Mary Poppins

Over Christmas I went to see the new Mary Poppins film with Emily Blunt in the title role. I’ve written before about the social agenda in a Disney film, and this one got me thinking again about the world view it presented to the audience.

This latest Mary Poppins made me think of a recent comment by Existential Comics on Twitter:

 

The film is supposedly based shortly after the great crash of 1929 and yet social conflict is mostly absent. A queue of working men is seen in the opening sequence which we can assume is for a soup kitchen or similar, but other than that pretty much the only working people encountered are the lamplighters and a milkman, all of whom seem very cheerful.

The working class figure more prominently as a cause supported by Jane Banks (played by Emily Mortimer) in the guise of an organisation known as “SPRUCE” or the “Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Underpaid Citizens of England”. This is presented as something worthy, a little like the protection of an endangered species perhaps. No socialist parties, strikes, or self-organisation by the working class in sight here. No, the language is instead one of protection brought to the workers from outside, something offered by a benevolent bourgeoisie. Disney cannot bring itself to use the word “socialism” never mind revolution, not even as a threat to be warded off.

Now obviously this is a family film and not a gritty historical docu-drama, so I understand that this might seem like I’m taking things a little too seriously. The point I want to make though is about how embedded the middle-class way of life (their “values” if you like) is in modern popular culture. This can also be seen in other parts of the film such as in the aversion to debt, and the careful saving which saves the day – reversing the slightly subversive desire for immediate consumption (supporting the poor bird seed seller as a side effect) in the original film.

So perhaps I should relax, it is only a film after all. But I do wonder what vision of the world we are presenting to our children, and what that means for the future. If nothing else it strikes me that this is Gramsci’s vision of hegemony in action.

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Modern Capitalism, Sublation, and Corbyn

I have found the Hegelian side of Marxism fascinating for some time now, since coming across Lukacs at university. I don’t think you can truly get to grips with Marx’s analysis without some understanding of dialectics.

One of the things I find powerful about dialectics is how it approaches change, the processes by which things develop. “Sublation” is one of the key concepts which underpins this analysis of change. As things (concepts, theories) change they are gradually negated, turn into their ‘antithesis’, until at the point of change a new ‘synthesis’ appears. Crucially, this new synthesis does not simply replace its predecessor, it subsumes it. The new wholly contains the old, grows from it, can only be understood by looking both back at what came before, and by extension forward to what it will become (something I’ve written about before).

Marx also uses this idea of sublation, particularly when describing the conflict that grows between the developing relations of production and a society built on top of economic mechanisms that are being superseded. The concept runs throughout the Communist Manifesto and is stated in the simplest fashion in the introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”.

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

(Marx 1971 p.21)

Fredric Jameson makes a similar point in a number of the essays included in “Valences of the Dialectic“. Counter-intuitively he uses Walmart as an example of a company which, paradoxically, has overcome the anarchy of capitalism and the market, providing the necessities of life to an increasingly impoverished public which is incapable of exercising political control (Jameson 2009 p. 422). Jameson makes a connection to Marx’s admiration for the progressive power of capitalism, evident in section 1 of the Communist Manifesto.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part… wherever it has got the upper hand [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.”

(Marx 2010 p.23)

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of the instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all… nations into civilisation.”

(Marx 2010 p.26)

Walmart then, for all its exploitative nature within capitalism, is a phenomenon we must ‘sublate’ and overcome rather than trying to pretend that it (and all the other features of ‘postmodern’ capitalism) never happened. Socialism can only be something that develops out of the existing state of capitalism, that subsumes and exceeds where we are now. The ‘postmodern’ age of capitalism with its global reach and advanced communication systems provides the foundation on which the future needs to be built.

“The challenge remains… to try to think a beyond of late capitalism which does not imply a regression to earlier, simpler stages of social development but which posits a future already latent in the present, as Marx did for the capitalism of his day.”

