I will have the good fortune to speak at this year’s Semana de Autor, sponsored by Casa de las Américas, in Havana. For the first time ever, the invited author is Cuban.
You can find a description (in Spanish) of the conference here: Semana de Autor con Leonardo Padura.
My remarks will concern the nature of political commitment in literature after state socialism.
Update: Several media outlets reported on the conference. Here’s an article that attempts to summarize my comments: “A la tercera no es la vencida.”
Below you’ll find my liberal translation of Roberto Schwarz’s satirical “19 princípios para a crítica literária.”
Reading this, for me, creates a contrast between, on one hand, strikingly familiar and seemingly universal traits of bad criticism and, on the other, rather remote-sounding and dated critics and paradigms. For my generation, Wellek is lost in the dim mists of 1970s lit-crit seminars, Wolfgang Kayser is unknown, and Todorov is just . . . well . . . old.
I suppose this amounts to proof that snarky metacommentary doesn’t age well, unless it’s fully contextualized, as in, say, Marx’s footnotes or an annotated version of the Quijote. Most of Schwarz’s “principles,” though, are still wickedly funny. Enjoy.
19 Principles for Literary Criticism (1970)
- Accuse critics older than 40 of impressionism, those on the left of sociologism, the meticulous ones of formalism, and claim a balanced position for one’s self.
- Quote French books in German, Spanish books in French, and always out of context.
- Always begin with a declaration of method and by disqualifying other positions. Follow that up with the usual (impromptu) method.
- Never present the life of the author without first attacking the biographical method. Many insights can be mitigated by horrible writing.
- Don’t forget: Marxism is reductionist, and has been surpassed by structuralism, phenomenology, stylistics, American New Criticism, Russian Formalism, aesthetic criticism, and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
- Cite often and apropos of nothing. An extensive bibliography is essential. Support your thesis with the authority of specialists, preferably ones who are incompatible with each other.
- The argument should be technical and unrelated to the conclusions.
- Don’t forget: Marxism is reductionist, and has been surpassed by structuralism, phenomenology, stylistics, American New Criticism, Russian Formalism, aesthetic criticism, and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
- Always reach a conclusion without entering into the heart of the matter.
- For ontological questions, Wellek; for formal questions, Kayser, and lately Todorov.
- Psychoanalysis is less obsolete than Marxism, but it, too, is very one-sided.
- Don’t forget: Marxism is reductionist, and has been surpassed by structuralism, phenomenology, stylistics, American New Criticism, Russian Formalism, aesthetic criticism, and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
- Afrânio Coutinho and the Concretists brought scientific criticism to Brazil.
- Publish long reviews of unimportant books, convince the editor to translate them and the public to read them. There are almost 700,000 university students in the country.
- A doctorate is worth its weight in gold.
- The gluteal semanteme in modern linguistics tends towards polysemia.
- The critic of our era is engaged and authentic, and doesn’t neglect his deep vocation: his commitment to mankind in both its eternal and circumstantial aspects, a commitment that he will obey resolutely until the end. This is the really important thing.
- The books published by Indiana University and imported by Livraria Pioneira are extremely important. On the other hand, if you have a French education, don’t fail to apply the method of Chomsky and Propp. The results won’t be long in coming.
- Be very careful with the obvious. The safest thing is to document everything with statistics. Use a graph if there is enough space.
To estrange, in one of its more archaic senses, means “To render alien; to regard or treat as alien; to sever from a community; to remove (possessions, subjects) from the ownership or dominion of any one.” It’s a time-honored political tactic, this rhetorical estrangement. In a nationalistic environment, it works wonders. Egyptian state television whipped up violence against Tahrir Square by accusing demonstrators of acting under the orders of foreign provocateurs who, according to the fantasy version of events, had suborned Cairo’s hapless populace with that most delicious of bribes—KFC. For years, the Cuban government has stifled dissent by appealing to patriotic sentiment; any critic of the government must be an agent of Tío Sam. (It doesn’t help matters, of course, that the US has a sordid history of violent interference in Cuba. But that’s a story for another time.) And US political culture is no different. To accuse one’s opponents of anti-Americanism is as American as. . . never mind.
As early as the so-called Revolution of 1800, the Federalists started slinging mud, accusing Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal drafters of the Declaration of Independence, of being un-American. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life includes examples of these attacks:
It was in France, where he resided nearly seven years, and until the revolution had made some progress, that his disposition to theory, and his skepticism in religion, morals, and government, acquired full strength and vigor. . . . Mr. Jefferson is known to be a theorist in politics, as well as in philosophy and morals. He is a philosophe in the modern French sense of the word. (149)
It would be exhausting to chronicle the number of times the “anti-American” canard has been trotted out since 1800. The HUAC hearings and McCarthyism are perhaps the most well-known moments. While the intensity has subsided since the end of the Cold War, it would be a mistake to think that the tactic has exhausted itself. What is the “birther” phenomenon if not a particularly irrationalist manifestation of estrangement? The ploy has been used so often, and to such great effect, that a culturalist understanding of politics now prevails, not only on the far right, where Breivik-like minds ruminate on the dangers of “Islamisation” and “cultural Marxism,” but also among liberal demonstrators at the Occupy Wall Street encampments, who insist (despite all the historical evidence to the contrary) that police violence is un-American.
It’s no surprise, then, that conservative politicians are pulling the well-worn brush out of the toolshed and attempting to paint Occupy Wall Street as some sort of foreign invasion. Peter King has somehow found the time amidst his ceaseless fight against his own imagination (where sharia lurks beneath every hijab) to denounce protesters as anti-American anarchists. Presidential candidate Herman Cain chimes in. Fox News fumbles its way towards an astro-turfing campaign—”the 53 percent”— which depends, in large measure, on distinguishing between the noble taxpayer’s “traditional American view of the world” and the “continental European mindset” of Occupy Wall Street’s shiftless protesters, who take no personal responsibility for their well-being, preferring to blame “institutions.”
To explore this “traditional American” worldview, it might be useful to inquire with a member of the Revolutionary Generation. William Manning was a successful New England farmer who, in 1775, took up arms against the British. He took part in the Siege of Boston during the initial phase of the Revolutionary War. Surely such a patriot would harbor no “European” biases against the wealthy and their institutions? Surely an American Hero™ such as this would avoid divisive rhetoric about the 99 percent?
In the swet of thy face shall thou git thy bread untill thou return to the ground, is the erivarsable sentance of Heaven on Man for his rebellion. To be sentanced to hard Labour dureing life is very unplesent to humane Nature. Their is a grate avartion to it purceivable in all men—yet it is absolutly nesecary that a large majority of the world should labor, or we could not subsist. For Labour is the soul parrant of all property — the land yealdeth nothing without it, & their is no food, clothing, shelter, vessel, or any nesecary of life but what costs Labour & is generally esteemed valuable according to the Labour it costs. Therefore no person can posess property without labouring, unless he git it by force or craft, fraud or fortun out of the earnings of others.
[. . .]
On the other hand the Labourer being contious that it is Labour that seports the hole, & that the more there is that live without Labour & the higher they live or the grater their salleryes & fees are, so much the harder he must work, or the shorter he must live, this makes the Labourer watch the other with a jelous eye & often has reason to complain of real impositions. But before I Proseed to shew how the few & many differ in money matters I will give a short description of what Money is.
