Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bloggers and real people

This letter seems to have been lost in the International Socialist Review's transition to a new format. It is a reply to "Will the Revolution Be Tweeted?"

I was glad to see the ISR publish Brian Lenzo’s piece on political organizing through the Internet and social media, because it says true things about issues with which organizers need to be grappling. But I’m afraid that Brian gets somewhat carried away with his polemic against cyber utopians and corporate boosters, accurate as it may be. He repeatedly implies a series of too-common conflations between disparate oppositions: online/offline, superstructure/base, and the organizing styles and human relationships that have been labeled ‘weak-tie’ and ‘strong-tie’. And in the end, he wrongly categorizes the changes that have come with the Internet as surface turbulence requiring only new tactical thinking.

Brian raises what I think is a central question: “How does the hyper individualism promoted by neoliberalism combine with digitized social interactions to affect class consciousness?” I don’t have a real answer to this. But I want to try to clarify our starting point. Brian argues that “any look beneath the surface of the digital revolution reveals the hallmarks of old capitalism.” I agree that capitalism’s driving forces remain the same. But I think we need to recognize that changes tied to new technologies and patterns of communication cut past the surface and have transformed the spatial and social organization of workers inside and outside of production.

After a valuable survey of the role of Internet organizing in struggles around the world, Brian sets out to rebut three “cyber utopian” propositions:
  1. A faith in the power of the Internet to reveal “the truth” to the knowledge seekers. 
  2. A belief in the power of the Internet, or more accurately “the network,” to build community and develop social ties that capitalism has otherwise prevented. 
  3. A conclusion that the Internet and social media have altered the central contradictions of capitalism, possibly resulting in a peaceful resolution or complete transformation in favor of the oppressed.
Brian quickly and thoroughly refutes the first, but fails, I think, to acknowledge the grain of truth in the second. The result is that against the third, which he is right to reject, he scores some points, but leaves some gaps in his argument.

Let’s start with that last. Brian’s piece asks, “If Facebook and Google are free, how are these corporations making so much money?”, and answers, “As any Marxist will tell you, it’s all about production.” Sure, but what kind? Brian elaborates:

“Connection to any of these services requires a device of some kind, a device that must be produced by someone... If mining the raw materials wasn’t dirty enough, phones, tablets, and computers are produced in giant sweatshops...There are also the giant server farms... e-waste from Europe and the United States is being dumped back on Africa, India, and China...”
This is all true (and important, and relevant to Facebook and Google), but not actually how they make their money. They don’t manufacture devices (well, Google’s now-subsidiary Motorola does, but that’s both recent and a small part of Google’s profits). In fact, Brian has provided the answer earlier: “Google and Facebook’s users are actually the product, not the customer.”

So why then here talk at such length about the products of other players in the technology industry, which can be measured in more traditional physical categories of units and tonnage? I’m not sure, but luckily, this part of the polemic is unnecessary. It’s true that the “pillars of capitalism have [not] been fundamentally changed,” but capitalism has never been fundamentally about the production of physical objects anyway. Less fortunately, we haven’t yet really addressed how the methods and organization of capitalist production--including bulk physical production--might have changed.

What’s worse is that even social media companies’ real product, users, is brought up in its own context as basically a red herring with respect to the second of the key questions Brian sets out to address: whether the Internet or “the network” has changed how we “build community and develop social ties.” He does not attempt to rebut this directly; instead he spends most of his words explaining that both advertisers and the state are “feasting” on the information about social ties that becomes visible when they are digitized.

Our class enemies’ ability to surveil friendships & political organizing carried out through the Internet is real and threatening, but nevertheless online communication is now built into the fabric of our relationships to one another and we need to deal with this. We can’t point out its downsides and move on. We can safely assume that the commodification of our human interactions affects their content, but we need to specify how.

The closest Brian comes to this is when he later cites Malcolm Gladwell (which ought to be a red flag in itself). Gladwell applies a distinction between ‘weak ties’ and ‘strong ties’ to contrast the kind of relationships built by activist social media to the relationships which gave activists the courage to go to Mississippi for a Freedom Summer.

But not all ties built online are of the same strength, and neither are all ties built ‘IRL’. Handing someone a flyer is not the same thing as having a conversation with them, which is not the same as going to jail with them. Putting someone on your mass email list is not the same thing as having a series of written discussions with them through web postings, which is not the same as exchanging sexts. It would be a definite practical mistake to categorically assume that relationships built through face-to-face speech are always stronger than those mediated by technology. Gladwell has identified a dynamic affecting some online interactions, but we need to think more specifically.

According to Brian, “It would also be a mistake to confuse posting articles on Facebook or blogging with real debate and discussion with real people.” But in fact, the confusion arises when you forget that people remain real physical beings even as they communicate via post-1980 technologies. Yes, online communication works differently than previous technologies, but that’s precisely the point: we need to figure out what these differences imply.

A couple sketches of areas where I think Internet technologies have helped change real social relationships in ways that matter. (These are rough, but at least I should be able to fend off any charge of utopianism.)

One: social media platforms are shaped by their builders’ need to sell advertising, and one of the central techniques is to integrate with their users’ need, in a neoliberal labor market, to promote themselves as the kind of employee and service provider that a viewer would want to hire. So they show paid ads interspersed with ‘personal’ posts which themselves are very often used--with varying degrees of conscious planning--as marketing, to promote a kind of personal brand. In this context it’s easier to push an individual ‘thinker’, a star, than an organization or a coherent set of ideas developed collectively. At best, it’s easy to promote a slogan, but difficult to promote a theory; easy to promote an article, difficult to promote a Socialist Worker. Those of us fighting for systemic change need not concede to this, but it should impact what and how we publish.

Two: net-based organization makes it possible to automate and measure new tasks. You can easily put ten different messages in the form of email subjects, send each to a couple thousand people, and measure the click-through rates to see which gets the most response. This has its uses, of course, but it’s also easy to see how it can reward lowest-common-denominator vacuity and manipulative language with rapid ‘membership’ growth. We need to learn not only how to seize the opportunities here, but also what the sudden ease of ‘professionalizing’ activism in this way means for the landscape of popular organization.

Let’s take a step back. Capitalism has evolved continuously as long as it has existed, and some of the more recent changes touch on the basics of Marxist thinking about how to defeat it. Marx wrote in Capital: “As a general rule, labourers cannot co-operate without being brought together: their assemblage in one place is a necessary condition of their co-operation.” And this was a key point in his vision of capitalism’s overthrow, as he wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.”

But we live in a world where productive cooperation increasingly takes place across spatial divides, whether that means Facebook or Google programmers cooperating online or the workers who form parts of an international production chain that starts in Bangladesh and ends up with a pair of pants being sold in a Walmart. One way of looking at this is that capitalists have, to some extent, figured out how to use new technologies to allow the kind of communication they need without providing many of the spaces they used to for communication that challenges their control. It is in this context that, as Brian mentions, neoliberalism has pushed popular culture towards individualism, as well as weakening or destroying working class organizations.

