Building the Theory and Practice for an Alternate World System

This appeared in the Heathwood Journal of Critical Theory Vol. 1. Issue 2  earlier this year. The power of our forces must be mobilized.

The Commonwealth Counter-Offensive

Charles Reitz

 

A group of radical scholar/activists with whom I have been working has attempted to assess our contemporary political-economic conditions in a tentative and provisional manner in order to re-frame and reconstruct, through the dialectical methodologies of critical theory, keener insights into the generative mechanisms that undergird intensifying inequality, alienation, cultural polarization, and war. We are grappling with the critical intellectual traditions of Marcuse and Marx, and we explore in particular the potentials and latent powers of an incipient radical opposition.

We have assembled a collection of our essays titled Crisis and Commonwealth.[1] The distinctive quality of the volume is its desire to oppose the intensely precarious crisis conditions today and to propose a commonwealth counter-offensive. The political voices represented in it are all to the left of center, and range from radically democratic to explicitly socialist/communist. My work as editor has been grounded in Herbert Marcuse’s philosophy of labor, a perspective that I call critical work, because it penetrates beneath empirical economic facts and discerns generative economic and labor structures that are neither obvious nor apparent.

Fred Whitehead, a long-time socialist and labor advocate, emphasized to us at the outset the need for a new strategic political-economic offensive. In his estimation “while the Right wing has had strategic plans in place since before Reagan became President, the Left has failed to come up with anything that can take them on. Failure to have a strategy at all means failure in the long run, and often in the short run too.” His words reflect a daunting task, but one indispensable for the future success: “Any person or team that only has a defense is doomed to defeat eventually. In part, lacking an offense, you don’t ever score any points. Also, if you are only defensive, your opponent on the offensive not only has the momentum, but he can study your defense and pick out the weaknesses in it. In a purely defensive strategy, however good that may be, there is, then, an inherent weakness. Of course, in any sport, great defense is critically important. And having a poorly designed or executed offense has its perils as well.”

Building upon this insight, David Brodsky presents a discussion of a common ground political platform that he and others in our loosely-organized circle have developed that is meant to serve as a comprehensive counter-offensive against the epoch’s ongoing war on labor. “It is in the interest of all people who must work for a living, and those dependent on them––in other words, everyone except the privileged classes––to mount a counter-offensive against the intensified assault on labor now occurring around the world.” We call this planning and discussion document Charter 2000, and it encompasses an eclectic mixture of reformist and radical ideas serving as “a proposal for labor to make gains, rather than preserve its status quo.” Charter 2000’s core is a highly detailed provisional program for what will doubtless still be a long-term project of discussion and organization as we start to rethink the shape of human society. Its compendium of universal rights and entitlements helps us re-imagine labor’s humanist future, i.e. what we are for, not just what we are against. These are spelled-out in detail under headings such as: peace (peaceful, nonviolent, and civilian economy and society; teach nonviolent conflict resolution; foreign relations based on peaceful cooperation and international grass-roots solidarity; end U.S aggression against other nations and peoples; end military sales to foreign countries, especially repressive regimes; eliminate U.S. military bases in foreign countries and territories); justice (a democratic economy producing for human needs, legitimate aim of economic activity is to optimize the common good; equal rights; democratic and fair distribution of wealth, property, and power; an end to classism, racism, sexism [gender and sexual orientation], ageism, xenophobia, domination by single culture or religion, whether institutionalized or informal, including the scapegoating of immigrants and non-citizens; end racial profiling; support affirmative action); solidarity/community; basic freedoms, privacy, civil and human rights, women’s rights, rights of children and youth, rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders; robust democratic process and structure, electoral reform, democratic outcomes; stout public domain and public services; sustainable abundance; ecological/environmental stewardship; sustainable agriculture; humane treatment of animals/animal rights. The discussion of rights is expanded into a discussion of assured entitlements to: jobs and income; housing, accommodations, food, clothing, utilities; health care; transportation; communication/media; education; culture/the arts; child care; science and technology in the public interest; citizen/consumer power; safe, clean sustainable environment; and security and emergency services. The full text of Charter 2000 is available on the internet at http://www.progressiveplatform2000.org/  It is unique among U.S. progressive platforms and programs in its focus on universal human rights, especially social, economic, and cultural rights, which are excluded from the U.S constitution and slighted in statutory law. It is also unique in its insistence that U.S. democracy expand to embrace these universal human rights, which Charter 2000 calls democratic outcomes, and that they be guaranteed through constitutional amendments.

The emphasis on praxis here is clear as Brodsky apprises us that: “Charter 2000[’s]. . . ‘Preamble’ reads: ‘We prefer flexibility: any strategy that furthers the broad progressive transformation of American society is a good one. There are many effective ways of advancing progressive goals, ranging from educational efforts to testimony before public bodies, community and labor organizing, electoral and media campaigns, and actions in the streets (rallies, marches, demonstrations, picketing, and civil disobedience).’” On the strategy of winning new constitutional amendments guaranteeing rights––Brodsky rightly admonishes: “Implementation will depend on a permanent, militant mass movement insisting on enforcement.”

