Sunday, May 12, 2024

Opium of the People and Radical Chains

The historical dust has not settled, but at this moment it seems clear that a proletariat which does not embrace Marxism is entirely possible. Why not, then, Marxism without a proletariat? In a thoughtful article, "Radical Chains: The Marxian Concept of Proletarian Mission" (Studies on the Left, September-October, 1966), Oscar Berland argues that this is not only a thinkable but also a necessary thought. Ronald Aronson's "Reply" to Berland agrees that the proletariat has lost its revolutionary potential, but forcefully asserts that to scuttle the concept of proletarian mission is to scuttle Marx himself. The present paper in general sustains Berland, but puts the argument in sharper terms. At the same time, and this is its major purpose, this paper attempts to show that Marx's mature economic theorizing (the core of which Berland rejects as "droll") was by no means centered around the concept of a "mission," proletarian or otherwise, and that Marx's formulation of the laws of capitalist development—unfortunately, for the proletarian cause—can be shown to have been depressingly accurate and realistic. Bringing to light a much-neglected aspect of Marx's work, this paper hopes to stimulate interest in investigating the usefulness of the surplus-value concept for the understanding of modern capitalist class structure.

Martin Nicolaus's  "Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx: Hegelian Choreography and the Capitalist Dialectic" (Studies on the Left, January-February, 1967) not only put Oscar Berland's argument in "sharper terms," it also employed Marx's as yet little known and untranslated manuscripts from 1857-58, the Grundrisse, to do so. I have explored Nicolaus's discussion in that article of the Grundrisse in an earlier post, Seeing the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns, so I won't elaborate on that aspect here. 

What I am mainly interested in here is some added speculation in Nicolaus's subsequent "The Contradiction of Advanced Capitalist Society and it Resolution," which condensed and popularized some of the earlier article's broader conclusions. It was originally presented at a seminar at Simon Fraser University in October of 1967 and was subsequently published as a pamphlet by the SDS Radical Education Project. But first there is a key point in Berland's article that is worth reviewing.

Berland traces the "revolutionary mission of the proletariat" to Marx's early essay, the "Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right." (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosopie, Einleitung). The essay contained a paragraph that has been imprecisely immortalized as "religion is the opiate of the masses." The full sentiment is somewhat more sympathetic to religion's positive contribution, while losing none of its critical edge:

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 [or "mind"] of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

So it is in the context of a continuation of Feuerbach's critique of religion that the proletariat as the subject of revolution first appeared. Furthermore, the proltetariat's revolutionary role was presented in the specific context of the German people's political backwardness (Germany was not yet a unitary state):

Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation?

Answer: In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it. ... This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.

Berland described this passage as the young Marx exalting in "the mere swish of his sword through the air," taking the expression from Marx's biographer, Franz Mehring. Nicolaus ignored the Berland/Mehring metaphor and employed his own of "choreography," which after all is not that dissimilar from sword swishing.

Three considerations need to be reiterated about the specific context of Marx's declaration. First, that it is in response to what Marx saw as the politically retarding influence of religion. Second, that it addressed the comparative semi-feudal backwardness of the Germans relative to England and France. And third, that the declaration occured years before Marx had begun his study of political economy. Of course, Marx himself shamelessly generalized from this anomolous particular and even suggested work arounds for when the class with the radical chains declined to rattle them spontaneously, as Harold Rosenberg objected in "The Pathos of the Proletariat."

In his "Contradiction of Advanced Capitalist Society" pamphlet, Nicolaus omitted the textual criticism of early works by Marx, settling for the summary that "Marx never succeeded completely in welding his pamphleteering and his serious political economic analysis into an organic, coherent whole." Nicolas didn't mention the Grundrisse in his pamphlet but it's influence is evident if you know where to look. For example, he quoted the mature Marx, "Capital is its own contradiction," which is a rough translation of a passage from the Grundrisse.

What was new and intriguing in "The Contradiction" is Nicolaus's tentative search for an alternative revolutionary subject in advanced capitalist society:

Radical social ideas are radical not because they express the demand for some imagined desirable society, not because they protest against some inequity in the present order. Their radicalness derives from their ability to express the repressed potential of the present social order, from their accuracy in pointing to the possibilities which the status quo negates.

In a subsequent section titled "Workers or Hippies," he expanded on the notion of expressing the repressed potential of the social order.

