(A novella for the 21st Century, inspired by The Magic Mountain, Immortality and Darkness At Noon)
The more knowledge you have, the more intelligent you become!
‘So you get a second innings’, Max said. He was sitting at the bar of what would become his new local, talking to three delightful strangers. It was a stroke of luck really, because he only went to the ‘Dog and Duck’ to watch the Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United. He did not expect to meet any one and was reconciled to coming straight home afterwards. But here he was sitting at the bar after the game was over, talking to some new-found friends - or was he? One of the guys insisted that all the drinks were on him; since this was Max’s very first night in Newtown.
Of course, Max was unused to instant friendship. Is this what the people of Newtown are like? He was reminded of something written by the young Marx: When communist men and women get together they have no ulterior motives. They share a few drinks and their only need is company, association, which in turn has society as its goal....The brotherhood of man [and woman] is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality. These three are behaving like communist men and women; surely not! Well they say Marx is making a comeback in these troubled times. All the same, Max dared not declare himself just yet, in case he alienated his new friends. Being realistic, he was also a little wary of spontaneous camaraderie. It is a rare thing these days, in a society which is wedded unashamedly to money, the callous cash-nexus.
What did Marx say? Money has become man’s sole essential trait. Even the cult of celebrity is a means to an end. It allows the talentless to massage their egos and to make money at the same time. Narcissism is substituted for ability. The bottom line is: With a bit of cosmetic surgery - maybe some work in the gym - you can be beautiful too (in the celebrity sense); if not, at the very least, get your teeth fixed and apply the whitener. But if you’re mug is not on Face Book, well you’re a mug! Christ! I’ve only just got myself a mobile phone. Even if I wanted to, I haven’t got a chance!’ Technology-wise, I’m still 20th century man!
Then again the big one could be setting me up, before mugging me on my way home. No! He’s not like that at all. In fact he reminds me of the big Lebowski in the film of the same name. This ‘Dude’ also wears shades in the evening. (‘The world is so bad, I have to shut most of it out’, he later explained. Fair enough.) Just like the Jeff Bridges character, he’s big physically and he’s got a personality to match. I like something about the Dude straightaway: He’s an ex-rugby player from Wales. (a front rower, of course.) And his love for the game is even greater than mine. This guy had once transported himself all the way down to New Zealand, home of the ‘mighty’ All Blacks, because he wanted to learn how to play the game better.
Bob is the Dude’s sidekick. He’s smaller and less flamboyant, but pleasant enough and certainly very intelligent. In fact he would soon prove to be a real challenge for me. Now Bob is joined by Sue. What a gorgeous woman! I reckon she's about 40. (Later she confirmed this, saying ‘Oh dear, I’m 41 already!) She's friendly like the others, but she’s pretty and shapely, so this gives her the edge! I’m transfixed by her warmth and sensuous nature. She’s also curious and arty too. Bob is one lucky guy. But I also get the impression that Sue’s a vulnerable type; although Bob doesn’t seem to care. That makes me sad. Well I would want to fix that myself, if I were you mate; if only I could!
‘Why do we need a second innings?’, asks Bob. The other two are prepared to sit in on the conversation, at least for the moment! So I’ve got an unexpected audience to explain my philosophy of life, a rare treat indeed! But how shall I handle it? What should I say next? ‘Well, ah...you see, mother nature is sentient and compassionate; at least towards us humans; because we are the most intelligent, and -’ ‘But with you males in charge of everything, MAN is in danger of destroying the planet’, Sue cuts in.
'Are you a pantheist?‘, Bob asks. (The fact that he ignores Sue's valid comment is yet another proof of her experience - and dislike - of patriarchal male behaviour.) 'Surely that’s not right!’, Bob continued. ‘Otherwise, we would all know about it. Therefore we would behave badly the first time around, in the full knowledge that we can do it all again. Then things would be worse, a lot worse, than they are now!’ I’ve got to have my wits about here, that’s for sure. How do I answer that? ‘Well, we do live twice. In fact there are no exceptions! But it’s one of nature’s hidden laws’. Christ, I’m going to become unstuck, even before I get started. Suddenly the title of Henry Handel Richardson’s first novel (which I’vehad just finished re-reading), popped into my mind. It seems appropriate. ‘The fact is most of us need two lives for The Getting of Wisdom.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, you see, even if we do manage to get it during our first life, by then we’re probably too old. It’s wasted on us.’
‘Youth is wasted on the young. Is that what you mean?’ 'Yes.’ ‘- especially with you men', Sue manages to squeeze that in. ‘The getting of wisdom’ - what do you mean exactly?. The Dude is joining in the conversation now. ‘Is it something you can pick up, like when you want it?’ Is he being deliberately obtuse or is he just daft? ‘Not at all mate; quite the opposite, in fact; it’s a quality that can’t be quantified, even in today’s money-obsessed world. The getting of wisdom means that we have the potential to learn something about life as we go through it. But to do that really well, we also have to be receptive to the wisdom of humanity’s finest thinkers and writers; not just people we meet.’ I can feel ny the look on his face, that this is lost on the Dude. If only I could steer the conversation in Sue's direction; link up with her point about patriarchy...somehow?
‘But that’s unfair’, Bob shoots back. ‘What about all those people who go through life and only read the News of the World. At the last count there were at least 7 million of them! This scurrilous rag, of course, isn’t renowned as an advocate of high culture. Then again, as the saying goes, the media. only reflects what people want. That’s what they call democracy, isn’t it! And it is the free market which provides it. You can't deny that, can you!’
How could I - a marxist - not be impressed by remarks such as these. Maybe Bob is being ironic about this last point? If so, by sheer chance, and on my very first outing in Newtown, I’ve found a kindred spirit. So far so good! But I’ve got to press on, there’s an opening for me here to climb on my hobby-horse: a defence of high culture in an age which insists on putting an = sign between high/popular culture; contra 'elitism'! In today’s postmodern world, it takes a brave man to argue against that; elitism is such an emotive word! For at least 20 years, the very idea of high culture has been subjected to a sustained attack. And it was the cultural intelligentsia who led the way; NOT the tabloid press! This is despite the fact that the literati who write for the Guardian Review, are saying that the internet has killed postmodernism; albeit they don’t seem to know what has replaced it, if anything.
Of course, they don’t share my view, that postmodernism - in the broad sense - has renounced the whole western philosophical tradition, because, after what happened in the 20th century, today’s intelligentsia - for the want of a better word - are suspicious of reason; just as Nietzsche was. Nevertheless the intelligentsia are happy to embrace postmodernism’s eclectic approach to ideas; as well as the claim that we are living in a ‘new epoch’ for science, culture and the arts, whose foundation is the technology that gave us the new mass media; i.e. the internet. But for me, postmodernism is nothing more than a false ideology propounded by the privileged middle classes, who can’t see much further than the end of their noses. What’s more, postmodernism is just the fag-end of modernism; a symptom of the decline of western culture. Why? because it wilfully blurs the distinction between art and mass entertainment, it allows itself to be seduced by the dubious charms of a totally commodified world. Therefore it welcomes the fact that art has become even more integrated with the market. Therefore a work of art is valued as primarily as an asset. It is like intellectual property; you buy it as an investment; in the hopes that its value will increase (at auction); regardless of its intrinsic worth as an aesthetic object....
