Lessons in Revolution: Snowpiercer, Marx, Rancière

During the last few years cinema has been penetrated by class struggle in the form of “Hunger Games” and “Elysium”. The spectacle of visual effects in both of them has blasted on the screen the dire situation of rising inequality all around the world, a trend which is far from a red herring. The Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho – who also brought us “The Host” and “Mother” among other movies – and his crew gave their contribution to the list and produced their own cinematic representation of class struggle in the form of “Snowpiercer”, possibly the best film of the year and definitely the most revolutionary one.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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Poster, with Curtis on the front.

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The film takes place in the near future when the earth has frozen up (making life impossible on earth) due to a failed experiment of climate engineering (large-scale manipulation of the atmosphere in an attempt to stop global warming). The remains of humanity are packed on a gigantic train called Snowpiercer, which circles around the globe with the power of a perpetual motion engine. The train is extremely stratified along class lines: the tail of the train is inhabited by poor rabble while wealthy elite take up the rest of the train. In a Marxist fashion, there exists a relation of exploitation, which sustains the class system: children of the inhabitants of the tail are frequently taken from their parents and brought to the front of the train (to work the train’s engine, as it is revealed later on).

The film follows a rebellion iniatiated by the tail inhabitants and lead by a man called Curtis. With their collective force they’re able to defeat the elite’s guardians and move towards the head of the train car by car with the aim of overthrowing the rule of Wilford, the creator of the train and the head of its social hierarchy. In addition to Curtis and Wilford, there are also some other characters whose roles are central to the story. One of them is Minister Mason, who acts as the representative of Wilford (and the elite as a whole) and commands the guardians. Another central character is Namgoong Minsu, a prisoner released by Curtis. He designed the security system of the train and Curtis persuades him to help the tail inhabitants advance towards the head. Curtis also has a mentor, an older man named Gilliam, who dies during the rebellion. As will be seen later on in a plot twist, he turns out to be a double-faced character who has been plotting behind Curtis’s back.

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Curtis and his people facing the train’s police force.

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Namgoong Minsu

The film is a showcase of Bong’s characteristic style of film-making. The physical setting of the story – the train with all its various cars – allow him to play out his genre-smashing and pace-shifting technique. The atmosphere of the movie keeps shifting as Curtis’s forces move through the train. The film starts from the decayed tail cars, creating a dystopian atmosphere, but quickly erupts into action as the revolt starts moving. After Curtis captures Mason, who he uses as a hostage and a guide to advance further to the prosperous cars of the elite, the film takes comedic turns and even has a surreal flavor to it, reminding me very vaguely of Godard’s “Weekend” and less vaguely of Gilliam’s “Brazil”. When we finally get to Wilford’s car at the front, the film has shifted its shape from a rather clearcut class struggle form into a multifaceted work of art and social critique.

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The thematics of social stratification in this film shine through immediately in its visuals. The tail cars are dark, trashy, crowded, precisely the kind of a visual representation of deprivation one easily imagines. The tail’s poverty seems to culminate in disgusting protein bars, which serve as food in the tail (considering the popularity of protein snacks in the fitness boom nowadays, what an irony!). Later the tail inhabitants learn that the bars are actually made of insects that are being processed in one of the cars. In contrast to the tail, the cars reserved for the elite are clean, technologically advanced and filled with interior design. The film also drives home the point that fashion is a symbol and privilege of social status: whereas the tail inhabitants wear ragged clothes, Minister Mason looks like a judge from Project Runway.

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Tail inhabitants, with Gilliam on the right.

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Tyranny goes Gaga: Minister Mason

However, the immediate setting of social inequality is not what makes this movie progressive or revolutionary in its logic. What I will try to do in this text is to show the intrinsic Marxist framing of class struggle in the film, which sets it apart from similar movies. It is this framing, which challenges the audience to think about revolution in ways movies like Elysium never could. The analysis that follows is going to focus on two points. First, the role of ideology in legitimizing class hierarchy (or what is called the spirit of capitalism in the Weberian tradition of sociology). And second, the anti-systemic logic of the ending twist (watch out for spoilers!).

i) There is another benefit in the train setting than just allowing Bong to play freely with his approach to film-making, it also allows Bong to show glimpses of contemporary Western capitalist societies in a kind of satirical light (the train’s society is, of course, not capitalist, but it is fairly obvious what it’s supposed to represent). As the tail inhabitants march towards the front of the train, we get to see all sorts of facilities and places of leisure provided for the elite. The classroom car is especially memorable as it embodies in an almost embarrassingly straightforward form the orthodox Marxist account of how ideology operates: ideology is a veil covering, legitimizing and naturalizing the class hierarchy and relations of production, obfuscating the true nature of the society for its inhabitants. The classroom car is a satire of school as an ideological state apparatus: children are being indoctrinated to comply to the social order of the train by a ridiculous ideological song about Wilford and the sublime properties of the train’s perpetual motion engine.

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Education or indoctrination?

There’s also a materialist philosophy of religion at play in Bong’s movie. In the beginning of the film Minister Mason gives a lecture to the tail inhabitants who have been showing signs of disobedience where she speaks of Wilford and the train’s engine as holy beings, elevating them to a god-like position. I was immediately reminded of something I read in Chris Harman’s People’s History of the World where he notes that in pre-historic societies granaries and other systems of distributing food and resources in the society were commonly elevated to the status of religious worship along with their guardians. In Snowpiercer the perpetual motion engine is what keeps the train moving and all its inhabitants alive, i.e. it is the material basis for the reproduction of the train’s society. Is it not natural for such an object to be mystified in a religious vein? And doesn’t this elevate the engine’s creator to the status of a god?

