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.