Exchange on “Thoughts” (Feb. 13/2000)
What follows is an email exchange on L.B.’s Some Preliminary Thoughts on Modern Class Structure
Hello again, LB. Sorry, got pulled away for a few. Had to wander around gaza eyeless for awhile, waiting for my eyeballs to adjust to my new eyeglass lens. Then there was backed-up mail, and watering my tiny sprout of a job, and meetings…
By the way, your manila envelope came yesterday. Thank you much for the interesting clippings. The story on the new supertech army “rifle” ala Rube Goldberg was amusing. Reminds me of the special version of the M3 submachinegun they once produced in the 1950s, with a carefully curved barrel that went through a 90 degree angle, so that the lucky soldier could shoot around a building’s corner without exposing himself (also without being able to see, of course). And if he wanted to shoot straight then he was fucked! (smile). That SLA update was wryly amusing, too (not even being most wanted terrorist fugitives and infamous bank robbers-school principal killers-millionairess kidnappers, etc. etc. prevents some folks from fulfilling their suburban class destiny! On the other hand, heard that one of the Ohio 7 while not a fugitive and out now has a brutal, low-wage job back in a New England factory).
Just a final few words here. As i said in last night’s e-note, have got to cut off here for awhile…so might as well send you what my thoughts are so far. Notice that reviewing one page and a half of your “Some Preliminary Thoughts” has taken zillions of hours and some eleven pages here! As you’ve doubtlessly guessed, my thinking has evolved as we discuss. So I’m only going to pass on general reactions, more on your marxist methodology, really, than on any specific part of your analysis of the class structure. As you know, parts of this i like but am unsure of, and much of it seems very accurate to me. We’ll talk more next time.
OK, back to work. You say:
Class struggle is so fundamental to politics because what is ultimately at stake is nothing less than the shape of human material existence–or its extinction as a species…. (page 1, para.3)
You’ve put down a really important point, only i don’t think it is fully understandable here. The reader might wonder what is meant? Is it a version of Trotsky’s “Socialism or barbarism” line? Those poor IS creeps still use that. The larger question of currents, of what moves through and around the class structure—like changes in the weather across a terrain— is something we need to think about. How we all talk about class structure is too static, too structurelike, too petty. In that mode, Left discussion of class structure only catches some–a fraction–of human politics.
When we look at capitalism historically, over centuries, we can start to delineate long-term, one-way trends. That is, these aren’t fluctuations, but overall changes that keep redefining what human life is.
Capitalism is literally powering itself in part by perhaps one-way, irreversible, completely destructive changes in the world. To see these calls into question exactly how “successful” capitalism is as an economic system (separate from its ability as a class society to stay on top). It’s kind of like a company reporting good profits year after year–but only by selling off its assets and committing criminal acts at night.
The easiest of these one-way changes to see would be the strip mining of the environment and biosphere. Literally consuming/reducing the earth in terms of its ability to sustain healthy life. Global warming, toxic air, vast ocean fish & mammal killoffs…you know this better than i do, no need to detail this. You were obviously alluding to this earlier. But there are many others.
The absorbing of all indigenous or localized cultures into one great industrial mono-culture, just like is being done with plant crops. We can’t really grasp the capitalist class system unless we at the same time keep in mind the baseline of non-class societies, i.e. indigenous cultures. Have you seen the book on “alternative world systems”, based on the history of the Wintu peoples in California?
The worldwide forced march in intensification of work is another global transformation. It’s hard to realize, but indigenous societies almost universally had a much more leisurely pace of work, much shorter work periods, more holidays and rest days. Much of the complaining by settler missionaries in the East Coast about Indian life in the 1700s and 1800s was how “lazy” they were, how they seemed to not want the consumer goods that harder work might give them, how Indian women worked in a slow and relaxed and communal way, while Indian men didn’t work at all by imperialist standards but only “played” at hunting & raiding skills (is that an ideal ARA life, or what?), etc.
Mao might question this were he kicking around today, but i would say that capitalism has an absolute tendency to skew and geometrically increase the human population whenever it takes control. And keep increasing it beyond any reasonable level. It’s significant that colonialism always repressed native women’s birth control. Although people don’t want to see it, it’s strategic that the metropolis has developed a huge “Roman” surplus population, who neither labor nor fight. Many, many tens of millions who have no or little productive function but who must be subsidized. Funny, that white radicals look for “class” contradictions in the metropolis but can’t see that the biggest class contradiction of all within the system are the layers of useless citizenry like themselves that must be subsidized. We remember the Roman proletarii who didn’t labor or fight, but were entitled to “bread and circuses” at th empire’s expense. (This is not the same thing as the other millions who are doing productive work although not in the M-L economic definition necessarily of the term “productive” re surplus value, but in the sense of doing socially necessary contributions to human life–and are heavily subsidized by part of the super-profits from imperialism).
In fact, imperialism has a tendency towards ultra-concentration (as Marx noted) that pushes the limits of sustainability. Huge corporations (Nike, a little corporation, has 400,000 semi employees in 42 countries) that keep stumbling and need to be broken up or reabsorbed into other corporations. A single world cop ala The Whitest House that is so singularly powerful as a world headquarters that it is becoming immobilized. (we need to get into concentration more later).
You go on in para.3:
….The contradictions between classes, originating in this, the deepest level of human social life, are the forces that drive history forward. These contradictions, endlessly clashing, both generate and break down myriad other forms of social organization–forms which are, in fact, expressions of class. In turn, the results of class struggle force changes in the class structure and, ultimately, in the mode of production itself.
