I have been thinking about how to introduce some of the methodologies we use in DK to augment the basic liberalism and progressivism necessary to produce more and better Democrats. This piece is intended to introduce some basic texts which for many might seem too simplistic and even heretical but are hopefully useful for those wanting to consider that many of the perspectives often refelected in DK have a sincere and authentic theoretical foundation.
I chose a recent diary by Kos on conservative understanding of the decline in bee populations to serve as an example of how an understanding of Marx can add to the interpretive strength of an already strong argument. The “light comes on” is not enlightenment in any earth-shaking sense but it is a reflection on the need to consider that there are preexisting social analysis methodologies that have made progressives more effective in guiding action and organizing resistance to the rise of RW power.
Buried way at the bottom of this piece on the increasing death rate of honey bees:
But Mr. Adee [the South Dakota owner of the nation's largest beekeeping company), who said he had long scorned environmentalists’ hand-wringing about [pesticide use in crops], said he was starting to wonder whether they had a point.
Of the “environmentalist” label, Mr. Adee said: “I would have been insulted if you had called me that a few years ago. But what you would have called extreme — a light comes on, and you think, ‘These guys really have something. Maybe they were just ahead of the bell curve.’”
I’m going to do some stereotyping and assume that a South Dakota farmer who scorns “extremist” environmentalist is a Republican. It’s not much of a stretch. So like Sen. Rob Portman’s conversion on marriage equality because of his gay son, or Sen. Mark Kirk’s conversion on health care services to the less-wealthy because of his debilitating stroke, Adee decides that maybe the dirty fucking hippies are onto something when he, himself, is directly affected by unfettered degradation of our environment.
I emphasize the expression directly affected because it is important for acting in a way to understand Anti-Capitalism This point of view recognizes that there are changes in consciousness, the understanding that a tension between beliefs and reality has been heightened and proven transformative. In this diary Kos discusses the contradiction of GOP ideology in confronting the complex yet revelatory incidence of bee death as a sign of impending ecological disaster. This serves as a useful way to provide a foundation to discuss the theories necessary to understand a Marxist position on the need to transform the present relations of production.
But many beekeepers suspect the biggest culprit is the growing soup of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that are used to control pests. While each substance has been certified, there has been less study of their combined effects. Nor, many critics say, have scientists sufficiently studied the impact of neonicotinoids, the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths. The explosive growth of neonicotinoids since 2005 has roughly tracked rising bee deaths. Neonics, as farmers call them, are applied in smaller doses than older pesticides. They are systemic pesticides, often embedded in seeds so that the plant itself carries the chemical that kills insects that feed on it.
This suspicion is the simple result of an economy driven by capitalist desire to systematically maximize profit that also ignores the externalities connected to the use of technologies that also harm the environment and in the long-run destroy even the industry itself. American beekeeping and honey production is both hobby-farm, small scale cottage industry and large-scale agribusiness. In other countries it can be even barely organized gathering. Ultimately change comes from knowledge and its productive application, but a knowledge that is crucially aware of direct effects as critical practices.
I have chosen two elementary texts on Marx to give readers an introduction that is often distorted by cold-war anti-communist reactionaries that one finds in the Marx 101 search on the internet, although Brad DeLong’s Understanding Marx lecture is a good one. I have chosen Peter Singer’s. Marx: A Very Short Introduction (2000) and Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right (2011). This is not a book review, although I would hope that these two accessible texts might appeal even to the less doctrinaire Kossack. Please continue reading to contribute to the discussion of the basics.
The relationship between humans and their environment is one of the ways which we can develop a position against capitalism and for a future that embraces greater democracy. For Marx it is human effort, the energy of cognitive and physical labor(sic) and its relation to the transformation of nature in language, land, materials, and activity as well as the interactions among humans. This diary is intended to introduce two introductory texts on Marx in the hope that readers might become more interested in the necessity of continuing to revisit the Specter of Marx if only to ensure that after the fall of monolithic Soviet style State Capitalist communism in the 1990s he is neither Ghost nor Zombie but with Darwin, Freud, and Einstein, the community of scholars necessary for an Anti-Capitalist future.
Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.
The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work, and 3, its instruments.
(Karl Marx. Capital Volume One Part III: The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value, Chapter Seven: The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value, Section 1 – The Labour-Process or the Production of Use-Values http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm)
The imagination here is as important a labor process as that of the body. In an age of increased mediation, it is not the potential magic of the cave painting but the many ideological constructions that affect the awareness of the modality of work and ultimately at scale the modality of production, from primitive communism, to feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism, and then to advanced communism. In each instance it is accumulation of matter, whether as cognitive knowledge formed in minds and transmitted across generations orally or by documents, or physical accumulation of knowledge shown in training, or the accumulation physical objects as wealth or machinery. Unlike the RW, these endowments are based in equity and equality and are a common-pool resource as part of our existence on this planet and remain important for our self-governance.
The ignorance of conservatives that irks Kos as well as so many here in DK is often embodied as the lack of conservative imagination and sometimes referred to as the low-information voter/citizen. Progressives have inevitably embraced the need to consider the greater system of values that exist in economic systems especially those closest to nature and its cultivation as agricultural production. Here’s some of the interpretation of the concept of “low-information” as a hierarchical term
American pollster and political scientist Samuel Popkin coined the term “low-information” in 1991 when he used the phrase “low-information signaling” in his book The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. Low-information signaling referred to cues or heuristics used by voters, in lieu of substantial information, to determine who to vote for. Examples include voters liking Bill Clinton for eating at McDonald’s, and perceiving John Kerry and Mitt Romney as elitist for wind-surfing and jet-ski riding respectively. Some low-information voters’ views are more moderate than those of high-information voters, they are less likely to vote, and are looking for a candidate they find personally appealing. They tend to be swing voters, and they tend to vote split-ticket more than well-informed voters do, researchers say because they lack a coherent ideology. Linguist George Lakoff has written that the term is a pejorative mainly used by American liberals to refer to people who vote conservative against their own interests, and assumes they do it because they lack sufficient information. Liberals, he said, attribute the problem in part to deliberate Republican efforts at misinforming voters. Thirty-year Republican House of Representatives and Senate staffer Mike Lofgren, in a 2011 article entitled “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult”, characterized low-information voters as anti-intellectual and hostile-to-science “religious cranks,” and claimed Republicans are deliberately manipulating LIVs to undermine their confidence in American democratic institutions. Popular syndicated talk show host Rush Limbaugh uses the term with regular frequency to denote voters who pull the lever for Democratic candidates for largely esoteric reasons. In a March 25, 2013 transcript, Rush says “I have never said that low-information voters are stupid. I just said they don’t know what they think they know. They are prisoners to the media, which has dumbed them down. Low-information voters can be doctors. Low-information voters can be scientists. They can be among all walks of life. It has nothing to do with IQ. It has to do with what they don’t know because of their media sources. Low-information voters are clearly people that don’t have all the information available to make a voting choice. That’s all they are. And they’re all over the place. And most of them do vote Democrat. Most of them did vote for Obama. It’s not a comment on their intelligence. It’s not that they’re stupid or don’t understand the issues. They just haven’t had it all explained to them.”
This short-sightedness or false consciousness as shown in the latter example was perhaps even more common in the 19th century of Marx, the self-limiting of human potential is as evident then as it is now with those who cannot understand that the death of honey bees might signal a breakdown in an ecology taken for advantage or as in the 19th century, as easily alienated from its origins as the American frontier and its bounty was alienated from its aboriginal First Nation owners. The colonizers always have an ideology, often referred to as a form of ideology or system of beliefs that rationalizes the separation of ownership or alienation of property from its original owners as a matter of exploitable advantage or power. An individual can regain power or autonomy by appropriating it by some right imposed by a claim of comparative advantage. Money or wealth helps to establish that warrant and eventual social divisions or classes established by wealth or claims to wealth alienate land labor and eventually capital. The goal in the 19th century as it is in a world with unevenly developed economies is to command, control and coordinate the value of what ultimately has always been a more collective product. New forms that mediate that value are proxies like money which arbitrarily measures labor and mystifies its values of uses and exchange.
