Category: Notes and comments

Thomas Piketty on Communism: Implications for Theory and Practice

“I’m not trying to [tear down the Western economic system and replace it with socialist redistribution of wealth]. You know, I turned 18 when the Berlin wall fell, so I have never had any temptation with communism, I am just trying to see how we can ensure that everyone benefits from globalization.” –Thomas Piketty on The Colbert Report

Despite the various theoretical problems with Piketty’s work (see Harvey’s critique for example), we still have to discuss the significant practical issues, associated with the tactics and strategies of our struggle. Piketty’s overall solution to our problems is nothing but the contemporary social democratic response of trying to better manage capitalism; to humanize capitalism, as the picture bellow illustrates:

Regulated Capitalism Monster Comic

For a more detailed discussion on the contemporary debates regarding tactics and strategies between anarchists, revolutionary socialists, and social democrats, see this article; but it is useful to briefly go over something economist Paul Sweezy has been arguing since 1942, which basically foresaw the failure of what was to become the social democratic project.

Sweezy argued in his Theory of Capitalist Development (1942: 349), “the state in capitalist society has always been first and foremost the guarantor of capitalist property relations” and has unmistakably been “the instrument of capitalist class rule.” Sweezy concludes that for it to be possible to use the state to manage capitalism, and/or impose higher, more substantial taxes on capital, as Piketty suggests, a certain combination of requirements must be met. The political actor must be a mass party that 1) is strictly free of capitalist interest, 2) has acquired state power and eliminated capitalists and their representatives from key positions, and 3) establishes a firm position so it would be overwhelmingly plain that any resistance by capitalists would be futile. If experience shows that these are the necessary conditions for such a project to work, “it also indicates no less clearly the impossibility of their fulfillment” (350-1). While it is conceivable in the abstract, in reality “capital holds the strategic positions.” “Money, social prestige, the bureaucracy and the armed forces of the state, the channels of public communications,” are all controlled by capital and “will continue to be used to the utmost to maintain the position of capital.” Sweezy concludes it is a law of capitalist politics that the outcome of these strategies will merely be the bankruptcy of reform (351-2).

In fact, Sweezy (351) also argues that this liberal reform, due to these requirements, is no less a task than a gradual transition into socialism. Thus, we may ask ourselves, if we ever actually have sufficient political power to truly manage capitalism, why not transcend it? If we ever have the political will and power to impose Piketty’s global tax on capital, we will most likely have the will and power to engage on a transition into a new economic system, superior in every way. We will most likely have the means to build a new system, where a return to our current predicament is not as simple as eliminating Piketty’s tax and re-allowing capital free reign.

If/when we finally have the means to slay the beast, why put a smiley face on it?

 

 

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What’s going on in Venezuela? Media Manipulation and Economic War

By Ricardo Fuentes-Ramírez

Retrieved from http://www.populareconomics.org

A burning street barricade (Roberto Gil)

A burning street barricade (Roberto Gil)

The violent opposition protests that erupted during February 2014 in Venezuela are difficult to comprehend relying only on the mainstream media. One of the main sources of this difficulty is the significant number of exaggerated, manipulated, or uncorroborated social media postings. These postings are best exemplified by the number of images from police brutality from other countries that are shared claiming they are from Venezuela in order to discredit the current government. Steve Ellner’s article on Green Left and Pablo Vivanco’s article on BASICS News are recommended in order to give some context on these protests and their aftermath. However, another complicated subject is the economic problems that are mentioned as the causes of these protests, specifically inflation and basic good shortages. Therefore, it is useful to go over some articles that discuss these issues in more depth.

Inflation has always been a problem in Venezuela. As Gregory Wilpert explains, during the 1990s, annual inflation rates averaged around 50%. However, under the Chávez government the trend was finally turned around, with inflation going down to an average 22% per year. Nevertheless, it has continued being a problem. The main cause of inflation is having an oil-based economy. Wilpert explains, “Venezuela receives an influx of petrodollars that basically come into the economy and raise the level of wages and raise the level of prices in a way that heats up inflation.” What the media fails to mention, as Tamara Pearson has emphasized, is that “the government regularly (once or twice a year) increases the minimum wage to match inflation levels, or higher than them, and the informal sector increases its prices to match inflation as well,” so “people’s purchasing power has actually increased significantly under the current government.” In other words, even though there is inflation, Venezuelans’ purchasing power is actually increasing, not decreasing.

The other issue mentioned is shortages of basic goods. Many news sources have tried to give the impression Venezuelans are close to starving. However, as discussed by Ryan Mallet-Outtrim,  “food consumption increased by 80% between 1999 and 2011,” while the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization “awarded Venezuela for halving hunger within its territory between 1990-1992 and 2010-2012.” Similarly, Oliver Levingston notes “Venezuela’s average caloric intake has gone from 91% of recommended levels in 1998 to 101.6%” so “the average Venezuelan went from being under-fed to exceeding their recommended calorie intake within the space of decade.” Nonetheless, it is true that basic goods like corn flour, milk, and toilet paper are in and out of stock at unpredictable rates. So while Venezuelans aren’t going to be out of flour for more than a few days, you can’t plan to bake a cake next week because maybe there won’t be any (See Pearson’s The Scarcity Diaries).

