fragments of an attempted writing.

a reply

The following is a reply to Ariston's last comment on this thread.  I decided to make my reply a post in order to keep this discussion upward on the blog.


Given that Marx was so much a man of the 19th century it is amazing that he got so much correct about how things would play out. Yes, many of the terms he used are not easily applied to the current situation. Yes, the Labor Theory of Value does not immediately correspond to the current economic paradigm (especially as it is read by libertarian and Austrian economists) in a manner that makes it useful without a fair amount of tweaking. Yes, Marx’s “eschatology” was typical of his era (when conservatives bitch about Marx’s “eschatology” I like to recall the rhetoric of some of the pro-confederate theorists I have read – denouncing Marx for his eschatology is , in most instances I have encountered it, a decidedly selective application of criteria of dismissal).

Marx’s foresight with regard to how capitalism plays out – from early capitalism to monopoly capitalism to cartel capitalism - is insightful and helpful even if he could not foresee such things as, say, how technology would change the world of finance. Marx’s analysis of fetishism is a requisite to understanding our age, even if it need be nuanced in light of more detailed and accurate analysis of how the human being relates to commodities and commoditization.

Many of the tools Marx gives us are crude tools – Labor Theory of Value perhaps most famously so. But those tools led to later Marxist and non-Marxist critiques that are now taken for granted, and rightly so.
So we take such terms as proletariat, working class, exploitation, and the like and we conclude that it is impossible to determine a precise definition, or a precise parameter of definition to such terms. So we take questions such as what degree of redistribution is appropriate and with what levels of redistribution going to which parties and how we determine the classes of the parties to be redistributed to, and we conclude that we cannot precisely define the parameters of these questions. Yes, that is the situation.

A great deal of human life is lived in ambiguity and even contradiction. The inability to live in the midst of the ambiguity and contradiction inherent in human social relations is a sign of mental illness. There is no neat and clean empirical method of determining what age a minor has to be younger than in order for statutory rape to occur. 18 years old? 16? 14? 12? I submit that there is no singular method by which we can confidently (even when just considering a single culture, place, and time) assert that this is the age at which consent of both parties does not involve rape. But all but madmen would agree that, in those general terms that lead to sustainable legal orders, a 24 year old sleeping with 6 year old involves a rape (or sexual assault, whatever), regardless of whether or not the 6 year old asserts consent to the act. But simply because I cannot precisely define the age parameters of what constitutes statutory rape, and even though I could, hypothetically, expand those parameters upward to 50 years old, or 100 years old, this does not mean that there is not a meaning rooted in reality behind the notion of statutory rape. The arguments against the use of Marx’s (sometimes crude) tools in the analysis of economic affairs very much strike me as arguing that we cannot outlaw the “consensual” sex act involving a 6 year old and a 22 year old because the terms cannot be precisely defined.
Pornography might serve as another example. It is extremely difficult to define pornography with precise and empirically determined parameters. The discernment of what is and is not pornography is culturally conditioned and very much a socially mutable project. But this doesn’t mean that the term pornography (a political term if there ever were one) is useless. This doesn’t mean we cannot speak with a degree of confidence regarding the fact that magazines graphically depicting violent sexual acts performed on pre-teen girls are pornographic, and probably should not be sold next to a playground (as a friend of mine once saw in Eastern Europe).

So, sure, any means to redistribute wealth wrongly taken from the workers at, say, a shop that I am familiar with, will involve some arbitrary decisions that flirt about with the parameters of imprecise definitions.
Economic transactions , like sexual relations and the distribution of pornography, are social transactions. Any time human beings are interacting you are going to have levels of complexity which make ambiguity and contradiction inevitable.

Were a wealth redistribution to occur at the shop mentioned above, there would inevitably be a rhetoric behind it which makes much use of terms like “fairness” “justice” “rights” and so forth. But in the end there is no way that, with absolute and unequivocal precision, the wealth could be redistributed in a manner that perfectly corresponded to productivity or performance or recompense for past grievances or need or any combination of these factors. But that doesn’t mean that a redistribution effort is therefore pointless or an act of mere political expediency, any more than the effort to prosecute a person who has raped a (outwardly consenting) minor, and to take actions to protect the community from such a person, is a meaningless or utterly arbitrary effort.

The workers at the shop in question have been exploited; they have been, as it were, raped. Outwardly, they consented to that rape, but in reality most of them were coerced into the work there (to various degrees, sure).

The owners of the shop in question inherited the business and, by the analysis of just about everyone looking at the company from inside and out, have done the company more harm than good. They actually work very little, and most of what “work” they do is social networking, and even on that front they have made some mistakes in recent years.

The origins of the business even began in such a light – a man from an aristocratic Memphis family begins bending tubing over his knee in the evenings (he had a regular day job) and his wife sold the chandeliers from their living room during the day. The man in question was from an old “good” family that had lost everything after the civil war (they had once been the largest slaveholding operation in Shelby Cty TN). He marries a girl from Memphis aristocracy whose family still has money. Her dad insists that all his rich friends buy their light fixtures from his son-in-law. Soon he needs to hire employees to help. In a couple decades he has a good size manufacturing shop. Into the 80s it was mostly Asian workers being paid illegally less than minimum wage in what can only be described as a sweat shop. To this day the old guard managers regret that they cannot get such labor anymore – dirt cheap with excellent productivity – could they get it again they would take it in a heartbeat.

