Britain’s 2015 General Election: words from Antonio Gramsci

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Foreword

The writings of Marxists who have long past should neither be confined to their era of origination nor be reworked to the extent that eliminates from analysis of such work the context provoking them. Gramsci himself understood that ideas about the past may transcend the original context and communicate to us in the present, but only through rigorous empirical examination:

“How the present is a criticism of the past, besides [and because of] ‘surpassing’ it. But should the past be discarded for this reason? What should be discarded is that which the present has ‘intrinsically’ criticised and that part of ourselves which corresponds to it. What does this mean? That we must have an exact consciousness of this real criticism and express it not only theoretically, but politically. In other words, we must stick closer to the present, which we ourselves have helped create, while conscious of the past and its continuation (and revival).”

Below is an extract written by Gramsci on the State, civil society, and hegemony, at a time of crisis in European politics after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, from which both Italy and Germany saw the rise of fascism. His words have an eerie resonance about them as I blog in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s 2015 General Election.

State and Civil Society: Observations on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Political Parties in Periods of Organic Crisis

“At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men [sic] who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.

These situations of conflict between ‘represented and representatives’ reverberate out from the terrain of the parties […] throughout the State organism, reinforcing the relative power of the bureaucracy […], of high finance […]. A ‘crisis of authority’ is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the State.

The crisis creates situations which are dangerous in the short run, since the various strata of the population are not all capable of orienting themselves equally swiftly, or of reorganising with the same rhythm. The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men [sic] and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. […]

Parties come into existence, and constitute themselves as organisations, in order to influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class; but they are not always capable of adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs, nor of evolving pari passu with the overall relations of force (and hence the relative position of their class) in the country in question, or in the international field. In analysing the development of parties, it is necessary to distinguish: their social group; their mass membership; their bureaucracy and General Staff. The bureaucracy is the most dangerously hidebound and conservative force; if it ends up by constituting a compact body, which stands on its own and feels itself independent of the mass of members, the party ends up by becoming anachronist and at moments of acute crisis it is voided of its social content and left as though suspended in mid-air.”

2015 UK General Election results (BBC)

2015 UK General Election results (Source: BBC)

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.

Conclusion

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?

Postscript

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.

A narrative on feminism and gay politics in India

This is a full recording of my session at the All The Rage conference on Saturday 28th February 2015. See also, my post, I’m with motion. and my podcast, Lessons from India: towards a global analysis of sexual violence.

Tarvinder Kaur One

1979, New Delhi: “Women are not for burning”.

Tarvinder Kaur Two

The death of Tarvinder Kaur – burnt to death for an ‘inadequate’ dowry: a pivotal moment for India’s feminist movement.

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!

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“[…] 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.”

Marxism and Spirituality

“Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life ‘on the scales of destiny’ when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.” (Rosa Luxemburg)

“Dum spiro spero! [While there is life, there’s hope!] […] As long as I breathe, I shall fight for the future […].” (Leon Trotsky)

Buddhist spirituality is based on three premises* that, in their most basic sense, are quintessentially Marxist:

  1. All things are impermanent. From the cells in our bodies to world systems, all is in flux, and all is momentary. This is not a pessimistic belief, since change is seen as the door to liberation. We can change!
  2. Everything is interconnected. There is me, but I am also part of ecosystems, organs, societies, and companions. There is no fixed, unchanging, separate selfhood.
  3. Life is suffering. Our lives consist of a constant search for happiness through which we suffer. Until we reach our spiritual potential, nothing can satisfy us.
My ascent of Snowdon in 2009. Mountains are a humble reminder of impermanence, interconnection, and a perpetual quest for spiritual fulfilment.

My ascent of Snowdon in 2009. Mountains are a humble reminder of impermanence, interconnection, and a perpetual quest for spiritual fulfilment.