Money is not property of itself but ondly the Representitive of property. Silver & Gold is not so valuable as Iron & Steel for real use, but receives all its value from the use that is made of it as a medium of trade. Money is simply this—a thing of lighter carrage than property that has an established value set upon it eyther by law or general Consent, For Instance, if a doller or a peace of paper, or a chip, would pass throughout a nation or the world for a burshel of corne or any other property to the value of said corne, then it would be the representitive of so much property.
Also Money is a thing that will go where it will fetch the most as naturally as water runs down hill, for the posessor will give it whare it will fetch the most. Also when their is an addition to the quantity or an extrodinary use of barter & credit in commerce the prices of property will rise. On the other hand if Credit is ruened & the medium made scarser the price of all kinds of property will fall in proportion. Here lays the grate shuffel betwen the few & many. As the interests & incomes of the few lays cheifly in money at interest, rents, salaryes, & fees that are fixed on the nominal value of money, they are interested in haveing mony scarse & the price of labour & produce as low as possable. For instance if the prices of labour & produce should fall one halfe it would be just the same to the few as if their rents fees & salleryes ware doubled, all which they would git out of the many. Besides the fall of Labour and produce & scarsety of money always brings the many Into distress & compels them into a state of dependance on the few for favours & assistance in a thousand ways.
[. . .]
The Reasons why a free government has always failed is from the unreasonable demands & desires of the few. They cant bare to be on a leavel with their fellow cretures, or submit to the determinations of a Lejeslature whare (as they call it) the Swinish Multitude are fairly represented, but sicken at the eydea, & are ever hankering & striving after Monerca or Aristocracy whare the people have nothing to do in maters of government but to seport the few in luxery & idleness.
For these & many other reasons a large majority of those that live without Labour are ever opposed to the prinsaples & operation of a free Government, & though the hole of them do not amount to one eighth part of the people, yet by their combinations, arts & skeems have always made out to destroy it soner or later [. . .]
Manning’s text, worth reading in its entirety, is called “The Key of Libberty.” It’s an incredible piece of progressive populism from a yeoman farmer with barely any formal education. Manning’s intuitive grasp of economics and politics would shame any of today’s faux-populist pundits, who would have no choice but to reach for the old standby, the anti-American label, which they would apply to Manning for daring to foment class war with inflammatory terms like “the many” and “the few.”
Finally, a different set of historical circumstances reveals the absurdity of most claims to the title of “real American.”
When Hemingway is remembered today, 50 years after his death, one usually thinks of the Old World: his time in Paris rubbing shoulders with Joyce, Pound, and the American expats of the so-called “Lost Generation”; his participation in three European wars; his love of Spanish bullfighting and African big-game hunting. Nabokov’s pithy dismissal of Hemingway’s work as being primarily about “bells, bulls, and balls” likewise points to the campanas and corridas of Spain. Cuba, though, is the place where Hemingway lived the longest and where he wrote much of his work. The island is the setting for three of his novels: To Have and Have Not, The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream. Hemingway first went to Havana in 1928, a stopover on his way to Key West, where he took up residence. He returned in 1932, in pursuit of swordfish. As his second marriage disintegrated, his trips to Havana became more frequent, until he became a permanent guest at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. His third wife, Martha Gellhorn, moved him out of the hotel and out of Havana, to La Vigía, a finca at the edge of San Francisco de Paula, a village in the hills to the southeast of the capital. Hemingway eventually bought Finca Vigía with the proceeds of the film rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls. He lived at Vigía from 1939–60, and it was here, for the first and only time in his adult life, that Hemingway led something like a domestic existence. It was here, too, that he wrote some of his most iconic works.
Cuba’s influence on Hemingway goes largely unacknowledged by Americans. But Cubans know that he took his Nobel Prize medal to Cobre, near Santiago de Cuba, where he laid it among the ex votos to la Virgen de la Caridad, the island’s patron saint. This grand gesture (and a thousand smaller ones) consolidated Hemingway’s reputation among Cubans as one of their own. Gabriel García Márquez, who, through his long-time solidarity with the Cuban revolution and intimate friendship with Fidel, is himself something of an honorary Cuban, writes about “Hemingway, el nuestro” in a prologue to Norberto Fuentes’ exhaustive, 700-page Hemingway en Cuba. The American writer’s presence can still be felt on the island: at Finca Vigía, preserved just as the author left it; at his old haunts in La Habana Vieja —Hotel Ambos Mundos, la Bodeguita del Medio, el Floridita; in the fishing village of Cojímar; in the memory of countless Cubans who have maintained an oral tradition of stories about “Papa,” many of which are recounted in Fuentes’ book.
Still, despite the lore and good memories, Hemingway’s relationship to the island, its people, and its politics remains enigmatic. A counterdiscourse emerged among the island’s intellectuals, some of whom claimed that Hemingway, in spite of the good will he generated, was a kind of neocolonial hacendado. The best example —and probable origin— of this counterdiscourse is Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), the classic film based on Edmundo Desnoes’ novel.
Two facts about the film:
(1) The original version of Desnoes’ novel doesn’t include the Hemingway material, which comes from some of his essays. Director Gutiérrez Alea incorporated this material into the film and Desnoes later adapted the scenes we just saw and inserted them into a subsequent edition of his novel.
(2) When René Villareal, the former Hemingway employee and tour guide featured in the clip, saw the film, he loaded a revolver and went looking for Desnoes and Titón (the director).
At any rate, the film seems to have originated the idea that Hemingway lived like a king in his hilltop castle and took no interest in local affairs. Even García Márquez falls into this line of thinking:
[n]o hay indicios de que hubiera intentado alguna vez hacer algún contacto con el ambiente intelectual y artístico de La Habana, que en medio del envilecimiento oficial y la concupiscencia pública seguía siendo uno de los más intensos del continente. (Fuentes 17)
This claim begs for some skepticism—Hemingway was a close friend of journalist and poet Fernando Campoamor and he insisted that another writer, Lino Novás Calvo, undertake the only authorized Spanish translation of The Old Man and the Sea. Another consideration that might serve to temper García Márquez’s claim is that many of Cuba’s brightest literary lights were not on the island during much of Hemingway’s time there.
The idea that Hemingway remained aloof and disinterested clashes with what is known about his friendship with the fishermen of Cojímar, his permissive and caring attitude toward the children of San Francisco de Paula, his intense interest in the ongoing revolution in the Sierra Maestra, and —some say— his clandestine support for the alzados in the vicinity of La Vigía.
But in “El último verano” Desnoes sees Hemingway’s economic and social position as emblematic of the pre-revolutionary era:
Creo que la revolución ha roto para siempre la posibilidad de que una relación semejante vuelva a producirse en Cuba. Hay aquí una especie de símbolo. No seremos más criados de amos extranjeros, aunque esos amos nos ayuden a vivir con comodidad, nos sienten a su mesa, nos tengan protegidos de las violentas luchas de nuestra época.
