50 000 000 Trump Fans Can Be Wrong

In the end, Van Jones and not Slavoj Zizek is right.  The Trump tide, Jones argued, was a “whitelash,” not just against eight years of Obama, but more deeply against the idea of what 59 million mostly rural and small city whites regard as America.  Given the intensity of the race and immigrant baiting in Trump’s campaign and given his total lack of appeal to Latino and Black voters, racism has to emerge as the dominant explanation of his victory.

What that means for the future is not-  as the lamentable and politically stupid Zizek thinks- a final provocation which will push Americans towards communist revolution– but the emboldening of the most politically backward and vicious elements of American society.  When Trump fails to deliver on his promises towards them they are not going to become Communists, they will double down on their hatred and xenophobia.

On what basis do I make this assertion?  The media relentlessly tracked Trump’s lies, they obsessively repeated his violent sexist comments about women, they interviewed the women whom he allegedly assaulted, they made fun of his gaffs and mannerisms, they mocked his qualifications, they catalogued his business failures, and it made no difference.  He deflected every criticism in the same way:  “The establishment”  is thwarting me.  Stand by me.  I am with you.”  Who can say now that this strategy was not stunningly successful?  When the steel mills of Pennsylvania and the auto factories of Michigan fail to re-open, he will deflect blame again, and, absent any coherent and credible response form the left (and there might be a coherent response but it will not be credible, at least not in the short term) he will survive, cocooned in the racial anger underlying his success.

If there is going to be a coherent and credible response, where will it come from?  The radical left?  They (we) will have the  appropriate (and defensible)  arguments, but insignificant numbers of people will read them.  The respectable left-liberals of academia, the quality press, and the intelligentsia of Democratic Party?  Last night’s results answer this question.  They will make arguments that appeal to the 58 million people who voted for Clinton, but there is no evidence they can move the 59 million who voted for Trump to their camp.

In the early nineteenth century Hegel wrote that a historical period in which the contradictions of social life had become polarized needs philosophy to help resolve those contradictions.  Philosophy would resolve the contradictions by revealing the point of overlap of the opposed positions on which a synthesis can be constructed.  Marx, eschewing synthesis for revolution, nevertheless still stood in Hegel’s shadow when he argued that radical social transformation occurs only when the conditions are right, only when classes cannot cooperate in any way any longer, and the subordinate rise up to reconstruct society on the basis a more comprehensive set of values that ensure the satisfaction of their life-interests.  He also noted another possibility:  the mutual ruin of the contending classes.  The depth of opposition in the United States right now feels more like a situation that threatens mutual ruin than one which will lead to resolution on the basis of a more comprehensively inclusive value system.

The analogy with Marx here is imprecise, because the class struggle going on right now in the United States is not between the working class and the ruling class, but between at least three segments of the working class.  On the one hand, the traditional white working class, the working class of industry and industrial unionism, is, through the desperate rear-guard action of electing Trump,  trying to re-establish a secure place in the contemporary capitalist economy.  Their lives and life-conditions have been ravaged by the last forty years of capitalist globalization, of freeing capital and keeping people (except the rich)  pinned in place.  Their jobs have disappeared, their pensions have been stolen, the future of their children jeopardized.  They are angry, and they should be angry, and their needs must be satisfied.

However, in the absence of a trade union movement and radical left with:  a) a coherent policy response to these changes, and b)  the numbers and credibility to put theory into practice, the rage of the white industrial working class is being directed to two other segments with whom they ultimately need to build alliances.  On the one hand is the Black and Latino working class, working in the same or worse precarious service jobs, under the table employment, or unemployed.   On the other hand is the newly emergent working class of educated urban professionals and their support staffs (workers, in Marx’s sense, because they do not own the means of production, but ‘middle class’ in the popular imagination).  This section has acquired the education and skills to find or build niches in new techno-culture industries.  They live in large cities,  typically on the east or west coast, far from the “fly over states” where some of their parents and families might still live.   Just as young Britons were shocked and angered by the Brexit vote, so too will these young professionals be appalled by Trump.  They should be, but they need to spend a weekend at home and listening to and arguing with their families.  Dismissive epithets are understandable, but the problems that America is facing right now are going to require understanding the anger of the abandoned America.  And once that understanding has been achieved, then everyone can sit down and figure out politically a new way forward.

One condition of ultimate success in this project is that all hope for short-term recovery must be abandoned.  A few days before the election left-liberal pundits were speculating that the Republican party’s future was in question.  Really?  They have the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.  It is the Democrats who are in crisis.  They have alienated completely their most politically energetic and progressive constituency:  the young voters who mobilized in their millions for Sanders, (who taught, at the very least, that the word socialism can be a mobilising tool in the United States).  This whole new layer of activists were taught two nasty lessons.  The first, in party real politk, that entrenched leaderships will conspire against heterodox candidates.  The second, in political dynamics, that in times of crisis (or perceived crisis)  the safe option does not win.

