Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Short Comment on the Scorsese Kerfuffle

            Martin Scorsese recently created a great deal of controversy by panning the films made within the Marvel Universe. According to Scorsese, the films weren’t really ‘cinema’ which was defined by him as, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Instead, he compared the experience to a “theme park” with actors. On one hand, Scorsese’s analogy isn’t that far off. It could be argued that the often-lighthearted romps created by the studio have depended on a mixture of spectacle and quips. The experience of a Marvel film is remarkably like a theme park. We go for the rides and soak in the sound and sights. Fans develop emotional investment in the characters, but the films haven’t been the psychological investigations that Scorsese seems to associate with the experience of cinema. On the other hand, hasn’t that kind of spectacle at least in part defined the cinematic experience from its origins? Silent film featured melodrama, but it also featured fast-moving trains, planes, and automobiles. Buster Keaton’s classic, The General, was driven by its stunts as was the work of Harold Lloyd. Later films such as Around the World in Eighty Days continued that tradition, as did the much-applauded Gravity. That ‘theme park’ quality of spectacle may not be Scorsese’s preferred mode of cinema, but it is cinema. One could even make the argument that the films often fail to provide the kind of innovative spectacle that defines good or great cinema, but that is a different conversation.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Marx and the Composition of the Proletariat

            One of the most common critiques that I hear of Marx within several specific academic frameworks is that Marx somehow imagines a ‘homogenous proletariat.’ Marx’s simplified vision of the world is almost inevitably contrasted with a more sophisticated vision of the world that is either being proposed by the speaker or is taken up by a thinker that the speaker wants to see either supplant Marx or transcend his limited vision. To be clear, this interpretation is not invented whole cloth by this audience. One can only turn to particular threads of Marxist iconography, particularly within the tradition of socialist realism and particular trends of ‘anti-identitarian’ Marxism to find this homogeneity either in the singular image of the heroic male worker who is intended to stand in for the proletariat as a whole or the antagonism toward difference found within certain strands of thought. However, this interpretation of Marx doesn’t particular hold up well when you turn to the first volume of Capital. I’m going to turn to that work to first try to understand how that interpretation arises from that work, and then look at how that interpretation falls apart when we consider the work as a whole. Rather than producing homogeneity, Marx argues the infinite chain of equivalence at the heart of capitalist accumulation is dependent on an intense process of discipline that not only constructs forms of difference but is deeply committed individualization of the worker and the citizen.

            The homogeneity reading probably can be best understood by looking at the first chapter of Capital. Marx begins his investigation into political economy by examining the “” the commodity. This chapter attempts to answer the question, what is behind the endless chain of equivalences that form market relations. Why can we think about objects as different and discrete as linen, coffee, and gold in relation to each other? To do so, Marx distinguishes between use and exchange value. The use of an object is singular and cannot determine the forms of equivalence that drive the commodity form. The fact that I can use the bible that Marx discusses as a form of edification, an object for display to establish an identify for an audience, or as a doorstop doesn’t really explain its cost. Use value is central to that system. If an item doesn’t have a use, it won’t be purchased, and therefore will by necessity fall out of the circulatory process of the system. However, to understand why something is worth something, we have to look at its exchange value, the point that Marx spends most of the chapter on. Marx then diligently works through dozens of permutations of equations in order to get to the notion that value at the heart of this system is what he calls ‘socially necessary labor.’ The value is dependent on average time it takes to produce something within a given social setting. Marx emphasizes that this is by no means a stable system and his work in Capital and The Poverty of Philosophy goes into the ways that forms of competition, class struggle, and technological development cause this to change. He then goes on to explore how the exploitation of this labor is necessary for the production of surplus value.

            However, one can see where one could get to a notion of homogeneity through a good faith reading of this section of the book. In order for labor to act as an equivalent, there has to be some sense of the sameness of that labor. But Marx has already provided some pretty important caveats that should warn against this reading. He has already indicated he is thinking of labor only within the context of simple average labor, which by its nature, excludes more complex and skilled forms of labor. Even more significantly, he argues,

If we then disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of being products of labour. But even the product of labor has already been transformed in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value. It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing. All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished. Nor is it any longer the product of the joiner, the mason, or the spinner, or any other particular kind of productive labour. With the disappearance of the  useful character of the products of labour, the useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract.
            Let us now look at the residue of the products of labour. There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values—commodity values” (Marx 128).