Desnoes would probably revise these predictions now that the revolution has run its course and Cuba continues to feel the aftershocks of what Desnoes himself has called the “social nightmare” of the 1990s. But I do think his anti-imperialist version of Hemingway is essentially correct from a structural standpoint that takes into account relative positions of economic power and social prestige, notwithstanding Hemingway’s personal qualities, which may have served to mask this structure. Desnoes’ view is consistent with an intellectual current in Cuba —one that also includes Miguel Barnet and Roberto Fernández Retamar— that came to see culture, rather than political economy, as the battleground of anti-imperialist struggle. This view creates obvious difficulties in recognizing Hemingway as in any way “Cuban,” despite the island’s well documented influence on his life and work.
Cubans, however, have remained fascinated by Hemingway, and have continued to read and study him. A number of documentaries about the writer have been produced since 1962. Norberto Fuentes published his monumental study in 1984. One recent publication explores Hemingway’s friendship with Campoamor; another (written by an Italian) gives a culinary tour of every known restaurant that Hemingway visited in Cuba and elsewhere, complete with recipes.
The early work of one major writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, stakes out a different relationship to Hemingway, one that starts with imitation and ends in parody. Likewise, Desnoes has acknowledged his early admiration for the American, whom he tried to “assimilate.” Since the mid 1960s, though, two opposing positions have dominated Cubans’ reception of Hemingway: on one hand, a popular, hagiographic narrative (which was adopted by Fidel and the Party) and, on the other, a critical assessment undertaken by Cuba’s writers and intellectuals, initiated by Desnoes and Gutiérrez Alea.
This began to change in the 1990s, like so many other things, with the film Strawberry and Chocolate (1994), directed by none other than Gutiérrez Alea (with Juan Carlos Tabío as co-director). Hemingway is mentioned briefly in a long list of famous people who were gay, at least according to Diego, one of the film’s major characters. The shift here is notable: Hemingway is no longer a titanic figure who must be reckoned with aesthetically or politically, but one cultural reference among many. More recently, prominent fiction writers like Leonardo Padura and Abilio Estévez have appropriated the North American author in creative ways that elude the once-dominant opposition of hagiography and critique.
Padura does this most systematically, devoting an entire novel to Papa. In Adiós, Hemingway (2001), Conde, the protagonist of Padura’s sucessful detective novels, investigates the murder of an FBI agent whose body has been discovered at Finca Vigía. Against the grain of the putative evidence —ballistics indicate that the agent was shot with one of Hemingway’s firearms— that points to the American as the killer, and facing his own animosity toward the rich, arrogant American, Conde discovers the truth: the FBI agent was an incompetent whose drunken carelessness while surveilling the old writer led to a confrontation that ended when Hemingway’s employees shot the agent to protect Papa. In this novel, Padura brings together the popular and anti-imperialist versions of Hemingway while also synthesizing two moments in Cuban detective fiction: the formulaic, social-realist paradigm that prevailed prior to the late 1980s, and the more critical, hard-boiled variety practiced by Padura himself, which focuses more on the island’s internal social problems than on imperialist aggression.
Abilio Estévez, in Inventario secreto de La Habana (2004), reflects on the odd contrast created by the austere manliness of Hemingway’s image and the house at La Vigía, decorated to match that image, and Papa’s obvious zest for life and sensual pleasure.
De [Hemingway] me molestaban su ridículo machismo y esa actitud ante la vida que no sé si llamar «heroica»; al propio tiempo, me fascinaban su voluptuosidad, su hedonismo. Por un lado, el rechazo al personaje-héroe que como actor se había creado; por otro, la admiración hacia el sensualista. (232)
Estévez dedicates just 3 of his book’s 343 pages to establishing this contrast that, although interesting, would be unremarkable if not inserted into a work which establishes opposing spheres via certain antitheses, some of which are family/nation, barrio/exile, proximity/distance, love/violence, cemetery/museum (oddly, cemetery represents the positive pole here), life/death, and so forth.
The Hemingway figure, with its unresolved polarization between sensuality and austerity, is a point of cleavage at which these spheres touch, yet remain unreconciled. In my dissertation, I argue that this separation of spheres reveals (and critiques) the separation of life and labor qua abstraction, and that Hemingway’s personal contradictions are turned back against a state now engaged in the commodification and museumification of life. By this, I mean that as the island restores its colonial architecture, cleans up its beaches, and modernizes its hotels, most Cubans now (again) face the reality of labor —as hotel workers, builders, taxi drivers, tour guides, musicians, cooks and, yes, as prostitutes and hustlers— in an economy in which luxury, that sensual side of life so admired by Estévez, remains just out of reach.
Voy a Lubbock, Texas a finales de septiembre para presentar sobre la obra de Myriam Laurini. El congreso es la Conferencia Internacional de Literatura Detectivesca en Español (CILDE) y tiene buena pinta. Presento en una mesa titulada “Poder, conocimiento y control en el neopolicial.”
He aquí el sumario de mi ponencia:
Las de abajo: la ficción policial de Myriam Laurini
Myriam Laurini (1947– ) es escritora argentina radicada en México desde finales de los años 70. Su obra periodística y novelística ocupa un espacio poco frecuentado por las mujeres: la nota roja y la novela policiaca. Ambos géneros, dominados tradicionalmente por hombres, son dispositivos que organizan el conocimiento de unos cuantos hechos verificables—los detalles de un supuesto crimen—dentro del armazón del aparato jurídico, por un lado, y dentro de las convenciones de un género de escritura, por otro. La ficción de Laurini explora los límites de estas convenciones con protagonistas femeninas cuyas investigaciones las llevan siempre a un dilema: ¿ser profesionales o ser justas? En la mejor tradición de la novela negra, Laurini nos hace ver que vivimos en una sociedad cuyas instituciones (legales, mediáticas, políticas) tienen poco que ver con la justicia, y mucho con la «ley» del más fuerte. Laurini interroga esta realidad social desde la óptica de sus víctimas, que suelen ser indígenas, niños abusados y, sobre todo, mujeres explotadas. Este trabajo pretende precisar hasta qué punto la ficción de Laurini revela la intersección del patriarcado moderno con la forma de heteronomía que el teórico Moishe Postone llama «dominación social».
Manuel Moreno Fraginals was a Cuban historian. Along with scholars like Walterio Carbonell, he belongs to a radical strain of historiography that found itself at odds with both the pre-1959 dictatorship and the Castro regime. Moreno Fraginals was exiled twice: from 1956–1959 and again after 1994. Like novelist Jesús Díaz, he became increasingly critical of the Cuban government during the economic crisis of the 1990s. Also like Díaz, he was a radical thinker whose heterodox Marxism placed him in the crosshairs of the dialectical materialist orthodoxy. Unlike the main body of revolutionary scholars, for whom Marx’s statement “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” was reduced to “history = class struggle,” Moreno Fraginals always insisted on dealing with the problem of race. His work on Cuban sugar mills, El ingenio, is one of the most compelling analyses of slavery and the plantation economy in any language.
The following text is a translation of his note “¿Abolición o desintegración?”, a reflection on the collapse of the slave economy in Cuba. For the most part, I’ve tried to retain his unvarnished style. Moreno Fraginals often criticized his fellow historians for being wordy and boring, among other things. I disagree with a few of his assertions, most notably that slave labor produced surplus value, but I think the text is genuinely interesting and potentially helpful for thinking about how one social form (mode of production) is sublated (aufgehoben), unfolding into another. A useful exercise for those involved in crisis theory.
