Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Reply to Tony McKenna on art

Reply to Tony McKenna John Molyneux Tony Mckenna’s critique of my views on art https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/22668-who-sleeps-in-the-unmade-bed-a-response-to-john-molyneux-on-the-nature-of-conceptual-art struck me as decidedly strange. First, the title, ‘Who sleeps in the unmade bed?’ is strange. It is strange because we all know the answer: Tracey Emin sleeps in the unmade bed – the piece is called ‘My Bed’. Many others of us also sleep in unmade beds, which is why Emin’s depiction of her own experience related to the experience of a lot of people, especially women who had been subject to ‘slut shaming’ on this account. That is the point of the work. McKenna ignores such matters. He seems to believe that sleeping in the unmade bed are the forces of ‘finance capital’. It is also slightly odd, given I have written on numerous artists over the years (Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso, Pollock, Bacon etc), that his first port of call is Emin. But maybe that was to be expected. Second: as I assume McKenna is aware, I recently published a book, The Dialectics of Art, which deals at some length with these matters. Strangely, McKenna does not even mention this but instead focuses on a single article, ‘The Legitimacy of Modern Art’, which I wrote 23 years ago. In fact it was one of the first pieces I ever wrote on art and had a specific purpose – namely to counter the view then widely touted in journalism and widely held on the left that virtually ALL modern art was ‘illegitimate’ or reprehensible. The reason I did not include the article in The Dialectics of Art was that I thought that particular battle had been largely won, rendering the article somewhat redundant. Third: McKenna presents me as a champion of ‘conceptual art’. This is both strange and not true. I defended conceptual art against the idea that it was all ‘rubbish’ or ‘not art’ but that was all. As with any art category – impressionism, surrealism, abstract art, abstract expressionism etc – the category of conceptual art contains some good work but also an awful lot of poor work which I wouldn’t champion at all. Fourth: it is strange given McKenna’s focus on conceptual art, that he never troubles to say what he means by this. Perhaps he thinks it is so generally agreed that no explanation or definition is needed. Instead he simply mentions in passing five examples: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) , Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII ( 1966) which he just refers to as Bricks, Tracey Emin’s My Bed(1998), Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991) which he refers as a shark pickled in formaldehyde and Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) which he calls the skull studded with diamonds. Now Duchamp was a Dadaist who is often cited as a forerunner of conceptual art and Andre was a Minimalist (who I suspect would have rejected the conceptual art label), while the notion of a conceptual art movement arises in the late sixties and is particularly associated with Joseph Kossuth. Never mind these details you may say, we know roughly what he means, except that if conceptual art originates in 1917 or in the sixties it cannot be an expression or reflection of ‘the terminal crisis of late capitalism’ McKenna also writes as if conceptual art and the Young British Artists(YBAs) were more or less the same thing. Not so. The YBAs was certainly a label used in the media but it was never a coherent movement with a shared style or aesthetic philosophy (like cubism or surrealism). Some YBAs could, on a broad definition of the term, be considered conceptual artists but others (e.g Marcus Harvey, Gary Hume, Jenny Saville, Rachel Whiteread, Chris Ofili) were definitely not. Moreover, Emin produced some works that were arguably conceptual art (Everyone I ever Slept With, 1963-95 and My Bed) but an awful lot more, such as her numerous ink drawings , her appliqu├ęd blankets, her bronze sculptures and her videos, which were not. Fifth: it is very strange that what McKenna believes is ‘the source of Molyneux’s theoretical confusion’ is a view that I do not hold at all and indeed specifically reject. This is the proposition that art is defined as art by being accepted and displayed in art institutions such as museums and galleries. This is what is known as ‘the institutional theory of art’ and is associated with Arthur C. Danto who developed it in response to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Pad works. I reject it because it is clearly circular. Just as the view that art is what artists do or what they say it is, the idea that art is what art galleries and museums display as art, begs the question as to what makes a person an artist or an institution an art gallery. The quotation from my article which McKenna deploys to bolster his assertions is as follows, ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface … only become [my emphasis T.M] art in certain social relations’. It is incomplete and seriously misused. I was not arguing about conceptual art only becoming art in the gallery, I was distinguishing between forms of writing and mark making that are not art (e,g. office memos or road signs) and those that are and the social relations I was referring to are not being placed in a gallery but the different social relations of the labour that produced them, namely alienated versus unalienated labour. The strange – perhaps disgraceful – thing is that the misrepresentation would have been clear if McKenna had included the very next two sentences in my article which read, ‘The question “What is art?” then becomes what is the social character of the labour that produces what we call art? The answer to this question is that ‘art’ is the product of non-alienated labour’. So slipshod is McKenna here that he even misattributes the quotation from Marx that ‘A negro is a negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations’, saying it is from Capital , when in fact it is from Wage Labour and Capital. Also it is factually not the case that either Emin’s My Bed or her other work or Hirst’s shark and skull pieces or his other works only became art in the gallery. They were already works of art in the studio when they were made. McKenna makes the rather silly mistake (common among tabloid journalists at the time) of imagining that My Bed was Emin’s actual bed that she was sleeping in until the moment she ‘stepped out of it’ and transferred it to Tate Britain. No Tony, it was a construction, a made work just as much as Van Gogh’s painting of his bed in Bedroom in Arles, 1889. Sixth: speaking of Van Gogh it is very strange how McKenna, as a would-be Marxist, writes about him. In Starry Night, he tells us, ‘the Dutch master poured not only colours and shapes onto the canvass but also his very being’ and it ‘embodies the human essence of the artist Van Gogh’. Was this the same essence , one might ask, that Van Gogh poured into the very different The Potato Eaters or Sunflowers or his portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin. And does this apply only to Van Gogh or did Raphael, Velazquez, Canaletto, Constable, Manet etc. pour their respective essences into their work? And if indeed Van Gogh did this why should not the same be said of Emin and My Bed – it was certainly a very personal work? Seventh: there is the strange mess that McKenna gets into with the theory of value. For some reason he identifies Van Gogh with use value and conceptual art with exchange value. This makes no sense. Right at the start of Capital Marx makes a distinction between use value and exchange value– properties possessed by all commodities (if a commodity did not have use value it would not sell). Marx states: A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference [My emphasis – JM]...The utility of a thing makes it a use value All art works which are sold as commodities, which is the bulk of Western art since the days of Rembrandt and Hals, have use value in this sense even if it is only the desire of a millionaire to appear cultured. There is no difference between conceptual art and pre- or non-conceptual art in this regard. As for McKenna’s notion that industrial capitalism was associated with use value whereas financial capitalism is about exchange value and that ‘one of the fundamental features of the 2007-08 economic crisis, for example, was the predominance of exchange over use’, I don’t think I will even try to unravel the multiple confusions involved as I should already apologise to the reader for the length of this piece. Unfortunately trying to set the record straight always takes more time than confusing it and in truth pretty much the whole of McKenna’s article is a stream of strange confusions. The only exception is the not strange but rather drearily familiar belief that a Marxist approach to art is about trying to establish mechanical and direct links between art and economic developments as in the idea that Hirst’s sale of his exhibition at auction reflects or corresponds to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers a few days later or that Emin’s unmade bed reflects or signifies the disarray of financial capitalism.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

What is Ecosocialism?

