[Marxism] Liebowitz: "The Knowledge of a Better World".

Ernie & Jess mackenzie.tate at sympatico.ca
Thu Dec 9 10:06:29 MST 2004

A very interesting talk by Mike Liebowitz in Caracas.
Ernie Tate

The Knowledge of a Better World
[Presented at Encuentro Mundial de Intelectuales y Artistes en Defense 
de La Humanidad, 3 December 2004)
Michael A. Lebowitz
mlebowit at sfu.ca

There is an old saying that if you don’t know where you want to go, then 
any road will take you there. I think that recent years, years of 
neoliberalism, imperialist outrages and the virtual destruction of 
almost every effort to create an alternative, have disproved this 
saying. Our experience tells us that if you don’t know where you want to 
go, then no road will take you there.

	Our greatest failing is that we have lost sight of an alternative. And, 
because we have no grand conception of an alternative (indeed, we are 
told that we should have no grand conceptions), then the response to the 
neoliberal mantra of TINA, that there is no alternative, has been--- 
let’s preserve healthcare, let’s not attack education, let’s try for a 
little more equality, a little more preservation of the environment. 
Because of our failure to envision an alternative as a whole, we have 
many small pieces, many small ‘no’s; indeed, the only feasible 
alternative to barbarism proposed has been barbarism with a human face.

	Let us think about a real alternative to barbarism, a grand conception 
but yet a very simple one. I have in mind a simple idea expressed by 
Karl Marx in 1844 (but which runs throughout his work)--- the unity of 
human beings based upon recognition of their differences. That is a 
conception which begins from the recognition that people are 
different--- that they have differing needs and differing 
capabilities--- and that they are interdependent.

	Whether we act upon the basis of this understanding of our 
interdependence or not, we cannot deny that we produce for each other, 
that as beings within society, there is a chain of human activity that 
links us. We produce inputs for each other, and the ultimate result of 
our activity is the reproduction of human beings within society. We can 
think of this as the activity of a collective worker, as that of the 
human family, or as that of the family of workers; but, this chain of 
human activity exists whether we consciously produce on this basis or 
not--- whether we understand our unity or not.
	In fact, as we know only too well, outside of little oases (some 
societies, some families), in this society we do not consciously produce 
for the needs of others, and we do not understand our productive 
activity as our contribution to this chain of human activity. Instead of 
valuing our relationship as human beings, we produce commodities, we 
value commodities; instead of understanding this chain of human activity 
as our bond and our power, we understand only that we need these 
commodities, that we are dominated by them.

The Knowledge of Commodities

	This, as is well-known, is what Marx called the ‘fetishism of 
commodities’ in the first chapter of Capital. It is a powerful concept. 
In my view, no one has ever communicated this idea better than an 
artist--- Wallace Shawn, an actor and playwright from the United States. 
In his play ‘The Fever’, Shawn’s protagonist at one point finds a copy 
of Capital and begins to read it at night. He thinks about the anger in 
this book, and then he goes back to the beginning which he had initially 
found to be impenetrable. Here I’ll quote a long passage from Wallace Shawn:

I came to a phrase that I'd heard before, a strange, upsetting, sort of 
ugly phrase: this was the section on "commodity fetishism," "the 
fetishism of commodities." I wanted to understand that weird-sounding 
phrase, but I could tell that, to understand it, your whole life would 
probably have to change.

His explanation was very elusive. He used the example that people say, 
"Twenty yards of linen are worth two pounds." People say that about 
every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, 
this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of 
money, or some number of other things—one coat, worth three sweaters, or 
so much money—as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, 
contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner 
soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a 
living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The 
coat's price comes from its history, the history of all the people 
involved in making it and selling it and all the particular 
relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form 
relationships with all those people, and yet we hide those relationships 
from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have 
no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. "I 
like this coat," we say, "It's not expensive," as if that were a fact 
about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made 
it and sold it. "I like the pictures in this magazine."