As we know from the critics of orthodox Marxism, the conception of ideology as a veil covering up the true relations of domination and exploitation in the society – while there’s truth to it – does not quite capture all the ways ideology operates and is linked with the economic conditions and relations of the society. A range of thinkers from Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello to Slavoj Žižek have noted how ideology is not just some kind of a discourse or a rhetorical trick to fool the oppressed into submission, it is also a structuring principle of social reality in itself; ideology is not just a way to legitimate the actually existing social order, it also helps to bring this social order about. For example, Žižek understands ideology as a set of unconscious beliefs, which we follow in our daily actions. The mystery of beliefs is in the way they work seemingly without anyone actually doing the believing. Žižek likes to illustrate this in connection with the Marxist notion of commodity fetishism: Nobody actually believes that the stupid paper bills in my pocket are valuable as plain physical objects but, nonetheless, they will accept them as means of payment as if they had some magical properties, which make them valuable and allow them to serve as money. In this sense ideology is not in what we believe but in what we actually do.

But this is a digression. What I wanted to show here is that Snowpiercer employes very consciously the orthodox notion of ideology as a veil obfuscating the true nature of the society. It’s a very simple satire but serves to remind us that contemporary capitalist socities are far from post-ideological. Ideology is very much alive and kicking, even if we would better off to resort to the likes of Žižek rather than orthodox Marxists in order to understand how we’re being persuaded and bribed to submit to the imperatives of our economic system.

ii) The Marxist punch proper only appears in the very end of the movie. Curtis, Minsu and his daughter finally get to the front car, the home of Wilford and the location of the perpetual motion engine. Curtis is finally going to execute his plan: to overthrow Wilford’s rule and take control of the engine. Minsu, however, has other plans. He wants to blow up the door next to the front car, which leads to outside of the train. His intention is to abandon the train and live outside, on land, in the hopes that the earth’s climate has warmed up enough to sustain life. What is at stake in the choice between these two options? Who should we side with? Let’s examine these questions in the light of the course of events the film takes.

Wilford meets Curtis with a very unpleasant surprise: he had planned everything all along. As he explains to Curtis, the train has a very delicate eco-system, which is founded on maintaining the hierachical social order of the train. As this balance is disturbed, measures have to be taken in order to establish harmony once again. At this point, the population of the tail had grown too large. It needed to be cut down drastically: precisely 74% of the tail inhabitants had to die for the sake of restoring the train’s eco-system. In a kind of trade-off, Wilford’s intention was to let the rebellion advance a few cars further from the tail and stop there. This was planned together with Gilliam, Curtis’s mentor, who is now revealed to be one of the bad guys.

Curtis also learns what the children kidnapped from the tail inhabitants are being used for: the perpetual motion engine is sustained by child labor. Bong plays out an incredibly effective contrast here. Wilford’s car is beautifully decorated, even if slightly anemic, while the engine appears on the background like a sublime relic from ancient times. However, one only needs to remove one of the floor plates to expose the horror that keeps the place from falling apart: one of the children is being kept in a very tiny place in the middle of complicated machinery beneath the floor. The sight of exploitation is being kept at bay by only a thin layer of floor plates.

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Wilford and the perpetual motion engine.

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Underneath the floor…

To add insult to injury, Wilford crowns his master plan by telling Curtis that he wants to make him the new head of the train. Wilford is getting old and is in need of a replacement and he thinks Curtis is up for the job. Curtis is now faced with a very strange dilemma. What he thought he needed to fight for is being offered to him on a plate. The horror of this confrontation is that he is completely at a loss as to what to do. He thought he was fighting against the elite’s greed and Wilford’s lust for power. What he intended to do after overthrowing Wilford was to lead the train’s society differently, in an equal and democratic vein, without exploitation and oppression. But now – having been informed by the inevitability of social inequality – he can’t see any other options than turning into another Wilford, as despotic and as cruel.

It could be said that Bong shows here how even class struggle itself can be incorporated into the capitalist social order. The working class is kept at bay by reformist bribes, which will keep them calm and satisfied, while relations of domination and exploitation continue to exist. However, I think Bong’s point goes a little bit further than this and ends on an optimistic note. What Snowpiercer does is invoking the old line from Marx from his The Civil War in France: “[T]he working class cannot simply lay hold of the readymade state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (The First International and After, p. 206) The tail inhabitants cannot simply march in to Wilford’s car, take the power to their own hands and establish a just social order. The (eco-)system by which the train operates is inherently unjust regardless of who pretends to rule it; there’s no other way to keep the engine alive and the train’s (eco-)system in balance than by domination and exploitation. This is the hard lesson in revolution Curtis faces.

It is hard not to see the analogy with present day capitalism. The train’s perpetual motion engine bears too much resemblence to capital that it cannot be a coincidence. What is capital – the self-propelling movement of money for the sake of making more money, production for the sake of expanding production, consumption for the sake of consumption – if not a perpetual motion engine, which feeds on human lives? And doesn’t Wilford’s cruel calculation – 74% – of the required loss of human lives resemble the quantitative logic of present day austerity with its reductions in public spending and cuts in labor costs? What Snowpiercer challenges us to think about is this: What if austerity is just a consequence of the logic of the capitalist system as such? What if austerity is the best capitalism can offer?

So, what’s the way out? Bong seems to credit Minsu with an answer: the goal is not to take power within the current system but to abandon the whole system as such. In the end the door to outside is blown up open and the train goes off the rails. Only two kids are left alive. They wonder outside the train and see a polar bear walking on the snow. It’s a proof that the earth’s climate has become inhabitable again and there’s life outside the train. In spite of the collapse of the train, it is a profoundly optimistic ending; another kind of a society is possible, but the hard lesson in revolution is that it will require overthrowing the entire system.