Wow. Ok, but are you sure this is the best way to say this? To be marxistical about it all, human history is driven forward not by struggle per se but by the development of the means of production and distribution, as you know. Whole classes are erased or created by the development of the means of production, giving historical materialism an eerie way of seeing change as being both something we are all part of –but that is also beyond even the control of kings and bankers and generals. i.e. capitalists cannot fully control capitalism, any more than us naive marxists could control the post-Bolshevik attempt at state socialism (which leapt out of our hands like a falling H-bomb).
Might want folks to see that class is more than “economics” or “politics” It’s also manifested as the choices science makes, what popular culture and art assume. That it’s the structure within the whole web of human existence. Not simply a series of sociological categories or some mechanistic force that acts on us. It’s beyond Newtonian.
Class analysis may be critical to revolution, but it is practically a dead science today. The breakthrough class theory of Marx and Engels has become an ossified relic in the hands of the current Left, reflecting an opportunistic unwillingness to actually look at existing patterns of oppression and complicity. (page 1, para 5)
Since this makes a major point for revs, perhaps should be amplified? Should we look for current, non-factional examples of what we mean by “dead science”. This may be a bigger need than it appears, since listening to various young radicals it’s obvious that they don’t have any idea what a “science” is–or why Marx used those words. It’s like a “New Improved” claim on a box of detergent to them! One anarchist of color i know, a former “Marxist”, snorted to me after the fall of state socialism in the U.S.S.R. and China, “Revolutionary science ? What science?!”
As Butch has pointed out, folks don’t know the difference between a science –the systematic effort to accumulate facts and conduct investigations that test theories or hypotheses about a given field of reality–and the developed results from that science. So today physics is highly creditable in a Strangelovian way, having led to H-bombs and computer chips. But behind this was centuries of simple observations, crude experiments, and many many completely wrong theories. Many of the most famous scientists of their times espoused reasonable sounding but now discredited ideas. So is physics a fraud? Bad engineering and imperial-shoddy management produce bad automobiles and our demented transportation system. Bad science doesn’t mean that science as a basic concept & activity is wrong.
Revolutionary science itself is less than two centuries old, and has had its full share of doctrinaire mistakes and failed attempts, but the development of its scientific methodology always persists and has great value. It’s funny how American radicals desperately want science the more the better when they’re hurting & scared in the ER, how they want engineers with orthodox science training when bridges and buildings are being built, but when it comes to the much more difficult challenge of fighting imperialism then they say, “Science? We don’t see any need for all that heavy learning stuff, we just want to do whatever feels good.”
You write: (page2, para. 3-6)
It’s clear that the class structure of the modern world is different than it was a hundred years ago. It’s also clear that early Marxists had huge gaps in their knowledge. They were looking at a snapshot of capitalism in one time and one place. It is not surprising that they made mistakes; that they failed to predict today’s class structure in detail. Marx and Engels thought that the European industrial working class of their day would engage in ‘final class conflict’ with capitalism within a generation. They were wrong. Today, a century later, capitalism is once again showing what a resilient, adaptable system it is, even as it spreads further disaster across the planet.
Here we have a…philosophical or methodological question. What you say here certainly is true, but in another way it may not be the most useful angle of vision on Marx and Engels. To me they didn’t make ‘mistakes’ in that way–that’s a 20th century way of putting it. They were partisans of the most advanced revolutionary and democratic social force of their day in their place, the industrial working classes. Plus, they were European men of the upper middle German classes with all the dyed-in biases, homophobia, sexism, white nationalism, etc. that we might expect (by the way, just like Bakunin or Proudhon–the “father of anarchism”, after all, who called for more French nationalism and for the killing of Jews). They weren’t Nostradamus or seers predicting the far future. How could they or anyone predict all the future fifty or two hundred years ahead? That marxists keep wanting to picture them that way, as infallible geniuses who drew us a precise picture of the political future…is only pathetic. Showing only the insecurities and confusion of “Marxists”.
Would we say Kepler made “mistakes” because he didn’t identify black holes? Or that Crazy Horse was a phony because his predictions of how to defeat the u.s. cavalry didn’t work out in the end? Marx and Engels had a certain vision of liberation and human justice that was of their time and place, coming from the actual battles and advances of their age. The entire enshrinement (or entombment might be a better word) of M-L, first by the social-democracy and then by the Stalinists, had the practical effect of heaping so much unrealistic praise and expectation on them that they disappeared from sight as comrades, as fallible and nutty but determined revolutionaries who made a certain contribution as so many have (many Third World revs who shared their methodology, such as Cabral or Attiba Shana, did or do not use the name “Marxists”). We need to keep working our way back to that line.
Capitalism is really a “resilient” system, as your passage above says. But again this in a certain sense substitutes some descriptive but ahistorical term for historical materialist understanding. “Resilient” has meaning here only compared to the hopeful picture of a brittle and soon to expire world capitalism that 20th century radicals drew–and redrew and redrew (smile).
