Democracy Against Capitalism

The development of a body of philosophical work, in my experience, is not a linear progression from insight to insight but a constantly circling back and going further/deeper into a set of problems.  Hence, in the course of my own philosophical development I have found my thinking drawn back to certain books that continue to help make sense of structural problems as they manifest themselves in changing contexts.  One on those books is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism. 2015 is its twentieth anniversary.  Far from being dated, it is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the current conflict between Greece and the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  Despite its unsurpassed insights into the limits that capitalism poses for democratic self-governance, Wood’s book, I feel, has never received the attention that it its due.

When it was published, it significantly advanced the state of Marxist political philosophy, replacing the unenlightening blanket rejection of “bourgeois democracy” with an historically rich and philosophically astute critique of liberalism.  Against received wisdom in both Marxist and liberal camps, Wood demonstrated the undemocratic origins of liberal democracy.  Drawing out the hitherto overlooked sophistication of Marx’s own critique of liberal democracy, Wood revealed that the essence of liberalism was a formal distinction between public and private realms, a distinction which allows the social forces generated in the ‘private’ economic sphere to undermine the democratic decisions made in the formally ‘public’ sphere.   The briliiance of the argument– and what should have made it more widely discussed in liberal circles- is that Wood substantiates her claims not through rote citation of Marx, but from an historical comparison between the practice of Athenian democracy and the pains English and American liberals took (following their respective revolutions) to normalise the identification of democracy with voting, and then  only on those issues which had no bearing on socio-economic life.  “In Athens, there was no …clear distinction between ‘state’ and ‘civil society,’ no distinct and autonomous ‘economy.’ … Political and economic powers and rights, in other words, were not as easily separated in Athens as in the US, where property was already achieving a purely ‘economic’ definition, detached from juridical privilege or political power, and where the ‘economy’ was acquiring a life of its own.  Large segments of human experience and activity, and many varieties of oppression and indignity, were left untouched by political equality.” (p. 224).  Political equality and voting rights might be necessary conditions of free social life, but they are by no means sufficient.  The current crisis in Greece illustrates clearly why not.

That which so alarmed European and global finance capitalists about the Greek referendum is that it forced open the normally closed  circuits of money-capital to democratic power.  Under normal circumstances, as Wood notes, economic forces are treated as if they were powers independent of human social activity to which that activity must conform in order to be rational.  “Freedom”  including democratic freedom, is thus identified with its opposite– compliance to external and unchallengeable forces.

To understand my point, consider any of a number of official response to the Greek referendum.  They all end up sounding the same alarm: the Greeks have defied the power of “markets” and will now suffer even worse consequences than had they complied with finance capital’s demands.  Here is one example amongst many that could have been chosen.  Simon Smith, an analyst at FxPro concludes:  “If Europe isn’t prepared to relax the terms it was offering Greece just last weekend, and there’s no indication it will, Greece will have to start printing its own currency so . On the other hand, if Europe compromises and agrees to write off some of Greece’s huge debt, the credibility of the currency will suffer. “Whatever the outcome of the next few days, there is no way that the eurozone or the single currency can come out stronger as a result.”  The point to pay attention to is the hidden framework within which Smith’s “no way” comment is made.  He assumes, not only as given (as is the case) the ways in which financial markets  operate today, but also that they are obligatory for all time and unchangeable by collective social decision.  It may well be the case that tomorrow a revived drachma will be weak or the Euro will decline, but that is not equivalent to the implication (which Smith wants us to draw)  that Greek society will be weaker, over the long term if it rejects the demands of its creditors. 

