Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Recently Simon Blackburn, the well known British philosopher, reviewed "Knowing Right from Wrong," the new book by Kieran Setiya, in the TLS ["Taliban and Plato" TLS July 19, 2013]. The essay deals with Setiya's attempt to defend ethical realism (objective moral knowledge is possible) which Blackburn rejects in favor of ethical pragmatism (useful moral knowledge is possible). I think neither of these positions are tenable and the best way to approach ethics is from a Marxist perspective.
Blackburn begins with Plato's position in the Republic: the Good can only be understood by those intellectually elite philosophers who rule Plato's ideal state in the interests of the people. After their basic studies and military training the elite undergo ten years of mathematical training followed by five years of philosophy and begin to take part in ruling at the age of 55. This puts ethical knowledge out of the way of most people who must take on faith that their rulers have actually attained such knowledge.
We need something a little more accessible, Blackburn thinks, and the virtue ethics of Aristotle based on common sense, empiricism and "scientific" method provided a practical alternative to Plato's views in the Republic (the Republic does not exhaust Plato's views on this subject.)
Setiya"s book deals with, and Blackburn quotes him, "a tension between two things: the need to explain our reliability so that the truth of our beliefs can be no accident, and the need to leave room for communities that are not at all reliable."
Blackburn tells us that for Plato knowledge was different from true belief-- you might have a true belief that you picked up by accident, or a guess, but this does not qualify as knowledge. Plato demands a "logos" for knowledge claims, "meaning," Blackburn says, "something like reason, justification or some kind of method -- and reliability seems a good yardstick for soundness." But how do we test for "reliability?"
Here is the problem. Blackburn, for example, believes (1) in equal educational opportunities for men and women and (2) this is a reliable belief (i.e., true) based on "cultural and historical forces" operant on Blackburn. Using the Afghan Taliban as a foil, Blackburn says they deny (1) and therefore (2) as well. "We need," he says, "a view from outside: an independent stamp of the reliability of our progress."
Where to find it? An appeal to Reason won't work. Just to claim we are "reasonable" and the Taliban are not is not an independent outside view. What move does Setiya make that could uphold Blackburn's belief as reliable? He makes an appeal to "human nature." Setiya says "how human beings by nature live is not the measure of how they should." He uses the term "life form" for "human nature" and thinks, according to Blackburn, "in a proper environment, free from neglect or hunger or abuse" their true life form will emerge "and then they naturally gravitate towards the moral truth." This implies an objective moral truth out there (or in us) waiting for the proper environment.
Blackburn seems to contradict himself by saying this view is not meant to be "universally true" but more like natural history statements such as "dogs bark" or "finches lay eggs in the spring" which certainly seem to be, in the proper environment, "universally true." Blackburn says: "So, the idea is that as a species, in the kind of circumstance in which we naturally live, we tend to believe what is morally and ethically true." But this is just asserting the. conclusion, there is no argument here. The Taliban could say "Fine, where we naturally live women should not have equal educational opportunities as they have different roles to play in society and this is morally and ethically true." Blackburn's belief is not upheld. But, I think the Taliban would reject the relativism implied here and think their attitude toward education is universally true.
Blackburn sees problems with Setiya's position. When we look at history and other societies we see all sorts of, to us, strange and wicked goings on. Bertrand Russell put it this way: "When we study in the works of anthropologists the moral precepts which men have considered binding in different times and places we find the most bewildering variety" [Styles in Ethics, 1924].
Blackburn says this leads to "a contemporary form of moral skepticism, which argues that a capacity for ethical truth would have given no selective advantage to anybody, so that it would be a miracle if it came to predominate as a trait of our species." But this is nonsense as it assumes that the skeptic knows what ethical truth is and that nobody ever got a selective advantage from this knowledge-- neither of which the skeptic is in a reliable position to claim to know.
Setiya seeks to avoid moral skepticism, according to Blackburn, by adopting a position he calls NATURAL CONSTRUCTIVISM and defines as follows: "for a trait to be a virtue is for creatures of one's life form to believe that it is a virtue." This will not do at all. The Taliban, creature's of our life form, believe it to be a virtue to deny equal educational opportunities to females (they may even feel it a virtue to throw acid in young girl's faces or shoot them for going to school) but really, should we think it is a virtue just because they have these beliefs. Mind you, Setiya wants to avoid both skepticism and RELATIVISM.
Well, we don't think it a virtue because our values differ from those of the Taliban and we share the same life form ( we are the same species with the same nature). But this begs the question. Blackburn has accepted female education due to the operant conditions of his culture and the Taliban reject it due to theirs. How do we escape relativism?
