Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
contact: gabbaweeks[at]gmail.com (sorry, no promos/submissions, thanks) or ask
Dublin/Galway, Ireland. 27, history graduate & human rights student
HFN | Best New Punk | HFN 2012 2011 2010 2009 | HRO 2k9 | Hoover Genealogy Project | @HC4N
*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Jul 07

We have to formulate a new set of rules for work if we are to prevent “click workers” from becoming day labourers void of all rights in the digital world. We see how employees are exposed to unprecedented surveillance stress when their PC monitor, a camera or even sensors carried on their bodies constantly monitor and report their productivity. We see how work is losing its fixed base, how the boundary between work and leisure is becoming blurred, how long-lasting contractual relationships to a single employer are becoming a thing of the past and how permanent jobs are being replaced by “projects” advertised or even auctioned on the web so that the fastest and cheapest tenderer gets the contract, i. e. all do the work but only the winner gets paid. The technical possibilities of destroying decent work can be extended indefinitely. The critical question is whether we want to allow this to happen and whether we want to live in this kind of world. We need to encourage further debate on this issue hand in hand with the trade unions.

Looking back on Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit, we can draw new confidence that the digital age which started in humble circumstances but with a grand idea will remain open for innovative ideas that can positively change people’s work and lives. To achieve this aim, we need entrepreneurs with the same qualities as could once be found in utopia-driven California, namely a keen sense of the human desire to be liberated from undignified dependence. It is up to European politics to re-formulate the democratically legitimised regulatory and market conditions of the digital age and to establish relevant regulations, even if this involves a struggle, with the force of a crystal-clear analysis along with the interventionary power of a vast economic region.

Sigmar Gabriel: consequences of the Google debate

This article by the German vice chancellor and leader of the centre-left SPD is interesting in a lot of ways, and I’ll do another post on it shortly, but I just wanted to pick out this section. I’m usually conflicted these days between cynicism (or perhaps realism) regarding social democrats and their ability or willingness to effect change, and optimism (or again, perhaps wishful thinking) that some combination of radical aims and moderate means can be effective. The above in a way echoes some of the radical left concerns with digital alienation, though (and note the emphasis on fitting the solution within the ‘fairness’ of economic exchange) the social democratic raison d’etre is, or should be, concern for labour.

The language, particularly in the second paragraph, is what I find most interesting - it’s translated from German (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or FAZ, the NYT-equivalent), presumably, so some stylistic affectations may be peculiar to their discourse - and continues throughout the piece. There is a very particular notion of freedom - fitting in with the ordoliberal schema - and its place as a balance between social and economic forces. Totalitarianism is evoked, and servitude - “undignified dependence” - yet the rallying cry is far from libertarian, and instead more Hegelian and world-historical: “a struggle, with the force of a crystal-clear analysis along with the interventionary power of a vast economic region”.

technocapitalism politics socialism
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Jul 02
Permalink socialism economics politics history
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May 31
And so it came to pass that the category marked “Others”, which included small parties and alliances such as the Greens, People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance, accumulated an enormous vote.

Rise of the Others - The Irish Times

But marked by whom - RTÉ and the Irish Times? The official count and ballot papers usually describe candidates as ‘non-party’, if they’re not part of a registered formation, so one could say that ‘Independents/Others’ is in effect a media fiction. In which it serves a purpose - as in the quasi-scientific world of opinion polling and politics studies departments - of denoting actors too numerous and small to be worthy of individual attention. Of course, their electoral success will demand more regard from now on; but not perhaps in the way people think.

For a start, the three groupings above won 30 seats between them (14 each to PBP and the AAA, and 12 for the Green Party), and got a quarter of the vote in the European election for the Dublin constituency, the largest share going to the Green Party candidate (with a further 4% for their candidate in the South constituency). A further five seats in the local elections went to even smaller groupings such as United Left, Workers’ and Unemployed Action Group, and Republican Sinn Féin.

