Tag Archive for 'Communism'

Totalitarian Pop

I pilfered these from Graham Harman‘s blog. Graham is right, this is one of the best songs to emerge from an evil dictatorship.

I love both versions, but this second one opens up a Soviet sized nostalgia zone in my head… even though I’ve never heard this song before. All the notes this songs hits are familiar and mysterious at the same time.

If anyone is interested, I wrote about my my favorite Soviet song here.

Inside the Social Media Coal Mines

Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov

We’re breaking all kinds of productivity records here at Trans Atlantis (and over at Uncivilized Books). For example blogging is up since last week by over 100%! This inspired us to draw this quick portrait of a young Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov, the patron saint of industrial productivity. I won’t recap the history of the man here (or any disputes about his records), suffice it to say that he was very productive (or so it was claimed), he was a genuine hero to many and he inspired the Stakhanovite movement.

Was there ever an American version of a supremely productive worker, mythical or otherwise? The closest I can think is John Henry who outraced a steam hammer… but he died in his victory. And really, his story is a tragedy signifying the end of human prowess in the face ‘the machine’. Stakhanov worked with machines & his comrades and achieved unheard of levels of productivity. But I can’t think of a single western worker hero. They are generally depicted as part of faceless masses (say in Metropolis) or bumbling fools (Chaplin’s Modern Times).

Is there a hero for post-industrial office workers? I can’t think of one. Office workers – though often depicted with more personality than industrial workers – are mostly shown as petty & damaged bureaucrats (The Office) doing mostly nothing in the strict hierarchical pyramid-like corporate system. It seems the only genuine American heroes are ‘titans of industry’ and their rags to riches tales of relentless ambition. Is there anything heroic in doing your daily job in America? Or is that for suckers? Am I missing something obvious?

This is also invites comparisons of industrial work with post-industrial work. Is social media todays coal mine?

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

Popular Again

It’s amazing how quickly things can change. In In Defense of Lost Causes Slavoj Zizek wrote that the success of capitalism was marked by the disappearance of the word ‘capitalism’ from public discourse. Capitalism has become the status quo to such an extent that we no longer recognize it as an economic idea (something made-up, invented, artificial), we see it only as ‘the way things are’ (the reality, natural state of things). Needless to say, the book was published before the crisis of Capitalism we’re currently enjoying. Capitalism is being questioned publicly once again, and with good reason. Still, one has to do a double take when the word appears so frequently on the lips of the British Conservative politician David Cameron. Here’s a couple of choice quotes from his speech at Davos:

“A lot of people are angry with capitalism. Instead of representing hope for a better future, they think capitalism threatens it. This matters because in the future, social, economic and environmental progress will only come from the drive, energy and enterprise of individuals. So if we want capitalism to be a success again, we need to make capitalism popular again.”

“Today, the poorest half of the world’s population own less than one per cent of the world’s wealth. We’ve got a lot of capital but not many capitalists, and people rightly think that isn’t fair.”

“So we must shape capitalism to suit the needs of society; not shape society to suit the needs of capitalism.”

That’s quite a statement from the leader of the party of Margaret (“There’s no such thing as society.” – as Bruce Sterling deftly observes.) Thatcher! Red Tory indeed!
For all his bluster Cameron still clings to tired old Capitalist dogmas:

“Yes, as I’ve said many times, we must stand up for business, because it’s businesses, not governments or politicians, that create jobs, wealth and opportunity, it’s businesses that drive innovation, and choice, and help families achieve a higher standard of living for a lower cost.”

Somehow ‘The Government’ never amounts to anything. It’s as if property laws & regulations, monetary systems, public education and transportation, trade treaties, research subsidies, etc. had nothing to do with the ‘success’ of business. Just as Capitalism disappears into ‘just the way things are’ so does the government. We forget that a lot of the great things Cameron attributes to business (wealth, opportunity, innovation, higher standards of living, etc.) had to be forcibly wrested away in a bloody struggle by several generations of workers and enforced by generations of politicians and lawmakers… yes… the government.