Setiya seems to be aware that you can't just define virtue the way he has done but he does so because he has "a certain faith in human nature." This implies the Taliban are wrong because they don't live the way our species (life form) is naturally programmed to live so, unlike us, they have not arrived at the proper ethical and moral conclusions. If you didn't already agree with the conclusion, you would never accept this argument-- if argument it be rather than just assertion.
Setiya warns us, says Blackwell, that his argument is the only way to defend moral knowledge or to have justified moral beliefs. It is "natural constructivism" based on reason and a universal human nature or, as Blackwell puts it, we may end up with "a soggy relativism" with one "truth" for the Taliban and another for those of us sharing Blackburn's operant conditioning.
Blackburn doesn't like this outcome, it "seems intolerable." He wants some justification for female educational equality, and it seems, for also thinking ill of the Taliban. If Setiya's moral realism won't work (i.e., no objective rules) he recommends a form of moral pragmatism. Blackburn's morals are more suited to our culture and useful and we (readers of the TLS and members of the culture that produced it) would shudder to live under the Taliban system-- so we definitely are going to favor female educational equality and, in fact, maintain it is the morally right thing.
Blackburn is modest, though, and admits there is a slight possibility he is wrong about this-- but this is only a theoretical possibility. He even admits he doesn't have "the dialectical weaponry with which to topple the Taliban" and that he remains under the morality that the operant conditioning of his culture has created. He has hopes that the Taliban will change because their culture is "not hermetically sealed from ours" (the expected change appears to be one way), there will be "dissident voices" and "stirrings of modernity" and half the population "has the burning desire to change." Cultural conditioning doesn't seem to take place among Taliban females. Can it be possible that Pashtun women are completely alienated from their men folk and none of them accept the traditional culture of their people?
Blackburn tells us the difference between realism ad pragmatism is that realism is interested in metaphysical problems regarding the nature of the "truths" of morality and seeks reliable claims as to this nature, while pragmatism does not believe this to be possible and there is no "foundation outside our ethics for our ethics to stand on."
What would a Marxist position be on these issues. I would propose a synthesis of ethical realism (there are objective ethical principals that should be followed if you want to create a particular type of society just as there are mathematical and physical laws you must follow if you want to fly to the Moon) and these laws also have a pragmatic dimension. Marxists do not believe in abstract metaphysical entities not rooted in the material world. They do not look for universal ethical principles applicable to all times and places.
The main motivating force of Marxism is to empower the working class, abolish capitalist exploitation of working people by the appropriation of the surplus value they create, and establish socialism and a world without one class or group of humans living off the exploitation of another. So there is a foundation to our ethics outside of our ethics which it can stand on. Whatever actions objectively further the interests of working people, which are determined by an objective scientific analysis of the social, political and economic forces in a given society, are morally and ethically correct. This is a materialist ethics based on forces objectively at work in a given historical period and has nothing to do with an idea such as "to be a virtue it is only necessary for members of your life form to believe it is a virtue" or a virtue is what readers of the TLS would think useful.
The class struggle is an objective fact of life and the sociological and economic laws that produce it are independent of the subjective desires or will of the people involved. Understanding these laws, such as the law of value, is possible and actions can be initiated in the real world to overcome this struggle and end it and the ethics and morals involved in this struggle rest on an objective materialist foundation independent of the human subject. This view point I think is much more realistic than that of either Setiya or Blackburn.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
This article aims to reprise Marx's 1844 article on Hegel's philosophy of law which ends with the memorable prediction that the Germans will only become conscious of their revolutionary destiny when they respond to the "the ringing call of the Gallic cock." Well, the last time the Gallic cock was heard from was in 1968 and it was rather subdued compared to is noisy past (1789, 1830, 1848, 1871).
Fortunately for those who read this pre-Communist Manifesto work of the young Marx (he was 25 when he wrote it) it has many useful ideas packed into its 13 pages that are still of interest today even though no one is expecting the Gallic cock
to make any ringing calls in the foreseeable future. Its greatest call remains that of 1789 which inspired the Russian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Revolutions as well as the Cuban and which is echoed today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now for Marx's ideas and how they relate to today's struggles. There are revolutionary movements at work in the contemporary world and some of the ideas expressed by Marx in relation to the French and German movements of the early nineteenth century can be applied to them. There are three areas where revolutionary ferment is currently occurring-- the MIddle East and Africa where we see revolutions and counter revolutions breaking out in several different countries, Latin America where several countries are now led by pro socialist and/or progressive governments inspired by the Cuban revolution and threatened by US imperialism, and in south east Asia where both India and Nepal have active revolutionary movements based on exploited peasants and indigenous peoples.