III

What’s the meaning of politics in Snowpiercer? The film essentially culminates in a very anti-systemic and revolutionary view of politics: politics is the collective resistance to oppression inherent in the system as a totality. However, there’s another opposition at play in the film, which can be approached from the perspective of Jacques Rancière’s philosophy of politics, laid down in his Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. The crux of his argument is that politics begins when oppressed and marginalized groups render themselves visible in the public arena, posit themselves as beings equal to everyone else and identify themselves with the totality of the society/social system. In politics the notion of equality disrupts/displaces the established social order.

Rancière contrasts politics with what he calls the Police. This doesn’t refer to actual police forces but to the ideologico-institutional social order, which assigns every individual to his or her proper place in the society. This can be conceived through social roles, which can be professions, gender roles, etc. (such as “woman”, “man”, “father”, “mother”, “teacher”, “student”). The Police reduces society to its individual parts, leaving no residual. It is the proper functioning of its individual parts, according the logic of the Police, which sustains the smooth running of the society and guarantees social harmony. For Rancière, the notion of “consensual democracy” is a system of this kind: it reduces the society to its individual parts (demographic groups, professions, special-interest groups, identity groups, etc.) and attempts to reconcile all the various interests of these individual parts into a coherent whole (for example, by parliamentary forms of governance and decision-making). In Snowpiercer, Wilford also obeys the logic of the Police. But his view of society is not consensual democratic but social darwinist: the train forms a delicate eco-system, in which every social group and individual has its proper place, the displacement of which results in disruptions in the eco-system.

In opposition to the Police, politics proper disrupts/displaces the established ideologico-institutional formation. Real democracy begins when an oppressed and marginalized group, which doesn’t have a place in the society, asserts itself on a political arena, declares itself equal to everyone else and identifies itself with the totality of the society/social system. Politics emerges precisely from the above mentioned residual, which isn’t supposed to exist in the calculations of the Police. For Rancière, the paradigmatic examples are proletarians (the working class) and women. Proletarians, as we know from Marx, do not have a place in the bourgeois social order. In contrast to the bourgeois fantasy of equal individuals making free decisions and contracts in the market, the capitalist social order is actually penetrated by class inequality: the class of owners of the means of production exploit the class of proletarians, who do not possess anything but their own labor-power, which they are forced to sell to their employers. As for women, what makes feminists political in the Rancièrean sense is their non-identification with the gender role they’ve been assigned to; a feminist will not accept the role of, for example, a submissive domestic housewife assigned to her by conservative ideologies but demands equality. In Snowpiercer, politics encapsulates in the struggle of the tail inhabitants against the place assigned to them by Wilford and his crew.

Rancière warns us about the temptation to conceive of politics as reconciliation of various interests achieved by rational discussion (à la Jürgen Habermas). Before any discussion can take place, social groups have to be constituted as legitimate parties in the discussion. It is here, on a level below reconciliation of interests by rational discussion, where politics takes place. It is the struggle of a social group to constitute itself as a party in the discussion. It is only after this has taken place when their demands can be recognized and conceived, not dismissed as incomprehensible noise (take the common image of a protester spouting meaningless nonsense). What Snowpiercer warns us about, in a Rancièrean vein, is the conception of politics as technocratic governance of the society, especially its economic system. Technocracy reduces politics to the management of economic policy by “experts” and limits our options to austerity and regulation of interest rates. As Marx reminds us, the governance of our economic system is always a political question.

Snowpiercer also rejects another Police logic, one that is perhaps more ideological, namely the logic of social darwinism (or, if you prefer a similar demographic version of the doctrine, Malthusianism). The usual formulation of this “theory” goes something like this: Social darwinism – ridiculously popular on discussion forums on the internet – reduces the society to the struggle of individuals for survival. The logic of the survival of the fittest is not only a gross distortion of the actual science of evolution but also a way to naturalize all the inequalities we perceive in our society. Poverty becomes a weakness of character, the result of natural incompetence and failure in the struggle for survival. Social darwinism – in spite of its cynicism – is a theory of social harmony: every individual is assigned to his or her place by the logic of survival while the society appears to form an eco-system where the strong succeed at the expense of the weak. Inequalities get naturalized and grounded in bad genes. The falsity of this logic is apparent to every social scientist. We don’t live in a state of nature (an imaginary construct if there ever was one) where the struggle for survival is supposed to take place but in a society dominated by the logic of class relations and other social systems, all of which are historically contingent and subject to change.

All it takes is collective resistance.

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Ambiguities of the Work Ethic: Anime and the spirit of capitalism

I haven’t updated in a while, and while people are partying below my apartment and I can’t concentrate of studying, I might as well do it now.

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(the following text features some spoilers of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo and Bakuman)

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I have a love-hate relationship with the Japanese work ethic. Don’t get me wrong. I know next to nothing about the reality of the Japanese working life, but as far as one can observe ideology in its purest in TV productions, the Japanese work ethic appears to be quite the extreme form of ideology. It is impossible not to be familiar with it if you’ve been watching anime, where it is repeated endlessly as the carrying thematic of the show. It doesn’t even seem to matter what genre we’re talking about. It’s everywhere. From sports anime to slice-of-life to even yaoi (the characters in Sekai-ichi Hatsukoi burn themselves up trying to meet deadlines in their shoujo manga editor office).

Why do I have a love-hate relationship to the propagating of hard work, discipline, dedication and self-improvement? Is this not opposed to the lazy consumerism so characteristic of our late capitalist societies? Better dedicate your life to your own benefit, self-improvement and success than to go with the drift and lead your life as an apathetic consumer. Better to choose your own life, work hard to achieve your goals and take responsibility for your actions, than to resign to a passive lifestyle, devoid of any initiative of your own. Is it not impossible to achieve happiness without putting some effort into it?