Abolition or Disintegration?
A Few Questions about the Centennial
1980 marked the hundred-year anniversary of the colonial law to abolish slavery in Cuba. In Puerto Rico a similar centennial had already been celebrated in 1973 because, although both islands were Spanish colonies, abolition was enforced first in Puerto Rico. It’s a centennial that invites study rather than celebration. We say this because it’s strange to commemorate the anniversary of a law that was neither the first one to abolish slavery in Cuba nor what ultimately destroyed the institution.
Unfortunately, very little has been written about the history of slavery in Cuba. Regardless, using current research—done in Cuba and abroad—one can arrive at certain conclusions about this “anomalous” institution, as Karl Marx would certainly label it. There is plenty of evidence that the enslavement of black Africans and their descendants on American plantations was a system of labor that, from a humane perspective, was barbaric and even criminal, but was economically profitable for the exploiting class. Its extremely high profits drove its expansion and development to the point of uprooting between 9 and 12 million people (according to the most conservative calculations) from the African continent.
Slavery’s profitability was possible within a set of conditions clearly present, for example, in the 18th-century English and French Antilles and in late-19th-century Cuba. But socioeconomic conditions change over time, and slavery, which was rational and profitable from the standpoint of colonial exploitation, began to create a set of insoluble contradictions that made it irrational and ruinous even for the exploiting class itself. This long process led to slavery’s disintegration and, finally, to its disappearance.
Plantation slavery was familiar to Cubans during the time of colonization, but its heyday began toward the end of the 18th century. Several of the characteristics that distinguish Cuban slavery from that of the English and French Antilles became evident at that time. Let’s examine some of these differentiations. The free introduction of African slaves into Cuba began in 1790, but the slave trade was banned by Denmark in 1802, England in 1808, Sweden in 1813, Holland and France in 1814, and by Spain in 1820. This meant that the greatest development of Cuban slavery took place while European countries unleashed an intense campaign against this kind of human commerce. This caused more slaves to enter Cuba as “contraband” than legally.
It’s true that this contraband was usually permitted by the Spanish colonial authorities, who benefited from it and even participated directly. But this doesn’t change the fact that slave traffic to Cuba during the 19th century confronted greater challenges than those faced by the English and French colonies in the previous century. The difficulties of the slave passage, the cost of bribes, and many other factors contributed to a rapid rise in the price of slaves, which increased fivefold over half a century (1810–1860).
And since all this happened amid an unprecedented European technological revolution and the rise of workers’ movements, the high cost of slaves as commodities was joined by the evidence that slavery was a brake on the modern development of the means of production. Likewise, every year it became clearer that slavery was a moral crime.
In Cuban cities, especially Havana, slavery had special characteristics. For example, the first major Cuban census, undertaken in 1774, records a free black population greater than 30,000. In 1862, free blacks numbered 221,417, of which 53% lived in cities; it was a predominantly urban population even though it maintained an influential presence on ranches, tobacco plantations, and farms. This free black population continued to grow and became a large, marginal mass that a achieved a degree of economic development in several important sectors, despite all the discrimination and exploitation. It was able to monopolize a large portion of the island’s artisanal activity: they were tailors, cobblers, and musicians in addition to carters, stevedores, coachmen, etc. During the 18th century and part of the 19th, many of them had won their freedom by providing important military services. Along with the free blacks, battalions of pardos and morenos were organized—their exploits in battle are famous.
Among this black population were many who had purchased their freedom with their own labor. As far back as the 17th century, urban slaveowners had discovered that one of the most profitable and safe forms of exploitation was to rent their slaves out as day laborers, which guaranteed a monthly cash income without the burden of labor or investment falling on the slaveowner. And at the end of a period of five to ten years, the slaveowner would recover his initial investment when the rent-earning slave purchased his liberty.
It’s obvious that the great mass of free blacks in Cuban cities during slavery’s apogee didn’t owe its freedom to the owners’ beneficence (as slavery and colonialism’s panegyrists claim). Rather, it existed because of the specific characteristics of a highly profitable form of exploitation. But it’s a fact that these free blacks were a very important factor in the disintegration of slavery in the cities. They had extensive communication with the slaves and they taught them about legal resources that provided protection from certain levels of super-exploitation and cruelty. Either directly or through the “councils” (cabildos), they helped slaves buy their freedom by making cash or work available to them.
By the 1860s, Havana was witness to the unique spectacle of a slave society in which slaves lived independently of their masters, in rented houses or extensions, working for themselves and sometimes running small businesses with employees who might be free blacks, slaves, or whites. These weren’t isolated cases: the 1860 census reveals that 34% of Havana’s adult black male slaves lived independently.
Thousands of urban slaves, and many in rural areas, earned a wage. However, despite what some historians say, a slave with a wage is not an indication of slavery’s benevolence, but of its disintegration. It shows that brute force, upon which typical slavery rests, is being replaced by the economic coercion upon which capitalist exploitation depends.
In sugar mills and coffee fields the situation was different. The extremely low fertility rates among enslaved women, the high proportion of men to women, the high mortality rate, etc. caused the continuous decline of the slave population in the sugar mills. To avoid this decline it was necessary to buy slaves annually to replace the deceased. Another way was to balance the sexes, improve living conditions, provide economic stimuli similar to a wage, etc. In Cuba the latter system was given the pompous title of “the good treatment.”
Sugar mill owners who employed the old system of exploitation, buying new slaves every year to replace the ones consumed by work, found that slaves cost more each time, but produced the same amount. Additionally, the basic system of labor grounded exclusively on brute force made it impossible to apply new technologies to increase productivity. The inability to modernize clashed with the capitalist law of constant revolution of the means of production. Productivity fell, production costs rose, the price of sugar fell, the technical disparity grew. . .
Those who practiced “the good treatment” created economic stimuli among the slaves; in the long run these were indistinguishable from a salary. They gave slaves land to cultivate and then purchased the produce and livestock. They lowered the mortality rate, raised the birth rate and average life expectancy, and achieved notable progress in modernization. Technical advances shortened the harvest time and increased idle time proportionally. The changing demographic indices increased the number of children born. These were too young to work and had to be clothed and fed. The number of unproductive elderly slaves who had to be supported also increased. As the harvest time—the period of maximum exploitation and surplus-value extraction—became shorter, the underutilization of slaves became more obvious, producing an internal crisis that was aggravated by the external factors already examined. This accelerated slavery’s process of disintegration. A modern, capitalist economy was impossible with slavery! Other forms of exploitation were sought, and 150,000 Chinese came to Cuba during the 19th century.
Cuban sugar mills in the 1860s and 1870s reveal the slave regime’s disintegration, which was much more perceptible in the eastern provinces. Sometimes systems were superimposed in a single mill, with some slaves working under the threat of physical coercion, others received wages, and still others were rented at a different price and were treated differently. And there were also Chinese under contract, and blacks and whites on salary or doing single-payment jobs or piecework. This chaos is the typical expression of disintegration.
But this process isn’t determined merely by these internal socioeconomic conditions, nor by external economic or moral pressures. It’s also a function of the constant defiance of the slaves, seen in uprisings, escapes, suicides, sabotage, and work done poorly or reluctantly. Slavery’s coup de grace was finally dealt by the anticolonial struggle, which couldn’t succeed without abolition.