Unfortunately in some of these areas, especially in the Middle East and Africa, there are armed groups and political organizations whose ideological roots are allegedly based in religion and a fanatical commitment to creeds which do not reflect objective reality (this is also true in Europe and especially the U.S. where dogmatically fundamentalist ideas fuel many in the Tea Party and the core of the anti-choice movement which rejects Roe vs. Wade and treats women as objects to be manipulated for political gain.)
This essay by Marx ("Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction") maintains that the fight to improve the world involves a fight to criticize religion since we will not be able to focus on the real world and its problems if we spend our time engaged with a false world such as the one conjured up by religion. This essay is admittedly dated but still of some interest today.
This work is justly famous as the source of the quote that "religion is the opium of the people." While opium may be able to supply some relief from an intolerable reality we can't expect people doped up on opium, spiritual or otherwise, to be involved in schemes for rationally based world improvement. We will get to the full quote in a minute. First, I want to note that in 1844 Marx thinks the basis of all criticism of the basic world order is the criticism of religion and that in his day this criticism has basically been completed-- at least in western Europe (Germany in particular). "Man makes religion, religion does not make man."
Marx is right of course for the Western world in general and large parts of Asia (China, Vietnam) religion is no longer a major factor in people's lives (except in a pro forma sense or within fringe groups or in backward areas). Unfortunately this battle has not yet been won, or even joined, in large areas of the Third World. Religion thrives on oppression and only by simultaneously fighting oppression, and furthering progressive education, will religion wither and the people flourish. The following is Marx's full quote on this issue:
Religion "is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma."
He continues: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
Finally, he says: "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."
These three quotes form the basis of the materialist outlook on religion. But what is the difference between illusory happiness and real happiness? If a person is experiencing "happiness" what more is there to say? If we take an example from current history and say that the members of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, being at heart members of a religious organization, are living in an illusory world and the Egyptian people demanding their removal from power was an example of the demand to abandon illusions about the nature of the problems facing Egypt and the existing state of affairs then, it would seem, the only justification for this action would be to revolutionize the state of affairs (i.e., the social, economic, and political status quo) to such an extent that religious illusions would no longer have any traction in that society.
But who is to decide who is delusional? In the first place, rather than speaking of illusory versus real happiness, it would be better to speak of a feeling of happiness based on a false belief about the nature of reality and one based of a true belief about the nature of reality. You may feel (temporarily) happy taking your laetrile for that lump but you would be better off having it removed.
As for who decides, Marx was very specific (in 1844) as to whom this responsibility devolves. It is the role of philosophy in service to history. We will have to allow Marx to use this Hegelian way of expressing himself: while critical of Hegel he had not yet completely liberated himself from Hegelian ways of expressing his ideas. He says: "The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."
Marx may have thought this battle was over in the Germany of his day, but it is still raging here in the USA: one only has to read the the statements made by right-wing US politicians on the issues of a woman's right to choice, or on the food stamp program, or on sex education or on social welfare and "entitlement" programs to see how retrograde religious references are put forth to justify reactionary and even quasi-fascist social policies. And it is not just in the United States. Every day you can read in the papers how all over the planet religion is used to crush the human spirit, attack enlightenment, retard scientific understanding and further the goals of fascism, militarism, and imperialism. Although they are an important influence, all the religious progressives and pacifists in the world will not stem this backward tide of religious fanaticism without robust secular movements and political parties that are able to rally millions of oppressed people to fight against it.
Behind the religious facade stands a more this worldly enemy. Marx writes that once the other worldly illusion has been mastered we must focus on the reality of this world and the real roots of oppression and human self-estrangement. "The relation of industry, of the world of wealth generally, to the political world is one of the major problems of modern times." A 170 years isn't so long after all as our world today faces exactly this problem-- from the Koch brothers to the Occupy movement, to big oil and pollution, to the European economic crisis and the war against working people, to the world wide faltering of capitalism based on domination by banks and financial institutions, and third world exploitation-- it is all based on struggle over which countries and which classes are going to control industry and the world of wealth.
As this struggle intensifies we can expect the world to become a more and more violent place. The past century may have been only a prelude of things to come. We read in the papers that Japan plans to rebuild its military, the US is building up its forces in the Pacific (aimed at China) and moving into Africa, NATO is carrying on wars of aggression far from its home bases and preparing for interventions any where that may threaten Western dominance. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras, Haiti, Libya, Egypt, Syria (to name just a few of the most recent examples) no country is safe from Western intrigue, drones, outside interventions, or externally manipulated civil wars whenever the economic interests of the US and its allies and puppets are seen to be at risk.