And why not? Take Karl Marx who, far from condemning labour as such as a form of alienation produced by capitalism, actually saw labour as a form of self-expression and freedom. It is only in capitalism and other historical forms of production where labour appears as alienated, as external labour forced on the working subject. The names of these forms of alienated labour are slave-labour, serf-labour and, most recently in capitalism, wage-labour. Curiously, Marx characterizes free labour as hard work in Grundrisse: “Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion.”

Anyone who has seen anime such as Chihayafuru, Bakuman or even the slice-of-life comedy-drama Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo knows exactly what Marx’s sentence is about. In all of these shows the protagonists are fully dedicated to achieving their goals in whatever field they’re working. In Chihayafuru we have a high school girl, Chihaya, aiming to be the best karuta player in Japan (and the world, as the game is barely played competitively elsewhere). Although the series plays heavily with themes of team work and friendship, even hinting towards romance, it all comes down to karuta, to which everything about Chihaya’s life is subordinated. Even her personal relationships are somehow entangled in her pursuit to become to best karuta player in the world.

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Chihaya from Chihayafuru

In Bakuman the protagonists choose to purify their life of any content other than writing manga at the age of 14 in the hopes of one day achieving enough commercial success to have one of their manga turned into an anime. Ofcourse, as the show is a shonen series, the protagonist is awarded with a cute girl in the end should he finally achieve his goal. It would be wrong to say that all the bullshit about writing manga somehow worked as a plot device, a screen to cover the basic plot of producing a romantic couple in the end. On the contrary, halfway through the series the protagonist is actually forced to make a choice between writing manga and the girl – and he chooses the former.

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Mashiro from Bakuman

In Sakurasou we have a bunch of extraordinary high school students living in the same dorm. They are each young geniuses of their fields, such as painting, animation and programming. The protagonist, as usual, is depicted as a rather ordinary guy tossed in the middle of these peculiar characters. As the story unfolds our protagonist, observing his friends with both awe and envy, decides to put an end to the aimlessness of his life and dedicate his efforts to becoming a game developer. Curiously, the show features some controversial topics (controversial from the perspective of the value of individual efforts): what point is there in working hard when you just don’t have the same level of natural talent as others?

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The weirdos of the Sakurasou dorm of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo

What appears to be pure madness on the outside, is something totally other on the inside. What appears as self-abusive discipline and exhausting hard work is, from the point of view of the characters themselves, the freest form of self-expression. How else to interpret the occasional moments of euphoria Chihaya goes through in her most intense karuta matches? How else to understand the hilariously exaggerated cheers expressed by the characters of Bakuman when their manga chapters get high ratings? Only in Sakurasou are there excessive feelings of defeat, namely when the protag’s game idea gets rejected by the company he applied to and when the girl wanting to become a voice actress fails her audition. However, these issues get resolved in the end and the characters remain as dedicated to their goals as ever.

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But don’t we actually reach a kind of self-criticism in Sakurasou when the protag gets the letter of rejection, proving to him that all his hard work has been in vain? To rub some salt into his wounds, the company sent a letter to one of his friends in the dorm, who helped him by drawing some pictures for his presentations, offering her work as an illustrator. The girl, a natural talent and genius painter, got noticed by a mere coincidence while the protagonist, in spite of all the work he had put into his game idea and presentations, got rejected. Does this not go against the ideal basis of the work ethic, that you can achieve everything if you just work hard enough? Isn’t it unfair that someone, who does not really even try, gets all the fame while you work your ass off without any prize?

This same theme was played in another peculiar anime series Hyouka. There’s a segment, or a side-plot, on a girl who draws manga and puts all her heart into her work. But, unlike in Bakuman where this dedication is rewarded, she only seems to be capable of producing mediocre works. Why is this a problem? Not only because she’s disappointed in herself but also because the author of her favorite doujinshi, which she describes as a masterpiece, was actually written on a whim by an amateur. How is it fair that she, who actually puts feeling and effort into her work, is of average capability while someone, who dosn’t seriously even care about manga, is capable of producing such a beautiful piece of work?

What this shows is that the work ethic, based on hard work and equal opportunities of success alone, actually rests on natural inequality between various levels of natural talent. Thus all the hard work put into achieving one’s goals become devalued and the feelings of despair, caused by failure, justified. The imposition of work ethic on individuals appears here as an oppressive command, an impossible demand, which puts an enormous mental strain on its subjects. However, far from being subversive of the ideology of work ethic, I think this possibility of failure serves the polar opposite end: failure is a part of the work ethic itself. The important thing is not to succeed but to try your best, to get back on in the wagon if you fall. This is how the feelings of despair after failure are usually resolved in anime. The characters go through a period of crushing defeat only to rise again stronger and even more dedicated to their goals, like a phoenix from the ashes.

Is this then liberating? It is demanded of you to choose your goals and work hard to achieve them but, on the other hand, it is also okay if you fail, for you can always try again, better and stronger. So where’s the problem? I claim the impossible demand imposed on the working subject is inscribed twice in the work ethic: you are not only demanded to set impossible goals for yourself, but also you’re not allowed to resign, to reject this command to work to exhaustion to achieve impossible goals, if you fail. Whether you keep working hard towards your goals with success or whether you fail, you are always guilty. It is precisely this demand never to resign, never to accept defeat, that puts the mental strain on the working subject.

The gesture proper here would be not to celebrate despair but to reject the demand itself. Renata Salecl provides the best formula to do this in her work on the ideology of choice. As she points out in this brilliant little animated lecture, the work ethic that celebrates individual achievement and responsibility is inscribed in the spirit of today’s capitalism. What this means is that the defeats experienced by working people are always experienced as caused by the individual him or herself, not as caused by external social forces outside the individual’s control. So, if you get fired you blame yourself, not the company that fired you. Another example comes from David Harvey who points out in one of his speeches that the people evicted from their homes during the mortgage crisis blamed themselves, not the speculative financial sector or the capitalist system actually responsible for the evictions.

