August 18, 2010

I have moved here.

Is there a ruling class?

August 18, 2010

It is difficult to say whether or not Marx’s depiction of 19th c. class warfare was valid.  Fortunately I don’t really care since my interest in Marx is its applicability to modern American life.  With this in mind I’ll ask the singular question: does America have a ruling class?

As you read on you might think I’m reinventing the wheel, and I may be, but I have to deal with these questions from the bottom up and address any ambiguities that might skew my understanding.

Anyhow, the affirmative seems to be the obvious answer, but I am finding it difficult to figure out who might belong to a ruling class and how one might become a member.  I am not talking about the group of elected officials who currently hold office in this country.  Clearly we have a government.  I’m wondering if there are two distinct social classes, one which is ruled and one which imposes its will.  This is the view of the world that Marx presents.  Is it valid today?

The tautological approach doesn’t seem to be helpful.  That is to say, there are people who make decisions intentionally that directly impact our lives, so we could say that the ruling class is the class of people who rule.  Among these are politicians and pundits, authors and editors, policy wonks, school teachers, parents, employers, mechanics, and everyone else we’ve ever met.  If the ruling class comprises all of these then it’s not a very useful term,  and it should be disregarded.

We’re looking for people with a larger sphere of influence; my mother impacts my life and my sister’s, but she doesn’t impact the owner of a Chinese buffet in Los Angeles.  We could argue that mothers collectively belong to a ruling class, and I think in some ways that’s an argument worth pursuing, but not presently and not in this context.

We could say instead that the ruling class consists of those people who make decisions with large amounts of public money.  This is getting closer to what might be justly called a ruling class.  Public office holders would be included, as well as the largest hedge fund managers, investment bankers, IMF agents, of course the Fed, and anyone who happens to attend a Bilderberg conference.  (Thanks Josiah for that last one.)  Yet this picture seems incomplete.  We are ruled in so many ways that aren’t monetary in nature.  Bartering economies are not ispo facto free.

We could also say that the ruling class consists of those people who, though they are not elected officials, carry roughly the same legislative, executive, or judicial weight as those who are elected, and who are thus an unregulated tyranny.  We could say this, but it isn’t very specific, and I don’t know who we’re talking about.  It would include all of the money managers listed above.  It would involve arms dealers as well, certainly.  Organized crime bosses, too.  Beyond that we are getting into the realm of conspiracy theory, and I that is off limits here.

We also need to account for those custodians of the public mind.  I’m referring to entertainers such as Oprah Winfrey, Keith Olbermann, The Beatles and Miley Cyrus, Glenn Beck and Fred Rogers; but I’m also referring to the academics like Noam Chomsky and Alan Bloom, Alan Dershowitz and Carl Sagan, Bill Buckley and Ralph Nader; I am referring to the journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post and to their editors doubly, to the founders of Wikipedia, Facebook, Wikileaks, and Youtube.  There are plenty of more examples of the custodians of the public mind.  These too must be included in an appraisal of the ruling class.  But is it possible that a select few individuals have the power to pull the strings of everyone mentioned here?  Maybe.  I don’t know who they are.

In some sense it seems fair to say that we do have a ruling class, and it is made up of every individual whose business it is to make decisions which resonate appreciably throughout all of our society.  I think these people need to be studied and understood.  Their impact on our lives is important to understand.  But these people aren’t Marx’s bourgeoisie.  Marx’s bourgeoisie is that group which owns capital, and he contrasts them with those who do not own capital.  This distinction is not so clear in modern America.  Certainly there are people with and without capital, people whose money is likely to make more money and people who live paycheck to paycheck, but most people today live somewhere in the middle.  This state of affairs is inconceivable in Marx’s depiction of capitalism.  This isn’t a defense of capitalism or a criticism of Marx, but a reality that I think should be addressed if I am going to read applications of Marx to modern life.