What is Ecosocialism? By John Molyneux and Jess Spear Table of Contents Introduction What do we mean by ecosocialism? Climate change, covid and capitalism Economic crisis and capitalism Ecosocialism is intersectional The general nature and dynamic of capitalism Socialist solutions Our vision of socialism Introduction The purpose of this pamphlet is to set out the concept and key ideas of ecosocialism, especially for those unfamiliar or new to this body of thinking. We particularly want to reach out to those who are appalled to witness our global society’s headlong career towards climate catastrophe and mass extinction and who may be puzzled by its palpable unwillingness to apply the brakes to this disastrous descent and to those who recognise the absolute necessity of a just transition in the struggle for non-fossil fuel dependent world. We maintain that averting catastrophe and achieving a more equal society involve first and foremost a challenge to capitalism. The pamphlet is co-authored by Jess Spear and John Molyneux, who are respectively editors of the magazines, Rupture and the Irish Marxist Review. Rupture is an ecosocialist quarterly published by RISE (Revolutionary, Internationalist, Socialist, Environmentalist) and the Irish Marxist Review is a theoretical journal associated with the Socialist Workers Network which works within People Before Profit. This pamphlet represents a collaborative effort by the two journals. Both authors, both publications and both organisations are convinced advocates of the need for ecosocialist system change. Jess Spear and John Molyneux October 2021. Jess Spear is a climate scientist and paleo- oceanographer and author of, amongst other things, ‘The Oceans: Past, Present and Future’ http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2020/05/25/the-oceanspast-present-and-future/ and ‘Poking the Angry Beast: Remember the Younger Dryas’ https://www.letusrise.ie/rupture-articles/remember-the-younger-dryas John Molyneux is a long standing socialist writer and author of ‘Profit versus the Environment’ (People Before Profit 2017), ‘Apocalypse Now! Climate Change, Capitalism and Revolution’, http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/341/331 and ‘Is there time for system change?’ http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2020/08/21/is-there-time-for-system-change/ Both Jess and John work together in the Global Ecosocialist Network (www.Globalecosocialistnetwork.net) What do we mean by ecosocialism? We think ecosocialism is an idea whose time has come. What has brought this about is quite simply the current condition of the world we live in. We are living in a world characterised by three massive global crises: the Covid pandemic; the economic crisis; the climate crisis. These are far from being the only issues. On the contrary it would be easy to fill many pages just listing vitally important issues - global inequality, imperialism and war, racism misogyny and gender oppression are the most glaring - but the three mentioned are interlocked and threaten the future of humanity. Ecosocialism represents a coherent but also an open response to all these connected crises. Ecosocialism is based on three key principles: 1)that the crises and the main issues are all the product not of human nature, of the human race as a whole, or of individual ignorance and bad attitudes, but of the economic and social system of capitalism which completely dominates the world; 2) that the issue of climate change and the broader environmental crisis cannot be solved in isolation from the issues of class exploitation and oppression, and colonial, racial and gender oppression. Stopping climate change demands a just transition and a just transition requires a fight for equality and social justice across the board; 3) that the solutions to these crises are interconnected and socialist – they involve moving towards a society based on based on public ownership and democratic planning i.e. production for human need not profit and for ecological sustainability and this will require mass mobilization. Ecosocialism also involves a view of socialism that is fundamentally different from the anti-democratic police states of official Communism. Let’s look at these points in turn. Climate Change, covid and capitalism On the surface and in the view of the mainstream media, the climate crisis and the Covid -19 crisis are unconnected. For ecosocialists, however, they are both symptoms of a profound dislocation in our society’s relationship with nature. In 1844 Karl Marx argued that capitalism alienated us from ourselves, our fellow human beings and from nature. This was because capitalism was based on alienated labour (labour sold as a commodity) and social labour was both what made us distinctive as humans and was the foundation of our relationship with nature. This created a world in which we are dominated by the products of our own labour and produce in a way that takes no account of damage to the environment. [This argument will be explained and further elaborated in the fourth section of this pamphletarticle.] Later Marx’s studies of capitalist agriculture and soil erosion led him to argue that for many thousands of years human beings, like all living creatures, had lived and developed through a metabolic interaction with nature. We “human beings live from nature, nature is our body, we must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if we are not to die. To say that our physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for we are a part of nature.” How we go about living - how our society organises the production of all that we need and want - governs the process by which we “mediate, regulate and control the metabolism between [ourselves] and nature.” This exchange with nature was broadly sustainable until the rise of industrial capitalism which necessitated enclosing the commons, forcing people off the land and into big factories, and giving way to intensive farming practices that quickly stripped the soil of nutrients. Capitalist production, wrote Marx, developed through robbing the two fundamental sources of wealth; the worker and the soil. The land was transformed from a source of food, clothing, and shelter, to a commodity itself and a source of raw materials to produce other commodities. Alongside that came was imperialist expansion and the brutal destruction of indigenous peoples and their society-nature metabolisms. This continues today in the Amazon rainforest, in Africa, in Australia, everywhere there are minerals to mine or forests to clear that are occupied by people who have yet to be convinced of the superiority of capitalist production. From its beginning capitalism had therefore created a profound distortion in this metabolic interaction, a ‘rift’ between humanity and our environment; and, the accumulation of destruction over time has led us to where we are now - climate change, species extinction, and ultimately civilisation at in peril. In more recent times ecosocialist writers and thinkers such as John Bellamy Foster, Naomi Klein, Ian Angus, Michael Lowy, Sabrina Fernandes, Andreas Malm, Mike Davis and many others have built on these insights and developed them into what has become widely known as ‘metabolic rift’ theory. Historical research by Andreas Malm showed how in the industrial revolution in Britain, capitalism became dependent on coal-fuelled steam power – not for reasons of technological necessity, there were alternatives such as water power available even then – but for reasons of profitability and in particular, a