For the Young Hegelians the ‘superficial expression’ of Hegel’s philosophy was his acceptance of the state of politics, religion, and society in early nineteenth-century Prussia: the ‘inner core’ was his account of Mind overcoming alienation, reinterpreted as an account of human self-consciousness freeing itself from the illusions that prevent it achieving self-understanding and freedom. (Singer p. 21). When rewritten in terms of the real world instead of the mysterious world of Mind, it made sense. ‘Mind’ was read as ‘human self-consciousness’. The goal of history became the liberation of humanity; but this could not be achieved until the religious illusion had been overcome. (ibid p. 22). The solution is to realize that theology is a kind of misdescribed anthropology. What we believe of God is really true of ourselves. Thus humanity can regain its essence, which in religion it has lost.(ibid p.23) …human beings are in a state of alienation, a state in which their own creations appear to them as alien, hostile forces and in which instead of controlling their creations, they are controlled by them.
(ibid p. 69).
This reversal of control is easiest seen in even the most trivial of Easter-time constructions where the entry to Heaven in the Christian religion compares the pursuit of profit to a variety of metaphors ultimately made contradictory later in history by the practice of indulgences. One does not need to think of the money-lenders in the Temple to see Marx’s point of view:
Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. Hence it has robbed the whole world, the human world as well as nature, of its proper value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s labour and life, and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it. (J 60) The final sentence points the way forward. First the Young Hegelians, including Bauer and Feuerbach, see religion as the alienated human essence, and seek to end this alienation by their critical studies of Christianity. Then Feuerbach goes beyond religion, arguing that any philosophy which concentrates on the mental rather than the material side of human nature is a form of alienation. Now Marx insists that it is neither religion nor philosophy, but money that is the barrier to human freedom. The obvious next step is a critical study of economics. (Singer p. 27)
The formation of classes is problematic for many reasons none the least of which is the synchronous/asynchronous unevenness of cultural and economic developments in a world of differentiated social divisions and cultural locations, but in a determinist sense the development of divisions of labor and technologies produce new alienations including the property relations of land, labor, and capital including means of (re)production.
Here is the germ of a new solution to the problem of human alienation. Criticism and philosophical theory alone will not end it. A more practical force is needed, and that force is provided by the artificially impoverished working class. This lowest class of society will bring about ‘the actualization of philosophy’ – by which Marx means the culmination of the philosophical and historical saga described, in a mystified form, by Hegel. The proletariat, following the lead of the new radical philosophy, will complete the dialectical process in which humans have emerged, grown estranged from themselves, and become enslaved by their own alienated essence. Whereas the property-owning middle class could win freedom for themselves on the basis of rights to property – thus excluding others from the freedom they gain – the property-less working class possess nothing but their title as human beings. Thus they can liberate themselves only by liberating all humanity. (Singer pp. 29-30) Marx had now developed two important new insights: that economics is the chief form of human alienation, and that the material force needed to liberate humanity from its domination by economics is to be found in the working class. (ibid p. 32). Marx draws another important point from the classical economists. Those who employ the workers – the capitalists – build up their wealth through the labour of their workers. They become wealthy by keeping for themselves a certain amount of the value their workers produce. Capital is nothing else but accumulated labour. The worker’s labour increases the employer’s capital. This increased capital is used to build bigger factories and buy more machines. This increases the division of labour. This puts more self-employed workers out of business. They must then sell their labour on the market. This intensifies the competition among workers trying to get work, and lowers wages. (ibid p. 33). The more the worker exerts himself, the more powerful becomes the alien objective world which he fashions against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, the less there is that belongs to him. It is the same in religion. The more man attributes to God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; then it no longer belongs to him but to the object… The externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his work becomes an object, an external existence, but also that it exists outside him, independently, alien, an autonomous power, opposed to him. The life he has given to the object confronts him as hostile and alien.(ibid p. 34)
With beekeeping this is less so, although it is the market for the byproduct which becomes commodified and whose accumulated value becomes contestable, as in who owns the artifical hives, the land on which they sit, the logistics of bringing the honey to market, etc. But the value of the practice is even referred to in the context of cultural products such as Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood, where Friar Tuck is ” a procreator by design”, rather than being a “churchy friar” and that “the bees keep (him) and much as he keeps them”.
