Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Little Respect

(reason #13—with a new class comes a new vision)

I started writing about Marx 13 days ago as a sort of reprise of my 13 days of Halloween. Though I finished my horror essays with “Why We Need What We Fear, Part 2,” I’m not really near the end of my Marx material so much as reaching a point where I can feel we the need to look back at the connections.

I woke up thinking about this this morning, and I knew I wasn’t going to get anything done until I shared these thoughts with whoever’s been kind enough to follow along…..We’ve reached a point where the purpose in my even starting a blog has come clear. It’s been an intuitive leap since day one, but I can see the outlines of what’s taking shape.

Everywhere around me, I see the culture striving to do what our political organization can’t do—build real connections between those disparate and desperate people being tossed out of the system. It’s there in all of those bands of warriors at the end of all of those horror fantasies—Stephen King’s ka-tet (and even that rag tag band of people in Cell who, ironically, don’t go mad because they can’t keep up with technology), Joss Whedon’s or Buffy’s Scoobies joined by Potentials turned to Slayers, Phillip Pullman’s or Lila’s new alliances that overthrow the Authority, even (especially?) the zombies joined by the have-nots in Land of the Dead.

The Old Order is collapsing and tossing off outriders who have to learn to work together to build a new world worth living in. [I would love it if other people would write in to comments about other examples of this in popular movies, novels and TV shows—does Lost relate to this? Deadwood? Surely V for Vendetta as did the Matrix, although my memories of some of the details are a little fuzzy.]

And I hear this all over in popular music. Silly love songs have almost never been simply silly love songs, and when I’ve heard my recently displaced daughter and my wife (who’s faced some big career frustrations this year) sing along to the Fray’s “Over My Head,” I hear a refrain that speaks to and for this new class. When I hear Pink tell off the President on behalf of people who understand “hard work”--explicitly listing the homeless, those working at minimum wage, and the innocent victims of air strikes—I hear her speaking for this new class, just as I hear T.I. echoing these points with “What you know about that? I know all about that!” I hear Audioslave calling out to this new class when, on “Sound of a Gun,” Chris Cornell sings, “This is for the daughters and sons of the forgotten ones, learning how to stand.” And I hear it in Lil’ Kim, singing in Spanish and English, “No matter where you’re from, put ya lighters up,” and in Beyonce’s reckoning song written with every intention of summing up all the others, “Oh the time has come for my dreams to be heard.

It’s there in the way Ludacris admits he’s never done time but calls out encouragement and calls for solidarity with his brothers and sisters behind bars on “Do Your Time.” It’s there in the portraits of all the lost little girls in his duet with Mary J. Blige, “Runaway,” pledging to meet them out in the street. And it’s there in way Jay-Z raps with defiance on the “Lost One,” and the way Kanye West puts Common back-to-back with the Game on Late Registration, and the way the romantic individualist Andre shows he learns from the street savvy politics of Big Boi on Idlewild. This new class has find new ways to work and dream together.

And it’s there in the music of the very first person I blogged about, Kristie Stremel, a young woman who caught my ear nearly a decade ago singing about her own big dreams and speaking for those just barely getting by in a system that keeps getting meaner day-by-day. In that context, a song like her new one, “It’s Not A Phase,” a song that might have seemed like merely an anthem about sexuality (an endlessly worthy thing to be) in another time, shows itself to be about how nobody will be free until everyone is. It’s in the way the song ties health care into its most fundamental concerns and the way the great rock and roll refrain turns the whole history of the music on its side. “Everyone’s out tonight,” Stremel sings with that classic sense of rock and roll expectation, then follows it up with a perfectly frustrated contradiction…”Everything is all wrong!”

Our culture is struggling, perhaps blindly in the dark, but clearly and in many ways effectively, to build bridges between those being tossed to sea. This is something all of our previously existing political organizations can’t do.

Here’s how I tried to write about why in Monsters, Marx and Music:

Unless this new class organizes, the trends we are seeing today will simply grow more deeply entrenched--the vilification of the poor will continue to be nightly entertainment under the guise of talk shows and "Reality" TV. The court system will be rendered completely ineffectual by the mass media verdict. Anticorporate protests will be legally defined as "acts of terrorism.” Since the poor are being so effectively scapegoated as the cause of all of our social problems, the acceleration of the death penalty will continue through the complete elimination of the appeals process. Anyone who has the money will buy his or her way into gated communities. Big Brother surveillance techniques will grow even more sophisticated, as will high tech crowd control weaponry. We will be convinced that the loss of our individual freedoms is simply part of the price of living in a civilized society.

