Gurdas Maan’s incongruous bemoaning of a forsaken world

“It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse)

“More than 50 million women have been systematically exterminated from India’s population in three generations, through the gender-specific infliction of violence in various forms, such as female feticide through forced abortions, female infanticides, dowry murders, and honor killings.” (50 Million Missing Campaign)


MTV Coke Studio India’s production of “Ki Banu Duniya Da” (“What is to become of our world?”) in 2015 – a reworking of an original song by Pakistani singer Sarwar Gulshan that was made popular by Gurdas Maan in 1982 – has been a huge success, both in India and across its global diaspora. To date, it has had almost 10 million views on You Tube and ranks as the most popular iTunes download from the Coke Studio India and Pakistan catalogue. In this latest version, new and revised lyrics have been added by Gurdas Maan to make the song relevant to the present-day.

Gurdas Maan is the Elvis of Punjab – a longstanding and successful, traditional Punjabi folk singer. With the population of Punjab at almost 28 million, the Punjabi diaspora of approximately 10 million is significant. In one sense, Punjab is at the nexus of globalisation and, in another sense, it is embedded within globalisation through its twentieth century history of emigration around the world. Gurdas Maan’s net worth is an estimated $50 million; in other words, he is a major individual beneficiary of the globalisation of Punjab – savvily and lucratively riding its contradictory waves. It is somewhat incongruous then that, in a global-glocal capitalist MTV production of “Ki Banu Duniya Da”, Gurdas Maan romanticises a localised idyllic past and seeks to return to this past in order to save Punjabis from the perils of globalisation (whilst, I assume, keeping his profits firmly in his pocket).

In the opening verses of “Ki Banu Duniya Da”, these are the words of wisdom on gender and sexual relations that Gurdas Maan sings:

In today’s times, romance has become frivolous / Destroying the divine concept of true love / Men date women without the intention to marry them / Where is chivalry heading? / Where is the youth heading? / Where is the beauty-struck youth heading?

Traditional embroidered costumes are disappearing / Traditional earrings are disappearing / Traditional silk stoles and robes are disappearing / Traditional veils and the veiled women are disappearing / Our traditional values are disappearing!

Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows


Water filled vessels once sat on your head / No one could bare the radiance of your ethereal beauty / Praises were showered upon you in every direction you traveled / Anklets embraced your feet with exaltation / But now you seem to have forgotten your own true value / Your graceful elegance is dissipating / Forgetting your old folk tunes

Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows

A contemporary, globalising India is witnessing a violent clash between a socially and politically resurgent, patriarchal, religious and deeply conservative ‘old India’ and a socially and politically rising, urban, educated and mobile young generation ‘new India’ – who are demanding gender and sexual freedom. This is a struggle between static and motion. Noteworthy are the post-December 16th 2012 and 2013 demonstrations against female sexual violence (after the high profile case of a gang-rape of a female student on a bus in Delhi), the recriminalisation of homosexuality (through the reinstatement of the British colonial penal code Section 377) in 2013 and the protests thereafter, and the 2014 Kiss of Love movement against moral policing and for the right to kiss in public (which religious forces define as an obscene act). All the while, Gurdas Maan bemoans, “the veiled women are disappearing”. On the question of disappearance then, his myopia is telling.

The Hindu newspaper states that “nearly three million girls, one million more than boys” were “‘missing’ in 2011 compared to 2001 and there are now 48 fewer girls per 1,000 boys than there were in 1981.” Alka Gupta, in a Unicef India press release, observes: “The decline in child sex ratio in India is evident by comparing the census figures. In 1991, the figure was 947 girls to 1000 boys. Ten years later it had fallen to 927 girls for 1000 boys. Since 1991, 80% of districts in India have recorded a declining sex ratio with the state of Punjab being the worst.”


KumKum DasGupta in The Guardian newspaper notes that while “census data shows that India’s overall gender ratio is improving, its child gender ratio is on the decline: between 1991 and 2011, the country’s female-male gender ratio rose from 927:1,000 to 940:1,000, but its child gender ratio fell from 945:1,000 to 914: 1,000.”

2012 Birth Sex Ratio World Map. Source: World DataBank, Gender Statistics, The World Bank and United Nations (Wikimedia Commons)

2012 Birth Sex Ratio World Map. Source: World DataBank, Gender Statistics, The World Bank and United Nations (Wikimedia Commons)

In a globalising India, there is disturbing evidence that the practice of female foeticide and infanticide in certain parts of the country, such as Punjab, is getting worse rather than better, and that this is in part being aided by the technology of global capitalism. As Alka Gupta comments: “Social discrimination against women, already entrenched in Indian society, has been spurred on by technological developments that today allow mobile sex selection clinics to drive into almost any village or neighbourhood unchecked.” She concludes:

“experts warn that the demographic crisis will lead to increasing sexual violence and abuse against women and female children, trafficking, increasing number of child marriages, increasing maternal deaths due to abortions and early marriages and increase in practices like polyandry.”

KumKum DasGupta also concludes:

“The skewed gender ratio has given rise to a system of bride-buying in the affected states: although girls and young women are lured into marriage by promises of a happy and secure life, once purchased they can be exploited, denied basic rights, put to work as maids and, in many cases, abandoned.”

The state of Punjab is not marginal to these trends, it is central.

Map showing the safety for women, based on the Female Safety Index (FSI) in the Well Being Index India Report 2013 by Tata Strategic Management Group (Wikimedia Commons)

Map showing safety for women, based on the Female Safety Index (FSI) in the Well Being Index India Report 2013 by Tata Strategic Management Group (Wikimedia Commons)

In December 2014, The Indian Express newspaper reported that a 17 year old victim of rape was set ablaze in Punjab. Three of the six men who set fire to her were those accused of her rape. In April 2015, also in Punjab, the same newspaper recorded that a teenager jumped from a moving bus to her death, after she and her mother were sexually assaulted by one of the bus workers.

