Monday, January 14, 2008

The Mass Debaters

From the WSPUS website:

Who has seen whiter, glossier, teeth and lies whiter and glossier still than those that were bared on television during the recent debates between Democrats and Republicans? The race culminating in the presidential trophy in late 2008 is solidly on, with these wealthy members of the capitalist class vying for leadership of the world's most prosperous land, brought to them by the generous contributions of our dear readers' unpaid surplus value.

These sellers of capitalist reforms are so impeccably dressed and groomed, so charming and witty, so passionate in their determination to give a structurally exploitative society a new lease on ideological life, that it might well take an Odyssean resistance to temptation on your part to keep from falling for their well-oiled sell, written and rehearsed with a large team of marketing professionals from behind the curtains.

Senator Obama, for all his oozing liberal rhetoric and strong likeability factor, while an Illinois Democratic senator has always supported a free market system. Isn't that the one in which most of us must work so hard to produce free surplus value for our employers that we don't even have enough free time to ourselves? One of the most popular bills that he signed in 2007, the Shareholder Vote on Executive Compensation Act, also known as "Say On Pay," allowed shareholders to limit the inflated salaries of corporate CEOs but while this was easily and incorrectly perceived as a Robin Hood move, the reality was that studies in the Wall Street Journal had previously demonstrated that poorer CEO performance was correlated with more inflated salaries, and also that in economically troubled companies, worker morale suffered the most when CEOs were receiving pay of exceptionally bloated dimensions. In short, fiscal policies and laws must attempt to look after the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, even at the minor expense of individual capitalists. Behind each liberal dream sits a wallet somewhere waiting to bulge.

Mr. Obama was further criticized and praised last year for spending $18 billion on promoting merit pay of the nation's teachers by cutting costs from the NASA Constellation Program, delayed now by 5 years. On the surface, noble and caring, no? Well, in capitalism the only nobility are the ones who still own parts of the land, and even the most caring sentiment finds a way out of the heart and into the coffers of the rich. His plan to improve merit pay for teachers was harshly criticized by the National Education Association (the largest labor union in the U.S.), the Urban Institute and the Cato Institute, on the grounds that merit pay could actually end up favoring schools in better neighborhoods whose track records were stronger as a result of the inflow of local resources, could lower the morale of teachers owing to the resulting competition between them, and could create a new expensive bureaucratic superstructure overseeing the program itself. Isn't it sickening that in capitalism resources cannot be directly accorded to those who deserve it the most, our children's teachers, without producing such negative consequences upon the institutions and atmosphere in which our children are learning?

Mr. Obama is also on record for stating that he is not opposed "to all wars, only dumb wars" (famous Fall 2002 speech at the anti-war rally at Chicago's Federal Plaza). While urging for a date by which de-escalation of the militarization of Iraq should begin, Obama has also consistently refused to actually cut funding for the Iraq War. Capitalism makes it hard for seemingly honest, intelligent and good-intentioned politicians such as Obama to take a solid stance against the murder of the innocent (who are always the ones in war to die in greater numbers than the intended targets), even for those politicians who would likely come across as largely anti-war in a private conversation (if they too openly challenge the status quo, they may be attacked for undermining the war on terrorism – and as a result of their careful public maneuvering, their platform always seems unpredictable and inconsistent).

Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, actually came out in the recent debates the strongest opponent of the Iraq War. His opposition seemed partially fiscal in nature, as he deplored the 300 billion dollars spent on it thus far. But it was also ideological, as he felt the arming of groups who later turn against the United States (e.g., the Kosovars who aided Islamic terrorists, or the Afghan jihadists themselves, and their friend Osama bin Laden) had acted to fuel increased national insecurity rather than security, and increased terrorism rather than less. And of course, Ron Paul is probably right on this score, surprisingly coming from a member of the Republican Party, the party that always advocates small government but seems in each office hell-bent on creating a bureaucratic gigantean proto-fascistic war economy state.

However, Ron Paul, like the rest of the Republicans or Democrats, feels that capitalism can somehow behave more rationally than it does – or at least they want us to believe that with our vote they can transform its foul waters to fine wine. The reality is quite the opposite, as history shows again and again. Tensions between nations are always present over shifts in political allegiances between countries that may benefit some better than others. Global politics is a macrocosm of the local economy, with each company vying to get as much of the business as it can, such as trade, material resources and opportunities for future economic growth. From the perspective of a capitalist enterprise or a nation, the planet is a great big hamburger to chow on, with the unneeded parts thrown away on the landfill – children, nature, women, the elderly, education, health, and common sense. It is bottom-line a violent and wasteful way for humans to treat both each other and their world. It benefits only those in control of the resources and keeps the rest of us in a state of emotional tension about the relative lack of security that exists around the planet, at any time potentially plunging us all into another world war or terrorist attack. It is a world gone mad.

