Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Piketty for Progressives 2

Thomas Riggins

“Introduction” to Capital in the Twenty-First Century— Part 2

2. Malthus, Young and the French Revolution

This section is not particularly enlightening as it is mostly just descriptive. We are informed that Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) wrote his 1798 work "Essay on the Principle of Population" based on few sources, one of the most important of which was a travel diary that the British agronomist Arthur Young (1741-1820)  published of his trip to France (1788-89) where the extent of poverty he saw led him to fear a revolution was in the offing. Malthus was led to believe the social troubles facing Europe as a result of the French Revolution and the changing economic conditions of the day were caused by overpopulation. Too many poor people were being born and not enough food could be produced to feed them. His solution was to advocate the end of any kind of welfare aid to the poor (let nature take its course) and to discourage their procreative activities. Piketty says we cannot understand the extreme views of Malthus without understanding the role that fear played in a Europe experiencing revolution, fast economic changes, and the rapid increase of population and poverty occasioned by the Industrial Revolution. He stress that the theoretical work of the time was based on limited sources due to scanty record keeping by modern standards.

3. Ricardo: The Principle of Scarcity

Piketty says in retrospect we might make fun of the dark prophecies the nineteenth century  thinkers made concerning the dire consequences that the development of the class nature of capitalism and the consequent unequal distribution of wealth seemed to indicate.  He seems to think “these prophecies of doom” did not happen  but were justified by the “traumatic” changes the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution engendered. David Ricardo (1772-1823) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) “the two most influential economists of the nineteenth century” both had apocalyptic views of the future. Ricardo thought the wealth of society would be monopolized by the owners of land, Marx by the industrial capitalists. In this section Piketty discusses Ricardo’s views.

Ricardo's interests were in the price and rent of land and were expressed in his 1817 book "Principles of Political Economy and Taxation." He had few statistics to work with, Piketty says, but he understood contemporary capitalism and further developed the theories of Malthus. As population grew the demand for land (for agriculture especially) would go up and so would its price and consequently the amount that could be charged as rent.
Eventually the landowners would be getting the lion's share of the wealth expressed as income and the rest of the people would be getting less and less. Unless taxes on land were radically increased to readdress this income imbalance social stability would collapse and the spectre of the French Revolution would arise to haunt Europe.

Piketty points out that Ricardo was wrong because of technological and industrial developments that took place after his time that diminished the role of agriculture in the economy. Nevertheless, Ricardo's views on the role of "scarcity" were insightful as they indicated that the prices of certain commodities (goods and services) could get out of hand and disrupt society, especially in the present age when the global economy is coordinated and kept in balance by an international pricing system.  "The problem is," Piketty says, "the price system knows neither limits nor morality."

Here is a classic example of the problem of reification discussed by Marx in the first volume of Capital in the chapter on the fetishism of commodities. Something created  by human beings takes on an "independent" existence and enthralls its creators who treat it as as some kind of  self-subsistent entity whose laws we are subject to and incapable of changing or abolishing.

Scarcity could still be a problem in our century. But there is a way to contain problems of scarcity-- namely supply and demand. Piketty says if prices get too high because of lack of supply, then people will not buy  and the demand will lessen causing the prices to fall. But what about a problem with the food supply? Not enough food, sky high prices, people can't buy-- but will the demand for food lessen? It would not. It's possible that food purveyors would end with a wholly disproportionate and unequal share of social wealth in their control.  Piketty thinks in this sort of situation a Ricardian Apocalypse is theoretically possible. However, he doesn't think it will ever come to this but will put off further consideration of this problem until later in his book where his treatment "will be more nuanced.”

4. Marx: The Principle of Infinite Accumulation

By the time we get to Marx in the second half of the nineteenth century (Capital Vol. I came out in 1867) the main problem was understanding how industrial capitalism actually worked and what was responsible for the immiseration of the  industrial working class [and not just it alone]—“the most striking fact of the day.”

 During this period, right up to World War I, Piketty says, the evidence indicates that there was growing income inequality with the ruling class expropriating more and more of the social wealth created and leaving less and less for the working people and others in society to share. He says this “endless inegalitarian spiral” only came to  an end due to the shocks of the World War and only these shocks could have halted the growing inequality let loose by the Industrial Revolution. [One of the biggest shocks was, incidentally, the Russian Revolution and the forces of social consciousness it unleashed on the planet— still somewhat reverberating throughout the world.]

Piketty dates the birth of  the “first” movements of socialism and communism to the 1840s (actually there were even earlier movements dating back to at least the seventeenth century) when people began noticing that while capitalism was working for the capitalists, enriching them, the working people were not benefiting from the system and were subjected to the same kind of miserable living conditions as they had in the pre-capitalist past.

Enter Karl Marx who sets himself the task of explaining how capitalism works and why it keeps the working people is such miserable conditions (relatively speaking). Piketty says Marx built his system (expressed in Capital ) on two principles he took from Ricardo— the principles of the price of capital and of scarcity. It is true that Marx had great respect for Ricardo but he actually rejected Ricardo’s price theory, and replaced it by his own original theory developed out of his concept of labor power and surplus value based on socially necessary labor time. I don’t see how Ricardo’s views on “scarcity” played any positive role in Marx’s system as Ricardo’s theory was developed in the context of his misconceived theories of agricultural rent.

Pekitty also says that Marx developed a “principle of infinite accumulation” in which he showed “the inexorable tendency for capital to accumulate and become concentrated in ever fewer hands, with no natural limit to the process.” Piketty then says this is the foundation of his “prediction of an apocalyptic end to capitalism.”  Either the capitalists will fall into violent conflicts over their inability to keep accumulating (it isn’t infinite after all) OR the workers will revolt because “capital’s share of national income would increase indefinitely.”

