Consumerism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Nov 28 08:09:00 MST 1999




>
> So Sean, again, to go back to the essence of my mail: I simply suggested
that
> maybe we should look at both the good and the bad news of capitalism
> simultaneously, and look at the internal and external dimensions of human
> behavior.  My mail was a plea to begin to think dialectically, to hold
> contradictions in your head and to see the truth value of claims across
> domains.  Capitalism, western culture, industrialization have both good news
> and bad news.  The inability to think from this dialectic by exclusively
> focusing on the bad news is not going to help the dominated.  They see the
> good news, and they want it.  They also see the bad news and need all the
> help to imagine alternatives.  That Sean is the challenge for the 21st
> century.  To build a world that preserves the good news and goes beyond the
> bad. This new way of being in the world can only be brought about by people,
> so they have to begin to embody the change.  Let us begin with ourselves.
>
> Maureen


One of the more useful activities carried out by the Marxism-International
mailing list, this list's predecessor, was an examination of the
"revolutionary
potential of the working class" in the industrialized nations. It revolved
around the texts of so-called Western Marxists, from Lukacs to the Frankfurt
School. I believe that except for a handful of crazed Trotskyists, most people
recognized that problems of consumerism coupled with the long wave of
prosperity following WWII are brute facts that Marxists must contend with.
This
cyber-seminar was a good opportunity for me to familiarize myself with the
writings of many of these thinkers, who were regarded as bitter enemies when I
was in the Trotskyist movement myself. Herbert Marcuse in particular
symbolized
the sort of skepticism about the revolutionary potential of the working class
that orthodox Marxists felt compelled to make ideological warfare against.
When
I finally sat down to read "One-Dimensional Man", I was surprised to discover
how well it stood up to American reality. While it goes too far in assuming
that consumer society and prosperity are permanent, there are tremendous
insights to be found. Here is my report on this book:

It just goes to show you. You gotta keep an open mind. I approached Herbert
Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man" with the expectation that it would be even
more
wide of the mark than Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectics of Enlightenment". I
had my ax sharpened and my executioner's hood on.

What a surprise to find out how fresh this book appears thirty years after it
first made its big impact on my g-g-g-generation in the 60s. Herbert Marcuse,
just to fill in some detail, was Angela Davis's professor. Next to Louis
Godena, she was one of the most flamboyant characters in the history of the
CPUSA. Marcuse, along with individuals like the anarchist Paul Goodman and
rock
groups like Moby Grape, were largely responsible for the political
direction of
the 1960s.

(This, I should hasten to add, excludes the Trotskyists. We were headed in a
reverse direction. Instead of being part of the 1960s, we were preparing for
that big moment when Minneapolis 1934 would take place all over again. We even
began dressing the part. I started wearing snap-brim fedoras like the kind
that
Farrell Dobbs used to wear. I also began talking out of the side of my mouth
like all those old Trotskyists used to. Sometimes I used to get the impression
that they developed that personae from old Humphrey Bogart and Edward G.
Robinson gangster movies. "All right, you dirty rats, what do you got to say
now about that Popular Front betrayal.")

One of the reasons that "One Dimensional Man" is such a big advance over
"Dialectics of Enlightenment" is that Marcuse had gotten his sea legs in this
crazy society. Adorno and Horkheimer must have felt like the Indian in "Brave
New World" when they set foot on US soil: bewildered and angry. They spend all
their time railing against Donald Duck and Bing Crosby.

Marcuse had spent a few years getting the lay of the land when he wrote "One
Dimensional Man" and it shows. It is one of the most deeply perceptive studies
of American society that I have read anywhere. No wonder it had such a big
impact on political thinking in the 1960s.

I want to take a close look at a passage with the subheading "Containment of
Social Change" that appears in the first section of the work titled "One
Dimensional Society". It addresses the concerns of our cyberseminar in the
most
fundamental way. I will explain why the words are profoundly true for the
period of capitalism we are *still* passing through. Then I will conclude with
some comments why they won't do for all time.

