Class Is Not Style

Why Marx Was RightWe have seen already that Marxists have a problem with the idea of utopia. This is one reason why they reject the illusion that, just because chief executives nowadays might sport sneakers, listen to Rage Against the Machine and beseech their employees to call them “Cuddlykins,” social class has been swept from the face of the earth. Marxism does not define class in terms of style, status, income, accent, occupation or whether you have ducks or Degas on the wall. Socialist men and women have not fought and sometimes died over the centuries simply to bring an end to snobbery.

The quaint American concept of “classism” would seem to suggest that class is mostly a question of attitude. The middle class should stop feeling contemptuous of the working class rather as whites should stop feeling superior to African Americans. But Marxism is not a question of attitude. Class for Marxism, rather like virtue for Aristotle, is not a matter of how you are feeling but of what you are doing. It is a question of where you stand within a particular mode of production—whether as a slave, self-employed peasant, agricultural tenant, owner of capital, financier, seller of one’s labour power, petty proprietor and so on. Marxism has not been put out of business because Etonians have started to drop their aitches, princes of the royal household puke in the gutter outside nightclubs, or some more antique forms of class distinction have been blurred by the universal solvent known as money. The fact that the European aristocracy are honoured to hobnob with Mick Jagger has signally failed to usher in the classless society.

—Terry Eagleton
Why Marx Was Right

Revolution at the Public Library

Public LibraryI was over at the library, just roaming around. That’s the great thing about libraries and used bookstores: you never know what you’ll come upon. That exists online with blogs, but not at, say, Amazon. For one thing, you don’t get to browse older books. And the newer ones where you can “Look inside!” you are limited to what it has decided to show you. You can’t look at the table of contents and think, “Chapter 3 looks interesting, let me take a look at it!” Amazon has told you as much as it thinks maximizes its profits. But as used bookstores drop like flies, libraries continue on.

Have you given much thought to public libraries, though? Imagine we had no history of public libraries. And some person who cared about knowledge and society and the good of all humanity rose up and said, “Let there be public libraries!” What do you think would happen? Well, I know what would happen. The publishers would rush to Congress and get laws made. They would say, “A single book could be read by a thousand people! The writers will stop writing!” You see: it would be all about the writers. It would have nothing to do with the publishers who make far more from books than the writers. Nor would it have anything to do with Amazon that makes a huge amount of money just because they are Amazon. (And note: the fact that they don’t show profits is just because they are buying up everything in sight.)

At the very core of my being, I am a writer. I always have been. I like telling stories whether they are about things that are going on in the world or just bizarre things that are going on in my mind. And yes, I would like to make some money from it—at least enough to pay for the hosting of this site. And I probably will do something along those lines one of these days, throwing up a couple of ads. It would be my wildest dream to actually be able to make a living writing. The thought of making $40,000 a year is just amazing to me. But my writing here, much less what I consider my more serious private (for now) writing has nothing to do with making money.

Do you know what a lot of money does for writers? It turns them into hacks. Consider Jonathan Kellerman. I haven’t read his first book, but it was thought to be pretty good and I’m sure that it was. Since then, he’s pumped out almost three novels for every two years for the last three decades. I reviewed one of his novels, Twisted Stretched. A number of fans have come by to tell me that I’m wrong, but it’s a total piece of garbage. Then there’s Stephen King. I actually think he is a great writer. He’s published 59 novels in four decades. This does not include his numerous novellas, short story collections, screenplays, and non-fiction books. In his case, however, I will admit that he does seem to simply be a madman and he maintains a high level of quality, unlike Jonathan Kellerman or many other writers I could mention. And I think King would write like a madman even if he weren’t making millions.

So money really isn’t the key to causing people to create things whether they be books, hand carved statues, or cool new high tech devices. (On this last issue, my partner and I have been doing this very cool, cutting edge work for a year; and although we do hope to make some money from it, we don’t expect to become millionaires; in fact, we expect only the thrill of doing something totally new.) But the world is not run by the writers and the other creators of things that make life worth living. Today, the world is run by the wealthy who are only really interested in becoming more wealthy, because wealth is what they “create”—even if it in itself is not something that anyone wants.

