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Notes on Marx and the Project of Ideology

October 16th, 2011

Today I pulled together some loosely connected thoughts I’ve been sorting out.  I’m working on a print publication–for now things will get posted here.  I’m writing a lot, but mostly I do my editing on People’s Plaza, in the cold, on limited battery power, etc., behind the Teach-In booth.  It’s an experiment.

I’m acutely aware of right-wing polemics, so I always feel like it’s dangerous to mention Marx today. The fact is that Marx theorized extensively about what is going on right now, but at the same time, merely mentioning his name leads us to an ideological trap. In the popular consciousness, Marx is synonymous with authoritarianism and the Communist State (which is not the same as the theoretical socio-political organization of communism—a distinction most people don’t seem to make). The following is simply a list of points I want to make. Apologies for how they might read or flow together:

Marxism is not an ideology—in fact Marx critiques ideology itself. Marx analyzed the concept of capital, reflecting on its history and future. Part of his importance is that he saw political economy and our social relations as interdependent. Ideology is the system of ideas that mediates how we all work in society as social subjects. To reject Marx completely is to say that political economy is autonomous and that we are free to act as social subjects independently of it. Who can seriously argue that this is true?

Marx’s ideas as a whole are imperfect. To paraphrase Peter Singer, author of Marx: A Very Short Introduction: Marx created a painting of capitalism, not a photograph. There are many aspects to Marxist thought, only one of which is a call for revolution. By no means does that sum up his agenda, nor does the historical outcome of this one facet invalidate everything else he said.

Marx’s thought is centered on the Hegelian concept of humanity’s liberation as the goal of history. He saw that capitalism did not accomplish this, but would in fact lead to more oppression. Thus, communism is not theorized by Marx as a system of oppression, but rather as one holding the potential for freedom.

Our awareness of the mechanics of capitalism is extremely sophisticated today, in part due to Marx’s influence. That is, even those in power think in Marxist terms in order to be better capitalists. Right-wing rhetoric claims that socialized medicine, welfare and other extensions of public funding push us dangerously towards communism. Marx’s claim was that capitalism would gradually lead to class warfare, where the masses would overpower a rich ruling class. The presence of social programs in a capitalist economy makes more sense as a band-aid for the failures of capitalism. It’s absurd that the ruling class would be building towards communism. The essence of communism is common ownership of wealth and the means of production. These things are not given up by the ruling class. What the ruling class can do, however, is create a charitable element within the system to give the illusion of security. To me, the socialist element of our society is a concession to do just this.

Ideology essentially consists of a system of messages we receive and act on. Marx theorized that these messages work so that we keep ourselves working within the system’s parameters, even to the point of unknowingly helping to build the system so that it remains oppressive. Slavoj Zizek argues that much of the time, we do know what our actions are supporting, but we do it anyways. This means that even though the system is the root problem, it makes us part of the problem. We then grow aware of our role as citizens, and that awareness then needs to incorporate itself back into us-as-part of the problem. Once we understand this, we will take no bullshit from anyone.

Ideology’s project is to keep us functioning within a social system. Therefore, the problems arise not in that we are ideological, but in how. Ideology becomes oppressive insofar as our social relations are mediated by power. That is, the systems of power in which we function work to keep us oppressing ourselves. It is the project of ideology to keep us thinking of things such as the economy and the political process as natural and unchangeable. The phrase “you can’t fight city hall” is one such example of an ideological message.

As we grow up, we are socialized to function in a human community. That is a natural and timeless process. What is not natural for us, I think, is incorporating such a large number of abstractions into our systems of thought. If not for civilization, maybe we would not have anything to call ideology—it would be very simply referred to as culture.

To the Occupiers, Now and to Come:

October 11th, 2011

Things are organized in such a way that anyone trying to meet their needs by making an honest living must first pay into a process that abuses the common good. Both in the work that we do and the dollars we spend, power drifts away from us, only to be applied against us. This, I believe, is the real essence behind those currently occupying Wall Street in New York City, and now in cities throughout the country—of which Minneapolis is one. On October 15th, other countries are joining in.