However, those numbers are dwarfed by the 193 ‘independent’ candidates elected, who received just over 23% of the votes as a group (both successful and unsuccessful) compared to 5-6% for the smaller parties. That is, depending on whether you measure it by seats or vote share, there are 5 or 6 times as many ‘independents’ as there are ‘others’. In the European elections, with three independent candidates elected (Nessa Childers, Marian Harkin and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan) out of eleven seats, 19.8% of first preference votes went to independents compared to 10.8% for the smaller groupings (mostly in Dublin), with none elected.

So while there’s a call for the AAA and PBP formations to be listed separately in the opinion polls, as the Greens have tended to have been, with concentrated urban support they won’t show up in national polling as much more than 2-3%, at most (where the Socialist Party, the core of the AAA, did appear, it was on 1%). More importantly, the ‘independents’ category hides a large variety of political views and past affiliations, which at least someone is trying to collate (and as Noel Whelan picked up in the Irish Times). Independents have always been a feature of Irish political life - in a large part due to PR-STV, which means that they can get elected individually - and a category that seems to have grown along with the rest, if not in fact outstripping them, is ex-party independents. In other words, it is not so much a shift in the content of politics but in its form. 

To this end the article brings in the thesis of political scientist Peter Mair, that

"[f]or modern democracy to work … we need parties, and when they no longer play their proper role, “democracy itself is at stake”. But the first hurdle for parties is the perception in Europe that they’re all the same."

Oddly, it is then argued that in the US “distinct ideologies have led to polarisation and the rise of partisanship. So there’s a problem when they do and a problem when they don’t”. Not only might one query the actual divergence of ideologies between the two US parties, but the US system offers individual representatives much more freedom compared to the parliamentary party whip (although they have been using that freedom in a more polarised fashion); the idea seems to be parties - preferably more than two, of course - good, partisanship bad.

Ideally, in this model, diverse parties should be able to work together constructively to represent different interests and thus create stable consensual government. But the Irish (and lately, UK) experience is that when dominant conservative parties bring smaller, ostensibly more progressive parties into coalitions of austerity, the resultant compromises in favour of the dominant partner and of the perceived exigencies of the situation rebound most significantly on the latter: 

"citizens who vote for parties always get coalitions, with the inevitable consequence of watered-down programmes amid shouts of “traitors” and “scum”, as seen in loathsome confrontations in this campaign."

It was certainly unpleasant, from what I saw of it (the particular candidate, unlike many of their party colleagues, was elected in the end) but ‘loathsome’ seems too strong a word to describe “citizens” responding to the bind of austerity politics and seeking someone to blame (better politicians than immigrants, no?). That’s not to say I condone or even fully agree with the approach - I don’t think the motives for Labour’s participation in government are as easily understandable as the popular reading makes out, though I’m not amongst those worst affected by their cuts - but to ask what is the effective alternative?

Another of Mair’s ideas is that technocracy and populism, typically seen as cause and effect in Europe, are in fact two sides of the one coin. So that:

"The two positions seem completely opposed, but in fact they have one attitude in common: the technocrats think there’s only one rational solution to every policy issue, hence there’s no need for debate; the populists believe there is an authentic popular will and that they are the only ones who can discern it, hence there’s no need for debate."

It’s a caricature of both positions: any good technocrat will tell you they’re merely applying evidence-based policy-making, which can of course propose multiple solutions with various costs and benefits and ultimately it is still a political decision which particular approach and balance of attributes (derived, ultimately, from a social vision) is pursued; a ‘populist’ is usually just someone who gives voice to a section of the population outside of the dominant economic and political class - even if that voice is never wholly representative, it challenges the notion of ‘debate’ being had and its pre-programmed, ideological constraints (which are, in turn, those which constrain ‘evidence-based’ policy).