direct response to militant class struggle. In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries this dependency on fossil fuels, now including oil and gas, developed into a global addiction which continues to this day. Fossil fuels became the power source of factories and transport systems from Detroit to Guangdong, from Seoul to Sao Paulo; the driver of the world’s biggest armies, fleets and air forces; the motive of innumerable destructive wars; the source of the greatest personal fortunes from the Rockefellers and the Mellons to the Saudi Royal Family; and the foundation of many of the world’s biggest corporations – Standard Oil, ExxonMobile, Shell, BP, SaudiAramco, General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, China Sinopec etc. Such was the addiction that even when the scientific evidence for the greenhouse effect and its catastrophic consequences became unequivocal ,unequivocal, capitalism could not stop. Their first instinct was ignore and deny; then when that was no longer possible it switched to delay, confuse and greenwash. Even now after the 12 year warning from the 2018 IPCC Report they can’t stop mining coal, drilling for oil and gas, destroying the rainforest and laying new pipelines whether it is in Tar Sands or the Amazon, Australia or off the coasts of Ireland. If climate change is the result of profit driven addiction to fossil fuels, Covid is the result of profit driven expansion of giant farms, huge agribusiness, hideously cruel farming methods and ruthless encroachment into the wild. Radical epidemiologists and ecosocialist scientists such as Rob Wallace (author of Big Farms, Make Big Flu) and Mike Davis(author of The Monster at our Door :The Global Threat of Avian Flu) have shown that increased capitalist penetration into the wild increases the likelihood of zoonotic transmission (the leap of deadly viruses from animals to humans) and that mass industrialised farming and globalised food distribution further facilitate their spread. Covid 19 is, therefore, not the first immensely dangerous virus –SARS, Avian Flu, Ebola etc – and will not be the last. Capitalism has not only caused these catastrophes but is also a huge obstacle to dealing with them. This is true in a multitude of ways but let’s just take two simple examples. 1) The whole world is waiting, hoping for a vaccine but there are 99 different agencies competing – not cooperating, competing - in the search for the vaccine, each hoping to corner the market. 2) From both a health point of view and a climate change point of view less flying is a necessity but from a capitalist standpoint less flying is ‘damaging to the economy’ i.e. to the profits that make a capitalist economy tick. So what is the outcome? The public health advice is not to take foreign holidays; Ryanair fills the airwaves with adverts for special offers; the government issues statements full of mixed messages. But these are just instances of a tension that runs across the board between the needs of people and of the planet, the needs of life, and the priorities of capitalism. Economic crisis and capitalism The Covid pandemic has triggered an immense global economic crisis, probably the worst recession since the 1930s. During the lockdowns, output in most economies will be found to have fallen by a quarter according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with the effects felt in sectors amounting to a third of GDP in the major economies. For each month of containment, there is an estimated loss of 2 percentage points in annual GDP growth. International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief, Kristalina Georgieva, projects that “over 170 countries will experience negative per capita income growth this year”. Investment bank JPMorgan’s economists predict that the pandemic will cost the world at least $5.5 trillion in lost output over the next two years, greater than the annual output of Japan. And that would be lost forever. That is almost 8 percent of GDP through to the end of next year. The cost to developed economies alone will be greater than that lost in the recessions of 2008-9 and 1974-5 combined. In Ireland the Department of Finance predicts for 2020 a decline in private investment of 37.3%, in personal consumption of 14.2%, in employment of 9.3% and in GDP of 10.5%. And we know from long historical experience that in recessions, while the super rich are protected or even prosper, it is the working classes, the poor and the oppressed who are expected to pay the price. It is they who suffer the mass unemployment that becomes endemic in any recession and who are on the receiving end of the cuts in benefits and services inflicted as ‘ “we” all have to tighten our belts’. In Ireland the wage share of workers fell from 53% of GDP in 2008 to 40% in 2016 and overall wage costs fell by 8% while profits increased by 8.25%. As a consequence the proportion of people suffering deprivation rose from 22% to 30% and those in consistent poverty rose from 6% to 9%. Several points should be made about this. The first is that the ‘trigger’ of a major historical development is not the same as its underlying cause. The First World War was triggered by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but its real cause was the rivalry between major imperial powers that had built up over decades. In the case of this global recession this was triggered by Covid but it was a crash waiting to happen that had been widely expected and predicted by many economists for some time. The second is that capitalism as an economic system has a built in tendency to periodic economic crises. It lives through alternating cycles of booms and slumps: witness the great depression of the 1930s, the boom of the fifties and sixties, the recessions of 1974-76 and 1980-82, the boom of the mid eighties (not experienced in Ireland), the recession of 1991-93, the boom of the nineties and early noughties, the dot com bubble bursting in 2000-2001, and the great recession of 2008-9, followed by a slow ‘recovery’. In times of boom the capitalists rush to invest in a mad scramble for profits (e.g. in property development during the Celtic Tiger) but they overextend themselves, the market becomes saturated and profits fall. Then investors panic and boom turns to slump. The third is that from an ecological point of view such a system is a complete disaster. In the boom phase capitalists fall over themselves to invest in new projects regardless of their environmental impact. In the slump there is a panic and no money to devote to environmental concerns; the priority is to get back to economic growth. (This was the excuse given by the Green Party for the abandonment of its own environmental programme during its coalition with Fianna Fail in 2007-11 – ‘we had to save the economy’). On a global scale an economic system which continues to oscillate between frenzied booms and catastrophic collapses is socially and ecologically unsustainable. That is why we stand for an ecosocialist alternative in which production is based not on profitability but on the needs of humanity, the first of which is a planet fit for human habitation. Ecosocialism is intersectional Ecosocialism has compelling reasons for being emphatically intersectional. The system change required on a global scale to address the climate crisis and the wider environmental crisis means that we are committed to building a united mass movement for change on a national and international scale. The ecological crisis cannot be solved by piecemeal reforms on this issue or that issue, in this