“Alain de Botton: Status Anxiety”

Food for thought for the evening:

“World Views and Values: Karl Marx (and Engels), The Communist Manifesto” by Dr. Sadler

“World Views and Values: Karl Marx (and Engels), The Communist Manifesto (lecture 1)”:

“World Views and Values: Karl Marx (and Engels), The Communist Manifesto (lecture 2)”:

As always, Dr. Sadler breaks it down in a way that likely anyone could relate to. This philosophy sprang up as a response to capitalism and the revolutionary changes that accompanied the Industrial Era (as well as thereafter). One needn’t be a “marxist” to get acquainted with his critiques and ideas.

On capitalism, corporatism, and my own personal views on modern life

Chatted with someone online recently about economics and American life, though admittedly in the wee hours of the night and after consuming several brews isn’t a good time for me to try to unpack my thoughts and ideas on such a vast series of topics. So today I’m dragging the inquiry back to my blog to see what can be addressed more clearly.

It’s not uncommon for people to be quite attached to the concept of “capitalism” and to to take issue with those of us who critique it. But I want it understood that I am not necessarily entirely anti-capitalist; furthermore, by being a critic of what I refer to as the modern economic setup in the U.S., this does NOT imply I am any less critical of communist strategies. It’s tricky because I personally see ALL of these centralized top-down economic systems as inherently problematic and worthy of scrutiny, yet some people seem to see such matters as if a competition between two opposing teams where one must choose a side and declare loyalty. I reject that notion and see it as folly. While I recognize that’s not a popular view of things, it’s what I’m operating with, and I’ve given a lot of thought to these matters and will continue doing so for as long as I remain in existence.

Now, part of the issue it appears I’m having with folks comes down to simply agreeing on what all capitalism comprises. It’s very important that we get our terms defined more clearly here, since otherwise we just wind up mired in confusion and any debate winds up getting us nowhere. I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for some folks to equate virtually ALL trade and barter schemes with capitalism, but that’s a falsity. Commerce existed long before capitalism came on the scene. I have stated many times that I support a true free market economy, HOWEVER, that is not what we have today, nor is that what capitalism originated as.

This is where it gets very sticky, because my present view on the matter is that capitalism allowed to exist without proper government regulation has demonstrated that it will behave in a coercive, monopolistic/oligopolistic fashion that eventually undermines capitalism itself, turning the system into something else that actually winds up being anti-capitalistic in nature. We’ve observed how capitalist entities can rise in power to the point where they have a disproportionate amount of power compared against the people, and they have then used this economic power to sway laws and legislation in their own companies’ favor, at the expense of the small businesses rendered unable to compete in such a scheme. And through this we’ve seen the rise of Corporatism. Corporatism is not capitalism, per se — one might consider it a bastardization of that original concept since it winds up restricting free competition if legally allowed to do so. And really, at a time of extreme specialization and high financial barriers to entry in a growing number of sectors (particularly those involving advanced technologies), how can it realistically be any other way?

Now, some like to argue that corporatism somehow isn’t directly related with capitalism, and frankly, such claims blow my mind. So let’s take a moment to look at what each of these economic setups are and what they originated from.

[Jesus. I just wrote out this WHOLE frickin’ piece and lost it all the way back to this point. DAMMIT! So let’s try this again, maybe breaking it into two parts this time.]

On the topic of capitalism, the Encyclopædia Britannica had this to say:

The development of capitalism was spearheaded by the growth of the English cloth industry during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The feature of this development that distinguished capitalism from previous systems was the use of the excess of production over consumption to enlarge productive capacity rather than to invest in economically unproductive enterprises, such as pyramids and cathedrals. This characteristic was encouraged by several historical events.

In the ethic encouraged by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, traditional disdain for acquisitive effort was diminished, while hard work and frugality were given a stronger religious sanction. Economic inequality was justified on the grounds that the wealthy were also the virtuous.

Another contributing factor was the increase in Europe’s supply of precious metals and the resulting inflation in prices. Wages did not rise as fast as prices in this period, and the main beneficiaries of the inflation were the capitalists. The early capitalists (1500–1750) also enjoyed the benefits of the rise of strong national states during the mercantilist era. The policies of national power followed by these states succeeded in providing the basic social conditions, such as uniform monetary systems and legal codes, necessary for economic development and eventually made possible the shift from public to private initiative.

Beginning in the 18th century in England, the focus of capitalist development shifted from commerce to industry. The steady capital accumulation of the preceding centuries was invested in the practical application of technical knowledge during the Industrial Revolution. The ideology of classical capitalism was expressed in Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), which recommended leaving economic decisions to the free play of self-regulating market forces. After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had swept the remnants of feudalism into oblivion, Smith’s policies were increasingly put into practice. The policies of 19th-century political liberalism included free trade, sound money (the gold standard), balanced budgets, and minimum levels of poor relief.

World War I marked a turning point in the development of capitalism. After the war, international markets shrank, the gold standard was abandoned in favour of managed national currencies, banking hegemony passed from Europe to the United States, and trade barriers multiplied. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought the policy of laissez-faire (noninterference by the state in economic matters) to an end in most countries and for a time cast doubt on the capitalist system as a whole.

Here we see capitalism as being composed of many aspects, none of which could’ve existed within a vacuum and all of which have proven necessary over time as this type of system dynamically “evolved.” We see that capitalism isn’t a static concept and has changed since its inception during the fall of feudalism on into the rise of the Industrial Era and on through into our post-industrial setup.

And when it comes to capitalism or a “free market economy,” as mentioned already, I think a lot winds up ascribed under that heading that existed long before and is really a matter of free commerce and exchange (historically known as trade and barter). That’s a point of contention that I may try to flesh out in greater detail another time.

The definition of “corporatism” is a bit hazier. But for my purposes today I wish to focus in on the American system primarily.

In an article written by Robert Locke for FrontPage Magazine (2002), he had this to say:

What is corporatism? In a (somewhat inaccurate) phrase, socialism for the bourgeois. It has the outward form of capitalism in that it preserves private ownership and private management, but with a crucial difference: as under socialism, government guarantees the flow of material goods, which under true capitalism it does not. In classical capitalism, what has been called the “night-watchman” state, government’s role in the economy is simply to prevent force or fraud from disrupting the autonomous operation of the free market. The market is trusted to provide. Under corporatism, it is not, instead being systematically manipulated to deliver goods to political constituencies. This now includes basically everyone from the economic elite to ordinary consumers.

Unlike socialism, corporatism understands that direct government ownership of the means of production does not work, except in the limiting case of infrastructure.1 But it does not represent a half-way condition between capitalism and socialism. This is what the West European nations, with their mixed economies in which government owned whole industries, tried to create until Thatcherism. Corporatism blends socialism and capitalism not by giving each control of different parts of the economy, but by combining socialism’s promise of a government-guaranteed flow of material goods with capitalism’s private ownership and management.