Get real Max! It's your first night in Newtown. Your'e in a bar with three friendly people. At least one of them is interesting. Then there's that pretty Sue - and she's age-appropriate! Don’t be an idiot all your life! - But will he? Max is so perverse at times. It’s on the cards he will screw up, yet again. (As it happens, this prediction about Max’s own performance this evening, which he could easily have made himself, provides ammunition for his own thesis - which he is about to enunciate - But he hasn’t thought of that yet!
For the moment, I would like to continue with my fantasy. But what should I say next? Will this do? ‘If only we could be young, sexy, handsome or beautiful, as well as wise beyond our years, all at the same time! Because it’s is only then that we are able to enjoy life to the full without hurting others; doing stupid things, making the wrong moves - so we end up being screwed up; no longer desirable to anyone - Of course, we should all want to help others to get wisdom as well. They’e staring at me. But is it curiosity, bewilderment or the fear that I’ve got a screw loose? What will Bob say next? ‘Well, for something as important as that, your so-called second innings; I don’t understand how I could possibly have missed it! How come YOU know this Max; whereas WE don’t - let alone the hoi polloi?’ But no one said anything. They have just let me off the hook, i.e. an obvious flaw in my fable - that we are not on a level playing field, are we? - I need to preempt this possibility.
‘Bob, I thought that you would pounce on me by saying that, given the way society is organised, it's not a level playing field when it comes to the getting of wisdom. In fact it’s bloody unfair. Nevertheless, we’re born again as the same soul, not as a newly incarnated one.’ ‘SOUL!’, jeers Bob. Pause here Max. You’ve got to deal with this point about the soul, if you want to come across as a dialectical materialist, that is! But I don’t want to be side-tracked either: ‘The soul, well that's an important concept. For me, it’s a means for emphasising our need for individuality, as a opposed to becoming slaves to mass conformity; the ‘unreal reality’ which is spewed out by the mass media.’ ‘You don’t say!’ ‘What I mean is, it’s... everything that makes us a unique human being - not just what’s in our genes; not just experience either; but also what we have read…There’s no one else like me or you or Sue, is there? But, of course, there’s a catch, isn’t there always? - Nature decided that have to start again with a tabula rasa. So the real challenge is: Can we come up with a better soul, second time round; as well as get this wisdom, before we become too old once again; or is it always going to elude us?
‘It sounds like the proverbial holy grail to me,’ Bob countered. ‘and you're theory is about as believable as Monty Python and the Holy Grail!’ This is fun. I’m beginning to enjoy this rational fairy tale. ‘Well, actually, there is a GLIMMER of hope. In fact there are three possibilities: Firstly, to avoid being reductive, we all have reason, morality and free will, when it comes to the way we treat each other and what we want from life - Not everyone who is deprived turns out to be a rotten so-and-so. It’s also a question of family, what sort of individual we are, as well as self-belief; not just class. Looking straight at the dude, I added, 'Consider the All Black legend, Jonah Lomu. He was a poor back street boy, who started out as a delinquent; he could have joined a gang and ended up in gaol. But his parents worked night and day to send him to boarding school, where he discovered the game of rugby. The rest is history. ‘You're right there, boyo,’ the Dude said and then fell silent.
‘Of course the question of CLASS is still an important factor. In this regard, the working class (I won’t say proletariat - just yet!) has always been worse off than the middle class. But today I think it is in an even worse position than ever. It is not just a question of money and opportunity. It is also a question of motivation. The middle class has always had more money and opportunity. So they tend to have more self-belief. And they never lose sight of the value of a good education for their children. Generally speaking, this includes a willingness to learn, from their experience of life, and from posterity too. In other words, they have the ASPIRATION to become more self-aware human beings. You need this just as much as aptitude.
‘On the other hand, the working class has ceased to exist as an entity.’ Bob chimed in. (He's smart,isn’t he!). ‘I agree.’ ‘I just wanted to remind you of that fact, Max. But go on. You have the floor.’ ‘That's because it’s no longer conscious of itself. Under Thatcher, the postwar consensus between state ownership, welfarism and the private sector gave way to the free market.’ ‘But the market enslaves us!’ ‘Of course! Almost everything was privatised, including welfare and council services; even the prisons. New Labour carried on where Thatcher left off. It also relied on a Faustian pact with the City: An increasingly bloated financial sector provided more revenue in taxes, which helped pay for things, like family credit scheme to help the working poor. Of course, there had to be a quid pro quo; i.e. the deregulation of the financial services industry, to give its official name. Unfortunately this led to increasingly reckless speculation by investment banks, hedge funds and so on. As a result, the capitalist class is becoming more like a rentier class. The richest make their profits from property; money moved off shore; as well as ‘financial instruments’, such as stocks, derivatives, intellectual property -.’ ‘Meaning?’ ‘They own the rights to information technology and its distribution, for example.’ ‘Okay, gotcha!’ ‘At the same time the unions are still shackled by anti-labour laws; so we have a workforce without rights. Zero wages contracts take us back to the 19th century, don’t they! Real wages have been depressed as a result; social inequality has increased. As for the left, it failed to step into the vacuum and create a new workers party….’ ‘My God Max, you should be a university lecturer, like me!’
‘I can only talk like this after a few pints!‘ ‘Haha, I’ve often been pissed during a lecture.’ ‘On the other hand, starting with the MacMillan years in the 1950s (You have never had it so good), workers saw themselves as stake-holders in a mass consumerist society. But during the Thatcher/New Labour years, most of them forgot about labour’s traditional respect for a good education: That they had to fight for it, because it offers an escape route from deprivation; not just in economic terms, but ignorance as well. But now it doesn’t matter any more if an imperfect comprehensive system is under attack. As long as cheaper goods and services flood the market, along with easy credit, the idea of educational achievement becomes less and less important.’ ‘Hmmm!’
‘So the working class is not just FRAGMENTED in terms of the gap between white-collar and blue-collar workers; it’s become ATOMISED as well.’ ‘Atomised? That sounds like armageddon!’. ‘Not quite. By that I mean, it’s up to each family (provided there is one) or individual to define who they are. This takes the form of, ‘I consume and therefore I am!’, depending on which sub-culture you choose to belong to: the body-piercing and tattooing fraternity, Goths, black bling, and so on; which are encouraged by the advertising industry. As Adorno says, there is nothing left but ‘to capitulate before the power of the advertised stuff’ . ‘Oh! I see: You’re an Adorno man as well, Max!’ ‘Well, Yeah; but I’m also quite critical of old ‘Teddy’ too. After all, in the late 1960s, he found himself lecturing to an empty lecture hall, because his students were out on the streets protesting about the ‘Fascist’ state, which they believed West Germany had become. May 1968 was just around the corner. Those were the days!….’ ‘Maybe!’
‘But I agree with Adorno when he says the masses try to gain ‘spiritual peace’ by making the imposed goods literally their own thing’. This is erroneously called ‘individual taste’!’ ‘So how does this affect the working class?’ ‘Well, today the majority - parents as well as children - they don’t have any aspiration at all. The pursuit of knowledge is too much like hard work. It’s easier to join the rest of the pack. Become a perpetrator - or a victim - of ‘brand name bullying’, as the media calls it. Certainly, the recent riots revealed just how important designer labels are to working class youth. With the odd exception, the rioters were mainly interested in looting things like iphones and JD sports Wear, weren’t they? This absence of aspiration is also reflected in social networks like Face Book. The pinnacle of it all is the opportunity to become a celebrity. Hence the unbelievable popularity of TV shows like the X-Factor, and so on.’
