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The Role of Bonded Labour in Capitalist Development

Woodruff-mutiny

(NB: The following is a short essay I wrote for the completion of one of my modules in my Masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London this past year, more of which I’ll be posting for comment as I get back into blogging. This one addresses the nature of bonded labour in capitalist development from a Marxist theoretical and historical perspective in light of the ILO’s campaign for decent work. I’m grateful for discussions with my tutor Frido Wenten and my comrade John Buttell which helped bring the following scattered thoughts to fruition.)

The Role of Bonded Labour in Capitalist Development

Introduction

Within the past decade, civil society institutions in the west have devoted an increasing amount of attention to the problem of unfree labour in its various incarnations: child labour, debt bondage, slavery and indentured servitude. Their continued existence long after the legal extinction of slavery and other forms of bonded labour in most of the world, it is thought, makes combatting them today an especially pressing issue. Bales (2004), a prominent figure in the contemporary anti-slavery movement, estimated that there are 27 million people in the world today working under slavery, which he defines as a relationship in which the subject is controlled by violence, paid nothing, and economically exploited. The concern with ending these conditions demonstrated by NGOs and civil society actors has been matched by the International Labour Organization which announced a ‘global alliance against forced labour,’ (ILO 2005) and campaigns for the elimination of forced labour as two out of four of its core labour standards.

Campaigns to end bonded labour in the developing world have been subjected to a withering critique by the left for their single-minded focus on the worst conditions and the general belief that slavery, bonded labour, and other forms of work by coercion are somehow exceptional in the course of capitalist development, from its origins to the present day. The question therefore arises of whether forms of bonded labour are integral to capitalism, are optional to it, or are outside its sphere entirely.

This essay will attempt to answer that question from within a Marxist framework. While there are different approaches within Marxism to the question of free labour, tied to various discussions including the relationship between extra-economic coercion and pre-capitalist modes of development, uneven capitalist development, and the articulation of different modes of production within capitalism, little attempt will be made to address these here, except as they impact directly on the main argument. After defining Marx’s conception of free labour and the role of bonded labour in primitive accumulation, the critique will move on to a discussion of Banaji’s (2011) article on the “fictions of free labour,” in order to critically elaborate on contemporary Marxist theorizations. Finally, a case study will be attempted of the American South to illustrate concretely the existence of bonded labour within capitalist production. By this it should be shown that although Marx’s notion that ‘doubly free’ labour is constitutive of capitalism at a fundamental level, this functions as one end of a continuum with forms that are less ‘free’ and play a role in capitalism while not being integral to it in the same way.

Free and Unfree Labour in Marx

Marx most explicitly deals with the division between free and unfree labour in the discussion of primitive accumulation in volume one of Capital. His most lucid statement on the relation between free labour and capitalism is as follows:

The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production,’ i.e., it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. It is otherwise during the historical genesis of capitalist production… (Marx 1992, p. 899)

Under primitive accumulation, then, the rising bourgeoisie needed the state to enforce conditions necessary to accumulation through violence. But compulsion which was not needed after these conditions were finally secured. Whereas Marx in this passage recognizes a role for both economic and extra-economic coercion under capitalism, he describes a broad qualitative separation between “direct extra-economic force” and “the silent compulsion of economic relations” which find their division expressed temporally in the divide between the period of initial accumulation and the subsequent history of capitalist development, when direct extra-economic coercion of the working population becomes the exception rather than the rule.

In the pages following the above passage, Marx develops a justly famous history of the period of primitive accumulation, centred on the coercive measures that were used to establish the preconditions for capitalist production in early modern England. The enclosure of common land and the expropriation of the free peasantry, the enforcement of brutal laws on begging and vagrancy, the establishment of hellish poorhouses and work-houses, and the purposeful driving down of wages follow each other in this history. What was meant by this process, according to Marx, is the creation of a class of wage workers that was “doubly free”—free to sell their labour-power to anyone they choose, and freed from any ownership over the means of production.

