Identity Politics, Cultural Appropriation, and Solidarity

The Political Aesthetics of Abstraction

It is easy to change the appearance  of political arguments by abstracting them from the historical context in which they emerge.  Just as the apparent colour of an object can be changed by altering the light in which it appears (an object under ultraviolet light looks to be a different colour than under infrared or sunlight) so too serious political arguments can be made to appear frivolous when separated out from their historical background.  Certain figures in the media are masters of the parlour trick of cherry picking titles and argument-fragments that, in abstraction from the argument as a whole and a longer-term view of history, sound absurd.  Margaret Wente is a paragon of this intellectual non-virtue.  In a recent article she makes fun of academic cultural studies for making what sound like non-sensical critiques of the “whiteness”  of pumpkin latte and the sexism of glaciology.

Let us be fair:  if you only read the title, and you do not link the particular claim (about lattes or glaciology)  to longer term histories of racism and sexism, then it does sound ridiculous to claim that pumpkin lattes are racist or the study of glaciers sexist.  But is it ridiculous to argue that there is a history of sexism in Western science or that Tim Hortons has built a coffee empire on an advertising construction of a very white Canadian cultural practice:  early mornings drinking coffee at the rink while your boy (and now girl) plays hockey.  How many women scientists were there in 1820?  How many black Canadians do you see in Tim Horton’s commercials?  Not many, because the image of Canada those commercials are conjuring is an anachronistic image of the cultural essence of Canada as the small town arena and hockey as a democratic cultural glue.  Now, there is some truth to that picture (I lived it in fact) but it is only one fragment of a much more complex cultural picture, and it leaves out of the frame everyone who cannot afford to play hockey or who does not care about it.

When we put the deconstruction of the pumpkin latte in this context its claim is not so silly.   What makes it seem silly is the micro-focus on a drink, and peoples’ assumptions that something so trivial as a cup of coffee cannot be so pregnant with offensive symbolic meaning.  But a cross abstracted from context  is just two pieces of wood intersecting at a right angle. What could be more banal?  But put that banal construction in a Christian Church and it becomes symbolic of the suffering and redemption of humanity.  The same general process of the inflation of symbolic value is at work in the Tom Horton’s commercial.  When set in the context of the construction of Canadian culture around spaces and practices that are predominantly white, the symbolic value of the coffee cup rises, and it can be a fit subject for cultural criticism.  So:  seemingly insignificant elements of a culture can have profound symbolic importance, and the value of work that brings this importance to light is that it opens a space for critical reflection and the democratic construction of new cultures in which more voices are heard and new practices born.

This critique is liable to get people’s backs up, because they sometimes think that if the symbolic value of something which they enjoy has racist implications, then they are being called racists for enjoying it.  Sometimes claims of cultural appropriation are made with an air of self-righteousness moralism that makes them easy targets for rejection on these defensive grounds.  It is certainly not the case that every white person who wears dreadlocks is a racist any more than heterosexual white transvestites are sexist for wearing women’s clothes.  In matters of politics, intentions matter as much as actions, and sometimes the intention is just to look a certain way, or respectfully (and playfully) participate in a practice that one finds valuable even though participation demands a certain degree of transgression of cultural or gender-boundaries.  Sometimes a dreadlock is just a dreadlock.

But sometimes  not, too, and again it will be context and intention that determines the political meaning.  Wearing dreadlocks because you love reggae is one thing, going in blackface to a hallowe’en party is another.  Wearing blackface has an undeniably racist history; reggae, while rooted in a trenchant critique of the slave trade and colonial domination, nevertheless (at least in its original expressions) preaches a universal set of values:  peace between nations and cultures and the equality and dignity of all people. Burning Spear’s magnificent song The Invasion begins with the line “They take us away from Africa, with the intention to steal our culture,”  but continues with the invocation of the need for “Love in Africa, Love in America, Love in Canada”  i.e., not retreat into a closed community but openness towards difference and reconciliation (but without forgetting the history of violence, either).

So:  the problem of cultural appropriation is real, but becomes pernicious only when it involves the permanent appropriation of essential elements of a group’s conditions of life and self-understanding, as in the history of colonial domination.  The aim of opposing cultural appropriation should not be to prevent real communication, inter-cultural dialogue, and the creation of new forms of expression and identity, but to ensure that all members of all cultures have secure access to that which they require to live freely.

Against the Politics of Banning and Apology

Unfortunately, the goal of cultural critics is not always to widen the space for novel cultural interactions  and inventions but to justify banning and silencing and to demand apologies for arguments and theories that give offense.   It would be wrong to argue that there are never grounds to ban certain forms of speech or representation. However, the bar must be set very, very high:  1) There must be demonstrated and pervasive harm to an identifiable group and not a merely asserted harm to a random individual or individuals claiming to speak for the whole group, and 2) harm must be understood as equivalent to a physical barrier preventing the group from exercising its full range of life-capacities.  So, it would be reasonable to ban Ku Klux Klan outfits from a university campus, because the Ku Klux Klan is inseparable from a history of racist violence, and any black student who saw people walking around in Klan gear would reasonably fear for their safety, and this fear could well prevent them from freely enjoying campus spaces and feeling safe enough to think and study.  Racist jokes, on the other hand, while offensive, should not be banned, but their teller challenged, because it is not always the intention of the teller of racist jokes to promote racial intolerance. Often times the teller does not think that they are racist, because they think that humour changes the literal meaning and implications of words– a not unreasonable position that must be answered with a reasoned critique. The ensuing argument can thus be a moment of productive political engagement and education rather than the regressive alternative:  censorship imposed by the ruling powers.

This argument applies with double force to the lamentable and frankly reactionary practice of trying to silence theories and political positions which might give offense to some group by banning speakers from campuses or trying to control the content of courses.  Academic freedom is not a liberal platitude but has been, overall, a force of progressive change, and a crucial contributing factor to why there is any political criticism on campus at all.  There would be no women’s studies department without the struggles of women academics, but those academics would never have survived the wrath of the boy’s club without the protection of academic freedom, because it gave them the space and time necessary to defend the integrity and value of their work from charges that it was intellectually weak.  There is no doubt who will be swept out the door if academic freedom is fatally compromised by misplaced political outrage and moralistic whinging:  feminists, queer theorists, Marxists, and critical race theorists as well as heterodox critics of the history of science will be gone and universities returned to what they were formerly:  transmission belts of the ruling ideas of the age, taught to the sons (and only much later) daughters of the ruling class.

Thus, activists and critics need to recover the value of political argument.  If there are fault lines in a society, then it follow as a direct consequence that there will be groups on the other side of an issue, and they will not go away unless the fault line is  sealed through some sort of fundamental social change.  Silencing the opponent through whatever means has never worked (even revolutionary attempts to ‘liquidate the class enemy’ have never succeeded).  There is no alternative but to argue (not only argue, obviously) and convince the opponent to change their position.  Hegel is correct:  the conceit that refuses to argue impedes political progress because the “achieved community of minds”  which our rational nature makes possible depends upon the “power of the negative,” his name for the ability of philosophical thinking to detect and overcome contradictions.  If the other side does not speak, the contradiction is hidden from view but not resolved.  The strategy of banning and silencing is therefore self-undermining and must be rejected save in the most extreme cases of overt advocacy of violent assault on vulnerable groups.


However, rejecting a self-undermining politics of the silencing (but not defeat) of the opposed position leaves open the more difficult question of how the positive programs of movements against different forms of oppression can be brought together in some sort of coherent political synthesis.  A coherent political synthesis would allow for the elaboration of shared goals without requiring the submerging of particular histories or subordinating the particular identities to an imposed agenda.  It is crucial to remember that the emergence of radical feminism, Black Power, the American Indian Movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1960’s was in part made necessary by the woeful failure of the Marxist left to acknowledge the political reality of different histories of oppression.  Of course, these movements were made necessary by those histories, and their successes owe to the intelligence and energy of their organizers.  At the same time, part of the reason why these movements had to split off from the Marxist left was due to a mechanical and dogmatic insistence on the “primacy of class.”  There is a non-dogmatic argument to be made for the primacy of class, but I am not going to make it here.  Instead, I want to conclude with a different account of how solidarity might be built in the present, which draws on some core ideas of Marxism, but re-interprets them in light of contemporary political realities.

The core problem of building real solidarity is how to identify real common interests and articulate them in such a way that their pursuit does not demand subordination of particular identities to another identity presenting itself as universal. The historical problem of the dogmatic Marxist approach was that, from the perspective of a radical feminist or black power militant, class was itself an identity as particular as the Marxist charged feminism or black power with being.  If a common interest is to be found, it has to be deeper than class.  I think we find this deeper ground in the idea of a shared set of socio-cultural human needs whose satisfaction allows anyone to realize their latent human power of living as a social-self-conscious agent; i.e., a person who has the power to shape their own identity rather than than be dominated as an object of oppressive power.  When we focus on needs first, it becomes apparent  that oppression is essentially about demonizing specific groups of people and using that demonization to justify the fact that they are systematically deprived of one or more of the set of fundamental human natural and social needs.   They are oppressed because they can live as full social self-conscious agents, and they cannot, not because they are not essentially social self-conscious agents, but because they are deprived of that which they require to live as such.