Roam around your public library—that relic of Enlightenment thinking, which paleoconservatives would destroy if they could. It is a wonderful thing. It will change your mind. As I walked about, I came upon Ann Coulter’s book, Never Trust a Liberal Over 3—Especially a Republican, a common sort of title for conservatives. It rightly implies that the writer is still thinking at that preschool level. She’s going for that hippy slogan (most conservatives have not moved beyond the silliest 1960s revolutionary thinking), “Never trust anyone over 30!”

But right there next to Coulter’s commodity book was Penguin Books’ Greet Ideas series edition, Common Sense. I picked it up. So you see: Ann Coulter isn’t completely useless. And I found that the book was downright subversive. It wasn’t just the one pamphlet. It also included Paine’s far better and more revolutionary Agrarian Justice. But when I checked on Amazon, I noticed no mention of it. It is only if you “Look Inside!” that you will even know that it is included. Out of 204 reader reviews, not one mentioned that it contains the other essay. The top reader review stated simply, “This book should be required reading for every American. It lays out the logic of the founding fathers in separating from England but also lays out the logical and philosophical foundations of freedom. Eye opening and enlightening.” In fact, this is not true at all. It lays out Thomas Paine’s logic for separating from England. The rich guys had their own reasons. What did The Oracle say in The Matrix Reloaded? “What do all men with power want? More power.”

A browser at Amazon would just find the sanitized version of the Revolutionary War. But the browser of the public library found actual revolutionary thought from long after the war. I’ve read it twice before, but I checked it out anyway.

Why Marx Was Right Review

Why Marx Was RightI just read Terry Eagleton’s newest book, Why Marx Was Right. It’s a fascinating book and the best one that Eagleton has written in a while. It is organized in ten chapters that start with a common argument against Marx. Then he goes on to show that pretty much everything everyone thinks they know about Marx is wrong. The last line of the book is, “Was ever a thinker so travestied?” And after reading the book, it is hard not to answer in the negative, although I can think of a few thinkers who are certainly in contention—most notably Thomas Paine, although in his case the misrepresentation has been done by carefully ignoring almost everything he ever wrote.

Fundamentally, Eagleton argues that Marxism isn’t a thing as in an economic system. It is not communism or socialism. It is quite simply a critique of capitalism—a system that Eagleton rightly notes Marx had glowing things to say about. But the fundamental question is, “Since feudalism gave rise to capitalism, where is capitalism going?” This does not mean that Marx thought that history had a great pathway that it was following. Marx was a very learned man and knew that history goes in all kinds of different and unpredictable directions. But there are natural tendencies that different social systems have.

For much of the 20th century, it was easy enough to dismiss Marx’s contention that capitalism led to more and more inequality. Keynesian economics, the rise of labor unions, and social changes brought on by the sacrifices of World War II all worked to turn the direction of capitalism back. Of course, it wasn’t capitalism itself. The high levels of income inequality of the Gilded Age caused revolution in various places. It was high unemployment and not high inflation that brought the Nazis to power. But the countries that managed to avoid revolution, did it largely by liberalizing their societies—injecting socialist reforms without destroying the capitalist base.

This is an argument I often find myself in with conservatives—libertarians most especially. All modern societies are some mixture of capitalism and socialism. Even libertarians agree that there are certain shared needs like a police force and a legal system to protect people from various forms of harm. So while such people may think they are promoting a kind of pure system, it is anything but. Most conservatives, for example, believe in corporations—the most artificial construct of human partnership ever devised. Thus we are left in liberal democracies to decide what the proper role of the government is.

The libertarian idea is that it is wrong to take money from one group and give it to another. Let’s assume that’s true. Let’s assume that it is wrong to take one penny of the Koch brothers’ inherited wealth to feed a hungry child. In such a libertarian utopia, the poor would rise up. They would not only take the wealth of the Koch brothers; if history is any judge, they would also kill them. So in my mind, libertarians are just people who don’t believe in insurance and that is why it will always be a marginal belief system.

But it is wrong to claim that Marx was in favor of violent revolution. And in fact, although he actually had nothing directly to do with the Bolshevik revolution, it was a fairly peaceful revolution because the vast majority of the people were behind it. As Eagleton notes, Marx also had no problem with marginal improvements. He was a practical man. If he were alive today, he would be like me in supporting Obamacare even though it is suboptimal.

