Tag Archives: Marx

Currently Contributing to my Brain’s (En)lightening Storm

Thinking about the larger structures that inform our everyday experiences has sent me into epiphanic raptures since at least my early college days. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several works that take a systems view of the pressing issues of our time. Taken together, they seem to coalesce around imagining what comes next for society and planet. At the very least they have all set my brain alight. I hope some of them do the same for you.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

A sample quote ~

We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us–but it might open our imaginations.

I first encountered Tsing’s work in my Intro Anthropology course, where we read In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. This helped us understand post-structuralist ethnography. Two years later in our “Commodities and Human Agency” course, I read parts of what was then her most recent book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. From Tsing, I learned about the critical value of studying the margins: of society, of economies, of history. Mushroom goes even further into this poststructuralist marginalia, incorporating multispecies perspectives into her meandering, riveting storytelling. She leans into the interconnection and impossibility of synthesizing competing narratives, recognizing the whole as mutable and somewhat unknowable. But always worth investigating. Her work, like much of the other work I’ll discuss in this post, allows me to envision a future worth creating and living.

The Next System Podcast on Capital Bias

Specifically, an episode about capital bias and transitioning to an economy driven by worker-owned enterprises. Marjorie Kelly reminded me why I got involved in starting a food co-op five years ago, and why Marx & Engels’ work on capital and labor is still relevant today. She challenges us to rethink the relationship society has with capital, and imagine how it might be different.

“You don’t eliminate capital any more than with feminism you eliminate men–you just change the power relationship.”

Kelly’s work on generative design and capital bias, not to mention The Next System’s larger project, accounts for causality and interconnectivity in our current state of economic inequality and ecological upheaval, among other seemingly intractable systematic problems. That people are committed to working through them gives me hope, and inspires me to join them in whatever ways I can.

Recent Reporting on Artificial Intelligence and Automation

Speaking of work and our ever-transforming economy, I was struck by two articles that dive into the implications of technological innovation: Mother Jones’ “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot” by Kevin Drum, and The New Yorker’s Dark Factory by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Optimistic these stories were not. But they do important work in further sounding the alarm about where AI and automation are leading our economy and society as a whole, and the fact that perhaps we should be putting policies in place to protect people and their livelihoods. Worker co-ops could be part of the solution, as could universal basic income.

Upstream Radio on Universal Basic Income

Upstream focuses on the social determinants of health, which means their work covers all sorts of fascinating topics, from climate change to the prison system to foodways to education. Its recent podcasts (or “documentaries,” to use their term) have tackled the various models of universal basic income and their potential effects on society. Like The Next System, they imagine the paradigm shifts necessary to enact more livable futures. Also like The Next System, their optimism inspires some skepticism: how on earth would our globalized economy shift away from capitalism? But they have intriguing ideas, and I’m willing to listen and learn whether some of them might be applicable.

Secret Feminist Agenda on Whatever it Damn Well Pleases

Hannah McGregor, co-host of the essential Harry Potter podcast “Witch, Please,” has a new show wherein she addresses current events, pop culture, academic topics, and much more via a feminist lens and in collaboration with intelligent guests. Secret Feminist Agenda has helped me rethink laziness and productivity, parenting, academia, accepting when work is “good enough,” how women are socialized to be cogs in a machine that extracts our labor for very little compensation, and most crucially, how to resist this by living differently in the world. It’s truly a balm in a world that is chaotic and overwhelming.

Hurry Slowly on Rethinking Work as a Sustainable Practice

Speaking of pushing back against the exhausting status quo, the podcast Hurry Slowly is interrogating the ways in which we can slow down and get more meaning out of our professional and personal lives. Guests share different workplace models that value a separation between life and job, reasons to limit smartphone use, and how to engage with nature as a restorative force. The overarching idea is to make a person’s productivity sustainable, and the strategies presented in these episodes are ones I plan to hang on to as I contemplate my future career moves.

Science Vs on Renewable Energy

Finally, I’d like to plug a recent episode of the podcast Science Vs, which asked whether it was possible to achieve 100% renewable energy. Far beyond renewing my desire to get more involved in combating the myriad ill effects of climate change, one of the show’s guests provided validation of my (admittedly rare) propensity to harbor hope for the future. When asked whether he would have children today, energy economist Jim Sweeney had this to say:

Absolutely…I’m not going to give up on the future because there are challenges. There are always challenges. I was born in World War II; my parents had children. So I don’t see that there is any reason for believing that we’re going to go to hell in a hand basket. We will have challenges there is no doubt about it.

All of the readings and podcasts listed above have reinvigorated my desire to go deep, learn more, and look for solutions to some of the major systemic problems society faces. I want more of the work I do to be geared toward building a future that values people and planet. There are many things to work on: climate change, economic inequality, educational access, gender equality, racism and xenophobia, environmental preservation–you name it, it needs some work.

Now to pick something and get started…

 

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A Question on Appropriate Analytical Tactics

This question came to me during breakfast while watching a morning “news” show. I’d like to think they were doing a segment on consumer advocacy or reports, but it’s just as likely this thought came to me out of the blue:

In a consumer culture such as ours, is a Marxian analysis of the means and mode(s) of production still relevant? When the emphasis is so heavily on the consumer side, is it even useful to think of power in terms of who controls production? Or is the real power more in the hands of the hegemony, which convinces most of us that it is consumption that counts? And in any case, what does it say about our socio-economic system, about the state of things, that our main source of “power”–or at least the source most consciously realized and discussed–is consumptive?

In a sense, that’s not even power at all…although this is where I tend to slip back into Marx (is there a way to avoid it?)…but it’s not “real” power because it’s not just consumer demand that dictates production and makes companies rise and fall–it’s capitalist interest. That elusive yet pervasive “good” that we discursively (and mentally–subconsciously?) glorify yet only understand through well-worn metaphors and (misguided) faith. And it’s marketers who influence consumption patterns, by studying and exploiting them. It’s all related in a convoluted chain of powerful influences in the (ultimate?) service of increasing capital. And we consumers–the identity that all of us are encouraged to wear like a badge of honor–don’t have nearly the power we think we do.

But this does little to answer my original question about the relevance of a Marxian analysis in the face of our overwhelmingly consumerist society, because I just slipped so easily back into Marx up there. Almost too easily…Marx may be useful if only because he helps us dispel the hegemonic myths about the culture in which we live: a Marxian analysis helps us to see the production side of things that tends to be obscured, even as it is vaguely glorified in the “jobs” trope that is so in vogue right now. And of course there is always commodity fetishism, a big part of our consumer culture. But the working class has yet to come to mass consciousness, and I still want something that’s a better fit to describe what’s going on at the consumer level that’s so in the forefront of our national consciousness, while at the same time taking into account what is obscured by this focus on these gargantuan myths of the power of this hegemonically imposed and nearly-universally embraced identity. I want it all revealed and deconstructed and fit back together in a contemporarily sensical way.

Perhaps I need more Gramsci to understand what’s going on, but what I really want is an analytic that is for us–that is grounded in this culture and this time, not imposed from another, however appropriate or partially relevant it may seem. However well we try to make it fit. It just doesn’t do enough to completely understand what the hell is going on, here. And there probably is at least one, I’m just having some difficultly remember what it is. A little help, folks?

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Power