(Jameson 2009 p.408)

This is an analysis which is quite close in principle to the idea of “fully automated luxury communism” promoted by some on the modern left.

As Jameson points out, what this also implies is that Marxism is not a static solution to which we can endlessly “return”. It is a method and means of analysis based on capitalism itself. As capitalism changes, the analysis of its contradictions and instabilities needs to develop, developing and building on the foundational analysis by Marx.

“Marxism is the very science of capitalism; its epistemological vocation lies in its unmatched capacity to describe capitalism’s historical originality… a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself.”

(Jameson 2009 p.409)

So what is the link to Corbyn? One common criticism of Corbyn is that his agenda is based on the Bennite policies of the early 1980s. Much of this is commentary is plainly scaremongering with a liberal or status quo standpoint. That said I do worry that one strand of the Corbyn ‘project’ is about protecting and defending past victories (or reversing past defeats) rather than seeking to ‘sublate’ capitalism and replace it with something truly radical. Corbyn might be seen as the last social democrat, not the dangerous subversive he is often made out to be.

To put it another way I think that rather than being a dangerous radical, I believe Corbyn isn’t being radical enough.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (Vintage Books, London, 2010)

Spectrality

Reading through Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” there is a very interesting discussion of Jacques Derrida’s “Spectres of Marx“. I should preface this by being very clear that I haven’t read Derrida’s book, and that I have not particularly enjoyed the Derrida that I have read. That said, it prompts a fascinating section in Jameson (chapter 4 “Marx’s Purloined Letter”) on the dialectical nature of change. He makes the concept of “spectrality” central to the description of dialectics.

The reference in the title is of course to the famous opening words of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe” (Marx 2010, p.19). There is plenty of depth in Jameson’s chapter but the key point for me is the connection between past, present, and future. In any analysis of a current situation it is possible to see the spectres of both the past and the future. Change is inherent to any given ‘present’. It does not exist in isolation, but is an expanded view that takes both in what went before and what is to come as fully part of what is.

This is consistent with Bertell Ollman’s description of Marx as studying history “backwards”. Precondition and result here become part of the same process of becoming extended to encompass their interaction over time (Ollman 2003, p.117). From the standpoint of the present, we can look back into the past to see the necessary preconditions, those things that had to be in place for the movement of history to arrive just here.

“it is a matter of asking where the situation under hand comes from and what had to happen to it for it to acquire just these qualities”

(Ollman 2003, p.118)

This is not to imply determinism, other choices were possible in the past that would have lead to a different present. But by viewing this as a single process from the standpoint of what did in fact happen we can better understand both past and present, and perhaps also the future.

This same concept can been in elsewhere in Marx’s work. For example in Marx’s description of the circuit of capital, what David Harvey highlights as “value in motion”. Wealth becomes capital in the movement from money, to means of production, to a stock of commodities on the market, and back into money. Each point is a different facet of the same whole as it moves through a lifecycle.

What Jameson describes (through Derrida) as ‘spectrality’ is therefore central to the understanding and use of dialectics. As a thought process this is useful for more than just reading Marx. For example I’m reminded very strongly of a piece by Jackson Pollock called “Summertime Number 9A” from 1948. An initially random-seeming pattern of drips begins to look like a sequence of frames showing a dancer in motion. At the same time you are aware that you are seeing the frozen movement of the artist himself as he created the piece. In both senses then this demonstrates in art the ‘spectrality’ described by Jameson.

This is then a central concept for dialectics. I guess I’d better get ready to plough through that book by Derrida.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Harvey, David Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books Ltd, London, 2017)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Marx, Karl The Communist Manifesto (Vintage, London, 2010)

Dialectical Materialism

I’ve been reading a fair amount about dialectics recently, working through both Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing“. I recently captured an interesting passage in Jameson’s book on Lukacs’ use of the concept of “totality” to understand the strategies used in modern society to envelop and incorporate dissent into the status quo (and the potential impacts of that strategy, leading to the eruption of dissatisfaction in other places). I’ll follow that up with more extensive notes shortly.

