sense of wonder


From childhood I can remember experiencing rare moments of overwhelming wonder. I did not have words to describe what I felt, but it was as if everything in all of its complexity somehow made perfect sense and I was part of it, inseparable from it. In youth, when I learned about political injustices—racism, imperialism, global capitalism, war, and violence—I began to see the complexity behind every surface. In a spoonful of sugar I saw toil, sweat, blood, and struggle — and again, I was overwhelmed by a sense of connection. I felt overwhelmed by the evil which was inseparable from myself. But I was also overwhelmed, again, by the feeling of connection to an unfathomable complexity. It was as if in the realization of its unfathomableness there was somehow a small taste—a fleeting glimpse—of comprehension. Today, as I walked across campus, I felt a return of this overwhelming sense of oneness. I leaned into it. In every face I saw, every word I heard, every object I encountered, in nature and in human constructions, I felt as if I could know the whole of the history and evolution of the universe itself — the universal grasped in every precious particular.

How? How? How do I ever let a day go by without finding a moment to surrender to the wonder of it all?

the life of the group vs. what the group accomplishes

occupy_london_tentThis Monday during Cihan Tuğal’s comparative analysis of revolts in North Africa, Southern Europe, and Turkey—part of the Berkeley Sociology Colloquium Series—he offered this gem about the occupation of Gezi Park:

Even though a non-commodified space monetarily redistributes resources among its participants, it does not result in an egalitarian world beyond the revolt itself. [from my notes of Tuğal’s presentation]

Cihan discussed multiple motivations for several kinds of participants. One key motivation that struck me—which I think relates to the above quote—was pleasure. Many bourgeois participants were motivated negatively by “the impoverishment of social life” caused by increasing commodification and positively by what Cihan described as “pleasure”. All this reminded me of Slavoj Žižek’s warning (to Occupy Wall Street) about “one of the great dangers the protesters face:”

…the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the fun they are having in the “occupied” zones. But carnivals come cheap— the true test of their worth is what happens the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed. This requires difficult and patient work— of which the protests are the beginning, not the end.

And both quotes remind me of a much older text, The Lonely Crowd, in which David Riesman et al discuss what they saw as a newly predominant character structure, embodied in the other-directed individual:

Thus the other-directed child is taught at school to take his place in a society where the concern of the group is less with what it produces than with its internal group relations, its morale.

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If arrival is inevitable, then who needs a map? (#marxtheory)

Is there a positive relationship between the following three themes in Marx’s writing (in The Marx-Engels Reader): 1) his analysis of material world and superstructure (with the former determining the latter), 2) his forecast of the ultimate inevitability of proletariat revolution and communism, and 3) his underdevelopment of a theory of subjective political strategy? Before examining the question of a relationship between the themes, it is necessary to first briefly clarify each theme on its own.

Material world and superstructure: With a thousand different phrases, Marx expounds a cornerstone of his thesis that the world of thought, ideology and consciousness takes its lead from the tangible material world and the processes of material production. History is not determined by ideas; ideas, rather, arise on top of economic reality and essentially serve as post-facto narration, typically idealistic toward the political and economic interests of the dominant class.

Inevitability: Proletariat revolution and communism are, for Marx, a foregone conclusion. Future events, namely “the overthrow of society by the communist revolution” are “just as empirically established (p.163)” as observable world-historical activities that have led to present material conditions. He posits that the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism—observable in his time—as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Continue reading

Marx’s promise of a glorious hereafter (#marxtheory)

20130906-163437.jpgMarx (in Marx Later Political Writings) poses the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Where he does not discuss this analogy explicitly, it nonetheless serves as a foundational concept for his various descriptions, critiques, polemics, and predictions. Looking back, we can now access a century and a half of history in our examination of whether, or to what extent, the analogy holds up. But how much evidence was there to support the analogy’s validity during Marx’s time? Marx fancied his analysis scientific, but to what extent is his analogy a scientific theory or hypothesis, as opposed to an article of faith attached to a political agenda (dressed up in propagandistic signifiers of scientific thinking)? Might greater scrutiny of the analogy have opened up pivotal questions concerning how the particular content of a political system could alter the form—hence the “inevitability”—of revolution (e.g. from feudalism to capitalism vs. from capitalism to communism)?