Marx realized that journalism alone, philosophy and criticism alone, would never be able to change this situation or be able to overthrow the world system of human exploitation. "The weapon of criticism cannot, of course," he wrote, "replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses." This is why Wiki-Leaks and people like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden along with other whistle blowers and investigative reporters must be silenced, for governments and their toadies know that once the people are informed, once they realize that the theories of their own governments are that information and democracy must be restricted (fascist policies introduced) in order for them to carry out their repressive domestic and international polices, they will fight back (or so they think) to ensure their rights and lively hoods.
A revolution in thought must precede a revolution in deed. Marx thinks there must be a material basis for any revolution. "Theory can be realized in a people only insofar as it is the realization of the needs of that people." People around the world are becoming more and more aware of their real needs which are the exact opposite of those they are told about by capitalist governments and their hand kissing mainstream media. They need jobs, peace, education, housing and clean air and political parties and movements that truly represent working people and their allies, not bombs, drones, military interventions, no fly zones, fossil fuels, austerity and bank bailouts, and capitalist and fake socialist and labor parties that betray them.
A political revolution, such as we see in Egypt, or the "Arab Spring" in general, is only a partial revolution. Marx's thinking here is conditioned by the experiences of 1789 and 1830 in France. What are these partial revolutions based upon Marx asks [a complete revolution would change the social relations and economic base of a country-- 1789 rather than 1830-- or even 1776.] His answer is that a "part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class , proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society."
In Egypt in 2011, for example, it was the middle class in alliance with the workers and peasants and some elements of the big national capitalists against the military dictatorship headed by Mubarak and representing compradore capitalists in alliance with US imperialism and its puppets (e.g., the EU).
"No class of civil society can play this role," Marx says, "without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative; a moment in which its demands and rights are truly the rights and demands of society itself; a moment in which it is truly the social head and social heart."
It was Mohammed Morsi and the political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that emerged in 2012 as the general representative of the forces that brought down Mubarak-- it claimed to represent the incarnation of the most general (and contentless as it turned out) demand of the revolution: "Democracy" as incarnated in free and fair elections. Unfortunately for the Brotherhood its anti-democratic and dogmatic nature soon came to the fore as it tried to impose its sectarian doctrines on the rest of the revolutionary movement, of which it was only one component, while relying on the military to maintain it in power.
This is why a merely political revolution is only partial. In Egypt one "tyrant" was removed from power, and a would be tyrant was also expelled from office-- both by the Egyptian military reacting to millions of people in the streets demanding rights and freedoms which are the norm in stable bourgeois democracies. The real rulers in Egypt remain the military-- the same military that installed Nasser-- and the economic and social relations remain the same. To what extent they will allow bourgeois democracy to take hold in Egypt remains to be seen. One thing we can count on is that all the forces of US imperialism will be marshaled against the Egyptian masses and their democratic aspirations.
Marx, in this essay, thought a complete revolution would have to be led by a class whose emancipation would free both itself and all other classes-- by abolishing class differences. Of course, he is talking about 1844 Germany and the working class was very small and just beginning to develop so any coming revolutions would be bourgeois democratic in nature and not socialist. Yet Marx thought that only a full fledged socialist revolution, one demanding the abolition of private property, would actually be able to free human beings from exploitation and oppression. That day has not yet dawned but, if Marx was right about the role of criticism in the development of human self consciousness and the struggle for freedom, we can conclude that the role of religion and the religious consciousness will play an insignificant part-- indeed will be a negative rather than a positive ingredient in the self liberation of humanity from its self imposed fetishes and idols.
What then does Marx think will replace religion as the moving force in advancing historical progress. He said it would be philosophy. In his day what we call science was more or less considered a part of philosophy-- natural philosophy. So if we think of Marx as thinking that the road to liberation will be guided by a materialist philosophy based on scientific understanding we will not be misguided. The section of humanity that will traverse this road is that of the working people, including agricultural workers, and especially industrial workers who will finally be able to put the economic resources of the planet, the common property of all not the few, to work for the common good.
This day will come, following Marx, when scientific philosophy finds its material weapons in the working people and they find their spiritual weapons in scientific philosophy. But whether it will be the Gallic cock or some other whose ringing call proclaims this day remains to be seen.