“Dialectical materialism” however has a poor reputation these days as the term used for the simplified “vulgar” Marxism of the Stalinist Soviet Union. So it was odd to read in Zizek’s book a long quote from Stalin’s “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course“. (I shouldn’t really be surprised, Zizek is such a consistent contrarian).

However, when summarised by Zizek this passage from the relic of the worst period of Marxism becomes a brilliant short explanation of dialectical totality:

“First, nature is not a conglomerate of dispersed phenomena, but a connected whole. Then, this Whole is not immobile, but in a state of constant movement and change. Next, this change is not only a gradual quantitative drifting, but involves qualitative jumps and ruptures. Finally, this qualitative development is not a matter of harmonious deployment, but is propelled by the struggle of the opposites … The trick here is that we are effectively not dealing merely with the Platonic dieresis, the gradual subdivision of a genus into species and the species into subspecies: the underlying premise is that this “diagonal” process of division is really vertical, ie., that we are dealing with different aspects of the same division.”

(Zizek 2012)

I should be clear that I’m not endorsing a “dialectic of nature” here. Rather the thought process that sees a subdivided whole rather than a set of linked but discrete objects.

Just as usefully, Zizek goes on to explain how this analytical concept can become in the hands of someone like Stalin a tool for monstrous political control and persecution. Quantitative change that doesn’t lead to qualitative change is, in this analysis, not true change; qualitative change that does not involve a struggle of opposites is not true change. As Zizek describes it this leads to a “more ominous” description:

“those who advocate qualitative change without a struggle of the opposites really oppose change”

(Zizek 2012)

And to refine it further:

“those who advocate the transformation of capitalism into socialism without class struggle really reject socialism and want capitalism to continue.”

(Zizek 2012)

And suddenly the potential political implications are laid bare, and how it came to be used to underpin the Stalinist terror.

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2012)

Totality and pluralism

This is a short post to capture a superb passage from “Valences of the Dialectic”. I’m not going to add much commentary to it, but will rather quote it at some length.

Jameson is discussing Lukacs’ concept of “totality”, and in particular the post-modern turn which dismisses it as associated with Stalinism and in general the perceived destructiveness of totalising visions of the future when used as drivers for political action.

Jameson describes how modern (“late”) capitalism uses the concept of “pluralism” to express the complexity of social relations and to envelop what had formerly been disruptive non-conformist movements within the social apparatus.

This is fascinating framework within which to understand how ‘identity politics’ has become a mechanism for the co-option of dispute and its incorporation into ‘permitted’ discourse as part of a wider Marxist thought process. This facilitates the neutering of dissent, and thereby events such as the Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump. More traditional channels for discontent have in other words been not blocked but diverted, opening the window for the unexpected. To mix metaphors, what the protectors of the status quo haven’t got to grips with is that in the context of class struggle closing one avenue of dissent is like squeezing a balloon – all that happens is that the challenge pops out somewhere else.

This provides philosophical depth (and a link to Lukacs’ Hegelian Marxism) to the theory of “spirits” of capitalism as a means to incorporate and control challenge and dissent expressed in Boltanski and Chiapello “The New Spirit of Capitalism“.

So that’s the preamble, here’s the segment from Jameson in full:

“Pluralism has therefore now become something like an existential category, a descriptive feature that characterises our present everyday life, rather than an ethical imperative to be realise within it. What is ideological about current celebrations of pluralism is that the slogan envelops and illicitly identifies two distinct dimensions of social complexity. There is the vertical dimension of late-capitalist or corporate institutions, and then the horizontal one of increasingly multiple social groups. Celebrations of pluralism pass the first off under the guise of the second, in whose joyous and Utopian street “heterogeneity” it decks itself out. But the complexity of institutions is also a form of standardisation (the very paradox of the system of reification as Lukacs first described it in an early stage). Meanwhile, the celebration of the diversity of the “new social movements” released by the 1960s obscures their increasing collectivisation and institutionalisation as well. The solitary Romantic rebels and nonconformists of earlier periods have all been transformed into groups and movements, each with its own specific micropolitics. The transformation marks a significant (if provisional) gain in the political power of formerly marginal or repressed individuals, who, however, thereby forfeit the power and the pathos of an older rhetoric of individual resistance and revolt.”