Marx hypothesized that no system/stage of human history leaves until it has exhausted its possibilities for developing the means of production and distribution. Euro-industrial capitalism has not kept the periphery in a stasis of underdevelopment as so many of us unthinkingly assumed only a few years ago. Brazil, Taiwan and mainland China, South Korea, Mexico and South Africa (BMW’s highest rated factory is in South Africa), Eastern Europe, etc. are now inside the industrialized zone. That this takes place with combined and uneven development, where computer chip factories and back-alley anonymous-CD pirating shops and crude garment sweatshops coexist with the most desperate peasant agriculture, village isolation and mass urban squatter misery, is perhaps much more typical of what “capitalism” really is than the manicured garden of suburban/urban North America.
The question of what Marx and Engels saw as basic features of industrial capitalism is interesting, have been rethinking about this. But. . . more later, your class structure outline keeps turning over more questions all the time–which is a sign that it works, i think.
Your discussion of the lumpen is controversial, and i’m really glad that you opened up some of these questions. This is long overdue, since this supposedly marginal and unimportant class is turning out to have a major role in country after country.
A few points. You define it in a way that marxists (including myself) have often used: “The lumpen-proletariat is not a class at all in most respects, but a stratum of de-classed people. It is made up of broken elements of various classes, especially the proletariat and the peasantry, who have gone over to criminality as a way of life. .their rootlessness and desperation make the lumpen suitable for mercenary and warlord service to a variety of other class actors. This makes the lumpen-proletariat an important factor in the current period of social transition. “
There are two problems here, historically to start with. The first is that the other half of our left that are anarchists have usually worked off of Bakunin’s definition of the lumpen, as the most oppressed strata of workers & the marginalized who are the true bearers of revolutionary change (there used to be a very good anarchist paper in Chicago called “the Lumpen”). In this, Bakunin explicitly challenged Marx’s earlier reliance on the higher strata or class of unionized workers at major factories. In that disagreement, Bakunin was correct in political hindsight, as Engels himself implicitly admitted later in his life. But the flaw with this use of definitions is that Bakunin left out the truly declassed and even today many revs here have a romanticized blurring of the lines between very poor and marginalized workers–who are often unemployed and doing crimes of survival–and career crimies who enjoy preying on their own people, the weaker the better.
The other thing is that it’s dangerous to dismiss the lumpen as just a negative force, for several reasons that we’ve learned the hard way. Among the most oppressed strata, the number of lumpen is high for obvious reasons. Often the political war on the ground depends on who can win over this volatile grouping. To simply leave them around for the imperialists to easily pick up is poor strategy. And, as Mao said, the lumpen are often “fierce fighters” that we desperately need when it’s all on the line. His approach was to make a point not only of recruiting them, but of educating them to a more communal and developed politics. Of course, as that Ashanti always tries to get over with, that was supposedly during Mao’s more correct “anarchist period” (smile–the thought of our “Mouse Zedong” as an anarchist is truly funny). Having said all this, have to add that your discussion of lumpenism and gender is sharp. Take it easy, but take it.
How goes life in the other capital of police barbarism? Nice that East Coast and West Coast have such a healthy, friendly competition going for who can massacre, frame, brutalize and humiliate the most civilians. I’d say Guiliani has the most clear murders to his credit, but “our” guy wins points for more widespread, creative corruption and generalized brutality.
One thing is that I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of spending years doing research before getting ideas about class out in public. I think serious research needs to be done, without a doubt. Still, there must be ways to get people thinking and shifting their paradigm about class. If we see the value of exploring these new avenues of investigation, others can too.
There are two key hypotheses that are the ice-breakers, it seems to me. They are both either implicit or explicit in Night-Vision.
One is that the era that was defined by world-wide national liberation struggles is drawing to a close. While many such struggles continue, they occur in a new overall context (neocolonialism, if we adopt that term). Moreover, many struggles that assume the form of the old national liberation struggles have a completely different content–one that is by no means automatically revolutionary or even progressive.
Many of them are sponsored by imperialism; many others compete for imperialist favor. (This is the real deal with Farrakhan, of course.) The new situation allows for unfamiliar forms of left-right convergence. Armed struggle for the “national liberation” of an Aryan Northwest is just as possible as armed struggle to free Puerto Rico. There is a whole range of nationalistic uprisings that have mixed content: legitimate demands for independence mixed with patriarchy, druglordism, etc.
As I have said, we are entering a “fourth period” of the national question, where even grass roots nationalism is often politically reactionary. (Whether it is predominantly reactionary or not, I’m not sure. There may well be opportunities within the chaos.) Nationalism shades imperceptibly into warlordism; decentralization of nations complements globalization at the highest levels.
This is bound to be an unpopular insight for much of the left: “revolutionary” nationalists of many sorts, white leftists invested in the old paradigm, populists trying to cover up for left right convergence, etc., etc. Still, it’s a hypothesis that has to be brought out into the open if any real rebuilding is to occur.
The second key hypothesis is that there are class divisions within families. This is probably the sharpest way to pose the gendered nature of class. It allows revs to describe the actual workings of social life in modern society: men as overseers, women sold by “their” men into semi slavery, warlordism as a cross-class alliance of men, women as the core of the proletariat, the purposeful exclusion of women from public life, etc. We can be sure that this viewpoint will be fiercely resisted by every bourgeois tendency.
The idea that national liberation struggles led by men will be able to defeat imperialism is not only wrong and reprehensible, but seems incredibly quaint at this point. Yet that was the exact character of the last upsurge, one whose power and explosive energy we witnessed first hand. I wonder if this is a good hook for an article laying out the two hypotheses above. A “think piece,” as opposed to a fully-developed theory. Something along these lines would require some focussed research, looking at secondary materials mainly, and some rough summation of nationalist struggles today.