Another contributor, a much-honored radical voice in academe, Douglas Dowd, emeritus professor of economic history at Cornell, presses upon us a legitimate sense of urgency: “as the world now spins it increasingly becomes obvious that unless sane and decent people take over U.S. politics that our indecent politics will bring an end to life on earth.” Looking back to summer 2011 he recounts that “beginning on Wall Street, protests took hold throughout the nation. . . . The protests are beginning to take hold again. Three cheers for that, but we also need a nationally coordinated movement for the substantial improvement of all social problems and possibilities at home: and peace abroad.” He asked: “As the rich and powerful go about their dirty work, what should we be doing?” and he suggested that, for one thing, a campaign should be waged as a left within the Democratic Party focusing on six major issues: “the economy, inequality, big business, taxes, wars, and the environment. The ‘six’ interact and are interdependent; to rid ourselves of what’s harmful in any one of them, all must become substantially undone in ways to serve all, instead of a few.” The current U.S. presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders certainly embodies this broad-based and radical (for the U.S.) approach.

In recent years the Occupy Movement captured the nation’s imagination by standing up to Wall Street and holding the financial district responsible for most of the poverty and suffering on the planet. So too have the uprisings in Madrid and the massive demonstrations and general strike last year in Athens against the austerity budgeting required by its biggest public and private creditors (i.e. the European Central Bank, and other national banks, Germany’s in particular, mediated through the IMF). Synchronized workforce actions, like the general strike of November 14, 2012, that linked the opposition in Spain and Greece with forces in Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and France challenge the notion of the loss of the revolutionary subject. The demonstrators have connected with the key power base: labor. Yet these challenges must grow from revolt to revolution.

The workforce is the resource with programmatic power. It is the creative force in the economy. Everything depends on labor. Yet today labor is supervised and controlled by finance capital. Marx and Marcuse emphasized that, in and of itself, labor has the capacity to act freely. Labor occurs in social relationships, and it is a communal project of social beings to meet human needs and promote human flourishing.

Marx and Marcuse built upon Locke and Smith, but stressed that labor is a social process; that the value created through labor is most genuinely measured by socially necessary labor time; and its product rightfully belongs to the labor force as a body, not to individuals as such, i.e. grounding a theory of commonwealth ownership and justice.

Herbert Marcuse knew that because capitalism exists, so too does exploitation, and that system change is necessary and possible if we comprehend and refuse the system. He stressed that system change requires a twofold refusal: of its mode of production and the repressive satisfactions that replicate it. Marx and Marcuse encompassed the theories of Locke and Smith within a larger philosophy of labor. Where Locke and Smith saw individual labor as the source of private property, in an atomistic (Robinsonian) manner, Marx recognized that all humans are born into a social context. Humanity’s earliest customs, i.e. communal production, shared ownership, and solidarity assured that the needs of all were met, i.e. including those not directly involved in production like children, the disabled, and the elderly. Our common work is the source of our common wealth. Only the labor force, as a group, has a legitimate right to own this economic resource and to the political leadership of the commonwealth system of governance upon which it is built. This right of the commonwealth to govern itself, and humanity’s earliest ethic of holding property in common, derive only secondarily from factual individual contributions to production; they are rooted primarily in our essentially shared species nature as humans, as empathic beings whose condition is that of sensuous living labor, a perspective that I discuss in detail in Crisis and Commonwealth’s chapter 12. Richard Leakey (1994, 60-63; Leakey and Lewin 1978) and Frans de Waal (2013, 2009) stress that the historically earliest cultural context of cooperation and caring fostered interdependence and an awareness of the power of partnership. These customs and behaviors had the capacity to ensure survival. Subsistence needs were met with relatively little time spent in the collaborative acquisition of necessities (3-4 hours a day); thus the foundation was established for the fuller species life to flourish within the human community. This included the development of language as a derivative of the communal human condition (Leakey 1994, 124).

The commonwealth vision―and the practice flowing from it―have the power to reclaim our common humanity. Political activism has been emphasized above as I have explained by three of the authors in Crisis and Commonwealth.  Several more crucial and diverse proposals will be summarized below in a series excerpts and echoes from the volume itself.

Critical reasoning and analysis have formulated an alternative vision for labor grounded in a critical theory of work, wealth, and the historical human condition. The politics of critical work begins with an understanding of the legitimacy of this philosophy of labor as the foundation upon which to develop strategy and tactics on a number of fronts that can also be coordinated into a proto-revolutionary movement tending toward socialism’s most radical goals. The critical work of politics stems of course from Marcuse’s Great Refusal and his reality-based utopianism.