country or that country. But long experience has shown that such unity is only possible on the basis of fighting all the different forms of oppression we suffer and which subjugate us to the environmentally destructive rule of capitalism. It’s not just a matter of morality and abstract principle, namely that racism, sexism etc are wrong in themselves (though they certainly are) but rather that you can't fight capitalism and climate disaster without fighting racism and sexism and every other kind of oppression. Oppression is functional to capitalism. It intersects with exploitation systemically to support the continuing rule of capitalism and the perpetuation of the class system and all the environmental destruction that comes with it. For example, women's oppression provides a new generation of labour power in large part through free domestic labour and helps ideologically justify low pay for care work in general. This saves capitalists a load of money. So does racial discrimination in pay and working conditions. As socialist and trade union organiser Jim Larkin said over 100 years ago, “an injury to one is an injury to all.” It's not just a question of working class unity, ; racism, sexism, and LGBTQ+ oppression means you have less possibility for huge parts of the working class to struggle if they have more insecure work, no free time due to caring responsibilities, and are generally downtrodden through being discriminated against. All of this applies with particular force to the movement against climate change. We know for certain that while climate change ultimately threatens us all, its immediate victims will be disproportionately the poor and the peoples of the Global South, that is those who have done, and do, least to generate it. This is firstly because the areas projected to get extremely hot for most of the year are concentrated in the Global South and in less developed countries; and secondly, because these countries are less developed, and therefore have fewer social supports and infrastructure to mitigate the harm, their ability to withstand hotter temperatures, dramatic shifts in weather patterns, and deadly extreme weather events is much weaker than the wealthier countries in the Global North. In short, more people in the Global South and in developing countries will suffer and die if we don’t act quickly and take the steps necessary to assist their transition. There can be no effective solution to climate change that does not address the question of a just transition for the Global South. Of one thing we can be certain: climate change will mean, indeed already means, a huge increase in the number of climate refugees, of people displaced by virtue of their homelands becoming uninhabitable. How our societies respond to these refugees will be a crucial issue in determining whether climate change becomes a point of departure for the construction of a decent world or for a descent into barbarity. At the same time the immense inequality between the capitalist North and the Global South cannot be understood without considering the history of slavery, colonialism, empire and racism. Historically speaking racism developed as an ideological justification for slavery and colonial conquest. The normalisation of racism continues to enable the super-exploitation of black and brown workers who generally receive lower wages and suffer worse working conditions, while also being more likely to be expropriated by landlords charging extortionate rents for substandard accommodation and banks charging them higher interest rates. Additionally, capitalists use immigration as a way of increasing the labour supply at lower wages and then work to blame that desired effect on the workers themselves in order to sow division and resentment among the working class. The effects of climate change are also deeply gendered. Large amounts of research have shown that the impact of so-called ‘natural’ disasters is substantially greater on women. Thus: Natural disasters lower the life expectancy of women more than that of men. In other words, natural disasters (and their subsequent impact) on average kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men. Since female life expectancy is generally higher than that of males, for most countries natural disasters narrow the gender gap in life expectancy. Second, the stronger the disaster (as approximated by the number of people killed relative to population size), the stronger this effect on the gender gap in life expectancy. That is, major calamities lead to more severe impacts on female life expectancy (relative to that of males) than do smaller disasters... Taken together our results show that it is the socially constructed gender-specific vulnerability of females built into everyday socioeconomic patterns that lead to the relatively higher female disaster mortality rates compared to men. Following the catastrophic Asian Tsunami in 2004, estimates made based on the sex of survivors (for instance, by Oxfam International) suggest that around three times as many women as men perished. This is a pattern of inequality that is bound to be repeated in the numerous disasters that will accompany climate change. As we’ve already indicated above, the impacts of these disasters will be far more severe in the Global South than it will be in the relatively affluent North and constitutes yet another reason why ecosocialism, and indeed the whole climate movement, must be intersectional in its approach. Ecosocialism is an ideological position rather than an organisation, so it is not easy to provide evidence of institutional practice as opposed to aspiration. However the Global Ecosocialist Network (www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net) to which both RISE and People Before Profit members are affiliated can serve as an example. Its founding principles state simply ‘We need a global mobilisation of people power. Such mobilisation requires a commitment to just transition... The united mobilisation we need also requires opposition to all racist, sexist, national, homophobic and transphobic oppression’. The general nature and dynamic of capitalism Capitalism is all about profit. But what is profit? Where does it come from? And what is it about capitalism that leads to environmental destruction? These are some of the questions Karl Marx answered in his book, Capital. In particular, Marx was interested to understand what lies behind the production of commodities, that is all the goods and services bought and sold in society (from cars and computers to houses and holidays, toasters, tops, and toys). He wanted to understand how commodity production was organised, and what was behind the relations that it depends on - in particular worker/boss and buyer/seller. What conditions does it depend on? The first condition on which capitalism depends is private property rights. Land (including all that’s underneath it), factories, shops, machinery, technology (ie., all the means of production) are privately owned. Private property rights seem like a no-brainer. Of course you should own your own home, it provides security and peace of mind. But what if you own millions of acres of land? What about privately owning all the machines and all the tools necessary to produce food, shelter, and safe clean drinking water? Private property rights mean the vast majority of people don’t have free access to procure life’s necessities. The second condition necessary for capitalism is capital, or rather wealth to invest in production, to purchase land, buildings, machinery, and to hire