May Day, Stephanie McMillan
News and Opinion
Roger’s note: it is, of course, a good thing that criticism of the capitalist economy has broken even into the mainstream. And on the political left trashing capitalism has become pretty much the in thing. Nevertheless, a critical understanding of what capitalism (or, for that matter, what capital is) is a rare occurrence, even in the so-called progressive Blogosphere. Since the deepening of the word wide crises (war, economic disparity, environmental disaster, etc.) has become more and more evident, and because everyone knows that we live in a capitalist world (private, state and mixed), it takes no great leap of logic to realize there is something very much wrong with capitalism.
But what is almost universally lacking in analysis is a rigorous and historical understanding of what capitalist economy is, much less an understanding of the revolutionary nature of the struggle to go beyond capitalism, and even much less a philosophic context that takes into account the very nature of human existence and the notion of human freedom. I am no great revolutionary scholar, but what I have learned I have learned through a lifetime of participation in the struggles for social, political and economic justice and informed by a study of capitalism via the writings of and organization formed by the founder of Marxism Humanism in North America, Raya Dunayevskaya (www.newsandletters.org).
The work of Stephanie McMillan, of which I became aware from the article below, is a welcome exception to the usual analyses of capitalism from the left, which tend to be either disappointingly reformist or corrupted by a nihilist and defeatist attitude, largely a result of the gross failures of the various 20th Century Marxist revolutions.
When she became aware of flagrant injustice and felt the need to take action, McMillan was advised in essence to work “within the system,” to lobby and write letters to politicians. She soon became aware of the futility of such a strategy and began to dig further. Like most of us who have benefited by North American education and economic prosperity and who live relatively comfortable middle class lives, the truths that we discover when we are serious about investigating are difficult to adopt, “inconvenient,” if you will (for me, I was hit over the head with this reality as a 20 year old university student spending a summer in various Latin American countries). It implies a break with a world view that has always served as an emotional safety net; that is, the notion that if we follow the rules and work hard at uncovering and exposing injustice, then our democracy has the capacity to adjust and correct. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t have that capacity because democracy in a capitalist economy is more symbolic than real, and it only serves to mask the deeper source of injustice. We are left with no choice. We either abandon our comfort zone in a revolutionary way, or we consciously or unconsciously rationalize a reformist strategy (Communism didn’t work, so we can only try to reform capitalism), one that is doomed from the beginning to fail, the kind of failure of imagination for which William Blake coined the phrase “mind forged manacles”.
My only criticism of McMillan, from what I have read in this article, is her use of the first person plural (we, our) in such a way that implies that those who come to a better understanding of the problem are the ones who are going to have to resolve it. Naturally, activist philosophers are essential to revolutionary struggles, but the subjects of revolution are the various classes of oppressed peoples, and without them no amount of intellectual acuity or vanguard “leadership,” can lead to meaningful change; rather the notion of Praxis, the intertwining of thought and action.
One cannot deny how bleak things seem. But the essential truth is not that there is no other option than cancerous capitalism, rather there is no other option than its destruction and replacement with a humanistic and democratic form of socialism.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” He was discussing a personality type, but in doing so he came close, if unwittingly, to encapsulating the very essence of capitalism.
If capitalism keeps chugging along, we’re all in big trouble. That’s the prognosis of Stephanie McMillan, an award-winning political cartoonist and author of the new book, Capitalism Must Die! A Basic Introduction to Capitalism: What It Is, Why It Sucks, and How to Crush It.
The most urgent reason to stop capitalism in its tracks, according to McMillan, is its prominent role in harming the planet. Capitalism possesses an inherent growth imperative. This means that the normal functioning of capitalism is causing water shortages, ailing oceans, destroyed forests and ruined topsoil.
But even if an ecological catastrophe weren’t upon us, capitalism would still need to be dismantled because it’s based on exploitation, McMillan said in an interview. “There’s no reason why the social result of production needs to be in private hands and that only a few people should own what everybody produces,” she said.
McMillan uses her book to introduce and popularize basic concepts of revolutionary theory. “I wanted to provide something that was accessible to people, that people wouldn’t be afraid to pick up,” she said. But once they pick it up, readers will find a “doorway into deeper levels of theory because we always need to learn more about the system,” she explained.