The family hired various salespersons over the years, and the significant growth of the company happened under the better salespersons. The people in the manufacturing wing, a highly profitable venture, eventually get to minimum wage (after an employee called OSHA to get an inspection and it was noted that there were no minimum wage info posters in the shop), and eventually the reduced influx of poor Asians to Memphis ends that labor force.

Over the years wages and benefits for the manufacturing workers are still kept ridiculously low, but this is non-union Memphis and there was still a labor pool to pull from to get that work. The owners and management take home many millions out of the operation. Eventually the original owner dies and when his wife finds out how little the manufacturing employees were making, she breaks down crying and demands substantial raises all around – to a point that gets the employees making about half of what they would make doing the same work in a union shop. Meanwhile the owners and management continue to rake in millions upon millions from the operation. The manager of the manufacturing division, a rich boy who is addicted to coke and barely works 2 hours a day, makes well over 100k in salary, not to mention his several hundred thousand a year in dividends given to him as a family member. His notorious fuck ups with the business have to be corrected constantly by lower level management and the foreman in the shop. The highest skilled craftsman in the shop (a guy who has been there 20 years) makes 1/3rd what the coke head does, and gets a Christmas bonus 1/10th the size, and of course gets no dividend.

Now, while the owning family of this shop does little to positively contribute to the accrual of wealth, they are very active in the wealthy social circles in Memphis. They are actively supportive of those social mechanisms which result in a pool of laborers willing to work for low wages (workers who have been coerced into believing they have no choice in the matter). The owning family actively engages in those social mechanisms which pit white and black workers against each other, and in competition with each other – a social mechanism thoroughly analyzed with regard to its impact on low wages in the American South. The owning family actively (and financially) supports political programs and politicians which further disenfranchise low wage Memphis workers. At every turn, the family seeks to protect and preserve class divisions.

For these and many other reasons (which I leave out for sake of time), I think we can confidently say that these workers have been stolen from, though of course to assert this requires some assent to some appropriation of the Labor Theory of Value on some level. Nearly all of the workers will tell you that they have not been given what is rightly due them, and that they believe it is wrong that, say, the owner’s son puts pictures of his new yacht in the break room at a time when workers have just been handed wage and benefit reductions and seen the workforce there cut by well over 50% (even as net profits are higher than ever and management constantly bitches, and lies, about being broke), and this is wrong not just because it is wrong timing to hang such a picture, but also wrong because he does not justly own that yacht.

I don’t mention the story of this shop as a “proof” of anything. It is one example of exploitation, it is a worse case of exploitation than some other examples, but not nearly as bad as many others. I’m fully aware that any mechanism of redistribution, taking money from the owning family and redistributing it to workers, would be imprecise, and I have no rose colored glasses concerning how the workers would view the process – many would inevitably complain about how the redistribution is being wrongly handled, even if every one of them thinks it a good thing that the money is being taken from people who did not rightly come to possess it. But just as we go after the rapist, and just as we cease the distribution of pornography in certain areas, it is necessary for social order that we make a thorough attempt to end exploitation and to redistribute what was wrongly taken. Human beings have to operate in climates of ambiguity and contradiction, yes, but in the midst of the complexities of human social transactions we can and must seek to end or as best we can mitigate humans openly and flagrantly brutalizing other humans.

I’ve read maybe 100 pages of Mises in my life and I don’t plan to read much more – for the same reason that I don’t keep current in the latest thought from the WI Synod Lutherans or those Catholic trads who think the earth is flat and the center of the universe. I have no interest in such things, I don’t believe they in any meaningful way describe reality, and I see them as nothing more than intellectual and cultural niches. Pure Austrianism and Mises proper are niche theoretical realms with seemingly little to no impact on social and economic arenas today. Lew Rockwell and “popular Austrianism” are more in play with folks like Ron Paul and Paul Ryan and the like, so I keep slightly more abreast of those ideological camps.

It is convenient to be able to decry the horrors of actually existing socialism in the 20th century when the CIA and other reactionary organizations made damn sure that peaceful transitions to socialism would not be allowed to succeed. Chile could have transformed Latin America, but instead…

The most interesting thought you’ve mentioned in this discussion is the notion “a Hegelian political order is the one remaining attractive option, and Marxism is the only remaining acceptable/coherent version of one.” I agree. I have also (and I realize this brings me full circle) waved the flag of surrender to Hegel. I simply no longer believe that one can think critically in modernity outside of Hegel – to be modern is to be Hegelian; to be present to modernity is to be present to Hegel, and I, the prodigal who once fled from Father Hegel’s house, have come back home.

