Readings: David Camfield: We Can Do Better

In We Can Do Better:  Ideas for Changing Society, David Camfield presents his “reconstructed historical materialism”  as the theoretical key to practical social transformation.  It is both concise and wide-ranging, but never becomes so dense that it ceases to be accessible to non-experts.  Camfield avoids academic jargon and pecayune analysis in favour of readable prose and familiar, effective examples.  At the same time, the book engages with complex philosophical problems and challenging impediments to socialist political organization with enough sophistication to engage the attention of academics and seasoned activists.  Philosophically, his reconstructed historical materialism retains the core strength of the original theory while providing novel solutions to older problems of misinterpretations like economism and mechanical theories of historical causality.  By stressing collective agency as the driving force of history, Camfield’s reconstruction prepares the ground for a new politics of struggle from below in which class, race, and sex-gender are intertwined rather than set against one another.  Camfield thus manages to develop a theory which coherently informs practice, and theorizes a practice that could plausibly produce the sorts of unified and global movements that progress towards socialism will require.

In the first part of the four part book Camfield examines three alternatives to historical materialist explanation:  idealism, biological determinism, and neo-liberal market fundamentalism.  According to the first, history is driven by ideal entities of some sort:  divine will, Platonic forms, or values that exist independently of the people who hold them.  According to the second, social history is determined by natural history.  Humanity’s genetic structure essentially programs certain forms of behaviour which recur in different forms in different societies.  According to the third, human beings are programmed to compete, which means that history is dominated by various forms of market relationships.  Capitalism is the final form of society because it perfects and universalises market relationships. Hence, it is both in accord with our competititve nature and the most efficient and just way of utilizing resources.

Camfield shows that each of these alternative explanations  fails as a coherent explanation of historical development and social dynamics.  Idealists beg the question, asserting that ideas determine historical development but unable to explain how the ideas arise in the first place.  Biological determinists have an account of where ideas come from, but their mechanistic and reductionist explanations cannot account for how a more or less identical genetic code can give rise to wildly different societies, cultures, and symbolic beliefs.  Market fundamentalism provides sound explanations of prototypical behaviour in capitalism, but cannot explain the dispositions, property forms, and social relationships that typified earlier egalitarian, non-market societies, nor the various forms of cooperation that underlie all forms of social life.  Of course people compete, but cooperation, not competition underlies all forms of society, because it is a presupposition of life itself.  The shared problem of all three approaches is thus that they reify and falsely universalise one aspect of human nature and society.

The great strength of historical materialism is that it exposes the problem of reification.  Reification refers to the process of turning a complex human practice or belief into an independent entity and then positing it as the cause of the practice.  Marx’s critique of reification has its roots in Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion.  Feuerbach argued that our idea of God is a reified projection of our own essential powers. Just as human beings are really the origin of the idea of God, so too are we the creators of economic value and the agents whose collective activity shapes the ideas according to which we act. Historical materialism can therefore do what none of the alternatives can:  explain the role of ideas, genes, and markets in historical context without according them independent existence and agency.

Camfield’s reconstruction of historical materialism is the content of Part Two.  He begins– as Marx’s original did– with the natural history of humanity.  We are  a mammallian species with definite needs which  force us to interact productively with the natural environment.  However, given our evolved neural architecture and social interdependence, we have developed forms of thought and communication that allow us to create what no other species can create:  a social-symbolic universe out of the giveness of nature.  History is thus always two-sided, a dialectical interaction between material production and symbolic explanatory reconstruction-justification of material production.  Ideas and values are thus interwoven with life-sustaining labour.  “Because humans create cultures, our context is never just a physical location.  It is always a cultural setting too.  The circumstances in which we find ourselves include ways of making sense of the world, giving it meaning and placing values on things. … Such ideas matter, but we must not make the idealist error of treating ideas as if they exist separately from people.”(p. 29)

We must certainly avoid the error of mechanical reductionism, but we also need to solve a trickier problem, (which Camfield’s reconstruction can help us solve, although I did not find myself convinced that the job is fully accomplished here), about the relationship between the ultimate material foundations of social life– reproductive and productive labour– and the histories of ideas, values, identities, and behaviours that develop out of those underlying processes.  The problem for historical materialism is how much relative weight to assign to natural as opposed to cultural factors in our explanation of individual behaviour and belief.  As an example, consider Camfield’s discussion of gender.  He quotes Connell in support of the view that gender “is not an expression of biology, nor a fixed dichotomy in human life or character.  It is a pattern in our social arrangements, and in the everyday activities and patterns which those arrangements cover.”(37) On this view biology determines our sex, but gender is a cultural product which is not determined  by our biological sex characteristics.  While it is true-  as the creation of a variety of trans identities prove– that sex does not mechanically determine gender identity, does this mean that biological sex plays no role?  Are male and female irrelevant to the ways in which gender has been constructed across cultural time and space?

The point is not to argue that biology determines gender identity, or anything at all in any mechanical sense.  At the same time we have to avoid cutting culture off completely from natural and biological bases.  In the 1960’s the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro (in On Materialism) warned against the naive optimism of culturalist interpretations of historical materialism which ignored the way in which our bodies and their infirmities act as frames that limit human possibility.  More recently, ecofeminists (for example, Ariel Sallehin Ecofeminism as Politics) have argued that women’s biology makes it possible for them to valorize nurturing relationships in a more profound way than men.  They do not thereby claim that women’s biology mechanically causes them to be nurturing, or that men cannot learn to be so, but they do argue for a closer relationship between biology and behaviour than Camfield seems to want to allow.  Camfield may not be wrong in his arguments, but there is more discussion to be had about this difficult issue than he is able to explore here.

Nevertheless, his stated position, read charitably, is the right one to take.  He argues that while productive and reproductive labour are foundational for human life and function as frames outside of which political, or religious, or artistic history could not exist, none of the forms those institutions and practices take are directly, mechanically determined by the economic structure, but have to be explained by concrete analysis of actual historical development.  Thus, from the fact that any capitalist society must exploit labour and create a political-legal structure that justifies and enforces it, no one can predict what state and legal form, beyond the generic necessity to justify and protect the exploitation of labour, any society will adopt.  Capitalism can be fascist or liberal-democratic, liberal-democrats can be nationalists or cosmopolitans; the law can enshrine formal equality between the sexes and gay marriage or it can enforce a sexual division of labour and demonize gays and lesbians.  The function of law is consistent, we can say, while is content differs given different traditions of struggle.

In this view, the key to understanding historical materialism is the dialectical relationship between context (the result of past activity) and action (interventions into the given reality which produce changes in it and generate a new context).  Camfield consistently affirms the agency of people:  we reflect, argue, and then act, and those actions are not, strictly speaking, predictable, but give rise to patterns from which we can learn if we study them. However, while the argument he wants and for the most part does make is dialectical and affirms human collective agency as the primary driver of history, there are moments where a more mechanical argument creeps in.

Take his unfortunate claim (which he derives from John Berger)  that “traditional Western European oil painting … is a “distinctively capitalist kind of culture.”(55).  This assertion seems to me like saying that  calculus is a distinctively capitalist kind of mathematics.  My point is not that art is an autonomous zone unaffected by social and economic forces.  There are social reasons why most known artists prior to the twentieth century were men, and we cannot explain art markets unless we understand how capitalism commodifies everything.  At the same time, art has its own history which a complete understanding of its value to human life has to examine, and which is not served well by overly general claims such as the one that Camfield makes.  From that sort of mechanical and generic claim no one can say whether “traditional” painting will take the form of Carravagio or El Greco, Rembrandt or Breughal the Elder, Gericault or Courbet, nor account for what is of permanent aesthetic value in them.  Clearly, any adequate historical materialist understanding of painting is going to have to actually study the history of painting as a practice, in the different contexts in which it developed, and include the aesthetic debates between artists as they continually pushed traditions in new directions.  Of course, these debates take place in a historical and political context, but they have an internal history too, and historical materialists, if they want to have anything to say about the practice, have to study the internal history and not just the social situation of artists.  The same would hold true of science, or religion, and other cultural-symbolic human practices.

However, for the most part Camfield avoids the error of mechanical determinism and provides as clear and accessible demonstration of what it means to think dialectically about society as one could hope to read.  There is no mystery to dialectical thought.  At root, all it really means is that one sees history as a process driven forward by struggles between opposed social forces.  Marx argued that the fundamental forms of opposition are between productive and appropriating classes.  Camfield does not alter this Marxist fundamental, but in Part Three makes clear, in a way that Marx occasionally noted but most often only implied, that the members of classes are not sexless and raceless abstractions but real people with definite sex, sexual, gender, and racial identities, with wider or narrow ranges of ability, with or without religious beliefs, and that all of these factors play into the contours of political struggle.

The real strength of Camfield’s book, its major contribution, is to provide a new theoretical and in practical  synthesis of the efforts of a number of thinkers over the past twenty years to develop a model of class struggle that is adequate to the real complexity of the working class:  the fact that most workers are non-white women, that class exploitation also exploits existing racial and gender hierarchies and any other means of dividing the working class that it can find or invent; that, therefore, anti-racist struggle, for example, is not some “extra”  outside of the main class struggle, but is class struggle, because white supremacy has been essential to capitalism from the beginning, and that the same can be said for patriarchy and struggles against all sorts of oppression.

Thus, if one wants to revive the old Marxist slogan that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, one must remember that this self-emancipation is not only from the capitalists, but also from sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on.  “The goal of a self-governing society could only be reached through a process controlled by the great majority of people acting in their own interests.  All the way along, such a transition would have to be a process of self-emancipation.  No minority, such as a party or armed force, could be a substitute for the democratically self-organized majority.”(126)  When we combine this principle with the concrete explanation that Camfield gives in the third part of the book of the ways in which class exploitation, patriarchy, and white supremacy have intertwined in the history of capitalism, we are presented with a hopeful program for movement building which respects the contextual need for autonomous organizing within a non-dogmatic commitment to ultimately unified struggle.

