturalism:
“Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism…any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory.”
As Kriss says, multiculturalism flattens out the terrain of relations. Abstracting from the realities, the complex, contradictory, nuanced facts that make up individuals, multiculturalism instead looks at people, every person, as no more than a token carrier of their larger culture, itself divined by some mystical, spurious process. It should be little wonder that Canada is split into so many little enclaves, gated communities and self-imposed ghettos following this dogma. Merkel was right – the experiment of multiculturalism has utterly failed. She was wrong about the reasons, though. It was always doomed to failure.
Adolph Reed Jr. goes further than Kriss, arguing against any of the alternate options provided above. Reed has expounded on this multiple times, arguing that Identity politics is nothing more than Neoliberalism. Picking out the hypocrises involved in the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner and the castigation of Rachel Dolezal, Reed writes
“…race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do.”
Reed goes on to point out that the society that shifted ever so slightly, where the infamous 1% that own and direct the wealth of our world, when changed to reflect the “racial” and “gender” makeup of the greater body politic, would have to be found just by the arguments of the Identitarians. The obvious error of this underscores the failings of the position, the failure to both aim at the goals they espouse and the failure of the strategy to get them there.
At the end of it all, there are very few things that are fixed in our lives, really fundamentally stable, I mean. So much of what we are – our race, our gender, our culture, to a degree, even our sex – is socially determined. What cuts across all of those, though, is class and the power relations that determine it. All those that live and struggle under the banner of the progressive, we’re nominally on the same side. It’s time we start acting like it. We can’t let stupid, misinformed, impassioned bullshit, puerile Identitarian nonsense, continue to divide us. We have too much to lose.
If you’re actually interested in change, in winning the fight, stop and think for a minute about your tactics. Are they really aimed at victory, or are they just there to carve up your pile of the shit-heap, making you feel good in your safe corner of the midden?
I’ve given up on active communist work, at least for the time being. Not because I think it’s wrong, on the contrary, I still count myself a socialist, I still believe that Marx’s critique of Capitalism is on point, even if certain elements of it have yet to be borne out or have been actively disproven. No, I still believe that Communism is likely the only way we’re getting out of the situation we’ve backed ourselves into. What brought me to this point is recognition of situation on the ground.
I don’t want to make recourse to something so nebulous as “human nature;” our conduct is inextricably wrapped up in our material circumstances, and the behaviour of today’s society is merely the product of past victories and defeats. That said, communism is too good for people as they currently are. Perhaps there was time, once, to show people the lies they’re being sold, the necessity of working together to build something better. No longer, though. Our societies end-date is coming up, quickly. No time to “build consciousness” especially with the political Left in a state of division, and those few efforts at rapprochement anaemic at best.
People, the average person, individual instances of the working class or the petite bourgeoisie (never mind the lumpen) don’t want, and don’t have, the capacity to direct their world. I’m not setting myself apart from this, as if I’m in any way better – one brief look at my own life would undercut that immediately. So, how can we expect any sort of success foisting on people a message they don’t want to hear, that they, in their shambling and mediated lives, couldn’t do much with anyways? At the end of the day, people want comfort – the driving desire of the working classes today is to get back what their parents and grandparents had – security in being told what to do with a sense of safety and material surfeit. Struggles for the defence of the NHS (or socialised medicine, more broadly), the fight for a “living wage,” these are emblematic of that desire, not of any yearning for a thorough-going communism. It’s true, unfortunately, that the majority will find no real security under Capitalism, that the basis of their desires will be forever frustrated under this system, but this doesn’t mean that people would be interested in following through on that logic. Even if it is true that we’re all getting a raw deal here, and people dislike it, it doesn’t mean that they are in any way interested in jumping into even a properly-working communism. People have trouble enough completing their tax returns, and we expect them to take responsibility for their lives in totality? Foolishness.
Every previous political economy, including Capitalism, came about organically, the summation of thousands of small changes, individual choices. What audacity to think we could implement one based on rationality alone! I recognise that, as Marx posited, the internal contradictions woven into Capitalism will be its downfall, even if this planet doesn’t render it impossible first. But that doesn’t mean that the workers will seize the State for themselves. It would be the rational thing to do, certainly, but we are far from rational, responsible animals.