Marx evidently meant the formula of “double freedom” to be understood in an ironic sense. “Freedom” from ownership over the means of production is a negative freedom brought on by some of the most brutal methods in history, while it leads directly to the freedom of the wage-labourer to sell their labour-power. It would be best to understand Marx as using his caustic wit to express a real paradox that is central to capitalist social relations.1 This is implied in another formula in Capital: “the wage-labourer… is compelled to sell himself of his own free will” (Marx 1992, p. 932). Here, Marx again expresses the dialectical contradiction between the freedom to sell one’s labour that is brought into being by the “silent compulsion” of capitalist relations in the labour market. It would be a misreading of Marx, however, to imagine that because this freedom is the product of coercion, it is devoid of any real content.

Marx’s concern with the conditions of free labour, and that he thought much of the struggle to emancipate bonded labour, are evident throughout his entire career. To take just one example, his writings on the US Civil War (1861-1865) display his concern that the Union, representative of the system of free labour under capitalism, should be victorious over the slave-capitalist society of the South (Marx and Engels 1961).2 Here, Marx’s concern was that not only the condition of free labour was superior to that of plantation-slavery, but that only the extinction of this system, which he regarded as brutal and exceptional within the course of capitalist development, could lead to a united American labour movement—that white workers could never emancipate themselves while black workers were bound in slavery (Marx 1992).

Banaji’s ‘Fictions’ of Free Labour

Banaji’s (2003) article “The Fictions of Free Labour” represents an engagement with the contemporary debate on bonded labour, particularly the writings of Ramachandran (1990) on Indian agriculture and Brass’ (1999) broader theorization of unfree labour. It also represents a belated intervention in the “modes of production” debate in Indian agriculture, carried on during the 1970s in Economic and Political Weekly, in which Banaji made several key contributions.3 The article elaborates on a point made in an earlier article (Banaji 2011a): that the epoch of capitalist relations featured a wide variety of different modes of surplus extraction. Capital could extract a surplus through forms incidental to wage-labour such as slavery or debt bondage. In this earlier work, Banaji stresses the need to determine the underlying relations of production both by reference to the “laws of motion” analysed as particular to a mode of production, and by empirical study of each individual case.4

His later article shifts from this to regard the laws of motion—what Banaji calls the level of “social capital”—almost exclusively. Marx, in Banaji’s reading, developed an understanding of the labour-contract as a mystification and/or mediation of the worker’s subjection to the capitalist, and he quotes from Capital in support of his view that the nature of wage-labour cannot rely on the ‘free’ contract between capitalist and worker, which Banaji regards as merely an ideological legitimation of this subjection (Marx 1992). Rather than being non-capitalist, debt is actually a way by which the wage-labour typical to capitalism can be recruited. Both Brass and Ramachandran, by emphasizing the consensual wage-bargain between capital and labour as integral to capitalism, buy into a form of Marxism that is tainted by liberal mystification.

The upshot is that forms of ‘unfree’ labour such as sharecropping, labour tenancy, and debt-bondage “may just be ways in which paid labour is recruited, exploited and controlled by employers” (Banaji 2003, p. 83). Capitalism, in other words, can and has used a multiplicity of such forms of exploitation that are based on wage labour, and indeed more extreme ones—Banaji here cites sharecropping in the American South, the forced recruitment of labourers in French West Africa, and the use of slave labour in German-occupied Poland during the World Wars.

There is much to be said in criticism of Banaji’s essay. All the historical cases he mentions might well be recognized within the Marxist framework as exceptional circumstances—which Marx regards as aberrations from the norm. Furthermore, whereas Banaji says early on that it is impossible to draw a clear line between free and coerced labour, it is clear that Marx regarded these as distinct categories, even if they were not completely separable. As Bernstein (2013) notes, in Banaji’s account borders between primitive accumulation and industrial capitalism, along with those between capitalist and pre-capitalist societies tend to dissolve, eliding the historical specificity of capitalist economic coercion.

Rather than this absolutism of Banaji, it is more correct to view the distinction between free and unfree labour as a continuum, as Lerche (2007) discusses, in which forms of labour can be identified as free or unfree relative to each other. Or more precisely,

it has become clear that pure ‘free wage labour’ in the double Marxian sense is an ideal type, the conceptual nucleus of far more complicated historical realities. Pure free wage labour… forms a kind of analytical core surrounded by numerous rings of labour relations that we would like to call intermediary (Amin and van der Linden 1999, p. 7).