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And here we get back to Marx again. As we saw above, Marx celebrates hard work but only when it’s free labour as opposed to alienated labour. On the next page Marx lays down the conditions of free labour: “The work of material production can achieve this character only (1) when its social character is posited, (2) when it is of a scientific and at the same time general character, not merely human exertion as a specifically harnessed natural force, but exertion as subject, which appears in the production process not in a merely natural, spontaneous form, but as an activity regulating all the forces of nature.” What Marx is saying here is that, in order to be free, labour has to set its own conditions of work, to choose its own character etc., and not be merely externally forced on the working subject for purposes independent of him (as in slave-labour). This is the ideal of the anime above. Chihaya is not playing karuta in order to fulfill someone else’s desires or purely in order to make a living, she is doing it for her own sake, she’s the one who posited it for herself.

I will close with a critique of Bakuman, which is ofcourse not so much a critique of the series itself but the ideology of work ethic it propagates. As mentioned above, Marx characterizes wage-labour as a form of alienated (not free) labour. In capitalism, according to Marx, workers enter into wage-labour not to express their individuality freely but to earn a living, as they are forced to do. Alienation is then the violent separation of the unity of the worker and his work. The worker’s labour capacity is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold in the labour market, all of which has very little to do with the worker’s own wishes and desires or the content of the work. What we have in Bakuman is the impossible combination of the two: capitalism without alienation.

How is this achieved? Bakuman aims to combine the work ethic of free labour with the capitalist logic of private profits. On the one hand our protagonists are on their own personal journey to become professional mangaka, during the course of which their labour capacity is put to a serious test as they work literally to exhaustion. None of this matters, ofcourse, as it is merely a condition of their freedom. And do they not get what they wanted in the end when their manga finally gets turned into an anime? Subordinating almost everything in their lives to write a successfull manga finally proves worth it.

On the other hand the show obeys a purely commercial logic: the scene consists of a bunch of individuals working for a private company. Not only do they dedicate their lives to producing the best-selling product (literally – the most excitement we get from the show is from achieving high popularity ratings in consumer surveys), they also meet each other as equal competitors in the market, motivating each other in a friendly rival-like way, like loyal followers of Adam Smith. While these people happily work themselves to death in very precarious working conditions (their ratings could drop down any moment) the company reaps profits from their work.

In this fantastic utopian vision of the coexistence of capitalism and the work ethic of free labour there is no sight of the structural inequality existing in this kind of ruthless competition. Jodi Dean has crystallized the problem in her book The Communist Horizon. She describes how capitalism exploits our commons through competition:

Now, rather than having a right to the proceeds of one’s labor by virtue of a contract, ever more of us win or lose such that remuneration is treated like a prize. In academia, art, writing, architecture, entertainment, design, and increasing number of fields, people not only feel fortunate to get work, to get hired, to get paid, but ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions, which means that those doing the work are not paid unless they win. They work but only for a chance at pay.

From the field of competitors “the one” emerges and he or she is the only one earning an income. The question is, ofcourse, what happens to the losers? And moreover, what the do with the problem that there will always be a vast number of these losers per each winner? Incredibly enough, there are some depictions of these losers in Bakuman. The protagonist’s uncle actually worked himself to death, literally, as the ratings of his manga dropped, but even this was somehow subsumed under the glories of hard work and dreams of success.

What’s the lesson of this all? If a society commanding you to succeed in your career, economic and social life, at the same time suspends your opportunities, perhaps it would only be rational for you to choose not to participate, to isolate yourself from the society, to turn into a social recluse? Or alternatively you could choose the route proposed by Salecl: instead of dedicating your hard work to reach an impossible goal, perhaps political resistance and social critique would be a better channel into which to pour your efforts?

Leszek Kolakowski: a critique of everything Marxist ever

After something like 1½ years I’ve finally finished reading this tome. “Reading” is an understatement though as the reading process consisted of underlining and re-readings of every chapter. The book, as the name already tells, is a comprehensive study of marxism from the historic origins of the philosophy of the dialectic to the philosophy of Marx and Engels themselves, from the writings of socialists before and after Marx to the era of “de-stalinization” triggered by the death of Stalin.

The book is not only a survey of marxist thinkers but also a critical engagement with them. Nobody is spared of criticism. The most fierce attacks are targeted towards orthodox marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, marxism-leninism, stalinism and the apologists of the official state philosophy of communist totalitarianism. Trotsky, the commonly celebrated dissident, receives very cold treatment from the author. Neither Marx nor Engels are spared either. Kolakowski does not treat stalinism as a distortion of marxism but as a legitimate offshoot of it. Nor, obviously, does he treat stalinism as a distortion of leninism. On the contrary, stalinism, according to Kolakowski, was merely the logical continuation of leninism. The book also concludes with a critical examination of maoism.

I

As already said, Kolakowski treats stalinism as a continuation of leninism. It was already Lenin who formulated the basis of the official Soviet doctrine and the philosophical foundation of the communist party. I do not go into the question of dialectical materialism as formulated by Lenin and later Stalin. It is sufficient to say that the doctrine is intellectually very poor (Take, for example, the claim that the dialectic means that all phenomena are interrelated. As Kolakowski rightly points out, this is an obvious truism and provides no guide for actual analysis, the point of which is not to take into account all possible interrelations but to pick out the most important ones.) What’s interesting here is Lenin’s idea of the communist party.

