Monday, February 11, 2019

Marxism: Inclusive or Reductive? (2016)

From the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Upon reading Karl Marx’s Capital for the first time many are surprised by its inclusive nature. Instead of the anticipated focus on economics the reader finds themselves immersed in philosophy, history and literature together with many other references. This is not only a reflection of the author’s well-known reputation as a polymath but it also reminds us that all disciplines are dependent, to a lesser or greater degree, on each other. But how can we reconcile this with the received notion of Marxism as a reductive political theory; that in the final analysis all social relations are dependent on the mode of production?

This may well be one of the reasons that Karl himself was sure that he was not a Marxist. But if a philosopher or historian was to exhaustively give you an account of a social phenomenon without reference to the relevant contemporary economic structure (as some still attempt to do) many of us would feel it to be incomplete at best and misleading at worst. This is primarily what socialists mean when we say we’re Marxists or that we’re using a Marxist analysis; the attempt to see through prevailing ideology and expose the underlying economic relationships that create such intellectual superstructures. This seemingly reductive technique has alienated many intellectuals who like to defend their own sectarian esoteric disciplines by reference to the intellectual division of labour. They reject any attempt to suggest that the multiplicity of theories and philosophies can have a common origin. So is there a contradiction inherent within Marxism between inclusiveness and reductionism?  

When a Marxist speaks of ideology they mean something much more extensive than merely a set of explicit ideas. We refer to the ‘normalisation’ of political and moral values. For instance most people accept the principal of production for profit as a ‘normal’ relationship between people engaged in industry. Socialists point to the ‘abnormality’ of a relationship based on the exploitation of one human by another. Because it has become an unquestioned relationship most economists fail to see its underlying exploitative nature. Without the benefit of a Marxist perspective they can never fully understand economics. Some propagandists are aware of this and for them the infamous phrase of Dr Goebbels that: ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it’ seems as true as it ever was. This is not to say that all studies in economics since Marx have been pointless but they are incomplete without his contributions.

Another feature of the relationship of exploitation within capitalism is called alienation. This occurs because of the lack of control the individual feels during their productive life. The great joy of creative production is replaced by a monotonous set of increasing targets and goals presided over by a ‘boss’ who makes the decisions in the name of profit. The resulting depression and emotional exhaustion will be presented to a doctor who will fail to see or fail to act on the basic underlying inhuman relationships that create such alienation. So again, in the absence of a Marxist analysis psychology and medicine must inevitably fail the individual in terms of their mental and physical health.

We can see that in the absence of a penetrating political analysis both the disciplines of economics and psychology are impotent. We can make a similar case for history, philosophy, sociology etc. (probably all of the ‘humanities’ within which, this author at least, includes the ‘social sciences’). Having made the case that many disciplines are incomplete without the insights available via the Marxist perspective, can we also say that Marxism itself would be weakened without the inclusion of at least some of the discoveries made by these other disciplines?

Could it be that rather than providing alternative explanations for social development they are, in fact, complementary parts of the same whole – at least potentially, once they’re stripped of ideological prejudice. The intellectual division of labour has served to disguise the real focus of study. This division, in its turn, serves the ideological purpose of preventing access to the truth. It is not that Marxism is reductive but that philosophy, economics, psychology, history, anthropology etc. are unaware that their goal is the same as Marxism – the understanding of, and the liberation from, the causes of human suffering. Many of humanity’s intellectual pursuits have this political nature and Marxism represents the first structural understanding of this simple fact. Seen in this light the intellectual sectarianism and inter-discipline competition we perceive today is utterly absurd.

This may seem to most people to be an unduly idealistic view of the motivation for intellectual endeavour but Marxists reject the idea that the belief in human potential is rooted in delusional ideals. We are well aware that many are motivated by greed, status and sometimes by pure curiosity alone but this is rarely the whole story of those who make the significant discoveries. To look at it another way, as said earlier, it is apparent that all disciplines are dependent on each other. How could it be otherwise since global human culture represents an integrated whole? Any attempt to compartmentalise knowledge entirely must inevitably end with error and confusion.

Marx may well have rejected the label ‘Marxism’ for the reasons outlined above. It seemed absurd to him that the interdisciplinary study of human development should be compartmentalised into a sectarian ideology bearing his name. We only use the phrase today to emphasise the contrast it represents to contemporary approaches in the study of politics. It is one of the great ironies of history that through the political ignorance of many of those who have proclaimed his name during moments of political turmoil it has become identified with absolutism and dogmatic reductionism. 

Where is Everybody? (2016)

From the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you go out into the country at night, you might find a spot far enough away from our glaring towns and cities to allow you to see the apparently innumerable twinkling points of light which remind us that our sun is only a minor star in a minor star system. Scientists tell us that even in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, there must be at least a hundred billion stars. The Milky Way is just a small and unimportant galaxy. Altogether, the astronomers say, there are probably something like ten trillion galaxies in the universe. That is, in the universe which we are able to observe; there may be a lot more galaxies out beyond the edge of our knowledge. To write out the number of stars in the observable universe you would need a one, followed by twenty-four noughts – that is, a million million million million stars. And very many of those stars are now believed to have habitable planets circling round them. So some, in fact a vast number of those planets might have developed intelligent life. Scientists have been trying for years to pick up any signals from alien civilizations, but have drawn a complete blank.