 The homogeneity of labor power is only possible through an intense process of abstraction. It operates in the averages of multiple competing spaces of production, rather than within the material practices of the laboring process. It disciplines and animates the process of production and as we will see later has a deep impact how we conceive ourselves in relationship to each other, but it gives no sense of how something is produced. Moreover, there is a critical edge to the description of this process, indicating a sense of violence that is implicit in this process and its erasure of particularity, one that isn’t simply limited to a sense that roughly equivalent workers are being roughly equivalently exploited. But the full implications of that critique are only available later in the book. After all, we’re still operating within the terrain of the market, the realm of equivalences that is dependent on equals interacting and competing as sellers and buyers.

To understand the laboring process that creates the condition for that market to work, we need to begin by turning to Ch 13, Co-operation. Marx opens the chapter by emphasizing the importance of social production. Marx notes, “Capitalist production only really begins, as we have previously seen, when each individual capital simultaneously employs a comparatively large number of workers, and when, as a result, the labour-process is carried on on an extensive scale, and yields relatively large quantities of products.” (Marx 439) The increase in the level of workers tends to average out the differences in production within this condition even without the intervention of machinery, but the introduction of machinery intensifies this process, shifting the relationship of workers to their work. Marx notes, “When  numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes, this form of labor is called cooperation” (Marx 443) That cooperation create the conditions in which the labor of many creates a level of productivity that could not be matched by the same amount of workers in isolation. The process of cooperation itself intensifies production and the level of exploitation.

Marx intensifies his analysis when he turns to the next chapter, “The Division of Labor and Manufacture”. He argues that the process of cooperation within the factory setting specifically produces a kind of collective worker that is produced through the cooperative process of the factory. He notes,

The collective worker, formed out of the combination of a number of specialized workers, is the item of machinery specifically characteristic of the manufacturing period. The various operations performed in turn by the producer of a commodity, which coalesce during the labour process, make demands of various kinds on him. In one operation he must exert more strength, in another more skill, in another more attention; and the same individual does not possess these skills in an equal degree. After the  various operations have been separated, made independent and isolated, the workers are divided, classified and grouped according to their predominant qualities. If their natural endowments are the foundation on which the division of labour is built up, manufacture, once introduced, develops in them new powers that are by nature only fitted for limited special functions. The collective worker now possesses all the qualities necessary for production in an equal degree of excellence, and expends them in the most economical way by exclusively employing all his organs, individualized in particular workers or groups of workers, in performing their special functions. The one-sidedness and even the deficiencies of the specialized worker become perfections when he is part of the collective worker. The habit of doing only one thing converts him into an organ which operates with the certainty of a force of nature, while his connection with the whole mechanism compels him to work with the regularity of a machine.
Since the various functions performed by the collective worker can be simple or complex, high or low, the individual labour-powers, his organs, require different degrees of training, and must therefore possess very different values. Manufacture therefore develops a hierarchy of labour-powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. The individual workers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; while the various operations of the hierarchy of labour powers are parceled out among the workers according to both their natural and their acquired capacities. Every process of production, however, requires certain manipulations, which every man is capable of doing. These actions too are now separated from their constant interplay with those aspects of activity which are richer in content, and ossified into the exclusive functions of particular individuals. (Marx 469)

            As we can see in this extensive passage. The figure that constitutes the figure of equivalence is a sort of collective assemblage of workers and machinery, disciplined into a matrix of procedures by a plan or set of plans. The overall effect of this process is a disciplinary homogeneity, produced by each individual worker’s connection to ‘the whole mechanism’ in order to produce ‘an equal degree of excellence.’ However, the process that produces this almost cyborgic subjectivity does not transform the individual parts into equivalents. Instead, the parts of the machine are defined by specialization and individualization. This process may start with some sense of ‘natural endowments’ but the disciplinary apparatus quickly steps into ‘develop in them new powers that are by nature only fitted for special limited functions.’ Rather than creating homogeneity, capitalist discipline within Marx’s analysis produces an intense form of individualization that is enforced by Marx’s use of the metaphor of the specialized organ of the body. This specialization also involves hierarchy, a division between ‘simple or complex, high or low’ forms of labor, corresponding to a ‘scale of wages.’ At this point, it’s hard to recognize the image of Marx that we discussed at the beginning of the essay.