Overturning capitalism, according to McMillan, will require getting as many people as possible — liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists, environmentalists and unlabeled people — on the anti-capitalist bandwagon. And once they’re aboard, the goal will be to educate them on the complex and long history of capitalism.
A serious weakness among activists in movements for social change has been a lack of understanding of the true nature of the system they live under. Instead of naming capitalism as the problem, McMillan writes, activists often use vague populist terms like “the 1%,” “the rich,” “banksters,” or “greedy corporations.” But the problem runs much deeper than the corruption of any particular individual or institution, according to McMillan. “It lies in the structural foundation of the entire way of life that currently dominates the globe,” she writes.
“Capitalism Must Die!” also serves as a guide to fighting back because, according to McMillan, now is a better time than ever to get organized. “Capitalism is in a huge crisis,” she said. “We need to understand how it works and what the nature of the crisis is and the nature of the different moments that it passes through so that we can identify its vulnerabilities and weaknesses.”
Something will inevitably happen to capitalism as the crisis deepens. “It will probably have to restructure itself and it could become fascism or it could lead to a civil war between the representatives of different factions of capital or some horrible things that don’t actually improve anything,” she said in the interview. “Or we can organize and get rid of them.”
Indeed, McMillan hopes people will use what they learn from the book to organize in their communities, workplaces and schools. “Theoretical clarity for its own sake is pointless intellectualism; instead, it should be a guide for action,” she writes.
After decades of neoliberal supremacy, critiques of capitalism have sneaked into mainstream debates, with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate as notable examples. Both authors, however, approach capitalism from a reformist stance and hold up social democratic versions of capitalism in Western Europe as viable alternatives.
McMillan doesn’t believe Western European capitalist models — the ones that offer stronger social safety nets and more enlightened views on environmental issues — are worth defending. Capitalism, in whatever form, is inherently destructive because it converts the natural world into commodities. And it’s inherently exploitative because profit always comes from the exploitation of workers. “It doesn’t matter if you give them healthcare or a higher salary; you’re still exploiting them for private gain,” she said.
While still exploitative, Europe’s form of capitalism may in fact be less harsh than in the U.S. because the rising capitalist class in Europe had to deal with a feudal class. “They had to make some concessions to the masses in order to get their system in place,” she said in the interview. “Whereas in the U.S., they came over here and slaughtered everyone and took the land. There was no concession made. There was no feudal class that they had to fight against or deal with.”
Even with the publication of the books by Piketty and Klein, the supremacy of capitalism still remains unquestioned in the mainstream media. “It’s the framework that everything else exists within. The debate has to be inside that framework. Nothing can exist outside. It’s like what Margaret Thatcher said, ‘There is no alternative,’” explained McMillan. “It’s hard for people to imagine that there could be any alternative. People think, ‘I guess this is all there is. This is the only way humans can behave.’ Capitalism is naturalized.”
Right now, the level of political consciousness within the working class is very low. And that didn’t happen by chance. “That is by design and it’s by indoctrination and conditioning,” she said. “But it is a problem that we have to deal with.” The capitalists and their representatives in government are adept at finding new ways to squash and tamp down threats to their control. “We have to keep evolving our tactics as well,” she added.
The Occupy movement provided a glimpse at what’s possible. It made people realize they can rise up and take collective action. “It was very inspiring to people for that reason,” McMillan said. “There was a broad base of support for something like that. So many people got involved so quickly and there was so much discontent. It made people feel good that they weren’t alone and it showed the potential of what could happen.”
But Occupy also was a learning experience. “It showed the weakness and the need to be stronger. If we’re actually going to go up against the system, it can’t just be a spontaneous gathering of a bunch of people. It has to be organized — planned and strategic,” she emphasized.
It’s Our Only Shot
McMillan knows that eradicating capitalism is a long shot. “But I feel like it’s our only shot. The reason that I keep doing it is because there’s nothing else — the only other alternative is to give up and die or accept things the way they are and end up in a worse situation,” she said.
Anybody who really understands what’s going on cannot stand idle, according to McMillan. “It’s our historical responsibility,” she insists. “It’s a matter of human dignity.”