So what’s behind this occasional scarcity? Is it just bad government policy? Not exactly. In fact, scarcity is mostly fueled by deliberate actions taken by wealthy Venezuelans, which as the government has denounced, are nothing less than an economic war waged against the people. As Levingston explains, private food producers and importers deliberately hoard and engage in investment strikes in order to undermine support for government policy. As evidence of this practice, Levingston mentions some of the numerous cases of government inspectors discovering tons of hoarded food. In early 2008, 13,000 tons of hoarded food were found in two weeks of state inspections. In March 2009, the government nationalized a rice-processing plant after it found 18,000 tons of rice hoarded in warehouses. He adds further evidence lies in the fact that scarcity moves so closely with the electoral calendar, it is difficult to argue it is not, at least in part, by political design. As an example, he mentions one of the periods of greatest shortages were the months prior to the December 2007 referendum. Similarly, “in the lead-up to April 2013 elections, scarcity and disinvestment skyrocketed,” and between the two general elections from November 2012 and June 2013, more than 40,000 tons of hoarded food were uncovered.

In terms of wealthy Venezuelan importers, these usually take advantage of the government’s currency controls in order to acquire US dollars at low rates with the pretense of importing goods for consumption in Venezuela, but instead sell these dollars in the black market. Of what they actually import, as Wilpert explains, between 30% to 40% is smuggled out of Venezuela. Furthermore, what they do offer in stores for consumption in Venezuela is overpriced at black market exchange rates, instead of the exchange rate at which they actually imported it. Tamara Pearson gives the actual example of what she calls one of her few vice foods: Pringles. At the rate at which importers acquire dollars from the government, Pringles should cost close to $2.20. However, they mark up the price according to the rate at which they are selling dollars in the black market, so they actually sell for $15.70! Thus, these wealthy Venezuelans fuel both inflation and shortages in the country.

Why are rich Venezuelans sabotaging their own country? Since the election of Hugo Chavez, and continuing with the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, government policy has been designed to democratize not only the political structures of the country, but the economy as well. The poor Venezuelan masses, for the first time in history, have benefited from the country’s vast resources; they have had substantial access to education and health care, and they have been politically empowered, both through traditional political structures as well as new ones, such as the innovative Communes. As the poor working masses have been empowered, the rich have been proportionately disempowered. Thus, wealthy Venezuelans have engaged in political and economic war, through the media and through their resources, to avoid further democratization of Venezuelan society. In a nutshell, that is what’s going on Venezuela.

Atheism and Human Development: The Political Economy of Secularization

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez 

Figure 1Introduction 

With “Political Economy of Secularization,” we refer to the analysis of the underlying economic processes embedded in the tendency of religiosity to decline across the world. The building blocks for this analysis are mainly found in Karl Marx’s understanding of religion. While contemporary secularization theory mainly rests upon Weber and Durkheim’s ideas on this subject, we argue that in Marx’s writings on the subject we also find important insights. The objective of this paper is to sketch a theory of secularization within a Marxian Political Economy framework, and support it with the most recent data on development and religiosity across the world. We argue this approach fills important theoretical voids in traditional secularization theory and contributes toward responding to the challenge of explaining the rise in religiosity in the world as a whole.

Religion as Human Estrangement

One of Marx’s earliest remarks on religion is found in a letter to Arnold Ruge, a German writer with whom he briefly co-edited a journal titled “The German-French Yearbooks.” In 1842, when he was 24 years old, Marx wrote that “religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself” (1975). In this brief statement, we find Marx’s central thesis on religion and secularization. Religion is but the reflection of a distorted reality, or as he later on develops, of a society where humanity is alienated, or estranged.  With the transition to a society free of alienation, religion will eventually collapse. In 1843, he continued expanding on this idea in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. There he argued that religion is “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has lost himself again” (2008, p. 41) At this point, he writes one of his most memorable quotes on religion:

 

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” (2008, p. 42).