Perhaps Gurdas Maan’s social observation and words of advice vis-à-vis Punjab’s drug addiction problem are more astute than his commentary on gender and sexual relations. He sings:

Drugs are ruining the youth of our country / Reducing their bodies to bones that sound like Shiva’s drums of death / Bad politics is killing the ambition of our youth / Cheating has become the norm / Oh Maan, there is no guarantee of what the future holds / Remember our wise ancestors said that holding grudges against your circumstances will never bring you any good. So be positive!

Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows


My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty / It belongs to the heavenly star / It also belongs to holy men under the banyan tree / My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty

Punjab’s drug addiction problem is an epidemic one. A study by one of the state’s universities estimates that 70% of young men in Punjab are addicted to drugs or alcohol. A report by Al Jazeera reveals that corrupt politicians in the state are pandering to this widespread addiction by supplying drugs during election time to win votes. On the social factors driving this epidemic, the report insightfully concludes that:

“Drug abuse in Punjab owes much to the state’s declining agricultural economy, growing unemployment, the travails of rural life and Punjabi machismo.”

The material reality of Punjab is crucial context to the social problems it faces, be that its drug epidemic or its high suicide incidence rate. Mallika Kaur of Foreign Policy observes:

“Stagnant prices for produce, a lack of crop insurance and loan-forgiveness policies, and an unregulated lending market have left many farmers in insurmountable debt, fueling the disturbing suicide trend. The problem is particularly acute in Punjab. The epicenter of India’s agriculture bounty, Punjab reportedly has the highest rate of farmer suicide among the country’s states.”

She proceeds to stress the gender dynamics and implications of such a reality:

“While suicide victims are overwhelmingly men, the surviving women are particularly vulnerable to problems after their husbands, fathers, or other male family members are gone. Female heads of households traditionally have little earning power or independence. In some cases, families have dealt with multiple suicides, and the dependents, unable to cope with the resulting economic burden, also resort to the ultimate step of desperation. Widows routinely face disinheritance and dislocation, or abuse at the hands of their in-laws, while children – especially girls – are affected by abrupt removal from schools, nutritional deficits, and at times even bonded labor.”

Still, Gurdas Maan sings: “Remember our wise ancestors said that holding grudges against your circumstances will never bring you any good. So be positive! […] My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty.” Here Gurdas Maan wants to replace one opium for another, rather than politically confront and challenge the full and complex realities of socio-economic upheaval. Marx’s words come to mind:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

Perhaps the 50 million dollar Gurdas Maan is part of the illusion: a figure too uncritically idolised alongside the other gods.

Fanfare of Gurdas Maan in Punjab (Wikimedia Commons)

Fanfare of Gurdas Maan in Punjab (Wikimedia Commons)

All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls

Marx, the Wood Theft Law, and commodity fetishism

While editor of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles (in 1842) about a proposal in the Rhenish provincial assembly, on behalf of the forest owners, to stop the traditional practice of gathering (dead) wood by the peasants. Here, in debating the Wood Theft Law, an early Marx came to recognise the role of the State in protecting the interests of private property over and against general interests, the intersection of political, social and economic relations, and the fetishism of the commodity form:

“Can the forest owner present private demands where he has no private claims? Was the forest owner the state, prior to the theft of wood? He was not, but he becomes it after the theft. The wood possesses the remarkable property that as soon as it is stolen it bestows on its owner state qualities which previously he did not possess. […] The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.”

“In direct contradiction to those writers of fantasy who profess to find in the representation of private interests ideal romanticism, immeasurable depths of feeling, and the most fruitful source of individual and specific forms of morality, such representation on the contrary abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.”

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Marx goes on to state that the Cubans identified “gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They [the Spaniards] celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it and then threw it into the sea.” With such insight, he reasons, had the Cubans been present in the debate in the Rhenish provincial assembly, they would surely have seen wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish?”

In later works, Marx develops his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’. In Capital (Volume One), he concludes:

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of [human] labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”

Cycling, commodity festishism, and podium girls

Commodities take various forms. In professional cycling, for example, there’s the bicycle, the attire, the paraphernalia, the rider, and the podium girls. In one sense, it’s all laid bare. This year’s Tour de France (2015) will show the bodies of cyclists littered with the advertising logos of Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana, Etixx-Quick Step, Giant-Alpecin, Movistar, FDJ, Ag2r La Mondiale, Orica-GreenEdge, Cannondale-Garmin, BMC, Trek Factory Racing, Lotto-Soudal, Katusha, MTN-Qhubeka, LottoNL-Jumbo, Europcar, Confidis, IAM, Lampre-Merida, Bora-Argon18, and Bretagne-Séché. Such logos will be an unavoidable, integral sight for those wishing to enjoy actual cycling and France’s spectacular landscape. The decision-making of teams and riders will be steered by the fused competition of sport and capital. An independent report to the UCI (in March 2015) noted:

“It is interesting that riders are […] aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision. […] Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling […] Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”

Professional cycling seems almost desensitised to the dehumanising effects of commodity fetishism. The hiring of commodified labour-power, as seen below, makes for an absurd and an outrageous spectacle, and yet it is also a logical extension of an über-commodified world of male-dominated, professional cycling. Here sexism and capitalism blend: this is entertainment, which creams profit from its workers, whilst confounding them with the products of their labour. It’s demeaning to cyclists, and to all lovers of cycling – women and men.

A necessary struggle for gender equality in cycling should also entail a struggle to free cycling from its dope, capital. The representation of private interests, of capital, “abolishes all natural and spiritual distinctions by enthroning in their stead the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object.” Free the body from commercial-imperative so that we can dress and undress as we like, and so that we can cycle as we like; free us from social relations between things to social relations between human beings! Ride on.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 16.14.50

Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?

