Archive for the ‘Economic Power’ Category

Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)

December 19, 2016

Louis Prima – Enjoy Yourself

Few things have depressed me more this semester than reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Once I understood what Weber was saying about the ‘Iron Cage’ and how people are forced into doing what they must do in order to survive, it became apparent to that there are many meaningless structures of power that control my life that have little to do with my actual likes, dislikes, preferences, dreams, and fantasies, etc. The main structure around which everything else revolves is that I must find some way to create capital so that I can be a productive member of society and contribute to the good of the whole while sustaining myself. It doesn’t really matter how or what I choose to do in order to do so, but I must do it. This means that I, like many others, will need to get a job. The system does not care whether or not I like it; if I want to survive and live comfortably, it is a necessity. I find myself privileged enough that I have been given the chance to go into music, but at the end of a lifetime, I will still have worked very hard against my will for most of my life in order to sustain a baseline level of living.

To support and supply this structure, other structures of power prop up this one. School, government, taxation, social media, consumerism, health care, organized religion, and many, many more aspects of daily life have evolved in order to ensure that I enter and maintain a state of productivity to benefit the good of the whole. Together, these structures, which for the most part are arbitrary and apathetic to my existence, form Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’ mentioned earlier. At the end of the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber leaves the critique for the reader to ponder – He offers no key we may use to escape the cage.

Upon reflection, it becomes clear to me that we have two choices. We can either do nothing, or actively resist. It does not matter whether or not you accept your fate; your fate has already been decided for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t resist in futility and create meaning in vain. To me, the best way to resist meaninglessness is to find meaning in pleasure and pain. The Protestant Ethic (if it were some sort of written code of conduct) would say that one should avoid earthly pleasures as to not use your time for anything other than productivity. Nay, I say! Equating your productivity with your worth is dehumanizing and objectifying, and ultimately morally degrading. Philosophical Hedonism, in which the goal is to maximize pleasure over pain, is the key. Maybe it doesn’t free us of the cage, as we all still have to work, but it makes life inside a lot more tolerable. I’m not just talking about sex and chocolate here; there are all kinds of pleasures – watching sunsets, going on hikes, smelling flowers, holding hands with someone. If people could stop feeling so guilty for enjoying the things in their lives that made them happy, the world could be a much better place. In the words of Keely Smith, “You only think of dollar bills tied neatly in a stack – But when you kiss a dollar bill it doesn’t kiss you back!”


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).

Links for The Grapes of Wrath and Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”

January 20, 2012

For Tuesday (January 24), we are reading chapter 5 from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (this is a pdf).  The novel as a whole was published in 1939, and depicts the events surrounding the dust bowl, and the migration of poor farmers to California.   It will serve as a brief introduction to Marx, along with the conception of economic/structural power.  I’ll post further reflections and reading questions over the next day or two.

Starting Thursday of next week (January 26), we will begin Marx’s “On the Jewish Question.” The topic of the essay has to do with a political question that was quite important in the 19th and early 20th centuries, namely, the question of the role of the Jews in European society. Marx, however, uses this question as a way to think about the concept of citizenship in general, and to engage in a critique of the kinds of rights we saw articulated in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”

Arendt and the Grapes of Wrath

May 10, 2010

Post by John Driscoll

I was recently having a discussion with my father, a former farmer, about the dust bowl. Of course, I was inclined to bring up some of the things we had talked about at the beginning of the year, but afterwards I began thinking about the Grapes of Wrath from an Arendtian perspective. In regards to her ideas about authority, I would say the Bank, in the context of Chapter 5, displayed both of the behaviors Arendt identifies as authority-reducing. When comparing her discussion of the abusive parent to the Bank, it is easy to see how this abuse of power caused the farmers to completely lose respect for the Bank.

            In her discussion, Arendt points out that there are two primary ways in which a parent can lose authority over their child. First, the parent could argue with the child, thus giving the child power in its words and actions. Second, the parent could beat the child, which would automatically show that there is no reason the child should obey other than the fear of physical suffering. In both cases, the child would lose respect for the parent first, which then leads to a loss of authority on the parents behalf. As mentioned in class earlier, respect and authority are married; one cannot maintain authority without the respect of his or her subjects.

