Category Archives: Philosophy

We Need To Talk About Romanticism

Satire on Romantic Suicide (1839) by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto (1807–1845)


Why do we need to talk about Romanticism? What is Romanticism? And how does it affect us in the 21st century? The fact is that we are so immersed in Romanticism now that we cannot see the proverbial wood for the haunted-looking trees. Romanticism has so saturated our culture that we need to stand back and remind ourselves what it is, and examine how it has seeped into our thinking processes to the extent that we are not even aware of its presence anymore. Or why this is a problem. The Romanticist influence of intense emotion makes up a large part of modern culture, for example, in much pop music, cinema, TV and literature; e.g., genres such as Superheroes, Fantasy, Horror, Magical realism, Saga, Westerns. I will look at the origins of Romanticism, and its negative influence on culture and politics. I will show how Enlightenment ideas originally emerged in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Church and led to the formation of a working class ideology and culture of resistance.

Romanticism and the modern world

The whole exuberance, anarchy and violence of modern art … its unrestrained, unsparing exhibitionism, is derived from [Romanticism]. And this subjective, egocentric attitude has become so much a matter of course for us … that we find it impossible to reproduce even an abstract train of thought without talking about our own feelings.
— Arnold Hauser, (1892–1978), A Social History of Art, Vol. 3, p. 166

Romanticism arose out of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century as a reaction to what was perceived as a rationalisation of life to the point of being anti-nature. The Romantics were against the Industrial Revolution, universalism and empiricism, emphasising instead heroic individualists and artists, and the individual imagination as a critical authority rather than classical ideals.

The Enlightenment itself had developed from the earlier Renaissance with a renewed interest in the classical traditions and ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order based on reason and science. On a political level the Enlightenment promoted republicanism in opposition to monarchy which ultimately led to the French revolution.

The worried conservatives of the time reacted to the ideas of the Enlightenment and reason with a philosophy which was based on religious ideas and glorified the past (especially Medieval times and the ‘Golden Age’) — times when things were not so threatening to elites. This philosophy became known as Romanticism and emphasised medieval ideas and society over the new ideas of democracy, capitalism and science.

Romanticism originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1890. It was initially marked by innovations in both content and literary style and by a preoccupation with the subconscious, the mystical, and the supernatural. This period was followed by the development of cultural nationalism and a new attention to national origins, an interest in native folklore, folk ballads and poetry, folk dance and music, and even previously ignored medieval and Renaissance works.

The Romantic movement “emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature.” The importance of the medieval lay in the  pre-capitalist significance of its individual crafts and tradesmen, as well as its feudal peasants and serfs.

Thus Romanticism was a reaction to the birth of the modern world: urbanisation, secularisation, industrialisation, and consumerism. Romanticism emphasised intense emotion and feelings which over the centuries came to be seen as one of its most important characteristics, in opposition to ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’ Enlightenment rationalism.

Origins of Enlightenment emotion

Whence this secret Chain between each Person and Mankind? How is my Interest connected with the most distant Parts of it?
Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), Treatise II: An Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil, Sect. I.

However, this ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’ scenario is actually very far from the truth. In fact, the Enlightenment, itself, had its origins in emotion. Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century tried to create a philosophy of feeling that would allow them to solve the problem of the injustice in the unfeeling world they saw all around them.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together.  Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”, while David Hume (1711–1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723–1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others.1

Portrait of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

For the Enlightenment philosophers the relationship between feeling and reason was of absolute importance. To develop ideas that would progress society for the better, a sense of morality was essential. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) a prominent French philosopher of the Enlightenment in France, for example, had strong views on the importance of the passions. As Henry Martyn Lloyd writes:

Diderot did believe in the utility of reason in the pursuit of truth – but he had an acute enthusiasm for the passions, particularly when it came to morality and aesthetics. With many of the key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, he believed that morality was grounded in sense-experience. Ethical judgment was closely aligned with, even indistinguishable from, aesthetic judgments, he claimed. We judge the beauty of a painting, a landscape or our lover’s face just as we judge the morality of a character in a novel, a play or our own lives – that is, we judge the good and the beautiful directly and without the need of reason. For Diderot, then, eliminating the passions could produce only an abomination. A person without the ability to be affected, either because of the absence of passions or the absence of senses, would be morally monstrous.

Moreover, to remove the passions from science would lead to inhuman approaches and methods that would divert and alienate science from its ultimate goal of serving humanity, as Lloyd writes:

That the Enlightenment celebrated sensibility and feeling didn’t entail a rejection of science, however. Quite the opposite: the most sensitive individual – the person with the greatest sensibility – was considered to be the most acute observer of nature. The archetypical example here was a doctor, attuned to the bodily rhythms of patients and their particular symptoms. Instead, it was the speculative system-builder who was the enemy of scientific progress – the Cartesian physician who saw the body as a mere machine, or those who learned medicine by reading Aristotle but not by observing the ill. So the philosophical suspicion of reason was not a rejection of rationality per se; it was only a rejection of reason in isolation from the senses, and alienated from the impassioned body.

Michael L. Frazer describes the importance of Enlightenment justice and sympathy in his book The Enlightenment of Sympathy. He writes:

Reflective sentimentalists recognize our commitment to justice as an outgrowth of our sympathy for others. After our sympathetic sentiments undergo reflective self-correction, the sympathy that emerges for all those who suffer injustice poses no insult to those for whom it is felt. We do not see their suffering as mere pain to be soothed away when and if we happen to share it. Instead under Hume’s account, we condemn injustice as a violation of rules that are vitally important to us all. And under Smith’s account, we condemn the sufferings of the victims of injustice as injustice because we sympathetically share the resentment that they feel toward their oppressors, endorsing such feelings as warranted and acknowledging those who feel them deserve better treatment.2

Cooper, Hume and Smith were living in times, not only devoid of empathy, but also even of basic sympathy. Robert C. Solomon writes of society then in A Passion for Justice: “There have always been the very rich. And of course there have always been the very poor. But even as late as the civilized and sentimental eighteenth century, this disparity was not yet a cause for public embarrassment or a cry of injustice. […] Poverty was considered just one more “act of God,” impervious to any solution except mollification through individual charity and government poorhouses to keep the poor off the streets and away from crime.”3

Enlightenment emotion eventually gave rise to social trends that emphasised humanism and the heightened value of human life. These trends had their complement in art, creating what became known as the ‘sentimental novel’. While today sentimentalism evokes maudlin self-pity, in the eighteenth century it was revolutionary as sentimental literature

focused on weaker members of society, such as orphans and condemned criminals, and allowed readers to identify and sympathize with them. This translated to growing sentimentalism within society, and led to social movements calling for change, such as the abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. Instead of the death penalty, popular sentiment called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment. Frederick Douglass himself was inspired to stand against his own bondage and slavery in general in his famous Narrative by the speech by the sentimentalist playwright Sheridan in The Columbian Orator detailing a fictional dialogue between a master and slave.

As Solomon notes: “What distinguishes us not just from animals but from machines are our passions, and foremost among them our passion for justice. Justice is, in a word, that set of passions, not mere theories, that bind us and make us part of the social world.”4

The Man of Feeling  (Henry Mackenzie)

Writers such as the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie tried to highlight many things that he perceived were wrong during his time and showed how many of the wrongs were ultimately caused by the established pillars of society. In his book, The Man of Feeling, he has no qualms about showing how these pillars of society had, for example, abused an intelligent woman causing her to become a prostitute (p. 44/45.), destroyed a school because it blocked the landowner’s view (p. 72), and hired assassins to remove a man who had refused to hand over his wife (p. 91.), etc.5 Mackenzie shows again and again the injustices of British military and colonial policy, and who is responsible. As Marilyn Butler writes:

Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), is pointedly topical when it criticizes the consequences of a war policy – press-ganging, conscription, the military punishment of flogging, and inadequate pensions – and when, like the same author’s Julia de Roubigné (1777), it attacks the principle of colonialism. An interest in such causes was the logical outcome of art’s frequently reiterated dedication to humanity. It was a period when the cast of villains was drawn from the proud men representing authority, downwards from the House of Lords, the bench of bishops, judges, local magistrates, attorneys, to the stern father; when readers were invited to empathize with life’s victims.6

It took a long time for the ideas of sentimentalism (emotions against injustice) to filter down to the Realism (using facts to depict ordinary everyday experiences) that Dickens used in the nineteenth century to finally evoke some kind of empathy for people impoverished by society. As Solomon notes: “It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Dickens shook the conscience of his compatriots with his riveting descriptions of poverty and cruelty in contemporary London, […] that the problem of poverty and resistance to its solutions [e.g. poorhouses] has become the central question of justice.”3

Buss, Robert William; Dickens’s Dream; Charles Dickens Museum, London;

European literary sentimentalism arose during the Enlightenment, and partly as a response to sentimentalism in philosophy. In England the period 1750–1798 became known as the Age of Sensibility as the sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility became popular.

Romanticist emotionalism: the opposite of Enlightenment sentimentalism

Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832)

However, sensibility in an Enlightenment sense was very different from the Romanticist understanding, as Butler notes:

It is, in fact, in a key respect almost the opposite of Romanticism. Sensibility, like its near-synonym sentiment, echoes eighteenth-century philosophy and psychology in focusing upon the mental process by which impressions are received by the senses. But the sentimental writer’s interest in how the mind works and in how people behave is very different from the Romantic writer’s inwardness.7

She writes that ‘neither Neoclassical theory nor contemporary practice in various styles and genres put much emphasis on the individuality of the artist’ (p. 29). This is a far cry from the apolitical, inward-looking, self-centered Romantic artists who saw themselves outside of a society that they had little interest in participating in, let alone changing for the better. Butler again:

Romantic rebelliousness is more outrageous and total, the individual rejecting not just his own society but the very principle of living in society – which means that the Romantic and post Romantic often dismisses political activity of any kind, as external to the self, literal and commonplace. Since it is relatively uncommon for the eighteenth-century artist to complain directly on his own behalf, he seldom achieves such emotional force as his nineteenth-century successor. He is, on the other hand, much more inclined than the Romantic to express sympathy for certain, well-defined social groups. Humanitarian feeling for the real-life underdog is a strong vein from the 1760s to the 1790s, often echoing real-life campaigns for reform.8

This movement over time towards the Romanticist inward-looking conception of emotion and feelings has had knock-on negative effects on society’s ability to defend itself from elite oppression (through cultural styles of self-absorption, escapism and diversion rather than exposure, criticism and resistance), and retarded ‘art’s frequently reiterated dedication to humanity’. Solomon describes this process:

What has come about in the past two centuries or so is the dramatic rise of what Robert Stone has called “affective individualism,” this new celebration of the passions and other feelings of the autonomous individual. Yet, ironically, it is an attitude that has become even further removed from our sense of justice during that same period of time. We seem to have more inner feelings and pay more attention to them, but we seem to have fewer feelings about others and the state of the world and pay less attention to them.9

Thus while Enlightenment sentimentalism “depicted individuals as social beings whose sensibility was stimulated and defined by their interactions with others”, the Romantic movement that followed it “tended to privilege individual autonomy and subjectivity over sociability”.

Romanticism as a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century had a profound influence on culture which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implies a turning inward and encourages introspection. Romantic literature put more emphasis on themes of isolation, loneliness, tragic events and the power of nature. A heroic view of history and myth became the basis of much Romantic literature.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier

It was in Germany that Romanticism took shape as a political ideology. The German Romanticists felt threatened by the French Revolution and were forced to move from inward-looking ideas to formulate conservative political answers needed to oppose Enlightenment and republican ideals. According to Eugene N. Anderson:

In the succeeding years the danger became acutely political, and the German Romanticists were compelled to subordinate their preoccupation with the widening of art and the enrichment of individual experience to social and political ideas and actions, particularly as formulated in nationalism and conservatism. These three cultural ideals, Romanticism, nationalism and conservatism, shared qualities evoked by the common situation of crisis. […] The Germans had to maintain against rationalism and the French a culture which in its institutional structure was that of the ancien régime. German Romanticism accepted it, wished to reform it somewhat, idealized it, and defended the idealization as the supreme culture of the world. This was the German counter-revolution. […] They endowed their culture with universal validity and asserted that it enjoyed the devotion of nature and God, that if it were destroyed humanity would be vitally wounded.10

The reactionary nature of German Romanticism was demonstrated in its hierarchical views of society, its chauvinist nationalism, and extreme conservatism which would have serious implications for future generations of the German populace. As Anderson writes:

The low estimate of rationalism and the exaltation of custom, tradition, and feeling, the conception of society as an alliance of the generations, the belief in the abiding character of ideas as contrasted with the ephemeral nature of concepts, these and many other romantic views bolstered up the existing culture. The concern with relations led the Romanticists to praise the hierarchical order of the Ständestaat and to regard everything and every-one as an intermediary. The acceptance of the fact of inequality harmonized with that of the ideals of service, duty, faithfulness, order, sacrifice – admirable traits for serf or subject or soldier.11

Anderson also believes that the Romanticists remained swinging “between individual freedom and initiative and group compulsion and authority” and as such could not have brought in fundamental reforms, because: “By reverencing tradition, they preserved the power of the backward-looking royalty and aristocracy.”12

Thus Romanticist self-centredness in philosophy translated into the most conservative forms for maintaining the status quo in politics. Individual freedoms were matched by authoritarianism for the masses. The individual was king all right, as long as you weren’t a ‘serf or subject or soldier’.

Beyond morality: Working Class perspectives on Reason and Sentiment

We have never intended to enlighten shoemakers and servants—this is up to apostles.
Voltaire (1694–1778)

Around the same time of the early period of Romanticism, Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) were born. They grew up in a very different Germany. Capitalism had become established and was creating an even more polarised society between extremely rich and extremely poor as factory owners pushed their workers to their physical limits. On his way to work at his father’s firm in Manchester, Engels called into the offices of a paper he wrote for in Cologne and met the editor, Marx, for the first time in 1842. They formed a friendship based on shared values and beliefs regarding the working class and socialist ideas. They saw a connection between the earlier Enlightenment ideas and socialism. For example, as Engels writes in Anti-Duhring:

in its theoretical form, modern socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the eighteenth century. Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in economic facts.13

However, once they had connected themselves to the Enlightenment they soon saw the limitations of both Enlightenment concepts of reason and sentiment. They realised that the new bourgeois rulers would be limited by their conceptions of property, justice, and equality, which basically meant they only applied universality to themselves and their own property. The new rulers were buoyed up by the victory of their ideological fight over the aristocracy but incapable of applying the same ideas to the masses who helped them to victory. Thus Marx and Engels viewed the struggle for reason as important but limited to the new ruling class’ world view, just like the aristocracy before them:

Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung into the lumber room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on nature and the inalienable rights of man. We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realisation in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the eighteenth century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.14

As for sentiment, they were well aware of the Realist critical nature of modern writers (the Realist movement rejected Romanticism) and indeed praised them (e.g. G. Sand, E. Sue, and Boz [Dickens]), but limited themselves to offering some advice. While recognising that progressive literature had a mainly middle class audience (and were happy enough with these authors just ‘shaking the optimism’ of their audience), they knew that this was not by any means a socialist literature and were

I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instills doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.15

Sentimental literature focused on individual misfortune, and constant repetition of such themes certainly appeared to universalise such suffering, so that, as David Denby writes, “In this weeping mother, this suffering father, we are to read also the sufferings of humanity.” Thus, “individualism and universalism appear to be two sides of the same coin”. Sentimental literature gives the reader the ‘spectacle of misfortune’ and a representation of the reaction of a ‘sentient and sensible observer’ who tries to help with ‘alms, sympathy or indeed narrative intervention.’ Furthermore, the literature of sentiment “mirrors eighteenth-century theories of sympathy, in which a spontaneous reaction to the spectacle of suffering is gradually developed, by a process of generalisation and combination of ideas, into broader and more abstract notions of humanity, benevolence, justice.”16

Workers in the fuse factory, Woolwich Arsenal late 1800s

This brings us then to the problem of interpretation, as Denby suggests: “should the sentimental portrayal of the poor and of action in their favour be read as an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, to include the hitherto excluded? Or, alternatively, is the sentimentalisation of the poor to be interpreted, more cynically, as a discursive strategy through which the enlightened bourgeoisie states its commitment to values of humanity and justice, and thereby seeks to strengthen its claims to universal domination?”17

While such ideas of giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’ was a far cry from monarchical times, and claims of commitment to humanity and justice were laudable, the concept of universality had a fundamental flaw: “The universal claims of the French Revolution are opposed to a [aristocratic] society based on distinctions of birth: it is in the name of humanity that the Revolution challenges the established order. But for Sartre this does not change the fact that the universal is a myth, an ideological construct, and an obfuscation, since it articulates a notion of man which eliminates social conflict and disguises the interests of a class behind a facade of universal reference.”18

Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934

Thus for Marx and Engels defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, that is, a universal moral theory, could not be achieved while society is divided into classes:

We maintain […] that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.