So, to give only one example, when women were denied the vote (their need to participate in the determination of the laws they were forced to obey) sexist ideology argued that women lacked the intellectual capacities to effectively participate in government.  When African Americans were denied the same means of satisfying their need to participate, racist ideology argued that they were similarly intellectually unfit for self-government.  Here we have two distinct groups denied the same means of satisfying a political need  by reference to a false construction of their nature and possibilities.  The details of the histories of their respective deprivation differ, but the cause is the same:  the system-need of the ruling class to ensure the conditions of its own rule.  If the ruling class is primarily white and male, then the demands of women and blacks for political power is a threat, and racist and sexist ideologies a means of warding off that threat.  Solidarity in the struggle can be constructed by appeal to the shared need, while the specific identity of the group is preserved because they orient their contribution to that struggle on the basis of their own particular experience of the general causes of the deprivation.

This example abstracts from a great deal of complexity of the contemporary political terrain, but I believe that if people examine fundamental problems of structural oppression, they will discover at the root of that oppression deprivation of needs that are also felt by other groups.  I have defined and defended a theory of what fundamental human needs are in two previous books, Democratic Society and Human Needs and Materialist Ethics and Life-value.  The practical implication of the argument is that all the particular histories of oppresion converge on the control of natural resources, social wealth, and social institutions by a ruling class.  Solidarity in struggle is rooted not in everyone identifying themselves as working class against the ruling class, but in all oppressed and exploited groups articulating the specific ways in which they experience the deprivation of their needs, and working together to reclaim the resources and institutions that can satisfy them.

Politics cannot ensure that no one is ever offended, and if it tries to do so, it will degenerate into irrelevant squabbling (or worse, demands that the authorities solve the problem through repressive measures).  Progressive politics is about people seizing the power to solve their own problems by changing the system at the foundations.  It would be best if this were a simple and swift problem to solve, but it is not.  Because it is not, and because opponents cannot be wished out of existence or completely destroyed, the patience of argument will always have to be part of the tools of struggle.

And Popper Thought Marxism Was Unscientific

The Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper famously argued that Marxism was not a science because the laws of history that it claims to discover are not falsifiable.  For example, Marx argued that capitalist crises would be recurrent and ultimately unsolvable, because the rate of profit trended to fall as capitalism matured.  While there is evidence to support that claim about the cyclical nature of crises and the falling rate of profit, their links to revolutionary political changes– the real crux of the theory, since Marxism is a revolutionary theory– are ideological.  If the last crisis did not do capitalism in, then there is no inconsistency, within Marxist theory, to shift the time frame, and so on, ad infinitum, endlessly delaying the moment when the theory could be empirically tested and falsified.  But a theory that cannot in principle be falsified is not, according to Popper’s definition, a science, but ideology, an attempt to make the world become something on the basis of (spurious) claims about what it is.

Popper’s arguments always troubled some Marxists more than others.  Marxists like me, who were moved more by the vision of human potentiality that opens up beyond the horizon of capitalist alienation were untroubled by his arguments, because it always seemed clear that Marxism was an ethical-political conception of a way of human life and not a scientific proof of the causal mechanism by which human history would move there.  That said, elements of Marx’s theory, like the definition of classes in terms of their relationship to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, are certainly empirically verifiable or falsifiable social scientific theories that can be debated independently of any active allegiance to a revolutionary movement, so Popper’s argument is true in relation to the overall project, but seems false in relation to at least some of the parts.

Still, whatever truth there is in his critique of the scientificty of Marxism would apply in equal measure to orthodox economics, which trumpets its scientific bona fides as grounds for heeding its advice, but whose ideological agenda is obvious.  If Marxism aims to undermine the legitimacy of the capitalist system, orthodox economics aims to support its legitimacy.

A case in point is a a recent article by Chris Sarlo, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute and a professor of economics at Nippising University in North Bay.  Sarlo’s argument is that recent claims about rising inequality are “overblown.”  He supports this conclusion on the basis of two interrelated claims:  1)  income is not the best measure of inequality, because b)  “some people can consume substantially more than their income by borrowing or by receiving gifts. Others consume much less than their income if they save a significant portion or if they pay down debt.”  Reading this claim as a meaningful response to the social implications of income inequality tests the limits of the principle of charitable interpretation.  It is really just changing the subject so as to draw our attention away from the problem, not providing a solution to it.

In no way– and obviously in no way–  does it call into question the mass of long term statistical evidence that shows deeply problematic-  from the perspective of democracy– rising inequality within rich nations like Canada (which is Sarlo’s focus)  and much less that between the Global North and the Global South.  It does not do so for this simple reason:  whatever inequalities we find at the level of income will be replicated at the level of credit markets and savings (called “investment,”  when rich people do it).

Is Sarlo to have us believe  that social problems caused by rising income inequality (including worse health outcomes for those on the lower income scales and the undermining of the social basis of equal value of democratic citizenship rights) are solved because working people can borrow a hundred thousand dollars to by a house, while a rich person could borrow 10 million? Clearly, the credit worthiness of individuals is a factor in their access to credit markets, and their worthiness is going to be determined by their income and net worth.  How, then, is socially meaningful inequality mitigated  by credit.?  The higher your networth, the more debt you can take on and carry.

Moreover, the implications of indebtedness is affected by income inequality.  Donald Trump can declare a loss of 900 million dollars, and carry on his lavish, buffoonish life.   Meanwhile, working people caught up in the sub-prime mortgage crisis lost their homes when their payments re-set to levels they could not afford. Prior to the on-set of the crisis one could have said:  the net worth of new home owners went up and this increase mitigated the tendency towards inequality.  But then it all collapsed in a house of cards and broken dreams and foreclosures, and income inequality is the reason why.  The rich can pay their debts (or pay someone to have them endlessly restructured so they can delay paying them) as well as carry much higher debt loads.   So– let me be gentle– it is at least unclear how shifting the focus as Sarlo suggests we do uncovers evidence that socially meaningful inequality is not rising spectacularly, and not threatening (if it has not already undermined)  the cohesiveness of existing liberal-capitalist states.

Sarlo would respond that if we do shift our focus from income to consumption, we find much less growth in inequality:

If consumption is a better reflection of a household’s standard of living, what can we say about the degree of inequality of those living standards over time? A new Fraser Institute study examines the inequality of consumption in Canada over the period 1969 to 2009 (the last year of available data). After adjusting for household size, which has changed quite dramatically over the past four decades, the study finds that consumption inequality has barely changed since 1969. Using a popular measure, inequality of consumption is up only three per cent in 40 years.

But this can be attributed to other factors which do not support the overall thrust of Sardo’s argument. If household sizes remain more or less the same, prices go down for some (low-end luxuries) and the demand of rich households for consumables does not massively exceed those of poor households of the same size, then the rate of growth of consumer spending in rich and poor households could remain more or less constant over the decades, as the study claims to find.  But this proves nothing substantial about the egalitarian nature of our societies.  Rich people just have a lot more money to do other things with than spend it on consumer goods.  What they in fact do with it is invest it to make more money for themselves, while working people must work for wages that have been stagnant for 40 years.

What is really going on in here is an attempt to blow smoke in the eyes of people who are worried that the legitimacy of capitalism is being undermined by rising inequality.  This worry received new impetus from Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century.  The book proved beyond a shadow of a statistical doubt that the sort of inequality a democratic society needs to worry about has been rising steadily since the 1970s.  The issue is not income in the abstract (if we did nothing with money but pile it up in a room it would not matter how much money anyone made).  But we do not:  we use money to purchase that which we need, and–crucially– in capitalism, to buy other people’s labour:  income is really power over other people.  Hence, rising income inequality means rising inequality in the relative power of those who live off of their (increasingly valuable) capital as opposed to those who try to live off of their (stagnant or falling)  wages.

Piketty’s conclusion is stark for those who believe that the liberal-capitalist form of social organization is just:  “When the rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy (…as is likely to be the case in the twenty-first century) then it logically follows that inherited wealth grows faster than output and income … Under such conditions, it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from  a life-time of labour … and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels– levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies.”(p.26)  Keeping our eyes from focussing upon the Potemkin village built out of platitudes about equal opportunity and the long run justice of capitalism is the entire function of arguments like Sarlo’s.  Democratic societies are supposed to be self-governing, and the mechanism of self-government is decisions freely arrived at through the deliberation of equals.  If a small group lives off their investments and controls the labour of those who must find work, then that sort of deliberative self-determination is impossible, and its invocation as a justifying value a sham.