A consequence of this alienation of humans from their own nature is that they are also alienated from each other. Productive activity becomes ‘activity under the domination, coercion and yoke of another man’. This other man becomes an alien, hostile being. Instead of humans relating to each other co-operatively, they relate competitively. Love and trust are replaced by bargaining and exchange. Human beings cease to recognize in each other their common human nature; they see others as instruments for furthering their own egoistic interests. (Singer p. 36)
Inevitably it is the emerging social divisions, owners and owned, leaders and followers, worshipped and worshippers, first in language, then in subsistence reality. The generational and intergenerational social relationships constitute with material reality a life often in contradiction to the potential of utopian futures, but in all cases social existence creates consciousness because it is living minds that cognitively produce a conscious life.
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals… Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or by anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life… (Singer p. 44). This is as clear a statement of the broad outline of his theory as Marx was ever to achieve. Thirteen years later, summing up the ‘guiding thread’ of his studies, he used similar language: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness’. With The German Ideology we have arrived at Marx’s mature formulation of the outline of historical materialism (though not the detailed account of the process of change). In view of this, and Marx’s later description of the work as settling accounts with his ‘former philosophic conscience’, it might be thought that his early interest in alienation has now been replaced by a more scientific approach. It has not. Henceforth Marx makes more use of historical data and less use of abstract philosophical reasoning about the way the world must be; but his interest in alienation persists. The German Ideology still describes the social power as something which is really nothing other than the productive force of individuals, and yet appears to these individuals as ‘alien and outside them’ because they do not understand its origin and cannot control it. Instead of them directing it, it directs them. The abolition of private property and the regulation of production under communism would abolish this ‘alienation between men and their products’ and enable men to ‘regain control of exchange, production and the mode of their mutual relationships’ (GI 170). It is not the use of the word ‘alienation’ that is important here. The same point can be made in other words. What is important is that Marx’s theory of history is a vision of human beings in a state of alienation. Human beings cannot be free if they are subject to forces that determine their thoughts, their ideas, their very nature as human beings. The materialist conception of history tells us that human beings are totally subject to forces they do not understand and cannot control. Moreover the materialist conception of history tells us that these forces are not supernatural tyrants, for ever above and beyond human control, but the productive powers of human beings themselves. Human productive powers, instead of serving human beings, appear to them as alien and hostile forces. (Singer pp. 45-46)
This premise of conflict as a natural and inevitable condition is the history of human governance whether by sovereign or by elites and conditions the fictive universe of those who would manipulate mass consciousness in what the Internet has proven to be the lowest of information forms.
For Eagleton, the need to reiterate the need for Marxian thought in an age of ‘bagger Dittoheads is evermore necessary in the simplest of cultivated activities like beekeeping. The movement for urban beekeeping is such a pervasive example of the power of alterative and progressive philosophies and inverting the relation of country and city not unlike the potential for radical liberalism cited by E.P. Thompson.