What’s left to do, then? Common theme round these parts. Shore up the dykes. We are on the precipice of catastrophic change. We need to confront that with eyes open, and save what we can, what is worth the saving. Strengthen our communities, a tall order indeed in this period of social dissolution. Strive for flexibility, and not fetishise that which we wish to preserve – there is much of the Enlightenment that should be consigned to history, even if it is one of the few good things to come out of European civilisation. Find working solutions for situations at hand, politically and extra-politically.
And all that other soft-Left feculence. We don’t have the affluence of time to otherwise anymore, if ever we did.
What follows is taken almost whole-cloth from a public talk I recently gave on the subject. It’s not meant as an authoritative take on Marxist economics – it’s nowhere near long enough – but rather as a quick and loose intro with an eye to drumming up interest in a possible reading-group, that can more intricately examine the subject matter. A portion of the contents came about from my own research, but I owe a heavy debt to the English translation of Michael Heinrich’s An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital – the quotation in the section on Crisis is indeed lifted in full from there. I’ve broken the material into several different sections, starting with the classical economic genesis of Marx’s thought and carrying on to a contrast with modern theories, in order that the content be rendered more easily understood. Finally, there is a conclusion, which summarises some of the key points of each portion.
Without further ado:
Labour Theory of Value
Marxist economics is an example of what is known as the “Labour Theory of Value.” This theory was first formulated by the likes of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and during the time in which Marx himself was writing, the latter half of the 1800’s, formed the mainstream thought of political economic theory. The crux of the theory is that it is human labour, the application of human effort, that creates the value which we find in certain objects in the world. It should be stated here that the term “value” holds a special meaning, divorced from the way we commonly use it: “value” here is something very different from “price.” For example, we can say that undeveloped land, or diamonds, or things of this nature have a “price” but not a “value.” This is because they have not been worked on by human beings – the money that you pay when you buy a diamond ring is not tied to the “value” of the object, but rather determined by scarcity – more on this later.
The specialised concept of “value” is further subdivided in this theory – into what are called “Use Values” and “Exchange Values.” When we confront objects in the world with an eye to making use of them – sitting on a chair, typing on a keyboard – we interact with their “Use values.” However, when we begin to approach objects as commodities, as an abstract collection of goods meant to be traded, we don’t really care about their individual “Use Values.” Here, we are more interested in their “Exchange Values.” Only objects treated as commodities have both a “use value” and an “exchange value.” “Use values” naturally inhere in the object – they are determined by the physical make-up, whereas “Exchange values” are the product of a societal relation – the act of being associated with trade.
So, how do we get to the heart of what we mean by “value”? How do we figure out what things are worth? We see fairly quickly when we enter the level of exchange that commodities stand in relation to one another in more or less fixed ratios – it is possible for objects to be exchanged above their value, or below it, but this price does not affect their value. Marx, given the time he was writing, talks a great deal about textiles. He posits that you can take one coat, and exchange it for, say 3 sheets of linen. Further, you can take three sheets of linen, and trade them for several dozen yards of yarn. By the same logic then, you should be able to trade that much yarn for one coat. What is being measured here, in the comparison? The answer that the Labour Theory of Value puts forward is that it is what is known as “socially necessary labour time.”
“Socially necessary labour time” is just that amount of labour, within a society during a particular epoch, that is required to create the commodity. It is qualified by “socially necessary” because, as we see in practice, simply because someone should take longer at creating a particular commodity does not give it more value – no, this is tied to the average time across the whole society that it would take to do so. For example, just because it would take you, an unskilled labourer, a long time to make, say, a chair, that chair isn’t therefore “worth” more than one built by a skilled carpenter.
