Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reason #3—Everyone Has a Right to Bloom

Back when Democrats had to at least pretend to ask tough questions of a man like Robert Gates, one of the men who brought us the Iran Contra Scandal (worth studying simply for its role in all the slaughter in the Middle East today), I met this Vietnam Vet who urged me to avoid settling on a career path too early. He told me to drive down to Nicaragua, experience the connection between El Norte and those countries our corporations have colonized. He said, “Down there, everyone is a poet. You talk to the soldier on the street corner; he is a poet.”

Now the point of this story is not that he was talking about the communist Sandinista government. No ideology has a corner on the idea of individual fulfillment—it’s that thing about America that inspired almost any revolutionary you can think of, including Marx. What mattered was, as an English major in college at the time, this is the first time I ever remember even envisioning a society made up of poets.

It’s true that, ultimately, peace and happiness are subjective things—on a personal level, many of the keys lie within us. On the other hand, whether you are enslaved or your family is being brutalized by a lack of quality, affordable health care, the objective world creates many conditions where the choice to be happy is no more than an escape from feelings of helplessness, on one hand, and often it can be outright insanity. Don’t stand in front of me and tell a victim of Katrina he or she has an attitude problem.

Back in the Halloween posts, I talked about how many Americans have assumed director Don Siegel intended Invasion of the Body Snatchers to be a spoof of communism while Siegel claimed it was a spoof of American consumer society. The point isn’t whether one was right or the other was wrong, but it is the way we don’t recognize a critique of our own society’s mindless conformity. A systems analyst really, Karl Marx, the man who called for a ruthless critique of everything existing, wanted us to look at that contradiction. Why is it that a society that is supposedly about individual freedom systematically creates barriers to that freedom for most of its citizens?

In its broadest strokes, he asks us to look at what drives the system—the accumulation of wealth—and what that means. What’s most valuable for the system? Who’s most valuable to the system and why?

It doesn’t take long to get to some fundamental answers. In a capitalist system, who would be more valuable than those who make profits and those who secure them, profiteers and gatekeepers? Pay attention to these values and we can feel the system’s effects on everything that we do. Believe me, as a community college teacher trying to fill seats and as a representative of that gold key society called academia, I have to fight to limit how much those concerns override real learning in the classroom. My students are suspicious—many of the cynical play the games well; many who aren’t don’t expect to. They have a right to these feelings, and it’s simply part of living in reality that I have to deal with it. Marx at least provides the vocabulary and basic math for me to understand what I’m up against.

Soon after I wrote “2 B an American,” I wrote another essay on Marx and Individuality. Here’s some pieces of that which remain in Monsters, Marx and Music--

When your child gives you a knowing look that seems too mature for her years, when she takes issue with your point of view, when she paints a picture in her 2 o’clock art class with roses and oranges and shading that makes it seem like the most extraordinary thing you’ve ever seen, you are caught off guard time and time again. And now that my daughter navigates junior high and seems to need me less and less, I find myself thinking the same things I’ve thought for years, only magnified in some ways, “Who is this person? Who is that savvy young woman I see arm in arm with her classmates cracking jokes?”

I say one of those parenting prayers all parents must say over and over again in response to these moments:

I hope that she always values herself for her unique contribution to the world she lives in, and I hope that her friends recognize and appreciate her beauty, and I hope that she finds someone to love who values her distinctly from anyone else in the world. I know she deserves these blessings.

I’m afraid, on one hand, that she won’t appreciate what she receives, but I’m even more afraid that she won’t take advantage of the good that comes her way. I’m afraid she’s going to feel as so many of us do, that we don’t deserve it. I want her to know that she deserves the best of what the world has to offer, and I want her to seize it.

That’s what this parent knows and wants, so why am I afraid my daughter won’t know her own value and fight for it?