Indeed, part of the challenge posed by this sweeping new wave of ‘Others’ (such an ideologically loaded phrase) is to representation itself, as explained in this translated post on the Spanish Podemos movement (the name derives from the Spanish ‘we can’, Obama fans):

"All this would have been, and will be totally impossible with a classic party of the left. The party, as an institutional form, is strictly an ideological state apparatus and a political state apparatus (Althusser). Even when it exercises functions of representation for the exploited and oppressed sectors of society, a party remains part of a “political game” that reproduces existing social relations and legitimises them. To avoid this and to generate an authentic process of occupying the institutions, and of representation in general by social movements and the common citizenry, it is necessary for the ‘representatives’ not to represent, but to act within the institutions as appendices of the social majority that is resisting. The articulation of circles and ideologico-representative apparatuses in competition with those of the State and the dominant social sectors permits the effective neutralisation of the repressive and reproductive functions of the social order exercised by representation."

For now, the two left ‘alliances’ in Ireland are grouped around classic left/Trotskyist parties, the SP and SWP; the independents appear to remain the disparate group they have always been. The tightly-knit organisation of Sinn Féin, with its ‘populist’ economic approach, have been the real electoral winners, although one suspects (and, somewhat unkindly, hopes) that their fate would be the same as all the previous government parties - that is, unless they are not too canny for that. All the political correspondents have been quoting Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ to the effect that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”; but none I’ve seen question the following line, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”; in context it’s negative, of course, but what if “mere anarchy” is something we need just a little bit of?

irish politics socialism anarchism
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Mar 27
To conform to the cliché, it takes something special for Canadians to piss me off. A variation of this image (with ‘Canada’ replaced by ‘Toronto’) is on bus shelter ads in Dublin currently, promoting Molson Canadian lager. Aside from that being the iconic O’Connell Street statue of syndicalist trade unionist James Larkin, urging Irish workers to rise up against their capitalist overlords - I don’t want to be too precious about public monuments, and it’d be better if the image was more widely understood in the first place, whatever about it being co-opted by commercial advertising - the irony is that Larkin was also a) a teetotaller and b) a protectionist.
In the Irish Worker of 1911, “Larkin reminded his readers that he did not drink himself but for:

men foolish enough to consume strong drink, it would be better that they should drink the liquor, stout or beer made by such firms as Watkins, Jameson, Pim & Co who not only employ Irishmen in every department, but who, I am informed, use practically all Irish-grown grain.”
Patrick Coughlan and Francis Devine, ‘In Pursuit of Patrick Donegan, Guinness boatman, 1895-1955: a case of family history’ in Frances Devine, ed., A Capital in Conflict: Dublin City and the 1913 Lockout (Dublin City Council, 2013), p. 314

To conform to the cliché, it takes something special for Canadians to piss me off. A variation of this image (with ‘Canada’ replaced by ‘Toronto’) is on bus shelter ads in Dublin currently, promoting Molson Canadian lager. Aside from that being the iconic O’Connell Street statue of syndicalist trade unionist James Larkin, urging Irish workers to rise up against their capitalist overlords - I don’t want to be too precious about public monuments, and it’d be better if the image was more widely understood in the first place, whatever about it being co-opted by commercial advertising - the irony is that Larkin was also a) a teetotaller and b) a protectionist.

In the Irish Worker of 1911, “Larkin reminded his readers that he did not drink himself but for:

men foolish enough to consume strong drink, it would be better that they should drink the liquor, stout or beer made by such firms as Watkins, Jameson, Pim & Co who not only employ Irishmen in every department, but who, I am informed, use practically all Irish-grown grain.”

Patrick Coughlan and Francis Devine, ‘In Pursuit of Patrick Donegan, Guinness boatman, 1895-1955: a case of family history’ in Frances Devine, ed., A Capital in Conflict: Dublin City and the 1913 Lockout (Dublin City Council, 2013), p. 314

dublin socialism history
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Mar 22
We must reconsider leisure. For a long time the wealthiest lived a life of leisure at the expense of the toiling masses. The rise of intelligent machines makes it possible for many more people to live such lives without exploiting others. Today’s triumphant puritanism finds such idleness abhorrent. Well, then, let people enjoy themselves busily. What else is the true goal of the vast increases in prosperity we have created?

Enslave the robots and free the poor - Martin Wolf

I’ve been meaning to write about this very good piece, from Wolf’s Financial Times column as syndicated to the Irish Times. I finished André Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class recently, having read it in search of answer, or at least a perspective, on this very question. 