“Real suffering,” may be of a mainly physiological nature, or a mainly psychological nature. Physiologically, human beings may suffer from hunger, disease, inadequate shelter or clothing, natural disasters, etc.; which all may lead to religious attitudes as explanatory or coping mechanisms. This is similar to Norris and Inglehart’s (2011) “existential security theory.” These authors sustain that “as societies transition from agrarian to industrial economies, and then develop into postindustrial societies, the conditions of growing security that usually accompany this process tend to reduce the importance of religious values. The main reason, [they] believe, is that the need for religious reassurance becomes less pressing under conditions of greater security” (2011, p. 18). On the other hand, Norris and Inglehart recognize that economic development, or greater “existential security,” do not necessarily ensure lower religiosity. We wish to stress this point even further, as it is crucial in Marx’s understanding of religiosity. As a result of what Marx called human estrangement, even people that are not living in the poorest conditions within their countries, and truly live in conditions of human security, might still find themselves in conditions that require sources of illusionary happiness. Therefore, to understand Marx’s theory of secularization, it is crucial to understand what he means with human estrangement, or the alienation of human labor. The objective in this section is not to provide a comprehensive analysis of the concept, but a brief introduction focusing on what is most pertinent to the subject of secularization. According to Marx, the source of alienation is found in the development of private property; that is, the transition from ancient communal modes of production toward modes characterized by private property over the means of production and the exploitation of human labor. Therefore, his concept of alienation is fundamentally related to the act of labor. As Erich Fromm (1992, p. 47) explained, work is “the active relatedness of man to nature, the creation of a new world, including the creation of man himself.” To illustrate Marx’s concept of alienation, it is best to juxtapose human labor in ancient communal modes of production, with labor within capitalism. In the first case, work was the expression of men and women’s power. The product of human labor, although primitive, was fundamentally linked to those who directly produced it, always based on their will and planning. In capitalism, workers are degraded into mere appendages of machines, destroying, as Marx described in Capital, every remnant of charm in work, and turning it into a hated toil. Aptly describing the work conditions of most laborers around the world today, Marx concluded that workers under capitalism find their work unfulfilling, miserable, and physically and mentally exhausting. Therefore, their work is experienced as something alien, and the worker becomes alienated from his or herself as a worker, as well as from the product of his or her work. For Marx, capitalism is the highest expression of alienated work since the origins of private property. Thus, alienated society fuels religion by creating diverse forms of suffering, ranging from physically brutal working conditions to menial and degrading work.

However, religiosity is also linked to our scientific knowledge. Taking this into account, we may conclude religion is a reflection of the relationship between human beings and nature in two distinct forms: how we transform nature and ourselves through labor, and our technical understanding of nature. Marx (2008, p. 36) argued that when the development of the productive power of labor is in a low stage, and the relations of humanity with itself and with nature are correspondingly constricted, this is “reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions.” Similarly, Engels argued that as advances in natural sciences progress, “the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body” (2008, p. 188). Human religiosity therefore has inherent contradictory tendencies. While the development of our understanding and mastery over nature tends to undermine the belief in supernatural beings, the increasing alienation linked with this development enables religion. In contemporary terms, the latter translates into an issue of psychological or mental health. Under capitalism, scientific knowledge has exponentially grown to an extent arguably enough to have completely debunked religion. However, the negative effects on mental health brought upon by capitalism help religion persist.

In sum, Marxian secularization theory argues that religion is immersed in various processes that can both enable and disable it. First, the scientific and technical developments of human society tend to undermine religiosity through two processes: 1) an increasing understanding of nature eliminates the need of religion as an explanatory mechanism, while 2) increasing standards of living eliminate the need of religion as a coping mechanism. There has been a historic tendency of development in science and technology, which therefore translates into a historic tendency towards secularization. However, this same development in science and technology has gone hand in hand with the development of modes of production characterized by exploitation and alienation. This last process tends to serve as fuel for human religiosity. As we will show below, we understand that the most recent statistics on religion and human development support this theory.

We may now see a fundamental difference between the secularization theories of Marx and other 19th century thinkers such as Weber or Durkheim. While the latter argued that capitalism would ultimately destroy religion, Marx was clear that because capitalist industrialization represented a historical peak in human estrangement, it would do nothing of the sort. Humanity would have to transition to a post-capitalist mode of production, where men and women are self-realized and emancipated from alienation, in order for religion to disappear. Nonetheless, various processes could surely counteract alienation even within capitalism. Healthy workers, with access to education, and high living standards within egalitarian societies, will probably have less negative effects from estranged labor than workers with lower standards of living, lack of access to health and education, and living within highly unequal societies.

In other words, alienation is undermined by what recent theorists have termed human development. Human development generally refers to broadening the scope from strictly economic growth, so as to include elements such as education, health, and equality, which more aptly represent the conditions in which a population is living. Most Marxists would argue that although human development might be achieved in certain areas of the world economy, capitalism would ultimately undermine human development in the world as a whole. To discuss if global human development is achievable within capitalism would go beyond the scope of this paper. For our current objectives, it suffices to say that where human development is achieved, we should expect to find higher degrees of secularization, as it serves as a counteracting force to human estrangement. Thus, as Norris and Inglehart (2011, pp. 14-16) have also argued, developed countries should tend to show degrees of religiosity and secularization more proportional to human development rather than mere economic growth.

Lack of Secularization in the Third World

In the case of developing countries, their population growth rates and religious cultures have translated into a net rise in world religiosity that undermine the idea that religion will steadily decline. However, there is a tendency toward secularization, not an iron law of secularization. We argue that with all other things being held constant, religion would disappear as a result of economic and human development. Nonetheless, things are never constant, and sufficiently strong counteracting tendencies may undermine others. Two aspects contribute in explaining higher degrees of religiosity in the Third World: intense and highly exploitative working conditions, as well as problems related with hunger, sickness, and violence. In other words, processes related to alienation as well as low existential security plague developing countries. “Real suffering” in physiological and psychological terms translates into more people yearning for illusionary sources of happiness. As developing countries “catch up” to developed countries, increasing existential security enforces the tendency toward secularization. If their economic development were accompanied with human development, the tendency toward secularization would be reinforced even further. Capitalism tends to develop the forces of production on a global scale. In other words, it should tend to develop the “backward” regions of the world, developing countries should be catching up, and secularization should be rising. However, as stated above, sufficiently strong counteracting forces can nullify this tendency.