Kolakowski argues as follows. According to Lenin, the communist party is representative of the proletariat and, therefore, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is directly embedded in party rule. The party represents the proletariat – and this is very important for Kolakowski’s critique – not by it being selected by or consisting of actual workers but by professing the marxist ideology. All sorts of paradoxical things follow from this assertion, the most obnoxious one being that even if all actual workers opposed the party it would still be representative of the proletariat due to its marxist outlook. Consequently, from the leninist point of view, it is impossible for the party to act against proletarian interests for example by exploiting workers. The party exerts the dictatorship of the proletariat and it would be a contradiction in terms to assert that the party is exploiting workers for it is impossible for proletarians to exploit themselves.

The repression of democratic liberties was also triggered by Lenin. As the success of the party, directly embodying the dictatorship of the proletariat, was grounded in the historical necessity of communism and as the ideal of social unity was achieved in the authoritarian rule of the party, there was clearly no question of allowing multiple political interests to compete for power. Freedom of speech was a bourgeois invention and, as such, was harmful to the communist project of the proletariat, i.e. the communist party. There was also no need for an independent legal institution to mediate between individual citizens and the state. As marxist analysis has shown, the law merely serves class interests, namely the bourgeoisie, and, accordingly, it is to be abolished when the communists take over. As for foreign relations, because war and conflict are, in the last resort, conflicts between two classes, it is obvious that the side representing the proletariat ought to be supported. Therefore, whatever the foreign policy of the Soviet Russia, it is always right because the Soviet Russia is a proletarian state.

Kolakowski makes some very interesting observations, echoing those of Zizek, about the functions of the marxist ideology in the Soviet Russia. It was clear from the very beginning that the doctrine could be molded to suit whatever interests the rulers might wish. Thus, in due time, the doctrine became to be devoid of any substantial content. Thus it could be used to legitimize any policy conducted by the authorities. But, as Kolakowski notes, this was well known among the citizens of the Soviet Russia. Nobody believed in the ideology but, paradoxically, everybody still rehearsed it ritualistically. Consequently the most dangerous dissidents for the party were not those who criticized marxism but those who took it seriously. If you really believed in the marxist doctrine you would soon become to realize the contradiction between the actual state of things and what the ideology is telling you. A state whose rule is legitimized by marxism is especially vulnerable to marxist ideological criticism as was later proved by the effectiveness of the “revisionist” critics in undermining the Soviet rule after Stalin’s death.

II

But the horrors of stalinism are not only derived from Lenin but they also have a basis in Marx himself. I’ll quote Kolakowski himself:

It was possible to argue as follows: according to Marx, all social antagonisms were based on class conflicts. When private ownership of the means of the production was abolished, there would be no more classes and no social conflict except that due to lingering resistance of the possessing classes. Marx envisaged that there would be no ‘mediacy’ in socialist society: this meant, in practical terms, the abolition of the liberal bourgeois separation of powers and the unification of the legislature, executive, and judiciary. Marx also envisaged the disappearance of the ‘national principle’: so any tendency to cultivate national separateness and national culture must be a survival of capitalism. Marx had declared that the state and civil society would become identical. Since the existing civil society was a bourgeois one, the simplest way to interpret this was by the complete absorption of civil society into the new state, which was by definition a working-class state ruled by the party that professed Marxism, the proletarian ideology […] As, by definition, the proletariat’s aspirations were embodied in the proletarian state, those who failed in any way to conform to the new unity deserved destruction as survivals of bourgeois society.

[…]

For if, as Engels taught, the freest society is that which has the most control over the conditions of its life, it is not a gross distortion of the theory to infer that society will be free in proportion as it is governed more despotically and subjected to more numerous regulations. Since, according to Marx, socialism deposes objective economic laws and enables men to control the conditions of their lives, it is easy to infer that a socialist society can do anything it likes-i.e. that the people’s will, or the will of the revolutionary party, can ignore economic laws and, by its own creative initiative, manipulate the elements of economic life in any way it pleases […] Under socialism economic failure can only be seen as due to the ill-will of the governed, which in turn must be an effect of resistance by the possessing classes.

The point of this analysis is not that marxism, by some logical or historical necessity, can only develop into communist totalitarianism of the Soviet style. Kolakowski’s point is that the vagueness of Marx and Engels themselves provide for many possible interpretations, of which stalinism is one. Therefore stalinism is not a distortion of marxist theory but it is logically consistent with it. Perhaps this should serve as a warning against abstract utopias or the principled refusal to even think about the “blueprint” of the future society after the abolishment of capitalism?

III

The philosophical crime that Kolakowski detects in marxism is the idea of the unity of theory and practice, best exemplified in the philosophy of György Lukács. Marxist theory is meant by Marx to be not only a description of the world but also an act of changing it. Thus understanding the world coincides with the act or will to change it. There is no difference between theory and practice in this way. It should be noted that this is not how the official state doctrine of the Soviet Russia thought about marxism. According to the “scientific socialism” of Marxism-Leninism marxism is an objective scientific theory of the capitalist society and the historical necessity of communism, which is to replace capitalism. The communist party is in possession of this objective scientific truth of marxism and merely rides the train of history headed towards the communist utopia.

The idea of the unity of theory and practice is supposed to put an end to the dilemma of kantian marxists of how obligation is to be derived from empirical facts. The problem of kantian marxists was the question of how the communist utopia should be ethically grounded. “Historical necessity” alone is not enough because it does not explain why we should desire communism. The genius of Marx and Lukács was to combine the objective historical process with the revolutionary will of the proletariat. How is this done? According to Lukács, “totality” is a key concept in marxist dialectical analysis. Particular facts do not interpret themselves, their meaning can only be understood in relation to the whole of which they are a part. The whole is not a static state of affairs but a dynamic and temporal process, which means that its particular elements are to interpreted in the light of not only the past and the present but also the future. The totality in question here is ofcourse the totality of capitalism. What Lukács is implying here is that social analysis proper should relate every particular phenomenon to the whole of capitalism.

