Monthly Archive for February, 2009

Communism Undead

karl marx undead

My post on capitalism sparked a few comments from my friend Francis, and eventually a fuller response on his blog. If you’re interested, take a look there first, then come back here for my (hopefully not too rambling) response below.
The first thing that struck me about Francis’ post was how much it resembled… The Communist Manifesto(!), especially the first part. Here’s Francis:

“[ ... ] my tenuous theory might go something like this: In the U.S., we’re slowly taking every other sort of prejudice and replacing it with one based on money. For example, I remember reading (in The Nation, I think), that the Sears Roebuck catalog gave a generation of black working class families the ability to buy household goods that they couldn’t buy in the local department store.”

This is precisely what Karl Marx likes about capitalism! The first half of the Communist Manifesto is essentially Marx’s love letter to the Bourgeois and the destructive/creative dynamics of capitalism. The Manifesto isn’t very long and is worth a read. Here are just a couple of quotes related to the conversation:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom, Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

[ ... ]

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Marx is pretty impressed by capitalist dynamics! Of course, Marx saw capitalism as a transitional phase that would culminate in communism. Communism has been interpreted by many different people to mean a lot of different things. Anything from Stalinist dictatorship to Bakunin’s anarchist collectivism. But, they’re all linked by Marx’s awe of the capitalist sublime, and it’s potential to release – through it’s contradictions – the enormous creative energies of the masses.

But, the Capitalist destruction of all old hierarchies and prejudices doesn’t solve them. It merely exchanges them, as Francis himself says, for ones based on money. Racism may become less acceptable socially, but not so economically. Many minority groups (and women) still earn a fraction of white male salaries. A comment to Francis’ post added that capitalism has been compatible with racism in the past. Slavery is only the most obvious example. Take a look at contemporary Dubai. It’s frequently cited as a model of capitalist development, and yet it employs a huge emigrant underclass not allowed to integrate into the indigenous culture. This doesn’t even get at the vast global pro(to)letariat (mostly non-white) that lives in cities of slums.

But, I don’t want to get sidetracked into identity politics. In my original post I wanted to point out that part of the problem in solving many of these issues is in the way we talk about them. For example Francis says: “Sure, I can complain about how Paris Hilton never had to work the way I did, but I can still work hard and make okay money.” That simple phrase “I can still work hard and make okay money” contains so much hidden history behind it. It assumes that capitalism makes it possible to for us to “work hard and make okay money”, where in fact it was the struggle of socialists and communists that created those conditions. Historically “working hard and making ok money” wasn’t always possible under capitalism. Working hard (for far more than 8 hours a day) guaranteed basic subsistence at best. It was only after a long (and often violent) struggle that the right to “make ok money” was wrested from capitalists. Social Security, Minimum Wage, Universal Health Care, etc., these are all socialist and communist ideas. We generally accept the premise of capitalist meritocracy under the guise of ‘equal opportunity’. But in ‘actually existing capitalism’ it was only the creation of (socialist) Public Schools and Universities that really began to level the playing field for large portions of the population… and Public Schools have been under a capitalist siege for decades now. And, as Paris Hilton demonstrates, we still have a ways to go. So next time lets say “Sure, I can complain how the capitalist scion Paris Hilton never had to work the way I did, but I can still work hard, and thanks to the long international communist struggle, make okay money.” ;)

In addition to the socialist institutions I mention above, capitalism also absorbed concepts like ‘democracy’ and ‘markets’. These concepts all blur together now. We can’t conceive of a democracy without capitalism (Chile). Markets have existed before capitalism and will exist after capitalism. Capitalism has been naturalized to the point of becoming the language of economics itself! This conceptual over-stuffing resulted in the disappearance of the very word ‘capitalism’ (over the last 30 years). This is the point I was trying to make in my original post. I think this naturalization of capitalism makes it more difficult to introduce new ideas (or even interesting old ideas) that have never been tried. The reappearance of the word in the midst of the current economic meltdown, is a reminder that capitalism IS a system, a concept, an idea, a choice; it’s debatable!

Is it possible to have a market based economy without private property? Is it possible to democritize private capital? I don’t know. Is it possible to have democracy under capitalism? Headlines like these: “Lobbyists Line Up to Torpedo [Obama's] Speech Proposals” make me think that maybe the answer is no. This kind of thing always amuses me. Capitalists are asking for a bailout with one hand, and with the other they scuttle the proposals of a DEMOCRATICALLY elected figure. How is there always enough money to overturn the collective will of the people, but never any for better wages, benefits, etc.? They can’t have it both ways!
Now, I’m not convinced that communism is the way to go. I grew up in ‘communist’ Poland, and it’s not something I’d like to repeat (though I do have nostalgic fondness for that period – more on nostalgia soon). But the Marxist critique of capitalism is valid (though maybe it’s too successful) and should not be discarded, especially not during this crisis. So how do you turn a critique into an alternative? I don’t know, but that’s why I’m interested in utopian ideas. They contain kernels of something else, an alternative… Zizek said that the death of communism may have been the best thing to happen to communism. As long as capitalism exists it will be forever haunted by the specter of communism. It’s undead revenants will keep rising up to haunt the (privatized) houses of capitalism.

