Not every Russian citizen was pleased to see the end of Communism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the 1980s and 1990s. Some, like the artist Geliy Korzhev (1925-2012) thought the changes wrought by perestoika were a betrayal of all the lives sacrificed in order to bring true equality to the Russian people. Korzhev thought the great socialist revolution had hardly started before it was being betrayed and abandoned by the politicians who had lived so well from it, while others had paid the price.
Korzhev was a hardline Communist who never gave up his political beliefs. In the 1980s, he began painting grotesque and surreal paintings of this new world of Russian capitalism he and his fellow Soviets were being forced to embrace.
[Korzhev] is recognized by contemporary Russian art historians as one of the most influential painters of the second half of the 20th century; his work has influenced the style and subjects of two generations of post-WWII Russian artists.
Korzhev’s painting developed from the basic propagandist needs of Socialist Realism into a more personal and highly artistic style. His work ranged from the traditional Soviet style to a more Impressionistic studies. Then in later life he progressed towards a highly surreal and almost Bosch-like approach with a series of allegorical works. These attacked the political corruption and folly of the new Russia. They depicted weird parasitic creatures devouring the flesh of citizens and bizarre monsters celebrating their worst excesses. His paintings were disturbing, thought-provoking and radical in their revolt against the new capitalist politics of the time.
Korzhev made his first mutant paintings in the 1970s when he felt the Soviet leaders were ceding their belief in Communism. This was confirmed with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev the great reformer who started the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Throughout the eighties, Korzhev worked in “silent opposition to the new Russian leadership.”
Unwavering in his views, in the late 1990s the artist refused a state award bestowed upon him by the government of the new Russian Federation.
In a note explaining his decision, Korzhev wrote of his motives:
“I was born in the Soviet Union and sincerely believed in the ideas and ideals of the time. Today, they are considered a historical mistake. Now Russia has a social system directly opposite to the one under which I, as an artist, was brought up. The acceptance of a state award would be equal to a confession of my hypocrisy throughout my artistic career. I request that you consider my refusal with due understanding.”
It is said that Korzhev “did not seek to openly criticize the political or social system of contemporary Russia” but from his paintings during this time it is difficult not to see how the political loss of faith in the Soviet state did not affect his work.
“For those who are running the country I have, as Saint-Exupery put it, a deep dislike. Those circles that are currently flourishing and are now at the forefront hold no interest for me. As an artist, I see absolutely no point in studying that part of society. The people who do not fit into this pattern, however - now they are of interest. The ‘superfluous’ men, the outsiders - today, they are many. Rejected, ejected from normal life, unwanted in the current climate… I am interested in their fate, in their inner struggle. As far as I am concerned, they are the real, worthy heroes for the artist.”
Among his last works were a hammer and sickle and portraits of the new Russian Adam and Eva.
‘The Butcher #1’ (1990).
More of Korzhev’s weird paintings, after the jump…
For those with an interest in big ideas, these trading cards from Theory.org should fire up your neurotransmitters.
Between 2000-2001, a set of twelve trading cards was released monthly via David Gauntlett’s website Theory.org. This original set of cards featured theorists (and their concepts) from the world of social and cultural theory, gender and identity, and media studies. The first out of the pack was British social theorist Anthony Giddens who devised the theory of structuration and wrote the book on The Third Way. This was followed by theorist Judith Butler whose book Gender Trouble argued that “biological” sexes were just as much as a social construct as gender. Then came the great controversial French thinker Michel Foucault with his ideas about sexuality, gender and power structures. The deck included some interesting choices like artists Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George and concepts like Postmodernity and Psychoanalysis.
This official set of twelve trading cards was thought by some to lack a few key players and its release inspired various academics, students and alike to produce their own cards. These additions included Karl Marx, Carl Jung, Simone de Beauvoir, Edward Said, Germaine Greer, Walter Benjamin and Marcel Duchamp.
Described as “Creative knowledge you can put your pocket™” these cards can be used to play a game of trumps—in which players can match strengths, weaknesses and special skills. For example, Foucault’s special skill of happily rejecting old models and creating new ones, might not quite beat Duchamp’s ability to confuse the hell out of everyone.
The full set is below—but if you want to own a set of these super brainy trading cards (and who wouldn’t?) then deal yourself in by clicking here.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a poet, playwright, artist and actor. He cut a rather dashing, nay swashbuckling figure—with his shaved head and Crowleyan features—during the height of the Russian Revolution. He dressed like a dandy. He was hailed as the “artistic genius of the Revolution.” Performed poetry exhorting workers to rally to the cause. Produced plays that were considered the greatest of their day. And he created a series of agitprop posters—promoting news and political ideas—that became an art form launching a whole new approach to Soviet propaganda and graphic design.