At the beginning of the Ten Years’ War, the conservative wing of the insurgents took great pains to avoid proclaiming the full emancipation of slaves. The Guámiro Constitution declared slavery abolished, but it instituted a transitional system (the regulation of freed slaves) similar to the patronage system established by the 1880 colonial law. Nevertheless, the reality of the independence struggle radicalized the revolution. In 1870, the Spanish colonial government was forced to impose the first law of emancipation, which “freed” slaves younger than 11 and older than 60. The law liberated slave owners from the economic burden of unproductive laborers.
Finally, the first law of total emancipation, which recognized the right of freed slaves to enjoy all civil and political rights, was Carlos Manuel de Céspedes’ glorious declaration on December 25, 1870. Within the territory of Cuba Libre, this meant effectual abolition.
The 1880 colonial law did not end slavery. It simply managed its inexorable extinction, caused by economic contradictions and the strength of the revolutionary fighters. It was a conservative colonial law that attempted to prolong the life of an institution whose time had definitely come.
Roth’s novel, written in the years following 9/11, made a splash as critics drew parallels between the plot–Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election and America begins a process of Nazification, including pogroms–and the Bush administration’s War on Terror.
Reviewers like J.M. Coetzee (full article paywalled) and Frank Rich, after ritually warding off such allegorical interpretations, nevertheless use them to frame their own readings.
Another reviewer goes so far as to say that “it’s essential to read this novel as soon as possible to fit it in its proper context.” Its context, though, isn’t quite so narrow as that.
The Plot Against America isn’t a true historical novel, even if we ignore the fact that its history is counterfactual. It makes no real attempt to display the complexities of the American political landscape in the early 1940s. I found myself wondering (as did this reviewer) where are the communists? I thought in particular of the presence of the Frankfurt School on Morningside Heights. Certainly such a group, along with other prominent New York intellectuals (not to mention organized labor and anarchists), would have played a role in a struggle against fascism.
Such historical complications are avoided, though, in order to remain faithful to the perspective of the narrator, who experienced these events as small boy for whom America must indeed have seemed to be a vast and hostile expanse beyond the limits of the New York metropolitan area.
The narrator, also called Philip Roth, recalls a fairly idyllic childhood suddenly invaded by fear as FDR unexpectedly fails to win his bid for a third term. The high-flying and Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh emerges as a charismatic, if laconic, leader and initiates a distinctly American version of the Final Solution.
Roth’s prose is consistently understated, almost flat. Rather than relying on rhetorical fireworks or “creative writing,” the author lets the plot do the heavy lifting. The magisterial moments, when they do come, strike the reader with great emotional force, as in the “Where is Lindbergh” speech, in which “the red-faced La Guardia readies the assembled mourners for the climactic appearance of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Even in the moments when the prose is less muted, it remains rather clipped, tightly wound like the voiceovers of WWII-era newsreels. Page after page, the no-frills narration, meticulous but never florid in its attention to detail, confronts the reader who, lulled into complacency by the story’s rhythm and relentless forward motion, is stunned by the irruption of a figure which crystallizes the accumulated events into a synthetic image:
It’s so heartbreaking, violence, when it’s in a house–like seeing the clothes in a tree after an explosion. You may be prepared to see death but not the clothes in the tree.
Here Roth mobilizes an instance of the unheimlich by shattering the homely image of domesticity. A world, once familiar, is torn asunder, not by external forces, but by the violence it always contained. This is an organic violence, nourished in the bosom of the hearth; it is not the violence of reaction to the other.
This is why readings of The Plot Against America as an allegory of the War on Terror miss the mark. Even if Roth drew inspiration from the vengeful nationalism of the George W. Bush years, the novel exceeds its immediate context. Here’s an important passage:
The trip out had taken just over twenty-four hours, but the one back took three time as long because of the many times they had to stop for Seldon to vomit by the side of the road or to pull down his pants and squat in a ditch, and because, in just a twenty-mile radius of Charleston, West Virginia (where they went round in circles, hopelessly lost, instead of proceeding east and north toward Maryland), the car broke down on six separate occasions in little over a day: once in the midst of the railroad tracks, power lines and massive conveyors of Alloy, a town of two hundred where enormous mounds of ore and silica surrounded the factory building of the Electro-Metallurgical Company plant; once in the nearby little town of Boomer, where flames from the coke ovens reached so high my father, standing after sundown in the middle of the unlighted street, could read (or misread) the road map by the incandescence; once in Belle, yet another of those tiny, hellish industrial hamlets, where the fumes from the Du Pont ammonia plant almost knocked them flat when they got out of the car to lift the hood and try to figure out what was wrong; again in South Charleston, the city that looked to Seldon like “a monster” because of the steam and the smoke wreathing the freight yards and the warehouses and the long dark roofs of the soot-blackened factories; and twice on the very outskirts of the state-capital, Charleston. There, around midnight, in order to call a tow truck, my father had to cross a railroad embankment on foot and then descend a hill of junk to a bridge that spanned a river lined with coal barges and dredging barges and tugboats to go looking for a riverfront dive with a pay phone, meanwhile leaving the two boys alone together in the car just across the river road from an endless jumble of a plant–sheds and shanties, sheet-iron buildings and open coal cars, cranes and loading booms and steel-frame towers, electric ovens and roaring forges, squat storage tanks and high cyclone fences–a plant that was, if you believed the sign the size of a billboard, “The World’s Biggest Manufacturer of Axes, Hatchets, and Scythes.”
The passage describes part of a rescue journey into America’s heartland, up to this point depicted as a pastoral landscape, in stark contrast to the urban areas in the Northeast (Newark, New York) where the Jews’ numbers afford them some security. The enumeration of industrial artefacts eliminates the distinction, tearing down the confining, yet protective walls of the ghetto, just as the irruption of violence into the home violates its status as refuge from the world. The passage also has a corrosive effect on all the carefully constructed, subtle comparisons to Old World anti-Semitism that Roth establishes throughout the narrative. These references allow the reader to imagine the ever-present possibility of atavistic, anti-Semitic violence as a kind of universal rural primitivism born of ignorance and superstition, as in blood libel, a reference Roth uses more than once in the novel.
The authentic horror is found in the “factory brimming with sharpened blades” that drives young Seldon mad. The axes, hatchets, and scythes of an incensed peasantry are now mass-produced in an industrial process, just as anti-Semitism has been transformed, in the modern era, into a quasi-automatic reaction rooted in the abstract (and negatively coded) dimensions of capitalist society (see Moishe Postone, “The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century”). Beyond the eerie plausibility of the novel’s plot (the almost-Nazification of America), with its dilemmas of assimilation and identity, clarity and paranoia, lies the terrible union of a barbaric “nature” and technical progress, as hideous as a forest of chimneys or, alternatively, chimneys at the edge of a birch forest.
This is an English version of a paper presented in Portuguese in Campinas, Brazil, on September 16, 2010.
Occupy everything! Dieser Hörshaal ist besetzt! ¡Huelga! Greve! These and many other slogans have been shouted on university campuses during this last year, a tumultuous one for many universities throughout the world, as students, workers, and professors have come together to protest the state of affairs in higher education.
