Archive for September, 2014

Civil Disobedience in Hong Kong

September 29, 2014

This is only tangentially connected to the stuff we’ve covered in class so far, but as you may have heard, there are massive and ongoing protests in going on in Hong Kong. At issue is the question of how candidates for upcoming elections will be nominated. Officials in Beijing have decided that they will not permit open nominations for candidates for election (which is to say that nominees will be chosen in a closed process). The protesters argue that this closed nomination process will produce candidates who follow Beijing’s direction*. Anyway, protests like this will become more directly relevant in our discussions of Arendt in a few weeks. In the mean time, you should just keep up on current affairs. So Ingrid Robeyns has a very useful post (and links) here. As Robeyns points out, many news outlets in China (particularly the state-run outlets) have not commented at all on these protests. Part of the reason for this post, then, is to share the news of these events as widely as possible.

*For those of you who don’t know, Hong Kong has a special status within China (it’s a “special administrative region” that maintains greater autonomy within the PRC than most regions do) . It was a British colony until 1997, and after the British withdrew, there was a general agreement that Hong Kong would retain a system separate from China, including a separate and independent judiciary, multi-party elections, and so on (“one country; two systems” was the slogan). So part of the protests have to do with the protesters’ worries that this separateness is being threatened.

More Fodder for Marx

September 26, 2014

This chart has been making the rounds over the last day or so:

Distribution of Average Income Growth

It is a graph depicting the distribution of average income during periods of economic expansion, and it differentiates between the incomes of the top 10% of earners (the red bar) and the bottom 90% (the blue bar). What does this mean? During an expansion, one expects incomes to grow, and this graph illustrates who is benefiting from the growth. Up until the 1980s, the growth of incomes during expansions tended to benefit the bottom 90%. So, for instance, in the expansion from 1949-1953, 80% of the growth in income went to the bottom 90% of income-earners.

Matters are quite different in recent expansions. In the recent expansion (2009-2012) incomes for the bottom 90% actually dropped, and all of the growth in income went to the top 10% of wage earners. If these data are accurate, then, the recent expansion has not actually been an expansion for the vast majority of earners. For further discussion of the chart, see here.

This, of course, is potential fodder for a would-be Marxist. What it shows is that, notwithstanding the ideology that constantly talks about the ways in which capitalism benefits everyone, it is clear that it does not. The working class is not benefiting at all, and ultimately (Marx would argue), this inequality is systemic. Liberals tend to argue that the recent growth of income inequality is a function of poor governmental policy (especially tax policies that benefit the wealthy). Marx disagrees. It’s not bad tax policy that ultimately leads to inequality. Rather, inequality is ultimately and in the long run unavoidable (that would mean, by the way, that a Marxist would have to explain away the earlier expansions that benefited the bottom 90%. Specifically, a Marxist would have to show that those expansions go against the normal tendencies of the capitalist system–that they were anomalies. This might not be too difficult, since those earlier expansions took place in the context of the post-WWII era, where the U.S. had essentially no economic competitors).

Marx among the artists

September 25, 2014

No class on Marx would be complete without a discussion of these videos.

The first two develop what we might call “aesthetic critiques” of capitalism. That is, they create a kind of artistic depiction of and protest against capitalist production.

The first is from Charlie Chaplin’s classic film, “Modern Times.” This is among the most famous sequences in film history, and it’s still pretty hilarious (just watch Chaplin’s physical movements!). I couldn’t find one video that contained all the best parts, so watch these two back to back:

And a few minutes later, as the factory owner insists that the line go faster:

The next video also presents a more “verbal” critique of capitalism, this time in the form of sock puppets:

This video, of course, is oddly sophisticated (for sock puppets, anyway), so I thought I’d offer a bit of commentary. Kiki and Bubu are describing what they think is a transformation in the nature of capitalism (what they call “neoliberalism” at the beginning of the video). Traditional capitalist production, the argument goes, was organized as it is depicted in the Chaplin videos above. The workers’ activities are determined by the plant, and profit comes from taking the products produced in these factories and selling them. The “new economy” and neo-liberalism has transformed this situation. Very little work occurs in the manner depicted in the Chaplin videos. Instead, it’s now common to try to give workers at least the appearance of more autonomy. Bosses no longer control workers through overt monitoring and discipline (bosses in the “new economy” are less likely to monitor bathroom breaks, for instance, requiring that workers “clock out” in order to go to the restroom). Why not? Well, this traditional form of discipline and control is not always effective: Workers may comply but only “overtly” (and may continue resisting “internally”); moreover, workers can also figure out ways of subverting that control (foot dragging, playing dumb, etc.).