Recitative for the Feast of the Most Precious

Mother yeast leavens the day and the sun shines bright on look-at-me boho-chic boots and artisanal quinoa ass walking a boutique dog past the Himalayan pink salt dispensary and the ganja yoga studio where locally sourced beards stretch curated limbs upward to farm to fork nirvana and then slide back into their craft brewed skinny jeans strutting past the innovative architecture of makers’ culture baby strollers and hand-crafted organic car shares that convey them back to their whole grain condos where you would be at home right now if you lived here  ….

Yes all matter is motion, change, transformation but Anthropologie instead of the Squeeze Club? I mean, fuck ….

Squeeze club, Ska-weeze Club? I mean really, grandpa, this is “The 6”, yo, not your old TO, your black uniform is tired, hanging on the thin air of your unheeded history lesson about milk crates and old punk bars and leather jackets.  We know it is half-heartedly spoken to no one.  Now you care about a properly pronounced latte machiatto.  You have been seen admiring the rows of well-formed loaves. You have been observed thumbing through vintage vinyl.  So say:  Getting down to one hundred per cent recycled brass tacks, it is all delicious.


There are easy ways to oppose social problems and then there are real ways to oppose social problems.  The easy way, typical of politicians in liberal democracies, is to oppose the problem in abstraction from its causes.  Social inequality is paradigmatic:  politicians all come to office promising to end it in one way or another (either by unfettering the market or better regulating it) but no one ever provides an account of its causes.  They oppose themselves to the idea of social inequality while ignoring the reality.  If they opposed themselves to the reality they would have to oppose themselves to the causes, and if they opposed themselves to the causes they would have to confront the very powerful people who control society’s resources and productive enterprises and operate them according to economic principles that cause social inequality.

The problem of Palestinian statehood is analogous to the problem of social inequality.  Most Canadian politicians support it as an idea, but refuse to confront the reality that the two-state solution is becoming more and more impossible because of on-going Israeli occupation and expanding settlements.  There are now 570 000 Israeli settlers living in occupied Palestine. Unsurprisingly, as in the case of social inequality, verbal support for an abstract idea fails to address the causes, and so the problem persists and gets worse.

The touchstones of real opposition are whether one is willing to name the cause of the problem  and willing to support the struggles of victims through meaningful acts of solidarity.  When oppressed people organize a movement and call for international supporters to adopt its demands, then real allies adopt those demands and do what they can in their own contexts to ensure their realization.  The main thrust of the Palestinian movement for self-determination is directed towards a two-state solution, and its primary international dimension is the call for Boycott of, Divestment from, and Sanctions against Israel so long as it continues to occupy Palestine.  Those are the terms set by the movement of the oppressed themselves.  Anyone who is a genuine supporter of Palestinian self-determination  must support those demands and, outside Israel, that means supporting the BDS movement.

When the African National Congress called for a boycott of South Africa, millions of supporters around the world heeded the call.  There was no progressive cover for anyone who did not support this international call for solidarity.  Anyone who opposed the boycott and supported the South African state was obviously and manifestly a supporter of apartheid and thus obviously and manifestly a racist.  I cannot think of a single instance of anyone who claimed to favour self-determination for black South African’s simultaneously worrying that the ANC’s call for a boycott was anti-white.

In 2016, by contrast, the world abounds with faux progressives who claim on the one hand to support the right of Palestinians to self-determination and at the same time maintain that there are no legitimate means for them to act on this principle.  If self-determination should come, it will only be by an act of Israeli noblesse oblige.  If Palestinains fight for their right to self-determination, they are called terrorists.  If they demand a boycott via voluntary and peaceful means, they are accused of fomenting anti-Semitism.  There are only two practical poles in politics:  violent resistance and non-violent resistance.  If both are judged illegitimate by people who nevertheless claim to support self-determination, then the reality is that the oppressed are deprived of any means of realizing the principle.

Anyone who claims to support a principle but rejects the legitimacy of any and all means of realizing it is not a supporter of the principle.  In the case of the Palestinians, Canadian politicians who pontificate in the abstract about statehood but denounce all means of getting there they do not support self-determination.  The very term self-determination entails that it cannot be granted by an outside force but only achieved through the group’s own efforts.

This issue has become increasingly pressing in Canada.  In February, the vast majority of Justin’s Trudeau’s caucus voted in favour of a Conservative motion condemning the BDS movement.  While Trudeau’s government is trying to position itself as responsive to First nation’s demands at home, abroad it is abandoning the Palestinians as they struggle against structurally similar political forces squeezing them into tinier and tinier zones of control.   In the summer, Trudeau’s  Ontario cousins did help to defeat a motion brought by failed Conservative candidate for premier Tim Hudak to make BDS movements illegal.  However, in its wake premier Kathleen Wynne (then on a trade mission to Israel) promised to pass a ‘non-divisive’ anti-BDS motion in the near future. Elizabeth May, leader of the Canadian Green Party, has put herself into a similar situation.  May has threatened to resign unless Green Party members reverse their support for a motion they recently passed in support of the BDS movement.  All three leaders would no doubt support the principle of self-determination, but the truth of principles is practice, and in terms of practice, that means supporting the Palestinian movement for self-determination, which none of them do.

The hope that problems can be resolved without divisive movements is mystificatory magic thinking.  On a divisive issue any motion against one side must must be divisive, just because it divides along the different sides of the dispute, and thus separates supporters and opponents.  The truth, therefore, is that behind the narcotic language of inclusiveness and non-divisiveness there is always an attack on those who fall on the other side of the issue (who can then be attacked for being divisive)!

The attack takes the form of an effective denial of the right to self-determination of (in this case) the Palestinians.  Self-determination is a recognized human right– indeed, for colonized people denied a state of their own, the most important right.  As the Kenyan political philosopher and critic of a Euro-centric liberal understanding of human rights Makau Matua argues, “the most fundamental of all human rights is that of self-determination and … no other right overrides it.  Without this fundamental group or individual right no other human right could be secured, since the group would be unable to determine for its individual members under what political, social, cultural, economic, and legal order they would live.”(p. 108)  To deny people the right to self-determination is, at the deepest level, to refuse to recognize their humanity:  their capacity to shape their conditions of life and the values that will guide their collective existence on the basis of their own interpretation of their history.

Now if it should be rejoined that a movement for Palestinian statehood is an existential threat to Israel, the only cogent response is to deride it for the red herring that it is. In the current state of affairs, who is unable to exercise their right to self-determination, the Israeli state, or the Palestinian people who daily watch the Israeli government colonize more of their land? Who controls water and electricity provision to the occupied territories?  Who imposes collective punishment, arbitrary detention, torture, and extra-judicial killings on people resisting the illegal occupation of their traditional lands?  Who has just signed an arms deal worth 38 billion dollars over ten years?  Who has nuclear weapons?  It is abundantly clear who is the existential threat to whom and who has carte blanche from the so-called “international community” to continue its colonization of Palestinian land.

At a minimum, therefore, anyone who believes in the principle of self-determination must be in solidarity with Palestinian demands to boycott Israeli firms working on colonized lands, and to impose sanctions on analogy with the principle that supported sanctions on South Africa during the apartheid years.  If those sanctions were not anti-white, but anti-racist, then sanctions against Israel are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, but anti-colonial.

When Europeans first arrived on the lands of the First Nations and decided to stay, they needed some justification for displacing the people living there and appropriating their lands.  The principle was called terra nullis:  empty land.  In the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary, the European settlers simply declared that– in effect- there were no people here, and proceeded to put that principle into practice.  The way in which the principle of terra nullis denied the humanity of the people of the First Nations is overt, and no one who claims to support their current struggles for self-determination would be at all reticent about admitting the racist denial of the humanity of the peoples of the First Nations that the principle presupposed.  But Israeli settlement activity presupposes the very same principle, and yet, in Canada and around the world of official politics: silence, but a silence that speaks, a silence that says:  “we do not recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people.”

Readings: Enrique Dussel: Towards an Unknown Marx

Enrique Dussel’s Toward and Unknown Marx (2001) is a pathbreaking interpretation of the ethical foundations of Marxism.  In it he brings together the principles of his liberation theology with a careful and original reading of Marx’s Manuscripts of 1861-63.  The Argentinian philosopher (who has lived and worked in Mexico since the 1970’s after being hounded from Argentina by right-wing death squads) is a philosopher of enormous scope and erudition but who is less well know than he should be amongst social and political philosophers in the Global North.  He traverses the history of Western philosophy with rare depth, but situates its key ethical insights as developments of older traditions of thought that emerge first in Egypt.  (See his The Ethics of Liberation in an the of Globalization and Exclusion).  The unifying principle of this ancient tradition (which reappears in the Old and New testaments and is implicit in the older life-ways and practices of indigenous communities) is the absolute value of human life– a value regularly denied by hierarchical and exploitative forms of social organization from the Phaoronic Egypt to out own day.