Yes capital must continue to accumulate to survive in Marx’s system, but there are natural limits— namely saturating the market both domestically and eventually world wide. It was these conditions that led to monopolization, colonialism, and imperialism and brought about the apocalyptic twentieth century in which the capitalists managed to set off, two world wars, ignite both the Russian and Chinese revolutions, destroy the lives of hundreds of millions of people and usher us into the present century in which they have instigated violent conflicts in Europe, Africa and Asia anyone of which could set off a more general war. The instability of capitalism is as great as it ever was and poverty is spreading everywhere (except mostly in those countries still maintaining communist governments). Therefore, Piketty’s conclusion that  “Marx’s dark prophecy came no closer to being realized than Ricardo’s” is considerably premature— the game is still afoot.

This introduction has a strange reading, I think, of twentieth century history— it improves later in the book. He doesn’t see World One I as part of Marx’s Apocalypse but admits a communist revolution did break out in Russia “the most backward country in Europe.” However, “fortunately for their citizens” the advanced European countries “explored  other, social democratic, avenues.” I don’t know how advanced Spain and Portugal were after the war (WWI) but I don’t think Franco or Salazar qualify as social democrats, nor do Hitler, Mussolini, or P├ętain. By and large I don’t think the citizens of the “advanced” countries had a very fortunate century.

There are two other comments on Marx in this section which are unjustified. The first is that he “neglected the possibility of durable technological progress and steadily increasing productivity” as “counterweights to accumulation and concentration of private capital.” Marx did not “neglect” either technological progress or increased productivity but he saw them not as counterweights but as the results of the accumulation and concentration of capital.

The second unjustified comment is that Marx did not devote much time to speculating about how a post capitalist society would be structured. This is meant to be seen as a failing on Marx’s part but that would be an error. Marx did not think it a good use of his time to engage in utopian speculations on the future but he did study the example of the Paris Commune of 1871 and discussed the economic and political actions that would have to be undertaken in a post capitalist society (“The Civil War in France”) and his ideas were elaborated on later by both Engels and Lenin. There is a Marxist literature on this subject to which Piketty could have referred.

Piketty ends this section by saying Marx is still important to study and that his principle of “infinite accumulation” is still at work in the twenty-first century but not as “apocalyptic” as he thought. But this is faint praise and seems to miss the point of what accumulation is for Marx and why Marx is still important.

Piketty says too much accumulation of wealth when population and productivity growth rates are low can lead to social disequilibrium. But Marx isn’t talking about accumulation as too much private wealth. When Marx says “Accumulate, Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets” [Capital I c. 24, section 3] He means that the wealth accumulated is to be reinvested in production because capital must expand itself continuously or perish. By reinvesting the capital people are put to work the economy expands and more accumulation is generated to do it all over again (until a crisis due to capitalism’s contradictions.) Marx is still important because this movement of capital is still going on and still creating crises (we are in one now) and the spectre haunting Europe has not been exorcized.

Part III of the this introduction will continue with Piketty’s section “From Marx to Kuznets, or Apocalypse to Fairy Tale.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eleanor Marx: A Life [Book Note]

Thomas Riggins

Rachel Holmes' new biography of Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) is coming out in the US early next year  and can be pre- ordered at Amazon.  Here I am posting some notes from "Troubles of Tussy" by Elaine Showalter (TLS August 22 & 29 2014). "Tussy" was the Marx family's nickname for Eleanor.

Ms. Holmes calls EM "the foremother of socialist feminism." EM was the fourth child of Karl and Jenny Marx and thus a member of the world's original set of red diaper babies. She was home schooled by her father and could quote passages from Shakespeare when she was three years old. She became a avid socialist at a young age (hanging out with Marx "one of the greatest minds in Europe" and Engels her "second father" may have unduly influenced her!) At sixteen she became her father's private secretary and he took her with him to meetings and congresses both at home and in Europe.

Eleanor also became a leading proponent of feminism. It seems that even Marx and Engels, who were champions of women's rights had difficulty putting into practice what they preached-- the nineteenth century was not noted for being very open to the rights of women.  Jenny Marx,  AKA Mrs. Karl Marx , once wrote, as quoted by Showalter,  regarding the activities of the male socialists that "in all these battles we women have to bare the hardest, i.e., pettiest parts. In the battle with the world the man gets stronger ... we sit at home and darn socks."

But EM did not stay home and darn socks. She became super-educated for her time and helped her father in the researching and writing of Das Kapital. She also organized workers and gave speeches to large crowds: "Karl Marx was the theory," Holmes says, "Eleanor Marx was the practice."

Some of noted accomplishments: she translated the first English edition of "Madame Bovary" as well as several plays by Ibsen-- and performed the first staged reading of his "A Doll's House" playing Nora. She also translated Edward Berstein's book on Lassalle from German into English (she was, naturally, fluent in French, German and English among other languages-- Ibsen wrote in Norwegian). She also translated a history of the Paris Commune from French to English, as well as Georgi Plekhanov's Anarchism and Socialism.

Unfortunately she hooked up with a genuine cad in the form of Edward Aveling (he co-authored with her the very important Marxist work "The Women Question") ["the founding text of socialist feminism"]who, after many years of living together, secretly married a young actress of 22 [typical male menopausal action] which made her so despondent she killed herself at the age of 43. Aveling died four months later of kidney disease (aged 49). This very last action of hers was unMarxist but her biographer still thinks her life was inspiring and indeed exemplary. The reviewer concurs, writing that "With the infectious conviction of her narrative, Rachel Holmes has restored her to history." Personally, however, I don't think EM was ever lost to history.