It is beyond my purpose and my abilities to present an adequate summary of the hippie subculture. However, certain distinguishing features can, I think, be described at this point. First, one must peel away an entire massive layer of commercialism and faddism. Then one must work past the drug issue. In this regard, 'straight' society insists that the use of drugs is an escape from reality, while spokesmen for the hippie subculture insist with equal firmness, though more gently, that the use of drugs is a means of exploring reality more effectively. It may be that neither explanation is valid. My own informal observations lead me to think that the use of drugs serves as little more than an esoteric rite, a badge of identification to demarcate this subculture sharply from the larger culture and to promote internal solidarity, much like the Semitic refusal to eat pork or the secret handclasps of fraternal orders. Once past the drug issue, what remains of the hippie subculture can be summarized under two headings. First, the hippie refuses to work for a living if at all possible (though he may work, typically in artistic forms for pleasure and self-satisfaction). Second, the hippie culture denies the importance of the relationship between men and commodities, and asserts the primacy of direct relationships among human beings. These two principles amount to the assertion, so offensive to capitalist society and those who share its ethos, that there are more important things in life than to earn one's living. Variously subsisting on the surplus income of middle-class parents, on the waste products of the economy, or on handouts from any source available (rarely are hippies able to receive welfare payments), the hippie subculture asserts that the era of material scarcity is or should be over, and declares that the time has come to abolish the compulsion exercised by economic relationships over genuine human relationships. A subculture within the subculture, the 'Diggers,’ has begun to organize an embryonic economic subsystem based on free distribution of necessary goods.

In retrospect, Nicolaus's description of the "hippie culture" needs to be qualified with the stipulation that most young people in the 1960s with long hair, readers of the alternative press, users of marijuana and LSD, and critics of the stereotypical 1950s suburban lifestyle and work ethic were not hippies. The were only designated hippies by the media and by passing yahoos in a car shouting, "get a job, hippie!"

While doing the archival research for this essay, I came across Sweet Chaos, a book about the Grateful Dead by Carol Brightman, who had been the publisher and editor of Viet-Report in the 1960s and helped launch its short-lived successor, Leviathan. Sweet Chaos alternates between a narrative about the Dead, Deadheads, and Jerry Garcia on one hand and reflections on her own political activism during the 1960s. She was trying to come to terms with the endurance of the Greatful Dead phenomenon and the evaporation of the political radicalism of the 1960s.

In October of 1966, the Dead played at UC Davis, where I was an undergrad and Oscar Berland was a graduate student. We never met and apparently he didn't finish his PhD. He died last year at the age of 96. Backstage at the Dead concert, I shared a joint with Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, who died at the age of 27 in 1973 and is buried about three blocks from the school where I went to the seventh grade in Palo Alto, California. 

Brightman's answer to her question appears unobtrusively five pages before the end of the book: "The Grateful Dead, the institution, the True Church that sleeps and feeds at once, is a haven in a heartless world..." Was the paraphrase of Marx intentional or unconscious? "The drugs had always gone hand in hand with the music, more for him than the others," Brightman had written of Jerry Garcia four pages earlier: 

To get high on the Persian, Garcia's opiate of choice, more like morphine than heroin, he might load up on Percodans, then use Demerol or Dilaudid to straighten out for a show… When Jerry ran over his gram-a-day quota of Persian (a gram cost seven hundred dollars)… and he was too "junk-sick" to perform, he might go onstage full of Valium, bumping into the mike, dozing off in the middle of a dirgelike song, losing whole stanzas, even after a TelePrompTer was installed at his feet. For coworkers like Cameron Sears, what was "shocking" and "ironic" about Garcia's death on August 9, 1995, in the drug rehab facility called Serenity Knolls, was that it occurred when "he was taking all the right steps to rectify the past shit he'd been through." But it was "too little too late."

Garcia left an estate valued at $9.9 million, according to court documents filed in March 1997.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The University at War and the Iceberg Strategy

While looking for old sources discussing the "manpower channeling" policies of the U.S. Selective Service (draft) during the Vietnam war, I uncovered a treasure trove of 1960s essays on the military-industrial-academic complex. The first one that caught my eye was "The University and the Political Economy" by James O'Connor. O'Connor later wrote The Fiscal Crisis of the State and founded the journal, Capitalism Nature Socialism. "The University and the Political Economy" appeared in the 1969 first issue of Leviathan, which was a successor to Viet-Report, enlisting many of the latter journal's key personnel.

I had some difficulty finding a digitized copy online of the Leviathan issue but then it turned up on the old standby, JSTOR, which has a nice collection of alternative press literature. Also on JSTOR was the prospectus for Leviathan, chronicling its metamorphosis from Viet-Report to Leviathan. 

The last footnote in O'Connor's article cites The Iceberg Strategy: Universities and the Military Industrial Complex by none other than Martin Nicolaus, whose "Unknown Marx" I have cited several times over the last five months, most recently in "The Unknown Unknown Marx" as well as the cumbersomely titled, "Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx: Hegelian Choreography and the Capitalist Dialectic." which I cited in "Seeing the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns." O'Connor noted that Nicolaus's "Iceberg Strategy" shared his general point of view that "colleges and universities constitute four great departments of the U.S. ruling class," encompassing production, merchandising, state bureaucratic social control, and imperialist rule.

Martin Nicolaus was an associate editor of Viet-Report and on the editorial staff of Leviathan. His "Iceberg Strategy" was from a talk he gave in November 1967 at a conference on the university and the military at the University of Chicago.