“Yet is is precisely by way of this new institutionalisation, marked, for example, by a new-ethnic movement in culture, in which older groups now produce their “heritage” in the form of the image, that the ideologeme of “pluralism” is able to do its work. It shifts gears imperceptibly from these new group structures to the very different structures of the corporate, which can now appropriate the celebration of Difference and Heterogeneity and harness it to the celebration of consumer goods, free enterprise, and the eternal wonder and excitement of the market itself.”

(Jameson 2009, p212-213)

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Review: Grand Hotel Abyss

I’ve not really paid much attention previously to the Frankfurt School and the development of critical theory after having covered them briefly during my University course and taking against the complexity, obfuscation, and negativity of their thought. This probably wasn’t helped by their entries in Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” (the standard work covering all the main Marxist thinkers from Marx through to the 1970s). Kolakowski’s section on the Frankfurt School includes one of my favourite academic take-downs of all time, talking about Theodor Adorno’s “Negative Dialetics”, Kolakowski says of Adorno that:

“he shows no desire whatever to elucidate his ideas, and clothes them in pretentious generalities. As a philosophical text, Negative Dialectics is a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1081)

Ouch. Enough to put anyone off reading critical theory in any detail.

Stuart Jeffries book cuts through this. Told in chronological order Jeffries places each thinker in context, starting with Walter Benjamin (an inspiration for the Frankfurt School and critical theory if not actually part of the Institute for Social Research) and progressing from Horkheimer to Adorno and on to Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth.

Jeffries gives some biographical detail for each of the thinkers covered, and covers the historical context – particularly important for 1930’s Nazism and the run up to the second world war, and then again for 1968 and the influence both of the school on the revolutionary moment, and of the student radicals themselves on the Frankfurt School thinkers, especially Adorno and Marcuse.

Alongside this, Jeffries covers the theories and main lines of thought for each of them in a way that makes sense and allows you to follow the development of their critique of modern life in a clear and coherent way. The style is engaging and very readable, but still leaves you feeling that you’ve covered a reasonable summary. Jeffries is not blind to the gaps, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in the work of the school, but is clearly sympathetic in general. That said this never feels like hagiography, but rather an honest assessment of their contribution to modern thought.

If you’ve struggled with critical theory before and want an engaging introduction to who the main characters are and what it’s all about then this is the perfect book. It’s not a book of heavy theory, nor is it quite just a simple biography. It is though a good starting point. Maybe I’ll read some Adorno after all.

Jeffries, Stuart Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso, London, 2017)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton & Company, London, 2008)

Review: The New Spirit of Capitalism

This is a classic modern work of sociology, which sets out to unpick the relationship between society, politics, and the mechanisms of the economy.

The key concept presented by the authors is that in order to survive capitalism needs to be accompanied by both a “spirit” and a “critique”.

The “spirit” is a positive expression used to inspire commitment to the continuation of capitalism. Passive non-resistance is not enough, the system needs active commitment from both workers, managers, and leaders to continuing to reproduce that system. The “spirit of capitalism” then is “the ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism” by defining “not only the advantages which participation in the capitalist processes might afford on an individual basis, but also the collective benefits, defined in terms of the common good, which it contributes to producing for everyone.” (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p.8)

In other words this spirit articulates the shared vision capable of delivering the broad support of society for the continuation of capitalism based on a collective understanding of the common good.