What makes corporatism so politically irresistible is that it is attractive not just to the mass electorate, but to the economic elite as well. Big business, whatever its casuists at the Wall Street Journal editorial page may pretend, likes big government, except when big government gets greedy and tries to renegotiate the division of spoils. Although big business was an historic adversary of the introduction of the corporatist state, it eventually found common ground with it. The first thing big business has in common with big government is managerialism. The technocratic manager, who deals in impersonal mass aggregates, organizes through bureaucracy, and rules through expertise without assuming personal responsibility, is common to both. The second thing big business likes about big government is that it has a competitive advantage over small business in doing business with it and negotiating favors. Big government, in turn, likes big business because it is manageable; it does what it is told. It is much easier to impose affirmative action or racial sensitivity training on AT&T than on 50,000 corner stores. This is why big business has become a key enforcer of political correctness. The final thing big business likes about big government is that, unlike small government, it is powerful enough to socialize costs in exchange for a share of the profits.

The key historical moments in the development of American corporatism can be easily traced. It got its start from the realization, during the Progressive period around 1900, that the night-watchman state was too weak to make the large corporate actors of the economy play fair. The crucial premise that enters here is that the capitalist economy cannot be trusted to be self-regulating, as it previously had been. This collapse of trust was also implicit in the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve system. What the Great Depression did was destroy a second kind of trust: that the economy would reliably deliver material goods without government intervention. With these two different kinds of trust gone, corporatism becomes not only worthwhile, but necessary. Crucially, it becomes psychologically necessary, independently of whether government can deliver on its promises, because people instinctively turn to government as their protector.

[…]

Clearly, the New Deal was the biggest jump forward into corporatism, though this was not fully understood at the time. […] But the fundamental proposition, that government should take responsibility for ensuring the flow of material goods to the people, was rapidly embraced by the American people, which continues to embrace it today whether it admits it or not.

[…]

The economic Left likes corporatism for three reasons:

  1. It satisfies its lust for power.
  2. It makes possible attempts to redistribute income.
  3. It enables them to practice #2 while remaining personally affluent.

The economic Right likes corporatism for three different reasons:

  1. It enables them to realize capitalist profits while unloading some of the costs and risks onto the state.
  2. The ability to intertwine government and business enables them to shape government policy to their liking.
  3. They believe the corporatist state can deliver social peace and minimize costly disruptions.

[…] Most economic arguments today are not between a socialistic ideal and a capitalistic one, as many seem to believe, but are arguments within the corporatist consensus.

[Bold emphasis mine.]

That’s an interesting article worth checking out in length if you have the time (link above).

That last sentence I quoted there is key, I do believe. And this leads back to my thoughts about how much the political “Right” and “Left” ultimately wind up sharing in common.

Now, if we’re to try to claim corporatism somehow did not arise out of capitalism, then that just appears to defy reality. It did, partly as a reaction to it, partly as a means of attempting to stabilize it. And partly this was due to the will of the people.

So now I’ll switch focus onto my own personal stance since that seems to be what’s causing the greatest confusion with those I interact with. [This being a shorter version since I already typed this all up for 2 hours earlier before WordPress decided to delete it all without saving the full draft.  banghead_smilies  I likely will revisit the topic another day to go into greater detail.] The so-called “Luddite-ness” of my own viewpoint is noted, but I want to stress that my position isn’t anti-capitalist necessarily. While I am indeed very critical of the capitalist system, I’m also critical of all centralized-scheme alternatives proposed as well (including communism and big-scale, top-down socialism). So I am unable to view this as an “either/or” situation where I must profess loyalty to one camp or the other — no, that’s not called for here. It appears more beneficial for me at this time to simply observe what’s unfolding and to record my thoughts and concerns about it, because I do not have a dog in this fight going forward. That’s part of the beauty of remaining child-free and self-employed in that I am afforded time and energy to try to make sense out of what’s occurring without feeling like I must succumb to pressures to completely immerse myself in this game. And I understand that may sound a bit bizarre to someone who’s chosen to take his life in an entirely different direction through pursuing a career and raising a family.

Look, part of the trouble with this is that from what I read, hear, and observe I’ve come to see this whole ordeal as unavoidable, especially by this stage. But that’s not to say that this scheme is automatically or inherently evil necessarily either. It’s simply part of the process of humans unfolding their potential. And through doing so we’ve pushed our backs against a wall where any other alternatives seem implausible by this point, largely because of how much we have emotionally, psychologically, and materially invested in this current setup. While the system will continue to shift and change, it will not be fundamentally undermined, not if the majority has any say in the matter. And so this becomes one more thing I must accept because I am powerless to change it. And you have asked what “solution” I would offer instead. This system, as it stands now, was created through hodge-podged efforts spanning back hundreds of years, underpinned by Christian ethics, and so any alternatives that possibly could come into being likely would have to arise just as organically. I don’t believe any one person is capable of concocting a vision of such magnitude, partly because there are always unforeseen variables that play a role in how any system “evolves” over time.

My next point is that I recognize it is not my place to force my will onto others, while I recognize plenty of others out there do indeed wish to force their will(s) onto the rest. My aim primarily at this point is to dodge such attempts so as to maintain as much freedom as possible, for however long that lasts. Because my own aim is to live and learn and ponder and explore, and I see no reason that I shouldn’t be free to do so. By being conscious of not getting tied down to obligations and expectations, this has provided greater flexibility. Though yes, everything is a tradeoff, as always. But my own goal for many years has been to establish a perch on which I’m able to explore as I see fit, and this I’ve managed to accomplish, as someone who no longer desires a great deal of money or material goods. I say all this in an attempt to demonstrate how my viewpoint has been shaped and why it may differ from people pursuing other ambitions.  In short, I choose to be less invested in this Game and am not attached to its eventual outcome.

Let me re-state that to make sure it hits home: I understand and accept that the eventual outcome is out of my hands. C’est la vie.

What power I do have is very limited and fairly localized. As is true of most of us. And I do feel an obligation to act on that in accordance with my own moral code, though that does not entail playing the game as others may choose to do so. Some may consider critics of little value, and that’s fine. They may be right, but it is what it is at this point. And a big reason for why it must go this way is that I also understand that humans aren’t as malleable as we like to think we are. Oh sure, we can flex to great extents, but not without consequences, whether we’re aware of them or not. Humans have biologically evolved for ways of life that did not involve big centralized governments or living in concrete jungles or experiencing high stress levels daily due to the modern economic imperative, all while residing in unprecedentedly highly-populated urban areas among strangers with countless conflicts in interests.

While I understand that this is all traceable back to our earliest human strivings and is natural in that regard, what humans have managed to construct is quite unnatural. Not all are capable and/or willing to psychologically adapt to what is unfolding. Sometimes it gets me thinking about animals in a zoo and how some cease breeding while in captivity. That’s a natural response past some point, for whatever reasons, and I feel it within myself as well, long before I understood it for what it is. There are psychological needs required to be met if humans are truly to thrive, and yet we seem to be experiencing a shift away from that (which would be away from what Erich Fromm would refer to as “life-affirming”). From this psychological conundrum suicides also arise due to existential crises. Not all can adapt the way some others apparently can or at least aim to. So this pressure to get people like myself to find a way to adapt so as to play the game and prove “successful” according to standards set by others will prove to be a waste of time and energy. Any alternatives sought come from within the individual, and these are not the sort of things one can clearly convey to another much of the time.

