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

12 Responses to “Communism Undead”

  • It’s writing like this that makes me think you’re one of the smartest cartoonists of your generation, Tom.

  • it’s how Marx equates base economics and “…production, and with them the whole relations of society. “- as though “society” is essentially economic -that I have a huge problem with. This is reflected in his equation of pre-modernist hierarchies with “prejudice” ( as though Marxism doesn’t have it’s own set of prejudices). By this, of course, he means any hierarchy that isn’t based in materialism.
    This standard materialist cant has been attributed as the basic reason why Communism failed by a number of critics; it operates as though, once shown the light, people will somehow disregard concepts of race, religion, family, etc.You know, the things the vast majority of peoples world wide consider essential to their quality of life. Delving further into Utopianism seems like the only thing one can do if one wishes to hold on to that aspect of Marxist thought.
    This is why Capitalism has succeeded where Marxist thought has largely failed; it isn’t centrally managed and contingent upon various precepts related to hierarchies or cultural tradition.The economy is viewed accurately as an expression of whatever given culture.After all, one can create Marxist microcosms within a capitalist society. You can remain a Traditionalist Catholic within it,etc.,etc.,
    And, hey, people seem to like owning their own homes! Even Marxists, it seems. Silly humans; they like to control their own destiny. Even if it means some of them might suffer, for some silly reason they don’t like the idea of a central commission controlling wealth and resources.
    If anything, I view the economic crisis not as a result of “capitalism”, but as a result of ceding economic policy to central banking systems. They collude with the state, over and over again. They do want it both ways, you’re right! They want a “Free market” that they can also manage and manipulate.
    -It’s also worth noting that our American public education system was largely based on the Prussian model; that monarchical , proto-fascist state. It’s telling that you offer the public education system, “social security”, etc., as somehow responsible for some kind of improvement in society. Many disagree. It’s not something to be taken for granted. Minimum wage laws have been used mostly to keep wages minimal, to set an artificial standard. These socializing systems seem to be to be more attuned to managing poverty, or making poverty manageable, rather than offering a clear way out. I think it does take a utopianist to refuse to acknowledge the basic human desire ( and I’m glad we have it!) to attain degrees of independence, to not be “managed”.

  • I disagree with your friend Francis for very different reasons: Capitalism isn’t good because it promotes “multiculturalism”, it’s good because it allows us to opt out of such an anti-culture.Those that do are the ones who maintain true diversity, imo.

  • Uland: I’m a bit unclear, is it multiculturalism that you are calling an anti-culture? If so, care to expound on that?
    Tom: I may be unintentionally presenting my arguments as straw men. When I say I like capitalism, I’m not saying that I like it as an ideology, and I’m not saying I like it or any other ideology in a pure form. I’m generally not a purist or an idealist these days, which I think you know. If Dubai or pre-Civil War slavery can be mapped to some pure notion of capitalism, then obviously that’s not the sort of capitalism I’m down with.
    I completely agree with this statement of yours:
    “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!”
    … and I think it’s perfectly healthy. There’s certainly nothing God-given about capitalism or socialism or any other ism; they’re simply abstract guideposts that we use to think about day-to-day thinking. One may be slightly more effective than another but they all deserve lots of debate and lots of questioning.
    That being said, my guess is that this opportunity to question the modern capitalism hegemony is not going to amount to much since the global left is in a sort of ragged state, and because it turns out that a lot of people really do like capitalism or believe they do, Marxist arguments about false consciousness notwithstanding.
    If you think now is a good time to question the system, then how about some concrete proposals? Wouldn’t those be the most fruitful at this point? These isms only come to life through policies. If this is truly the twilight of capitalism, then what proposals, what concrete state actions, take us to the next morning?

  • Uland: You’re right, Marx does see ‘modes of production’ as the ‘concrete’ or base on which rests the superstructure (politics, law, philosophy, religion) of society. But ‘modes of production’ contains both the ‘material forces of production’ along with ‘social relations of production’ and that is not mere economic determinism. Personally, I don’t see Marxism as necessarily centralized and managed. After all, the state is supposed to ‘whither away’ at some point. But I don’t want to get too bogged down in defending Marxism, which as I said in my post I see as valuable mostly as a critique containing some good ideas that shouldn’t be dismissed simply for being ‘socialist’ or ‘communist.’ I hope that 2 decades after the collapse of the USSR we can finally be done with knee-jerk dismissals. I also see Marxist ‘historical materialism’ as a kind of proto-assemblage theory of Manuel DeLanda (although he would probably not see it that way), whose territorialization/deterritorialization dynamics makes use of recent studies of self-organization. According to him, the various forms of society undergo phase-shifts based on population density, energy inputs, and other dynamics‚Ķ anyway, that doesn’t really get at what you’re talking about. I don’t see socialized (or centralized) systems as automatically manipulative. The more people live in cities and urban environments (50% and counting, worldwide), the more need there will be for some forms of centralized organization (if at least in public transportation (a communist idea) or public utilities, etc.) But, generally I’m in favor of decentralization. This is one reason I don’t like capitalism: because of it’s tendency to centralize production/resources/power (capital) in entities like huge-corporations or multi-nationals (Market Stalinism!)