A naked woman leans over a fence. A man buys a magazine and stares at 
her picture. The destinies of these two are linked. The man has paid the 
woman to take off her clothes, to lean over the fence. The photograph 
contains its history—the moment the woman unbuttoned her shirt, how she 
felt, what the photographer said. The price of the magazine is a code 
that describes the relationships between all these people—the woman, the 
man, the publisher, the photographer—who commanded, who obeyed. The cup 
of coffee contains the history of the peasants who picked the beans, how 
some of them fainted in the heat of the sun, some were beaten, some were 

For two days I could see the fetishism of commodities everywhere around 
me. It was a strange feeling. Then on the third day I lost it, it was 
gone, I couldn't see it anymore.

	In this quotation from Wallace Shawn a certain type of knowledge is 
described--- price. Price is the form in which that chain of human 
activity and human relationships appears to us. This knowledge comes in 
monetary units. We know the prices of the things we need. We know the 
price we have ourselves received. And, now we must take that knowledge 
and make individual rational decisions…as consumers, as capitalists--- 
we’re all the same, maximizers on the basis of the knowledge we have, 
maximizers on the basis of money.

	Think about the knowledge we do not have in this world where money is 
the medium of knowledge. We know about nothing that does not come to us 
with a price--- the natural environment around us, our own needs for 
development of our potential; we know nothing about the lives of all 
those people who have produced the things we purchase, all those people 
with whom we have entered into a relationship by buying the results of 
their activity. Our situation is one of social ignorance, and that very 
ignorance is what permits us to be divided, turned against each other 
and exploited by the owners of commodities, the owners of the chain of 
human activity.

	When our knowledge is the price of things, how can we avoid being 
divided? When we don’t recognise our unity, how can we avoid competing 
against each other to the benefit of the owners of knowledge?

Another Kind of Knowledge

	Think about another kind of knowledge--- a knowledge based upon 
recognition of our unity, knowledge based upon a concept of solidarity. 
It is a different knowledge when we are aware of who produces for us and 
how, when we understand the conditions of life of others and the needs 
they have for what we can contribute. Knowledge of this type immediately 
places us as beings within society, provides an understanding of the 
basis of all our lives. It is immediately direct social knowledge 
because it can not be communicated through the indirect medium of money.

	Knowledge of our needs and capacities is radical because it goes to the 
root, to human beings. And, when it is obtained because we recognise our 
unity, it is knowledge which differs qualitatively and quantitatively 
from the knowledge we have under the dominant social relations. It is 
quantitatively different because existing relations no longer make its 
monopolisation and restriction a source of private gain. It is inherent 
in knowledge that it is a public good. Knowledge can be reproduced 
almost costlessly, and unlike scarce commodities, I do not have less 
knowledge if I give you some of mine. In a rational society, knowledge 
should be shared without any restriction.

	The existence of institutions which make knowledge property and a 
source of private gain, then, are contrary to the concept and ethos of 
knowledge and demonstrate the social irrationality of those 
institutions. Take the grading mechanism in many universities, for 
example. It is a common practice for professors in North America to 
grade according to a normal statistical curve--- so, many A’s, B’s, C’s. 
etc to F’s—regardless of over-all student performance. What kind of 
behaviour does this make rational for those who function within such a 
structure? Clearly, it is to keep knowledge to themselves (or to a small 
subset of friends). The more other students know, the lower are one’s 
own chances for a good grade. (In fact, it makes rational giving other 
students false information.) The structure in this case puts students in 
competition--- a situation that Robert Wyatt, the British singer, once 
sang about with the line, ‘How can I rise, if you don’t fall?’ This 
artificially created structure produces a zero-sum game in the case of 
knowledge which, by its very nature, is not zero-sum. Thus, whereas 
ideally a university might be viewed as an environment dedicated to the 
fullest possible development and dissemination of knowledge--- something 
which a collective learning process would encourage, we can see that the 
creation of an environment which rewards private ownership of knowledge 
is contrary to the idealised concept of the university.