Many Marxian economists, such as Andre Gunder Frank (1978) and Samir Amin (1976), have studied why most poor developing countries remained poor during the 20th century. World capitalism took a particular imperialist character, dividing the world into two fundamental groups: core capitalist countries (the First World) and peripheral countries (the Third World). Their relation hampered the development of peripheral countries through a vast array of political and economic institutions and processes. While there is debate on the mechanisms, and the ways they may or may not be undermined, there is agreement on the fact that the relation between core countries and peripheral countries obstructed growth and development in the latter. Even when accounting for the so-called “emerging markets,” it is clear that growth and development are still difficult feats for most developing countries, and in great part because of their past and current relation with advanced developed countries. In other words, the tendency toward global secularization has been undermined by a particular counteracting force: economic imperialism and global inequality. This does not mean secularization theory is fundamentally flawed. On the contrary, with the analytical tools of Marxian Political Economy, we have a clearer understanding on why the tendency toward secularization was hampered, and the steps that may be taken in order to enable it.

Recent Statistics on Secularization

This understanding of secularization may be evidenced using recent statistics on development and secularization. In theory, secularization should not only rise with economic development, but it should rise at a higher rate where it is accompanied by human development. The utility of the proposed framework becomes evident when we focus on the United States. Previous assessments of secularization worldwide categorized the United States as an outlier, as it possessed both a highly religious population as well as high levels of development. However, when taking into account that US citizens have less access to health and education, and live within a more unequal society than most of their European counterparts, we actually expect to find higher degrees of religiosity. This idea is supported with Norris and Inglehart’s (2011, pp. 106-108) analysis of frequency of prayer and economic inequality in advanced capitalist countries. In addition, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has recently introduced a new measure, the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), that, as we will show below, shows that the United States is not an outlier, but actually fits our theory.

Using the 2005-2008 wave of The World Values Survey we may analyze the relation between human development and religiosity. Specifically, we may observe the relationship between the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) and the percentage of people in each country that consider religion is not important in their lives and the percentage of people who declare themselves as not religious or convinced atheist. In Figure 1 we may observe that the relationship between the percentage of convinced atheists in the population and the IHDI is not linear. Instead, we find a polynomial relation where the number of atheists begins to rise most significantly after the IHDI has surpassed a value of approximately 0.6. The UNDP categorizes countries as representing Very High Human Development (0.8<HDI), High Human Development (0.7<HDI<0.8), Medium Human Development (0.535<HDI<0.7), and Low Human Development (HDI<0.535). In other words, when countries enter a stage of Medium Human Development, the number of atheists begins to rise, and the rate at which they rise increases as they continue on to stages of High or Very High Human Development. The only outliers were South Korea, France, Germany, and Sweden. However, they showed percentages of atheists above what was expected, so they do not undermine our main thesis of increasing secularization. Another important aspect is the case of the United States. As previously mentioned, most studies found the United States as an outlier, with unexplainable high levels of religiosity given its stage of development. In our data, the United States is below the trend line, but it is nowhere near of being an outlier that undermines our thesis. Its levels of religiosity are explained with our theory and data as a result of lower human development and higher inequality.

This particular question in the World Values Survey provided three possible answers where those being surveyed should classify themselves: Religious Person, Not a Religious Person, Convinced Atheist. In theory, it is possible for the ‘Not a Religious Person’ group to be decreasing enough as to nullify the increase in atheists, so it is best to add the last two groups. This combined group of people that responded as not religious or atheists may be called the total of irreligious people. In Figure 2, we see the same trend observed in the case of atheists by themselves. As countries enter levels of Medium Human Development, the percentage of irreligious people begins to climb faster, and increasing even more in higher stages of human development. In this case, a new particular outlier stands out: Thailand. Even though this country has a very religious population of the Buddhist tradition, more than 60% of those surveyed answered they are not religious. This is probably a result of translation issues in phrasing the question, particularities of the branch of Buddhism and how it conceives itself as a religion, or a combination of both. In the case of the United States, once again, although below the trend line, it is not an outlier and does not contradict our theory.

Figure 2

Secularization may also be reflected in religion losing its importance in people’s lives, even though they are not necessarily outspokenly labeling themselves as irreligious. Thus, we also analyze the question in the survey where people state how important religious is in their lives (very, rather, not very, or not at all important). As in the previous exercise, first we will focus on those who answered not at all important, and then on the sum of those who answered not very and not at all important. In Figure 3, we find that the relation between the percent of the population that consider religion is not at all important in their lives and the IHDI follows the same trend as in the previous cases. The only outliers reflect higher secularization than expected, and the United States is not a problematic outlier.  Finally, in Figure 4, we do the same exercise but with the sum of those who answered religion was not very and not at all important in their lives, and also find the same pattern.