For these reasons we wish to argue, as Marcuse clearly saw, that there can be no rehumanization of society and social philosophy without the decommodification of labor. Communal labor sustained human life and human development. When commodified as it is today, labor’s wealth-creating activity is no longer a good in itself. The overall “value” of the activity of the workforce, dominated by capitalist property relations, is reduced to its aggregate payroll. The workforce is never fully remunerated for its contribution to the production process precisely because its contribution, when commodified through the labor market, is reduced to the equivalent of the cost of labor force reproduction, and the “surplus” is appropriated as property by powerful non-producers. Classical political economy (Ricardo, then Marx) called the downward pressures upon the “value” of commodified labor to drop to de-humanized levels of bare subsistence “the iron law of wages.” Douglas Kellner called Marcuse’s notion of labor decommodification the “liberation of labor” (Kellner 1973, 3 emphasis in original). Rehumanization cannot be accomplished without a form of justice grounded in commonwealth ownership.

Herbert Marcuse describes the nature of humanist socialism as follows: “In the Marxian conception, socialism is humanism in as much as it organizes the social division of labor, the ‘realm of necessity’ so as to enable men to satisfy their social and individual needs without exploitation and with a minimum of toil and sacrifice.” As Marcuse saw it in the late 1960s, a new, more generalized, type of communism in Europe––“Eurocommunism”––was being fueled by an ascendant intercultural anti-capitalist counter-consciousness that philosophically and politically negated the veiled mechanisms of domination. Critical clarity had come to the striking workers and students of Paris 1968, for example. In 1979 Marcuse asked: “Can there still be any mystification of who is governing and in whose interests, of what is the base of their power?”[2] The dominant European and American political tendencies at that time were tending to the right, but the development of Eurocommunism, which had much in common with the broadly activist socialist humanism of Marcuse, meant that the rightward drift was “meeting an enlarged opposition.”[3]

The radical goal is decommodification: public work for the public good. This involves sensuous living labor authentically actualizing itself through humanist activism and creativity––humanity remaking itself through a social labor process in accordance with the commonwealth promise at the core of our material reality. This is the radically socialist logic of commonwealth production and ownership.

Herbert Marcuse’s son, Peter Marcuse, himself an emeritus professor of urban planning at Columbia University, has outlined a strategy of moving toward socialism one sector at a time. If revolution in its classic form is unlikely to take place all at once, its goals might best be approached strategically piece by piece, built on those elements of the existing system that already rested on socialist-aspects. Spaces of Hope exist for socialist political action, as in the housing sector for example where cooperatives, land trusts, public ownership, mutual housing associations raise the question of whether the for-profit market is really the best way to allocate housing, one of the necessities of life. Similarly anti-capitalist alternatives in education, health care, and even the financial sector, raise the option of an aggressive posture that would not only defend the existing islands of non-commodified production but call for their expansion. This would deepen the debate: to go from private vs. public, to open up the socialist vs. capitalist choice. In practice, it would mean a kind of progressive economics of decommodification and liberation from the market dependency, moving towards socialism one sector at a time.

Steve Spartan and I presented an analysis in Crisis and Commonwealth of the income accounts for the U.S.A. which has demonstrated that incomes are structurally determined, and that structural, that is socialist, changes to the economy (e.g. decommodification of the labor process and production, expropriation of the expropriators) can reconfigure the patterns of wealth creation and distribution in accordance with the radical goals of equality and justice. Such changes are really possible, and not only possible; they are feasible: worldwide we have a system ripe with abundance, yet obsolete economic mechanisms––based on ownership or non-ownership of private property––are driving most of humanity, the labor force internationally, to its knees. The Marxist conceptions of wage-labor and commodity fetishism are the key analytical criteria that measure the underlying dehumanization and commercialization of education and life itself under capitalism. Abolition of these phenomena will be the hallmark of humanist advancement in society and culture. Critical philosophy and radical pedagogy must theorize the origins and outcomes of economic and cultural oppression, and be engaged politically with the labor force to end them. To liberate the fullest potential of any critical theory of society this must be its logic and manifesto.

Our vision of re-humanized social action and social ownership is a mature philosophy of human freedom and fulfillment grounded in the human capacities of sensuous living labor. Authentic freedom is ours when we grasp intellectually and hold politically the resources that we have produced, and which can be possessed by all, within a de-commodified and re-humanized world. We emphasized the transformation of commodified human labor into public work, i.e. work that aims at the public good rather than private accumulation. Work in the public interest in the public sector expands areas of the economy traditionally considered the public domain, the public sphere, the commonwealth: social needs oriented projects like libraries, parks, utilities, the media, telephone service, postal service, transportation, social services.