There are very few for whom this process works in their favor. There are a lot more for whom it necessarily must work against. This is nothing new—it goes back to the days of feudalism. The promise of capitalism was the “middle class,” where one can dream big and work hard to make a meaningful life for themselves. The middle class was always an illusion, though. Capitalism is not feudalism, but only insofar as sharecropping was not technically slavery. While it seems we’re earning our keep, what’s harder to see is that the most powerful, most wealthy link in the chain has the power to take their cut off the top. It’s always been that way. What’s different now is that in 2008, those wealthy and powerful segments of our society lost at their own game. And the way this game is designed, when they lose, everyone does. Only, they lose a percentage of their bottom line and others lose everything.

This is not necessarily about greed. We are all part of the same ideological framework and we all, more or less, believe in the same fantasies. It’s easy to justify your place or demonize someone else’s, as we’re all given an ideological bag of tricks with which to do just that. We all learn that and it keeps us comfortable, apart—and functioning in the system as such. Profit, money, abstract value—however you refer to it—is an illusion. It’s something we made up in order to make life function in a large community. Tribes of such unmanageable size cannot do business on trust alone. But what we see now is that the illusion has become more important than trust. We cannot have that. Trust cannot be replaced.

What this is really about is respect. We are not trying to protect property, wealth or other illusions. We are trying to protect the common good. The so-called 1% are part of that common good. In fact, they need us to set things straight. This is about respecting the inherent logic of nature and the real wisdom of humanity. We need to get the message across to everyone that humanity should be trusted before fantasies.

We have the danger of falling into a moralistic, us vs. them mentality, ready to fight and spin our wheels endlessly. But the real enemy is not a “them” but an “it.” It’s made up of all the hard, dark, crystallized parts of human nature. Our society is one big pathological defense-mechanism-turned-machine and as a result our herd mentality operates on all of our most desperate instincts such as fear, greed and envy. The so-called greedy don’t create the greed, they’re just really good at the greed game, and thus they get rewarded for playing. And we’re taking in a backwards, mixed-up message whenever we feel guilty or small for not being “successful” enough. We need to learn, as a society, that such success is a disease; a society fueled by it needs to heal.

I’m looking forward to this thing growing and really taking shape. While I am not reproducing the means of producing my existence, I will be helping to occupy Minneapolis. I will try to get over my cultural programming and do as much as I am capable of. It’s not a battle; it must be a way of life. Let’s keep the conversation going. I’m sick of talking to myself about stuff like this!

Freedom and Capitalism: A Brief Note

October 9th, 2011

I saw a bumper sticker, blue and white with the little Obama logo, that read: “I’ll keep my guns and freedom, and you can keep the change.” I despise what the Right has done with the word freedom. It almost seems a dirty word, yet the concept is close to my heart. So it was with Karl Marx. It sucks that the existential crisis I have been in for the last ten years was being theorized about since at least the mid-nineteenth century. And today, protesters are occupying Wall Street for security in a system that doesn’t work and has never worked:

Capitalism seems different [than feudalism] because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs. This is not because they have chosen badly. Nor is it because of the physical limits of our resources and technology. It is because the cumulative effect of countless individual choices is a society that no one—not even the capitalists—has chosen. Where those who hold the liberal conception of freedom would say we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says we are not free because we do not control our own society.

Economic relations appear to us to be blind natural forces. We do not see them as restricting our freedom—and indeed on the liberal conception of freedom they do not restrict our freedom, since they are not the result of deliberate human interference. Marx himself is quite explicit that the capitalist is not individually responsible for the economic relations of his society, but is controlled by these relations as much as the workers are.

Peter Singer, Marx: A Very Short Introduction, p. 91-92.

This “cumulative effect of countless individual choices” is the playground of ideology—a sort of organized societal schizophrenia. Ideology is full of contradictions, giving the media plenty of ground to call the protesters a bunch of idiots who don’t know what’s good for them, or at best don’t know exactly what they want. It’s obvious that things are not right; it’s too bad that it takes a crisis in the middle class to see it, because by the time it gets to that point, the problems all seem hopelessly obscured. Not to mention the fact that the lower classes have been struggling so long, they don’t even notice anything’s different.

What to sacrifice in these dark times

March 12th, 2009

Here’s a list of things that I allow myself in life, and the things I’m sacrificing to keep them.