 Figure 3 Figure 4

What’s probably most interesting of this analysis is that, according to our theory and findings, if the world as a whole were to arrive at a level of human development and equality similar to that of Sweden or Norway, we would expect to find that religion stopped being of importance for more than half of the population, and openly irreligious people would be rapidly approaching becoming half of the population. In Marxian terms, our findings support the idea that as countries develop in terms of science and technology, secularization rises; but it increases most when human development and equality counteract the effects of alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Marx (2008, p. 42) stated “It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” This idea resonates with the discussion on secularization and development in the Third World. If we operate under the assumption that secularization is desirable because it translates into sexual liberalization, women’s equality, LGBT rights, etc.; then achieving economic and human development in the Third World becomes even more of an imperative. The criticism of rising religious extremism today must turn into the criticism of the vast array of political and economic processes that hinder development in the Third World. In other words, the criticism of religion today is fundamentally linked with the criticism of political and economic imperialism and global inequality. For Marx (2008, p. 136), humanity will never fully strip its veil of mysticism and vanquish its religious reflex, until production takes place through the free association of men and women, “it is consciously regulated by them in a settled plan,” and “the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature.”  The disappearance of religion is therefore a very long run process. Nonetheless, Marx’s theory provides insight into how we may undermine the negative effects of religiosity in the short and medium run as well.

References

Amin, S. (1976). Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Engels, F. (2008). Dialectics of Nature. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 152-193). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Frank, A. G. (1978). Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fromm, E. (1992). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum Publications.

Marx, K. (1975). Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge In Dresden. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works V.1 (pp. 393-395). New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K. (2008). Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 41-58). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Marx, K. (2008). Capital (Extracts). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 135-141). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

World Values Survey Association. (2013). World Values Survey 2005-2008. Retrieved from http://www.wvsevsdb.com/wvs

United Nations Development Program. (2013). 2013 Human Development Report.

Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2013/

A Review of Dan Brown’s Inferno: Neo-Malthusian Reactionary Discourse in Popular Fiction

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez

Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno is definitely a page-turner. You will not drop it until your done. Like all of Robert Langdon’s adventures, there are various recurring themes and elements. However, this does not make the book repetitive or unoriginal respect to Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, or The Lost Symbol. On the contrary, there are sufficient new elements that make the book wonderful in its own right. The recurring elements from his previous books just give it the flare and addictive nature of all of Langdon’s adventures. The only element I found problematic was a certain twist of events at the end of the book. Twist and turns are part of Brown’s style, but in Inferno, two of our characters (Langdon and Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey) develop a strong disdain toward one particular character (Bertrand Zobrist), only for it to be unrealistically switched to understanding and even a bit of admiration at the end. The shift was so sudden that it was borderline plain bad story telling. Other than that, the book is all we have learned to love of Brown’s work.  His previous books definitely had implications on current debates (the best example being the complex and ever changing relationship between science and religion), but they were always focused on particular historical elements that captured the reader’s interest, such as the Illuminati or the Holy Grail/Mary Magdalene story. In this case, the historical element isn’t a secret organization or a bible conspiracy theory, it’s Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, especially the canticle on Hell: Inferno. Personally, I found Dan Brown’s historical “did you knows” or “fun facts” less mind boggling compared to previous books. To be fair, readers more interested in world literature, instead of secret organizations or conspiracy theories, might enjoy Inferno more than the previous Robert Langdon books. In terms of the implications on the current debates, the issue is overpopulation and sustainability. Here is where Dan Brown really messes up, and becomes an advocate of a Neo-Malthusian, bourgeois, reactionary understanding of a whole array of topics. The novel has implicit views on population growth as the fundamental cause behind economic and environmental sustainability issues. The book’s tone supports conservative arguments that criminalize and attack the “poor and overpopulating masses” as the culprits, while ignoring the role of large corporations with truly unsustainable production techniques. I personally don’t think he intended to do so, but he definitely did, so it is worthwhile discussing this vision.

The upside is that he is nudging readers to reflect and react to the fact that humanity is currently facing a survival threatening sustainability problem. The problem has two elements, fundamentally linked, that of environmental sustainability and that of economic development. Humanity is consuming Earth to its oblivion, while simultaneously goods and resources seem insufficient to satisfy all our needs. The problem with Dan Brown’s rhetoric is that it promotes the idea that the fundamental variable is population growth. Hunger, sickness, pollution, melting ice caps, are all explained with overpopulation. According to this vision, Malthus was right; population grew exponentially while our means of subsistence lagged behind. The vision ignores the fact that science and technology have also been developed exponentially in the last centuries. World population grew more in the last 200 years than it grew in the previous 200,000 years. However, science and technology have also been developed much more in the last 200 years than in the previous 200,000 years. Therefore, we most likely have the technological capacity to satisfy our needs and wants in a sustainable manner even with population growth. This isn’t a novel idea that should have escaped Dan Brown’s preparatory readings. It’s been around as early as merely 10 years after Malthus’ death. In 1844, Engels wrote in his Outline of a Critique of Political Economy:

Yet, so as to deprive the universal fear of overpopulation of any possible basis, let us once more return to the relationship of productive power to population. Malthus establishes a formula on which he bases his entire system: population is said to increase in a geometrical progression – 1+2+4+8+16+32, etc.; the productive power of the land in an arithmetical progression – 1+2+3+4+5+6. The difference is obvious, is terrifying; but is it correct? Where has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in an arithmetical progression? The extent of land is limited. All right! The labour-power to be employed on this land-surface increases with population. Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labour does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist – science – whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population. What progress does the agriculture of this century owe to chemistry alone – indeed, to two men alone, Sir Humphry Davy and Justus Liebig! But science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation, science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression. And what is impossible to science?

