Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
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Dublin, Ireland. 27, history, politics & law graduate
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.
Sep 29

Margin Call: Capitalism’s ‘Darkness at Noon’?

I just watched the 2011 film Margin Call yesterday, set in the 2008 financial crash, and was really wowed by it. Not necessarily because it’s great cinema, or because it’s philosophically profound, or because it has good emotional characterisation. It fails to achieve those qualities to various degrees, but to the extent that it succeeds it is something rather more significant. It reminds me of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s classic 1940 novel about Stalin’s show trials, although really it’s about a greater issue: the collapse of trust in an ideology.

I’ll admit that I’m in love with the intellect and power portrayed in Margin Call. Yet, although it has the flashy mathematics (or movie-script version thereof) and suits, it actually shows their limits. Mathematics provides no solution, merely a stark depiction of the situation; power is constrained to work within the existing networks of greed and strength. No-one’s even really shown making an unexpected power-play, there’s not much narrative tension (that is, given that we’ve seen the actual crash happen); despite the premise that the firm’s trading has gone outside historical limits, exposing it to catastrophic losses, what actually happens occurs within preset limits of the firm within the market. After the beginning, there are no more surprises. And even that one, it is repeatedly hinted, is not that much of a surprise.

Similarly, in Darkness at Noon you always know that Rubashov, the Old Bolshevik, is going to be executed. It’s not even a matter of when or how, although it is to some extent a matter of why. This is because Koestler was writing in the aftermath of the worst period of Stalin’s terror, in 1936-7; and also immediately after the great betrayal of Communist ideals in the Hitler-Stalin (or Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact of 1939, a crushing blow to European anti-fascists still attached to the Party. The crux of the argument, as presented by Koestler, is whether Rubashov should accept his fate at the hand of a capricious dictatorship because through it acts the Revolution, the historically inevitable but subjectively fallible progress of man, as a collective; or if there is enough value in man, as an individual, to assert their moral right over political exigency (and inevitability).

(I use the term man here advisedly; this, and other books in the genre and period, are about men, written by men, concerning primarily values in the abstract, and secondarily the very serious emotions they produce in those men. I’ll admit I’m equally in love with the historico-political profundity, although I’d argue that it’s not necessarily gendered except by default - I’m sure women of the time could write and think the same, when allowed. See Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for an account of a slightly later but similar period - the 1950s - from the perspectives of Communism and feminism, and where Koestler is referred to as a “swine”. As for Margin Call, it fails the Bechdel test because the only time two women converse they are engaged in firing Stanley Tucci. Demi Moore has a fairly strong part as an older, senior executive (and in one excellent scene she and the guy from The Mentalist talk over a silent cleaning lady in an elevator) but while the rest of the film is almost entirely about men, and how they wrecked the global economy, I would argue that it doesn’t display any unnecessary machismo.)

A similar theme pops up in Margin Call, once it becomes clear the firm’s holdings are to be ‘liquidated’ (the same word used to describe political executions in Stalin’s Russia; the film also begins with a purge, in the form of layoffs). Zachary Quinto’s character - it’s so hard not to see him as young Spock - poses the question as to whether the course of action is “necessary.. or right”? Needless to say, he is in no position to influence the outcome, although he is the one who discovered the horrible truth (Rubashov’s guilt is not in any of his real actions; although it is perhaps in his awareness of the guiltiness of the system). By this stage it has already been established that what is right “can come in several interpretations”; more prosaically, it is identified solely with the need of the firm and its wealthy owner(s) to accrue their own best advantage.

It is at this point that I see an ideological parallel between Darkness at Noon and Margin Call, or better perhaps, a mirror image. The first is about the flaw in Communism that crushes individual lives (altogether rising to a great number) in pursuit of what, subjectively, may or may not ultimately benefit ‘the masses’, but which objectively we must have a paradoxical faith in as the supremely rational interpretation of history. The second is not so much about any fervent belief in the market, as a practical commitment to the acquisition of wealth - and its mathematical techniques - which lead however to the inevitability of capitalism’s structural problems as the ruling logic of human life. 