This situation has puzzled scientists for a long time, and as long ago as the 1950s the physicist Enrico Fermi demanded – where is everybody? In such a fantastically enormous universe, it’s just not possible that we should be alone. Now two physics professors, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, have written a new book, Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos, which offers an explanation. When they get to a certain point of development, the authors write, all civilizations probably produce both extraordinarily powerful weapons, and also destructive greenhouse gases. But (so the theory goes) they do not produce a political or social system which can handle these things. And so, either by ruining their own atmosphere by pollution from industry and transport, or by engaging in mutually destructive warfare, each civilisation destroys itself. So that’s why we on the Earth, in defiance of all rational expectation, are on our own. All other developing civilisations either have not got to the point of trying to communicate, or have destroyed themselves.

 According to the Daily Mail (9 October) Professor Cox said:
 ‘One solution to the Fermi paradox is that it is not possible to run a world that has the power to destroy itself and that needs global collaborative solutions to prevent that. It may be that the growth of science and engineering inevitably outstrips the development of political expertise, leading to disaster.’
Does it sound familiar? It would not need much imagination to see our planet going the same way. We should at least ask ourselves whether the devastating power which the human race now possesses is already beyond the control of humanity’s poor efforts at statesmanship. The countries which have already had their industrial revolution are trying to limit, sometimes not very successfully, their pollution of the atmosphere; countries which are now going through an industrial revolution feel they should be allowed to emit the same amount of pollution that other countries did years ago. As for the other way in which these authors think all other civilizations have probably killed themselves, the world has potentially reached that stage as well. As each capitalist state fights to preserve its territory, its trade, its position in the world, each armed with hydrogen bombs and other fearsome weapons, it is unfortunately quite possible that some hot-headed maniac (and there are plenty of those who have manoeuvred themselves into power in various countries round the world – can you imagine what a ‘President Trump’ might decide to do?) could plunge us all into nuclear hostilities which could destroy or cripple the entire human race. So we desperately need ‘global collaborative solutions’ and ‘political expertise’ to avoid disaster. If you look at it this way, socialism – which would end the pollution of our atmosphere, and also extinguish the competitive hostility which capitalism inevitably entails – is not only a desirable alternative, but the only one.
Alwyn Edgar

Ditch These Ugly Gargoyles (2016)

From the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the time of writing, the presidential campaign of Donald Trump is veering between tragedy and farce. His contempt for women, Mexicans, Muslims and all those outside his own white, male, billionaire peer group is twisting defiantly into an ugly parody, more grotesque than any fiction. Yet his screaming unelectability still carries tens of millions of Americans feeling sufficient affinity with his prejudices to continue supporting him. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, whose own hideous record of militarism and single-minded dedication to supporting the parasites of Wall Street in their exploitation of the 99 percent of the population who are excluded from their club might otherwise have been spotlighted, is allowed to pose alongside Trump as the humane alternative.

Have you ever heard any voter saying, in any election, in any country ever, what a hard time they were having choosing between the candidates because they were all so amazing, appealing and attractive in what their programmes and policies offered? Of course not. The uneasy and uncomfortable feeling which pervades much of the population prior to an election stems from just the opposite of that. Many people hesitate over which of the options to vote for, as they are struggling to select the ‘lesser evil’. This is because virtually all political candidates, world-wide, in all elections, are currently standing on a programme which is simply one or other variant of the ridiculous social system we already have. The ‘acceptable’ limits for change on offer have been pre-conditioned into a population which has absorbed the assumption that the fundamentals of current society are ultimately both normal and unchangeable.

It has become fashionable recently for social trends to be described on a per-second or per-day basis. A certain type of crime is recorded on average ‘once every two days’. A famous supermarket sells a Christmas hamper ‘once every three seconds’. But the most shocking and important revelation of this kind is rarely discussed. Across the world today, on average, a child dies of starvation roughly once every second. Even the most conservative of economists and agricultural experts have long conceded that the natural resources of the planet make that fact totally unnecessary. It is something caused one hundred percent by social, not natural causes. Even in the case of specific localised famines or natural disasters, it is purely a social and political barrier which prevents huge quantities of suitable food being simply flown in within the hour.

That barrier to bringing resources to where they are needed, whether houses for poorly housed Londoners, or food to starving children in less developed parts of the world, or life-saving operations to people currently forced to stare at their calendars and wonder if their place on the long waiting-list will arrive before they die anyway, that barrier is the same in all cases. It is that we currently live under a social regime in which all of the key social resources are owned, controlled and monopolised by a tiny minority of the population. Those multi-millionaire investors, or fund controllers, or state bureaucrats who are in that position of power over the world’s wealth, are caught in a battle with each other for expansion which creates an imperative that, whatever their wishes, they are compelled to increase their profits at all times regardless of the cost to human life.