‘The riots; yeah, you’re right, they were more about looting, not just anything, but big brand names in particular. So you could say this has taken Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism to a new level. Do you agree with that, Max?' ‘Hmmm, I think I understand what you mean Bob. Perhaps you’re right! ‘It’s a case of the deprived being governed by their need for unnecessary wants; even though their real human wants, such as a good education and a job, are not being satisfied.’ ‘A sort of Catch-22?’ ‘Yeah!’….
‘Look Max, I would love to talk about Adorno and his theory of the ‘culture industry’, which he sees as a distraction for the masses, etc. But more to the point, you seem to have turned a positive into a negative. What about this glimmer of hope!’
‘Oh, You’re right Bob! But I didn’t want to give you the impression that I’m a bourgeois sociologist! I had to introduce the tricky question of the ‘interface’ between mass consumerism and class. Anyway, just to counter Adorno’s pessimism, let’s have a bit of optimism, what I call, optimism of the last resort. Others might call it a bit of the old utopian socialism. By the way, that was what kept Benjamin going. I’m sure you know that he was Adorno’s friend; not just a colleague at the Institute of Social Research…. ‘Yes I do know that.’ Max casts a glance at Sue. ‘Sorry Bob, here I am - trying to teach Grandma how to suck eggs! (Bob laughs; but Sue doesn’t bat an eyelid.) ‘Let’s start with the defeat of 1933, What could be worse: These two guys were leftwing intellectuals - Jewish as well - who were forced to flee the Nazis! Poor Benjamin; he went to Paris; but he had no idea that France would soon fall. So in 1940, there he was - with the Gestapo hot on his heels - stuck on the Spanish border!….’ ‘We don’t know whether he died of a heart attack or took an overdose, do we?’ ‘That’s right…Partly in homage to Walter, I would say my second glimmer of hope lies in his theory that, despite everything, man possesses a ‘collective memory’ of his long hard struggle to become a ‘social, human being’. It is buried in the unconscious mind of the proletariat, whose historic destiny is -’ ‘Sounds like he had been reading Jung to me?’ ‘Maybe he had. Anyway, on this basis, he believed - or was it just a hope - that the proletariat would awaken from its slumber at the moment of crisis and overthrow the system - i.e. capitalism in extremis - Yesterday, it was Fascism. Today, we have late capitalism; the financial crash of 2008…’ ‘He called it Now time, didn’t he?
‘But there was no now time - which at the crucial moment - intervenes in order arrest the flow of the temporal one, was there! - The proletariat did not awake in time to rise up collectively against fascism; not by a long chalk!’ ‘Scratching for straws there aren't you Max, old boy! But I take my hat off to you - You know your critical theory; that’s for sure! But what about your third glimmer of hope?' ‘Oh shit, Bob, just to mix up the cliches, I’m beginning to scrape the barrel here!' 'Yes, you ARE'. Bob ia luckys gloating now. ‘Well, of course, there is such a thing as a LUCKY chance - as well as necessity - Sometimes we CAN BE in the right place at the right time, which is fortuitous - like our chance meeting here tonight - At other times, the combination of circumstances are the opposite of fortuitous; i.e. we are UNLUCKY: like I could be run over by a bus tomorrow! (I very nearly was once. But that’s another story!)’
‘Well, Max, I think your idea that we have two lives, to maximise our chances for the ‘getting of wisdom’; even if there IS a catch, is a great idea!’. Sue is joining in our discussion. Thank God! So she’s still listening. Great! ‘This all sounds like a science fiction story, which is interesting as well. I love interesting stories. If only I could write one myself. But I lack the confidence and I don’t even have a decent dictionary; would you believe!’
Max old boy, here’s your opportunity. Sue is also a serious person. See if you can impress her with your parlous situation, along with a dose of self-deprecation. ‘Well, Sue! I just happen to have a spare one at home - I may be living in a empty flat at the moment with only the bare necessities. But I do have a few books, including a dictionary, which I can do without, at least for a while. It would be my pleasure to give it to you. It’s a good one too - a large Oxford English - Actually, I’m the one who can’t write stories. I’ve got some interesting ideas, but I can’t write them down. I love literature, but I have no literary talent. I'm sure you could do better than me. So why don’t you take this scenario of mine and turn it into a story?
‘Of course, I need to give you some more detail: One could ask, why is this getting of wisdom such a big deal anyway? I mean, why don’t we leave it to those who are bright, as well as privileged enough to have a decent education? Well I don’t believe in privilege! Why shouldn’t everyone have the same opportunity in life? Of course, individual aptitude will always be a factor - we can’t forget that - which varies from one person to the next. But my point is, we all possess the capacity to do better or ‘fail better’, if you like. That’s why everyone should be given the chance. As I said before, the sort of wisdom I’m talking about goes way beyond actual life experience, although we can’t do without this either. The thing is, each of us should also have the desire to embrace the very best of human culture if we are to truly appreciate the world; not just sensuously, but also intellectually. Only in this way can we acquire a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form, and so on. In other words, our five senses need to be cultivated by an enquiring mind. Otherwise they remain the prisoner of crude practical need.’ I’m looking into Sue's gorgeous blue/grey eyes. Are they beginning to glaze over? Carry on son and be dammed. She's not interested in you anyway.
‘Take food as an example: A starving man does not appreciate food in the human sense, since his need for food is reduced to its crudest form; like that of a hungry animal. I would also argue that the word ‘food’ needs to be understood in a broader - metaphorical - sense. In a society obsessed with private property, money, consumerism and entertainment, I think it is fair to say the masses are being starved in the spiritual sense as well. The tragedy is that millions of human beings don’t know any better. So they don’t give a damn, because they think that their present diet of ‘fast food’, being the proud owner of the latest iPhone - being able to download the latest fad or celebrity gossip - is wonderful! On the other hand, a billionaire does not really appreciate the beauty and importance of his art collection, because he is primarily interested in its monetary value. He keeps locked in a safe, for fear that it might get stolen!'
‘For the rich man, beauty is merely an assett, it’s more than tainted! It’s like a beautiful woman who ends up as a prostitute!‘ ‘That’s right Bob!’ Still observing the gorgeous Sue….No…it can’t be….Yes, I think the old todger is beginning to stir; but the situation is hopeless. So press on my son! Try to impress her with your mind, old man; but maybe this is equally hopeless? ‘....And to prove my argument, Sue, these are not my ideas. You can find them in Marx’s EPM. But on the basis of my desire for self-improvement, as well as my experience of life, especially now that I’m older, I embrace Marx’s wisdom wholeheartedly. Naturally I want to pass this on to others.’
Hope tinged with chagrin. Sue doesn’t question anything I say. I was hoping that, at the very least, she would ask me, ‘What's the EPM?’ Rather she turns back to Bob, who is now chatting to the Dude; annoyed that he is ignoring her; despite the fact that she is rubbing her shapely body against his leg. (Lucky Bob!)