Camfield’s hopeful politics is never naive but honest about the real challenges this politics faces.  He concludes Part Three with a chapter whose title faces the problem squarely:  “Why isn’t There More Revolt.”  He answers the question with admirable candor:  “Because the working class has become more decomposed, collective action by workers to address their problems does not see very credible … ordinary people have become more prone to directing their anger against other people who suffer social inequality in one way or another.  Muslims, migrants, poor people, foreigners, women, people who face racism, Indigenous peoples– the victims of scapegoating are many and varied.”(107)  How far we travelled away from Marx’s belief that the dynamics of capitalism would themselves produce working class consciousness and that all workers would realize that they “have no country”  and that all that they have to lose in revolution “is their chains!”

False theory is false theory and it has to be rejected no matter who formulates it.  At the same time, one worries that Camfield is holding on to the goal of the theory– an ultimately unified movement against capitalism– without replacing the materialist foundation which provided the explanation of why that unity would happen.  What we have seen in the two major waves of revolt provoked by the 2008 crisis of capitalism, the Arab Spring and Occupy, is not ultimate unification but sudden mass mobilization followed by fragmentation and division,  The door was thus opened to reaction and repression.  This opposition was not only structural, as between Islamists and liberals in the Arab Spring, but also divided all variety of subfactions in Occupy whose members all shared broadly similar goals of resistance and anti-capitalism.

That division is worrying because it seems to suggest that the left faces a problem first identified by John Rawls with regard to liberal society in general:  that unanimity is impossible because of the fact of reasonable pluralism.  In modernity, Rawls argued, where people are educated and allowed to speak, they will do so, and they will disagree, and nothing can ever overcome the fact of disagreement about political issues.  The ease with which anyone can broadcast their voice on social media today has amplified the problem–if we want to call it a problem– of pluralism.  Marx’s structural theory of class consciousness could be read as one way of solving this problem:  capitalist crisis will awaken different workers to their shared objective interests.  I agree with Marx and Camfield that there are objective interests, but the facts from the most recent round of struggles suggest that these interests will always be interpreted differently by different groups, which means that the moment of unity may not arrive.

Or it could mean that it will arrive in a different form than the one that Marx expected.  The fact of reasonable pluralism on the left seems to rule out the possibility of reviving vanguard party building, and that is not bad, given its obvious failures.  At the same time, it poses a problem that the left has not thought through fully enough:  how does a unified movement allow the expression of different interpretations of objective interests and remain coherently unified?  Where there is a disagreement about particular momentary demands the problem is easy enough to solve:  take a vote and majority rules.  But when it is over deeper questions like the relative weight of different histories of oppression, for example, with the question of whether white members can adequately comprehend their own privilege, or whether Islamic dress codes are compatible with women’s liberation, final answers that will prove satisfying to all members might be more difficult to attain.

I would have liked to have seen more reflection on this sort of problem, because I think Camfield’s reconstruction might yield important insights about how it can be addressed.  He does not go far enough along that road here.  However, theory, like practice, is open-ended, and I look forward to further developments of his productive reconstruction of historical materialism and socialist practice.

Canadian History X

Fortunately for potential citizens, I lack ego on the scale that would make me want to name an imaginary city or country after myself.  Noonanville?  Noonania?  The “oo”  sound encourages comedic exaggeration.  Others would not take the city or country seriously, undermining the self-esteem of the citizens.  I couldn’t bear their shame.

Sadly, others lack my humility.  The history of colonialism is a history of expropriation and violence, but also of renaming.  Europeans relied upon the doctrine of terra nullis (empty land) to justify their colonies, in bold contradiction of the obvious fact that there were people and civilizations already here, in the “new” world.  The new world soon began to spawn “new”  European names:  New France, New England, and within them, settlements that took their names from European cities (Halifax, London) or the names of colonial military and civic leaders (Brockville, Amherstburgh).

Names confer identity.  When a place is identified by its European name, the implication (if not always the explicit intention of the user) is that there was nothing of value there before colonization. When it happens in that manner, naming is a form of cultural erasure.  That fact explains why anti-colonial struggles always involve de-naming and re-naming.  Zimbabwe was re-named Rhodesia after Cecil “I would colonize the stars if I could”  Rhodes; the victorious ZANU-PF forces de-named it and returned to Zimbabwe.  We used to call the islands off the coast of British Columbia the Queen Charlottes.  Today they are more properly referred to as Haida Gwaii.  Half of the Northwest Territories became Nunavut in 1999.

Re-naming happens for other reasons too.  Port Arthur and Fort William merged to become Thunder Bay.  Ruling powers and dominant languages change, leading to changes of name: “Istanbul was Constantinople,”  They Might Be Giants sang, “and even old New York was once New Amstersdam.” The point:  naming is political and historical, names change as history and politics change.  Re-naming is not a particularly rare event.

Intensifying debates over the legacy of Canadian colonialism are exposing uncomfortable truths about the racist beliefs of key figures from our history.  These debates have led some to argue that places and institutions named after these figure be re-named.  The mere suggestion has  provoked outrage from the guardians of the nation’s morals and Britishness.   When an Ontario teacher’s union voted to demand that Sir John A. MacDonald’s name be removed from Ontario public schools because he supported residential schools, a thousand sermons about the greatness of the country he founded were launched.  “Yes yes, he was a racist, yes yes, he supported the planned destruction of indigenous cultures and languages in the residential schools, but look at the country he helped found:  Beauty, eh!.  And besides, everyone had those racist beliefs at the time.  Water under the bridge people, lets move on.”

It takes awhile for the national debate to make its way down the 401 to our little Windsor-Essex peninsula, but it arrived with a crash last weekend, when, in a double-barrelled editorial attack, stalwart local reactionaries Lloyd Brown-John and Gord Henderson vilified as “historical revisionists”  those who demanded that the town of Amherstburgh (named after British General Jeffrey Amherst)  be re-named, in light of revelations that he wanted to exterminate the indigenous population by spreading small pox amongst them.    I want to carefully examine the three central arguments that they advance:  a)  that the demand to change names amounts to “historical revisionism,” b) that indigenous warriors were also violent and committed atrocities, (turn about is fair play, in essence), and c)  that people are “products of their times,” those times were racist, therefore everyone was a racist.

Historical Revisionism?

Let us deal with the charge of historical revisionism first.  Henderson writes that politicians should “tell these historical revisionists to take a hike.”  The substance of his editorial is a discussion with Parks Canada historian Ronald J. Dale, who argues that Amherst never advocated genocide against indigenous people as a whole, but only directed targeted vengence against specific tribes who had risen against the British is 1763. For the sake of argument, I will take Dale’s position as veridical. Even if critics are wrong about the details, they are not, as Henderson implies, historical revisionists.  Historical revisionists re-write history to suit an ideological agenda.  Most often the re-writing involves denying that known state crimes ever happened.  What is at issue here is not re-writing history but an argument over the extent and meaning of Amherst’s and other British and Canadian politicians’ policies towards indigenous people.  The issue is not whether the crimes happened,  but whether they amount to genocide or genocidal intent.

If there is a problem of revisionism it does not lie on the side of the critics, but with those who constructed the ten cent tour version of Canadian history that is typically taught in secondary school.  It consists of little more than Confederation, Vimy Ridge, and the repatriation of the Constitution.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for the inclusion of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit perspectives on Canadian history, and that is what we are getting with criticism of figures like MacDonald and Amherst.  That is not revisionism but just better history that is more inclusive of the perspectives of those who were also actively involved  (First Nation’s people, the Métis, and Inuit), but from whom we have rarely heard.

2) Savages, not Saints?

The second problem concerns Brown-John’s claim that indigenous people were also violent, also committed atrocities, and that their contemporary supporters are trying to paper over this truth by putting all the blame on colonists and colonial authorities like Amherst.  He writes: “What I find fascinating about some of the contemporary opposition to names of historic figures is that often those promoting the change are remarkably selective about their own interpretations of historical records.”  He then adds some lurid detail to support the main claim:  “To some extent, Indigenous people were mercenaries and were allies as long as there were rewards.  After one British defeat, for example, a dozen or so British captives were turned over to French Indigenous tribes at Quebec City. One of the British captives was boiled alive and the other captives were forced to eat his remains.”  One can agree with Brown-John’s historical claim (indigenous people employed violence)  without having to accept the political implication he wants us to draw (that therefore criticism of colonial authorities is one-sided and ideological).  Had there been no colonial project, there would have been no mercenary alliances, because there would have been no need for any of the First Nations to ally with one or the other major colonial powers as a means to maintain what land and autonomy they could.  Nor would there have been massacres of settlers had there been no settlers.  The violence that arises in resistance to invasion is morally distinct from the violence that arises from invasion.  If someone storms your house, the law recognizes your right to protect yourself.  It would be better if we lived on a planet where one could peacefully persuade the  invader to leave, but that is not this planet, as Brown-John well-knows.  We might moralistically lament all violence, but the job of historians is to understand it.  Clearly, indigenous violence towards colonialists was caused by colonialism:  had their lands not been stolen, there would have been no armed struggle against it.

3)  But Mom, Everyone is Doing It!

The final argument against the critics is the claim that what they call racist crimes are not really racist crimes, because everyone at the time shared the belief that indigenous people were dangerous savages.  People are products of the time, the argument runs, and it is anachronistic to judge them on the basis of more morally enlightened contemporary sensibilities.  Henderson quotes Dale again in support of this position: “Dale, in an interview, said the 18th century was an incredibly brutal period, by our standards.  To modern eyes these were all terrible people. But that was the temper of the times.”  The first thing that must be said in response is that although it is true in general that those were brutal times, every historical period contains opposition and contradiction.  Thus, while the prevailing ideology equated indigenous people with savages, it is not true that this view was universally shared.  From the beginning there were European critics of the colonial doctrine that the colonized were subhuman and thus without rights or moral standing.