	In many respects, this can be seen as a parable of intellectual 
property rights. What intellectual property rights do is to attempt to 
create an artificial scarcity that will compel people to pay more for 
knowledge than its actual cost of reproduction. Their purpose is to make 
what Marx called the products of the social brain a source of private 
enrichment. In a society, on the other hand, which begins from the 
recognition of the needs of all its members, the logical and rational 
impulse is to make knowledge available to all at its true cost of 

	Where our social relations and institutions are not such as to lead us 
to view our knowledge as property, there is another way by which the 
knowledge available to all is expanded. Much knowledge—especially about 
how we work is not codified; it is ‘tacit knowledge’--- knowledge, eg., 
of how work could be done better, knowledge of how it could be easier. 
Within antagonistic productive relations, the situation especially of 
the wage-labourer, this is knowledge to be kept to yourself --- in order 
to ensure that it is not used against you. In a rational society, 
though, it is knowledge we would share. ‘Gold in the workers’ heads’ is 
what Japanese labour relations experts called it when they introduced 
mechanisms to induce workers to share ideas about improving products and 
production processes. This knowledge is wealth which would flow 
naturally in a society which is based upon the recognition of our 

	Tacit knowledge is an example of a type of knowledge available freely 
under a different set of social relations. It is not, however, the only 
difference in the knowledge which would be available. When we begin from 
the conception of an alternative society, it becomes clear that a 
certain type of knowledge is hidden from us under our existing 
relations. The knowledge that is not communicated in a commodity economy 
is that which has no price in the market. The natural environment in 
which we live, the air we breathe, the sights we see, the sound we hear, 
the water we drink (ah, once the water we drank) has no price and thus 
does not enter into our monetary calculus. And, without that price, it 
is invisible when we as atomistic maximizers make our decisions. It 
means that these decisions, based upon partial knowledge, are inherently 
biased. If we were able to place an appropriate price upon clean air, 
our actions as calculating producers and consumers would produce 
different decisions--- ones more likely to ensure the maintenance of 
clean air. Hypothetically, too, if we were able to place a price upon 
the full development of human potential or upon the ability to live in a 
just society, faced with this altered set of prices, our individual 
decisions (and certainly that of those who currently purchase our 
abilities without the need to consider these) would differ.

	But, how, in the absence of commodity exchanges can such information 
which takes into account what Marx called ‘the worker’s own need for 
development’ be generated? If we share Marx’s emphasis upon the 
importance of the rich human being, ‘the totally developed individual’, 
then certainly we must concern ourselves with the mechanisms by which 
the knowledge of needs and capabilities can be produced.
The Accumulation of Knowledge for Human Development

	Those who are here to discuss ways to defend humanity against the 
barbarism it currently faces begin from certain values. They are values 
embodied in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela--- 
in the goal described in Article 299 of ‘ensuring overall human 
development’, in the declaration of Article 20 that ‘everyone has the 
right to the free development of his or her own personality’, and in the 
focus of Article 102 upon ‘developing the creative potential of every 
human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a 
democratic society.’

	That Constitution also is quite specific on how this human development 
occurs—participation. Much like Marx’s stress upon human activity as the 
way people transform both circumstances and themselves, the Bolivarian 
Constitution in Article 62 declares that participation by people is ‘the 
necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete 
development, both individual and collective.’ Human development, in 
short, does not drop from the sky--- it is the result of a process, of 
many processes, in which people transform themselves. It is the product 
of a society which is ‘democratic, participatory and protagonistic’ (to 
quote the Constitution once again).