So what has replaced these older forms? Well, the idea now is to get workers to internalize the basic values of capitalism. You are to see yourself not as a worker under the capitalists’ thumb, but instead, as an “independent entrepreneur.” The goal is to convince you that you are your own boss, that you can control your own work, and so on. And if you fail–if you are unemployed–then this just means that you should make your own employment: Create a new start-up, for instance. In other words, according to predominant ideology in the present, it is up to the worker to remain “flexible,” to constantly be getting new training and new education to prepare for the “jobs of tomorrow,” and absent that, to create one’s own jobs or one’s own new inventions. The effect of this ideology, anyway, is that workers now internalize oversight: The boss doesn’t need to watch you, because you now watch yourself (you don’t take time off, do drugs, or drag your feet, because you believe you are working for yourself and must sacrifice just about everything to stay successful). Another consequence: the dissolution of worker solidarity. If we’re all our own boss, we all do our best simply to out-work and out-compete others, instead of unionizing and the like. Your failures then become wholly your own.

(By the way, these dynamics are now pretty clearly stated directly to you: Traditional orchestra jobs are increasingly rare, so now to have a music career, you have to become your own entrepreneur, thus undermining any sense of solidarity among musicians against those who control society).

So what is to be done? Well, for that, I leave you with another video. This one is by a group of Eastman students. They made it as part of a group project from last spring, and it offers a stylized (and stylish!) version of what a non-violent Marxist revolution entails.

Harry Potter Becomes a Communist

September 25, 2014

This summer, I stumbled across a piece of fan fiction which is a hilarious exploration of how the wizarding world might respond to a communist in their midst. Written in the literary voice of a truly awful fan fiction author, Harry Potter Becomes a Communist nevertheless quite nicely captures the general principles of and relations between most contemporary political positions, especially libertarianism, liberalism, and communism.

Without further ado: (Fair warning: pervasive language and one somewhat explicit but ironic bit of sex. Also, it’s a slightly lengthy story – but most of this post will make sense even if you don’t read the whole thing. If at all possible, I would suggest getting to at least Chapter 23 (The May Day Special!!) before reading on. Or if that’s too much, Chapter 11)

I would now like to engage in some analysis of this wonderfully silly story. I’ll begin with an outline of a few of the major characters.

Hermione: Hermione represents the most common contemporary manifestation of Leftist politics. She is willing to acknowledge that there are problems associated with capitalism, but believes they are manageable through internal reform and various social programs. In Marx’s view, this will always be insufficient and moderate liberals only serve to perpetuate the fundamental problems associated with capitalism.

Professor McGonagall: McGonagall represents fundamentally the same political position as Hermione, but is also strongly characterized as a racist for reasons which may not be immediately clear. We have not discussed in class how Marxism relates to race, but much of his discussion of religion in On the Jewish Question can be extended to race. In most of the developed world, all races have achieved full political emancipation, but this does not mean that certain racial groups do not experience systemic discrimination. Professor McGonagall refuses to notice these still-existing racist structures (indeed, she entirely dismisses race as a meaningful part of personal identity or a relevant social construction), and thus her persistent assertions that all races have achieved complete emancipation prevent the recognition and destruction of more hidden racial prejudices.

Professor Pepsi: Professor Halliburton Pepsi, named for two of the largest multinational corporations in the world, is the epitome of the capitalist bourgeoisie. Though Dumbledore is the political leader of Hogwarts, Professor Pepsi’s ownership of the means of production means he is the true possessor of political power. This is demonstrated throughout the story, as Dumbledore usually defers to his will. When his philosophy is challenged, Professor Pepsi falls back to two of the most common arguments heard from capitalists, the Without Incentives, Everyone Will Be Lazy argument and the You’re Young and Don’t Yet Understand the World non-argument. (Basically he sounds like my dad)

Dumbledore: Dumbledore’s libertarianism is mostly tangential to the story, but it illustrates the fundamental misunderstanding behind libertarian philosophy (at least from a Marxist perspective). Libertarians and communists begin from the same starting point – a love of and desire for the maximum amount of freedom. Libertarians fail to see, however, that unrestricted ownership of private property ultimately destroys freedom for the vast majority of society.

