Monday, December 28, 2015

capitalist accumulation and education

Ernest Mandel discusses the tension in the relationship of university education to capitalist accumulation in p260ff of Late Capitalism. Late capitalism, i.e., capitalism in which technological advancement has become the main impetus for continued accumulation, depends on the production and reproduction of intellectually skilled labor. For this purpose, universities were drafted or converted from humanist institutions into knowledge and knowledge-worker factories. By 1970 when he was writing this book, it was already clear that universities would become centers for technological innovation and hence workplaces of capitalist production. That is, humanities education, moral education, and other traditional notions of the purpose of higher education, were dissolved. Only very few intellectually skilled workers need any type of humanist or artistic education—specifically, those who will produce the ideological arts (science fiction, comic books, TV, movies).

An inevitable clash occurs when a large number of people begin to demand higher education in order to enter more lucrative fields, because this drive for upward mobility conflicts with the aims and needs of capitalists. Not many intellectually skilled workers are needed, and always a dwindling number in comparison to the quantity of constant capital (dead labor in the form of extant technology): the more technological sophistication and automation the intellectually-skilled workers produce for capitalists, the fewer intellectually-skilled workers are needed for capitalists to accumulate wealth and profit.

Thus far, the rise of political conflict related to de-funding higher education makes perfect sense. Capitalists, represented by legislators, or directly acting politically in the form of tax revolts, refuse to pay for mass scale higher education, for the simple reason that it is not in their interests. The vanishing middle class continues to expect and make rather feeble demands on the state for funding of higher education. The bargain struck between them has led to the erosion over time of tax supported higher education and the shift to debt funding.

There’s another story, less economic and more political, that I think is true and helps explain the situation. Mandel’s analysis sets higher education somewhat outside the main capitalist economy (oddly, similarly to the way economists he criticizes heartily later on set the arms economy outside the main capitalist economy). Viewed another way, what has happened is that capitalists have pressed a demand for the territory of education as a new market. In fact, capitalists have demanded not only higher education, but the entire territory of education, from pre-K on up. This makes perfect sense: enormous amounts of money are spent on education, meaning that there is a pool of potential capital circulating through these institutions. While capitalist accumulation is threatened by diminishing rate of profit in the established territories of capitalist production (Marx’ famous Departments I and II), opening a new territory, gaining access to new pots of money to convert into capital, and restructuring the entire territory on the capitalist factory model could avert further crisis, until the money runs out. (This, by the way, is very similar to theories of the permanent arms economy that Mandel agrees most with—tax funding supplies a source of previously untapped capital, and the production activity itself provides a way to valorize accumulated capital. That maintaining the arms economy as a profitable venture depends on deliberately destroying both the arms and people has an analogy in education that I will leave to the reader to contemplate for now. Enjoy.)

Education is being rapidly capitalized, through direct seizure of some schools (the so-called charter schools), but mainly through imposition of curriculum, through legislation that requires use of particular pedagogies, textbooks, standardized tests, etc. that are published by major firms. Standardizing the K-12 curriculum is precisely the replacement of variable capital (labor) with constant capital (technology), which lowers the value and cost of labor by simultaneously minimizing numbers of workers needed and allowing for a reduction of wages. The effort to extend this process into higher education is already well underway.

Then there are the labor conditions to consider. Here, higher education has been in the vanguard, because of the resistance of organized labor in the K-12 sector. Real wages, and the job protections of tenure, have been largely eliminated from higher education, as the result of a bargain not at all unlike that struck infamously between auto manufacturers and UAW leadership beginning in the 1970s or so: a smaller more permanent workforce, grandfathered in, were guaranteed continuing employment, income, and pension rights, at the expense of all future employees. The work conditions, income, and real job protections of workers in the auto industry or higher education in the 1970s look like unbelievable dreams to the workers of today—such has been the destruction of labor conditions in these industries. Labor in higher education has been entirely subjected to “free market” competition, which is to say, labor on the terms dictated by capitalists. This is why tenure has to be eliminated, after all, according to every education manager: it interferes with “flexibility” that the university needs to hire according to “market demand” (which means, in reality, the absolute authority to create and control an industrial reserve army, lower wages, and exploit workers).  