Smith thus excludes the possibility (of which human history is the living proof) of fundamental social change– change in the ruling value system and the purposes of major social institutions.   He cannot imagine that the Greek crisis could be the begining of transformational changes in the advanced capitalist West, changes which reconnect economies to their real purpose: the production of life-capital:  “the life wealth that produces more life wealth without loss and with cumulative gain.”  Life capital is not a fictitious or a utopian idea–  it is the food you eat, the water you drink (processed for safety) the education you have enjoyed, the health care that is available for you when you need it, the roof over your head.  If you live in a society in which these life-goods are not available, then you live in a society that is failing, regardless of what financial markets “think.”  Greek society is failing, precisely because governments before Syriza have obeyed the dictates of financial capital to convert their shared life-resources into money-capital for bankers to appropriate for themselves. Even mainstream business papers now recognise that the loans being given to Greece are part of a shell game in which money is advanced to pay back money that is owed–  Greek society starves, goes deeper into debt, and the banks receive back only that money they have already leant.  Money is certainly not being extended to the Greek people so that they can survive (the crisis has created a massive public health crisis that is killing people. (see Stuckler and Basu, The Body Economic, pp. 77-96).

By voting “no,” not only have Greeks magnificently refused to give into blackmail and intimidation, they have also exposed the fundamentally undemocratic character of capitalist society and the traditional parties, including social democratic parties, that support it. (If anyone needed more proof than Tony Blair that social democracy is fully incorporated into the capitalist mainstream, Francois Hollande and German Finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble are it).  What was so alarming about the referendum was that it gave Greeks an explicit say in the macro-economic policy their government would pursue.  Of course, part of the strategy here is brinksmanship of a thoroughly ordinary sort– Tsirpas trying to give himself some leverage in future talks.  But principles matter in politics– and the principle instantiated by the referendum is dangerous to the ruling financial oligarchy and orthodoxy:  if democracy is a formally legitimate political system, indeed, the one that capitalism is naturally supposed to lead to, and citizens begin to democratically reject cornerstone elements of capitalist society, capitalism will not be able to legitimate itself by its traditional means–  that it is the only democratic society.  The contradiction between capitalism and democracy will be exposed again, and the capitalists will have to choose to re-impose their will by force (as they have never been shy to do, when pushed)  or they will have to yield: in the short term, substantive concessions to Greece, and in the longer term, an opening into which more systematic transformational projects in democratic economic organization in the shared life-interest can be set up.

The no vote clearly does not solve all of Greece’s problems.  Nor can they be solved simply by reciting slogans about worker’s control.  While it is indeed time, as John Milios and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos argued back in March, is for Syriza to mobilise the Greek people, not just against the bankers, but for concrete steps towards mobilising Greek labour to rebuild Greek society, not so that the surplus can be pumped out of the country as money-capital for the financial oligarchy to consume, but to satisfy the life-requirements of Greek citizens.  But in taking this step caution is required:  nothing will spell doom for Syriza more quickly than failed  experiments in socialising key sectors of the economy.  That is what must be done, but it must be done with care and intelligence, and it will require international solidarity to succeed.  That solidarity may be taking shape.  In May, Podemos and its allies swept the municipal elections in Spain and are poised to win parliamentary elections in the fall.  Should that occur, and the powerful social movements unleashed by resistance to authoritarian austerity in Spain keep a Podemos government pushing to the left, a period of serious challenge, not only to neo-liberal orthodoxy, but to capitalist misrule might really be emerging.

 

 

Epic Working Class Poem

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Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.

Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man.”

I

Earth,

with the money extracted

and sent down South,

is just this blistered mass,

prime matter heaped beside railway tracks,

far from discriminating eyes.

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But does that prevent

me, with broader tastes,

from suggesting (and not in jest),

that it is not waste,

but sculpture made by hands

that had no intention,

as they drilled and blasted,

crushed and roasted,

separated and poured,

colluded with the random geometry

of cooling and tumbling,

to produce something

that I am compelled to admire

here,

on this road,

that is quite literally,

the end of the line?

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II

Grown

in the North.

Beards and bear piss blueberries,

rhubarb and Blezzard Valley potatoes;

these thin acidic soils

will not suffice,

I fear,

to attract network attention.

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Unless,

in my long absence,

by grace of global warming blessing,

the sins of frost-bite winds

have been redeemed

with produce more exotic,

for your weekend farmer’s market,

just one more token of a type

now found everywhere,

and locally!

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 III

City,

perpetually off-balance,

wobbling atop granite pullulations

that seem alive,

although they aren’t.

Stubbornly, they refuse to hide

their still blackened surface from tourists,

otherwise impressed.

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They used to say:

“It looks just like the moon!”