Young Bob doesn't care. Hell. Life's not bloody fair! He's more interested in getting one over old Max, ‘You have to say more about this getting of wisdom', he says. Maybe Bob isn’t really interested in the conversation. Perhaps he just wants to provoke Sue? Maybe he is a little jealous of all the attention that she has been giving me. (But that was before I started down all this getting of wisdom malarkey!) Besides Sue is besotted with Bob; but this doesn't stop him humiliating her in front of others. Suddenly she starts to talk about her experience at a nudist beach. My imagination begins to wander. (Is she looking at me now? Can’t she see that I am all ears! I bet Bob is going to put a stop to this. ‘You're such a bloody fantasist', I hear him snap back, which shuts her up instantly. Now he’s beginning to find her tiresome? At the same time, I’m thinking, maybe Sue could become the woman of my dreams. The omens are good tonight. Is this my big chance? Well, I dammed sure that that I would care for her a lot better than Bob is. Just give me the chance! What a miss-match. Life is so ironic, as well as cruel! (Of course, this is only my personal view.)
Right now, I want to answer Bob’s question in a way which will be both startling and convincing. I started with a science fiction fable. So why not pursue that angle a little more? Take another long sip of your Bombardier. ‘We get this wisdom from the immortals.’ ‘What?’ ‘Of course, there’s only one kind of immortality, which is strictly material; there’s no need for the gods or God. Have you read Milan Kundera’s novel, Immortality? You’ll find it there.’ ’Nope!’ ‘Oh you must. We can also thank the Spinoza, for this view as well.’ ‘He was a Jewish philosopher who lived in the 17th century, in Amsterdam,… a materialist, right?’ ‘Yes, the very same. As a young man, he was thrown out of the synagogue for heresy. Politically, he was a radical, who was ostracised by his peers, because he advocated tolerance and peace. Despite the accusation of being an atheist, he remained a committed rationalist....His most important idea was to reject the concept of dualism…' ‘Platonism - the idea that the mind and body are separate entities!’ ‘Right again. He argued the opposite. Therefore great ideas are not inspired by an external God. Rather all consciousness is of the body. For Spinoza, the essence of God is reason; which opens up the possibility for self-realisation.’
At this point, Sue turns to the Dude, who had just finished his umpteenth pint of Directors. ‘I don’t understand this anymore; do you?’, she complains. 'Time for a smoke in the beer garden', replied the dude; and off they go.
In a flash Max understands. (For Christ’s sake, son, you could never become this delightful Sue’s soul-mate, even if we were attracted to each other. Deluding yourself - again - Max, you’re just a silly old bugger! Aren't you? There’s only thing left to do: acquit yourself well here in this conversation with Bob. He’s an intellectual.) ‘We-e-e-ll, Bob (What shall I say next?) ‘Umm….To get back to Kundera: In Immortality - his novel, remember - he argues that there are two kinds of immortality: the great and the minor. He gets this from Goethe . You can find it in From My Life (Poetry and Truth).’ ‘Literature’s not one of my strengths.’ ‘No matter. Once again, it has nothing to do with religion; i.e. faith in the immortal soul. Let's take great immortality first. In the words of Matthew Arnold, this derives from the best that has ever been thought and said - by those men and women who belong to literary posterity - Goethe called it the Pantheon. As for minor immortality, well this is all that the rest of us (mediocre) mortals can hope for. It’s the memory of a person in the minds of those who knew them after they die - assuming, of course, that he or she deserves to be remembered! - Inevitably, of course, this sort of immortality disappears after a generation or two.’
But Bob is having none of this: ‘Max, excuse me; but you’re a fucking ELITIST!’ He could have added that, given the fact that antiquity, knowledge and culture have been the monopoly of rich, old European men; it’s a gender/culture thing and ageist too. Go on Bob, defend the postmodernists; since you’re one of them, aren’t you! ‘….Your pantheon is merely a social construct, based on wealth, power and privilege, which is biased against the younger generation; not to mention other cultures. Apart from that, we now have the internet, which has DEMOCRATISED culture and art. It gives everyone the opportunity to create something which can be appreciated by thousands, even millions of people. If you go by the numbers, who’s to say that what Joe Blogs puts on You Tube is not as good as Goethe’s Faust, for example! Therefore any self-respecting democrat (let alone a socialist) should condemn this pantheon nonsense outright!’
‘Well, I beg to disagree Bob, and I’m a socialist - a MARXIST - in fact. After four pints of beer, I now feel confident enough to launch into an extended pub lecture (laced with quotes from Marx). I haven’t done this for a while! Yet here I am, about to start one with three complete strangers (or one of them, at least). Bob is also my biggest challenge. So if it all comes off, I really have discovered three soul-mates and on my first evening in Newtown. Life might be beautiful, after all!
‘Firstly, bear with me guys. Good ideas, like good literature, should be a struggle to understand and appreciate. Leave that which is banal to popular culture, to entertainment, of which there is already too much. In fact, we’re drowning in it. Secondly, this argument about elitism is misunderstood.’ ‘How come?’
‘There’s no simple answer, Bob. But if I could answer in a single sentence, I would say: It is the hierarchical STRUCTURE of knowledge and power within capitalist society itself which is elitist. It doesn’t make any difference whether I’M an elitist or not. Hierarchy is a feature of all class societies; but under capitalism a qualitative change occurred. This is because the system required a new social division of labour, which is quite unlike anything that went before.’
‘That’s a complicated answer, Max. And you have already used more than one sentence. But I want to know more. Let’s say it’s a refresher course from the stuff I learnt about Marx years ago! I think this is all old hat, by the way; so you will have to be GOOD. OK!’
‘I’ll do my best Bob. But before I do, l must deal with your point about the democratisation of art, thanks to the internet. I don’t believe this is happening at all. Let me illustrate my point by way of a recent experience which I had with You Tube:
‘The BBC have just finished airing Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate on Radio 4.’ ‘Oh! I missed that.’ ‘What a pity, Bob, because many people would argue that this novel is the War and Peace of the 20th century. Certainly, it’s a great epic….It’s centred around the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942. A million Russian soldiers and civilians - along with half-a-million German soldiers - died as a result. Without doubt, this was one of the most terrible battles in history. It was also the turning point in the Second World War. The Wehrmacht was bled white on the Eastern Front. Hitler met his Waterloo at Stalingrad, so to speak; not on the beaches of Normandy!….’ ‘Hmm.’ ‘To come to the point, I thought it was very commendable of the BBC to dramatise, Life and Fate for a wider audience.
‘But I also wanted to find out what sort of response there was on the internet. The first thing I looked up was a You Tube piece called, Kenneth Branagh and David Tenant on Life and Fate. I was appalled to discover that, not only had it attracted very few comments; of the few who did bother to respond, well their comments were either crass or ignorant. One person wrote, ‘My two favourite men on the planet’. Another wrote, ‘I love the way Kenneth Branagh rolls his ‘r’ on the word ‘brilliant’. The third comment said, ‘Blimey! Not more Jewish flag waving.’ I felt compelled to redress the balance and so I wrote, ‘It’s not about Jewish flag waving; it’s about Red Star war correspondent Grossman’s disillusionment with Stalinism, made worse by the fact that this brutal system - the mirror image of Fascism - claimed to be building a communist society. The enormous sacrifices that were made to prop up this monstrous lie is the greatest of tragedies. It let capitalism off the hook historically...and, well, look at us now!’
