Friday, July 23, 2010

Struggling in an age of anxiety

We have to understand this idea of class struggle. If we don't understand it, we won't understand why we are so anxious or depressed in spite of our comparative luxury within the affluent societies. Mental health problems seem to be a much bigger problem here than among people who accept struggle as a part of their everyday lives. I think this is because on a psychological level it's much more difficult to ignore a conflict, even under "ideal" circumstances, than it is to face a conflict under great hardship.

Consumerism tells us we're free, but the reality is that we are only "free" within relations of abject dependency. We can quote from Family Guy or The Simpsons, but we can't take time off from work or plan our retirement. If we want our water to be safe to drink, not filled with whatever waste local companies gain a competitive edge by dumping in our rivers, we just have to hope someone in a position of responsibility is taking care of that. We don't feel like we're in a position to do anything about these things, so the outcome is that we spend a lot of time quoting Family Guy.

All this gets reflected in the culture, where it's "normal" to relate to one another in our assigned role as consumers, but almost inappropriate to raise some serious issue, because it's not "our job" to think about them. Deep stuff is handled by people who get paid to handle it, people who go to school for it -- and unless you have a degree in that sort of thing, it's kind of presumptuous to even bring it up. The law of exchange tells us that we don't exert effort on anything unless we're getting paid for it, because that's work. These are all expressions of class struggle as it is presently being waged.

Class struggle doesn't necessarily mean that those of us who may be exposed to toxins through our water supply are actively working to undermine the incentives that companies have for putting them there. It just means that we are necessarily in a relationship with those companies, and we are reacting in particular ways to their behavior -- in this case, potential behavior that we haven't confirmed. Because we don't feel like we're in a position to do anything, our reaction is to feel anxiety for ourselves and our families.

Now, when we extrapolate this sense of powerlessness to almost every other realm of modern life, what we get is a lot of anxiety, which people are dealing with one way or another. I'm sure you can look around in your own life and see how this plays out from one individual to the next. The narrow concerns of accumulated power are trying to shape our lives around what they want -- by increasing our obligations to them without reciprocating toward us -- and we are reacting. This is class struggle.

We see now what Marx means when he writes that the history of all societies has been the history of class struggle: that groups with competing interests are bound together in a way where an action by one produces a reaction by the other, and vice versa. This remains true whether we want to face the reality or not. If we don't face the reality, then we are just responding to it -- increasingly by attributing a chemical imbalance in our brains as the cause, rather than life as we are experiencing it.

The revolutionary role is to call attention to this reality of class struggle, so that anyone who is responding to it can formulate a more constructive response for themselves than becoming addicted to painkillers or walking into their workplace with a rifle. Such responses will vary, but we are always in a better place to react to something when we first gain an impression of what it really is.


Anonymous said...

I largely agree with your esay. However, was a common Mayan or Incan more free than a common american citizen? I would say no -- that person was a cog in a despotic religious social structure. Where does class struggle fit into this type of society? I think that large societies tend to gravitate towards master slave relationships where the few exploit the many. If the society is commerce based it will be like ours -- if it's primarily religious it will be like ancient Egypt or the Incans..

JRB said...

I think class struggle in that case is the relationship that common Mayans had with whoever administered the "despotic religious social structure," as you describe it. "Class struggle" is an acknowledgment of that relationship, which expressed itself in different ways.

If you were a Mayan revolutionary, presumably you would attribute many of life's hardships to this relationship, rather than to divine will or fate or however Mayan culture sought to justify class divisions.

Anonymous said...

Your response triggered an interesting thought. I have a hard time imagining an Incan revolutionary -- not that it would be impossible. It's just hard to imagine having any sort of context to judge society when the concept of history is religious/mythical rather than ostensibly empirical. The Mayans did have some type of literature but not general literacy. I guess we can take some comfort from the fact that it's a great deal easier today to see how screwed-up society is. Still not easy, but easier.

JRB said...

Let's put it this way: It used to be that some guy with a club would show up and take whatever portion of your product was "his." Now it gets taken all along the road to a "successful career."

Something tells me we are much more prone to believing our own bullshit than the Mayans ever were!

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts.

However, I don't get the reference to Marx. He was not the first, not the last, and surely not the most original, thinker to observe that people struggle with hierarchical systems of social organization.

Ironically, by pointing toward Marx, you're not being very different from those who say they won't think about something because they're not educated in it and not paid to do it. That perspective is all about thinking one's self ignorant and powerless.

I'm suggesting that we don't need Marx because any of us can see what Marx saw, and make our own thoughts on what he saw.

Dependence on Marx is another form of enslavement. Liberate yourself from obedience to Glossy Karl!

Picador said...

CFO, these anti-Marx diatribes of yours strike me as a bit naive. Marx has been tremendously influential -- everyone who talks about these issues today does so in the intellectual space he created.

Accordingly, it's incoherent to talk about grappling with these issues without the foundation laid by Marx, just like it would be incoherent to talk about understanding physics without Newton -- yes, it all seems so obvious in retrospect, because his findings permeated your entire education.

This obviously doesn't mean that we should all be "Marxists" in the sense of believing that Marx had it all sorted out and the rest is commentary -- any more than we should all be "Newtonians" who think that physics starts and ends with classical mechanics, or even that Newtonian physical theory is strictly correct. But your lack of appreciation for the people whose ideas you're building on top of makes you come off like an embarassingly cocky teenager.

JRB said...

That's the spirit, Charles F.!

However, just as you may not see any necessity in Marx, is there some necessity in avoiding him? I think the appropriate thing to do is to try to learn from Marx if that's what interests you.

Picador touches on the point you make about how "any of us can see what Marx saw."

