'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'


Flights with Marx

Living with a toddler severely constrains one’s reading habits. So whenever I get a chance to travel by myself - say, to a two-day workshop or conference - I relish the opportunity to get at the huge pile that is my “To Read” list. And so it was this past week, on a flight from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, that I got a chance to finally read John Lanchester’s essay on Marx, which was published in the London Review of Books in April 2012! 

Some very compelling passes to relay, in case your lot has been just as busy as mine:

Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

I, on the other hand, am an empiricist. That’s not so much because I think Marx was wrong about the distorting effect of underlying ideological pressures; it’s because I don’t think it’s possible to have a vantage point free of those pressures, so you have a duty to do the best with what you can see, and especially not to shirk from looking at data which are uncomfortable and/or contradictory. But this is a profound difference between Marx and my way of talking about Marx, which he would have regarded as being philosophically and politically entirely invalid.

Here’s the shortest, most lucid summary of Marx’s theory of surplus value:

Marx’s model works like this: competition pressures will always force down the cost of labour, so that workers are employed for the minimum price, always paid just enough to keep themselves going, and no more. The employer then sells the commodity not for what it cost to make, but for the best price he can get: a price which in turn is subject to competition pressures, and therefore will always tend over time to go down. In the meantime, however, there is a gap between what the labourer sells his labour for, and the price the employer gets for the commodity, and that difference is the money which accumulates to the employer and which Marx called surplus value. In Marx’s judgment surplus value is the entire basis of capitalism: all value in capitalism is the surplus value created by labour. That’s what makes up the cost of the thing; as Marx put it, ‘price is the money-name of the labour objectified in a commodity.’ And in examining that question he creates a model which allows us to see deeply into the structure of the world, and see the labour hidden in the things all around us. He makes labour legible in objects and relationships.

The theory of surplus value also explains, for Marx, why capitalism has an inherent tendency towards crisis. The employer, just like the employee, has competition pressures, and the price of the things he’s selling will always tend to be forced down by new entrants to the market. His way of getting round this will usually be to employ machines to make the workers more productive. He’ll try to get more out of them by employing fewer of them to make more stuff. But in trying to increase the efficiency of production, he might well destroy value, often by making too many goods at not enough profit, which leads to a surplus of competing goods which leads to a crash in the market which leads to massive destruction of capital which leads to the start of another cycle. It’s an elegant aspect of Marx’s thinking that the surplus theory of value leads directly and explicitly to the prediction that capitalism will always have cycles of crisis, of boom and bust.

Why is this relevant today, you ask?

This idea of labour being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labour congealed inside them, is an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world. Take Facebook. Part of its success comes from the fact that people feel that they and their children are safe spending time there, that it is a place you go to interact with other people but is not fundamentally risky or sleazy in the way new technologies are often perceived to be – that VHS, for instance, was when it was launched on the market. But the perception that Facebook is, maybe the best word would be ‘hygienic’, is sustained by tens of thousands of hours of badly paid labour on the part of the people in the developing world who work for companies hired to scan for offensive images and who are, according to the one Moroccan man who went on the record to complain about it, paid a dollar an hour for doing so. That’s a perfect example of surplus value: huge amounts of poorly paid menial work creating the hygienic image of a company which, when it launches on the stock market later this year, hopes to be worth $100 billion.

When you start looking for this mechanism at work in the contemporary world you see it everywhere, often in the form of surplus value being created by you, the customer or client of a company. Online check-in and bag drop at airports, for example. Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly. They’re transferring their inefficiency to the customer, but what they’re also doing is transferring the labour to you and accumulating the surplus value themselves. It happens over and over again. Every time you deal with a phone menu or interactive voicemail service, you’re donating your surplus value to the people you’re dealing with. Marx’s model is constantly asking us to see the labour encoded in the things and transactions all around us.

Lanchester then proceeds to explain the difficulties with Marx’s long-term view of capitalism and especially his lack of appreciation for the varieties of capitalism in advanced post-industrial economies.

What I found most striking in this piece, however, is the sheer irrelevance of both capitalism and Marxism when it comes to the planetary problems such as resource scarcity and climate change. Alas, Lanchester doesn’t reflect much on these points after introducing them at the very end of the lecture:

But what Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite. He knows that there is no such thing as nature unshaped by our assumptions, but he doesn’t share our contemporary awareness that nature can run out. This is the kind of thing which is sometimes called ironic, but is closer to tragedy, and at its heart is the fact that the productive, expansionist, resource-consuming power of capitalism is so great that it is not sustainable at a planetary level. The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.

This is a point that Marxists for the most part have been reluctant to address, and for a very good reason: the problem of resources in the world today, whether food or water or power, power in all senses, are to do with inequitable distribution and not with the total supply. There is more than enough of all those things for all of us. Writers and activists in the Marxist tradition have tended to stress that point, and they’re right to do so, but we need also to face the fact that the world is heading towards ever greater consumption of and demand for resources on the part of everybody. Everybody simultaneously. That fact is capitalism’s most deadly opponent. To give just one example in relation to one resource only, the American average consumption of water is one hundred gallons per person per day. There isn’t enough fresh water on the planet for everyone to live like that.