The book in question here is a commentary on Marx’s relatively little known (outside circles of Marx scholarship) manuscripts of 1861-1963.  These were written after The Grundrisse (where Marx began to work out the arguments that became Capital) and are, in Dussel’s apt interpretation, a laboratory in which Marx further develops and tests his concepts against the theories of leading bourgeois political economists.  They are the source of a set of books often published under the title Theories of Surplus Value, as well as the material from which Engels assembled Capital Volume Three.  They are also a wealth of methodological and philosophical comments, and it is here that their main interest lies for Dussel, the philosopher of liberation.

Dussel defends the thesis that these manuscripts help to prove that the fundamental category of Marx’s critique of political economy is the ‘exteriority’ of living labour.  He means that for Marx living labour, the real human beings who make up the economy, are not ever just personifications or functions of its motive forces.  Capitalism subsumes these living, hoping, loving, and struggling people and tries to reduce them to nothing more than exploited objects, but it can never fully succeed.  The foundation of Marx’s critique of capitalism is these living beings– their needs, their deprivations, their talents, their goals, their struggles.  He contends that understanding the meaning of the exteriority of workers

with respect to the ‘totality’ of capital is the conditio sine qua non for the total comprehension of Marx’s discourse. From this moment on, I shall refer on many occasions to the ‘living labour’; it will become the obligatory realm of all his argument and the radical place, beyond the ‘bourgeois perspective’. Not to understand the absolute position (the only real absolute in the totality of Marx’s thought and the ethical rule of all of his ethical judgments) living labour, of the actuality of the labourer’s corporeality, or in other words, the person or subjectivity of the labourer, will lead bourgeois economics (and its philosophies as ‘philosophies of domination’) to fall into necessary hermeneutical mistakes. The truth of Marx’s analysis rests on and departs from the ‘real reality ( wirkliche Wirklichkeit )’ of the Other different from capital; the living labour as actuality, as creator of value or source of all human wealth in general, not only capitalist.”(p.8).

This is a bold thesis.  I think that it is correct (and textually well-substantiated by Dussel).  At the same time, it leads him to insist upon a unified meaning of Marx’s work that perhaps covers over some methodological tensions that must be understood if certain problems in the subsequent development of Marxism are to full explained.

Before discussing the tensions let us first pause to appreciate the deep philosophical insight into Marx’s work that Dussel achieved.  His fundamental claim had been touched upon in different ways in all the humanist readings of Marx that emerged in the wake of the discovery of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and especially that of Marcuse’s early understanding of those manuscripts significance.  In fact, he notes the contribution of Marcuse. (p.xxxii )  Towards an Unknown Marx is unique in that he articulates the argument that human life and its fundamental needs constitute the ethical core of Marxism with his previous work in liberation theology.  He thus broadens the perspective of liberation beyond the interests of the working class to connect with the interests of the exploited peasants and indigenous peoples of the world.  He thus achieves a wider universality than is typical in Marxist literature because, from his perspective, peasants and indigenous people are not extras added on to an essentially working class movement, but form one body with workers of exploited and need-deprived humanity– victims of capitalism who all have the same interest in transforming it.

If the world still needs proof that Marx never abandoned his early ethical arguments and the key idea of alienation, Dussell provides it.  Consider this quotation that Dussel mines from the manuscripts:  “The objective conditions of living labour appear as separate values , become independent as against living labour capacity as subjective being ( Dasein ) [ … ] What is reproduced and newly produced is not only the being ( Dasein ) of these objective conditions of living labour but their being as alien ( Fremdes Dasein ) to the worker, as independent values, i.e. values belonging to an alien subject, confronting this living labour capacity.”(p.177)  Althusser’s “epistemological break”  does not exist:  Marx’s work is an ethical critique of capitalism from beginning to end.

Exteriority is the through-line that establishes the continuity beneath such fundamental concepts as alienation and exploitation.   “Marx performs the critique of all possible
political–economic science starting from ‘living labour’ (as the most simple
category; as the most abstract and real principle), and the critique of capital
itself as effective reality (the ‘development of its concept’ from Marx’s point of
view, not only by the mediation of other texts, but starting from his own
research, also from ‘living labour’). Critique of the established, prevailing political
economy, is destructive. Development and construction of his own discourse
… is affirmative. In both moments, ‘living labour’ is the generating starting point.”(191) In sum, Marx, in Dussel’s view, always begins from and returns to the ways in which capitalism damages the life-interests of real human beings.  Socialism is not about releasing the growth of the forces of production from the “fetters” of capitalist relations of production, it is about liberating people from the violence and poverty of life under capitalism.

For Dussel, this point is not only central to Marx’s politics, it is central to his materialism, which he calls “productive”  rather than cosmological.  Marx’s materialism is  not an abstract metaphysics based on the principle that only that which is physically measurable and quantifiable is real. “The person–nature relation is neither the first, concretely speaking, nor is it, according to Marx, the most important one. The person, always the person, is the critical starting point, as the condition of all objectified labour, of allmaterialized institution, of anything which is an effect of this labour (as capital
itself and in totality).”(193)  On the contrary, it begins from the primacy of social relations between human beings and not the abstract relationship between human beings and nature.  “The essence of capital has a practical, moral (non-ethical) standing. The
‘person–nature’ relation is productive; the ‘person–person’ relationship is
practical, moral (as the prevailing system) or ethical (as the other who ‘interpellates’
(appeals) from exteriority). For Marx there is no doubt, against
naive materialism, the ethical relationship determines and concretely constitutes
the productive relation.”(202)  While Dussel is right to argue that for Marx the ethical foundation of socialism lies in the value of the social bonds upon which the development of human life-capacities depends, there is more ambiguity here than Dussel allows for.

That ambiguity is best studied in The German Ideology, in which Marx maintains both a) that all life presupposes on-going connection with external nature, and b) that external nature ceases to exist at a certain point in the development of human productive power and intelligence.   He chastises Feuerbach for arguing as if nature were something in itself apart from human labour.  He would be right, if “nature” meant only those manifest forms of energy and matter that we can transform to suit our purposes.  The landscape, flora and fauna, even now the genetic codes of some organisms are not purely “natural” i.e., not free of alternations born of human intentions and actions.  But the forces of nature themselves-  the strong and weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, the naturally occurring elements, the entire universe beyond the  solar system (with the exception of the trajectory of Voyager and the electromagnetic radiation emanating from earth) are completely untouched by human labour and surely part of nature.

This point is not philosophical pedantry:  a proper estimation of human power, dignity, and creativity must begin with a proper understanding of our original and enduring dependence on the natural world.  Dussel does not deny our dependence, but I think he underestimates its ontological and ethical significance.   Its ethical significance is central to the values of the indigenous peoples of the world from which he in other places learn so much.  The value of nature is not only instrumental; respect for the earth as home and life-host sets the tone for all other relationships.  If we think the earth is nothing but matter for us to use, we will extend that principle to our treatment of people. The history of colonialism suggests that there is much truth to this argument.

Dussel’s interpretation of Marx could also be criticized on the grounds that it overestimates the unity of Marx’s theoretical position.  As we have seen, Dussel sees the exteriority of living labour as the throughline that unifies the whole of Marx’s work into an ethical critique of capitalism.  “Marx can measure ethically , or from human labour, the totality of categories and the capitalist economic reality, and, therefore, can make an ethical critique of it (if by ‘ethical’ is understood, correctly, the critique of the dominant and established structure of capitalism).”(p. 109) Others, starting with Gramsci and continuing into the present with the work of Michael Lebowitz, accept that Marx is an ethical critic of capitalism, but argue that this criticism fades out in CapitalCapital is called “a critique of political economy,” but that which makes Marx a critic does not appear here (or only rarely):  living working people struggling within capitalism to make their lives as good as can be.  Instead we have endogenous laws of production working themselves out using people-  who appear only as personifications of capital, as Marx himself says– as playthings.

Let us take the example of wages, a key touchstone of Lebowitz’s argument.  In Beyond Capital, Lebowitz argues that what is missing from Capital’s understanding of wage rates is the organized fightback of workers to raise real wages. These struggles have been central to the determination of wages in capitalism, but Marx says nothing about them.  That he is silent here gives the impression that Marx thinks that wages are simply functions of the dynamics of capital and cannot be affected by organized struggle.  Of course, that is not the whole story, but it is the whole story in Capital.  Hence the need for, in Lebowtiz’s view, the unwritten “Political Economy of the Working Class.”  Dussel looks at the same issue and sees the outlines for a work on wages (the political economy of the working class) but fails to appreciate, as Lebowiutz does, the implications of its not having been written.  “Hence, wages are the price of the value of labour capacity, strictly speaking, and consequently and improperly , the ‘price of labour’ (in truth, living labour cannot have a price, because it has no value). If we add to the foregoing other related moments (surplus value, variable capital, surplus labour and necessary time) (pp. 78ff.), we already have the fundamentals for a Marxist theory of wages, which here – as in Capital – was never developed as a separate part, but was studied (as rent, credit, etc.) as was required to clarify the ‘ concept of capital’ in general, in abstract, in its essence.” (p.172)  My point is that Dussel is not wrong to argue that Marx’s work is a unified totality of ethical critique, but perhaps fails to appreciate the methodological tension that exists between this critique and the abstract analyses of Capital.  Those abstractions needed to be made in order to understand how capitalism functions, but their purpose is understanding, not critique, and they have been used to construct what Lebowtiz  criticizes as a technocratic and productivist understanding of socialism in which the key values of human need-satisfaction and self-emancipation play no role.  Dussel’s aim is to rescue Marx’s criticisms from these inhuman conceptions of socialism, but his purposes would perhaps be better served if he noted the tensions that Lebowitz notes rather than subsume it in a grander unity.