“As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value [i.e. profit]…” (Karl Marx, “The Working Day”, Capital: Volume One)

“Marx does not advance a moral ‘right’ to an unscathed existence or something similar against the impositions of capitalism. Instead, he hopes that with the growing insight into the destructive nature of the capitalist system (which can be established without recourse to morality), the working class will take up the struggle against this system – not on the basis of morality, but rather on the basis of its own interest.” (Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital)

Reacting to news that Lance Armstrong will be participating in Geoff Thomas’s Le Tour: One Day Ahead 2015  – a fundraising event for Cure Leukaemia – the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) stated: “I’m sure that Geoff Thomas means well, but frankly I think that’s completely inappropriate and disrespectful to the Tour, disrespectful to the current riders, and disrespectful to the UCI and the anti-doping community”. It’s incredible that the UCI, the organisation that “colluded” with Lance Armstrong “to bypass doping accusations” from 1999 to 2009, is actually able to distance itself from the doping culture of professional cycling; or is it incredible? Actually, it’s hardly surprising at all.

The endless pursuit of profit-making, at the expense of workers and nature, is not the result, as Marx depicts in Capital, of greedy, individual Moneybags; although, greedy, individual Moneybags does exist. A capitalist, regardless of their intent, good or bad, in order to survive as a capitalist, must boundlessly chase profit, or perish. The political economy of capitalism is the relentless motion of M-C-M’ (the general formula for capital): money (M) to buy commodities (C) to make more money (M’), for money to buy commodities to make more money, and on and on; the use-value of the commodity of labour-power is the most fortuitous commodity of all for any Moneybags, because its use-value is, distinctively, a source of value and surplus-value.

“…it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. … The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.”  (Karl Marx, “The General Formula for Capital”, Capital: Volume One)

The world of professional cycling is inseparable from this wheel-turning motion of capital accumulation. Does the capital that drives professional cycling care for the long-term lives of its wage-labourers, or is its focus to extract the utmost from the labour-power it employs to make a profit? The history of doping in professional cycling isn’t a history of good capitalists and bad capitalists, good teams and bad teams, good riders and bad riders, it is a history of a world in which competition compels capital personified to continuously seek advantage in gaining more and more surplus-value from its wage-labourers, thus generating and fuelling a systemic culture of doping. Opt out and one expires.

I am not interested in a dissection of Lance Armstrong’s personality from a moral standpoint. I’ve read my share of books about doping in the cycling profession, including about ‘the Lance factor’. The problem with such books is their focus on bad riders and good riders, bad teams and good teams. Doping existed in professional cycling before, during, and (in probability) post the Lance Armstrong era.

The boss of Team Sky, Dave Brailsford, has said, on Lance Armstrong riding One Day Ahead 2015: “Lance has done enough damage to the Tour already. He’s done enough damage to the sport.” One might say that the rampant commercialisation of cycling has damaged the sport. One might say that the commercial dominance of Team Sky – rich in monies from the Murdoch empire – strangled the Tour de France in 2012 and 2013 of any meaningful sporting drama. It’s odd how the history of doping in professional cycling can be laid solely, individually, and moralistically at the door of Lance Armstrong. His crime was to be exceptionally good at playing the system, and embedding himself within the system – call it ‘Planet Lance’, a story of how one professional cyclist turned from a wage-labourer to an especially shrewd capitalist and philanthropist. But Lance Armstrong was not the system itself, he was one planet in its universe. Who is the real enemy of professional cycling? And, what’s its real dope? Capital, silly.

Lance Armstrong, with my socialist feminist friend and comrade Helen Russell, in training for Le Tour: One Day Ahead 2015.

Marx and the Buddha on Wall Street

“Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other [humans] possessing nothing but their own labour-power.” (Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One)

bonwsC1_front_only Vaddhaka Linn’s “The Buddha on Wall Street” is an enjoyable read. It’s clear and accessible, and references some interesting sources to scrutinise the way in which contemporary capitalist society operates. Ironically however, given the author’s ethical stance, the book’s cover is guilty of false advertising. The strap-line to the book is: “what’s wrong with capitalism and what we can do about it”; one would think then that in some way the central narrative would be anti-capitalist and/or post-capitalist, it is not. Linn’s basic argument is that a particular form of capitalism is bad – namely, neoliberal capitalism – and what we need to harness instead is “thoughtful self-interest and the creative energy and dynamism in capitalism with the values of generosity and altruism” (page 7). As such, the strap-line could have more honestly read: “what’s wrong with neoliberal capitalism and the case for a kinder capitalism”. Am I being pedantic? No. I am interested in an interlocution between Marxism and Buddhism (see my post Marxism and Spirituality), which motivated me to buy the book, so on reading it, it fell short of my expectation. Avanti, my review.

Slavoj Žižek

A prompt to Linn beginning this project is his disagreement with Žižek’s comments on Buddhism. On Žižek, he states: “what he calls ‘Western Buddhism’ is the ‘perfect ideological supplement’ to capitalism. He believes that the emphasis in ‘Western Buddhism’ on meditation encourages Buddhists to create an inner distance from the ‘mad dance’ of modern capitalism, to give up any attempt to control what’s going on, and to take comfort in the view that all the social and economic upheaval in the world today is ‘just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being’. Zizek’s claim implies that when faced with injustice, pain, and suffering in the world today, Western Buddhists take cover in their meditation practice in order to avoid the full impact of this reality. When I heard Zizek’s statement, I have to admit that I reacted strongly against it. […] I decided to examine the modern capitalist world from the perspective of economics and Buddhism, and this book is the result” (pages 3-5).

Here’s the thing about Žižek, he’s a brilliant polemicist. And from reading Linn’s book cover to cover, I’m confused as to why he didn’t concede that Žižek, in part, has some points worthy of engagement. Linn later problematises the use of mindfulness by business: “notwithstanding the sincerity of mindfulness teachers, the evidence of an ethical shift in business behaviour owing to the embracing of mindfulness is, as far as I can see, not encouraging. To the contrary, the evidence suggests a ‘disconnect’ between the practice of mindfulness and reality on the ground” (pages 133-134). Quoting a Factory Inspector Report in Capital: Volume One, Marx notes: “‘Moments are the elements of profit.'” I am fascinated by capitalism’s appropriation of mindfulness. To me, this is about capital extracting more and more profit from the exploitation of the workforce in a given period of time. If the working-day is legally fixed, then mindfulness becomes a tool to increase the efficiency and productivity of workers in a set period, for the end of greater profits to the bosses. Later, when discussing one of his spiritual heroes, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Linn states: “He was troubled by what he saw as complacent and self-absorbed attitudes among many American Buddhists, attitudes that were disconnected from the deepening economic, social, and ecological crises in the world. […] He was critical of the way that Buddhist practice was narrowly understood in terms of one’s personal meditation, which appeared to serve a largely therapeutic function […] rather than as a means of tackling the deepest roots of suffering both for oneself and for others” (page 195). Again, there’s a worthwhile debate here, and one in which Linn’s work is a modest contribution, and surely too Žižek’s?

Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and the question of capitalism

“Capitalism has led us to a situation in the world today in which it is possible to conceive of a fulfilling life for all, but further progress is being suffocated by a neoliberal form of capitalism that threatens the environment and perpetuates suffering in the world.” (Linn, page 7)

The influence of Adam Smith to Linn’s understanding of capitalism is apparent right from the start: capitalism is able to increase productivity through the division of labour, but at a cost to the worker in minute, mind-numbing labour. He wishes to rescue Smith from the free marketeers and neoliberal capitalists, by recognising this classical political economist as a theorist of self-interest and empathy. Linn identifies the role of, let’s say, the masses in pressing for change away from neoliberal capitalism, and towards a kinder and more sustainable capitalism: “To break the faith in unlimited economic growth requires people to reconsider their relationship to material goods and their idea of what makes them happy”; alongside collective campaigning, since, “if left to their own devices, modern economists and business are not going to do much to help deal with the problem of global warming and environmental damage” (page 79). Inequality is seen by Linn as a particular problem of the last 30 years, of rampant neoliberal capitalism, in which greed and selfishness have distorted Smith’s fine balance between self-interest and empathy. Linn recounts a time gone past when he had a personal connection with his local bank manager, and contrasts this with a runaway banking and finance system that caused the 2007-2008 crash. He proposes two specific ideas for Buddhist campaigning: to press companies to annually release figures of the ratio of total compensation of their CEO to median compensation of their employees (and perhaps to go further in establishing agreed pay ratios), and a progressive taxation system to provide welfare to those in need.

I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in a Capital Study Group alongside reading “The Buddha on Wall Street”, and what Linn misses about capitalism is that it is (on the side of capital) an innately and incessantly exploitative and unequal political economy of social relations. Thus distinguishing between neoliberal capitalism and post-WWII capitalism is an interesting academic exercise but bypasses what all capitalism – then and now, and here and there – has in common in its internal drive (its greed, even) to make profit, and to subsequently deplete us as human beings and as planet Earth. In Capital: Volume One, Marx presents the labour theory of value. Starting with commodities and money, he defetishises their mysterious nature to then reveal the relation of capital to labour as the source of value and surplus-value (i.e. profit):

“Value […] does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.” The “money-form of the world of commodities […] actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One)

The majority of us in the world today have no choice, if we want to exist with shelter, food, and recreation, then to sell our labour-power. Marx spells out the uniqueness of this commodity to capitalism:

“In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One)

A politically organised labour movement is essential for both the worker’s and the Earth’s survival, because Moneybags does not like limits to the creation of surplus-value:

“in its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. […] Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One)

Because Linn doesn’t recognise the labour theory of value, he has some odd trains of thought. For example, he rightly questions a possible, market-based solution to refugees – specifically, a quota system linked to national wealth, in which nation-states could trade in such quotas – and a commercialised blood donation system as exists in the United States; concluding: “Human beings and human qualities become commodities, things to be traded just like other commodities” (page 28). He questions Walmart taking out life insurance policies on a number of its employees, and concludes: “In this manner employees become less an essential part of a working community and more a source of potential profit, even in death” (page 28). However, capitalism, right from its birth, commodified human beings, specifically, human labour-power, and the owners of capital intrinsically see workers’ ‘value’ in terms of generating surplus-value. This makes the role of a rank-and-file organised, labour movement absolutely critical. As a former trade unionist, Linn – while not negating this – very much under-stresses the centrality of the labour movement to achieving change in society.


At best, Linn looks to nuclei within capitalism – new societies in miniature – as role models for alternative ways of living. Perhaps he’s proposing what my mate Jane once called the Aero bar theory of revolution (well, in this case, capitalist reform). If enough bubbles develop in the chocolate bar, it becomes something else, a different form altogether. He mentions the Windhorse Evolution chain as an example of Buddhist right livelihood, which put into practice a caring and nurturing work environment. From my knowledge of Evolution, it provided just that, but it was also an employer of zero-hours contracts for some of its employees, and ended up closing because it couldn’t continue to make a profit. Equally so, cooperatives have to exist within wider capitalist social relations, and face continual pressure to function more and more like ordinary capitalist businesses or fold. This is the contradiction cooperatives face. Cooperatives, however progressive, should not be seen as a substitute to organising in trade unions.

What’s the elephant in the room? Linn, in “The Buddha on Wall Street: what’s wrong with capitalism and what we can do about it” rejects state totalitarianism. Good. I do too. More to the point, he rejects what he calls communism, and “its oppressive, anti-democratic nature and its stifling of dynamism and creativity” (page 205). The measure of any society proclaiming itself to be socialist and/or communist is democracy: the fullest democracy imaginable. Doctors per head in Cuba doesn’t cut it for me if working-class Cubans cannot form independent trade unions and politically challenge the state. The bourgeois democracy of Britain is preferable to the one-party, Maoist state of China, since I can blog here without fear of being ‘made to disappear’. If one reads Marx, one would know he doesn’t fetishise the state, and why would he? There would be no need for permanent state bureaucracies in an international society of socialism. The Soviet Union of the Cold War was a betrayal of the soviets – workers’ councils – of 1917 that led to a workers’ revolution. It’s frustrating how Linn so easily dismisses socialist politics. The violent Buddhist fundamentalisms of Burma and Sri Lanka do not reflect the Buddhism of Linn’s book, so to write-off Linn’s book as Buddhist fundamentalism would be empirically inaccurate and stupid. Let’s have a proper debate!

