Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Satirizing the left

by Frank Brenner

I'm posting Ted Rall's cartoon about last month's Left Forum in New York, “The revolution will not be organized,” with Rall's kind permission. The cartoon was originally published in the LA Times.  I have a few reasons for posting it. For one thing, in the opening frame, Rall happens to mention the title of the panel this website hosted at the Left Forum, “Utopia, psychoanalysis and the Marxist theory of human nature.” The reference is anything but flattering, but that isn't so hard to take given that Rall had no idea what went on in our panel. He was looking for titles to illustrate how out of touch and pathetic the Left Forum was. “The whole thing was marginal and loserish and sad” was how his friend and fellow cartoonist Tim Kreider put it in a blog posting, and that's just the sense you get from Rall's cartoon. Obviously I'd argue that this wasn't true of our panel, but as to the Left Forum as a whole, it's certainly fair comment. (By the way, Rall and Kreider were part of a panel themselves, on political cartooning.)

More interesting for me was that this was criticism coming, not from the right (as one might expect) but from the left. A syndicated cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, Rall is one of the rarest of all creatures – a radical left-wing voice in the American mass media. The cartoon's final frame makes it evident that he isn't disparaging revolution but rather those who call themselves revolutionaries: “If and when revolution comes to America, it's hard to imagine these people leading the charge.” Last year Rall published a book-length, totally earnest, appeal for revolution, The Anti-American Manifesto.

(For anyone interested, here's my mini-review: the book is a page-turner, full of articulate anger that makes a very compelling case that nothing short of revolution will save American society. There are some fine flashes of insight in the second and by far longest chapter in the book, “Why haven't we acted yet?”, but when it comes to the how? and what for? of revolution, things fall apart. Rall is no theoretician, doesn't claim to be and pretty much dismisses the need for theory beyond an awareness of the basic facts of political life. “Looking to cut-and-paste old ideologies”, e.g. communism, socialism, anarchism, “into our near future is doomed to failure. Revolutionary goals will develop organically after revolution has begun.” In other words, for Rall revolution is only ever going to happen spontaneously, and so ... “The most effective organization is no organization.” Ouch! That kind of line might work well in a cartoon but it gets you nowhere in real life; think Egypt or Wisconsin, where the crying need is for more organization not less, and for clarity of purpose that only a big dose of 'old' ideology can provide. It also undercuts Rall's blast at the “loserish” pedants of the Left Forum: you can't fault them for being useless at organizing a revolution when you don't think such organizing is necessary in the first place. Anyway, consistency isn't – or even shouldn't be – what political satire is about. The point is to get people thinking, and Rall can be very effective at that.)

There is a mounting frustration with the staggering ineffectiveness of the left in America. That's what the Rall cartoon epitomizes, and you can find similar sentiments in lots of other places. Some of this is fallout from the Great Disappointment that has been the Obama presidency. Suddenly a lot of liberals no longer have a savior they can believe in. This disillusion has led the most daring and radicalized to venture beyond the bounds of mainstream politics, only to discover that what awaits them in the nether regions of left field are some pretty grim prospects, to wit, “marginal and loserish and sad”. But as valid as that impression may be, it isn't the whole story. Within the left – or more accurately buried within the left – is a treasure trove of ideas about how to change the world. Those ideas are the distillation of two centuries of struggle to end the class oppression of capitalism. To ignore those ideas is to condemn yourself to repeating old mistakes. If revolution isn't just a passing enthusiasm but a serious project, then you cannot ignore the left, you have to transform it. Even at the risk of making it less obvious a target for satire.


Mitchel Cohen said...

I thought the comic was very funny, and we should never mind laughing at ourselves.

But as someone who had pestered the organizers of what used to be called the "Socialist Scholars Conference" for years over a number of things -- particularly the lack of ecology-related workshops and the relative paucity of women on panels -- I thought this year's Left Forum was absolutely wonderful, rejuvenating (maybe I'm just getting old; I always used to be the youngest one at all these events), and in many ways helpful to those of us doing organizing of one radical sort or another.

For one, there were finally many panels on ecological issues and their intersection with Marxist analyses.

And, yes, I attended the workshop organized by Frank and Alex, and I really enjoyed and appreciated both of their papers. Go figure! :-)

Mitchel Cohen
Brooklyn Greens / Green Party, and
Chair, WBAI Local Station Board

Mike Ballard said...