Ultimately, he’s simply a moralist. According to him, the system is fine, we just got too greedy. We just have to shape up:

“Markets without morality. Globalisation without competition. And wealth without fairness. It all adds up to capitalism without a conscience and we’ve got to put it right.”

This call for a new moral Capitalism isn’t as new as it seems. It’s been slowly bubbling up to the surface of politics for years. In fact Zizek already identified its ‘chocolate laxative’ center while discussing another global economic summit in… Davos… in 2001!

This sentiment is echoed in some recent statements from Obama:

“And when I saw an article today indicating that Wall Street bankers had given themselves $20 billion worth of bonuses ‚Äî the same amount of bonuses as they gave themselves in 2004 – at a time when most of these institutions were teetering on collapse and they are asking for taxpayers to help sustain them, and when taxpayers find themselves in the difficult position that if they don’t provide help that the entire system could come down on top of our heads – that is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful.”

There is an expectation of morally right behavior without creating any incentives that encourages that behavior. But, outside the tough rhetoric, there is little evidence that anything of consequence will happen. Instead the strategy seems to be this: wealthy capitalists need to hit the pause button on excess and selfishness until things are ‘fixed’… then we can return to regularly scheduled programming. At least Cameron, by using the word ‘Capitalism,’ is willing to acknowledge that this is an ideological battle. No such acknowledgment is forthcoming from the ‘post-partisan’ and ‘bipartisan’ Obama administration. This evasion of politics makes it harder to question major economic assumptions and blind-spots that we keep carrying on our backs like the proverbial monkey. Obama is even going to appoint a Republican as a Commerce Secretary. How post-partisan! It only reveals that Democrats and Republicans don’t differ all that much on the basic substance of economic policy. Jacques Monin, the French journalist, has it right [ again via Beyond the Beyond ]:

“You no longer imagine, it seems to me, that there might actually be such a thing as a “choice of society”. Along with New Labour, the very idea of anything resembling an ideology vanished. In France, on the other hand, politics still condition the life of the individual. Rightly or wrongly, my fellow countrymen still want to believe that a choice of society really remains possible. They might resist reform, as you like to point out, but they involve themselves – deeply – in politics.

“Here, however, the boundaries between the major parties have been all but eroded. This drift to the centre, combined with the weakness of the extremes, has anaesthetised British politics. So the British don’t vote very much. They don’t object very much. They don’t dream very much.”

Substitute ‘Americans’ for ‘British’ and that statement still rings true. Of course it doesn’t help when the Global Left is a chaotic mess.

The Eternal Sunshine of the Capitalist Mind

This song has been in my head all day. I finally decided to find it online. Here it is:

It’s called ‘Солнечный круг’ (Solar Cycle). It’s better known to many as ‘Пусть всегда будет солнце!’ (May There Always Be Sunshine). It’s an anti-war song. If you grew up in Eastern Europe (or at least around Eastern European emigrants) you most likely have this song seared into your head. I posted the lyrics in English below the fold.

It’s probably been over 20 years since I heard this song… well, outside of my head that is… Hearing it again is like being hit with a ton of nostalgic bricks. But what really struck me were the visuals of the videos. The second one especially has all the hallmarks of Socialist Realism. And, yet… they are so… well… American. Besides some minor differences in clothing, and the like, the whole thing wouldn’t have been out of place in the US… at least in that timeless-Norman-Rockwell-eternally-50′s-LIFE-Magazine-innocent-Leave-It-To-Beaver U S of A that still grips the popular (and political) imagination.

I’m often struck by an uncanny sense of déjà vu whenever I watch American politics unfold on TV. The discourse is carefully circumscribed by what can or cannot be said in public about the economy, socialism, Islam, Israel, etc. The 2008 campaign was only the most recent example of that. As much as I like and support Obama, I’m still bothered by the slick visuals his campaign saturated the airwaves with. For all the soaring rhetoric (and yes rhetoric matters) and ‘straight talk’, everything is still directed at saving Capitalism (with a hefty dose of socialism if need be… but shhhh). Socialist Realism is the term used for art which furthered the goals of socialism and communism. Until the Soviet collapse, it was the officially approved style of art for decades. How long does Capitalist Realism have?
Obama Logo

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