So the question is whether capitalism can evolve new forms, in the way it has so far managed to do, and come up with property and market-based mechanisms which deflect the seemingly inevitable crisis that will ensue, or whether we need some entirely different social and economic order. The irony is that this order might in many respects be like the one Marx imagined, even if he saw a different route to getting there. When Marx said that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction he wasn’t talking about climate change or resource wars. If we feel a natural gloom and despondency at the prospect of the difficulties ahead, we should also take comfort in the fact of our imaginative adaptability and the ingenuity which has brought us so far so fast – so far, so fast, that we now need to slow down, and don’t quite know how. As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.’ Limitless needs we see all around us and they’ve brought us to where we are, but we’re going to have to work on the flexible part.

The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy. It is no longer, as it was for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian superstate that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union. Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.
More from Philip Roth’s interview in the NYT
TED has done more to advance the art of lecturing in a decade than Oxford University has done in a thousand years.

As TED turns 30, The Economist looks at how it revolutionized the ideas industry. Pair with David Hochman’s excellent New York Times profile of TED’s Chris Anderson.

The above is via the Explore blog.

For my own part, I’m going to go ahead and call foul on this, and not simply because I’m confident that my lectures (which are nothing at all like TED talks) would nonetheless look pretty different from lectures delivered by anyone who was teaching just prior to the Battle of Hastings. Pair with my blog post on “edutainment.”

(via kohenari)

This statement in The Economist would be amusing if it weren’t so mortifyingly stupid and abstract. 

TED talks are akin to fast food for thought. They may quickly satisfy hunger in some, but they are far from nutritious for the mind or the body. As for the comparison between Oxford and TED when it comes to “the art of lecturing,” it’s simply an assertion wither the requisite evidence to convince one of its merits. We know what TED lectures look like (and we have an online archive of all of them), that’s true. They conform to a set format and length, and the only variation is in the form of content and the presenter. We simply don’t have a similar record of all the lectures given at Oxford over the past 1000 years to make an intelligent comparison. But I think we can safely assume that there was no set format - no uniform way of curating varied subject matters and personalities. Whatever their sins, those stuffy Oxford dons and teachers did manage to expand the bounds of knowledge to ever newer shores, and along the way convinced the human race of the inherent value of the pursuit of knowledge and curiosity for its own sake.

The core mission of the university (and Oxford is just one among many) is to instill the art of learning, not to be a showcase for flashy lecturing. Fast food chains aren’t there to teach you how to cook for yourself - for that, one must go to school! 

(via kohenari)

IC: I want to ask about Obama, whom you have written a lot about.

DR: Who?

IC: Obama. Our first Muslim president, from Kenya.

DR: Exactly.

IC: In your latest long piece about him, I thought it was frustrating how—

DR: I read The New Republic. I know.

IC: He couldn’t answer a question without laying out both sides in a condescending way and lecturing.

DR: I didn’t feel condescended to, and it is not my job to soothe your frustration. It is my job to reflect the way he thinks and speaks. But I share some of that frustration as a citizen. That’s his habit of mind. On the one hand. On the other hand. That is to say.

A couple of things about this TNR interview with the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick:

  • What a quick-witted, smart and reflective Remnick is; and
  • Just how much lower than the pecking order TNR is when it comes to quality journalism.




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Yet every writer learns over a lifetime to be tolerant of the stupid inferences that are drawn from literature and the fantasies implausibly imposed upon it. As for the kind of writer I am? I am who I don’t pretend to be.
When he felt obliged to stand on principle on some literary or moral issue, he did so without calling attention to himself, and he was impatient with writers like Robert Lowell whose political protests seemed to him more egocentric than effective. When he won the National Medal for Literature in 1967, he was unwilling either to accept it in Lyndon Johnson’s White House during the Vietnam War or “to make a Cal Lowell gesture by a public refusal,” so he arranged for the ceremony to be held at the Smithsonian, where he gave an acceptance speech about the corruption of language by politics and propaganda.

Auden’s sense of his divided motives was inseparable from his idiosyncratic Christianity. He had no literal belief in miracles or deities and thought that all religious statements about God must be false in a literal sense but might be true in metaphoric ones. He felt himself commanded to an absolute obligation—which he knew he could never fulfill—to love his neighbor as himself, and he alluded to that commandment in a late haiku: “He has never seen God/but, once or twice, he believes/he has heard Him.” He took communion every Sunday and valued ancient liturgy, not for its magic or beauty, but because its timeless language and ritual was a “link between the dead and the unborn,” a stay against the complacent egoism that favors whatever is contemporary with ourselves. The book he wrote while returning in 1940 to the Anglican Communion of his childhood was titled The Double Man. It had an epigraph from Montaigne: “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” He felt obliged to reveal to his neighbor what he condemned in himself.
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