….I’ve written about music more than any other topic because it was music that taught me to trust the value of my own voice. The oft-quoted line from Bruce Springsteen’s #1 1984 album, Born In The U.S.A.--“I learned more from a three minute record than I ever learned in school”--is provocative for exactly this reason. Musicians pick up their instruments and hone their craft enough to engage an audience because music has taught them to believe in themselves. So much teenage rebellion is tied to music for the same reason; even if the conscious message is so simple we don’t recognize what it means. If rock and rap say nothing else, they validate our vital suspicions of self worth despite what we are being taught in school—a message not unlike that of the giant monster or the twister—“In the big picture, you don’t matter, so shut up, sit up straight, keep within the lines, and do what the teacher tells you to do.”

One of the things I noticed that my students said to me again and again when I first started teaching was that they couldn’t come up with any good ideas for papers. When I would talk to them individually, they would say, “I can’t think of anything to write, nothing that would be good” or they might mention an idea but say, “no one would want to read that.” I believe that the first, most important goal of the writing teacher is to convince students that they do have something to say, and when that happens, the rest begins to fall into place….

….And this hostility to the individual voice should not be a surprising result of our current educational system. After all, as becomes more and more plain with the increased popularity of standardized testing and the tailoring of education to the needs of the corporate workplace, public schools have always existed to deliver, first and foremost, not a potential political opposition but something far more practical, a trainable workforce.

While progressive management theory (dating back to Peter F. Drucker’s work in the 1950s and revitalized with the popularity of W. Edwards Deming’s quality theories in the ‘80s) has begun to embrace the importance of individuality at least as an ideal quality in that workforce, day-to-day experience shows the system wants conformity and efficiency first and foremost, and that is not a quality of the workplace that is at all likely to change for the majority of individuals working there.

One of the greatest ironies of the popular understanding of Karl Marx is that his theories are associated with a loss of individual freedom. In fact, Marx was writing about the reasons most individuals in a capitalist society have no real freedom to live up to their potential. This loss of potential is grounded in the fact that the worker’s entire existence is centered on his or her potential for exploitation by the market.

Marx wanted to lay plain the skeletal mechanics of this. The individual worker is paid wages based on the necessities of corporate competition. An average wage is based on the market value of a generally healthy workforce capable of reproducing itself. Naturally, the owner of a company wants the most productive hours of the workers’ lives and the product of that work to buy and sell on the market--anything less would be less than good business, less than competitive.

As employees, we don't own what we produce (even the profit-sharer is only thrown scraps), and that’s why Marx wrote repeatedly about the alienation of the worker. In Capital, in “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” he writes that the worker is distorted “into a fragment of a man."

He explains:
“...they degrade him to the level of an appendage to a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment....they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital.”

Today, we might modify this to acknowledge that not only a dream of economic freedom but increasing economic desperation has transformed the average mother’s life-time into corporate working-time as well, and quality childcare has become one of the system’s looser wheels.

Modern management theory argues that the worker’s mindset is the problem. Rather than individualistically rebelling against our work, we should each see the value of our role in the corporate process. But in our society, we know that we are not seen as equally valuable. At the end of the day, our work becomes the product of a machine owned by someone with the extra dough to spend his days golfing and remodeling the interior of his private jet. The worker’s alienation is closer to wisdom than bad attitude. It is an understanding of what’s real, and that’s closer to what Marx is about than the dogma that has eclipsed his work.

Of course, individual freedom does not come without collective responsibility. Individual growth does not happen without that individual developing socially either. We do not blossom without being nurtured by others. But we cannot find true fulfillment in a system that enslaves us either. To understand Marx, we have to recognize his goal as individual human liberation.


Ron Davison said...

Freedom or autonomy is to me the most important measure of progress. I do suppose that many individuals shrink back from that - what Fromm calls an escape from freedom. So, I have to wonder: is it really progress if people don't want it?

Danny Alexander said...

That's a good question. I suppose the qualitative shift comes when enough people want something or when they realize what they want.

But when you say autonomy, I'm curious about what you mean.... autonomy from the state or corporations is distinct, I think, from autonomy as an absolute, in relation to each other.