[“Really, lady, have you been to the fuckin’ moon?”].

Buzz Aldrin has and he,

il miglio fabbro,

saw and said it best:

“Desolation. Magnificent desolation.”

 

Not everything beautiful, you see,

needs to be green and pretty,

and no one should be ashamed,

of how they had to make their living.

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IV

Work

you never had to live

is easy to romanticise.

The too-young dead might disagree,

if they could speak.

But only the living can tell stories

of heroic union battles

not to be repeated anytime soon.

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Somewhere,

a dusty archive proves

this place once had some fight.

But today all you hear

from the old timer in Rudy’s,

coming in for a coffee,

and almost the best burger in the city,

is defeat:

“Hey Petey, where the hell is everyone?

I just drove past Little Stobie

and there was hardly a goddamn person on the line.”

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V

Cold,

there is something clarifying about it

that you have to breathe to understand,

something that maybe unhinges a man,

and makes him think

that his monstrous trapper’s hat,

face of fox and tail of wolf

[I shit you not]

would intimidate the twelve year olds,

and ensure victory

for his son’s side.

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But no one traps a loon,

whose perfect melancholy

is never sung,

until he’s sure that work is over,

and the sky’s quiescent purple

has settled us on the dock,

to pour the rye and ginger,

and drink

a toast to each of us,

to the cliches we once were,

and loved.

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VI

It is summer now.

And the night is warm.

And no one needs to rush.

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Sudbury-Windsor, May-July, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bring the Noise

In his superb  24/7, Jonathan Crary argues that blogging signifies the end of politics:  “The phenomenon of blogging is one example– among many– of the triumph of a one-way model of auto-chattering in which the possibility of ever having to wait and listen to someone else has been eliminated.  Blogging, no matter what its intentions, is thus one of the many announcements of the end of politics.”(p.124)  If blogging is reduced to its most narcissistic possibility-  immediate reporting on one’s state of mind, mere opining without reflection or filtering through a grid of principled argument-  then Crary is correct.  Politics is back and forth argument, not monologue, and if all blogging stems from dismissive ignorance of the reality of counter-argument, then it is anti-political.

At the same time, one must be careful not to confuse a platform with the substance the platform makes it possible to disseminate.  All writing runs the risk of being closed monologue, and nothing exemplifies the danger of “auto-chatter” better than much academic journal writing (especially in philosophy).  The medium need not be the message.  Authorial intention and content matter.

I begin with this quotation as a preamble to a reflection on my own work on this blog over the past year.  Since I first read Crary’s argument two years ago I have been sensitive to the double-bind I often find myself in here.  One of the reasons that I started Interventions and Evocations was to provide a forum for the philosophical discussion of politically and culturally significant contemporary events.  The timelines of peer review and academic publication preclude the incisive, immediate commentary that the best journalism provides, but even the best journalism tends to exclude the excavation of depth principles that socially relevant philosophy brings to light.  The danger is always that the desire to comment quickly (in order to be relevant)  undermines the time for reflection that philosophy demands.  (Perhaps one of the reasons philosophy is in crisis today is because it cannot operate at the speed the contemporary world requires).

There is no way out of this double bind.  Philosophy needs to be involved in on-going conversations, and philosophical thoughts also need time to gestate.  In the first year of writing this blog I think I fell victim to the temptation to write too early. Over the next three years I think I have become more sensitive to the need to let the thoughts form at their own pace, without having to delay comment so long that the urgency generated by the problem or event has dissipated.

The patience that philosophy requires is also served by having, at this point in my career, a body of work to draw upon and a set of principles which I think have been sufficiently tested in the crucible of peer reviewed academic publication and argument.  The intellectual value  of having access to a platform that allows for philosophical intervention into events as they happen is that those principles can be applied to current problems and their efficacy tested in living environments, after having proven their cogency in the more rigorous (but also more abstract) context of academic journals.  I see the blog as medium for a dialectic between commentary and philosophical argument and not just narcissistic reporting on what I happen to think.  Plus, the platform allows for critical response (one more reason why it need not be, as Crary charges, anti-political auto-chatter).  It is true that I have the power to not post responses, but it is impossible to become a philosopher without learning how to accept criticism of one’s principles and arguments.  All critics of the positions that I articulate here can therefore rest assured that their comments will posted, no matter how serious their disagreement with my perspective.