The way commodities stand in relation to one another we mentioned a moment ago sheds light on another aspect of the economy, that of money. Money, in this understanding, can be considered the abstracted relation between all commodities. I’ll speak to what are known as Bourgeois economic theories, those that we call “Mainstream,” a bit later, but it is worth noting that no other theory aside from Marxist economics can account for the money form in this way, and that, for this reason, all other economic theories are “pre-money theories.” Getting back to the subject at hand, Marx believed that the money form had to be tied to a particular money commodity, historically usually that of gold or silver. Of course, we know that that is no longer the case – money’s representative “worth” hasn’t been tied to gold since the end of the Bretton Woods system in ’71 – but this in no way complicates Marx’s position. We see money acting in several different ways – namely, as a hoard, where it is taken out of circulation, as payment, where it is exchanged in lieu of a commodity, or as the general abstraction – the “Universal Money.” Without the money form, Capitalism as a system would not be possible.
The Capitalist Economy
Things have been traded since the dawn of civilization, if not even before that. However, it is only under a properly Capitalist system that almost all objects are treated as commodities, able to be exchanged for others.
It is important to note the over-arching nature of Capital in its status as a system. As noted, we’ll look in more detail at Bourgeois systems later, but this is another failing of theirs, to not treat economics in a wide enough systematic manner. What is meant by that is, there are three main portions of the Capitalist economy: the realm of production, where commodities are created, that of circulation, where they are traded, and finally the realm of consumption, where they are converted back to use values and, for a time, drop out of economic consideration. It is necessary to take all three levels in view when approaching the subject of political economy.
In the Marxist approach, human beings are called Capitalists when they take up the role of Capital personified. Capital is more than just a large amount of money or wealth, it is what is known as “self-valorising value.” Its sole interest is in increasing itself. Thus, Industrialists, Bankers, etc., are only Capitalists when they act this out. This is why, for example, Thomas Piketty’s recent book, while it presents a wealth of useful stats, doesn’t actually address Capitalism as a system. Unlike the model we mentioned earlier, where a person heads to the market with their own commodity, exchanges it for a certain amount of money, and then either sits on it or exchanges that amount for another, different commodity, the Capitalist process starts with money. Capitalists advance a certain amount of money in the knowledge that they will get a larger return on it. It’s important to note that, though this advance generally takes the form of wages “purchasing” labour-power, and that this is described by both Capitalist and the worker as a form of payment for work done, this is untrue. It is a hallmark of Marxist Economics that the true workings of the system remain obscured to most actors, operating underneath the surface of apparent relationships. Though both Capitalists and the working class remain ignorant of the actual operations of the economy, this is no way impedes the process as a whole.
What is “self-valorising value?” For this, we have to look at the other side of the divide, the working class, also known as the proletariat. Unlike other commodities, which are mere carriers for use values and exchange values, labour-power has within itself the ability to create value. It is able to do this because of the particular way it is valued itself. Like other commodities, labour-power derives its “value” by the “socially necessary labour time” for its (re)creation. In this instance, that takes the form of the daily necessities for the continuation of life for the labourer, eg, the food, the clothing, the shelter, etc. Further to this, it also contains the cost of reproducing the labour, and so, alongside those more mundane commodities, carries with it those necessary to supply for the labourers’ offspring. The queer element of labour-power, however, is that it can achieve these things and more within one “working day.” Now, the concept of the “working day” is an important one, and one that we’ll return to later, but, for now, suffice it to say that a labourer produces what he or she needs for themselves, as well as an excess of value on top of that, within the working period.
Here we reach another term with special meaning – that of exploitation. As discussed above, the money advanced by the Capitalist in the form of wages, wherein they bought the labour-power of a worker for an agreed-upon portion of time, was reflective of the value of that labour-power. This, coupled with the fact that the application of labour-power, ie., labouring, produces value in excess of this, gets us to Marx’s conception of “exploitation.” The labourer is given money for the recreation of their daily labour, but the Capitalist takes the excess value, the “surplus value,” in the form of the commodity created with that labour. The time required to reproduce the labour potential is referred to as paid labour, while surplus-value creating labour is unpaid. Hence “exploitation,” for Marx, is a purely logistical affair, and doesn’t speak to a moral component. I think it’s worthwhile to hold a moment here, as the concept of exploitation is a central one. The idea of “unpaid labour” hearkens back to what we were discussing a moment ago, the reality that most of what transpires in Capitalist economics happens underneath the surface. It’s not as if labourers are forced to work without compensation, like we see in unpaid internships or work-fare or the like. No, it’s just that the wages that are given to the worker, while they appear to correspond to the hours worked, are actually tied to the necessary labour time to reproduce the labour-ability. The time after that, which we refer to, technically, as unpaid labour, creates surplus value, on top of the value of the labour-power itself.