The first such critic that I know of was Francesco de Vitoria, a Spanish Jesuit who argued against the dominant justification of the conquest of the New World.  Drawing on Aquinas’ view of natural law, (a law ‘written’ by God which directed each species towards the means of its own survival and flourishing) Vitoria argued against the dominant defense of colonialism.  Instead, he maintained that since the indigenous people were human, they were created by God as self-governing agents.  He thus rejected the view that indigenous people were incapable of self-government– natural slaves with which the Europeans could do as they please.  It is true that he then found other ways to justify colonialism. (See the discussion in Annabel S. Brett, Changes of State, p. 14) Nevertheless, his defense of the humanity of indigenous people puts paid to the myth that all Europeans took positions that were mechanically determined by “the temper of the times.”

More decisive challenges would arise in France.  In the 18th century, Condorcet, Diderot, and the Abbe Raynal would all condemn French and English colonialism and call for its revolutionary overthrow, and French sailors arriving in the 1790’s what is today Haiti helped inspire Toussaint L’Ouverture to lead just such a revolution, the first successful anti-colonial uprising in history.  (See C.L.R. James’ unmatched history of that revolution, Black Jacobins, for the detailed account of the complex relationship between the French Revolution and anti-colonial struggle). So it is completely untrue to say “everyone thought like that.”  Everyone did not think like that, and the ideas needed to construct solidarity, rather than domination, existed.

The deeper problem concerns the principle that this one-sided and inadequate view of history is supposed to support.  If we say “people are functions of the social and historical context, they just believe whatever was believed at the time”  it becomes impossible to explain how those beliefs arose.  Societies are not just given artifacts, they are the products of the combined activity–including thought– of the people who live within them.  There is no “society”  on one hand and “individuals”  on the other, the latter programmed by the former somehow to believe according to the “temper of the times.”

Marx understood this point very well.  Confronting this mechanical materialist philosophy in the 1840’s he responded that “the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing … forgets that it is men who make circumstances.”  (Third Thesis on Feuerbach).  His point is that the historical times (their “temper”) are not fixed and given realities external to the activity and beliefs of people but are the product of social interaction.  These interactions give rise to institutions and forces that must be justified.  The justifications do influence people’s consciousness, but we are still agents even as we are shaped by historical context:  we are capable of changing our ideas and our circumstances.  Thus, to dismiss racist attitudes as “a product of the times”  fails to explain why the times were racist.

The most important issue here is not the moral blameworthiness of individuals like Amherst in the abstract, but understanding the forces that structure society and belief systems.  Why would Amherst and others believe that the First Nations were savages who needed to be suppressed?  The answer “that was the way things were”  is not an answer, because the question asks why things were the way they were.  People like Amherst thought the Natives were savages because they stood in the way of a colonial project that they were trying to administer.  This fact is crucial to understanding the attitudes that guided their action.  I agree that there is little to be gained from abstract criticisms of long dead people, but the political criticism of colonialism is of a different order.  It exposes to view the real forces that drove European expansion across the world from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.  Amherst and others had to justify the drive for territory and resources, and they accomplished this task by reducing the people who originally lived in those territories to the status of mere things to be removed.  As the brilliant critic of colonialism Aimé Césair wrote in his short classic Discours sur la colonialisme:  “Colonisation =  chosification.” (colonisation equals thingification, p. 23).  Since this process continues today in other forms, it is crucial that we understand its history.  If, in the process of understanding this history some are moved to demand that colonial names be changed, we should understand the demand as an attempt to respect the living and change the future, not to moralistically condemn the dead and re-write history.

Summing Up

Still, I do not think that changing names on its own accomplishes much of real political or social value.  Opinion within indigenous communities is mixed (Murry Sinclair argued against removing MacDonald’s name, urging instead that it be used to spur a more complex understanding of Canadian historical realities).  I think the best way forward lies in listening to the complex array of indigenous voices and using the ideas that emerge as the centre around which political argument develops and as the leading edge of practice.  As I was reminded recently when reading a collection of essays  by the American historian David Roediger, solidarity is risky.  Allies can unwittingly substitute their own voices for the voices that most need hearing:  those of the historically oppressed group.  We stand in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at a critical moment where the complex and contradictory history of Canada is being re-thought.  This re-thinking opens the possibility for radical change to address the on-going harms caused by the history of colonization.  The worst outcome would be that this deeper and longer-term project gets sidelined or silenced by moralizing criticism on the one hand and apologies for colonial violence that they provoke in response on the other.

I Can’t Stand Up For Kneeling Down

The highly cultured amongst us sometimes sneer at sport.  I have never understood why. Athletic excellence is better regarded on analogy with artistic beauty.  Like dance, athletic expression involves supreme physical discipline, economy of gesture, singular concentration, and breathtaking control over the body, all realized with electric speed or terrifying power.  Sports are competitive, it is true, and there is an instrumental purpose– winning– that art transcends, but the art world is hardly free of competitive dynamics and is every bit as much integrated into market relations as sports.

It is true, on the other hand, that art tends to value and cultivate the idiosyncratic and iconoclastic, while sports– especially team sports–  are schools of hyper-masculinity and conformity (women’s sports increasingly mirror men’s in these regards).  So it was more than surprising last Sunday to see over 200 players in that most militaristic and jingoisitic of sports– American football– rise up by refusing to stand for the national anthem.  The players were responding to President Trump’s racist attack on the trend toward kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem.  In a speech in the always racially progressive state of Alabama, he demanded that owners fire any “son of a bitch”  who refused to stand for the anthem.

The movement began last year with then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.   Responding to police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson Missouri, as well as the longer history of racism in America, Kaepernick argued that he would no longer stand for the anthem of a country that “oppresses black people.”  His was a mostly lonely protest until last Sunday.

Even though the NFL is dominated by African American athletes and has suffered for most of its history from a clear division of racial labour (the “thinking”  position of quarterback was reserved until very recently for white players), there has been little in the way of politicized protest.  Jim Brown in the 1960’s was a notable exception.  The intensification of official racist pronouncements streaming from the White House since the election of Trump is rapidly changing this quietude.  It is spreading, too.  Arguably the biggest sports star in North America today, Lebron James, has been the most vocal critic of Trump, dismissing him as a “bum” .  He was responding to Trump’s attacks on The Golden State Warriors, last year’s NBA champions, and their star forward, Steph Curry, who have refused to visit the White House, as the champions of all four major sports leagues typically do.

(Shamefully, the Pittsburgh Penguins, last year’s Stanley Cup Champions, led by Cole Harbour Nova Scotia’s Sidney Crosby, are still planning to attend their scheduled visit, wasting an opportunity to stand with their brothers in the NFL, not to mention a chance to give voice to the long history of oppression of Canada’s oldest African Canadian community in Crosby’s home province).

Why does this protest matter?  For three reasons.  First, Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was razor thin in the key battle ground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  He won the working class white vote in those states, but by tiny fractions.  For better or for worse, sports fans look at sports stars differently.  Recall one of the most politically telling moments of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where the white protagonist was confronted by his black customer who asks him how he can spout racial epithets and love Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson.  White people who cheer for black athletes can still be racists, but their love for their sports stars is an entry point for political argument against that racism, a basis in their own experience to challenge them to think about the coherence of their views.  If even a relative handful change their minds, Trump will not be back in 2020.

Second, the militancy of the movement is building.  Until now, Kaepernick has been isolated. Indeed, he has, literally and figuratively, been blacklisted and is without an NFL job.  On Sunday, The Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers both refused to take the field during the anthems.  The Steelers are an iconic team who embody the working class ethos that Trump pretends to honour.  Their fan base is exactly the demographic base that voted so narrowly for Trump.  Of even greater symbolic and political value, many players gave the Black Power salute, fists raised, instead of merely kneeling.  Symbols matter in politics.

Finally, the politicization of Black athletes, fed initially by movements like Black Lives Matter, has the potential to strengthen those movements by further radicalizing young people, giving them the inspiration from which the courage to confront the day to day racism of life in America and its deeper structural bases derives.  If even the wealthiest and most respected Black Americans feel racism’s sting, it is clear that its source is not just bad attitudes, but is rooted in the heart of American (and, more broadly, Western)  history.  Its solution will require widespread social change and not just education.

Of course, this movement, like all social movements, comes with its contradictions.  Once again it has provided a platform for the “good capitalist”  to pontificate.  Owners-  some of whom, like Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, are friends with Trump– have, predictably, defended their players’ right to protest.  Moreover, there are no saviours in politics, and a movement led by stars always runs the risk of overshadowing older movements with organic connections to oppressed communities.  Overcoming structural problems is a collective effort.  The media, by contrast, needs heroes, and they will ignore the more important street and community level activism in favour of air time for the famous, who they will portray as responsible yet committed, measured, yet determined, role models to temper the anger of more militant activists.   Anger alone cannot win, but it is crucial fuel.  This week’s protests are an encouraging sign of widening opposition, but they are not a substitute for community level organization.

Pub Poem

Can live without:

padded banquettes/gilded signs/

union jacks/football/

prints of mutton-chopped lords/fox hunters.

I come for worn hardwood


between bar and gents

and pints of bitter,

hard to get now,

being crowded out

by beards,

and over-hopped

craft beer.


Old guy at bar’s

eyes say: “Aye,

Its maker’s culture now, mate,

gettin’ too late for what you want.”


So far I have seen:


indonesian street food/jerusalem street food/

saigon street food/thai street food/

viet namese street food/mexican street food/

Have been to mexico/jerusalmen

ate  food

but no signs assured authenticity,

maybe because in jerusalem/mexico

street food sold on streets,


not in

polished glass boites

at creative capitalism prices.


Worry my fun license at risk

for pointing this out.


He’s young

only has eye for

end game, so misses

the tiny tear

in her stocking

dot of white thigh

shows through

the run.

Sexiness in the subtleties,


pressing finger into rip,

delighting in contrast

between flesh and fabric.