We have seen this play out in the key role that the occupation of physical space has played in recent upsurges around the world. One of the things offered by Liberty Square in New York--or, I would guess, a Tahrir, Syntagma, or Taksim--was a place where relationships between people with distinct ideas and experiences could be built and political discussions could be natural, casual, and continuing. That kind of place can be hard to find otherwise. Unfortunately, here in the US we have not shown the ability to hold on to public space when the state decides the time has come to take it away. Which means that we are left with a major challenge if we want to rebuild a left culture in which people routinely think and react to events in political, class-conscious way.

And yet, we know that humans are social animals. We know, more specifically, that capitalism requires ever-more-extensive cooperation, which is one way the system’s internal contradictions continue to provide resources for its defeat. We’ll just have not only to use different tools than our forerunners--we’ll have to use them for new purposes, to solve different problems.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reply to a reply on privilege

A friend pointed me to a response by White Lion Sage to an article I wrote for SocialistWorker.org - itself some thoughts on a document entitled Checking Your Privilege 101.

WLS' criticism is based in part on some simple misunderstandings, but also gets at some real disagreements. Let's get the former out of the way first.

WLS writes, with respect to a person who brought a (perhaps unintentionally) racist sign to a SlutWalk anti-rape demonstration:
As reported, the person checked their privilege and put the sign down.  But Judd didn’t want the person to check their privilege... Judd would have rather this person keep their sign up.
But as the Socialist Worker article says,
One organizer, a member of the International Socialist Organization, went up to the woman to explain why the sign was racist and not in the spirit of the struggle, and the woman put it away and did not carry it on the march.
Perhaps WLS is unaware of this, but the International Socialist Organization is the publisher of Socialist Worker. The organizer who got the racist sign put away is a comrade whose act I endorse. It's the subsequent implosion of SlutWalk that I don't think was a positive development.

WLS goes on to note my endorsement of Occupy's "We are the 99%" slogan, and on that basis claims:
He is saying that we should forget material divisions that keep the proletariat divided and are instilled by the bourgeoisie.  That is colorblindness... tell[ing] people that their identity and personal politics should not be expressed at the risk of dividing us.
That's not what I was saying at all. Perhaps the misunderstanding about SlutWalk contributed to the misreading here, but the Socialist Worker article starts by noting that "different people are systematically oppressed in many different ways," and concludes with an argument that Occupy "needs a greater emphasis on opposing all kinds of oppression." The whole thrust of the piece is an argument about how best to both theorize and fight racism and other material divisions, which is the opposite of "forgetting" them.

I actually agree with WLS in rejecting "colorblindness," as "not real unity... a band-aid on an infection [that] will not heal the wound." I make these arguments myself when the question comes up in organizing.

---

But WLS and I don't agree about everything, clearly. WLS writes:
Capitalism did not invent violence against women.  Capitalism did not preclude the formation of phenotypically different races.  There were wars, murders, and genocides before capitalism was invented.  Capitalism is not the root of these systems of oppression.
Capitalism didn't invent violence against women, but nor is that violence timeless. From what I have learned of history and anthropology from writers like Engels, Sharon Smith and Eleanor Burke Leacock, women's oppression arose as a systematic phenomenon with the first class societies some 8-10 thousand years ago. Gendered power relationships have adapted over time, shaping and being shaped by the rise of capitalism among other historical changes, but without disappearing. The Marxist thesis is that overthrowing capitalism would mean replacing it with a classless society, socialism, which in turn would mean an end to the oppression of women.

Xenophobia and prejudice of various kinds may go back to the dawn of humanity. Racism, on the other hand, as a structural oppression, is the product of colonialism and chattel slavery, and therefore of the development of capitalism - at least according to the history I've learned people like Barbara Fields, Ahmed Shawki and David Roediger. Like sexism, it thrives today because it plays a crucial role for capitalism, and Marxists believe that it will be defeated if and when capitalism is.

These are very important questions. Can racism only be overthrown by overthrowing capitalism, and vice versa? Or can each be fought independently - so that antiracism is not essential for anticapitalists, and anticapitalism is not essential for antiracists? Or is racism, or capitalism, built in to human nature and something that we can only ever hope to mitigate?

I think the answers to these questions are yes, no, and no, respectively. I am not sure, but I doubt WLS agrees.

In any case, the point of my original article was not to actually make the case for every aspect of a Marxist understanding of history. It was just to show how these important historical and theoretical questions can be at stake in certain discussions of privilege, even in a document that presents itself as simple guidelines for genuine solidarity. In fact, I think this exchange helps make that point.

---

Not just for that reason, I'm grateful to WLS for starting this dialogue. One thing, however, I think is not helpful.

WLS writes:
What is going on here at the core is that unless organizers choose to be Marxists or socialists, then Marxists or socialists won’t engage their ideas. 
While I certainly won't defend everything every self-identified Marxist has done over the years, I think the closest example we have of refusing to engage with political ideas doesn't come from Socialist Worker. Rather, it looks like this:
Judd... stopped when it went beyond his comfort zone of socialism. Not only did he stop, but he wrote a blog about why everyone else who almost got him out of his comfort zone should stop.
I don't mean to present myself as a victim here. I'm doing fine. But to dismiss Marxist analysis as a product of "white socialists" "comfort zone" is to render invisible--or label as somehow brainwashed and inauthentic--the many Marxists of color, including my comrades in the ISO. And it does a disservice to the kind of deep, open and honest discussion we on the left need to have in order to figure out how to change our fucked-up society. We need comradely discussion and debate among people with many different political ideas, because certainly none of us has all the answers to the crucial questions facing us right now, from the way forward after the collapse of Occupy to the kind of society actually worth fighting for.

And - let's be clear - sometimes some of us will be right, and others wrong. I'm not in favor of "talking down" to anybody. But I do think there's a sense in which one "analysis trumps others," intrinsically - if analyses conflict, they can't all be right. It is perfectly legitimate for WLS to argue for one understanding of history, and for me to argue for another. I don't want to assume I'm always right - nobody is. But I want to make the best case for my position I can, unless and until I am convinced to change it. And I hope people who disagree with me will do the same.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Return of Revolution

This is a lightly-edited version of a talk I gave to kick off a study group on the book Revolutionary Rehearsals, which has essays on the struggles in France in 1968, Chile in '72-3, Portugal in '74-5, Iran in '79, and Poland in '80-1.

Hosni Mubarak is no longer president of Egypt. His overthrow, following that of Ben Ali in Tunisia, is already changing the world. There are protests in Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen... The imperialists of the US don’t know what to do, the colonialists of Israel are near panic, and people across the world have been not only fascinated but inspired.

Of course, by any reasonable standard I know little about Egypt - I've never visited and I don't speak Arabic. That said, I will have to focus less on what is particular to Egypt, and more on what events there show us about the dynamics of revolution.