Henry Giroux takes up one of Crisis and Commonwealth’s key issue areas––schooling––as a political point of engagement, in addition to Dowd’s “six.” He makes a powerful case for critical pedagogy as a force against inequality and for social transformation. “In this conservative right-wing reform culture, the role of public education, if we are to believe the Heritage Foundation and the likes of Bill Gates-type billionaires, is to produce students who laud conformity, believe job training is more important than education, and view public values as irrelevant. Students in this view are no longer educated for democratic citizenship. On the contrary, they are now being trained to fulfill the need for human capital.”

Giroux remarks sharply that: “privatization, commodification, militarization and deregulation are the new guiding categories through which schools, teachers, pedagogy and students are defined. The current assault on public education is not new but it is more vile and more powerful than in the past.” Teachers can spearhead a new social movement as a powerful force for critical consciousness and societal reconstruction. As he sees it: “Pedagogy is a mode of critical intervention, one that believes teachers have a responsibility to prepare students not merely for jobs, but for being in the world in ways that allow them to influence the larger political, ideological and economic forces that bear down on their lives.

Schooling is an eminently political and moral practice, because it is both directive and actively legitimates what counts as knowledge, sanctions particular values and constructs particular forms of agency.” Teachers are being put on the defensive by neoliberal reformers in education like Michelle Rhee and others. Giroux, like Whitehead, stresses that the teacher corps needs to go on the offensive: “…educators need to start with a project, not a method. They need to view themselves through the lens of civic responsibility and address what it means to educate students in the best of those traditions and knowledge forms we have inherited from the past, and also in terms of what it means to prepare them to be in the world as critically engaged agents.” This means that: “educators will have to focus their work on important social issues that connect what is learned in the classroom to the larger society and the lives of their students. Such issues might include the ongoing destruction of the ecological biosphere, the current war against youth, the hegemony of neoliberal globalization, the widespread attack by corporate culture on public schools, the dangerous growth of the prison-industrial complex, the ongoing attack on the welfare system, the increasing rates of incarceration of people of color, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the rise of a generation of students who are laboring under the burden of debt and the increasing spread of war globally.” “[E]ducators need to do more than create the conditions for critical learning for their students; they also need to responsibly assume the role of civic educators willing to share their ideas with other educators and the wider public by writing for a variety of public audiences in a number of new media sites.”

Giroux is thoughtful about the teacher’s necessary political engagement, and suggests: “One useful approach to embracing the classroom as a political site, but at the same time eschewing any form of indoctrination, is for educators to think through the distinction between a politicizing pedagogy, which insists wrongly that students think as we do, and a political pedagogy, which teaches students by example and through dialogue about the importance of power, social responsibility and the importance of taking a stand (without standing still) while rigorously engaging the full range of ideas about an issue.” Further, “political education foregrounds education not within the imperatives of specialization and professionalization, but within a project designed to expand the possibilities of democracy by linking education to modes of political agency that promote critical citizenship and address the ethical imperative to alleviate human suffering.” In sum: “[I]n opposition to the privatization, commodification, commercialization and militarization of everything public, educators need to define public education as a resource vital to the democratic and civic life of the nation.”

Patricia Pollock Brodsky presented an historical account, remarkably consonant with Giroux’s analysis and experience, of exactly how her institution of higher education “faced a series of relentless attacks on academic freedom, faculty governance, and the public status of the university.” Her assessment of the ordeal is upbeat: “In response to this multi-pronged attempt to corporatize and privatize much of UMKC (the University of Missouri at Kansas City), faculty, students, and the community together mounted a successful defense of public higher education.”  The details were these: “Threats to UMKC initially came from a group of local big businesses trying to gain access to public funds, particularly from research in the lucrative fields of health sciences and biotechnology.” The university’s Chancellor advocated  the neoliberal agenda of transformation and technology transfer: “Deals were floated to sell off part of the highly rated Dental School to a private company, and to transfer teacher training and degree granting from the School of Education to a private “Institute for Urban Education . . . . The biggest prize coveted by [the Chancellor] Gilliland and her backers, however, was the biotech industry. UMKC, with its medical, dental, pharmacy and nursing schools and its large-grant-funded research-oriented School of Biological Science (SBS), seemed to offer a ready-made institutional framework.” The School of Biological Science, seeing itself as doing fundamental scientific research in the public interest, refused to be partnered with a private local institute that sought to commercialize and commodify its work. To defeat the Chancellor’s agenda, “the faculty used a variety of strategies to realize the principles of informed resistance and outreach to all potential allies.” In the end the Chancellor was felled by a vote of no confidence from within five of the university’s Schools. Brodsky said her account “has been written in the hope that the successes at UMKC can serve as an example of, if not an inspiration for, what can be accomplished through principled action and solidarity. To fight back, the academic workforce need not be unionized, or even have an AAUP chapter, though some organizational focus is necessary. Conditions since 2005 have worsened significantly in our society in general, and attacks continue on public higher education and on UMKC, but campus resistance and mobilization showed that victories are possible.”