Nothing in these criticism takes away from the ethical grandeur of the work (and the larger project of building an ethics of liberation within which it should studied and evaluated).  Living labour’, or more generally, living human beings, and their absolute claim to continue to live and live well that their existence as self-conscious subjects exerts is the universal, transhistorical foundation of all ethical principles.  Towards an Unknown Marx thus re-situates Marx not as the last word of emancipatory theory, but as a moment of a longer and broader struggle.  “Latin American Philosophy of Liberation has a lot to learn from Marx.  Marx’s ‘science’ was the ‘Liberation Philosophy’ of living labour alienated incapital as wage labour in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Today, the ‘Philosophy of Liberation’ must also be articulated with the science of the alienated living labour of classes, peripheral, under-developed
peoples, of the so-called Third World struggling in national and popular processes
of transformation against central and peripheral globalized capitalism,
at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”(204) The main fault line of that struggle today, Dussel makes clear here, is the Global South, where the majority of the most deeply violated human beings live.  Here, he argues, Marxist class analysis must be combined with national liberation struggle against the structural dependency of countries in the Global South on the imperialist countries of the Global North.

His commentary ends with ideas to develop Marx’s categories into a new theory of dependency that comprehends super-exploitation of the labour in the Global South contemporary global market conditions and the political fault lines of domination.  “That is, dependency exists at an abstract, essential, or fundamental level, and it is the international social relation between bourgeoisies possessing total national capitals of different degrees of development. In the framework of competition, the less developed
total national capital finds itself socially dominated (a relation between persons),
and, in the final analysis, transfers surplus value (an essential formal moment) to
the more developed capital, which realizes it as extraordinary profit.”(225)  Capitalism is thus, in its very essence, according to Dussle, a system of domination which is incompatible with the fundamental conditions of universal life-support and development.

Dussel’s work is rich and complex, technical and difficult to understand at first.  It can profitably be read in connection with and contrast  to John McMurtry’s life-value onto-axiology, and my more modest efforts to read Marx through the frame of life-value.  No understanding of political philosophy, and, more importantly, no comprehensive criticism of capitalism, is possible without addressing the core themes of Dussel’s  work.

Lessons From History: Herbert Marcuse: “Murder is not a Political Weapon”

The emergence of so-called “lone wolf attacks” purportedly inspired or directed by Daesh have become a new source of political anxiety within the Western security establishment.  These attacks should also be of concern to and condemned by the anti-imperialist Left.  First, contrary to its right-wing caricature, it is not a movement of unthinking ideologues and apologists for terror but human beings whose primary goal is the creation of the social conditions for human self-realization everywhere. Second, and following from the first, when the tactics of random terror are identified with anti-imperialist politics, they threaten its wider legitimacy.  In order to protect that legitimacy and extend it more widely, these tactics must be criticized from the left in the name of a mass democratic and internationalist alternative to both imperialism and the terrorist response it engenders.

Human beings cannot think when they are afraid.  By instilling fear, random terrorist attacks on civilian targets undermine the ability and desire of people in the West to think about the depth historical causes of terrorism.  A more or less blind compliance with the military-security apparatus agenda follows.  This agenda treats terrorism as an irrational phenomenon whose causes lie in the psychological pathology and demoniac immorality of the perpetrators.  No doubt there are psychotics and demons amongst the ranks of Daesh.  But the question must be asked:  how did they get so angry in the first place?  The answer is not to be found in their individual family or life-history but in the history of Western imperialist intervention in the Middle East and Africa.  The point is not that this history can explain any attack in particular, but rather that it contains the general causes of the emergence of anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East of which Daesh is a distorted expression.

Disagree?  Let us review very briefly the origins of Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Al Qaeda was largely the creation of the Cold War struggle between American and Soviet imperialism, armed by the United States to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Having successfully driven the Soviets out, they turned their forces against America in a classic case of what Chalmers Johnson called “blowback.”  Daesh developed out of al Qaeda in Iraq; its leader Baghdadi radicalized in an American prison camp after the Second Gulf War, which was itself an attempt to use the toppling of Saddam Hussein to rebuild a compliant and supine Middle East.  Psychotics attack anywhere at random in response to their own delusions.  But there are no examples of terrorist violence not claimed in the name of a specific, identifiable, political grievance that is not delusional, even if the hopes for success by these means might be.  Individual practitioners may or may not be violently psychotic; the politically important point is that the underlying causes of the emergence of a movement that allow those people to give expression to their revenge fantasies are evident, comprehensible, and explicable in historically clear and politically rational terms.

To say that the emergence of a terrorist movement is explicable in politically rational terms does not mean that the means adopted are rational or justified.  On the contrary, they are self-undermining and in contradiction to the underlying human values that legitimate democratic resistance to imperialism.  And that is why the anti-imperialist left should be concerned, politically, with criticizing these attacks:  they make even more difficult the already herculean task of transforming global politics in the direction of self-determination for the people of the world and away from their subordination to capital and the military and political power that protects it.

This problem has arisen before.  In the late 1960’s and 1970’s a wave of leftist terror attacks was perpetrated across Europe and North America in the (misguided) hope that they would create the conditions for working class revolution.  The thought was that the state would have to become more and more repressive in response to the attacks, thus teaching workers its true nature, disabusing them of social democratic illusions that the state could be their ally, and thus causing them to become revolutionary.  The state did become more repressive, but the workers were not moved to revolution.  The terrorist cells were dismantled and the activists either jailed or killed.

One of the most succinct and incisive critiques of this wave of kidnappings, shootings, and bombings was an article written by Herbert Marcuse in 1977:  “Murder is not a Political Weapon.”  In response to the attacks by the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof gang in then West Germany, Marcuse posed two questions:  1) did the attacks weaken capitalism; and 2) were they required by revolutionary morality.  To both questions Marcuse answered in the negative.  The same two questions could be asked today about the terrorist response to Western imperialism.  The same negative answers hold, and for the same reasons that Marcuse gave in 1977.

To the first point, rather than advance any progressive agenda, terrorists fatally compromise it.  They alienate potential supporters and they must be conspiratorial and secretive, making the construction of a democratic mass movement impossible. Their only effect is to strengthen the repressive power of their enemies.  Terrorism, Marcuse argued “strengthens its [the state’s] repressive potential without (and this is the decisive point) either engendering opposition to repression, or raising political consciousness.”  In the contemporary context, terrorism not only does not engender opposition to repression or raise political consciousness, it engenders support for repression at home and more extreme military violence in the Middle East and Africa.  As for political consciousness, far from raising it, it drives it down to the most crass atavism and xenophobic Islamophobia.  The strength of right wing populism in Europe and America is at least partly attributable to 9/11 and subsequent attacks.  The biggest victims of these politically degenerate movements have been the very people the terrorists are claiming to liberate: the Muslims of the Middle East and Africa.

Marcuse also argued that terrorism was contrary to “revolutionary morality.”  While the term sounds out of place today, its underlying idea remains important.   Socialist revolution was always justified in terms of freeing human life from the control of alienating, exploitative, and reified social powers so that instead of life being little more than service to money and its owners, it would become free self-realizing activity.  Revolutionary morality was the set of values that follow from this steering principle. “Its goal– the liberated individual– must appear in the means to achieve this goal.  Revolutionary morality demands… open struggle, not conspiracy and sneak attacks.  An open struggle is a class struggle.”  His point is that liberation cannot be achieved by violence alone, because a violent struggle requires military discipline, hierarchical structures, and leaders who command and followers who obey.  Revolutionaries schooled in that mode of struggle will not become people capable of democratic governance, because the principle of democratic governance is collective self-determination through full and free debate, not doing what the leadership commands be done.  As we can see with abundant clarity from the areas that Daesh rules, democratic self-determination is not their aim.  Hence, on this score too, the terrorist response to Western imperialism fails the test.