Marcuse defines the great change that has taken place between the
conditions of
the working class in Marx and Engels' age and our present day society. "The
proletarian of the previous stages of capitalism was indeed the beast of
burden, by the labor of his body procuring the necessities and luxuries of
life
while living in filth and poverty. Thus he was the living denial of his
society."

Clearly this does not describe the Manchester or Edinburgh of 1965, does
it? As
opposed to the dogmatic Marxism that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s, Marcuse
preferred to see social relations as they actually existed rather than as he
would like to imagine they did.

While Marcuse's language is less dense and allusive than Adorno and
Horkheimer's, he still has trouble explaining his ideas in clear-cut terms. He
says, "Now it is precisely this new consciousness, this 'space within,' the
space for the transcending historical experience, which is being barred by a
society in which subjects as well as objects constitute instrumentalities in a
whole that has its raison d'etre in the accomplishments of its overpowering
productivity".

Let me attempt to translate this into English from the original English. "New
consciousness" means revolutionary socialist thought. He is saying that in the
past, revolutionary socialist thought was a product of industrial and
technological advances that tended to cause class conflict. In our own
historical epoch, the forces of production act in a different way. They
tend to
make the worker feel *part* of the overall industrial and technological
substructure in such a way that revolution, let alone class struggle, does not
occur as a possibility to the proletariat.

Thankfully, Marcuse expresses himself in plain language in the next paragraph.
"[Our society's] supreme promise is an ever-more- comfortable life for an
ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a
qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to
contain and manipulate subversive imagination and effort is an integral
part of
the given society."

There are four factors that explain this social transformation and cooptation
of the laboring classes:

1) "Mechanization is increasingly reducing the quantity and intensity of
physical labor in labor."

Isn't this true? There was a New York Times article a few months ago about how
the newest, highly automated factories, especially steel mills, were hiring
college graduates, especially those with metallurgy or mechanical engineering
degrees. Robotics in some of these new factories could replace *dozens* of
unskilled workers. What was needed to replace the unskilled workers were
highly
sophisticated and educated workers who could operate the complex machinery
that
was used to forge the steel. You needed to be a bit of a computer programmer
and a bit of a jack-of-all-trades at the same time. These jobs paid handsomely
and were more attractive to some than traditional white-collar technical jobs.
Are these workers interested in toppling the capitalist system? If nothing
else
changes in the class relations between the boss and this type of worker, what
objective possibility is there for socialism?

Not only is the work easier, the conditions of work tend to create a *bond*
between boss and worker. Marcuse states:

"Moreover, in the most successful areas of automation, some sort of
technological community seems to integrate the atoms at work. The machine
seems
to instill some drugging rhythm in the operators...[A sociologist observing
this process in one factory] speaks of the 'growth of a strong in-group
feeling
in each crew' and quotes one worker as stating: 'All in all we are in the
swing
of things...' The phrase admirably expresses the change in mechanized
enslavement: things swing rather than oppress, and they swing the human
instrument--not only its body but also its mind and even its soul."

2) "The assimilating trend shows forth in the occupational stratification. In
the key industrial establishments, the 'blue-collar' worker force declines in
relation to the 'white-collar' element; the number of non-production workers
increases.'

Again, this seems both undeniable and important. Doug Henwood has argued that
the number of white-collar workers has increased, but does anybody think that
all of the computer programmers and data entry clerks employed by Mobil Oil,
General Motors, IBM, etc. have anything in common with the traditional
working-class? All other things being equal (and this is a key proviso), isn't
the white-collar worker, especially the college-educated one, the social base
of the Republican and Democratic parties both? I am deeply familiar with this
milieu, having spent the last 28 years in its midst.

While many of these workers have been won to peace, environmental and feminist
movements, they have not gravitated to the sorts of class- versus-class
struggle that typified the 1930s.

3) "These changes in the character of work and the instruments of work and the
instruments of production change the attitude and the consciousness of the
laborer, which become manifest in the widely discussed 'social and cultural
integration' of the laboring class with capitalist society.