John Marciano, like Henry Giroux, has also written about the need for civic literacy, civic activism, and social justice education. He raises the issue of whether a push for a left in the Democratic Party is a dead end. While there are definitely some progressives within the party to be supported, he believes past history has shown that at the national level the Democrats from Wilson to Obama are “a criminal gang.” Herbert Marcuse would fundamentally agree, yet he also concedes (and here Dowd might well agree) that: “Radicalism has much to gain from the ‘legitimate’ protest against the war, inflation, and unemployment, from the defense of civil rights … The ground for the building of a united front is shifting and sometimes dirty––but it is there.”

Arnold L. Farr’s essay on repressive and emancipatory education utilizes Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities to get at the class and race issues. Kozol’s work documents the material inequalities in school resources, and of course unequal resources translate into unequal life chances for children in class and race terms. Farr shows how Kozol’s radical perspective investigates the causes of the underlying inequalities and injustices, while the liberalism of John Rawls’s famous theory of justice provides a deceptive ideological veil rendering the basic structure of society invisible. Emancipatory education requires an intellectual and historical re-contextualization of the facts with “what the facts have denied,” as Marcuse says, to build a multidimensional context for interpretation. Only this type of historical and multicultural learning can undergird radical political action for freedom and equality.

A final lesson from Farr’s essay is a reminder of the dangers of repressive tolerance. Here I would also build on one of Kevin Anderson’s insights warning against the destructive cultural toleration of misogyny in his overview of “Year Two of the Arab Revolutions.” Certainly sexism is an ongoing global phenomenon fueling violence against women that knows no class or ethnic boundaries: from Kansas City to India, to South Africa. Witness the world-wide records of sexual assaults, rapes and murders, genital mutilations, sex trafficking and sex slavery, against which the “V-Day” and “One Billion Rising” movements have campaigned and protested. Male-dominated cultural patterns must be replaced with patterns of partnership power: males must be liberated from misplaced aggression and any sense of entitlement in relations with women.

Poet and essayist Lloyd C. Daniel, a former elected state representative in the Missouri House, often reads his material at public arts events with jazz and hip hop inflections, but in the address transcribed in our collection he turns seriously indignant: “We’ve gone down a military road to control the world. You can follow them if you want to but Dr. King wouldn’t have. We can’t presume to know exactly what he would have said about what’s going on now, but we know what he said about Vietnam. If you read, you know what he said about the Congo, about South Africa. A third of his “Chaos or Community” book was about foreign policy and he points to how it’s not about democracy, it’s about protecting a handful of rich corporations, military interests and American arrogance, so they can somehow run the world, be policeman of the world and can’t run their own affairs. Oppress their own people.” Like Dr. King, Daniel admonishes the U.S. government: “Stop your invasions. Stop your oppression of your own people. Then think about telling somebody else something. The United States of America does not have the right, wisdom or ability to run planet Earth. God is not dead. Dr. King in fact said he could hear God saying to America, ‘You’re too arrogant and if you don’t change your ways, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.’”

Daniel emphasizes that most Black leaders at the time told MLK, Jr, “stay with civil rights Dr. King, don’t mix civil rights with foreign policy and the economic system. Don’t do that.” But Dr. King said, “I have to”––echoing the phrase of his famous namesake after posting his ninety-five theses on the Church door at Wittenberg in 1517: “Ich kann nicht anders [I cannot do otherwise].”

Daniel stressed the radical nature of Dr. King’s political philosophy: “He said he couldn’t come out against violence in the ghettos, unless he came out against what he called, ‘the greatest purveyor of violence on planet Earth, my own government.” He concludes: “The point is this, let us live Dr. King’s dream. Please don’t trivialize Dr. King. Please don’t make him into just another okey-doke handkerchief head Negro leader. If that were all he was, he’d be on one leg, sliding around the stage with his collar whipped backwards, collecting money now. He was much more than that.”––“They had to kill the brother.”

Alfred T. Kisubi has introduced us to the too-little-heralded philosophical and literary traditions of socialism and humanism in post-colonial Africa, providing a wealth of political leadership information for critical study. He also documented the secular African approach to cooperative economics, Ujamaa, and the traditional roots of labor cooperation and the moral power of partnership conduct that resonate deeply with views I have myself presented.