Now that we have to acquired the concept of “surplus value,” we can better explain how commodities gain their value. Earlier we said that value is generated by “socially necessary labour time” – while this remains true, under the Capitalist system, it is further divided into a composite of the surplus value and the value transferred by the earlier advanced capital. This “earlier advanced capital” itself is an aggregate, which divides into what is known as “constant capital” and “variable capital.” Variable capital is the name for those commodities which are used up in the production process, namely, the paid-labour and the raw materials. Constant capital, by contrast, only partially transfers its value to the finished commodity. Constant capital takes the form of the machinery used to facilitate the process – as one can see, from this perspective, machinery on the factory floor can be used to create many commodities, and only gives up it’s own value in increments. Thus, the value of the finished commodity is a combination of three entities, the value of the consumed variable capital, a portion of the constant capital, and the surplus value created by the application of labour-power.
Understanding the nature of value in commodities sheds light on the nature of profit, which we will further explore in a moment, but also clarifies the nature of the working day and the process of Capitalistic production itself. Clearly, Capitalists are driven to maximize surplus value, as this is the ultimate source of profit. There are two different methods of looking at surplus value, one, the absolute surplus value, is tied to the length of the working day, while the second, relative surplus value, is connected with driving down the value of labour-power itself. The first, absolute surplus value, is increased when the working day is lengthened, allowing more time for what we called “unpaid” labour. This also includes more effective use of labour-time, both by intensification of the labour process and also by more efficient factory lay-out and the like. Of course, there are only so many hours in a day, which is why we arrive at the second method, driving down the value of labour power itself. While, on the face of it, this might seem counterintuitive, reducing the cost of labour-power, ie., those commodities necessary to reproduce labour-power, leaves more time in the day for “unpaid labour.” Some of the ways this is done include the adoption of machinery, in the sense of automating commodity creation, as well as the division of labour within the factory.
This process is part of the antagonism between the labouring class and the Capitalist class – the purchaser of labour-power, the Capitalist, like any good consumer, wants to get their monies’ worth. The proletariat, meanwhile, wants to sell their labour-power as dearly as possible, as one would do. Unchecked by regulating laws or the will of a united working class, the drive to increase surplus value leads to the immiseration of the workers, exposing them to bodily danger and stultifying the mind.
Now, turning to profit itself. If the rate of surplus value is determined by its relation to variable capital, the rate of profit is determined by the surplus value in relation to the combination of constant and variable capital. In that sense, it would make sense to refer to the combination of constant and variable capitals as the “cost price” of the commodity. For Capitalists looking to increase their profit, once they’ve done their best to increase surplus value over all, the obvious lever to pull is that of the constant capital – variable capital of course transferring all of its value immediately already. An increase in the proportion of constant capital can be achieved in three separate ways – the more effective use of it, the more effective use in the creation of it, and what is known as the acceleration in the turnover of capital, which refers to the heightened work pace.
These three methods grant access to the frenetic and unrelenting nature of life for the Capitalist – in order to remain a Capitalist, they must constantly reinvest their Capital. Because they are, by definition, driven towards valorisation, they must seek out the highest profit they can, lest they be outdone by their competing Capitalist brethren, and lose out on the expected return of their advance. The push towards innovation in the realm of constant capital, eg., the means of production, is undying, and comes out of a hope to better the ratio of surplus value to cost price. Coupled to this, however, is the attendant worry that some other Capitalist will innovate before them, rendering their own constant capital, their own machinery, outmoded and slower than the “socially necessary labour time.” Given the massive investments machinery represent, it is a perpetual worry that it will be outmoded before it can fully transfer its value to created commodities. From this comes the desire to never let it sit idle – so long as the rate of profit will allow for it, more shifts of work are tacked on, in the hope of constantly using the machinery.