Marx and Engels worked towards that morality through their activism with working class movements and culture. Their critical writing also formed an essential part of working class ideology and culture of resistance and has remained influential in resistance movements the world over.

The culture of resistance today still uses realism, documentary, and histories of oppression to show the harsh realities of globalisation. Like during the Enlightenment, empathy for those suffering injustice forms its foundation. And unlike Romanticism, reason and science are deemed to be important tools in its struggle for social emancipation and progress.

Conclusion: Enlightenment and Romanticism today

When we are asked now: are we now living into an enlightened age? Then the answer is: No, but in an age of Enlightenment.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

There is no doubt that the influence of Romanticism has become ever stronger in twentieth and twenty-first century culture. Romanticist-influenced TV shows on Netflix are watched world wide. Love songs dominate the pop industry and superheroes are now the mainstay of cinema. Even Romanticist nationalism is making a comeback. Now and then calls for a new Enlightenment are heard, but like the original advocates of the Enlightenment, they are limited to the conservative world view of those making the call and whose view of the Enlightenment could be compared to a form of Third Way politics, that is, they avoid the issue of class conflict.

  1. Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) p. 72/73.
  2. Michael L Frazer, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford Uni Press, 2010) p. 126/127.
  3. Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p. 13.
  4. Ibid., p. 45.
  5. Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (Oxford World’s Classics Oxford Uni Press, 2009.
  6. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p. 31.
  7. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p. 29/30.
  8. Ibid., pp. 30/31.
  9. Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p. 37.
  10. Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis, p. 301-312. Journal of the History of Ideas, June, 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 301-317. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
  11. Ibid., pp. 313-314.
  12. Ibid., p. 316.
  13. Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p. 270.
  14. Ibid., p. 271.
  15. Ibid., p. 88.
  16. David J. Denby, Individual, universal, national: a French revolutionary trilogy? (Studies of Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 335, Voltaire Foundation, 1996) p. 28/29.
  17. Ibid., 117.
  18. Ibid., p. 27.

Marx’s Theory of Value and Ecological Socialism: Points Missed or Points Rejected?

In “Marx’s Labor Theory of Value: Bad Science and Bad for Ecological Socialism,”1 I argued that Marx’s theory is unscientific and incompatible with the task of building ecological socialism. Robin Cox objected to these views in “The LTV: A Bad Criticism of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.”2 The present article is my response to Cox’s critique. I will show that his ignorance of Marxism and scientific method, and his polemical approach to the subject, which is full of fallacies and misrepresentations of my views, renders his arguments inept and unconvincing. Nonetheless, his attacks present an opportunity to correct his errors and advance the discussion of complex issues related to capitalism, socialism, value theory, and the ecological crisis that are of paramount importance to the future of this planet.

(1)  Marx’s labor theory of value fails as a scientific theory;

(2) A scientific theory of exchange value must account for quantities of energy consumed in the production process;

(3) Marx’s theory promotes unlimited economic growth and a hierarchical society that undermines socialism while causing ecological disaster; and,

(4) Ecological socialism must reject Marx’s conception of socialism and the theory of value on which it is based.

Marx on Value Creation: Logically Nonsensical and Empirically Meaningless

In Capital, v.1, Marx stated that two commodities with equal exchange values must share a common element that is present in both in the same amount.

Let us now take two commodities; for example, corn and iron. Whatever their exchange relation may be, it can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron; for instance, 1 quarter of corn = x cwt of iron. What does this equation signify? It signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things, in one quarter of corn and similarly in x cwt of iron. Both are therefore equal to a third thing, which is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third thing.3

Marx speaks of a common element and its magnitudes. Given his use of physicalist language, his reputation as a materialist, and the examples of corn and iron, one would expect this common element to be natural property. According to Marx, however, it is nothing of the kind.

This common element cannot be a geometrical, physical, chemical, or other natural property of the commodities.4

It cannot be a natural property, Marx confidently asserts. The common, non-natural element is “abstract human labour” measured in units of time:

A use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because abstract human labour is objectified or materialized in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? By means of the quantity of the ‘value forming substance’, the labour contained in the article. This quantity is measured by its duration, and the labour-time is itself measured on the particular scale of hours, days, etc.5

He also uses the expression “congealed labor-time,” to describe the element:

As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time. 6

This is Marx’s Law of Value: the exchange value of a commodity is determined by the amount of abstract human labor time or congealed labor time contained in it. The question about the value of the corn and iron can be answered thus: A quantity of corn will have an equal exchange value with a quantity of iron, if both quantities contain the same amount of congealed labor time. This is not the same as saying that the value is determined by the amount of labor time spent producing the commodities in any ordinary language sense of the words “labor” and “time.” The theory depends on the apparent contradiction that an abstraction is the substance that is present in commodities.

Among the most problematic questions raised by this theory are:

  • What did Marx mean by a non-physical element or non-natural property? These notions appear to be contradictions in terms. Before spinning a theory from these concepts, Marx was obliged to show that they are internally consistent and meaningful rather than self-contradictory and meaningless, but he did not bother to do this. Marx never offered a cogent explanation of how an immaterial element can be a property of a commodity. He merely proclaimed it, as if it were a self-evident truth.
  • How does one detect the presence of a non-natural property and thereby justify belief in its existence, not to mention its purported role in creating value? If Marx cannot explain the method of verifying the existence of said property, then he is engaging in empirically empty talk that has no place in a scientific theory. Unsurprisingly, he does not and cannot do this because it is logically impossible to empirically verify the existence of a non-material property. Therefore, his theory is scientifically meaningless.
  • What does it mean to say that a non-physical substance or property can be measured on a timescale such as hours or days? Natural substances and properties are extended in space and time (“spacetime” if one prefers) and can be measured with various units such as days, hours, etc. How can these units be meaningfully applied to something non-physical?
  • What is abstract human labor? Marx has an answer of sorts: It is socially necessary labor time.

The value of a commodity is certainly determined by the quantity of labor contained in it, but this quantity is itself socially determined . . . and their value at any given time is measured by the labor socially necessary to produce them.7

But this quantity of socially necessary labor time can be nothing but a statistical average. The figure representing this average is empirically meaningful and scientifically useful if it is calculated using a random sample of appropriate size and scope. It is the only sense in which the quantity can be “socially determined.” An average is just an abstraction, however, a mathematical generalization of some quantifiable characteristic of physical objects or processes; it is not a substance created by a physical process and congealed into objects, nor can it affect objects. It is precisely the other way around: the characteristics of the objects and the processes that produce them; i.e., actual labor times spent producing commodities, determine the outcome of the calculation; the figure is the result of, not an effect upon, the characteristics of the objects. Thus, the value of a commodity is not and cannot be determined by socially necessary labor time.

What can “congealed” as a component of Marx’s unfortunate expression “congealed labor-time” possibly mean? “Congealability” is perfectly understandable when applied to physical objects, but it is meaningless when used to denote a property of an abstraction. We all know that melted fat, for example, congeals at the top of chicken soup as it cools, and blood congeals or coagulates into a scab; both are examples of matter changing state from liquid to solid. Time spent laboring or otherwise cannot change from a liquid or gaseous state to a solid, for example, because time is not a state of matter; it is a dimension in which matter exists. This dimension is a necessary pre-condition of matter undergoing any kind change at all. Furthermore, time cannot congeal into anything, let alone a commodity. When Marx says this, he is uttering nonsense. In sum, Marx did not develop a scientific theory of value at all. He produced a metaphysical theory of value; that is, a theory which purports to explain how an undetectable, immaterial element interacts with physical objects (commodities) and causes them to have value. The theory is logically confused and empirically unverifiable. It is a pseudo-explanation and pseudoscience.

With the Wave of a Hand

Cox writes as though these problems can be dismissed with the wave of a hand, four of them to be precise.

The first wave dismisses my charge that Marx formulated a pseudo-scientific theory by confusing categories and giving physical qualities to abstractions. Cox responds with a classic he’s-making-mountains-out-of-molehills defense:

This is making rather heavy weather over what is, after all, just a metaphor. That Marx saw value as something immaterial is quite true (even if he used a ‘material’ metaphor like ‘substance’).8

Apparently, Cox thinks everything Marx said is all right because it is “just a metaphor.” I do not understand why he thinks this refutes my position. My point was that Marx failed to create a scientific theory of value. A metaphor is not a scientific theory. Cox was probably oblivious to the implications of his own statement, but perhaps he thinks Marx’s reliance on metaphor (which I dignify with the term “metaphysics”) was casual, infrequent, or otherwise insignificant, and Marx’s defensible theory can be found elsewhere. If so, Cox is incorrect. Marx’s discussions of value throughout Capital unleash a veritable torrent of pseudo-scientific references to the occult activities of immaterial entities such as: value forming substances, abstract human labor time, objectified labor, socially necessary labor, and the crowning glory of them all, congealed labor time. It is easy enough to consult the indexes to the numerous editions of Capital and look up the references oneself. “Heavy weather,” indeed. It would be another matter if the metaphors eventually gave way to a scientific theory, but for Marx metaphors are the theory.

My charge of inconsistency is the target of Cox’s second wave. In my view, Marx’s many reifications, “congealed labor”, for example, show confusion of the immaterial with the material, and consequently that Marx was not a consistent materialist, and certainly not one regarding exchange value. Marx (and Engels) constantly touted themselves as materialists and formulators of an empirical science of society, so their materialist aspirations are not in doubt. Cox thinks my charge of inconsistency can be dismissed rather than refuted:

For Pena, however, this smacks of a contradiction. How can something as immaterial and abstract as value become ‘congealed” in (and thus, according to him, be transformed into) a material substance? Labour is a process not a substance.

Granted, it might be possible to reconcile Marx’s claimed materialism with the his immaterialist language. But the burden of proof is on Marx and his partisans to show that apparently self-contradictory terms and statements are, in fact, internally consistent, and that an immaterialist theory of value is logically compatible with Marx’s much trumpeted “historical materialism.” Neither Marx nor Cox offers any help in that regard. Cox cannot get away with “it’s just a metaphor” because that helps my case, not his. Absent the needed proof, Cox’s empty denial of the contradiction achieves nothing.

Cox’s third wave is a jumble of misconceptions and risible non-sequiturs, which I quote in full:

For Marx’s theory to be ‘scientific’, claims Pena, it needs to identify ‘an empirically detectable and measurable property that gives value to commodities, and a theory that is consistent with fundamental propositions of other relevant sciences, such as physics and chemistry’. But since abstract labour is not something physical and therefore not empirically detectable and measurable, it follows that Marx’s theory cannot be materialist or scientific.

Oddly enough, until recently there was no empirical evidence for the existence of black holes in outer space. Were the astrophysicists inferring the existence of such phenomena being ‘unscientific’ in doing so? The value of a scientific theory lives [sic] in its predictive power and this is the basis on which Marx’s theory must be judged.

This amounts to claiming that I think Marx unscientific because I do not understand science. Cox makes the preposterous suggestion that Marx’s appeals to immaterial substances are scientific predictions that have not panned out yet, like black holes before they were confirmed.

The question of prediction is irrelevant because Marx’s theory of value is obviously not predictive. Furthermore, I did not make the fatuous claim that astrophysicists were being unscientific when they hypothesized the existence of black holes. It is not unscientific to infer the existence of unobserved objects, provided the inference is cogent and the theorized object is not an obvious contradiction in terms or an empirically empty metaphor, like those in Marx’s theory.

Unlike black hole theory, Marx’s labor theory of value is a different creature altogether; it is unverifiable in principle. Metaphors and contradictions cannot be verified. This should be obvious to anyone who understands basic logic and scientific prediction. The problem lies in treating an abstraction, such as abstract human labor, like a substance that can act on and give value to commodities.

Additionally, I do not understand why Cox faults me for stressing empirical detection and measurement, except that it is not helpful to his case. Hypotheses cannot be tested without these methods, and the failure to employ them would make science impossible. Does he not understand that claims to scientific knowledge, even Marx’s, must be empirically tested? He seems to think my emphasis on verification means I do not understand that science is predictive, but that does not follow; my point is that predictions must undergo empirical confirmation.

Furthermore, Cox’s claim that Marx’s theory, and by implication all science, lies exclusively in predictive power is obviously false. Many sciences are explanatory, not predictive. Two examples will suffice: evolutionary theory explains speciation; it does not predict which new species will evolve; archeology uses physical evidence to explain the past, not predict the future. Marx’s labor theory is clearly explanatory. It tries to explain how exchange value is created, not predict how value will be created in some future mode of production. Cox admitted as much in the concluding section of his article when he said, “Marx’s labour theory of value is an explanation of the modus operandi of a system socialists want to get rid of, not perpetuate.” This is not to say Marx never made statements that can be construed as empirically testable predictions. He did – I remember some talk about the proletariat leading socialist revolutions in advanced capitalist countries – but a review of the decidedly mixed results of his predictions would take us far beyond the scope of this paper.

Finally, I am surprised Cox did not upbraid me for saying Marxism must be consistent with fundamental sciences such as physics and chemistry, as if Marxism were the supreme science to which all others must conform. Perhaps he thinks all the uncomfortable talk about science can be squelched by his fourth wave, the charge of naïve empiricism.

“Naïve empiricism” is splattered around Cox’s article in sweeping condemnation of my entire outlook.

It is precisely the kind of naïve empiricism Pena espouses which focuses only on the outer appearance of phenomena that Marx criticized in his analysis of capital. Capital is not a thing but a social relationship.

The word “precisely” belies the fact that Cox is not one to rigorously define terms; naïve empiricism is no exception. Not content with “focusing on outer appearances” he quickly broadens its scope to include such epithets as “ahistorical,” naturalizing capitalism,” and “oblivious to social relationships”; it becomes a round hole into which Cox shoves any square peg he pleases.

My naïve empiricism is akin to E.F. Schumacher’s, says Cox. Schumacher had the temerity to suggest that Earth’s natural resources constitute “natural capital.”9  For this he is deemed guilty of “naturalizing capitalism, rendering its categories timeless and ahistorical.” It is not clear how any of this gets Marx’s theory off the hook, but by Cox’s lights, it is just the sort of mischief that naïve empiricists are up to, and he quotes me to show that I commit the same transgression:

Value in its original and grounding manifestation, the dual form of matter and energy, pre-exists human and all other life forms. The worker is an arranger and discoverer of values, but not a creator. Nature is the source of all values, not only use values, as Marx erroneously believed.

This is supposed to reveal my obliviousness to history. It makes no difference to Cox that the passage cites the historical fact that the existence of matter and energy predate the evolution of life. He is not one to sweat such petty details, for he has more important matters to attend to, like knocking down strawmen.

From his caricature-reliant viewpoint, minds clouded by naïve empiricism, like Schumacher’s and mine, are incapable of appreciating profound truths of political economy such as: capital is a “social relationship” and not a “thing” – relationships are also “things,” but I get the drift –  as well as this priceless cluster of tautologies that Marx bestowed on the world in 1847, which Cox dutifully quotes:

A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.10

Thus, naïve empiricists are the kind of miscreants who deny the identity relation, who believe people can be enslaved under any conditions instead of “certain conditions,” who do not understand that spinning machines become capital under “certain conditions,” who think the terms “gold” and “money” are coextensive and the price of sugar can be used to sweeten one’s tea. Very convincing.

Are Schumacher and I that superficial? Well, I can tell the difference between sugar and its price, and I bet Schumacher could too. The smears are so puerile one has to wonder why this silly brouhaha over naïve empiricism in the first place. After all, it is not an especially well-defined or useful notion in Cox’s clumsy hands. What it amounts to is the sophomoric jibe that people like Schumacher and me say un-Marxist things because we are superficial thinkers who fail to echo the usual Marxist profundities on history, social relationships, the law of value, etc.

Serious epistemologists – and Cox definitely is not one – use “naïve empiricist” for those who think immediate sense perceptions provide justification for truth claims and a firm basis for theories founded on these claims. For example, a naïve empiricist might infer that the moon and sun are flat discs just because they appear that way to the naked eye. There are not many people who think this way in reality, at least among those who discuss political economy. Cox’s careless use of the term reveals the emptiness of his claim that Schumacher and I are as naively empirical as he claims. The charge is a convenient, but insubstantial, bogeyman, which does nothing to refute my original claim that Marx’s labor theory of value is pseudo-science.

Who Owns the Language?

Strawman tactics and generally inept argumentation are just part of the problem with Cox’s approach. He exhibits a disabling superficiality by never making the effort to show things are the way he says they are. His treatment of Schumacher is a case in point. The fact that Schumacher gave the term “capital” a wider scope than Marx is completely irrelevant to the soundness of the arguments for doing so. If Cox wanted to show that Schumacher’s view rests on faulty premises, he should have done so, but he did not bother with that. Ditto regarding my conclusions about value.