“The rational cultivation of the soil as eternal communal property,” Marx writes in Capital, is “an inalienable condition of the existence and reproduction of a chain of successive generations of the human race.” 19 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 219. Capitalist agriculture, he considers, flourishes only by sapping the “original sources of all wealth … the soil and its labourers.” As part of his critique of industrial capitalism, Marx discusses waste disposal, the destruction of forests, the pollution of rivers, environmental toxins and the quality of the air. Ecological sustainability, he considered, would play a vital role in a socialist agriculture. 20 See Ted Benton, “Marxism and Natural Limits,” New Left Review, no. 178 (November/ December 1989), p. 83. Behind this concern for Nature lies a philosophical vision. Marx is a naturalist and materialist for whom men and women are part of Nature, and forget their creatureliness at their peril. He even writes in Capital of Nature as the “body” of humanity, “with which [it] must remain in constant interchange.” The instruments of production, he comments, are “extended bodily organs.” The whole of civilisation, from senates to submarines, is simply an extension of our bodily powers. Body and world, subject and object, should exist in delicate equipoise, so that our environment is as expressive of human meanings as a language. Marx calls the opposite of this “alienation,” in which we can find no reflection of ourselves in a brute material world, and accordingly lose touch with our own most vital being. When this reciprocity of self and Nature breaks down, we are left with the world of meaningless matter of capitalism, in which Nature is just pliable stuff to be cuffed into whatever shape we fancy. Civilisation becomes one vast cosmetic surgery. At the same time, the self is divorced from Nature, its own body and the bodies of others. Marx believes that even our physical senses have become “commodified” under capitalism, as the body, converted into a mere abstract instrument of production, is unable to savour its own sensuous life. Only through communism could we come to feel our own bodies again. Only then, he argues, can we move beyond a brutally instrumental reason and take delight in the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of the world. Indeed, his work is “aesthetic” through and through. He complains in the Grundrisse that Nature under capitalism has become purely an object of utility, and has ceased to be recognized as a “power in itself.” Through material production, humanity in Marx’s view mediates, regulates and controls the “metabolism” between itself and Nature, in a two-way traffic which is far from some arrogant supremacy. And all this— Nature, labour, the suffering, productive body and its needs— constitutes for Marx the abiding infrastructure of human history. It is the narrative that runs through and beneath human cultures, leaving its inescapable impress on them all. As a “metabolic” exchange between humanity and Nature, labour is in Marx’s opinion an “eternal” condition which does not alter. What alters— what makes natural beings historical— are the various ways we humans go to work upon Nature. Humanity produces its means of subsistence in different ways. This is natural, in the sense that it is necessary for the reproduction of the species. But it is also cultural or historical, involving as it does specific kinds of sovereignty, conflict and exploitation. There is no reason to suppose that accepting the “eternal” nature of labour will deceive us into believing that these social forms are eternal as well.
Eagleton pp. 231-232)
It bears repeating: “Nature, labour, the suffering, productive body and its needs— constitutes for Marx the abiding infrastructure of human history. ” This is why we fight and why we know what is to be done.
Marx had a passionate faith in the individual and a deep suspicion of abstract dogma. He had no time for the concept of a perfect society, was wary of the notion of equality, and did not dream of a future in which we would all wear boiler suits with our National Insurance numbers stamped on our backs. It was diversity, not uniformity, that he hoped to see. Nor did he teach that men and women were the helpless playthings of history. He was even more hostile to the state than right-wing conservatives are, and saw socialism as a deepening of democracy, not as the enemy of it. His model of the good life was based on the idea of artistic self-expression. He believed that some revolutions might be peacefully accomplished, and was in no sense opposed to social reform. He did not focus narrowly on the manual working class. Nor did he see society in terms of two starkly polarized classes. He did not make a fetish of material production. On the contrary, he thought it should be done away with as far as possible. His ideal was leisure, not labour. If he paid such unflagging attention to the economic, it was in order to diminish its power over humanity. His materialism was fully compatible with deeply held moral and spiritual convictions. He lavished praise on the middle class, and saw socialism as the inheritor of its great legacies of liberty, civil rights and material prosperity. His views on Nature and the environment were for the most part startlingly in advance of his time. There has been no more staunch champion of women’s emancipation, world peace, the fight against fascism or the struggle for colonial freedom than the political movement to which his work gave birth.
Eagleton, Terry (2011) Why Marx Was Right (pp. 238-239).
top image information: The daughter of a member of an Ethiopian bee-keeping cooperative in Freweyni village looks after the hives. Her father has been appointed by the cooperative to act as a permanent manager of the colonies, which require protection from ants and small rodents. The cooperative of 19 local people – primarily unemployed and landless – bought the colonies on credit from Millennium Promise. For more information on Millennium Promise, please visit www.millenniumpromise.org, The closing image is a typical company beekeeping “factory” operation