Moreover, the dialectic is not a theoretical model to be applied to this or that phenomenon but an active constituent of the social reality to which it is applied as a method. To quote Kolakowski: “It is the expression of history ripening towards the final transformation, and is also the theoretical consciousness of the social agent, namely the proletariat, by which that transformation is to be brought about.” Marxism is therefore self-awareness of the proletariat in its practical struggle for communism. The proletariat is in a peculiar privileged epistemological position: only the proletariat, according to Lukács, is able to perceive the “whole” in particular facts or phenomena. Only the proletariat is able to comprehend capitalism as a whole and is thus able to transform the society as a whole by overthrowing capitalism and establishing communism.

Kolakowski has many problems with this philosophy of the unity of theory and practice. First, when Lukács is talking about the proletariat he is not talking about the actual mass of workers but the proletariat of marxist theory. Lukács even says that, as a rule, there must be a gap between the “theoretical” consciousness of the proletariat and the “actual” consciousness of the proletariat. The latter will never achieve the former, which means that there has to be a mediating force between the actual proletariat and the historical process towards communism. This mediating force is ofcourse the communist party, which embodies the true consciousness of the proletariat and leads the revolutionary struggle. Second, the epistemologically privileged status of the proletariat shields the party from any criticism. Due to the fact that the communist party, embodying the proletarian consciousness by professing the marxist ideology, is the only social agent capable of comprehending capitalism and the historical process as a whole, it follows that the party is always right. By definition, every critique of the party can only be distorted as it can only come from a non-proletarian source. Third, the theory leads into a vicious cycle:

[T]he totality cannot be deduced from any accumulation of facts or empirical arguments, and if the facts appear to be contrary to it, it is that they are wrong. This being so, it may be asked how we can possibly know the totality, or know that we know it. Lukács replies that we can know it by means of a correct dialectical ‘method’; but on investigation it proves that this method consists precisely in relating all phenomena to the whole, so that we must know the latter before we can start. The method, and the knowledge of the whole, presuppose each other; we are in a vicious circle, the only way out of which is to assert that the proletariat possessed the whole truth by virtue of its privileged historical position. But this is only an apparent escape, for how do we know that the proletariat is thus privileged? We know it from Marxist theory, which must be right because it alone comprehends the whole: so we are back in the vicious circle again.

This is a very interesting philosophical dilemma for which I obviously have no answer. In my view, our knowledge and our practical interests do indeed seem to coincide. That is to say, there is no way we can somehow step outside our own subjective perspectives and look at the world “objectively”. On the other hand, the theory of the unity of theory and practice does seem to lead to the problems above examined by Kolakowski apropos Lukács. Perhaps the right way to approach this problem is not to try to unite our knowledge of external objects and our own subjective perspective but to account for the existence of this gap as such? I refer once again to Zizek’s reading of Hegel: the problem is not how it could be possible for us, as subjects, to know objectively the world and things-in-themselves, to use kantian language. The problem is rather how is it possible for this gap to exist, within the same reality, in the first place. This might or might not lead to Lukácsian theory. I still have no clue.

***

Overall, Kolakowski’s book is an essential reading for anyone who wants to consider him or herself a marxist. These are criticisms, which cannot be simple shrugged off but need to be engaged with seriously.

Cut the balls (of those in power)!

This entire post was made up as an excuse to post that awesome music video parody of Slavoj Zizek. Nonetheless, putting all that hilariousness aside, let’s look at the question Slavoj is proposing there.

For those of you who don’t know, the video refers to one of Slavoj’s dirty jokes, namely that about a peasant couple encountering a Mongol warrior on a country road in 15th century Russia. The Mongol warrior tells the farmer that he is gonna rape his wife but, since the road is dirty, he should hold his testicles so they won’t get dusty during the act. After the Mongol warrior leaves the farmer starts to jump with joy. “How can you be happy?”, asks the wife, “I was just brutally raped!” The farmer replies: “But I got him! His balls are full of dust!”

What has this to do with today’s leftist politics? Zizek suggests that today’s critical left all too often identifies with the position of the farmer: We think we’re doing something very subversive when we criticize “those in power” (capitalist/neoliberal politicians and governments, big companies and international organizations such as the IMF), but often our criticism amounts to that of dirtying their balls. The point, however, is to cut them off. And how does one do this act of castration? Zizek seems to be in the reformist camp but only in the sense that sometimes a well chosen “reformist” demand can effectively hit the core of the hegemonic ideological constellation. This is why Zizek has supported Obama’s healthcare reform. Although he recognizes it as a watered down failure, he notes that the notion of universal healthcare was able to shake the ideology of freedom of choice, which is so prevalent in the United States. In this way reformism can overlap with revolutionary aims.

One could also note how the neoliberal turn in politics was achieved through accumulating small changes over time. In the Finnish context, which I incidentally happen to be somewhat familiar with, the neoliberal turn took a decade or two. Raija Julkunen, a well known social and political scientist in Finland, has written a lot about the structural changes in the Finnish welfare regime. Contrary to the most “obvious” interpretation, that the neoliberal policies of austerity started during the recession of the early 90’s, Julkunen notes how the process of neoliberalization was already going on in the 80’s. This was an era of loosening regulation and internationalization of finance, new managerial techniques in the public sector and technocratic consensus. The recession in the 90’s merely accelerated the changes that were already taking place. Two decades afterwards we suddenly find ourselves in a regime of (especially long-term) unemployment, widening inequality and reduced welfare benefits. Ideological shifts also took place: the rationale of austerity, that reducing public spending through cuts and increased taxation (of people and not capital, of course) is the only realistic option, is suddenly an obvious truism. The point is that this structural change was made possible by a long process of small “reformist” changes here and there. As Julkunen puts it in her book “Suunnanmuutos”: “Radical change does not require radical procedures.”