Refutation requires argument. Instead he attacks strawmen, hurls epithets and non-sequiturs, and repeatedly commits the fallacy of refutation by quotation. He thinks he can parrot Marx’s use of some disputed term like “value” or “capital,” show that an opponent used the term differently, point at his naïve empiricist strawman and shout: “See, they’re all like that!” Cox’s attitude to language is akin to Humpty Dumpty’s in his notorious exchange with Alice:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’11

Like Humpty Dumpty, Cox behaves like a Master of Language, who in this case receives his authority from the Supreme Master, Karl Marx. Woe unto him who deviates! I suspect Cox’s primary concern lies not with his threadbare notions of naïve empiricism, social relationships, and the like. The real issue, I suggest, is Cox cannot abide anyone using language differently, and thereby thinking differently, than his guru, Karl Marx. Does he think terminological independence from Marx is wrong by definition? Is that why he puts so little effort into constructing arguments and so much into selecting quotations and letting his master, and a few others, do his thinking for him?

Language has no gods and no masters. Marxists do not own the language of political economy. Obeisance to an intellectual overlord is not incumbent upon any theorist. What theory requires is clearly defined terms and concepts used consistently in the attempt to construct arguments, the cogency of which must be judged solely on the merits. This applies to Marxists, too.

A Ridiculous View of Value?

Strawmen are meant to be knocked down, and the big shove is aimed at my “naïve empiricist” (surprise!) view that nature creates value, not labor, and that quanta of energy are fundamental determinants of value. I use these terms in senses much different than Marx’s, but Cox devotes not a whit to understanding them. He insinuates that if my theory were true, the worker would offer the capitalist “a particular bundle of energy (measured in joules) in exchange for a wage.” This ridiculous distortion is beneath mentioning, except to illustrate the level at which Cox plays his game. Again, I think Cox’s problem is exceedingly simple: I am critical of Marx and my views are contrary to his, so they must be attacked with whatever tools are available. All Cox had were the tools of a polemicist. True to form, he resorts to refutation by quotation, but not from Marx, surprisingly. This time the tedious procession of quotes is enlivened by the effusions of a newcomer, J.R. McCulloch, whose “rather colorful” observations, Cox gleefully announces, provide the “perfect riposte” to my views:

When a fish is caught, or a tree is felled, do the nereids or wood-nymphs make their appearance, and stipulate that the labour of nature in its production should be paid for before it is carried off and made use of? When the miner has dug his way down to the ore, does Plutus hinder its appropriation? Nature is not, as so many would have us to suppose, frugal and grudging. Her rude products, and her various capacities and powers, are all freely offered to man. She neither demands nor receives a return for her favours. Her services are of inestimable utility; but being granted freely and unconditionally, they are wholly destitute of value, and are consequently without the power of communicating that quality to any thing.12

A fine specimen of Victorian prose, this! Too bad Cox used it in a blatant appeal to authority that is worthless as a refutation. Can he not understand that merely quoting a statement one agrees with has no bearing on the truth status of other statements with which one disagrees? It is a mystery why Cox is so impressed with this passage in the first place. That nature is not a laborer who demands cash payment for its products is too obvious to mention; and it is irrelevant because I never said it. McCulloch’s description of the human relationship with nature is also misleading because it exaggerates the ease with which humans appropriate natural products. Does Cox really endorse McCulloch’s minimizing of the natural obstacles that humans face, the untold quantities of “blood, sweat, and tears” that it takes to wrest a living from nature?

Even Cox reveals a disagreement with the quotation he called a “perfect riposte.” Nature is a source of use values, he says, correcting McCulloch with a paraphrase of Marx. Did he consciously point out the imperfection in his perfect passage, or did he reflexively insert the comment, merely because he remembered it was something his master had said?

Cox tries to close his article with an argument of sorts, which is to his credit. He thinks my crucial naïve empiricist error is the failure to “grasp that value is essentially a social relationship based on economic exchange.” Again, this does nothing to address the scientific shortcomings of Marx’s theory, but it is a little better than the usual empty phrases. He adds a new charge of physical reductionism – back to undefined phrases, but maybe he thinks it is self-explanatory – which he reckons is the basis of my view that the labor theory of value promotes ecocide and is therefore fatal to ecological socialism, a claim he finds ridiculous:

His physical reductionist approach to the whole subject also informs his absurd claim that Marx’s labour theory is ‘bad for ecological socialism’. Since the theory posits only labour as the source of value it overlooks and devalues, he supposes, the contribution of Mother Nature to our material well-being.

The comment is aimed at my view that values must be reckoned in terms of consumed energy. This will be discussed in the conclusion of this article. Suffice it to note that I fully understand that human beings use energy in a social context. He further argues that I “totally miss the point” that the labor theory of value is an explanation of how capitalism works, not socialism. This is related to an earlier insinuation that I do not understand that the law of value applies only to capitalism. Since capitalism is the only sphere in which the law operates, Cox reasons, it is impossible for Marx’s labor theory to have any ill effects on socialism. Therefore, in addition to my ridiculous physical reductionism, my claim that the labor theory is bad for ecological socialism is false and patently absurd.

I also argued that the Communist Manifesto and Critique of the Gotha Program  advocate colossal development of the productive forces, which spells destruction of the environment under socialism. This holds regardless of whether the point is linked to my views on the labor theory of value. Cox thinks I am all wet because Marx only wanted production developed to the point where human needs could be adequately met. This sounds completely benign from an ecological standpoint, but it is disputable, too say the least.

Now the coupe de grâce: Cox believes my theory promotes capitalism because it retains exchange value, which, as he previously said, can exist only in a capitalist system – again the assumption that the law of value applies only in capitalism. This makes me an unwitting dupe, an advocate for retaining a mode of production that destroys the ecosystem I wish to preserve, making my theory the one that is self-contradictory. It just goes to show that naïve empiricism and failing to cleave to Marx will put you right back in the clutches of Wall Street – and thus the circle is complete.

The engagement with Cox has reached the point of diminishing returns. What is needed is an explanation of my views unclouded by the fog of his polemical distortions. At this point, I will say in my defense only that I have criticized Marx not because of points missed, as Cox charges, but on points rejected in the search for a better socialism, one that free and intellectually honest people can respect and hope for, and one that can help create an enduring balance between human need and the demands of ecology.

Scope of the Law of Value

A final error of Cox’s requires refutation because it is prevalent among Marxists and its correction is vital to my defense. Contrary to Cox’s overconfident assertions, it is not settled fact that the law of value applies only to capitalism. The evidence is in the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, which contains, in addition to Marx’s analysis of the commodity, a revealing digression on Aristotle’s analysis of value in the Nicomachean Ethics.13  I will provide my own explication of Aristotle before discussing Marx’s interpretation.

Aristotle’s subject is justice as reciprocity, his example, economic exchange. Reciprocity requires “proportionate return,” he says. Therefore, an endless array of diverse products such as food, shoes, houses, and beds must be rendered commensurable; i.e., measurable by the same standard. “All goods must therefore be measured by some one thing” so that such questions as “how many shoes are equal to a house or to a given amount of food?” can be settled. This parallels Marx’s discussion of the corn and iron, in which a quarter of corn equals x cwt of iron provided the commodities share a common element, which Marx identified as congealed labor time measured in units such as hours. Aristotle’s standard is of a different nature, however.

“This unit is in truth “demand” and “money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand,” says Aristotle. Money serves as the social convention for measuring demand and assigning a price, thereby making the value of products comparable and facilitating exchange. Thus:

Let A be a house, B ten minae, C a bed. A is half of B, if the house is worth five minae or equal to them; the bed, C, is a tenth of B; it is plain, then, how many beds are equal to a house, viz. five. That exchange took place thus because there was money is plain; for it makes no difference whether it is five beds that exchange for a house, or the money value of five beds.14

In the example, a unit of Aristotle’s currency, the “mina,” represents a level or degree of demand.  Neither demand, nor its representative, the money price, is a property of the goods, however. Thus, the commensurability of goods is an appearance, not the reality. The truth, Aristotle says, is goods are not really commensurable because they share no common property sufficient to the purpose.

Now in truth it is impossible that things differing so much should become commensurate, but with reference to demand they may become so sufficiently.15

For Aristotle, the value of a product is the result of social agreement, a convenience that facilitates exchange by making the incommensurable appear commensurate. Value has no basis in real properties of exchanged goods, which is obviously different from Marx’s view.

Marx said that Aristotle came tantalizingly close to discovering the law of value; and he considered this a testament to the philosopher’s genius. The respect in which Marx claimed to hold the great thinker did not deter him from imposing his own dubious interpretation on Aristotle’s theory, however.

Aristotle therefore himself tells us what prevented any further analysis: the lack of a concept of value. What is the homogeneous element; i.e., the common substance, which the house represents from the point of view of the bed, in the value expression for the bed? Such a thing in truth cannot exist says Aristotle. But why not? Toward the bed, the house represents something equal, both in the bed and the house. And that is – human labour.16

Marx’s explanation is speculative and self-serving. As if poor Aristotle had to throw up his hands, abandon the analysis of value, and leave the world to suffer in ignorance for over 2000 years until Marx arrived on the scene to set things right with his “law of value.” We know for certain that Aristotle had a concept of value; it was not Marx’s concept, that is all. Evidently, Aristotle would have told Marx that exchange value is a convention, not a substance. Whether Marx would have been able to convince him otherwise is, again, speculative.

Marx offers this consolation: social conditions alone are to blame for Aristotle’s failure to do what Marx had done; i.e., discover the “the secret of the expression of value.”

However, Aristotle himself was unable to extract this fact, that, in the form of commodity-values, all labour is expressed as equal human labor and therefore as labor of equal quality, by inspection from the form of value, because Greek society was founded on the labour of slaves, hence had as its natural basis the inequality of man and of their labour-powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion. This however becomes possible only in a society where the commodity-form is the universal form of the product of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of  commodities. Aristotle’s genius is displayed precisely by his discovery of a relation of equality in the value-expression of commodities. Only the historical limitation inherent in the society in which he lived prevented him from finding out what ‘in reality’ this relation of equality consisted of.17

The condescension of this passage is astonishing. “The secret of the expression of value,” indeed! Aristotle was capable of both rigorous empiricism and subtle abstraction, as anyone familiar with his wide-ranging work would know, and Marx was likely familiar enough. Aristotle was certainly able to observe the contribution of workers, whether slave or free, to production and of formulating a concept of labor in the abstract, had he found it warranted. Marx’s blithe assertion that Aristotle could not discover the true basis of value because his insight was limited by slavery and the lack of generalized commodity production is far-fetched at best. Be that as it may, the crucial point is Marx assumed the law of value applied in ancient Greece, which was a pre-capitalist society. This is contrary to Cox’s view that the law applies only to capitalism.

The assumption is not an aberration on the part of Marx. He takes the same position in Capital, volume III:

Apart from the way in which the law of value governs prices and their movement, it is also quite apposite to view the values of commodities not only as theoretically prior to the prices of production, but also historically prior to them. This applies to those conditions in which the means of production belong to the worker, and this condition is to be found, in both the ancient and modern world, among peasant proprietors and handicraftsmen who work for themselves.18

Marx’s position in Capital, volume III is the same as volume I:  the law of value applies to societies in which the means of production are owned by farmers and craftsmen, rather than capitalists. Engels, characteristically, grabs this theoretical baton and runs with it, so to speak, in his supplement to Capital, volume III:

Thus the Marxian law of value has a universal economic validity for an era lasting from the beginning of the exchange that transforms products into commodities down to the fifteenth century of our epoch. But commodity exchange dates from a time before any written history, going back to at least 3500 B.C. in Egypt, and 4000 B.C. or maybe even 6000 B.C. in Babylon; thus the law of value prevailed for a period of some five to seven millennia.19

So much for Cox’s claim that exchange value is the product of “only a very particular and recent form of human society called capitalism in which alone the law of value applies.” Cox is certainly wrong if he thinks this is the settled opinion of Marx and Engels; though I salute him for showing signs of intellectual independence if he intended to take a contrary position.

If Marx had firmly believed that the law of value was inapplicable to ancient Greece’s pre-capitalist economy, he would have said there was nothing for Aristotle to discover. He did not say that. According to Marx the law operated in the interstices of ancient slave economies, waiting to be discovered in the non-dominant sector of wage-laborers and free craftsmen. Thus, I would argue there is nothing in Marx to prevent the law functioning under any conditions in which workers own the means of production, including socialism. Therefore, my point that it is possible for the law to prevent the construction of ecological socialism stands, despite Cox calling it absurd, because the law’s applicability to socialism also means that the anti-ecological effects of the law apply to that system.

My position, minus the caricature, requires this caveat: I do not believe Marx’s law of value has functioned in any society because the labor theory of value is a metaphysical fantasy. The ideological, as opposed to economic, effects of the “theory” and its law indeed prevail among socialists who are under Marx’s influence, however, and this is what hinders the construction of ecological socialism. This is the only sense in which the law of value “applies” to socialism or any system. More on this in the next section.

Marx’s Theory of Value: Anti-Socialist and Anti-Ecology

A viable ecological socialism must build a classless society that meets fundamental human needs without destroying the environment. To accomplish this, we must discover theoretical and practical approaches to value that bring human society into harmony with the requirements of a thriving ecology. Human beings can reassess value in this way because value is indeed a human construct. So-called ecological Marxism cannot accomplish this if it remains wedded to Marx’s labor theory of value. There is no choice but to reject the theory on scientific grounds because it is simply meaningless in those terms. It also promotes anti-socialist hierarchies and an anti-ecological economy within socialist society. To explain this, we must return once more to Capital, volume I to examine Marx’s distinction between simple and complex labor.

Simple labor, according to Marx, “is the expenditure of simple labour-power, i.e., of the labour-power possessed in his bodily organism by every ordinary man, on the average, without being developed in any special way.”20 Complex labor, by contrast, has an above average value-creating power that “counts only as intensified, or rather multiplied simple labour, so that a smaller quantity of complex labour is considered equal to a larger quantity of simple labour.”21 For example, if simple and complex labor are both performed for one hour, the latter must produce a higher quantity of value than the former. No trivial distinction, this, for its consequences are far-reaching.

Marx gave examples in Capital, volume III, which classified day labor as simple labor and goldsmithing as complex.22  He also considered commercial operatives complex laborers due to their specialized knowledge of business processes and foreign languages: “The commercial worker proper belongs to the better-paid class of wage laborer; he is one of those whose labour is skilled labour, above-average labour”.23  Skilled mechanics were also considered complex labor.24  Evidently, Marx considered the higher levels of training and education possessed by skilled workers the source of complex labor’s higher value productivity. To put it in terms of the labor theory of value, complex labor creates more value substance than simple labor in the same amount of time.

Marx and Engels’ position on the applicability of the law of value to non-capitalist societies suggests the labor theory of value, with its distinction between simple and complex labor, applies to post-capitalist society as well, including what Marx called the “first phase” of communism.25  The distinction between simple and complex labor colors Marx’s vision of socialism.26  This is dangerous to socialism because it lays the foundation for a hierarchical post-capitalist society in which individual social position and access to goods and services is determined by one’s status as a simple or complex worker, which is in turn decided by the worker’s level of education and training. Marx’s labor theory of value is the basis of a social hierarchy in the Marxist conception of socialism that undermines both socialism and ecology.

The hierarchical structure of Marx’s communism is outlined in Critique of Gotha Program, which envisions a first phase of communist society in which the worker receives:

a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour.27

In nascent communism, workers exchange labor for certificates which permit them to consume quantities of goods equivalent to the quantities of labor they contribute to society, minus necessary deductions for public purposes which might include investment, administrative costs, education, health services, support for the aged and disabled, etc. This scheme presupposes the ability to measure quantities of labor and the value produced.

Marx provided no other way to measure value than his labor theory. When the theory is applied to the first phase of communism, the hierarchical implications are clear. The labor certificate will function like a wage by giving workers the right to consume in amounts determined by the kind of work they do and its duration. Their consumption will be subject to the skilled-unskilled labor hierarchy and the numerous sub-distinctions that must inevitably appear; taxes will be paid in the form of required deductions. There will be a distinction between rich and poor, as well as social and political inequality between lower and higher earners.