In passing, it is worth noting that there isn’t a difference in kind between talk of value and talk of production price and rate of profit. Rather than some temporal difference, as if there were a transition from one stage to another, it is simply a matter of transitioning between levels of description.
Merchant Capital, Finance Capital
Of course, as we well know, the work done in creating commodities, whether it be done in factories creating textiles, on a farm rearing cattle, or in an auditorium with a concert orchestra, is only one portion of the Capitalist economy. The creation of commodities takes place under what is termed Industrial Capital, as does the sole creation of surplus value, which underwrites the whole system. The other two branches, at least for the Capitalist, are known as Merchant Capital and Finance Capital.
If surplus value is only created during the Industrial Capital stage, why would the Industrial Capitalist want to share it around with the others? Why share a portion of the profit they have “earned” through the advancement of their capital? Because the creation of surplus value is only one stage of the valorisation process, of course. The Industrial Capitalist, now that they have converted their initially advanced money into a valorised commodity must now exchanged this commodity for a second sum of money, larger than the first, to complete the process. Rather than sell directly to consumers at the market price, an Industrial Capitalist will often sell to a Merchant Capitalist below the market price, but still above the cost price, in order to get the finished commodity out of their hands and to advance the newly gained surplus value. This reduces the risk for the Industrial Capitalist of finding themselves sitting on too many commodities and not being able to get access to the fruits of their earlier advancement.
The Merchant Capitalist, for their part, finds the process worthwhile due to the margin between the price they acquired the commodity for and its ultimate market price. Those workers that labour to get the commodity to market, whether it be as truckers, sailors, or clerks, off-set the cost of their employment by way of the unpaid labour they do – but the money for the paid labour, the labour-power that goes into reproducing themselves, comes directly from the surplus value created earlier in the Industrial Capital stage. Unlike their Industrial colleagues, the Merchant proletariat’s unpaid labour is unproductive when it comes to surplus value.
The benefits to the Industrial Capitalist of Merchant Capital are fairly clear. What then of Finance Capital? Unlike pre-capitalist economies, Finance Capital, in the form of interest-bearing capital, does not occur as a crushing burden on the debtor. In pre-Capitalist eras, interest, or, as it was called, usury, would occur in such staggering rates that a loan was often a sentence to bankruptcy. It was this state of affairs that developed the moralistic distaste for lending money, that we see codified in the Bible and as a hold-over in our own times. Contrary to this, though, interest rates nowadays are much more manageable. Furthermore, much like the necessity of the money form, Capitalism could not operate as a system without the lubrication of Finance Capital.
Without going into too much detail, Finance Capital allows for liquidity within the Capitalist economy, in that it allows for the raising of funds to be applied in areas of high expected returns with alacrity, as well as providing a sort of force-multiplier for the Industrial Capitalist. Much like the relationship between the Industrial and Merchant Capitalist described a moment ago, the Financier receives their profit as a slice of the surplus value created earlier in the system. Just as the Industrial Capitalist strikes a favourable balance between the cost price and the market price, here they look for a reasonable balance between the average rate of profit and the rate of interest on the loan, which is in turn determined by the levels of supply and demand within the system as a whole. Access to large amounts of finance capital can act as a what was termed a force multiplier because it allows the Industrial Capitalist to advance greater sums into their own affairs, whether it be in the form of improved constant capital, which in turn benefits their rate of profit, or as the means to benefit from a temporarily high demand for certain commodities unmet by other market forces.
As well as benefit to individual Capitalists, Finance Capital, under the Capitalist system, is used by the working class. Some use it to set themselves up as Capitalists in their own right, while, on a systemic level, it provides some extra room for the consumption of commodities. For example, the end of stagflation in the 1980’s and the economic growth up until 2008 was due in large part to this extension of cheap credit to the working classes, who’s buying power over that time otherwise stalled. A clear indication of this is the widespread reliance on credit cards to maintain an accustomed style of living.
So, why oppose Capitalism? It seems like it has it’s good points – it is massively more efficient than any previous economic form we’ve seen, and it looks like it has the mechanisms to allow the working class, through savvy investment and thrift, to better their own situations.