Accepting things the way they are would mean allowing 10 million children under the age of five to die annually because, under the normal functioning of global capitalism, it’s not profitable to save them, she writes in the book, citing a study by the nonprofit group Save the Children. It would mean continuing to accept racism, which has always been central to capitalism’s expansion and has been used to excuse the ultra-violent policies — from genocide of indigenous people to slavery and now the “war on terror” — that serve the accumulation of capital, she explains.
McMillan understood what’s going on when she was in high school and a relative urged her to read Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth, a 1982 book about the destruction of life on Earth from nuclear war. She was reluctant to read the book. “I instinctively knew that if I read it, then I would have to then deal with the horrible issues that were going to be in there. I didn’t want to disrupt my comfortable existence. I understood that I would have to do a lot of hard things,” she remembered.
But the relative kept prodding her: “You’ve got to read this. It’s the biggest issue. Reagan is going to destroy the world. We can’t let this happen and you have to read this.” McMillan eventually relented and opened the book. As she expected, it was horrifying and upsetting. She realized humans couldn’t go on living with the possibility of nuclear war hanging over their heads, which seemed very possible at the time.
McMillan started going to meetings with peace and justice activists in her native South Florida. They would tell her to write letters to her congressperson, write letters to the editor of local newspapers and sign petitions. Even as a newcomer to political activism, McMillan knew these steps were not going to be sufficient. “And I would ask, ‘Is there anything else?’ and they would say, ‘No, that’s it.’”
But then McMillan met a guy wearing a purple hat who was talking about revolution. He was standing outside a screening of a movie about nuclear war. “It was like a light bulb, ‘We could actually have a revolution now.’ I thought it was just a historical thing that happened in the past, like the Declaration of Independence,” she recalled. “I didn’t know we could have another one.”
The guy with the purple hat gave McMillan a copy of a newspaper filled with words she didn’t understand: the proletariat, the bourgeoisie. “I came home really excited and told my dad, ‘I think I’m a communist! This is going to solve everything,’” she recalled. “And he pounded his fist on the table and he goes, ‘What’s the labor theory of value.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘How can you call yourself a communist if you don’t even know what the labor theory of value is, one of its basic concepts?’”
McMillan immersed herself in study and quickly learned that the labor theory of value means that the exchange value of a product is based on the socially necessary amount of labor power — measured in time — that is generally required to produce it. But under capitalism, one of the key ingredients is surplus value. And under capitalism, the buyer of labor power — the capitalist — appropriates the surplus value generated in the process of commodity production.
You Can’t Be Neutral
Mastering political theory is tough enough. But putting it into action is even harder. Along with decades of organizing and activism, McMillan has worked as a cartoonist, drawing the popular daily comic strip Minimum Security and the weekly editorial cartoon Code Green, where she seeks to propagate her ideas through crafty drawings and funny dialog. She has received numerous awards for her cartoons, the most notable being the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoonists in 2012.
As a working journalist, McMillan has learned that reporting is never objective. “There is no such thing. It’s never neutral. It’s never non-partisan. If somebody is involved in an issue and they acknowledge it in the article — you know where they are coming from — then it actually has more credibility because they have a deeper level of understanding of the issue because when you just dropping into something like a tourist, you can’t really understand it deeply,” she explained in the interview.
Many of the journalists who reported on the Occupy movement, for example, were unfamiliar with it. “They just observed the surface, the spectacle. They didn’t know all the dynamics. They didn’t know all the people, all the different political trends, all the different tendencies within it. They’re just reduced to describing the surface imagery,” she recalled.
McMillan also has written several books with political and environmental themes such as “As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial” and “The Beginning of the American Fall.” Since the publication of “Capitalism Must Die!”, people have told McMillan that the book brought them clarity and a comprehensive understanding of capitalism. They also appreciated how the cartoons helped to make the concepts clearer.
Going forward, McMillan believes anti-capitalists will need to work with liberals and reformists, even if it often can be an exercise in frustration. Anti-capitalist organizations should only engage in common work with reformists, though, when they are organized enough to insist that their politics are represented, she writes.