In the 1980s, I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition of Mayakovsky’s artwork at the the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. The exhibition was dominated by his bright, colorful posters with their (often simplistic) political messages. These fragile yellowed sheets of paper had once been displayed in shop windows or distributed to the countryside to inspire the largely illiterate Russian populace.
When he was a student in 1907, Mayakovsky claimed that he’d:
Never cared for fiction. For me it was philosophy, Hegel, natural sciences, but first and foremost, Marxism. There’d be no higher art for me than “The Foreword” by Marx.
He was expelled from college for non-payment of fees the following year. He then involved himself with the Bolsheviks—distributing leaflets, organizing meetings, and on one occasion he helped a female prisoner escape from jail. Such activities led to his eventual sentence of eleven months in prison. Here he started writing poetry and the fusion of “Revolution and poetry got entangled in [his] head and became one.”
On his release, Mayakovsky dedicated himself to the socialist cause. Not as a revolutionary leader but as an artist producing “Socialist Art.” He performed poetry, wrote plays, disseminated political pamphlets and produced agitprop posters. His work as a playwright and poet brought him considerable success and fame. He became the leading figure among the young revolutionary writers and artists of the day.
Come the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky saw no question on what had to be done. He embraced the revolution wholeheartedly. In 1919, he joined the Russian State Telegraph Agency (ROSTA). Here he was responsible for designing and writing many of the now legendary political posters. Unlike many of contemporaries, Mayakovsky kept to the tradition of hand-made posters—using linocut and stencils, rather than the more clean cut graphic design of Alexander Rodchenko—though the two did later collaborate on several designs.
Mayakovsky also embraced the artistic Futurist and Constructivist movements, which caused him to lose favor with some Party members including the new soviet leader Josef Stalin, who had replaced Lenin after his death in 1924.
During the 1920s, Mayakovsky became involved with the Left Art Front. In their manifesto the poet controversially stated the group’s policy as:
..[a] re-examining [of] the ideology and practices of the so-called leftist art, rejecting individualism and increasing Art’s value for the developing Communism…
As the decade progressed, Stalin implemented radical and oppressive changes which caused Mayakovsky to question the direction the Communist Party and the country were heading. He was deeply concerned by the oppression of the arts and the silencing of any dissenting voices. Mayakovsky raised some of his hopes and fears in a poem “Conversation with Comrade Lenin” in 1929, where he imagined himself giving a progress report to the dead soviet leader:
have got out of hand,
all the sparring
does one in.
hounding our land,
outside the borders
tab ’em -
it’s no go,
there’s all kinds,
thick as nettles:
down the row,
They strut around
badges and fountain pens
studding their chests.
We’ll lick the lot of ’em-
to lick ’em
is no easy job
at the very best.
Stalin and his cronies branded Mayakovsky as a “fellow traveler”—which damned the poet as untrustworthy. A smear campaign was orchestrated against him. He was denounced in the press and loyal party members barracked him during poetry readings. It seemed his fate had been sealed.
On April 12th, 1930, Mayakovsky committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart. His suicide note read:
To all of you. I die, but don’t blame anyone for it, and please do not gossip. The deceased terribly disliked this sort of thing. Mother, sisters, comrades, forgive me—this is not a good method (I do not recommend it to others), but there is no other way out for me.
Mayakovsky’s agitprop posters were never intended to be exhibited in galleries or museums. They were propaganda used to spread revolutionary ideas, to satirize and expose injustices, and inspire the mass of the Russian public to take control of their lives. Ironically, the message was lost and it was the museums and galleries that have kept Mayakovsky’s art and ideas alive.
Do you want to join? (circa 1920).
More of Comrade Mayakovsky’s posters, after the jump…
With a week to go before Game of Thrones returns to our screens, Sesame Street have produced a parody of the hit TV series—where the bloody feuds and wars are settled not by sword, sorcery, or dragon but by playing a game of musical chairs…
It’s certainly fun—with Muppet versions of Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon all battling it out, as a typically lustrous-locked Tyrion Lannister and (the unfortunately named) Grover Bluejoy look on.
While Sesame Street have brought some knowing humor to proceedings, there is an interesting article by Paul Mason over at the Guardian which asks “Can Marxist theory predict the end of Game of Thrones?”:
If you apply historical materialism to Westeros, the plot of season five and six becomes possible to predict. What happened with feudalism, when kings found themselves in hock to bankers, is that – at first – they tried to sort it out with naked power. The real-life Edward III had his Italian bankers locked up in the Tower of London until they waived his debts.
But eventually the power of commerce began to squash the power of kings. Feudalism gave way to a capitalism based on merchants, bankers, colonial plunder and the slave trade. Paper money emerged, as did a complex banking system for assuaging problems like your gold mine running dry….
There is a reason so much fantasy fiction adopts the conceit of a feudalism that is always in crisis but never overthrown. It forms the ideal landscape in which to dramatise the secret desires of people who live under modern capitalism…
Future social historians, as they look back on the popularity of Game of Thrones, will not have much trouble deciphering the inner desires of the generation addicted to it. They are: “all of the above” plus multipartner sex.