Perhaps because of his deterministic theory/belief, Marx is able to maintain a long-haul optimism in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Paris Commune — even trumpeting the episode as the “glorious harbinger of a new society.” However, despite the inevitable eventuality of a dictatorship of the proletariat followed by communism that Marx’s structural determinism suggests, these essays still brim with an engrossing sense of subjective agency. Marx did not advocate waiting passively for underlying economic forces to accomplish the predestined. Indeed, most of his writing (in this collection) speaks to contingencies, especially in his polemical detailing of the incompetencies of opponents and allies alike. The details of particular actions and missteps, and their history-altering consequences, are of great concern to him.

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cooperative societies with state aid (#marxtheory)

That the workers want to create the conditions for co-operative production in all society, and hence first of all on a national scale, means only that they are working for the overthrow of present-day conditions of production, and has nothing in common with establishing co-operative societies with state aid! But as far as present-day co-operative societies are concerned, they are only of value if they are independent creations of the workers and not creatures of the government or the bourgeoisie.

Marx Later Political Writings (p.221)

Here Marx is criticizing the German Workers’ Party for its demand of “state aid for setting up producers’ co-operatives under the democratic control of the working people.” I am no expert on the historical context to which Marx was speaking, but his critique strikes me as almost purist — and less than instructional concerning the relationship, practical or ideal, of a workers’ party to the state. Is Marx here suggesting an all-or-nothing contest between the proletariat and bourgeois classes for full control of the state apparatus? Ultimately, that is what Marx is advocating (e.g. with the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”), but is Marx conceding all concessions from the state in the interim? Is he suggesting that (bourgeois) state funding for worker-demanded cooperative projects is beneath the dignity of a true workers’ party — or that such an outcome is not a realistically attainable possibility? Must everything worth winning be seized? Can nothing first be conceded (by the bourgeois state, as it is, in the interim)? Could not the winning of such concessions be utilized by organizers as stepping stones — as tangible evidence of what collective action can accomplish, in order to whet workers’ appetite for larger victories? To what extent does Marx view the state as a contestable space?

attaining salvation behind society’s back, privately (#marxtheory)

Amongst other things it [the Paris proletariat] throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, cooperative banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement renouncing an overthrow of the old world by means of its own great resources, and instead seeks to attain its salvation behind society’s back, privately, within its own limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily coming to naught. It seems unable to rediscover revolutionary prowess or to renew its energy from fresh alliances… [emphasis in the original]

Marx Later Political Writings (p.39)

It seems to me that in describing the feeble Paris proletariat, Marx was also critiquing a pattern wherein would-be political actors opt to build their own alternative projects from scratch instead of claiming and contesting existing structures, resources, social spaces, and cultures. That is to say they opt out of politics in favor of something far smaller; something that is consequential only to its self-selecting participants, and which can usually be ignored—perhaps not even noticed—by the rest of society and the existing power structures.

It is interesting to me that he names “cooperative banks and workers associations” specifically. I can imagine political potentials—not just cloistered alternatives—in such organizational forms.

marx-ozThis reminds me of some of the radical buzz today about “prefigurative politics” — a concept that I find useful through a strategic communications lens in the context of political struggle, but which is far too often treated as an article of faith; as if the prefigurative act will magically, by itself, without a larger strategic framework, bring about the new society. The allure of such projects can be self-expressive to the point of self-indulgence. It is fueled by a purism that seeks to avoid messes; a feeble longing to construct a more controllable, less contaminated, albeit miniaturized, microcosm of one’s Utopian vision.