My way of maintaining sanity is to distance myself so far as I’m able from the rat race and to observe aspects of it. Because learning gives me pleasure. That might not prove very beneficial to others, and so be it. This is part of the reality created when humans become so atomized and feel alienated. I’m not sure how to put this in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m heavily lamenting this fate. Some days I indeed do, but many others I just try to accept it for what it is, recognizing that my goal isn’t to live a long life but rather to enjoy experiences from day to day so far as I’m able. And, admittedly, I am twisted up currently and seeking new ways of navigating in my journey going forward, but that’s a personal matter and another topic for another time. My point here is that I believe we’re all impacted to various degrees, though some have buffers (internally and externally) that aid them in coping and navigating, but that is not a luxury afforded to all, if not even most. Not that anyone should feel guilty about this, seeing as how individual lives shake out as they do. But the same holds true running in the other direction in terms of one’s psychological and emotional faculties and how all of that’s expressly influenced by the very type of society one is expected to fit the mold(s) of. To minimize the importance of this is to miss out on why so many people out here are struggling to come to grips and/or rebelling.

It’s indeed a tangled web we humans have managed to weave…

Another point worth mentioning when it comes to possible alternatives is how we’re commonly led to accept this current fate due to propaganda that vilifies our human history, denigrating past ways of life as “barbaric” and “savage” so as to present this modern way as “progress.” And people buy into it. Now, we all could point to modern comforts and life-saving technologies that have eased many of our burdens, and all of that would be true; but there’s another side to this “progress” that we fail to give as much weight, that having to do with major centralized schemes and advanced warfare and an ever-greater push toward some new type of conformity in order to accommodate what’s come into being. In a sense, we’re out of our element, and understanding that alone helps shine light on the psychological conundrum that goes hand in hand with what we esteem as “progress.”

We’re dealing with a progression, most definitely. And everything in life comes with tradeoffs, with pros and cons, and not all in equal measure. I am unable to choose a side within this debate since it’s all beyond me, beyond what I’m able to solidly back and promote and accept as a higher order. Because from where I stand it looks like we’re taking flight from our natural origins and are attempting to transcend that with something of our own design. It’s certainly a lofty ambition, but I’m not one of those who sees humans as having evolved as far as we like to think we have. Furthermore, I don’t see transcendence on the horizon — no, rather, it appears what’s coming is greater sublimation (or, more accurately, subjugation), this time not only to a wide collective but also to the fruits of our own labors, our own technologies and the economic imperative that allowed all of this to be possible. It’s a double-edged sword, as so much in life turns out to be. We have created a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself by this point, which also makes it possible for so many people to simply fall asleep at the wheel, knowing they’ll likely wind up provided for in the end regardless. Thanks to the political game and its direct ties with the economic game and the technologies that have reinvented our habitats and world.

While it’s all fascinating to behold, it’s not something I can feel morally secure backing. So I have to carve out my own way and make do, and that’s fine. It’s all a big, ongoing inquiry so far as I’m concerned. Parts of it are tragic, parts of it are amazing; some is within our control but plenty appears no longer to be, being either the domain of Nature or of the centralized power scheme and its workings. I can choose not to feed the beast more than absolutely necessary — that’s one form of power that I do try to exercise. But I do not kid myself that any utopian scheme will arise from the route we’re currently on. This is an age-old trajectory that has to run its course apparently. If for no other reason, because humans have to learn everything the hard way. But those who wish to branch off and try something else, so far as they’re able to, I support as well. I’m interested to see how humans manage to navigate this maze we’ve constructed, though we of today will only be around to see but a small sliver of the big scope.

Hard to “pick a side” when this is how one approaches such matters.

Much of what influences my own worldview is probably best expressed by others whose work and ideas I try to point to (when feeling up to transcribing or able to find relevant clips). And I’ll aim to continue doing so going forward, in case others might get anything out of it.

[And next time I will copy and save my work before uploading a post since this all came out very differently the second go-round. Ugh.]

“Terence Mckenna – The 1000 year binge on materialism and primate dominance hierarchies”

Some interesting food for thought…

Problems with Socialism (lecture excerpts)

Carpo719 posted up a couple videos of a lecture from Jeremy Shearmur discussing the problems with socialism:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Interesting as food for thought.

“In the age of Snowden, humanity is now redefined. We are not citizens, we are subjects to be monitored. We are not humans beings, we are resources…”

CHistrue’s video “Remaining Human in the Age of Snowden Part I”:

“Remaining Human in the Age of Snowden Part 2”:

“Remaining Human in the Age of Snowden Part 3”:

“Cover-ups in Modern History”:

Love this man’s channel. CHistrue is also on Google+. (Looks like his videos currently have embedding disabled, so click on the links to watch them on YT.)

A dialogue between Professor Corey Anton and Stefan Molyneux from 2011

A dialogue between Professor Corey Anton and Stefan Molyneux from back in 2011:

Watched it once a while back, but tonight watching it again, paying closer attention now that I’m more familiar with Stefan’s positions after having watched several of his videos over the last many months.

Pausing at 16:34, yes, Prof. Anton was getting at there what I’m wondering about too. “Why do people become so slavish to institutions?” A top-down approach will never prove sufficient, not unless the plan is to someday turn us into droids, maybe require us all to be on prescribed drugs or find ways to genetically alter future generations (good luck with such a scheme and all that can and will go wrong with it). If we’re to exist as free individual agents with autonomy and power to live productive, meaningful lives, then it really does boil down to each of us individually, because an authority can not live our lives for us, and why would we want it to? Authorities and economies cannot provide all moral guidance, and again, why would we even want them to?

Yes of course each individual is molded by the culture(s) they are raised in and who they’re raised by and all the institutions and other external factors that shape reality as we experience it. And that’s where we run into the problem of the paradox: people are not strictly individuals nor strictly members of a collective. We are both, inescapably. It cannot be helped.

The libertarian argument has been augmented to suit modern economics and all talk of rugged individualists successfully striving for the top is a rarity-turned-myth promoted by this new narrative. It’s a fantasy that will remain very far from reality for most. This idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is overplayed but useful in shifting all responsibility onto individuals, furthering this trendy belief that all the power lies within our own selves and there’s no one to blame but oneself. It’s an oversimplification, to say the least.

Stefan does not argue along that line and clearly does acknowledge educational and social influences, but he steps in another hole that plenty of “anarcho-capitalist” atheists step in, which is placing so much emphasis on the ‘science’ end of things without paying much attention to the history of how humans have behaved socially. We are not merely bags of bones, flesh and DNA — we are hugely defined by our relationships with one another, but we also have these inner lives and drives created through who we are (as is always evolving, but beginning with our core personality traits) meeting with our environment and all entities and people in it, both directly and indirectly. In short, we’re complex creatures with complex needs and a complex history. For some to assume that human nature can be rather easily molded to fit the latest ideology is a scary proposition, and I don’t see how this might be grandly accomplished except through some method of compulsion. This logic is premised on the notion that humans are significantly malleable while maintaining sane states of mind. I do not agree with that assumption. Look around and ponder it.