Although grounded in global economic tendencies, the shape of these struggles, their rhetoric, and their goals have so far emerged mainly from local political contexts. In California, a decades-long trend of state disinvestment and administrative malfeasance, combined with falling state revenues, threatens to destroy the Golden State’s world-class university system. In Europe, privatization proceeds apace under the guise of curriculum reform known as the Bologna Process. In Brazil, low wages and poor working conditions prompted professors to strike and a presidential candidate to call the government in São Paulo “o governo PPPP: privatizações, presídios, pedágios e porrada.” The University of Puerto Rico was closed by a massive, student-led strike. Other strikes have occurred in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. These situations vary, but underlying them all is a basic fact: wherever one looks, public, state-funded education is being systematically defunded.
In England, the closure of Middlesex’s well-regarded Philosophy program is one of the latest and most publicized manifestations of a managerial logic that considers an academic unit’s ability to procure external funding to be the primary factor in determining its “worth” to the university at large. Non-essential services and programs (that is, those that do not directly or indirectly procure private funding) are outsourced to the private sector or cut entirely.
What connections can be made between the crisis of education and the global financial crisis? Are these simply the result of a neoliberal managerial culture which values short-term profit over long-term social investment, or are there deeper, structural causes involved?
Is there any possible articulation between a critical theory whose greatest exponent, Theodor Adorno, notoriously called police on student activists not unlike the ones currently protesting education policies on several continents, and the practical struggle to save education?
Finally, what does critical theory have to say about an educational system that seems to aid the very society that should be the object of critique, a capitalist world system in which education, rather than existing as a realm apart, is deeply imbricated and whose values education inculcates and promotes even while purporting to critique them? Does Critical Theory manifest itself other than as part of this educational apparatus? Or is it, too, now part of the machinery?
Drawing upon the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and other, more recent critical theorists associated with value-form critique (in German, Wertkritik), I will attempt to answer these and other questions.
A couple of clarifications may be in order regarding the focus and scope of my remarks. First, I’m approaching the crisis of education as, primarily, a crisis of its institutions and disciplines, grounded in a much deeper and systemic economic crisis. While it may or may not also be appropriate to speak of a crisis of pedagogy, my remarks won’t address this directly. Rather, I will focus mainly on shifts in higher education, both in the composition of its work force and the conception of its social mission. My second clarification concerns the scope of my talk. While I attempt to frame the crisis in education in terms of global trends, much of this analysis is based on my observations of and participation in recent events in the United States, particularly in California, where I live and work. Parts of this essay also constitute a polemic, grounded in a spirit of solidarity, against certain ideas and trends that have emerged within the California student protest movement. As such, it is as much a self-critique as anything else.
What connections can be made between the crisis of public higher education and the global financial crisis? Are these simply the result of a neoliberal managerial culture which values short-term profit over long-term social investment, or are there deeper, structural causes involved?
The dominant narrative of the financial crisis among the American Left (I realize this may sound like an oxymoron) is that it is essentially caused by deregulation and excessive risk in investments, all motivated by greed. Deregulation, it is said, has led to complicated financial instruments which impede transparency, allowing predatory banks to make risky loans and distribute the risk throughout the entire financial sector. American liberals explain that deregulation is a result of neoliberal doctrines, free-market fanaticism, and Milton Friedman’s “greed is good” ideology (viz. rational, self-interested behavior will lead to the best possible outcome).
While it is more or less accurate blame these economic doctrines, it ignores the fact that neoliberal doctrines themselves emerged as right-wing solutions to a very real economic crisis in the 1970s. It also ignores that the economic transformations associated with neoliberalism–the privatization of the public sector, the formation of supranational free-trade blocs, the tertiarization of the economy, and the casualization of labor–have all proceeded, at varying rates but more or less universally, throughout the world, even in places like China that still maintain state control over many economic sectors. Likewise, the privatization of the public sector, including universities, is a global trend. Unless we are to believe that this is merely coincidental, we cannot look for its causes in local or national contexts. Neither can we lay the blame for privatization directly on a particular ideology or regulatory scheme. Privatization has occurred even in those countries most opposed to the Washington Consensus.
Critical theory understands that the roots of the crisis must lie in the very nature of commodity-producing society. I take as my point of departure the analysis of Germany’s Wertkritik circle, which traces its intellectual genealogy back to Adorno and the Frankfurt School (as well as to more peripheral figures like Alfred Sohn-Rethel), via Helmut Reichelt and Hans-Georg Backhaus. The work of Reichelt and Backhaus has inspired a number of related, “value-form” approaches to Marx, including Wertkritik. The central figure of Wertkritik is, of course, Robert Kurz, who (thanks to Roberto Schwarz) is reasonably well-known in Brazil but who remains mostly unknown in the United States.
According to Robert Kurz, during the so-called Third, or Microelectronic, Industrial Revolution, automation and mechanization rendered labor superfluous in an unprecedented way. Since abstract labor is synonomous with value and, as such, is the “substance” of capital, the latter renders itself absolete. In Hegelian terms, capital produces its own determinate negation in the form of non-labor time. In more secular terms, the productive forces developed by capitalism make labor less necessary, thereby creating the conditions for a form of social life not mediated by abstract labor. Kurz describes the moment at which this occurs as capital’s absolute historical limit. This limit is not imposed by external forces such as environmental degradation, but rather by capital’s own internal dynamic. Kurz locates this historical moment in or around the year 1968.
1968 was a watershed year in many respects. I won’t dwell on the many social upheavals that occurred that year. I will only mention that, in 1968, the Bretton Woods system of international currency regulation ceased being viable. By 1971, the system was abandoned and the US dollar was no longer pegged to gold. The 70s were a decade of economic crises as the effects of the shift in currency valuation cascaded through the world system. Eventually, economies stabilized, but not without fundamental transformations. Thus began a decades-long economic decline masked by the rapid expansion of the finance sector. Credit-inflated investment bubbles–made possible by the de-linking of the dollar and gold–appeared to offset the decline in real industrial production. The global working class shifted inexorably away from industry and into the service sector.
It’s also worth noting that other theoretical perspectives have arrived at the same conclusion: that the current crisis of capital is terminal. For instance, world systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein says: “The question is no longer, ‘how will the capitalist system mend itself, and renew its forward thrust?’, but rather, ‘what will replace this system? What order will emerge from this chaos?’”
I prefer Kurz’s explanation, simply because it relies on a more properly Marxian analysis of capital’s internal dynamic. Without understanding the roots of the crisis as a dimension of capital, the left cannot propose radical solutions. They remain mired in a moralistic condemnation of the “culprits” while clinging to outdated (capitalist!) models of regulation (i.e. Keynes). This is where critical theory must intervene.
With these fundamental economic transformations in mind, I’d like to outline some of the more important trends in American research universities. Since these universities have served as a model for many institutions throughout the world, many of these trends may sound familiar.
During WW2 the era of “applied research” began, that is, research designed to help overcome social problems or, more often, technological barriers to industrial production, agriculture, or the extraction of resources. Universities became, more than ever, a vital part of national economies. During the 1950s and 60s, government investment in public universities was understood to be in the public interest. Universities were seen, not only as engines of innovation and, therefore, of economic growth, but also as an important part of national defense. After all, universities trained the diplomats, engineers, psychologists, physicists, and spies who would help America in its ideological and military struggle against the Soviet Union.