At the moment, Hillary Clinton has lost the Iowa caucus but won the Democratic Party primary in New Hampshire. She is thus very much in the race to become her party's presidential candidate at this time, with the biggest next date that may tip the scales in favor of Clinton or Obama what is dubbed by the press Big Tuesday on February 5th (something to get so excited about when we get home from work that day, not). Clinton is garnering a lot of support for her life-long struggle to medically insure all Americans, however she no longer advocates a single-payer insurance system as she once did and as all other capitalist nations around the world presently provide. Another example of the compromise she had to make to remain a viable leader of the Democratic Party, and a perfect example of how the needs of capitalism so taint the original ideals of those running for big offices that by the time they arrive there, they look, smell and sound like anyone else in the White Lie House. Indeed, the only Democratic Party candidate who does presently advocate a single-payer insurance plan is Kerry Edwards, who is presently tailing significantly behind the other two in the race.

Hillary Clinton is assuredly not going to be making the world any safer from war, either. It is true that she has worked to improve the medical and psychiatric treatment benefits available to veterans, thus leading one to assume that she is more willing to improve in the patching up of those who fought abroad than in preventing their being massacred physically and emotionally there in the first place. However, as the potential leader of one of the world's great powers, her job will be to make sure that she protects the economic interests of this country's industries and their standing in the marketplace as a whole. Rather than attempting to make the world safer from war, her own website recites the same sort of patriotic dribble one finds frothing out of the mouths of every other leader running for president, in her case: "every member of our armed forces will receive a fair shot at the American dream when their service is over." We all know, of course, how "fair" the American dream is, especially the millions of American presently failing to pay off their mortgages at a landslide rate, and the volunteers at the 51,000 food pantries across our "fair" land that are presently providing food assistance to the millions of extra customers turning up at food banks in recent years (according to America's Second Harvest "2006 Hunger Study").

Why should we believe these leaders, anyway? After the colorful streamers from the election victories have been swept away from the convention centers, life seems to return to its previously conventional grey pallor. Most of us (those of us with nothing to sell but our ability to work) continue our 9 to 5 existence for the employer class as though the election had never happened. Back to budgets. Back to traffic. Back to balancing medical benefits and food for the kids. Back to two to four weeks off a year for every forty-eight or fifty of work. Back to international tensions. Back to the continued slide into ecological devastation. Back to the feeling that no one was listening and no one cared the whole time.

Though they won't hold their breath waiting for it to happen, socialists are nonetheless hoping that 2008 will be the year that citizens of this country appreciate that it is a fact as real as gravity that capitalism cannot be reformed in the interest of the working class. Read my lips. Only about half of the eligible electorate has even voted at all during the presidential elections for the past few decades. You cannot deny that there is a certain sliminess to the electoral pledges for the future, and a certain disbelief that you know is well justified when looking at the past. Whatever laws get passed, whatever economic priorities of governments of different political shades, our basic day-to-day lives remain constant. And the worries we have about "the world" remain as before. At what point are you going to admit that the leaders, whether or not they believe their own rhetoric, are simply not capable of making the changes they promised you as a condition for your handing over your power to them?

Socialists take a very different position. They try to understand the world more as social scientists than as members of a flock of faithful. They notice, for instance, that humans are already producing enough food for everybody and hence that starvation cannot be a technical problem, but rather a problem of how the economic system hinders the production and distribution of social wealth. They see millions of buildings standing around that could easily be used for homeless people to live in, but which have no purpose at this time but to act as headquarters for banks and insurance companies devoted to the acquisition of monies that cannot be eaten, worn, or lived in (though they can certainly provide access to food, clothing and shelter in supply directly proportionate to your ownership of them). They notice that humans are very clever at solving problems that seemed insurmountable just years ago – in fact, our scientific know-how continues to explode at an exponential rate, while the economic reality of our world seems to plod on at the same slug's pace. Why is that? Why is it that complex knowledge, exciting and revolutionary, should continue to be spun from the brains of humans around the planet, while relatively simple things like permanently solving the problem of our getting fed, clothed, housed, cared for medically, or stressed, hardly budge?