What Stefan is proposing is a theory that we have no way of knowing if it’ll prove successful, and the odds look to be against it on several levels, particularly when it comes to thinking people only behave violently because we are taught by authority figures to do so. That’s simply not true, and in the absence of any form of government providing some level of protection and redress for aggrieved persons, it’s going to be a painful lesson to contend with. Think corporations are going to come to our rescue? Would we even want that?

But what I think Professor Anton is getting at is us striving against some of our base-level motivations and drives and transcending them so as to become the moral beings we wish to be is the only way one truly becomes moral, because morality isn’t a top-down affair, at least not beyond superficial appearances. As much as culture and environment influences each individual, it ultimately winds up coming down to each individual’s striving.

Stefan differs from this in that he seems to believe a societal overhaul along with the creation of a new culture (somehow — that part’s never clearly explained, leaving us to wonder how the chicken will manage to come before the egg?) will impel people to do what is in the best interest of this new setup. His reasoning for this seems to be that it would be the rational thing for people to support — but how often are people all that rational is what I want to know? We have an entire history of acting irrationally on plenty of levels. In fact, it can be said that humans have never acted all that rational. But now, apparently, we’re ready to become rational. Why? Because we’re capable of reasoning and therefore should be able to assess what’s within our collective long-term best interest. This notion is predicated on the idea that we humans just keep evolving to become better and better, or at least we possess the potential to be so. And to an extent I agree — the potential does exist, potentially. Stefan’s argument seems to be hinged on this, plus the idea that people will opt for a 100% non-violent society. But on that latter point I couldn’t disagree more.

One reason being that if all others choose non-violence as their response, it leaves those with the willingness to act aggressively or violently with an advantage. They will do what the rest refuse to do — they will go on the physical offense. And believe you me, that will occur. It will always occur. We can adopt defensive strategies for dealing with it, but a non-violent strategy will render folks sitting ducks. And that’s fine if one wishes to abide by a pacifist code of ethics — go for it, but don’t expect everybody to go for it.

And I’m not sure we’d want a completely non-violent society anyway. We’re aggressive beings at times, and it’s so far proven the only effective way of handling certain disputes and violations. Stefan’s concept of non-violence extends so far as to include all coercion and force. Can there be a way to hold a person against their will without the use of force? Because they will resist with force. We’re active, physical creatures — this must be accepted. It is who and what we are at the core, and I can’t think of any way to transcend this if we are to continue to care about protecting ourselves and others (which we very much do care about).

In another video by Stefan he talks about all money being basically on debit cards where a bank or whoever, in response to a violation, has the ability to simply cut off one’s access. Now, I have trouble seeing this as much better than the use of force. We’re talking about a State-less society here so I’m unsure who decides and enforces the laws in this sort of setup (well, obviously it’s major corporations and banks, as he eludes to), but whoever or whatever does wields an awful lot of power, more than any entity really does today. Because there he’s envisioning all money going digital and all purchases requiring some sort of card or chip, all of this taking place within a corporate wonderland. Those with the power to control access to money control everything. They control all of society and nothing really stops them from coercing us, especially not if we’re all set on remaining non-violent.

Ya’ll tell me, how does the logic go here? How might people maintain power to keep mammoth corporations in check in the absence of any form of government? Some major corporations today are already proving more powerful than nation-states, and we’re seeing what they’re driven to do.

I must agree with Prof. Anton that it seems that logic is predicated on some sort of Social Darwinist theory, which is potentially dangerous. This is where all talk of evolution winds up troubling me a bit, because the reality is, counter to what some folks like to believe, that how we best adapt to a given environment doesn’t always turn out to be in humanity’s long-term survival interests. We’re not just ascending ever higher and higher, even though it appears right now our technology indeed is.

To be returned to at a later date…

Getting rid of government will not make us free

This video irritates me. Already commented a bunch on its comment thread, but will post the rest of my thoughts here in my own sandbox.

Now 23 minutes in, and I gotta say, while I do appreciate Stefan’s critique of the State, his love of capitalism is blinding him to the truth about corporate power. Politicians are heavily influenced by big industries, especially those companies that financially contribute to their campaigns or who employ them once their terms end. To state that it is politicians responsible for what’s going on and though plenty of businesses benefit and deliberately influence politicians to sway them more in their favor, corporations deserve no real blame because they are only behaving as any of us would — that logic is fucking me up. Politicians are behaving in their own greedy interests and corporate swindlers behave in the financial interests of themselves and the corporations they belong to, yet one is a travesty and the other is deemed perfectly rational and to be expected. Huh.

Well, here on the ground it looks an awful lot like the same damn thing. That’s how it winds up affecting people anyway. Are we then to assume if no corporations were there to buy politicians’ favors that politicians would then behave more cooperatively and cater more to their constituents’ interests? What has history shown us? The answer is “not likely” or at least not for long.  The problem here ultimately doesn’t boil down to the government or corporations but rather to power. POWER. It corrupts, and it’s centralizing all over the place. Meaning average people are losing it and those already claiming a great deal of power are consolidating it and grabbing for more. It doesn’t make much of a difference whether those individuals are directly paid by the government or some mammoth organization hobnobbing with major players within the government — the results wind up sucking.

What gets me about Stefan’s argument is that he seems to think corporations will play by some fairer guidelines if the government were removed from the equation. I’ve listened to him talk in other videos about how instead of courts, people and corporations they do business with could settle disputes through some sort of arbiter or mediator. Okay, now tell me how that differs tremendously from what law enforcement and the courts are supposed to be responsible for already, then explain how we think:

  1. the people will be able to maintain equal power in such an arbitration scenario, especially if the people lack money and arbitration services are provided by the very corporation involved in the dispute (because otherwise it would have to come from some outside entity with binding power to enforce the ruling, which again sounds an awful lot like government — if it were perhaps some sort of non-profit or committee what would keep it too from being influenced and swayed by corporations just as they currently are manipulating politicians?);
  2. any rulings against the corporation in question might be enforced if sanctions are no longer possible (thanks to doing away with the State) and forceful rebuts are disallowed;
  3. people will be able to stop corporations from purchasing up countless other companies and forming oligopolies that undermine and destroy free market values;
  4. people will be able to stop corporations from forming alliances and purchasing what essentially amounts to private security forces that may prove violent in protecting and upholding the interests of major corporations (presumably only a small faction of the general population would be able to buy in for such protection themselves, leaving many without protection—that’s what privatizing these services will amount to—and who or what could stop them?).

If corporations wind up being the only game in town, I imagine the situation will remain just as corrupt as it is already, if not more so. To admit that big-dog businessmen tend to be scoundrels and to acknowledge they are employed within amoral organizations driven mostly by relatively short-term profit motives, and to ALSO note that some of these corporations have grown to mammoth scale and gone global to where they no longer are shackled to what any one populace wants or needs (nor do they have an incentive to provide real value or quality, only what will sell), how the hell do we think that setup by itself will amount to anything better than our defunct government has managed?