Now is the time for those young people to have the courage of their convictions and get out of the Democratic Party once for all.

There needs to be some new national political force built, one that does not see the old as sacrificial victims of the new but prioritizes transitional programs for people displaced by new technological developments, so that they can move from manufacturing to other forms of meaningful work rather than brutalized and degrading precarious employment.  This new movement needs to continue to push for living wages and revitalized, democratic, multi-racial unions, but it also needs to draw conservative white workers into a conversation about why gay and lesbian and trans culture is not a threat to them, why the traditional is the way things were done but not the way they have to be done, that new horizons of possibility open up with technological and cultural change, and that diversity can be an exciting cultural strength, not a threat.

It needs to draw on the history of American Freedom that Eric Foner traced, a history in which individual freedom was understood socially and not as a gift from God, as the result of collective struggles (against the British colonialists, against white slave owners, as in the brief period of Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War, of the sit down strikes and struggles to legitimize trade unions, the civil rights struggle, and the myriad of radical struggles through the 1960’s.

But history does not work according to a logic of abstract demands.  People do not do what theories predict they will do. (As a case in point, consider that the polls were, once again, off, as they were in Brexit.  This fact should give pause to everyone who thinks human life and struggle can be mapped and comprehended by machine algorithms).  I expect that the broad left in the United States (liberals, in their idiosyncratic use of that term)  will be in for many dark nights.  But they will not emerge from this crisis unless they turn to the spirit of American inventiveness to start to build some new political vehicle for their values and goals.  And they will not be able to build that vehicle unless they listen to what “the other America” of the twenty-first century said last night.  The important lessons in politics are taught by voices progressives would rather not hear.

Poem for Autumn

Who knew dying could be so beautiful?  A still life in the golden light of autumn.  I can see the bridge through the bare trees now.  In the garden, crimson grass is justification enough for the day.

An atmosphere of humid muskiness.  The temperature:  an absence, a clarity.  The soil:  yielding.  A branch has fallen.  It snaps easily for the fire.

A wind, more heard than felt, stirs itself.  Clouds scudder across the sky; brittle leaves swerve in the vortex.  Here below, the chill I have been waiting for has arrived.  I can wrap my imperfections in scarves and sweaters.

It is a time for walking along rivers.

At the lip of the impact crater, the High Falls happily slide down billion year old rocks. We nervously clambered down, stopping to stare into star-shaped shattercones.  A black bear left its claw marks on a poplar tree.

The Detroit is a working river.  A small tug fights against the whitecaps, dropping beneath the horizon of the undulating grey cold.  The blue has gone out of the water.

The Avon is more decoration than work.  I followed the trail until it stopped at a sloping graveyard. A single oak bow, incandescent orange in the mist, made me feel sorry for the dead.  The thoughts etched in granite born of despair and sorrow:  “Asleep in Jesus.”  “Til he comes.”

I thought:  “We have no roots into which our life can withdraw until spring.”

Chilly mornings when you can first see your breath are a blue darker than black. Above the peak of the garage implacable Orion, there.  I feel intensely alone, even frightened.  The stars bear witness but cannot intervene.

Later, the fax-crackle and squelch of birds happy for their wild grapes will begin.  A squirrel will  drop a quince, having found it too bitter.  Traffic.  Talk.  But here and now: A moment for hesitation, a stopping.

I am the eye that knows that it sees and the ear that knows that it hears.

Here.  Now.

Lessons From History II: Bernard Williams: What Hope For the Humanities?

To hear influential people in politics, the media, business, and university administration tell the tale, the sole point of life is to find “jobs.”  Even union leaders join the chorus, although they usually add the qualifier “good” jobs, but do not define “good” save in terms of wages and benefits. I can imagine a young couple laying in bed, amourous, hopeful for the future, looking at one another and saying:  “Lets make a baby tonight, honey, so we can watch them grow up and find a job.”  What passes for political argument today lionizes “the job creators”  (even though they do not seem to create enough of them), and wise council for the young always instructs them to instrumentalize their entire life, including their education, so that everything they do  and study helps them find a job.  “Don’t post a picture on Instagram of you smoking a joint, it might hurt your chances of landing a job.  Don’t waste your education on frivolous subjects, find out what employers want and study that, so that you can land a job.”  This is the cultural narrative today that is creating an enrollment crisis in the humanities.

