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Sunday, August 11, 2013

From Postmodernism to Postsecularism-- A Review

In January of 2012, I reviewed Eric Walberg's book, Post-Modern Imperialism (Clarity Press, 2011). I enthusiastically concluded that:

Walberg has offered a welcome taxonomy of imperialism from its nineteenth-century genesis until today; he has given a plausible explanation of imperialism’s contours since the exit of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism from the world stage; and he has convincingly described Israel’s unique role in the continuing reshaping of imperialism’s grasp for world domination.

Further, Walberg gave a needed response to misguided leftists who were quick to label Islamic resistance to US and Israeli predation as “Islamo-fascist.” Much of the US and European left took a smug, chauvinistic posture--a posture that coincided with the interests of imperialism-- toward fighters in the Muslim world daring to defy Western intervention and interference. They ignorantly announced that religious “fundamentalism” fatally tainted their resistance. Walberg struck a powerful blow against these immature conclusions.

Now Walberg has undertaken a more ambitious project in his new book, From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization (Clarity Press, 2013). His argument can be summarized-- without too much violence to its nuances-- as:

1. The last great secular social justice project-- socialism-- has failed with the demise of the Soviet Union.
2. Islam and its attendant political-social-economic doctrines are viable alternative routes to social justice.
3. Islam is the only alternative that can deliver social justice. Therefore, Islam is the universal way to social justice.

Of course Walberg goes to great lengths to shore this argument with a detailed, fascinating history of Islam and its currents that, alone, is worth the price of admission. He explores the relative shortcomings of other religions, a brief that is factually accurate, but, like the account of Islam, tellingly selective.

Hints of this thesis were embedded in the earlier book, Post-Modern Imperialism. I noted in my review: 

In the same vein, it is an exaggeration to portray Islam (or any other religion) as inherently anti-imperialist: in his words, “The unyielding anti-imperialist nature of Islam, its rejection of the fundamental principles of capitalism concerning money, its refusal to be sidelined from economic and hence political life…”
Unfortunately, Islam has the same tortured relationship with imperialism as have all the major religions. Precisely because they possess no robust doctrinal opposition to imperialism in general, all major religions have stood on both sides of the barricades.
The Islamist movement, Hamas, for example, stands as an important component of today's anti-imperialist front.

But it was not always this way. US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, speaking in Jerusalem on December 20, 2001, affirmed that the rise of Hamas coincided with “the promotion of the Islamic movement as a counter to the Palestinian nationalist movement... with the tacit support of Israel” as reported by Dean Andromidas in Global Outlook (Summer 2002). Andromidas quoted Kurtzer: “Israel perceived it as better to have people turn towards religion than toward a nationalistic cause [like the PLO].” PLO leader Yasser Arafat is quoted from the Italian press:

But Hamas is a creature of Israel which gave Hamas money, and more than 700 institutions, among them schools, universities and mosques. Even Rabin ended up admitting it, when I charged him with it, in the presence of Mubarek.

Hamas was constituted with the support of Israel. The aim was to create an organization antagonistic to the PLO. They received financing and training from Israel. They have continued to benefit from permits and authorizations.
In the same issue of Global Outlook, author Hassane Zerrouky (Hamas is a Creature of Mossad) outlines how “Hamas was allowed to reinforce its presence in the occupied territories. Meanwhile, Arafat's Fatah movement for National Liberation as well as the Palestinian Left were subjected to the most brutal repression and intimidation.” (reprinted in Global Outlook from L'Humanit√©).

Thus, while honest revolutionaries must recognize Hamas’s role in defending Palestinians from imperialism today, honesty equally demands acknowledgment of its sordid role in collaborating with Israel in the destruction of secular nationalism and the Palestinian left. It's difficult to find an “unyielding anti-imperialist nature” in this treachery.