Trapped in a system based on economic rationality, we all want the power to be something bigger than our credit card limit, or our job function. Nobody sits at home watching the these dramas imagining they are a mere slave, peasant or serving girl: we are invited to fantasise that we are one of the characters with agency – Daenerys Targaryen, a beautiful woman with tame dragons, or the unkillable stubbly hunk that is Jon Snow.
Did you all see John Oliver’s takedown of the NCAA on Last Week Tonight last week? If you are in any way concerned about the rapacious nature of collegiate athletics today and you haven’t seen it already, you really must. (I’ve embedded it at the bottom of this post.) It’s tempting to say that they took it too far, but they simply didn’t—the NCAA deserves exactly that much vitriol and then some. They’re just that bad.
I’ve been a sports fan all my life, baseball football basketball, but it’s getting more and more difficult to reconcile any kind of progressive or left-wing identity with the cash-grab, bully-cities-into-building-expensive-stadiums, jockish wife-beating etc. mentality. It’s difficult to watch the Last Week Tonight footage of coaches abusing their charges on the court and not think that this is some sanctioned equivalent of slavery, much as (say) the nation’s prison complex is similarly enforcing a very nasty form of Jim Crow. The NCAA is so bad that it’s increasingly becoming a moral imperative to oppose it. I’ve recently made a similar decision regarding the NFL. (I’m hanging on to baseball for now, but we’ll see where that goes.)
(For both brackets on this page, you can click on the image to see a much larger version.)
The winners are decided by user votes—that’s right, you can have an impact on who wins this thing. The voting for Round 2 is open until Friday, March 20. The crowning of the champion will take place on April 20, so smoke up a doobie and invite your friends over for the Big Show (which will probably be anticlimactic because it takes just a few moments to find out who won it all).
Here’s the description of how Marx Madness works:
Marx madness relies on the power of the people. Click on the image of the bracket ... to zoom in at high resolution and see the match ups. Thinkers were randomly seeded into the first round. Each week, there will be a public online vote to determine which individuals move forward. Be sure to visit the site each week before Friday at midnight to cast your votes.
After the votes are tallied, the winners are announced and each matchup gets a little writeup in the breathless mode common to sports reporting—this is easily my favorite part of Marx Madness. For example, here’s the summary of the first-round matchup between Antonio Gramsci and Jacques Rancière:
Gramsci over Ranciere
In a clash European theorists of civil society from different eras, Gramsci strolled to victory over Jacques Ranciere in round 1. The little Italian theorist, dissident, and long-time prisoner quickly made the transition from war of maneuver to war of position, overwhelming Ranciere’s vaunted ‘police’ defense. Gramsci moves on to an Antonio derby in the round of 32 against Negri in a classic 20th vs 21st century match up.
Here’s the same bracket as the one above, with the results from the first round already filled in:
Exchange Rates is an international expo of art and art galleries in around the Bushwick area of Brooklyn presenting work by exchange artists from around the world:
Conceived and produced by arts organizations helmed by artists and curators in Bushwick, Brooklyn and London, England, Exchange Rates—known also in this inaugural iteration as The Bushwick Expo—is an international exposition of artworks and curatorial programs in which host spaces in one art community open their doors and share their walls with kindred spaces on visit from elsewhere.
Some exhibits will be integrated, some collaborative yet autonomous, some even spontaneous or virtual.
The rates of exchange, as such, will fluctuate, while the currencies of exchange—ideas and culture—remain fixed.
As regular readers to Dangerous MInds know, I am a big fan of John Butler’s work and have been banging the drum for his speculative animations for some considerable time. For those who don’t know his work, Butler, to give a snapshot, is a hybrid of J. G. Ballard, John Carpenter via Stanley Kubrick—an imaginative and intelligent dystopian, who has an exacting and precise style to his animated films.
Today, Butler will be premiering his recently completed speculative science fiction animation, the so-called Amazon cycle of four films (a reference to working practices of the company rather than the South American river) contained in Descention along with The Terminal Node. Butler’s recent work examines the processes by which capitalism uses technology to dehumanize a workforce.
As Butler explained via email:
Descention draws a straight line from military robotics to retail cybernetics, from DARPA to Amazon.
Dialectical materialism as explained by 8-bit philosophy, a kind of “Super Marxio” or “Marxism for Dummies” for the digital generation. Why bother with boring old Das Kapital when you can bluff your way through the exam with this four-minute video?
More low resolution gems of useful information on Plato, Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Zeno, Descartes and Kierkegaard can be found here, or better still, read the books.
Pier Paolo Pasolini said his first films were inspired by Antonio Gramsci, the founder and one-time leader of the Italian Communist Party.