Most interestingly, on the call for a basic income which even Wolf joins above and which is becoming increasingly common not only on the left, Gorz sounds a note of scepticism (I have my own, too):

"Socialised distribution of production, according to need rather than effective demand, was for a long time one of the central demands of the Left. This is now becoming ever less the case. In itself, it can only lead to the state taking greater charge of individual lives. The right to a ‘social income’ (or ‘social wage’) for life in part abolishes ‘forced wage labour’ only in favour of a wage system without work. It replaces or complements, as the case may be, exploitation with welfare, while perpetuating the dependence, impotence and subordination of individuals to centralised authority. This subordination will be overcome only if the autonomous production of use-values becomes a real possibility for everyone."

I don’t fully share Gorz’s aversion to the state, which makes his autonomism look a bit like a more polite version of anarchism; but if many people would be more than happy to accept a “wage system without work”, he makes it clearly that it is little different than being on the dole. Equally, he notes that “the abolition of work is neither acceptable nor desirable for people who identify with their work, define themselves through it and do or hope to realise themselves in their work” - it is in essence an issue of subjectivity. This is all in the introduction to the book, his Nine Theses for a Future Left, which introduces the idea of a ‘non-class of non-workers’ as a necessary improvement on the old Marxist notion of the proletarian class as the driver of socialism. Much of the book is in fact an interesting critique of Marxism, as suggested by the subtitle An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism; the post-industrial element is mostly about showing the effect of technological change on society such that it has become irrevocably complex. Thus he rules out one form of autonomy, which is a retreat to self-sufficiency, at least on the grand scale, and advocates a ‘dual society’ which combines personal autonomy and, kept to a minimum, ‘heteronomy’, that is, socially necessary labour. As he says:

"Freedom cannot be based on the abolition of socially determined labour, nor … upon elimination of external compulsion so as to have each individual perform what is objectively necessary as an internalised moral duty."


"the very same technological developments that make it possible to free time and reduce everyone’s work load also allow the Right, through the weapon of unemployment, to reinforce the old ideology of hard work and productivity just when it no longer has any further economic or technical basis."

The second quote is from an appended text, ‘Towards a Policy of Time’, which states the argument of the book in much more accessible manner and with fewer political-theoretical trappings. On the side of personal autonomy, it is this ‘free time’ from work, guaranteed by a social income, which enables people to realise their social and individual selves; but on the other, the mandatory contribution of a certain amount of part-time work to ensure the smooth running of society. Though he points to what he calls ‘the hidden costs of productivism’ where the demands for social and administrative services would in fact be lessened if adults were not forced to work full-time jobs, but instead were able to attend to their families and communities at leisure.

It’s utopian, but in a good way - and addresses at least some of the issues I have with a straightforward redistributive income guarantee, if with the result of highlighting the necessary transformative social change. For me, a big issue I still have with Basic Income is the inherent reliance of our society on wage exploitation - cheap (frequently immigrant) labour for menial tasks in the service industry - and then the extent to which we are addicted to resource exploitation on the global scale, both of which make the idea of a redistributive income guarantee amongst Western citizens (more than already exists, comparatively speaking) highly problematic without a clear further shift in moral and ethical attitudes.

economics basic income socialism politics gorz books
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Mar 09
'Socialism will win' - graffiti in a laneway off Parkgate Street, Dublin (on the side of some derelict houses)

'Socialism will win' - graffiti in a laneway off Parkgate Street, Dublin (on the side of some derelict houses)

phone pics dublin socialism
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Feb 18
It represents a sphere of sovereignty wrested (or to be wrested) from a world governed by the principles of productivity, aggression, competition, hierarchical discipline, etc. Capitalism owes its political stability to the fact that, in return for the dispossession and growing constraints experienced at work, individuals enjoy the possibility of building an apparently growing sphere of individual autonomy outside of work.