            In the case of the Grapes of Wrath, the Bank showed a shining example of how violence, or in this case, legal power with the threat of violence, caused the farmers to completely lose whatever small amount of respect they had for the Bank. By completely controlling the physical actions of the farmers through various policies (e.g. ordering which crops to be harvested, when, and by what means,) the Bank was relying on a subdued form of violence to maintain control over the tenants. They then went on to continue this form of abuse by forcing the tenants off their land. All the while, one can see the specter of Arendt shaking her head in disapproval of the Banks abuse of power and subsequent loss of authority. The sad truth about all this is that none of the suffering, either from the tenants or employees of the bank, was necessary. It is only because of the collective failure of everyone involved to even attempt to challenge the authorities. Because no one believed they had the strength, or as a group, the power to affect change, the cycle continued.

            I guess in the end, the only changes that are ever made come from the belief that it is possible. No matter what amount of strength or power any individual or group of people possess, they will never implement change without first realizing it is a possibility. From this perspective, our imaginations are our only real limitation, it seems…

The modular mansion

March 11, 2010

This past week I came upon an article in the Washington Post about the latest trend in home building, the modular mansion. The article can be accessed from this link:

It reminds me of the growing industrialization Marx spoke of in his manifesto, and also of the “mechanized petrification” Weber discussed.  It is a much faster and cheaper method of building than its competition, the stick-built custom home.  Buyers can order their homes from a set of stock designs, and parts are usually built on the assembly line.  The pre-fabricated parts are then trucked to the site of construction and stacked atop one another by a crane.     

This method of building is being favored by elite architects because it is cheaper in a time of recession.  At one point in the article Jerry Smalley, president of one of the companies, states “The goal is more volume”.  The concern lies in producing as many of these homes as possible, rather than making a few quality ones.  The lower cost is made possible by cheaper labor and a shorter construction time.  A modular home can be built in only 7 months whereas its stick-built competitor takes 17 months to construct.  As Weber recounts Benjamin Franklin saying, “Time is money”. 

There seems to be a few parallels between this story and Chapter 5 of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  Steinbeck’s story also takes place in a time of economic recession.  The government favors cheap mass production of crops as opposed to paying individual tenants for working the land.  The tenants are replaced by the more efficient mechanized farming with tractors.  Likewise in this story modular mansions are becoming more popular than the stick-built individualized homes.  In Marx’s manifesto he bemoans the loss of specialization in labor as a result of increasing industrialization.  Modular mansions are often assembled in parts by factory workers, rather than built by one master architect.

The article also recounts the effect these modular mansions are having in small neighborhood communities of Bethesda, MD.  It speaks of residents and neighbors-to-be of the incoming modular mansions in admiring the aesthetic beauty of “lush woodland garden around the property’s original house for 70 years”.  They were outraged when the developer came in, bought the plot of land, and tore down the house and gardens in order to put in three new modular homes.  One resident even refers to Leibovitz (the developer in this article) as “such a rapacious developer”.  This is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s reaction to the industrialized machine-farming.  He describes the tractors as “methodically raping” the land.  There are also recurrent themes in the destruction of individuality and tradition in favor of a standardization in the means of production.  Individual stick-built homes surrounded by nature in this article were unique and held meaning to members of the community.  They had also been standing for at least 70 years.  This is quite similar to the tenant farmer in Steinbeck grieving the loss of his property and everything that made it special to him.

In addition to all this, there appears to be a large disparity between the incomes of the workers and that of the people that must be purchasing these colossal mansions.  To allow for the mass production of these modular mansions on a cheaper scale, factory laborers are also being paid even less.  This is yet another example of the exploitation of the proletariat as Marx discusses.  Even though the modulars are less expensive than their custom-built competition, they are still selling for anywhere between $400,000 and well over $1,000,000 a piece.  The fact that a market for so many of these mansions can exist during an economic recession seems ironic.

Some vaguely Marxist thoughts on the free market in food production

January 31, 2010

While reading the other day, I came across this article.  There are a couple of core ideas that come out of this article that are potentially relevant for our class discussions on Marx.

 First, there is an acknowledgment of the limits of the free market when dealing with a commodity like food.  According to the idea of marginal advantage (a core idea underlying free market policies today), a free market is efficient because it allows each region or each worker to specialize in the production of those goods it is most efficient at producing.  Kansas (so the theory goes) has soil and climate conditions that make it really efficient at producing wheat (it can produce higher yields of wheat at lower cost than, say, Maine).  So it makes sense to have Kansas grow lots and lots of wheat and then trade it with other areas similarly specialized.  The problem, as the article points out, is that things don’t really work out that way in practice.  Monocultures are highly susceptible to disease and soil exhaustion.  To maintain this efficiency, then, we need enormous inputs of fertilizer and pesticides; and to keep the production profitable, we need more or less constant innovation—e.g., genetically modified foods, and so forth.  In Marxist terms, the need for profit, which emerges out of existing property relations, drives the productive process in perverse directions, such that an activity supposedly devoted simply to producing needed goods (e.g., food) increasingly becomes a process that undermines that capacity (by poisoning the land, preventing the establishment of more sustainable local food systems, and so on).

