Archive for June, 2008

A Simple Reminder

By Micheal Yates from The Monthly Review (via Lenin’s Tomb):

“Workers and owners are fundamentally connected and antagonistic along a number of dimensions:

  • It is through the labor of the working class that the goods and services necessary for our survival are produced.
  • It is through the ownership of society’s productive wealth (land, machines, factories, etc.) that the owning class is able to compel that this labor be done. Workers must sell their capacity to work in order to gain access to this productive wealth, since no one can live without such access.
  • In terms of society’s “reproduction” the relationship between labor and capital is essential. So much of what we do presupposes the successful sale of labor power. Without the money from such a sale, nothing appears to exist.
  • The essence of production in capitalism is the ceaseless accumulation of capital, the making of profits and the use of such profits to increase the capital at the owners’ disposal. Competition among capitals both drives accumulation and is driven by it, in a relentless dance.
  • But to accumulate capital, employers must make sure that workers cannot claim possession of all they produce. This means that employers must strive for maximum control of the entire apparatus of production and any and all social forces and institutions that might interfere with this control (for example, the state, schools, and media). At all costs, workers must be prevented from getting the idea that they have rights to the output they produce.”


“Workers comprise the subordinate class. They are normally in the position of having to react to decisions made by others. They are dependent upon employers, and they are at the same time apprehensive of them, since employers hold the power to deny to workers the life-sustaining connection to the means of production. Exploitation, dependence, and insecurity—in a system where workers are bombarded with the message that they and they alone make the decisions that determine their circumstances—make for a toxic brew, which when drunk often enough, creates a personality lacking in self-confidence, afraid to take chances, easily manipulated and shamed (of course, on the bright side, these injuries have given rise to a massive “self-help” industry).

The very subordination of workers, combined with the market mechanism that ratifies and reinforces it, means that capitalist societies will display ineradicable inequalities in variables of great importance: wealth, income, schooling, health care, housing, child care, and so forth. What is more, the market will, absent powerful countervailing forces, not only reproduce inequalities but deepen them, as we have seen so clearly in the United States over the past thirty years. This inequality itself generates its own class injuries. In my book, Naming the System, I cite research comparing the impact of inequality across the United States. It was discovered that, all else being equal, the greater the inequality of income within a state (as measured by the share of income going to the poorest 50 percent of households in each state), the higher the mortality rate. It appears that the psychological damage done to poor people as they contemplate the gap between themselves and those at the top of the income distribution has an independent effect on a wide variety of individual and social health outcomes. Everything we know about the correlation between health and other social indicators and income (a decent though not perfect proxy for class) tells us that working people will suffer in every way.”

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From an article by Corey Robin, “Out of Place” from the June 23 2008 issue of The Nation:

“A sense of exclusion has haunted conservatism from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss–of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun–conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. From Burke’s lament that “the gallery is in the place of the house” to William F. Buckley Jr.’s claim that he and his brethren were “out of place,” the comfortable and connected have fashioned a philosophy of self-styled truancy. One might say this fusion of pariah and power has been the key to their success. As Buckley went on to write, the conservative’s badge of exclusion has made him “just about the hottest thing in town.”

While John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Hume are sometimes cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in Considerations on France (1797) was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.”

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them–or to obey them because we feel sorry for them. Rousseau was the first to articulate a political theory of pity, and for that he has been called the philosopher of the losers. But doesn’t Burke, with his overwrought account of Marie Antoinette in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)–“this persecuted woman,” dragged “almost naked” by “the furies of hell” from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to “a Bastile for kings” in Paris–have some claim to the title, too?

Marie Antoinette was a particular kind of loser, a person with everything who finds herself utterly and at once dispossessed. Burke saw in her fall an archetype of classical tragedy, the great person laid low by fortune. But in tragedy, the most any hero can achieve is an understanding of his fate: the wheel of time cannot be reversed; suffering cannot be undone. Conservatives, however, are not content with illumination or wisdom. They want restoration, an opportunity presented by the new forces of revolution and counterrevolution. Identifying as victims, they become the ultimate moderns, adept competitors in a political marketplace where rights and their divestiture are prized commodities.

Reformers and radicals must convince the subordinated and disenfranchised that they have rights and power. Conservatives are different. They are aggrieved and entitled–aggrieved because entitled–and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, the conservative is, as Hugo Young said of Maggie Thatcher, one of us.”


The most interesting cases of the right’s appropriation of the left, however, came not from evangelicals but from big business and the Nixon Administration. The business community saw the student movement as a critical constituency. In “Make Payroll, Not War,” Bethany Moreton unearths the fascinating details of their effort. Using hip and informal language, business spokesmen left “their plaid suits in the closet” in order to sell capitalism as the fulfillment of ’60s-style liberation, participation and authenticity. Reeling from protests against the invasion of Cambodia (and the massacre of four students that ensued), students at Kent State formed a chapter of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), one of 150 across the country. They sponsored a “Battle of the Bands,” for which one contestant wrote the following lyrics:

You know I could never be happy
Just working some nine-to-five.
I’d rather spend my life poor
Than living it as a lie.
If I could just save my money
Or maybe get a loan,
I could start my own business
And make it on my own.

Small-business institutes were set up on college campuses, Moreton explains, casting “the businessman as a victim, not a bully, to impressionable campus audiences.”

Business brought its Gramscian tactics to secondary schools as well. In Arkansas, SIFE performed classroom skits of Milton Friedman’s PBS series Free to Choose. In 1971, Arizona passed a law requiring high school graduates to take a course in economics so they would have “some foundation to stand on,” according to the bill’s sponsor, when they came up “against professors that are collectivists or Socialists.” Twenty states followed suit. Arizona students could place out of the course if they passed an exam that asked them, among other things, to match the phrase “government intervention in a free enterprise system” with “is detrimental to the free market.”

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