Peter McLaren’s writings on critical pedagogy have long been an inspiration to me and several of my colleagues, not to mention the many co-conspirators in the critical pedagogy movement far and wide. He stresses here that the radical approach to teaching that we have chosen is a necessary, yet certainly insufficient vehicle for transforming the world; nonetheless we can strengthen our work anew by emphasizing the intended societal impacts of our project with a militant manifesto proclaiming our practice as “revolutionary critical pedagogy for a socialist society.” He explains: “The work that we do has been adapted from the pathfinding contributions of the late Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, whose development of pedagogies of the oppressed helped to lay the foundations for approaches (feminist, post-structuralist, Marxist) to teaching and learning that utilize the life experience of students in and outside of traditional classrooms to build spaces of dialogue and dialectical thinking.” Today critical educators are faced with a heightened political urgency: “The fact is, surely, that we are faced with two [loaded] choices about how to live our humanity––the liberal model of pleading with corporations to temper their cruelty and greed, and the reactionary model that has declared war on social and economic equality. And on the evidence that each of these models is fiercely and hopelessly entangled in each other’s conflictual embrace, we can accept neither.” McLaren makes the most fundamental of radical proposals: “as we participate in an analysis of the objective social totality that we simultaneously struggle for a social universe outside the commodity form of labor. If we are to educate at all, we must educate for this! McLaren is calling upon us to challenge, creatively and militantly, the prevailing forms of educational administration and pedagogical practice in the U.S. which ultimately reproduce the unequal social division of labor through the acceptance of wage labor and capital’s fetishism of commodities. These must no longer be taken as natural and normal––as both the overt economic function of education and the covert hidden curriculum of schools. Yet schools and society today are also confronting crises of institutional failure: the massive over-appropriation of GDP by elites dialectically translates into crises of non-reproduction for society’s laboring base.

Our volume repeatedly turns to Marx and Marcuse as crucial sources for a critical understanding of the commodification of life and learning. Liberation requires decommodification and social action consistent with standards of justice that are intercultural and humanistic. In this regard McLaren and Nathalia Jerimillo published Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Toward a New Humanism (2007) assessing the roots of the current crisis of U.S. capitalism in its ongoing imperialist (globalization) aspirations even before the 2000 financial debacle on Wall Street. McLaren’s concluding piece in Crisis and Commonwealth indicates his belief (and mine) that an explicitly socialist strategic offensive is indispensable for liberation. The socialist humanist nature of his manifesto is clear: “We need to reclaim the power of critique as the sword arm of social justice and not relinquish it. For in doing so we reclaim our humanity and the world.” McLaren, in contradistinction to the united front strategic recommendation of Marcuse and others, warns against “forming enfeebled and enfeebling popular fronts that fall like spent cartridges on the heels of any real challenge to capitalism.” So this aspect of strategy formation is an issue yet to be conclusively resolved.

In “The Communist Horizon” Jodi Dean introduces us to the radical perspectives of literary critic Bruno Bosteels (Cornell University) and the once-imprisoned revolutionary theorist, Álvaro García Linera, who subsequently became the Bolivian vice-president under Evo Morales. Dean acknowledges Bosteels as having brought Linera to her attention through his recent monograph, The Actuality of Communism (London: Verso, 2011). Bosteels quoted Linera’s fundamental thesis: “The general horizon of the era is communist.” Dean found this absolutely remarkable and elaborated: “García Linera invokes the communist horizon ‘as if it were the most natural thing in the world,’ as if it were so obvious as to need neither explanation nor justification. He assumes the communist horizon as an irreducible feature of the political setting. ‘We enter the movement with our expecting and desiring eyes set upon the communist horizon.’ For García Linera communism conditions the actuality of politics.”

Dean explains her understanding of this “horizon” as having relevance both for the anti-communist Right as well as for the non-communist Left: “Communism is that against which they construct their alternative conception of the economy. It’s a constitutive force, present as a shaping of the view they advocate.” Speaking of a spate of new publications and conferences on radical social theory and practice, Dean comments: “Over the last decade a return to communism has re-energized the radical Left. Communism is again becoming a discourse and a vocabulary for the expression of universal, egalitarian, and revolutionary ideals. A vital area of philosophy considers communism a contemporary name for emancipatory, egalitarian politics and has been actively rethinking many of the concepts that form part of the communist legacy.” In her estimation, communism “is reemerging as a magnet of political energy because it is and has been the alternative to capitalism.” She is optimistic about revolutionary possibilities today: “As recently became clear in worldwide rioting, protest, and revolution, linking multiple sites of exploitation to narrow channels of privilege can replace melancholic fatalism with new assertions of will, desire, and collective strength. The problem of the Left hasn’t been our adherence to a Marxist critique of capitalism. It’s that we have lost sight of the communist horizon, a glimpse of which new political movements are starting to reveal.” “Instead of a politics thought primarily in terms of resistance, playful and momentary aesthetic disruptions, the immediate specificity of local projects, and struggles for hegemony within a capitalist parliamentary setting, the communist horizon impresses upon us the necessity to abolish capitalism and to create global practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation.” Dean offers an exemplary form of  the offensive strategic thinking: “For over thirty years the Left has eschewed such a goal, accepting instead liberal notions that goals are strictly individual life-style choices or social-democratic claims that history already solved basic problems of distribution with the compromise of regulated markets and welfare states––a solution the Right rejected and capitalism destroyed . . . . In light of the planetary climate disaster and the ever-intensifying global class war as states redistribute wealth to the rich in the name of austerity, the absence of a common goal is the absence of a future. The premise of communism is that collective determination of collective conditions is possible if we want it. The communist horizon appears closer than it has in a long time.”