The answer should be as plain as the end of your nose. What holds back our economic progress as a species is the type of economic relations we have – our maintenance of the institution of ownership of the production of social wealth. That is it. Pure and simple. We have been screaming this from rooftops for the past 105 years (and others from similar movements for 105 years before that) and history again and again would suggest that we are right. What we are proposing is a change in ownership of all socially produced wealth from private or state ownership to common ownership, which means ownership by the community at large. This can only be organized in a democratic way, utilizing democratic principles, to make sure that decisions remain in the hands of the community, and not of leaders, hierarchies or centralized authorities.

What we are saying is that once ownership of the production and distribution of socially produced wealth has transferred with your own political will from private and state hands to the community, we will be able to enjoy the fruits of this production directly. There will no longer be a need for money. Just like you see them do in Star Trek – do you ever see Captain Picard scrambling in his pocket for a $5 bill before he asks his replicator for a cup of Earl's Grey? We will contribute to the store of wealth, and take from it what we need. Having solved the problem of getting what we need on a material level, we will spend the rest of our lives doing what we love best – raising our children, renovating buildings and furniture, improving technological systems, teaching, researching, expressing ourselves creatively and artistically, making love, taking a nap, whatever we want!

The point is that we will have brought the production and distribution of wealth to the same level of sophistication as we presently spend on other technical projects. We will no longer as a species be bogged down in the daily grind merely in order to feed, clothe or house ourselves, which only enslaves us because those of us who work now do not enjoy the same status as those we work for, those who own the factories and other work sites and technological processes required for production and distribution. Unlike the hugely wasteful and cumbersome system of commodity production, this is a solution likely to work very well too. It is very feasible, it is very realistic, it liberates our economics from the hindrances and wastes that are intrinsic to commodity production, and allows us to really move ahead, both individually and as a species.

The solution is very obvious. Very simple. So are a lot of other facts that you accept every day without question – friction, planetary motion, the chemistry of sexual attraction, the behavioral laws that govern human attachment, and so on and so forth. Here is another law – a system based on production for sale will always cause poverty, wars and stress. Will ALWAYS cause poverty, wars, and stress. Think about it for a bit, think about how it makes sense and what problems you anticipate with it and then, as you assume your right as a citizen to take part in the body politic, help build this future for yourself, your family, your friends, and the human family.

What socialists are urging you to do during this 2008 presidential election race is to start thinking outside of the box. We want you to suspend your disbelief in socialism until the November election, and during the next 10 months to try going on the assumption instead that the reason the world does not change much from one election to another is probably because the leaders are leaving out some significantly important piece of information. Think further about this. Ask yourself what kind of world you would like to see. Ask yourself what kind of life you would like to have. Ask yourself if there is any relationship between the difficulty achieving these dreams and the rules that govern the present economic system. Ask yourself how long this system has existed and whether the idea that we cannot have a better one stems only from your social conditioning and not from actual evidence of any kind you can think of. Try stepping outside of your usual political assumptions, and ask yourself what you can personally do to make the world a better place for us all. Look into alternative models of social and economic organization. Read many books about these ideas. Chat with others with similar revolutionary theories via email. Ask yourself if these people only seem "radical" because their ideas are simply less prevalent at the moment, and if their ideas make any sense?

In short, socialists urge you to put the entire spectacle of the Presidential race on the shelf for now (until the socialist population is a majority and can nonviolently vote to introduce a new society based on common ownership). We propose that you not prolong the economic status quo, an outmoded social organization based on haves and have-nots that reached its pinnacle in Dickensian England and that has long outlived its usefulness in light of the promise of modern science. Instead, we recommend that you help to create a future more consistent with our advanced technology and the democratic ideals of a global world. This future will be based on democratic principles, the prioritization of needs, built-in concern for sustaining our ecosystem for ourselves and other species indefinitely, economic as well as psychological security, lasting peace, a profound sense of brotherhood and sisterhood among world citizens, and human life in the poise of balance between the twin existential forces of responsibility and freedom.

Socialists urge you from the bottom of their heart to not throw away your hard-won vote on perpetuating capitalism for four more years. A vote is a terrible thing to waste.


Idle Idols: Paul Lafargue

From the issue 7 1994 of the Idler Magazine:

The French labour activist dreamed of a three hour day for everyone, was thrown in prison for subversion and in 1883 wrote a searing attack on the work ethic called The Right to be Lazy.

If you think you work too hard now, spare a thought for the French factory workers of the late 19th century. Despite the prevalence of new machines that the Industrial Revolution had produced, the workers - including women and children - slaved away for as long as 16 hours in hideous conditions for subsistence wages.