One caveat: the portrait of Eleanor Marx at eighteen published in the TLS along with this article is actually a portrait of her sister Laura Marx (who also committed suicide!). At least it appears as such in the book Marx's General and also on the internet as Laura.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review of “Color Facture Art & Design: Artistic Technique and the Precisions of Human Perception”, a book by Iona Singh

In the first place, this is a book written by a writer, it is 'writerly'. When Singh refers to paints and materials you can almost smell them, the concatenation of the sentences is fluid, enjoyable, prose. And this is not an easy subject, it is in fact a new approach to art, to understanding art, one that does not come from the art as narrative or art 'tells a story' side of the fence, a side of the fence that is also, superficially at least, Marxist, in the sense of social realist interpretations of art. And yet this author constantly refers to dialectical materialism as the bedrock of her development, not the one that is usually vilified and strangled-off, or ossified, but a living breathing version of the Marxist philosophy as it collides into a new context. It is, on this count, small wonder that the mainstream press has studiously ignored it and offered absolutely no reviews. Thus my intervention here. Zero books, a great new publisher, does not provide any publicity or advertising until a certain limit is reached in sales, and so for this reason things can also go unnoticed. On the other hand, the provenance of these chapters is from peer reviewed journals, the work has been tested in the field, so to speak, in “Rethinking Marxism” and in “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism” it has its scientific pedigree.

On the other hand, this book does not ignore or set aside social history or context, or resort to mere formalism, it is Marxist, which means it is materialist. The chapters on Vermeer and Turner are remarkable in their evocative uniting of the materials and techniques of the artist, the artist as a producer, with the social history of their times, they place the materials and techniques of the artist into this maelstrom of politics and reveal their effect, and affects, their sensual reasons for being that way in their time and space, and, what is more important, their agency. This is unlike almost all art historians and critics hitherto, who are divided into the standard camps: those who set art history as a history of formal structure hermetically sealed-off from social struggle, and those who regard art (anachronistically) as always realist, a mirror or reflection of the social times.

Iona Singh herself is an artist, and has grappled with materials and gone through the U.K. art education system, her work is also unusual that someone with this experience nevertheless is able to articulate what they have learned in those institutions, I mean in words that have a scientific resonance and validity. Often there is also a reluctance from these quarters to disclose the secrets known here, and instead we get a playing to the gallery, the well known professional artists' obfuscatory and elusive self aggrandizement and posture as a transcendental being. Yet there is no blaming of the artist here for this, she exposes the economic productive contradictions at work and always refers to the bedrock of theory in her references. This is a solid work, but it sometimes betrays the origins of the struggle she must have had to get this 'out there' into the world, noticeable at times in the text. It is a book that should be in every art college, university art department, department of design and art history faculty, but it should also appeal to the layperson who appreciates art, is mot a philistine, but finds the current 'art world' mystifying. This 'world' is meant to be mystifying, and this book explains why, among many other things.

Gary Tedman

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Piketty for Progressives

Thomas Riggins

"Introduction" to Capital in the Twenty-First Century-- Part 1

Piketty opens his book by telling us the questions he wants to answer are two diametrically opposed queries stemming from the works of Karl Marx on the one hand and Simon Kuznets on the other. From Marx-- does capitalism inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands ?  From Kuznets -- does the later development of capitalism lead to less inequality and more social harmony between the classes? A third question is what lessons can we learn and apply to our present century from a study of wealth development since the eighteenth century?

Piketty admits that the answers he gives to these questions are "imperfect and incomplete." Now if you write a book whose conclusions are imperfect and incomplete you are inviting a lot critical commentary not only from the Left but  from the Right as well. In this respect the reception of his book has not been disappointing.  He thinks however his research provides a "new" way to understand the inner workings of capitalism. We shall see.

He believes that current bourgeois economic "science" has become so sophisticated  that the "Marxist Apocalypse" can be avoided. This is, however, an article of faith and no argument is advanced to substantiate this claim. He doesn't exactly say what the "Apocalypse" is but I rather think it refers to the collapse of the capitalist system and its replacement with a socialist economic order. Marx did give an argument for this outcome based on his analysis of the inner contradictions of the capitalist system. This analysis is in his work Capital which book Piketty mentions in passing only three times in his own book (according to the index, but I counted more) giving no indication that he read Marx's work.

Piketty admits that if/when capitalism provides a greater return on capital than it does on income and economic growth "then it automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based." This is quite a statement. It assumes we live in democratic societies where a person's social condition is based on merit. This is I think demonstrably false for the politically corrupt oligarchical societies of the West with which Piketty is concerned. Race, ethnicity, family background, wealth, availability of opportunities are the actual factors that determine the social conditions of people living in capitalist democracies not "merit." To say our societies are based on "values" that are plainly non-operative beyond the verbal level is no way to go about understanding reality as if effects most people.

He thinks there are ways democracy can "regain" its power over capitalism. He says "regain" because he thinks these negative features of capitalism were operant in the nineteenth century but were not so dominant in the twentieth (!) but seem "likely" to come into force in the twenty-first century. There are few, if any, people on the Left, I think, who view the twentieth century as a success story for meritocratic democracy (except maybe in a few isolated pockets).

