Following the facts to where they lead

Via LGM, the approaching 200th birthday of Karl Marx is indeed a moment to digress upon the notion that Marx was right about a lot of things:

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

Also true that quite a number of people are afraid to even delve into Marx because ‘Marx,’ which is it’s own quiet little brand of pathetic. Add ‘closing books you’ve never opened’ to the long list of epithets at the heart of our ignorance. Plenty of ills have flowed out of his ideas, but the posture of critique about all of this madness is one we cannot afford to be afraid of.

Image: Marx welcoming pedestrians in his birthplace of Trier.

Creative Destruction

Or, what will green mean once it has been destroyed and re-cast again? At the end of this Newsweek article about IBM and how it is “detaching” from the U.S., was this:

This is the new world of global business, one in which the U.S. becomes simply a market among markets, and not even the most interesting one. IBM is one of the multinationals that propelled America to the apex of its power, and it is now emblematic of the process of creative destruction pushing America to a new, less dominant, and less comfortable position.

It’s part global rah-rah, but having heard the term before in nearly the same context – as a seeming euphemism for the kind of havoc that is endemic to business interests in such a way as to insulate them from moralistic concerns about people or planet – it made me wonder how long it had been around and, at the risk of misunderstanding it, whether it could be true in multiple directions. I mean, destruction for gain, if truly amoral, could advance along an Eco axis if that was what where the gain is, Nes Pa?

Creative destruction was originally coined by Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Some choice bits on CD:

Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. And this evolutionary character of the capitalist process is not merely due to the fact that economic life goes on in a social and natural environment which changes and by its change alters the data of economic action; this fact is important and these changes (wars, revolutions and so on) often condition industrial change, but they are not its prime movers.

These would be new means of production and transportation, new markets, new forms of industrial organization. Sound familiar? Also note that he says capitalism can never be stationary; does this put sustainability out of play? If so, what then?

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. . . .

Ah, essential facts. We quickly revert to protecting that (competition) which does not require guarding, because its forms are designed to go away, or be transformed into something else. Something which may appear unrecognizable, but only because of our tendency toward the above reversion. One more:

But in capitalist reality as distinguished from its textbook picture, it is not that kind of competition (the price variable) which counts but the competition from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization (the largest-scale unit of control for instance)–competition which commands a decisive cost or quality advantage and which strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives.

Now, there could be something very sexy about this, but we’ll have to get over the sad-sack ‘greed is good’ paradigm in which so many have found solace for so long, which has been under seige since the minute after it was created. It’s not merely being sanguine to say it is the nature of the system to destroy itself this way, just a reminder of the very necessary likelihood of possibilities that should be injected into the project. That are indeed its lifeline, if not its blood.

It takes place every day

Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can bear any how.” The primary force of the vague tautology that we must be able to do certain things (simply because of the inherent need to do them), weighed against the true probability of any outcome, helps us get a handle on the most current odds-making on the question of global climate change. In addition, we might ask as we often do, what is the smart money doing?

This is what we usually can see first – the motion of resources – when the top of the chain begins to move, if not thrash about. The impetus to go green remains at its fashion stage, though many venture capitalists have started to put their money into some interesting niche ideas. But the popular uprising remains in its gesture phase. We may prefer this because everything else would seem like panic, and no one really wants that.

Perhaps this fear of panic is holding back the phenomenon from becoming the full blown existential crisis that it portends, on which its sunnier moments are truly based if the full scenario is to make any sense whatsoever. Mr. Gore’s movie terrified many people, but again, our ability to tell ourselves certain things permitted us to move on. There is a dissonance about conditions being severe enough to act, though not just yet. It seems a sort of patrician patience in the service of good form, prudence based on perception in a kind of “Just so, old chap,” way.

We have been here before, however, though in the heights of the Cold War we were also yet able to foster that remove from ever-encroaching oblivion. It didn’t prevent us from lining up for nuclear bomb drills in school (!), but we went on making long term plans just the same, maybe factoring in the odds of annihilation, maybe not, but living with the specter all the same. Maybe we just haven’t gotten comfortable with the idea yet; I even have trouble writing about it because everything sounds like such dooms-saying when all we’re really talking about are big, big changes.

Yet even these are simply about returning to more sensible dimensions in the way we live. When we talk about green this or sustainable that, these are just transitional codes for simple things that used to be common place like knowing where your food comes from or walking to work. To the extent we don’t want or care to do these things, well, they’re that much easier to shroud in Greenery.

I’ve always loved how Camus in L’Homme Revolte explained that Communism was a sickness, a system predicated on the elimination of absurdity in our daily lives. He knew that wasn’t possible and in so many ways, we’ve returned there, struggling to explain and justify some of the absurdities we’ve been living with and on. We can change what we call them, tweak the edges and continue to tell ourselves certain things. But they can’t just be explained away. They are there. And we simply must change them.