I’ll talk first about the most obvious lessons - that protests have power and that revolution isn’t just for the history books. I’ll talk about how revolution becomes necessary. Then I’ll talk about the power of class analysis in understanding what’s happening, and the roles of the various classes. Finally, I’ll talk about the possibilities that have been opened up, the way that advance and reaction interact back on the further development of the struggle, and entrance of the subjective element of organization into history.

Just a few years ago in Egypt, street protests were typically outnumbered by police. There are a million and a half people in Egypt employed by the internal security apparatus, and hundreds of them would turn out even if there were only scores of protesters. The first time in years where the opposite was clearly true was January 25 of this year, less than a month ago. Just days later, protesters chased police off the streets. They overturned armored vehicles, burned police stations, captured infiltrators, and established control of movement in the major cities.

When the right combination of frustration and inspiration comes together, the world can change very suddenly and dramatically. Individual experiences of hunger, unemployment, wage stagnation, corruption, and police brutality, built up under the surface of Egyptian society, with little outward political expression. But by the end of 2010, Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy could write, “There is something in the air... Not a day passes without reading or hearing about a strike. No one knows when the explosion is going to happen, but it seems everyone I meet or bump into today feels it’s inevitable.”

One day, Hosni Mubarak, backed by a military regime more than fifty years old and the US, the most powerful empire in the world, seemed invincible. Just weeks later, he has resigned, and there are rumors that he has fled Egypt.

There are two things to note here. One, our rulers aren’t infinitely powerful. If we organize, we can topple them - no matter what they try. Working people can now add their victory over the police in Egypt to their victory over two attempted military coups in Portugal, and over bosses’ strikes which shut down much of the economy in Chile (and both, more recently, in Venezuela).

The second thing to note is that what seems like popular apathy can conceal a deep desire for change and a willingness to risk everything.

There’s another side to this. Electoral politicking did not topple Mubarak; when he had to, he just falsified the results. Bombings and other individual acts of terrorism by Islamists in the 70s, 80s and 90s, including Sadat’s assassination, only reinforced the Egyptian military regime. The so-called opposition parties which tried to “work within the system” of Mubarak’s rule, from the liberals to, in recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood, were left behind by the revolution, and contributed little except when their cadre jumped ahead of their leadership. Mass action on the streets, culminating in strike action by tens of thousands of workers, was needed to finally overthrow Mubarak.

Not every uprising against a dictator or against imperialism is a working-class revolution. Guerrilla strategies have sometimes succeeded, at least in the short term, as in Cuba and Vietnam. But revolutions, or near-revolutionary struggles, which involve mass action by the working class, have a special dynamic.

To all appearances, what’s happening in Egypt does deeply involve the participation of the working class. Last month, el-Hamalawy told an interviewer, “Tunisia was more or less a catalyst”, but, “Revolutions don't happen out of the blue... You can't isolate these protests from the last four years of labor strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa Intifada of Palestinians and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.”


The labor struggle goes back years. I quote from a 2007 article in the International Socialist Review by Mostafa Omar:

Over the last two years, the number of strikes (which usually take the form of factory sit-ins or occupations since strikes are basically illegal) has been steadily rising. In 2006, there were at least 220 workers’ strikes, walkouts, and street protests.


Millions of Egyptian workers have seen their real wages and benefits plummet after twenty years of the neoliberal policies of structural adjustment and privatization programs pushed on them by the International Monetary Fund and the Egyptian business class. The economy’s shift from a predominantly public sector one, where workers enjoyed a relative degree of job protection, to a privatized, free-market bonanza for the rich and foreign multinationals, has led to rising unemployment (officially estimated at 13 percent), increasing levels of poverty, and simmering anger.


That strike wave interacted with a protest movement which had an independent impetus. Starting in 2000, the Second Intifada in Palestine inspired Egyptians to take to the streets in solidarity. That movement fed into an anti-war movement when Bush announced plans to invade Iraq. That movement in turn fed into the Kifaya or “enough” movement, which demonstrated against Mubarak himself in 2005.

The workers who struck in 2006 were given confidence by these earlier political struggles, and their economic demands had to quickly turn political because the official Egyptian unions are controlled by the regime, and independent trade union organization is illegal. So the political and economic struggles have been mutually reinforcing.

The protests which started on January 25th were called against the police murder of Khaled Said, a middle-class young man, and initiated on Facebook. Though many people left work to attend mass demonstrations in the following week, strikes organized through workplaces did not spread across the country until a few days before Mubarak left. But these strikes, which had both political and economic demands and included crucially the workers in the Suez canal, very well may have been the final tipping point.

There is a very direct parallel here to France in 1968, where student protesters who battled with police and showed that resistance was possible sparked the largest general strike in history.

The military, which still controls the state, has now cleared protesters out of Tahrir Square. If the revolution is to go further, it will have to rely on workers organizing at the point of production. The military junta is right now trying to get workers to go back to work, which thousands have refused to do until more of their demands are met, which include wage increases as well as freedom for thousands of political prisoners who remain behind bars. According to the Times, Suez canal workers just rejoined workers in “textile mills, pharmaceutical plants, chemical industries, the Cairo airport, the transportation sector and banks” who are on strike right now.

Nearly all of Egyptian society was fed up with Mubarak by the end; the regime could only turn out pro-Mubarak demonstrations by putting police in plain clothes and paying cash to desperate people. The Egyptian working class has an interest not only in the overthrow of Mubarak, but also in the radical transformation of Egypt, the right to organize, the rolling back of neoliberalism, and ultimately a different kind of society based on workers’ control.

The Egyptian middle classes, on the other hand, such as the employees of the state bureaucracy and small businesspeople, have a stake in democracy and stability; they don’t want to face arbitrary beatings by regime goons, but their jobs may also be at risk if the state machinery is dissolved, or tourism dries up, or their workers strike. Mohammed el-Baradei, the former UN official, and Wael Ghoneim, the Google manager who some TV outlets are treating as the face of the revolution, seem to represent these groups. They opposed Mubarak and support democracy, but are far from socialist or even anti-imperialist. And both men have indicated they may be willing to compromise with the country’s military rulers if that is what is needed to keep order.

On February 10, Mubarak’s last full day, el-Baradei tweeted, “Egypt will explode. Army must save the country now.” He is now calling for a slow, one-year transition to civilian rule. Ghoneim has met with the military junta now ruling the country, along with an unaccountable handful of others, and on February 13, after military police had cleared demonstrators out of Tahrir Square the night before, he tweeted, “I am in Tahrir Square and can't believe the scene. Its amazingly clean!”

As the situation develops, we can expect that some protest leaders of this type will be pulled to the right and away from the revolution, while others will be pulled to the left and radicalized.

We can see something similar happening with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest organized opposition group, which has a base among the poor but a middle-class leadership. Its leadership has been cautious and conservative, while its activists on the street have been pulled into struggle by events - as well as an conscious effort to involve them by parts of the left. This dynamic has been at work for years but was on display again in January as the organization endorsed the protests only after the first seemed successful.