André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism

"Essentially, the ‘freedom’ which the majority of the population of the overdeveloped nations seeks to protect from ‘collectivism’ and the ‘totalitarian’ threat, is the freedom to create a private niche protecting one’s personal life against all pressures and external social obligations. This niche may be represented by family life, a home of one’s own, a back garden, a do-it-yourself workshop, a boat, a country cottage, a collection of antiques, music, gastronomy, sport, love, etc. Its importance varies inversely with the degree of job satisfaction and in direct proportion with the intensity of social pressures […]

The industrialisation, through home computers, of physical and psychical care and hygiene, children’s education, cooking or sexual technique is precisely designed to generate capitalist profits from activities still left to individual fantasy.”

gorz socialism internet
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Feb 11
It is no longer possible for workers to identify with ‘their’ work or ‘their’ function in the productive process. Everything now appears to take place outside themselves. ‘Work’ itself has become a quantum of reified activity awaiting and subjugating the ‘worker’.

André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, 6. A New Historical Subject: The Non-Class of Post-Industrial Proletarians

This chapter is great - it’s everything that’s I’ve seen about precarity or millenial disillusionment, but written in 1980. To be honest, nothing he says in it is therefore new, and I still have niggling doubts about his premise that work was ever meaningful (or perhaps rather that the Marxist conception of work imbued it with a meaning that was historically contingent and quickly obsolete, but I’m not sure that’s ultimately any more convincing), but I really need to read to the end of the book and digest some of the implications, particularly on autonomy, to make a judgement on that. Still, that last line can be applied to almost any aspect of neoliberal discourse surrounding employment currently (and also cf. Orwell’s tirade against the ‘good job’ in Keep the Aspidistra Flying which I just re-read in full for the first time since my teens, and it hits a lot harder now). 

Gorz socialism politics
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Jan 31
A narrow focus on technology is also inadequate, as it fails to explain some of the big shifts of the last decade like the explosion in rewards at the very top – 60% of the enormous increase in the slice of income flowing upwards to the richest 1% over the last decade went to those working in finance. To lay this at the door of the anonymous force called “technology” is to excuse way too much. Sure, developments in ICT were relevant, but they don’t explain political choices over deregulation or account for rapacious rent-seeking by the financial elite. Wage inequality has many authors, from the demise of collective bargaining to the rise of globalisation. As the influential Washington-based EPI thinktank has argued: don’t make robots the fall guy.

The robots are coming. Will they bring wealth or a divided society? | Technology | The Observer (via new-aesthetic)

Or as André Gorz happened to put it (in 1980 - bolding mine):

"Automation and computerisation have eliminated most skills and possibilities for initiative and are in the process of replacing what remains of the skilled labour force (whether blue or white collar) by a new type of unskilled worker. The age of the skilled workers, with their power in the factory and their anarcho-syndicalist projects, has now to be seen as but an interlude which taylorism, ‘scientific work organisation’, and, finally, computers and robots will have brought to a close.

More than anyone anticipated, capital has succeeded in reducing workers’ power in the productive process. It has been able to combine a gigantic increase in productive power with a destruction in workers’ autonomy. It has been able to entrust ever more complex and powerful mechanised processes to the care of workers with ever more limited capacities. It has succeeded to the extent that those who were once called upon to take command of the giant machinery of modern industry have been dominated by - and in - the work of domination which they were to accomplish. It has simultaneously increased the technical power and capacities of the proletariat as a whole and the impotence of proletarians themselves, whether as individuals, in teams or work groups.”

The Guardian/Observer piece is rather good, in that it touches on a lot of points in what is going to become (or rather, already is) a very important issue - including the concept I recently came across of ‘jobs polarization’ between the highly-skilled minority creating and controlling the money-making technology versus the low-skilled workforce used for necessary labour that can’t (or won’t) be automated. Initially I thought Groz was thus being too pessimistic or hyperbolic in talking about the replacement of all skilled labour - but maybe not in the long run, if you look at the part I’ve highlighted. I don’t really see why the creative/analytical powers of the human mind will forever be immune to automation (or more specifically, replacement by iterative, data-analytic processes that churn out quantifiably ‘optimal’ solutions) in which case the same dynamic will have been applied to the supposed ‘elite’ of the current information economy.