‘Ok! Ok! Max you have a point. But why is it that the masses abuse such a wonderful technological means of communication; because this is what the internet is, intrinsically speaking. Though I don’t have to tell YOU it's used by pedophiles, and other degenerates, for their own debased purposes. And as for the vast majority, of course, they use the internet for practical and acquisitive reasons: Online-shopping has now become their method of choice. Only a minority use it in the purely intellectual sense, as you and I do.’
‘That’s another very difficult question Bob. Of course, it also supports my argument. But if you want me to answer this question, can you give me more slack? ‘You really like theorising, don’t you, old fella! I suppose I’ll just have to indulge you.’ ‘Thanks mate. You say you've studied Marx a bit. That’s a big help. I assume you know he was a dialectician. Hegel, his teacher, was also one. But he was an idealist, whereas Marx discovered materialism.’ ‘Teaching Grandma to suck eggs again!’ ‘Sorry. Anyway that’s why he had to stand Hegel on his head!' ‘Aha!’ ‘So Marx argues that ideas spring from material reality, not the other way round; albeit man needs ideas - especially radical ones - in order to change the material world, to reorganise society. These ideas also need an agency, that is a social class, which begins to react to the conditions which begin to oppress it more and more….
‘At a fundamental level, developments within the sphere of human culture as a whole - by that I mean science, art, philosophy, law, political ideas and so on - these take place more or less independently of developments in the economic sphere, such as a change in the means of production, the form of exchange, and so on. On the other hand, the mode of production, which is the basis of these new ideological forms, has to be fully established, before the proletariat, which it has created, develops adequate consciousness, i.e. it understands collectively that a fundamental revolution is necessary, if man is to be truly free….By so doing, Marx, revolutionised philosophy. As he famously said, Previously philosophers have interpreted the world. The point is to change it!
‘I haven’t heard stuff like this since I was a student! Keep going Max. your'e on a roll. I'm enjoying the lecture!' Lecture indeed! Let’s not waste the opportunity! ‘Just to give you a couple of historical examples....’ You're beginning to sound like my old history teacher’ ‘Given our age difference Bob, I could have been, if only I was still a teacher; but that is in the past now; fate chose otherwise! Anyway, the examples: Firstly, during the eighteenth century, the European Enlightenment or ‘the age of reason’ reached its apogee. As you well know, the notion that man is essentially a rational being, who is capable of creating a just and humane world for everyone, was first espoused by revolutionary aristocrats, e.g. Rousseau -’ ‘ - who famously said, Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains! ‘Exactly! Later the Enlightenment ideal was embraced by a new revolutionary class, the bourgeoisie. But as the profits from trade and empire accumulated, the latter began to demand economic and political freedom, which brought them into sharp conflict with the old regime, the church on the one side and the monarchy on the other. Hence the famous battle cry of the French revolution: ‘liberty, equality and fraternity!’ But when the bourgeoisie talked about the UNIVERSAL rights of man, they did not really mean it; because that would have meant the emancipation of the lowest artisan, women, of course, and last, but by no means least, the millions of slaves in the new world, who had helped create the wealth in the first place.’
‘Well said Max! You should come and give lectures my students.’ ‘I’ll take that as a compliment Bob! Secondly, in the nineteenth century, we had the industrial revolution, which led to the rise of another revolutionary class, the proletariat or working class. But unlike their bourgeois masters, their interests were fully compatible with the demand for liberty, etc. As Marx famously pointed out, these new-fangled men [and women]… have nothing to lose but their chains. However there was a downside to that: To pick up on an earlier point, the industrial revolution also involved a qualitative change in the division of labour, which is ‘mind-crippling' in its effects, as far as the worker is concerned; that is, the majority of society.’
‘A qualitative change in the division of labour. What do you mean by that?’ ‘Hmm! The best way to explain this is to compare the present with antiquity. In ancient Athens, for example, as long as you were a free citizen, you had an rounded education, which gave you the opportunity to engage in intellectual labour, such as philosophy, talking about science or art and political debate, as well as practical labour, working out how to build the Parthenon, for example. Of course, they left manual labour to the slaves. This was also a patriarchal society, as well; so even highborn women were excluded from intellectual labour, since they were considered to be second-class citizens. In the Republic, Plato poses a different kind of society, one which provided an rounded education for all, and which offered a better deal for women. But the existing reality would remain for the rest of antiquity. So the old religious and patriarchal ties remained strong.' 'Hmmm, no argument there, Max.’ (Sue’s back from her ‘smoko’ with the Dude. I hope she’s impressed with that last comment! But she doesn’t say anything. She looks even more bored. Christ!)
‘With the rise of modern capitalism, as Hegel acknowledged, on the one side, there was a tremendous increase in mechanisation, and on the other, the ‘engulfing of quality by quantity.’ This was a consequence of the rise of commodity society. It seemed a logical step forward. Once everything can be reduced to a quantity, capital becomes far more flexible. Concretely, money (in all its forms) became the universal unit of measure….’ ‘Now it's getting complicated Max!’
I’ve got the bit between his teeth now. I feel like a jockey in the Grand National. ‘At the same time, use value, in the form of goods and services, including labour itself, are transformed into exchange value or commodities. Therefore, along with everything else, the worker is also reduced to a commodity, which the capitalist can order or dispose of at will, in accordance with his needs. His primary aim, of course, is to increase his profit margins, regardless of the human cost. But it's the worker who pays the price in human terms; because he is reduced to the level of a machine or a mere ‘cog in the wheel’. As Marx says in his EPM, this has the effect of depressing the worker, both intellectually and physically. Henceforth, intellectual labour, including the making and appreciation of art, is reserved to a privileged few. Whilst the capitalists may be content with their position as extensive sausage makers and so on; they become increasingly dependent on an intermediary layer of experts, each with his own specialist field. Marxists define the latter as the ideologues of bourgeois society. We could also call them academics or the intelligentsia.
‘Careful Max, remember I’m a university lecturer!’ Bob joked. “I was going to add that the intelligentsia are also equipped to think independently about the injustices of the world…’ The Dude and Sue are having a little tete-a-tete. ‘Max’, says the Dude, ‘if you don’t mind, Sue and I are going to nip out for another smoke’. By now I’m resigned to being rejected by the gorgeous Sue. ‘That’s fine by me’. After all, Bob is still very interested in my argument, if only because he’s waiting for me to slip up. (Of course, I’m determined not to. Still, I’m envious of the dude as he and Sue disappear from view.)
But i think you should let Bob restart the conversation. He does this beautifully. ‘So we’re no longer talking about that idyll of society, which Homer describes in the Iliad, wherein men take divers delight in divers deeds, as he so poetically puts it; are we!’ ‘That’s exactly right Bob. Brilliant! More importantly, the Enlightenment ideal was also embraced by those bourgeois ideologues par excellence - the political economists - in particular, Adam Smith and Ricardo. Smith was a moral philosopher as well as a social theorist. When he’s wearing his social theorist hat, for example, he rationalises the bourgeois division of labour, along with commodity society, as progress in the real sense of the term…. because it’s a more efficient means for the accumulation of capital. This in turn - with the help of mechanisation - reduces the cost of labour and thereby increases the accumulation of capital even further….’ ‘Hmmm’.