However, after the economic turmoil of the 1970s and the rise of right-wing politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, austerity became the watchword and social spending, including investment in public universities, was curtailed. Government disinvestment has led to increased reliance on privately funded research and student fees as a source of income. For example, annual student fees at the University of California have risen from zero in 1961, to $450 in 1971, to $3600 in 2000, to $11285 in 2010.
Via rapid privatization, universities began shifting the burden of their operating expenses to the private sector and to the student in the mid 80s, as a response to government funding cuts begun in the 70s. The characteristic post-Fordist transformation of the work force is also evident in universities: labor is casualized as poorly paid part time instructors now outnumber tenured professors, labor is outsourced, as custodial staff, service workers, and even teaching and administration are now often provided by for-profit corporations under contract to universities.
The composition of the student body has also been transformed by economic forces. Once the province of a wealthy, almost exclusively white elite, the future political and business leadership, a liberal education is now available to a much broader demographic, as long as the students are willing to take on debt to pay for it. Universities love to tout their own inclusivity and accessibility, but the reality behind increased access to a liberal education is a decreased access to jobs. As labor becomes superfluous, the number of people with access to stable, well-paying jobs decreases. Competition for those jobs increases. Workers who lose their jobs go to college in a desperate wager that a credential will put them back into the labor force. This is sometimes celebrated euphemistically as “reskilling.” Young people with no work experience enter universities to defer unemployment. Once in college, students find part-time jobs with which they struggle to pay rent and feed themselves. When they graduate, they find that these are still the only jobs available to them, and that they must now repay their student loans. Seven percent of student loans are now in default, and the total amount of student debt now exceeds consumer debt. If we recall that American consumer demand is responsible for export-driven growth in countries like China and Brazil, the dimensions of this “education bubble” should become obvious. American universities are home to a reserve army of unemployed or semi-employed students who are being trained for jobs that no longer exist.
Despite this bleak outlook, both in terms of students’ job prospects and universities’ ability to remain solvent in the face of government disinvestment, it would be a mistake to assume that the economic significance of research universities has diminished. On the contrary, as former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl explained back in 2000,
[T]here is a significant shift that has taken place over the last few years that is worth noting, because it may signal an entirely new phase in the historical development of American universities. This new phase can be summarized…as signaling the emergence of an industrial-university research partnership.
The evolution of this partnership has been especially evident in California, above all in Silicon Valley, and in Massachusetts, in the industrial region known as the Route 128 corridor, outside of Boston. But university research parks, intended to attract industrial partners have sprung up everywhere. These are the centers of high-technology industries dependent both on the intellectual capital — the ideas generated in research universities — and the human capital — the students educated in these universities.
Without endorsing such phrasings as “human capital,” I do want to point out this development as a possible silver lining. As corporations become increasingly dependent on the intellectual capacity of universities, it is difficult to think that they could function at all in their absence. As good leftists we are conditioned to think ill of all such corporations, and for good reason. But when it comes to harnessing productive and innovative capacities these university-corporation hybrids are extremely effective. After all, unless one subscribes to a primitivist view of socialism, such production must continue, only in more rational form. Some corporations (Microsoft, Google), ones that rely most heavily on research and creative “labor,” have transformed what once would have been the shop floor into something resembling a university campus. Clearly these corporations are not benign (Google’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil,” but it can’t help itself) but my point here is that the university could potentially function as a nexus for making collective and rational decisions about production, if only the one true imperative of commodity-producing society–let value beget value–were finally removed.
The University as a Potential Site of Collective Future-Building
I’d like to consider the notion of the university as an institution that predates capitalism but that might, somewhat unexpectedly, form a nexus for the collective determination of productive forces in a postcapitalist society. In the “Communiqué From an Absent Future,” a tract that has served as a call-to-arms for many of the occupation-style student radicals during the (2009- ) California protest wave, there is language to the effect that the university has no history outside of capital. On the face of it, this statement seems false. The university has existed since medieval times. However, if we remember that the first universities arose in cities, as the ecclesiastical order attempted to professionalize its clergy for the new demands of administrating these cities, it might be said that the university catalyzed the incipient value regime, or at least gave it an institutional presence.
It was in the cities that standard measures of time were first widely adopted in order to measure work time. The first universities responded to the demands of urban life and its incipient bourgeois economy by offering training in accounting and law, thus laying the institutional groundwork for the coming bourgeois society.
The university may have functioned as a bridge between the old ecclesiastical order and the coming bourgeois order. What were the characteristics of the university which allowed this transformation to occur? How important was it for this transformation? To gain clear answers to these questions would require rigorous research. But, in a speculative mode, let us proceed under the assumption that the university did, indeed, mediate between the two social orders: feudal and bourgeois. This does not imply that it was the only such mediator. Could it not again perform a similar function?
Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, in A History of the University in Europe, Vol. 1, quotes Peter Classen’s Studium und Gesellschaft im Mittelalter:
The schools of the twelfth century and the universities of the thirteenth century never set themselves the goal of providing the courts and municipalities with specialized experts. Nevertheless, the new social pattern which took form in the university was in part shaped by society, since it was the lively interest of wider social groups which made it possible for the higher schools to become enduring and independent institutions. From the very beginning, education was subject to the tension between the fundamental and primary impulse to seek the truth and the desire of many persons to acquire practical training. Conversely, without really wanting to do so, the schools formed the new academic stratum and changed the whole structure of society, enriching it and making it more complex. (11)
The university, at its origins, was an institution in which the religious ideals of the old society and the more utilitarian ones of the emerging bourgeois society coexisted.
The tension described here, between the ideal of education for its own sake (i.e. the search for truth) and the need for vocational training, foreshadows von Humboldt’s well-known description of education or Bildung as a productive tension between the development of the individual and the needs of society. A similar tension exists today and can be seen in competing views of the university. It must be recalled, though, that the needs of contemporary commodity-producing society obey the single structuring imperative of that society: to create value. As a consequence, commodity producing society admits no personal development that isn’t also vocational development. The eternal question asked of students who study less obviously “productive” disciplines (i.e. the Humanities or Arts) is: “What are you going to do with that?”
So there are two competing concepts of education in the modern university. On the vocational side, education is seen as the adquisition of a set of skills needed to do certain tasks, the most highly valued of which, based on compensation, is management. Most importantly, this instrumentalized education results in a credential, which demonstrates that its holder is capable of fulfilling an endless set of meaningless, bureaucratic tasks similar to those encountered in the workplace. On the other side, that of education for its own sake, a university education is seen as an opportunity to develop one’s intellectual capacities independently of any practical purpose.
The split between these views of education is symptomatic of the real schism between the economic and social spheres. This divide has practical implications for organizing to defend public higher education. Students in the sciences, for example, are much less likely than students in the Humanities to take part in protests and strikes against budget cuts and privatization. In part, this is because science departments have been impacted to a lesser degree. It is easier for researchers in science to find private partners from whom to obtain external funding. On the other hand, there seems to be a greater concentration, on the science side, of pragmatists who buy into the instrumental view of education. Most science research, after all, is applied research. The Humanities, on the other hand, tend to attract the more idealist, ivory-tower types, who disdain practicality and professionalization. These are extremely broad generalizations, of course, but my observations of efforts to organize protests have shown me that this divide is very real.