While the crisis is real, it is not the first time that the humanities have been in crisis.  Writing at the end of the Thatcher nightmare, the great British philosopher  Bernard Williams confronted problems similar to what humanists (classical scholars, historians, scholars and critics of literature, philosophers)  are confronting today.  Such is the similarity of the cultural narrative between 1987 and 2016 that, from reading the first sentence of his short essay (“What Hope for the Humanities?” Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002) it would be difficult to decide in what year he was writing:  “It will be no news that Humanities Departments in UK universities are suffering from a lack of morale, lack of recruitment, and from pressures exerted by cuts in the past and more it seems, to come.”(p.267)  (And come they did in the UK, in the form of devastating cuts to grants to students who chose to study the humanities).

In the face of historical and on-going cuts, the humanities required a defence then, and they require a defence now.  But as William’s essay reminds us, it matters not just that they be defended from those who would chop them, but also on what basis that defence is mounted.  One line of argument, which Williams dubs “The Leather Blotter” defense is easy and effective, as far as protecting the humanities being taught in some generic form for the sake of rounding out the education of (mostly privileged) people who will go on to do more serious things in business and science.  “One style of defence of the Humanities says “the Humanities are cultivated in a  civilized society.”  The defence is put forward for a variety of motives, many of them excellent, and what it says is also, as a matter of fact, true.  The trouble is that it can be too easily associated with some views that are very bad defences, because they effectively accept the luxury status of the Humanities.  These assimilate the Humanities to aspects of expensively cultivated life, to such things as select outings with a well-behaved company and an adequate aesthetic content.” (p.268) These sort of defences are bad for three reasons.

The first, as Williams wittily implies, is that it reduces humanistic education to the spit and polish of white bourgeois finishing school, the rounding out that gentlemen (and now ladies) historically needed to acquire in order to be interesting dinner companions and give the appearance of all-round cultivation.  In this version, the humanities are preserved, but only as a superficial sheen of aesthetic cultivation laid over an essentially commercial world view that governs social life and individual motivation.

The second, not fully unpacked by Williams but clearly implied by his critique of the Leather Blotter view, is that this sort of defence is class-bound and exclusionary.  If all that the humanities cultivate is dining room patter, the ability to quote snippets of poetry, and voice semi-intelligent remarks at galleries or the theatre, they are useless for people who do not go to galleries or the theatre.  Their study will be reserved for those who can pay to acquire a superficial survey of the canon. At the level of the university system one can imagine the humanities surviving in some form at the most expensive private universities and disappearing from smaller ones, which would hasten their decline to the status of technical institutes.

The third reason why this sort of defence is bad is because it does not defend robust social and institutional investment in thriving humanities departments within which research in the humanities takes place.  “What has to be discussed first is the pursuit of certain subjects— the organised, funded, necessarily institutional pursuit of certain subjects, of certain kinds of knowledge.” (p.270)  Few who criticize the humanities criticize their being taught in the Leather Blotter form.  No, what they object to is research in the humanities, i.e., thriving humanities departments in which people study because they want to become philosophers or scholars of renaissance poetry.  Since that research does not produce money-value for private appropriation (i.e., it has no economic value in a capitalist society), these critics conclude that the humanities have no value at all.  And if the humanities have no value at all, there are no grounds for using public funds to support humanities departments. (For more on the relation between the teaching of the humanities and the crisis of academic labour, see Sami Siegelbaum’s fine essay “Once More on the Crisis of the Humanities”).

Now, there is something right in this argument:  if some institution has no value at all, then it should not be the recipient of public funds.  The question is:  is money-value the only value that there is?  The answer here is obviously “no.”  A moment’s reflection on ordinary usage is sufficient to remind us that we regularly talk about aesthetic value, sentimental value, political value, moral value, nutritional value; the value of friendship, the value of family, the value of laughter.  One could go on.  Having established that there are many more kinds of value than economic value, the question is:  what sort of value do the humanities create.

There are two sorts of answers that have some truth, but are not the primary forms of value that defenders of the humanities should focus upon.  The first maintains that, contrary to their economistic critics, the humanities do produce monetary value, and should therefore be supported for the same reasons as investment in mathematics and engineering is supported.  While it is true that some work in the humanities can lead to the production of economic value, this defence is not the strongest, since it simply accepts what is in fact the primary cause of the crisis of the humanities:  the belief that there is no other value than money-value.  If supporters of the humanities rely on this argument alone, they will not be able to protect all forms of scholarship in the humanities, but only those which can defend themselves at the court of money-value.