Banaji, therefore, starts out with a distinction that is useful—that all forms of labour under capitalism are subject to some form of coercion—but by focusing entirely on the level of social capital, his thesis becomes useless analytically. As Lerche (2007) notes, what Brass and Banaji, as well as and Rao (1999) all have in common is that their critiques operate at an abstract, a-historical level—which they share with mainstream conceptions of unfree labour, including ‘anti-slavery’ campaigners such as Bales and the ILO. As Banaji’s article in many ways shows us the dangers of abstraction, the essay will conclude with the illustration of one historical case study of unfree labour which he mentions—sharecropping in the American South.

Sharecropping in the Southern U.S.

Banaji deals with sharecropping in the southern U.S., relying solely on Angelo’s (1995) article, alongside similar labour systems in colonial India and the Byzantine Empire. This inevitably involves a series of major (and unwarranted) historical and theoretical abstractions. The remainder of the essay will take up the case of sharecropping in the American South to concretely demonstrate the nature of this form of “bonded” labour.

Sharecropping was a system stamped by profound class struggles in the postbellum South. As Post (2011) notes, the defeated planter class initially imposed a series of laws known as the Black Codes which would reduce the former slaves to wage-labour on the plantations. The freedmen, however, having successfully thrown off slavery in a general strike with the support of the federal army, were not inclined to return to cotton-picking in conditions which they recognized as being similar to slavery. The class of freedmen, holding local political office and buoyed by the federal occupation of the South, were powerful enough to bury the Black Codes and substitute sharecropping, a system which allowed them considerably more autonomy. As Foner writes,

Planters strongly resented the sense of “quasi-proprietorship” blacks derived from the arrangement—the notion that sharecropping made the tenant“part owner of the crop” and therefore entitled to determine his own family’s pace of work… While sharecropping did not fulfil blacks’ desire for full economic autonomy, the end of the planters’ coercive authority over the day-to-day lives of their tenants represented a fundamental shift in the balance of power in rural society, and afforded blacks a degree of control over their time, labour and family arrangements inconceivable under slavery. (Foner 1988, p. 405-6)

Rather than providing abundant supplies of cheap labour as it is often seen, sharecropping instead tended to drive up labour costs across the board and blacks, being able to survive on their share in addition to traditional subsistence plots, had no desire to work longer hours (Post 2011). The planters increasingly turned to violence to reassert their power. Simultaneously, merchant capital entered the rural South offering loans to the freedmen against a portion of the crop, which was ruthlessly exploited to extract exorbitant levels of interest—providing the solvent that unglued black sharecroppers’ economic autonomy.

Even despite the great amount of autonomy the sharecropping system afforded the former slaves, even at its height it could never have been regarded as truly existing in their interest. The slogan “forty acres and a mule,” translatable as a demand for the federal government to empower ex-slaves as a class of petty farmers, had never received a hearing outside of the most utopian of the Radical Republican circles. Freedmen were in the end unable to resist reincorporation into the system of cotton production for the world market, a prospect they had vigorously rejected ever since Emancipation. They remained dependent on the planter and merchant to provide the seed and equipment, and bound to give up part of the crop they worked under a relationship of contractual obligation. In the last instance, the freedmen were much closer to the position of wage-labourers than that of their aspiration, petty proprietorship—a distinction which must be treated with some care.5

Even at its empowering height, Southern sharecropping was at best a bitter compromise that left both of the main classes deeply dissatisfied. It would best be regarded not as an iteration of “democracy against capitalism” and hence a non-capitalist labour system, as Post (2011) argues,6 but rather as a relationship of surplus extraction in which market relations were increasingly mediated through the personal relationship of the freedman to the merchant and planter. By the end of the Reconstruction period, sharecropping was no longer a system allowing blacks some amount of economic and political autonomy, but one that forced free blacks into dependence on their former masters in a barely disguised wage-relation.