If and when anti-capitalist groups make headway, the dominant class will respond with ever-increasing violence and, as it has repeatedly shown, will not hesitate at committing massacres on any scale using what McMillan describes as the “capitalists’ accumulated forces of lies, wealth and arms.”
“But we are potentially stronger than them,” McMillan writes. “We outnumber them, and we have right on our side.”
Mark Hand covers energy issues. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org , or follow him on Twitter at @MarkFHand.
Roger’s note: I find it interesting that journalists cannot write positive things about Marx with a caveat to show, I guess, that they are not slavish ideological Marxists. Marx did not consider himself to be a prophet or a maker of blueprints for the future. If so much of what he projected has come to be true it is because of his profound intellectual and analytic digging and not because he was some kind of a seer into the future. First of all Marx was a philosopher, not an economist. More specifically a philosopher of human liberation. He realized that he needed a complete understanding of the history of human development and economics (he read and absorbed every one of the political economists of his day, from Adam Smith and Ricardo and Malthus to names you and I have never heard of) in order to develop a philosophy that contained the theory and practice for human individual and social liberation. Furthermore, it is not untrue but rather misleading to state that “Most of his writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with.” With a particular reference to the Paris Commune, he often wrote of a future of “freely associated labor.” He wrote about the “withering away of the state” and, of course, his most profound “vision” of a future classless world was described in his classic: “from each according to his/her need; to each according to his/her ability” (I added the gender neutrality of which Marx would have approved). I found the best introduction to Marx was through his so-called “early writings” or “economic manuscripts” (I have the old Bottomore edition); and for a deeper understanding of Marx, the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism.
There’s a lot of talk of Karl Marx in the air these days – from Rush Limbaugh accusing Pope Francis of promoting “pure Marxism” to a Washington Times writer claiming that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is an “unrepentant Marxist.” But few people actually understand Marx’s trenchant critique of capitalism. Most people are vaguely aware of the radical economist’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, but they often misunderstand why he believed this to be true. And while Marx was wrong about some things, his writings (many of which pre-date the American Civil War) accurately predicted several aspects of contemporary capitalism, from the Great Recession to the iPhone 5S in your pocket.
Here are five facts of life in 2014 that Marx’s analysis of capitalism correctly predicted more than a century ago:
1. The Great Recession (Capitalism’s Chaotic Nature)
The inherently chaotic, crisis-prone nature of capitalism was a key part of Marx’s writings. He argued that the relentless drive for profits would lead companies to mechanize their workplaces, producing more and more goods while squeezing workers’ wages until they could no longer purchase the products they created. Sure enough, modern historical events from the Great Depression to the dot-com bubble can be traced back to what Marx termed “fictitious capital” – financial instruments like stocks and credit-default swaps. We produce and produce until there is simply no one left to purchase our goods, no new markets, no new debts. The cycle is still playing out before our eyes: Broadly speaking, it’s what made the housing market crash in 2008. Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more Americans to take on debt. When there were no subprime borrows left to scheme, the whole façade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.
2. The iPhone 5S (Imaginary Appetites)
Marx warned that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate high value on essentially arbitrary products would, over time, lead to what he called “a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.” It’s a harsh but accurate way of describing contemporary America, where we enjoy incredible luxury and yet are driven by a constant need for more and more stuff to buy. Consider the iPhone 5S you may own. Is it really that much better than the iPhone 5 you had last year, or the iPhone 4S a year before that? Is it a real need, or an invented one? While Chinese families fall sick with cancer from our e-waste, megacorporations are creating entire advertising campaigns around the idea that we should destroy perfectly good products for no reason. If Marx could see this kind of thing, he’d nod in recognition.
3. The IMF (The Globalization of Capitalism)
Marx’s ideas about overproduction led him to predict what is now called globalization – the spread of capitalism across the planet in search of new markets. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,” he wrote. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” While this may seem like an obvious point now, Marx wrote those words in 1848, when globalization was over a century away. And he wasn’t just right about what ended up happening in the late 20th century – he was right about why it happened: The relentless search for new markets and cheap labor, as well as the incessant demand for more natural resources, are beasts that demand constant feeding.