This statement seems to be the most dated of the four. It doesn't take account
the decades of runaway plants and downsizing that has hit America's
working-class since the book was written. In 1965, being an employee of Mobil
Oil, General Motors or IBM would certainly cause the worker to feel integrated
with the company with bourgeois society. This social compact has broken
down to
a large extent.

What must be reckoned with however is the degree to which this breakdown has
caused anything that begins to resemble a working- class radicalization. I am
not sure why this has happened, but I can make a tentative stab at it. The
unemployed worker makes the adjustment when he or she loses a job. Instead of
staying in Flint to confront the boss who has just closed down an immense GM
plant, they go to Houston or Phoenix where the job-market is a little better.
The unemployment situation has only been a "geographical" one in the David
Harvey sense for the last twenty years, rather than a *systemic* one such as
the kind that existed in the 1930s. Unemployment benefits and welfare tend to
soften the blow as well.

The other thing that is taking place is that many of the new jobs are created
in a high-technology sector in which the 1950s type bonding is still possible,
since the profit margins are still high. The other day a report in the NY
Times
spoke of the immense bonus paid to workers at Kingston Technology, a maker of
memory chips. The CEO claimed that he was trying to develop identification
between the company and the worker. Most software firms take the same
approach.
Microsoft practically creates a cult around William Gates, the CEO. Youngsters
work 80 and 90 hours a week in the belief that they are changing society. And
none of them are Trotskyists. I understand that the largest concentration of
libertarians in the US is in the Seattle HQ of Microsoft.

4) "The new technological work-world thus enforces a weakening of the negative
position of the working class: the latter no longer appears to be the living
contradiction of the established society."

Nothing has to be added here since it is true as far as it goes.

Marcuse's ideas were embraced by the New Left but they went through an
alteration. In his writings, he clearly states that while the working-
class is
incapable of acting as a revolutionary force, it is by no means to be
identified politically with the capitalist class.

It is enslaved by this capitalist class. While the forms of exploitation are
not the same as they were in the 1840s when Engels wrote the "Conditions of
the
Working Class in England", they exist nonetheless. People are not free. They
are mere cogs in the big machine of industrial society. While I don't have the
free time to establish the link between Lukacs' concept of an alienated
working-class and the Frankfurt School, I am sure that it is there.

Unfortunately, this basically despairing but *pro-socialist* and *pro- working
class* point of view was taken places where the Frankfurt thinkers never
intended it to go.

The leadership of SDS and other New Left thinkers decided that this
working-class was actually a counter-revolutionary agent. As the New Left
became more and more frustrated with the apparent complicity of the American
population in the Vietnam War, this view became more pronounced. When an
SDS'er
saw Richard Nixon elected and then re- elected, he drew the conclusion that
the
voters were for the Vietnam War.

They rationalized this to themselves in the following terms. The workers
enjoyed the fruits of imperialist conquest. They were willing to put up with
these brutal wars because of the material benefits conquest brought them.

>From a strategic and tactical point of view, this meant that New Leftists had
no conception of drawing working-class people into antiwar activity. The
popularized version of Frankfurt School politics that filtered its way into
the
student movement through a hundred different "underground" newspapers caused
this movement to substitute itself for a mass movement.

These petty-bourgeois students acted in isolation from the working- class who
they assumed was for the war and who they had written off. They burned draft
cards, refused to go into the army and carried out other forms of nonviolent
civil disobedience. They were basically a well-meaning group.

Out of this milieu evolved another current that decided to engage in violent
acts against the "system". Some of the SDS'ers created the "Weatherman" group
to engage in terrorist acts against the war- makers. They set off bombs and in
general acted in the most ultraleft and counterproductive manner. Their
politics could be best described as a spoiled Frankfurter.

The reality of working-class attitudes toward the war were a lot more subtle
than the New Leftists appreciated. I would argue that the closest we came to
involving the working-class in objectively anti-capitalist activity since the
1930s was during the anti-war movement.


Louis Proyect
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