The Egyptian army, too, has internal class divisions. The generals are a major part of the ruling class - many of them are capitalists in their own right, managing army-owned industries. The rank-and-file, often conscripted, are part of the working class. Junior officers, like other mid-level state officials, are caught in between. Liberal commentators in the US have often been mystified by the army’s seeming paralysis. An article in Time even gave credit for the army’s restraint to its officers’ training in the US (too bad that’s never worked in Latin America). But if you understand that the ordinary soldiers have no interest in common with the military as an institution, it’s easy to see why the generals wouldn’t want to give orders that might not be obeyed.

The protesters very wisely made a systematic effort to befriend the soldiers who were deployed around the demonstrations. However, according to reporters on the ground, there is a real reverence for the army among many ordinary Egyptians, which is a danger. The experience of Portugal, where the military initially led the revolution but would only take it so far, provides a warning here, and that of Chile, where a military coup undid the revolution and murdered 30,000 activists, an even darker one

The generals, like the rest of the ruling class, were happy with Mubarak, until the point where his attempt to stay in office seemed like more of a threat to the regime than did a coup against him. The capitalists can be forced into confusion and made to turn on their own representatives by popular struggle. Of course, if they will fight each other, they will certainly be willing to murder even those representatives of the working class who abandon their own class interests in an attempt to appease capital, as they did Allende in Chile.

A quick note on Twitter, Facebook, the Internet, etcetera. These are obviously very useful tools. But the revolution continued and grew stronger during a full week when the entire Internet was shut down. Organization in physical space was decisive. The people who give credit for the revolution in Egypt to Western technology companies are putting out condescending, racist bullshit.

What’s going to happen going forward? Given the political forces on the ground in Egypt, we can’t say socialism is the most likely the outcome. But we can’t know what will happen. There could be a dramatic advance, if not to socialism than at least to a really independent democracy, or the old ruling class could ultimately survive more or less intact.

In Chile in ‘73, the revolution was drowned in blood. In France in ‘68, a great upheaval had a lasting cultural impact but led to no change in the basic political economy of the country. In Iran in ‘79, the old ruling class with its ties to Western imperialists was overthrown, only to be replaced by a new and equally vicious ruling class using Islam as cover. Likewise in Poland in the ‘80s, the movement was first defused and then turned towards a “liberalization” that benefited only those at the top. In Portugal in ‘75, fascism was defeated for good, but the historically new society that might have been remained just a glimpse - as in South Africa, with the overthrow of apartheid, and right now in Venezuela.

In a revolutionary situation, very little is certain and nothing stands still. Developments are hugely compressed, maybe even more in the electronic era, but process can still be years-long. Radicalization can swing to reaction and back again repeatedly. And no gain for our side is safe while state power is still in their hands.

In France, the Stalinized Communist Party and trade union bureaucracy were the only forces that could end the general strike. But shortly thereafter, they were decisively defeated in a general election, with their supporters demoralized and waverers seeing no left path forward. In Chile, the initially very threatening bosses’ strike lead by the truckers led to an upsurge of working-class organization, in the cordones, the workers’ councils. Allende and the reformists calmed things down, with the aim of “consolidation”. But that just gave the capitalists time to regroup, and the demobilized workers could not stop a coup. The workers of Iran defeated the Shah. The state power in the hands of the clerics started out as mostly symbolic, while the worker’s shoras filled the vacuum. But the left did not guide the working class towards a struggle for power, and the clerics made their power real.


There are real barriers in the way of Egypt becoming a civilian democracy or obtaining real independence from the US, let alone in the way of it going socialist. But each barrier is at the same time an impetus for the revolution to develop to the next level. When their current methods fail, people turn to more radical ones, if given the opportunity.

In Egypt, there have already been dramatic swings. After the initial protests on January 25, people have gone from terror as Mubarak appeared to be preparing a massacre on February 2, to euphoria as his resignation was announced on the 11th.

There is no dual power as yet. Egypt has no equivalent to the shoras or cordones or soviets, the alternative structures which have developed in every workers’ revolution in parallel and eventually in opposition to the capitalist state.

However, the Egyptians have proved their capacity for both creativity and self-organization. We have seen Christian-Muslim solidarity emerge in the face of old hostility, with followers of each religion guarding the backs of the others as they prayed in the streets. We have seen incredible organization develop overnight, as neighborhood watch committees arose across the country and established checkpoints to prevent looting when Mubarak’s strategy was to associate the revolution with chaos and criminality, and as liberated Tahrir Square developed barricades with shifts, then field clinics, then kitchens and a system for sharing satellite phones.

Lenin described revolution as “the festival of the oppressed”. We’ve seen that in a more literal sense than he meant it in Egypt, with a near continual dance party in Tahrir in the midst of periodic battles. Socialist Worker has published some eyewitness reporting by Mostafa Omar and Ahmed Shawki which gives a great sense of the scene there.

But even short of dual power, a different crucial kind of organization is still missing, if Egypt is going to see the kind of change that will really overcome poverty and tyranny in the lives of ordinary people. There is no mass party with both a revolutionary goal and the centralization and popular roots to seize the moment to drive through a transformation of society. It is one thing for the ruling class to abandon Mubarak’s government, like rats fleeing a sinking ship. If they are threatened as a class, enough will come together to fight for their existence, by whatever means necessary. Power will not fall into the hands of working people spontaneously; they will need to organize to take it.

The most influential single organization on the ground is still probably the Muslim Brotherhood. But so far it has shown no capacity for decisive action, and if the Muslim Brothers were to rule Egypt, that would be far from a liberated society. There are old, self-proclaimed left parties such as Tagammu, which includes the remnants of the Egyptian Communist Party. But these have been thoroughly corrupted and defanged by cooperation with Mubarak.

There is not much of an organized actual left in Egypt. There are the Revolutionary Socialists, an important group, but they are not a mass party, and have no established legal organization. Of course, something similar was true in Portugal in the ‘70s, while in Chile, France, Iran, and Poland, the left was dominated by Stalinists and social-democratic reformists. That did not prevent things from reaching the stage where the question of workers’ power was on the table, and in some cases tantalizingly close to becoming a reality.

Whether Egypt may come to that point is something we will have to see. But whatever country or region does next enter that sort of crisis, the outcome will not be predetermined, but will be historically subjective, dependent on the actions of individual people. And history allows us to be pretty confident that we won’t get rid of the horrendous system under which we live without the existence of a deeply rooted, consistently revolutionary mass party - which is something that might conceivably develop quickly, but might have to be built by a core of people committed through periods of upswing and downturn, over the long haul.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The dialectical structure of capitalism

That hiatus was longer than I planned, but I'm back...

So far, I have suggested that one can think of the dialectic as a structure, where a system changes as a result of the interaction of opposing tendencies it contains, a structure which, though not universal, is common, and which in particular may be characteristic of capitalism. Here, I'll examine the claim in that last clause and try to remove the hesitant "may be".

Why and how might dialectical forms be characteristic of capitalism?