Unfortunately, the bogus debate between “liberalism” and “conservatism” prevents most of us from seeing our way out of the forest of subjectivity. From the 1960s until very recently, most political dissent revolved around war, race, gender, environmental dangers and threats to individual freedom. To this day, the broad-based coalitions that protest globalized capital tend to coalesce around ideological consistency rather than class unity. The best known groups to raise their voices against capitalism are focused on an agreement around particular issues--the Greens with the preservation of the environment, Food Not Bombs with a pro-vegetarian, anti-military agenda, and various forms of labor organization, concerned with the very real dangers to their jobs wrought by international capitalist cooperation.

This is only natural. People are going to come together to assert their own personal and ideological agendas. But until these factions begin to see themselves as a body first and foremost unified by class, they will not be able to broaden their support and their potential to fight together on an ongoing basis.

Everyone in the labor movement is not going to sign onto a vegetarian program any more than everyone in the environmental movement is going to always agree with the specific concerns of labor. What they can agree on is that they represent the enormous class of people who have no real control over the will of big money. Right now, they are being defined as anti-corporate or anti-globalization, which has the disadvantage of sounding unrealistic and negative. Ultimately, without a vision of something to replace the class antagonism of capitalism, we can't expect to win….

Strategy and tactics for fighting the overwhelming power of globalized capital depend upon understanding the primacy of class. Fighting the wealth of the world depends upon a very clear assessment of limited resources and a clear perception of the shifting frontlines of the struggle. Ideological concerns must be weighed against the common needs of a class of over 200 million Americans, at least a quarter of whom live in abject poverty.

One thing the system does best is obscure the voices of those who suffer the most. Our society's selective hearing has much to do with our subjective concepts of class. It reinforces the greater, objective forces that silence some while allowing others to drone endlessly.

Teaching can be nothing more than a credentialing system for those who belong in positions of authority versus those who are expected to remain where they are. Teaching English, this division is particularly vivid. Who uses the modern equivalent of the Queen's English (Standard Written English) well? For the most part, those who grow up in literate homes and who are encouraged to read and write from an early age.

That doesn't mean my more privileged students write the most interesting essays or that they use the language in the most creative ways, but it does mean they can jump the hurdles of the academic system. A student may have nothing to say, but if she is well read and knows how to speak the language of the dominant class, then she can probably get by in academic writing.

Linda Stout, in her terrific, practical book, Bridging the Class Divide, describes the many ways in which poor people are excluded from political activism. Some of these problems are logistical, having to do with how and where activists organize and the practical barriers to poor people getting involved. The more insidious barriers deal with the subjective walls erected by American concepts of class. She talks about organizational structures in which more privileged participants feel comfortable speaking up, while the poor feel out of place. She also talks about a sense of history shared by liberal organizers.

But the first concern she addresses, and the one most fundamental to the others, is what she calls "The Wall of Language." She writes about how the organizing slogans of the poor were "corrected" by the liberal leadership. One example was a quotation from a child that read, "Something has to be wrong when the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me." It was "corrected" to read, "I don't understand why the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me."

The irony was, of course, that the revised statement was weakened from the original because the poor certainly did understand what was going on. Even simpler changes from everyday, slang or colloquial language to something more "proper" rob working class speech and writing of its impact, at the same time sending the message that the poor should not speak up because they don't know the right way to say it--which certainly implies they don’t know the right way to do it.

My greatest gripe with editors over the years has been when they have made such simple edits to my writing. I remember the first time an editor tried to refine my writing, arbitrarily changing "scary" to "frightening.” What sounded familiar in the original now sounded stuffy, and I sensed that minor change in wording put a trace of distance between me and the audience I was trying to reach. Our use of language is one of the most important political decisions we can make as writers. Who are we trying to reach? If we are trying to join hands with the great majority of people being most devastated by our current economic system, we must write in a way that's going to reach the most people. Building cool, ironic distance into what we say cuts our own throats.

It is the conflict in the world around us, the conflict between haves and have nots when we have enough for all, that allows a new way of thinking about just how this world might work. Unlike anyone before him, Marx was able to properly describe the conflict at the root of capitalism which allowed him to reach a theory of resolution.