Given that the problem can be seen as essentially (a Marxist) one of control of the means of production, the supremacy of private capital, and so on, the ultimate solution has to be some kind of transformative change. But since - aside from the very transformation we are already concerned about - such transformation is blocked for a variety of (chiefly political) reasons the response turns more towards a reformist or ameliorative agenda - a sort of techno-Keynesianism. In reading Gorz however I’m more interested in what radical potential their might be for autonomy in the use of the internet which - despite the myriad influences of corporate power and neoliberal subjectivity - is perhaps still the best bet for a decentralised, individualised means of production. Either that, or a blinking cursor in front of a human face forever…

(via tomewing)

gorz socialism economics internet
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Nov 25

Social Zen

"Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.

The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.”

Nishitani Keiji, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (1990) Appendix: ‘The Problem of Atheism, 1: Marxist Humanism’

So arising out of Zen Skin, Zen Marrow*, a book I picked up just because it looked interesting and seemed to be discussing the moral and political dimensions of Zen (which rarely happens from within the movement), I’ve now discovered a movement in Japanese academic philosophy - the Kyoto School - which applied Buddhist and Zen ideas to Western existentialism (or, perhaps more importantly, its immediate precursors; and also vice versa). That is, I’ve always seen the connection or resemblance between Western postmodern thought and Buddhist non-dualism, and perhaps rather more in the cultural than rigidly philosophical sense; this is, however, a series of Japanese thinkers before and after the Second World War applying ‘Eastern’ thought to Nietzsche and Heidegger (and yes, there are obvious, doubly compounded political issues with that). So it’s both a little unexpected and well out of my depth.

Nishitani appears to be chiefly a writer on religion, from this kind of Buddhist-existential perspective (his main work is titled Religion and Nothingness) and the quote above is from a brief appendix to a work I’ve not been able to give more than a cursory look over, but which does intrigue me (I’ve read quite a bit about Nietzsche and nihilism in, of all places, a book called James Joyce’s Negations, but I haven’t read Nietzsche himself yet - although he is in an existentialism reader I have on my shelf; Nietzsche also features prominently at the start of Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement). I’m unsure as to how enthusiastically I would agree with the above: if put bluntly, it seems basically accurate; yet I’m wary of taking on too much the perspective that materialism does not deal sufficiently with human life, given that its non-material existence has no rational basis (hence my general distrust of spiritualism)**.

Yet at the same time it is essentially my position on the limitations of political thought as applied to individual psychology, and also of the seemingly necessary disjunct between the philosophy of Zen and the politics of socialism: not that they necessarily contradict each other, but that it is a category error to force them together. Suffering and oppression are not the same thing; it doubtless requires a certain privilege to be able to focus on the former, although oppression enhances suffering and is necessarily one of its (myriad) causes. To say, however, that there is an essential problem with the human condition is not to abandon socialism, unless it is of the very dogmatic Marxist kind that sees every aspect of social progress as flowing scientifically from the rearrangement of economic relationships. It may be more strongly heretical - perhaps from both perspectives, the rationalist socialist and the transcendent Zen - but more and more I wonder if better self-understanding is not an essential, or at least important, prerequisite for collective action? (And how do I distinguish that from a simple truism that I’m too introvert to have shared before?)

*if that seems an obvious echo, or complement, of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones a very good collection of stories and koans - it’s because it is: referring to the sequence of four transmissions passed on by Bodhidharma to his disciples, in decreasing order of superficiality from ‘skin’ to ‘marrow’ with ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ being the intermediate levels, although it is argued (naturally) that such a value judgement is not meant to be taken as an absolute.

** though thinking back on it, Marx - or ‘Young Marx’ at least - does address this issue quite directly in Theses on Feuerbach, arguing for a kind of materialism that is on the verge of non-dualism in folding together all aspects of human life, if still primarily concerned with removing the last vestiges of idealism from that as a philosophical project.

zen politics philosophy socialism useless words
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