            However, Marx’s examination of the disciplinary process doesn’t stop at the point of production, the factory. Instead, he shifts into a discussion of the monitoring of populations that are selectively brought into and are taken out of the productive process depending on the economic cycle, the ‘Industrial Reserve Army of the Unemployed.’ This shift notably moves the classificatory and disciplinary system as noted previously to the outside of the factory, and it shifts the narrative from the relationship between employer and employee to a state logic. The increase of the use of machines creates a surplus population that no longer is needed in the factories. These populations are then brought into the factories and are ejected from them in response to the boom and bust cycle that defines the process of capitalist accumulation. Marx notes that these surplus populations are not as Malthus has it, a product of natural processes, but a distinct historical product of capitalist accumulation.

            For our purpose though, the importance of this category is its continuation of the process of distinction and individuation that begins in the factory itself. We see the state introducing an intense set of disciplinary apparatuses to classify and divide the population for purposes of surveillance and policing. The proletariat then is not only defined by an intense formation of individuation and differentiation at the level of the factory, but outside as well. We find a class formation that is deeply fragmented through the disciplinary process of capitalist accumulation, differentiated by skill, access to work, legal status, and other factors. It’s easy to see how this analysis can incorporate the modes of racialization that both define the history of the workplace along with the forms policing that contribute to the construction of a racialized population. It’s notable that Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s analysis of the prison in Gold Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California operates through the categories of surplus populations and the industrial army of the unemployed introduced by the first volume of Capital.

            At a historical level, Marx doesn’t minimize the importance of imperialism and slavery in constructing the capitalist world system. As Marx notes in Chapter 31: The Genesis of Industrial Capitalism,

“The discovery gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in minds of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings if the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation Hard on their heels follows the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its battlefield. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes gigantic dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the shape of the Opium Wars against China, etc…. Force is the midwife of every society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power. (Marx 915-916

            Far from ignoring the forces of colonialism, Marx identifies the colonial process as both the starting point of capitalist accumulation, and as an ongoing process as the reference to the Opium Wars indicates. The European system of industrialization is dialectically intertangled with the process of colonialism and each is dependent on the other. We can see Marx distinctively identifying the operation of capitalism as a world system, one that is dependent on extraordinary levels of violence and force to keep in motion. We might also see this as another moment of heterogeneity in Marx’s analysis. If the factory is marked by individualization and disciplining of the workforce, and the construction of surplus populations requires state discipline and surveillance, the factory itself requires colonial violence to make its production viable. Marx earlier in the book makes the same observation about the relationship between factory production, notably textiles and the plantation, the two systems mutually reinforcing each other’s growth.

            Just as significantly, he sees the transformations after the civil war as central to understanding the possible transformation of the system. Marx introduces this in the Preface to the First Edition to the book. “Let us not deceive ourselves about this. Just as in the eighteenth century the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the nineteenth century the American Civil War did the same for the European working class.” (Marx 91) Far from playing an incidental role in the transformation in the world system, Marx saw the civil war as a marker for a dramatic shift in social conflict. He continues this analysis at the end of the preface, “At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Wade, Vice-President of the United States, has declared in public meetings that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical transformation in the existing relations of capital and landed property is on the agenda. These are signs of the times,  not to be hidden by purple mantles or black Cossacks. They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will occur. They do show that, within the ruling classes themselves, the foreboding is emerging that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and constantly engaged in a process of change.” (Marx 93) Slavery in effect played a lynchpin role in holding together the system and its abolition created possibilities for transformation, albeit far from certain ones.