To carry that science forward, to make a world where no one has to live in poverty and everyone has equal potential for fulfillment, the first step is to realize the potential power of class unity. This world's capitalist class is outnumbered by more than 9 to 1. In other words, those other 9 sell themselves to the 1 for the privilege of living. Meanwhile, 12 million children out of that 90% starve to death each year. If this were a just world, couldn't those 9 workers convince that 1 capitalist to give up his privilege so that their children could live? Of course they could. All 10 people could live together as equals. But in order to create the just world, the 9 have to recognize that they're all on the same side.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Reason #12--It's Not About Conservatives Versus Liberals (or How Many Times Is Charlie Brown Gonna Trust Lucy With that Ball?)

Because of all of the confusion we have about class, average Americans have never been able to broadly organize based on our class interests. On one hand, Howard Zinn's indispensable A People's History of the United States shows that we have a long history of working class-based organization--from Shay's rebellion through 150 years of labor struggle. On the other, critic C.L.R. James wrote the argument American Civilization to show how America’s political struggles have been impoverished by an inability to come to grips with the already socialized nature of modern capitalism.

For well over a century, the wealthy class has worked collectively in its own interests. But the working classes have continuously aligned their interests with a political party that serves the interest of the rich. The most striking example of this is labor’s alignment with liberalism and, ultimately, the Democrats.

Liberalism has a list of appealing beliefs, but the roots of the philosophy lie in the economic needs of the capitalist class. For three centuries prior to the 20th Century, it was clearly understood that liberalism was a bourgeois ideology. Liberals believed in the individual freedom of the capitalist, free trade and free competition.

In the 20th Century, with the fragmentation of old Europe, the Depression and the rise of the Soviet Union, liberalism turned to an economic policy focused on maintaining world economic stability in the capitalists’ interests. For many objective reasons, the Democratic Party recognized the need to support a reserve labor force, use the central government to create new jobs and work to create international good will, but all of this was not as big a break with 19th Century liberalism as it might appear. It was a change in strategy, but the goal was the same—the preservation and advancement of capitalism.

American conservatism has always existed as a polarity to the concerns of the liberal capitalist ideologies. Early in our history, conservatives sought primarily to preserve the rights of religious institutions, aristocratic privilege and the protection of private property.

Depending on the fluid nature of individual concerns, aspects of both of these ideologies have appealed to America's working class at various points in our past. From the 1930s to the 1970s, liberalism's grudging willingness to tackle social problems for the sake of social order appealed to many working people, although the Civil Rights Movement was deeply divisive among this group.

Since then, conservatism has grown more popular because it learned how to create and exploit the working class's fear of losing all that it has, greatly embodied by a fear of crime. But neither ideology can seek equality for Americans while maintaining its prime objective, the preservation of a system that primarily answers to corporate power.

People know this. I'll never forget what one of my conservative students said to me during the Bush/Gore recounts--"I voted for Bush, but you and I both know neither one of those guys cares about us."

To really put the interests of the American majority on the table, we have to form a party unified by class (the class without the corporate dollars). There are now far more of us without any reason to trust this system and its stability, just as Marx predicted there would be.

Americans haven’t named this new class, but we see it forming. It certainly has many of the old "working class" in its ranks, but it also has former middle managers of oil and automobile companies. And—with recession-related downsizing and the number of Internet start-ups that are already beginning to decline-we see this new class growing rapidly.

A Marxist concept of class is really based on that polarity of wealth and poverty and which pole has you in its magnetic field. With the widest gap between rich and poor ever in American history increasing the past two decades, you and I are no doubt growing poorer. If we aren't individually, our friends are.

If we don't embrace Marx's concept of class, we merely resign ourselves to a system that operates with a force greater than any of us alone. Without being unified as a class, we can’t fight the increasingly rapid and inhumane cost of watching our society collapse. In the darkening days of capitalism, when a small band of the super-rich realizes the only way to impose their will on the people is by force, things can only get worse.

Hope lies in the power of the people putting an end to corporate rule. And we know that challenge will not be supported, as the two parties are, by corporate dollars.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Reason #11—We Need Marx’s Class to Learn from History

To see this, it helps to look at how Marx arrived at his definition of class based upon history. He stressed that today’s class divisions have not always existed. He built on the understanding that, for around 100,000 years, deep into pre-history, most of us lived communally with the main division of labor being between the sexes. The female gave birth, raised the children and maintained the home, which made her dominant in most of these societies. The men served her and the family.