Friday, July 12, 2013
Marx Reloaded, A Film by Jason Barker: Review and Commentary
Jason Barker's film, Marx Reloaded, was released in 2011. It is 52 minutes long and is now available for viewing on the internet. It was interesting to watch but it did not have a lot to do with Marx except superficially. If Marx was reloaded it was with blanks.
The film presents a series of talking heads many of whom have no grasp of what Marx and Marxism are all about and who engage in flights of "postmodern'' speculation as to the meaning of Marxism today. There are a few exceptions that I will note. There are also a few non-Marxist supporters of capitalism who don't see any future for Marx. There are no representatives from contemporary labor movements or political parties which are part of the ongoing Marxist tradition.
The question addressed is if Marx's critique of capitalism is valid for our time. If the critique is valid then what comes next? Is Communism going to make a return? Is it coming back to replace the capitalist system?
The film opens with an animation of Marx meeting Trotsky and Trotsky undertaking to enlighten Marx as to the significance of Marxism today. Trotsky will attempt to guide Marx to an understanding of how ideology works in society. Quite the tail wagging the dog.
The film then begins by asking how economists today explain the greatest capitalist
crisis since the great depression of the 1930s. The answers we get are not very telling. Now the talking heads take over.
First up is the late former chief economist of the Deutsche Bank, Norbert Walter (1944-1912) who says that we [bankers] made mistakes. E.g., in the USA people could get mortgages at 110% of the value of their houses. The banks made money cheaply available, people borrowed too much and they couldn't pay back what they owed. Later in the film he tells us that Marx's ideas about getting rid of capitalism by abolishing a society based on commodity production for profit would create a world that people would not want to live in as that would lead to the abolishment of "the universal medium of money" which "turns everything around us into commodities" and "money is an essential medium for civilization, for peaceful coexistence and the organization of complex societies." This begs the question as communism is a complex society based on production for human needs not commodities for profit. Mr. Walter must have forgotten about the two world wars that almost destroyed European civilization in the last century when he opined that "peaceful coexistence" is one of the benefits of a money economy.
Next up is Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, and author of "Taming The Trade Unions", who tells us the crisis was caused by inflation due to governments printing too much money. That is all we hear from him.
On a more general level of the problems of capitalism and the meaning of Marx's writing the film interviews several people identified as philosophers, political philosophers, theorists, critics, etc. Some are well known to the academic community although their grasp of Marxism may be questionable. We now hear from Antonio Negri, co-author of "Empire", an expert on Spinoza, and a founder of Italian Autonomism, and "Worker's Power" (Potere Operaio) an ultra-left formation in Italy with a secret armed wing. Negri tells us that the capitalists [neo-liberals] cannot pay the workers the price of their labor [which doesn't even make sense in Marxist terms-- a wage is the price paid for labor-- he should at least be talking about the value of their labor-power not the price] and that they remain in power and are able to wage wars around the world only as long as the working class remains quiescent due to high wages. But as we see the capitalists can't do that so Marx is still relevant.
This line of thought is taken up by the film which now asks does Marx's theory of exploitation hold today or is the way capitalists make their profits changing? The answers are sought from more talking heads without any clear explanation having been given as to what Marx's theory of exploitation is. What is clear is that with a few exceptions, which I will note, none of the answers given in this part of film are dealing with Marx's theory.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek is now up to bat (what film on "Marxism" would be complete without this latter day Eugen Dühring). He is described as the "leader" of a new movement to revive Marxist and Communist thinking. He revives Marx by proclaiming that the classical notion of exploitation [left unexplained] no longer works due to the knowledge explosion-- he does not tell us why this is so. However, it has something to do with computers because we need them to communicate with each other and so we have pay "rent" to Bill gates because he owns part of our mental substance. I am tempted to think that in professor Zizek's case Mr. Gates is a slumlord. Finally we are told that we need a redefinition of the "proletariat" because the "proletariat" is larger than the working class. Zizek also notes that the unemployed today demonstrate because they want jobs-- "please exploit us in the normal way" they are saying to the capitalists. I think he strikes out as the "leader" of a new "Marxist" movement. He will appear again later.
Antonio Negri now reappears. Capitalism, he says, has evolved in ways Marx could not have predicted. Exploitation is not only of factory workers but of workers throughout society. You can't start a revolution with the factory workers-- you need them but also all the other workers too [I think Marx could have predicted this, in fact he already knew it.] You need the other workers, Negri says, because they are the "most" exploited. What can that mean? The examples he gives is of research and cinema workers and the like because they produce more value. None of this makes sense because the Marxist concept of "value," "surplus value," "labor power" and "exploitation" are never brought up in the film. If they were none of the things these talking heads and intellectual will o the wisps are saying would make sense anyway only the viewers would at least understand why.