In sum, as I begin the fifth year of maintaining this site, I hope that it has done more than contribute to the cacophony of vanity that bedevils our culture (especially on-line culture).   At the same time, these posts are, for better or worse, my arguments.  I make no attempt to cloak them in the phantom objectivity of “One” or the contrived universality of “We.”  I have always hated the convention in social science (one fortunately not yet adopted by philosophy) of pretending that it is not “I” that takes a position.  All argument should be in the first person-  It is  “I”, not “one,” or “we”  that believes, asserts, contends, argues, etc.  Each mind is a unique perspective on the world, as Leibniz wrote:  “And much as the same town is viewed from different sides looks altogether different, and is, as it were, perspectively multiplied, it similarly happens that, through the infinite multitude of simple substances, there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which, however, are only the perspectives of a single one according to the different points of view of each monad.”  (Monadology, section 57).  There is one universe and multiple perspectives on it.  if we are ever to produce the harmony between perspectives that Leibniz believes already existed by divine choice, then we must share these perspectives with each other, not as auto-chattering monads, but politically and philosophically engaged social subjects, giving ground where proven wrong but courageous in defence of our position when it has proven right.

As I did with the first three years of posts, I have collected this years posts together in Thinkings 4. It can be downloaded by clicking on the link or from the right side-menu under the Heading Essays.  Thinkings 1, Thinkings 2, and Thinkings 3 can be downloaded in the same way.

 

 

Windsoria/Windstoria

 

If one wanted to argue that the mere telling of stories does not change the world, I would not disagree.  However, telling stories can change the self that tells them– by telling our own stories we objectify ourselves in such a way that we can see nuance, complexity, strength, failure, and beauty that we might not have known existed.  I think this is particularly true for those marginalised by class, by race, by ethnicity, gender, and anything else that the powerful can turn into a mark of Cain to justify not listening to what people have to say.  Too often the oppressed internalise the shunning and fear to which they are subjected and start to think they have nothing to say that is worth saying.  But in their stories not only their own truth emerges, but truths of our world, and truth is always worth speaking, and it must, eventually, be heard.

The stories collected and posted here were written for Windsoria/Windstoria, a night of storytelling and interactive map mapping held as part of Mayworks Windsor 2015 and hosted by Artcite.  They were written by Mireille Coral’s adult education class in response to my invitation.  Below is Mireille’s introduction to the collection.  The stories themselves can be found by clicking here, or the Windsoria/Windstoria link in the right-hand menu under the heading Essays.

 

Introduction, by Mireille Coral

Grade 12 students at St. Michael’s Adult High School were invited to participate in the Windsoria/Windstoria project. These are their stories. First, though, they had questions: “What should we write about?” “Who would be interested in our stories?” and “Are our stories worth telling?”

The stories in this collection are the end result of a process of introspection, sharing, writing – and telling. It was in the telling of these stories that a bond was formed. As one woman put it later, reflecting on the process, “When I heard my classmates’ stories, I felt closer to them. I felt we had become friends.” One young man described the experience this way: “I was just going to make up a story about ghosts or vampires. That didn’t work, so I decided to look at the broken part of my heart. It was scary, but I found my story there.”

These stories share some personal experiences of growing up, leaving home, coming to a new place, working, finding one’s way in the world. They demonstrate the power of naming your experience, putting it in words, telling your story. They also demonstrate, as one woman later told me, that everyone’s story is worth telling.

Mireille Coral

Grade 12 teacher, St. Michael’s School

Welcome

Welcome to my site.   My aim in creating it is to establish a forum for the philosophical discussion of contemporary social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics, as well as to provide a platform for the dissemination of occasional essays and creative forms of exploring ideas and experiences.   New content will be added regularly, so please check in often and contribute to the discussion by leaving comments and suggesting links.

Note:  The header photograph is a detail from the interior of the breathtaking, living, collective, unintentional public sculpture which is (soon to be was)  Packard Plant in Detroit.