Let's start with how. There are a number of phenomena in capitalism described by Marxists as "contradictions". Some of the more important:
  • Goods and services are produced socially, by the cooperation of vast numbers of people in a complex, organized division of labor, but consumed privately, without any planned allocation and according to no principle of human need. Social production gives society the infrastructure for social consumption but our rulers struggle to ensure that it is not so utilized.
  • Everything that is produced has two kinds of value, an exchange value and a use value. Exchange value requires some sort of use value. But things which people desperately need, such as medicine, sometimes do not have a high enough exchange value to be produced, while things with a high exchange value, say oil, may have a negative social use value.
  • Capitalism leads to a great increase in humanity's productive capabilities. But this creates the possibility of crises of over-production, where there are too many goods to be sold. This, in turn, halts production, and destroys productive capabilities.
  • Capital accumulation is necessary for capitalists to compete, and maintain their profits. But labor is the source of their profits. As they accumulate capital, the proportion of their investment which goes to labor decreases. In the context of competition, this ultimately decreases their profit rate.[1]
  • Capitalism increases humanity's control over our environment, with the advancement of technology and the accumulation of resources. This creates the possibility of greater material freedom. But in fact, under capitalism, society itself confronts each person as something external and impersonal, a set of "forces that arise from [our] relations with each other and which have escaped [our] control",[2] and which rule our lives.
  • Capitalism creates the modern working class, which has an objective interest in destroying the system which gave it birth; thus Marx calls the proletariat capitalism's "gravediggers".
  • The working class has a tendency, according to its own objective interests, and driven by the class struggle, towards socialist ideas and action. But it is also pushed, given the way that its members, if unorganized, compete against one another for jobs, housing, and so on, and given capitalist ownership of the means of communication, towards reactionary ideas.
  • In the realm of ideology, by developing science, by destroying feudalism and its mystified social bonds, by giving everything a calculable monetary value, capitalism encourages a materialistic view of the world, albeit a mechanistic one. But at the same time, by creating an independent intelligentsia, by putting ideological production in the hands of a distinct, privileged class, it encourages an idealistic view of the world, which sees ideas operating according to their own independent logic and driving history. (Lukacs describes these tendencies as the "antinomies of bourgeois thought".)
That's a lot of bullet points. But in fact, these aren't really separate critiques, theses which might stand and fall with complete independence. The difference between exchange value and use value requires a difference between social production and private consumption. In turn it leads to the tendency to economic crisis. The ideological struggle within the working class is predicated on its anti-capitalist class interest, which in turn is predicated on the fact that capitalism can't provide for everyone. And so on.

Nor can we say definitively that one of these points is the most fundamental, and the rest derivative. You can't define classes independently of labor and capital, or vice versa. To give any concrete content to the most general assertions about the relationship of humanity to nature, or society to production and consumption, you need to say something more specific about social relations, which means class relations.

But then how do we understand the relationship between these different theses?

The way suggested by the dialectical idea of the "moment", a way which I think is correct, is to see these points as expressing different aspects of a single system, one which can only be fully understood as a whole, and which has a single causal history, but one which can be approached from many different directions, any of which may be necessary in a given context.

From this perspective, it is in a way a mistake to ask why capitalism has a structure which we can call dialectical. There is no answer short of an analysis of its whole history and internal logic as a developing process. But it does.

So. If the Marxist analysis of capitalism is correct, we have at least a minimal validation of dialectics, within a certain field. But it is not yet a complete validation, because from what we have said, we still don't have a reason to use a dialectical method.

Why focus on the dialectical structure of capitalism, rather than other aspects? What's interesting in dialectical forms, abstracted from the context of capitalism? Why should the dialectic be an independent field of study - if it is validated by, and valid only within, its appearance in capitalism? What's the relationship between a commitment to overthrow capitalism and the use of dialectics in analysis?

[1] That's a very quick sketch. Here's a much longer version.
[2] Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, p. 14.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

May 1968 in France

(This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave for a small study group.)

1968 was a year of upheaval around the globe. In the United States, it was a high point of the antiwar movement and the Black liberation movement. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front launched the Tet Offensive. Workers and students in Prague faced Soviet tanks. There were violent struggles across the underdeveloped and colonial world and popular movements - facing sometimes violent repression - around the developed world. Masses of rebelling students were beaten in Chicago at the Democratic Party convention, and shot in Mexico City.

But in France, though things started with students battling cops, they did not end there. In France, more than anywhere else in the developed world, the fight spread to the working class and really shook the foundations of capitalism.

My talk has two parts. First I will describe the events in France that year, then I will talk a little about the lessons we can learn.

Most of this talk is drawn from Daniel Singer's fantastic book, Prelude to Revolution. There is also some good stuff written by the British socialist Ian Birchall, for example here with Tony Cliff, and a chapter of the book Revolutionary Rehearsals.

As Singer describes them, the events of May 1968 "started at Nanterre, a campus in the western suburbs of Paris."

"Because leftist students wanted to stage an anti-imperialist rally... and because fascist students threatened to attack them, the Dean chose to close the [school]. A few hundred left activists then met at the Sorbonne, in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

Since they feared an attack, they had crash helmets and sticks. The rector made the not unprecedented but very rare decision to call the police into the Sorbonne. Was there a deal that the students would be allowed to leave free? In any case, they were not. As they were leaving, the student activists were picked up by the gendarmes and thrown into Black Marias...

And then the unexpected happened. As the so-called ringleaders were arrested, students flocked to the Sorbonne from all over the Latin Quarter. They did not sign a petition. They did not write a letter to Le Monde. Chanting "free our comrades" they attacked the police.

Surprised, the latter responded with violence. But they had to deal with an adversary that was mobile, inventive, and knew its terrain. Shells, truncheons, and grenades on one side, cobblestones and... barricade[s] on the other..."

So. The first confrontation at the Sorbonne occurred on Friday, May 3. Battles interspersed with peaceful mass demonstrations continued for a week, growing each day. But by the next Friday, May 10th, the development had reached its limits as a movement of students, teachers, and intellectuals. The students controlled the Latin Quarter. But they could not take any more ground. And at 2:15am Saturday morning, the riot police moved in en masse. Singer again:

"The outcome of the confrontation was never in doubt, though it took nearly four hours to bring down all the barricades. There followed some mopping up with maddened policemen barging into private homes to beat up young men and women seeking shelter. At dawn... defeated prisoners [were] being pushed into vans by the angry victors.

Only the image was deceptive. The vanquished were the real winners... Having listened to the drama overnight, France woke up overwhelmingly in favor of the battered students..."

... and the battered neighbors and passersby. Back to me.

On Monday, May 13th, there was a massive demonstration on the streets of Paris. Called by student organizations and the labor unions of France, it brought out more than million people. This made obvious a transition which had already begun, and weaknesses in the foundation of the French regime of General De Gaulle became apparent.

Charles De Gaulle had become president in 1958 amidst a crisis of French colonialism, by means a semi-coup, with support from the military and the Algerian settlers, though also with the acquiescence of most of the existing political establishment, aside from the Communists and far left. He governed semi-autocratically while allowing basic civil liberties and a weak parliament, legitimizing his policies with a series of referenda. As a war hero he was a gigantic figure, seeming politically invincible.