Herfried Munkler now makes his appearance. Dr. Munkler, co-editor of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels and a professor at Humbolt University, in contrast to those who have appeared before, actually knows a thing or two about Marxism although in its Social Democratic deformation. His concern is not limited to discussing the plight of working people in the West but focuses on the exploitation of working people in the so-called Third World where working conditions are subhuman and wages are ridiculously low in comparison to the advanced capitalist countries. Here it is obvious that Marxist ideas are relevant and that capitalism is being abusive.
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri's collaborator on the book "Empire" (not worth the read)
now appears to bring us back from the Third World to the the First to tell us the economy is now centered on "immaterial" and "immeasurable" products-- that is, on "ideas" not on "objects" like old fashioned commodities such as cars, refrigerators, toasters-- the products of industrial manufacturing. Economics is about relationships and intangible assets [not, coal, oil or natural gas]. He is listed as a literary critic and political philosopher, at least he talks about political philosophy like a literary critic.
Now is the time for Jacques Ranciere, the co-author with Louis Althusser of "Reading Capital" (although his part was left out of the English version). He is noted for an educational theory which says a person can be a teacher without knowing anything about the subject he is going to teach; a view welcomed by not a few teachers. Ranciere makes three appearances in the film and manages to say nothing of importance in any of them. Here he tells us many societies have had exploitation without "explosions" so we can't draw from exploitation the logic of an end to exploitation. Economic exploitation is not the dominant factor in all social struggle. Ranciere seems oblivious to the Marxist view that, as Engels says, in the last analysis all major social struggles in class based societies have economic exploitation at their root. Each society and its economic formation needs to be individually studied. There have certainly been "explosions" over exploitation in all societies that have distinct social classes despite Ranciere's contrary assertions.
The film now takes up a new subject. We are told that to understand capitalism we must delve into the the "mystic realm" of the COMMODITY. It is certainly true that without an understanding of the origin and role of commodities we will not understand our economic system which is based on the production and exchange of commodities. Marx devotes the first chapter of "Das Kapital" to the commodity. It is a difficult chapter but once grasped the rest of the volumes of Das Kapital will be easily understood.
The film however does not deal with Marx's scientific analysis of commodities but skips to the last section of the chapter which is entitled "The Fetishism of Commodities." Without an understanding of the preceding sections it is easy to misunderstand this last section and, true to form, both the film's narrator and all of the talking heads in this part of the film completely miss the point and fail to grasp Marx's ideas concerning commodity fetishism.
To make a long story short, Marx's point is that the laws of the capitalist system are not products of nature as, say, are the laws of gravity or of aerodynamics but they are the result of human activity. Commodities and their relations are created by human beings and human beings can abolish them. Yet, because we are ignorant of the laws of economics we think of commodities as natural, as things which , although created by us, assume an existence independent of us and go to a market whose laws we are subject to and must conform to. This is similar to the creation of religions or "primitive" belief systems where a person creates a fetish and then bows down to it and thinks it has power over him and he must subject himself to its demands and will. The capitalist market appears as the natural form of economic exchange and there is no alternative to it. It is not true that there is no alternative and humans can abolish capitalism and rid themselves of subjection to the laws of commodity production and create an economic world which serves human needs and one where human needs do not take second place to the need to exchange commodities at a profit. None of this is addressed in this part of the film. Instead we get baloney. This is because the talking heads are in the grips of the very fetishism Marx warns us about.
Norman Bolz (media theorist): "The theory of commodity fetishism is Marx's most important discovery." It isn't. Marx's most important discovery is the distinction between the value of labor and that of labor-power which is the basis of the labor theory of value and of his analysis of capitalism. It is, however, one of the most important consequences of that discovery.
Bolz continues by saying Marx's theory reveals a secret as to why capitalism today "functions so well" [!!!]. The secret is "that goods in the capitalist market place satisfy more than simple needs they also convey a spiritual surplus value and this value is the real reason for the purchase." This is complete and utter nonsense.
Peter Sloterdijk (philosopher [but not a very good one]) is not so definite. He says the theory is probably "the important part of Marxist doctrine." This is because "Marx is among those who discovered the fact that things live." He goes on to say, Walter Benjamin "discovered the structural similarity between human commodities [?] and commodities as objects." He thus "universalized the category of prostitution." While there may be a relationship between fetishism and prostitution on some level, I don't think this is what Marx was getting at. "Prositution is always present when a beautiful thing feigns life and tries to seduce passersby with an offer." I think professor Sloterdijk should reread Marx's chapter on commodities.