The social machinery, of which this description is merely a cursory sketch, has evolved through the past several hundred years of global human history. However, social change and evolution has never and will never stand still. Those millions of people who find it hard to see any appeal in any of the political candidates on offer are in fact feeling a deep distaste for the socially insane system which all of those politicians, of every banner, represent and embody. Those millions of people who are not happy with this current social regime are surely the seed of huge social change, which may be unfolding in the coming months and years. It is in our very nature as human beings to be social, to use complex co-operation to solve our problems and meet our needs. John Donne wrote that ‘no man is an island’ in the 17th century and it is so much more evident today, when one product we enjoy has often been manufactured with components from several different continents and has involved input from any number of our fellow humans in its conception, design and delivery.

In the changes to come, those who have recognised this key significance of that conflict between the vast and relentlessly pursued profits of the one percent (or less) and the needs of the rest of us, can accelerate the arrival of a society which would meet the needs of all. The 99 percent whose lives are indirectly devoted to serving those investors and providing their riches whilst we struggle with various degrees of relative poverty, have a great weapon. Awareness, consciousness, self-education, mutual education in the realities of the current state of society can only lead to a final withdrawal of our consent to this social insanity. The political charade of which Trump versus Clinton was just the latest circus side-show masks the fact that the power of the few ultimately rests entirely on the acquiescence and support of the many. Their system noisily creaks towards Armageddon, with its rapidly worsening environmental crisis, of which climate change is a manifestation, its terrifying wars born of the power and profit struggles between rival power blocs, and its prosaic but tragic suffering of a million forms of poverty. Our only hope is to work relentlessly to build a movement which withdraws its support for that system in its entirety, which ceases to vote for any of its political figurehead gargoyles, and instead constructs a democratic political movement devoted to dispossessing that minority and using the world’s resources to meet the world’s needs.
Clifford Slapper

Material World: The US Voting System – Not So Democratic (2016)

The Material World Column from the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Those who founded the United States and drafted its Constitution did not trust the vast majority of its citizens to vote. They left voting questions up to the states and established the Electoral College – rather than a majority vote of the people – to elect the president and vice president. It is government of the people, certainly, but not government bythe people and definitely not for the people.

In reality, there is not one election, but 51 separate elections that are held simultaneously in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Each state – not the federal government – sets its own voting hours, lays down the rules for registration and early voting, and decides what sort of voting machines and ballot forms it should use. And each state, not the federal government, decides what ID a voter must produce before casting a ballot.

For the presidency of the most powerful state in the world it is a choice of Clinton or Trump, Tweedledum or Tweedledummer. Not much of a choice.  However, there will be other parties’ candidates standing. Vying to be the main third party are the Green Party with Jill Stein, or the Libertarian Party and Gary Johnson but there will also be a plethora of other independent and ‘write-in’ candidates. There is the Constitution Party, then the Socialist Workers Party’s Alyson Kennedy, Party of Socialism and Liberation’s Gloria LaRiva, America’s Party/American Independent Party, Peace and Freedom Party, Prohibition Party, Reform Party USA, Socialist Party USA, Socialist Equality Party, Workers World Party, and the Veterans Party of America. Under state laws, political parties must ‘qualify’ for their candidates to be listed on the ballots and counted. The two major parties are qualified in every state but in this election both the Greens and the Libertarians have managed to get on the ballot more than ever before.

Many states have write-in laws concerning candidates where with varying rules the electorate can nominate their own candidate and, in theory, such write-in candidates can win the presidency. If the establishment refuses to work for the will of the people, the people may have to force their hand and maybe reach the point in history where the write-in vote can move the political process forward. Voting for a write-in contender is much more complicated than scribbling whatever name you please on the dotted line at the bottom of the ballot. Thirty-five states require that a write-in candidate must submit some form of affidavit and, sometimes, a filing fee at least one month before the election. 43 of the 50 states allow write-in candidates for president, but this starts the potential write-in candidate at a disadvantage. Assuming that hurdle can be cleared, the Electoral College is the problem. The write-in candidate would have to scramble to get slates of electors ready for all of the 43 states, so that those electors can vote for the write-in candidate when the Electoral College meets in December. If the write-in candidate did happen to win the popular vote, there would be a problem. When people vote, they vote for electors, and not for the presidential candidates. 43 states, representing 494 electoral votes.  While a president has never been elected by write-in, at least one current United States Senator has been.

When it comes to elections where there are no socialists standing socialists urge fellow-workers to learn more about capitalism and exploitation.  And because we think that, in future, the election system could be used in a constructive way we exercise our right to vote. We cast a write-in vote by writing “SOCIALISM” or “WORLD SOCIALISM” across the ballot paper. What’s the alternative? To not vote at all? More and more people are doing this, and it’s not as bad as voting for one or other of the parties that stand for keeping capitalism going. But it’s a bit of a cop-out. The anarchists like it, because they don’t believe in electoral political action. We don’t agree with their view. Our ancestors were right to struggle for the vote. The fact that up to now it hasn’t been used properly is no reason for rejecting it as ineffectual.

We say in this 2016 US presidential election, the working class should write-in for ‘WORLD SOCIALISM’.