  • Francis: I understand what you’re saying. You’re talking about ‘actually existing capitalism’ in the US, not some pure Milton Friedman-esqe notion of capitalism. I got a little over-zealous. I would agree with you for the most part. Yes, the US has done a fairly remarkable job in assimilating and integrating a huge variety of peoples (even if it has some way to go). And yes, capitalism is responsible for that to some extent. But, I think the US is somewhat exceptional. It’s ‘a nation of immigrants’ from its inception. The kind of nationalism that exists in Europe and elsewhere doesn’t really exist in the US, at least not to the same extent. In fact, I think part of the huge disappointment of the world, post 9/11, was the fact that the US acted AS IF it was a ‘regular’ nation (nationalistically) rather than the weird proto-global, non-nationalist entity that it has always been (even if it was only RHETORICALLY non-nationalist). I touched on this point briefly in my Trans-Atlantis comic. I don’t know if that makes sense?
    And you’re right that the global Left is in disarray. I said as much in my original post. A lot of people DO like capitalism in theory, but that’s par for the course, since a lot of people don’t know anything BUT capitalism‚Ķ that said, it’s pretty unpopular right now in this country, especially in it’s current state. Maybe it’s more accurate to say they’re ‘disappointed’ with capitalism.
    As far as the ‘what is to be done?’ question‚Ķ I don’t know exactly… I’m not entirely sure it’s the curtains for capitalism just yet. I would not bet on it… but I DO like the new Obama budget proposal. It’s probably too early to tell, but it feels revolutionary. Not politically, but societally. I know I rail against Obama on here sometimes, but I do like the guy, and I care enough to criticize him. In general: decentralize rather than centralize, socialize a base level of services (public transport, utilities, internet access, etc.), markets not market stalinism‚Ķ what else? What about you got some good ideas?

  • This post, for me, hit the point of diminishing returns about a third of the way through it.
    Just kidding, I’ll right a better response later.

  • Ok, don’t keep us waiting too long Blake!

  • Tom- I hear you about Marx’s economic/cultural dynamic, but I think it does on some level indicate that the economy will shape culture, and not the other way round. So, “determinist”, no, but “managed”, yes, I think.
    I don’t see how any sort of Marxist economy could not be centrally managed. To me it seems to require a far greater level of coercive power than a laissez fair system, or even a more protectionist capitalism. This by sheer dint of it being far more restrictive than the other two. I think Utopianism comes into play when a future is imagined wherein everyone will somehow magically agree that property rights, for instance, should just be abandoned.
    -I don’t know though; are there any models for a decentralized Marxism?

  • Tom, it’s a good point that the U.S. has a fundamentally different demographic starting point than countries in Europe–it’s a nation of immigrants to a much greater extent. So it’s hard to know to what extent capitalism may have played a role in cultural integration. And maybe the causality is inverted, actually: The lack of cultural consensus may have been in part responsible for choosing a system based not on implicit, shared cultural values but on relatively explicit rules (law, markets) for cooperation and for competition. I’m thinking, for example, of the continental European model of state cultural support, vs. the NYC model of a lot of rich dudes funding galleries and museums so they can go to cool parties …
    Good point, also, about the disappointing post Sep-11th response … I like to think culturally that Obama’s election is a swing back in the right direction, of the U.S. as an urban, educated, multiethnic nation, but obviously we haven’t seen the last of the reactionary fringe in this country by a long shot. And that doesn’t mean we’re done making stupid, kneejerk foreign policy decisions but I like to think in the long view that things are going in the right direction.
    (But did you notice, btw, that the country singer that sang in the inauguration weekend concert was Garth Brooks? A blast from the past, a political moderate, and arguably the biggest country singer before Sep 11 came and turned the country music industry into Fox News with guitars. I don’t think that was an accident.)
    Funny thing is regarding policies, we may agree a lot more than disagree, even if our conceptual frameworks differ. Mostly I believe in a well-regulated capitalism I guess, with lots of help for people on the bottom. These days I’ve been saying “socialism for the bottom 25%, capitalism for everyone else”.

  • I think that Marx hated capitalism as only one who really knew and loved it could. My knowledge of his work is mostly based on his historical and journalistic pieces, and he clearly found the development of capitalism to be enthralling and appalling. His enthusiasm is so great at times, it’s hard to remember which side he’s on!

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