Conclusion

This essay has demonstrated that forms of bonded labour have a contradictory nature under capitalism. As it has been seen, Marx (1992) recognized a role for generalized forced labour during primitive accumulation, regarding at as an exception afterwards. While Banaji (2003) dissolves the category of free labour in a fit of over-abstraction, the most defensible Marxist theory of the distinction between free and bonded labour would rest on a continuum, in which a number of mediated labour forms lie between the ideal type of doubly-free labour and absolute coercion. The case study of sharecropping in the American South allowed us a glimpse of the concrete dynamic in which one of these mediated forms was brought into being and reshaped through the class struggle between planters and freedmen. It shows that forms of bonded labour do not exist outside of the capitalist economy, and just like free labour may be shaped and negotiated by the struggle over terms and conditions of employment.

The existence of a defensible concept of capitalist bonded labour should encourage a return to the origins of the contemporary debate outside of Marxism, where debt-bondage, child labour and slavery are still thought of as exceptional in the course of capitalist development. A Marxist intervention into these debates would not only maintain the idea these “worst forms of exploitation” are just as capitalist as “free labour,” but would extend its inquiry into the forms of agency of employers and bound labourers. Examining the ways in which these intermediary labour relationships are constantly open to resistance and contestation would mark the beginnings of a project vital to the understanding of a global struggle seeking to emancipate labour from all forms of coercion, exceptional violence and normal economic laws alike.

Notes

1 This much is evident about much of Marx’s writing. Miéville (2006), for example, notes that his famous quip about the class struggle under capitalism—“between equal rights, force decides”—does not necessarily imply the insignificance of “equal rights.”

2 Chapter 3 of Anderson (2010) provides a useful summary of his writings and of his and Engels’ pro-Union activism within the British labour movement.

3 Most of the debate from the 1970s is collected in Patnaik (1990), including two of Banaji’s articles.

4 Banaji (2011b), an earlier version of which is collected in Patnaik (1990) is one such empirical study.

5 Amin and van der Linden’s (1999) model, referenced above, conceives of a triangular circuit of ideal free labour at the core with absolute bondage and self-employment as the two legs, which strikes me as useful here.

6 Whatever the merits of Woods (1995) analysis elsewhere, Post’s application of it to the postbellum South does not quite convince.

Works Cited

Amin, S. and van der Linden, M. (1999) Introduction. In: International Review of Social History. [Online] 41 (Supplement 4). p. 1-7. Available from: http://journals.cambridge.org. [Accessed: 2 December 2013]

Anderson, K. (2010) Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Angelo, L. (1995) Wage Labour Deferred: The Recreation of Unfree Labour in the US South. In: Journal of Peasant Studies. [Online] 22 (4). p. 581-644. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com. [Accessed: 5 December 2013]

Banaji, J. (2003) The Fictions of Free Labour: Contract, Coercion and So-Called Unfree Labour. In: Historical Materialism. [Online] 11 (3). p. 69-95. Available from: http://web.ebscohost.com. [Accessed: 1 December 2013]

Banaji, J. (2011a). Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History. In: Banaji, J., Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. p.45-101. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Banaji, J. (2011b). Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century. In: Banaji, Theory as History. p.277-332. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Bernstein, H. (2013) Historical Materialism and Agarian History. In: Journal of Agrarian Change. [Online] 13 (2). p. 310-329. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com. [Accessed: 28 November 2013]

Brass, T. (1999) Towards a Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates. London: Frank Cass.

Foner, E. (1988) Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row.

Lerche, J. (2007) A Global Alliance against Forced Labour? Unfree Labour, Neo-Liberal Globalization and the International Labour Organization. In: Journal of Agrarian Change. [Online] 7 (4). p. 425-452. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com. [Accessed: 1 December 2013]

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marx, K. (1992) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1960) The Civil War in the United States. New York: International Publishers.

Patnaik, U., ed. (1990), Agrarian Relations and Accumulation: The ‘Mode of Production’ Debate in India. p. 119-131. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Post, C. (2011) The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1660-1877. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Rao, J.M. (1999) Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham: The Debate over Unfree Labour. In: Journal of Peasant Studies. [Online] 27 (1). p. 97-127. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com. [Accessed: 2 December 2013]

Ramachandran, V.K. (1990) Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wood, E.M. (1995) Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Batman, Terror and the Revolution

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I was a bit reluctant to see The Dark Knight Rises, the latest and hopefully final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and this was every bit as much for the ubiquitous and overbearing advertising from my TV to my local grocery as for the sophomoric moral and political content supposed to be taken as deep psychological drama in the last two movies. For all I expected to be underwhelmed however, the latest film reached a level of awfulness I truly did not expect.