On train to Brighton,

Battersea power station


being condo-ized,

emptied of history,

filled with money,

and authentic people

who need to be seen

and think

they are getting in on

the ground floor of something.


Must everything old

be wrong

and love of it nostalgia?


In Brighton, better pints,

warm oak panelling,

plaster ceiling

invites late afternoon drink,

and thinking.

Old people, pissed,

make naughty jokes,

laugh:  death one day closer,

one less thing to worry about.


Wandering through

hushed halls,

leading from Ain Ghazal’s

lime plaster eyes,

and pursed lips,


to Giacommetti portraits,

brother and lovers,


awaiting the inevitable,

faces lost in grey,

save the eyes,


an aesthetic history

of dread and resoluteness.


40 years on,

last punk standing

sits in camden town pub,

sips guiness,

but all-consuming time

has last laugh.

Looks like

what it would sound like

to say:  “hep cat,”

or “daddy-o.”



no longer needing to be seen.

Getting old,

so I’ll drink old



Freedom and Imagination, Art and Politics

We think of revolutions as essentially political events, but we should also see them as art, in two sense.  In the more familiar sense, every revolution throws old certainties into question and provides space for new forms of creative expression.   But in a deeper sense, revolutions are themselves creative acts in which the old world is cancelled and a new one created out of the collective imaginations of their protagonists, including those whose ideas and dreams were never considered relevant under the old order.  The oppressed and exploited have their moment to say and feel what they have not been allowed to say and feel, and their freedom to express these ideas informs the creation of new values and institutions:  a new world comes into being through the combined creative  power of ordinary people.  That revolutionary fervour subsides is not refutation of my claim that revolutions are not just political transformations but also collective creations which would not exist without human imagination.

Of all the powers of the human being, imagination is the most important.  Without the capacity to imagine we would not have the Bhagavad Gita, Carravagio’s The Passion of St. Matthew, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, or Philip Larkin’s Aubade.  We would also not have the French or Russian Revolutions, because without the capacity to think about a possible world in opposition to the actual radical, deliberate, conscious change would be impossible.  Of course, not everything about a revolution can be planned (just as an art work does not proceed mechanically from mind to reality without unforseen set backs and changes.  Nevertheless, the point is that our ability to create worlds in thought that do not yet exist in reality is the precondition of our creative power over the given natural and social world.

Every revolution also comes with its moment of idol smashing, but perhaps because they are periods of maximum confidence amongst the oppressed, typically the greatest works of the old regime are preserved.  The Bolsheviks did not burn down The Hermitage, because they understood that great art is not a function of its overt political content.  You do not have to be a Christian to shudder in front of Valezquez’s Crucifixion. It is not a documentary about the death of God, it is an allegory of human suffering, which everyone will have to face in her or his own way.  Lenin did not decry Tolstoy as an anachronistic Christian utopian, but celebrated him as the master novelist that he was, lamenting only that millions of Russians were ignorant even of his existence, because they could not read. “If his great works are really to be made the possession of all, a struggle must be waged against the system of society which condemns millions and scores of millions to ignorance, benightedness, drudgery, and poverty.”  (On Socialist Ideology and Culture, p. 60). The goal of any genuine revolution is to emancipate the imagination of the oppressed, both by making available to them the great works of the past, and by creating space for them to become creative agents for the first time.  When political confidence is high, enlightenment, not suppression of dissent, creation, not destruction,  free expression, not censorship, are the ruling values.

We are not in a period of high confidence.  The left, as broadly or narrowly as you want to draw it, has been on the defensive for four decades.  This has consequences at the level of culture.  Where historical ideas for a new world have been discredited, but the problems of this one remain all too clear, and no new mass mobilizing emancipatory vision has emerged, people pick small, symbolic fights and spend more time apologizing than imagining, arguing, and building.  If fear of giving offense impedes the growth of imagination, then there will never be a recovery of any left worth belonging to

The heritage of modern revolutions, from the English Revolution in the middle of the 17th century, through the French and Russian Revolutions, to the wave of anti-colonial revolutions following the Second World War, were not afraid of the symbols, the art, and the ideas of the past.  Their leaders understood how to interpret art, how to critically appropriate it as exemplary of what human beings can be when they are furnished with the material and the time to fashion worlds for themselves.  They understood that the point of overthrowing degrading social conditions was to enable more voices to sing, not to pre-regulate in the interests of an imaginary moral consensus what the lyrics must be.  Once wealth has been freed to serve fundamental needs and political institutions created that really allow the majority to participate in their determination of their own lives, then revolutions  have to be about widening the circle of creative subjects, valorizing experiments in living (Mill) and free associations between people, more pleasure, personal freedom, and fun.

Yet there has always lurked across the wide left a censorious, dour, moralistic, ascetic streak that becomes more pronounced in periods of weakness and defeat.  It is, sadly, the dominant voice in North America today, making the serious arguments it has to make against racism and other forms of oppression easy prey to right wing critics of political correctness.  A glaring case in point recently:  the attempt to prevent the airing of the HBO series Confederacy before a single episode has even been written.  Censoring unwritten scripts is analogous to imprisoning people for uncommitted crimes. It is absurd on the face of it, but worse, it lacks the capacity for critical appropriation that, when cultivated, opens up hidden fields of value beneath politically suspect content.

One might rejoin that this demand is no different than demanding that statues celebrating the confederacy be taken down.  However, there is no analogy between the two demands.  The political meaning of those statues is unambiguous:  most were erected in the 1950’s and 1960’s as an overt political response to the civil rights movement.  They are pure racist propaganda and not public art.  Taking them down is no different than taking down monuments to the Nazi’s or Stalin.   In other words, there is no political ambiguity about their meaning.  The same cannot be said about a work of imaginary history:  its political implications cannot be pre-determined.  Works of imagination create spaces for exploration; no one can say what they mean in advance, and thus no topic can be ruled out as taboo. If art cannot explore the dark, what can?

Left guardians of the nation’s virtue also make mistakes going the other way in time.  Last year, the student council at the University of Guelph apologized for playing Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side because they determined it was “transphobic.”  Their ignorance of history and cultural politics is as dismaying as it is laughable.  From the days of the Velvet Underground through to his solo career, Reed’s music explored- affirmatively, it is apparently necessary to add — the sexual underground of New York, while he himself moved in social circles that were gay and transpositive, pioneered sexual ambivalence and fluidity, and was friends and acquaintances with repressive-norm destroying gay artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe– not to mention transsexual rock musician Jane–formerly Wayne– County).  Yet, because young activists have zero understanding of history, they embarrass themselves by castigating an artistic defender of sexual freedom as an enemy.  In addition to their historical ignorance, they also display a shocking incapacity to appreciate humour, irony, and nuance, and a total inability to critically appropriate artistic meaning.  One shudders to think what they would have done had the film society wanted to show Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues.  

A much better example of how challenging and controversial content should be handled is given by the African American artist Glen Ligon.  I saw his retrospective at the Whitney a few years ago.  One of the pieces was a critical interrogation of Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book, (a work in which Mapplethorpe famously celebrated the nude black male form).  From his perspective as a gay man, the black male body represented the height of erotic and aesthetic  beauty.  But one could legitimately ask:  was not Mapplethorpe indulging in racial stereotypes?  Did he not trade on cliche’s about black male sexual prowess by choosing only models with smooth muscled  bodes and large penises? Ligon, as an artist and a black man, posed the problems, but he did not argue that we should burn The Black Book.  Instead, he interrogated its contradictions by posting the images along with commentary that challenged us to think through the ambiguity of the original work.

This approach provides a model for how we should think about controversial creations.  We cannot banish them but have to enter into them and think through their contradictions.  If we demand that art (or philosophy, or science for that matter) be free of contradictions, we are really asking that there be no art, philosophy, or science, for nothing that pushes the limits is free of contradictions.  Contradictions are the product of the given world being confronted with its limits, and that is what real art, philosophy, and science does.  We cannot move beyond the limits if we do not understand them.

When it comes to art in particular, we have to keep in mind that its meaning and value does not lie on the surface of its content.  You do not understand War and Peace if you know it is “about”  the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.  Crime and Punishment is not a crime novel. Any true work of art is a world into which the one experiencing it is inserted as an explorer in uncharted territory.  Any work of art whose meaning is transparent on the surface and univocal is condemned to a short life.  Art is not social work; its function is not to propose policy solutions to historical injustice.  Its role is to provoke and challenge the acceptable, but as art, not superficial social commentary.  The best art is ambiguous as to its full meaning, thus allowing endless exploration and interrogation.

I am tempted to say that really great art is not “about” anything, but that would be going too far.  What I mean is that no art that has any value at all is just a straightforward representation of a given world.  Art that merely and only represents is documentary, not art.  Art transforms the given, it does not mechanically reflect it.  Nineteenth century French realism was not about making paintings that looked exactly like the world, it was about elevating everyday subjects, contexts, and people to the dignity of what in the eighteenth century had been reserved to grand historical persons and events.  Art transforms and transfigures; it makes us think precisely about the problem of “representing”  a world, about what the limits of painting it, singing about it, composing poetry about it might be.  Each era will discover its own limits and push towards new ones, hopefully while preserving the best of the old.  The derivative does not need to be burned as it will disappear once the context that made it relevant has disappeared.

The progress of art, if one wants to put it like that, including progress in overcoming the power of cultural elites to decide who has the right to artistic voice, can only be advanced if we reject censorship in all its forms and celebrate the value of free human imagination. If a work is bad, criticize it.  Anything that strengthens the censor threatens critical voices and challenging work.  It is also wrong in itself, because reactionary and fearful.  Moreover, it is also conservative in implication, insisting as it does that all work must pass a pre-screening of self-appointed experts who assert, but in reality lack, the right to speak for everyone in matters of taste and enjoyment.