Why would we choose to put on blinders when it comes to corporations and the active rise of the Corporate State? If government was out of the picture that would mean complete deregulation for them and virtually no protections in place for the rest of us. I just don’t see how that isn’t the 2.0 version of what’s wrong already. We’ll be at their mercy even more than we are already, especially in a society where ALL forms of violence is disallowed (however that would be enforced). Do people really think they wouldn’t hire out security to protect their businesses from protestors? And do you really think those people will follow the non-aggression principle in doing so? Yeah right. That doesn’t sound like any human society we’ve ever witnessed. Ever.

And yet this scheme will all somehow magically be maintained by the very people who’ve dropped the ball at this sort of shit all up through history: us. Ha!  Yeah, right. Most people today don’t even care to vote, yet we think we’ll all come around and take our responsibilities seriously and carry out our civic duties and become wiser consumers and work with banks and corporations to create a truly equitable situation? Sounds like a pipe dream to me. Rather, as keeps happening, people will get lazy and will seek out shortcuts and conveniences, and corporations will offer them, and we’ll collectively wind up sucked into something stupid to the point of being tragic in short order.

First off, what ground do we common people think we have to stand on? We don’t produce nearly anything for ourselves anymore. We’re completely dependent on corporate goods and services, without which our lives would look very different and most would scream in horror and beg for a return to comfortable living. That genie’s out of the bottle, folks. And even if we wished to return to more productive lifestyles where we grow much of our own food and utilize the land to provide for our own needs as individuals, families, and small communities, how would people go about it when most of the land is owned by banks or corporations? We average people don’t own much, not outright, no we don’t.

So it looks like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Dissolve the government and this will likely only yield a longer leash to major corporations. Try placing corporations back under charters and they’ll likely high-tail it overseas, leaving millions job-less. People won’t settle for that. The truth is we depend an incredible amount of these major corporations, whether we want to or not, yet it’s been proving nearly impossible to restrict them through the use of government regulations since corporate cronies have infiltrated the government. Take away the government and you’ve just made it easier on major corporations (probably a mixed blessing for smaller corporations though). We haven’t exercised our power as consumers so far in a way that’s reined in corporate power and bent it to our will, and that trend doesn’t appear to be changing much. They provide and we buy what’s available. To live in modern times, we must. Look at our lifestyles, look around our own homes and take note of the countless corporations involved in creating our environments. It’s what we’ve grown up with and it’s all we know. We have become domesticated, spoiled on air-conditioning, fast food, and any number of conveniences.

This is where we stand, whether we like it or not. Call me a pessimist, but I’m not convinced anything short of a return to smaller communities that largely provide for themselves and are able to claim ownership of their land and property and defend it as they need to will result in real progress. All else appears to be an avenue to bullshit 2.0. And yet I acknowledge my own dream remains a pipe dream too.

But positions like that taken by Stefan are what has turned me off to what’s calling itself libertarianism these days. They might not realize it, but they’re catering to neoconservative ideology, because that’s who they’re plowing the way for primarily. They’re following nearly the same gameplan: to deregulate corporations, to privatize everything under the sun, and to paint for the public this illusion that such actions will open us up to some capitalistic, “free market” paradise.

Don’t buy into illusions, examine the realities. Read back on capitalism in its earliest stages and observe how incredibly human-unfriendly the system was. Improvements came about through what? That’s right, government intervention. To learn more about the enormous power corporations can and do wield in our nation and most especially in less powerful nations, read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It’s a very informative book that’s very carefully sourced (further info available on her website) for those interested in doing further research.

I’m not here to defend our government, ’cause lord knows it’s become a giant mess that needs to be overhauled in a serious way (beginning with impeaching at least 75% of Congress, IMHO), but I’m also not here to pretend corporations offer a better way, certainly not as they stand now. No, I’m critical of both ends in this equation and can’t bring myself to feel chummy with either one. Because both are about centralizing power, concentrated in their hands and not ours. The truth seems to be that neither give much of a damn about most of us — the government is supposed to give a shit and oftentimes doesn’t, but corporations are expressly in the business of giving a shit only when and where they stand to profit, period. Giving either side full rein is a mistake, and letting them fuse together to reign in an increasingly fascistic manner is a bad idea too. Looks like we’re faced with two crappy scenarios, and one is pretty much guaranteed to win out.

And perhaps after people are crushed under this next phase in the history of civilization we’ll snap out of it and realize where our docility and love of comfortable living is allowing us to be led once again. Or maybe not. My gut says probably not.

[Edited for typos 11/10/2013]

“The Inexorable System of Karl Marx” — PART 2 transcribed from the book “The Worldly Philosophers” by Robert L. Heilbroner

Returning to where we left off in Heilbroner’s book The Worldly Philosophers (1999, 7th ed.), in the chapter titled “The Inexorable System of Karl Marx,” picking back up on page 139:

The Manifesto, as everybody knows, was the brainchild of that angry genius, Karl Marx. More accurately, it was the result of collaboration between him and his remarkable companion, compatriot, supporter, and colleague, Friedrich Engels.

They are interesting, and, of course, enormously important men. The trouble is, they rapidly became not just men, but figures. At least until the Soviet debacle, Marx was widely considered a religious leader to rank with Christ or Mohammed, and Engels thus became a sort of Saint Paul or John. In the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, scholars pored over their works with the idolatry they ridiculed in the antireligious museums down the street. But while Marx and Engels were canonized in Stalinist Russia and, to a lesser extent, in Maoist China, they were regarded as creatures of the devil in much of the rest of the world.

They merit neither treatment, for they were neither saints nor devils. Nor is their work either Scriptures or anathema. It belongs in the great line of economic viewpoints that have successfully clarified, illuminated, and interpreted the world for us, and like the other great works on the shelf, it is not without flaw. The world have been preoccupied with Marx the Revolutionary. But had Marx not lived, there would have been other Socialists and other prophets of a new society. The real and lasting impact of Marx and Engels is not their revolutionary activity, none of which bore too much fruit during their own lifetimes. It is with the vision of Marx the Political Economist that capitalism must finally come to grips. For the final imprint he made on history was his prediction that capitalism must inevitably collapse. On that prediction, communism built its edifice, heedless of its own weaknesses.

But let us see the men.

They were very much opposites in appearance. Marx looked like a revolutionary. His children called him “The Moor,” for his skin was dark and his eyes deep-set and flashing. He was stocky and powerfully built and rather glowering in expression with a formidable beard. He was not an orderly man; his home was a dusty mass of papers piled in careless disarray in the midst of which Marx himself, slovenly dressed, padded about in an eye-stinging haze of tobacco smoke. Engels, on the other hand, would pass for a member of his despised bourgeoisie; tall and fair and rather elegant, he had the figure of a man who liked to fence and to ride to hounds and who had once swum the Weser River four times without a break.

It was not only in their looks that they differed; their personalities were at opposite poles. Engels was gay and observant and gifted with a quick and facile mind; it was said that he could stutter in twenty languages. He had a taste for the bourgeois pleasures in life, including a good palate for wine, and it is amusing to note that although he turned to the proletariat for his amours, he spent much of his time romantically (and unsuccessfully) trying to prove that his working-class mistress, Mary Burns (and later, after her death, her sister Lizzie), were actually descended from the Scottish poet.