Egyptian Communists acknowledge this vulnerability to imperialist manipulation in the August 3 statement of their Central Committee:

One of the objectives of the projects of imperialism in the Middle East is the establishment of states on religious grounds, which serves mainly Zionist plan to declare Israel a Jewish state for all Jews in the world, as well as the important results of  pushing these religious countries to inevitably get caught up in sectarian conflict. And it necessarily creates strategic divisions and fragmentations of the Arab countries and brings the conflict between Sunni - Shiite, Muslim - Christian, Muslim - Jewish to replace the Arab-Israeli national liberation conflict, to replace the social class struggle among the peoples of the Arab countries, and to replace the struggle against authoritarian regimes  allied with the imperialist global and international monopolies.
Most Arab socialists and Communists have sought unity with organized Islamic anti-imperialist organizations, sometimes successfully, as with Hizbullah and Lebanese Communists. But on other occasions that trust has been brutally betrayed, as with the slaughter of the Tudeh (Communists) in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For Marxists, the major religions are a sometime ally in the struggle against imperialism.
Insofar as they welcome cooperation and reject collaboration with the class enemy, Islam and the other major religions will find consistent friends in Marxist-Leninists. Thus, we welcome and support the current shift in the leadership of the Catholic Church toward the cause of the poor and against the ravages of capitalism, just as we regretted the alienation of past Popes from the fate of the Catholic masses.

Contrary to Walberg's premise number two-- the centerpiece of the above argument-- Islam and the other major religions fall far short of offering an adequate ethics of social justice for today's world. The Quran, like the doctrines of the Catholic Church, forbids usury, the collecting of interest on debt. Absent usury, Walberg believes that a comprehensive practice of charity will provide Islam with a complete program of social justice for today and tomorrow.

Aside from the fact that religious practitioners and their leaders conveniently find ways to sidestep or obscure the prohibition of the collecting of interest, “usury” fails to even remotely capture the prevalence and depth of modern-day labor exploitation. The Catholic Church's condemnation of “excess” profits fails for the same reasons. To suggest that charity alone can solve the incredible poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality of, say, a country like Mali seems patently improbable. And the solution of charity seems dangerously close to the answer advocated by the apologists for unfettered capitalism.

Likewise, the Hebrew concept of “Jubilee,” as an admirable moral prescription of debt removal and property restoration and an answer to the inequities of antiquity, will not put a moral dent in contemporary capitalism. That said, the vital principles of economic justice found in the Torah, the Gospels, and the Quran suggest a posture toward the ravages of capitalism. A casual reader of the texts held sacred by the respective religions will find much encouragement for a condemnation of the process of capitalist accumulation. Should believers read those texts with earnestness, they would undoubtedly become Communists as well as believers!

My own-- perhaps eccentric-- view is that the major religions cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy unless they embrace socialism, the contemporary embodiment of the moral codes of their founders. Unfortunately, most religious leaders in our time choose to accommodate capitalism.

Walberg is not insensitive to the alternative vision of Marx and Communism. He devotes a full chapter to “Postsecularism: Marx and Muhammad,” going to great lengths to show that Islam answers the questions posed by Marxism while avoiding its “shortcomings.” 

Destructive to his argument, he misunderstands the Marxist theory of value as follows:

Kapital's weakness-- the labor theory of value-- is a materialist reductio ad absurdum, denying the 'value' of 'unproductive' labor (the elements brought to bear by the capitalist related to securing markets, research, innovations, factor management)...
This is fatally confused. Marx recognizes a value contribution in ALL necessary labor culminating in the production of a commodity, including the research, innovation, essential organizational management, etc. Further, he sees a necessary value deduction in the labor essential for a commodity's circulation. What he does not recognize is any value created or socially necessary from the mere fact of ownership. And this contradiction between ownership and labor is precisely the element missing in all of the social doctrines of traditional religions including Islam.

Walberg's confusion about Marx's value theory leads him away from the resolution of the contradiction between value created by labor and the ownership of that value by the capitalist, a contradiction only resolved by class struggle.