In the face of this, Singer writes:

"The pampered students... had just shown that one could fight back, that the mighty state could be forced to yield. The demonstrations took place all over France and the message was not wasted on the workers.

On Tuesday, May 14, young workers occupied [an] aircraft company... near Nantes. The day after it was the turn of the Renault car works in Normandy. By Thursday the labor unions were telling their members to join the movement. The biggest of the labor confederations, the Communist-dominated CGT, urged its militants to both spread the movement and keep it carefully within economic channels, to confine it to bread and butter issues.

By then the tide was spreading fast. Within a week it covered the whole of France. After the car industry, engineering, and chemicals, it was the turn of transport, of the mines, of public utilities (though on purpose they didn't cut off the gas and electricity). In the second week, it was the turn of big department stores, of small plants following the big ones. It was the turn of the professional[s]... of teachers, researchers, writers, actors, doctors, architects.

By the end of that week, with about 10 million people, half the labor force, on strike, the country was paralyzed and the mood was one of extraordinary excitement, of frenzy."

You can get a sense of this mood - my words again - by remembering some of the popular slogans. There was a sense of a sudden, dramatic opening: "Be realistic, demand the impossible." There was a sense of utopian possibility lying within everyday life, within reach if you fought for it: "Under the paving stones, the beach." Soccer players went on strike, and so did technicians at the country's main nuclear research facility. There is evidence of a mutiny on an aircraft carrier, though it was successfully kept quiet.

And yet, the general strike was essentially as far as things went. General De Gaulle fled for a day to an air force base in Germany. But government did not collapse, and no one acted to take power. The far-left organizations, anarchist, Trotskyist, and Maoist, though extremely influential within the universities, did not have a wide enough social base to even consider seizing power. On the other hand, the social democrats and even the Communist Party did not want to seize power.

France's Communist Party was the leading political force within the working class at that time. It had gained influence in the struggles of the '30s, and though already thoroughly Stalinized, it won wide respect with a heroic record of resistance to the Nazi occupation. It reached the peak of its membership after the Second World War. By the '60s, however, it was accustomed to operating primarily within the parliament and the conventional industrial union organizations, and its leadership was an entrenched bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was firmly against any attempt to convert the May crisis into a revolution, deriding revolutionaries as childish adventurists.

Now, it's probably true that France was not ripe for an immediate socialist revolution. But the conservative Gaullists had completely lost control in the face of the largest general strike in the history of the developed world. It seems very likely that the Communists could have pushed De Gaulle out and established a transitional government in coalition with the social democrats and the radical left.

But the "transitional" nature of such a government was precisely what frightened them. It might, conceivably, have been transitional to a social revolution (in that sense, like Kerensky's government in the first stage of the Russian revolution). And in such a transition the old-line Communists might have lost control to the real far left, and destabilized the world situation to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union. Ultimately they preferred the stability of a return to capitalist business as usual.

So. The Communist-dominated CGT union leadership reached an agreement with De Gaulle for a substantial increase in wages and many other gains on May 25. They brought this to the striking factories – and it was immediately rejected by the strikers. The workers were feeling their power and did not want to settle for improvements to the existing system, even substantial ones. But after the "no" votes, there was no clear path forward.

(You can see here an analogy to much smaller-scale events in the United States - when New York City transit workers initially refused to end a strike with a concessionary contract in 2005, or when last year Chrysler workers voted down massive concessions. In both cases the concessions were ultimately rammed through, even though the workers were ready to fight, because there was no one in a position to organize for anything else.)

On May 30, conservative Gaullists staged their own massive demonstration in Paris, only slightly smaller than the biggest demonstration of workers and students. Their social power did not even match their inferior numbers, of course - all the centers of production in France were shut down, and a coalition dominated by the upper classes and petty businesspeople, mixing an incoherent stew of pro-American liberals, rural conservatives and "Algeria is France" fascists and anti-semites, could not end the general strike.

But the demonstration gave De Gaulle occasion to return to the country and proclaim new elections for the end of June, which the Communists and - of course everyone to their right - accepted as "victory". The strike thereafter petered out, winning wage concessions, but no structural change. And without the strike, the students had no revolutionary power.

With the achievement of an alternative society apparently proved a futile dream, a reaction against the therefore-apparently-useless chaos set in. The Gaullists won the parliamentary elections, not by a gigantic margin but decisively. Their apparent return was itself an illusion; they had obviously outlived their usefulness to the French ruling class, and within a year they were gone forever. But the survival of capitalism was not an illusion.

The Communists' influence waned over the next two decades, while the social democrats came to power but moved to the right in the '80s. France was rocked by general strikes in 1995 and again in 2005 and -6. But it has not again come so close to revolutionary change as in '68.

That's what happened. What do we learn from this?

One obvious thing is that Western capitalist democracies aren't as stable as they look, and workers in the west are not somehow irredeemably "bought off". System-shaking struggles can happen here too.

What's more, change can come fast, surprising everyone – not just consciously capitalist media like The Economist, which published an article in early '68 lauding French prosperity and the country's "pathetically weak" labor movement. Even the Socialist Register published an article around the same time, by a French Marxist, declaring that "in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes." We shouldn't make the same mistake, of expecting that things will always continue linearly on the current path.

Another key question is the relationship between students' and workers' struggle. What are the limits of student power, and what is the role of students in organizing the working class into the kind of force that can really change society?

Many students in France in 1968 recognized the key role of the working class. They recognized the need not only to "involve" workers, to build coalitions, but to have a movement led by workers and built on their social power. On May 16 a group of students symbolically marched to a striking factory carrying a banner reading, "The workers will take from the fragile hands of the students the flag of the struggle against the anti-popular regime." On this basic idea, Maoists, Trotskyists, and anarchists were all in agreement, at least in the abstract.

Singer notes a funny idea in the media, which you can actually see echoed today in reporting on the struggle against budget cuts in California:

"Only the students had the right to rebel... Whenever men not in their early twenties or youngsters visibly not with an academic background were discovered in the fighting crowd, the immediate reaction was to speak of the mob and subversion. The implicit logic was that students had the right to lose heroically in splendid isolation as long as they did not upset the wider social order. Naturally, the students did not share this view."

There were major tactical disagreements, of course. In the early stages, some argued for abandoning the Sorbonne to the cops in order to march to the working-class suburbs. On Friday, May 10, the day of the biggest battle, a group of orthodox Trotskyists in a group called the FER decided to abandon the barricades. Fortunately, most socialists and other radicals did not act so mechanically.

Others argued that the key task was to organize factory committees and have them elect regional and national strike leaderships. This was good in theory but very difficult for students to put into practice.

The perspective that went furthest in being carried out was to build "action committees" uniting workers and students on a local basis for communication, propaganda, logistical organizing, and so on.

There were also larger strategic disagreements, the most important being whether or not to build a revolutionary party. Though it did not prevent tactical cooperation, this question was crucial in the larger perspective, and I'll come back to it.