With the agricultural revolution, the accumulation of private property made men, those biologically more natural to leave the home and buy, sell and transport goods, the controlling gender. Those men who were positioned to accumulate more private property than others became a ruling class. They became emperors and kings, while others became serfs, and some people themselves became property--they were enslaved. With the development of the Roman, Greek and Germanic empires, fairly fine-tuned concepts of class became matters of legal definition. When American history started, when the merchant classes started overthrowing kings and queens, the ruling class distinction became who controls the money and who sells themselves to the rich in order to live.

About a century later, in The Principles of Communism, Engels defines the most important class divisions as follows:

"(1) The class of big capitalists, who, in all civilized countries, are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistence and of the instruments (machines, factories) and materials necessary for the production of the means of subsistence. This is the bourgeois class, or the bourgeoisie.

"(2) The class of the wholly propertyless, who are obliged to sell their labor to the bourgeosie in order to get, in exchange, the means of subsistence for their support. This is called the class of proletarians, or the proletariat."

What Americans think of as middle class may be white collar or blue collar, but it is identified by home ownership (well, a mortgage), a little lawn and a few luxury items that are more or less necessities in our electronic society of suburban sprawl. This is not the middle class Marx describes, the bourgeoisie, those who pay others to work for them. Marx's definition of a middle class applies to very few Americans, and, as small businesses lose out to multinational corporations and the contraction of Internet commerce, it will apply to fewer and fewer. About 300 billionaires own more than all of the accumulated wealth of half of the world's people. Marx predicted that, as those billionaires trump one another in business, their numbers will dwindle, and the numbers in poverty will increase.

This is how the division between the haves (bourgeoisie) and have-nots (proletariat) deepens, and as more and more production becomes possible with less labor under fewer corporate umbrellas, Marx projected the emergence of a new class. In many ways, the new class is virtually anyone reading these words based upon our common future. The new class is both those who still have jobs (but no security) as well as those who have, as a group, become permanently unemployed. The proletariat, the old “working class,” is becoming the new class, and others are joining their ranks, including small business owners being thrown out of the capitalist class. Both the proletariat (a term Marx borrowed from Roman society) and the new class are enormously unifying tools as concepts, but Americans have many obstacles to grasping them.

The language of class came from Marxism, but it is so grossly distorted that today, “middle class” means to Americans what Marx meant by “proletariat” (which literally means working class) while we don’t even have a name for what Marx meant by “bourgeoisie,” which doesn’t mean “middle class” in our sense, but the group of people who pay others to work for them. [That’s some people we know, usually small business owners going through financially rough times.] When Marx talks about the alienated worker, he’s talking about all of us who sell our days for someone else’s profit margin. [That’s probably you and me and almost everyone we know].

Americans tend to believe that capitalism is the way things have always been and always will be because we are deliberately taught not to understand our history as a history of such class antagonisms—not block to block differences but huge differences based on who controls the "money" (actually, whatever's making the world go around at any given point).

In public schools, for the most part, the classless societies that predate feudalism are ignored, just as the communism of early Christianity is glossed over in Sunday school classes. We don't see capitalism as a stage of development that liberated a growing middle class from imperial rule while creating and enslaving new classes. Instead, we draw conclusions about human nature without looking at class antagonism, and so we, judge historical choices as a series of individual decisions with no meaningful social context.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reason #10--American Concepts of Class are Useless (If Not Dangerous)

We have all been indoctrinated with subjective concepts of class (based, for the most part on behavior) that divide families who live side by side in a typical American neighborhood. It’s both ironic and revealing that today’s politicians pounce on any reference to class as divisive and destructive to America. They get away with this to the extent that they do because of the fuzzy concepts of class we tend to share. After all, to Americans "class warfare" sounds like neighbor fighting neighbor, or block fighting block, or eastside fighting westside. Without any concrete meaning for the term class, we remain blind to the forces controlling our lives.

The way we are taught to think about class, at best, is confusing. "Our country is unique in that it has no social classes," my high school American history teacher told us back in the 80s. Students have been told this for generations. And those same students have smelled a lie in such claims. After all, we've been taught about classes all our lives.