For the purposes of this missive, I propose to ignore for the most part the particulars of the acting and the intricacies of the plot – these are, I think, more or less at the high end of what we have come to expect from contemporary Hollywood. Instead, what I want to do is detail how exactly the film represents a recasting of hoary ruling-class tropes about revolution and popular democracy. That it comes out in the era of the Arab Spring, Occupy and the mass struggles against austerity in Greece and the rest of Europe should, of course, be a telling sign of the message that this particular movie carries, which it may have escaped had it been released even a few years earlier.

Such is the movie’s deeply anti-democratic (not to even mention counter-revolutionary) message that even the mainstream media in America has been forced to sit up and take notice – such bastions of the liberal media as Rolling Stone and The Nation have drawn the obvious connections between Bane and the Occupy movement in their reviews of the movie. That no media source outside of the left-wing ghettoes bothered to note the class prejudice and – yes – racism that ran just as deeply through the last two installments of the Batman trilogy is a sign of just how much Occupy has changed the political conversation in this country.

Therefore, what I am writing in this blog is not exactly original commentary. What I can offer, however, is an at least half-baked critique of the kind of ruling-class paranoid fantasy that The Dark Knight Rises very much has its home in. Of course, reviews in the left-wing press such as those of Socialist Alternative and Jacobin Magazine are also recommended. I will also ignore the specifics of whether Bruce Wayne happens to represent capitalist or feudal values, which the Jacobin review goes into excellently, but I think in a way that is a bit beside the point.

So, what do we have in The Dark Knight Rises? Quite simply, it is an anti-democratic tirade of the type that our ruling classes have trotted out from 1789, to 1917, to 2012. In the movie we have Bane, a super-villain wearing a very sinister mask and possessing an even more sinister British accent, who succeeds in rousing the population of Gotham City to overthrow the rich and powerful elite as represented by the reclusive Bruce Wayne and his compatriots. Predictably, of course, Bane’s revolution is nothing more than a plot to destroy Gotham with the use of fusion power which Wayne in his infinite wisdom has chosen to hide from the city for fear of it being used as a weapon.

The reasons Bane and his hidden comrade have for wanting to destroy Gotham, being obscure and hidden in the series’ mythology, do not particularly interest me. What is more telling are his methods. The viewer may remember that Bane launches his coup at the beginning of a football game, which he interrupts by slaughtering both teams. That the population of Gotham is roused to overthrow their rulers through a pantomime speech in the wake of such carnage might be a sign of either their inherent stupidity and obedience, or their criminal delight in violence, or both – we can’t be sure, because Nolan doesn’t take us close enough to actually ever see the motivations of Bane’s rank and file. Where we do see them for a moment, they seem to be a combination of scraggly young white men whose images the ruling class media associated with Occupy, and criminals mostly of minority populations. This plays to the worst elitist tropes about popular movements in the recent history of the West.

We might also take note of the content of Bane’s message. Though he calls on the citizens of Gotham to rise up and take power, his reason for this is expressed in a few words about corrupt elites – which, of course, we do not see up close. An anti-elitist, anti-corruption message, of course, might be the program of anyone from the revolutionary left to the most tepid liberal populist politician. That it is enough to rouse the citizens of Gotham serves to tell us that any radical program of change, no matter how it is phrased or enacted, can only lead to disaster. 

This, of course, has long been the message of our ruling class in relation to any social upheaval or revolution. We might note other cultural products which have carried a similar message – Across the Universe and other movies about the Sixties in America, as well as Dr. Zhivago, Anastasia and other movies about the Russian Revolution. These are all variations on a theme. That theme? Something like: while there may be some mild corruption at the top of our society, any attempt to address this through mass action has the effect of making things much worse. Because the lower classes of society are stupid, vicious and easily led by their noses, any mass movement that develops is under the open or hidden command of evil masterminds, usually disaffected elites themselves. A successful uprising by these people will inevitably lead to mass terror, disaster and/or the end of civilization.