To Pasolini, Gramsci was the ‘greatest Marxist theoretician in all Italy,’ who wanted popular art to be aimed at an “ideal people.”
But by the 1960s, this “ideal people” had been turned by capitalism into consumers—a culture of mass consumption, where works of art and politics had little or no value.
It was then that Pasolini instinctively rejected the idea of making films for mass consumption, and instead opted for a more personal and political film-making.
Based on Montaigne’s idea that ‘one does not really know a person until he has died,’ Philo Bregstein’s documentary Whoever Says The Truth Shall Die—A Film About Pier Paolo Pasolini offers a fascinating look at the life, artistic ambitions and political vision of the poet, writer and controversial film director.
The collective behind Cosmarxpolitan describe themselves as “Smug college students” with too much time on their hands.
General Secretary of Cosmarxpolitan is Clara, who also blogs at That Girl Mag, and collaborates with The Central Committee of People’s Commissars (Andrew, Ken, Lucas, Mark, and Nicole) to produce these witty and amusing fake Cosmarxpolitan covers. As explained on the site’s FAQ:
The intention of Cosmarxpolitan is to ridicule the awful advice and backwards attitudes of magazines targeted at women; not to poke fun at those who suffered under communist rulers.
For those of you who think that we promote stereotypes that marginalize certain groups and privilege a deeply distorted narrative, it’s because we’re doing our best to channel Cosmo.
Only one of the collective is a Marxist (Ken), the rest are “just bourgeois scum, to varying degrees,” who hope that (once revolution comes) they will be “stripped of the chains of oppression, (and having other things to do), article writing will flourish.”
For twenty-years, artist John Butler has been the driving talent behind an incredible array of short animated films and science-fiction series. As one half of the Butler Brothers, John has produced, written and animated original, speculative fictions that examine the nature of our relationship with Government, Military and Corporations through technology.
Animations such as Eden, The Ethical Governor, T.R.I.A.G.E. and Unmanned have reinforced John’s dystopian view of the world, where technology is primarily developed as a means of control, war and exploitation.
‘I don’t think we’re doomed,’ says Butler, ‘But we are stuck with it. I think the self checkouts in supermarkets indicate where we are going, towards a cybernetic transaction space. They should give us a discount since we’re doing all the work now.’
Butler’s latest animation Acrohym is a satirical ‘song of praise’ to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency):
...the most exciting arts commissioning agency in the world today.
Acrohym stands for ‘Advanced, Central, Research, Organization, High-Yield, Markets.’ The kind of buzz words promoted by PR reps and technocrats, who are currently destroying language and democracy.
Butler is fascinated by this and the way in which organizations like DARPA, have become like art/science patrons developing new technologies for the military, while at the same time creating their own language.
‘I liked the idea that DARPA seemed to think of cool acronyms first and work backwards from that. Things like the FANG (Fast, Adaptble, Next-Generation Ground vehicle) challenge, the Triple Target Terminator (T3) and the Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition ( MAHEM). They ruthlessly torture language to create a new form of technocratic poetry.
‘I think weapons design attracts the brightest minds and can draw on limitless funding, so it’s no wonder they make such fascinating stuff. It is an art form of sorts, increasingly so, as the systems become more baroque and dysfunctional, like architectural follies.
‘Form Follows Funding is the first Law of Procurement.
‘I think Defense is the seedbed of all research, but it eventually trickles down to the civil sphere. If private enterprise had created the internet, it would be a lot of bike couriers with USB sticks. Only a military project could have had such a long range investment strategy.’
John is working on his next project, but I wanted to know when he would be makinga full length feature film?
‘As soon as I’ve secured Ministry of Defense funding.’
A rare and brief interview with Pier Paolo Pasolini on the set of his notorious film version of De Sade’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. As ever, Pasolini’s is uncompromising in his views of film-making and politics, which are still relevant today.
There is a lot of sex in it (Salò), rather towards Sado-Masochism, which has a very specific function - that is to reduce the human body to a saleable commodity. It represents what power does to the human being, to the human body.
All my films start from a formal idea, which I feel I must do. It is an idea I have of the kind of film it must be. It cannot be expressed in words, you either understand it or you don’t. When I make a film, it because I suddenly have an inspiration about the form of that particular subject must take. That is the essence of the film.
As I shoot this film, I already have it edited in my mind. Therefore, I expect a greater professional ability from my actors. So, this film I’m using 4 or 5 professional actors. But even the ones I have collected from the streets, I use them almost as if they were professional actors. The lines have to be said properly, the way they were written, and all in one take. They must have the correct facial expression from the beginning to the end of the shot, etc etc.
My need to make this film also came from the fact I particularly hate the leaders of the day. Each one of us hates with particular vehemence the powers to which he is forced to submit. So, I hate the powers of today. It is a power that manipulates people just as it did at the time of Himmler or Hitler.