Overpopulation (or lack of technology adequate for our growing numbers) is not the issue behind hunger, sickness, pollution, or melting ice caps. The problem lies within our economic system, our mode of production. How can we say that goods and resources are scarce, when we have, simultaneously, hungry people and surplus food being thrown away, empty houses with no tenants and homeless people, and pharmaceuticals stocked in warehouses while there are sick? In assessing the causes of pollution and global warming, how can we reduce it to population growth, without mentioning the millions of tons of waste and contaminants that come from unsustainable industrial production methods? The roots of our problems lie within the unequal distribution of resources and the unplanned character of our economy. With a more sensible distribution of goods and resources, along with replacing market forces and profit seeking behavior with social planning, we just might escape a Dante-like apocalypse. However, as Dan Brown presents the issue, it’s not only ignoring the actual roots of the problem, it’s a borderline (and for some an openly) racist argument. To say we are overpopulated is to say someone shouldn’t be here. Who? Well, population isn’t actually rising in the First World. Every single country with a population growth rate above 1% is a Third World country. In other words, the world’s problems are a result of the uneducated poor who simply cannot stop having babies (according to this Neo-Malthusian discourse). Dan Brown does right by bringing the sustainability issue to focus. If we do not do something, humanity, sooner than later, might actually face a species-threatening crisis. In fact, evidence points to the fact that we already are in this crisis. Where Dan Brown fails is in pointing the reader into actual solutions. We shouldn’t be focusing on population growth. We should be focusing on the system as a whole; on how, what, and for whom we produce goods and services. In other words, capitalism is the problem! The solution: socialism (or if this is a bad word, then economic democracy, participatory economics, or any other euphemism). In the spirit of Dante’s work, the most treacherous beings on Earth are the members of capitalist class, as their existence actually threatens the survival of our species. Therefore, the deepest corners of Hell are saved for them. Our job is to make their Hell on Earth, by making our Paradise on Earth.

Puerto Ricans clash over LGBT Equality Bills: The face of hate and the face of love

Two bills have been proposed in Puerto Rico that would increase the rights of the LGBT community on the island.  One bill would prohibit discrimination for motives related to sexual orientation in areas as employment, rental leases, and other such public or private instances.  The second bill would clarify that Puerto Rico’s Domestic Violence Law, no matter the sexual orientation, protects all citizens. The island’s religious groups took the streets to protest these urgently needed measures on the island. In Puerto Rico, violent and non-violent homophobia is rampant. Between 2009 and 2011 alone, more than two-dozen people have been murdered in anti-gay hate crimes.

In a frightening and saddening demonstration of the conservative and patriarchal values that still run deep in Puerto Rican culture, around 200,000 people manifested in the island’s Capitol building on February 18th, with hateful picket signs invoking Christ and misleadingly calling for the defense of family.

Among the demonstrations in favor of the equality bills, one was held days before, on Saint Valentine’s Day. This demonstration took place in the University of Puerto Rico, and its conclusion was a mass kissing. The manifestation clearly illustrated that we are dealing with a clash between hate and love.

The now in power Popular Democratic Party, though ideologically absent minded, is trying to distinguish itself from the previous New Progressive Party government, which was explicitly reactionary in all fronts, including gender issues. Hopefully this will enable the approval of the proposed bills.

Faces of Hate:

Faces of hate at the Capitol Building

Faces of Love at the University of Puerto Rico:

Faces of Love at the University of Puerto Rico

 

The voluntary selling of labor power and the profit-worthy entrepreneur: On the bourgeois denial of exploitation

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez

One of the many ideological barriers that undermine efforts to understand the origins of profits, or to understand the nature of the relationship between the capitalist and the worker, is the bourgeois ideal of commodity production and exchange as the universal and natural form of human economic life. The late American economist Paul Sweezy argued this point early on in his discussion of value theory in his classical text The Theory of Capitalist Development. Quoting Smith, he sums it up as the idea that the propensity to exchange is peculiar to humans, and thus is one of the pillars, along with the division of labor, of human civilization. However, the analytical tools of historical materialism shed light to the fact that this not the case. In Sweezy’s words, commodity production “is not the universal and inevitable from of economic life. It is rather one possible form of economic life… a historically conditioned form which can in no sense claim to be a direct manifestation of human nature.”  Therefore, continuing with Sweezy’s argument, we must direct our attention to “the character of the social relations which underlie the commodity form.”