It is difficult to see beneath the sectarianism and factionalism that typifies Middle Eastern politics today any sort of class struggle.  Still when we look at the root cause of the chaos:  Western military intervention, the class interests that have been imposed upon the peoples of the Middle East are clear enough.  Western intervention in the Middle East is a direct function of its economic and strategic value.  If there were nothing there but Bedouin communities and dates, it would lack all strategic value.   Oil– and control over it-  is the ultimate (but not sole) driver.  Political struggles can generate their own immanent reasons for continuing once they have begun.  Amongst the most important are the fear that apparent weakness will embolden enemies  and the belief (fatal to gamblers) of thinking that past losses can be made good by more strenuous application of the same strategy.

The anti-imperialists of the Daesh strip claim to be resisting Western violence, but kill mostly Muslims.  What damage they do inflict on the West is-  while horrific from the human perspective- of no consequence from the standpoint of social stability.  No Western country will be destroyed by one-off terrorist attacks.  Those attacks will promote more and more hatred of Muslims as an undifferentiated and demonized group and thus more and more support for the very military violence the terrorists are claiming to fight against.  Marcuse’s 1977 conclusion rings as true of Daesh as it did of the Red Army faction:  “Their methods are not those of liberation.”

Windsor Spaces II: Ford City Parkette

This essay is the second in an occasional series of unambivalent notes of appreciation for some Windsor spaces that I like because they make me feel like I live in a city. (You can read the first essay, on Atkinson Park, here).

The guide books (are there guidebooks about Windsor?) won’t know about these spots,
so if you ever visit, seek them out and see what you think.
The second installment of the series takes readers to the heart of the Drouillard Road neighbourhood, the Ford City Parkette (Corner of Drouillard and Whelpton).


At the centre, la machine infernale touches the human hand and says, “it will be ok, follow where I lead,” which turned out to be oblivion, unemployment.  It arranges the workers in circular space around its structure, their strong hands gripping its appendages, the cables or hoses that feed it snake up and away from them, but have not been anchored to any ceiling.  Instead, the sculptor let them extend into space and disappear, a true deus ex machina fed by transcendent forces. A terrifying mechanism frozen in bronze, an  alien spaceship before everything became too clean and cgi; the workers masked and goggled and aproned  to protect themselves from its heat or its blasts; faces covered save one, whose handsome beard and attentive eyes testify:  we are still human beings.


At the street’s edge, still, human beings.  Two fellows talk theology while I sip water in the heat-heavy sun, sweating through my atheist society t-shirt, thinking:  “There is a difference between politics that (like the church across the street from which the disputants must have come) wants to save people by transforming them, and human respect that demands that those same people be left to be who they are.  Some people take a sedimentary rock approach to the afflicted and the addicted, seeing a neighbourhood like this as the bottom of an immense pile of shells and bones that gets crushed under its own weight into limestone; the people just fossilized remains waiting for a saviour to rescue them.”

But the people are, if anything, abundantly alive: laughing, some might say maniacally, but I will say exuberantly, debating, shuffling about in slippers and shower cap looking for a light, walking a giantly terrifying dog, and some, just sitting, forlorn perhaps.  (But is that wrong?  Not everything is funny).


In one of his “Questionnaires”  Max Frisch asks:  “Are you afraid of the poor?” and then immediately after:   “Why not?” (Sketchbook 1966-1971, pp.207-208).  He gives voice to every middle class person`s anxiety:  “If we do not do something, they will steal our shit.”  But if you talk to people you discover that they don’t want your shit, only the resources that they are entitled to so that they can shape their own reality ….


… the way the sculptor Mark Williams, (who was also a Ford journeyman) sculpted the extraordinary piece (the finest public art in the city by far) out of his own experience.  His figures are not those of a Raphael (who was celebrated for paintings that made people appear “more real than they are”).  Still less are they the cardboard heroes of socialist realism.  His exquisitely detailed workers appear to be just what they are:  workers- with hard hands and wrinkled clothes, trying to control a mechanism that would ultimately control them.

And this concrete and scraggy grass and faux-wood covered corner park is what remains.  Perhaps it is not worth the historic losses, but there are no scales to weigh the cost of the losses of the past against the gains of the future.  Some lose, and badly, and that is real, while others gain, and handsomely, and that is real.  Art does not change that reality, but it can at least say:  we were here, think about what that means.

Here, There, History

So it is a great space to sit and think about what that means, at the beginning (or the end, depending on whether you come from the north or the south) of this hardy historical neighbourhood.  It is a gathering place, not a dying place, and a sitting and probably a drinking place (and how is that wrong); a corner parkette not unlike the one’s you find everywhere in Manhattan (if you stop looking up and shopping for a moment you will see them, little anchors for the micro-neighbourhoods that make up and make great that immense metropolis so, so far culturally, from here).  But difference makes it worth being here when you are here and there when you are there.  The new and hip is generic and without place, the true and the real are contoured and shaped by their historical grounding in historical-material space.

Peter Singer Loses His Grip

In an obscure article translated by Walter Kaufmann, (“Who Thinks Abstractly”) Hegel responds to charges that philosophy is a form of “abstract” thinking.  His response is to demonstrate that it is not philosophers who think abstractly, but the general public when they cast around for simplistic explanations for complex problems.  To think abstractly is not to think in terms of general principles or universal causes, but rather to ignore both in favour of surface explanations that pick out (abstract) an empirical feature of a situation and posit it as the cause.  Hegel gives the example of a murderer. For the abstract thinker, a murderer is nothing more that a person who murders.  The complex history of events and experiences that combined to produce the murderer are ignored.  Thus, abstract thought is unhistorical:  it cannot explain how a given situation came to be or how it could be changed.   Moreover, it is not interested in how things came to be; it is happy with its surface explanations.

Sadly, it is not only the general public that thinks abstractly in this sense.  Philosophers are, contra Hegel, often guilty as well.  A recent case in point is the ever-controversial Peter Singer.  In a story reported in the Jakarta Chronicle, he is quoted as saying that if smart young people want to save the world, then they should become investment bankers.  No worries about their obscenely high salaries, “if they are able to live modestly and give a lot away, they can save many lives.” Well perhaps, but what about the lives they ruin by providing the funds for “investments”  that destroy landscapes, indigenous ways of life, public goods and services; their collusion with autocrats against unions, social movements, and indigenous cultures; their blind infatuation with money above all else?

Singer’s error is to abstract the issue of charitable giving from the more complex reality of what is valued in the global economy and what is selected for investment.  For Singer it is simply a matter of what you do with your money once you have it, not how you get your money in the first place, or the overarching economic system that determines the relative pay scales of different occupations.

Singer’s argument is analogous to claiming that if you want to save lives then you should stock up on poison and its antidote, administer the poison to people, and then the antidote, just before they die.  At the very least, that is a pretty roundabout way of saving lives.

The worst aspect of the argument is that it leads to the morally odious conclusion that those who make money speculating on currencies, stripping public services by privatizing them, working with governments to drive down wages and eliminate benefits, raid pension plans and condemn the young to a life of precarious servitude actually do more good (if they give away some of the income that they derive from destroying lives) than poorly paid workers:  nurses, support care workers, teachers in most of the world, whose labour is actually and directly life-serving.

I am not a long-standing critic of Peter Singer’s work.  His contribution to animal ethics is path-breaking, his commitment to life-protective universal global ethical principles is one I share (although not his utilitarian interpretation of that ethic).  I think he has been unfairly criticized by disabled rights activists who have interpreted thought experiments designed to sensitize us to the suffering of animals as hateful attacks on the disabled.  But I have long worried that his focus on charity as the means of solving the problems of poverty and oppression was politically incoherent, and the comment quoted above seems to bear my concern out.(See for example Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, p. 195).

The first problem with charity is that it operates in a political, economic, and social vacuum.  As I argued above, it fails to ask how the money that the charitable donor deigns to redistribute was acquired.  The second problem is that it smacks of noblesse oblige:  the fortunate (usually, white Western) donor, media in tow, appears in the midst of the huddled masses of the Global South and distributes manna.  Bellies are fed for a day, but true freedom from poverty- freedom that can only come from collective struggle against the private ownership of life-resources and their exploitation for money-value that accumulates in private (and mostly Western) hands- is impeded. Real freedom from poverty requires the expropriation of the investment banks and turning them to the truly democratic and life-serving purposes of investment in universally accessible public infrastructure and goods.

In other places (One World, for example) Singer has sounded a more critical tone towards global capitalism, but he has always pulled back from calling for collective action in support of an alternative value system in favour of abstract calls for charity.  Individualistic solutions to social problems, ethics in abstraction from social philosophy, and structural analysis of the global economy result, in this case, in an obscene inversion of values:  the destroyers of life appear as its servants, its real servants, the mostly indigenous poor of the world, appear as helpless beggars awaiting salvation.

Perhaps Singer would rejoin that not every business venture is life-destructive. If every one were, then capitalism would have long ago killed off the species.  Fair enough.  But it is obvious that all investments in capitalism are contradictory (and many are outright destructive of indigenous lives and life-ways).  Every investment depends on the exploitation and alienation of labour, and the overwhelming direction of economic “development” in the past forty years has been against collective protections for working people and in favour of privatization and precarity.  Investment banks line up the funds for all of these projects.

