Monday, 13 July 2009

Doris Lessing on the fragmentation of culture

I came across Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize lecture recently. There's some interesting issues raised, which are worth thinking about.

The title of the speech is 'On not winning the Nobel Prize', and Lessing focuses on the sheer deprivation in Zimbabwe, and the lack of the conditions necessary for proper education, 'I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes.' Despite all this, she maintains, there is an intense desire for knowledge, and an active culture of self-education. She contrasts this with the immense resources of a prestigious London school she visited, where excellent facilities are left vacant by the absence of interest.

In this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to such schools and even universities.
"You know how it is," one of the teacher's says. "A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used."

There's a curious thing; "you know how it is"; "what I always hear"; "we do indeed know how it is". How it is that the dominant countries of the world, ironically, are entirely lacking in a drive towards self-education that could ensure their dominance.

How it is in Lessing's narrative, is that this lack of drive derives from a general cultural listlessness, itself born of a postmodern disintegration.

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

yeah, yeah, we know, all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. It's not unreasonable to see in these words a literati lament, mourning with belated bitterness their dispossession of the privileges accorded to artists within an earlier mode of capitalism. Cerainly, that's the position taken by Scott Rosenberg, from, who sees it as a basically conservative position, 'the cultural establishment, the journalism business, and other important institutions are still saying that blogs will destroy civilization.'

But let's bracket that easy dismissal and look at the role of reading in her argument. There are many, she says, "[who] know nothing of the world, [who] have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other". Reading, then, and probably culture in general, is for Lessing a vital link between the individual and the world, perhaps even of establishing some harmony between the disparate individuals and groups of society. It is, as she says herself, concerned with taking the "raw, the individual, the uncriticized, the unexamined, into the realm of the general."

If we maintain a sceptical position on this, we would argue that the function of literature, then, is to contribute to the reconciliation of social existence as individuated and society as totality, between civil society and the State. That is, that literature can fulfill the same function for the conflict between individual and general in the terrain of world-vision that democracy accomplishes for the political-economic.

But what of this for socialists? And let us remember Lessing's own credentials as an advocate of social equality, and a sharp critic of capitalist power relations.

Well, Trotsky, Lenin et al were keen readers, weaned on the greats of classical Russian realism. And this brought them into sharp conflict with the Futurists and Formalists, particularly when the former advocated 'push[ing] Pushkin and Dostoevesky from the steamship of modernity.' The later official theory of socialist realism, expounded most definitively by Lukacs, identified the realist form with the greatest gifts of the bourgeoisie to the proletarian movement, and from it emerged a strict set of guidelines for the articulation of proletarian literature, a written form that would overcome the mystifications of capitalism, and the bring the working class into consciousness of itself and, of course, its historical mission.

This brief sketch may have pushed my hypothetical readers straight back towards postmodernism, so I had better try and make a libertarian socialist case for realism.

Class, as we know, is not solely a matter of one's relation to capital, but also, crucially, of one's relationships to others in our society. Is the attitude of capitalists to their workers authoritarian or paternalistic? Are politicians clientelist or ideological? These are all important questions for the analysis of society in general. But for our analysis of the working class and its development into a revolutionary force, the question of modes of organisation is absolutely fundamental, and provides the clearest distinction between the various articulations of socialism.

The mode of organisation identified by libertarian socialists as the only one possible for the construction of a socialist society is what has been termed 'horizontalism', which I have attempted to define earlier (I think). In my view, the development of the proletariat as a revolutionary class demands that horizontalism be the determining mode of its social organisation, and that it consciously attempts to extend this mode across the social terrain; i.e. towards communism via revolution.

So, in this case, the formation of this class consciousness, and its extension as revolutionary class consciousness is clearly a massive change in the world-vision of many people. Moreover, this vision must be shared among the class, there must be a common framework for self-consciousness. It will require, in fact, for many men and women, to know much of the world, to know much of each other, and to know what they are capable of.

Back to the Bourgeoisie
A conservative critic, who writes for Asia Times as Spengler, and who chose his pseudonym advisedly, has written of China's 6 to 1 advantage over the United States. This is the ratio of Chinese to American children studying classical piano.

The world’s largest country is well along the way to forming an intellectual elite on a scale that the world has never seen, and against which nothing in today’s world - surely not the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills - can compete

Here we have the same basic components as Lessing; education, class, the emerging nation, and the malaise of Western culture. Education, it seems, is tightly bound to the emerging nation. For Lessing, this is tied to poverty, to growing up in a place "where parents long to get an education for their children which will take them out of poverty." For Spengler, it is tied to the development of a class of intellectuals, of scientists and engineers and businessmen. A class that will build the nation.

Another key writer here is Benedict Anderson, as his writings on Nationalism highlight the common development of a national elite as the common core of nationalist rebellion in subaltern economies.

[INSERT Anderson quote, plus stuff by Gramsci]

Gramsci was one of those who tried to think through a similiar process from the perspective of empowering the working class.

To fight for a new art would mean to fight to create new individual artists, which is absurd since artists cannot be created artificially. One must speak of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life...intimately connected to a new intuition of life until it becomes a new way of seeing and feeling reality and, therefore, a world intimately engrained in "possible artists" and "possible works of art."

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Problems of Strategy

- Much existing writing on strategy begins with the premise of a defined body, to be applied to certain defined ends.
- Strategy then concerns the direction of a known body to known ends, utilising calculable forces.
- This isn't possible for us, as the primary purpose of the org in the current stage of struggle is to develop the internal organisation of the class, i.e. to create bodies capable of exerting forces.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Ultra-Left vs Democracy (unfinished)

[some things need more work. if you can think of a better definition of democracy, please send it.]