Non-religious, spiritual strivings (be it through Buddhist meditation or psychotherapy) may become so focused on one’s own mind or one’s own relationships as to be apolitical. Marxist strivings can become so externalised to the self to the cost of our individual well-being. But if we understand spirituality as the nourishment of ourselves as part-and-parcel of the incorporeality of the cosmos – ‘the world fills me with awe’; ‘life is beautiful, wonderful, and mysterious’; ‘we belong to one another, nature, and the universe’ – this is not incompatible with the political struggle for the universal solidarity of the corporeal body of the working class, which can democratically organise our world on the social provision of need and liberty. In this sense, Marxism is both material and spiritual. Let us consider the three principles of Buddhism through a spirit of Marxism as narrated by Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg.

All things are impermanent

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: “All that is solid melts into air […].”

Karl Marx: “In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

Antonio Gramsci: “Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day. That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates. […] the date becomes an obstacle, a parapet that stops us from seeing that history continues to unfold along the same fundamental unchanging line, without abrupt stops, like when at the cinema the film rips and there is an interval of dazzling light. That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigour. No spiritual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed. […] I await socialism for this reason too. Because it will hurl into the trash all of these dates which have no resonance in our spirit […].”

Vladimir Lenin: “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.”

Everything is interconnected

Karl Marx: “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”

Friedrich Engels:  “Let us not […] flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly. And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men [sic] not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.”

Life is suffering

Karl Marx: “Man [sic] as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being – and because he feels that he suffers, a passionate being.”

Karl Marx: “The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume – your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life. Everything which the political economist takes from you in terms of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth, and everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you: it can eat, drink, go dancing, go to the theatre, it can appropriate art, learning, historical curiosities, political power, it can travel, it is capable of doing all those thing for you; it can buy everything: it is genuine wealth, genuine ability. But for all that, it only likes to create itself, to buy itself, for after all everything else is its servant. And when I have the master I have the servant, and I have no need of his servant. So all passions and all activity are lost in greed. The worker is only permitted to have enough for him [sic] to live, and he is only permitted to live in order to have.”

Karl Marx: “Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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.”

See also, my post, Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?

*Acknowledgement: Alice Fowler

The geographies of capitalism, a king of Geography, and the destruction of political dreams

“It would be difficult to deny the difficult days that the world is going through. One might say that the four horseman [sic] of the apocalypse have moved from a quiet trot to a full gallop and this increase in activity has been accompanied by the rise of Right-wing politics of various kinds which are clearly associated with a series of state and corporate ideologies and practices that must be denied any more room in the world and that, in time, must be rolled back.” (Nigel Thrift and Ash Amin, What’s Left? Just the Future, 1995, 236)

Did you foresee when you were writing this, Nigel, the danger of you becoming a horseman of capitalism? When naming as a value for the Left, “a constant and unremitting critical reflexivity towards our own practices” (Amin and Thrift, 1995, 221), at what point did you relinquish and decide on the other side? In proposing for the Left, “an unending, always-changing politics” with “no anchor” (Amin and Thrift, 1995, 220), did you worry about where you might float if anchor-less?

Photo by The Ruby Kid: "Amazing art from the occupation, updating the famous May 68 poster to feature their VC Nigel Thrift. Great atmosphere here, honoured to be invited to speak. #FreeEducation #Solidarity #StudentsandWorkersUnite" http://instagram.com/p/wemVrtMTCK/

Photo by The Ruby Kid: “Amazing art from the occupation, updating the famous May 68 poster to feature their VC Nigel Thrift. Great atmosphere here, honoured to be invited to speak. #FreeEducation #Solidarity #StudentsandWorkersUnite” http://instagram.com/p/wemVrtMTCK/

 