	Through social forms (as set out in Article 70) such as 
‘self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms’, through 
democratic planning and participatory budgeting at all levels of 
society, people develop their capabilities and capacities. This process 
of transformative activity, though, is precisely the process of 
developing the knowledge required for this alternative society. That 
information can not come from markets, from surveys nor negotiations at 
the top--- it comes neither from the fetishism of commodities nor the 
fetishism of the plan. It is through democratic discussions and 
decisions at every level that we can identify our needs and our 
capabilities. The creation of democratic institutions is precisely the 
way in which we expand the quality and quantity of knowledge that can 
make a society based upon unity and the recognition of difference work. 
How else can we understand the needs of others except by hearing their 
voices? How else can we consciously insert ourselves in the chain of 
human activity? The knowledge needed to build and sustain an alternative 
society, a society based upon human bonds, is necessarily ‘democratic, 
participatory and protagonistic’.

The Battle of Ideas

	Knowing where we want to go is a necessity if we want to build an 
alternative. But, it is not the same as being there. We live in a world 
dominated by global capital, a world in which capital divides us, sets 
the people of each country against each other to see who can produce 
more cheaply, who can drive wages, working conditions, environmental 
standards to the lowest level in order to survive in the war of all 
against all. We know, too, that any country that would challenge 
neo-liberalism faces the assorted weapons of international capital--- 
foremost among them the IMF, the World Bank, finance capital and 
imperialist power (including in forms such as the U.S. National 
Endowment for Democracy and other faces of subversion).

	The most immediate obstacle, though, is the belief in TINA, i.e., that 
there is no alternative. Without the vision of a better world, every 
crisis of capitalism (such as the one upon us) can bring in the end only 
a painful restructuring--- with the pain felt by those already exploited 
and excluded. The concept of an alternative, of a society based upon 
solidarity, is an essential weapon in defence of humanity. We need to 
recognise the possibility of a world in which the products of the social 
brain and the social hand are common property and the basis for our 
self-development--- the possibility (in Marx’s words—1973: 158) of ‘a 
society of free individuality, based on the universal development of 
individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social 
productivity as their social wealth.’ For this reason, the battle of 
ideas is essential.

	That battle can be fought in many ways. For one, it points to the 
importance of the deepening of the real process in societies where the 
beginnings of an alternative have been made. The glimpses of a better 
world that they provide--- even in the midst of concerted attacks by 
imperialism--- are an inspiration for struggles everywhere around the 
world, a demonstration that there is an alternative.

	But, it is only in those struggles themselves that we spread an 
understanding of that alternative. These are struggles which start from 
people’s needs, from their discontent over the gap between what society 
promises them and what they are able to obtain. The battle of ideas 
begins here by communicating knowledge of the nature of capitalism--- by 
demonstrating that poverty is not the fault of the poor, that exclusion 
is not the fault of the excluded, that wealth is the result of the chain 
of human activity.

	These struggles, too, are explicitly about knowledge--- the struggle 
against property rights that deny free access to the intellectual 
accomplishments of humanity. They are struggles against commodification, 
against the invasion of money and price into all aspects of life. But, 
they are also struggles for new democratic forms that are a means of 
tapping the gold in the heads of all people and of communicating all our 
needs and capacities. They are struggles, in short, for a democratic, 
participatory and protagonistic alternative.

	In this era of capitalist globalisation and neoliberalism, however, it 
is obvious that more than local democratic institutions are needed. How 
can we understand the needs and capacities of people who are 
geographically distant but intimately close as parts of the human chain 
of activity? How can we see other limbs of the collective worker as 
human beings with needs rather than as competitors? We develop our 
understanding of our unity and interdependence with those who capitalist 
globalisation has assembled around the world through solidarity with 
those people--- not only with their specific struggles as workers or 
citizens but also by linking up with them directly on the basis of 
community to community.

	To build a world based upon solidarity, we must practice solidarity—and 
in that way transform both circumstances and ourselves. If we know where 
we want to go and we know what is necessary to get there, we have begun 
the battle to defend humanity against barbarism.
	Finally, to take up a theme introduced last night by President Chavez 
and Pablo Gonzalez Casanova about the need to make real changes in the 
world, let me close by paraphrasing Marx, using the language appropriate 
to this conference: the idea of human society is sufficient to defeat 
the idea of barbarism. But, it takes real human action to defeat real 

                          -- 30 --

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