Archive for June 30th, 2017

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts will appear no consecutive days.

Recently, in a meeting of the committee of a small charity a possibly symptomatic exchange occurred.

‘Can we avoid using the word marketing and talk about publicity instead?’

‘Why? What’s wrong with saying marketing?’

‘Well, it sounds as though we are selling something when we’re not. We’re a charity.’

‘But that’s the way everyone talks nowadays. It’s the current term for what we want to do: make more people aware of us and keen to help us.’

As the meeting progressed some people said ‘marketing’ before immediately correcting themselves, others used the m word and showed no remorse, and a minority said ‘publicity’ with a barely concealed air of moral superiority.

Why one earth does it matter what one small group of people did or said in a side-room in a small town?

Well, for the same reason it mattered when someone in high office in a televised interview referred to a ‘swarm’ of refugees. The words we choose to use subliminally affect the world-views of others and often unintentionally leak our own unconscious biases. Philip Zimbardo, as I recently quoted, is well aware of the potentially pernicious effects of starting down this slippery slope  (The Lucifer Effect – page 456):

. . .  be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures.

What happened in miniature in the side-room with the word marketing is similarly serious, though dealing with a different issue, and is happening all the time everywhere in our culture on big stages and small ones: and the cumulative effect is to show just how far we are all infected with the assumption that markets are natural and harmless. We simply don’t question it at all most of the time. That’s how the world does its business – and there’s another word that highlights the same problem.

At one time busy meant active and probably still does for the most part, but business has had a long history of ambiguity meaning activity or trade from as early as the 15th Century, before crystallising  nowadays into meaning primarily an activity or enterprise that makes money. Although you still might say, of course, that this is none of my business!

A Culture of Contest

This habitual acceptance of competition and profit as natural blinds us to the problematic nature of our culture. Our ‘culture of contest,’ to borrow Michael Karlberg’s evocative phrase, is a broken model that: (a) prevents the truth being discovered and justice reliably being achieved in court rooms where the whole point in most Western countries is for two opposing teams to wrangle until one wins, (b) thwarts equity as well as increasing inequality in the economic sphere, where the prize of increasing wealth goes to the most effective competitor rather than the most worthy one, and (c) obstructs wise decision-making in the political sphere because the main point is to defeat one’s opponents in elections and remain in power for as long as possible.

Beyond the Culture of ContestTo use present day party politics and the economic model as the two most relevant examples, we can see first of all that a competitive model doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants in the political sphere. Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly (Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46):

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

Recent events illustrate how competitive divides corrode relationships even within the same political party.

In terms of economics, the same deficiencies appear in a different guise, and in fact we ignore the fundamental principle of moral restraint on markets cited by one of the founding father’s of economic thinking, Adam Smith (page 38-42):

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition. Indeed, competition has become the pre-eminent value of a deeply materialistic age. And in the absence of external and internal market regulation, its culture of competition – or culture of contest – has led to widespread social conflict and ecologically degradation.

He goes on to describe these as the causes of (1) extremes of economic inequality, driven by the capitalist’s ‘attempt to extract the maximum surplus value from the labour force that is the primary source of their wealth,’ (2) rivalries between nations, and (3) a ‘relative absence of both external state regulation and internal moral regulation’ resulting in ‘unprecedented conflict between our own species and most other species on the planet.’

I won’t go any deeper into the politics of this at present.

For now I’m simply going to take the risk of sharing my sense of what might be wrong with the unregulated market place, or perhaps any market place at all, as a firm foundation upon which to build a better society in the future.

PostcapitalismMy Trigger

So what’s triggered this sudden excursion outside my relatively circumscribed field of expertise? Why don’t I just stick to consciousness and poetry?

Blame historian Bettany Hughes. The other night, I sat down to watch a programme I had recorded.

Her previous series, such as that on the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, held my attention and enriched my understanding. She is now tackling Marx, Nietsche and Freud in her latest sequence. All three of them are Marmite thinkers: you either love them or hate them. Only the first programme on Marx had been broadcast when I started writing this (it’s available on iPlayer till the middle of July). That was the one I watched.

Much of it was already familiar ground to me, and I ended up watching the programme in three instalments, not sure if I’d actually get to the end. I’m glad I did though.

In the last fifteen minutes or so there is a brief contribution by Paul Mason, another Marmite man probably. I’ve already read his recent book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future. His analysis of where Marx’s key ideas are still worth pondering on gave some valuable insights that I will perhaps blog about in more detail sometime.

What impressed me about his contribution to the programme was how he was able to capture in a few straightforward sentences one of the key ideas in his book. Given that I only ever managed to read less than half of Das Kapital in my socialist days, I’m grateful for his insights, which capture more fully some of the implications of Marx’s ideas than I had managed to grasp by my own unaided efforts.

He spoke of surplus value, as does Karlberg in the passage I quoted above, which he believes is still a valid concept and a much neglected one.

Surplus Value

Apart from the question in the middle these are his words as best as I could capture them.

Where does profit come from? Marx says it comes from work… everything that’s gone into getting [a small boy] to work – the food, the clothing, maybe the education, certainly the housing – costs some money, and his labour is worth all of that, but the amount of work he does during that working day… is way above what he needs, and the difference between . . . what it should take (what his work is really worth) and what he is actually working, is a surplus. That’s where profit comes from, and we know, actually, that (Marx) is trawling through this stuff for these acute examples of exploitation, because he wants to shove the concept of exploitation right down the throats of mainstream economics. Mainstream economics, then and today, doesn’t even accept that exploitation exists.

When a factory falls on the heads of a bunch of Bangladeshi garment workers, that’s an accident. To Marx, it’s one of the most fundamental laws of capitalism that the capitalist will extract the maximum amount of surplus value that they can.

“What’s the future of capitalism?” Bettany asks.

Marx isn’t predicting the imminent doom of capitalism. He understands that it is a fully functioning system. But he identifies its fragility. That in any system based on profit, where all the profit is extracted from the work of people, then you hit limits. The first limit you hit is the working day. You can’t extend the working day forever. You must innovate. You must create machines and the machines squeeze the worker more and more out of the production process, then the very source of all the profit is squeezed into a tiny area.

So you get repeated crises of profitability. People in Marx’s time were asking whose fault was it that XYZ company went bust. Marks says it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s the fault of the Profit System, which is based on the exploitation of workers, and the exploitation of workers cannot keep on producing the profits at the rate that is required to expand the system forever.

It’s possible, of course, that it is all slightly more complicated than that. But consideration of this will have to wait till the next post tomorrow.


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