4. Walmart (Monopoly)
The classical theory of economics assumed that competition was natural and therefore self-sustaining. Marx, however, argued that market power would actually be centralized in large monopoly firms as businesses increasingly preyed upon each other. This might have struck his 19th-century readers as odd: As Richard Hofstadter writes, “Americans came to take it for granted that property would be widely diffused, that economic and political power would decentralized.” It was only later, in the 20th century, that the trend Marx foresaw began to accelerate. Today, mom-and-pop shops have been replaced by monolithic big-box stores like Walmart, small community banks have been replaced by global banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and small famers have been replaced by the likes of Archer Daniels Midland. The tech world, too, is already becoming centralized, with big corporations sucking up start-ups as fast as they can. Politicians give lip service to what minimal small-business lobby remains and prosecute the most violent of antitrust abuses – but for the most part, we know big business is here to stay.
5. Low Wages, Big Profits (The Reserve Army of Industrial Labor)
Marx believed that wages would be held down by a “reserve army of labor,” which he explained simply using classical economic techniques: Capitalists wish to pay as little as possible for labor, and this is easiest to do when there are too many workers floating around. Thus, after a recession, using a Marxist analysis, we would predict that high unemployment would keep wages stagnant as profits soared, because workers are too scared of unemployment to quit their terrible, exploitative jobs. And what do you know? No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal warns, “Lately, the U.S. recovery has been displaying some Marxian traits. Corporate profits are on a tear, and rising productivity has allowed companies to grow without doing much to reduce the vast ranks of the unemployed.” That’s because workers are terrified to leave their jobs and therefore lack bargaining power. It’s no surprise that the best time for equitable growth is during times of “full employment,” when unemployment is low and workers can threaten to take another job.
Marx was wrong about many things. Most of his writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with – which left it open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century. But his work still shapes our world in a positive way as well. When he argued for a progressive income tax in the Communist Manifesto, no country had one. Now, there is scarcely a country without a progressive income tax, and it’s one small way that the U.S. tries to fight income inequality. Marx’s moral critique of capitalism and his keen insights into its inner workings and historical context are still worth paying attention to. As Robert L. Heilbroner writes, “We turn to Marx, therefore, not because he is infallible, but because he is inescapable.” Today, in a world of both unheard-of wealth and abject poverty, where the richest 85 people have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, the famous cry, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains,” has yet to lose its potency.
THE FIRS WEB SITE I GO TO EVERY DAY IS COMMON DREAMS. I DON’T READ EVERYTHING BECAUSE I HAVE OTHER WEB SITES TO CHECK OUT, BUT I TRY TO FIND WHAT SPEAKS TO THE CRISES IN OUR WORLD TODAY AND WILL HAVE A UNIVERSAL AND HUMANISTIC APPEAL TO THE READERS OF MY BLOG. AS HAPPENED TODAY, SOMETIMES I READ WHAT I HAVE A FEELING WILL BE SOMETHING I CANNOT AGREE WITH. AS WITH THESE KINDS OF ARTICLES, AS WELL AS THOSE WHICH FOR ME ARE RIGHT ON, MORE OFTEN THAN NOT THE COMMENTS AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE FOR THE MOST PART CONTAIN AS MUCH OR MORE WISDOM AS THE ARTICLE ITSELF. THIS GIVES ME LOTS OF HOPE BECAUSE THESE ARE NOT OPINIONS OF THE SO-CALLED EXPERTS, BUT RATHER ORDINARY JANES AND JOES LIKE YOU AND ME.
I AM NOT GOING TO POST THESE TWO ARTICLES, RATHER GIVE YOU THE LINKS AND SUGGEST YOU DO AS I DID AND TAKE THE TIME TO READ ALL THE COMMENTS. JUST READING THE TITLES OF THESE TWO ARTICLES GOT MY DANDER UP: “Bill de Blasio: Harbinger of a New Populist Left in America” AND “Class War is a Bad Strategy for Progressive Politics.”