This error dooms his well-meant, but naive  synthesis of Islam and Marxism:

The ijtihad-jihad process is in a sense just a more comprehensive version of Marxist praxis [by] emphasizing:
social unity rather than class struggle
the family and spiritual life rather than material production
evolution rather than revolution
While the sentiment is noble, it is irreconcilable with Marxism. Capitalism's rapaciousness-- acknowledged by Walberg-- cannot be eliminated by a retreat to mere spirituality, an unconditional appeal to unity or a common destiny, or the virtue of patience. These are simple facts that religions cannot escape.

I would propose a counter synthesis:

class struggle as the path to social unity
the family and spiritual life AND material production
revolution leading to the realization of these values

which could readily open the road to a Marxist-Islamic understanding and cooperation.

Walberg's book is timely, coming in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring.” One feels a veritable joy in his writings bursting from the optimism generated by the risings in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Unfortunately, that optimism proved short-lived. 

The Islamic governments established in Tunisia and Egypt generated great social rifts culminating in overthrow in one and growing tensions in the other. Open opposition in Libya and Syria drew the intervention of outside forces that swiftly transformed the struggle into imperialist regime change, destabilization of the regions, and enormous human and infrastructure destruction. Grievances were quickly appropriated by US and NATO meddlers who seized an opportunity to shape the outcomes.

In a little over a year, the rise of Islamic civilization that Walberg foresaw was dashed on the rocks of divisiveness and foreign intervention, just as it has in other times and places.

For the Marxist left, the Arab Spring provoked reservations and guarded sympathy, even apart from nefarious outside interference. On one hand, the rising against entrenched, reactionary authority was a welcome expression of popular will. On the other hand, the risings appeared to be more rebellions than revolutions. That is, the goals of the insurgents were neither united nor well-formed.

As events unfolded, these fears were borne out. Rather than challenge the structures of privilege and exploitation, sides were drawn around different attitudes toward tradition and “modernity,” secularism and spiritualism. While real and not fanciful, these differences do not touch the deeper relations of oppression. As with modern-day Western liberals who are occupied with lifestyle decisions and personal choices, the battles contested in the Arab Spring guaranteed that the poverty and exploitation of the masses would remain untouched.

One hopes are for the revival of a vibrant Marxist-Leninist movement in these countries to nurture these developments from rebellion to revolution.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Some Marxist Ideas Made Easy

The Ruling Class

The words “ruling class” conjure a group of older, rich, typically white, men sitting in overstuffed chairs in their private club discussing and deciding the future of US domestic and foreign policies. Better yet, images of an annual gathering in a private wooded area spring to mind, with the same wealthy codgers prancing around bonfires and indulging their fantasies before retiring to cigars and cognac and deliberation. To augment these representations, film directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Luis Bunuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), and Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) have sought to provide vivid, often comical narrative flesh to the manners and fashions of those who are said to decide our fate---the ruling class.

But this is not what Marxists mean by “ruling class.” They do not deny that wealth and power come together from time to time, both socially and to do business, but Marxists would be hard pressed to name all the names and locate the seats of power.

For Marxists, the idea of the ruling class is the answer to an enigma: How does a relatively small segment of the population impose its will over everyone else? How could a tiny minority advance its interests ahead of the interests of the majority? And how could that minority do it not once, not occasionally, but systematically?

By asking these questions, we open the door to envisioning an alternative arrangement, an arrangement that would place the will and interests of the majority first. But first we must provide an answer.

Behind the words “ruling class,” Marxists find the secret of elite rule in a complex system of social relations and processes that compel, control, confuse, or secure consent, while frustrating any attempt to rebel. Ingenious mechanisms-- electoral pageantry, entertainments, competitions, contrived identities, insatiable consumption, and a host of other distractions-- deflect the majority from the question of who should rule. And should some get the bold idea of rejecting this machinery of consent, there are instruments of repression: the police and the judiciary.