The way we’re taught about class in America is subjective, a matter of perception. My mother disliked Elvis because he was "greasy." The family on the corner was "trashy" because they had too much junk in the yard. Trashy people didn't cut the lawn as often as we did. Some people park their cars in a garage, others in a carport, others in the street, and others on the lawn. While we may say all of these people are "middle class" in any given American neighborhood, our cultural prejudices make these distinctions every day.

Looking back, I think I was particularly aware of this difference because my family was usually the odd one in our social context. We were isolated because of the American dream of class mobility. My father was the first male in his family to get a college education. His friends and family back home consistently, if gently, teased him for having lots of book learning but not knowing how to fix his own car.

My mother’s grandfather lost his plantation and the family plunged economically. Her father (a "banty Irishman," he was called with disdain) died young, so her mother worked a series of secretarial jobs. Yet Nana clung to her manners like someone who sensed her very identity depended on it. Thrown into poverty as a child, she bristled around my father's side of the family because it was too loud, and therefore of a different class. She taught me how to pronounce words, hold a fork and sit at the table in the "proper" way. These were all signs of the class I should aspire to be part of. Her influence emphasized the differences between my family and other families.

I was generally perceived as softer than my friends, and I suppose I was. Many of my friends, the ones I most wanted to be like, were either rednecks or poor or both. They talked tougher than me; they were wilder and cooler. They were my mentors in all my teenage rites of passage, from smoking to ducking a fight, and I felt a great solidarity with them. But deeper forces kept us apart.

In high school, being around the family of my best friend, Paul, made very plain to me just how wide the gulf within our class could be. They lived on a country road called Nigger Gap. Paul's mother worked nights in a hospital, and his father was a welder. The kids took care of two invalid grandparents who lived in the home. Paul was learning to be a welder, too, and never voiced a thought about going away to college. Their friends were hard laborers, raised to take their places in a world different from the one I was being raised for. All of them but Paul greeted me with suspicion; Paul’s sister used to tease me in a way that was flirtatious but had a bite, like she assumed that I thought I was better than she was. After I went away to college, Paul, too, became more remote with each visit. The last thing I remember him saying to me was, "It's like we don't have anything to talk about any more."

Both my family and Paul's family were really working class--mine more white collar and his more blue collar, mine with an illusion of security his didn't have. But our society is great at dividing working people into a wide variety of subjective groups.

Among the poor, just a couple of paychecks from where either of our families might be, Americans think of the working poor and those who look for work as one class, and those who've given up looking as another. There are the "salt-of-the-earth" poor and the "good-for-nothing." All of these divisions distinguish between poor people of quality and "trash."

More to the point, these romantic (as in subjective and arbitrary) distinctions distinguish between how we see ourselves and the ways we see others, often as less than fully human. Someone else is always trash. If you’re white, that someone else may be black, and if you're black, that someone else may be darker than you are or might be rednecks or white trash. The divisions between self and trash cut as many different directions as imaginable; they are bound not by laws but only by imagination--for this version of class is a fantasy.

This is the opposite of class-consciousness; it is class confusion. The way we view class is worse than not being able to see the forest for the trees. It amounts to not being able to tell that two trees are both pines because they don't have branches in the same places. The objective conception of class Marx uses is simple, clear and practical.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reason #9--Old Tools Unmastered May Be Just the New Tools We Need

Like all worthwhile philosophy, Marx's overall theory is not meant to die in the armchair. And it's not meant to be replaced by dogma. It's more like a stance for navigating the details of our existence and how we get from where we are to where we need to be.

Since we've become a world more or less run by private corporations (which Marx sketched out at the dawn of the modern industrial era), we've need new maps to navigate our lives, and Marxism in its most basic forms provides the tools for drafting and following those maps. I tend to think the crucial concept is class, but Marx uses this term so differently than it is usually used in America that it is as if North and South, East and West have been scrambled.

This idea of class affects everything else. In Marx's most concise summary of his theory, a preface he wrote to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he states, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

We know this, but I don't think we appreciate it. We are taught to selectively apply this understanding. In school, we are taught to overlook the sexism and racism of leaders from another age because we must remember, "They were men of their time." And yet, we often seem to forget that we are creatures of our own time, place and experience.

Our conditions are not fixed and eternal any more than those in the past, and they are distorted by our individual points of view, just as potentially distorted as the opinions of those past leaders our history teachers ask us to excuse.

To truly understand the times we live in, we need to consider how every idea we have is born out of the comfort and antagonism in our lives, whether it is our own idea based on our own experiences or that of those around us.