Some background

  • Professor Nigel Thrift is one of the most successful and influential human geographers in the world. Recent works include, Knowing CapitalismNon-representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, and Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left (with Ash Amin).
  • A generation of human geographers have been shaped by Thrift’s geographical research direction.
  • In 2005, Professor Nigel Thrift was appointed Vice Chancellor at the University of Warwick. He took up office in 2006. Also in 2005, Thrift (and his colleague Ash Amin) published a challenge to Marxist geography in the Antipode journal, titled What’s Left: Just the Future.
  • In January 2014, VC Nigel Thrift had a pay rise of £16,000, taking his annual salary to £332,000.
  • On December 3rd 2014, a group of University of Warwick students staged a sit-in protest on campus against university tuition fees, and were subjected to police force, including CS spray. Amnesty International stated in response: “Videos of the incident and accounts from several eyewitnesses raise serious concerns about whether the police acted heavy-handedly and seriously endangered people at the scene. Eyewitnesses report that CS gas was used in a relatively confined space against peaceful protesters posing no threat, while one police officer is clearly seen discharging a Taser into the air for a prolonged period – an action that could have caused serious injury if gas had been ignited.”

  • On December 4th 2014, VC Nigel Thrift issued a statement reminiscing of a previous “spirit of co-operation” and sharing his present disheartenment caused by the behaviour and non-cooperation of certain students. He expressed hope for future protest to be “peaceful”. Warwick for Free Education responded with “A Critical Analysis of Nigel’s Statement”.

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  • On December 4th 2014, after a large protest of over 1,000 people took place on the University of Warwick campus – in response to the police violence and the VC’s statement – a group of students went into occupation.
  • On December 9th 2014, the management at the University of Warwick issued the students in the occupation with a court injunction.
  • On December 12th 2014, in an “Exit Statement”, Warwick for Free Education wrote: “The University is in crisis. A vital part of the fabric of our society, universities are sites of analysis and debate, where the ideal of intellectual honesty drives us to confront difficult problems and propose rigorous solutions. They are places where thought is cultivated as a public good. In 2010, however, a new imperative emerged in higher education: universities are to compete for funding in the form of individual student fees, while precarious research funding means grants, patents, contracts and private investment have become increasingly crucial to the survival of institutions. Under these conditions everything must change. […] On the 3rd of December, this conflict of interest manifested as a conflict between police and students. […] The thin end of the wedge was driven into our community a long time ago; what happened on the 3rd was a result of that same wedge being hammered harder and deeper into our campus: it must be hammered no further. The court order will not be a fatal blow to our community, but it must mark the moment where we once more conjure the energy that brought us together on the 4th and tell those who so enthusiastically capitulate with the marketisation of higher education that, despite their titles, despite their money, despite their power, this is our university.”
  • In December 2014, the University and College Union (UCU) accused the University of Warwick of “damaging and dangerous practices” in threatening redundancies to academic staff who have failed to bring in research income of £90,000 per year in the past four years. UCU have petitioned VC Nigel Thrift to reverse this practice.

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What’s left Nigel?

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What’s Left: Just the Future works as a paper if one accepts a monolithic beast of an authoritarian-leaning, prescriptive, purist, certain and moralistic, Utopian Marxism. But, of course, Marxism is as multiple and dynamic in tendencies as the rest of the Left. It is absurd to conflate the grassroots democratic spirit of Marxism with the totalitarian betrayals and crimes of Stalinism and Maoism. Read Marx and you’ll find, for example, his commitment to doing away with the State. For Marx (1875): “Every step of a real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

What’s Left: Just the Future offers friendship to every current on the Left other than Marxism, including anarchism. It sees hope in loose alliances and fluid politics, in the absence of telos and coherence, such as in the 2003 protests against the war in Iraq. In a paper of mine in which I offer a Marxist critique of the revolutionary socialist vanguard of this anti-war movement, I indirectly problematise this hope of Amin and Thrift’s – for the politics of the anti-war movement was built on ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ with no progressive alternative to either.

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Could one have foreseen the irony of Thrift’s words when he called for an “expanded ethics”: “in a world in which violence is rife and forms of inhumanity seem to be multiplying, perhaps in part precisely because of fundamentalist moral templates which the Left itself may sometimes be closer to than it might wish to believe” (Amin and Thrift, 2005, 225). Remind me Nigel, was it the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith who sold out the Left in Geography, or was it you?