The authors use management literature to develop an analysis of that shared vision, on the (reasonable) basis that the guidance presented to managers is a clear indication of how the system is “supposed” to work, in a way that supports the most efficient running of that system. Using this technique they contend that for much of the twentieth century the spirit of capitalism was built on secure jobs and hierarchical progress with accepted union rights supporting the division of increasing wealth in a way perceived to be fair.

Each spirit is accompanied by “critique” with two emphases. A ‘social’ critique that addresses the impact of the system on inequality and distribution of wealth, and an ‘artistic’ critique that addresses the impact on individual human psychology. It is the interaction between the way things are supposed to work (the ‘spirit’) and critique that drives the stability of the status quo. The system responds to criticism which in turn reacts to new developments in an ongoing dialogue.

With a strong French perspective the authors outline how the critique of post-war capitalism dominated by large monolithic firms with hierarchical bureaucracies and the accompanying “second spirit” of capitalism peaked with the events of 1968. In Britain it is possible to perceive a similar situation in the various crises of the 1970’s. Under the impact of critique not only workers but also managers and owners reached the point where they were no longer able to maintain the belief that the system could continue as it then existed, or was capable of maintaining the common good. The prevailing spirit broke down, unable to respond to criticism of the stifling effect of bureaucracy, the inauthenticity of mass produced commodity consumerism, and distributional mechanisms built around (white, straight) male dominated industrial workplaces.

As a result of this breakdown, a new spirit of capitalism has begun to emerge that is able to respond to this criticism. Again, built up from the management literature – this time of the 1990s – it is one based around flexible working in networked environments which deliver more individual control over life and work, but also a more precarious life style Ahead of their time, what the authors are describing is the modern world of the ‘gig economy’, the zero-hours contract, and the ‘precariat‘. This third spirit neutralises the critique of the second spirit by allowing more focus on the individual and less on the collective, allowing the subsequent development of ‘identity politics’, accompanied by the break up of the large monolithic companies into many loosely linked component parts. The move away from inauthentic mass commodity production is exemplified by the creation of new ‘artisan’ products. This new system they term the “projective city”, because it is upon relations built around individuals collaborating in projects rather than working in command-and-control hierarchies.

The authors theorise that after a hiatus when this new third spirit was in the ascendant and the old critique of the ‘second spirit’ of capitalism was neutralised, new forms of criticism are becoming visible. They highlight the exploitation inherent in a network model of employment where the freedom and flexibility available to the few is built on the requirement for many to work cheaply and without security, to be discarded when it suits the business. Corporations similarly are broken up into flexible and loosely connected parts to avoid both tax and other social obligations. This provides the basis on which criticism might resume, although the authors are clear that modern critical thought has yet to catch up with the changes visible in what might be called the relations of production. Critique is necessary however to keep the system ‘honest’ and without it, it falls prey to its worst excesses, as can be demonstrated from the experience of the last 10 years. There is also a lesson here for Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour Party who it feels are still refighting the battles of the past, rather than trying to identify the new critique that will drive the changes of the future.

The authors disclaim any direct connection to Marxism or a Marxist analysis of capitalism, and reference a sociological historiography from Weber and Durkheim onward. However what they seem to describe are the detailed mechanics of the ‘hegemony’ articulated and theorised by Gramsci. What they describe as the “spirit” of capitalism is simply the mechanism through which the dominant class acquires the subservience of the rest of society to the continuation of the existing system.

Especially fascinating is the dialectical tension between the ‘spirit of capitalism’ and the critique directed at it. The two remain in dialogue throughout and cannot exist without each other. As the last 20 years have demonstrated, capitalism needs effective criticism to prevent it from falling into the self-destructive pattern identified by Marx.

This book is a detailed and fascinating explanation of the interaction between modern society and economy. While not directly Marxist, it is a fascinating accompaniment to Marxist thought and a spur to reflective thinking about how revolutionary change in the modern world might come about.

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)