Well, I don't want to jump to conclusions so let’s look more closely at the introduction to his book:

A Debate Without Data?

In this section Piketty points out that previous  theories about wealth and inequality have been based on a narrow set of facts that have been appealed to support many different interpretations. He is going to explain his sources and how he and his associates have expanded the amount of data available to researchers.

He also makes some comments in this section that reveal an interesting set of subtextual assumptions of which progressives  (especially Marxists) should be aware.  For instance, inequality is, he says, visible to many kinds of people and many different theories as to its causes flourish due to inadequate data. He tells us peasants and nobles, capitalists and workers, and bankers and non-bankers  [and we might add “slaves and masters” to the mix as well-tr] all see the world differently. Each group sees different “aspects” of reality and this conditions their outlook on justice and injustice. “Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate.”

One of the purposes of Marx’s Capital was to show just what nonsense this is and that class struggle and exploitation have objective roots in external reality and can be scientifically understood. Political conflicts between workers and capitalists (just as slave rebellions and peasant uprisings) are not the result of subjective psychological problems due to feelings of oppression because the “oppressed” group only sees its own “aspect” of reality. They are objective historical facts that can be scientifically studied and remedied by a correct understanding of the relations of production and distribution and the mode of value creation within a given society and Marx presents arguments to support his conclusions rather than just stating them as matters of fact.

All sides are represented in [bourgeois] democracy, Piketty thinks, and since there is no scientific explanation for the resolution of the political problems engendered by the subjective psychological reactions of different groups to their experiences of inequality we can conclude “Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts— and that is a very good thing.” Piketty’s value judgment is, of course, a subjective psychological reaction to his understanding of the nature of inequality.

Piketty does see an important role, however, for the class of “experts” to which he himself belongs. While, he maintains, they cannot provide a solution to the  violent  political conflicts that inequality naturally engenders, they can do research which “will inform democratic debate and focus attention on the right questions.” Piketty says intellectuals such as himself “have the good fortune to have more time than others to devote themselves to study (and even to be paid for it— a signal privilege).” Yes, but who is the paymaster?

Before going into detail on his new methods he wants to present an historical review of how the problems of inequality were dealt with in the past, and so we move on to Part 2 of this review and will resume with the section entitled:

Malthus, Young, and the French Revolution

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Being Considerate (and Scientific Socialism)

Because of the taboo nature of Marxism these days, and its absence, even ridicule in popular press culture, I wanted to ask myself the question: "what are the consequences of the absence of these ideas for the ruling bourgeois class"? We might fairly easily, or at least more commonly, conjecture what effects its absence has on the working class and the oppressed, or on Marxists and communists themselves.

Considering that Marxism is scientific socialism, this amounts to asking what are the consequences of the absence of a science. This latter framing of the question of course assumes that Marxism is scientific, which the bourgeoisie and its fellow travelers obviously deny, along with everything else. But this is the claim of Marxist theory, that it is a scientific theory of socialism, and of society in general and its economic development, and it is a claim that has never been refuted in any serious way.

The answer to the question is not just that the absence of Marxism constitutes a victory for the bourgeoisie, which it does in a small way, in the first place, this is because Marxism is a product itself of bourgeois culture and science, of its own advancement on what went previously. But also the absence and exclusion of Marxism or scientific socialism from the debate leaves a gap in science where only ideology can rule. And this gap and its ideology does not only impact on the class enemies of the bourgeoisie. We have all by now heard of 'blowback', the (mostly) unintended consequences of actions that react back upon the maker of those actions. Well, this would be one form of feedback from the absence of scientific socialism: i.e. the inability to accurately predict the course of future society and to consider how such actions may have effects that rebound (not to mention collateral damage).

I came to thinking about this when I was examining another question, about being considerate to others. In one sense it means having good manners and discretion. We all know what it means to be considerate, it means taking care to account for what other people feel and think in various situations and with regard to your own actions and their consequences; but it also has a less benign sounding application: if a person has the capacity to foretell another person's feelings, and so their actions, better, if they 'can think in other peoples shoes' as Brecht said somewhere, this faculty is obviously quite useful if you have enemies whose behavior, say on a battlefield, needs to be foreseen so you can make the relevant strategic plans.

One aspect of the humanist variant of Marxist theory, that version which the bourgeoisie tends to allow into the academy for the sake of seeming 'balanced', would appear to be very much concerned with caring about people, about the oppressed and the exploited and the underdog, you might say this is its popular cultural position on the 'left' of the so called political spectrum, and you might think that this means it is considerate, and thus able to understand its opponents, to have empathy. However this does not seem to be the case.

Humanism is allied quite strongly with the spiritual side of things, even when ostensibly materialist: the 'human spirit' according to humanism, or 'human nature' will win out in history, to put it crudely, for the sake of humankind. It believes in an essence of humanness, in certain incorruptible qualities or essences.

Marxist humanism inherits this bourgeois philosophy, which was revolutionary once in the struggle against the old aristocracy and the divine rights of kings etc, but now is generally reactionary (though this can still depend on the social circumstances). Putting essences into the human pot, in short, means that this Marxism becomes, peculiarly, and usually (there are always exceptions), insensitive to what is going on materially around it, since it tends to see its principles and ideals everywhere as essences and overlooks the facts, not perhaps the bare facts, but more importantly the subtleties that you might pick up when you are, e.g., a considerate kind of person (this is beside the phenomenon of the probably many cadres of 'Marxism' that are little more than police spy versions and are therefore obviously going to be crude, misinformed, and deliberately put people off the subject in any case).