workers. How did the early capitalists come to be so wealthy in the first place? Marx wrote about “primitive accumulation”, the prehistory of capitalism which includes colonisation, outright theft of land, enslaving indigenous peoples and Africans and all the atrocities that went with it. As Marx remarked, “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Once the capitalists had the wealth and the right to seize and hoard for themselves all the tools needed to live, they then needed the labour required to put the tools in motion, to create commodities to exchange on the market. The theft of communal land and enclosure of small farms created the working class, a class in society who had to rent their bodies to the new businesses forming in order to buy life’s necessities. This was never done freely, it was forced on people, and from the beginning some workers “regarded [factories] as a kind of prison, the interior sound and sights of the machinery at work being in some degree a terror to them.” In reality, the working class does all of the work to produce all the stuff we buy, all the food and drink we consume, and all the housing and transport we need. But we don’t control the production process, the capitalist does and it is their “right” to control what happens in that process and their interest they are looking after. In fact, the capitalist is only in business for profit, they only “invest” their wealth to create more wealth, to accumulate more capital. If capitalism depends on workers to produce goods and services, who produces the workers and how does this fit into capitalist production? All the cooking, cleaning, shopping for food and other necessities, having and raising children, and taking care of eldery family members is essential to maintaining the health of workers and producing a new generation fit for work. This ‘care work’ largely done in the home, usually by women, provides a massive subsidy to capitalist production. Indeed, a 2020 report by Oxfam estimated unpaid care work by women globally amounted to nearly $11 trillion a year. Exploitation is also at the heart of capitalism. There is no such thing as paying a fair wage for a fair day’s work or a kinder, softer, more cuddly capitalism. Under capitalism, the worker cannot be paid for all of the value they produce or else there would be no profit for the capitalist. Take a bartender for example, working a 4 hour shift. On a busy night they might sell €2-3,000 worth of alcohol and food sales, for which they are paid perhaps a measly €60. Without the bartender, the pub couldn’t sell anything and wouldn’t make any money. This is where profit comes from, the value created by the worker above the worker’s wages or ‘surplus-value.’ So, not only do we create everything, build, transport, and stock everything, we don’t actually receive “full” compensation. The owner skims the top for themself. And the striving to accumulate is not just about personal greed. It is about competition between rival companies and rival states. The capitalist’s interest is to minimise costs of production, whether that be workers wages, the materials used in production, or the environment in which production happens. If they don’t compete successfully, if they don’t cut corners, pay the minimum in wages possible, and externalise as much pollution as possible they are forced out of business and taken over, or in the case of states, dominated and reduced to vassal states. This competition is deadly for tackling climate change and saving the environment. Whether it is Exxon Mobile in competition with BP and Shell or the US in competition with China each capitalist unit is terrified to make the necessary changes for fear they will lose out to their rivals. As if general exploitation wasn’t enough, capitalism depends on and reproduces the conditions for alienation, which is another way of describing the estrangement and feeling of isolation of workers from nature, each other, and our labour. Private property rights, underpinning capitalist production, means that nature confronts workers no longer as a source of sustenance, of inspiration and wonder. Marx understood and stated (in 1844 – 176 years ago!) that this led also to an alienation from nature, ‘our inorganic bodies’. In its increasingly commodified form (privately owned and controlled), nature is transformed into a material force used against us, determining agricultural practices which then governs the food we eat. Our alienation from each other is, again, both a precondition and a consequence of capitalist relations. The workers, forced off the land, were then in competition with each other for jobs, for housing, and then for education, for healthcare, for car park spaces, for road space, and on and on. The coercion that compels us to work depends on and reinforces division, worker pitted against worker. Your alienation from your labour stems from the fact that you are producing for someone else, under their direction and plan (more or less). The product you help create you have no control over, no say in where it goes, what’s done with it, who gets access to it. In that way your creative capacities are distorted, abused, and moulded for a purpose that not only do you not control, but actually controls you. The work to be completed when you enter the office, factory, or shop stands over you. The technology and machinery assisting production, while mechanically assisting your labour, also further controls how you do your work and with what rhythm and at what pace you work. The worker is therefore confronted in the workplace by alien forces that compel them to labour in certain ways. Marx concludes, “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home...Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.” In short, capitalism has been built through the exploitation, oppression, and squandering of untold numbers of human lives. It required the wholesale destruction of ecosystems on land and water, and pollution at a scale that is difficult to grasp. To keep it going requires daily coercion, violence, degradation, and alienation of workers and the ongoing annihilation of nature. While we struggle to lessen the harm we experience under this system, including the harm done to our environment both near and far, we must not ignore the simple fact that its brutality cannot be reformed away. The logic of capital accumulation, competition, expansion, and “production for production’s sake is leading us to environmental catastrophe. Socialist solutions Meeting the challenge of global climate change and the biodiversity emergency means cooperation and planning at an unprecedented scale, on a local, national, and international level. This goes completely against the capitalist system, where cutthroat competition and quarterly profits drive decision making. As long as capitalists are in the driver's seat, business-as-usual will reign. Indeed even after the Paris Climate Accord was agreed in 2015, 33 banks invested nearly $2 trillion in fossil fuels, including $600 billion earmarked for expanding fossil fuel use! Here in Ireland where animal based agriculture is our top carbon emitting sector, the national dairy herd increased by 400,000 cows. To assemble our forces into movements powerful enough to win, we have to start by rejecting the rules and logic of capitalism, and the ideas littering the pages of mainstream media on how markets can solve climate change. We have to firmly reject eco-austerity. Why should Ryanair get bailed out and fossil fuel corporations continue getting massive subsidies every