            None of this erases the flawed political analysis and practice of Marxist groups throughout the long history of their operation, and nor should it, but it points to a rich set of possibilities that are contained within Marx’s analysis and create the space to continue to use and build on Marx’s materialist analysis. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this at this point, but I wanted work through some of this material.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sanders and Reparations

The recent controversy around the Sanders campaign reminded me of some remarks that Erwin Marquit made about his experiences in the Communist Party in the 1970’s. Erwin mentioned that he got into a big fight with the national leadership over the party’s position on LGBT rights at that point. He was frustrated that ‘the Democrats are ahead of us on that question.’ In effect, the Communist Party was looking bad because local Democrats were beginning to recognize the struggle for GLBT rights at that point framed under the rubric of gay liberation and the party had not yet shifted its positions on the same questions. The ability of the party to claim a radical or even progressive position within the political terrain of the day was being lost. In effect, the Sanders campaign is in a similar situation with the question of reparations for slavery. The question is not a new one for Sanders.  He took a similar position in 2016 to the position his campaign is taking today and was similarly criticized. However, there were limits to that criticism. After all, his position was no different than any of the major candidates and in some ways his position was closer to supporting reparations than many of those candidates. This story has changed four years later. Sanders’ position is no longer universally adopted by the Democratic Party. As a few more mainstream Democratic presidential candidates, ranging from Kamala Harris to Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren have embraced the call for reparations for slavery, Sanders’ refusal to follow their lead is making the candidate look less and less like the most progressive candidate running for the office and potentially sabotaging his ability to win the nomination.

To understand the significance of the problem we both need to examine how the Sanders Campaign has framed his attempts to win the nomination and to think about the question of reparations within the larger contemporary political field. To begin, as several critics have pointed out, the Sanders Campaign has attempted to frame his candidacy far differently than other candidates. As supporter Corey Robin has frequently noted, “Bato, Harris, Klobachar, Biden, Gillibrand, Booker: The basis of their candidacies is them, their person. That’s what they have in common. Sanders and Warren are the only 2 candidates whose basis is a set of ideas, well worked over the years, about the economy and the state.” One can go even farther by distinguishing Sanders as a candidate that has not only run on a set of consistent principles, but as a candidate that has been trying to use his candidacy to create a kind of mass movement and to frame his candidacy as a response to a variety of mass movements, drawing from the legacy of the Rainbow Coalition and bringing in select issues from both the Occupy protests and the Black Lives Matter protests. This aspect of Sanders’ candidacy has created a very strong base for his candidacy and has created a strong coalition of supporters who have been both rhetorically and economically very supportive of the candidate, to the point where Sanders is and was a strong candidate despite a lot of official Democratic Party opposition.

At the same time, it has made his position on reparations even more damaging. To explain why, we need to contextualize the demand for reparations. The demand for reparations is by no means a novel demand. One can go back to the Reconstruction era to find demands for recompense for stolen labor on the part of former slaves and demands that the federal government should live up to its unfulfilled promise of forty acres and a mule on the part of General William Sherman. More recently, Michigan Representative John Conyers had introduced a bill every year into congress starting in the late ‘80’s calling for a committee to investigate "impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation” as the beginning of a process of reparations. However, it has been two essays that in many ways frame our current focus on the issue and successfully transformed the demand into a popular slogan that shape activist and academic debate. The first was Randall Robinson’s polemic, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, which brought the slogan to mainstream attention in 2001 and more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which renewed Robinson’s call and returned the topic to public attention. Both efforts contextualized the demand for reparations in the long history of anti-Black racism, starting with the effects of slavery and moving into the effects of Jim Crow and the later affects of redlining and other practices. Both made the arguments that the only way some sort of genuine equal opportunity could be created would be through the act of reparations, making up for the millions of dollars of damage done by the systemic racism of the dominant institutions of the country. That framework not only produces an immense amount of discussion, but it helped shape the popular activism that followed it, ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to the demands of the NAACP and more local campaigns such as the efforts on the part of the University of California, Irvine Black Student Union to base financial aid on wealth, rather than income.