In spite of all differences, there was a basic agreement among student radicals on the need to bring the working class into the struggle. But this faced its own opposition, not only from conservatives but also from the Communist Party, which felt that students were treading on its turf. Already on May 3, the party paper published an article noting that "more and more, [the students] are to be found outside factory gates or in centers of immigrant workers, distributing leaflets and other means of propaganda." But rather than praising this, the writer accused the students of "pretending to give lessons to the labor movement."

Nevertheless, workers were often receptive, especially the younger generation. The students did not only gather at the factory gates, they cooperated in all kinds of day-to-day organizing on action committees. And workers came to the "liberated" universities to find a space to learn and debate politics. The occupied Sorbonne was a place of 24-hour political ferment. Rank and file workers turned out in massive numbers for the May 13th demonstration, led by the students and initiated in response to police brutality against them. And from the demonstration, many went home to argue with their coworkers for a strike.

And all this solidarity occurred in a country with a substantially larger divide between students and workers than the US today: fewer young people went to college (only 12% of the population); many fewer of those who did worked at the same time; about half of students had a parent who was a business owner, manager, or independent professional; and a college education, though no ticket to wealth, was a better guarantee of a comfortable life than it is for people coming out of most colleges in the US today.

Students are not a class, like workers or capitalists. In general, their class has not yet been determined - they have a class background, but this is not the same thing as a class role, a relationship to the means of production. They do not have the power that workers do. However, as Cliff and Birchall write:

Being outside production is a source of weakness, but it is also a cause for quick advance, as it is so much easier for the students to move into action. If a small minority of the university community wants to act on an issue, it can go ahead and do so... The situation of a militant minority in the factory is radically different. It cannot act – by strike action or occupation of the factory – unless the overwhelming majority of all the workers employed are carried along...

Hence the temperature bringing students into combustion is incomparably lower than the one necessary to inflame the workers. But unfortunately the lifespan of their fire is also shorter.

Of course, this picture is complicated in the United States today by the large number of students who also work part-time or full-time jobs.

In any case, in France in '68, the students were the spark for the strike. They played this role mainly just by providing an example that you can fight and win, and suggesting the possibility of a better world. But they could not have served as an example without consistently taking up workers demands as their own, without reaching out in an active attempt at unity.

However, the spark was a limited role. And the limits proved crippling. The far left was isolated from the working class, with the exception of a few factories where Trotskyists had a base. They could not offer an alternative to the Communist Party & reformist line at a national level.

The official strike committees were mostly appointed by union bureaucrats, and so, though to some extent they had to represent the rank and file, they were not going to become a rival to the bureaucracy. The less formal action committees, which were open to students and non-union workers and often more radical, did not, generally, replace the strike committees – often instead forming a sort of division of labor, organizing activity outside the workplace. What's more – though relatedly – the action committees did not have any national structure, partly because of scarce time and resources, and partly because many participants extended a hostility to bureaucracy into a hostility to any kind of centralized or representative organization.

As the strike peaked at the beginning of June and production began to restart at the first workplaces, there was no one in a position to systematically spread news of the workers who were determined to continue the strike until “total victory”, as one factory resolution put it. While the union leadership bargained with the Gaullists, there was no one to put forward a coherent alternative set of demands, and no way to vote on proposed options, except in local elections, which were usually initiated by employers or bureaucrats wanting to end the strike. It was impossible for revolutionaries to put together a united front on a principled basis without some mechanism for making a decision and sticking to it in a disciplined fashion; people were left to either stick to abstract revolutionary demands that they couldn't put into practice alone, or accept whatever compromise they could obtain locally.

The basic issue was the lack of a revolutionary party containing a substantial section – a “vanguard” - of the working class. If there had been a party like the Bolsheviks in France in 1968, there might have been a revolution.

But this would have required a whole different prior history. What could have been accomplished by a left with a mostly student base?

Mistakes were made, of course. There was a current of ultra-leftism, with a hostility to organization and concrete demands. There was disunity, with revolutionaries fragmented into three major Trotskyist groups, several Maoist groups, and various anarchist formations. If these more subjective problems had been overcome, maybe the action committees would have been stronger, maybe a national strategy would have emerged. At the very least, in the absence of a revolution, a better foundation for future struggles could have been laid.

But rather than quibbling, with the benefit of hindsight, over the mistakes of people who made history despite difficult circumstances, we should remember what they showed possible – the spread of a student struggle from one university to the largest general strike in history, in a rich Western country. And we should try to make sure that, the next time such possibilities open up, socialists are in a position to prevent the struggle from ebbing away into reaction, and instead take it forward to its logical conclusion, a better world.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The dialectic as a form

Let's consider a view of the dialectic as a form, or family of forms, which processes can take.

Hegel was vehemently opposed to any categorical separation of form and content[1]. But this was one thing pushing him towards idealism, via the proposition that thought must be its own subject. So Marxists have rightly allowed some space here where Hegel saw none. John Rees quotes Lenin as favoring the "unity of knowing and being" over Hegel's "identity of knowing and being" for this reason.[2] Form is ultimately dependent on content, "in substance and in structure",[3] but it can be analytically isolated. Interpreting the dialectic as an abstract form rather than a property of the world adds a certain separation, but it does not entail any sort of dualism of substance, so I think we are still on safe ground.

So let us continue. The first thing we have to do is distinguish two meanings of "form" - form as appearance, as the guise in which something shows itself to us, and form as pattern, as a real structure that things can be found to have. The position we are considering here is that the dialectic is the latter, a pattern - but the two are related, and we will come back to form-as-appearance later.

Bertell Ollman provides a clear definition of the "negation of the negation" as an instance of this sort of pattern: "the process by which the most recent phase in a development that has gone through at least three phases will display important similarities with what existed in the phase before last."[4]

This shows a strength of this interpretation of dialectics: it is readily apparent, finally, what saying a process is an instance of a dialectical pattern, in this case the negation of the negation, does and does not imply. Compare with "positive feedback", a pattern of a similar type - an example of which is the tendency of global warming to melt snow and therefore reduce the Earth's albedo and increase the amount of sunlight it absorbs. Just as once we find a positive feedback, we can say that a system will tend towards instability, with small changes being amplified, once we find a "negation of the negation", we can say that a process will tend towards recurring cycles. For example, the tendency of capitalist accumulation to lead to a crisis of over-production, a first "negation", which will then destroy accumulated value and create the conditions for a new boom, a second "negation", leads to repeated booms and busts.

These inferences, from "positive feedback" to instability and from "negation of the negation" to cyclicity, are legitimate, but they are neither scientific laws nor alternatives to empirical study. In neither case does the conclusion give us any certainties; there may be counter-tendencies, or longer-term processes which erode the foundations of the system. But that is to be expected of a concept so general, and is acceptable, if we know what positive content it does have.