Alarm bells should surely have gone off when, in the same year that Professor Nigel Thrift posed as a stalwart for the Left in Geography, bravely chopping down the beast of Marxism, he also became a Vice Chancellor. The rest is history.

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Postscript

On 30th December 2014, it was announced that Nigel Thrift would be awarded with New Year Honours for his services to higher education. He is now Sir Nigel Thrift.

Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?

The following quotes are from “How We Live and How We Might Live” by William Morris (1884), and “America Under the Workers’ Rule” and “What Socialist America Will Look Like” by James P. Cannon (1953). Together they narrate a case for socialism as both a good idea and a feasible future reality, and cleanse and release socialism of distortion, pollution, and Stalinist, anti-democratic hijacking.

On competition:

“How do we live, then, under our present system? Let us look at it a little. And first, please to understand that our present system of Society is based on a state of perpetual war. Do any of you think that this is as it should be? I know that you have often been told that the competition, which is at present the rule of all production, is a good thing, and stimulates the progress of the race; but the people who tell you this should call competition by its shorter name of war if they wish to be honest, and you would then be free to consider whether or not war stimulates progress, otherwise than as a mad bull chasing you over your own garden may do. War, or competition, whichever you please to call it, means at the best pursuing your own advantage at the cost of someone else’s loss, and in the process of it you must not be sparing of destruction even of your own possessions, or you will certainly come by the worse in the struggle.” (Morris)

On advertising and other ‘wastes’:

“And then, there’s another waste connected with advertising, as with so many other non-productive occupations – the waste of human material, which really shouldn’t be squandered. Just think of all the people prostituting their personalities in the advertising racket. Writers concoct slick copy, artists draw false illustrations, and radio announcers wheedle, deceive, and lie to promote crooked advertising campaigns. That is a waste of human personality, causing neuroses based upon the justified conviction of the individual that he [sic] is an absolutely useless person. There are millions of such people, engaged in all kinds of useless, non-productive occupations in this present society. Advertising is only one of them. Look at all the lawyers in this country. What are they good for? Look at all the landlords, lobbyists, salesmen, promoters, ward-heelers, thieves, and swindlers – the million-headed horde of non-productive people in all kinds of rackets, legitimate and illegitimate. What are they good for? What do they produce? All that is economic waste, inseparable from the present system.” (Cannon)

On socialism and anti-capitalism:

“You see, we’re not anti-capitalist 100%; we’re procapitalist as against feudalism, and chattel slavery, and industrial backwardness in general. We are procapitalist in recognising the progressive historic role capitalism played in developing the forces of production, as illustrated to the highest degree in this country.” (Cannon)

On revolution:

“The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.” (Morris)

On the state and violence:

“any kind of regimentation such as that imposed by the present social order will be utterly repugnant to the free and independent citizens of the socialist future.” (Cannon)

“In the classless society of the future there will be no state. The Marxist formula that the state will wither away and die out has a profound ultimate meaning, for the state is the most concentrated expression of violence. Where there is violence, there is no freedom. The society of the free and equal will have no need and no room for violence and will not tolerate it in any form. This was the profound conception of the great Marxists. […] Trotsky, in his last testament, written in anticipation of death, said: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.” Just ponder those words – Trotsky was a writer who weighed every word. His last injunction to the people who would follow him was: “Cleanse life of all violence.” In a talk with Gorky, Lenin said the same thing in almost the same words: “Our ideal is not to use force against anyone.”” (Cannon)

On democracy:

“An educated and conscious working class will insist on democracy. And not the narrowly limited and largely fictitious democracy of voting every four years for some big-mouthed political faker picked for you by a political machine, but democracy in your work. That’s where it really counts. Every day you will have something to say about the work you’re doing, how it should be done and who should be in charge of it, and whether [one’s] directing it properly or not. Democracy in all cultural activities. Democracy in all spheres of communal life from A to Z.” (Cannon)

On the transformation of labour, and the vanishment of money and greed:

“There will be no money, and there will not even be any bookkeeping transactions or coupons to regulate how much one works and how much [one] gets. When labour has ceased to be a mere means of life and becomes life’s prime necessity, people will work without any compulsion and take what they need. So said Marx. Does that sound ‘visionary’? Here again, one must make an effort to lift [oneself] out of the framework of the present society, and not consider this conception absurd or ‘impractical’. The contrary would be absurd. For in the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one’s share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table? You don’t keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden.” (Cannon)

On the city:

“A new science and new art will flower – the science and art of city planning. There is such a profession today, but the private ownership of industry and real estate deprives it of any real scope. Under socialism some of the best and most eager students in the universities will take up the study of city planning, not for the profitable juxtaposition of slums and factory smokestacks, but for the construction of cities fit to live in. Art in the new society will undoubtedly be more cooperative, more social. The city planners will organise landscapers, architects, sculptors, and mural painters to work as a team in the construction of new cities which will be a delight to live in and a joy to behold. Communal centres of all kinds will arise to serve the people’s interests and needs. Centres of art and centres of science. Jack London in the Iron Heel, speaking in the name of an inhabitant of the future socialist society, referred as a matter of course to the numerous ‘Wonder Cities’ which had been given poetic names – ‘Ardis’, ‘Asgard’ and so on; wonder cities designed for beauty, for ease of living, for attractiveness to the eye and to the whole being.” (Cannon)

On the home and friendship, and creativity and gift-giving:

“Under socialism people will not fear to love their neighbour lest they be taken advantage of, nor be ashamed of disinterested friendship, free from all self-interest and calculation. There will be powerful impulses to give things to each other, and the only possible way of giving will be by doing, by making. There will be no chance to ‘buy’ a present for anybody – because nothing will be for sale; and besides, everybody will be free to take anything [one] needs from the superabundant general store of material things rolling from the assembly lines. Presents, to mean anything, will have to be made, outside the general process. I think they will be, and such gifts will be really treasured and displayed on special occasions. […] Your house […] will have as the things it is proudest of, certain things specially made for you by people who like you. This easy chair made to your own measure by your friend so-and-so. This hand-mortised hardwood bookcase made for you by a cabinetmaker, as a gift. And those pictures and decorations on the walls – they were not machine stamped at the factory, but hand painted especially for you by an artist friend. […] I think it will be a great joy and satisfaction to be an expert craftsman in the coming time.” (Cannon)

Ricky Reel and the Magnet dispute: affective struggles that shaped me

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I came to revolutionary socialist politics in 1996 at the age of nineteen. These two badges still have a deep affect on me – stirring a raw political passion for justice and a personal sense of responsibility to ‘do something’ in the face of injustice. Moreover, the badges are a reminder of the impact of two courageous women.

Justice for Ricky Reel Campaign

On the night of the 14th October 1997 Ricky Reel was 20 years old. I was 21 years old. Like me, he was a second-generation British Asian. That night, he went missing. That was probably the night he died. His body was found a week later in the River Thames. The three friends Ricky had been out with reported that they were verbally abused by two white youths – shouting “Pakis go home” – and physically attacked. The four of them split up, but later only three reunited.

What happened thereafter was and remains a grave injustice of institutional racism:

When Sukhdev’s husband Balwant asked the police to take a statement, they refused, saying they couldn’t investigate missing people until 24 hours had lapsed. Balwant pointed out that there had been a racial attack, a criminal offence. The police ignored him. “The officer then said, your son may not want to come home, or he may have run away with a girlfriend that you don’t approve of. Then he winked and said: ‘You never know your son may have even run away with a boyfriend.’ Yes?” […] The police told the Reels that Ricky had been found with his flies undone, so he must have fallen in the river while urinating. They never looked for the two white racists, and they ignored evidence undermining their conclusion: Ricky’s bladder was full, his flies could have been forced open in any number of ways, Ricky was a good swimmer, and he was terrified of open water. (The Guardian, 1999)

Ricky’s mum, Sukhdev Reel, spearheaded the Justice for Ricky Reel Campaign. The two police investigations into Ricky’s death incredulously never established how he exactly died. At an inquest in 1999 an open verdict was recorded. I heard Sukhdev Reel speak at a student activist meeting in London in the late 1990s, and was moved by just how emotionally honest and politically articulate she was. In the face of such an unimaginable personal wound, Sukhdev fought against a wider injustice and, alas, still does.