These systems of contrived consent and coercion are posed as elements and guardians of “civil society,” when, in fact, they protect the interests of a minority of the super rich and protect them, their minions, and servants from any challenges from the many. Money and its influence fuel these mechanisms; from elections to movies, from lifestyles to consumption, the hand of an unseen class shapes the direction.

Like an electron, the ruling class is studied from its traces. While we cannot see or touch electrons, we know they exist from their relationship and influence upon other particles and processes. That is, their footprint is evidence for their existence. Similarly, the ruling class footprint is all over the social, political, and economic world.

History teaches that nothing beneficial to the great majority comes without a struggle. Why would this be? Who stands in the way of the majority will?

The answer should be apparent: the class that rules by virtue of its accumulated wealth and the power that it buys.

Bourgeois Democracy

Bourgeois democracy” and “capitalist democracy” are terms that pose the fundamental question of “democracy for whom?” The terms remind us that the belief that there is some kind of pure democracy, a democracy that affords everyone an equal voice in decisions is only attainable when all the advantages of wealth and power are removed from decision-making processes.

Thus, in capitalist society-- what Marx meant by “bourgeois society”-- the wealthy are able to multiply the influence of their sole votes in the democratic process by “buying” elections. They use their ownership of the media, their influence over legislation, their command over political parties, and their vetting of candidates to ensure democracy for the few. The mechanisms for capturing electoral power are, of course, money and ownership.

Despite boastful claims of delivering democracy, the electoral systems of Europe and the US present outcomes that consistently favor the wealthy and their wealth-producing corporations. And when something resembling the popular will arises, it is quickly smothered with an outpouring of media demagoguery and the enticement to compromise. The rare electoral ascent of popular rule invariably faces naked, unabashed repression by the wealthy through their organs of coercion. One only has to review the fascist takeovers and military coups of the twentieth century to understand the limits of bourgeois democracy.

The deception of bourgeois democracy is not that the rules are not fair; in principle, anyone could be elected to an office. Rather, the deception is that everyone has the same possibility of winning an election. Trusted candidates supported by great corporations have an infinitely greater chance of winning against a candidate armed only with integrity and a commitment to social justice. 

And throughout the capitalist world, corporations support only candidates who are loyal to the bourgeois system. Today, the labor movement alone could marshal resources that even remotely challenge a corporate-sponsored campaign; sadly, most of the labor leadership is content to cast those resources before the corporate candidate who is less offensive to working people. And corporate candidates have the incentive to only marginally appear closer to representing the working class.

It is irresponsibly cynical to believe that nothing good can be accomplished within a regime of bourgeois democracy; and it is delusional to believe that fundamental change can be accomplished with bourgeois democracy intact. Reforms-- important reforms-- are possible with a bourgeois democratic government. But fundamental change in the balance of forces between the rich and the rest of us is impossible without fighting to replace it with working class democracy. 

Moreover, the transitional period between bourgeois democracy and proletarian or working class democracy is inherently unstable. Only one class can rule until classes are finally abolished.

Idealists and utopians constantly imagine a smooth exchange of the reins of rule through the bourgeois democratic electoral process. They see the wealthy and powerful recognize defeat and pass the keys of governance on to the representatives of working people. History knows of no such event.

That doesn't mean that working class democracy can't be approached through the bourgeois democratic process. It only means that working people must be prepared to meet every challenge, every reaction mounted to workers' power. Invariably the foes of change will react-- that's why they're called “reactionaries.”

Games of chance, like the institutions of bourgeois democracy-- representative elections, formal legal systems, decentralization of power, etc-- are not inherently unfair. In theory, they give everyone a reasonable opportunity for success. That is their appeal. But in practice, the poker player with far greater stakes will inevitably win. Similarly, bourgeois democracy guarantees that those with the great bankrolls will dominate the game of politics unless they are forced to play a different game.