In her most recent essay Dean emphasizes that “At a minimal level, if we are to have a chance of taking power, of reformatting the basic conditions under which we live and work, we have to share a name in common. . . .”[4] Where she is proposing the formation of a revolutionary party, I am suggesting we need to form an alliance of working groups in the name of a Commonwealth Counter-Offensive. This is as it happens one of the forms of pre-party organization she endorses: “Trusting others’ skills and knowledge is essential if we are to form ourselves into a political force capable of addressing global capital. This suggests the utility of working groups in multiple locales and issue areas—groups with enough autonomy to be responsive and enough direction to carry out a common purpose, which itself would have to be hashed out and to which all would have to be committed.”[5]

Inspired by Dean’s crucial contributions as well as the work of Zvi Tauber, I took up the material force and scope of a labor theory of ethics and commonwealth in chapter 12 of Crisis and Commonwealth as the larger political reality that encompasses all our engagement and action. I argued that a demythologizing and humanist reading of the history of ethical thought in the world’s great wisdom traditions yields trans-historical insights. Humanity’s oldest moral customs rooted in specific-historical conditions and practices, reflected communal ideals of sharing, cooperation, empathy, mutual regard, respect and reciprocity, partnership power, etc. These norms were themselves practical: aiming at the transformation and pacification of everyday tumult. Partnership practices and commonwealth customs, raised to a higher, ideal, level as proverbs and principles, provided a critical negation of conflictual social realities. In non-religious and sociological terms: Life depends on labor. Social labor is the source of social wealth. The labor force has the power to reclaim it from any who have unjustly appropriated it.

Marcuse and Marx emphasized the underlying identity of communism, socialism, and humanism. Philosophical humanism was seen not as impossibly utopian and politically powerless, but the other way round: practical struggles for human dignity, respect, and empowerment, against infamous encroachments of man’s inhumanity to man, have led to significant intercultural learning and social progress. The force of the material needs of sensuous living labor may, of course, be distorted by a mobilization of bias and/or subdued by the ongoing clash of class interests within the established capitalist order resorting to police state measures. The future is open. Capitalist class predation will stand or fail depending on whether political-economic institutional foundations continue to support accumulation for private gain or are revolutionized in the public interest. Battles by labor have been and will be lost, but the war? The material pressures toward commonwealth are irrepressible. The overarching aim of the classical humanist traditions, like that of the praxis-oriented authors in Crisis and Commonwealth, has been to offer an apt contribution to the project of re-humanizing a de-humanized material culture. Labor is humanity’s mode of being in the world. Commonwealth culture remains the venerable, and today thoroughly viable, means of survival for humanity as sensuous living labor. It is ultimately, as I argue elsewhere,[6]  also labor’s (and thus humanity’s) emancipatory aesthetic form.

My theory is that the tremendous mass of corporate political-economic capital has reached its half-life limits; its forms of domination and power are outdated and gyrating dangerously. An intercultural labor force humanism, is not only necessary and feasible, it provides the gravitational center that holds real group life together despite other flare ups and explosions. Labor’s humanism in this sense defines not only an emancipatory ethos, but the type of economic, social, and political structure that is needed for justice and peace to be accomplished and sustained.

Herbert Marcuse also knew the paradox persists: our options are socialism or barbarism. Convinced that counterrevolution was underway in the U.S. with politics veering to the extreme Right, he concluded with a statement of our contemporary crisis and challenge:  “The life and death question for the Left is: Can the transformation of the corporate State into a neo-fascist State be prevented? The question, as well as the possible answers to it do not arise from a revision of Marxian theory, they are posed by Marxian theory itself!” (1979, 23).

Peter Marcuse correctly cautions us that radical change does not come about by itself, no matter how radical the goals. Change can be held back on the one hand by 1) the strength of the forces materially dominating and benefiting from the status quo; on the other it can be inhibited by 2) the weakness of the radical opposition. He asks us to think about 3) just who the agents of change might be who will actually achieve these goals.

A thoughtful response comes from Stephen Spartan: With regard to 1) we are seeing today the beginning of the end of a decaying system whose productive base is not being reproduced. Reproduction resources have been shifted from the middle class―the American system’s vaunted citizenry―toward the financial sector and the society’s “1 percent.” The growth in income of society’s upper echelons of privilege (11.2 percent for uppermost 1 percent)[7] is dramatically out of proportion to the slow growth of GDP and the real economy (1.8 percent),[8] not to mention the reductions in income flow (down 0.4 percent)[9] experienced by everyone else throughout the society (so much for “trickle-down”). Over-accumulation at the top is occurring at the expense of labor force reproduction, whose economic expectations are continually being leveled-down, and whose members are increasingly being treated with oligarchic disdain as expendable and dispensable. The demise of the system is occurring, including the very state which liberal policy-making would traditionally utilize to pacify and control the masses. The veneer of democracy is melting away in the heat of a new military nationalism. This can be viewed with horror, yet there is also the possibility of liberation. A world of abundance is possible and feasible given the system’s productive potential.