Sunday, December 20, 2015

year in review, 2015

It has been a while since I wrote a year-in-review post--over three years, in fact. It may seem inapposite to post a year-in-review rather than three-years-in-review, but because, in the terms of the CFA-CSU Collective Bargaining Agreement, a three-year review is pursuant to the re-hiring of us long-time temporary faculty, the idea makes me anxious.

With that preface, my year in review, 2015.

Much as in recent years past, I confined the bulk of my activities to teaching, reading, writing, cycling, having debilitating vertigo attacks, faculty labor activism, guitar playing, and cooking. You will notice the conspicuous absence of larceny on that list. 

I would like to say that I feel as if I accomplished many great things in 2015. I suppose many others would also like that, about themselves. But how many of us can say this in good faith? And how many others who do say it are in actual fact university administrators instead? 

I tried burning the candle at both ends, and realized that whoever coined this expression must not have been using jar candles. I tried going the extra mile, but the result of that was that I had to return from that extra mile, because I had overshot the campus by approximately one mile. I attempted to give 110%, only to find that I had a 10% deficit. Since then, I have decided to just do it. When I discover what it is, and how to do it, I will update my progress. 

We continue to live with three cats, despite their efforts. This year, Alexander had surgery to remove a foreign body from his gut. Last year it was Valentine, so presumably this coming year it will be Arthur. On the other hand, perhaps it will be me, even though I am still not a cat, despite my efforts.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

culture, language, racism, and capitalist relations of production

I know I need to learn more about critical race theory, and I know the reason I have not done so is that I’m afraid to confront my own racism. (I take it for granted that there is racism embedded in my consciousness and experience.)

I posted something on Facebook about the only real issue in the Presidential campaign being the class warfare of the capitalists on all the rest of us, and one comment I received was that this isn’t true — there’s rampant racist violence, and attacks on the reproductive and health care rights of women, to name two others. My response was that the only real issue in the campaign was the economic one because the base builds the superstructure. This is a standard Marxist line, taken to explain that culture is produced and reproduced in capitalist society by capitalist social relations of production, so that every cultural phenomenon is a phenomenon of class division, commodification, alienation of labor, and the mystifications and contradictions of capitalism. I think that’s true, but not a complete story. What I want to explain here is why it's a true story.

Culture is produced and reproduced by capitalist production in capitalist society—which by now means the entire global society. Some implications of this follow.

(1) What does it mean to say that culture is produced and reproduced by capitalist social relations of production? It means that there is a class of workers whose only commodity for sale, their labor, becomes the variable capital consumed in the production of cultural artifacts. Those cultural artifacts include books, newspapers, television programs, food, language, art objects, ideas, etc. (Right now, I’m contributing surplus labor by producing the ideas that I’m writing. These words are products of capitalist relations of production because I am not the owner of the means of production, even though I nominally own the labor that I exert. Once they leave my hands, it is not clear that I am any longer the “owner” of the ideas or words, for a variety of reasons, among them that I’m using MS Word that I acquired through the university.)

Language and ideas are produced under capitalist relations of production. They are commodities with potential for becoming capital in the production of something further—more language and ideas, or a new-fangled toothbrush, or whatever. For instance, a person once wrote in an email “;-)” in order to indicate sarcasm. That has become a cultural icon, and has been capitalized upon in the production of the cultural artifacts called emojis, and emojis are now commodities that are sold to users of various social media by way of the advertising revenue generated by users. Emojis, and “;-)” are now parts of culture, parts of language, that in our ordinary dealing with the world do not appear as products of capitalist social relations of production, or as commodities. They have become “naturalized” parts of the language.