We have, however, already numbered some of the internal antagonisms within the system – the way it pits Capitalists against the proletariat, the manner in which Capitalists necessarily compete amongst themselves. The greatest pitfall has yet to be mentioned – the constant, cyclical event of Crisis.
Under Capitalism, a Crisis occurs when a large percentage of the commodities produced are no longer saleable. This occurs not because there is no demand for them, but because there is no longer the “buying power” with which to do so. The interconnectedness of the system allows for a chain reaction when this happens:
“Commodity capital can no longer be completely transformed into money capital, so that the advanced capital is poorly valorized and accumulation decreases. The demand on the part of capitalist enterprises for the elements of productive capital—means of production and labor-power—also decreases. Mass unemployment and a decline in the consumption of the working class are the consequences, thus leading to a further decline in demand that further intensifies the crisis.”
During Marx’s own time, these periodic Crises of Capitalism would happen with more or less regularity every decade. During the Post-War years, however, it looked as if this had been overcome. Unfortunately, this was simply a product of the benefits of the modern industrial process: division of labour, mass production and the like. This became apparent during the previously mentioned period of stagflation during the 1970’s. It was no longer possible to drive down the relative surplus value by way of automation. This lead to the political choice to dismantle the gains made by the working class, undercutting the social-welfare state and destroying the power of labour unions, in order to make a reasonable gain in productivity. Of course, as mentioned earlier, this lead to the extension of cheap credit without increasing buying power, which has sense caught up with us. Unlike other efforts at understanding economics, Marx points to the internal workings of Capitalism itself as the creator of Crises. You cannot have Capitalism without them.
And what about those Bourgeois economists? Where do they go wrong? Quickly, I’ll take a brief look at two important schools of non-Marxist economics.
The first school is that which is commonly referred to as Mainstream Economics. It’s a combination of a few different styles, but mostly holds to the work set out by the Austrian School and the economist Hayek, and holds true to the affirmations of marginal utility theory. Roughly, this position assumes that the true focus of economics is the rationally acting individual who seeks their own benefit. Furthermore, they hold that markets should be left unfettered and that, given enough time, the storied “Invisible hand,” emerging from the individual actions of rational entities, will guide the greater bulk of commerce to the benefit of society.
Of course, as we have just argued, this is an entirely wrong-headed approach – Capitalism is fraught with internal contradictions which drive the creation of Crises, and, furthermore, it simply doesn’t make sense to approach political economy from anything less than a systematic view: the rationally self-interested individual is not the proper subject of economics, society is. If you cast your mind back to the tri-partite division of Capitalist economy we discussed earlier, the separate realms of production, circulation and consumption, it would be appropriate to think of Mainstream economics as solely focused on the middle portion, that of circulation, to the detriment of the other two. For this reason, they can say that all agents, in the market, are equal, and there is no imbalance of power between them. Of course, the inherent imbalances, the way that wealth tips the scale and monopoly over the means of production sets actors on different levels, only becomes apparent when you take the system as a whole, which they refuse to do!
Another approach to economics which has regained traction, in light of the Great Recession of 2008, is that of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes himself laid the basis of his economic thought during the Great Depression, and, unlike other Bourgeois economists, took note of the friction between the working class and the Capitalists. For Keynes, however, the problem of Capitalist Crisis lay in what is known as effective demand – rather than try to flatten out the market the way the laissez-faire Mainstream economists would do, Keynes argued that the solution was to halt the vicious circle of unemployment breeding decreasing demand by way of an injection of purchasing power back into the system, usually taking the form of Government stimulus.
However, this is to mistake the source of Government finances and the nature of value– the Governments of modern nation states do not create wealth ex nihilo – they acquire it through taxation. In a point of crisis, the working classes cannot afford an increase in taxation, and the Capitalists are mobile enough to avoid it. Of course, Governments can dip into the World Financial markets, but this is a short term solution, and one that we have seen to lead to disaster just within the last few years, what with the rather distastefully-named PIGS.
Thus, we have laid out a sketch of Marxist Economics, as well as some rough comparisons with other, Bourgeois, modes.