Why is it that so many teachers I work with speak so disdainfully of their students (me, too, man; I have my days....), and why is it that we suspect our administrators as much as our students suspect us?

Is it, in the first case, because we are in an antagonistic power relationship with our students, pitted against each other in a battle of wills? Is it because, on the most basic level, we are fighting each other rather than a larger system that has little interest in truly democratic education?

Is it, in the latter case, because we know that the administration and the Board are looking out for the bottom line above all else and, despite the way teachers love to think of ourselves as "professionals" (it helps to justify all that money we spent in school), we are no more important to the system than any other worker?

Is this same realization the reason doctors chafe at receiving their instructions from an insurance company, an HMO? Don't we all know the quality of the job we do matters little to those in charge as long as it serves the bottom line?

[And one of the most valuable things about a Marxist approach is that it allows us to set personality aside for a moment--not ignore it but set it aside. This isn't about nice people or mean people, good guys or bad guys, devoted teachers or burn outs (although it is about the process that creates burn out). This is about the larger forces wearing on these people, on all of us. Bottom line, as I said before, my day job is chair filler and gatekeeper. Everything else I do is my own initiative.]

Faith in capitalism requires a belief that what serves the bottom line is in the best interest of all parties. But try telling that to the cancer patient who can't receive experimental treatment the insurance company won't fund (nevermind those who can't afford insurance). Try telling that to me when I know I could push a borderline writing student past his or her hurdles if I wasn't juggling this students' needs against 100 others.

[And believe me, our writing teachers have had to fight to keep the number of writers we deal with down to a group we can just barely read, a hundred a semester, a number that gets called into question almost every time we negotiate our contracts.]

We all know the truth. The bottom line serves a few people’s interests while it shortchanges most of us who get sick and most of us who seek an education. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy suffering in isolation to see the potential for liberation that lurks in such an observation. We are too alienated to see we are really not alone. We lack the class consciousness to see a basis for unity.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Reason #8--We All Need Perspective

I started doing this daily writing 8 days ago because I needed perspective. The worst part of teaching, for me, is the way the semester seems designed to last just long enough that I lose all perspective. Then there's that crunch at the end when I've got all the term papers and finals to read. Although this year was certainly not a breeze, I do think I got through those last few days with some measure of sanity I don't always keep hold of. The regrets of the end of the semester--the sense that everything has been a failure, or the obsession over the failures--always lead to all these ideas about how I'm going to do everything differently next semester, but this time I think I've got an idea for a qualitative break with the past.

What really eats at me at the end of the semester are all of the tasks that don't mean much to me, but I just do them because that's what I've always done. I don't want to bore anyone with the details. Let's just say some aspects of how I teach remain in my routine simply because of theory that was popular at the time I started teaching, and I have recognized at the close of this semester that my resentment over how futile these efforts seem is reflected in the students' attitude toward them--or vice versa. Anyway, I've used carrot-and-stick methods to maintain certain aspects of what's called "process" method, and I think all I've done is teach students ways to get carrots that express contempt for the process. Somewhere, Alfie Kohn (who thinks carrots and sticks corrode real learning) is saying "I told you so."

The carrot and stick are gone, Alfie. You win.

To paraphrase what Marx said to Bukunin a couple of posts back, what Marxists are almost always saying to other lefties--just because your hypothesis says something ought to be true, or just because you want it to be true, doesn't mean that's how it's going to work out.

At some point, you have to quit trying for a different result from the same old methods. Sometimes, you have to drop your tools, step back and take a fresh look at what you're trying to accomplish and why it's not working.

I got at this some in Monsters, Marx and Music when I began to write about the significance of Marx's concept of class. The idea is remarkably simple, pliable and distinctly different from the way most other people use it, so I will be talking about class over the next few posts. But it's first most fundamental virtue is the way it reminds us of our significance in the big picture.

From MMM:

Karl Marx diagnosed why we have a hard time getting our heads off the pillow in the morning. Why do so many of us dread our work? Why do we spend most days wishing our lives away? Why do we watch the clock? Why do we feel dread when we mean to be having fun? Why do we feel so alone?

He used the concept of the alienation of the worker to describe such conditions. And he actually showed why they were natural symptoms of a sick system. The alienated worker is someone who works all day for someone else’s profits. The basic principle of modern work parallels what slaves learned working in the fields. The harder and faster the slave worked, the faster pace the master expected, and the length of the slave’s life shortened.