year, but all of us have to pay yet another tax, yet another fee just to live? We must clearly stand against carbon taxes for workers. It is the big polluters who must pay. At the same time, climate action has to be more than “saving the environment” and ensuring a safe future. It also has to ensure we’re building a different society that delivers a better life. Activists in America and across the world are rallying behind the demand for a ‘Green New Deal’ that targets both climate and social crises, aiming to reduce emissions as well as addressing the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and genocide against indigenous peoples. A short animated video released in 2019, entitled ‘A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ showcases how Green New Deal policies could work to undo the harm to people and nature and help build a sustainable future. This is a massively positive step forward for the environmental movement, which for too long has focused on individual actions and lifestyle choices. We would take it a step further. We need a Green New Deal that rejects the rules of capitalism and puts working people and the oppressed firmly in control over decision making. In short, we need a socialist Green New Deal. That means taking on the big corporations, big businesses, and big farms, challenging their right to decide our lives and our futures. Left to their own devices, we know where they would take us and we are already feeling the consequences. Bringing these industries into public ownership to be run by workers, farmers, and the communities they serve means we will control the land, machinery, technology and crucially the wealth produced. This gives us the resources we need to rapidly transition while ensuring a better life for all. It also means we don’t have to pray and hope the market delivers what we need and want, we can democratically plan the transition together. With democratic control in the hands of working people and all those oppressed by capitalism we can ensure people's lives and our environment are at the heart of action. But we don’t have to wait until we’re powerful enough to wrest complete control from the capitalists. We can start with taxing their profits and using that money to implement rapid reductions in emissions. Oxfam reports that an additional tax of 0.5% on the richest 1% would produce enough money to create 117 million jobs. This is crucial because we don’t have much time and wealthier countries, like Ireland, must get to net-zero emissions faster than underdeveloped countries. 2050 is too late. We must aim for 2030. But we should be clear that the capitalists and their political parties will not give up their power (nor agree even a minor increase in taxes on the rich) without a fight. A socialist Green New Deal must be combined with building our power in our communities and most importantly within our workplaces. That starts by recognising the potential power workers have. The water charges movement, Repeal, and Marriage Equality mass movements underscore a basic fact - when the masses of workers demand change together in their thousands, we can force the government to do what it doesn’t want to. Yet, we have more power than just taking to the streets on a Saturday afternoon. Since we do all the work, without our labour the profits stop flowing, the system shuts down. Going on strike in our workplaces is our most potent weapon against them. We will need to learn to use this weapon more effectively, linking up with socialist trade unionists, organising more workers into trade unions, and taking the militant action necessary to force change now. Secondly, we rally our forces and build support for climate action by demanding what we need right here, right now, . We need policies that target the inequalities baked into capitalism while also reducing emissions. For example, we can campaign for free, green, and frequent public transport, making transport accessible to all, incentivising the transition from single car use, saving lives, ending the traffic gridlock, and reducing emissions. Instead of concrete and roads, we could have green spaces everywhere, with towns and cities organised for walking and cycling, not cars. Our bin services, recycling, and composting should be brought back into public ownership and community control, but with workers helping plan out how to reduce waste and move towards a more circular economy. We can start to combat the loss in biodiversity alongside reducing agricultural emissions by transitioning to regenerative farming practices and afforestation with native trees. We should pay small farmers to transition from beef and dairy, and ensure they are part of developing a plan to make it happen democratically. Alongside changes in farming and land use, we could launch education campaigns around how to garden and interact with nature in ways that benefit insects, amphibians, and small mammals. Beyond changing what work we do, a better life should be about less work overall. A 4-day or 30 hour work week would free up time for family and friends, community and political engagement, and for more art. With universal access to quality public healthcare, education, childcare, community kitchens and laundromats, we could relieve the double burden on families and women in particular, freeing up even more time for leisure and creative pursuits. Some industries - notably fossil fuels - must be ended, while others are massively expanded, in building renewable energy infrastructure, retrofitting houses and buildings, and importantly in care industries such as nursing, teaching, elderly care and childcare. Democratically elected committees could be set up in every town, workplace, and farm to discuss what is needed to transition and how to ensure it’s just, leaving no person and no community behind. At the end of ‘A Message from the Future’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes appeals to the audience, “the first big step was closing our eyes and imagining it. We can be whatever we have the courage to see.” Capitalism relies on and sows division, strife, deprivation, and more, holding us back from seeing what could be and what workers globally have the power to achieve together. If we have the courage to not only imagine a better future, but also to fight for it today, to organise and stand together where we can now, we have a chance to make our world anew, preventing climate catastrophe and preparing the way for a green socialist future. Our Vision of Ecosocialism Ecosocialists reject completely the model of ‘socialism’ that existed in Communist or Stalinist Russia, Eastern Europe and its offshoots in China, North Korea etc. Not only were these societies undemocratic police states with no regard for human rights, which failed miserably in terms of women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and racial equality, but they were also ecologically disastrous. Just like western capitalism they pursued fossil-fuel based industrial growth regardless of its impact on the environment. The terrible Chernobyl nuclear accident , the slow death of the Aral Sea, described by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as ‘clearly one of the worst environmental disasters in the world’, and the appalling levels of air pollution in Chinese cities, are just very visible tips of the environmentally toxic legacy of Stalinist relentless industrial growth. In contrast Ecosocialism stands for a society that combines collective ownership and democracy, equality and freedom because only through such a