In each case there is a profound fatalism mixed with what is ostensibly a criticism of the subject at hand. If Darkness at Noon was an anti-communist novel (although Koestler expressed the Bolshevik viewpoint so well, or at least appeared to, that some thought he was still a Communist - including the FBI), then there’s a good case for arguing that Margin Call is an anti-capitalist film, or at least an anti-financial capitalism one. Each at least implicitly offers the temptation to believe that reform of the current system is impossible - either economically, taming the markets through regulation, or politically, allowing for a democratic revolution - but in painting such a gloomy picture of the status quo and, as it were, reifying its ideology it perhaps makes the argument for it. That at least is what I see as the main and deepest theme of the criticism of Darkness at Noon, from the divergent viewpoints of George Orwell to Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

As I read it, the latter’s Humanism and Terror, first published in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes of which he was the political editor, is part attack on Koestler and apologia for Stalinism, but also takes the heartless logic Koestler was supposedly criticising and expands on it as a justification for a pro-Communist political position (now in post-war France; Merleau-Ponty eventually broke with Stalinism during the Korean War). It becomes whatever is the opposite of an immanent critique; or alternatively, a sort of Pascal’s Wager on the progress of History (l’Histoire, always capitalised). The ever astute Orwell, writing a few years earlier, pointed out that by caricaturing the philosophical motivations of the Bolsheviks Koestler ultimately fails to reveal all that much about them and fails to acknowledge his lack of a viable and coherent alternative. For Orwell, “all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure”. 

Margin Call indulges in occasional philosophising about the market and man’s place in it. In one scene, in a way rather reminiscent of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev where one character has to bring back an exiled Old Bolshevik to face a show trial, the fired ex-manager in the risk department, who began the uncovering of the financial catastrophe, is tracked down to his new home in leafy Brooklyn at dawn. In being persuaded to return to the firm by a mixture of coercion and recompense, he recounts how he once built a bridge in his former career as an engineer and how he has calculated all the objective time saved from people’s commutes. As if that represented a ‘real’ value to be weighed against the smoke and mirrors of the financial market; for Koestler (who studied to be an engineer before abandoning it for journalism and political activism) mathematics and physics represent the tangible certainty that the Bolsheviks thought they, too - or maybe it was just him - had found in Communism. By contrast, Zachary Quinto’s analyst character was a ‘rocket scientist’ with an advanced degree from MIT before joining finance for the money.

It all culminates in a monologue by the boss man, played by Jeremy Irons, in the executive dining room looking out over New York. Capitalism is an endless cycle, with winners and losers always in the same proportion, and all we can do is try to win as much and as often as possible - but the next crash will always come. Kevin Spacey’s character, who is about to quit in disgust and exhaustion at what the firm forces him to do, backs down: not, he says, because of the speech, but simply because he “needs the money”. In this way the film cleverly disavows the power of its own spoken ideology, by implying that the more fundamental force is just built-in human desires (an ideological position in itself, needless to say). 

Darkness at Noon attempted to resolve its own philosophical dilemma by turning Rubashov’s eventual surrender into a kind of existential gesture, or act of faith. In the future, perhaps, we will have some kind of humane socialism, but for now there is no option (for the Bolshevik, at least) of rejecting the brutal regime that orders your own execution. Margin Call is distinctly less optimistic, in that it doesn’t even hold out the hope of a better capitalism (only one in which you may, for a time, make a lot of money) but it does emphasise the lack of any other choice. The problem is that what each portrays as an inevitable vice, the systems’ defenders turn into an inherent virtue: what is Communism but humanity’s progress into the next stage of social evolution; what is capitalism but the free pursuit of happiness? By representing each as an ideology with such a firm grip on the human mind, even in failure, we guarantee their continued success. Perhaps we need to reject ideas altogether - although that is the one thing we certainly cannot do.

film koestler darkness at noon socialism capitalism margin call
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Sep 19