In western Ukraine recently (May 2014) the far right, including Nazis, have been supported by western political leaders in an uprising against a corrupt leader and parliament. One characteristic that the far right have is a severe lack of consideration for their fellows, and in this case the easterners living in the country, which mirrors the broadly crude attitude of fascists towards the value of human life in general, and their essentialism, which is also a crude form (again) of humanism and their crude ideals (strength, unity based on fear of the alien, chauvinism, absolute identity, sexism, etc). National Socialism has socialism in the name of course but there is actually nothing about it that is socialist, unless you call being fake socialist socialism. It is simply that fascism sometimes simulates the popular radical ideology of socialism (popular i.e. in times of crisis despite the taboo), in order to gain power, just as it has in Ukraine. It is highly likely that in Ukraine people did not even see the struggle against the corrupt capitalist president as a socialistic one (which it was), therefore the Nazi elements of Right Sector and Svoboda came to the fore in the struggle and could channel the anger in the direction it wanted.

It's flaw, however, is that it lacks consideration, and it always fails to 'think in other peoples shoes', a factor which leads it into making strategic mistakes. To it, being crude and unfeeling is a strength, but its strength is its big weakness. The same in a smaller way is true when the bourgeoisie are successful at turning Marxism into a taboo, which they have been. This success rules out a scientific understanding of society and leads to them misunderstanding their own position, it also leads to support for foolish and extreme powers, and to a lack of consideration for their own actions, being blinded already as they are by profit in the short term.

With regard to the Ukraine conflict, almost all the press, including Russia Today, refers to the protesters who are anti the fascist led government in Kiev as 'Pro Russian', and in this we get a simplistic opposition between Pro Europe (or West) and Pro Russian protesters, essentialist labels that are conducive to civil war. It is clear from this that the vested profit interests of the ruling classes on both apparent sides of the struggle see no value in unearthing a deeper level of analysis, for them this crude appearance seems to serve its purpose. And up to a point it does, it tends to lead people away from socialism and into the humanist, and sometimes fascist, mode of thinking about the crisis, the best criticism that is allowed is some economic cynicism on profit motives.

A war on the mainland of central Europe serves to enable emergency measures to combat resistance to austerity measures, diverts moves to socialism into fascism, and generally confuses everything, in this sense it benefits the capitalist, who sees the possibility of extending its free trade area eastwards via the European Union. But it can only do this by exacerbating the situation and using fascist forces, now openly. These fascist forces are not reliable and do not always act as they are meant to, they are even in many cases opposed to their 'masters'. The latter fact does not matter that much to those who can profit from this circumstance and who live far away in secure places and who can move around their capital on the international markets, and this can easily also include the Russian bourgeoisie, who may not have much interest in defending eastern Ukrainian anti-fascists or socialists or those wanting a return to Soviet days even when they are 'Pro Russian'. And it is likely that those who will suffer at first will be the working classes who resist capitalist expansion.

But the flaw in the plan is that these fascist forces do not see liberal democratic capitalism (the most profitable capitalism) as their real friend or as having any future potential for them, so blowback on liberal capitalism becomes inevitable. Certainly there are those who think that they, by virtue of being wealthy, are immune to the effects of such blowback, but this is only as true as anyone, any class or faction, can be immune from the effects of, for example, human induced global warming, there is no guarantee, and in the chaos of war or of weather nobody can really be considered safe, especially in a nuclear armed world.

If we can talk about our species as a species, refer to its chances of survival as a species, we definitely need a scientific way to understand society and its relation to the rest of nature, whether Marxist or not. Us communists believe that Marxism is the current representative of this science, this of course does not mean it will stay current forever, science moves on, but it is built on its achievements, and socialist science is one of these crucial building blocks. The bourgeois lack of theory here is to actively oppose science, any science not just Marxism, that might lay claim to exactitude in social economics. The mantra in the final instance at work here is that you cannot be scientific about society, that such an effort leads to being crude, you must let it stay 'free' and this reflects the 'free market' as the essence of human nature. So in effect we have the championing of ideology over science. This element of backwardness in the bourgeois class is where it will inevitably misunderstand its own progress and take the wrong decisions even on its own survival as a class.

It is also where it becomes inconsiderate. To consider the feelings of others, to have empathy, rather than only (external) sympathy, becomes a taboo for its version of society because it shows a material kind of fellow feeling exists, it refers to that peculiarly neglected area where socialism might grow up from the 'grassroots'. In place of this the bourgeois interests place technical expertise and statistics, polls, questionnaires and surveys, and all the 'democratic' paraphernalia and rituals, overseen by corporations, to divine what 'the people' think, these corporations, all have interests to find in the data exactly what they want to see, and so they do. The 'data' is not scientific, because that is ruled out in any case, it is merely instrumental, technical, and it often points to the fact (in crises) that we 'need' technical governance (which has happened in this present crisis in e.g. Greece and Italy).

What can 'technical' mean if it is not scientific? We know the term voodoo economics; it has to be a kind of number mysticism, it must, in the modern world, resemble the sciences without ever becoming science, it is a kind of conjuring. It is the use of something without its core, without its heart, it is in this sense superficial and inconsiderate. And this is why it comes up, repeatedly, with inconsiderate policies in the real world: such as the ideological attacks on single mothers by rightist Conservative governments in the UK, or indeed it supports fascists, who then attack the weak and the alien. Certainly these targets are also scapegoats and represent other opportunities for the powers, but it is the logical illogical outcome of this instrumental anti scientific attitude and which surfaces at its most extreme in the capitalist crisis.