I don’t think the young people of today will understand this film. I have no illusions about my ability to influence young people. It is impossible to create a cultural relationship with them, because they are living with totally new values, with which the old values cannot be compared.
I don’t believe we shall ever again have any form of society in which men will be free. One should not hope for it. One should not hope for anything. Hope is invented by politicians to keep the electorate happy.
I’ve been looking for a full set of the 1978 board game, Class Struggle, for years. While I hear it’s actually really boring to play, the camp value is undeniable. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find one with nothing missing, and we cannot stand for a piecemeal revolution! From the box:
To prepare for life in capitalist America - An educational game for kids from 8 to 80.
This game is a vehicle for instructing students (there is a classroom section in the rules) on why Marxism is superior. The Workers move around a board while trying to survive against the Capitalist who control everything. As the Workers unite they take power from the Capitalist players but if they do not succeed in uniting the Capitalist will win.
Class Struggle reflects the real struggle between the classes in our society.
THE OBJECT OF THE GAME IS TO WIN THE REVOLUTION . . .
Until then, classes—represented by different players—advance around the board, making and breaking alliances, and picking up strengths and weaknesses that determine the outcome of the elections and general strikes which occur along the way.
A workers’ political party, you say?!?
An ad for the German version
Italian version of the game, with deceptively kind-looking capitalist / imperialist pig-dog, Jimmy Carter
When Hugh MacDiarmid died in 1978, his fellow poet Norman MacCaig suggested Scotland commemorate the great man’s passing by holding 3 minute’s pandemonium. It was typical of MacCaig’s caustic wit, but his suggestion did capture something of the unquantifiable enormity of MacDiarmid’s importance on Scottish culture, politics, literature and life during the twentieth century.
Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps best described by a line from his greatest poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), in which he wrote:
‘I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it’s the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt
That damns the vast majority o’ men.
It explains the contradictory elements that merged to make him a poet.
Born Christopher Murray Grieve, on August 11, 1892, he changed his name to the more Scottish sounding Hugh MacDiarmid to publish his poetry. He was a Modernist poet who wrote in Scots vernacular. One might expect this choice of language to make his poetry parochial, but MacDiarmid was a poet of international ambition and standing, who was recognized as an equal with T. S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak and W. H. Auden.
In politics, MacDiarmid had been one of the co-founder’s of the National Party for Scotland in 1928, but was ejected when he moved towards Communism. He was then ejected from the Communist Party for his “nationalist deviation.” He maintained a Nationalist - in favor of an independent Scotland - and a Communist throughout his life.
As literature scholar and writer Kenneth Butlay notes, MacDiarmid was:
..as incensed by his countrymen’s neglect of their native traditions as by their abrogation of responsibility for their own affairs, and he took it upon himself to “keep up perpetually a sort of Berseker rage” of protest, and to act as “the catfish that vitalizes the other torpid of the aquarium.”
In 1964, the experimental film-maker Margaret Tait made short documentary portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, which captured the poet at home in Langholme, his sense of childish fun, his socializing his the bars and public houses of Edinburgh (the Abbotsford on Rose Street).
More on Hugh MacDiarmid, plus poetry and reading, after the jump…
There’s a “must read” article that appeared on The Guardian’s website—ironically on the 4th of July, America’s national celebration of revolution—about a new-found interest in the ideas of Karl Marx among younger people. Going on in London this week is a five-day seminar/festival, organized by the Socialist Workers’ Party, called Marxism 2012. The festival is expected to draw several thousand people, many of them in their 20s and early 30s.
At the start of the piece, French Marxist thinker Jacques Rancière lays out a remarkably blunt truth to Guardian editor Stuart Jeffries: “The domination of capitalism globally depends today on the existence of a Chinese Communist party that gives de-localised capitalist enterprises cheap labour to lower prices and deprive workers of the rights of self-organisation. Happily, it is possible to hope for a world less absurd and more just than today’s.”
Aren’t Marx’s venerable ideas as useful to us as the hand loom would be to shoring up Apple’s reputation for innovation? Isn’t the dream of socialist revolution and communist society an irrelevance in 2012? After all, I suggest to Rancière, the bourgeoisie has failed to produce its own gravediggers. Rancière refuses to be downbeat: “The bourgeoisie has learned to make the exploited pay for its crisis and to use them to disarm its adversaries [Tea party dupes, he is talking about YOU—RM]. But we must not reverse the idea of historical necessity and conclude that the current situation is eternal. The gravediggers are still here, in the form of workers in precarious conditions like the over-exploited workers of factories in the far east. And today’s popular movements – Greece or elsewhere – also indicate that there’s a new will not to let our governments and our bankers inflict their crisis on the people.”