Marx was much more ponderous. He is the German scholar par excellence, slow, meticulous, and painstakingly, even morbidly, perfectionist. Engels could dash off a treatise in no time at all; Marx was always worrying one to death. Engels was fazed only by Arabic with its four thousand verb roots; Marx, after twenty years of practice, still spoke hideously Teutonic English. When he writes of the great “chock” which events have caused him, we can almost hear him speak. But for all his heaviness, Marx is the greater mind of the two; where Engels supplied breadth and dash, Marx provided the depth.

They met, for the second time, in 1844 in Paris, and their collaboration begins at this date. Engels had come to merely call on Marx, but they had so much to say to each other that their conversation lasted for ten days. Thereafter there is hardly a product of the one that was not edited or rewritten or at least debated with the other, and their correspondence fills volumes.

Their paths to that common meeting ground in Paris were widely divergent. Engels was the son of a pietist, Calvinist, narrow-minded father, a manufacturer in the Rhineland. When Friedrich as a young man had shown an incomprehensible taste for poetry, his father had packed him off to Bremen to learn the export business and to live with a cleric: religion and moneymaking, according to Caspar Engels, were good cures for a romantic soul. Engels had dutifully applied himself to business, but everything he saw was colored by a personality in revolt, a happy-go-lucky personality that was incompatible with his father’s rigid standards. He went down to the docks in the course of business, but his observant eye took in not only the first-class accommodations “in mahogany ornamented with gold” but the steerage as well, where the people were “packed in like the paving-stones in the streets.” He began to read the radical literature of his time, and by the age of twenty-two he was converted to the ideals of “communism”—a word that then had no very clear definition except insofar as it rejected the idea of private property as a means for organizing society’s economic effort.

Then he went to Manchester to enter his father’s textile business there. Manchester, like the ships in Bremen, seemed to Engels a facade. There were pleasant streets lined with shops and suburbs ringing the city with pleasant villas. But there was a second Manchester as well. It was hidden behind the first and laid out so that the mill owners never had to see it on their trips to their offices. It harbored a stunted population living in a state of filth and despair, turning to gin and evangelism and doping itself and its children with laudanum against a life that was hopeless and brutal. Engels had seen similar conditions in the factory towns of his Rhineland home, but now he explored Manchester until he knew every last hovel and each ratlike abode. He was to publish his findings in the most terrible verdict ever passed on the world of industrial slums: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. One time he talked of the misery of the place to a gentleman friend and remarked that he had never seen so “ill-built a city.” His companion listened to him quietly and then said, “And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good day, sir.”

He was writing now—treatises to show that the great English economists were only apologists for the existing order—and one of his contributions made a special impression on a young man named Karl Marx, who was editing a radical philosophical magazine in Paris.

Unlike Engels, Marx came from a liberal, even mildly radical, family background. He was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany, the second son of a prosperous Jewish family that shortly thereafter adopted Christianity so that Heinrich Marx, an advocate, might be less restricted in his practice. Heinrich Marx was a respected man; he was, in fact, even appointed Justizrat, an honorary title for eminent lawyers, but in his day he had joined illegal banquet clubs that drank toasts to a republican Germany, and he had reared his young son on a diet of Voltaire, Locke, and Diderot.

Heinrich Marx hoped that his son would study law. But at the universities of Bonn and Berlin, young Marx found himself swept up in the great philosophical debate of the day. The philosopher Hegel had propounded a revolutionary scheme, and the conservative German universities found themselves split wide open over it. Change, according to Hegel, was the rule of life. Every idea, every force, irrepressibly bred its opposite, and the two merged into a “unity” that in turn produced its own contradiction. And history, said Hegel, was nothing but the expression of this flux of conflicting and resolving ideas and forces. Change—dialectical change—was immanent in human affairs. With one exception: when it came to the Prussian state, the rules no longer applied; the Prussian government, said Hegel, was like “a veritable earthly god.”

This was a powerful stimulus for a young student. Marx joined a group of intellectuals known as the Young Hegelians who debated such daring questions as atheism and pure theoretical communism in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, and he decided to become a philosopher himself. He might have, had it not been for the action of that godlike state. Marx’s favorite professor, Bruno Bauer, who was eager to procure an appointment for him at Bonn, was dismissed for proconstitutional and antireligious ideas (one evidently as bad as the other), and an academic career for young Dr. Marx became an impossibility.

He turned instead to journalism. The Rheinische Zeitung, a small middle-class liberal newspaper, to which he had been a frequent contributor, asked him to take on its editorship. He accepted; his career lasted exactly five months. Marx was then a radical, but his radicalism was philosophical rather than political. When Friedrich Engels came respectfully to call on him, Marx rather disapproved of that brash young man brimming with Communist ideas, and when Marx himself was accused of being a Communist, his reply was equivocal: “I do not know communism,” he said, “but a social philosophy which has as its aim the defense of the oppressed cannot be condemned so lightly.” But regardless of his disavowals, his editorials were too much for the authorities. He wrote a bitter denunciation of a law that would have prevented the peasants from exercising their immemorial rights to gather dead wood in the forests; for this he was censured. He wrote editorials deploring the housing situation; for this he was warned. And when he went so far as to say some uncomplimentary things about the Tsar of Russia, the Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed.

Marx went to Paris to take over another radical journal, which was to be almost as short-lived as the newspaper. But his interests were now turned in the direction of politics and economics. The undisguised self-interest of the Prussian government, the implacable resistance of the German bourgeoisie toward anything that might alleviate the condition of the German working classes, the almost caricaturesque attitudes of reaction which characterized the wealthy and ruling classes of Europe—all of this had coalesced in his mind to form part of a new philosophy of history. And when Engels came to visit him and the two struck up their strong rapport, that philosophy began to take formal shape.

The philosophy is often called dialectical materialism; dialectical because it incorporates Hegel’s idea of inherent change, and materialism because it grounds itself not in the world of ideas, but on the terrain of social and physical environment.

“The materialist conception of history,” wrote Engels many years later in a famous tract titled “Anti-Dühring” (it was aimed against a German professor named Eugen Dühring) “starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society that has appeared in history the distribution of the products, and with it the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged. According to this conception, the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in the minds of men, in their increasing insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange; they are to be sought not in the philosophy but in the economics of the epoch concerned.”

The reasoning is powerful. Every society, says Marx, is built on an economic base—the hard reality of human beings who must organize their activities to clothe and feed and house themselves. That organization can differ vastly from society to society and from era to era. It can be pastoral or built around hunting or grouped into handicraft units or structured into a complex industrial whole. But whatever the form in which men solve their basic economic problem, society will require a “superstructure” of noneconomic activity and thought—it will need to be bound together by laws, supervised by a government, inspired by religion and philosophy.

But this superstructure of thought cannot be selected at random. It must reflect the foundation on which it is raised. No hunting community would evolve or could use the legal framework of an industrial society, and similarly no industrial community could use the conception of law, order, and government of a primitive village. Note that the doctrine of materialism does not toss away the catalytic function and creativity of ideas. It only maintains that thoughts and ideas are the product of environment, even though they aim to change that environment.