There are, as we know, many examples of e.g. the U.S. governments supporting fascist forces elsewhere than at home as a foreign policy, e.g. Franco in Spain. The reason on the surface is to counteract 'communism'. But this is only a small excuse for what is really a way to ensure its capitalist business interests are secured and fixed in place abroad, and a stable non democratic regime ensures this best, because an enlightened democratic administration that changes in time might represent a commercial threat (look at the recent machinations in Egypt). Fascism not only represents U.S. interests by this fixing down of authority but it also prevents the potential competitor from possibly advancing to equal terms given its backward ideology. And this is also why the most advanced capitalist bourgeoisie even needs some Marxism at home. Without such authentic internal criticism it stagnates into fascism, and this fascism is simply not so profitable for the largest corporations, and represents a level of risk to their predominance. It is a need, however, that can fail to be recognized and necessitates an enlightened bourgeois faction with a lot of power and influence in culture and which can be 'considerate' in the strategic way. The latter appears to have gone missing in regards to Ukraine, not so urgent an issue for U.S. citizens a long way away perhaps, but for the European it is a dangerous precedent to set so close to home, we have been here before.

by Gary Tedman

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Language of the Ukraine Story

The 'western' press has decided the Ukraine story is about "Pro-Kremlin self appointed eastern separatists" (sometimes 'terrorists') versus a nice Kiev government just trying to get along.

The Guardian etc are unanimous in using certain terms: the east of Ukraine are 'separatists', they are also 'self appointed', in contrast to the west. It would be far more truthful to say that the western Ukraine government, which came to power through violent protests, are the real separatists, since they want separation from Russia which is a close neighbor with historic connections, and that actually Kiev is 'self appointed' in the way they came to power; but this is obviously not the case.

The debate is 'framed' and the terms used are biased already to a particular story.  

E.g. New York Times talking of the east:
"In areas under the separatists' control, there was growing evidence of arbitrary rule by self-appointed local officials, backed up by heavily-armed militias, and of violence being meted out against opponents. 
The Guardian:
"but instead a pro-Russian mob took over yet another government building in Horlivka "
"In Kiev, two candidates from a pro-Russian party campaigning for planned May elections were attacked by loyalist crowds." 
The BBC:
"In recent weeks, pro-Russian militants have seized administrative buildings in at least a dozen towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.They have occupied public buildings and installed their own officials, in similar tactics to those used to take over the Ukrainian region of Crimea earlier in the year." 
The 'mob' versus the 'loyalist crowd'. The 'self appointed' with arbitrary rule, and the militia, of the east.

At the same time the violent uprising in Kiev that led to the ousting of the president and a change in the government is rewritten as merely a 'row': -

"The Kiev government, which took power after Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital in a row over whether to strengthen ties with Europe, appeared to have been emboldened by Tuesday's visit of U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden. 
The revolt has strangely disappeared. Only the later intervention by Russia in Crimea is remembered.

How is this prearranged story arrived at?

We know that similar happens in Russian media of course, but in the west there is the idea that we have a 'free press' and that it makes its own decisions independent of government.

Has it made these decisions and decided to treat protesting eastern Ukrainians with less credibility than the western ones? Why should it do that? It is not credible that they are all made up of Russian special forces who have entered the country.

Class relations are one answer. The western press is independent but owned, and the owners and those who have influence with its editors direct the product, and they are ruling class, the same class as the government.

On the other hand, the unanimity seems more controlled and precise than can be explained by this alone, even down to the exact same terminology used.  The debates seem scripted.

This 'scripting' happens at a variety of sources, but a major one is the nexus of private contacts via the editors of big news media organizations with the secret government security agencies and various non governmental but affiliated 'think tanks' all of which tend to bypass democracy.

Naturally, it is not in the interests of this murky grey area to have such connections publicized, it would eject the idea that western press is free and 'unbiased' and therefore diminish its effectiveness as a tool for persuasion in circumstances where it has, especially, profit interests.

But also the structural way news is filtered through the specialist agencies used, like Reuters, refines and pre-digests the output. And on another level, the choice of the personnel who are to be journalists and reporters is also a filtering process; it is not a democratic matter, of course, but decided by bosses and leaders, in effect dictatorially, since there is little democracy within private corporations.

Additionally, there is a kind of need for people to join with others and relax into the standard ideology rather than to maintain a rebellious critical posture, which after all can be exhausting. This gives to the whole process inertia of its own. This is coupled with social alienation, the social feelings associated with work in capitalism that are always manipulated expertly by the media.

And the context: economically speaking, the more capitalism becomes monopolized by certain successful corporations, the more the media and government plus the clandestine agencies become an adjunct of this monopoly and the more it functions in its interests, which are identified as the equivalent to national interests.
"Admittedly, Ukraine’s debt burden is nowhere near that of Greece, and its maturity profile is not that bad. Also, the immediate disruptions from a restructuring could be large. Yet, aside from the challenge the international community faces in raising enough cash to cover Ukraine's ever-increasing, multiyear financing gap, there is no easy way to lock in existing creditors. As a result, the West faces the prospect of seeing some of its money transferred directly to others, as Ukraine uses the proceeds of new loans to pay off maturing debts." 
By 'others' he presumably also means Russia, who is owed gas debts of about 2bn. But Russia also has debts, and to western companies and investors. So in a roundabout way, which we have become used to, such money will eventually go to pay the biggest investors, i.e. normally western ones but in any case private cosmopolitan and transatlantic ones, east and west. Politically an immediate restructuring of Ukraine's debt obligations would be difficult too, as would immediate austerity policy, which is the normal way for it. 