Recommended further reading – Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?


I attended a talk by Vaddhaka Linn at the Sheffield Buddhist Centre on the 12th May 2015, in which he focused on “The gift relationship” chapter of his book. At the end, he said it was only fair, having presented a right-wing critique of altruism, to offer the left-wing one. Linn went on to describe a left-wing critique of charity. But altruism, an unselfish concern for the welfare of others, is not the same as charity, organisations who raise (in the main) money to help those in need. One can be a highly altruistic person, and with that altruism, be motivated and active in one’s local trade union branch, and campaigns to save the NHS and the local library. Socialism and altruism go together, so too do socialism, altruism and a politically healthy critique of charity and philanthropy. Linn said that he finds the left-wing critique of charity “shocking”. If he read my post – ‘To the House of Rothschild!’ Socialism, charity, and Aladdin – he may be shocked to find a friend in Bill Gates, who too promotes the Smithian notion of capitalist self-interest and caring for others.

For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing

Karl Marx’s “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” – or “A Letter to Arnold Ruge (September 1843)” – is a good preparatory essay for Capital, since it provides insight into Marx’s methodological approach to ‘critique’. Marx rejects the kind of socialism which poses itself as the blueprint of a new society, voilà! Instead, he reasons, it is from criticism of the old world that a new world can be born. So, for example, religion offers us an insight into existing theoretical and social struggles, thus we must critique such ideas and principles to forge and sharpen new ideas and principles. Below is a slightly edited version of Marx’s essay with my highlights in bold. Enjoy the read, and from here move on to Capital!


“[…] I shall be in Paris by the end of this month, since the atmosphere here makes one a serf, and in Germany I see no scope at all for free activity.

In Germany, everything is forcibly suppressed; a real anarchy of the mind, the reign of stupidity itself, prevails there, and Zurich obeys orders from Berlin. It therefore becomes increasingly obvious that a new rallying point must be sought for truly thinking and independent minds. I am convinced that our plan would answer a real need, and after all it must be possible for real needs to be fulfilled in reality. […]

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. For although no doubt exists on the question of ‘Whence,’ all the greater confusion prevails on the question of ‘Whither.’ Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself [sic] that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis – the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines – such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc. – arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle.

And the whole socialist principle in its turn is only one aspect that concerns the reality of the true human being. But we have to pay just as much attention to the other aspect, to the theoretical existence of man, and therefore to make religion, science, etc., the object of our criticism. In addition, we want to influence our contemporaries, particularly our German contemporaries. The question arises: how are we to set about it? There are two kinds of facts which are undeniable. In the first place religion, and next to it, politics, are the subjects which form the main interest of Germany today. We must take these, in whatever form they exist, as our point of departure, and not confront them with some ready-made system such as, for example, the Voyage en Icarie. [Etienne Cabet, Voyage en Icarie. Roman philosophique et social.]

Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form. The critic can therefore start out from any form of theoretical and practical consciousness and from the forms peculiar to existing reality develop the true reality as its obligation and its final goal. As far as real life is concerned, it is precisely the political state – in all its modern forms – which, even where it is not yet consciously imbued with socialist demands, contains the demands of reason. And the political state does not stop there. Everywhere it assumes that reason has been realised. But precisely because of that it everywhere becomes involved in the contradiction between its ideal function and its real prerequisites.

From this conflict of the political state with itself, therefore, it is possible everywhere to develop the social truth. Just as religion is a register of the theoretical struggles of mankind, so the political state is a register of the practical struggles of mankind. Thus, the political state expresses, within the limits of its form sub specie rei publicae, [as a particular kind of state] all social struggles, needs and truths. Therefore, to take as the object of criticism a most specialised political question – such as the difference between a system based on social estate and one based on representation – is in no way below the hauteur des principes. [Level of principles] For this question only expresses in a political way the difference between rule by man and rule by private property. Therefore the critic not only can, but must deal with these political questions (which according to the extreme Socialists are altogether unworthy of attention). In analysing the superiority of the representative system over the social-estate system, the critic in a practical way wins the interest of a large party. By raising the representative system from its political form to the universal form and by bringing out the true significance underlying this system, the critic at the same time compels this party to go beyond its own confines, for its victory is at the same time its defeat.

Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions. Our whole object can only be – as is also the case in Feuerbach’s criticism of religion – to give religious and philosophical questions the form corresponding to man who has become conscious of himself.

Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

In short, therefore, we can formulate the trend of our journal as being: self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires. This is a work for the world and for us. It can be only the work of united forces. It is a matter of a confession, and nothing more. In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are.”

Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx


(Wikimedia Commons)

“[…] Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” (Said, 43)

I. Introduction

Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978) is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world called Orientalism, which effectively inverts this dual camp and with a method devoid of class politics. He opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx:

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising Western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.

Said attributes Orientalism to three interdependent meanings: firstly, the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; secondly, a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; and finally, commencing from around the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said, 3). With this threefold definition in mind, Said reviews Orientalism as a Western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.

Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a Western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance:

“Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge. These are a few of the results, I think, of imaginative geography and of the dramatic boundaries it draws.” (Said, 72-73)

This paranoid form of knowledge, Said argues, ennobled British, French, and later US imperial projects:

“The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.” (Said, 216)


II. The Near East, the Arab world, and Islam

“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma.” (Said, 59)

There is nothing, in and of itself, problematic about the above statement; its intended meaning is understandable even outside its related paragraph, chapter, and book, and yet Said’s Orientalism has given birth to a climate on the Left for such statements to be all-too-swiftly labelled as ‘Islamophobic’ and racist (see In defence of comrade Matgamna and Workers’ Liberty). The depiction of the Near East, the Arab world, and Islam by the contemporary Orientalist lens is regarded by Said as especially bad, for four reasons:

  1. the weight of history in respect to anti-Islamic and anti-Arab prejudice;
  2. the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or rather “the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism, and its effects upon American Jews as well as upon both the liberal culture and the population at large”;
  3. a cultural vacuum that makes it impossible to discuss Islam or the Arabs in a way that identifies with either or is composed;
  4. “because the Middle East is now so identified with Great power politics, oil economics, and the simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs, the chances of anything like a clear view of what one talks about in talking about the Near East are depressingly small.” (Said, 26-27)

The historical relationship of Orientalism to Islam is explained as follows:

“To the West, […] Islam was militant hostility to European Christianity. To overcome […] the Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers, and judges who disinterred forgotten languages, histories, races, and cultures in order to posit them – beyond the modern Oriental’s ken – as the true classical Orient that could be used to judge and rule the modern Orient.” (Said, 91-92)

In the contemporary hegemonic Western (specifically, American) popular culture of film and television, Said states:

“the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. […] Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.” (Said, 286-287)

The possibility of an independent vantage point and independent class politics is simply ruled out, since:

“[…] when Orientals struggle against colonial occupation, you must say (in order not to risk a Disneyism) that Orientals have never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do. When some Orientals oppose racial discrimination while others practice it, you say “they’re all Orientals at bottom” and class interest, political circumstances, economic factors are totally irrelevant. […] History, politics, and economics do not matter. Islam is Islam, the Orient is the Orient, and please take all your ideas about a left and a right wing, revolutions, and change back to Disneyland.” (Said, 107)

But what of independent working class agency and self-government in the Marxist tradition – what does Said have to say of this? This leads us back to the quote at the start of Orientalism and to the subsequent substance of Said’s rebuke of Marx and Marxism.


III. Said on Marx, and back to basics: what Marx actually said

Three sources of Marx are directly referenced in Orientalism as the basis for Said’s critique of Marxism as part-and-parcel of Orientalism: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The British Rule in India, and The Further Results of British Rule in India.

One sentence is plucked (twice) from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – which appears at both the start of Said’s book and in its Introduction chapter:

“The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would; since it cannot, the representation does the job, for the West, and faute de mieux, for the poor Orient. “Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten warden,” as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” (Said, 21)

I will go on to show, through necessary lengthy extraction from Marx’s original text, just how much Said departs from, and subsequently exploits and distorts, the original meaning of this sentence.

Quoting briefly from Marx’s The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, Said goes on to problematize what he describes as the puzzlement of Marx’s paradoxical position vis-à-vis colonialism and the Orient. A puzzle, that is, until Said expounds that the Marxist discourse is inseparable from the Orientalist discourse:

“Karl Marx identified the notion of an Asiatic economic system in this 1853 analysis of British rule in India, and then put beside that immediately the human depredation introduced into this system by English colonial interference, rapacity, and outright cruelty. In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution. Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations. […] Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged. Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out […] The idea of regenerating a fundamentally lifeless Asia is a piece of pure Romantic Orientalism, of course, but coming from the same writer who could not easily forget the human suffering involved, the statement is puzzling. […] It is as if the individual mind (Marx’s, in this case) could find a precollective, preofficial individuality in Asia – find and give in to its pressures upon his emotions, feelings, senses – only to give it up when he confronted a more formidable censor in the very vocabulary he found himself forced to employ.” (Said, 153-155)

Rather than accept Said’s verdict that Marx incoherently and inconsistently abhors British imperial rule in India but ultimately welcomes it as a progressive force for necessary regeneration due to his heart being beaten by his head, which is inescapably arrested by the discourse of Orientalism, I will demonstrate that Marx’s analysis is guided by a dialectical materialist methodology and that his conclusions are not problematic.


i. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

index2-1“If ever an event has, well in advance of its coming, cast its shadow before, it was Bonaparte’s coup d’état.” (Marx, 309)

Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852 [1977]) is a brilliant polemic written in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution when Louis Napoleon seized power in France in December 1851, with reference back to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d-état of 1799. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is essentially an exploration of the relationship between class politics and the state. As Marx later reflected, this pamphlet reveals “how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part” (cited in McLellan, 1977, 300).

The first theme to arise from Marx’s discussion is a general one, that of the connection between the force of human agency and the force of human history:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” (Marx, 300)

“[Humans] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” (Marx, 300)

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (Marx, 300)

Marx issues a warning that revolutionary upheaval may dangerously and manipulatively dredge up the past, which the energy of a genuinely social revolution must resist. In this respect, he distinguishes between bourgeois revolutions and the critical praxis of proletarian revolutions:

“And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.” (Marx, 300)

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” (Marx, 302)

“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men [sic] and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he [sic] may recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [Here is Rhodes, jump here!] (Marx, 303)

The second of Marx’s themes is specific to the events proceeding the 1848 revolution, up to and including Louis Napoleon’s coup d-état of 1851, and the consequent banishment of the former gains of the revolution, such as “liberté, égalite, fraternité”:

“all has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a magician. Universal suffrage seems to have survived only for a moment, in order that with its own hand it may make its last will and testament before the eyes of all the world and declare in the name of the people itself: All that exists deserves to perish.” (Marx, 304)

“It remains to be explained how a nation of thirty-six millions can be surprised and delivered unresisting into captivity by three swindlers…” (Marx, 304)

“On the threshold of the February Revolution, the social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost. The democratic republic announces its arrival. On 13 June 1849, it is dissipated together with its petty bourgeois, who have taken to their heels, but in its flight it blows its own trumpet with redoubled boastfulness. The parliamentary republic, together with the bourgeoisie, takes possession of the entire stage; it enjoys its existence to the full, but 2 December 1851 buries it to the accompaniment of the anguished cry of the royalists in coalition: ‘Long live the Republic!’” (Marx, 314)

“France, therefore, seems to have escaped the despotism of a class only to fall back beneath the despotism of an individual, and, what is more, beneath the authority of an individual without authority.” (Marx, 315)

The third theme is where Said’s quote by Marx – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – is located, and it concerns both the nature of Louis Napoleon’s state and the interrelated nature of its demographic base, the small-holding peasants:

“Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine has consolidated its position so thoroughly that the chief of the Society of 10 December suffices for its head, an adventurer blown in from abroad, raised on the shield by a drunken soldiery, which he has bought with liquor and sausages, and which he must continuously ply with sausage anew. Hence the downcast despair, the feeling of most dreadful humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her catch her breath. She feels dishonoured. And yet the state power is not suspended in mid air. Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small-holding peasants.” (Marx, 317)

“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by Frances’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. […] In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.” (Bold: my emphasis; Marx, 317-318)

“By its very nature, small-holding property forms a suitable basis for an all-powerful and innumerable bureaucracy.” (Marx, 320)

Marx’s analysis of the French peasantry goes on to divulge its full nuance:

“But, it may be objected, what about the peasant risings in half of France, the raids on the peasants by the army, the mass incarceration and transportation of peasants? […] let there be no misunderstanding. The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant that strikes out beyond the condition of his [sic] social existence, the small holding, but rather the peasant who wants to consolidate this holding, not the country folk who, linked up with the towns, want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in stupefied seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favoured by the ghost of the empire. It represents not the enlightenment, but the superstition of the peasant; not his [sic] judgement, but his prejudice; not his future, but his past; not his modern Cevennes, but his modern Vendée.” (Marx, 318)

Marx’s conclusion to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte makes especially clear his assessment of the state from the perspective of independent class politics; and what’s more, it underlines the inappropriateness of Said’s plunder to support his allegation of Marxism-as-Orientalism:

“Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another. […] He would like to steal the whole of France in order to be able to make a present of her to France or, rather, in order to be able to buy France anew with French money, for as the chief of the Society of 10 December he must needs buy what ought to belong to him.” (Marx, 323)

“Driven by the contradictory demands of his situation and being at the same time, like a conjurer, under the necessity of keeping the public gaze fixed on himself, as Napoleon’s substitute, by springing constant surprises, that is to say, under the necessity of executing a coup d’état en miniature every day, Bonaparte throws the entire bourgeois economy into confusion, violates everything that seemed inviolable to the Revolution of 1848, makes some tolerant of revolution, others desirous of revolution, and produces actual anarchy in the name of order, while at the same time stripping its halo from the entire state machine, profanes it, and makes it at once loathsome and ridiculous. The cult of the Holy Tunic of Treves he duplicates at Paris in the cult of the Napoleonic imperial mantle. But when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will crash from the top of the Vendôme Column.” (Marx, 324)

In sum, when Marx wrote the line – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – it directly refers to an analysis of the isolated nature of the social base of Louis Napoleon’s anti-democratic, bureaucratic state (the small-holding peasants); a state that Marx critiqued as a violation and a ruination of the relative gains of the 1848 French Revolution. When Marx’s quote is used by Said in Orientalism (twice), it reads as an unambivalent reference to an Orientalist dual camp position that: the poor and downtrodden working classes cannot represent themselves, thus ‘us’ Marxists must do this job for ‘them’.


ii. The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India

Prior to turning to Marx’s articles The British Rule in India (1853) and The Further Results of British Rule in India (1853 [1977]), it is first necessary to point out the inherent characteristics of Marx’s general methodology and critique of capitalism.

Dialectical materialism is a means to understanding societal change, for history is not linear but thrusts forward in a tense and fitful manner – reminiscent, for example, of Marx’s discussion of revolutions in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. As Friedrich Engels reminds us about dialectical philosophy in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886):

“nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away […]”

Communist-ManifestoWith this in mind, Marx and Engels, in the opening chapter of The Communist Manifesto (1848), describe the globalisation of capitalism as pregnant with contradictory possibilities and constraints, which give birth to:

  • creative destruction – “[al]ll that is solid melts into air”;
  • social evolution – “all that is holy is profaned”;
  • social intercourse – “[i]n place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction”;
  • working class agency – capitalism “produces, above all, […] its own grave-diggers”.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. […] 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 [sic] 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. […] 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 [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves.”

Here Marx and Engels are assessing capitalism’s dialectical nature: the closures in its innate, mindless exploitation and inequality, and the openings in its destruction of past reactionary forms of existence and the creative potential of universal internationalism and interconnectedness between human beings. In Grundrisse, Marx (1857-1861 [1973]: 161–162) deems “ridiculous” any utopian yearning for an earlier, pre-capitalist moment, on the basis that “a merely local connection resting on blood ties, or on primeval, natural or master-servant relations” is not preferable to present-day social bonds; capital thrusts contradictory tidings that destroy and revolutionise “traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life”, and “tear down all barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs”. Above all, Marx and Engels conclude the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto by recognising the working class – a product of capitalism – as central to overthrowing capitalism:

“The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. 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. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

karl-marx-on-indiaTurning now to The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, it is perfectly consistent that Marx should analyse the specific entry and operation of British capital in India (note, for example, his references to the cotton industry and the railway network) as also general to global capital:

“There cannot […] remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before. […] England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his [sic] old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindostan, and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“The devastating effects of English industry, when contemplated with regard to India, a country as vast as Europe, and containing 150 millions of acres, are palpable and confounding. But we must not forget that they are only the organic results of the whole system of production as it is now constituted. That production rests on the supreme rule of capital.” (Marx, 336, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

“The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it. But now the tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication. They intend now drawing a net of railroads over India. And they will do it. The results must be inappreciable.” (Marx, 333, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

It is the following two quotes (in bold only), from The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India respectively, that actually appear in Orientalism, from which Said (154) concludes that Marx is clearly “Romantic and even messianic” since “as human material the Orient is less important than as an element in a Romantic redemptive project”:

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man [sic] to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow. England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind [sic] fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution. Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe: “Sollte these Qual uns quälen 
Da sie unsre Lust vermehrt,
 Hat nicht myriaden Seelen
 Timur’s Herrschaft aufgezehrt?” [“Should this torture then torment us
 Since it brings us greater pleasure?
 Were not through the rule of Timur
 Souls devoured without measure?”]
 [From Goethe’s “An Suleika”, Westöstlicher Diwan](Marx)

“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” (Marx, 332)

There are three aspects to these two aforementioned extracts which Said bypasses:

  1. the juxtaposition of an “Oriental despotism” to a dialectical, thus contradictory, social evolution through the globalisation of capital;
  2. past, constraining, reactionarism giving way – through creative destruction – to present and future possibilities of social intercourse and interconnectedness;
  3. no credit to be given to the extremely unpleasant and unintelligent English bourgeoisie who are nonetheless bound up with this revolutionary change.

