[sixties-l] Reply (and apology) to Ron Jacobs

From: Jvaron@aol.com
Date: Tue Aug 14 2001 - 04:53:44 EDT

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    Dear Ron,

    Thank-you for a very thoughtful and, more pertinently, gracious (!) reply.
    With a millisecond's hindsight, I found my e-mail needlessly harsh, snippish,
    and obnoxious in criticizing so zealously views composed with principle and
    passion, and which are not all that far from my own. And yes, I noted the
    irony: I decried what I detected was the "return of the repressed" --
    60s-esque denunciations of Capitalism with a Capital C and a kind of
    "radder-than-thou-ness," while myself engaging in the kind of ad hominem
    put-downs so characteristic of the sectarian tussles of the end of the 60s.
    Deeper irony: at a NYC rally at the Italian Consulte shortly after Guliani's
    murder, I brought a sign saying, among other things, "Capitalism Kills." It
    seemed, in my own moment of urgent anger, a permissible reduction that got at
    the essence of things in that moment. And that was the slogan of yours that
    I inveighed against. So once more, my very sincere apologies.

    I suppose my rhetorical excesses in my response were born of a kind of anger,
    or fear, all its own -- that we, the left, the vestigal or reborn
    anti-imperilists, might hold onto - and righteously so - a set of theoretical
    and strategic assumptions that, later or sooner, may retard our new movement.
     My fear is so great because the stakes are so high -- humanity may have one
    small window, that of a few decades or more (or less!) to avert ecological
    self-annihilation and the exponential increase of preventable human misery
    that makes a mockery of millenia of human dreams of justice and assertions of
    our worth and gifts as a species. So yes, I am intent on ascertaining the
    deep causes of our past and current peril!

    I don't dispute the ravages of colonialism and the horrible consequences of
    its successor-systems or residues. I just wonder, again, what we mean today
    when we say we are "anti-capitalist," especially when what it might mean
    today to be "socialist" seems so elusive. Technical definitions (with all
    respect to Mr. Mandel) stressing one's relationship to the means of
    production, and not income or aggregate wealth, are triumphs of form, not
    necessarily understanding. Mapping moral judgments onto such parsings of
    social class are just plain difficult.

    (At an extreme: baseball players are "workers" in a technical sense but earn
    obscene amounts of money; the guy at the deli down the street, whom I've seen
    work, with heart and grit, to make a nice business for himself (with good
    sandwhiches!) is a capitalist, with workers at his command, capital, plans
    for expansion, "growing his business", all the rest. (ok, we could place him
    in the petit-bourgeoisie if you like). Whose life is wrong here, or right
    here, and who am I to judge?)

    More seriously, to be for people over profits is great (among our best
    slogans) and to decry a system that puts profits over people makes is
    necessary as well, but the contemporary reality is that the great majority of
    the world, including the world's poor, participate in markets (huge, big,
    medium, small, micro) operating, in part, on the basis of personal incentives
    and the maximization of certain forms of highly local (even individual)
    interest. Economies that strived to be rid of all market activity have
    suffered greatly (if excelling in certain areas), and the world, it seems, is
    utterly leery of "going back" to anything like "actually existing
    socialism."

    What to do, first with the past? To say that Stalinism was just "state
    capitalism" seems to me bizarre, if Stalinism then becomes an indictment of
    capitalism. Likewise, to blame the problems of the most abusive "socialist"
    regimes on capitalism, because socialism was a response to capitalism, seems
    sophistry (a few years ago a German historian got skewered, rightly so, for
    blaming Nazism on communism, because Hitler was feuled by anti-Bolshevism).

    More important, what to do with the future? As a marxist of sorts, I
    nonetheless fear that something like a mixed economy, organized on humane,
    pro-people lines, is a more viable and robust utopian goal that working
    towards whatever we think is the absolute opposite of capitalism, conceived
    itself as some kind of absolute, which it's not.

    So yes, I do get squeamish at denunciations of "the capitalist" or
    "capitalists," when I'm not quite sure who they are, what it means to smash
    them, and what exactly they, as individuals, have done. Here I prefer
    criticism of the -ism; Marx, at his best, denounced capitalism as a
    structure; "capitalist," as an identity, is only a "character mask" (not an
    existential category), often incurred thru the accident of one's birth place
    within a social division of labor (many many more unhappy accidents in a
    capitalist society).

    The larger point: Sometimes, surveying radical history and just particpating
    in left wing movements, I sense that people feel they, in the last instance,
    can be radical OR have a deeply complex view of the world; more challenging
    is to be radical AND have a complex view of the world. (I think another of
    the Weatherpeople said, quite eloquently, in the Helen Garvey movie,
    something like "We looked for simple solutions to complex problems.") By the
    same token, the recognition of complexity is no excuse for inaction or
    paralyzing equivocations. We have a world to save, right?

    Please, keep the advice on how coming.

    peace,

    Jeremy



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