A major part of realizing the university’s potential as a site of anti-capitalist struggle and collective control of production consists of bridging the divide between instrumental and idealist views of education. In other words, the battle for the university is the battle to overcome the division between education as a decontextualized, abstract “good” and education as a mere instrument to facilitate the creation of surplus value.
Critical Theory and Organization in the University and Beyond
I realize that it is unorthodox to think of universities as key sites, or nodes, for the emergence of post-capitalist social relations. Traditional Marxism has always looked to the factory, to the proletariat, for this tranformative potential. In Lukács one sees an unequivocal expression of this faith in the working class: “only the practical class consciousness of the proletariat possesses this ability to tranform things” (HCC 205). In 2010, though, we can see that the proletariat, classically defined as the industrial working class, is rapidly diminishing, as is its ability to successfully mobilize against capital. On the other hand, Marcuse, already in 1966, anticipated the revolutionary potential of students:
To the degree to which organized labor operates in defense of the status quo, and to the degree to which the share of labor in the material process of production declines, intellectual skills and capabilities become social and political factors. Today, the organized refusal to cooperate of the scientists, mathematicians, technicians, industrial psychologists and public opinion pollsters may well accomplish what a strike, even a large-scale strike, can no longer accomplish but once accomplished, namely, the beginning of the reversal, the preparation of the ground for political action. That the idea appears utterly unrealistic does not reduce the political responsibility in contemporary industrial society. The intellectual refusal may find support in another catalyst, the instinctual refusal among the youth in protest. It is their lives which are at stake, and if not their lives, their mental health and their capacity to function as unmutilated humans. Their protest will continue because it is a biological necessity. ‘By nature,’ the young are in the forefront of those who live and fight for Eros against Death, and against a civilization which strives to shorten the ‘detour to death’ while controlling the means for lengthening the detour. but in the administered society, the biological demands counter-organization. Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight. (1966 Preface to Eros and Civilization)
It’s interesting to reconsider the concept of Eros now, reclaiming it from a mythologized and watered-down version of the 1960s that associates Eros with hippies and free love. For Marcuse, Eros and Thanatos were both manifestations of libidinal impulses: the former represents the drive toward social unity, while the latter is the impulse to destroy the repressive aspects of society. Both these instinctual drives or desiderata can be seen at work in the California student protest movement. There is a double movement at work in the struggle, a simultaneous urge to create social bonds (i.e. democratize the university, allow universal access, etc.) and to destroy social compulsion (the target of the destructive urge is, most often, university administrators and police). These desiderata are communization and anti-capitalism, respectively. But insofar as these libidinal impulses remain unrecognized and un-theorized, they can only manifest themselves in great orgiastic discharges–ludic, violent, or both at once.
Caught up in the day-to-day organizing of protest marches and other actions, activists admitted they were driven by an erotic impulse that ran counter to rational calculations about the personal consequences of continued involved. “I can’t stop,” “It’s like being in love,” were common claims. Likewise, the other, destructive impulse appears in the form of riots, vandalism, and spontaneous occupations of roads and buildings. This is not to imply that there has not been significant planning behind the protest actions, only that, thus far, organization has failed to predominate over the spontaneity of these libidinal drives.
In addition to the two poles of irrationalism I’ve outlined, there is a super-ego component to the education struggle. I associate this regulatory impulse with the Trotskyist and social democratic tendencies, which seek, above all, to build a movement. The problem with this approach is that actual political content (i.e. action) is subordinated to the abstract idea of the movement itself. The movement-building fetish can also be understood as the desire for communization, sublimated, perhaps irredeemably, by the pragmatism of “available options” or the merely apparent possibilities for reform. This means that there are strong normative pressures, both inside the student movement and outside it (disciplinary and legal action taken against students, including incarceration and punitive fines, the omnipresent threat of police violence, etc.).
To overcome these dueling irrationalisms, as well as the super-ego component within the movement, it is perhaps appropriate to turn back to Lukács, whose thinking so often pushed past the boundaries of his orthodoxy. Lukács formulates a strong critique of spontaneity: “The spontaneity of a movement, we note, is only the subjective, mass-psychological expression of its determination by pure economic laws…However, such outbreaks come to a halt no less spontaneously, they peter out when their immediate goals are achieved or seem unattainable” (HCC 307).
For Lukács, spontaneity cannot lead to revolution unless the proletariat can somehow rally other social classes to its cause. Given the current ideological climate, at least in the United States, in which the very existence of unions and workers pensions have been successful demonized by the right, it seems unlikely that whatever remains of the proletariat in that country will convince anyone that its standpoint is the correct one. However, Lukács also says that movements must be understood
“in the historical totality of the world-crisis. This context is the extension of the crisis to every class and not just the bourgeosie and the proletariat. Where the economic process provokes a spontaneous mass-movement in the proletariat [here we might interject that, in a universal crisis, spontaneous mass-movements might emerge in any number of social sectors, not primarily or exclusively among workers or students; one can imagine a mass-movement of landless peasants, unemployed persons or debtors] there is a fundamental qualitative distinction to be made between a situation in which the society as a whole is basically stable and one in which a profound regrouping of all social forces and an erosion of the bases of the power of the ruling class is taking place.” (HCC 307)
It is at this point that critical theory must come forward to provide both the correct analysis of the crisis and the final goal of praxis. As I have stated, contemporary value-form critics like Robert Kurz and others associated with the journals Krisis and EXIT!, along with American historian Moishe Postone, have elaborated the most adequate categorial critique of contemporary capitalism. Their radical conclusion (which, one could argue, was Marx’s conclusion, too), that abstract labor must be abolished rather than realized as the dictatorship of the proletariat, must be the starting point for conceptualizing a post-capitalist society beyond the realm of necessity. This society, as Lukács recognized, must be “a principle, a synthesizing factor” (HCC 313) that guides the process of revolutionary organizing. One might interrogate Critical Theory on this account, asking whether it has taken seriously its role in pedagogy, whether it has continued its educational mission to prevent another Auschwitz? If capital has reached its absolute historical limit, then the radical transformation of society is inevitable. It’s no longer a question of overcoming capital as a social form, but rather of overcoming its vestigial ideologies–the neoliberal logic of austerity, the cults of work and of time discipline–of interrupting what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” but which is more accurately described as disaccumulation, as individual capitals pillage one another. Capitalist ideology produces a recurring fantasy, that of the Hobbesian regression to a state of nature. The reality is that, in times of disaster, people most often turn to cooperation rather than competition. The logic of capital, insofar as it continues to operate in the absence of its motivating factor, the creation of surplus-value, represents a historical regression in a far more tangible sense than Hobbes’ nightmare. Critical Theory must provide an alternative to barbarism. It must redeem the libidinal impulses of Eros and Thanatos by bringing their causes to light. It must develop a critical pedagogy (Adorno is still perhaps the best model for this) to bring these desires to consciousness, to show them for what they are: the desire to create socialism and to demolish the heteronomy of commodity-producing society. Critical theory must organize social life from the standpoint of redemption, locating Utopia as a dimension of the practices and institutions of the existing social form, in the “ought” immanent to the “is” (Postone). Why not also in the University?
HCC: Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (1971).