Perhaps he would further rejoin that need is immediate and social transformation is a long-term project, if it is even possible.  Again, there is some truth here. However, it is a practical truth that any number of politicians or UN bureaucrats or Western do-gooders can make. The world does not need philosophers to state the obvious.  If there is any public value at all to philosophy it is that it stands somewhat above the day to day fray, not so that it can ponder the heavens “in abstraction”  from real life, but so that the deep underlying principles that regulate everyday life can be made the object of reflection and criticism to the extent warranted by the state of peoples lives.  Philosophy that panders to the given in the way that Singer does in this case contradicts its vocation-  which in many other respects Singer has upheld to the highest degree-  to make the hard, the non-obvious, argument that takes us beyond where we are now to a place it would be better for all to be.

Readings: Beyond Capital

Michael Lebowitz’s 1992 classic Beyond Capital:  Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class established him as the most philosophically astute Marxist economist of his era.  Lebowitz argues that there is a tension at the heart of Marx’s work between the humanist values that ground his emancipatory vision of socialism and the mechanical scientism of Capital.   Lebowitz does not argue that the analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society in Capital should be rejected but rather that it must be read as one element within the totality of Marx’s work.  What is absent from Capital, according to Lebowitz, is just what is central to Marx’s work as a whole:  the understanding of working people as subjects, as active creators of their own history, as agents of their own emancipation.  In Capital, by contrast, it is the “laws of motion” of the capitalist economy that are the subjects, while people are treated as “but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.”(Capital, Volume 1, p.60).  Consequently, both the politics and economics of Capital are one-sided. 

Let us start with the economic problems.  In Marx’s presentation in Capital, the valorization process takes place as if workers were inert functions of the system of production.  Wages and the rate of profit are determined as if working people and their struggles did not matter.  Technically, the problem, according to Lebowitz, is that Marx assumed for the sake of his analysis that the amount of goods necessary to ensure the reproduction of labour-power was fixed.  If it was fixed, then the money-value of labour could be assumed to be constant (the money-value of labour is determined by the amount of labour time it takes to earn the money equal to that bundle of necessities).  “Marx’s discussion in Capital take the constancy of that set of necessary means of subsistence as given.  It is on that basis that we proceed to explore the production of  surplus value.”(p.16)  This seemingly innocuous methodologcal assumption on Marx’s part has profound political implications.

Marx’s assumes for the sake of his understanding of the production of surplus value that the cost of labour is fixed.  What this means is that the extent of workers’ basic needs is assumed to be fixed.  But this means that what we are dealing with are not real people and real societies in comparison with each other, but with an abstract methodological construction of a static theory-construct.  In real life, and in real economies, according to Lebowitz, that which is physically necessary is subsumed beneath what is socially necessary.  In the twenty-first century it is socially necessary to have access to computers, in the nineteenth it was not.   Since people are not inert functions of system-dynamics but socially self-conscious agents who see and feel what is happening to the world around them, they organize and fight for higher wages so that they can access that which socially necessary to life in the society in which they live.  Consequently, an adequate economic model must understand dynamic wages rates, and in order to understand dynamic wage rates, working class struggle must be taken into account.

Marx does not take workers’ struggles for higher real wages into account in Capital.  “In short, the existence of unfulfilled social needs underlies the worker’s need for more money, her need for a higher wage.  But, that, of course, involves a struggle for higher wages …. There is, however, no discussion in Capital about the struggle for higher wages.”(p.30).  Thus, what is missing from Capital is the political economy of the working class.  The political economy of the working class would centre on the struggle over real wages as the social foundation of the quality of life that workers are actually able to live.  Capital focuses exclusively on the political economy of capital:  on the production of surplus value through the exploitation of labour.  What it is missing is the economic impact of workers’ struggles against exploitation.  Viewed from the side of workers as human beings, these struggles constitute a production process as well:  not the production of money-capital, but the self-production of human beings as subjects: “what happens during free time is a process of production, a process in which the nature and the capability of the worker is altered. It is ‘time for the full production of the individual.’” (p.51).  Marx does examine workers’ struggles for a shorter working day in Capital, but not the other side of that struggle:  the struggle for higher real wages which is the essential condition, under capitalism, of people being able to realize themselves in the time they have outside of work.  In sum, “there is a critical silence” in Capital Lebowitz argues,which permits the appearance that, for the scientist, the only subject … is capital, growing, transcending all barriers, developing—until, finally, it runs out of steam and is replaced by scientists with a more efficient machine.”(p.11).  The problems with the economic analysis produce serious political problems, unless the arguments of Capital are situated within the whole of Marx’s work.

Like Gramsci before him, Lebowitz worries that Capital taken on its own implies a mechanical and necessary transition to socialism as a consequence of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism.  Gramsci saw the Russian Revolution as a revolution against the “naturalism and positivism”  of Capital, as an assertion of the creative power of human collective action against abstract conceptions of the “iron laws”  of capitalist society.  Lebowitz similarly worries that by ignoring struggles within capitalism for more free time and higher real wages, orthodox Marxists ignore those zones where workers are organized and actually fight.

Although he does not make this point explicit, I think it also follows from Lebowitz’ argument (and if I am right I think it is the most enduring philosophical-political contribution that it makes) that we need to conceive of the struggle for socialism not as an all or nothing battle leading to a revolutionary cataclysm, but as an open-ended process arranged along a continuum of better or worse lives for workers.  These struggles occur in multiple spheres and are led by many different organizations as workers struggle to satisfy their multidimensional needs.  Workers are human beings and human beings have needs.  These needs and people’s ability to satisfy them are modified by people’s concrete identity.  Lebowitz thus arrives at an expansive conception of class struggle as the multi-dimensional struggle of alienated, exploited, and oppressed human beings against capital as the systematic impediment separating them from the resources and institutions that they need.  A struggle for schools is just as much a class struggle as a strike; a struggle against racial profiling or police violence is just as much a class struggle as the demand for higher wages, because workers are not generic tokens of a type but students and black and women and gay.

Lebowitz thus rejects any antithesis between what were called at the time “new social movements”  (broadly, the struggles of the oppressed organized by identity and not class) and socialism:  “A strategy calling for ‘external alliances’ between workers and new social actors takes as its starting point the theoretical reduction of workers to one-dimensional products of capital.  Rather than an inherent opposition between ‘new social movements’ and the struggle of workers as a class against capital, the former should be seen as expressing other needs of workers, and as the development of new organizing centres of of the working class, functioning ‘in the broad sense’ of its complete emancipation.’ (p.147) In other words, a properly organized left would coherently include the struggles of all oppressed people, not as optional add-ons, but as an internally unified expression of the complex ways in which capitalism impedes the satisfaction of the totality of human needs as they are actually experienced by real (i.e., differently identified) people.

If anyone needs proof of the failure of the North American left to reinvent itself in a practically effective way it is that the oppressed continue to organize (and effectively, for example, most recently, in the Black Lives Matter movement) outside of and apart from a still moribund labour movement and socialist left.  Twenty five years on from Lebowitz, essentially the same arguments are being made on the left for internally unified struggles against multidimensional exploitation-alienation-oppression, still without effect.  The problem, I believe, is not the theoretical incoherence of the proposal, but the legacy of defeat:  the left simply has no credibility at this point to give people the confidence that they can put into practice that which they claim is theoretically possible.

Nevertheless, if we adopt Lebowitz’s (that is, Marx’s wholistic) conception of workers as human beings, and understand human beings (as I have argued elsewhere) as embodied, socially self-conscious agents, and embodied social self-conscious agents as requiring definite natural and social resources and relationships if they are to live and express themselves freely, and understand that people will always struggle in different ways to satisfy their needs, then short term failures of the left to produce a complete structural transformation of society are not fatal to the project.

Instead, the measuring stick of success should be the real conditions of workers lives:  The question is not whether struggles are “revolutionary”  in an insurrectionist sense, but whether they are demonstrably:  a) democratizing the workplace, b) enabling workers to better satisfy their physical, socio-cultural, and temporal life-requirements, c)  creating forms of non-alienated labour which enable the enjoyable expression of our talents and creativity, d)  in forms which are sustainable over the open-ended future, and e) overcoming systemic structures of oppression and political violence, at the local, national, and international level?  These are not all or nothing goals but can be more or less fully realized.  Cumulatively, they are incompatible with the rule of capitalist market forces and money-value over human life.  History suggests, however, that they cannot be realized at a single go.  It also suggests (as Lebowitz discovered concretely while working with the Chavez government in Venezuela), that anything less than complete success leaves past gains vulnerable.