It strikes me now after writing this that Marx might not have meant to imply “ruling class” when he labeled the bourgeoisie.  Or maybe he did.  I am going to dig back into this tomorrow.  Now that I have a question, I’ll use the text to find an answer.  But I still feel that this exercise was useful for a couple of reasons.  It helped me to think about who does rule and in what ways they go about it, and it brought to mind many of the ways the modern world has evolved in ways Marx did not anticipate.

Day 5 – Progress is slow, but I like it.

August 17, 2010

I’ve started working on this site’s structure. Yesterday I completed the About Me page, and this morning I wrote a blurb about Max Horkheimer on the page called The Men.

There are some other exciting things I want to mention, too.  I’ve ordered some books.  I’ve been writing back and forth with one of Marcuse’s former students, a professor at Loyola who says he’s going to check in on my progress from time to time.

Tonight at work I’m going to dig back into Marx.  I will be posting my notes from my reading.  Oh, and there is already something that I was thinking about the night before last as I was reading the Manifesto.  Briefly stated, Marx says the dichotomy of classes is unsustainable because capitalism extracts too much from the proletariat.  He contrasts this with the older models where the master nourished his slave to protect his investment.  Was Marx therefore directly responsible for bringing this understanding to the bourgeoisie?  And what light might this shed on Washington’s Democrats?

Oh, I want to dig into this.  More tonight!

Day 4

August 16, 2010

Last weekend I helped a friend clean the brush from the pen where his horses and goats life.  I made a burn pile with apple wood, birch, and pine, and in a few hours the place looked a lot better.  Yesterday he stopped by and gave me $100 for the effort.

Book money.

I have to go to work now, so I’ll pick up later where I leave off now.  But for now it’s enough to say that I ordered my books, and they are on their way.  Tonight I’ll dig back into Marx.  The Manifesto is a really fun read.

The Communist Manifesto, Notes

August 16, 2010

I haven’t decided how I’ll handle my reading notes, but I wanted to be sure to write down this thought before I forget it.  I’m reading The Communist Manifesto, and Marx’s characterization of capital is a little confusing.  The following statement is a stumbling block for me.

But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation.

Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism. To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.

There seems to be a lot packed into these statements.  It’s one of the denser passages in what is otherwise a rather easy read.  Let me tease it out. When I work for an hourly wage I am contributing to a store of capital.  This capital grows when the conditions it creates lead people to the necessity of working for a wage, and it would ipso facto dwindle if people could choose to work otherwise.    Property is, therefore, the means by which capital begets my labor.  Okay.

The second paragraph is describing the social results of the division of labor.  When he says, “To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production,” is he talking about capitalists in the current sense–essentially his bourgeoisie?  Or does capitalist here refer to the laborer?  It seems to refer to both–to all the classes living in a capitalist society–since he has “only by the united action of all members of society can it be set in motion.” It makes perfect sense to me now, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I should have to stop and think for 30 minutes about this one short passage.  I’m glad I did, though, because his argument for the elimination of private property seems to depend upon the collective nature of capital.  I want to get this stuff right.

Day 3

August 15, 2010

I had better not delay in formulating an agenda.  If I waste time something else will come up, and I’ll lose my ambition.  I’m not going to let that happen.  So, here is my plan.

1.  Order some books.  This is a little tricky, since most of the ones I want are quite expensive, and there aren’t a whole lot of cheap copies laying around, and those I’ve found are mostly covered with highlighting.  I don’t mind pencil notes in the margins, but other people’s highlighting is very obtrusive.  I may have to get over it.

Here’s my starter book list:

  • Eclipse of Reason by Max Horkheimer
  • The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno
  • One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse
  • The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin

If I were to buy each of these books new from Amazon, I would spend $97.04, which is more reasonable than I had expected.  Still, I’m used to reading Ebooks which I get from torrent sites, so spending money on media is hard for me to accept.  I’ll talk with my wife tonight and see what she thinks.

2.  Wait for the books to arrive.  This will be a good time to dig out a copy of The Communist Manifesto.  I will give it a good, thorough once-over and post any questions that come up on this blog.

