Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/22/2011

In which I go off the deep end (finally and completely)



This little posting is not about Robert Jensen, and I apologize to him.

In the fall semester of 2007, Robert Jensen spoke to a large (and decorously unruly) crowd of students at my university. I was peripherally involved—the student group that invited him needed a faculty sponsor. I participated although I did not know Robert Jensen before that day. (Robert Jensen, by the way, is one of those people in whose presence I feel not only poorly educated but not very smart.)

Jensen’s topic I don’t remember—exactly. He spoke, as always, about justice and equality and history and communications—what he always speaks about. I don’t, btw, mean to associate him with Marxism. He’s far too independent a thinker to be pigeonholed that way.

One of the less decorous students in the audience, after Jensen’s talk, attacked him verbally about comments he had made about the failure of capitalism to meet the needs of most of the people on this planet. She identified herself as a student in the Cox School of Business and asked incredulously what other form of economic and political organization of society (besides failed Communism) there had ever been. EVER.

Jensen failed me. He had no ready answer. Well, that’s not quite true. He gave the only answer there is to such a question: all the systems that existed before Adam Smith and a few societal systems that exist even now. To the decorous (but angry) student, that was no answer at all. As a business student she knows without question that God invented capitalism and that there is no other way to organize society. One does God’s will at all cost.

I have little contact with the wider university where I teach, and I have few opportunities actually to hear students say the sorts of things I imagine they say from reading their first-year writing essays, so this Jensen/student interchange is the “hook” to get you to read what I really want to say. Which is about Marxism.

You see, I am a Marxist. Let’s put it out there right now. I know some of my friends have suspected that for years. I know nothing about economics and very little about politics. So my opinion probably doesn’t count for much. But as far as I can tell from what little reading I’ve done over the years, my Marxist ideas make me exactly what most of my friends claim to be: an advocate for a society in which nearly everyone is middle class and the dream of home-ownership, for example, is an actual possibility, not a pipe-dream existing at the whim of bankers and politicians.

Ah, the Romantics

Ah, the Romantics

I’m not going to quote a lot of Marx’s own writings here. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read the Manifesto of the Communist Party several times and Capital, first when I was in college because Bettina Aptheker, daughter of the Communist intellectual, Herbert Aptheker, spoke at my college, and I wanted to know what she would talk about. She is now, of course, a highly respected professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz (and both works are on my very capitalist NOOK).

The commonly held view of Marx in this country is that he championed the kind of despotism that led to governments of the Soviet Union and other “Communist” countries. Americans fail to understand that, as a 19th-century Romantic (the philosophical milieu that produced Goethe, Wordsworth, Brahms, and Wagner) he was a champion of the individual. With the other great Romantic thinkers and artists he

had a passion for the sensuously specific and a marked aversion to abstract ideas. . . [and] His so-called materialism is at root about the human body. Again and again, he speaks of the just society as one in which men and women will be able to realize their distinctive powers and capacities in their own distinctive ways. His moral goal is pleasurable self-fulfillment. . . about how to flourish most richly and enjoyably, not in the first place (as the modern age disastrously imagines) about laws, duties, obligations, and responsibilities (1).

The problem today, the need for Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Dallas, and Occupy Ft. Worth is obviously capitalism, not fringe movements like Marxism. The economic system invented by God has failed us. Apparently God wants most of the people he created to be miserable. He has set things up so

The chasm between the world’s rich and poor has become unfathomable. As a recent UN study explains, global wealth is distributed so that “the richest 2 per cent of adult individuals in the world own half of all global wealth.” While the number of people living in poverty has increased by almost 100 million, there are more billionaires than ever before—(2).

I’m not going to explain Marxism or detail the failings of Capitalism. In my retirement (if I ever manage, in this Capitalist system, to get to retire) I’ll write a book called, “Why an economically uneducated old college English professor who can’t even figure out how to arrange his own benefits package at his university and owns no real property in the Capitalist system thinks Marxism is a better idea.” Until then, I will simply speculate on a couple of ideas.

Capitalism is an adversarial system, and all adversarial situations must have winners and losers. And when the system has reached its limits, the winners must become so aggressive that the only way they can survive is utterly to destroy the losers. Hence, the Wall Street terrorism of the last few years. Occupy Wall Street is a reaction to the

ceaseless, debilitating antagonism [that] is central to how capitalism works. Compared with feudalism or slavery, capitalism is a dynamic and relatively resilient social system for two related reasons. The first is its ability to feed off antagonism, to use antagonism to fuel its own development. The (in)famous example of this—analysed by Marx in Capital—is the move from the production of absolute surplus value to relative surplus value. . . (3)

(Sorry, but I don’t have space here to explain that. You’ll have to go to the website listed in the footnote. How’s that for a Marxist cop-out?)

The Free Association article posits as the second reason Capitalism works

that its inherent antagonism is constantly displaced. Capital as a social relation dominates our lives yet it’s incredibly difficult to get a grip on it. . . Capitalism doesn’t need us to believe that commodities have a life of their own, or that capital produces wealth. . . We simply have to act as if [that’s] true when we work or consume (4).

I have read it

I have read it

As I see it, almost any form of economic and political organization of society is more real than capitalism—or at least than the neoliberal or whatever kind of capitalism we live under in which Carlos Slim can own more than the poorest 17 million of his countrymen together. And, being a romantic (or a postmodern agnostic or whatever label you want to invent for me—I’m not like Robert Jensen, an independent thinker not to be pigeonholed), I think we should give Marx a new hearing. Couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve got.
(1) Eagleton, Terry. “In Praise of Marx.” Chronicle of Higher Education 57.32 (2011): B6-B9.
(2) Stark, Barbara. “Jam Tomorrow: Distributive Justice and the Limits of International Economic Law.” Boston College Third World Law Journal 30.1 (2010): 3-34.
(3) The Free Association. “Antagonism, Neo-liberalism and Movements: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast.” Antipode 42.4 (2010): 1019-1033.
(4) Free Association, loc. Cit.


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