For most of us working for a salary or an hourly wage today, the same principle is true. We have to work harder every year to keep our job, but we don’t live better. We instinctively suspect what Marx showed--the higher profits go, the harder our job becomes. In general, the effective exploitation of labor required by competitive business means that the worker becomes estranged from what he or she does, and, at the same time, competition’s increased need for division of labor alienates us from one another. While Marxism’s concept of the alienation of the worker is crucial to appreciating his critique of capitalism, his thoughts on the ties that bind us together show a way out.

Our daily problems threaten to overwhelm us. We don’t need to be told we are working harder and faster for less and less security than our parents before us. Sure, we have color TVs, CD and DVD players and cars that (more often than our parents' cars) start in the winter, but these material advances only reflect the technological advances (and overproduction) of our society.

What we don't have is the peace and security that might allow us to enjoy these things. Real security means job security to maintain our current standard of living, the promise of enough money to keep our kids well fed and clothed, the promise of enough to live on late in life or when we are no longer able-bodied, anything to hedge us against the disasters of illness and injury. Those kinds of security have virtually vanished.

Researchers have concluded that we live with more tension and less sleep than any generation before us. Our epidemics of anxiety disorders and depression only seem to confirm this.

Marx's theories allow us to step back from the confusing details of our daily existence and see their deep causes. Marx's analysis of the evolution of history and the broad outlines of capitalism itself are not particularly controversial. Detractors don’t argue with Marx’s analysis of the evolution of history or his description of capitalism. They reject only his solutions. Still, our system works best if unexamined, and those in power have long known the danger of the objective view that Marx offers.

Like the witches who drew on ancient ideas and thought outside of the narrow parameters of Puritanism, Marx sees human potential outside of the limits of our current society. Everybody who sees the potential of a cooperative society threatens the system in this way—from the early Christians to today's anticorporate protesters.

Marx's writing adds a unique quality to this threat (or hope). It says a cooperative society is more than a noble idea; it is a logical resolution to our current social problems.

Like the first astronauts on the moon, we get a brand new look at our big blue when we read Marx. It allows us to see the past 3000 years of cascading forms of oppression as a brief storm and the potential for the evolution of mankind from our ancient cooperative existence based in a struggle to survive scarcity to a future cooperative society necessary to manage the world's potentially abundant resources....

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reason #7--It Takes the Objective AND the Subjective

As I mentioned before, I began writing my personal take on Marx when I was spending most of my time lying flat on my back. I was still functioning; I could take a couple of Vicodin and go teach class, grade papers and spend time with my daughter, but the evenings and the nights, as anyone with back pain can testify, were the worst. During one of the first weeks of my pain, before I had a regular prescription for codeine, I grew more depressed with each passing day. I did not care too much about anything anymore. Thank God for the narcotics that were able to at least get me off the floor and engaging in life on some level after that.

But the doctors didn’t have many answers. My physician referred me to a back surgeon, who said that I could probably go on like this indefinitely, but my condition would only worsen. He gave me back exercises to do, and he said that I may be able to lessen the pain with this therapy, but, longterm, the only thing he really had to offer me was surgery.

I wasn’t ready for that, but I was close. I did the exercises religiously. I talked to everyone I knew about alternative therapies, including massage, yoga and acupuncture, and I took their advice. In fact, I visited an acupuncturist a few times, but I couldn’t afford the $60 a session for long, and I wasn’t experiencing any tangible results, so I quit.

One friend of mine told me about a book called Healing Back Pain by a doctor named John Sarno. She said her husband had also been flat on his back, and this book got him up off the floor without drugs. Sarno had found that most people by their mid-20s had herniated and desiccated discs, but they had no pain. He acknowledged that the pain many of us experience was physically real, but questioned whether it was being caused by something other than the apparent injury. After years of treating these patients, he developed a theory that the pain was a genuine physical effect of an emotional cause, generally anger.

My friend explained this theory carefully, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. All I heard was that the pain was psychological, and I knew my pain was real. I’d insisted for three years that my neurological symptoms (skin crawling essentially) had been real, and the outbreak of severe pain as well as the CatScan of my discs was my vindication. As suspicious as I was of Western medicine’s shortcomings, my experiences with asthma had made me very resistant to psychological explanations, and I’d also learned that nothing but a doctor’s shot or prescription was a guaranteed fix. The same could be said for my pain pills.

