Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who is Giving to Society and Who is Leeching?

People often try to identify society's parasites - the people who take more than they deserve or contribute, those who are straining the system - whether that be "welfare queens," Wall Street execs, artists, academics, CEOs, or union members, depending on who is making the judgement.  Likewise, people locate the "providers," the selfless and generous members of society, and commonly attribute these properties to philanthropists, non-profit employees, "job creators" (i.e. CEOs), scientists, politicians, and volunteer workers.  When I look at the world from a Marxist perspective, my lists do not resemble either of those above.

The Leeches
From a global perspective, I would say that a leech is anyone making more than a living wage in the industrialized world.  Anyone who drives, in a car with GPS, listening to their iPod, to a job that enables them to sit and pee when they want to, to go home and order Thai food in the evening, and take the weekend off to sit on their leather sofa and watch Blu-Ray movies on their flat screen tv.  Anyone who has more than what they could produce by themselves (given existing level of technology) is by definition a leech.  They are taking more than their fair share and leaving the rest of the world with less.

The Givers
Obviously, I would not put the so-called "job creators" in that category because, far from actually being job-creators in any predictable sense, they are most responsible for Third World poverty, pollution, materialism, urban poverty and crime, inaccessible medical care, the alienation of the elderly, war, and violence in general.

I also do not think that scientists are contributing to society in any general sense, once you get to the end of the balance sheet.  (Click here, here, and here for a refresher on my attitude toward science.)  A lot of new technology is only enjoyed by a tiny fraction of the global population, and the production of new technologies - including even medical treatments and pharmaceuticals - is done in the service of capitalist interests, not the "common good."  In fact, the "common good" is threatened by pollution, advanced weaponry, rising costs of health care, increasing poverty, and that unquestionable "voice of authority" that has naturalized concepts of race, gender, and sexuality to the detriment of all but white, straight, middle-class males.

Academics in general are leeches.  Those with a "social interest" claim that they are going to use their research to transform society.  But who, in the whole history of academia, has actually made a dent in the social order?  Even Marx, the paragon of socially radical scholars, whose work is STILL relevant as a critique of the world system, has failed even more than a century later to actually change that system.  Intellectuals and politicians who have acted in the name of Marx have done nothing more than create some of the most violent forms of capitalism ever to have existed.  And a very scant few of the academics today are in the same league as Marx.  Most spend their days doing busy-work - rehashing their dissertation into a million dull, uninspiring variations, while participating in conferences, seminars, and journals that try to pass these turds off as Belgian chocolate - and they do all this "important" work while making a pretty nice salary, wearing clothes made by Indonesians who can barely leave the factory, eating at restaurants where they are served by people working two jobs a day, etc.  So many people are putting so many hours of labor into the material things they take for granted; and they believe they are contributing something back to those people by writing a few articles for esoteric journals.  Academics live in a comfortable cocoon.

Even philanthropists, foundations, and non-profits are NOT contributing in any meaningful way to society.  They may redistribute an insignificantly tiny fraction of the world's wealth back (yes, back) to those in need, but mostly they stand as a huge road block to systemic change.  They are a visible symbol of the possibility of progress within the current system (a lie).  They pacify and make people complacent.  The are ultimately beholden to corporate interests, and, consciously or not, actively work to maintain the status quo.  (Go here and here for more detailed discussion.)

Now, on the other hand, people who work on their own, for no salary, to comfort and aid those around them, certainly are doing something commendable.  They are contributing something.

Those who engage in protest, speak their minds, and challenge the social order are at least making attempts in the right direction.

But most of all, the biggest contributors to society are those who work hard, doing menial labor for a pittance, so that the privileged may eat, be entertained, clothe themselves, be transported, and keep their homes clean all the more easily and affordably.  In some sense these are de facto slave laborers, and they form a majority of the world's population.  The real Givers are all the assembly line workers, garment makers, servers, dishwashers, maids, auto mechanics, bus and cab drivers, grocery stockers, construction workers, miners, plantation laborers, couriers, janitors, yard workers... and I would even include teachers.