The Politics of Gestures

In the wake of the murder of an anti-fascist protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia, US President Trump doubled down on his support amongst white racists by casting a pox on both the houses in conflict that day.  By establishing an equivalence between fascists and anti-fascists, he obscured the deep political and moral differences in their platforms, and thus attempted to mitigate the magnitude of the crime committed.  While we are not used to seeing politicians so easily baited into losing their temper and undermining their scripted response, the content of Trump’s remarks should not be all that surprising.  He was elected by successfully following the historical script of US right-wing populist movements, which identify “the people” as productive white American men threatened by internal and external enemies:  radicalized minorities, aloof elites, immigrants, terrorists, etc.  The fascist marchers in Virginia are the outer political limits of this construction, a group that Trump cannot afford to marginalize completely.  Given the fact that he lost the popular vote and carried the key mid-western states by tiny minorities, he cannot afford to lose a single voter, no matter what their politics.  Hence he gambled that calling out leftist opponents would not cost him support, even if it did sound to his critics as if he was being soft on hard racism.  We will see whether his gamble pays off.

If Trump is going to fold his hand and lose, the liberal and socialist left are going to have to start playing much more skillful political poker than we have up to this point.  Once again, the liberal left sounds completely discombobulated by its distaste for Trump, while the socialist left runs the risk of chasing the news to find a short cut around the long term organizing and education that needs to happen if it is to become any kind of credible alternative.  Both groups need to keep firmly in mind just what Trump’s oft-maniacal behaviour so easily distracts from: that he and his racist supporters are the symptoms and not the disease.  The disease itself is complex and has both general dimensions and features specific to the US context.  Neither can be fully dealt with in a single election cycle.  What is certain is that unless there is a re-focusing of political critique and mobilization away from Trump’s buffoonery and the over-estimation of the systemic threat posed by white supremacists re-aligned with reality, the disease will not be cured.

White supremacist movements are as old as the United States, but they achieved a new prominence after the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan emerged in opposition to radical reconstruction ( the attempt of newly freed African Americans to determine their own social and economic horizons).  It has flared whenever African Americans have asserted themselves politically.  Trump is part of the cause of the re-emergence of overt white supremacist movements today, but the resentments and anxieties that drive it go deeper than Trump’s immigrant baiting and will not go away if he fails to get re-elected.  Overcoming them and the politics they generate will require a multiracial democratic movement so large it overwhelms and totally marginalizes the racists, and continued progress towards real integration and equality that undermines the separation and fear that feeds white racism.   That 150 years on from the Civil War this task remains to be accomplished emphasizes the magnitude of the problem.

Contrary to Trump’s liberal critics, singing hymns about American values and ‘bringing the nation together’  are not going to work.  White supremacism is a core value of American history, undergirding slavery, Manifest Destiny (that lead to the wars of extermination against American Indians) and Jim Crow segregation.  Like every history, America’s too is contradictory, and contains not only white supremacy but heroic and inspiring fight backs against it.  But America has never been racially unified and Trump is hardly the first white politician to exploit it for his purposes.  Of course, Trump himself should be called out and criticized, but obsessive parsing of his speeches and self-righteous tut-tutting about his boorishness has grown tiresome and accomplishes nothing.  He should be criticized for his politics, not his personality; the contradiction between his actual policies and the interests of the white workers who voted for him has to be the touchstone of everything the left says about him.

By the same reasoning, Nazi’s and Klansmen need to be confronted, preferably by massive numbers that emphasize to those racists who are capable of thought that they do not speak for white people; that they are not a courageous vanguard, but a fearful and misled minority.  At the same time, they are a minority, even of Trump voters, and an expression of social, economic, and political weakness, not strength.  Real social power is not dressed in Klan hoods but the blue suits and brown shoes of Wall Street.  The ruling class is only too happy to sip Bordeaux and watch the spectacle of confrontation between white supremacists and antifa protestors.  As important as challenge and confrontation is, it is not a politics that will build the type of mass mobilization a revitalized left needs.  There is a certain amount of adolescent vanguardism at work in the antifa movement that needs to be channeled in a different direction.  Again, fascists should not be given free reign to march through cities and intimidate African Americans and other demonized groups, but they are not about to launch a successful putsch.  We are not in the 1930s’ and an organized fascist  take over of America is not in the cards (if for no other reason that that there is no mass Communist movement as there was in Germany that the ruling class wants to get rid of).  Capitalism may be in crisis for the working class, but it is working just fine for the capitalists, who, as I said above, are happy to have what serious opponents there are focus on spectacular street confrontations rather than think up workable policy alternatives to austerity and longer term institutional alternatives to capitalism.

Hence the need to be wary of a degradation of left-wing tactics to a politics of gestures.  By ‘politics of gestures’  I mean a practice which confuses the symbolically offensive with the structurally exploitative and oppressive, and considers the removal of the symbolically offensive with real gains.  By no means does this claim mean that the symbolic is not important in social life or politics.  It is:  but as an expression of underlying systems of oppression which are not affected in any way by changes to language or public space.  One could remove every statue to the Confederacy and absolutely nothing would change about American history or the current lines of racial conflict and inequality.  That does not mean that the statues should not be removed; it means that the demand is important only as a mobilizing tool to draw wider numbers of people into a movement powerful enough to bring about social structural changes.

The politics of gestures is problematic just because  symbols are powerful.  This power means that it easy to sidetrack debates which are really about racism and exploitation into debates about freedom of speech, expression, and “heritage.”  Passions run high, much heat is thrown off by the arguments, but, without most people noticing, the substantive collapses into the symbolic, a victory is declared, many people pack up their political tents and go home, satisfied that a major victory has been won, but the lives of the oppressed which were supposed to have benefited from the victory remain as they ever were.

Those lives can be changed for the better in the way they have always been changed for the better:  by cohesive, coherent, mass social movements that correctly understand where power lies, how it is organized and operates, and how it can be effectively challenged.  We are at a moment of intensifying social division and conflict but the left has not recovered from its long period of defeat and decline.  That Sanders was not red-baited into the sea, that Corbyn’s Labour Party made a dramatic comeback in the most recent UK election, that even mainstream economists are arguing that inequality is structurally caused by the dynamics of capitalism, that the colonial histories of the US and Canada are being seriously exposed and challenged, are all signs of hope.  But signs of hope and political power are different things.  We need the poetry of emancipatory visions, but we also need the prose of policies that people think will work in their short term interests, and plans that provide credible road maps to a different set of social institutions, value systems, and standards of economic success.  No movement which will be capable of those sorts of long term changes can afford to turn its back on the white workers amongst the 60 million voters who chose Trump.  Democratic politics– of which Marxism is a species– must assume that people are capable of change in response to changed experience and sound argument.  Both require time and patience.

Lessons From History IV: Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort

Government should come from us.  Now it comes at us with a propaganda machine in Washington that Hitler’s propaganda chief, Goebbels, would have  just envied.  We’ve got to put the country back in control of the owners.  And in plain Texas talk, its time to take out the trash and clean out the barn, or its going to be too late.


The day is not too distant when economic nationalism will triumph.  The … tidal wave of imports from Asia … [will take] down industries and [kill] jobs … there will arise a clamor from industry and labor for protection.  If that cry goes unheeded,, those who turn a stone face to American workers will be turned out of power.


We’re now one step closer to liberating our citizens from this Obamacare nightmare, and delivering great health care for the American people. We’re gonna do that too. And now tonight I’m back in the center of the American heartland, far away from the Washington swamp to spend time with thousands of true American patriots. [Chants of drain the swamp] We have spent the entire week celebrating with the hard working men and women who are helping us make America great again. I’m here this evening to cut through the fake news filter and to speak straight to the American people.[Chants of “drain the swamp” from arena].

Barns, swamps; shit, methane- yes Washington has stunk for sometime.   Goebbels, fake news, yes, the lies have never ceased.   Lost jobs and a bloated bureaucracy weighing down patriots who just want a hand up, not a hand out.  The glare of Trump’s narcissism has blinded us to history, but as the first two quotations remind (the first from Ross Perot, the second from Pat Buchanan) there is nothing new in Trump’s rhetorical appeals to internal corruption and external threat as means of consolidating hos own power.  The only difference is that he succeeded where Perot and Buchanan failed.  But his ideas have long vintage in the political history of the United States, a fact which comes through very clear in the brilliant history of right wing populism by Chip Berlet and Matthew M. Lyons.  Though published in 2000, Right Wing Populism in America:  Too Close for Comfort is required reading for anyone who wants to move beyond the vacuous whinging of CNN talk-bots and actually understand the reasons why a Trump could be elected, and what needs to be done to move beyond him.

Berlet and Lyons trace the history of right wing populism in America from Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 (in which a Virginia colonist mobilized a rebellion against the colonial  administration but which in practice was a pogrom against Native Americans) to the hard-right attack against Bill Clinton’s government at the end of the last millennium.  The history is compellingly told and frightening to read.  The conspiratorial, zealous, angry, xenophobic, racist, misogynist, anti-gay and lesbian, and always violent right-wing populist movements are “too close for comfort”  because they do not differ save in degree from the “acceptable” wing of the American right.  Trump is but the latest in a long line of American politicians going back to Andrew Jackson in the 1820’s who has mobilized white “productive”  Americans against “elites” accused of coddling “unproductive”  demonized others.  The demonized characters can change (American Indians to Blacks to Communists to sexual deviants to Islamic extremists)  but the formula is always the same:  manufacture a political identity by contrasting an ethically pure “American patriot”  against a threatening outgroup.