Harry: Harry is a very amusing but not terribly interesting character. His ridiculously strong and exaggerated convictions and over-the-top, obnoxious behavior lead me to perceive him as a caricature of a hot-headed and reactionary youth who is more interested in rebelling against authority than in truly understanding the philosophy he preaches (though he does seem to have a good grasp of Marx’s ideas).


The author adopts many tongue-in-cheek writing style oddities, some of which I believe are intended as more than just comic relief. For example, swearing is primarily the language of the proletariat, and Harry’s frequent use of expletives can be interpreted as a show of solidarity and a revolt against the oppressive language-policing of the bourgeoisie.

One of the most distinctive hallmarks of the author’s writing style is the creative invention of adverbs, such as proletarianly and capitalisticly. I initially thought this was merely for comedic purposes, but it occurred to me that the author could have intended a deeper significance. Most of the characters are composite figures – that is, they are not humanized and instead represent an abstract political identity which is an amalgam of many individuals. This can be seen as a portrayal of Marx’s idea that our class is ultimately the most significant part of our identity, and drives all of our words and actions. The application of class-denoting adverbs to character’s speech adds no meaningful emotional or narrative information (how, exactly, does one speak “socialistically”?), but serves to reinforce the idea that each character’s speech is primarily generated by their social class.

The author often highly sexualizes female characters in a way that is vaguely disconcerting. Accompanying this tendency is a fairy tale-like proclivity for a female character’s appearance to reflect her character (at least in Harry’s opinion). Given the author’s references to rape culture and other common components of liberal thought, it seems likely that he or she is aware of how problematic these tendencies are. One way to interpret this discrepancy is as a satirical exaggeration of a common fan fiction trope – my limited experience with fan fiction suggests that it tends to be highly sexually-oriented and teeming with an absurd overabundance of attractive people. I believe, however, that two Marxist interpretations may also be possible.

The author may simply be exaggerating the commodification of sex which capitalism inevitably creates. Indeed, Harry seems to explicitly condemn what he sees as capitalist-influenced conceptions of sexuality. There is, however, another more tenuous parallel which can be drawn, relating to Marx’s distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation. In this metaphor, we characterize Harry as “politically emancipated” from his sexuality – that is, he explicitly disavows its importance in his decision-making process and worldview. But his descriptions and language reveal that there are much deeper and more important structures at work (let’s call them collectively the -ahem- Mode of Reproduction), which ultimately drive his actions. Harry’s “political emancipation” from sexuality is at best irrelevant, and at worst, enables him to act in the sexist and superficial manner that he claims (politically) to condemn, just as societal political emancipation ultimately enables inequality and oppression. Obviously, Marx intended only to describe the structure of society rather than individuals, and I’m not trying to suggest that there is any real relation between the two phenomena. It is, however, an interesting analogy.

Despite the protagonist’s beliefs, I do not really see this work as advocating for a communist ideology; Harry’s character is just too exaggerated to be taken seriously. Additionally, there are a few harsh jabs at communist ideas (“False consciousness is when people think communism is bad. Since communism is good, it means they’re obviously insane.”) I suspect the author’s intention is merely to satirize all political positions while simultaneously poking fun at the fan fiction genre (Not being a regular consumer of fan fiction, I suspect I overlooked many of the fan fiction tropes parodied). If the author has a thesis in mind, it seems that it would be related to the lack of real communication between various political factions. The characters often articulate their positions in ways that both highlight their position’s weaknesses and refuse to truly engage with opposing positions, the latter of which seems to be a defining feature of contemporary politics.

Am I finding too much meaning in what was merely intended to be a light-hearted piece of fan fiction? Probably. My initial impression of the work as a brilliant piece of satire has decayed; I no longer discern any real profundity within. Nevertheless, it is clear that the author has a thorough and nuanced understanding of modern political relations, and it’s fun to speculate about possible layers of meaning. In any case, the author has created a thoughtful work of comedy which, even after multiple readings, still causes me to laugh out loud.

Link for “The Communist Manifesto”

September 16, 2014

For this Friday (Sept. 19), we will begin our discussion of Marx and Engels’ famous essay, “The Communist Manifesto.” We’ll be reading chapters I and II at first, and then complete the essay next week. You can find a link to the essay here.

Also, you can find some reading questions to help guide you here. If I have time, I might write a short introduction to the “Manifesto” later this week.