They may not choose their lifestyles and jobs (they would probably give anything for something better), but they give more than they receive, nonetheless.  And anyone who does not have the balls to work a crappy, low-paying job should never talk about "giving back," "making a difference," or "contributing" to society.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Intentionality, Human Will, and Power

Last night as I was driving around, I heard a segment on NPR about the death of Christopher Hitchens, renowned atheist apologist.  The very first thing I head when I turned on the radio was a discussion of his debate with Dinesh D'Souza. An excerpt was played that started with D'Souza trying to explain the difference between Christian and Islamic morality.  He said something to the effect of, "In Christianity, intentionality is central to morality.  The Bible says that even if you think about committing a sin, you have already committed the sin in your heart."  To which Hitchens replied, "Thought Crime.  Thought Crime.  That's totalitarianism!"  And the audience cheered.  Now, I know I have said that I think these debates are stupid (to even participate in one requires a certain amount of ignorance of social processes and history), and I also said that I probably would not blog about such things again.  (Once you get started, it's hard to stop?)  But this really isn't about religion.

Hitchens claims that the role of intentionality in the Christian moral framework places it on par with totalitarianism.  If I were participating in the discussion, I would have pointed out to Hitchens that intentionality also plays a significant role in modern legal systems.... more than just "significant," intentionality is actually the fulcrum.  It goes beyond just various sorts of charges for "conspiracy" and "intent to commit a crime," but also hinges on whether or not a person is capable of distinguishing between "right" and "wrong."  So, then, by Hitchen's standards, are all modern states totalitarian?

The problem, as I have pointed out before, is with the word "totalitarianism" itself.  The separation of "democracy" from "totalitarianism" is a false dichotomy.  In fact, to the extent that modern sovereignty and jurisprudence are based on notions of human rights (which include "life" itself), and in so far as the governmental impulse is a force that penetrates individual subjectivity and shapes consciousness, then "seeds" or aspects of totalitarianism very much are embedded in all modern institutions.

And here is where I would circle back to D'Souza.  The fact that intentionality is an important aspect of Christian morality today (though not, I would argue, historically), is merely a reflection of the development of "religion" complementary to, and following the same principles of organization as, other co-depend institutions of modernity, such as law, the state, the capitalist economy, and science.  Thus, intentionality in "religion" mirrors intentionality in, for example, law, because they arose together as part of a single systemic emergence.  If Islam is claimed to lack this interest in intentionality, that is only because Islam and everything else outside of "the West" (culturally or geographically) is represented as the antithesis of modernity - its "Other."

I thought these points were worth elaborating because they provide a demonstration of the way in which the concept of the "subject" (that internal, thinking, willing, feeling part of the human) is vital to the form and character of all modern institutions and relational structures.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Contradictions Of Christmas

In the essay I posted a week or so ago, I argued that modernity generates its own contradictions (e.g. religion and secularism; globalization and nationalism; representative democracy and totalitarianism; neoliberal ideology and increasing centralization of capital). Christmas, in particular the ritual of gift exchange and the figure of Santa Claus, serves as a great point of entry for examining some of these simultaneously generated contradictions.

One of the most important phenomena which shaped the modern American version of Christmas was the construction, in the early 19th century, of the concept of "childhood." Quite a bit has been written on this topic, and many have argued that it arose from the necessities of capitalism (the creation of a new demographic market and products). One may note that the construction of the "teenager" also occured during similar a period of economic expansion in the post-WW2 era. Both of these events also opened up new domains for academic and popular psychology (the Queen of the human sciences associated with governmental power). Christmas reflects the psychologizing of childhood, which emphasizes children's need for love, affection, and fantasy. Gifts, in particular, satifisy the need for love and affection, while Santa Claus indulges children's imaginations.

