Archive for the ‘Marx’ 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!”

On the Jewish Question (a link and some notes)

September 10, 2016

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 political 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.

A Reflection on Food Industry

December 19, 2014

I recently came across an article regarding the transition society has taken from the traditional farmer to industrial farming. It is a phenomena that I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of, but I thought this article in particular really highlighted the blatant presence of exploitation from those individuals in power.

Here is the link to the Article

It is obvious the writer’s negative tone towards industrial farming, but the most notable recurring theme the author brings up is the group responsible behind industrial farming.  He calls these exploiters “American Oligarchs.” We can also view them simply as the Bourgeoisie.  The writer effectively highlights the extremely negative aspects of industrial farming, but still takes time to routinely bash these American Oligarchs responsible.

At the expense of organic quality, industrialization has praised profitability over all other factors in the farming business.  As the article illustrates, methods are being used which are in no ways natural and seem to be harming both farmers and consumers.  The food industry has taken efficiency to a new level.  They in turn have no regard for the well being of the working class.  However, we often see people unable to escape processed foods, as it is often the only option left.  As traditional farming has come so close to extinction, it becomes increasingly impossible to escape this ever growing market run by oppressive bourgeoisie.

The writer of this article states- “some loveless, power-addicted oligarchs sitting atop their mountain, looking contemptuously down on us normal folk, have decided that’s just what they desire.”It is easy to sympathize with the writer in his frustration with these oligarchs.  It is a part of how Marx describes the relationship between the proletariat and the Bourgeoisie.  We feel trapped as we are spoon fed toxic foods and watch traditional organic farming die out, all the while feeling powerless to do much of anything against it.  We also see an interesting statement arguing for the traditional farming technique- “the traditional family farmer is uniquely suited to mediate with nature and us to produce food that is healthy for humans and animals to eat. No machine can replace the personal dedication or passion that I have seen again and again in every farmer I have met who truly cares about his livestock or crops.”

A crucial factor in the food industry is the secrecy of its shrouded methods.  Many people are completely unaware of what goes into the food they eat. As our society as a whole becomes more aware of what we eat, we will eventually be able to act against these powerful oligarchs.  We know from Foucault that our government is obsessed with obtaining a healthy diet of its population… so how much will that play into food regulation in the future? Perhaps it will take place in an act of Arendtian protest against food industry. Maybe even a Marxist style revolution will take place against the bourgeoisie.  Regardless I don’t see industrial food being the healthiest route for society, both in terms of diet and lifestyle.

Between capitalism and communism

October 23, 2014

In this post, I would like to engage in the discussion of the views that position between capitalism and communism.

 

As we have all learned, capitalism is the form of social organization that emerged centuries ago and have perpetuated. It promotes competition, innovation and freedom of economic gain, while at the same time leads to other critical problems. One major problem would be the inequality of the distribution of wealth and exploitation on the working class. From here, communism emerges as an ideology, with its aims to abolish the capitalism system altogether and set up a new form of organization that has no class difference and economic inequality.

 

These two systems seem to be two extremes. Absolute equality is manifested in communism and the opposite is manifested in capitalism. Now, we would naturally come to question about if there is anything we could do that compromises. This directs us to the consideration of all those ideas related to welfare state, welfare capitalism, mixed economy and the embedded ideology of social democracy.

 

I think these related ideas are the “middle way” between capitalism and communism because interestingly, we could see criticisms that are advocating for opposite directions. It is interesting to see that some would say the idea of welfare state is too much like capitalism, while others say this is too close to communism in which everybody is equal economically. Basically, there are ideologies that branched out from the socialist thinking which advocates for gradual reforms on the current capitalist system instead of the radical, revolutionary type like communism. These position between the two opposite forms.

 

Speaking of the welfare state, one would definitely mention the kind of system that is exemplified by the Nordic models. It is interesting to see how those Nordic countries organize their economy in the welfare systems that suit them. The relatively low property rate and the small gap between the wealth and the poor maybe something that appeal to Marxists.

Other sorts of criticisms against the system of welfare state include reduced incentive to work hard and inefficiency in production. Since the government collect progressive tax to aid the poor substantially, poor people could become lazy and not willing to work hard. People can also get discouraged when large part of their income is taken to serve other people. Generally, welfare state is still essentially a capitalist economy, production can be less effective because of the loosened competitive environment that drives a capitalist society.

 

Welfare is certainly necessary in a society, and the key thing is how welfare system should be structured according to the society’s needs. The above criticisms stands true, but in Sweden’s case, despite being a so-called welfare state, it remains to be one of the richest country in Europe and is praised for being one of the countries with the highest standard of living in the world. They have arguably structured a welfare system that works for their country. I think each country has its own welfare system that works for it, and the system can be altered. Sweden has change its direction several times from a free market to more socialistic and back to market economy. A lot of things could be done to welfare.

 

There is also the idea of distributing the means of production more evenly in a society so that it is not concentrated in one or two hands. This could also help. Anyway, this type of “middle way” is something worth discussing when we see the extreme of capitalism and communism.

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: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/9655837/1/Harry-Potter-Becomes-A-Communist (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.

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.

Marx, Weber, and Syria

March 21, 2012

Post by Emily Park

The current conflict in Syria presents a horrifying picture of the lengths to which a repressive regime will go in an effort to protect its power and authority, but at the same time it reflects the similarly powerful motives of those who have decided that they can no longer live under a system which denies them the most basic of human rights.  An entrenched ruling class is fighting tooth and nail to keep its people from realizing any of the basic elements of a democracy.  The news stories and YouTube and cell phone videos paint a terrifying picture of brutality and desperation.

At the same time, I see this conflict as presenting a forum in which the divergent social and economic views of Marx and Weber are playing out.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a news program or panel, on which both could appear and like today’s “talking heads” offer their views on the conflict, its origins and the likely result from the conflict.  I am sure it would be an interesting commentary and debate, and I believe it would be something like the following.

Marx’s view of the conflict would be informed by his very uncompromising opinion of the inevitability of class conflict.  Marx would see the grass roots opposition to Assad and his ruling class and the rich beneficiaries of this system as reflective of the working class rising up against the entrenched powers.  In Syria, one family has run the country for decades, and an entrenched economic aristocracy supports the family.  Power is held ruthlessly by the few, who control the political and economic realm.  All others are subordinate to this ruling class.  The so-called “Arab Spring” generally and the uprising in Syria specifically are the result of the proletariat rising up against their masters and seeking to take control of economic and political power.  The vicious repression would be what Marx would anticipate, but he would also believe that the sheer numbers of the oppressed would ultimately overcome and defeat Assad.

Weber would certainly have a more subtle view of the conflict.  He would find much to consider in the religious history in the Middle East, particularly as it reflects the centuries old divisions among Muslims and the Sunni, Shia and other sects.  I suspect that Weber would be very hesitant to consider the developments in Syria in isolation from the rebellions in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia.  He would also be conscious about how the division between the Sunni and Shia have been at the heart of much of the conflict among and within the Arab states in the Middle East for centuries now.  The complexities of politics in the Middle East, and the role of religious strife and divisions in Middle east politics, would persuade Weber that predicting the outcome of the strife is much more difficult than Marx would claim.

Again, I think that both would appreciate and identify the “darkness and pessimism” that pervade the Middle East, and which frustrate the hopes of many for peace, democracy and religious freedom.  However, I think Marx would see the rising tide of the inevitable revolution, while Weber would see the complicated playing out of difficult religious divisions on the existing social order.