combination can we overcome the metabolic rift with nature created by capitalism and establish a society that is environmentally sustainable. Public ownership and democracy are often presented as antitheses which have to be traded off against each other. For ecosocialists they are a necessary condition of each other. Without public ownership of the main industries, banks and financial operations there can be no real democracy because whatever parliament says or does real economic power remains in private hands. Without real democracy public ownership will lead only to dictatorship by unaccountable state officials and that democracy cannot apply only to parliament and local councils but must also operate in workplaces. Factories, data centres, banks, transport system, hospitals, universities, schools – all these institutions should run under the democratic control of the people who work in them. The same will apply to local communities. Only in this way , through grassroots democratic control will it be possible to make ecological awareness a part of every aspect of daily work and life. Similarly equality and freedom are mutually necessary. Without equality freedom is a myth. The rich and poor have equal rights to sleep in doorways and wait on trolleys. Without equality, that is with the division of society into rich and poor, the disadvantaged have no means of exercising their nominal freedoms in practice. Without free debate and discussion (we are not talking about the right to hate speech and discrimination here) some people will always be more equal than others. It is not merely that these principles are morally right but that they have become ecologically essential. Take the question of economic growth. It is now certain that the escalating crisis of climate change and wider environmental crisis of the anthropocene requires the abandonment of relentless economic growth; it is very likely that it requires de-growth. But whereas mainstream (ie capitalist) economics operates with an undifferentiated purely quantitative concept of growth or de-growth in terms of GDP, ecosocialism argues that it is necessary to distinguish between forms of production and consumption that are beneficial to the majority of people and conducive to a sustainable relation with nature (for example the production of wind turbines and public transport infrastructure and the retrofitting of homes) and forms that are environmentally damaging or benefit only the super rich (for example armaments production, supercharged sports cars, luxury hotels and tourist resorts). The former need to be expanded and the latter ‘de-grown’ i.e. discontinued entirely. This distinction is particularly necessary when it comes to consumption. Claims that human consumption must be reduced should not be made in a blanket way when ‘under-consumption’ in the most basic sense of malnutrition and severe poverty, is the situation of a huge proportion of the world’s population including many in the Global North while obscene levels of over consumption are practiced by the tiny minority at the top. Also while ecosocialism might mean less consumption of MacDonald’s burgers, private yachts, and ever more complex smart phones, it would mean a better life for the vast majority in terms of housing for all, a decent health service, improved education, shorter hours and longer life expectancy. But these changes cannot be achieved or managed in a non-calamitous way without public ownership and real democratic planning. To take an obvious example: we cannot possibly restrict climate change without drastically reducing the use of private cars. If this is done under private ownership without a planned economy it will throw hundreds of thousands of workers onto the dole – not only car workers but steel workers, engineering workers, electronics workers, sales workers, mechanics and countless others who are dependent on the motor industry. The same will apply to the oil industry. Another key feature of ecosocialism is its internationalism. One aspect of this, widely accepted in the contemporary climate movement, is the commitment to international climate justice. Five hundred years ago the world constituted a more or less level playing field with no large gap between the economic development or living standards of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Five hundred years of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism have produced a grossly unequal world in which the human price for greenhouse gas emissions will be borne first and foremost by those regions and countries least responsible for them. There is no way that this gross injustice can be remedied except on an ecosocialist basis; it cannot be done within the framework of private ownership and the capitalist market. But ecosocialist internationalism goes beyond that, beyond attempting to level up between the global south and the global north. It actually envisages transitioning to an international society. There has been a long standing debate in the socialist movement about the possibility of creating a socialist society in one country. Marx and Engels in the mid-nineteenth century argued that it would not be possible but most reformist Labour Party or Social Democratic socialists tended to believe it would be possible to achieve a socialist Britain or a socialist France, Germany or Ireland within the framework of the existing national state and adopted that as their goal. This was also one the main disputes between Stalinism and Trotskyism in the 1920s and after with Trotsky taking the internationalist line. But today’s global environmental crisis has added a totally new dimension to this debate. We could be as equal, as carbon neutral and as environmentally conscious as can be imagined in Ireland or even in China but if business as usual continues in the US, Russia, India, Western Europe and the rest, global warming will continue for all of us and all out fates will be sealed. The same applies to the plastification, acidification and other pollution of the oceans, to the destruction of the rainforests, to the loss of biodiversity and virtually every other ecological problem. Capitalism is by its nature nationalistic and organised into competing nation states in a way that continually frustrates even a coordinated international response to the Covid emergency. There is no way it can achieve the international solidarity required to meet the environmental crisis. An ecosocialist internationalist perspective is also essential for dealing with what is already and will be in the future, a major consequence of climate change, namely a huge increase in climate refugees. At the moment the category of climate refugee is not even legally recognized but the fact is that as temperatures rise ever greater swathes of the planet will become unlivable and people will have no choice but to migrate. Essentially there will be two possible responses to this situation: first, the all too familiar nationalist, racist, even fascist response which says build walls, fences, concentration camps and let them drown or starve because we have to ‘look after our own first’. Second, an internationalist and humanitarian response which says ‘refugees are welcome here’. Achieving the second response as opposed to the barbarity of the first will require an ecosocialist transformation of society which simultaneously addresses the inevitable issues of unemployment, homelessness and inequality. The answer to Irish/French/German jobs/homes for Irish/French/German people must be jobs/homes for all and only socialist planning