Trump fits the mold of what they call “right wing repressive populism”  perfectly:

We use the term repressive populist movement to describe a populist movement that combines antielite scapegoatting  … with efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power.  Repressive populist movements are fueled in large part by people’s grievances against their own oppression but they deflect popular discontent away from positive social change. … Right wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements …. A right wing populist movement … is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution.(p.5)

Barack Obama was not a revolutionary by any stretch, but he was Black and a reformer, and that was enough to mobilize the backlash that Trump channels.  At the same time, as Berlet and Lyons are at pains throughout the book to remind us, despite the oft-times outlandish and unsupportable claims made by populist leaders, the oppressed who vote for them are moved by real unmet needs (but only a vague or wrong-headed idea of the causes of their deprivation).  This point is of essential importance:  right-wing repressive populism cannot be overcome by demonizing its supporters as incorrigible racists, uneducated idiots, or backwoods oafs.  It can only be overcome by building a left wing alternative that listens, that provides a better explanation of the causes of deprivation, and that builds alliances amongst all oppressed groups on the basis of a convincing program for progressive social change.  At present, the Democratic party is very far form being able to meet this challenge. Instead of political reconstruction, it is looking to the deus ex machina of the Russia investigation to save it from its own defeat.  It will not work.

The attempt to stop Trump through Congressional investigation and legal intervention from above rather than patiently building a democratic movement from below is typical of American history.  In the 1930’s, in the midst of a growing fascist movement, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was founded.(pp.151-152)  Yes, this is the same Committee that, in the 1950’s would launch McCarthy’s ant-communist with hunts.  In the 1930’s  the Committee tried to substitute state power for popular anti-fascist mobilization, for fear that the latter would develop into left-wing opposition to capitalism. Instead of seeing fascism and communism as opposites, the committee saw them as twin “Un-American” dangers, and tried to stamp out the first without activating movements for the second. (p.152) Still, many anti-fascists understandably supported the committee, unwittingly feeding a monster that would eviscerate the American left in the 1950s.

The problem here is general and a propos of our current political moment.  The problem is “the false belief that the U.S. state apparatus can be trusted with repressive powers.  The laws, congressional probes, and political police that liberal anti-fascists hoped would be used against the Hard Right boomeranged forcefully against leftists, workers, people of color, gay men and lesbians.  Far from being the means to free the United States from hatred and fear, these institutions became tools to safeguard and reinforce systems of oppression.” (p. 173)  Today, the danger is two-fold.  On the one hand, the Mueller probe into alleged Russian interference in the election can reinforce domestic oppression.  On the other hand, it will encourage the same violent interventionist American foreign policy that Trump has questioned in the past and which a trillion dollar American military budget relies upon for justification.

The anti-Russian hysteria is already strengthening repressive forces masquerading as patriotic opposition to Trump.  Included in the latest sanctions bill is a threat against anyone accused by the US State Department of “engaging in transactions with the intelligence and defence sectors of the Russian federation.”  Well, you wonder, so what, I am not engaged in transactions with the Russian defense industry.  No, but when you then realize that the sanctions includes such outlets as RT News (accused of being a propaganda vehicle for the Russian government), the implications come more sharply into focus.  Well, so what, you say, maybe RT is nothing but a propaganda vehicle.  But then you dig further and find out that Google recently announced that it has created–  quelle surprise— an alogrithm to root out “fake news.”  But the “fake news” it is going to filter out (by not including links to the web sites that carry it)  just happen to be websites with a generally critical disposition towards the established structures of power, mostly left wing, but also including libertarian sites opposed to interventionist foreign policies.   Slippery slopes are not always fallacious.

The threats to the free dissemination of information are real, but not as destructive as the foreign policy implications of the Russian witchhunt.  Here the hypocrisy of American liberals, so shrill in condemning the still unproven Russian “meddling”  is stupefying.  Russia may or may not have meddled in the election, but they did not cause Trump’s victory. But we do know for certain that America under Obama did actively intervene to help the overthrow of Russian-allied Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, and hand picked his successor, Arseniy Yatseniuk)  This adventure has done nothing to advance the cause of democratic development in the Ukraine, but it has given new life to liberal interventionism.  As yet another new American “democracy development”  think-tank exposed by Glenn Greenwald proves once again, liberal interventionism is nothing more than American imperialism masquerading as democracy.  And that has domestic consequences for America as well.

Instead of creatively addressing the real problems of the white American working class, challenging the racism that is still too virulent within sections of it, inventing a platform that can advance the interests of working men and women of all colors, defending immigrants and combating xenophobia, political energies are wasted in a grand distraction that will make not one iota of difference to any working American’s life no matter how it ends, but does endanger the rest of the world as it flails around in anger at manufactured enemies and bogey-people.


On  Monday, 17 July, the Office of the United States Trade Representative released a document detailing their 5 priorities for the re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The re-negotiation of NAFTA follows President Trump’s denunciation of it as “the worst trade deal in history”  during the 2016 election campaign.   NAFTA has been very good to the American capitalists overall, but not, it is true, to American manufacturing workers, or some sections of domestic American capital.  Capitalism is a doubly contradictory system.  Overall, Gross National Product  can increase while standards of living for workers can remain stagnant and decline.  Between sectors, policy changes that allow some to benefit and grow can undermine others.  Free trade deals can thus benefit exporters while harming domestic manufacturers that rely on home markets and cannot compete with cheaper imported goods.  Sectoral contradictions explain the splits that sometimes open up with the ruling class between proponents and opponents of free trade.  Since workers tend to lose out either way, (having to attenuate wage demands in exchange  for job security or just losing their jobs as domestic manufacturing proves uncompetitive), nationalist arguments like Trump’s always resonate.

During the election, Trump, like a host of right-wing populists before him, from George Wallace in the 1960s to Ross Perot in the 1980s and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s effectively exploited real working anxiety about job loss and stagnant wages by tying it to demonized foreigners.  While Trumpmanagaed to win strong working class support in some areas, it was still a shock to read that one of the administration’s 5 key objectives  would be reading labour rights directly into the agreement.  The text in full:

– Bring the labor provisions into the core of the Agreement rather than in a side agreement.
– Require NAFTA countries to adopt and maintain in their laws and practices the
internationally recognized core labor standards as recognized in the ILO Declaration,
• Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
• Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
• Effective abolition of child labor and a prohibition on the worst forms of child labor; and
• Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
– Require NAFTA countries to have laws governing acceptable conditions of work with
respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.
– Establish rules that will ensure that NAFTA countries do not waive or derogate from their
labor laws implementing internationally recognized core labor standards in a manner
affecting trade or investment between the parties.
– Establish rules that will ensure that NAFTA countries do not fail to effectively enforce their
labor laws implementing internationally recognized core labor standards and acceptable
conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health laws through a sustained or recurring course of action in a matter affecting trade or investment between the parties.
– Require that NAFTA countries take initiatives to prohibit trade in goods produced by forced labor, regardless of whether the source country is a NAFTA country.
– Provide access to fair, equitable, and transparent administrative and judicial proceedings.
– Ensure that these labor obligations are subject to the same dispute settlement mechanism that applies to other enforceable obligations of the Agreement.
– Establish a means for stakeholder participation, including through public advisory
committees, as well as a process for the public to raise concerns directly with NAFTA
governments if they believe a NAFTA country is not meeting its labor commitments.

These principles are clearly in the interests of workers everywhere, but we have to remind ourselves that they both originate from workers struggles from below and are only enforced by those same struggles.  The Office of the United States Trade Representative is not interested in the well-being of workers anywhere, but they are interested in ways of reducing the competitive advantage of unorganized, low wage Mexican labour.  Hence the inclusion of these principles in their statement of objectives.  Like other fine sounding constitutional principles, they can and will be sidestepped, weakened, or simply ignored when they are not actively defended by workers themselves.

We can be quite sure that no party renegotiating NAFTA will be serving the interests of workers, because the whole point of treaties like NAFTA was to free capital as a whole from the constraints that national trades union movements had successfully imposed upon it from the late nineteenth century to the early 1970s.  Of course, these trade deals can work against the sectional interests of some domestic capitalists, but, overall, they have greatly facilitated the mobility and growth of capital as a whole and funded the spectacular rise of inequality that even mainstream economists can no longer ignore.

So, can workers look to existing trade unions to protect their interests?  A few days before the document from Office of the United States Trade Representative was made public there was a joint statement from the Canadian union representing auto workers, Unifor, and the United Auto Workers (UAW)  in the US.  It more or less adopted the same position on labour rights as the US government document, but gave them a different political interpretation. The Unifor/UAW document states that

It’s essential for auto workers in the United States and Canada to not be persuaded by those who wish to portray Mexican auto workers as the problem. Workers in every country have the right to develop their economy, advance social conditions, and to seek a higher standard of living. But for far too long successive Mexican governments have failed to protect and advance workers’ fundamental rights and auto companies have been all too willing to reap the windfall of repressed wages and weak standards. The future of North American auto workers is already intertwined, and the best prospect for making gains is to raise conditions for all.

The document gestures rhetorically towards solidarity with Mexican workers, but does not lay out an action plan for building it.  It does say that Unifor and the UAW would have welcomed the participation of Mexican unions in preparation of the document, but that independent unions do not exist.  While this claim is true as regards Mexican autoworkers in the Maquiladora zones, it is not completely true, as we will see below.  Given the fact that there was no effort made to reach out to independent trade unionists in Mexico, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion than that Unifor and the UAW share the same hopes as American domestic capitalists:  that an improvement in working conditions in Mexico  would reduce its competitive advantage and reverse the flow of capital.  Within a capitalist system, economic development proceeds through competitive advantage, and lower labour costs are a prime source of competitive advantage.  This reason explains why any attempt to advance the interests of all workers in a global capitalist economy is bound to fail:  the system must put capitalists and workers into competition, and in any competition, the loser will do worse than the winner.

So if the UAW and Unifor are serious when they say that “the best prospect for making gains is to raise conditions for all,”  then they need to start mobilizing their members for a long term struggle for a different socio-economic system.  However, as soon as one makes that claim one is immediately confronted with the not unreasonable rejoinder:  the bills must be paid in the short term, workers cannot afford to indulge utopian dreams.

The objection is not unreasonable because it rests on the truth that life is lived in the present.  At the same time, the future is not some void opposed to the now, but is constantly engendered present action.  The contradiction between short term and long term, present and future, is overcome by forms of struggle that achieve short term gains by encroaching on the structural power of capital to shape the whole field of human social and political life.  Instead of (implicitly or explicitly) allying with domestic capitalists, workers must build links with each other and make demands that cannot be achieved without forcing capital and the state to cede some degree of control over the wealth and resources that capital’s power depends upon.