I get:

  • Time.  Plenty of free time to do what I want.  Sometimes that means laziness, others it means being creative. I never get up before nine. I get a three day weekend every week.
  • The following things are always on hand at home: cheap beer, frozen pizza, breakfast food, and coffee. I eat like shit and I know it. I probably drink too much. I’m impatient with food.
  • Trips to Caffetto if the walls start closing in. If you don’t go out because you’re trying to save money, going out for coffee is a good alternative
  • A band to play shows with. This is a good alternative to a social life, and a lot of times, you get a nice package deal: you get to go out, see a show, play a show, and you get paid a little. Plus playing and practicing with other people forces yourself out of your own head.

I lose:

  • Income.  I haven’t paid rent this month yet.  Car insurance is due. I don’t save money.  It’s out the day it comes in.
  • A social life.  I don’t care what people say.  Love costs money.  I don’t go out to eat. I’ll go to a show to see a particular band, but I’m in no position to be buying anybody their drinks. I don’t do dates. Every person I’ve ever been with, we just skipped that part and went right to “relationship.” I try to be nice to people but sometimes I come off as rude or anti-social. I don’t play games and I’m not going to be someone I’m not or try to get you to like me. I try to not try too hard. I’m alone in this world and I’m trying to accept it.
  • My passenger seat.  It had to come out because my driver’s side door is stuck shut, so I had a choice: pay to get it fixed or find some other means of getting in and out of the car without giving myself a new bruise everytime. (Delivering pizza, you can easily get in and out of your car up to 20 or 30 times a day.) There’s also no air filter in my car and it’s leaking oil somewhere.
  • My mental health.  I’m not clinically depressed.  I get depressed when I get tired of fighting for my own well-being.  I get bitter when I look at society and see the kinds of work that gets rewarded and the kind that gets overshadowed.  I get upset about how successful people use their resources.  And I hate that there’s nothing you can do about it unless you become one on them.  Lately I’m reading way too many people’s facial expressions toward me as saying “fuck you, I’m better than you.”
  • Hope for the future.  I tell myself, if I’m going to be living like this the rest of my life, then who cares about saving for the future?  If this is my plateau, then maybe the end is something to look forward to.
  • Material possessions, family (breeding) and empowerment.  These are things I never much thought I’d have anyways.  I always figured that by forfeiting my chances in these areas, it would open up for me those avenues which I wanted to go down.  I was wrong.

Is it worth it?

Bullet Points to Accompany the Dead Space Between my Obligations to the Service Industry

December 30th, 2008

Being a pizza delivery driver, I must peak my activity when most others are dragging in theirs.  When most people get back to business, I get a break.  I’m learning that no matter what role we play in the capitalist society, it’s still the same damn game.  Fuck it all.

An attempt to transpose:
The square weekend is roughly from 5 p.m. Friday until about 8 a.m Monday.
My weekend is typically from 10 p.m Sunday until anywhere from 11 a.m to 4:30 p.m on Wednesday.

So, here’s my best attempt at creating for myself a comparable transgression into freedom (weekend):

  • I caught the last two songs of the Knotwell’s set at the Turf Club, assuming the show would be going on until at least 1 a.m.  Luckily I didn’t have the pay the cover charge.  I bought a beer and talked to an old acquaintance and then left.
  • At the CC Club, I read more than I cared to get through of Chuck Palahniuk’s Novel, “Survivor,” as I’m getting kind of bored of it.
  • I Completely cleaned my entire apartment from one end to the other.  I’m not talking about just picking up trash and dirty clothes.  EVERY piece of furniture got moved and dusted.  When the rug under the drum set gets shaken out, you know it’s serious.
  • I Bowled two consecutive games scoring 123 at Memory Lanes, during the first of which I succesfully picked up a 7-9 split for the first time ever.
  • I got at least halfway through “The Communist Manifesto” with an increasing interest in the subject, seeing as how I’m trying my best to party on a Monday night.  (Why is Punk Bowling night at Memory Lanes on Monday?  Because it’s so punk rock to drink and bowl while the Squares [Bourgeoisie] are going to bed.)
  • Also at Punk Bowling, I was sitting at the bar, drinking PBR and reading Marx, and I was offered a free PBR.  I said yes and I got a free sticker and a tall boy.  She admitted, when I asked her, to being “out marketing.”  Not very punk rock, but then again it’s free beer, and thus, a toss up.  What is punk if not a conflicted ideology anyway?

By the way, all of the above took place by myself.  Seems everyone I know (with the exception of the acquaintance I ran into at the Turf Club) is just too Bougie.  Oh well.