Forwarded from Shane Hopkinson

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at wolmail.nl
Sun Nov 3 14:53:03 MST 2002


Shane,

Thanks for your post, with which I sympathise. BTW, I don't think there
exists a real "labour movement" in Australia. This terminology from the past
is not really appropriate to use. Certainly, you have trade unions and
various groups/parties and individuals sympathising with the
aspirations/interests of working class people. But this doesn't constitute a
"labour movement", which is a mass (popular) movement of workers with a
definite leadership, seeking independent political expression for the
working class (for example Solidarnosc in its heyday) . Contemporary
Labourism is a way of integrating working class interests in the political
formula without really asserting working-class political independence.

As I have mentioned previously on this list, if the bulk of the working
population consists of salaried employees, then this quantitative change
leads to some qualitative changes. It becomes actually very difficult for
any one party to articulate the interests of all workers (direct producers)
as against capital (this is also an argument for pluralism and
multi-partyism; but this is not very relevant to you, because you are still
at the stage of building just one party which has real political influence).

Concerning the issue of computers: you are quite correct, new technology
does not necessarily alter social relations in any fundamental or basic way,
unless you are a fairly crude Marxist (of a Stalinist type perhaps)
believing in "productive force determinism" in human history (a la Gerald A.
Cohen's book Karl Marx's Theory of History). What I am saying here that
Marx's simple analogies in The Poverty of Philosophy about the "hand-mill
giving us the feudal lord, the steam-mill the industrial capitalist" do not
adequately describe the causal relationships between productive forces and
production relations. Specific types of production relations are not
necessarily an inevitable product of new technology - believing that it is
always inevitable is strictly a technocratic myth. New production relations
are, historically speaking, an outcome of political struggles between social
classes and fractions thereof.

A way of thinking about the topic is, that the general drift in the
capitalist world is to impose the commodity form on relations of
communication/information, so that a communication/information relation
takes the "form" of a transaction, an exchange, in which each agent or
transactor aims to get a satisfactory (usually equal) response. Here we
encounter certain obstacles, of which I can only mention some now.

For something to be a commodity or pseudo-commodity, certain conditions are
required; for instance, it must be possible to attach private ownership to
it, it must be possible to detach or transfer a "meaning" (or piece of
information) from one owner to another without problems, it must be possible
by the owner to control access and impose exclusivity, the communication has
to be in a form where it can be consumed, its value must be socially
recognised and have a certain level of stability and so on. For
mass-reproducible commodities, as distinct from petty commodities, certain
other conditions are required, for instance you often need a tangible
information and communication "bearer".

A useful illustration of this conception is afforded by the history of  rock
music, which is (at least originally) about powerful human themes such as
love, sex, predicaments of growing up etc. It starts off mainly with some
workingclass kids making a noise or some music, perhaps to relieve
alienation or boredom or sexual frustration, then they start playing in
pubs, then they start giving concerts, then they start making "records", and
in the end we have the transformation of rock music into the advertising of
an image, a "sign" which you buy perhaps only for "instrumental"
(means/ends) reasons, not for its intrinsic value.

Socialists generally do not believe in the imposition of the commodity form
on communications and information, believing in free, or even spontaneous
sharing of these things (see the books by Michael Perelman). The business
class objects to this idea because they say it is a hippy idea which foments
anarchy; their argument is that the commodity form is essential for
"civilised relations and civilised conduct of human affairs". For example,
they say it is essential to retain the commodity form to guarantee some
personal freedom; the legal-contractual relation is also necessary, for
promise-keeping and other norms of behaviour which are accepted as part of a
person of integrity. Needless to say, the business class will defend the
concept of private property at all costs, in a universal sense, all down the
line. The argument of the business class has some merit, because if you do
not accept the "morality of the market" and its legal framework, then you
must generate and live a completely different morality, and this may be
exceedingly difficult to do.

The general answer to this by socialists is, that the commodity form must
have its optimal minimum, appropriate place in life, but for the rest that
socialists need to create a wholly new culture, a new way of organising,
with it own rules and norms of integrity, which is external to the commodity
form, and satisfies basic criteria of the socialist movement. But this is
not really fully possible to do, at least not if you are a "historical
materialist", since a new culture can only arise on the basis of new
production relations, and if the basic framework remains capitalist, then
you can only "anticipate" such a culture, create it in partial ways, because
for example you still need to buy some stuff. Very few people are able to
live on love alone, it takes extraordinary skill to do that and have a fully
independent life.  However, even if you leave the business class to do the
things they are best at, it is possible to forge a political class culture,
which takes me back to where I started: the concept of a "labour movement"
refers to a politically conscious class culture of workers (direct
producers) who have recognised that they have interests separate and
different from other social classes.

One of the effects of computer technology is, that whereas previously most
people took their ability to communicate as such pretty much for granted, as
a "natural" ability learnt in childhood, now this is changing. For a simple
example, most people nowadays are much more aware now than they ever were
that if you just say (or burble) something, this does not automatically mean
that you are communicating, or that you will get the response you intend.

This creates a preoccupation with form - of which postmodernism is an
expression of a transitory kind, it is both the acceptance/use of and the
rebellion against the domination of "form". In its sharpest expression, it
is a "war about meaning", which is why writers like David Harvey sometimes
refer to a manic or psychotic aspect of postmodernism.

At a more advanced level, communication/informational science has become a
separate academic discipline - this signifies the attempt to theorise
"communication" as an independent object of study, which previously it was
not, at least not in a scientific sense. This reflects the general movement
of commodification, which is to take apart precapitalist forms, reassemble
them in a different (and maybe alienated, reified or poisonous) way within
the context of class society, in order sell them back to you as consumer, as
a commodity. However there is still a lot of debate about what the true
object of communication/informational science really is, so you have to be a
bit skeptical of its scientific pretensions. For some, it is a social
science, for others an exact science dealing with the use of technologies of
information generation/transmission/storage/retrieval.

One of the difficulties in the analysis of the topic, is that most Marxists
today do not understand market relations very well in the purely theoretical
and historical sense. They believed, curiously, that what Marx had said
about market relations in the 1850s was sufficient, or indeed exhaustive.
But there is simply a lot more to exchange relations or market relations
than Marx ever said, and we have a lot more information now about
precapitalist and postcapitalist markets. Eastern European socialist
economists understand this much better, because they have to deal
practically with it. If you said to somebody like Kornai  that you thought
Marx's analysis of markets and exchange was complete, he would laugh his
head off probably. Apart from this, Marxists traditionally thought that
market relations are always "bad" and must be totally abolished, but that is
not the case either, it is rather that markets must have their "correct"
place in society, you must not introduce them in areas which are bad for
human beings.

And as we know from Karl Marx or William James, it is normally only by
practically grappling with things, that you develop a correct new theory (a
lot of Marx's own theorising was retrospective in the Hegelian way -
"Minerva's owl flies at dusk"; James often denies the utility of theory,
even although pragmatism is a theory, and a very powerful one at that). The
problem in developing theory, however, is that for example in Eastern
Europe, Marxism is mainly discredited, and it is not easy to develop a new
critique in the spirit of Marx. I would like to see much more input from
East European socialists on this list, but I am probably too hopeful here.

Hope these simple comments help anyway,

Regards

Jurriaan




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