3.  Read the books.  If I buy them all together, I’ll read them in the order I listed them above.  I expect they will be difficult to read, and I’m going to be tempted to keep them on the shelf and opt daily for something requiring less effort.  I will therefore try to remember what Mortimer Adler wrote in How to Read a Book:

Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not.  And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level.

4.  Write about the books.  This is usually the fun part.  I love writing about what I have read because it gives me a chance to test my comprehension of the material.  Writing about what I’ve read makes it easier to recall arguments later because I’ve stated them in my own words.  It also gives me an ego boost.

I want to be systematic in my writing.  It is difficult to predict what will work best since I’ve never done this before.  I hesitate to lay out a plan that could prove untenable, but I also feel I should commit to something.  Here’s what I think I will do.

  • Post questions as they come up daily as I read.  At this stage I will not attempt to answer the questions.
  • Write a daily summary of what I have read.
  • Write one extended summary after I have completed a book.

I am tempted to set a goal for how long each book should take.  Being an average-to-slow reader I might be able to get through a book a week.  I may determine that the material is difficult enough that I should go even more slowly, and perhaps it will take several weeks to thoroughly understand the arguments presented.  I suspect this to be especially true of The Arcades Project.  So we’ll see.  I’ve already admitted that I’m not a fast reader, so I’m not going to be ashamed if it takes me longer than it would take my friends.

So here it is.  I have laid out the plan, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by what is in store for me.  But this is a test of my willpower, of my understanding, and the rewards will not be confirmation alone, but hopefully a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human in an industrial and post-industrial society.

Day 2

August 14, 2010

I said that I would come up with an agenda today, but on second thought I’d rather answer two questions which might have presented themselves in yesterday’s post, i.e., what is a Frankfurt school and why should I devote my life to something so esoteric.  I’ll explain.

The Frankfurt School refers to an affiliation of ne0-Marxist psychologists and sociologists who came of age in Germany during the aftermath of World War I.  These men inherited the tradition of continental philosophy from Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.  But unlike their forebears, they had access to the human subconscious through the writings of Sigmund Freud.

I must digress for a moment because I know what you’re thinking: only fetishistic literary theorists and half-baked dream analysts care anything about Sigmund Freud. That’s what most of us are taught now, anyway.  In reality, Freud changed the way we understand the essence of being human.  His insights, though skewed and sexist, were to the philosophy of self what Einstein’s relativity was to physics.

Back to the story.  In 1923, an Argentinean named Felix Weil and a German labor journalist named Carl Grünberg founded the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main.  It was essentially the Marxist wing of Frankfurt University, and its ranks of theorists included the following men:

  • Max Horkheimer (b. 1895 – d. 1973)
  • Theodor Adorno (b. 1903 – d. 1969)
  • Erich Fromm (b. 1900 – d. 1980)
  • Herbert Marcuse (b. 1898 – d. 1979)
  • Walter Benjamin (b. 1892 – d. 1940)

None of these theorists became famous while at the Institute.  They had enough acclaim to have their pamphlets and other assorted writings burned publicly by Nazis, but this was not the kind of attention they hoped their school would achieve.  The got the hell out of dodge, spent some time in Geneva, and eventually settled in New York City, affiliating themselves with Columbia University.

So that answers the first question somewhat, although it’s the whole point of this blog to vivify their story as I come to better know it.  How about my second question: why should I spend my life learning about these men?  That’s an audacious statement, isn’t it?  I’ll admit that a voice in my head insists that I’m being overzealous and that my interest in these five men will wane once the initial excitement fades.  Do you know what I say to that voice?  Go to fucking hell.  You are the prick who keeps me moping in limbo.  Die you ichorous pustule, you limp-dicked brain raper.

Investigate for yourself the kinds of questions these men asked, in what ways they held the mirror to the 20th c., what clarity they pursued, and how they answered the one question which more than any other haunts me every waking hour and every night in my dreams: how can I become aware before it is too late?

You don’t have to investigate it.  I am going to.  I’ll let you know what I find out.