"If, despite these extremely unfavourable conditions, socialism still mobilizes millions of European workers, resists the enemy during the harshest of military occupations, works with intelligence and vigor in Scandinavia and Great Britain, we must see there proof of its vitality and profound legitimacy. The analysis of its deficiencies does not minimise the fundamental fact that it continues the historical drive of Christianity and the bourgeois revolutions toward the realization of an equitable and rational social organization. In man’s present state, it does not seem conceivable that this ideal, confused as it may sometimes be, can be abandoned. Otherwise humanity would have to accept a belief in despair entirely contradictory to its own instincts. Doctrines wear out, deep-rooted needs live and must refurbish their intellectual weapons. In this sense, socialist thought, not at all rebuffed by attack and defeat, has great need of a house-cleaning. During the reconstruction of Europe, the working class seems appointed to recover a good part of its power, in an age in which planning and large measures of social security will be instituted – measures which not long ago were foremost in the socialist program.


The aspirations toward the rational organization of society for the realization of a higher human dignity could never, I believe, either be eliminated or lastingly repressed. They have survived up to now during many agonized times: even engendered and stimulated a difficult progress, born of the uncertain, during the whole course of our civilization. It is pleasing here to write the word ”progress” at a time when writers whom I respect debate its meaning, as if nothing valuable had been accomplished since the human animal renounced cannibalism. That the atomic bomb is more inhuman, more evil than saturation bombing, I doubt; but that atomic energy can soon become an immense factor in the liberation of the proletariat, I cannot doubt. That a planned economy, founded on poverty and for the purpose of war, will end in a new slavery, I know, because I have seen it; but that superior forms of production, governed no longer by the profit motive but by intelligence, need liberty as our organism needs oxygen, I can no longer doubt after having observed intimately the crises of Soviet industry. That philosophies of despair are fashionable in a time like ours, does not astonish me. We can well question our own destiny, and from this question draw material for literature. The destiny of our world unfolds with a vitality that outlives individuals and literature. And for this reason the resolute choice for confidence in intelligence and the human will seems to me the most justified of choices.”

Victor Serge, ‘The Future of Socialism’, Partisan Review, Vol. 14, No. 5, December 1947

Serge writes so well about optimism, as I discovered before

victor serge socialism
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Sep 16

"The greatest error of Marx and the Marxists had been that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bourgeois optimism. It consisted in predicting a development of industrial technique simultaneous with the development of human mentality: technology and “enlightenment,” awareness on the part of the working class, the advent of socialist morality. But the techniques of production had a prodigious development, far outstripping that of social organization and that of the average man. Socialism delayed liberating the wage earner from this well-controlled technology: industrial techniques, fallen into the hands of scheming blackguards, fools, and reactionaries, became a mighty instrument of bondage and destruction.”

Victor Serge, ‘The Future of Socialism’, Partisan Review, Vol. 14, No. 5, December 1947

See also André Gorz, thirty years later

victor serge socialism technocapitalism techno-optimism
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Aug 20

"“The Labour movement is like no other movement. Its strength lies in being like no other movement. It is never so strong as when it stands alone. Other movements dread analysis and shun all attempts to define their objects. The Labour movement delights in analysing, and is perpetually defining and re-defining its principles and objects. The man or woman who has caught the spirit of the Labour movement brings that spirit of analysis and definition into all his or her public acts, and expects at all times to answer the call to define his or her position. They cannot live on illusions, nor thrive by them; even should their heads be in the clouds they will make no forward step until they are assured that their feet rest upon the solid earth.

“In this they are essentially different from the middle or professional classes, and the parties or movements controlled by such classes in Ireland. These always talk of realities, but nourish themselves and their followers upon the unsubstantial meat of phrases; always prate about being intensely practical but nevertheless spend their whole lives in following visions.

“When the average non-Labour patriot in Ireland who boasts of his practicality is brought in contact with the cold world and its problems he shrinks from the contact. Should his feet touch the solid earth he affects to despise it as a “mere material basis,” and strives to make the people believe that true patriotism needs no foundation to rest upon other than the brain storms of its poets, orators, journalists, and leaders.”

James Connolly, Workers Republic, January 1916, quoted in Conclusion to “The Failure of Irish Republicanism, 1907-1927”

irish history socialism politics
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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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