Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From Benjamin to Marx

One nice thing about returning to the writings of Walter Benjamin for their polemic value is that Benjamin was also good for reviving my interest in the writings of Karl Marx;  and, as I have observed frequently (if not tediously), Marx provides good source material for considering the nature of work in the world the Internet has made.  This is particularly the case in his “Marginal Notes to the Programme of the German Workers’ Party,” better known as the “Critique of the Gotha Programme.”  This text is best known for its “From each according to his abilities” slogan;  but there is far more to the entire document.

Most important is that the title itself is a good piece of truth-in-advertising.  Marx works his way through the text of the Programme, taking it apart, often at the phrase-by-phrase level, and pointing out its inconsistencies (if not delusions).  The first “victim” of this process is a premise that we have heard early and often from many Internet evangelists:

Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture …

Marx’ response, written at the end of the nineteenth century, could just as easily have been written today:

The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour;  since precisely from the fact that labour depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labour must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour.  He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Using this as a point of departure, Anthony Giddens would subsequently develop a model of a social system as an organization of rules and resources in which domination is exercised primarily through the control of resources.  From this point of view, Marx’ invocation of the concept of slavery is not a mere rhetorical turn to attract attention but a recognition that enslavement is an optimal agency for ensuring domination.  Thus, while the Bush Administration may have propagated the myth of war in the interest of spreading democracy, the real war is being waged against the poor;  and it is being waged on a global scale.  Ironically, the power of the Internet to enable such domination is also the power to bring education to the poor;  and, as Fareed Zakaria observed about conditions in Egypt, the power of knowledge can be the power to rebel.  Thus, the only thing we can say with certainty about the War Against the Poor is that it is far from over with no sign of either side prevailing.

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