For example, the view of commodity production as our universal and natural economic form, would lead many to simply disregard capitalist profits as a result of exchange, and the overpricing of final products above the sum of the prices of its inputs. Marx’s analysis clearly demonstrates that this, once again, is not the case. One of the clearest examples on this issue can be found in his discussion on the contradictions in the circuit of capital, where he explains that if an individual with £40 value worth in wine, exchanges them for £50 value worth in corn, the total amount of value continues being £90. Therefore, “if equivalents are exchanged, no surplus-value results, and if non-equivalents are exchanged, still no surplus value. Circulation, or the exchange of commodities, begets no value.” Another of Marx’s important points on the matter is summarized by Sweezy, arguing that if every capitalist “were to attempt to reap a profit by raising the price, let us say by 10 per cent, what each gained as a seller he would lose as a buyer, and the only result would be higher prices all around from which no one would benefit.” At this point, it is clear to us that labor-power must be the source from which the capitalist is extracting profits, or more precisely, surplus value.

As Marx explains, capitalists “must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose, use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labor, and, consequently, a creation of value.” In order to find this commodity, Marx mentions two prerequisites. The individual who possesses labor-power must be the “untrammeled owner of his capacity of labor,” and also must not be “in the position to sell commodities in which his labor is incorporated,” he should “be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labor-power, which exists only in his living self.” As Michael Lebowitz explains, “Marx proposed, workers first must be free in a double sense. They must be free to sell their labor-power… and they must be “free” of means of production.”

Once these conditions are satisfied, the capitalist can buy labor-power and use it to produce use-values.  The value of these use-values would be equal to the socially necessary abstract labor time required to produce them. However, if the capitalist were to sell these commodities at a value equal to the sum of the value of labor-power and the value of the means of production required to produce them, he would make no profits. Nevertheless, if the laborer were to continue working, after having worked the amount of hours equal to the value of his labor-power, he would be adding value that would result in profits for the capitalist. Sweezy summarizes this process explaining, “In a day’s work the laborer produces more than a day’s means of subsistence. Consequently the working day can be divided into two parts, necessary labor and surplus labor…” where “the product of surplus labor is appropriated by the capitalist in the form of surplus value.”

This appropriation, for Marx, meant that the working class is being exploited. This leads us to the question, why would the working class voluntarily participate in a process that results in their exploitation? Is it merely an ideological apparatus that perpetuates a false consciousness, allowing the capitalist to exploit the worker with no need for coercion? Surely ideology has a role, but it is in the particular stage of the development of the forces and relations of production that we find the underlying process that explains this phenomenon. As mentioned above, it is with the tools of historical materialism that we can comprehend how the capitalist can extract surplus value from workers in what appears to be a voluntary agreement. Specifically, it is related to the “double freeing” of the worker.

In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the two conditions of the free laborer were ensured. First, the decay of the feudal system meant the disintegration of the bonds between the serfs and the lords; setting the conditions for a mass of people that are “untrammeled owners of their capacity of labor.” Meanwhile, the enclosure movement ensured the second condition. As Ernest Mandel summarizes, “The economic changes which, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, created a mass of producers separated from their means of production in the towns, were thus accompanied by changes which in practice deprived part of the peasantry of land as a means of producing their means of life. In this way the modern proletariat appeared… In other words, the separation of the producers from their means of production creates a class of proletarians who cannot live otherwise than by hiring out their strength, that is, by selling their labor-power, to the owners of capital, which enables the latter to secure for themselves the surplus-value produced by these producers.”

This leads to what I consider a fundamental question, is the labor process truly free of coercion toward the worker? Surely, legal processes such as indentured and bonded labor or peonage, which were common practice in late feudalism and early capitalism across different geographical areas, are no longer in place to ensure coercive rights to capitalists. However, the absence of official, state condoned, coercive mechanisms, does not imply there is a total absence of coercion. As Lebowitz argues, the buying and selling of labor-power “looks like a free transaction;” however, the workers are being “compelled to sell their power to produce in order to get the things they need… They can sell it to whomever they choose, but they cannot choose whether or not to sell their power to perform labor (if they are to survive).” I would argue that in addition, most areas in the capitalist world economy in reality offer very limited choices in terms of to whom workers can sell their labor-power, but the main point is this: workers must sell their labor-power or starve to death. This is the fundamental reality of the modern proletariat, and this can hardly be classified as a free and voluntary choice.

Modern capitalism obviously generates exceptions or alterations to this fundamental reality. Most advanced capitalist nations possess welfare systems or safety nets that would prevent the worker from actually starving to death. However, this does not change the main point. In this particular case, workers must sell their labor-power or instead live practically in poverty, in conditions that profoundly hamper the development of the individual’s potential or capabilities. Once again, it is hardly a choice free of coercive elements. Would the average individual willingly desire to live in such conditions? Others would surely argue that the modern proletariat actually has choices. He can choose to become self-employed or to become an employer instead of selling his labor-power. However, these practices are the exception, not the rule. These exceptions no doubt help promote the idea that capitalism is a system of voluntary and free choices. Nonetheless, the fact is that a variety of political, cultural, and economic mechanisms block most of the proletariat from following these alternate paths. As Marx says, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” In practice, the mass of dispossessed workers, or free workers from the bourgeois perspective, are in fact forced to sell their labor-power by the processes we have so far discussed.

In addition, once these social relations of production are set, ideological elements develop that secure their continuous operation. This particular process exemplifies the relevance of value theory along with historical materialism. The pertinence of these perspectives, among other reasons, stems from the fact that they are profoundly useful analytical tools to debunk the myths that surround the origin of capitalist profits or the overall workings of the capitalist economy.