Finally, here is Famonn Butler"s (policy analyst) take: he says it's human psychology to want things-- the economy is neutral-- it just produces what people want. Well then, that's it. Capitalism just produces what people want. Then why are there so many adverts all over the place? Do we need to be constantly reminded about what we want?
The film now turns to Marxism and Ecology-- only by now Marxism has been unloaded rather than reloaded. Zizek is now taking about "Communism" in the sense what we have in "common"-- the Earth as our "common substance" and we have to manage it together. He makes no proposal about how to do that. Michael Hart is also back talking about the "common" in "Communism" and how different that is from both the "Communism" found in the Soviet Union (derived from Marx incidentally) and also the "Communism" of American Anti-Communism [evidently he doesn't approve of either kind of "Communism"].
Herfried Munkler points out that Marx "applies exploitation not only to human labor but to the limited resources of nature. He says that if the exploitation of nature continues nature will be destroyed." Munkler thinks that we can reduce the exploitation of nature under capitalism and have common ownership of the Earth without a Marxist society. But this is just social democratic optimism as befits anyone affiliated with the SPD in Germany. He gives no program. But at least he brings up an all important issue; the destruction of the environment under capitalism today.
John Gray weighs in with the observation that international capitalism develops in ways impossible to predict and impossible to control (revealing that he is completely under the sway of the fetishism of commodities). He says the "New Leninists" [we have not met any "Leninists" in this film-- nor will we] and "Greens" are correct about the fact that "human action" has destabilized the environment but they are "deluded" in thinking human action can restabilize it. It doesn't occur to him that it is not humans qua humans that are destructive but only humans under the sway of particular sorts of economic and social relations. Even if humans could get together as a global collective, which he says will never happen, they could not restabilize the environment. Doom and gloom is all we can expect.
The film now asks if the current economic crisis was caused by an under regulated banking system. Is the only solution now and in the future to have state regulated economic systems? The film suggests we look back into history for solutions. I should note here that people who look to the past for solutions to present day problems are usually seen to be reactionaries.
Be that as it may, we return to Norbert Bolz who likes the fact that in the 19th century banks issued their own scripts which functioned as money. You could take it to another bank and redeem it in coin of the realm-- if the other bank trusted it! This system would make all the banks very aware of the true value of the scripts and bad banks would be exposed. He thinks this is a really good idea and I suppose there were no banking crises in the 19th century, except there were.
John Gray rightly thinks this idea is nuts because state monopoly capital [not his term] has become so evolved and complicated since the 19th century and this has happened as a result of the close interconnection between capitalism and state power-- there is no going back. But is there going forward?
Why is it that the state rushes in to save capitalism all the time? Is it possible, the film now asks, that these crises, like the one we are in right now, which broke out in 2007, are not side effects of capitalism but essential to its very existence?
Herfried Munkler tells us that Marx thought that crises would lead to the downfall of capitalism but since his day capitalism has gone through many crises and has "rejuvenated itself." He mentions Joseph Schumpeter's theory of crises as periods of "creative destruction." "Capitalism," Munkler concludes, "doesn't age. Instead crisis is its Fountain of Youth." This from the co-editor of the Collected Works is rather strange. Marx thought the internal contradictions would eventually bring about capitalism's collapse (or the mutual destruction of the contending classes within the system) but there was no time table and he argued that capitalism had at its disposal many tools to stave off immediate collapse but it would eventually prove dysfunctional as had the economic forms (slavery, feudalism,) that preceded it. Schumpeters "creative destruction" (destruction of the lives of workers and the majority of the population and creative of wealth for the so-called 1%-- the capitalists) is no refutation of Marx's theories.
The "theorist" Alberto Toscano, one of the very few interviewed who seems to have his head in the right place, points out that capitalism, whatever its ultimate fate, is responsible for creating a gigantic surplus population that it does not know what to do with. He mentions the book "The Planet of Slums" by Mike Davis and talks about the "surplus humanity" that capitalism has on its hands because its technological advances have made the number of workers it needs redundant. This is the "reserve army of labor" that Marx wrote about-- but now it is no longer a "reserve" it is just a surplus of human beings that are socially unneeded piling up in the slums of the world with nowhere to go. The "creative destruction" they may eventually bring about capitalism may have a hard time dealing with. Only the Chinese, with a non-capitalist economic system, seem to have been able to cope with the massive poverty in the rural areas of their country (and of course Cuba and Vietnam and a few others with non-capitalist economies, and now Venezuela, are beginning to follow suit).