With regard to 2) what is lacking is the commonwealth paradigm, an awareness of the alternative. Prosperity is a collective product, this establishes the claim to common wealth. We have a right to a commonwealth economy, politics, and culture. The benefits of prosperity require cooperation, planning, a democratic commonwealth ethos, and an end to commodity-dependency. While the objective productive forces have ripened such that the global economy can be seen as pregnant with abundance, the subjective element matters. Without an adamant ideology of commonwealth, there is no sufficient negation, no sufficient transformation. The labor theory of ethics and commonwealth raises expectations: there is a world to win! Hence the emphasis in this volume on revolutionary critical pedagogy for a socialist society.

With regard to 3) the question of the agents of change, multiple groups internationally already recognize that commodified existence and economic want are not natural, but rather contrived; groups like the public domain software development communities producing shareware and freeware; groups like Adbusters, Greenpeace, the participants on the militant anti-globalization movement from Seattle (1999) to Genoa (2001), the indignados of France and Spain from 2010 forward, and the coordinated anti-austerity general strikes in five European countries November 14, 2012, as well as many others. They advocate that significant portions of commodified social life need to be rethought and reconstructed. Human essentials need to be met. Large swaths of working men and women around the globe have rising expectations and are aware of the need to end corporate rule and shift power to those who will prioritize human needs over private accumulation. The ideological justifications for capitalism have significantly eroded, as well as its major mode of control: commodity-dependency. In the riveting words of Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012): “The game . . . is up. . . . Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. . . .” (2012, xii). Hedges and Sacco had to admit, however, that when they began writing their book, “the nation-wide revolt was absent;” that is, until the Occupy Wall Street movement flared-up up in dozens of U.S. cities. Their ultimate conclusion is that oppositional forces are real, not speculative: “There comes a moment in all popular uprisings when the dead ideas and decayed systems, which only days before seemed unassailable, are exposed and discredited by a population that once stood fearful and supine. . . . Astute observers know the tinder is there, but never when it will be lit” (2012, 226-227).

Our sense of the reality of right persists within a world of wrong. It infuses our theory and politics and the commonwealth counter-offensive. It presses humanity forward toward a future worth living—a rehumanized future that is clearly, but not easily, within our grasp. In accordance with this sensibility, Crisis and Commonwealth has offered timely and insightful perspectives on our politics, praxis, and pedagogy. The essays presented in this collection give some indication of the explorations and struggles in which its authors have been engaged, primarily as pathfinders. It is my hope, as general editor, that their efforts have now resonated and converged with your own intimations and experiences to advance socialism’s most radical goals in a global revolutionary movement. As Marcuse admonishes us: “IT CAN STILL BE DONE!”[10]

 

 

[1] Charles Reitz (ed.), Crisis and Commonwealth: Marcuse, Marx, McLaren (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003) first paperback edition 2015 with a “Foreword” by Peter McLaren. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781498515351

[2] Herbert Marcuse, “The Reification of the Proletariat,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory / Revue canadienne de théorie politique et sociale, Vol 3, No 1 (Winter/Hiver) 1979.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jodi Dean, “The Party and Communist Solidarity,” Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society Volume 27, Issue 3, 2015. Emphasis added.

5] Ibid.

[6] Charles Reitz, Philosophy & Commonwealth (Kansas City, MO: Reitz, 2015). https://www.createspace.com/5671565

[7] Annie Lowery, “Incomes Flat in Recovery, but not for the 1%,” The New York Times, February 16, 2013, p. B-1.

[8] Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce, “Growth in Goods and Services Industries Slowed in 2011,” November 13, 2012. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/industry/gdpindustry/gdpindhighlights.pdf

[9] Lowery, op. cit.

[10] Herbert Marcuse, “Lecture on Education, Brooklyn College, 1968” in Douglas Kellner, Tyson Lewis, Clayton Pierce, K. Daniel Cho. Marcuse’s Challenge to Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) p. 43.

 

Charles Reitz

Charles Reitz

Charles Reitz is a radical social and political philosopher who regularly contributes to the ongoing discussion and development of critical social theory and critical pedagogy. In June 2016 his book, "Philosophy & Critical Pedagogy: Insurrection & Commonwealth" was released by Peter Lang Publishing. It is intended to serve as a countervailing force to conventional political and educational theory. Like critical philosophy, critical pedagogy is centrally concerned with the alleviation of suffering, resistance to oppressive power, building a social and historical context for understanding, and agency for emancipatory social change.
Charles Reitz

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