This is no idle assumption. Marx confirmed that the compensation differential in the first phase results in a division between rich and poor:

The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply . . . But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time. . . . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. . . . Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. . . . But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society . . .28

The inevitability of this disappointing vision of the first phase of communism is debatable, but it illustrates the anti-socialist results of Marx’s faulty theory of value, which in his imagination described the inescapable laws of value creation. The society Marx envisioned resembles the “social democratic” welfare state, which is a form of capitalism, not socialism. Social democracy is anti-socialist in that its concessions to human needs are part of a strategy to preserve capitalist class privilege by mitigating its most pernicious effects rather than abolishing the privileges altogether. That social democracy uses money instead of labor certificates is a minor difference; both societies are divided between rich and poor due to compensation differentials; climbing the hierarchy of work and consumption will be preoccupations in both societies because they have similar approaches to compensation.

In Marx’s scheme, the worker is paid a wage, represented by the labor certificate, which reflects the value of the work performed; public services are funded by deductions from the certificates; the value of the certificate is subject to the division between simple and complex labor; and the society ends up divided between rich and poor. Marx makes the state the exclusive appropriator and distributor of value. This differs from the alliance of the state, private capital, and opportunistic labor unions that characterizes social democracy. Nevertheless, the old bourgeois divisions between intellectual and manual workers, skilled and unskilled, educated and uneducated, rich and poor persist in the first phase of Marx’s communism. The rich receive more income than they need. This encourages accumulation, conspicuous consumption, and the restoration of money; it increases pressure to restore private investment, production for profit rather than use, and the dismantling of public services.

In these conditions, the difference between a publicly run economy and private capitalism will become increasingly superficial, and the political will to suppress the reemergence of undisguised capitalism will likely not last long. Presumably, the first phase of communism has democratic mechanisms for workers of all statuses to have a voice in state policy, but how effectively and for how long can these features afford meaningful influence to revolutionary workers when the society is divided at its inception by the hierarchies of education, wealth, and social position that are inherited from capitalism and allowed to continue under communism because they are sanctioned by Marx’s labor theory of value?

Although Marx acknowledged some of the defects of the first phase, he soft-pedaled the reactionary nature of a “communist” society in which bourgeois ideological constructs serve as foundational principles of the social structure. Marx believed this defective phase would evolve into a far better society. Evidently, he could not imagine that first phase communism was more likely to revert to undisguised capitalism than advance to full communism.

According to Marx, the first phase will be superseded by a marvelous second phase of communism that overcomes all defects:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!29

He predicts the arrival of a society to which the labor theory of value does not apply. Many have mistaken this bombastic expression of wishful thinking for an inspiring vision of a communist future, but it yields not a clue to how the ideological influence of the law of value will be removed from human minds, its anti-communist social defects overcome, and limitless abundance has been achieved. We are left with the blithe assumption that early communism, riven by inequality, will simply evolve into its higher self. Perhaps Marx was naïve enough to think the lower phase would simply produce itself into the higher phase, as if a society organized on a mistaken theory of value with all the resulting hierarchies is guaranteed to dissolve by force of the ever-increasing productivity and consumption levels promised by this vision.

This brings us to the problem of ecological socialism. Marx’s higher communism, mired in new class divisions and an endless cycle of production and consumption, is chimerical at the outset. The reason is obvious: When the degree of complexity of work determines the worker’s compensation packet and social status, society becomes a ladder of consumption in which ever more sophisticated and decadent forms of conspicuous production, consumption, and waste are incentivized, thus making a transition to full communism impossible, let alone an ecological communism. This society is much like naked capitalism because it has not overcome the nonsensical assumptions about value which lie at the basis of capitalism; i.e., the labor theory of value. They are the same assumptions of Marx’s theory of value. The theory is a recipe for a “socialism” that has too much in common with capitalism to be convincingly or sustainably socialist, and it is antithetical to the goal of a thriving natural environment.

Ecological socialism is impossible unless productionism and consumerism are repudiated. This requires rejection of Marx’s labor theory of value, which is the theoretical underpinning of these twin maladies of Marxism. They are the same afflictions that plague contemporary capitalism. A hierarchy of skilled and unskilled laborers will result in a productionist and consumerist society regardless of whether the ruling class subscribes to capitalist or socialist ideology. When we persist in the illusion that human beings are demigod-like “creators” of value, rather than mere users of, and dependents, on pre-existing matter and energy, we become all the more susceptible to the delusion that the creative subjugation of nature is the most important aspect, perhaps the entire point, of life on this planet, and the development of human powers is granted precedence over the flourishing of all other beings. This leads to the kind of ecological catastrophe the world is now experiencing.

Implications: Toward a Genuinely Ecological Society

(1) Marx’s labor theory of value gives false status to human labor by erroneously making it the creator of a potentially infinite expansion of value. This is based on Marx’s nonsensical theory that labor creates a value substance, which entails that human beings add a substance to the universe that, unlike mass and energy, was not present from the beginning, in obvious contradiction of conservation laws. The view has sweeping ramifications because it is an easy jump from value substance in an economic sense to value as personal and social worthiness, and from there to value as the basis of social hierarchy: the more substance created the more valuable are the workers who create it and the societies to which they belong. Intellectual, skilled, or complex labor, and the workers who perform these tasks, are rendered more worthy and valuable as human beings than their simple or manual laboring counterparts; likewise, industrialized societies are judged more worthy than non-industrialized. Since only human labor can create this value substance, the value of human beings and their social formations, particularly societies of complex workers, is exalted above all other beings, as the expansion of artificial environments at the expense of the biosphere becomes identified with morally desirable qualities such as justice and progress.

(2) The reality of human labor is far more mundane than Marx’s metaphysical fantasies suggest. What work accomplishes, be it human or otherwise, is consumption and manipulation of quantities of matter and energy. These quantities can be identified with value, while abandoning the view that labor is an act of creation in the sense of generating a metaphysical value substance and bestowing it on objects. This is not to underestimate the importance to human well-being of labor’s matter manipulating power. Nevertheless, economic value is not a substance in and of itself. Therefore, value hierarchies and judgments of social priorities based on a metaphysics of value, rather than grounded in the determination of the real material characteristics and ecological implications of production, should be viewed skeptically by ecological socialists.

Although “value” is not an independently existing substance, it is not purely fictitious. It is an epiphenomenon of the utilization of natural substances and processes for human purposes. This always involves rationally directed use of matter and energy. This epiphenomenon, in its original and grounding manifestation, the dual matter-energy form, pre-exists human and all other life forms. The worker discovers and arranges values but does not create them. Nature is the source of all values; it is not just a source of use values, as Marx erroneously believed.30

(3) The demotion of humankind from the unmerited status of “creator” divorces social life from the notion that its primary purpose is to honor and reward acts of pure and potentially infinite creativity, to make the highest value creators “rich,” to put it in capitalist terms, or in the Marxist vision, to reward workers according to the quantity and quality of their labor until the resulting development of the productive forces enables limitless consumption in satisfaction of some vague, self-defined notion of human “need.” When human beings cease viewing themselves as creators of value and begin to understand that they are dependent creatures who need and make use of value, they abandon the bogus, quasi-divine status conferred on them by the more Promethean strains of Enlightenment thought – the innumerable variants of capitalism and Marxist socialism – for the less pompous, but more realistic, intellectually honest status of normal living beings, not unlike the other creatures of the biosphere. Humans may then understand themselves as beings with needs that are worthy of respect, consideration, and accommodation, but not satisfaction of any need or want whatsoever, in any amount desired, nor the infinite satisfaction of an ever-expanding ensemble of needs and desires. Human beings, by this reckoning, have no right to elevate their needs and wants above the soundness of the entire system of terrestrial life.

(4) Labor does not “create” value. It reconfigures pre-existing quantities of matter and energy to serve useful purposes. These purposes are not class neutral. In capitalism they serve the capitalist class’ interest in profit maximization; whereas, in actually existing, so-called “socialism” they serve the goals of the ruling class, bureaucrats, or nomenklatura (call them whatever you like); in ecological socialism they must satisfy the material and cultural needs of the people within ecological limits. The primary concern of ecological society is the harmonization of human endeavor with the health of the biosphere, not the glorification of human powers and desires.

(5) An ecological society, “ecological socialism” if one prefers, begins with the principle that preservation of the biosphere takes precedence over all other social concerns. Once that is established, it must be determined which matter/energy resources are available to the society, what conditions the surrounding ecosystem requires to thrive, and the quantities and methods by which resources may be used to meet human needs without causing irreversible damage to the environment. Before a human need or desire can be judged legitimate or satisfiable, it must meet the standard of balance and limitation against the objective requirements of maintaining the environment’s capacity to support human and non-human life. Judgments of economic value and social priorities must be made with reference to these conditions. Since ecological requirements are logically and temporally prior to all societies, the principles apply whether the owners and controllers are capitalists, the working class, bureaucrats, an alliance of classes, a state, a free association of workers, etc. No society is ecological if it violates these principles, whether wittingly or unwittingly.

(6) Labor is the alteration of matter through the rationally governed consumption of energy. Thus, the labor process requires aptitude and skill in addition to energy and matter. Matter and energy are equivalent (E = mc2 after all); therefore, we can reduce this to the statement that production requires the skillful use or consumption of energy (or matter if one prefers). Since conservation laws apply, we will understand “consumption” to mean the transformation of energy from one state into another, with no net gain or loss and, correspondingly, the consumption or transformation of matter, again with neither gain or loss. Movement, changes of state, acquisition of skill, are all forms of consumption that may be counted among labor’s accomplishments; this excludes creation in the sense of bringing substances into being out of nothingness and annihilation in the sense of transforming substances from the state of being to nothingness.<

(7) We may reduce the statement that production of material products, services, and skills requires matter, energy, and rational direction, to the statement that it requires energy and skill. We can further shorten this to the statement that production requires energy consumption, due to the matter energy equivalence and the fact that all forms of effort, including mental effort, are energy consuming activities. Rationally governed energy consumption contrasts with the non-rational consumption that occurs in nature – in the Sun, for example.

Consumption of energy is the common component of all animal activities and natural processes. When we determine the forms and amounts of energy required to provide specific goods and services and understand the social and ecological effects of production, we can ascertain the socio-ecological desirability and worthiness of productive activities. Energy costs plus socio-ecological effects equal ecological value in the sense of the term “value” that must prevail in an ecological society. If expended energy can be considered the common physical element of products, and socio-ecological effects their common byproduct, then rational understanding of these facts and their use in policy-making is the common element of ecological societies. Rationality in this sense means more than just “know-how”; it includes the capacity to judge the socio-ecological consequences and thus the worthiness of all human energy expenditures in relation to ecological prerequisites.

(8) The distribution scenario for the primary stage of communism that Marx sketched in “Critique of the Gotha Program” may be rewritten from an ecological perspective:

He receives a certificate from society that he has consumed such and such an amount of energy (after deducting part of this amount for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same expenditure of energy. The same amount of energy which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another. All energy expenditures must occur within quantifiable ecological limits.

The principle for the higher phase of communism is reworded:

From each according to his ability to each according to his need, within the limits of nature’s capacities!

(The expression: “From each for the achievement of socio-ecologically worthy purposes, to each for their continued contribution to these purposes” is more accurate but not as eloquent.)

From a worker’s standpoint, replacement of the sum of energy consumed while working, in the form of calories and additional amounts of energy expenditure required to maintain oneself as a worker – clothing, housing, healthcare, education, etc. – constitute the worker’s legitimate expectations of society. The manner of meeting them is determined by ecological limits and the concept of socio-ecological worthiness, which in turn sets the limits on permissible resources and production methods, as well as the quanta of matter and energy that may be used to meet  legitimate expectations. Expectations become illegitimate when they cross socio-ecological limits.

(10) Quanta of energy may be expressed in any units one wishes – gram calories, kilogram calories, joules, British thermal units, etc. – provided we have a technique for measuring in terms of the unit in question and a method for converting into other commonly used units. In-depth treatment of the practical problems entailed by this theory are beyond the scope of this paper; however, it should be noted that measurement of human energy expenditure is a developed science with a history reaching back to 1919 with the formulation of the Harris-Benedict equation for estimating an individual’s basal metabolic rate.31

(11) The science of human energy expenditure shows without question that manual or simple labor, requiring lower levels of training and education, expends higher amounts of energy than intellectual or complex labor with its higher education and training. Thus, there is no justification for discrimination against simple labor in terms of compensation for calories expended. Rather it provides justification for higher expectations by manual laborers regarding rest, healthcare, and calories due to the higher physical demands.32 Justification of differences in compensation among workers must cite measurable differences in energy expenditure during the labor process or in legitimate needs, such as medical condition, size of family, etc. This replaces Marx’s standard of labor time and the hierarchy of complex over simple labor. Compensation hierarchies based on differences in the quality or complexity of different forms of work are unjustified in these terms of energy expenditure or legitimate individual need. Societies might be tempted to use compensation differences to encourage quality improvements or the acquisition of complex skills, but the principle of socio-ecological worthiness must take precedence over perceived utility. In an ecological society, the priority of distribution is to return to individuals the amount of energy they have invested in society, minus unavoidable deductions for social purposes, and to meet legitimate, basic needs in a manner that is socio-ecologically sound. Adherence to these principles is incompatible with hierarchical distribution regimes that promote poverty and wealth by returning to workers either less or more than the amount of energy they contribute plus or by denying fundamental needs.

(12) That some forms of work involve manipulation of higher quantities of energy than others does not entail that workers in these fields expend more of their own metabolic energy during their work or as part of their labor in acquiring and maintaining their skills; nor does it entitle them to more abundant and higher quality material expectations. The view that they “create” or manipulate higher energy fields is not a badge of entitlement. The worker is not a creator. Energy and matter, in conformity to their respective conservation laws, are neither created nor destroyed. These fundamental constituents of material reality may be transferred or transformed from one state into another by the worker, but unlike Shiva, human workers, whether of hand or brain, neither create nor annihilate matter and energy. Since value is reducible to quantities of energy, the conservation laws also apply to value. Strictly speaking, the view that labor creates value is erroneous because the pre-existing quantity of matter and energy in the universe is immutable. New methods of manipulating value are discovered during the labor process, but human beings do not possess the power of creating matter, energy, or value beyond the pre-established quantity.

(13) Ecosocialism aims to meet each person’s material needs by using practices that allow society to function within known ecological limits. Anything beyond this, satisfying wants in contrast to needs, may be pursued only if meets the criterion of socio-ecological worthiness. Deviations from ecological limits that favor intellectual workers, or other social strata, on the erroneous assumption that they contribute more labor or “create” more value than others are unjustified. An ecosocialist society must respect objective energy values and the dialectic of needs and limits. It cannot shirk its responsibility to meet fundamental material needs, but it cannot defy ecological constraints just to provide so called elite social strata, or privileged populations in North America or Western Europe, with extravagant consumption levels which they are mistakenly judged to deserve under the old labor theory of value and its accompanying prejudices.

(14) Overconsumption is discouraged by limiting social expectations to basic needs and compensation to the quantity of energy contributed by the worker. This does not preclude the possibility of additional regulatory limits on the use of specific forms of energy, such as fossil fuels, due to ecological priorities. Socialist society must provide for a living for workers, but it is madness to allow so much consumption that the underpinning of life is destroyed. The point is for socialism to fill basic needs, not unlimited wants.

(15) The primary concern of ecological socialism cannot be to provide human beings with limitless material abundance. It must strike a balance between material needs and ecological limits, and the understanding of need must evolve with changes in our knowledge of ecology. Socialism must meet basic needs and recompense workers for the energy they contribute to the common good, but whether this results in material abundance is a secondary concern. It must be determined how much growth, if any, is compatible with a thriving environment. As far as we know, the material world is ultimately entropic (as expressed by the Boltzmann entropy equation (S = k log W), thus life’s flourishing requires temporarily decreasing entropy through matter/energy inputs, both natural and rationally directed; consequently, there must be a sense of limits to disruptive growth, a preference for permitting nature to exist undisturbed, and recognition of the importance of letting things be.

(16) Consumption must be understood as permissible satisfaction of one’s eco-compatible needs and as compensation for one’s energy expenditures, not as a reward for superiority or virtue of any kind (which must be its own reward if it is to remain virtuous); otherwise, talented workers, and this includes those who are talented at self-promotion, fraud, deception, theft, violence, and gluttony, will take the vast bulk of social goods for themselves and condemn others to second class status as the supposedly deserved outcome of their inferiority, while the chosen few destroy the biosphere with their voracious consumption, which they view as “just” reward for their limitless excellence. Capitalism and the old productivist/consumerist socialism, with their groundless distinctions between work deserving of high and low rewards, must be rejected. A scientific socialism, scientific in the sense that it takes other sciences seriously (including climatology and ecology) must focus on limiting human consumption, not unleashing it. Consumption must be within the limits defined by climatology and ecology, rather than the Promethean consumerist aspirations of classical liberalism, nineteenth-century Marxism, twentieth-century Marxism-Leninism, market-oriented socialism, and all forms of productionist/consumerist Marxism.