Sweezy’s closing remarks on the transformation problem coincide with this point: “Under capitalist conditions, a part of this social output is appropriated by that group and community which owns the means of production. This is not an ethical judgment, but a method of describing the really basic economic relation between social groups. It finds its most clear theoretical formulation in the theory of surplus value. As long as we retain value calculation, there can be no obscuring of the origin and nature of profits as a deduction from the product of total social labor… In short, value calculation makes it possible to look beneath the surface phenomena of money and commodities to the underlying relations between people and classes.” For this reason, value theory and historical materialism are not only useful analytical or theoretical tools; they are fundamental and key tools for activists seeking to organize and recruit workers for the struggle toward a socialist society.

 

References

Lebowitz, M. A. (2006). Build it now: Socialism for the Twenty-first century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Mandel, E. (1968). Marxist Economic Theory Volume One. London: Merlin Press.

Marx, K. (1967). Capital, Volume I. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K., Engels, F., & Tucker, R. C. (1978). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The Marx-Engels Reader (pp. 594-617). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1972)

Sweezy, P. M. (1942). The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian     Political Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Status Determinism in the Puerto Rican Left:

The major obstacle for broad front politics 

Wikipedia defines determinism as a philosophy stating that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given those conditions, nothing else could happen. It aptly describes the philosophy behind a great part of the Puerto Rican Left. You might be thinking I’m going to talk about the economic determinism of orthodox Marxists, or something of the sort. Actually, it’s the other way around. It is in the nationalist Left where we are finding determinism; specifically, status determinism! Let me explain.

As Puerto Rico is still a United States territory in a classical colonial fashion, most of the island’s politics revolve around the future status of the island. On the table, Puerto Ricans have four options: become the 51st state of the union and fully annex to the United States, sign a free association compact with the United States as a sovereign nation, declare complete independence from the United States, or stay in the current colonial territorial status. The Left has historically supported independence, although now a large number of activists have supported the free association compact with the United States as an acceptable alternative also.

Now, the largest progressive organization on the island is the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which recognizes itself as a social-democratic party. In practice however, they seem to base most of their campaigning on nationalist sentiments instead of the issues one would usually associate with social democrats. Their nationalism has also become an obstacle for the development of broad front politics as they are developing in other parts of the world. The main issue is that broad front politics, for these leaders, only make sense in independent nations. They argue that while Puerto Rico is a US colony, any type of broad front progressive politics is reformist, if not colonialist and pro-status quo.

In other words, a front that encompasses unions, marginalized communities, LGBT activists, along with socialists and independence activists, for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), should only be constructed if and only if it is also advocating in favor of total independence (and by the way, if it openly calls for voting for them would be nice too). 95% of Puerto Ricans openly declare themselves against independence. So, basically, according to the Independence Party, we can’t seem to do any kind of electoral politics with 95% of the working class and other oppressed sectors simply because they are still not in favor of independence. Sure! We will piquet with them! Sure! We will send press releases supporting them! And sure, if you vote for us, we will write progressive bills in favor of them (although they will not be passed anyway). But!! Any kind of broad electoral politics that unites these sectors under a front that is not openly for independence (and voting for us), that’s unacceptable! That’s basically the idea.

Obviously independence is indispensable for any kind of radical transformation in Puerto Rico. Therefore, any type of broad front must eventually become a national liberation movement, as well as a socialist movement, for it to truly be revolutionary. However, the Independence Party is putting the cart before the horse.

How in the world are Puerto Ricans going to develop a National Liberation movement that unites most of the working class and other oppressed sectors, if they are opposing actually working with these sectors until they are convinced of independence? As Rosa Luxemburg said, “Those who don’t move do not feel their chains.” Socialists are obviously aware that they can’t presume a worker’s movement will be openly and unquestionably for socialism from day one. That’s part of the struggle. Radicalizing and organizing workers has to be the starting point, even if at that starting point they are not yet totally convinced for socialism. Nationalist independence activists seem to be unable to grasp this dynamic. From day one, they require workers, gays, lesbians, community activists, etc to be totally in favor of independence; otherwise, we can work together sometimes but not organically in a movement.

In this sense, it is with great sorrow, that we have to conclude the Puerto Rican Independence Party is actually becoming a reactionary force. Their conservatism has certainly affected their support. From more than 100,000 votes in the 2000 elections (5%) they have decreased to below 40,000 votes in 2008 (less than 3%).

Meanwhile, the recently founded Working People’s Party, which originated from the socialist movement, is seeking to fill the void the Independence Party has created. The Working People’s Party is not openly for independence or for socialism. Why? Because it is trying to develop precisely the broad front politics we have been talking about. It wants to unite in practice, workers and all other oppressed sectors to struggle against neoliberalism. These sectors are mostly not yet in favor of independence or socialism. But, as Rosa Luxemburg says, once they start moving, they will hopefully feel their chains. In any case, organizing workers and oppressed sectors is a precondition for revolutionary struggle. So, even if they are not from day one, in favor of total independence and socialism, organizing these sectors, empowering these sectors, is without a doubt, a stepping-stone toward revolution.