JUST CLICK ON THESE TITLES TO READ THE ARTICLES AND I PROMISE YOU IT WILL BE WORTH YOUR WHILE TO READ ALL THE COMMENTS (THE GREAT PERCENTAGE OF WHICH I CONSIDER TO BE WELL STATED). THERE IS A QUOTE IN THE COMMENTS OF THE SECOND ARTICLE BY FREDERICK DOUGLAS, WHICH I GIVE YOU HERE AS AN APPETIZER:
“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. … If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” – Fredrick Douglas – 1857
London Progessive Journal (http://www.londonprogressivejournal.com/issue/show/78?article_id=481), July 10-16, 2009
Open letter to the workers of Venezuela on Hugo Chávez’s support for Ahmadinejad
Honourable workers of Venezuela,
The Revolutionary Marxists of Iran are aware of your achievements as part of the Bolivarian Movement and have always supported this movement against the widespread lies and the open and covert interference of imperialism. In order to defend your invaluable movement and to confront the attacks and interference of US imperialism in Venezuela, labour and student activists in Iran have set up the ‘Hands Off Venezuela’ campaign in Iran and during the past few years have stood together with you in confronting the imperialist attacks. It is obvious that your achievements were gained under the leadership of Hugo Chávez and, for this reason, you reserve deep respect for him.
In terms of his foreign policy, however, Chávez has made a mistake. With his support for Ahmadinejad he has ignored the solidarity of the workers and students of Iran with your revolution, and in a word, made it look worthless. Most are aware that two weeks ago Ahmadinejad, with the direct support of Khamenei, committed the biggest fraud in the history of presidential elections in Iran and then, with great ferocity, spilt the blood of those protesting against this fraud. You just have to take notice of the international media reports to be aware of the depths of this tragedy. All over the world millions of workers and students, and also those of Marxist and revolutionary tendencies (which mostly are the supporters of the Bolivarian revolution), protested against these attacks.
In of spite this, Chávez was one of the first people to support Ahmadinejad. In his weekly TV speech he said: “Ahmadinejad’s triumph is a total victory. They’re trying to stain Ahmadinejad’s victory, and by doing so they aim to weaken the government and the Islamic revolution. I know they won’t be able to do it.” And that “We ask the world for respect.” These rash and baseless remarks from your President are a great and direct insult to the millions of youth who in recent days rose up against tyranny. Some of them even lost their lives. Many of these youths came out on the streets spontaneously and without becoming infected with the regime’s internal disputes, or becoming aligned with the policy that US imperialism is following for taking over the movement. In addition, the remarks of your President are an insult to millions of workers in Iran. Workers whose leaders are today being tortured in the prisons of the Ahmadinejad government and some of them are even believed to be being punished with flogging. Workers who were brutally repressed by the mercenaries of the Ahmadinejad government for commemorating May Day in Tehran this year are still in prison.
So far Chávez has travelled to Iran seven times and each time he has hugged one of the most hated people in this country and called him his “brother”. He does not realise that the economic, social and political situations of Venezuela and Iran are going in opposite directions. Although both countries have seen a similarly significant boost to their oil (and gas) revenues the contrast between the ways in which this extra money has been used by the two governments could not be more marked. In Venezuela this income is used for building hospitals, schools, universities and other infrastructure of the country, but in Iran it is used for lining the pockets of just a few parasitic capitalists.
On the one hand, in Venezuela, we have seen the nationalisation of an increasing number of companies and factories, the free provision of healthcare, education, civil liberties and so on. By contrast in Iran privatisation is on the government’s agenda, even at the cost of trampling on Article 44 of the Constitution of the country and using the excuse of inefficiency and low productivity of state companies and factories. All these advances of the workers and the poor in Venezuela have given them greater control over the way they work and the way they live. Most importantly, the expropriation of factories and the encouragement of workers’ control and participation have transformed the character of the workers’ movement in Venezuela, advancing it by many stages. The Bolivarian movement and the policies of the government have brought about a huge shift in the balance of class forces in Venezuela in favour of the working class. Not only has the government encouraged the Venezuelan workers to build the Unión Nacional de los Trabajadores as an alternative to the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), but the workers have become involved in running and managing factories and other enterprises. The whole world knows that your government has even drawn up a list of 1,149 closed-down factories and given their owners an ultimatum: re-open them under workers’ control or the government will expropriate them.