This creates a profound incongruity on the part of the Sanders Campaign, who attempts to frame their campaign as a collective effort to move popular demands forward, while refusing to recognize the force and legitimacy of this extremely popular demand. That disjuncture means that the refusal also in a sense translates into a refusal to incorporate the demands of a wide swath of African American activists and at times other activists of color into the campaign and winds up standing in for the distinct limitations in the campaign’s anti-racist imaginary. Sanders in particular has been quite direct in his criticism of the demand, arguing that reparations are both impractical and not the best way to approach social problems, despite proposing programs that are not entirely dissimilar to the proposals for wealth redistribution that look like the NAACP proposal. At one level, its hard not to notice that Sanders’ critique of the demand is not entirely dissimilar to the critiques of mainstream Democrats of Sanders proposals of free college education for all and Medicare for all. Sanders is asking us to abandon a certain neoliberal notion of realism with his demands, why start demanding that form of realism here? Even if we accept the notion that the proposal isn’t feasible in the short term, framing the demand within the context of the campaign would acknowledge the profound transformations that need to be undertaken to overturn the long history of white supremacy that are foundational to the country.

At this point, if they are still reading, there are probably many supporters of the campaign who are probably thinking of any number of moments that the Sanders Campaign has been mistreated, placing me into that category of criticism. They would point to a series of commitments that the campaign has taken, around reforms of the criminal justice program and other no less important issues. They could also point to the efforts on the part of the campaign to reframe its campaign slogans and demands, along with the campaign’s efforts to create conversations with indigenous communities for instance. These responses shouldn’t be discounted, but they are often undercut by the profound mistakes and limitations of the campaigns attempt to create a substantial anti-racist politics, which is most often undercut by Sanders himself. One can point at the many cynical comments by supporters of the institutional Democratic Party to deflect these concerns, but it would be a mistake to ignore why those cynical comments have influence.To be clear, the mainstream media hasn’t been terribly fair to the campaign, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising. After all, despite all its problems the campaign is making a genuine effort to challenge the neoliberal consensus that defines contemporary mainstream politics, despite rhetorical framings of a resistance to Trump. That isn’t going to change with any changes in the campaign, but the campaign can avoid giving the cynics of the Democratic Party more ammunition to criticize it. It can reorient itself to develop a more meaningful coalition to pose a radical reimagination of politics in the current moment. 

To return to the example of the Communist Party that opened this essay, we might use Asad Haider’s analysis of the Party’s embrace of Harry Haywood’s theory of the Black Belt nation. In response to the popularity of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism, Haywood proposed that the historic Black Belt in the south constituted a distinct African-American nation. The Communist Party within that context embraced the concept of self-determination for that entity acknowledging the desire for self-determination. Haider argues that the accuracy of Haywood’s theory is less important than the strategic reorientation that the party took in relationship to the aspirations of Black workers and sharecroppers. The demand for socialism was aligned with the aspiration for self-determination and the party broke away from a long history of radical institutions minimizing the forms of racialized violence that shape every aspect of daily life. Whatever one thought of the specific framework, the embrace of a specifically African-American nation both recognized the value of the struggles taken on by black communities and the dramatic transformations that would need to occur to create the kind of equality that would translate into a genuine project. It embraced decolonization not as a metaphor, but a concrete project of governance. Perhaps, the embrace of a project that placed reparations as a center demand to an admittedly more modest social democratic imaginary could play a similar role, standing in as a promise for a more substantial program of social transformation and as a sort of promise to create a significantly different set of social relations within the organization itself.

In this sense, my concern is less about the Sanders Campaign itself, and more with the broader organization that coalesces around the campaign, in formal organizations like the DSA, but also in the informal structure of feeling that has been created by the campaign. The latter, in particular, has contributed a lot to the suspicions held by activists of color for this new formation. As long as the new social democratic imaginary is perceived by so many within the framework of whiteness, it will necessarily fail at its program of transformation. At the same time, its an imaginary that could potentially play a real role in social transformation and we are at a point where we need to see dramatic change and that change needs to come soon.