This final quote, from The Further Results of British Rule in India, elucidates Marx’s conclusion that the kind of revolution needed, and which he advocates, is one in which either the British working class overthrow the British ruling class or the Indian peoples overthrow the British colonial empire of India:

“Modern industry, resulting from the railway-system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power. All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation? The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” (Marx, 335)

None of this corresponds with Said’s thesis of a Romantic and messianic Orientalism ultimately determining Marx’s thought.


IV. Conclusion

“No one can escape dealing with, if not the East / West divide, then the North / South one, the have / have not one, the imperialist / anti-imperialist one, the white / colored one. We cannot get around them all by pretending they do not exist; on the contrary, contemporary Orientalism teaches us a great deal about the intellectual dishonesty of dissembling on that score, the result of which is to intensify the divisions and make them both vicious and permanent.” (Said, 327)

With reference to Antonio Gramsci, Said makes a distinction between political coercion and non-coercion, and sees the might, resilience, and permanence of Orientalism as non-coercive hegemony. Fatefully, I conclude, in Said’s interpretation of Gramsci’s hegemony an ‘anti-dialectical inescapability’ takes hold:

“I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. […] he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.” (Said, 11)

Said later states:

“[…] every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. Some of the immediate sting will be taken out of these labels if we recall additionally that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with “other” cultures.” (Said, 204)

The absence of class politics is stark. Do we come up against the Orient solely on the basis of our nationality and colonial burden? Does that not intersect with our socio-economic position and class relation (and indeed with our gender, ethnicity, and sexuality), and with our own ‘independent’ politics? Said’s Orientalism chimes much with the contemporary popularity of privilege theory (see On privilege theory and intersectionality). Whilst Marxism recognizes human consciousness as contradictory and in constant flux, historically and dialectically shaped by conditions and forces of existence, privilege theory (like Orientalism) is predicated on an unchanging status, i.e., privilege (in this case, as a member of the Occident).

It is worth further exploring Said’s application of hegemony, in particular its echoes of Louis Althusser. Althusser is considered to progress the ideas of Marx on the basis that Marx conceives of a dream-like ideology called ‘false consciousness’, which hides and misleads workers from the exploitation of the economic base; yet such a term and concept is to be found nowhere in Marx’s writings. For Althusser (2006), in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, ‘ideology’ (contrary to false consciousness) represents an already existing “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (109):

“all ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.” (Althusser, 111)

That said, ideology has a material as opposed to a spiritual existence that is manifest in an individual’s performance and interaction with others and society; it is a “material existence of ‘ideas’ or other ‘representations’” (Althusser: 112). All “ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” – a process that begins prior to birth (Althusser: 117). Althusser (118-119) claims that we are largely unaware of the ideological make-up of our reality, except when or if we come up against the state. Beyond the repressive state apparatus (the police and the army), the individual exists within realities structured by various ‘ideological state apparatuses’, i.e., non-coercive hegemony:

“what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.”

Understanding the relationship between capitalism and hegemony through an Althusserian frame of reference (as I contend Said does) slides us into an anti-dialectical materialist trap, as McLellan (181) cautions:

“For all his playing down of Hegel’s influence on Marx, Althusser’s approach has a certain resemblance to Hegel […]: Althusser’s ‘structure’ functions as much as Hegel’s ‘idea’ – as an independent entity determining the very items from which it has arisen.”

Notably, the material for Althusser differs in meaning from the material for Marx. For the former, it refers to the ideas and representations that are bound up with practice, for “there is no practice except by and in an ideology” (Althusser, 115). For the latter, as Marx (1845-46 [1965]: 14-15) comments in The German Ideology, material reality is something that can be known (in other words, it is possible to see beyond ideology):

“we do not set out from what [humans] say, imagine, conceive, nor from [humans] as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at [humans] in the flesh. We set out from real, active [humans], and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. […] This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are [humans], not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.”

This Althusserian legacy goes someway to explaining the inescapability of Said’s hegemony-ideology-Orientalism (a departure from Gramsci) and Said’s methodology. So, on the Orientalist text, Said (21) makes plain that he is not concerned with “the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original”, but rather with “style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances”. And while he concedes the importance of finding present-day alternatives to studying the Orient – “from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective” – this is left, in his own words, “embarrassingly incomplete” (Said, 24). And yet this is hardly surprising since his inverted dual camp does not provide space for international-wide, independent working class agency. I end then with Said’s description of the present-day Orientalism of the US, in which those of the so-called Arab and Third World are merely ‘passive dupes’:

“My point is that the relationship is a one-sided one, with the United States a selective customer of a very few products (oil and cheap manpower, mainly), the Arabs highly diversified consumers of a vast range of United States products, material and ideological. This has had many consequences. There is a vast standardization of taste in the region, symbolized not only by transistors, blue jeans, and Coca-Cola but also by cultural images of the Orient supplied by American mass media and consumed unthinkingly by the mass television audience. […] Another result is that the Western market economy and its consumer orientation have produced (and are producing at an accelerating rate) a class of educated people whose intellectual formation is directed to satisfying market need. […] Its role has been prescribed and set for it as a “modernizing” one, which means that it gives legitimacy and authority to ideas about modernization, progress, and culture that it receives from the United States for the most part. Impressive evidence for this is found in the social sciences and, surprisingly enough, among radical intellectuals whose Marxism is taken wholesale from Marx’s own homogenizing view of the Third World […].” (Said, 324-325)