In Iran, on the other hand, on top of the lack of many basic democratic rights, the workers are also without any independent trade union rights. Today the workers of Iran do not even have a confederation like the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela. All they have are the Labour House, the Islamic Labour Councils and other anti-working class bodies tied to the state.
But this has not always been so: the overthrow of the Shah brought about many freedoms for workers including, in some cases, control over production and even distribution. Then, however, through repression the Islamic hierarchy managed to take back all the workers’ gains. The leaders that your President hugs killed thousands of workers, destroyed the workers’ movement and pushed it back by several decades. In Iranian society even the ‘yellow’ pro-boss unions – that the Shah had tolerated – became and remain illegal. Even a CTV-style trade union confederation is illegal in Iran.
In Iran the official (and underestimated) unemployment rate stands at 10.85 per cent, with unemployment among the youth (15-24 year-olds) standing at 22.35 per cent. Even when workers are employed they are often not paid – in many cases for more than a year. Even those who get their wages face an impossible task in paying for the basic necessities of life, because their wage is not enough for living costs. For example, with the rent for a two-bedroom flat at $422 a month, a civil servant on $120 wages, or a teacher on $180, or even a doctor on $600 a month struggle to survive. It is no wonder that some 90 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.
The capitalist government of Iran has no fundamental disagreements or contradictions with US imperialism. It is in a ‘cold war’ with America and when it receives enough concessions, it will quickly enter into political dealings with the US and will turn its back on you. Indeed, the Iran regime has already helped the Americans in their military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq – and installing the puppet regimes of Karzai and Maliki through significant trade, security and other deals. The capitalist government of Iran, despite the current apparent differences, is busy in close negotiations with the Obama government on resolving the problems of Afghanistan. This government, despite the “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, is heading towards re-establishing old links with the US. Ahmadinejad’s selection demonstrates the final turn of the regime towards resolving its problems with imperialism. Despite all the “enmity” and “anti-imperialist” gestures the regime is ready to resolve all its differences with America. The government of Iran wants to turn Iran into a society like Colombia (in Colombia thousands of trade unionists have been killed so that multinational companies can exploit workers and plunder the country’s natural resources without any obstacles). It is not without reason that the Iranian government has been implementing the bankrupt neo-liberal prescriptions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and counting the minutes until it joins the World Trade Organisation.
The close and regular links of your leader, Chávez, with the leaders of this regime will eventually make the Iranian masses turn their back on the great lessons of the revolutionary process in Venezuela. Winning the hearts and minds of the masses in Iran and similar countries is the best long-term solution to breaking Washington’s stranglehold on Latin America. Your leader’s closeness with the capitalist government of Iran, a government that has the blood of thousands of workers and youth on its hands, shows that his anti-imperialist foreign policy has a major flaw. Being close to reactionary regimes will never be able to bring the anti-imperialist foreign policy to a successful conclusion. Only the unity of the real representatives of the workers and toilers can confront imperialism.
Stand together with the Iranian workers and condemn the foreign policy of your leaders. Support for Ahmadinejad means support for the repression of Iranian workers and youth. Challenge the flawed positions of Chávez and reject them. Support for the government of Ahmadinejad, especially after the recent events, is at worst an open betrayal of the toilers of Iran and at best a political blunder in foreign policy.
(This book review was published in the August-September 2003 of “News & Letters,” the bi-monthly publication of the U.S. Marxist Humanist organization of the same name)
Anyone who has lived and/or followed the Latin American experience/reality in the post-World War II era will have experienced a Sisyphean frustration with respect to the rise and fall of liberation movements and the hope for new human relations to which they aspire. In the eight years I have lived in Ecuador I have witnessed two successful “leftist” coup d’etat that have resulted in absolutely no fundamental social, political, or economic change whatsoever – to the contrary, the economic/political crisis deepens.
In Ecuador, the 1980s saw intense grassroots organization within the indigenous community that culminated in the formation of a national indigenous organization, CONAIE, whose power was expressed in the 1990s through massive protests against oil exploitation in the Amazon rainforest, privatization of social security, and reactionary agricultural laws.