Instructions for the Short Response Paper

September 16, 2014

Your assignment is to write a short essay (500-1000 words, or approximately 2-4 pages, double-spaced). Papers should be typed, in 12 point font, double-spaced, and with one inch margins. All texts you use need to be cited properly, though there is no requirement to use any specific style sheet (so use one you are familiar with). The paper is due Friday, October 26, at the beginning of class. Improperly cited ideas, particularly if they come from texts not assigned for class, can count as plagiarism and can lead to a zero for the assignment, along with other disciplinary action. Deviations from this formatting may be penalized (particularly if it appears that your deviation is designed to hide the fact that you didn’t meet length requirements). This paper is optional, but it is a good idea to write it, particularly if you intend to choose essay-writing as one of your optional components.

This paper is to be a “response paper.” It is somewhat less formal than a full blown college essay. The goal, rather, is to think about, comment, and/or elaborate on the ideas, themes, or issues that the text raises. When commenting on something, we usually defend, challenge, qualify an argument, or we elaborate on a position or an idea. So one takes something that the author says or argues, and then defends that claim, challenges that claim, or qualifies it (that is, defends some version of the claim but not another, or defends the claim in some context but not another). Elaborating on a an idea is a bit different. Here the goal is to develop one of the positions or ideas one finds in a text, perhaps showing implications of it that might not be immediately obvious (for instance, explaining about how Steinbeck and Marx think about human freedom would be to elaborate on issues that their texts hint at but do not develop).

Like all college papers, you need an introductory paragraph that explains the problem or puzzle you are addressing (e.g., “The problem I want to explore is why Marx thinks that what he calls political emancipation is incomplete”), and also presents your main claim or thesis (“I argue that Marx’s critique does make sense, but that there are potentially insurmountable obstacles to realizing the sort of ‘genuine human emancipation’ he hopes for”).

The following questions are designed to get you thinking about the kinds of responses you might have to the texts we have read so far. You can write your response guided by one of these questions, or you develop your own.

  • Chapter 5 of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath describes a process in which farming family is evicted from their land. In your essay, analyze this story from the perspective of two of the theorists we have discussed so far (Hobbes, the writers of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” or Marx). That is, pick two theorists and discuss how they might interpret the chapter. Consider the following questions in developing your analysis: how would the theorist in question account for the events of this chapter? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this interpretation? Or another variation on this idea: What part of the story does each theorist help us understand? What does each theorist’s approach ignore? And which theorist gives us greater insight into the events Steinbeck describes?
  • Are the characters in Steinbeck’s story “free”? Analyze this question from Marx’s point of view and from the point of view of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”
  • According to Marx’s sketch in the “Communist Manifesto,” what dynamics will lead to the transition from capitalism to communism? What sort of power is operative in that transition, and is anyone “responsible” for the transition?
  • Consider the following statement: Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” presents a devastating critique of conception of political power that is in “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Defend, challenge, or qualify this statement.
  • What is the role of ideas in Marx’s theory of social change? (Examine, for instance, the role of ideas in the transition from feudalism to capitalism or from capitalism to communism; you might also look at what Marx and Engels have to say about other socialist parties in the third part of the essay). Do people’s conscious ideas and intentions play any significant role in social change or social dynamics?

Some notes on Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”

September 9, 2014

You can find a link to a version of Marx’s essay here.

This is a tricky essay. One of its difficulties is that Marx is writing about controversies that you may not know much about, which means he’s referencing people (Bruno Bauer) and ideas (“political emancipation”) that may seem opaque. So the purpose of this post is to introduce some of the background to Marx’s essay and some of its terminology.

Marx is writing the essay in the early 1840s. This is a few decades after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Germany, and just a few years before the revolutions of 1848. Europe, especially Germany (though it’s not a unified state yet) and France is rapidly modernizing. Specifically, we are seeing rapid changes in social organization related to the growth of industrial capitalism, urbanization. Along with these changes, there is the emergence of an increasingly radicalized industrial laboring class (what Marx will call the proletariat), which in turn, is connected to the emergence of modern political ideologies: broadly speaking, it is in this era that we can first identify the emergence of a political left, along with the emergence of liberalism and conservatism.

It is this last set of changes that is most immediately relevant in this essay. If you go back and read the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” what you see is the articulation of a set of universal human rights. This becomes a key idea for the emerging political left. The idea is that humans will become free (emancipated) insofar as their universal and equal rights are fully recognized by the political state. What this means, then, is that things like religious or ethnic differences should no longer matter politically: The fact that someone is Jew, for instance, should not be a reason to deny him equal rights (the gendered pronoun “him” in the previous sentence is quite deliberate; with some exceptions, the notion of equal rights for women was not yet a major issue).