My suggestion is to lay out these core arguments now, then expect to spend years elaborating and defending them. (Or learning that I am wrong.) There are so many significant implications and facets of this thing that we can get sidetracked into for months or years. Warlordism. The metropolitan middle classes. Unpaid labor. The configuration of global industry. Consumerism. The role of the lumpen. Left-right convergence. I’m sure you can name many more. We could nibble around the edges forever, and each individual piece of work could be so easily pushed aside….
Anyhow, this is what I have been thinking.
I wanted to respond more specifically to your comments on the class structure draft–you know, the ones you made in your 2/3 letter. As I mentioned before, I agree with what you say about seeing class in a more dynamic way. And you are right that “what moves through and around the class structure–like changes in the weather across a terrain–is something we need to think about.” I think my understanding of class, and how class being generates ideology, culture and politics, is probably too mechanical.
Still, we probably have some honest differences in this area, too. For instance, I tend to think that classes act out their natures more directly–with shadings and nuances of course, and making choices, but fundamentally with the true focus of competitors or mortal enemies in battle. And I see classes as relatively durable. You tend see classes as less hardware and more software. (Is that a fair summary?)
This comes up in your pages where you question the statement that human history is driven forward by class struggle. I have no argument with the alternate formulation: that the contradiction is between the means of production and the relations of production, etc. But to me these are functionally the same thing: class struggle is precisely how this contradiction is worked out in practice. Classes are reasonably direct representations of the underlying contradictions, methinks.
Just for fun, and to be even more marxistically picky than you, I did a search of my handy dandy Marx and Engels CD. Results (in part):
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” “The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms.
All past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles…these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and exchange….
Okay, now that I’ve re-established my credentials as a true sectarian quote-monger, I wonder if this has any practical significance? Well, one thing is that I want to look at class structure in a practical way, with one eye always on revolutionary strategy. The better we understand contemporary classes, the better we know where to look for the new kinds of spontaneous struggles that are rising/will rise up to challenge imperialism.
It’s my mantra again: understand as clearly and concretely as possible who the social (class) base for revolution is; observe/unite with/be part of the spontaneous struggles of that sector; fuse Marxism-Leninism with those struggles….
I’ve pretty much shed my illusions about the movement. But there is a science of revolution, an objective counterpoint to the equally valid subjective side (“know who you are; deal with politics as it impacts your life; create alternative cultures; do what you know you should be doing….”). Looking for strategic openings in society and building red unity and organization is a responsibility that comes with the Leninist territory.
So maybe this is why I’m willing to do some quick and dirty popularization of these heresies about class. I want that real, rigorous theory, too. I know it will take years to develop, and that’s fine. But in the meantime, I’m itching to put these primitive hypotheses to work in the real world in some small way. And I think doing so will advance the theory itself.
On another subject, I really liked what you said about how capitalism’s “success” is predicated on irreversible destruction, intensification of labor, and the elimination of cultural variety. It is a successful predator, in other words.
Not sure what I think about the population question. As you know, most analyses of overpopulation have reactionary agendas. And birth rates level off as standard of living rises. And “sustainability” is threatened more by the relatively small population of the metropolis (which consumes 90% of the resources and controls the rest) than by the billions of the oppressed.
What capitalism does is to separate human birth from any rational context of survival or community interest. Having kids is a private decision with unplanned, unexamined social consequences. Kids may be intentional or accidental; they may help a parent’s economic security or hurt it; they may be cannon fodder or saleable slave-bait. But in any case, society will take no responsibility for them, and capitalism is sure to exploit their existence or let them die. Population most of all seems anarchic under capitalism.
It’s true that birth control is repressed under colonialism. And sometimes this may actually be because the colonizers want higher birth rates. But sometimes it just seems like a way of denying power to women within the family or women’s ability to defy a patriarchal agenda in society generally. A control issue, in other words. Or is there a practical benefit to imperialism of driving the population way beyond what is needed to establish a sizeable reserve army of the unemployed?
I agree about the “Roman” parasitic surplus population here and in Europe. This isn’t really so significant in terms of overall world population (nor is it increasing that rapidly, as far as I can see). The phenomenon may not be as much a population issue as a side-effect of capitalist overproduction and, of course, imperialist politics. But it’s pretty amazing, in any case. The proportion of natural resources, and of human productive capacity, that has been diverted to producing and marketing unnecessary commodities for these populations is astonishing. Actually, maybe that’s putting it backwards. The commodities had to be produced for capitalism to survive, and so “Roman” populations had to exist. Gorging on commodities is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it…
L.B.: It was good to see your e-note pop up on my monitor today. Think i’ll just touch on things some, but not do another document length thing. Make this a letter of transmittal for the enclosed.
Nicos Poulantzas is one of those vaguely “big” European Marxist intellectual names (i mean, that’s my scholarly sum-up–ho,ho). Never really read him much myself, since he seems to typify a type of European left academic style that drives me up a wall (elaborate theorizing based on no practice, no social investigation, etc.). That is, never read him much except for this very simple pamphlet examining the class structure, which he did as part of a PE project for French workers. So there’s some very rough parallel to your project. Plus, although i disagree with most of his conclusions and lots with the methodology, i did relish the energetic way he tried to reexamine and logically assess what the contemporary class structure was. It’s just that he was starting from a screwy axis, as it were. Felt that i learned things from him, although his politics are dreadful. i mean, truly bad! It might not be helpful to you, but you can see what’s out there and something that’s an influence on my end of the work.
