Friday, May 6, 2016

How should we think?---Part 3

This is our third in a series on how thought and action intersect in the peoples’ and workers’ movements. For us this is less a matter of a correct process leading to correct ideas, although that needs to happen, and more a matter of constantly trying to use critical thinking and dialectical materialism to improve our thinking processes, and then our actions, and then examining our actions and changing course if necessary. The only people who don’t make mistakes are the dead. What often matters most is how we correct our course and apply what we’re learning to new situations.

We start with the two clips above because we agree that consciousness and identity are basic links to where we start in our thinking process. Granted that we struggle with all kinds of incorrect ideas, if we’re using critical thinking skills we are at least aware of our general interests and biases as we begin our acting-thinking-reflecting-acting process. Understanding and situating ourselves as oppressed people---as workers, women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, differently-abled and so on---and developing a consciousness of our situation deepens our abilities to act correctly. I can’t function correctly in the world if I don’t understand my place in it and my relationship to the world. I can’t be in solidarity with people of color if I don’t have a grasp of the objective relations between whites and people of color and my own relative privilege. Understanding my place in the world and my relationship to others in the world requires hard data and an on-going analysis of that data. As I understand my position as a worker I understand that the working class is the dialectical opposite of capitalism. The action-thought-action paradigm moves us forward if we work with it dialectically.

We also start with these clips because what is being said in them can be adapted to any oppressed group and to the working class---I was a part of the working class before I was born---but the particularity of who is speaking here and how they are speaking are all-important. The Black revolutionary tradition forces us to understand that history is an ever-unfolding project moving from conditions of “unfreedom” to liberation, that there are stages in this development, that people develop in real time and in history. We’re lost if we don’t understand and give full weight to the particular historic moment that we are in and we are lost if we lose contact with what the Black freedom struggle has to teach us about this. When Marx said that white labor will never be free while Black labor is enslaved he was speaking pragmatically as much as he was speaking philosophically, making a hard point about dialectical materialism.

This introduces us to three concepts.

One is that we do not properly operate from a place of making change because change is a good or moral necessity, true as that is. We make change because human development in real time---that is, lived human history---is always full of possibilities, and the best actions are those which work to continue the movement from unfreedom to freedom, from inability to ability, from lack of agency and responsibility to empowerment.

The second concept is one of interests, which takes us back to self-consciousness: if I understand that I am a worker and/or an oppressed person, and if I understand something of my history and have the knowledge that things can change radically, then I will work from a place of collective self-interest. I will commit to working with other working-class people for social, economic and political programs which move all of us forward because this forward movement captures the unfolding historic process of liberation and blocks the backward movement that social forces hostile to us are set upon. And as I enter the world of engagement I learn that my liberation is tied directly to the liberation of others because of the threads that connect us as human beings, and as human beings with certain relations to capitalism; this is, how we stand in relation to how goods and services and social relations are produced, reproduced, distributed and managed. I also learn that there are core forces and reserve forces in this struggle for liberation.

The third concept that is introduced here is that oppression and exploitation are both simultaneously qualitative and quantitative. That is to say in short that the qualitative conditions of the capitalist society that I live in----how relatively sophisticated and complex production, distribution, administration and social relations are in the US---determines the main conditions of my oppression, and that this can be quantified by looking at how much surplus value I produce at work and in what units and over what periods of time, and what it costs to reproduce my ability to work and consume. Alongside of this, where I stand in relationship to others and in relationship to privilege and to imperialism can also be quantified, and the specific quality of where I take my place and the relationship of my place to others can be determined. These determinations, if they are correctly made and understood, are what describes my relative exploitation and oppression. And this exploitation and oppression, though relative to others, is a fundamental aspect of capitalism, although the lines can move and matters can get better or worse for us.

Capitalism once affirmed the dignity, rights and independence of segments of the entrepreneurial classes and a certain trickling down did take place. The entrepreneurial classes were the people who wrote the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, led the American Revolution and claimed the victory of the Civil War. There was a certain affirmation and validation of human power and agency under early capitalism, however incomplete or hypocritical or short-lived that it was. The debates over Constitutional principles that we have today reflect the incomplete nature of the capitalist revolution and the system’s consequent hypocrisy.

Capitalism has come to negate human will and freedom, choice and democracy even as it has created material conditions which have brought us to the edge of quantitative and qualitative changes which signal real historic advances. This snowball-rolling-down-the-hill effect created two all-serious contradictions: the forward-moving material conditions created by capitalism work against it, and capitalist development brings us to the edge of world destruction. These are not matters of economic and political policy: they go to the heart of capitalist economic and political relations. The unfolding of these relations and contradictions has been dialectical.

We can say, then, that capitalism has passed from a stage of affirmation to negation. The processes of capitalist production, reproduction and distribution now negate the labor power that was harnessed to bring them into being. Human freedom and the environment are negated as necessary laws of capitalism. The creation of the working classes and the enslavement of peoples for capitalist development was the creation of capitalism’s opposing core forces. A for-profit system necessarily sets upon degrading and destroying the environment both in its methods of production and distribution and by making nature and human nature abstract. If nature and human beings appear as opposites under capitalism then there will be a war between the two. The false human triumph over the environment, over nature that is really us and what is around us and within us, ends badly for both.

When we take action in defense of the oppressed and the environment, however short of the mark we may be, we are negating capitalism---that is, we are negating the negation of human life, freedom and the environment. If we create a mass socialist movement and birth socialism then we are counter-posing an affirmation to a negation. If we privilege or stay in the place of counter-posing a negation to a negation, which describes the failure and crisis of anarchism and nihilism, or if we place ourselves at the margins of society or above social conflict, which are the failures of the Greens and pacifists and counter-cultural forces, we either get nowhere or move backwards. In either case we are going against the flow of history. This is a brief and almost vulgar explanation of dialectics applied to social relations.

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