Happy May Day, 2011. I'll be in Fremantle, Australia with my IWW flag. Inscribed on this honoured banner is something Marx urged on workers, "Abolish the Wage System". The wage system is what props up Capital as a social relation. I saw a few clips from the Left Forum on youtube. Nobody mentioned the abolition of wage labour or its connection to the establishment of communism.

Alex Steiner said...

Mike B, thank you for your comment.

I both agree and disagree. I endorse the spirit but I think there are problems with simply repeating this slogan 150 years after Marx introduced it. Let me explain.

When Marx said,

"Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!"

link to Marx's 'Value, Price and Profit'

it was in the context of a presentation to workers of some of his theoretical conclusions about the inner workings of capitalist society.

But taken out of the context of this theoretical foundation, the slogan "Abolish the Wage System" can mean all sorts of things to all sorts of people. Given the low level of theoretical understanding we encounter today I think the slogan is too vague if it is meant to serve as a summary of the goal of socialism in a few words. At the very least it needs to be supplemented with a clarifying explanation in order to avoid many common misinterpreations. For instance, I found the following explanation on an IWW related web site for their use of this slogan:

Apart from the fact that it doesn't pay us enough, the wage system is totally irrational. It is a hodgepodge of differing amounts paid to people for a range of often contradictory reasons. The only sure conclusion that can be gathered from the present wage system is that the further up the corporate ladder from actually producing goods or services a person is, the more money he or she takes home. Most of us are really only paid just about enough to meet our basic needs. Advertising makes sure we consume as much as possible and the widespread extension of credit makes sure that we spend most of our lives in debt.

link to IWW statement

All these points are true. But if you don't look deeper, ie. to examine what is behind the wages system itself, it will follow that the solution to the inequities imposed by the wages system is something like the following statement from the IWW.

"Until those of us who produce the world's wealth can decide for ourselves how it will be used, there is no such thing as a fair wage or salary, and this is why we wish to abolish the wage system."

The fundamental problem however is not that the distribution of wealth is inequitable (which indeed it is) but that the production process itself is organized around the creation of "wealth" as value. For behind the word "wealth" as Marx discovered, there lies the contradiction between use value and value. The wages system is an integral part of the system of production for value in which human labor power becomes a commodity like any other to be bought and sold on the market.
If this point is not understood then it is too easy to fall into Proudohnian type remedies for the wages system, where democratic control of distribution by itself will take care of the probem. But this is an illusion, as has been demonstrated time and again by various experiments at worker-run collectives.

Capitalism comes into being when the production of values becomes the predominant mode of production in our economic life. It will die when that is abolished.

Mike Ballard said...

Hi Alex. You can only put so much on one flag. ;p

As you may know, not all Wobblies think exactly alike. I maintain that the left lost its way sometime after 1910, fishing in the vote getting markets of liberal reformism and shutting out the revolutionaries who spoke of common ownership of the collective product of labour and the abolition of the system of exploitation known as wage labour and replacing that with the tameness of accepting, 'a fair day's wage for a fair day's work.' all in the name of 'borng from within' the business unions and the established political States. To the degree that this point of view triumphed political amnesia struck the workers' movement. It has gotten us to where we are now, with a left composed of radical liberal moralists waiting for a Castro (or fill in some other messiah) to save them.

Alex Steiner said...

Mike B.

I wish you the best on this May Day. It is true that the non-revolutionary attitude took hold of the greater part of those who at that beginning the 20th century called themselves socialists. But not everyone succumbed to that form of political amnesia. There was for instance the not so minor affair of the Russian Revolution and those revolutionaries who led it. I am afraid that is a matter for another, much longer, discussion.

Today the spirit of May Day lives on in the struggles of immigrants for basic human rights, in the struggles of workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere for the fundamental right to have a union and engage in collective bargaining, and in the struggles of the working class and students in the Middle East.

Mike Ballard said...

Happy May Day to you too, Alex. I just finished a post about the importance of abolishing wage labour at my blog. http://wobblytimes.blogspot.com/2011/04/wobbly-times-number-112.html

I have some remarks in that post concerning the political revolution which happened in the Russian Empire in early 20th century.