He reminds us about the tangible, praxis aspect of class roles. That German fascism meant that the state machinery was given over to one radical tendency of the petit-bourgeoisie to rule for the capitalists. An example he doesn’t use but is significant today is that of the founding of the modern Turkish nation out of the ruins of the old Ottoman empire after WWI. The heights of the economy in Turkey was then dominated not by muslim but Christian Armenian capitalists, because of European favoritism in terms of trading partners & allies.The new Turkish national state–which was then run by the Kemalist army officers middle-class–decided that for a muslim nation to rise that Armenian capitalist class (and their whole community) had to be eliminated.
Even in the 19th & early 20th century capitalist England the bourgeoisie was the ruling class, but the aristocracy still physically staffed the heights of the state and other key institutions, such as educational institutions, the army and navy, etc, and thus could be said to have run the state for the capitalists. His distinction between “ruling class” and “reigning class” is something i’m not certain of, but it is a useful thought. Again, he reminds us that class roles are not metaphysical but very practical and lived. His point about how different classes can actually run the State during the bourgeois epoch is also interesting, in and of itself….
Reminds me of Hobsbawn’s explanation that the early bourgeois British empire of the 18th century was, in fact, completely run by the hereditary aristocracy, who were the state personified: “Nominally, England was not a ‘bourgeois’ state. It was an oligarchy of landed aristocrats, headed by a tight, self-perpetuating peerage of two hundred persons, a system of powerful rich cousinages under the aegis of the ducal heads of the great Whig families…”
The Rob los Ricos pamphlet is more important than it might appear, i think. He’s the Eugene alleged anarcho-vandal who is now a momentary figure (looking at things in a Brechtian way, we might say that today’s “heroes” are only the most clumsy and unlucky). i’m not going to say anything here, except to say i believe we should keep an eye on these right-left political currents. Analyze the politics we can see. We can talk more about this when we kick back…
The articles on the WTO, the unions, etc. are obviously self-explanatory. Incidentally, of course i am really happy about the new Anti-Globalization movement. It’s like seeing the first days of a new season! Feel strongly positive about this. Because it’s part of the new breakthrough in the world both positive and negative that everybody’s been feeling…
Just to have a struggle with a mass character that is close to being flat-out anti-capitalist, is refreshing. To have capitalism itself as the main issue is really good, no? (one of the signers of that “Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc” statement for the Al6th mass demo just asked me for a book on marxist philosophy).
But we got to talk more about this nationalism thing. “…we are entering a “fourth period” of the national question, where even grass-roots nationalism is often politically reactionary.” This is painful, true, but think you have to be careful what sweeping conclusions you might draw from it. Reactionary nationalism is as much a hallmark of the present period as revolutionary nationalism was a defining feature of the previous one. But we have to make certain that we don’t fall into the same pit as before, only in reverse, by just going along with what appears obvious. Radical thinking about nations and nationalism is still sloppy and subjective, i think.
First off, let’s not confuse nationalism (advocating the cause of or loyalty to a nation) with the material existence of nations. There’s one school of trendy white leftists who always posit nations only as slick illusions, as propaganda creations of the capitalists convincing the gullible people that some imaginary body is their “motherland”. While aspects of that are certainly real, as a whole this take is false. Further, it confuses nations with states. Nations are societies or bodies of people who possess sovereignty or self-rule whether good or bad, usually within a definite territory or space. So that the Lakota Nation has the democratic right of sovereignty over the Black Hills but Japanese-Americans do not have the right to rule Hawaii or Orthodox Jews the right of rule over Brooklyn (to mention two groups who have been led towards that ambition). Of course, most white “anti-authoritarians” cling with both arms to all the very real privileges of their real citizenship in their very real imperialist nations, while talking all their phony anti-nations shit. Most white socialists, anarchists and anti-imperialists are still white settler nationalists at heart. More of that “Do as I say, not as I do.”
What i don’t believe in any longer is the old nationalist unity line. Everywhere the uniting the race/nation/people around a nice-sounding common program has only given a free hand to opportunist and capitalist trends to take over politically disarmed peoples at gunpoint. Particularly now when the oppressed need new approaches, a diversity of new experiments and strategies. Is there much difference between rightist muslim politics and the imperialists, say -except in the choice of converging evils? That’s why the Zionist Mossad covertly created Islamic Jihad and why the Republican Party warcrazies created Osama bin Laden and the f.b.i. boosted up Farrakhan. Like gives birth to like, we might say.
Hello again, L.B. :
So, like the early civil rights movement, there is a major political contradiction within this anti-Globalization struggle, between the enthusiastic belief in justice for everyone globally of the young activists and the cynical neo-colonial strategy of exploiting Anti-Globalization not just by the AFL-CIO (who are only front men in the end, really) but certain elements of both the State and the new global capitalists. The latter are, of course, running the anti-WTO campaign on top (this is no secret, which is why racist Pat Buchanan is welcome there)—but not totally with a free hand. In particular because they need protests, protesters, the drama of confrontation… as much as we do! Again, like the civil rights movement. Just like some of your union activists see using the students and Third World protesters as “shock troops” (as your Asian coworker said) for maintaining the labor aristocracy (smile).