This claim again sounds very abstract but it is not.  It is just a programmatic statement of processes that are always at work, albeit in very fragmented and attenuated ways.  In the present case, the coherent advance of the interests of American, Canadian, and Mexican workers starts with the construction of real solidarity between the three.  As I noted above, there is an independent Mexican trade union movement, and it has recognized the need to build these links from below.  At a meeting in Mexico City three years before the renegotiation of NAFTA was announced, the independent trade unions met to discuss a common response to the failure of NAFTA.  A report from the UCLA Labour Center notes their key demands:

  1. Better understand the lessons of trinational networks to guide future actions.
  2. Analyze new trinational initiatives and campaigns that build on a culture of transnational labor solidarity between Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
  3. Develop a collective understanding of labor at the transnational level and the opportunities and obstacles for workers’ struggles.
  4. Promote the exchange of ideas and strategies between participants to strengthen the culture of solidarity among trade unionists from the three countries.

In contrast to the UAW/Unifor document, the independent Mexican unions start from the need to examine what is actually happening at the level of real interaction and political work between workers and movements from all three countries with an eye to identifying strengths, weaknesses, and areas of development.  They do not commit themselves from the outset with working within the established framework of capital and state formations for an undefined “fair share.”  Instead, the idea is to build real networked movements that can express and articulate a set of shared demands:  a workers counter-project against the ruling class project of free trade, revised or otherwise.

It goes without saying that such a politics cannot solve immediate problems of de-industrialization of Southern Ontario and the US Mid-West, or any of the other myriad problems that beset American, Canadian, and Mexican workers.  What it could do, if it were to ever gain traction and numbers, is create a real counter-weight to free trade that could exert political and social pressure on the state to take workers’ interests into account.  Capital cannot soar around the world if it has no place to land, and landing rights are controlled by the state.  Movements can generate new political forces that can re-shape short term policy, and short term policies that stem from and enhance workers’  power can create the space needed for the imagination and progressive realization of deeper structural changes.  As a recent essay from the Canadian Socialist Project put the point:

Third, we must move toward democratic planning. This must be a two-tracked strategy. It means building workers’ struggles in workplaces and in communities for control over investments in infrastructures and plants and the flows of surplus capital and profits. And it means, if these struggles are at all to be successful, directly struggling over – and entering – the state with an orientation to transforming its institutions and building the capacities to allow for the democratic transformation of the economy, with all this necessarily means in terms of transforming social relations.

For democratic planing to solve the problems that free trade deals cannot, it will have to be based in an explicit understanding of what all workers shared life-interests are, framed by the recognition that limitless quantitative growth of output is impossible, and build in some formal mechanism allowing for international coordination of production and trade.  Those are not easy problems, but they are ultimately the one’s that working people in America, Canada, and Mexico are going to have to solve.

Critical Distance

The other night I was sitting on my second floor deck when I noticed a spider spinning a web.  It started by dropping a vertical thread.  It made a ball of silk in what would become the hub of the web, crawled back up the vertical shaft, shifted a few degrees, and dropped another vertical thread to connect to the centre.  It continued weaving spokes around the full 360 degrees and then began the process of connecting them. Starting from near the centre it connected the spokes, moving outward at what was doubtless a determined ratio. The speed and precision of the work were astounding, as was the beauty of the finished construction.

Yet,  what is most astounding of the all is that the spider had no idea what it was doing.  Unlike a human craftsperson or artist there is no idea to which the spider seeks to conform its actions, just the instinctually programmed actions.  What separates the worst of architects from the best of bees, Marx said, was that the architect first erects their structure in mind, and then realizes it in nature, whereas the busy bee builds its magnificent celled honeycomb unconsciously.  No matter how beautiful and complex the honeycomb, it is inferior to even the poorest examples of human architecture, he believed, just because the human architect acts intentionally.

Why should that make such a difference?

This question arose for me as I thought about the spider.  It occurred to me that what I was watching was essentially a programmed function, and in that sense the spider was just like a robot that has been programmed to carry out certain complex tasks.  In both cases there is absolutely no intentionality, no conscious comparison between idea or plan and outcome, but there is an outcome.  If we do not need intentions or consciousness for the creation of things, was Marx wrong to exalt human intentionality as the mark of the qualitative superiority of human craftspeople and artists?

Many contemporary technotopians and transhumanists would be prepared to say yes, if not vis-a-vis spiders, then certainly vis-a-vis computers.  The long quest for artificial intelligence is essentially for machines that can, like the spider, create without knowing that they are creating:  autonomous function without self-conscious internal steering.  If the spider can weave a web so beautiful I want to preserve it just to admire it, and we all agree it does not do so consciously, why should critics of AI  put such a stress on self-consciousness as a key condition of intelligence?

After all, it is “artificial”  intelligence that the programmers are building, which allows for differences from the human original.  Still, if intelligence involves the capacity to carry out complex instructions, adjust to unforseen obstacles to the carrying out of the task, and revision of the program in response to those obstacles, then we are certainly on the cusp of the age of intelligent machines.

But is intelligence nothing but rule following and recursive self-correction?  I do not think so.  In fact, I think these aspects are the least interesting aspects of intelligence.  I am not saying that rule following and self-correction are unimportant.  What I am saying is that human intelligence also involves the capacity for criticism and that criticism involves an element of self-consciousness that creative species like spiders lack and which computers cannot begin to simulate.

Criticism is not simply the ability to determine when a rule has not been followed properly.  If I was supposed to cut a plank to 3 feet, and I instead cut it to 4, then I have made a mistake.  There is no reason why a computer cannot be programmed to infallibly cut boards to 3 feet, and there is no reason why it cannot come with a diagnostic program that senses whether it is carrying out its program correctly.  Thus, while the computer can detect errors and mistakes, it is not capable of genuine self-criticism, because genuine self-criticism involves a normative dimension that  depends upon social self-consciousness.

Let us stick with the trivial board-cutting example.  The carpenter asks me to cut a three foot length, and I cut a four foot length instead.  Let us assume he is a patient person, but I am hard on myself.  I say “I am such an incompetent assistant, I am really not cut out for board cutting.”  Here I am not just saying that I made a mistake. I am saying, first, that I have fallen short of an ideal, and second, that this falling short tells me something about myself.  In both cases I have to think of the task assigned me not simply as a set of instructions to be followed, but as a challenge to myself.  The rules are not external to me or indifferent to my sense of self; I regard my ability to do or not do the job as reflective of my identity, my talents, my abilities, and these all matter to me in a way to which I cannot be indifferent.

When we criticize ourselves, or someone else, or a work of art, or an institution, or society as a whole, we are not just saying that there are rules and that I, or the artist, or the authorities, did not follow them.  We are saying there are rules, and there are values that rule above the rules, higher order principles that provide reasons for caring about the way things are or are not and offer goals towards which we ought to strive.  Moreover, there are values and there are higher level values, which claim to tell us what our “oughts” ought to be.   Criticism is always evaluation:  reflective judgment regarding whether some human practice was carried out as it ought to have been, or, at a higher level, whether this “ought to have been” is as it ought to be (whether the values according to which we govern our lives are the best we can imagine and create).

Whatever the content of those values, it should be clear that nothing can govern itself according to values unless it has a sense of itself, its interests, and its goals.  Without self-consciousness, therefore, it is impossible to criticize in the sense of evaluation.   I cannot judge myself by a higher standard if I have no sense of my ‘self.’  However magnificent its creation or precise its operations, neither the computer nor the spider has that sense of self, and neither, as a consequence, can criticize.  The spider can sense if the web needs repair, but it cannot say “Man, that is a beautiful web.” The broken computerized board cutter cannot feel bad that it has failed in its vocation, because it cannot feel any intrinsic connection between its performance and its worthiness.

Why is this distinction important?  It is important because the space for criticism as evaluation is shrinking as the demand for assessment  according to quantitative metrics is expanding.   I am not opposed to assessment.  Societies have to be concerned with what programs cost and whether they accomplish the goals that they set out to accomplish.  They also need to criticize the ruling goals and values.  If there are food banks, then it makes sense for those who run the food banks to ask if they are connecting with the target population.  But anyone who cares about human beings also has to ask:  what is wrong with a society that allows some people to be so poor they have to depend on food banks?  The first question is a matter of assessment which takes the given as give, the second is a matter of opening a space for genuine social criticism

What does this issue have to do with spiders and computers?  In its initial expression, AI was an attempt to model human intelligence.  We are in danger at this point of inverting the relationship, and seeing our own intelligence in the mirror of the computer.  Intelligence becomes what computers can do, rather than what computers can do being judged as a replication of one aspect of human intelligence (rule following).  But human intelligence is not just rule following and rule assessment. It is also rule criticism, rule breaking in the name of higher rules (moral and political principles) and new rule creation through processes of social change governed by commitment to higher values that define ideals we would life to embody, as individuals and collectives.

If criticism is reduced to assessment, then all change will be within established value parameters. If those values allow core human needs to go unmet and vital possibilities to remain unrealized, and we cannot grasp the reasons why because we have allowed the higher dimension of value criticism to be closed off, we will trap ourselves within the given world as ultimate, even as it remains deeply problematic.  Problems we do not know about cannot be changed.  Hence the need to preserve the space for social criticism.  Part of preserving that space requires that we defend a multidimensional understanding of human intelligence.  The truly distinctive dimension that makes intelligence human is the linked capacities for evaluative criticism and creative transformation of the given in light of the results of critique.  If we give up the difference between criticism and assessment, creation and rule following, we give up the possibility of transformation towards better worlds.

Planned Obsolescence

“Man–this is the mystery of religion– projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject.”