Of course, one needs to extend the argument in a way that Julkunen does not. Her regime change describes the turn from the old-fashioned expansive welfare regime to that of the post-expansive austere welfare regime. It is a change from one capitalist regime to another. By reading her book one gets the impression that the neoliberal shift was in the last resort merely a question of political will. But one needs to refine this argument. Yes, in one sense, it is a question of political will but, in another sense, it is not. I turn now to Andrew Kliman who argues in his The Failure of Capitalist Production that neoliberalism was essentially a reaction to the economic changes in western capitalism. The rate of profit started falling from the mid 50’s leading to low capital accumulation, which in turn resulted in reduced corporate output, accumulation of debt and so on. The neoliberal turn was and is essentially an attempt to boost the rate of profit by slashing public spending and driving down wages (or, in other words, by austerity) among other mechanisms. As the economist Michael Roberts explains in one of his blog posts:

A policy of raising wages would reduce the share of profit in GDP; and a policy aimed at expanding government spending would be damaging to profits, just when capitalists are trying to ‘deleverage’ their ‘dead’ and unusable capital and reduce costs.

Sure, some capitalist sectors benefit from extra government spending through the procurement of government services and investment from the capitalist sector e.g. military weapons and equipment; roads, schools and hospitals etc. Mainstream economists often claim that government does not “produce anything”, it does not “create wealth”. What the mainstream really means is that government does not create new value (profit). It merely redistributes existing value, often against the interests of the capitalist sector as a whole. Government can thus be damaging to capitalist investment especially if taxes are diverted to welfare spending, workers pensions and public sector wages. And if government gets too large, it could even reverse the dominance of the capitalist mode of production.

So the Austerians see the need to keep government spending down, reduce the ‘size of the state’ and cut sovereign debt not as ends in themselves, but as part of the effort to revive profitability in the capitalist sector by cutting the costs of taxation and welfare. Indeed, from this light, the most important policies of austerity are not really the control of government spending but the accompanying ‘supply-side’ reforms that aim to ‘liberalise labour markets’ (cut jobs, public and private), reduce wages (public and private), lower pensions (public and private) – in other words, lower the cost of variable capital (labour) and drive up the rate of surplus value (profit to wages ratio). If the capitalist sector is also ‘deleveraging’ by destroying the value of its constant capital and financial debt (by liquidating it or paying it down), then both measures will raise profitability and set the scene for a new round of capitalist investment.

What we can conclude from this is that the turn to neoliberal politics and economic regimes was, from the perspective of capitalism, a logical and “necessary” step. It merely obeyed the logic of the system of capitalism with its inherent contradictions. Of course, one should add, neoliberalism did not solve the problems of capitalism. After decades or neoliberal reforms we are still facing crises, the current one going on for the 6th year already with no end in sight. I do not go into the Keynesian alternative here. I will only note that, as many Marxist economists have shown, it also fails to solve the contradictions of capital (see, for example, Guglielmo Carchedi’s article here).

So, in this sense, neoliberalism was not merely a question of political will. But let’s not lose hope just yet because, in another more radical and revolutionary sense, it was and is a matter of political will. In combating neoliberalism one should not lose from sight that neoliberalism is a feature of capitalism as such. There is no turning back to the golden era of social-democratic welfare states by re-introducing good old financial regulations and labor reforms for, under the profitability imperative under capitalism, these are impossible to achieve and/or maintain. To combat neoliberalism means to combat capitalism as a system. This is why we can’t hope to achieve radical changes by this or that reform but only by the overthrow of the whole system. I remain an old-fashioned Marxist and claim that every demand for reform needs to have the final goal of replacing the system of capitalism in sight. And here we get back to Zizek: the point is not to dirty the balls of capitalists (with social-democratic reforms) but to cut them off (with anti-capitalist radical politics).

A contribution

What better way to start a blog than to belittle it?

This is Jodi Dean, a political and media theorist, explaining her thesis on the political prospects of social media. She is not enthusiastic and this is why:

Dean uses the term “communicative capitalism” as a name for the current setting of capitalism (in the West, at least), which directly exploits our communicative networks and derives its profits from them. Communicative capitalism emphasizes participation and inclusion. It offers a quick-and-easy form of democracy, in which everybody with an access to online networks can get his or her voice heard. The problem with all this is of course that both the social platforms we use online and our access to internet are provided by private companies such as Facebook and internet service providers, which benefit from our participation in social media.

She enumerates many aspects of communicative capitalism, which I’m not going to list here, but there are some worthy of mention. Communicative capitalism absorbs or captures (to use Dean’s words) our political participation in its communicative networks. Whereas a message proper is characterized by it being responded to, social media tends to reduce our comments into contributions. But contributions to what? Social media obeys a purely quantitative logic: what matters is how many views do we get, how much our posts are being forwarded, how many comments do they get etc. In this setting each comment is equal to each other as they only serve as contributions to the endless circulation of content on the internet. What matters is not what was said but that something was said.

At the same time political participation in social media offers a way for us to feel politically active as if we were doing something meaningful. This is in strict analogy to Zizek’s famous Starbucks example about the logic of charity. When you buy fairtrade or organic apples you can feel like you’re doing something meaningful but at the same time this also pacifies you politically. Your duty to be ethically responsible and politically active is already included in your act of consumerism (buying a product). In the same way social media offers an easy way for us to participate politically, which is all very nice, but unfortunately there’s a big private company making profits from it.

There’s a lot more to Dean’s theory and she has written extensively about it. There’s a whole book by her on social media called Blog Theory, which you can apparently read for free here. I haven’t had the chance to read it myself so I have no clue if it’s any good. There are also passages about social media and communicative capitalism in her Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies and The Communist Horizon. Both are excellent books!