Finally, the film asks what sense is there in believing another world, other than capitalism, is possible. TINA-- There is No Alternative was Ms. Thatcher's motto-- was she correct? Can a Communist alternative emerge after the experiences of the past century?
Antonio Negri says there is only capitalism so we must fight the bosses as the bosses fight us. This seems to be an eternal struggle-- there is only the movement Bernstein thought and so it seems does Negri-- at least in this film-- it is difficult to get just what he means so I may be incorrect here. He tells us what we all know-- Russia didn't have "Communism" it had "socialism." What is socialism? It is a way to manage capitalism, just like liberalism is. How would Communism come about? It "comes into being through a relation between transformations of reality and the will or decision to do it or to build it." After this bit of balderdash he leaves us with the admonition to junk the old Communist Manifesto and to write a new one-- he is not , however, the man to do it.
Nina Power, feminist philosopher, has more regard for the Communist Manifesto, and says it has continuing power to influence people. She is surely correct.
Zizek writes off the 20th century "communist" states, Social Democracy, the idea of local councils, collectives, Soviets (which first popped up in the 1905 Russian Revolution) and their latter day reincarnations. What's left? He tells us he likes the idea that "A communist society is one in which each person could dwell in his own stupidity." Zizek is already doing that so he should be happy. He says he got that idea from reading Frederick Jameson. He thinks it would be great if Communism turned out to be like a Bruegel painting. Whenever I hear Zizek expostulating it brings to mind what Karl Marx said about Jeremy Bentham i.e., "in no time and in no country has the most homespun common-place ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way." At least Bentham did not resort to pseudo-Hegelian verbiage.
Micha Brumlik (professor of education at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main) maintains that after the 20th century we have the right to know what Communism is going to be like-- it has to be democratic to be supported. There will be a big fight over that, I fear, as different concepts of "democracy" will be put forth. But he is right to demand a politically active civil society not divorced from a democratic political system. He thinks that Hardt and Negri's unclear views on the "the multitude" will never get that concept up and running or have any practical outcome.
Jacques Ranciere leaves us with the view that while Marx wanted a "classless society" what we really need is what he calls an "emancipatory society." This is one "in which each has an equal share." This has a vague utopian sound to it-- a throwback to pre-Marxist French socialist thinking. Marxist logic, he tells us, is to prepare for the future, but he believes "instead that the idea of emancipation is really tied to a sort of appearance in the here and now of those we call the 'have-nots' and of those who make their presence felt through their capacity to think, to intervene politically and to prove themselves capable of organizing economic production." Ayn Rand would like this-- the have-nots and their masters-- only for Ranciere they would be good masters. This is a latter day reincarnation of Plato's Republic.
Ranciere goes on to criticize Negri. "Negri thinks capitalism produces communism [in the film Negri appears to think capitalism is here for the long run and must always be struggled against-- or if communism comes about it will be through the triumph of the will-- few of the people in this film are logically coherent]. In reality, capitalism only produces its own form of communism. But this is not the communism of everyone's capacity. There are those who say 'Look at what capitalism does. The idea of communism can't be so bad.' But I don't think those people are involved in constructing the idea of real equality today." What is this rambling discourse suppose to mean?
The last pronouncement I will consider comes from Peter Sloterdijk, who tells us that "People must join together to forge alliances against the lethal. They must provide mutual security and offer each other communities of solidarity on a planetary scale [sounds like an advert for NATO]. Because for the first time collective self destruction is possible. [Is he referring to the bomb? climate change?] Before we say 'communism' we must understand the principle of 'immunism' [a new -ism to worry about] or the principle of our mutual insurance which is the most profound motive of solidarity."
This is the sum and substance of the movie. Some of these thinkers are better than they have appeared in this movie-- but not by much. I don't think this film has reloaded Marx-- quite the contrary. I think it completely fails to present what Marxism is all about and its past accomplishments and future possibilities. No film can hope to present Marxism to the public without at the same time dealing with the real life problems of the union and working class movements and issues in the Third World. As I pointed out at the beginning of this review this film completely ignores working class leaders and the leaders of political movements inspired by Marxism and confines itself to interviewing intellectual talking heads who, quite frankly, often don't know what they are talking about. You can find this movie on You Tube complete with subtitles. It is 52 minutes long, and once you have watched it I think you will agree with my assessment.