That, at least, is the perspective of a seventysomething Marxist professor. What about younger people of a Marxist temper? I ask Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal, a 22 year-old English and drama student at Goldsmiths College, London, who has just finished her BA course in English and Drama, why she considers Marxist thought still relevant. “The point is that younger people weren’t around when Thatcher was in power or when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union,” she says. “We tend to see it more as a way of understanding what we’re going through now. Think of what’s happening in Egypt. When Mubarak fell it was so inspiring. It broke so many stereotypes – democracy wasn’t supposed to be something that people would fight for in the Muslim world. It vindicates revolution as a process, not as an event. So there was a revolution in Egypt, and a counter-revolution and a counter-counter revolution. What we learned from it was the importance of organisation.”
This, surely is the key to understanding Marxism’s renaissance in the West: for younger people, it is untainted by association with Stalinist gulags. For younger people too, Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalism in his 1992 book The End of History – in which capitalism seemed incontrovertible, its overthrow impossible to imagine – exercises less of a choke-hold on their imaginations than it does on those of their elders.
This is extremely significant, as Jeffries rightly points out. Even in America this is increasingly the case. Young people who have graduated from college with crushing amounts of debt, no health insurance, and who work in dead end jobs (if they can get a job at all) with no clear path to begin their careers are becoming quite interested in understanding what the hell happened. It’s really no surprise that they’ve started to google Capitalism’s greatest critic and read up on his ideas. Many people who joined in various OWS protests around the country were further exposed to Marxist critiques of Capitalism and Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek who has become an unlikely intellectual rockstar to young, politically active American leftists who hang on his every word. These recent “converts,” if you will, have only just started to do more research and talk to and exchange ideas with other like-minded people.
As today’s disillusioned, but media-savvy 20-somethings begin their own inroads to influencing the culture, expect that music, film, TV, blogs and even our mainstream news outlets will become more friendly to the ideas of Marx and Engels, even if they aren’t always given credit for them. Ideas that 160 years after they were originally formulated, are starting to make so much sense to intelligent young people living through an age of Capitalism in deep crisis. Will American ever embrace “Marxism,” per se? That seems doubtful, of course, simply due to the cultural knee-jerk taboo around this particular “ism,” but still there is the rather pressing issue of Marxism’s historical inevitability:
Call it whatever you want to, but a situation where a mere 1% of the population control most of the wealth doesn’t seem like it’s going end so well for the ones doing the hoarding.
There’s a big problem that Capitalism increasingly faces: Because of the Internet, over the past fifteen years or so, the average person has easy access to information sources that they never dreamed of or knew existed in the first place. Before the mid-90s, it was much more difficult for the man on the street to be able draw a connection between the price of a particular drug and the net worth of the CEO of the pharmaceutical company that manufactures it. Today, they are beginning to understand that when a CEO of a pharmaceutical company is making $50,000,000 a year that they are paying a TAX ON THEIR OWN HEALTH for the sake of that rich asshole’s obscene salary with EVERY PILL THEY TAKE. Or consider the tax paid directly to the billionaire Walton family from EVERY product sold in a Wal-Mart. It’s a breath-taking con when you consider that ONE GODDAMN FAMILY basically gets to add their own personal tariff to every product sold in the world’s largest retail behemoth!
HOORAY FOR FUCKING CAPITALISM.
HOORAY FOR WALL STREET VAMPIRES.
Only a delusional idiot, the Royal family, the Walton family or a charter member of the 1%, would even wish for the current system to stand as it is. And the opinion of anyone who thinks America or Europe (or China or Russia for that matter) is still going to be doing business the same way in 2032 as it is done in 2012 should be dismissed with extreme derision.
Of course, the American people aren’t going to tip sales of The Communist Manifesto (the world’s #2 selling book of all time) to overtake The Bible any time soon, but then again they needn’t read a German philosophical treatise on how the price of a particular commodity is derived, either, when they’ve got folks like Jon Stewart, Cenk Uygur, Martin Bashir and Rachel Maddow to explain it to them.
In the same sense that ideas once common to the lunatic fringe of the John Birch Society have now achieved mainstream “respect” via Glenn Beck and Fox News, so will covertly Marxist ideas become mainstreamed as younger people coming of age with their eyes wide open in this shitty economy have their day. Eventually the major tenants of Marxism will arrive in the American marketplace of ideas in the guise of plain-talking, good old-fashioned common sense.
Back to Jeffries:
For a different perspective I catch up with Owen Jones, 27-year-old poster boy of the new left and author of the bestselling politics book of 2011, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class. He’s on the train to Brighton to address the Unite conference. “There isn’t going to be a bloody revolution in Britain, but there is hope for a society by working people and for working people,” he counsels.
Indeed, he says, in the 1860s the later Marx imagined such a post-capitalist society as being won by means other than violent revolution. “He did look at expanding the suffrage and other peaceful means of achieving socialist society. Today not even the Trotskyist left call for armed revolution. The radical left would say that the break with capitalism could only be achieved by democracy and organisation of working people to establish and hold on to that just society against forces that would destroy it.”