It’s interesting that some Wall St. types, major economic policy makers, and even the Clinton administration, have decided that the old roles of the IMF and World Bank have to go. Jeffrey Sachs is a demi-god at Harvard (the architect of Yeltsin’s transition to capitalism program for Russia) and at the same time the leading public critic of the WB/IMF. So even parts of the capitalist managerial caste feel that Third-World debt should be erased, for the good of the new system. To me this is major, major news, that the State is seeing the need for intra-system reforms along “Third Worldist” lines…and using student demonstrators and Third World politicians to help grease the way?
Keep thinking every few years how pissed off i am at Karl who put off his fundamental working out and writing about class until his old age (and died before finishing any of the writing he planned to do). Far as i’m concerned, he coulda shouda skipped the last few unreadably heavy vols. of Das Kapital and done a much-more needed explanation of his views on class instead.
Whoa, whoa! A misunderstanding here about how human history moves, re my last letter. You’re right, M-E say repeatedly in different ways that human history is “the history of class struggle.” We agree. But that wasn’t what i was talking about. Neither was i discussing the by now-overdone “contradiction” between social production/private appropriation that self-styled “Marxists” love to drone on about.
What i was discussing was what drives that entire “history of class struggle” forward—in other words, what’s behind it, the underlying evolution or development of the means of production & distribution. Marx’s concrete understanding of that in his time and place permeates and underlies all of the Manifesto and Capital. We need to regrasp this firmly, as well, in our time & place. Precisely so that our thinking on class is correctly rooted, historical materialism-wise.
And again, on classes being hardware or software, on whether they “act out their natures more directly”. Here i agree with you totally, that classes almost irresistibly- no, scratch that qualifier, irresistibly— act out their natures, their true class roles. Even when that is self destructive. Our “classic” approaches are pretty similar here (just as we discovered that we both liked those old “Blind Swordsman” martial arts flicks ~smile)
You perceive my saying that classes keep gettlng “rewritten like softwear”. True, but don’t forget that that is a material change. Softwear is material. i do not think that capitalism somehow mysteriously changes classes’ minds, or their politics. That’s idealism. And what we’re saying is way wilder than that anyway. The real point is that capitalism regularly changes the material nature of specific classes (in a certain time & nationality), their actual role in production, thus changing the class paradigm that they act out, as the means of production and distribution evolves and develops. Like, u.s. imperialism (love this example ’cause it’s so clear—and i’ve only used it thirty times already in our correspondence, grin!) raised up the Taiwanese and Japanese peasantry after WWII to a debt-free, private land-owning, prosperous, male-run class with guaranteed markets~-leading these classes to became the social base of conservative pro-u.s. imperialist politics in those societies for the rest of the century. Neat job of social engineering, yes? Or the near-disappearance of the traditional male Black industrial proletariat, within one generation, all taking place precisely when government, corporations, churches and universities were all proclaiming how new employment opportunities for Black men were a top social priority. i mean, if Hitler had been that smooth he’d be honorary president of the ADL today! (Oops, sorry, I forgot that he really is).
If you change a class’ relationship to the means of production and distribution, you change their nature, their gut politics. Although outward vestiges of their former class life usually remain. (Like the Irish-Americans, still sentimentally loyal to their old “Cause” of fighting the British occupation and the Protestant settlers–although in real life the Irish-Americans are now only “Orangemen” themselves. Was freaked when I first met the local Irish-American “H-Block committee”, and discovered that the leader was a police detective. ).
Think the concept of capitalism fueling itself by irreversible destruction is important, because it links everything we see together. Not “just” the looting of the biosphere and environment, but the constant civil wars, destruction-of nations, abandoning of industries, constant breaking up of indigenous communities, cycles of enslavement of women, precious life being burned up in making endless mountains of consumer disposables-Ðhungry children picking the Asian garbage dumps to “recycle” paper wrappers and rags are involuntary acting out the same culture as suburban Americans having $30,000 “disposable” automobiles for a few years, before they are passed on down the consumer chain. Barely worn clothes are discarded, season after season. We’re even supposed to throw out our computers every few years! And the complete disappearance of a species–something unthought of before capitalism–is now as routine and unremarkable as slave labor.
Maybe you’re right, the overpopulation thing may be a sidetrack for us right now. It’s just something Butch and i discuss-~that capitalism as a system acts to maintain an artificially high population density. Agree with what you say here, and you’re definitely right there is no ultimate population problem unlike what reactionary Western ideas of population control are always claiming (the Chairperson “Mouse” had a Thought or two here, too, didn’t he?). But my focus was elsewhere. Maybe we should consider this some, since a chaotic and dis-functional society with far, far more people than farmland or jobs seems to be a favorable environment from imperialism’s point of view. Maybe Haiti/Montana is a success story, from their viewpoint?
Maybe how you and i–and all revs from industrial societies–view what population is “natural” is itself highly subjective and only received?
Think you correctly put the issue of the huge surplus “Roman” populations of the metropolis together with mass commodity production. It’s obviously right to place so much emphasis on the overproduction of “unnecessary commodities”. This is a cliche by now, but perhaps this lip service only conceals its significance on a deeper level? (By the way, was that paper on working class consumerism useful to us, in this regard?) Looking back on how marxism has done predicting crises, isn’t capitalism always seeming to surprise us with a more aggressive risk taking solution, always upping the ante as it were? (Interestingly enough, one of the best analyses was the Third International’s prediction several years before of the 1929 Depression about the last time white male “Marxist” economists had anything worth hearing).