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

With that insight Feuerbach hoped to bring us back to ourselves from the religious projections to which we subordinated ourselves.  God, for Feuerbach, was nothing but the perfection of the human species– intellect, love, creativity– abstracted from earthly limitations and embodied in the idea of a transcendent being.  The perfections attributed to God were nothing but idealizations of our own powers.  Critical insight into the human origins of the idea of God would, Feuerbach hoped, transform human life and relationships.  If we recognized that the perfections that we worshiped in God were just our own highest potentialities, the narrow egoism and selfishness of earthly life could be overcome by the loving mutuality reserved for our spiritual relationships.

The power of projective abstraction has proven much more difficult to overcome than Feuerbach thought.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proven that the need to project our own powers onto a being which we imagine to be independent of ourselves runs very deep.  It dominates the scientific mindset as much as the religious.  Alongside the traditional religions we thus find today a religion of technology.  Like the monotheistic God, worshipers of technology see it as a force independent of individual and collective will, to which individual and collective choice must always bend, because the good is identical to whatever happens as a consequence of untrammeled technological development.

If you think I am drawing specious and superficial analogies, ponder the words of Ray Kurzweil.

In every monotheistic religion God is … described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation:  infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love … of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never attains an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction.  So evolution moves inexorably towards the conception of God, although never quite reaching the ideal.  We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking. Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, p. 389.

Kurzweil is no backwoods preacher fleecing an uneducated flock of their hard earned money.  He is a leading computer scientist, inventor, and head of Google’s Artificial Intelligence project.  And yet he explicitly, and in all seriousness, identifies the monotheistic god with a future supreme computing intelligence which will redeem us and raise us from the dead.   But what he does not realize is that he actually sells himself short in his genuflection before his own creations.

Technology, like God, is not a force independent of human intelligence and activity, but their product.  Yet, like the idea of the divine, the actual relationship of dependence is reversed, and the creators subordinate themselves to their own creation, at immense cost.

Kierkegaard argued in his essay Fear and Trembling (a mediation on the story of God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac)  that divine command produces a “teleological suspension of the ethical.”  That fearsome phrase just means that God can command us to set aside ordinary human conceptions of right and wrong for the sake of the higher good of obeying His will.  The problem is (and Kierkegaard understood this, although it did not change his mind) that only God knows what the higher good served by obeying his will is.  Hence, from the human perspective, we are left in an absurd situation:  having to renounce our own ethical duties for a higher good we cannot possibly know.  What we do know is that violating the ethical norms will cause harm, but we do it– if we have faith– just because it is what God commands.

Do not our ruling technotopians council the same?  Never reflect about the values that we want our society to embody but always do that which it becomes technically possible to do.  By fiat, the benefits will always outweigh the costs.  Whatever harms technological development causes will be cured by more technological development.  The responsibility of politicians and people generally is simply to adapt and obey the priest-class that produces the marvels.

Behind these injunctions to adapt is the real driver of capitalist society:  economic competition.  Individual firms must strive to increase productivity, to produce more product in less average time.  Technological innovation decreases socially necessary labour time, decreases per unity costs, and thus (other things being equal)  increases profit.  That is not to say that every technological development is a mechanical reflex of economic forces, or that science is nothing but ideology.  It does help explain the reason why no labour saving innovation is ever rejected by capitalists, and why rulers cheerlead every technological innovation no matter what the social costs for the workers who lose out, or, more irrationally from a system perspective, society’s long term stability.

Everyone can see that a society in which:  a) people must buy the goods they need to survive and b)  are by and large dependent upon paid labour to earn that money will enter into a fatal crisis, if c) it allows technology to replace labour without any system-wide planning to find new ways of ensuring that people can live and that social services can be funded.  The history of capitalism is largely a history of ignoring the social costs of technological development and letting those workers made redundant fend for themselves and gradually die out.  That would seem to be the approach that is on offer at this point,  but there is a difference, or a potential difference, that means it will most likely not work.  Past rounds of technological development did create new and increased demand for labour.  The emergence of Artificial Intelligence threatens to break with this pattern, reducing the overall demand for labour, or at least full time workers with secure jobs.

(Some economists dispute this view and argue that technology is just an ideological excuse to draw attention away from anti-labour political choices.  No doubt there is some truth to this argument, but at the same time it seems safe to at least conclude that if technology will not anytime soon eliminate all jobs, it is contributing to their continued degradation.  For a clear articulation of this argument see the report from the Economic Policy Institute The Zombie Robot Argument Lurches On.)

Let us assume for the sake of argument that there will at some point in the future arise a structural crisis due to severe declines in demand for labour.  This possibility helps explain recent discussion of Guaranteed Basic Income projects in some parts of the capitalist world.  In the form on offer in Ontario, for example, it will be little more than the existing welfare system by another name.  It will provide poverty levels of income support and keep people tied to commodity markets (rather than free public services)  to satisfy their needs.

If business consultants like Martin Ford (author of two studies of the future of work that are worth reading:  Light in the Tunnel and Rise of the Robots) the structural crisis of capitalism noted above is inevitable, as the technical achievements in AI become self-ramifying and abolish the need for human labour in ever more domains formerly judged exclusively human.  If Ford and others are correct, (and again, they may not be, but one must plan for worse case scenarios) the looming crisis creates an opening on the left for political mobilization around creative policy responses (massively reduced hours of work without loss of real income, GBI at levels sufficient to free individuals from the need for paid labour) that will be difficult to resist, because mass unemployment always spells massive trouble for the legitimacy of capitalism.   But it poses another challenge often not remarked upon on the Left, which is has its own indigenous technotopian wing.

To this point in human history, labour has been a natural necessity, a socially imposed necessity, and a source of meaning and value in human life.  People had to work directly on the land to live (as in agricultural societies); they have to work in order to earn the money they need to exchange for the goods their lives require (as in capitalism), and people’s labour has made them feel like valuable contributors to the lives of other people with whom they share the world.  If we are moving to a technological stage of history in which the natural necessity for human labour is abolished or seriously attenuated, then its social necessity will be abolished as well (although whether that takes a form that is in the interests of displaced workers or not depends upon the success of future left struggles).  But even the resolution of that problem in the interests of workers would not solve the third, and the left needs to think philosophically about its response to the potential catastrophic loss of meaning in a world without work.

Marx foresaw the possibility that capitalist technological development would eventually do away with the need for human labour.   In The Grundrrisse he welcomed it as a necessary step in the final liberation of human beings from naturally and socially coercive material circumstances.  In Capital he attributed the falling rate of profit to the increase in the “organic”– i.e., technological– composition of capital.  Capitalism was doomed over the long term to collapse, he thought, because it requires an increasing rate of profit that its own competitive trajectory makes impossible.

But in his early works, where he thought of labour not only as the means of producing life, but– in so far as it was non-alienated– also a means of producing meaning in life, his emancipatory vision turned not on freeing human beings form labour, but freeing labour form the meaningless forms it takes under capitalism. Thus, people would free themselves to labour in ways that were valuable for others and meaningful forms of self-creative activity for themselves.  Later thinkers like William Morris continued this tradition of looking to creative, highly skilled labour as the deepest normative foundation of the struggle for socialism.

There are few William Morrises left on the left.  The dominant voices tend to look to a post-work future rather than a non-alienated work future.  A recent example of this vision is Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future.  While it would be self-contradictory for a position like mine to deny the value of technological development (what better example is there of human intelligence and creativity than the history of science), we also must resist the intellectual pathology of projective abstraction discussed above.  That is, we must remember that science and technology are not really independent historical forces and can always in principle be subjected to critical and evaluative criteria that derive from considerations of: a) what our real needs are at a given moment in history, b) whether, in light of those needs, we need to replace a given form of labour with automated systems, and c)  what the costs will be if a given form of labour is replaced with an automated system, because d) that form of labour is life-valuable in its non-alienated form.

Do we really want to be treated by robot doctors and nurses?  Do we really want to “learn”  from on-line modules and not actual human teachers?  Shall we listen to nothing but music “composed” by computer programs and read “news”  compiled by algorithms?  Is it sensible to replace pilots with ground based systems, given the awe that controlled flight inspires in people who want to become pilots?  Do we want all of our food grown by automated greenhouses without any connection between human hand, soil, and produce?  Will a world without booksellers and record shops and the conversations between devotees they enable really be richer?

The questions can be answered either way, I think, in the case of any particular form of labour.  What cannot be answered either way, I also think, is the question of whether life can remain meaningful when there is nothing essentially required of us.  By “essentially required of us”  I mean a demand on our time, exerted by the recognized needs of others, that causes us to work, not in the first instance for money, but because we acknowledge a good in the satisfaction of the others’ need that our labour fulfills,  Meaning derives from recognizing ourselves as people who can respond to the demands that others’ needs exert upon us.  This form of recognition draws us out of the self-satisfaction of an ego-centric cocoon and allows us to devote some of our lifetime and life-actviity to something outside of ourselves.  If that sort of devotion to the not-self is not the ethical foundation of socialism then I do not know what is.

Through non-alienated work we make ourselves real for others and contribute to the present and future of the human project.  That is not the whole of what makes life valuable.  We need to play as well as work; we need time for ourselves as well as others,  we need to be idle as well as active, as both Sir Bertrand Russel (In Praise of Idleness) and Paul LaFargue (The Right to be Lazy), remind us.  But life has to be more than game playing and amusement.  Both get boring for a reason:  they make no existentially compelling demands upon us.  No one commits suicide because their team loses the Stanley Cup; people do commit suicide when they feel they have failed others whom they regard as rightfully depending upon them in a given instance.

What does that tell us?  It tells us that people distinguish between things they have to do in life which make it unbearable if they fail, and things that are optional.  We might think that life would be better without the first, but it would not, because it would be a life, not just without work, but without necessary connection or devotion or obligation to anything.  It does not follow that we should not exploit technological power to free our time from forms of work that are so degrading, servile, and mundane that they choke rather than give voice to our creative abilities.  It does follow that we must govern our own technological powers rather than allow them to blindly lead us into the oblivion of a society in which we have no more real need for each other.