I don’t remember if I have told this story before (I offer this story as trivia, not as any proof of anything or as having any grand meaning), but shortly after my friend Mark died in the Fall of 2000, I met a colleague of his who walked into the bookstore I worked at in MN (and would soon leave). Mark had been a neuro-robotic engineer and the youngest tenured professor in the UK when he died of an aneurism. His friend who came to the store (not knowing me from Adam) had 3 doctorates – one in psychology, one in chemistry, and one in philosophy (and the guy was in his 40s). So I had noticed what he was picking up over the course of the day and eventually discerned that I was dealing with a fellow who was very bright. After he’d been there a couple of hours he comes up to me and asks about complications with regard to my birth (breech, post due date, etc.). Every birth related question he asked me about was answered in the affirmative. He said he guessed as much from the way I held a pen in my left hand whilst writing – apparently it’s an odd manner of holding a writing instrument typical of people who were born under the circumstances of complications I was. This man then proceeded to tell me about my life – my personality, many of my quirks and idiosyncrasies, details that simply astounded me. Apparently it has to do with people who would have been left brained becoming right brained because of certain complications in their mother’s pregnancy. The cross over creates very predictable personality and thinking traits. I’ve never in my life, before or since, been so perfectly pegged and described, and this was the first conversation I ever had with the man. He then, after asking if it was OK, proceeded to give me advice – the sorts of jobs I should go for, the sorts of things I should read. He ended by telling me that I needed to read Hegel and keep him close by my side – that Hegelian thought corresponded to how a brain like mine is wired.

I had just, a couple years prior, made my way through the usual undergrad level reading of the usual works from Hegel’s corpus. I had not gotten much out of it, but I was also at a point of what we might call German thought burnout by the time I got to Hegel. I was also at that time increasingly veering into my conservative/traditional understanding of Christianity phase. So while I liked this guy, and I had an emotional connection to him because he had worked with my dead friend, and he had so brilliantly and profoundly described me to myself, I resented what he said and rejected it as specious unchristian determinism, especially the Hegel bits. In the decade since then my life has all the more confirmed that man’s words to me, and upon coming back to Hegel in the last 2 years, I am all the more inclined to believe he was right about my “need” for Hegel.  I'm certainly an amateur, but I am more and more of the opinion that my previous attempts to discern how to make one's way in modernity were twarted by my bias against Hegel.  I no longer think it is possible to think in and through modernity outside of Hegel.  My prior attacks on Hegel were simply another manifestation of that attempt to escape modernity, to escape history.


  1. There is no neat and clean empirical method of determining what age a minor has to be younger than in order for statutory rape to occur. 18 years old? 16? 14? 12?

    You're supposed to keep the real reason for your interest in the revolution quiet until after your first wife walks, dude.

  2. I'm traveling right now and probably won't be able to get back to this until Monday, but I'll reply in full then. (One-thumbed iphoning is hard.)

  3. On the labor theory of value: I am by no means an expert, but I have found that the dialectical categories of Marx, while seemingly abstract, often are much better at describing why things are the way they are in comparison to more concrete, “modern” theories. If labor doesn’t add value to anything, why not just pay a just wage, why does the worker have to fight capital tooth and nail for meager scraps, why do companies get up and leave to move their operations to the Third World where people earn a dollar a day, etc.? I would like to know an alternative explanation other than saying that all value comes from labor, and the cheaper the labor, the greater the profits. I have also been fascinated by the Marxist formula that capital is the domination of dead labor (in the form of machines) over living labor, constant capital over variable capital, etc. While you can no more stop the process of production and distribution on a global scale to dissect how something gets value (the realization argument that some say contrasts Volumes I and III of Capital) anymore than you can determine when my ten month old will finally decide to go down for the night, the law of value seems to determine pretty well the cycles of boom and crisis. Why else would most mainstream bourgeois economists say, “We never saw this crisis coming?”

    This is a rather whimsical video treatment of the controversy surrounding the law of value from a Marxism perspective:

    More importantly, on Hegel, all philosophers have been trying to run from Hegel since his death since he distilled in the most abstract categories the law of motion that determines our age. Dialectics is indeed the algebra of revolution. His revolution in thought is merely a reflection of the general revolution in social relations: “all that is solid melts into air”, and so on. Most people since then have tried to take refuge in a certain romanticism (the existential angst of Kierkegaard, the eternal return of Nietzsche, the “care of the self” of Foucault, “philosophy as a way of life” of Hadot), or a regressive rationalism that seems to be stuck in a tape loop of the 18th century Enlightenment (the “New Atheists” being the most contemporary examples, but one could also include Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, analytical philosophy, Habermas, and so on). Hegel is dangerous because in those tortured categories and prose lie the hushed echo of the les Enragés in Paris; the barricades of 1830, 1848, and 1871; and even the anti-colonial uprisings of last century. The danger is that the revolution in philosophy in Hegel, the uncompromising power of Freedom, the irresistible drive for self-consciousness in the face of domination, the creative process of Absolute Negativity, is something that can easily be turned into a philosophy of revolution. Even the Soviet Stalinists feared this, and tried to downplay Marx’s more Hegelian writings, and attacked the dialectic in anything but direct words.

  4. Owen, was your bookstore visitor a demon?


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