Scanning the landscape historically, capitalism has used mass commodity production on a scale that no one understood. Whole classes in many different nations, with hundreds of millions of people, who once had little more than the filthy clothes on their backs now have large houses, automobiles and computers, college education for their children, medical care, frequent vacation travel, etc etc. (Permanent capitalist armies, divorced from production unlike in earlier epochs, formal and informal, have been created on a scale that again no one understood. ) While formerly self-sufficient peoples working within traditional cultural economies have been evicted to wander the dumpster world. How could the old class structure have survived this cultural nuclear blast? What did this world transformation mean for class?
On my end, am still moving slowly, grazing on the fields of theory and general understandings. So maybe our roads will be dove-tailing? What’s dawning on me, really amazing me, is how much we–“we” in the larger communist sense–do not know about class today.
May 5, 2000
I’m FINALLY getting started on this letter. Thanks for the materials you sent in yours of 4/22. Like you, I find the Poulantzas useful, especially in the discussion about the ruling class, class fractions, and the actual running of the state. His understanding of “the working class” and the united front is typical bogus metropolitan horseshit, of course.
The Rob los Ricos pamphlet is also interesting. I got to talk to Butch a little about it–as you know, she considers it closer to neo-fascism than anything else, ideologically speaking. I have to agree that it doesn’t pass the sniff test. Although it is seductively sincere-sounding and anti authoritarian, it conjures up images of “natural, free” hearty young white guys that have always made me uneasy. (Yeah, I realize he’s Chicano, but….)
We seem to have a funny role reversal in terms of this anti-globalization activity. I AM surprised at your positive attitude, partly because you are so curmudgeonly toward virtually every social protest we have discussed <g>, and partly because your paper seemed to be grudging at best about any prospects for good results from the anti-WTO organizing. Really, that’s how it reads to me.
Of course, one of the pleasures of this discussion is that it is endlessly surprising. Just a week or so ago, Butch was telling me that the whole Civil Rights movement was owned and directed by the Kennedys from the start, that its mass base wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and that it would have been better for radicals to just stay out of that movement altogether so as not to be complicit in integration. Now that was a movement that was clearly thrown up by a massive global wave of anti-colonial struggle; a movement that was important in the rise of revolutionary Black politics, not to mention massive white radicalism and the counter-culture. Whereas this anti-WTO stuff, by your own analysis, is mainly a defense of metropolitan privilege, supported by neo-fascists and a significant sector of the ruling class, which is highly likely to become a breeding-ground for the far right!
When you say the metropolitan anti-globalization activity is “part of the new breakthrough we’ve been waiting for,” I wonder what you mean. Unlike the white movements of the sixties, this stuff isn’t responding to the powerful initiatives of the oppressed. (That’s why the CI0 veterans had to listen to us kids–we were a small part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. What we see now is sorta like the anti-war movement minus the Vietnamese or Black revolutions!) And we know that even under relatively favorable conditions, surrounded by a worldwide firestorm of advancing anti-colonial struggle, metropolitan radicalism failed miserably back then. So where’s the evidence of a more truly internationalist, woman-centered process today? Is that what we see emerging in Europe, where all this motion is further evolved?
I can see that some of the anarchists and other young activists might be open to having a more scientific political analysis and becoming more professional. That’s a limited but important consideration. I can see some small potential for actually building material support for real anti-globalization struggles among the world’s oppressed. And I can see that anti-globalization struggle is an arena for fighting neo-fascism. (At its best, this would mean dividing the movement and neutralizing its reactionary potential, wouldn’t it? And even that seems kinda dicey, considering that nobody in Europe has been able to do so.) But, then, why are these opportunities qualitatively different from what exists among good-hearted people within immigrant rights/affirmative action struggles, or Justice for Janitors, or…?
Hey, this curmudgeon role is fun! Now you get to be the idealistic advocate of the mass line….!
I agree with your remarks about how the evolution of production and distribution drives class struggle. I also agree that capitalism–and more specifically the ruling class–acts to change the existence of classes. To some extent we are saying the same thing with different semantics. When capitalism changes enough, certain classes become obsolete and are eliminated; others- especially middle classes–are transformed enough to be almost unrecognizable. The question of whether these are still the same classes or actually new classes is probably a judgement call. (Is the modern Japanese “peasantry” really the same class as the former “peasantry”? How about the U.S. Iabor aristocracy?) Clearly in each case there is a period of transition, and major elements of the old are rolled into the new. Some of these elements are extremely persistent, at least culturally. Cause when we talk about classes or class fractions we are talking about actual communities of actual people with actual histories. On this score, I doubt that we have much disagreement.
Reprising (and probably beating to death) a smallish point: I do think you give more “credit” to imperialism for consciously manipulating classes than I do. Not that I question that imperialism does this to some extent. But I tend to view the more politically-driven changes that happen (as opposed to class changes that evolve directly out of underlying economic factors) as fairly constrained outcomes of class contradictions, not as the results of social engineering.
It was the upsurge of struggle between the Black masses and the ruling class (a struggle lost by the Nation) that led to the imposition of the victor’s solution–a solution that was implicit in the struggle itself. The ruling class didn’t really plan to socially engineer the Black proletariat out of existence. It didn’t have to plan. The Black industrial proletariat threatened to challenge the ruling class as part of a global anti-colonial war, and in return the ruling class has done its best to wipe it out–deflecting and absorbing it here, repressing it there. Which is what any exploiting class does when it can to a class enemy it no longer needs to exploit. This is mainly just instinct. Besides, what were their other options? Class suicide?