My mind is firing on all cylinders now, while Bob seems to be on the back foot. ‘So Smith justifies a process whereby most of the wealth, which the workers create, goes to the capitalist. Of course, the latter, if he can, needs to ensure that the wages he pays his workers are sufficient to enable them to feed and clothe themselves and their families; to put a roof over their heads, etc. As for the bourgeois state and its responsibilities, by and large, it is prepared to be responsible for the welfare of all its citizens, but only in so far as there are enough consumers who have the money to purchase the commodities, which they themselves have already produced; both the necessities of life, as well as ‘unnecessary wants’…..’ ‘You're talking about today, now, aren’t you’, Bob says.’ (So he IS keeping up.)
‘Yeah! Sorry, I often do that, swing from the past to the present and vice versa. But it seems like you are able to follow me!' 'I'll try.' 'Good!....On the other hand, because Smith is a son of the Enlightenment, so to speak, of course, he has to say something about the human factor as well. So now he puts on his moral philosopher’s hat and introduces the abstract argument of the man of perfect virtue, who is able to reconcile his own selfish feelings with a social conscience. This is his famous invisible hand idea. In other words, Smith presumes that the capitalist is a moral human being as well. If only for altruistic reasons, he will ensure there is a redistribution of wealth; because it is mutually beneficial to both the capitalist and the worker. Marx, of course, dismisses this as an idealist argument.
‘I’m afraid you’ve lost me there Max. I missed the point where you jumped from the Enlightenment to Adam Smith.’ ‘I’m not surprised Bob. It’s a tricky juxtaposition to explain, even for Marxist scholars. Perhaps I can clarify this by giving you another of Marx’s famous aphorisms: It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence; rather it is their social existence which determines their consciousness. Once again, for the capitalist, the accumulation of capital is the most important thing, This comes way before his moral conscience. Of course, there are always exceptions. Take Samuel Smith, for example, the famous brewer; he was a contemporary of Smith. He was one of the few capitalists who supported the anti-slavery movement. Today, we have multi-billionaires like Warren Buffet, who are also philanthropists. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule. As always, a majority of capitalists prefer to give their money to the party which best supports their interests. They make sure that when they are in government, that the laws are biased in favour of the capitalist.’ ‘Just look at taxation law vis-a-vis companies which export their profits abroad. This allows big corporations like Google or Amazon to pay hardly any tax at all to the British treasury!
‘Off-shore tax havens!’ ‘That’s right Bob. What’s more, there is general consensus between all the bourgeois parties about this, whether left or right.’ ‘That’s what’s wrong with left labour; they are reformists, aren’t they?’ ‘Yeah. Of course, that’s an important question, but I don’t want to be side-tracked here Bob’. ‘Sorry, old man, carry on!’ Is he grinning at me or just being encouraging? ‘Looking back, one could argue that commodity capitalism hijacked the Enlightenment ideal.’ ‘Come again!’ ‘To put it simply and succinctly - .’ ‘That’s A bit of a challenge for you, isn’t it Max?’ ‘Haha, all I can say is that I will do my best here…The Enlightenment ideal was supposed to replace ignorance and superstition with reason. The problem is that the capitalist uses reason in order to make a profit at the expense of the worker. He does more unpaid work in proportion to the wages he receives At the end of the day, the wage that he receives may not be a living wage anyway. That is before we begin to consider workers’ rights as human beings, such as sick pay, paid holidays, overtime pay, etc. Zero wage contracts do not give the worker either of these things.’
‘You’re talking about the iron cage of capitalism’s rationalism, aren’t you Max. ‘Nice one Bob! You always have the right phrase at hand. I admire that. It shows that you are on the ball.’ ‘Haha! Thanks old man! By the way, this is the antithesis of Marx’s concept of human freedom, isn’t it…Didn’t he say that The freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all. But what you have just outlined, somewhat laboriously I might add, proves that REAL human freedom is impossible under capitalism; despite one man- one- vote, etc.’
‘Well said, Bob! Come over to my side!’ ‘Who said I wasn’t? Still, one thing I lack is your certainty, which is admirable, but…’ ‘I am coming to that. I want to talk about WHY there is such a lack of certainty among the intelligentsia - yourself included…There’s more to it than the fact that Enlightenment reason ended up as capitalism’s iron cage, as you so rightly put it.’ ‘What else is there - other than disillusionment?’ ‘We also have to consider the phenomenological tradition within philosophy as well, which has reasserted itself; although it dates back to the middle of the 19th century.’ ‘Go on.’ ‘ There is also the history of the 20th century, which runs counter to the Enlightenment ideal.’ ‘It was pretty bloody awful!’ ‘That’s a bit of an understatement!’ ‘Sure. But I want to deal with this question of philosophy first, if I may.’ ‘Of course!’ ‘The phenomenologists - such as Heidegger or Sartre - argue that you can understand everything, simply by looking at it. That means abandoning a philosophical tradition which includes speculative reason - rational theorising, if you will.’ ‘Right!’ ‘ In this regard, Marx drew upon the German idealist tradition, linked to the ancient Greeks: philosophers such as Epicurus, Democritus, Aristotle…. ending up with Kant, Schiller and Hegel closer to his own time; as well as his own empirical research.’ ‘SO!’ ‘Unlike the ancients and Marx, the phenomenologists believe that philosophy starts with the here and now. Nietzsche was a precursor of this approach -‘ ‘ even before Heidigger!’ ‘Right! So it starts in the 19th century, before undergoing a revival in the 20th and 21st centuries. Nietzsche was one of the first to raise doubts about the role of ‘repressive reason’, which he sees as inimical to human freedom.’ ‘That’s why the postmodernists like Nietzsche; that’s true. But they also play around with Hegel’s ideas, Freud, even a bit of Marx. As you said earlier, postmodernism is eclectic…’ ‘But I think they are still very much in the phenomenological tradition. It is a combination of disillusionment with German philosophy, Schiller, Hegel and Marx, as a consequence of the history of the 20th century….the century of Stalinism and fascism. Maybe this is a symptom of a crisis of the intelligentsia itself. Like Nietzsche, they are fed up with the idea of reason; because it only leads to the death camps - or the gulag - So they argue: let’s have a bit of the irrational too. Commodity fetishism is irrational. As long as you have money, you buy anything you want. It makes you feel free.’ Bob is trying to take this all in. He remains silent….
‘Periodically, of course, the capitalist system goes into crisis, as a result of its own internal contradictions; concretely, overproduction/under consumption . Then the true nature of the capitalist class is clearly demonstrated: Workers are made redundant, social welfare is cut back. They look for scapegoats like ‘dole bludgers’, and so on. The capitalists, along with the political class, etc. are so enmeshed with their system, they actually believe that there is no alternative. Look at what’s happening now!
‘Yes,’ says Bob. He wants to get back on the front foot. ’Obviously this is what is happening across the developed world. It is spearheaded by the ‘austerity programme’, which the European Union is trying to foist on a hapless Greek people. But all this austerity carries the risk of another ‘double-dip’ recession. It could be worse than 2007-8.’
‘Maybe. Maybe not. As marxists, we’re not in the business of crystal ball gazing anyway.’ ‘I didn’t say I WAS ONE!’ ‘Okay, okay Bob, calm down… More importantly, I don’t think the latest crisis is part of an endless cycle.’ ‘What are you saying?’ ‘Well I see capitalism as an organic entity.’ ‘Meaning?’ ‘Any entity, be it a tiny amoeba, an economic system or the universe, develops from an immature to a mature stage, then it begins to decline….Modern capitalism begins with the emergence of the commodity as a universal form. It has been going for about 300 years. But the social relations of production are not only contradictory; they also develop in a contradictory way: The basic problem for the capitalist is a constant need to expand his profit margins, based on the extraction of surplus value which is produced by the workers. But over time the rate of profit has a tendency to fall; unless a new solution can be found.