communist zombies

Umfeld, Pole and Others at Bedlam

On Saturday night at Bedlam Theatre several laptop musicians took the stage and lit up the crowd with abstract visuals, spooky experimental soundscapes, and some good old fashioned techno. Electronic music has taken a back seat to a series of revivals and re-inventions (80′s psychedelic freak folk metal, etc.) over the last decade or so‚Ķ at least in the US. In Europe the two headliners, Pole and Umfeld, continue to play to huge audiences. Courtesy of the annual Spark Festival, Minneapolis got a little glimpse of what’s been happening in electronic music. I didn’t get to see any of the other Spark events, but what I heard on Saturday failed to make a huge impression. It was fun and well executed, but it failed to break new ground. The sounds were a little different, the processors faster, the visuals more sophisticated, the resolution higher, but there could be no doubt that the night had a distinctly late ’90s vibe. The event did leave a warm nostalgic glow behind‚Ķ which is enough for me to want more‚Ķ I just wish someone would bring Felix Kubin to town!
Here are a few drawings from the event executed under the faint glow of laptop screens‚Ķ I didn’t do a drawing of Alex Rae‚Ķ mainly because he started his set well before the announced starting time, and in the manner of self-effacing laptop musicians, he failed to notify anyone that he was in fact playing… And it was a pretty good too once you realized what was happening. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Dreamlogicc

I really liked the set by locally based Cepia… too bad it lasted less than 20 minutes!

Pole went for a crowd pleasing techno set.

Umfeld created some stunning visuals to accompany the music… or was it the other way around? Check out their DVD. It’s a free download!

More Umfeld.

Doodle Dump 010

This week’s Doodle Dump‚Ñ¢ continues the sketchbook previously featured here and here. It happens that a lot of the drawings this time are copies of drawing by other cartoonists. Yuichi Yokoyama and Jack Kirby are just the more obvious examples. Click on images to enlarge them.
noir-ish

Continue reading ‘Doodle Dump 010′

Art Shanty Project

dice-houses.jpg
dIce Houses by Mr. Mike Click on the image to see the full Flickr set.
I caught a brief glimpse of the Art Shanty Project on a frozen Medicine Lake on Valentine’s Day. It was the last day of the project and the lake was packed with people. Going into the shanties felt like entering a can of sardines. I definitely didn’t get to see all the shanties as much as I wanted to. There is always next year…

Sketchy Komiks: I’m Not Here

It’s time for Skechy Komiks‚Ñ¢ again! Click on image to enlarge.
I'm Not Here. Comic by Tom Kaczynski

Bill Patten at Dusty’s: Valentine’s Day

Bill Patten doesn’t get old. Valentine’s Day ended on a high note with rousing performance by Bill and his cohorts. The high point was an excellent rendition of Smoke on the Water led by the gentleman with the accordion. Click to enlarge the images.
bill patten dusty's valentine's day
bill patten dusty's valentine's day

Doodle Dump 009

Another Sunday (only minutes left!), another Doodle Dump‚Ñ¢. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Continue reading ‘Doodle Dump 009′

Delirious Dubai

the palm islands dubai

A friend of mine alerted me to an interesting article in the New York Times on the trouble in Dubai. Dubai, one of Mike Davis’ Neoliberal Evil Paradises, has been enjoying an economic boom over the last several years. A corollary to Dubai’s financial power has been an unprecedented building boom. Dubai wasn’t building just any old skyscrapers. It was building the world’s tallest skyscraper, revolving skyscrapers, whole archipelagos of luxury islands and many other wonders of contemporary starchitecture.

dubai cranes
Photo from AP [ via ]
The building boom was so extensive, that an estimated 25-50% the world’s construction cranes were located in Dubai. The crane boom was matched by the production of architectural forms. World’s most prominent architects lined up at the Emirate’s door offering science-fictional visions of mutant architecture.

chicago tribune entry by loos and rotating tower dubai
Unbuilt Tribune competition entry and rotating tower

I’ve always thought that Dubai resembled the 1922 Chicago Tribune design competition for its headquarters. Hundreds of architects and lay people submitted sometimes outlandish proposals for “the most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world.” That competition was won by Raymond Hood & John Mead Howells. In Dubai every starchitect was a winner. Almost every month some marketing materials announced a new iconic project. It seemed that every design was going to get built!

Now, the Dubai economic bubble seems to be popping. Streets once full of luxury vehicles are empty. Thousands of cars sit abandoned in the Dubai airport left by foreign workers fleeing the country to avoid debtor’s prison. Unemployment is rampant. Dubai’s economic power now resembles a desert mirage. That huge number of cranes (which appears to have been a little… inflated) is sure to shrink as the building boom is grinds to a halt due to plummeting real estate values. Things are not looking good.
The NYT article had a tantalizing passage:

Lurid rumors spread quickly: the Palm Jumeira, an artificial island that is one of this city’s trademark developments, is said to be sinking, and when you turn the faucets in the hotels built atop it, only cockroaches come out.

A couple of months ago I wrote about an imaginary Ballardian ‘Drowned World’ theme park… in Dubai. It seems they’re getting a little closer to accomplishing the task.

the drowned world swimming pool


On a different track, check out Jeet Heer’s recent post on the role ‘free and rich’ Dubai played in neoliberal capitalist imagination. The comments section has an interesting discussion which vaguely reminds me of a recent comments on this blog.

Sketchy Komiks: Two Legs

Time for another installment of Sketchy Komiks™. Click to enlarge.
two legs by tom kaczynski

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