Does she ever laugh now? “No. I can’t.” She returns to the day of his funeral. “With his coffin on my shoulders I felt I’d put all my happiness, my laughter, my love, everything into that coffin. My tears as well.” She stops herself – maybe not all her tears. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard I try to stop my tears falling from my eyes, I can’t do that. But laughter – he’s got my laughter.” (The Guardian, 1999)

Postscript: This past summer (2014) the Ricky Reel case was back in the news, but sadly not to report a move closer to justice, rather to reveal claims that Sukhdev Reel was spied on by undercover Scotland Yard officers in 1998 and 1999. Sukhdev has called for a public inquiry.

The Magnet dispute

During the years 1994-1997, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Magnet dispute began in August 1996 when 320 factory workers in Darlington were sacked for demanding (through an official strike) a pay rise after a four year pay freeze. New workers were immediately brought in. It was an early morning minibus from Newcastle that took me to my first ever picket line at the Darlington Magnet factory. It was a cold morning. What I vividly remember is the scene, and the emotions that went with it, as the replacement workers crossed the picket line into the factory grounds while jeering the sacked workers. In that instant, I understood the meaning of the word “scab”. In 1997, Magnet’s financial reports noted that productivity went up by 15% at the Darlington plant with profits increasing from £4.2 million to £11 million.

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Shirley Winters, a self-defined “grandmother”, was Secretary of the Magnet Women’s Support Group and, for me, an exemplar of the potential of class struggle for women’s empowerment. Whenever I heard Shirley speak in public, which was several times during the dispute, she gave me goosebumps. Here’s her contribution to a Workers’ Liberty symposium in 1997:

Tony Blair and Alan Milburn, who’s now a Health Minister, are our local MPs. I got a ten minute interview at one of Tony Blair’s surgeries. After a few minutes he asked if I could clarify something for him: “What exactly do Magnet make?” Before that I couldn’t wait for Labour to get in. I’ve always voted Labour and, suddenly, here was my hero and he wasn’t going to do anything. We asked Alan Milburn to table a motion in Parliament eight months ago. We’re still waiting for that. He hasn’t attended any of our rallies. His usual excuse is that he objects to someone on the platform. I think it’s time the unions got up off their knees and put our case. This is the only country in Europe where you can be sacked on an official dispute. The unions need to tell the Government that we expect them to do something about it. The workers at Magnet were decent, hard-working people. Many had gone straight from school to Magnet. Some had worked there for over 40 years. The bully-boy management who took over in 1993 — Beresford’s — wanted to take £35 off my husband’s take home pay of £189 a week — then attack his pension, guaranteed working week and entitlement to sick pay. In the same year the head of the company was on a thousand pounds a day, and one director got a £130,000 bonus. If the Labour Government are going to stand by and let these people get away with this then there’s something terribly wrong. Tony Blair says he wants to govern for all the people. But sometimes you have to take sides. You have to say: “These people are being wronged and I’ve got to stand on the side of justice,” — not just side with somebody because they’ve got a few million in the bank. I have people approaching me when I speak up and down the country, and things like the four increases in the mortgage rate or reductions in benefit — these are hurting. We had to bow down to the bosses for 18 years and you think that when Labour come in it’s going to be the happiest day of your life. Then you find you’ve got another Tory Government in. I spoke to one of the original Jarrow marchers. He said it’s worse for us now, in the 1990s, than it was for them in the 1930s. The trade union movement and the ordinary working people in this country have got to stand up and tell Tony Blair and this Government that we will not go away until something is done.

I named my touring bike after Shirley Winters.