This was the dominant ruling class explanation of the Russian Revolution, and it has remained this way, with perhaps the excision of the story that revealed the links between Leon Trotsky and sinister American Jewish businessmen (as it was told at the time). This, for example, is a famous counterrevolutionary propaganda poster from the era:

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The same goes, more or less, for the French Revolution, about which the only thing most people know is the image of the guillotine. That The Dark Knight Rises can be called a fully self-conscious ruling class paranoid fantasy about a popular revolution can be told from Bruce Wayne’s funeral, at which Commissioner Gordon reads the following as his eulogy:

I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out… I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence… It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Charles Dickens wrote these words as an epitaph for the French aristocracy which was overthrown in the revolution of 1789. Whatever you think of the political character of the rest of his work (Bill Keach makes a good case here for considering his broadly progressive role in English fiction), A Tale of Two Cities, from which this monologue comes, is nothing less than the original fable on the dangers of popular revolution. That the revolutionary terror at its height only carried off a few thousand executions at the most, which should be seen as a self-defensive measure as part of a broad defensive mobilization on the part of the Jacobin regime did not in the end concern Dickens, who for all his professed radicalism shrank away at what was necessary to establish and preserve democratic rule. Neither does it concern Nolan when he apes Dickens’ Madame Guillotine by the revolutionary tribunals which condemn Commissioner Gordon and other of Gotham’s elites to “exile” by walking across the thin ice than surrounds Gotham in the winter.

What, if any, will be the impact of the film’s ideology? That it is this year’s summer blockbuster should give us an idea of its potential to influence the popular consciousness. Bourgeois cultural products which influence the prevailing “common sense” like this movie do not, of course, work by imposing their narratives fully on the minds of the population. Many will recognize the elitist and reactionary nature of this film, and will profess to just enjoy it “as a movie.” This is an equally dangerous mistake. To ignore the political content of art, which at a fundamental level is just as much an intervention into society as a pamphlet or a demonstration, is to give any reactionary a free pass to the mass consciousness, where a number of elitist ideas like the ones The Dark Knight Rises will reinforce exist already in a complicated relationship with other, even opposite, notions like those of freedom and democracy. To anyone who sees the police invade Gotham and recognize that we are supposed to cheer for them when they beat down the masses who have taken control of their city, on the other hand, the only credible response to this movie must be: I stand with Bane.

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On hiatus, perhaps

Okay children. I know it’s only been a month or so since I started blogging this but somehow I’m finding the need to take a break for a few weeks. For some reason fiction hasn’t really been working out for me. I’m guessing the high doses of politics (working toward an ISO branch at my school, fuck yeah) has gone to my head and now all I feel like reading is leftwing political tracts. Just for funzies, here are the books I have on my list (both not yet started and in various states of completion):

  • The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: the Theory of Permanent Revolution by Michael Löwy
  • The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights by Omar Barghouti
  • Trotsky’s Marxism and Other Essays by Duncan Hallas
  • Party and Class by Chris Harman, Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Leon Trotsky
  • What is the Real Marxist Tradition? by John Molyneux
  • Revolution in Danger by Victor Serge
  • A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey
  • Class Struggles in Eastern Europe by Chris Harman

You might think, “wow, Bill, that’s really disgusting that you bought so many books without having a job, and while taking trips to New York city that cost $30 each time round trip, your mom will most likely skin you alive.” You would be correct, but there aren’t scholarships widely available to the school of class struggle unfortunately. One of the perks of this business is that you feel somewhat better about extravagant spending on books, which is a nice perk, and there are precious few of them (well, besides the feeling naturally superior to other people part which is pretty great).

On the other hand, there are some things I might be able to do for you if your thirst for amateur Marxist literary criticism is really that bad. 1) I wrote an essay on Blood Meridian (post #1) for English class, and while that isn’t necessarily Marxist, I did enjoy writing it and I might put it up there for the sake of having content once it clears grading. Similarly for a brief paper I wrote on Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe, which is a tad more political. Also with school ending tomorrow, I will have ample amounts of free time on my hands, which I plan to use some of to finally write an essay on Murakami’s politics, which I noted in the “about” section. I tend to go a little crazy without something specific to occupy my mind.