(17) The idea that a scientific ecosocialism must be compatible with other sciences requires clarification. It does not mean that socialists must acknowledge the established assumptions and findings of all sciences and explicitly agree with them. (Does it matter whether socialists know and accept the latest findings of actinology, otology, tribology, etc.?) It is enough for socialists to take account of established theoretical principles and empirical findings in all sciences that bear directly upon their project, unless they can show that established principle is incorrect. I mean by “established” principles and findings those that have withstood scrutiny so far and have not been refuted by other sciences, including Marxism. Marx should be criticized, for example, when he talks about labor time as a congealable ingredient that the labor process adds to the material substance of the commodity. This conflicts with a fundamental proposition of modern physics which views time as an immaterial dimension of reality, not an ingredient that can be added to things by some process or other, such as labor. If Marxists cannot provide convincing reasons to prefer their assumptions about time to those of modern physics, then the traditional Marxist theory of value should be reformulated in terms compatible with physics. On the other hand, if Marxists can refute standard physics by rigorously demonstrating that time should be regarded as a substance (the substance of value as Marx called it) then physics should adapt to Marxism, but this does not seem likely.

(18) Socialists must abandon the labor theory of value and its metaphysical pretensions if it is going to be relevant in the newly named Anthropocene epoch. This term denotes the present age of planetary environmental crisis. It is now clear that the intractable environmental problems facing humankind are the result of human activities, especially the complementary economic and scientific developments that have taken place since the Industrial Revolution (at the very latest). A terrifying increase in human power to devour the environment has occurred, causing a constellation of problems that includes, but is not limited to: air, water, and soil pollution; global warming and climate change; human overpopulation; resource depletion; over-development; global destruction of habitats; and mass extinctions. The stress on the material bases of life has killed vast numbers of organisms in what is called the Sixth Great Extinction33; there is even some concern that Homo sapiens may not survive the Anthropocene. Furthermore, it is not certain whether life itself can survive if industrial civilization continues its trajectory toward unlimited economic growth, or whether humans, if they do persist, will be forced to revert to the lower consumption levels that characterized early- or pre-industrial eras. If ecosocialists can develop a theoretical and practical program for dealing with the problems of the Anthropocene, the world will flock to it; otherwise the world will look to capitalist solutions such as liberalism, neoliberalism, social democracy, fascism, or a phony hierarchical socialism for solutions. All of these ideologies offer little more than the delusion that humankind can produce and consume its way out of any crisis.

(19) A scientific theory of value is necessary not only to bring socialism in communion with the other empirical sciences, it is also a prerequisite of an ecological society, which is in turn crucial to socialism’s relevance in the Anthropocene. It must replace Marx’s “labor mixing” theory, which is a holdover from natural rights-based, labor-mixing theories of bourgeois political economy.34  It is a scientifically sound approach to replace these ideological mystifications with empirically verifiable propositions; it is also a wise political strategy, because science-based political strategies, like all human endeavors informed by the relevant disciplines, actually stand a reasonable chance of achieving the desired results.

  1. Pena, David. “Marx’s Labor theory of Value: Bad Science and Bad for Ecological Socialism.” Dissident Voice, January 12, 2020.
  2. Cox, Robin. “The LTV: A Bad Criticism of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.” Socialist Standard, March 2020.
  3. Marx, Karl. Capital, v. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1977 (1867), p. 127; cwt = hundredweight.
  4. Ibid., p. 127.
  5. Ibid., p. 129.
  6. Ibid., p. 130.
  7. Ibid., p. 318.
  8. All quotes and paraphrases of Cox are from: Cox, Robin. “The LTV: A Bad Criticism of  Marx’s Labour Theory of Value,” Socialist Standard (March 2020).
  9. Schumacher. E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Vintage, 1973, p. 4.
  10. Marx, Karl. Wage Labor and Capital and Value, Price and Profit. New York: International Publishers, 1976, p. 28.
  11. Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. In Alice’s  Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Signet Classic, 2000 1871), p. 188.
  12. McCulloch, J.R. The Principles of Political Economy. Cambridge University Press, 2006 (1830), p. 73.
  13. Marx. Capital, volume I, p. 151-152 and Bk. V, ch. V of: Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. In vol. 2 of The Complete Works of Aristotle. Princeton University Press, p. 1729–1867.
  14. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, p. 1788.
  15. Ibid., p. 1789.
  16. Marx. Capital, v. 1, p. 151.
  17. bid, p. 151–152.
  18. Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume III. London: Penguin Books, 1991 (1894), p. 277.
  19. Page 1037 of “Frederick Engels: Supplement and Addendum to Volume Three of Capital.” In Marx. Capital: Volume III., p. 1027–1047.
  20. Marx. Capital, vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1977 (1867), p. 135.
  21. Ibid., p. 135.
  22. Marx. Capital: Volume III, p. 241.
  23. Ibid., p. 414.
  24. Ibid. p. 415, n. 39[a].
  25. Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program.” In Robert Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. p. 525–541. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978 (1875), 531.
  26. Using “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably here and following.
  27. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” p. 530.
  28. Ibid., p. 530–531.
  29. Ibid., p. 531.
  30. Ibid., p. 525. “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use       values  . . . as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor  power.”
  31. Harris, J. Arthur and Francis G. Benedict. A Biometric Study of Basal Metabolism in  Man. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1919. There is an extensive literature  on human energy consumption in daily life, work, and recreational activities. A small sample includes: R. Passmore &  J. Durnin. “Human Energy Expenditure.” Physiol  Rev. 1955 October, 35(4) 801–840; T. Church et al. “Trends over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity.” PLoS ONE.     2011 May; 6(5) 1–7; M. Mansoubi et al. “Energy Expenditure during Common Sitting and Standing Tasks: Examining the 1.5 MET Definition of Sedentary Behavior.” BMC Public Health. 2015: Article number 516; S. Bilici et al.  “Energy Expenditure and Nutritional Status of Coal Miners: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Archives of       Environmental & Occupational Health. 2016; 71(5) 293–299; R. Griffin, et al. “Gluttony and Sloth? Calories, Labor Market Activity, and the Rise of Obesity.”  Journal of the European Economic Association. 2016; 14(6) 1253–1286; J. Deyaert et al. “Attaching Metabolic Expenditures to Standard Occupational Classification Systems: Perspectives from Time-Use Research.” BMC Public Health. 2017; Article number 620.
  32. Calories burned by a 185 lb person in 30 minutes in the following occupational activities: computer work – 61; light office work – 67; sitting in meetings – 72; desk work –  78; bartending/serving – 173; general construction – 244; coal mining – 266; masonry – 311; general steel mill – 355. From: Harvard Health Publishing. “Calories Burned in  30 Minutes by People of Three Different Weights.”
  33. Cf. Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Great Extinction. New York: Henry Holt and Company 2014.
  34. For an early labor-mixing theory see John Locke’s discussion of property in chapter 5 of The Second Treatise of Civil Government.

Propaganda and the Fragility of Hope

In my experience, big events (like THIS one) and powerful social movements (like THAT one, oh you know, back a ways ago) do not appear out of nowhere, but can rather be traced back to what first appears as imperceptible shifts in the narrative ethers and in each of our views of the world around us.

Sure, we may THINK we think with our brains, but reason and logic are just the functional tip of an iceberg of conditioned responses and programmed behaviors that rise up from below and seize sub-conscious control of our thoughts and behaviors.

Let me apply an example.

Even among the devoutly non-political, it is commonly understood that since 2003, the U.S. Military (plus contractors and the intelligence services of multiple countries) has been waging and supporting ongoing genocidal wars against the largely defenseless peoples of many Middle-Eastern countries.

Domestically, since at least the passage of the Patriot Act, almost immediately following 9-11, Americans have been living under a quasi passive-aggressive form of fascism, which has subjected each of us to ever more invasive forms of electronic surveillance and societal control.

Obviously, what happens in the Middle-East will seem very far away for most Americans, such that their daily thoughts will not often turn to contemplation of the role that the America Empire plays on the global stage as the grotesquely militarized enforcement arm largely controlled by a network of elite billionaires, central bankers, multinational corporations and global governance institutions like the UN, WEF, WHO, IMF, WB, BIS, etc.

If you are, like myself, getting a little concerned about the exponential rise in more brutal forms of domestic surveillance and fascism — especially in the wake of the draconian COVID response — then you too might wonder how we could go from 17 years of protracted war to a global lockdown over the course of two weeks’ time unless the course had been carefully set and planned well in advance… by that same network of elites, who wield the economic clout to support all sorts of such coordinated machinations and propaganda campaigns that like a hot knife through butter penetrates all the way down into that least global of places… the everyday human mind?

I often return to a consideration the differences between CERTAINTY and SKEPTICISM… as they stand for both CLOSED and OPEN-MINDED thinking. I may find our largely “pre-cognitive” intuitions IMMENSELY important, but I do not see or hear such things often discussed, not in the media or on social media. As far as I can tell, it’s something of a private obsession, chiefly particular to me.

Anyway, here’s my thinking, for your consideration.

People in tough times tend to BUCKLE, such that certain loosely-held beliefs of theirs, which in less stressful times might remain malleable, start to harden, grow tightly-held and before long become brittle.

Resiliently laughing things off, or sleeping, dreaming, dancing and bouncing back from obstacles becomes harder to do, as a pervasive seriousness sets in that gradually assumes more control over our persona at its emotional roots.

People who feel themselves (or their beliefs) coming under attack, will seek out protection in the consensus of their peers… in “group-think,” in aligning with shared authorities, in holding tighter to conventional dogmas and moral orthodoxies — in being either very “PRO” or “ANTI” one thing or another, one person or another, one party or another, etc., which they imagine will somehow make them appear more stable and mature, instead of more fragile and naive.

Such powerful concerns combine to pull them towards islands of perceived safety, security and normalcy, which in many cases, causes them to:

  1. SIMPLIFY their arguments by rejecting the subtleties of CORRELATION for the domino-effect certitude of CAUSATION.
  2. SUPPRESS their own creative and NOVEL THINKING in favor of more reactive and CONSENSUS THINKING that leads to more knee-jerk judgments, as well as deeper hatred and disgust for those whom they feel can be “safely” excluded from concern by labeling them as different, dangerous, crazy or unclean.
  3. GROWING increasingly armored, impatient and fixated on a perverse need to cover up their own fears, least they spin out of control and lead them to be overcome by closeted fears/desires, which they will be too anxious at that point to deal with or to calmly accept as just another part of themselves.

I have said this before and I will say it again… our BELIEFS are among the MOST superficial parts of us.

What matters in the face of unexpected difficulties is the flexibility of our being, our PHYSICAL CONNECTION to the earth, to the body, to curiosity, to compassion, to EACH OTHER, to caring, to love and concern for the triumphant (and if you like, divine) LIFE FORCE… ALL of which have been subjected to traumatic levels of stress during the CV Lockdown.

God knows people are a worrisome thing, and not everyone’s coping mechanisms are as good as yours… but NO ONE who shares with you common decency and even the slightest bit of class consciousness is truly deserving of your HATRED.

Giving yourself permission to hate unites you with the FASCIST agenda, which I see many people unconsciously doing now… though I’m sure THEY do not see it as such, preferring, of course, to see themselves as justly right, and those OTHERS as misguided and wrong.

As I tried to explain above though, the more fundamental problem here is that people have “stopped down” the aperture on their perspectives and are seeing things far too narrowly and reactively.

Self-deception would never rise to anything more than a comedy routine, if it didn’t in practice work as well as it does at reducing our responses down to the level of the strictly mechanical — which sooner or later turns us into willing servant/slaves to this frightened new technocratic apocalypse.

Ultimately, it is only over our own thoughts, feelings and actions that we retain agency.

As best we can, we must try to reject the “machine,” reject programmed mechanical responses to the world… and just STAY HUMAN!

The Implications of Social Hierarchy and Questioning the Right to Rule 

Society must return to truth or cease to exist.

— Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, 1892

In these times the establishment continues to bellow out hippie like rhetoric that we’re all in this together, that we must find unity and peace, put down our differences, sing kum ba yah, and hug this shit out. Great. I want peace too, but forgive me if I find the words coming from those in power to be a little less than authentic.

The way I see it is that peace isn’t found on the top of a bloody mountain of suppressive violence stemming from nation states. Clear truth is not found by wallowing in the muddied waters of agenda driven lies. Love isn’t found in servility and threats. Understanding is not deepened in the wake of massive denial. Real freedom is not found in the world’s largest prison state. And a society worth living in isn’t built on a foundation of selfishness and deceit. The deceit is always required if selfishness is to be maintained, go figure right; when lots of people have almost nothing and a tiny minority have more than they could ever use then you’d better have a pretty good excuse for that inequality — but there never is. Thus copious amounts of lies must be told. And lies to cover up for the first lies you told ad infinitum.

Centralized power normalizes a culture of division that believes in the dangerous other, a criminal archetype only they can protect you from. And so it only stands to reason if they believe in criminal bad guys that must mean they have assumed the role of the good guy. By what measure do they default to being good just because it can be pointed out that another has perceived flaws? Ultimately those in power dictate what will be seen as good and bad for the people. You know, because they are so wise and stuff.

It is those who have seized power who say good humans do this and bad humans do that, and the values chosen to emphasize are arbitrarily chosen by whoever currently holds power and what works for them at that time to maintain a grip on power. Power must be clenched in some capacity with an iron fist otherwise people would never agree to live in this way. So those in power must have a system to properly corral the human herds into their designated roles, and heck, they’ll even let you choose your work detail these days, and this is what the US and capitalists have long defined as “freedom.”

Ruling authority establishes a pecking order by the act of simply putting themselves in power. If they are above then someone else must be below. From there they assign different people to manage their kingdom and see to it that all the lower ranks sublimate their energies into doing what ruling power wants instead of frivolously choosing to live their own lives. Those lower down on the organizational chart will inevitably be silenced and will have to take the orders from those above them or there will be consequences. A system of punishments and rewards is established that reaches a balanced state when it creates conditions that makes it easier for you to just comply and do what power wishes instead of resisting. Similar to how any work animal is broken in, a horse may not like its saddle at first but after sufficiently breaking its spirit it will soon learn its subservient role, just as humans learn their subservient role to those higher above them in the hierarchy of this culture.

Naturally resentments gradually build in any relationship where inequality exists, as the multitudes on the bottom of the pyramid scheme soon find they are doing all the work and receiving the bulk of the suffering while the ones at the top take all the credit and receive all the pleasure derived from the work of those lower on the hierarchy.

Every step down the chain of command the punishments get a little harsher for disobedience, the work more back breaking, while simultaneously having less of a voice to change any of your circumstances. To make things worse the working class carries the denigrations received at work home with them, the angst and bile workers can’t take out on their superiors who doled out the pain then filters down to family life. So when the boss is a total asshole to you and makes you feel subservient, a common impulse is to take it out on those close to you who you can exert some form of control over.

The concept of hierarchy doling out pain and passing down a chain of command where it is eventually taken out on people with the least amount of power is also displayed in other species, like baboons for instance, where Robert Sapolsky (a neuro-endocrinologist, professor of biology, and author) observed in nature how a baboon troop behaved under the thumb of alpha males. When the alpha males were ruling the troop exhibited high amounts of stress hormones and violence was more common. However after a fortuitous event occurred where the alpha males died from consuming bad food, Sapolsky observed the troop became more peaceful, stress went down, and cooperation increased. There’s a good ten minute clip that summarizes this research and can be seen here, I recommend giving it a watch if you’re unfamiliar with his work.

Domination and ownership culture, despite the claims from those in power, does not make any real progress by doing more of what is already wrong. In the bounds of a social hierarchy and calling any part of what is happening under the rule of nation states, corporations, or central banks progress is like someone who’s addicted to gambling who claims to be progressing at kicking their addiction by getting better at gambling.

In a system of power the culture will inevitably become subservient to what power rewards in some manner, and hence the culture of the masses will over time begin to resemble having the values of those in charge. If those in charge are materialistic pricks then it’s highly likely society will place value on techno-bling-baubles that materialist pricks love. Just as a corporation tends to take on attributes of its CEO by way of hiring habits and enforced culture in the organization, a nation state too will exhibit characteristics of its leaders. When inept, cruel, and frivolous leaders claw their way into power, as is so often the case,  they will predictably pass a multitude of unreasonable laws that future generations after them must follow and are difficult to later overturn; the structure then becomes increasingly corrupt and rigid where only the most naive and sold-out remain patriots.