Owen Jones is right. A violent revolution in America seems beyond a remote possibility, as well, whether from the left (not enough stomach for violence) or right (stomachs too fat for being able to inflict much violence). The future American revolution will be one won at the ballot box and through superior demographic numbers. As has been pointed out many, many times, in many, many places, the heyday of the reactionary right that began with Reagan is increasingly being seen in the country’s rear view mirror, demographically speaking. America will always have its conservative wingnuts, it’s just that we’ll have far fewer of them as the Tea partiers and Fox News viewers start to die off in the coming years. Democracy is a numbers game. It always has been.
Having toiled at a major daily newspaper myself, I won’t hold it against Stuart Jeffries that he was obliged to quote at least one “Debbie Downer” about the common, hackneyed misconception of what “Marxism” means, in this case Prof. Alan Johnson, of Edge Hill University, who thinks Communism, “[a] worldview recently the source of immense suffering and misery, and responsible for more deaths than fascism and Nazism, is mounting a comeback; a new form of leftwing totalitarianism that enjoys intellectual celebrity but aspires to political power,” on the World Affairs blog:
“The New Communism matters not because of its intellectual merits but because it may yet influence layers of young Europeans in the context of an exhausted social democracy, austerity and a self-loathing intellectual culture,” wrote Johnson. “Tempting as it is, we can’t afford to just shake our heads and pass on by.”
That’s the fear: that these nasty old left farts such as Žižek, Badiou, Rancière and Eagleton will corrupt the minds of innocent youth. But does reading Marx and Engels’s critique of capitalism mean that you thereby take on a worldview responsible for more deaths than the Nazis? Surely there is no straight line from The Communist Manifesto to the gulags, and no reason why young lefties need uncritically to adopt Badiou at his most chilling. In his introduction to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto, Professor Eric Hobsbawm suggests that Marx was right to argue that the “contradictions of a market system based on no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’, a system of exploitation and of ‘endless accumulation’ can never be overcome: that at some point in a series of transformations and restructurings the development of this essentially destabilising system will lead to a state of affairs that can no longer be described as capitalism”.
That is post-capitalist society as dreamed of by Marxists. But what would it be like? “It is extremely unlikely that such a ‘post-capitalist society’ would respond to the traditional models of socialism and still less to the ‘really existing’ socialisms of the Soviet era,” argues Hobsbawm, adding that it will, however, necessarily involve a shift from private appropriation to social management on a global scale. “What forms it might take and how far it would embody the humanist values of Marx’s and Engels’s communism, would depend on the political action through which this change came about.”
This is surely Marxism at its most liberating, suggesting that our futures depend on us and our readiness for struggle. Or as Marx and Engels put it at the end of The Communist Manifesto: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
Nobel economist Michael Spence, working at the behest of the Council on Foreign Relations, has co-authored a startling new paper with NYU’s Sandile Hlatshwayo. The two did an enormous amount of number crunching and analyzing of how the US economy has been structured for the past 20 years, and in particular, they examined employment trends. It was not a pretty picture that emerged from all of those details.
Well, I guess that would all depend upon which side of the fork you’re on, wouldn’t it?
As the output and productivity of the American worker increased—a LOT, I should add—during the past two decades, jobs still continued to be outsourced to other countries with cheaper labor pools, and fewer opportunities for economic advancement presented themselves for many Americans. All the while, the $$$ for all of that increased productivity didn’t go to the worker bees themselves, it went to the top, to the capitalists and investors class. To parasites like Mitt Romney and his buddies at Bain Capital.
The CFR report’s conclusions are particularly grim for people who have found themselves slipping out of the middle class towards precarious lives and who feel hopeless to do anything about it, but it’s Marxism 101 for the economic literate.
Here’s how Mr. Spence and Ms. Hlatshwayo put it: “The most educated, who work in the highly compensated jobs of the tradeable and nontradeable sectors, have high and rising incomes and interesting and challenging employment opportunities, domestically and abroad. Many of the middle-income group, however, are seeing employment options narrow and incomes stagnate.”
Mr. Spence notes the benefit to consumers of globalization: “Many goods and services are less expensive than they would be if the economy were walled off from the global economy, and the benefits of lower prices are widespread.” He also points to the positive impact of globalization, particularly in China and India: “Poverty reduction has been tremendous, and more is yet to come.”
I’m sure Americans living in “right to work” states are just jumping for joy to be competing with wage-earners in China and India.
Free trade and the free flow of capital means lower prices for the consumer, true, but when someone in China or India is doing that very same computer programming job that used to be your job in the midwest—information workers will have the most precarious jobs of all moving forward—it’s not like you’ll be able to afford much more than rice and beans at the Wal-Mart anyway.