Materialism by itself would reduce ideas to mere passive accompaniments of economic activity. That was never Marx’s contention. For the new theory was dialectical as well as materialist; it envisaged change, constant and inherent change; and in that never-ending flux the ideas emanating from one period would help to shape another. “Men make their own history,” wrote Marx, commenting on the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon in 1852, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past.”

But the dialectical—the internal dynamism—aspect of this theory of history did not depend merely on the interplay of ideas and social structures. There was another and far more powerful agent at work. The economic world itself was changing; the bedrock on which the structure of ideas was built was itself in movement.

For example, the isolated markets of the Middle Ages began to lock fingers under the impetus of exploration and political unification, and a new commercial world was born. The old hand mill was replaced by the steam mill under the impetus of invention, and a new form of social organization called the factory came into being. In both cases the determining framework of economic life itself changed its form, and as it did, it forced a new social adaptation from the community in which it was embedded. “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord,” Marx wrote, “there steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

And once such a change had taken place, it carried with it a whole train of consequences. The market and the factory were incompatible with the feudal way of life—even though they were born amidst it. They demanded a new cultural and social context to go with them. And they helped in that difficult birthing process by creating their own new social classes: the market matured a new merchant class, and the factory gave birth to an industrial proletariat.

But the process of social change was not merely a matter of new inventions pressing on old institutions: it was a matter of new classes displacing old ones. For society, said Marx, is organized into class structures, aggregates of individuals who stand in some common relationship—favorable or otherwise—to the existing form of production. And economic change threatens all of that. As the organizational and technical forces of production change—as factories destroy handicraft industry, for example—the social relations of production change too; those on top may find the ground cut from under them, while those who were on the bottom may be carried higher. We have seen just such an upset of the relative position of social classes in Ricardo’s day in England, when the capitalists, riding the wave of the Industrial Revolution, were threatening to usurp the time-honored prerogatives of the landed gentry.

Hence conflict develops. The classes whose positions are jeopardized fight the classes whose positions are enhanced: the feudal lord fights the rising merchant, and the guild master opposes the young capitalist.

But the process of history pays no attention to likes and dislikes. Gradually conditions change, and gradually, but surely, the classes of society are rearranged. Amid turmoil and anguish the division of wealth is altered. And thus history is a pageant of ceaseless struggle between classes to partition social wealth. For as long as the technics of society change, no existing division of wealth is immune from attack.

What did this theory augur for the society of Marx and Engels’s day? It pointed to revolution—inevitable revolution. For capitalism, according to this analysis, must also contain “forces” and “relations” of production—a technological and organizational foundation, and an architecture of law and political rights and ideology. And if its technical base was evolving, then necessarily its superstructure must be subject to increasing strain.

That is exactly what Marx and Engels saw in 1848. The economic base of capitalism—its anchor in reality—was industrial production. Its superstructure was the system of private property, under which a portion of society’s output went to those who owned its great technical apparatus. The conflict lay in the fact that the base and superstructure were incompatible.

Why? Because the base of industrial production—the actual making of goods—was an ever more organized, integrated, interdependent process, whereas the superstructure of private property was the most individualistic of social systems. Hence the superstructure and the base clashed: factories necessitated social planning, and private property abhorred it; capitalism had become so complex that it needed direction, but capitalists insisted on a ruinous freedom.

The result was twofold. First, capitalism would sooner or later destroy itself. The planless nature of production would lead to a constant disorganization of economic activity—to crises and slumps and the social chaos of depression. The system was simply too complex; it was constantly getting out of joint, losing step, and overproducing one good while under-producing another.

Secondly, capitalism must unknowingly breed its own successor. Within its great factories it would not only create the technical base for socialism—rationally planned production—but it would create as well a trained and disciplined class which would be the agent of socialism—the embittered proletariat. By its own inner dynamic, capitalism would produce its own downfall, and in the process, nourish its own enemy.

It was a profoundly important insight into history, not only for what it betokened for the future, but for the whole new perspective it opened upon the past. We have come to be familiar with the “economic interpretation” of history, and we can accept with equanimity a reevaluation of the past with respect to the struggle, say, of the nascent seventeenth-century commercial classes and the aristocratic world of land and lineage. But for Marx and Engels, this was no mere exercise in historical reinterpretation. The dialectic led to the future, and that future, as revealed by The Communist Manifesto, pointed to revolution as the destination toward which capitalism was moving. In somber words the Manifesto proclaimed: “The development of modern industry . . . cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

The Manifesto, with its rumbling, inexorable interpretation of history, was not written in Paris. Marx’s career had been brief in that city. He edited a caustic, radical magazine; he again rubbed the sensibilities of the Prussian government; and at its behest, he was expelled from the French capital.

He was married now—in 1843 he had married Jenny von Westphalen, who had lived next door to him as a child. Jenny was the daughter of a Prussian aristocrat and Privy Councillor, but Baron von Westphalen was nevertheless a humanist and liberal thinker. He had talked to young Marx about Homer and Shakespeare and even told him about the ideas of Saint-Simon despite their pronouncement as heresy by the local bishop. As for Jenny—she was the belle of the town. Beautiful and with suitors galore, she could easily have made a more “suitable” match than the dark young man next door. But she was in love with him, and both families smiled their approval. For the Marxes such a marriage would be a not inconsiderable social triumph, and for the Baron it was, perhaps, a happy vindication of his humanist ideas. One wonders if he would have given his consent could he have foreseen what was to happen to his daughter. For Jenny was to be forced to share the bed of a common prostitute in jail and would have to beg the money from a neighbor to buy a coffin to bury one of her children. In place of the pleasant comforts and the social prestige of Trier, she was to spend the years of her life in two dismal rooms in a London slum, sharing with her husband the calumny of a hostile world.

And yet it was a deeply devoted union. In his dealings with outsiders, Marx was unkind, jealous, suspicious, and wrathful; but he was a joyous father and a loving husband. At one period, when his wife was ill, Marx turned to Lenchen, the Westphalian family maid who stayed with them, unpaid, all their days, but even that infidelity—from which an unacknowledged child was born—could not undo a relationship of great passion. Later, much later, when Jenny was dying and Marx was ill, this lovely scene was witnessed by her daughter.

Our dear mother lay in the big front room and the Moor lay in the little room next to it. . . . Never shall I forget the morning he felt himself strong enough to go into Mother’s room. When they were together they were young again—she a young girl and he a loving youth, both on life’s threshold, not an old disease-ridden man and an old dying woman parting from each other for life.

The Marxes had moved to London in 1849. Expulsion from Paris, four years before, had landed them in Brussels, where they stayed (and the Manifesto was composed) until the revolutionary outbursts in 1849. Then, when the Belgian king had secured a firm enough grip on his shaky throne, he rounded up the radical leaders in his capital, and Marx went briefly to Germany.

It was the same pattern all over again. Marx took over the editorship of a newspaper, and it was only a matter of time before the government closed it down. He printed the last edition in red—and sought a haven in London.