The powers that be have a relationship to the people similar to an abusive spouse that keeps trying to make up to us and tells us how much they care and how they’ve changed, but then they tell us there’s a curfew for when we have to come home at night, and if there’s a slight possibility we may get sick they’re going to make the decision for us that we can’t go outside at all. And when we tell them we want to leave them they lock us in the closet, and if we try to run away they’ll shoot us in the back. They stole all our stuff and declared it theirs, and if in revolt of our treatment we break things they have stolen from us they’ll beat us over it; maybe stick a knee on our throats, show us how much they love us. They also have a long list of chores we have to get done, most of which are things for their convenience that don’t need to be done at all, but nonetheless if we don’t complete the tasks to their liking they’ll make us sleep in the backyard without being fed as punishment. Then we must grovel to them to be allowed to do more chores to end the torments of hunger and being forced to survive out in the elements.

Sounds like we’ve hooked up with a real asshole here. Worth sacrificing it all to get out from under their grasp. We’ve seen how the establishment acted during the hippie movement whose central message was peace, love, and coming together, and their reaction was to put a jackboot on it. They jailed and assassinated lefty leaders, they shot unarmed students at Kent State, and they passed drug laws to imprison people they didn’t like with zero scientific reasoning for doing so, and as we all know, these laws still exist today and are used for the same purposes. And that’s just a portion of the bullshit they’ve pulled. But that’s what they think about peace and love. They want to snuff it out if it gets in the way of their lust for power. They’ll murder you in the street over money and material things they plundered themselves.

The emotional plaque of suffering & servility builds over time and is handed down through lineage to children who grow up to see the ones they love needlessly suffer because of a puerile system where the emotionally arrested fools in charge will kill everyone in their path with their pew-pew murder toys to keep the pain train rolling along. The means of production have been taken away from the people and all power placed in the dollar with control mechanisms in place to violently defend money; it creates a world of people who are subservient to power and will do anything to get their hands on money so they can live. Money then becomes a false god capable of demanding people to do the most wretched of things, all because ruling power has made it so. This system is chosen because it’s the most efficient way to break your spirit, make you fall in line and conform to serving the desires of power. It’s not a conspiracy over the ages, it’s just a collection of idiots who are all lost to the same temptation of grasping after the drug of power which consumes anyone who reaches for it.

The tragedy here is how unnecessary it all is. How all this iniquitous power present on earth now doesn’t have to be this way, but humans still have lessons to learn before the suffering begins to lessen. Those in power are abusers, but the people continue to enable them, and the suffering won’t stop until the people learn to overcome their fear of independence and fight for something worth having instead of fighting for half measures that do nothing to correct our relationships to power and each other.

The Utility of Rules and Hierarchy
Human Hierarchies, Competition, and Anarchism

Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business

I wrote this article almost four years ago in reaction to the public’s claim to be inconvenienced by Oakland protesters stopping traffic on the freeway of Interstate 880 in Oakland in solidarity with the two black men shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. The point of that article was to show that bystanders’ ideas of where violence starts, when it starts and who the perpetrators of violence are betrays an adherence to a liberal social contract theory rooted in Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. Even those who claim to be “non-violent” are trapped in social contract theory. At the end of the article I argue for a political-economic understanding of where, when and who is responsible for the violence.

Given the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the subsequent torching of police stations and the shutting down of bus lines, we will surely hear even greater howls from bystanders that they are being inconvenienced, that their rights are being infringed on, they had nothing to do with the violence and that the police are a neutral force. All these claims are rooted in the same social contract theory that becomes increasingly moth-eaten as capitalism continues to disintegrate.

First published July 22, 2016 Planning Beyond Capitalism

Are “bystanders” to violent events neutral or complicit?

In the past couple of weeks I’ve read a number of articles about police violence and citizens’ reactions to that violence. Most of these articles rightly point to the structural roots of police violence. However, I have found little written about how the people who are not directly involved in confrontations, “bystanders”, make sense of what is going on. How do people react to either police shooting citizens, citizens shooting the police or to the protests against police violence? Do people who seemed not directly involved in the violence constitute a neutral force or do they have some responsibility for what happens? I soon found how these bystanders thought about it, but not in the manner of my own choosing.

My controversial Facebook post

Almost two weeks ago one of my Facebook friends posted an aerial view of about 1,000 protesters in Oakland moving towards highway 880 to block traffic in reaction to the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In my post I congratulated the protesters for their collective-creative courage in stepping out onto speeding traffic and stopping it. I said we need more of this until the entire road system is clogged. I also pointed out of the relatively recent existence of police departments (second half of the 19th century) and that for most of human history societies managed without them.

Since the original post was linked to KRON news, many more people saw my post than my normal networks. In a single day, I received over 2,000 responses. The good news for me, and what I suspect are most of the readers of leftist news sources, is that close to 80% “liked” what I said. Now for those of you not initiated into the mysteries of Facebook, “likes” don’t tell you much about the thinking processes of people, but I see it as better than having no information at all.

However, I want to focus on the responses of the 500 or so people that had commented. Most of these comments were hostile. Those who were hostile, but intelligent (meaning they explained why they were upset) can be divided into those who were put off because they were inconvenienced and thought I was insensitive to that. Then there were those who couldn’t imagine doing without the police and that I was completely unrealistic in claiming that a society could exist without them. I want to focus on how their hostility is connected to a liberal, social contract theory of violence.

A liberal theory of violence

Most people in the United States think that social life operates as social contracts, just as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau described it. They also think normal social life is neutral and non-violent. Violence, they believe, begins at the point of a physical confrontation between people and usually includes lethal weapons. If there is no physical confrontation, there is no violence. So, for example, at a demonstration when the protesters are gathered and listening to speeches and the police are present, but simply talking to each other, these folks would say there is no violence. For a liberal theory of violence, the point where violence begins is when the police either use billy clubs, tear gas or tasers on the protesters, or when the protesters start throwing rocks at the police or through bank windows. If none of these things occurred, bystanders and the media deem the demonstration “peaceful”.

In the case of the protesters blocking the freeway, the police forcing them off the freeway and the protesters resisting the police, these would be claimed to be acts of violence. However, the people patiently waiting for the cops to get the protesters off the freeway – bystanders – were not being violent. So in other words the world is composed of three groups: cops on the one hand; protesters, criminals or deviants on the other; and the neutral public as bystanders.

This liberal theory of violence is grounded in the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (whom I’ll discuss later) were very different politically, but they all agreed that individuals were autonomous, self-subsisting beings who entered into social relations as a result of a “contract”. Interactions between individuals were voluntary, accidental and associative. Contracts were made only after the individual shrewdly weighed the costs and benefits of joining an association – as opposed to remaining alone.

Minding my own business: a Lockean theory of violence

The first of two major complaints against my post was that people were minding their own business. “Why should we be inconvenienced with something that has nothing to do with us? Even if the police were wrong to kill these guys, what does that have to do with me? Why do I have to lose two hours out of my day over something that has nothing to do with me?” This is a great example of the social contract operating. People imagine themselves as isolated monads who have families and jobs where their real social life is. Their membership in a social class, race, region or religion is a secondary matter. Primarily, they are individuals (or in cross-cultural psychology terms, “individualists”). But these individuals still enter the public zone where they walk, take public transportation or drive to get to work or go home. These Lockean individuals treat the public world as an instrumental waystation between their real social world of home, family and work. How is the public world engaged? The state of public bathrooms, increasing road rage and people crossing the street checking their cell phones, oblivious to cars making turns into their crosswalks, are just the tip of an iceberg of the increasing contempt of public life in the United States. This is a world in which normal social responsibilities are generally disregarded or kept to a bare minimum. In the public world “minding my own business” is the code of public conduct.

The political and racial nature of being inconvenienced

Being inconvenienced is intolerable if you play by the rules of minding your own business. As I shall argue shortly, social contract theory has very little to do with the real requirements of social life and the deeply social nature of our identity among even those who complain about being inconvenienced. The same people who claim to be minding their own business and being inconvenienced generally are quite capable of dealing with the ups and downs of public life and making adjustments, depending on the occasion. As I said in one of my rebuttals to some Facebook posts, you are inconvenienced all the time. You wait on lines to buy groceries longer than you’d like because the stores are understaffed. You wait on lines for hours on Black Friday to get deals the day after Thanksgiving. You wait in traffic for hours before and after ball games. Maybe most importantly, you accept the inconvenience of stock market crashes which deplete your savings and threaten your pensions. For these things you have plenty of reasons as to why you shouldn’t make a big deal about it. After all, what can you do? But when events are political and racially charged, for this — you will not put up with being inconvenienced.

Why don’t people see this? Cross-cultural psychologists say that the United States is the most individualist society in the world. Part of being an individualist, as I’ve said earlier, is that demographic membership — region, class, race — is generally not considered an important part of one’s identity. Another characteristic of individualism is that history does not matter. As individualists, those minding their own business tend to downplay their class and racial identity and they can’t understand why people are making such a big deal of these police killings. Because of their lack of appreciation of history, individualists can’t imagine that things that have happened in the past matter today because they are still present within existing social structures. When I teach a class in social psychology or cross-cultural psychology, I have my students answer questions about white privilege. Most of my white students are amazed at how much privilege they have without ever being aware of it. This privilege entitles people to “mind their own business.”

“Without the police there would be anarchy”: a Hobbesian theory of violence

As I said in earlier part in my post, we could do very well without the police, not immediately, but in the long run. I pointed out that the police force was established in the 19th century, essentially to help capitalists combat an increasingly militant labor force. I pointed out that tribal societies and agricultural civilizations also had to keep most of their population safe and they did so without police forces. I also pointed out that in revolutionary situations, citizen militias were formed as people patrolled their own communities. For some people on the Facebook thread, this was incomprehensible. Specifically, they said that without the police there would be “anarchy”. Thomas Hobbes couldn’t have said it better. Their belief is that people are competitive, aggressive, greedy, full of insatiable appetites and that without state intervention (in this case the police) life would be nasty, brutish and short.

“Give Peace a Chance”: A Rousseauism theory of non-violence

By far the most radical of the three social contract theorists was Rousseau. Rousseau had a more optimistic view of human beings than either Hobbes or Locke. Rousseau thought that people were basically good and that the state, private property or the trappings of civilization oppressed them. Rousseau believed the public was capable of participatory direct democracy. In spite of Rousseau attributing a more social nature to humanity, he also held that individuals voluntarily entered into a social contract and they were free to withdraw.

Up to now I have only talked about social contract theory as it relates to violence. Now I want to suggest that even those who claim to be non-violent still operate using a social contract theory of society. Today, Rousseau’s way of making sense of the relationship between individuals and society roughly corresponds to those liberals or anarchists who advocate “non-violence” as a political strategy. Social contract theory is operating when those advocating non-violence imagine that they can choose to be non-violent. For these left-wing social contract theorists, violence begins at the point of forceful contact. If, during a demonstration, protesters stayed away from the police, or practiced civil disobedience, these liberals or anarchists would congratulate themselves on behaving in a non-violent way. At the point of contact, if the police act violently and the protesters don’t resist, the protesters believe they are behaving in a non-violent way. They imagine that public social life is neutral and can remain neutral if the force of the state can be resisted.

Towards a political economy theory of violence                                                                                    

Marx and Durkheim are not alone in claiming that individuals are constitutionally social beings. In social psychology, Lev Vygotsky, George Herbert Mead and Ivana Markova all say in their own way that we are already always social. It is impossible not to be social. In fact, they would say that without being socialized you are not even human. So, where does social contract theory come from? According to C.B. Macpherson, social contract theory is a product of the development of early capitalist society as a way to explain new market relations. But how might these social constitutionalist theories help us to understand the relationship between the police, protesters, deviants and bystanders? Read on.

All class societies are, at their core, violent. In a society where oligarchs control the wealth and the lower classes are subjugated, violence is always the means of first or last resort. True, the ruling classes in history have used various types of propaganda to convince the lower classes why the upper classes deserve to be where they are and why the lower classes deserve to be where they are. But if all else fails, state repression is the result. In class societies state violence is always already the case. That means that even when the state (in our case the police) appears to do nothing, it already is violent because the police have massive violent and lethal means at hand. “Ok” you might say, “but where do the bystanders come into this?”

Bystanders on the freeway who think they are minding their own business and are inconvenienced pay taxes. Those taxes go into the production of violence from the factories where all the weapons are assembled and produced, to the places were the weapons are circulated as well as where they are distributed – including to the police. When weapons are produced, these weapons are already violent, ready-at-hand to use. Secondly, these same citizens pay taxes, which are converted into the salaries of the police. Furthermore, the workers all the way down the supply chain from production to circulation to distribution of weapons are also implicated in what the police do. For these workers it may just be a job, and they consciously live in their micro-world of family and friends, but behind their backs, they are part of a macro world. They are “socially unconscious” that they are also helping to produce violence. There is no such thing as people having a choice of whether or not to be violent. Everyone is more or less complicit.

For the Facebook critics that I’m calling Hobbesians who say that without the police there would be anarchy, what I think they mean is that without the police people would be even more violent than they are already are. They seem to think the citizens without the police are more violent in their social life than citizens with the police. For them the police restore “order”. These folks think that normal public life with the police guarding us is orderly and not violent. Rather than state violence being institutionalized to protect the upper classes, these Hobbesians think that the state is the great neutralizer, the great emulsifier that holds colliding monads from creating a war of all against all. Where might that way of thinking come from? Research shows that those who watch violent programs on television and in the movies repeatedly are more likely to imagine society as more violent than crime statistics show.

Lastly for those Rousseaians who want to give peace a chance, this is an impossible project while social classes continue to exist. The natural resources must be seized from the hands of the upper classes and redistributed to the middle class, working class and poor. This would certainly involve violent conflicts and it would take generations of resocialization to reduce the violence, even in a socialist society. Those who meditate, do yoga,0 attend non-violent workshops and practice civil disobedience still have jobs and pay taxes that fund the state machine of violence.

Violence involves both force and coercion

In the field of social psychology there is a simple distinction made between force and coercion as power bases. Force is the direct application of lethal means of violence on human beings. This is what social contract and my Facebook critics mean by violence. What they are missing is that there is a second source of violence, coercion, and it is defined as the threat of the use of force with lethal means. This threat of force has to be produced by all the people who are working to produce the weapons and those who pay taxes to pay the workers to make the weapons. In other words, there is violence being produced in the process of making the weapons available even if they are never used.


First, I am not suggesting that because I am calling my hostile audience “liberal”, that means that I think everyone posting was politically liberal. Liberal social contract theory operates as a theory of how society and the individual should be understood, based on living in a capitalist society. It is a framework that both liberals and conservatives accept no matter who is in power. Conservatives were won over to this somewhere in the middle of the 19th century when they realized that feudalism and the king were not coming back. This occurred at roughly the same time that they abandoned their organic hierarchical theory of society and the individual and slowly embraced social contract theory.

Lastly, to those brave thousand people who stepped on the freeway in Oakland and risked their lives in 2016, I salute you and I hope more of these freeway closures happen as police violence continues. At the same time, to expect the people whose lives you stopped on the freeway to “get it”, that Black Lives Do Matter, the message needs to be more explicit. To assume people understand that they are complicit is naïve. We have to meet people partly where they are and build bridges between where they are and where we are. Moralizing and screaming at people as they helplessly wait in their cars will have a boomerang effect. Showing people it is in their self-interest to join the fight against state violence is a much more practical course. This will not be easy. But something more than simply stopping traffic is required.

To Be a Dissident

What does it mean to be a dissident?

At its simplest, it means to critically engage with and seek to change the material and the ideological structures of the society in which you find yourself, whether local, national, regional, or global.

It means the ability to say “no” to those in power, even if the immediate opportunities for real change are seemingly minimal to non-existent.

It is continuous intellectual and moral opposition in the face of repression and/or marginalization or both.

It is also the belief in the sanctity of human life and the dignity and worth of each human being.

It is the belief that the stronger is not automatically in the right.

It is the attempt to give voice to those who are voiceless.

It is the revolutionary unleashing of the human imagination to pose uncomfortable questions while offering apparently fantastical plans for the future.

To be a dissident is to live the Socratic life. The life of questioning. To ask unsettling questions about oneself, ones society, and even, at its most extreme, Being itself.

No answer is the final answer for the dissident.

“Truth”, as understood as the reconciling of the perennial spiritual/material needs of the individual, with the necessary functioning of society, and the ideologically fair summation of both, is always the goal.

“To live in truth” is to live in a place where the human personality is most free.

“To live in lies” is where the actual material situation of one’s life is hidden by those in power and by the material and ideological structures that support them.

The dissident unmasks that which drains the collective life force of humanity seeking the release of the spontaneous breath of life in all its forms and potentialities.

The dissident believes in the future which is contained in the present. That nothing is given and that all positive change is a propulsive mix of time, will, and ideas.

And finally, the dissident is moved by the spirit of love in all its highest forms.  It is the driving force behind all his or her acts or thoughts. The purer the force the greater the effect. Or so it is ever hoped.

Down and Out in Portland: Retired in Style in Waldport, OR

The irony of this quote from the Dustin Hoffman movie, The Graduate, is not wasted on Duane Snider:

— One word: plastics.