A second and closely related argument maintains that the humanities are instrumentally valuable because they teach “soft skills,”  like communication and open-mindedness, which are useful on the job market.  The term “soft skills”  is (or should be)  repugnant to anyone who works in the humanities.  It connotes that there is no value to the actual subject matter studied in our disciplines, and that there are no demanding and rigorous methods whose mastery requires decades of devotion and effort; that all the humanities are good for (so it does not matter which you study) is the breezy acquisition of generic skills, which stand in invidious contrast to the “hard”   skills of scientifically serious work. But as Hegel pointed out,  the fact that you have the measure of your shoe in your foot does not mean that you know how to make your shoes.  The idea that there is really nothing to the humanities save opinion and soft skills proves only the ignorance of the person who makes the claim.

Now, if it is true that there is more to life than jobs and wages, we must ask what perspective makes this truth apparent.  Not an economic perspective (at least not an orthodox economic perspective)  since it assumes that people are rationally self-interested and rationally self-interested people are bent exclusively on maximizing their money-holdings.  Not from a natural scientific perspective, which (unless it smuggles in principles from philosophy) must treat human beings as material systems with no intrinsic value.  It is only from the perspective of disciplines which study the ways in which human beings treat and make their lives meaningful that life has more value than as an instrument of money-value creation.  And those disciplines are the humanities.

Hence, the real line of defence for humanistic scholarship and research has to run through the idea– unavoidable from a first person perspective but incompatible with natural scientific principles– that human life is meaningful.  But meaningful how?  The answer is not obvious, but demands reflection.  But reflection on what?  Not one’s own individual existence which, outside of socio-cultural context, is an abstraction.  So what is left?  Precisely the socio-cultural systems, in all of their institutional, political, symbolic, aesthetic, normative, and spiritual complexity in which human beings have made their existence meaningful by living, loving, struggling, fighting, building, destroying, and changing their worlds, and thinking about all of this while or after they do it.

But also:  the methods, and methodological disputes that the attempt to study these systems, not just as dead facts but living realities which meant something to those who lived in them, demand and give rise to.  And:  the sorts of problems that arose in these socio-cultural wholes, and within the different specific domains of practice (art, etc.,)  of which they are composed, which is the dynamic element in history, creating the need and opportunity for change.  And:  the sorts of exclusions that given socio-cultural wholes and the specific domains of practice that compose them have imposed on the sub-altern and the heterodox.  And:  together, the possibility– but only the possibility– of not only determining, on the whole and in the specific fields of practice, the better and the worse,  but insight into how we can go on today, correcting the worse and making it better, on the whole and in the specific.

In short, the value of the humanities comes down to two inter-related factors:  complex historical understanding, and the possibility of social criticism.  “The classic error of thoughtless conservatism,”  Williams argues, “is to forget that what is old is merely what used to be new.  One form it can take is to invest the traditional with a sacred quality, another, and at the present time more destructive form, is to forget that anything has a history at all, and to suppose that the social world simply consists of a set of given objects to be manipulated by go-getting common sense.  No such views are likely to survive unchanged by the enquiries of a truthful and imaginative history.”  (p. 273)  To understand that we have a (political, cultural, social, aesthetic, moral, spiritual) history is to understand that human life is shaped and changed by human thought and practice.  The belief that the forms of human life are timeless is the enemy of social criticism and change.

Natural laws may (in a sense)  be timeless, but social laws are not. To understand them we need to pay attention to the play of opposing forces, to context, to belief, as much as to more basic material conditions in which these factors play out.  There is no engineering or algorithmic solution to the crisis in Syria or global warming precisely because political beliefs and normative choices (that Sunni interests can only be protected in the Caliphate, for example, or that the raison’ d’etre of life is to consume as much as possible, without regard to the energy requirements) enter into the play of forces.  No idea has ever been destroyed by mere force, but only defeated through arguments that change convictions.  Arguments alone are never enough, but again, as Hegel said, the conceit that will not argue is inhuman and a primary impediment to political progress.

Is there any higher conceit today than that money decides the truth?  And if there are no historians, philosophers, and students of literature to insist that in fact there are other and better human motivations, who will be left to make the case?  And if there is no one left to make that case, what hope for concrete solutions to the problems humanity faces today?  The crisis of the humanities is thus a crisis of the world that needs the humanities (to contribute the historical-critical self-understanding that practical solutions to the crisis requires) but cannot tolerate the underlying spirit of the answer they give, which is to affirm the creative and the imaginative over against the pecuniary and what merely serves the powerful.

Just as everyone has an interest in the fruits of natural scientific understanding of the physical world, so too everyone has an interest in the fruits of humanistic understanding (and criticism) of the social world.  If that claim is true, then we need to vigorously defend humanistic research, and, as a vital part of that defence, the sort of university in which that research can be undertaken and taught.  This sort of university is, as it was in 1987, under threat.  That it survived is perhaps cause for hope that it can make it through again, but not without a fight.

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.