On the other hand, Ollman's definition also highlights a real weakness of the view of dialectics as a set of forms: a lack of obvious importance. The applicability of the negation of the negation so interpreted, to processes with three or more phases etc., is relatively narrow. If dialectics was a revolution in logic, in the basic tools of thought, then it would be obvious why it was worth studying. But if it is a mere collection of general patterns, what is the advantage of using or even speaking of a distinct dialectical method?

Consider the definition we have already cited of contradiction, as "the incompatible development of different elements within the same relation".[5] Or Ollman's definition of the unity of opposites (which, perhaps wrongly, he distinguishes from contradiction): "the process by which a radical change in the conditions surrounding two or more elements... produces a striking alteration... in their relations".[6]

There does not appear to be any intrinsic relationship between these concepts, considered as forms. If we find an instance of the negation of the negation, we cannot thereby deduce the existence of a contradiction in the same process, absent the "law" we have already rejected that change itself requires contradiction. And vice versa; if we find a contradiction in a system, that does not automatically mean that the system's equilibrium will fall apart of its own accord, let alone that such a negation will in turn be negated.

Moreover, in finding a pattern in some process which has a dialectical form, we are at the same time choosing a mode of appearance of that process to consider. The two meanings of "form" we discussed are bound together. Since the patterns we are looking for are abstract and apply across different domains, and so cannot be given any precise material criteria, they only appear when we describe - formulate - a process in a certain way. The material reality of any given situation can be stated without dialectical terminology, just as Earth's decreasing albedo can be described in detail without necessarily seeing it as a positive feedback in a larger process of global warming. We need a reason, if not permission, to use the concepts of dialectics.

Thus, dialectics cannot be simply a catalog of forms and remain valuable. In the absence of laws about all reality which dialectical forms express, we need something more. What's needed is a framework with which to unite these forms as a coherent object of study, to give them importance, and to assure us that they are more than mere forms of appearance, more than aesthetics.

The obvious starting point, as suggested in the previous post, is to say that dialectical patterns are characteristic of capitalism, and essential to understanding its functioning. That would fulfill all three of the requirements just listed. And unlike the idea that studies of nature and capitalism use distinct logical laws, this proposition does not require any strict separation of nature and humanity.

It does, however, leave open questions. The most fundamental is - characteristic why? What makes these forms essential to capitalism; why do we see them again and again? Upon the answer to this question depends the answer to a second question - why study the patterns, not simply the material specifics? What unique explanatory role do dialectical structures play?

[1] Science of Logic, p. 36.
[2]
Algebra of Revolution, p. 274-5.
[3] George Novack, Logic of Marxism, p. 7.
[4]
Dance of the Dialectic, p. 96.
[5] ibid., p. 17.
[6] ibid., p. 96.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The dialectics of nature and capitalism

Most of the examples I've used of processes that appear to follow the laws of dialectics are from society, and more specifically capitalism. Most of the counter-examples I've used against various interpretations of dialectics come from physics or physical processes. Marx, whose "dialectical method" we are trying to investigate, himself wrote mostly on capitalism.

So, one obvious way of responding to problems with a conception of dialectics as the "laws of motion" of all reality is to re-interpret dialectics as the "laws of motion" of history, or just of capitalism. Then we might reject Engels' "Dialectics of Nature", but stop there.

This should be a fundamentally unappealing solution to a materialist, though. It assumes an untenable absolute division between nature and society. Raymond Williams quotes Marx: "One basis for life and another for science is a priori a falsehood."[1]

Even if we wanted to violate that stricture, where would we draw the line? As Bertell Ollman points out, "People have bodies as well as minds and social roles... capital, commodities, money, and the forces of production all have material as well as social aspects."[2] How could we analyze capital and its organic composition without speaking of machinery and the development of technology, or labor and its alienation without speaking of human bodies and their limits?

There is another problem with isolating dialectics as a science of human history. It is that we do, in fact, sometimes see examples in physics, chemistry, and biology which involve no necessary human intervention but nevertheless obey certain dialectical "laws"; examples where contradictory tendencies cause change, where the accumulation of quantitative change leads to a qualitative state transition, etc. Many of Engels' examples in nature - evaporation, Darwinian evolution, the life cycles of plants - do seem to match dialectical patterns, often more clearly than most social processes. If dialectics does not truly apply to the spheres in which we find these examples, what are we to make of them?

Ollman and John Rees offer essentially the same answer to the question of the scope of dialectics: that while the dialectic takes different forms when applied to humans and to non-human nature, it remains, fundamentally, universal. Rees suggests we say that "dialectical development [is] a feature of the natural world as well as the social world without... assert[ing] that the form of the dialectic [is] the same in both cases."[3] Ollman asserts that "movements on each level of generality must be seen as expressions of laws that are specific to that level as well as versions of more general laws."[4]

A first response to this is that if we have already rejected a conception of the dialectic as a set of laws governing all reality, we need to reject it as a set of laws governing history or capitalism, in order to preserve a unity of method corresponding to the unity of the material world. That's simple enough.

But there's something more suggested by Rees' reference to different "forms" of the dialectic, and Ollman's reference to different "levels of generality". What does it mean that the dialectic is the kind of thing that can not merely be expressed differently, but take a different shape itself, in different cases? That it is the kind of thing that can only be fully defined within a given system, and not as a law identically applicable to all cases? That - if earlier posts were right - there are real things, processes and relationships about which dialectics has nothing to say?

I think the correct conclusion to draw here - though neither Rees nor Ollman explicitly draws it, and Rees, at least, would deny it - is that "law" is the wrong concept. When we look at examples of dialectics in action, we do not really see reality obeying a common set of rules or logic. Rather, we see change taking a certain structure, a form which shares a sort of family resemblance with the forms we see change take in many other places. So perhaps the dialectic is not analogous to the theory of relativity, but to the notion of an unstable equilibrium or that of the positive feedback loop, recurring patterns that we see again and again in different fields.

A conception of the dialectic as a family of forms allows us to make sense of the "unity in difference" of human society and non-human nature: a common basic structure which may take different shapes, or be more or less common, depending on the process. And as above, I think it is hard to deny that we see many real phenomena which have some dialectical aspect, so-defined. But this still leaves open questions.

One set of questions revolves around why we see these forms - and why we should care. In rejecting the dialectic-as-law, we have rejected the idea that change is necessarily structured along these lines. But perhaps these forms are characteristic of capitalism? If so, why? Is there a worthwhile approach to inquiry that should lead us to pay special attention to these forms? Or is dialectics good for nothing more than constructing a rather eccentric and abstract catalogue?

Another set of questions starts from an even more skeptical position. Is there really anything substantial in common among all the forms that are grouped together under the name "dialectics"? If we see some dialectical aspects of a situation, does that give us the right to conclude anything further that we do not already know? Or does "the dialectic" not describe any single coherent thing - at least not if interpreted as a structure of change?

Future posts will take up these questions - starting with the latter set.

[1] Marxism and Literature, p. 63.
[2] Dance of the Dialectic, p. 70.
[3] Algebra of Revolution, p. 75.
[4] Dance of the Dialectic, p. 97.