That was Benjamin Braddock, just graduated from college, sitting in a swimming pool. Giving him advice on gaining the American dream, the neighbor’s statement says it all. Today? Hedge funds? Flipping houses? Coronavirus repossessions?

For Duane, that one word: artwork.

Duane as a child with his only sibling.

We’re sitting on the back porch of his brand-new Adair home on a third of an acre on the high land of Waldport. He and his wife Linda are proverbially happy, fat and sassy in this new iteration of their lives.

He went to Benson high school, when it was an all-male segregated school. It was during the Viet Nam, at the height of the draft.

Just a few weeks earlier, Duane and I ran into each other on the beach near the Alsea River emptying out into the Pacific. Loons and eaglets started the conversation, and quickly Duane recognized me by my by-line for this newspaper. He had purchased a piece of art from one of the people I have featured in a Deep Dive column for Oregon Coast Today – Anja Albosta, artist and environmental refugee from Yosemite  see Dec. 16, 2019, “Art in a changing climate”).

Duane’s 68,  and his wife — originally from Sonora, CA — is 67. Duane’s work life is quintessential drudgery millions of Americans called working stiffs have face. In his case, 39 years working at one place, grinding optics for an optical service in Portland. It was for Duane 20 years in a hostile work environment where his boss bullied him. There was no real upside to the job — a repetitive job tracing lenses and frames and low pay.

He conveys to me that for more than a decade was highly depressed, even suicidal.

I could see the Ross Island bridge. Daily, I would look out the window and fantasize jumping off it. Even planning out in my mind how I’d have to aim my fall just right as to hit the bike path just to be sure.

Alcohol and drug abuse were a big part of his life, but to his credit Duane’s been clean in sober going on three decades. His addiction to substances was eclipsed by another addiction – art collecting. He’s been a fixture in Portland’s art scene for decades —  a gallery gadfly, and someone who ended up with smart and strategic ways of appreciating art and purchasing it.

He’s a veritable encyclopedia of Who’s Who of the Oregon art world.

It’s not so unusual Duane would have gained this proclivity for art appreciation and deep regard for art’s role in society as something bigger than commerce, industry and day-to-day drudgery of commercialism.

When he was a youngster, he studied guitar. He was good enough to end up switching over to classical guitar in the style of Andres Segovia. He’s taken a master class from the best – Christopher Parkening. That was 1975.

I knew I was going to have to take a vow of poverty if I was going to try and pursue being a musician.

Duane’s father was a union baker and not very involved in the boy’s life. For the just-turned-18-year-old Duane, his cohorts were going to be drafted but he was talked into enlisting. “A friend said the Navy, since it wasn’t the Army. Anything but the Army. But that was nuclear submarine duty and I was claustrophobic. There was no way I was going on a submarine.” Instead, he ended up in the Air Force. He even tried the conscientious objector route.

Military life was short-lived when he was drummed out as a 4-f. They found traces of codeine in his drug test. “Ironically, I had done all sorts of party drugs.” It wasn’t the LSD he dropped they discovered, but the codeine the psychedelic from which it was titrated.

Music Out, Optics In

If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.

Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare.

― Baruch Spinoza

He was homeless for a few months. Coming back from Lackland AFB, Duane ended up working with the crippled children’s division of OHSU. He took a second master guitar class at Berkeley. “I knew poverty was going to be a regular part of my life. I wasn’t that good. I took classes with trust fund babies. Money wasn’t an issue for them.”

Here’s where things really get prescient – “I had a poster of Picasso’s Old Guitarist on my apartment wall in Portland. I was studying with extraordinary musicians. I wasn’t about to spend 10 or 15 years in poverty.”

The Old Guitarist was painted in 1903, just after the suicide death of Picasso’s close friend, Casagemas. Picasso was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. He painted many canvases depicting the poor, sick, and outcasts of society. In fact, Picasso was penniless during 1902.

It’s an amazing painting in the style of El Greco. That moment for Duane Snider turned into a life passion – sacrificing part of his soul in that daily grind in order to enter another world: one that was rarefied, filled with the passions and creativity of artists just like Pablo Picasso. Except his art ersatz it was Portland based.

When he returned from Berkeley, he ended up in a friend’s parents’ house. He applied to Portland Community College, talked to a counselor, told her he wanted to find a steady job, one that was reliable. “I wanted something recession and depression proof. Optician fit the bill.” He ended up taking psychology and philosophy classes awaiting the term to start for his major.

He grabbed a job at a lab his second term. He parlayed that into a full-time gig at Columbian Bifocal. The first 20 years it was a family run place, and the last 19 years it ended up as one of 17 labs for Hoya, a Japanese investment group.

Good benefits, steady work, and a bully boss. “We hated each other. It’s amazing I survived.”

He hands me a DVD of an Oregon Public Broadcasting special featuring Portland art collectors. Duane is profiled. He laughs, recalling how he had read about the great philosopher Spinoza’s life as a lens grinder. What was good for the father of rationalist and deductive reasoning had to be fine for Duane Snider’s life.

Not so ironically, the dust from lens grinding led to Spinoza’s early death from tuberculosis.

The amazing number of artists Duane has met propelled him to write essays on art for a local art rag – NW Drizzle. Here’s what he penned in 2005, as he emphasizes he was “just coming out of a four-year bout of suicidal depression.”

When I gave up the guitar, I couldn’t give up my need for a place to put my passion. It seems natural that my passion migrated toward the visual arts. Giving up playing music meant letting go of a sizable part of what I thought was my identity. My search for a new sense of self played a major role in pushing me toward the idea of collecting.

That’s when I started learning that the real value of art is not determined by the price on the sticker, but by the strength of the connection between the viewer and the object of interest.

Deeper Dive in the Mind of a Collector

Early-20th-century philosopher Irwin Edman gives a remarkably simple bit of insight into what art offers us in everyday life:

Painters speak of dead spots in a painting: areas where the color is wan or uninteresting, or the forms irrelevant and cold. Life is full of dead spots. Art gives it life. A comprehensive art would render the whole of life alive.

Duane Snider is the embodiment of turning life into his own art project:

“Instead of using pigments and a canvas to make an artwork, I told myself that I would turn my life into a conceptual art piece to create a lifestyle that’s sustainable and comfortable,” tells me twice: once on the beach on our first meeting in Waldport and then up at his new 1,900 square foot single level home.

The beauty of my own life-force is I get to get under people’s layers, follow the act of serendipity, and then sculpt with words conceptualized, philosophized narrative. Story.

In the middle of a beach with harbor seals sunning along their haul out on Bay Shore, two very different guys run into each other and start a deep conversation. I am a radical social worker and revolutionary writer (some couldn’t tell that from my regular gigs as a newspaper and magazine) and educator. Marxism is more than just a conceptual point in economic history for me.

Here is Duane Snider, saying he too is a Marxist, but emphasizing he was dealt a hand of capitalism’s cards, so he successfully learned to play the game within those constraints. He tells me he feels guilty for getting he and his wife Linda down here on the coast with zero debts and a custom home that is paid off.

I reassure him that he is kosher with me, and no one should begrudge he or his wife this little slice of paradise.

The dream in Waldport was germinated 36 years ago. They purchased a home in Portland (Richmond District) for $48,000. That was 1984. Thirty-two years later they pulled up stakes in Portland with a $517,000 sale price. No permanent lines of credit needed. He even got their nest egg out of the market and put into cash two years ago. “I saw this coming.”

He didn’t predict the SARS-CV-2 virus outbreak, but he did see a faltering Stock Market.

“He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”

His tutelage in art began at a most unlikely place – Menucha which was an estate created by the Meiers of the Portland department store fame. Near Corbet in the Columbia Gorge, Menucha (Hebrew for rebuilding, restoring and renewing) hosted camps for youth.


According to the website: “In 1950, First Presbyterian Church of Portland purchased the property from the Meier family, who were pleased to see it dedicated as an ecumenical center, a gift in perpetuity to communities of people from around the world.”

Duane began collecting art before he ended up  buying the Portland house. The art bug drilled into his consciousness when in 1967 he went to a high school arts camp at Menucha. His parents always took off for Reno and Vegas during summer vacations, and they opted to put the young Duane in a summer camp.

That was serendipitous.  He told me that he had never been to an art gallery until after high school. He met Jackie West who ran Graystone Gallery in the Hawthorne District. “I went inside and I was looking around the half gallery/half store. It was an old house. Actually, it became part of the Oregon Potters Association. My eyes landed on this water color. It was as if time stopped.”

He ended up purchasing his first piece, a hyper-realistic water color of an iris by Kirk Lybecker.

Duane emails me a couple of his essays in NW Drizzle – “Embarking on a journey of discovery: The life-affirming qualities of art” & “Art’s true value: Aesthetics vs. commerce.” In his essays he reiterates how art came to save him and how collecting became a true emotional and spiritual line to the artist, to the art. Here is one  passage:

The gallery from which I bought my first artwork made the sale because the gallery owner made an effort to make the pricing and sales process as transparent as possible. She gave me a short but thorough explanation on how galleries set prices. She explained that great art comes in all price ranges, as does mediocre art. That’s when I started learning that the real value of art is not determined by the price on the sticker, but by the strength of the connection between the viewer and the object of interest.

He launches into several iterations of how art —  the actual object — is more than what it is in your hand or on the wall; that it is something that “holds great value for us as individuals and for all cultures of the world.”

Red is the Color of Egalitarianism

Duane and I talk about the friction and dichotomy  between the high-highfalutin rich “patron of the arts” and the middle-class view of art – we need the rich folks to support the arts, but we also need to invest in regular people getting original artwork in their homes. “Conceptually, I am a Marxist working in a capitalist system.”

That means he wishes our society from top to bottom was more egalitarian.

Duane Snider has no angst when it comes to what a thinker like Michael Parenti might say about capitalism: “It’s the powerful who write the laws of the world– and the powerful who ignore these laws when expediency dictates.”

We met the first time during a voluntary social distancing because of the cornonavirus, and then shortly afterward when the state of Oregon pushed more draconian measures to shut down business, interactions, meetings, and public gatherings.

Then we shift to all the artists he knows, has known and will know. He has over 200 works of art in his home, most of them on display. I had to look through some of the windows from the outside to view many fine works on the couple’s walls.

His goal is to have the collection donated to a non-profit like Art in Oregon, whose motto is “building bridges between artists and communities.” The engine there is to get businesses to purchase and show art, and for there to be that bridge between the artist and the community.

Duane is less an enigma than he is kind of Every-man. He puts on several hats – he knows most of the gallery owners in Portland, is friends with the director of the Portland Art Museum, spent time with Dennis Hopper and Danny Glover, and finds solace watching a warbler feed from his new backyard.

“I connect with anyone who knows what arts is. We need to get young people into discovering our unique art. Unfortunately, unique objects are under threat in the digital age.”

He repeats how he played the hand that was dealt him. He came from a working-class family. He himself was poor and homeless for a time. He learned the value of art through “figuring out the game you have to play to survive, to be comfortable.”

No contradictions there, and Duane Snider would smile at one of Karl Marx’s doozies: “The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs.”

Q & A in a Nutshell

Paul: Why have the world’s super powers and despotic regimes always deployed the bombing of museums, cultural landmarks, and looting the arts and important symbols of a country’s artistic and historical (archaeological) output?

Duane: The easiest way to destroy a society or a culture is to destroy its art treasures.  When you take that away, you take away their history and sense of identity.  Also, historically, art has huge inherent value because of its ability to offer meaning to people beyond those of the culture that produced it. Also, unique and rare art objects that are considered beautiful and meaningful are valuable because they are rare or unique.

Paul: Riff with this — “So here we are in the 21st century. The forward march of labour ended some time ago. How do today’s artists portray poverty? Interesting question – for perhaps wealth has never been more raw and obvious in the art world. This is the age of the diamond skull. Compared with the compassion of a Caravaggio or Van Gogh, contemporary art really does seem to take the rich collector’s view on life. Where’s our Luke Fildes? For images of economic injustice in today’s art you probably have to look outside the gallery world.”

Duane: In general, most artist don’t even address the issue in today’s market.  Social commentary is more aligned with journalism and documentary efforts.  Much of the art market doesn’t want art that shines a light on social inequities of the darker side of our culture.  There are huge exceptions of course in museum installations and high-end art by big named artists, and there is a lot of art that is beautiful, but not pretty that skirts around the big issues but doesn’t show up in fine art galleries.  Photography is the most common place to find imagery of social injustice because of the connection to journalism.  The sad fact is that most art is a commodity and with that comes the necessity for broad acceptance of work for it to be marketable.  How many Diego Rivera’s do you see out there these days?

Paul:. If you could do your youth and high school years over again, would you? Yes, why and how? No, why?

Duane: When I was in my forties and fifties, I wished I could have changed a few things, but now, not so much.  I suffered some in getting here, but it turned out well enough that there is little I am not grateful for, on a personal level.  I am comfortable and largely free of any feelings of guilt.  What should I change? I don’t know.

Paul: Tell the average consumer and retail-loving American why art is valuable to them and to our society especially now in 2020?

Duane: Art is one of the last places we have where we can freely explore our identities and the meaning of the lives we inhabit, where we can express ourselves in simply possessing and object or identifying with a performance experience.  Art offers insight into who we are, how we are unique, and what we believe in.  Art gives us context for understanding the content of our lives.  How do you put a dollar value on that?  For way too many Americans, money is what they look to for those answers.   What a shallow existence that is.

End Notes — I talk with Duane a lot, and I have met him a few times on the beaches near Waldport. He and I have this sort of “out on our own Covid-19” relationship. We talk long and hard about the failure of capitalism. The failure of Western nations to move aside and not only give back what they’ve stolen but for complete reparations.

The quandary is I work three gigs. I lost $39K in a measly retirement account because of the perverted whims of the masters of finance on Wall Street. That chunk is a huge push back on my life.

My spouse is out of work because of despicable management in her job that laughed at the idea of washing hands and who constantly berated my spouse, who is a professional with 20 years in her field.

We have tried for more than 8 weeks to get her unemployment — she’s worked like since she was 14 years old, paying into this muck. The state of Oregon is a joke. Those Zoom motherfucking meet-ups by politicians at the state level and locally are what I can only characterize as infantile, disconnected to real struggle, and bizarre.

Duane Snider won’t disagree, and he repeats how he feels guilty for setting himself up with a paid-for-home and some money in the bank and his social security, along with his wife’s.

I assure him that his sacrifice in life — working 39 years hating the job, hating himself for some of that time, and his deep depression larger issues with substance abuse, well, man, he respects artists, and he wants art to be shared by the masses.

He is quick to deride the “business of the art world,” where the artists are literally screwed and art is a trading commodity. He loves each piece he has, and we go over each one. He knows the artist for each piece and for those he purchased at openings, he spent time talking with each artist.

Pieces he bought in group shows, he went ahead an hunted down the artist. He touches the images with his vision, his heart and his intellect.

Capitalism destroys people, and sometimes eat eats at the soul and sets a course of disengagement, resentment and a dog-eat-dog retribution. It creates people who say, “I have mine, and screw everybody else.” It is a violent system — just the act of sending in Sheriff deputies to homes, parading the evicted and foreclosed upon citizens to the squad car, well, what sort of violence does that breed? What sort of lived and relived trauma will that have not only on the parents but the children?

That mentality is seeped in all of them at the proverbial top — Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Trump, Obama, the entire lot of them.

Imagine how many presidents have failed to pardon Leonard Peltier? Thinks of the structural violence of bailing out banks and Wall Street while taking SNAP away from families. Imagine a society where people have no health care, and the shit coverage they have is so violently mean and expensive, they opt not to go to the for-profit hell that is modern US medicine.

Duane is all there, in the fight in heart and mind. I see his artwork addiction has both magnificent and something deep inside, where he is finding some landing pad for his emotions, and all those years where he was about to jump off the Ross Island bridge.

I wonder if he’ll ever get that image from Portland — maybe I’ll head out from the coast to my old stomping grounds and shoot it and mess around in Photoshop and give it to him before more evolution unfolds in each other’s lives.

That’s communism — no expectations for the things given, and no bullshit competition to trade up whether it is material things or ideas and discourse.

Duane’s learned the lexicon of Marxism and has played his cards in a mean as cuss Capitalist system. I repeat that good commie’s love their wine, their music, food and art. Not as a bourgeoisie thing, but as a tribute to the enduring nature of struggle and persistence, even in the most horrific gulags and dungeons.


The Spiritualisation of Culture

Much like socialism or love, ‘spiritual’ is a word that through overuse and misappropriation has been diluted to the point where it has lost virtually all meaning. Although commonly understood to allude to something separate from the material world, according to esoteric literature that which we regard as ‘spiritual’ – referring to spirit, and its opposite, form, exist in duality and are but the positive and negative polarities of one energy, which we broadly think of as ‘life’. Spirit then is the highest most refined form of matter, and matter is the lowest, or grossest form of spirit.

Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society described this expanded structure in The Secret Doctrine (Vol. 1 p.79/80):

Life we look upon as the one form of existence, manifesting in what is called matter; or what, incorrectly separating them we name spirit, soul and matter in man. Matter is the vehicle for manifestation of soul on this plane of existence, and soul is the vehicle on a higher plane for the manifestation of spirit, and these three are a Trinity synthesized by life which pervades them all.

Under the prevailing doctrine of our current civilization – a form that has evolved over the last two thousand years or so and is now collapsing – the understanding of what constitutes ‘reality’ is limited largely to that which can be perceived via the sensory apparatus. If you can’t see, hear, touch or smell it, if the physical sciences, the God/s of the age, cannot quantify and qualify it, well, then (chances are) it doesn’t exist. Conversely, if you can and do experience ‘it’ through the senses, then it must be real.

Despite the large number of people in every country who are trying to live a life that is not dominated by materiality, it is nevertheless a materialistic era, ignorant and cynical; society and the systems that control is organized along lines consistent with the dogma and behavior is encouraged that conforms to the stereotype.

Wonder, the unexplained and the mysterious are laughingly indulged, flippantly disregarded or outright trashed. Miracles – ‘impossible happenings that happen’ –, which incidentally have been witnessed in unprecedented numbers over the last forty years or so, and continue unabated are largely ignored. Death, which is perhaps the leading example of ‘the unknown’, is regarded as something separate from life and the end of existence. It is thought of with dread as that awful thing that one day is going to tear us away from loved ones and from daily living, with its endless turmoil and conflict, pleasures and delights – all of which we are deeply attached to. As such death is widely regarded as inherently bad, something to be feared, not talked about and avoided for as long as possible.

This particular chapter of the belief system is much more common in western, so-called developed nations (most Americans e.g. are terrified of death) than in the east, India, Tibet, China, Japan and so on. In such ancient civilizations a more enlightened view of life and death is found, part of teachings of great wisdom and depth, aspects of which over the last hundred years or so have been circulating with increasing force in the west, bringing about a shift in attitudes among many. Stimulating growing interest in eastern practices like Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga and meditation – another distorted and widely misunderstood term, and as such, one that is increasingly difficult to use with any real meaning.

Within such a reductive view, the physical body, including an endless stream of thoughts, within which ideologies and conditioning live and prosper, emotional feelings, and desires, become all-important. Collectively they form the construct of the self, and through unswerving, largely unquestioned identification, the notion of who we are as a separate individual ‘I’ is born and sustained. Sensory pleasure in its various forms – hedonism and the attainment of security – emotional and physiological, become the paramount aims, the purpose of life, the goal of all endeavor.

Association with such basic urges is encouraged and the image of the self as separate and isolated thereby strengthened. Consumerism in all its glory including the diverse world of entertainment is dependent upon the insatiable longing for stimulation and satisfaction being maintained, impulses that bring with them discontent, depression and anxiety, among a range of mental health illnesses, as well as a plethora of social issues.

It is an extremely narrow definition of life and self, and one that contradicts the teachings of the wise throughout the ages. Its divisive values and belief in separation have saturated every corner of civilization, dividing humanity, stamping on open-minded enquiry and common sense, feeding behavior that has led to endless wars, needless poverty and the environmental catastrophe, among other calamities.

Like all totalitarian ideologies, it is rooted in ignorance, and yet, like isms of all kinds, perhaps suspecting this, tolerates no opposition. All ideologies are limited and therefore false, all move along an ever-narrowing path of deceit and must result in crystallization: all imprison the mind, and if mankind is to be free, all must be rejected totally. Such confinements are totally incompatible with the times and should be among the first Casualties of Release.

Enthralled within Plato’s cave we stare into the shadows and believe them to be real, we have disregarded the wisdom of the ages, abandoned unified ways of the long, largely forgotten past, and collectively reached false conclusions about the nature of life and of ourselves. We fail to recognize and/or understand that there are basic laws that underlie all life. As a result, we consistently violate those laws setting in motion unstoppable, negative, consequences. Virtually all human thinking and behavior is motive-bound and therefore dishonest and polluting. It is the cause of all that is chaotic in our world, including the systems that imprison us, as well as every aspect of environmental disruption and ecological breakdown.

Transitional Times

As we clumsily and, for many, reluctantly, transition into a new time, a time colored by different qualities, encouraging alternate values and ways of thinking to the prevailing ones, tensions are created. Conflict between the old and dying and the incoming new, a clash between the prevailing materialistic dogma with its divisive ideals and a movement towards inclusiveness, responsibility and freedom is at the forefront.

It is a clash of values and understanding. Broadly speaking one set grows out of a decaying, but powerful identification with existing ideologies and forms. This approach proceeds from and strengthens the materialistic viewpoint, together with the belief in separation and its bed-mate, tribalism. The other senses an underlying unity to life, is curious and drawn to look within, to explore self-identity and discover meaning. We might legitimately describe this outlook as ‘spiritual’. It points towards an inherent and unchanging aspect of our nature and recognizes that humanity is one.

As awareness of this essential core, this ‘life within the form’, grows, it tends towards contentment because the mind is not as agitated by desire as it is when the focus is only external, something the current systems demand – contentment and peace of mind are the enemies of Neo-Liberalism. A mind thus oriented is a less ruffled mind; it cultivates values that we would readily recognize as good, fostering inclusivity and compassion.

With each day that passes we move ever more deeply into The New. As the past decays and its ideological grip weakens, as it must, what we might call The Spiritualization of Culture will intensify, stimulating a transformation of attitudes and the creation of new forms, breaking down divisions – within the individual, between peoples and between people and the natural environment.

Although commonly understood to allude to something separate from the material world, according to esoteric literature that which we regard as ‘spiritual’ – referring to spirit and its opposite, form, exist in duality and are but the positive and negative polarities of one energy. Spirit is the highest, most refined form of matter, and matter is the lowest, or grossest form of spirit.

Of Friendship and Politics

Although it is somewhat banal to say, it should never be forgotten how the First World War traumatized the political and cultural life of Europe, especially in the German speaking world. Heidegger’s, Jasper’s, Freud’s, Junger’s, Hesse’s (not to mention Hitler’s) inter-war works are unthinkable without this bloody caesura in European history. In a profound sense, the inter-war period in Germany (but not only) could be viewed as a psychic expression of what we would call today: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of the more notable of these dark intellectual manifestations was Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political.

In this work of both clarity and brilliance, the young Schmitt, a notable legal scholar and political theorist of the first rank, declared the essence of politics to be based on what he called “the friend-enemy distinction”.

This was a distinction which postulated that any true political grouping would be one that was able to define who was its existential enemy, the enemy that threatened its very existence and thereby its accustomed way of being.

For Schmitt, the decisive political grouping so defined did not, necessarily, have to be organized by a state. It could well be another group or groups which had such normative, genuine power and, if so, the state would become “an annex” to them.

More fundamentally, Schmitt believed, as did Hobbes before him, that whoever protects you is owed obedience. This, in my opinion, reveals the mafia-like qualities of such an arrangement.

However, Schmitt did not share this sentiment. For him, the nature of politics was a deadly serious affair giving life an aspect of nobleness, a reason to live and to die for. The sacrifice of life and the authorization to shed blood and kill other human beings is the very essence of the political, and although he never says so directly, much of “manly” life as well.

It is here that we see that this is very much a traumatized soldier’s book, a book which tellingly was dedicated to his friend, August Schaetz, who fell at Moncelul in 1917. Would it then be so far fetched to see this book as an attempt to give meaning to such a personal loss and more widely to make sense of Germany’s military defeat and post-war humiliation embodied by the Treaty of Versailles?

There is much that is disturbing to the modern reader of this short book. His definition of the enemy as the “stranger” the “other” who is “in a specially intense way existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible” especially stands out in our world where much time, effort, and energy is spent to diffuse any possible enmity that may arise from cultural, political differences.

Yet Carl Schmitt is closer to us than we are usually likely to admit.

Samuel Huntington, one of the most influential American political theorists of the last half century, famously served up a version of Schmittian politics in hisThe Clash of Civilizations.

In this work, Huntington wrote that after the cold war the defining distinction among nation states was not their politics per se but their cultures. Put in another way, culture, or way of life/religion/habits/history/shared beliefs became the existential criteria for future cooperation and conflict. He especially focused on what he perceived to be the triple threat of Chinese civilization, Arab Civilization, and what he discerned to be the “Hispanization” of the United States. All this however would have been eerily familiar to readers of Schmitt. US political hegemony, its very basis was being challenged by the “other”, threatening in the extreme case its future continuance as a coherent political entity. Like Schmitt, Huntington called upon America to have the political courage and social fortitude to meet these potentially mortal threats or else as Schmitt would have put it the US will either be “absorbed into another political system” or, in the final analysis, “only a weak people will disappear”. Profoundly skeptical in tone, as was Schmitt, Huntington was not placing any secure bets on America’s political survival.

Yet how true were either of these two visions as compared to Immanuel Kant’s much older political vision in his Perpetual Peace?

In this work, Kant foresees the development of man’s rational natural faculties over time, as a species, working through harrowing bouts of historical trial and error to solve the “final” problem of collective peace. The solution Kant believed was to be had in a not too distant future where states had individually organized themselves into republics that represented their people’s collective will and afforded them a good deal of political and social rights as autonomous, rational beings. Additionally, Kant envisaged the possibility of a leading republican state around which other republican states would be able to coalesce and establish a federation dedicated to peace and prosperity as well as collective security. As has been often noted, such an Enlightenment vision overlaps well with comparable current institutions as NATO and the EU, as well as numerous other interstate and inter-regional organizations.

For Kant, then, political friendships of a sort were possible between political groupings/states. They were based on a commonly shared belief in the ultimate political value of human beings as rational, autonomous agents worthy of deciding their own fates both privately and publicly. Once such political values are widely shared there can be no existential threat and thus no politics either in the Schmittian or Huntingtonian sense. Neither of these pessimistic thinkers thought that the Kantian solution was either viable or practicable. At best, they either thought that it was a cynical ideological ploy (Schmitt) or an example of unrealistically dangerous ideological hubris (Huntington).

Yet the world continues to be a politically friendlier place than it ever was. For some concrete evidence of this read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, or his The Better Angels of Our Nature or Hans Rosling’s Factfulness or even Yuval Harari’s wonderfully entertaining best seller Homo Deus. What you will find in all these books is that there is, quantitatively and qualitatively, such a thing as Progress, something which both our political skeptics would be loathe to bring undue intellectual attention to. Furthermore, as Harari might argue, the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Famine, War, Plague, and even Death are, for the first time in human history, in relative retreat. (Compare the likely outcome of the Corona virus epidemic to that of the Spanish Flu a hundred years earlier).

If such horrors as War and Famine can be reasonably contained should we not expect the goal of political friendship to be far easier fruit to pluck?

It was after all Abraham Lincoln who, when asked what was the best way to defeat your enemy, disarmingly said:  “Make him a friend”.

The diffusion of existential political angst continues apace. Political enmity between nations is not what it was in Schmitt’s feverish inter-war years or even Huntington’s period of overwrought fears for the durability of a uni-polar world. Friendship between nations is eagerly sought after and cultivated. It is here where alongside Aristotle’s famous tripartite explanation of personal friendship (utility, pleasure, and the good) we could add Kantian political virtue. That virtue which makes friends between nations those who first befriend their own citizens as equals and partners within a rational community of competing yet concerned individuals for the social and political goods necessary for a good life which includes but is not limited to: international peace, domestic tranquility, continuing progress, and substantive freedoms.

Change Love and the Need for Unity

Much needs to change in our world, and while this was clear before Covid-19, the pandemic is highlighting festering issues and creating a space in which to re-access current modes of living. New and just socio-economic and political systems are required together with positive values that encourage the good. Mankind needs to learn to share, to live more simply, to cooperate and to create a world free from conflict, and the planet needs to be allowed to heal. The list is long, but everything is interrelated.

Underlying the various crises facing humanity is a crisis of identity. Identifying almost exclusively with the form (physical body, thoughts and emotions), we believe that we are separate – from one another, the natural world and from that animating force to which we give the highly charged name of ‘God’, whatever that may be. The belief in separation is firmly held and is constantly perpetuated by the structures of the day – social, economic, educational, and so on – it conditions relationships, is a source of deep seated psychological conflict and fear and cloaks the truth.

The reality is Oneness; all of life is interconnected, whole. The essential first step in the process of renewal (for us and the planet) is for humanity to see itself as one, and from this realization to design systems and ways of living that cultivate and strengthen the experience of oneness. Humanity is a family, a group, large and diverse, consisting of unique individuals with a variety of gifts and qualities, all sharing the same constitution and inherent nature, and all suffering from the same or similar fears and longings.

Belief in separation has led to the creation of divisive unjust systems and a ‘dog eat dog’ mentality, a widespread acceptance that man/woman is inherently selfish, greedy and driven by pleasure. As we transition out of the present dying order and into the new, many people are challenging this false idea and calling for a shift, not only in the modes of living, but in ways of thinking.

Oneness and Fragmentation

One of the most significant characteristics of our times is the polarization between large sections of the population. There is the worldwide movement towards collective action, greater tolerance and cooperation, and, rooted in the past, the converse reaction towards tribal nationalism, the aggrandizement of the Nation and the success of the individual at the expense of the group: Unity or Oneness in opposition to Fragmentation or Separation. On the noisy surface at least, fragmentation is in the ascendancy, and unity, although often warmly refered to, rather like a much-loved eccentric relative, is held within the margins and spoken of in condescending unrealistic terms.

Fragmentation constitutes the normal, if totally unnatural, way of things; it characterizes virtually every aspect of life and describes the state of mind of most, if not all, of us. Where competition exists (and it’s hard to find anywhere where it doesn’t), where ideology dictates and nationalism triumphs, fragmentation, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, will be found scattered across the mind and the society, in chaotic, yet familiar disorder.

Motive is also a primary factor in the creation of fragmentation and the belief in separation. Any kind of motive – noble or ignoble – creates fragmentation, and where is there action free from motive? Desire, which sits alongside motive, colors all activity it seems, polluting and corrupting as it passes from one form to another, one discontented agitated mind to the next.

Generations have been systematically conditioned into believing that this is the way to live, that we are separate and must compete with one another to survive; that greed, selfishness, social division and tribalism are part of who and what we are as human beings, and that there is no alternative. According to the Doctrine of Division it’s good to ‘love your country’ above all others, flags are saluted, anthems of obedience and loyalty sung, conditioning the mind young and old. To compete to be the best and to overcome your enemies or competitors essential, if we, as separate divided human beings are to survive and prosper, to fulfill our potential.

This fundamentally misguided, and false approach has led to the creation of a deeply divided world, to brittle unkind systems of governance and control that perpetuate violence and social injustice, creating a frightened world community at odds with itself and the natural world, to say nothing of ‘God’. Fragmentation is division and where division prospers so does conflict, internally (psychologically and physiologically) and externally.

From this fractured state of mind decisions flow, personal and collective, political and corporate. The negative results of which we see in our own lives and in our societies; endless wars, needless poverty and acute economic inequality, social division, relationship break down, mental health illnesses, climate change and the widespread collapse of ecosystems, etc., etc. Fragmentation and the fervent belief in separation defies the natural way of things, which, if allowed to flow unimpeded, is ordered and harmonious. It crushes brotherhood, sews mistrust and suspicion of ‘the other’, and obstructs totally the experience and realization of our innate self; that essential reality that, beyond the time bound constructs of thought, we all are. That is our true being, and when actions proceed from that unified non-fragmented place harmony ensues.

If we are to move out of the crumbling chaos of the old and create a new and just civilization in which humanity can live peacefully together for the first time in our long and painful history, we must first of all recognize that we are one; that all of life is interconnected, something we know in theory, but disregard in practice. The new forms and ways of living that must emerge need to be based on and encourage expressions of brotherhood and compassion. This will establish a living cycle of love; yes, perhaps unsurprisingly it’s all about love, and the absence of it. Unity is an expression of love.

The creation of a fertile ground in which harmony can come into being is a great deal easier than might be imagined. As humanity collectively demonstrates (excluding the minority) in times of need, underneath the outward shows of cruelty and selfishness, mankind is good; remove the obstacles (fear, desire, competition etc.) to compassion and that unifying force – love, which is our very nature, will naturally and spontaneously express itself. As the shoals of fish swimming in the previously polluted Grande Canal in Venice show, remove the noise and pollution, allow the filth to settle to the depths and the waters become clear by themselves.