Onto this scene came the brilliant thinker and labour activist Paul Lafargue. The son of a Bordeaux landowner, he was born in Cuba in 1842 but grew up in a swiftly industrialising France. He became politically active in 1865 when a medical student in Paris. Following his involvement in the first ever International Congress of Students, he was banned from his studies for two years for "individual and collective insults to Church and Government". Trouble with the authorities would be a fact of life for Lafargue for many years.

In 1868, after completing his studies in England, Lafargue married Laura Marx, son of Karl, a man who, along with the French anarchist thinker Proudhon, was a great influence on Lafargue and his gang. Around this time Lafargue also became involved with the newly formed International Working Men's Association which campaigned tirelessly for a shorter working day.

In common with many who try to follow their own path, Lafargue was poor for years. His writings at this time were for underground periodicals and didn't bring in the cash. In 1872, he and Laura opened a photographic shop in London to try and earn some money. But for the next ten years it was only the financial support of their friend the wealthy Engels that kept them alive. When they returned to Paris in 1882, things got so bad that Lafargue had to take a McJob with an insurance firm. Luckily the firm folded after a few months and Lafargue was released from wage drudgery.

In 1883, his subversive activities landed him with a six - month jail stretch. But far from being an intolerable burden, Lafargue's months inside were relatively luxurious; he and his friend Guesde, a magazine editor, were given the best rooms and sent brimming hampers of food and wine by friends. Crucially, the sentence also gave him the time to finish a pamphlet he had been working on. It was called The Right to be Lazy (the title was a parody of the socialist plea for the "right to work") and argued passionately against the evils of work. Lafargue rallied against the capitalist system of production and consumption, which led people to believe that harder work led to greater prosperity. "Work, work, proletarians, to increase social wealth and your individual poverty," he wrote. "Work, work in order that by becoming poorer, you may have more reason to work and become miserable. Such is the inexorable law of capitalist production."

Lafargue noted that in England, the recent, shortening of the working day had not led to economic disaster. On the contrary, England was leading the way in production. "But if the miserable reduction of two hours has increased English productivity by almost one third in ten years, what breathless speed would be given to French production by a legal limitation of the working day to three hours?"

Lafargue even went so far as to recommend that we "forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day".

What really troubled Lafargue was the lust for work which people seemed gripped by:

"Let a chance for work to present itself, thither they (the proletariat) will rush; then they demand 12 or 14 hours to glut their appetite for work, and the next day they are thrown out on the pavement with no more food for their vice." It was this masochistic drive, Lafargue believed, that robbed machines of their liberating potential. "The blind, perverse and murderous passion for work transforms the liberating machine into an instrument for the enslavement of free men. Its productiveness enslaves them."

As well as exposing the tyranny of work, Lafargue wrote eloquently on the nobility of idleness, calling on the ancient Greeks to bear witness. "The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work, that degradation of the free man, the poets sang of idleness, that gift from the Gods." He gleefully quoted from the poet Antiparos; "Let us live the life of our fathers, and let us rejoice in idleness over the gifts that the Goddess grants us."

Lafargue also used the Bible to add weight to his thesis: "Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, preached idleness; 'Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.'" God, said Lafargue, was the ultimate Idler: "After six days of work, he rests for all eternity."

The next ten years were a continuous round of trials, fines demonstrations, leaflets and jail stretches for Lafargue and his revolutionary friends. It was only in 1895, when Engels left Laura some money and Lafargue came into a little inheritance that life became a little easier for them.

Lafargue continued writing and campaigning into the early1900's. But he and Laura began to feel that they were too old to be of use to the campaign, and in 1912 each injected themselves with a lethal dose of potassium of cyanide.

There may be those on the left who feel that because the ideas of Lafargue and others like him contributed to the installation of the 40 hour week in this country - an unthinkable luxury in the 19th century when a 60 or 70 hour week was the norm - we can therefore forget his polemic. He has done his job. But today Major's government is bringing in yet tougher regulations to force people to take any crap job when they are on the dole or risk losing allowances. Currently, you are not allowed to claim the dole if you leave your job voluntarily. This is slavery by the back door, and it is inhuman and unjust. The ideas of people like Lafargue, therefore, are as relelvant as ever and deserve a rereading by as wide a public as possible.

Today we have inestimably more machines than in Lafargue's time: surely then we should share his rage that the capitalists "do not understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the God who shall redeem man from the sordidae artes and from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty"

Further Reading:

  • Introduction to The Right To Be Lazy