‘Previously we had industrial capitalism, which replaced mercantilism. Whilst the latter led to a tremendous growth in trade and empire, at home, the old feudal ties continued, based on large estates, including the right to use common land; Manufacturing was still dependent on the cottage industry. But the home market needed to be expanded. The problem was solved at the end of the 18th century, thanks to the profits of empire, based on a capitalist form of slavery, which was far more brutal than its equivalent in ancient times. It provided vast amounts of surplus capital to finance the industrial revolution….
‘Of course. I do know that! I teach it, because it is on the curriculum.’ ‘Sorry Bob. Anyway, this in turn created a new class of workers and a greatly expanded urban market.’ ‘But now the same thing is happening in China today - and at a much faster pace!’ ‘Agreed. I’ll come back to that. But for now, let’s focus on the rise of the industrial working class in the 20th century, along with rivalry for markets between Europe, America - and Japan - It led to the Great Depression, fascism and another world war. This showed that industrial capitalism did not have all the answers either. Then came the era of the American multinational corporations - along with their Japanese counterparts (notably those which gave us the new technologies of mass communication, which also gave us mass entertainment; such as Sony, etc.);… only to be caught up with again by the US, i.e. the rise of Silicon Valley, which led to the advent of the internet age -.’ ‘Microsoft and Apple -.’ ‘Exactly!’ ‘- which has lasted say fifty years at the most -’
‘Hang on a minute Max, I’ve got to have a slash. Don’t worry, I’ll come back. I want to hear the end of your lecture. You should be a professor of, of…’ ‘Political economy?’ ‘Yeah, political economy’. ‘But there’s no such thing, these days!….’ ‘Haha!’ (Enforced pause.) I’m beginning to feel a little bit pissed now….
‘As I was saying Bob - or was I - I dunno!...Anyway, this wasn’t enough;… the accumulation of capitals, which began to slow down. Think about slumpflation in the 70s and then the manufacturing crash on both sides of the Atlantic in the 80s…’ Boys of the Black Stuff, Gie us a job! and all that!’ ‘R-right!…At the same time, finance capital ‘came up on the outside’ and assumed the dominant role. The great advantage of this form of capital accumulation is that it circumvents the problem of how to deal with organised wage labour, which always wants a bigger share of the capitalist pie. By the end of the 20th century, it was more profitable to invest surplus capital - such as workers pension funds which were now absolutely huge - in the financial sector, rather than the real economy. Wall Street became its epicentre -.’ ‘As Gordon Gecko said, money never sleeps; greed is good!’ ‘Right, and with the arrival of the electronic media, profits from the banks and financial houses received an enormous boost. Of course, as I have mentioned, for this to happen, the banks had to have the freedom to operate with the minimum of interference. Yet look at what has happened:
‘On the one hand, the financial industry has amassed enormous wealth for about 1% of the population, which has now reached obscene proportions. On the other, it led to more and more risky investments that ended up as toxic debts, which are not only very large; they are also very complex and intertwined. (That’s why the Greek bailout is such a mess. It has contaminated the banking system across the whole of Europe, if not the world. But, of course, everyone in the media blames it on those 'lazy, corrupt' Greeks!)’ ‘I agree with you there Max.'
‘Right!...Therefore the financial system itself, the foundation of late capitalism, is being undermined. ‘Finance capital at the expense of productive capital, research and development. Capitalism is a moving contradiction!’ ‘Now it is my turn to be impressed Bob. If only i had your turn of phrase.’ ‘You’re not that bad Max. Get on with it!’ ‘Thanks! In 2007-8 the banks stopped lending to each other, for fear of mutual default. The resulting credit crunch led to the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s….’ Pause here to deliver my coup-de-grace. ‘To sum up, the fundamental problem for capitalism today, is that… finance capital was the last throw of the dice; but it can’t be relied on, because it introduces tremendous ‘disproportionality’ into the system, which eventually destabilises it.’ ‘Capitalism is a moving contradiction.’ ‘But it is NOT a circular one. That’s my point! As the marxist theorist, Hilel Ticktin says: when a system, such as capitalism, is no longer able to resolve its own internal contradictions, IT BEGINS TO DECLINE.’
‘Sounds like the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Hell, I don’t know Max. This is TOO MUCH! You’ve gone too far with your speculative theory. Let’s go back to phenomenology!’ ‘No Bob! It’s not just ME who’s saying this. Radio 4’s Capitalism on Trial ended by paying tribute to Marx. He predicted the stage when capitalism is at the mercy of fictitious capital; conscious control over the system becomes impossible'. This is what’s happening NOW. We seem to be on a runaway train, but there is no one ready to pull the emergency cord. THAT’S too much!’ ‘What about the new powerhouses of capital, especially China? They have all this surplus, whilst we are collapsing from the credit crunch.’ ‘I don’t see a lot happening there: even if they wanted to, they can't bail us out and build their own market at the same time. The Chinese communists - so-called - rule over 1.3 BILLION people. They are already worried about the possibility of internal revolt; since there is so much poverty in the countryside, if not in the new giant mega-cities that have sprung up like mushrooms.’
Bob has stopped listening. He’s indulged me for long enough. I have a hunch that he is a died-in-the-wool cynic, who is ready to play his trump card. Sure enough, here it comes: ‘But what about the Communist Manifesto, Max; especially the bit where Marx says, that paradoxically, it’s the nihilism of the system itself which becomes the catalyst for revolutionary consciousness? Cue his famous remark, All that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.’
‘That’s a great quote Bob. Later Marx extends this idea as communist-mass-consciousness. Lenin calls socialist consciousness; for Lukacs, its adequate consciousness. Whatever, to respond to your quote, I would say Marx’s Enlightenment faith in man as a rational being could not be more clear. He sees this as an essential part of human nature. But it’s a question of: can man fulfil ‘his’ potential, which is not guaranteed. After all, man makes his own history; but not under conditions of his own choosing! This applies particularly to the working class. It may be the class which has nothing to lose but its chains; but it is also depressed intellectually - as well as physically by the bourgeois division of labour.’ ‘Hmmm.’ ‘So, despite his detractors, Marx is not a crude determinist. He did not say that the revolution is inevitable….’ ‘Really, doesn’t the Manifesto say that capitalism is its own grave-digger?’
‘It does say that. But, on the other hand, Marx says the opposite….Socialism or barbarism, this is his REAL default position. It was the Stalinists who seized on the idea that history - with a capital H - is ultimately on the side of the proletariat. It goes with the mantra that ‘the Party is always right'; even if the leadership makes mistakes. Don’t forget that the defeat of 1933 was a HISTORIC defeat for the revolution; but THIS was NOT inevitable - First of all, the German Communists, under orders from Moscow underestimated the Nazi threat. Secondly, they dismissed the Social Democrats as ‘social fascists’, which was utterly preposterous; so they botched the chance of a united front from below between themselves and millions of workers who usually voted for the SDP….’ ‘Christ, Max, you’re a bloody historian, as well, AND a TROTSKYIST to boot!’