Yes, there’s a high cost to low price. The two are pretty well interconnected, as we’ve seen, but this is what the “free market” is supposed to do, silly. And don’t forget, it was Wal-Mart that put the local shops out of business to begin with.
Karl Marx predicted all of this. ALL of it.
He’s the most accurate prophet in history, with a record a helluva lot better than Nostradamus!
And to all of the naysayers who claim that a “command economy” doesn’t work, I present to you Wal-Mart itself, the most successful example of a command economy the world has ever seen!
Mr. Spence’s paper should be read alongside the work that David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been doing on the impact of the technology revolution on U.S. jobs. Mr. Autor finds that technology has had a “polarizing” impact on the U.S. work force — it has made people at the top more productive and better paid and hasn’t had much effect on the “hands-on” jobs at the bottom. But opportunities and salaries in the middle have been hollowed out.
Taken together, here’s the big story Mr. Spence and Mr. Autor tell: Globalization and the technology revolution are increasing productivity and prosperity. But those rewards are unevenly shared — they are going to the people at the top in the United States, and enriching emerging economies over all. But the American middle class is losing out.
It may seem surprising that it takes a Nobel laureate and sheaves of economic data to reach this conclusion. But the analysis and its provenance matter, because this basic truth about how the world economy is working today is being ignored by most of the politicians in the United States and denied by many of its leading business people.
Here’s where it gets much grimmer, as the article’s author, Chrystia Freeland (who has been the Global Editor-at-Large of Reuters since 2010) tells of a recent breakfast at the CFR that she moderated. The speaker that morning was Randall Stephenson, chief executive of AT&T.
If this is the mindset of the leaders of corporate America today, we’re doomed:
One of the Council of Foreign Relations members in the audience was Farooq Kathwari, the chief executive of Ethan Allen, the furniture manufacturer and retailer. Mr. Kathwari is a storybook American entrepreneur. He arrived in New York from Kashmir with $37 in his pocket and got his start in the retail trade selling goods sent to him from home by his grandfather.
He asked Mr. Stephenson: “Over the last 10 years, with the help of technology and other things, we today are doing about the same business with 50 percent less people. We’re talking of jobs. I would just like to get your perspectives on this great technology. How is it going to overall affect the job markets in the next five years?”
Mr. Stephenson said not to worry. “While technology allows companies like yours to do more with less, I don’t think that necessarily means that there is less employment opportunities available. It’s just a redeployment of those employment opportunities. And those employees you have, my expectation was, with your productivity, their standard of living has actually gotten better.”
HUH? Redeployment of employment opportunities? What the fuck IS this guy talking about?
I recently heard a radio report that indicated that there is ONE factory employing around 15 people in Japan that’s responsible for nearly 80% of the world’s output of a certain sized HD screen. Consider how many people would have worked at a Magnavox television plant in the mid-fifties. Where were those employment opportunities ultimately “redeployed?”
With advanced automation, robotics and so forth, the American worker always was going to become obsolete in the long run, but the speed with which it is happening has gone from a trot to full gallop since the early 90s. Stephenson’s contention that standards of living have improved is ludicrous. Perhaps for him and for all the Cuban cigar-smoking fatcats at the country club in Westchester, but what about the rest of us?
Maybe the all-powerful, wise and benevolent free market will help us?!?!
(Sorry all of that cigar smoke is making me *cough*)
Mr. Spence’s work tells us that simply isn’t happening. “One possible response to these trends would be to assert that market outcomes, especially efficient ones, always make everyone better off in the long run,” he wrote. “That seems clearly incorrect and is supported by neither theory nor experience.”
Not to take anything away from Mr. Spence and Ms. Hlatshwayo, but there was this famous book written by a Mr. Marx and a Mr. Engels—two of the most dangerous minds in history—a hundred and fifty-some years ago that predicted all of this shit with amazing, laser-like accuracy.
Mr. Spence says that as he was doing his research, he was often asked what “market failure” was responsible for these outcomes: Where were the skewed incentives, flawed regulations or missing information that led to this poor result? That question, Mr. Spence says, misses the point. “Multinational companies,” he said, “are doing exactly what one would expect them to do. The resulting efficiency of the global system is high and rising. So there is no market failure.”
Okay, stop for a second. Read that last paragraph again, won’t you? Now read it a third time.
Mr. Spence is telling us that global capitalism is working, but that the American middle class is losing out anyway.
Yep, exactly like a certain Mr. Marx predicted would happen. What remains to be seen is how long it takes for the average American to wake up to what’s going on, when the elites are so hellbent on trying to keep them as confused as possible. Less sophisticated people can be forgiven for falling for conspiracy theories, when the REAL action is right out in the open: No one ever thinks to look there!
Mr. Spence admits he has no easy answers. American politicians are focused on a budget debate that is superficial, premature and ultimately about something pretty easy to figure out. Instead, we should all be working on the much bigger problem of how to make capitalism work for the American middle class.