Monday, 3 August 2015

Not so much pro-Twinkies as anti-anti-Twinkies



There seems to be a growing confusion in certain quarters that those of us who argue against the back-to-the-land types, 'simple living', localism, or related forms of contemporary anti-modern nostalgia, think that there is nothing progressive in the pre-modern past that can be recovered and used.

But no one says this at all. I’ll happily conceded that there are lots of examples of cooperative behaviour from the past — indeed, cooperation and altruism existed prior to the existence of homo sapiens — that can be admired and act to some extent as sources of inspiration.

Rather, the argument is simply against those who argue against modernity and what they vilify as 'productivism', against those who mistakenly believe that a retreat from industry, progress, science, technology, consumption, growth and anything large-scale is a path toward social justice and optimal maintenance of ecological services useful to humans. The modernist position also argues that such a retreat would actually result in enormous human suffering and do nothing to arrest climate change or biodiversity loss anyway.

Similarly, the modernist argument is also not against artisanal anything; rather the argument is against those who think that artisanal products are inherently more humane than industrial products.

Another way of putting this — if we try to understand all this with respect to a certain industrially baked sponge-cake product with a cream-like filling — is that the modernist argument is not so much pro-Twinkie as anti-anti-Twinkie.

As an example of this sort of confusion, let’s look at this interview at People and Nature with French literature scholar Kristin Ross about her new book on the Paris Commune, Communal Luxury, which in many respects looks to be a fascinating work about a pivotal moment in left history, albeit with some erroneous conclusions if this and other interviews are a fair indication of the key arguments of the book.

I'm alighting on Ross largely because one anti-modernist cretin this afternoon [not linkable, malheureusement] took to celebrating her book in this way: “If Kristen Ross's book on the Commune rekindles interest in the later Marx and his exchange with Vera Zasulich on the Russian peasant commune-against productivist fanboys' breathless citations of the same few passages of the [Communist] Manifesto* in defence of fully automated luxury butt plugs and the Starship Enterprise-she will have earned her place in the red pantheon of the future.” [links added to speculate on what my excitable little Tasmanian Devil of an interlocutor is likely referring to here]

But I bear no particular animus to Ross; indeed I'm very keen to read the book. Nonetheless, she says: “One of the things I find so exciting about these thinkers [who celebrated the communards such as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Nikolai Chernyshevsky and the late Marx] is their ability to work with, and treasure, forms of uneven temporality,” and to embrace the rural Russian peasant commune as a form of social organisation anchored in the past and yet as possible prefigurations of another route.

To the extent that we can at any point look to the past and note some partially beneficial structure, there is nothing at all wrong with this — so long as we do not romanticize these pre-capitalist structures, or worse still, call for a return to them. Ross recognizes the potential pitfall here: “The Russian rural communes were not models for the future in some simplistic way. They were, for example, patriarchal, and oppressive in other ways.

But then she makes precisely the error that she warns against by implicitly counterposing the artisanal forms that she says are at the heart of the Commune project to industry proper:

“It’s significant that a large percentage of the Communards were art workers – they worked in the arts and crafts industries, they were artisans, they had an artisanal formation. There is a primacy of arts-and-crafts labour at the centre of the Commune; that model of a useful production is at the centre of their culture. … [19th Century socialist writer] William Morris posed the problem by considering the impossibility under capitalism of that kind of solidarity that existed among crafts workers engaged in useful production.”

The argument here that artisanal or craft labour permits a “kind of solidarity” not available under industrial production is not unrelated to our current popular emphasis on the local small business, farmers’ market or artisanal craftsperson as performing the Lord’s own work against the faceless mega-corporations. But this argument — the sort of argument that used to be disdained on the left as ‘petty bourgeois’— is ignorant of the causes of exploitation and oppression, which have nothing to do with size, but the need of capital to self-valorize, an imperative that exists under capitalism at all scales, big and small. If that imperative can be done away with, then it does not matter at which scale production is mounted. 

Again, to be clear, the critique of this small-is-beautiful argument is not an argument against craft beer or local bakeries; if the aesthetic of these operations is what people want, bully for them. The critique is an argument against those who posit small as an inherently more egalitarian and environmentally friendly mode of production than large. There is no evidence that this is true; indeed there is growing evidence to the contrary (small-scale localist agriculture for example is more carbon-intensive that intensive agriculture).

Capitalism unleashed heretofore untold productive forces, simultaneously enchaining billions and transforming billions of lives for the better. But the full potential is never realized, as the set of things that are profitable is smaller and not completely overlapping with the set of things that are useful to humanity. This is the ‘productivist’ argument: In order to develop an ebola vaccine, for example, we have had to step outside the market, and depend upon the public sector and medical charities. Imagine what forces could be unleashed, how much better the human condition could be, if production were completely unfettered from the shackles of capitalism. But make no mistake: this is more stuff, more production, more consumption, more growth.

Call this traditional left argument against such petty bourgeois distraction and in favour of modernity and the Radical Enlightenment 'futurism' or 'Jetsonism' if that floats your reactionary boat, but it's tilting at windmills that aren't there. 

We’ve always celebrated our past accomplishments, but have done this alongside the knowledge that modernity was progressive, decisive break with all previous ways of living and thinking. It is conservatives that have always emphasized the past as superior, while progressives are confident that the best that our species has accomplished lies ahead of us.


To my mind, the contemporary, pervading emphasis on the past is itself a product of the neoliberal cancelation of the future, of the Thatcherite command that There Is No Alternative. With an egalitarian future foreclosed now for three or four decades, people begin to look to the past for their utopias. In this way, even as they believe themselves to be raging against neoliberalism, their ideas are actually a product of the very neoliberal delimiting of the horizon of our imagination they want to overcome.

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* Sadly for the cretin's attempt at an appeal to authority, Marx's 'productivism' can be found not just in runs the Manifesto, but consistently through his oeuvre, including such minor works as the German Ideology, the Grundrisse and Capital. If anything, the formulation of how capital fetters production in the Manifesto is naïve compared to the concept's further development in Marx's thought, and how the realm of freedom is expanded as the realm of necessity (human labour) is diminished by expanding productive forces. Not that it should matter what Marx actually said anyway. If something is correct or incorrect, it is because it is correct or incorrect, not because of who said it.

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