That's not clear to me at all. For my part, I can't claim to "see" what anybody saw unless I know what their argument is. And one of the reasons why I am reading Capital and writing about Marx in the meantime is to come to my own interpretation about "what he saw." Because I don't know that beforehand.

Another important reason why this blog is so Marx-heavy is because that is overwhelmingly what readers have responded to here. That just further indicates to me that people are interested in "what he saw."

Nevertheless, I take your point, and share your concerns; I just don't see any necessity in the assumption that they are required here.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Picador, "tremendously influential" is a subjective term of puffery. I'm glad Glossy Karl has you as a cheerleader, and I'm sure his spectre, wherever it may lurk, is doubly glad.

If you can't see what Marx saw, that's not my fault, and I don't see why you would get petulant about it, and then ironically accuse me of being a cocky teenager.

The idea that Marx "permeates everything" of an intellectual nature strikes me as overbroad and perhaps even naive, albeit a worshipful naivete based on reverence for Karl Marx.

Let me give an example. I am a serious alpine skier of probably more than average skill, and I am a student of skiing technique working toward instructor/coach status.

In alpine skiing there have been many influential coaches and schools of thought. Modern technique changed radically with the advent of exaggerated sidecut (previously called "shaped") skis in the late 80s and early 90s, and ski technique underwent a massive overhaul. Those of us who learned to ski pre-shaped-skis ("pencil" skis) had to re-learn skiing because the most refined, racing-oriented alpine techniques changed significantly. What worked on pencil skis is now counter-productive and, in some situations, potentially dangerous.

The most influential ski racing coaches of the pencil ski era could be argued as still inescapably influential today (much as you are suggesting Karl Marx has influenced me without my knowing it), because modern technique is derived from old technique, tweaked and changed to account for modern ski design.

However, modern skis also enable a skier with strong body awareness and coordination to self-teach the proper technique. The skier only needs to ski from the feet up, and pay attention to what the ski does with various inputs at the foot level.

In this way, a modern alpine skier on modern skis can learn solid skiing technique without ever considering or encountering the old masters of the pencil ski technique. And so, for example, for someone to suggest that Stein Ericksen's tactics of the 1940s (which were very influential and many would say "revolutionary") have inescapably caused a modern auto-didactic skier's "eureka" moments of learning... well that's just overstating things.

Your argument has heft if we limit ourselves to an academic study of human social organization from the sociological (labor/work) or economic perspectives. But not everyone learns about how human societies work through academic studies. So not everyone has come to a present understanding through Marxian thought or influence.

Perhaps this bothers or insults you somehow. That's definitely how your criticism of me comes across -- as though my position being free of Marxian influence somehow has insulted or injured you personally.

I find that ironically petulant.

Anonymous said...

JRB --

I was merely provoking thought. As my above post suggests, Picador's read on my intent is mistaken, but I've encountered Picador-like sentiments for many years. The Temple of Marx has a lot of acolytes, many true believers, who cannot conceive of life on Earth without the spectre of Glossy Karl floating above us all, smiling as he gets referenced in blogtopia, in cocktail party chatter, in the halls of academia.

I'm simply saying that if we are going to suggest finding a sense of self-reliance and self-confidence, the types that are required to have the temerity to question what we're told, we can do so without reference to Marx -- and to some of us who came to the same realizations that Marx did without Marx's help or input, the need to avoid referring to him is even more important, since the truths are self-evident and not filtered through the lens of Das Kapital.

To those who need to have the interpretation of life as given by Marx, and who come to realize how things actually work thereafter, I think Marx can be useful. However, I think it should be obvious to most that "useful" is different from "essential," and that's basically the point I'm making.

Liberate the intellect from all filters!

Coldtype said...

CFO I'm curious about the source which gives you the confidence to presume you're qualified to tell me (or anyone else here) what resources are appropriate for helping make some sense society's current arrangements. For me personally, thinkers such as Marx and Chomsky have helped me to an enormous degree in this regard and to imply that I would have come around to my current understanding "on my own" strikes me as comically absurd.

JRB said...

Charles F.:

I'm with you in the cause, and I'm glad you make the point. It deserves to be made from time to time, lest we forget!

I have a feeling that three of us are agreed on Marx in exactly the sense that you say Picador's argument "has heft." What surprises me is how much of Marx still sets the most useful standard in the sociological and economic arenas. I understand you have some Fromm titles to recommend to me; please do!

Now let's not misinterpret each other's intentions. Charles F. has a colorful style and you have pay close attention to what he is saying. On the other hand, sir, you probably could have assumed that Picador meant what he said in just the sense that you admit "has heft" -- i.e., not as "life in general."

Anonymous said...


CFO I'm curious about the source which gives you the confidence to presume you're qualified to tell me (or anyone else here) what resources are appropriate for helping make some sense society's current arrangements.

I am not doing what you say I am doing, I am not presuming what you say I am presuming.

I am saying you can see what Marx saw if you want. Or you can use him as a guide, a Cliffs Notes of sorts. It's really up to you. The peril of using Marx is that you can become intellectually obeisant to Marx, which can create its own religion in some cases. In fact, my travels in the InterWebToobz suggest that Marxism is a stronger religion than Four-Square or Pentecostal Christianity -- and those are some whacky, strident, fundamentalist variants on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth!

I'm saying this:

You can read Marx and say, "Yep, I agree with him, that's how it looks to me."


You can read Marx and say, "What? I never saw that before. Is he correct? If so, that's a sea-change in thinking for me!"

To insist that everyone must fall into the second group -- that overstates things. But I'm not presuming to tell you whether you fall into the first or second group. I'm simply saying, watch out for religious conversion. Whether you become an acolyte or simply someone who agrees really depends on your own individual intellectual temperament and your sense of intellectual independence. And only you know how to grade those things.

Coldtype said...

Fair enough.