At any rate, this is a major and ongoing political conflict during this era. Most European governments, especially Prussia (which is Marx’s immediate concern), did not recognize or acknowledge universal human rights. The Prussian state was officially Christian, and so it recognized different rights and privileges for different religions; those on the political left argued and agitated against this. So that’s where Marx’s essay comes in; he’s active in leftist politics, and he’s responding to Bruno Bauer.

Who was Bruno Bauer and what was his position? Bauer was a fellow leftist (in the language of contemporary American political theory, we would call him a liberal), and he is essentially advocating for a position that is quite familiar to Americans: The Prussian state needs to give up its “particularistic” character as a Christian state (i.e., it needs to become neutral vis-a-vis religion), and the members of the state, in turn, need to give up their particularistic religions and instead become secular (“universal”) citizens. Instead of thinking of themselves as Lutherans, Catholics, or Jews, the members of the Prussian state should think of themselves as citizens. This, in any case, is effectively what the U.S. has done. We have no state religion and all citizens are treated equally (they are, at least in theory, given the same rights and status). And though there are ongoing conflicts about the role of religion in public life, there is widespread comfort with the idea that different religions should not be singled out for special rights or privileges.

What is Marx’s response to this? Well, you’ll need to read the essay. But I can articulate the general idea: Marx wants to reveal the limits of Bauer’s vision of emancipation (what Marx calls “political emancipation). Marx is very much in favor of providing universal human rights, but he also argues that such a provision is not sufficient. According to Marx, the position Bauer adopts would be progress, but it also enables a new mode of domination to proceed, and in particular, it enables the kind of domination we see at work in Steinbeck’s story from the Grapes of Wrath.

So the crucial thing to keep in mind is that Marx is not interested in the “Jewish question” as it is usually defined; in the debates of his day (and in the current day, to some extent), the question was whether the Jews should be treated as equal citizens. Marx is shifting the question: He’s not asking whether the Jews (or women, or non-whites, or any other group excluded from equal treatment) should be treated equally; he’s asking instead whether equal treatment under the law is in fact the same thing as genuine human freedom. And his answer, in short, is “no.” Marx is therefore posing a radical challenge to standard liberal positions; liberals tend to argue that more or less all forms of domination or injustice can be remedied by providing equal rights to all, by including those previously excluded into the circle of legal rights. Marx, by contrast, is arguing that there needs to be a much more radical transformation.

To conclude, then, let me provide a brief glossary of some of Marx’s key terms in this essay.

Political emancipation: political emancipation refers, in essence, to Bauer’s position. Differences between people (say, their religion, economic status, or “noble blood”) are no longer legally recognized or enforced by the state. All citizens are granted equal rights (both things like property rights and the equal right to participate in politics).

The universal state (sometimes referred to as the state as such): The political state is a form of political community in which the citizens have achieved political emancipation.

Civil society: this is the realm of social relations that occur independently of the state, and typically, the family as well. In this essay, Marx treats these relations as primarily economic; it is the realm of “free labor” (i.e., the ability for the laborer to sell his/her labor power to whomever can purchase it) or the free exchange of commodities in general.

Hobbes and Natural Disasters

September 9, 2014

Back in 2010, I wrote a short blog post on the role of Hobbessian assumptions in the response to the massive Haitian earthquake. Since this issue came up in class, I’m linking to the post here.

Welcome back; oh, and your assignment for Friday…

September 2, 2014

Welcome to the Eastman students taking the Concept of Power in the autumn of 2014. This blog will serve several functions. It will disseminate information to students in the course regarding class assignments; it will serve as a platform students can use to write about course-related materials (often as they connect to the goings-on in contemporary politics); and it will serve as an occasional platform that I’ll use to spout off comment on topics of interest to me.

For Friday, we begin our discussions with excerpts of Hobbes’ famous text, Leviathan. You can find the text online here. Specifically, we’ll be reading chapter 17-18 and 21. These chapters all focus on the nature and powers of the sovereign. We will also discuss the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” which can be found here.

In both cases, our interest is in the conceptions of power at work in these documents. We’re less interested in, say, the question of whether we think Hobbes’s sovereign is too powerful, or whether the conception of legitimacy at work in the “Declaration” is adequate. Rather, what we want to think about is how the authors of these documents characterize the nature and functioning of power in society, what sorts of issues these characterizations highlight, and what sorts of issues such characterizations might obscure.