Today I've been reading a couple of ultraleft critiques of democracy, Gilles Dauve's Contribution to a Critique of Political Autonomy and the pamphlet Communism against Democracy, containing texts from Wildcat and Against Sleep and Nightmare.

Dauve's text, at 32 pages, is not particularly clear or useful, but the latter two are. The below quote is from And Democracy Continues its March by Sleep & Nightmare.

No scheme for managing society will by itself create a new society. Highly democratic, highly authoritarian and mixed schemes are now used to administer capitalism. The basic quality of capitalism is that the average person has little or no control over their daily life. Wage labor dominates society. You must exchange your life to buy back your survival. Whether people under capitalism make the decisions about which records they buy, which inmates serve long sentences, what color the streetlights are, etc., is irrelevant.

The community that escapes capitalism will involve people directly controlling the way they live.
This is the individual and collective refusal of work, commodity production, and exploitation. This will involve much collective decision making and much individual decision making. The transformation cannot be reduced to a set way of making decisions or a fixed plan of action.

Not believing in democracy means not automatically knowing how to proceed if people have profound disagreements. So be it.

The Ultra-Left love their rhetoric.

But anyway. The critique of democracy should begin at a brief definition of what capitalism is, versus what communism is. They say, "The basic quality of capitalism is that the average person has little or no control over their daily life", which is fair enough as a 12 word summary. This arises from the division of social production into independent commodity producers (via the commodity form) and from the internal division between owners and non-owners of capital (via private property).

Communism, on the other hand, "will involve people directly controlling the way they live." Again, fair enough, this will arise from common control over the means of life.

So, what the hell is democracy? Actually, I'm gonna eat my words, Dauve actually does make one point in particular better than these lads:

Ancient Greece’s real contribution to history was not the principle of democracy as a set of rules and institutions by which citizens make collective decisions. The innovation went deeper. It invented what democracy is based upon: a special time-space reserved for confrontation, and distinct from the rest of social life. In that specifi c sphere, a person is taken away from his private interests, from fortune and status differences, from his social superiority or inferiority, and placed on an equal footing with all the other citizens. Equality of rights alongside social inequality: that is the definition of politics.

Well done Gilles. Have a link, you deserve it.

Ok, so let's say that democracy is a model of governance that constructs a specific space of governance for a polity and allocates equal decision-making to all members within this space.

Aha!! So, we can immediately start the critique by targeting the fallacy that implies that
- formal equality of power within the decision-making space is equivalent to real equality in the polity, thus subduing the actual relationships of power that define the people in the polity and ultimately overdetermine the construction of the democratic space itself. Boom!

Which leads us to a more substantive awareness of the separation between power and policy-making within modern society. Historically, these emerged from the strategic separation of these spheres as a defensive manouevre by Enlightenment liberals, so that politics becomes an issue of determining to what extent political power can intervene in economic matters. This, of course, again surfaces in the liberal doctrine of 'negative freedom', and all these bum concepts have at their basis the desire of the emerging capitalist class to ensure their freedom and security of property against state power.

In this way, we can see how democracy as separate space for arbitration of disputes and issues between private individuals is a very sensible political method for dealing with the problems of a society of property owners. As the boy I.I. Rubin wrote:

The distinctive characteristic of the commodity economy is that the managers and organizers of production are independent commodity producers (small proprietors or large entrepreneurs). Every separate, private firm is autonomous, i.e., its proprietor is independent, he is concerned only with his own interests, and he decides the kind and the quantity of goods he will produce. On the basis of private property, he has at his disposal the necessary productive tools and raw materials, and as the legally competent owner, he disposes of the products of his business. Production is managed directly by separate commodity producers and not by society. Society does not directly regulate the working activity of its members, it does not prescribe what is to be produced or how much.

But the market cannot solve everything. As these autonomous firms proceed solely upon their own interests they necessarily come into conflict with each other (I'm visualising capitalism as a day at the bumper cars here). As such, there is clearly needed a space of arbitration, where the autonomy and independence of the market can be laid aside, so that matters can be resolved in the interest of the polity as a whole.

Anyway, I have another problem, one of my own construction, and that is that:
- the 'polity' that is governed by democracy, is often, in fact, constructed via democracy. Which is a fancy way of saying that democracy rests on a people; it implies the self-governance of a particular, identifiable group.
- However, the group that is governed is not cast in iron; it is composed of many sub-groups, and it has many connections which exceed the bounds of the group.
- Democracy, as an abstraction, reinforces the bounds of group and limits sub-groups within these bounds.
- Democracy then allows for the 'people' (or organisation) to be posed over and against the real people
- Democracy then acts as a limit of the activity of sub-groups, and these groups consequently experience their membership of the democratic group as unfreedom.

Democracy in a Lefty Organisation
As mentioned earlier, I'm interested in developing ideas for how an anarchist organisation can run itself better.

Now, I think the thing to emphasise here is the practicalities of what needs to be decided.

I will first of all say that the theory of the organisation should be immediately connected with its activities. It does not need a position on the Chinese Revolution if it is concerned with organising tenants to agitate for social housing. However, an anarchist organisation will need to share a common outlook on the nature of its environment (i.e. society), the changes it wishes to make, and some general principles about making them.

To direct its activity, however, an anarchist organisation does not need reams of analysis. The general orientation and approach to the environment supplies the basis, the next steps will be taken autonomously, by the interaction of individuals and sub-groups with the environment.