Other than that, I’m pretty confident I will return to fiction after a short time. This is a (small) transition for me as it will mark the first significant stretch of time I’ve been out of school since summer 2009. Around times like this I tend not to have patience for large projects, and as you can see from the above list my concentration is clearly shot to hell. But this year looks especially good for new fiction. China Miéville’s Embassytown comes out in a week, and in the fall we’ll see Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke (I plan to reread and review the prequel, Sea of Poppies, at some point before that) and FINALLY, the English translation of Murakami’s 1Q84, the reading of which will be the closest thing I can imagine right now to heaven, except of course being with my beautiful, intelligent and talented compañera Maria.

By the way I felt this from Victor Serge belongs here, and it should give you something to chew on til I next return:

For despite everything life goes on. Perhaps we shall be slaughtered tomorrow; that doesn’t matter. The main thing is to keep calm and resolute today, and to be able to think of something else from time to time. Today, Sunday, during the funerals of Tolmachev, Rakov, Kupche and Tavrin, there was an artistic oasis amid the sorrowful and threatened city. Hundreds of people came to the small white hall of the Conservatory to listen to music by Glazunov. The great composer was there himself, tall and stooping, his broad shoulders gaunt, with pallor, weariness and anemia visible in the heavy creases of his face… It was a charming morning of good music. There was a young woman, blonde, graceful and slender like a Greek statue, a wonderful artist. For a long time she too held this audience charmed by her violin-playing. Then, in a smart black dress-coat, as though at a fashion reception in the old days, Maximov sang Heine’s Leider.

One day, when these things are discussed with a concern for justice and truth, when, in the society of the future that we shall ultimately build, where all the wounds of humanity will have been healed, then the revolution will be praised because it never, even in its most tragic days, lost the concern for art; it never neglected rhythms, fine gestures, beautiful voices full of pathos, dream-like settings, poems, anthems played on the organ, the sobbing notes of violins. Never. And I cannot help discovering in this obstinate quest for beauty, at every hour of the civil war, stoicism, strength and confidence. Doubtless it is because the Red city is suffering and fighting so that one day leisure and art shall be the property of all.

(Victor Serge, “During the Civil War,” in Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia 1919-1921, trans. Ian Birchall. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011. 30-31)

Keep it real (but not too real) and love always,

Bill

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“No beauty if it is paid for by human injustice” : By way of introduction

Hello there. A while ago I started reading. Sometime later I figured out it would be best to read only good books. I read mostly novels, some short stories, and the occasional poem if I can be bothered (usually I can’t). Favorite authors: Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolaño, Victor Serge, Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t read as much as I feel I could, but probably more than most people my age, who in my experience spend more time complaining about how they never have time to read than making good on it.

So one reason I started this blog is as a way to keep track of what I read. I tend to think a little bit too much about what I read, so I figure one way I could deal with that is to empty those thoughts onto an environmentally-friendly website. Also it might help me work out my ideas a bit more, which I hear might be a good thing if I’m planning on trying to make a living in this business.

A while ago I became a socialist due to the influence of a troublemaking uncle. I always had the problem though that I enjoy reading literature much more than even the best written polemic. So another idea I had for this blog is to explore the political content of what I read, which I tend to be thinking about anyway. I will not mercilessly criticize whatever I’m reading for failing to speak to the socialist alternative, but as Thomas Mann says, “for the rational man, everything is politics,” and I don’t feel as if I harm literature at all by practicing a little political criticism, along the lines of what Tadeusz Borowski says in his story “Auschwitz, Our Home”:

The Egyptian pyramids, the temples, and the Greek statues – what a hideous crime they were! How much blood must have poured on to the Roman roads, the bulwarks, and city walls. Antiquity – the tremendous concentration camp where the slave was branded on the forehead by his master, and crucified for trying to escape! Antiquity – the conspiracy of free men against slaves!

You remember how much I used to like Plato. Today I realize he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labor. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were ‘aesthetic’ and carried on subtle debates.

There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice in silence, nor moral virtue that condones it.”

(Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen)

So that is my spiel. If I’m lucky, I might introduce a couple people to books I feel are really good, and possibly to a different angle on reading them. I would be really glad if I could do that.

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