Of course, there is more going on here. First, there are contradictory attitudes toward the demands of capitalism. The early images of Santa Claus as a craftsman with his own workshop (to eventually be replaced by the elven sweatshop) valorized pre-capitalist forms of production. The pampering of children itself was a reaction against child labor, which was heavily used in many industries. Today, many Christmas movies feature The Prodigal Son, returning from the Big City, where s/he lived a souless/loveless existence (often employed in banking or business), to resume life in the Small Town, rekindle family bonds, and finally find love.

On the other hand, Christmas has been heavily promoted and elaborated by commercial interests - especially department stores (who are responsible for many aspects of the Santa narrative, including the story of Rudloph the Red Nose Reindeer). American Christmas was overtly commercial from the very beginning and has been serving capitalist interests for over two centuries. It is important to note that the image of Santa Clause which eventually became dominant was, in the time of its origin, a portrait of a wealthy industrialist (a sort of "robber baron" philanthropist). In this way, practices/discourses associated with Christmas embody at the same time an acquiesance to - or even embrace of - consumerism and conspicuous wealth, as well as a skepticism toward industrial labor and urban living.

Christmas also serves as a medium for indirect commentary on secularism, science, and religion, most importantly through the figure of Santa Claus. Not only does Santa Claus fulfill a perceived need for fantasy in healthy child development, but from His inception He has been one instantiation of a broader Romantic critique of modernity. For example, in a famous 19th century editorial, belief in Santa Claus was held as an antedote to the excessive skepticism of the modern era and the concomitant loss of a sense of wonder. One can see that this concern is still salient in many contemporary Christmas movies, even when not driven by any specifically relgious concerns (and thus complicating the modern binary of secular/religious). In fact, many religious Christians are more ambivalent toward the figure of Santa Claus, as they view it as a "secularization" of a Christian saint. This is a great example of how reactions against scientism (the belief that science is the only pathway to "truth") need not always be religious. One could argue that the antipathetic stance toward scientism by default imbues this treatment of Santa Claus with something of a religious nature. But only if one is to alter the definition of "religion" to contain everything opposed to scientism (which, of course, is circular reasoning), and that would entail the lumping together of very disparate phenomena, which, on the whole, always tends to obscure more than it clarifies.

American Christmas is a creation of capitalism that also expresses disastisfaction with manifestations of capitalism. And "Santa Claus" entails the "secularization" of a religious narrative (the disentanglement of morality/charity from religion), which simultaneously challenges secular attitudes toward progress and truth.

Every creation of modernity entails the creation of an oppositional force.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Where Marx Failed To Critique

Marx's critical analysis of society was quite comprehensive. Hardly anything escaped his cynical gaze, and no institution was sacred: he critiqued everything from the state to philosophy to the family. But "hardly anything" is not "nothing." Two things, in particular, slipped through the cracks of Marx's solid framework.

Science and technology
Marx did not believe that capitalism was necessarily bad; he believed it was a necessary step in the evolution of society because it allowed for the scale and type of technological innovation which Marx believed could finally free humans from demeaning labor. In fact, he believed the communist revolution would occur only after a certain level of technological development worldwide had been attained. Technology is necessary for sustaining the sort of communist utopia that he envisioned.

Related to this evaluation of technology, Marx relied on evolutionary models in his thinking and unhesitatingly championed science. For some reason, science seemed to be the one realm that Marx could not conceive of being permeated and structured by bourgeois interests. Of course, I have already spent a considerable amount of time in this blog making up for that lapse, so I don't think I need to go into more detail.

Marx actually did attack many liberal/secular doctrines: for example, the sanctity of the individual, the importance of private ownership and competition, and the meaning of "democracy" in practice. He still, however, maintained some notion of "the human potential," which a life freed of meaningless labor was supposed to help one attain. I do not think this is a terribly large omission; for my part, I still cling onto ideas of individual equality and "toleration" of differences that spring from the same source. It is hard to frame one's values in a language that is completely outside of the dominant (in this case liberal, secular) ideology. But a little awareness that one is doing so does not hurt either.