(2) In order to understand what emojis are, we have to understand not only how to apply them in social media messages (i.e., how to consume them), but how they are produced. If we follow Marx still further, that understanding is not the point, the point is to change the world, that is, to change the social relations of production that are to be found by analysis of emojis. Every analysis of culture should go in the direction of a ruthless criticism of capitalist relations of production.

(3) In as much as language and (presumably) racism existed prior to capitalism, Marxist analysis can’t explain the origin of these phenomena. That does not mean Marxist analysis is not relevant. Whatever language was prior to capitalism, it’s not the same thing now, because language is a cultural phenomenon that is produced and reproduced by current relations of production.

While it is apparently clear that those from whom we begin to acquire language are close-by cohabitors who aren’t commodifying language by speaking in the household, it does not follow that spoken language is not a consumer object. There are obvious examples of consumer object language in everyday household talk, like cultural buzzwords that derive from media consumption. But further, all language is reproduced in capitalist society by capitalist production.

Like language, so too racism. While those from whom we learn racism are also our close-by cohabitors who do not intend to commodify racism, racism is still a consumer object. There are obvious media messages that reproduce racism through stereotypes, racist images, and so on. Racism is a cultural phenomenon, and in capitalist society, all cultural phenomena are produced and reproduced through capitalist relations of production.

(4) Why does anyone produce racist images in consumer media messages? The answer to that is simple: they’re paid to do so. Now, the workers who create racist messages might or might not “believe in” the messages, but from the standpoint of capitalist production, their belief is not relevant. Only the valorization of capital advanced by the capitalist in the form of profit is relevant. From the standpoint of the capitalist, the content of the message is irrelevant as long as it is saleable and profitable. Those messages that generate more profit will be reproduced again and again as long as they are profitable. Whether this produces or reproduces a culture that suffers violence, hatred, fear, and dysfunction is also not relevant to the capitalist, except in so far as those sufferings can be treated as needs for which consumer objects can be produced for a profit.

It is important to emphasize that this does not explain the origin of racism (or of language). But I’m not sure discovering the origin of racism is important for dealing with racism. I am sure that dealing with racism will require dealing with profiteering from it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

note on some lousy ways people think about Marx

One of the simple ways to dismiss Marx is to say that his communist society could never exist because human nature is greedy and competitive—or at least, that some people’s human nature is greedy and competitive. This assumes that Marx establishes the grounds of communism on a speculation about human nature being generous and cooperative. People who assume that haven’t read or haven’t understood Marx.

A secondary assumption about Marx that is used against him in ignorance is that Marx presumed that the establishment of a communist society was inevitable and the necessary outcome of history. This is also not true. What he does argue, in Capital, is that capitalism will not be able to endure its own contradictions, for instance, the contradiction that capitalist accumulation depends on the exploitation of labor as its necessarily diminishing source of wealth.

I am not sure from what writing by Marx, if any, the argument from human nature is supposed to come. I would guess the 1844 Manuscripts, and the analysis of alienated labor that refers to capitalist production alienating labor from “species-being.” I would make the point that in this early stuff, Marx has still not fully formed his own philosophical architecture, and continues to borrow from Hegel and the Young Hegelians (viz., “species-being” is from Ludwig Feuerbach). Even so, the inchoate concept of labor is the only extent to which there is something like a human nature invoked in the 1844 Manuscripts. What makes humans human is that we work, and that our work is the basis for our social world. Nothing determines that one form or another of that work is inevitable or natural. Alienation is not unnatural. The estranged form of labor is not estranged from human nature, it is estranged from the worker.