So, strategic expansion via the EU and its future interests conflicts to an extent with its own immediate financial interests. The EU is the bourgeois investor's vehicle for future profit if it continues to expand eastwards, it is the expansion of the US free trade area; it is a kind of new or at least refreshed frontier for capital to exploit.
"On April 17, top diplomats from the U.S., EU, Ukraine, and Russia signed an agreement in Geneva calling for insurgents in eastern Ukraine to leave occupied buildings and lay down their arms." -- Isaac Webb 
This is how the Kiev government 'understands' the (already severely tested) Geneva agreement on peace, as one-sided, only applying to the east. Of course they would. But will its erstwhile new creditors back it up? Well, probably only rhetorically. Which means that it is in the interests of the far right elements that Kiev has in its ranks to escalate the situation further.
"There is an illusory hope for the conference in Geneva. Ukraine will be presented there as a pie which will be divided. Everything ... shows the signs of a grand plot, where big geopolitical players resolved their issues at Ukraine's expense. It will be like that this time around too." - Editorial in Glavkom. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Law of Unintended Consequences: U.S. Drug "War" Destroys Rain Forests

Thomas Riggins

Rain forests around the world are rapidly disappearing due to illegal logging, the growth of palm oil and other plantations, and clearance for cattle raising and other forms of  commercial agriculture. Now scientists warn of another threat to the rain forests of Central America-- especially those in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and some of their neighbors-- this according to a news report in Science Daily for January 30, 2014 ("Drug trafficking leads to deforestation in Central America").

It seems that the drug war in Mexico, fueled by the misguided anti-drug policies of the United States and the Mexican government (relying on military action and violence instead legalization and reform) has driven the drug gangs deep into the remotest areas of the jungles of Central America-- especially into supposedly protected regions where they are destroying large areas of the virgin forests to build airstrips, roads, and storage facilities to facilitate their drug activities.

They are also constructing "agribusinesses" in order to "launder their drug profits." It is almost impossible to believe that all this activity could be going on under the noses of the United States and its allies in the so-call "war on drugs" and is not being protected due to the graft and corruption of all the parties involved. This has been going on for years according Kendra McSweeney, a scientist at Ohio State University whose research, along with others, was the basis of the Science Daily report. "In response to the crackdown in Mexico," she said, "drug traffickers began moving south into Central America around 2007 to find new routes through remote areas to move their drugs from South America and get them into the United States. When the drug traffickers moved in, they brought ecological devastation with them."

The indigenous Amerindian people who live in the forests suffer as a result of the arrival of the drug dealers who strip the forest for their roads and landing areas for planes. Drug money is used to bribe government officials to turn a blind eye to the drig dealers as well as the deforestation activities. Ranchers, illegal loggers, and land speculators, according to the article, up their activities, at the expense of the forest people, stimulated by the influx of drug money and the dealers desire to launder their profits with "legitimate" businesses.  "Drug policies," McSeeney said, "are conservation policies, whether we realize it or not."

Besides the death and destruction to people, innocent and guilty alike, brought about by U.S. policies, the damage and destruction of the rain forests is a major ecological problem.  McSweeny concluded that "U.S. led militarized interdiction, for example, has succeeded mainly in moving traffickers around, driving them to operate in ever-more remote, biodiverse ecosystems. Reforming drug policies could alleviate some of the pressures on Central America's disappearing forests."

For the reasons revealed in this news article it is ever more important that the failed and useless U. S. "war on drugs" , which has become a " war on people and nature", be curtailed and ended and that rational policies be adopted to deal with the problems of addiction and the social conditions responsible for it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ukraine Positions

Ukraine: The risks of supporting the Maidan protesters is the unleashing of fascism (Svoboda, Right Sektor). If the nationalists can avoid witch-hunts, be inclusive, and leave the far right behind, then that would be positive, but I doubt this can happen, since it would mean abandoning what they are and have fought for. Now rightist identity politics is in power (ostensibly) it usually asserts itself in scapegoating ways rather than reconciliation – the start of this may be the focus on revenge and on Yanukovich, the ousted president.

The deaths that have occurred are sad, tragic, as they always are, but if this is a revolution, then the events have in fact been remarkably peaceful (so far, perhaps), especially given the involvement of the far right as the spearhead..

But it is not really a revolution (so far at least), it is more akin to a coup, with outside interference (EU, USA), in a situation where the masses are fairly passive about politics, due to the particular history of the country.

Historically, Russia has more right to 'interfere' in Ukraine than the EU, and this fact has been trampled on, but we can only support the Russian leaders, who are also only interested in exploiting Ukraine, insofar as they act as defenders of self determination for Ukraine and against sectarianism and terror. In this situation Russia is and would be right to assert itself against the elements of neo-Nazism in the coup and the west.

The peculiar and telling aspect is actually its lack of assertion of such rights and the weakness of the ousted leadership it seemed to be backing.

The latter itself points to corruption and the rule of capitalists in both Ukraine and Russia, they are vying for profit and 'reforms', the Russian bourgeoisie vacillate, not too sure that they would not actually benefit from an even more rightist capitalist neoliberal Ukraine. This is the class dimension of the picture. The Ukrainian 'oligarchs' (big capitalists) think the same, some seeing the EU as a source of new openings and new ways to exploit their working class, others will have ties to Russia.