I accepted her advice graciously, but I didn’t act on it. Instead, I stuck with my neck exercises, and by spring, when I was to be re-evaluated for surgery, my pain had diminished considerably, so I was able to put that off.

But, the neck pain came back for the holidays the following year, and I started going through several pills a day. That's when I finally read Healing Back Pain. I couldn’t put it down because it met me right where I was living. It carefully began by describing the horror of backpain in such a way that I knew Sarno knew what he was talking about, and he was clearly granting that it was real. He made a point of giving a physical explanation of the pain’s causes before daring to speculate about any emotional issues at its root.

Using his own story as a doctor treating back pain for several decades, Sarno eased into how he began to question the relationship between the back injuries and the pain. He noticed contradictions between what should be the effects of the injuries and their place of origin in the nerves. He argued that the pain was caused not by pressure from the disc but by a tension in that area of the back. He called that condition Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), and it was in his effort to explain this syndrome that he began to tackle an emotional root.

He talked about anger and how we are socialized not to express it and, worse, not even to acknowledge it. He personalized his theory by explaining how he had put an end to his own migraines by listing what was making him angry whenever he had the first visual symptoms of an oncoming attack. His theory of treatment echoed this approach. When pain was coming on, he told patients to think about it psychologically and emotionally. What was going on that might be making them angry?

What he found was that this approach seemed to alert the brain that the cause of this tension was being acknowledged. Very often, the perverse rewiring of the emotional response would cease. He said that many people became better the minute they began thinking of their condition in these terms.

I sat and read his book for about 3 hours straight realizing he had me. I had always been a “nice guy,” an empathizer, who rarely felt I had the right to my anger. According to Sarno, rationalizing away anger didn’t work. If I was angry, right or wrong, the emotion would find expression, and if I did not feel good about my anger (which I rarely did), it made an odd sort of sense that it would turn against me.

In the second hour of reading that book, my pain began to diminish. Sarno said it would grow smaller and begin moving around once I found it out. It did. Though I renewed and sometimes took my pain medication after that day, I knew in my heart I really didn’t need it the same way I did before. When I got the symptoms, I went through a process of listing just as Sarno did for his migraines, and the pain always diminished. I get some restless leg type symptoms still today, and my lower back pains (which predate the neck pains) still flare up at times, but even these can be greatly eased when I think of them as stemming from a tension disorder and an emotional root.

This has even got me pretty convinced of an emotional root to that asthma (which I denied throughout my childhood), and I do know that I can associate various aspects of it with my emotional state at the time. I also know that a strong asthma attack is potentially deadly, so I still treat the disorder with respect, but I no longer see the psychological root and physical reality as contradictory explanations.

I tell this story to complicate things a little in, hopefully, a constructive way. After all, though I associate Marxism with pretty straightforward scientific method, this example shows my personal experience with the shortcomings of conventional science. The important thing to note is that Sarno drew his conclusions based on scientific reasoning. He simply factored in that emotional element of what it is to be human in his exploration of the physical, something Western medicine still has a hard time doing.

In some ways, I think some rejection of Marxist ideas has a similar root cause. The Western mind is not comfortable drawing connections between objective conditions and their social expression. Instead, we tend to relegate science to things scientific (the physical world), and we treat psychological and social illnesses as subjective conditions, as moral weakness. There are exceptions, of course, but the treatment of anxiety and depression as simply physical problems to be medicated also leads down a dead end path.

This division between the rational and the spiritual no doubt accounts for our society’s extreme disconnect between science and spirituality. These ways to view the world co-exist in many unexamined ways, and that's one reason I've wanted to tackle monsters, Marx and music together.

But as my back story testifies, and as most of us quietly know somewhere deep in our hearts, the truth lies in some connection between the outer and the inner world, the objective and the subjective. We cannot solve our objective problems without the will and the vision to do so, but we can also not solve our moral and spiritual problems without an understanding of our objective conditions.

Marxism asks us to identify the contradictions between what we believe and what we collectively perceive to be true. In many ways, our daily lives are simply reactions to forces that bat us back and forth without any apparent rhyme or reason. Because of its focus on the relationship between the subjective and objective dimensions of what it means to be human (that's actually "dialectical materialism" in a nutshell), Marxism hands us tools for rising above the fray. Not grappling with Marx’s theory at all, as Americans in general have not, means attempting to navigate a sea of subjective squalls and objective currents blindfolded....