There is no solution to the precarity of gains:  revolutionary leaders can be corrupted or undermined by events, reforms that leave the ruling class in power but improve lives can be rolled back.  There is only vigilance and collective effort to keep the line moving in the right direction; no social or natural force guarantees total and permanent emancipation.  Beneath stereotypes, class struggle is just the on-going efforts of working people in their concrete situations and identities fighting to reclaim as much time, space, and activity as possible from the forces of alienation and exploitation.  Twenty five years on, Beyond Capital continues to make that essential point with great clarity and humanity.

Fractals of Violence

Fractal geometry studies the ways in which certain natural structures appear to replicate the same pattern at different scales.  For example, the branching pattern that shapes the tree as a whole is replicated in the branching pattern of its major limbs, and the branching pattern of its major limbs is replicated in the smaller branches that grow out from them.  We can observe an analogous phenomenon in the world of political violence.  As fractal geometry helped mathematicians model irregularity in nature, so too can a close attention to scale help us understand the seemingly random and irrational nature of political violence today.

We live in a violent world:  a banality if ever there was one.  But what does it mean to say that we live in a violent world?  The world is multi-scalar.  There are global organizations and interactions, national states which are composed of formal and informal regions, cities, neighbourhoods, households, and individuals.  In order to understand what the term violent world means, we have to examine the world at each of these scales.  “The world”  is an abstraction which contains these different scales as subsets, but we cannot understand violence–  save in a politically ineffective moralistic way-  if we think abstractly.  We have to see how a global pattern is replicated in the smaller scales from the global and international down to the individual if we are to understand the meaning of “violent world” in any politically efficacious way.

To see the self-replicating structure of a tree we have to learn to follow its lines of branching with our eye.  To understand the self-replicating structure of violence, we have to learn to follow the lines of political division and opposition.  Wherever one finds violence one will always find a line of force that divides a potential whole (humanity, citizens, etc.) into opposed parties.  One party has, if not a monopoly on the means of violence (as Weber said of the state) a much higher capacity to impose its will by physical force, if decides to so use it.  The powerful nation state that unleashes its superior armed forces on a weaker adversary, the city that unleashes its police force against strikers, the gang that controls the streets of a neighbourhood, or the man who rapes a woman behind the wall of his house are all enacting the same sort of social script at a different scale.  The party that resorts to violence defines its interests in opposition to the interests of the target victim and decides that its interests alone count.  Since the other is constructed either as having no interests of its own, or the wrong sorts of interests, or “better off”  if it would adopt the interests of the stronger as its own interests, violence is seen not only as functionally legitimate, but normatively sound, the right thing to do.

In this way the violent agent can override sympathetic-empathetic fellow feeling that, when operative,  produce powerful psychic bulwarks against violent assault on others.  We only feel sorry for that which we care about and we only care about that which we think either a) has legitimate interests that must be respected, or b)  appears as an entity onto which we can project legitimate interests (as we do when we invest inanimate objects like works of art with intrinsic value that we then act so as to respect).  When people, acting as individuals or officers of some collective, deny or disregard the legitimacy of the opposed interests of others, they free themselves from the psychic bulwarks against violence and target their opponent for destruction.

Let us now examine the other side of this relationship.  Human beings, as Hegel knew, are subjects and not passive objects of nature and social power.  When they are treated as objects, they eventually resist.  This resistance to power takes the form of counter-power:  if someone tries to destroy me, I try to destroy him, not for the sake of removing the threat but for the sake of proving to the person who would reduce me to an object of his interests that I am a subject with my own interests, a free and not a dependent being.  Hegel was interested in the underlying dynamics and the conceptual form of struggle, not its political realities.  Hence, he treats every fundamental struggle as a struggle to the death, with no attention paid to the crucial issue of legitimation of the struggle.   Hence, he missed an essential imbalance in the discourses through which violence is justified:  the powerful not only have superior physical power on their hands, but superior communicative power (control over the means of communication)  and will use this to legitimate their own violence and demonize the violence of resistance.   In the real world of violence, the violence of the group or person with superior physical power (economic, political, and military) is always affirmed, the counter-violence of the victim is always demonized.

But not only demonized.  The primary tactic of de-legitimizing the counter-violence of the victims is to invert the real causal order:  the victim, i.e., the effect of the objectifying violence of ruling powers, is made the cause of their own objectification and targeting for violent assault.  The rape victim is made to appear as the cause of the rape, the anti-imperialist movement is made the cause of imperialist violence, and so on.

Take the recent example of the killings of police officers in Dallas.  As soon as that happened the focus of the corporate media shifted from a discussion of the long history of police violence against blacks in America to black violence against police.  Although it is not metaphysically possible for an event which occurred later in time (the killing of the police officers)  to provide the grounds for an event which happened prior in time (the police killings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis)  the media make it sound as if the fact that five police officers were murdered in response to the police killings somehow retroactively legitimated those police killings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.

This inversion makes the general pattern and causal texture of violence in the world invisible, and ensures that we remain trapped in revenge cycles.  Instead of understanding how general patterns of violence (colonial, racial, sexual, etc) are replicated at the scale of the individual as responses to their objectification and demonization, the individual as such is posited as the cause of violence which must be ‘dealt with’ by more intense violence.  The shootings of police result in more intensive and aggressive policing, terrorist attacks result in more ferocious military assaults.  Both tactics ensure that the cycle will continue, because the systematic causes are not addressed.

Let us test this proposition on the international scale.  Has the “War on Terror”  that began in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan stopped terrorism?  Not only has it not, it has actually caused it to spread to areas in which it was formerly absent, most notably, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  What is the common element linking these states to the growth of terrorism?  Destablizing western intervention.  To point to destabilizing western intervention as the cause does not retroactively confer legitimacy on the autocratic rulers of those nations; it does condemn regime change imposed by neo-imperialist powers pursuing their own political and economic interest as incapable of creating stability and justice for local populations.  The collapse of central authority in the absence of unified pan-social democratic movements led to civil war and civil war to the creation of uncontrolled spaces where groups like Daesh were able to organize.  The application of ever increasing military force only exacerbates this problem, which means that it will not disappear even if Daesh is rooted from Raqqa and Mosul.

Even if this argument is true, it does not lead to the more hopeful political conclusions that twentieth century criticisms of colonialism generated.  One wonders what sort of victory or concession would satisfy a group like Daesh.  Consolidation of its territory?  But its odiously repressive politics would mean that it would exist in a state of permanent conflict with the local population, and never be accepted (as anti-colonial movements were) as the legitimate  expression of the popular-democratic and national will.   Once the American invasion had been finally repulsed, Viet Nam ceased to be at war with the United States and it set about he task of reconstructing its society.   So too with the post-colonial revolutionary regimes of Africa.  There was a coherent and politically and economically progressive goal which, once achieved, ended the formal hostilities between the parties.

It is difficult to understand Daesh along these lines.  At the same time, the Western means of dealing with it:  insect metaphors and vows to exterminate it– ensure that it can portray itself as the victim of imperialist violence and continue to recruit on that basis disaffected and racially and ethnically marginalized youth.  The global pattern replicates itself fractally at the individual level; individual acts of violence like in Istanbul give fresh impetus to the global pattern, and the sad bloody spectacle goes on and on.

What is absent here that was present in the twentieth century is a coherent democratic-nationalist alternative as the vehicle for a constructive anti-imperialist politics.  We can say the same thing in the domestic American case (although here perhaps Black Lives Matter can evolve into the overarching political movement that has been absent since the end of the Civil Rights-Black Power movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s).  The  only alternative to fractal replication of violence is constructive political movements that justify themselves by their success in building democratic alternatives as opposed to wantonly destructive acts that achieve nothing more than to bring down the ever more fearsome wrath of arms.

Clearly that sort of constructive politics (which we saw in the Arab Spring before the United States conspired with the Egyptian secret police to end it) can develop only over the long term.  And it is this long term that keeps the prophets of armed destruction and policing in charge of policy.  It is too easy for politicians to stand in front of the latest pile of bodies and declaim against the barbarians who caused it and promise revenge.  But revenge for Paris did not prevent Istanbul, and revenge for Istanbul will not prevent the next attack.  By all means, let us favour pragmatism over utopianism.  But pragmatism demands that the solution actually work.  Avenging individual violence with social and political violence simply has not worked.

What it has done and continues to do is to legitimate an arms race in which state power always emerges on top.  This arms race has led to the militarization of policing and the mechanistic autonomization of the military.  These interrelated developments have reduced the capacity for effective political resistance.  One cannot build barricades against drones and you cannot negotiate with bomb-wielding robo-cops.  There is no insurgency that can hope to succeed against the awesome killing power of the world’s most advanced military systems:  the inability of America to win its wars in the Middle East has not meant the people of the Middle East have won.  Instead, they suffer day after of day of life-destruction.  There will be political solutions to these conflicts or none at all.  If the shared life-interest is to prevail, new democratic political organizations with a coherent positive vision for transformation must emerge in these long-suffering states as in the black neighbourhoods and cities of America.