I have no knowledge of the class transformation in Taiwan or Japan that you mention, but I would guess that the peasantry there had a certain amount of potential leverage which had to be co-opted to create a pro-imperialist social peace. Was this really a maneuver on the part of imperialism, or merely an opportunistic adaptation constrained by a narrow range of possibilities? (Generally speaking, if a class doesn’t have any real leverage in a situation, there’s no benefit in coopting or neutralizing them….)
I think this is the secret of the power of ruling class hegemony: that it flows “unnaturally” along with the actual concrete evolution of class contradictions and struggle. Only secondarily is it a matter of conscious maneuver and planning, especially when it comes to major changes like modifying or replacing classes.
There are Hitlers and Pol Pots, with their crude and voluntaristic methods. But they tend to be transient, in contrast to the ever-morphing continuity of capitalist hegemony, which roots itself in every aspect of society’s internal contradictions, and which engenders actual enthusiasm and creativity among the oppressors, the parasitic classes–hell, even among the oppressed. (And which is just as violent, in a more patient, protracted way, as naked dictatorship.) You can’t buy that kinda social engineering at any price.
The New Deal (which lasted a long time compared to Nazism) involved tremendous changes in the metropolitan “working class,” actually turning most of it into middle classes. I give Roosevelt and his fellow vultures credit for their clarity about what was at stake. They did some definite social engineering. But they didn’t create the overall situation or manipulate it into being. They merely chose one of the limited options available to them and implemented it energetically. The New Deal solution wouldn’t have existed as an option without the real class struggle which preceded the New Deal. (Even when it comes to buying off classes, it’s the dangerously squeaky wheel that gets grease.) Nor without the threat posed by anti-colonial struggles on a world scale, of course.
We have the ultimate example of how class change works right in front of us, as colonial forms of rule are replaced by neo- or post-colonial forms. This isn’t happening by design, as I’m sure you agree, but rather as a result of two main objective factors: the overwhelming and irresistible imperative for a new wave of capitalist expansion, and the proven impotence of colonial rule in the face of modern national liberation movements. The enormous class changes underway, then, are mainly powered by internal contradictions within society, over which the capitalists have very little control. Today the ruling class’s planners and social engineers have this globalization tiger by the tail, and are almost desperately trying to figure out how to organize a manageable new social order within the constraints of those contradictions. But their stratagems pale in comparison to the social forces that have been unleashed by objective conditions.
On a smaller scale, U.S. capitalists didn’t plan to make Latino immigrants their preferred labor force, as some allege. On the contrary, most of them treated Latino immigration like the plague, and tried to confine it to agriculture and certain segregated industries. But eventually the explosion of long-building social contradictions within Latin America, coupled with the evolution of capital mobility, made the wave of Latino labor literally irresistible. Now the capitalists are forced to try to decide how to integrate this population into the North American social order, which is a tricky question being worked out mostly through trial and error. All of this has huge implications for other classes and peoples of course–there is a ripple effect throughout society, intersecting with ripples from other huge changes.
I guess what I’m trying to think out loud about, is my sense that all classes (so far), including the ruling class, are mostly caught up in and ride along with the development of society instead of “making” that development happen consciously. (Even though it is precisely class struggle. viewed objectively. that propels this process of development.)
On the deepest material level, classes can’t even control their own fundamental urges, which are hard-wired into their existence. On the level of politics, they are presented with certain choices, within certain constraints, by which they can try to steer things one way or another to favor their interests. Sometimes they make “good” choices, sometimes “bad” ones. (Sometimes they make the best choices possible, but still get hurt or destroyed.) Furthermore, with the (possible) exception of the proletariat, classes can’t afford to be fully aware of what they are doing. This would undermine their cohesiveness and ideological identity.
The ruling class has the decisive advantage of a monopoly on armed violence, but this alone is usually not enough to allow it to exercise extended and profitable control. To control society effectively, the ruling class needs an arrangement of class forces that reaches down into the population. A particular social base, and a generalized social hegemony. Most of the time, this can’t be fabricated or engineered; it must be adopted–a choice made from a limited number of choices located within an already-existing process and set of circumstances, justified with an ideology that is socially acceptable within the conjuncture. (The ruling class itself normally has false consciousness, because, however brutal its actions, in the final analysis honesty is literally unthinkable for a hegemonic class.) Up until now, classes–even ruling classes- usually make history through how they adapt to the flow of history around them, struggling to maximize their material options. Which, as it tums out, is a dramatic and bloody and casually genocidal enough process….
It’s kinda similar to how most middle class white people view the police. They take no personal interest in, or responsibility for, what the cops do. “Just do whatever you have to do to protect us, and don’t tell us how you do it. We’re busy living our nice moral, patriotic life with our families.” So it is also with the bourgeoisie.
This discussion may seem obvious to you, or it may strike you as totally weird. At any rate, I was thinking about it, and it seemed potentially relevant, so I just spit it out. And I still can’t fully wrap my mind around the idea of consumer classes, even though they obviously exist. My primitive understanding of political economy can only allow me to perceive this hazily.
The thing I keep thinking about is that we have to try to get other people to work on this stuff, since it is too big and too technical for us in many ways. So that even some brainstorming publicly could be useful if it excites other folks.
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