The biggest surprise in the book is that it shows how Marx’s interests have been turned upside down. He wasn’t in favor of uniformity and increased production and everything we associate with Stalin and 1984. What he wanted was a more equitable distribution of resources so that people could do less of the unpleasant work and spend more time doing what they wanted to do. I discussed this to some extent a couple of days ago, Why Americans Don’t Work Less. The truth is that most people hate their jobs. As productivity has gone up, we could use that benefit to work less. Indeed, in countries like Germany and France, this is exactly what people have done. Of course, in the United States, our productivity gains have not been used to allow America workers more leisure. In fact, the gains haven’t even been used to make workers richer. Almost all of it has simply gone to make the already rich even richer. There is nothing natural about this. It is just a matter of public policy.

I didn’t consider myself a Marxist before reading Eagleton’s fascinating book and I don’t consider myself one now. What I now think is that there is no such thing as Marxism. But Karl Marx had a lot of really interesting insights about the failures of the capitalist system. And they are more relevant to modern America than they they were to 19th century England. It’s funny though. Marx was not a utopian. But the one most utopian philosophical movement in the world is libertarianism. Followers think they are the opposite of Marx, and they’re right—just not in the way that they think.

Above all, I think conservatives should read Why Marx Was Right. I don’t say that because they will agree with him about everything. In a fundamental sense, Marx was really just a modern liberal who read a lot more book than any sane man would. But for conservatives, Marx isn’t a man. He is just a symbol of the failure of Stalinism, which really had nothing to do with Marx. (Marx died 34 years before the Russian Revolution; 41 years before Stalinism.) Marx’s name has become a dirty word and nothing more. If you want to understand politics—especially libertarianism—you need to understand what Marx actually said.

“Was ever a thinker so travestied?”

Whistler Sans Mother

Self Portrait - WhistlerAnother day, another birthday. Lots of interesting birthdays. But do you ever just wake up in a foul mood? (One morning my wife woke up in a fowl mood and flew away!) If it weren’t for caffeine, I don’t know what I’d do. But it hasn’t helped thus far today. So I specifically picked a birthday that would allow me to write as little about the person as possible and just rant. Are you ready?

On this day in 1834, the great artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born. He is best known for the painting he titled, Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1. But everyone knows it as simply, Whistler’s Mother. The reason that everyone knows it by that name is because it is a painting of Anna Whistler, also know as James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s mother, or if you prefer, Whistler’s mother. In some circles, it’s known as “Jim’s mum.” (It is not know as “Jim’s mum” in any circles.)

The original title of it is accurate. Basically, Whistler was trying to show what he could do with a very limited palette. And to me, it’s very clear: not much. Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 2 is actually a lot more interesting. What I think is most interesting about Whistler’s Mother is that it was the displayed in the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in London. But they were not keen on it. A short time later, he pawned it while in Paris. About twenty years later, someone from the Musée du Luxembourg acquired it and it became a big deal.

It rather reminds me of Moby-Dick. That book was widely panned when it was first published. It wasn’t until almost 70 years later that Carl Van Doren decided that it was a work of genius that it became the “great book” that it is today. And let’s be honest, in a standard sense, is Moby-Dick great? I don’t think so. That’s not to say that I think Moby-Dick isn’t a great book. I think it is a very great book. It is Melville. It is the book that Melville was meant to write. If you look at his other works, you can tell the man has talent, but he isn’t baring his soul the way he is in Moby-Dick and to a lesser extent The Confidence-Man. But the point is it little more than an accident than anyone outside of academia even knows who Melville is.

Having said what I have about Whistler, you might think I don’t like his work. That’s not true at all! He was a brilliant artist. I’m just not fond of Whistler’s Mother. Just take a look at a collection of his work and you will see: Google Image Search. What’s more, he was a master at the use of a limited palette. Here is one painting I very much admire, Symphony in White, No 2—generally known as The Little White Girl (Whistler was very annoying about naming paintings):

The Little White Girl - Whistler

But the man could do color too. Here is Caprice in Purple and Gold No 2—generally known as The Golden Screen:

The Golden Screen - Whistler

Happy birthday James Abbott McNeill Whistler!