Similarly, markets in food commodities are often really inefficient ways to distribute food.  A couple of years back, as the article points out, there was a spike in food prices.  This predictably led to countries using food as an investment.  Since prices are going up, we buy as much as we can and hold onto it until we think the price is going to peak.  I can make huge profits this way, but doing so also prevents some people from eating.

Finally—and this is an aspect of the “Manifesto” we haven’t discussed much—another interesting aspect of the article is that the relevant political and economic actors are depicted as being locked in modes of thinking that prevent forms of necessary innovation.  We are so used to capitalist thinking, even in the context of food production, that we think only in terms of growing a specific crop for cash and selling it on a free market.  But the article suggests that this model of increasingly efficient production of ever-greater yields of food may not actually have anything to do with the actual problems of global hunger.  Indeed, the suggestion is that increased food production simply leads to more waste and worse public health in wealthy and industrialized countries.  One of the implicit arguments of the article, in other words, is that existing property relations lead to modes of thinking that make it difficult for us to see the actual nature of existing problems and to develop actual solutions to them.

So read the piece and let me know what you think.

Neo-Marxist Sock Puppets

January 26, 2010

In the interest of trying to clarify some of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, I submit a technical analysis:

Now, there are some interesting differences between the content of Kiki/Bubu’s analysis and Marx’s.  For example, Kiki and Bubu suggest that the “neo-liberal” or “new economy” exploits in a way that is somewhat different from the classical mode of capitalism Marx analyzes.  In particular, according to our sock puppet friends, the new economy dominates by convincing us that we are our own bosses, or that we have the same interests as the capitalists (consider, for a moment, why, for instance, news broadcasts always report on the daily stock market numbers).  Moreover, in contrast to Marx’s prediction of proletarian solidarity, Kiki and Bubu suggest that the new economy liquidates all horizontal relations between the workers, constructing a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Nevertheless, the basic method of our sock puppets remains fundamentally Marxist, with some Foucault sprinkled in for fun (come back and watch this video again after we’ve read Foucault).  They explain why daddy works so hard primarily in terms of changes in the mode of economic organization (and more specifically, in terms of the new forms of symbolic or ideological apparatuses that have emerged to hide or rationalize the functioning of this economy).

Some reading questions on “The Communist Manifesto”

January 26, 2010

These questions should help to guide you through parts 1 & 2 of the “Manifesto.”

(1) “The Communist Manifesto” is certainly more accessible than the “Jewish Question,” but there remains some basic terminological baggage.  Try to be able to define: bourgeoisie, proletariat, means of production, relations of production, mode of production, capitalism, and feudalism.  To define means of production, relations of production, and mode of production, you might want to look here.

(2) What is the thesis of the “Manifesto” (hint: it is in the opening lines of part 1)?

(3) What is the specific form of class struggle we see in capitalism?  How is it similar and different from other class struggles?

(4) What are the basic processes and dynamics by which capitalism emerged from feudal society?

(5) In what sense is the bourgeoisie “revolutionary”?  What is capitalism like?  (e.g., is it stable?  What dynamics does it tend to produce?  What sorts of exploitation and class struggle do we find in it?)

(6) What dynamics will lead to the end of capitalism?

(7) Now a more general question: what basic forms of power explain the sorts of social changes Marx is describing?  Who or what are the important actors?  What sorts of things are not important in Marx’s explanation?  Finally, compare all of this to Hobbes: if there are dynamic changes in society, how might Hobbes account for these changes?

Also, some questions regarding part 2 of the “Manifesto”

(8) Who are the communists?  What is their relation to the proletariat as a whole?

(9) What is the general goal of the communists?

(10) Now a potentially more critical question: given the theory of society sketched in part 1 (e.g., given Marx’s understanding of the causes of social change/dynamics) do the political goals of the communist party make sense?  What is the purpose or role of communist party political activism in Marx’s general theory of society?

(11) What are some of the “bourgeois” objections to communism that Marx identifies?  How does he respond to these objections?  What is the general message Marx wishes to convey in these responses?

(12) “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing the other.”  Be prepared to discuss what this means and what it implies for forms of political activism (in particular, the activism of the proletariat).