Nicolaus described overt military research at universities as only the tip of an iceberg: 

In our discussions about the military and the universities, what are we aiming at and what are we trying to do? It seems to me that it's very clear that the military--the baby burners and the people who study how to burn babies -- are only the top of the educational iceberg. … If we don't see that the whole thing is oriented at the policy level toward specialization and destruction of individuals and induction of individuals into the industrial system, then it seems to me that our strategy is not going to get off the ground. …

The strategy we have now, of getting people to see the little peak of military research at the top of the iceberg and blasting that doesn't seem to me to be enough.

Nicolaus did not lay out a strategy for tackling the whole iceberg but clearly his essays on the unknown Marx and the new middle class were aimed at grappling with what was needed to know to develop such strategy.

The transition from Viet-Report to Leviathan arose as editors increasingly viewed the need for "a more sophisticated understanding of American imperialism as a product of specific economic and social arrangements" and "a more coherent theory of revolutionary social change." The first efforts in this direction were special issues in 1968 on "The University at War," edited by Mike Klare, and on "Colonialism and Liberation in America," edited by Beverley Leman. The editors of Viet-Report, and subsequently of Leviathan, were clearly following the iceberg strategy advocated by Martin Nicolaus.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on André Gorz's "Destroy the University," it takes an awful lot of disposable time to acquire a university degree and even more disposable time to finish graduate school. Marx anticipated such a situation when he observed in the Grundrisse that:

"...the creation of surplus labour on the one side corresponds to the creation of minus-labour, relative idleness (or not-productive labour at best), on the other. ... In relation to the whole of society, the creation of disposable time is then also creation of time for the production of science, art etc."

It was a idea that Marx thought "does not belong here" and he never subsequently developed systematically. But he did return to it briefly in Theories of Surplus Value where he speculated about an advance of productivity such that "whereas earlier two-thirds of the population were directly engaged in material production, now it is only one-third." If the output and work time were distributed equally, he mused, everyone would have more free time and time for "unproductive labour" that they chose. But that could never happen under capitalism. 

As Nicolaus explained, "[t]he contradiction resides in the fact that the distribution of disposable time cannot be equal so long as the capitalist system operates by appropriating surplus labor." Why? Because commodities, working time, and leisure are all created according to the imperative of capital accumulating surplus labour. If that imperative was abolished THERE WOULD BE NO CAPITAL. So capital has to continue to find ways of creating disposable time, transforming it into surplus labour, appropriating it, and then -- somehow against all limits, perils, barriers, fetters, and contradictions -- circulating the surplus in a way that again expands the production of surplus value.

So what might happen if only one-third of the population was directly engaged in material production?

—with the exception of the horde of flunkeys, the soldiers, sailors, police, lower officials and so on, mistresses, grooms, clowns and jugglers—these unproductive labourers will on the whole have a higher level of culture than the unproductive workers had previously, and in particular that ill-paid artists, musicians, lawyers, physicians, scholars, schoolmasters, inventors, etc., will also have increased in number.

This is not to say that these "unproductive workers" produce no use values. They may even produce larger quantities of use values than the so-called productive workers. It is only to say that they produce no surplus value for accumulation by capital. For a conclusion to that thought, we may return to Marx's "does not belong here" footnote:

Malthus therefore quite consistent when, along with surplus labour and surplus capital, he raises the demand for surplus idlers, consuming without producing, or the necessity of waste, luxury, lavish spending etc.

Marx's disdain is not for idleness or consumption per se but for consuming without working -- for the fact that some have to work more hours than necessary to ensure that others can spend lavishly on luxury and waste without working at all. A new wrinkle appears for university students when universities are no longer the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. With the exception of the wealthy and a fortunate few, graduates will have to work more in their post-university careers to pay off student loans and to make up for the lost earnings of their student years. 

One can always rationalize longer hours with the excuse that the work is more intrinsically satisfying. This is plausible and possibly true in many cases. Is it true enough to offset the experience of graduates who didn't get the kind of job they expected and the income inequality between professionals and "unqualified" and precarious workers? This is a spurious question. The objective Marx gestured at was not higher incomes or more enjoyment. It was emancipation. Social and political emancipation. As Martin Hägglund argued in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, freedom is not an abstract absence of constraints on our actions but the presence of the possibility to do what needs to be done to fulfill our commitments to those we care about and to values we cherish. "...secular faith is the condition of freedom. ... We are free because we are able to ask ourselves what we ought to do with our time." Here is where I insert a plug for my Leisure to Attend to Our Spiritual Business in which I discuss Hägglund's book and disposable time at length.

Gorz's, O'Connor's, and Nicolaus's examinations of the university, as well as our own experiences, show that students are not free to ask themselves what they ought to do with their time. Those choices are made for them by admissions, course schedules, course outlines, assignments, majors, grades, degree requirements. This regimen is how their disposable time has been disposed of for them, not to serve God but to serve the economy, the state, and the administration.