He was now in desperate financial shape. Engels was in Manchester, leading his strange double life (he was a respected figure on the Manchester Stock Exchange, and he supplied the Marxes with a never-ending stream of checks and loans. Had Marx been a financially orderly person, the family might have lived in decency. But Marx was never one to balance his books. Thus the children had music lessons—and the family went without heat. Life was a constant struggle against bankruptcy, and money worries were a suffocating presence always.

There were, in all, five of them including Lechen. Marx had no work—except his never-ending stint in the British Museum from ten o’clock every morning until seven o’clock at night. He tried to make a little money by writing articles on the political situation for the New York Tribune, whose editor, Charles A. Dana, was a Fourierist and not averse to a few slaps at European politics. It helped for a while, although it was Engels who bailed Marx out by composing many of his pieces for him—Marx meanwhile advising by letter as follows: “You must your war-articles colour a little more.” When the articles stopped, he tried to get a clerical job with a railway, but was rejected for his atrocious handwriting. Thereafter he pawned what was left to his name, all the family silver and valuables having been sold long ago. At times his want was so intense that he was forced to sit home because his coat and even his shoes were in pawn; on other occasions he lacked the money to buy postage stamps to send his works to the publisher. And to compound his difficulties, he suffered from the most painful boils. When he arrived home one evening after writing in misery all day long in the Museum he remarked, “I hope the bourgeoisie as long as they live will have cause to remember my carbuncles.” He had just composed the terrible chapter of Das Kapital which described the Working Day.

There was only Engels to fall back on. Marx wrote him constantly, touching on economics, politics, mathematics, military tactics, on everything under the sun, but especially his own situation. A typical excerpt reads:

My wife is ill. Little Jenny is ill. Lenchen has a sort of nervous fever and I can’t call in the doctor because I have no money to pay him. For about eight or ten days we have all been living on bread and potatoes and it is now doubtful whether we shall be able to get even that. . . . I have written nothing for Dana because I didn’t have a penny to go and read the papers. . . . How am I to get out of this infernal mess? Finally, and this was most hateful of all, but essential if we were not to kick the bucket, I have, over the last 8-10 days, touched some German types for a few shillings and pence . . .

Only the last years were a little easier. An old friend left Marx a small bequest, and he was able to live in some comfort, and even to travel a bit for his health. Engels, too, finally came into an inheritance and left his business; in 1869 he went to his office for the last time and came over the fields to meet Marx’s daughter, “swinging his stick in the air and singing, his face beaming.”

In 1881 Jenny died; she had buried two of her five children, including her only son; she was old and tired. Marx was too ill to go to the funeral; when Engels looked at him he said, “The Moor is dead, too.” Not quite; he lingered for two more years; disapproved of the husbands two of his daughters had chosen’ grew weary of the bickering of the working-class movement and delivered himself of a statement that has never ceased to bedevil the faithful (“I am not a Marxist,” he said one day); and then on a March afternoon, quietly slipped away.

What had he done, in these long years of privation?

He had produced, for one thing, an international working-class movement. As a young man, Marx had written: “The philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world in various ways; the thing, however, is to change it.” Marx and Engels had given the accolade to the proletariat in their interpretation of history; now they set about steering and guiding the proletariat so that it should exert its maximum leverage on history.

It was not an attempt crowned with much success. Coincident with the publication of the Manifesto, the Communist League had been formed, but it was never much more than a paper organization; the Manifesto, which was its platform, was not then even placed on public sale, and with the demise of the revolution in 1848, the League died too.

It was followed in 1864 with a far more ambitious organization, the International Workingmen’s Association. The International boasted seven million members and was real enough to have a hand in a wave of strikes which swept the Continent and to earn for itself a rather fearsome reputation. But it, too, was doomed to have a brief history. The International did not consist of a tough and disciplined army of Communists, but a motley crew of Owenists, Proudhonists, Fourierists, lukewarm Socialists, rabid nationalists, and trade unionists who were leery of any kind of revolutionary theory whatsoever. With considerable skill Marx kept his crew together for five years, and then the International fell apart; some followed Bakunin, a giant of a man with a true revolutionist’s background of Siberia and exile (it was said that his oratory was so moving that his listeners would have cut their throats if he had asked them to), while others turned their attention back to national affairs. The last meeting of the International was held in New York in 1874. It was a lugubrious failure.

But far more important than the creation of the First International was the peculiar tone which Marx injected into working-class affairs. This was the most quarrelsome and intolerant of men, and from the beginning he was unable to believe that anyone who did not follow his line of reasoning could possibly be right. As an economist his language was precise, as a philosopher-historian it was eloquent, as a revolutionary it was scurrilous. He stooped to anti-Semitism. He called his opponents “louts,” “rascals,” even “bedbugs.” Early in his career, when he was still in Brussels, Marx had been visited by a German tailor named Weitling. Weitling was a tried son of the labor movement; he had scars on his legs from the irons of Prussian prisons and a long history of selfless and valiant efforts on behalf of the German workingman. He came to speak to Marx on such things as justice and brotherhood and solidarity; instead he found himself exposed to a merciless cross-examination on the “scientific principles” of socialism. Poor Weitling was confused, his answers were unsatisfactory. Marx, who had been sitting as the chief examiner, began to stride angrily about the room. “Ignorance has never helped anybody yet,” he shouted. The audience was over.

Willich was another to be excommunicated. An ex-Prussian captain, he had fought in the German revolution and later was to become an outstanding general on the Union side of the American Civil War. But he clung to the “un-Marxist” idea that “pure will” could be the motive power of revolution instead of “actual conditions”; for this notion—which Lenin was one day to prove was not so far-fetched after all—he, too, was dropped from the movement.

And the list could be extended endlessly. Perhaps no single incident was more provocative, more prophetic of a movement that was one day to degenerate into an internal witch-hunt for “deviationists” and “counterrevolutionaries” than the feud between Marx and Pierre Proudhon. Proudhon was the son of a French barrelmarker, a self-educated brilliant Socialist who had rocked the French intelligentsia with a book entitled What Is Property? Proudhon had answered, Property is Theft, and he had called for an end to huge private riches, although not to all private property. Marx and he had met and talked and corresponded, and then Marx asked him to join forces with himself and Engels. Proudhon’s answer is so profoundly moving and so prescient that it is worth quoting at some length:

Let us together seek, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are reached, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating people. . . . I applaud with all my heart your thought of inviting all shades of opinion; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic, let us give the world the example of an informed and farsighted tolerance, but let us not—simply because we are at the head of a movement—make ourselves into the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all dissent, let us outlaw all exclusiveness, all mysticism, let us never regard a question as exhausted, and even when we have used one last argument, let us if necessary begin again—with eloquence and irony. On these conditions, I will gladly enter into your association. Otherwise, no!

Marx’s answer was this: Proudhon had written a book called The Philosophy of Poverty; Marx now annihilated it with a rejoinder entitled The Poverty of Philosophy.

That’s enough transcribing for this evening, leaving off on page 154. To be resumed another day.

[Sorry for the typos — cleaned them up 2/10/2014 and please let me know if anyone notices any I might have missed.]