can offer that. In short nothing less than international ecosocialism will meet the challenge of our times. This doesn’t mean that we should expect the whole world to go ecosocialist at once. That is very unlikely to occur but it does mean that if a bridgehead for ecosocialism were to be established in one country , whether it was Ireland or Brazil or wherever, it would be necessary to spread it to other countries as quickly as possible. And recent history, with for example the rapid international spread of Greta Thunberg’s calls for climate strikes and of the Black Lives Matter movement, shows that in today’s globalised world this would be an achievable goal. What distinguishes the approach and vision of ecosocialism from what might be considered the more ‘mainstream’ and dominant strands of the environmental and climate change movement – the likes of Friends of the Earth, War on Want and the Green Party - is that while the latter believe that catastrophic climate change and a sustainable future can be realised by bringing about a collective ‘change of heart’ within the existing economic system and state framework ecosocialists believe that what is needed is a fundamentally different society based on a sustainable relation to nature and production for human need not profit.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

'The Dialectics of Art' -In Response to Ian Birchall

RS 21 published a review of my book, The Dialectics of Art, by Ian Birchall, https://www.rs21.org.uk/2021/01/18/cultural-marxism-a-review-of-the-dialectics-of-art/ Here is my response ( which rs21 declined to publish – a legacy of their split with the SWP in 2013). I would like to start by thanking Ian Birchall for his very fair, indeed generous, review of my book on art . I was particularly pleased that he appreciated the various studies of particular artists and their work which form the central section of the book but which are often neglected in favour of focusing on the more controversial theoretical arguments in the first two chapters. And it is nice that he thinks ‘The strength of John’s work is precisely that he brings to it ideas and experiences from outside the world of art’, though I do lack the expertise of the specialist scholar. However I would also like to respond to Ian’s disagreements, especially with a view to clarifying, for the purpose of further discussion, what exactly I am arguing. On the thorny issue of ‘what is art?’ Ian says he is ‘very dubious as to how important the question is’. But in addition to the problem of people rejecting Pollock, Hirst and so on as ‘not art’ there is also a significant historical issue involved. The concept of art as a distinct area of creative human activity has not always existed. It arose first in the Renaissance and was consolidated in the 18th century. Why? My argument is that ‘art’ in this sense developed in parallel with but also in tension with the spread of wage labour and capitalism. As human labour, the means by which the human race created itself, became more and more alienated and commodified, so art emerged as a distinct and separate sphere in which the producer/artist controlled the process of production even if they had to sell their products. This point, which I support with a good deal of argument and quotations from Marx and Morris etc, seems to have been missed by Ian. It also has substantial political implications. Also there is a misunderstanding I’d like to clear up. Ian writes, after giving some examples, that ‘resistance to alienation exists everywhere – there is nothing unique about art.’ This is true but actually it is an important part of my argument and in the book I give a number of examples of unalienated (producer controlled) labour. Art, I say, is only one form of this and that is why I propose a second element in my definition of art, namely that it involves a striving to unite form and content. Again Ian seems not to have taken this into account. On the question of making comparative aesthetic judgments I am aware that this is a contentious and sensitive issue – people often feel they are being told what they should and shouldn’t like. Nevertheless as I argue in the book I think that, at a social level, judgment, if not ranking in some strict order of merit, is inescapable. I also think most individuals make such judgments even if not in systematic or thought out way. Indeed it seems to me that Ian makes such judgments in passing, without noticing it, even in this review. Thus he writes ‘There are poems, paintings, songs etc., which may vary in quality [my emphasis – JM]’. Exactly. Also, ‘We can all learn greatly from the work of art critics who point to the strengths – and the weaknesses – of a work’. Well if I point out that work A has many strengths and only a few weaknesses but work B has grievous weaknesses but few strengths, I am actually making a comparative judgment. Indeed in one sentence on Rubens and Hockney - ‘The Rubens merely reproduces – with great skill – a scene that can be observed in ‘real life’, whereas Hockney offers an inventive and imaginative use of colour’ makes three evaluative aesthetic judgments, none of which I happen to agree with, as a basis for a comparative assessment. It also seems to me an inescapable fact that in virtually all spheres of human endeavour people differ in their levels of achievement . This is true of mathematics, science (not everyone is Newton or Einstein , running, chess, mountain climbing (some people can scale Everest, Ian and I couldn’t manage Ben Nevis), singing (we don’t all have voices to match Paul Robeson, Aretha Franklyn and Maria Callas) and revolutionary politics – I assume Ian and I agree that Lenin was a greater revolutionary Marxist than Zinoviev and that Tony Cliff (‘the most remarkable person I ever met’ – Ian Birchall) stood somewhat above some of his erstwhile comrades. So why would it not also apply to art? Indeed it is manifestly the case that Michelangelo was an above average carver of stone and that Titian was more skilled in the handling of paint than Jack Vettriano. Of course making judgments between Michelangelo and Verrocchio, Rembrandt and Hals, or Picasso and Dali is more nuanced than this but that is why I discuss, extensively, the criteria on which such judgments have been made in the past and what Marxism might add to these. Overall it seems to me if we can’t distinguish art from non-art and we can’t make judgments of quality, which are inherently comparative, we are in a very weak position to make an critical analysis of it at all. But there is one last point on which I want to insist most strongly. Ian writes: “I once read a novel by a French Stalinist in which the author gives a brief vision of a communist future. At a railway depot, when the working day ends, all the workers are loaded into coaches and taken to the opera. No alternative for those who might have preferred New Orleans Jazz or death metal. Everyone will appreciate the same universally recognised ‘great art’. I don’t think John quite believes this, but some of his arguments point dangerously in that direction.” The last sentence here is seriously misleading and unwarranted. As Ian should know, I have always stood completely against any idea of state (or party) imposition in the sphere of art and I repeat this in the book, frequently citing approvingly Trotsky defence of artistic freedom against Stalinist dictation and conformity. As far as I’m concerned Ian should be able to listen to The Monkees and gaze at David Hockney to his heart’s content, before or after the revolution.