The indigenous revolt of 2000, its contradictions and the reasons for its ultimate failure is taken up in The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation (Lexington Books, 20002). Gogol points out the contradictions within the leadership of the indigenous movement between those who relied on the creativity of the masses and those who allied themselves with government power. This has come to a tragic fruition with the Gutiérrez government, causing disunity within the indigenous movement that may take decades to repair. These events in Ecuador are in a sense a paradigm of the failures encountered in post-World War II Latin America.
In the first section of the book, Gogol argues that the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic is a sine qua non of truly liberatory revolutionary activity that intersects most dramatically with Latin American historical reality. To those who dismiss Hegel, Gogol shows that they do so at the peril of sacrificing the methodology that can keep revolutionary thought and revolutionary activity dynamic and in sync with social reality.
He takes us upon a philosophical journey touching upon the concept of Other and consideration of the dialectic in the writings of Latin American thinkers including Octavio Paz, Leopoldo Zea, Augusto Salazar Bondy, Anibal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, and Arturo Andrés Roig. He outlines the unique, important and positive contributions made by each, but concludes that in each one encounters an inability or unwillingness to delve deeply into Hegel’s “voyage of discovery.”
In the second section – “Imprisonment of the Other: the Logic of Capital on Latin American Soil” – we find a review of major Latin American thinkers of the 20th century–like José Carlos Mariátegui, Enrique Semo and Roger Bartra. Again, we encounter a richness in thought and analysis of capital’s stranglehold on the masses, showing us that the work of Marx as well as Hegel has taken root in Latin American soil. But we do not yet see the Other unbound. What we find again is the failure to recognize the second negation, the positive in the negative, the pathway to genuine liberation.
In discussing liberation theology’s inability to sustain its momentum in the face of the changing realities and setbacks of movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, Gogol asks: “If one develops a concept of social change, without such a theoretical labor flowing from a fullness of philosophy of revolution, then what happens to one’s theory when the social movement, the historic moment, has changed?” (p. 115).
Referring to Marx’s economics, not as economic determinism, but rather as a “unity of humanism and philosophy;” not a mere sociology but as a philosophy of liberation. Gogol demonstrates how one expression of revolutionary subjectivity after another has fallen prey to the dead end of state-capitalism or reformist accommodation with different forms of capitalism.
The third section of the work is a journey through selected contemporary liberation movements in Latin America. From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, we see different forms of revolutionary subjectivity in action: urban, rural, indigenous, women, workers, students, and others. In each of these, be it the tin miners in Bolivia, campesinos in Guatemala, labor organizers in Bolivia, labor organizers in Mexico’s maquiladoras, the Madres de la Plaza of Argentina, or the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, Gogol shows us how self-liberation re-creates itself in its own social environment, creating new pathways towards liberation.
In the Zapatistas of Chiapas, he finds the freshest and most innovative expression of revolutionary subjectivity. In their rejection of focoism, and in aiming not to take state power for themselves but rather to unify the various expressions of Other in Mexico, the Zapatistas broke new ground. Instead of adopting the dead-end, vanguardist “dictatorship of the proletariat” strategies and philosophies which the original urban radicals had brought to Chiapas, what emerged was a re-creation of the principles of collectivity in decision making, that were already inherent and deeply seated in the ways of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.
As one concerned with understanding and changing Latin America, I see this work as of supreme importance. Although there are a few omissions (the most glaring being a failure to discuss the Colombian situation), the work is comprehensive and probing.
The book concludes with a discussion of philosophy and organization, noting, “It is the theoretician-philosopher(s) who catches the mass self-activity from below, and labors to give it meaning by rooting it within the Marxist-Hegelian philosophic expression…Marx was not afraid to speak of ‘our party’ even in the times when it was only he and Engels” (p. 343).
As one who lives and observes on a daily basis both the ravages of globalized capitalism and the frustration of liberation movements in Ecuador, I can attest to the urgent need for new beginnings in Latin America. And in the light of the Bush doctrine of permanent war and his plans to augment existing U.S. military force in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Aruba, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Honduras, and with new bases in the Galápagos, Brazil, El Salvador and Argentina, the Marxist-Humanist primary task takes on renewed urgency: “To the barbarism of war we pose the new society.”