By the time he wrote Capital, Marx retained only the most basic Hegelian logic of contradiction, but in a form that’s hardly recognizable. In Capital, Marx analyzes historical documents, contemporary economic and social conditions in England, and writings by capitalist economists, to demonstrate the multiple contradictions inherent in capitalism. These are bound to fail not because of some alleged human nature but simply because they are contradictions. For instance, the familiar boom-bust cycles in capitalist economies are inevitable, because they are driven by the capitalist’s demand for accumulation of wealth, the need to generate surplus-value through unpaid labor, and the need to sell the commodities produced with that labor at their cost (including the profit created by not paying labor). When there’s a boom, production increases, leading to stockpiles of unsold commodities, which drives down prices, which drives down profit, which leads to lower employment or lower wages, which leads to decreased purchases of commodities by consumers. The boom creates the bust. The bust creates hoards of unemployed capital that needs to be spent in order to accumulate wealth, and the cycle starts again. The capitalists themselves do not need to be particularly poor examples of human beings (other than, you know, the unconscionable willingness to exploit workers) in order to be compelled to play their roles as cheap buyers of other people’s work, often with other people’s money. That’s the game, and individual capitalists are no more in control of what they do to play the game than are the workers they exploit. Marx does not need to say anything about human nature to demonstrate this. He only needs to show that the cycles have repeated in obvious sequences with the same obvious results—and that’s easy to do when the British business and bourgeois economic communities and the British Parliament keep such detailed records and testimony about economic conditions.

And not to be gloomy and doomy about it, but the catastrophic end of capitalism doesn’t necessarily lead to communism. It could just be catastrophe.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

and now for a brief rant about popular culture iconography

Too often, when Marxists write about popular culture, they come off as grumpy, unhip old poops. Exhibit A: Theodor “Don’t Call Me Sweetie” Adorno. (And although I am aware that Teddy Baby’s reputation for hating jazz is a bit overblown, I think anyone who really understands music can't possibly think that he did. This is in fact why he is Exhibit A.)

At great risk of self-poopifying, I would like to call attention to what I think is a sure sign of the decadence and depravity of consumer culture in our day and age—the cynical, meaning-destroying, emptying contextless repetition of iconic images. I hope to do more than complain, but to sketch an analysis of this capitalist spectacle.

Marilyn Monroe has been dead longer than I’ve been alive, and her image has continued, zombie-like, to roam among us. The image “Marilyn” is a reference without meaning, an icon of sex appeal that is by now rendered totally sexless. It merely indicates when and where one is supposed to respond according to an overdetermined habit of “belief.” That is, as a normal subject, the image “Marilyn” cues you to associate “sexuality” with some object. It operates like a sticky note, if you’ll pardon the expression, that labels an otherwise inert object with the message that you are supposed to believe is sexually charged and obtainable by purchase, contrary to all reality. “Marilyn” is obscene and prurient, an image of sexual death that normalizes the necrophilia of consuming behavior.

Furthermore, I am convinced that normal subjects know this and are capable of appropriate shame about it. As in the case of all our cultural addictions to obscenities, we consume “Marilyn” in guilt, and that guilt provides the excuse for continuing to use, continuing to consume.

In some ways a more curious case is the iconography of the film The Wizard of Oz. Reconfigured as it is here, as imagery in a computer game that functions as a non-gambling form of gambling, it means nothing. It does not actually refer to The Wizard of Oz—not to the film, not to the plot or characters in the film, not to the actors in the film. The “ruby slippers” are only the icon, without reference.

We generally expect cultural signifiers to signify, even if all they signify is the universal command to consume. As part of an advertisement for a game whose primary purpose is to expose users to more advertisement, these signifiers can barely be said to add value as a brand for consuming. These icons simply float, purposelessly and meaninglessly, in a nebula in which all images are juxtaposed without interacting or reacting. It is degree-zero of communication, as Baudrillard put it: the staging of an image that is a non-image because it is not an image of anything. Baudrillard called this the hyper-real, but this is because he was nostalgic for meaning, and such images can only appear as hyper-real in reference to a reality that they deny or destroy. They are hypo-real and hypo-realizing for experience. They defy any attempt to compose meaning.

What does it mean for us, or about us, that we spend so much time among these sepulchral artifacts?