So we have capitalist powers, including Russia, competing for Ukraine's wealth and strategic position. The hypocrisy of the west's rhetoric can be grasped clearly when you look at Bahrain, with its protests, where the USA has a naval base just as Russia has a naval base in Ukraine (on the Black Sea). The USA did not support the protests in Bahrain for democracy, even allowed the sending in of tanks to quell the popular uprising. The USA has of course far less claims with regard to Bahrain than Russia has to Ukraine, although we must remember Russia also interferes in Syria to support the dictator Assad. All of this is cynical imperialist competition.

Sometimes the western 'soft' Left is confused and confusing about these complications, they stick to Russia like a limpet from the Cold War, and so do the rightists, whose identity politics sees the differences as essential to human nature anyway, so a Ruskie is always a Ruskie and a commie. In fact we have here the two great identity politics opposing in a false dialectic (left v right), and this is always the pincer movement of bourgeois ideology that we see in the mainstream press, because the concept of class is disallowed and they must resort to some other interpretation of global political events. It is an ideological strategy that allows in fascism though, and this is its danger in the present conflict for Europe and the EU, which is edging noticeably towards the far right in its ideology.
Mr Lavrov added that "it is in our interest for Ukraine to be part of the broad European family" but against Russia's interest to "allow the radicals and nationalists who are clearly trying to take centre stage to prevail."http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26333587

Some useful links:

Description of far right Svoboda party


Nuland phonecall on Ukraine


Left-Gramscian interpretation wuth local knowledge


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bum Rap for the Rapa Nui

Thomas Riggins

A new report in Science News Magazine (1-25-2014) by Bruce Bower details a reevaluation of the view that the Rapa Nuians, the native inhabitants of Easter Island ( Rapa Nui ), were responsible for the collapse of their population and society due to over exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of the rain forest on their island, a view recently popularized by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse (2005).

As Bower reports, the anthropologist Maria Mulrooney has published the results of her studies of the Rapa Nui culture (Journal of Archeological Science, December 2013) based on new radiocarbon dates from archeological sites on the island. She has concluded that after the clear cutting of the forest in the 1500s, to make room for agricultural production, the population of Rapa Nui remained sufficiently vibrant to carry on food production and continue their cultural development.

Exactly when the Rapa Nui arrived on Easter Island is unknown but it was on or before 1200 A.D. or so. Mulrooney maintains they had a thriving culture which was still going strong even after their "discovery" by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday 1722. This would indicate that they had not suffered"collapse" as a result of forest clearance.

Roggeveen reported that the island had about 2000 to 3000 inhabitants he was the first to report on the moai-- the giant statues (erected as religious symbols as part of an ancestor cult) for which the island is famous. They were all in place and standing when he was visiting the island (for less than two weeks). In his short time there he managed to kill a dozen or so natives and so his estimate of the population may be incorrect as many people fled and hid out until after he left.

The Spanish showed up in 1770, claimed the island for King Carlos III, then sailed away. The moai were all standing and the people were still engaged in agriculture. Captain Cook showed up in 1774 and noticed some of the moai had fallen but there was no sign of cultural "collapse."

Bower quotes Mulrooney as saying, "Deforestation did not equal societal failure on Rapi Nui. We should celebrate the remarkable achievements of this island civilization"

Yet the culture did end up almost completely destroyed. After Capitan Cook's visit Europeans visited more regularly in the 19th Century. It has been suggested that Rapa Nui's decline may have been caused by the introduction of European diseases. By the early 1800s most of the moai been toppled and the society had broken up into warring factions.

Peruvian slavers invaded in the 1860s and carried away 1500 of the 2000 or so Rapa Nuians into bondage in the mines of Peru.  By 1878 only 111 natives were still living on the island. 97 per cent of the cultural memory of the people had been lost after contact with the Europeans. The greatest loss may have been that of rongorongo  the native writing system of Rapa Nui and the only writing system created by any Polynesian group. All of those who knew the writing system died in the mines of Peru or from European introduced TB which ravaged the survivors.

Chile annexed the island in 1888. The Rapa Nui were given citizenship in 1966 but they no longer rule on their island. Of the 6000 or so people living on the island today about 3600 are Rapa Nui. The archeologist Carl Lipo is quoted as saying, "The idea of societal collapse on Rapa Nui has long been assumed but there is no scientific basis for it." He is referring to a self induced collapse. Their traditional culture was destroyed, and the people today are trying to reinvigorate it, but it is a bum rap to blame them for the loss of their civilization.

Socialism and Errors

A tentative thesis: 

The Soviet Union towards the end of  WWII made a mistake similar to the one the Paris Communards made who did not raid the Paris central bank (as Marx thought would have been sensible to pay their soldiers, etc), they did not invade Switzerland and confiscate the ill gotten stashes of the European bourgeoisie who evaded the affects of the carnage and continued to play the stock markets. Instead they acted, post war, in an increasingly imperialist fashion, emulating the bourgeois countries, imposing socialism and giving it, therefore, a bad name across Europe. Why leave Switzerland, the bank of the European bourgeoisie and one big bankroller of the Nazis, untouched? It is unfathomable if you are a communist to grasp why any communist would do this. The centre of European capitalism was, and remains, Switzerland. The answer to this question is key.

We are now living, therefore, in the aftermath of a kind of socialist funk, the result of a lack of resolution and theoretical understanding of Marxism. This is why Greece is so fascinating as a case in the crisis. The Cold War policies that made the Allies turn on the local communists who had bravely fought the Nazis meant Greece was facing years of rightist corruption and money lending to support an unpopular capitalism, it led to the reign of the Generals, and then to the joining of the Eurozone and now Greece’s massive debt crisis, all of it still being fuelled by debt.