State-Monopoly Capitalism

State-monopoly capitalism” is one of the least-well understood ideas of Marxism; yet it is one of the most important.

Marxists understand that for most of the last century capitalism has become more and more monopolized with a shrinking number of enterprises in all of the key industries. This process has resulted in fewer and fewer giant enterprises absorbing or dissolving smaller, less competitive rivals-- the process of merger and acquisition. Old industries like mining, steel, auto, and other manufacturing have grown more concentrated, as have newer technology-based industries like telecommunications and computers.

Some have mistakenly asserted that the Marxist theory of monopoly capital implies that only one or a few enterprises will dominate every industry in time. It does not.

It does predict that the process of greater and greater concentration of capital in the leading enterprises located within an industry will continually be a feature of capitalism. It also implies that the cost of entry-- the amount of capital needed to start up an enterprise-- will grow greater and more prohibitive over time in those industries that have achieved maturity. Thus, it is the process of concentration that is revealed by the theory and not the status of individual enterprises in the capitalist hierarchy. Marx's colleague Frederick Engels put this point well when he exposed the logic behind this process: “Competition is based on self-interest, and self-interest in turn breeds monopoly. In short, competition passes over into monopoly.” Engels affirms that competition will continue, further leading to even greater concentration.

But along with the concentration of capital, another process is at work: the continual merging of monopoly capital with the bourgeois state. The state will play a larger and larger role in the destiny of monopoly capital and, conversely, monopoly capital will obtain a greater and greater role in the operation and direction of the state.

This process-- the underlying expression of state-monopoly capitalism-- is exemplified every day and in every way. The bail-out of financial institutions while mortgagees are thrown under the bus illustrates well the “ownership” of the state by big capital and the disdain of the state for the people. The regulatory agencies of the state grease the operations of monopoly capital while paying little head to the people's interest. The coercive arms of the state function to protect and expand the corporate horizon abroad and protect property and bourgeois values at home. The state establishes secretive and undemocratic trade agreements and global institutions that protect and promote monopoly corporations from the restraints of regional and national interests. The doors of big capital and government swing both ways as their respective leaders change places.

The political Right rails against big government, laying every social and economic ill at government's doorstep. This is, of course, absurd, but not because government is a benign or neutral arbiter of the people’s interests, as liberals want to suggest. The idea that government “bureaucrats” possess some deep-seated evil intent to cause mischief on individuals, businesses, and the economy strains the last thread of credibility. They have no common interest to buttress such a conspiratorial view. The rightist anti-government position is simply the disguise for shilling for monopoly capital.

On the other hand, the liberal position that government stands as a neutral arbiter and guardian of the rights of man is an equal absurdity. Moreover, opinion polls of confidence in government institutions-- notably Congress-- show that the US population knows that it is absurd. The responses of “a great deal” and “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress together barely reach double digits in recent Gallup polls, a showing even below that of the banks.

Election reform, term limits, and the other panaceas will fail to break the solid weld of monopoly capital to the state; only the evisceration of monopoly capital will break that connection.

The Interplay of the Three Ideas

The three Marxist ideas discussed above share many features and interact profoundly with one another. Bourgeois democracy is an instrument of class rule in the era of capitalism, an instrument of the capitalist ruling class. In other eras, ruling classes sustained their rule with other mechanisms.

State-monopoly capitalism is the expression of the most recent, mature stage of capitalist development, a stage that brings with it the most corrupted, crisis-ridden expression of bourgeois democracy.

While the ruling class maintains a stranglehold on governance in this era, its democratic veneer is constantly eroded; more and more of the governed recognize bourgeois democracy as thinly disguised, but naked rule by the wealthy and powerful. At the same time, state-monopoly capitalism exhausts its means to avoid or moderate economic decline or stagnation.

The maturation of these political and economic contradictions generates a revolutionary crossroads, a moment when working people must choose between veritable slavery or taking the reins of power.

Zoltan Zigedy