In quick summary, Marxist Economics rests on the Labour Theory of Value, which posits that value is created by application of human labour-power. Capitalist Production is the process of self-valorising value, which is derived from harnessing human labour-power and the creation of value-bearing commodities. Capitalists advance money, which is the abstract relation between all commodities, in the expectation that it will return a profit. The rate of profit is derived from the ratio of surplus value, created by the labourer, to the combination of constant capital and variable capital, where constant capital is the means of production, transferring its value in slices, and variable capital is that which is consumed in the productive process, the raw materials and the wages. Merchant Capital and Finance Capital, while necessary for the liquidity and flexibility of the system as a whole, derive their profit from the surplus value created under Industrial Capital. Because of its internal contradictions, Capitalism is not only prone to, but actively creates, periods of Crisis, which no Bourgeois theory can properly account for.
The Long Road to Quietism
I have, for a good while now, held a decidedly non-critical belief in the benefit of what is known as “full automation” – the point in time where we, as a species, have harnessed the technological abilities possible to shift the way we produce the necessities of life. Full automation, when looked at this way, should free up the greater body of people from banal, monotonous labour, as well as getting us to a place where production volume has reached its maximal height. We’ve already seen some of this – the Industrial Revolution has allowed the species to bootstrap ourselves out of the bad old days of the Dark Ages, while also endowing us with material wealth previously undreamt of. Or, at least for some.
These early days of the 21st century, with untold technological prowess at our command, we’ve more, at least numerically, disenfranchised, enslaved, and desperately poor people than ever in our 200,000 year history. And arguments could be made that they are, at the same time, more fundamentally destitute than ever before, as well. It could be otherwise, at least in theory. But, given merely a change in the level of applied technology, removing from the necessary workforce perhaps, at a rough estimate, 95% of the population, why would we not see a continuation of this trend?
Full automation, keeping the same societal dynamics as present, would not prove to be an emancipatory agent. We would have wealth without need of work, we would have more than enough to go ‘round. And yet, do we not already approach that? And look around, misery everywhere the eye alights. The logical result of full automation is not some halcyon existence for all, no, it would be the addition of billions to the ranks of the unnecessary. Not even required for the reserve-labour army, these billions would be excess in every meaning of the term.
So, the problem is not one of technique, but of approach. And yet. These days mark a low ebb for the Labour movement: the class consciousness of yesteryear is on the wane, previous tools to fight for a better world – labour unions, mass strikes – prove either corrupted or altogether useless. What is to be done?
Is it really worth-while to try to unionise in the workplace, knowing that unions nowadays invariably prove to be mediators for workers conduct, rather than vehicles for agitation and progress? Is it worthwhile to “build the party,” knowing that the working classes take no interest in mass political struggles? It is true, gains are made, every once-in-a-while. A working wage here, a factory kept open there. But, systematically, the tide is against us. And we don’t have the tools or perspectives to turn it.
I’ve been wary, for a long time, of the “scientific” application of Marxist theory, that holdover of Hegelian idealism that dictates that things will happen, for such-and-such reasons. It’s likely that Capitalism, as a system, will be brought down by its own internal contradictions. But then again, it might outlive us, as a society – we’re running up against a hard wall here with massive environmental degradation. I don’t know what to do, in light of that.
I harbour fears that the whole heap, it’s just too complicated for us to grasp. I know that not all of Marxism, as a set system, can simply be laid out on top of the world in the expectation that reality will conform to it – and very few people, except perhaps certain tankies, actually believe that that would work anyways. But my fears run deeper than that. I don’t know that we’ll ever have a system complex enough to understand the whole thing, despite our best efforts, and certainly not in time for what’s coming.
In light of this, what’s the most appropriate behaviour? Should I just sit, and wait, and read, like so many of the Leftcom advocate, watching for a shift in the material structure? Should I instead shore up what walls I can, building for the storm? I don’t reckon I’ll stop reading, and, despite Bordiga’s injunction against activism qua action, I don’t think I’ll break off political struggle. Maybe it’s for the best that I do so, though, with eyes open to the bleakness of the situation. So. No Quietism today. There’s still tomorrow for that.