‘The cat is well and truly out of the bag! This left the German working class fatally divided - Be that as it may, millions of communists throughout the world actually believed the Party was infallible - like the Pope - So they swallowed the official spiel: Okay, we lost that one; but Hitler’s chance to strut the world stage is going to be short; when he falls, it will be our turn! All the world’s a stage - and history - now it belongs to us, the workers of the world!’ ‘Wow, Max is a poet as well, able to quote Shakespeare in order to critique Stalinism!’ Do I detect a note of sarcasm in this latest compliment. ‘Haha!… But to continue with the Stalinist narrative: despite the ‘setback of 1933, The communists argued that the revolution will triumph, sooner or later! Just imagine, this was the last thought that countless loyal Bolsheviks had as they waited for the executioner’s bullet. If it wasn’t so bloody tragic, it would be funny. It’s all there in Koestler’s Darkness At Noon - Have you read it? -‘. ‘No!’ ‘Well You should. No doubt it’s out of print. But you can buy it on Amazon!… ‘A nice contradiction!’ ‘Yeah! Of course, this is more like orthodox theology, not marxism. The REAL Marx pointed out that a distinction has to be made between ‘changes in the conditions of production’, which can be understood ‘with the precision of physical science’, and the various ‘ideological forms’ in which men become ‘conscious of the conflict and fight it out’. Consciousness is just not predictable. It has a contradictory relationship with reality….Either socialism or barbarism? Looking at the mess we’re in today, one may well ask, where is humanity going?’
My last point has gone over Bob’s head. He’s preoccupied with another thought ? ‘Okay, let’s get back to the present. Why isn’t the working class fighting back now? We have corporate greed, on the one side, and social inequality on the other. Jesus! Such decadence. Arguably it’s worse than ancient Rome. Yet when a really serious crisis erupts, the response is an all-out attack on the living standards of ordinary people everywhere. But only the Greeks seem to be resisting! They’re heroes, really.’ ‘But Greece is on the verge of a social meltdown. This is serious. The German taxpayer doesn’t want to bail out the ‘profligate’ Greeks any more. Some experts are saying that, if this happens, the Euro zone might collapse, which could lead to the rise of nationalism in Europe all over again.’
‘Your right, Max. Greece has it’s own Golden Dawn movement. Throw in the rightwing parties in other EU countries, such as Hungary and Austria; let alone France and - even Britain…It’s bloody frightening.’ ‘Meanwhile people are just not spending; because they are afraid of running into more debt. Yet we’re both agreed that the recent riots here in Britain do not represent any kind of fightback by the workers. Rather it was a revolt of the so-called socially excluded. Marx described them as the lumpen proletariat, which does not a revolution make. Isn’t that right?’ ‘Yes! I would call it nihilism. I mean the hoodies, et al, were into shopping with violence and destroying their own communities. That hardly constitutes working class consciousness....’
The Dude and Sue have returned. No doubt he wants to buy another drink, ‘Now c’mon Max, why don’t you kick all this intellectual stuff into touch! I think we should be arguing about who’s going to win the Rugby World Cup instead!’ ‘For Christ’s sake Max! Give us a break, LIGHTEN up!’ Sue chips in. Clearly she was fed up with me to the back teeth. She’s never met a bloke like me before. Unfortunately for Sue - and the others - her sudden outburst will have the opposite effect; for this daft old git, being spurned - yet again - by a pretty woman, it demands that I up the intellectual ante. Call it the kiss of death!
Careful that you don’t lose Bob too. Now he has the opportunity to regather his thoughts. He’s got to silence the RUNAWAY Max for everybody’s sake. ‘Max, this is a very lopsided discussion; you’re being far too theoretical!’
‘Maybe’, Max snapped back, ‘But the fact that you oppose my theoretical approach proves my point: It demonstrates the way in which the system impoverishes the majority, especially in the intellectual sense. If what I’m saying is too much for you, Bob, despite your university education, how would a worker react? Firstly, through no fault of his own, he hasn’t been taught to think theoretically. Secondly, the masses crave for some sort of relief from the drudgery of being a mere ‘cog in the wheel’. (Today this includes skilled workers, even management.) All they want is to escape from reality, to be ANAESTHETISED, just like a patient who wants to avoid the pain of the surgeon’s knife. It’s no wonder the masses are seduced by the distractions of consumerism; not just the allure of mass produced goods, and all the fads that go with that. I would also include the infantile attractions of the entertainment industry as well; all that gratuitous violence or celebrity trivia. At the same time, they don’t have to think about the world about them. As Blake says, we build mind-forged manacles for ourselves.
A shell-shocked Big Lebowski and the gorgeous Sue Dude and Sue are itching to go outside again to have another smoke. But more worryingly, Bob is now laughing sarcastically. It’s the moment for his volte face. He wants to cock-a-snook at me, the pompous old fart. (Who does he think he is, Jack-the-lad as well!) ‘Look you guys, old Max here is a walking anachronism. All this talk about capitalists and the class struggle, let alone the revolution; Christ, it’s so-oh-so out of date. This is the 21st century Max. Get a GRIP old fella. It’s time to move on. Everyone else has!…. All this talk of communism. Don’t you realise Max, that Marx has been absent from the curriculum in higher education for at least 20 years. This is too much. I need another drink!’
‘Hell Bob! Don’t give up on me now man….Let’s get back to Kundera then. As if things were not complicated enough, Kundera also points out that we’re living in the epoch of the spectacle. He means that with the rise of the modern mass media, the image - especially one’s own self-image - becomes omnipotent; because it's omnipresent. The image has even supplanted ideology. He calls this imagology. (He’s too much of the old postmodernist cynic for me. But still he’s interesting.) Anyway, according to Kundera, a person is nothing but his image; the obsession with celebrity has replaced immortality.
‘Hang on a minute Max’, says a revitalised Dude! (I thought he was on his way to have another smoke?) ‘I’m trying to get my head around all this Marxist stuff. But now you’ve got me completely bamboozled by this ‘SPECTACLE thing! The only spectacle I know is the one I made of myself during a game of rugby: There I was with the ball tucked under my arm and an open try-line before me, and what did I do, I dropped the bloody ball!’ ‘Were you pissed? Reminds me of the Guinness poster…. It shows a glass of the black nectar which has been knocked over. The caption underneath says: ‘Knock on!’ Not bad eh! .... Hey, I’m sorry guys. I’m probably overdoing it as usual. But, as the quiz master says: ‘Although the buzzer has sounded, you have already started your answer, so you may finish’....This term was introduced by the Situationist, Guy Debord. He defined the spectacle as the moment when the commodity attains the total occupation of social life. It is the culmination of mass media society.’ ‘I thought it was Lukacs who started all that stuff…You know, in History and Class Consciousness; his theory of reification; that was written in the 20s?… which boils down to the same thing!’ ‘Point taken, Bob. ’
Now it’s my turn to decide whether to call it a day. But would there BE a next time with Bob, let alone The Dude and Sue? I doubt it. So there’s nothing for it, you have to try and explain the ideas you said you would leave until next time. (Put it down to the booze. There is nothing like a few drinks to bring out a man’s true character: Max, you incorrigible old pedagogue, you. You’re also like a dog with a bone!)
‘The situation is not helped when the cultural intelligentsia decide that the status quo is a fait accompli' ‘You like the old cliche, don't you Max’. (I’ll ignore that!) ’Objectively speaking, they have provided an intellectual fig-leaf for late capitalism, which is lurching from one crisis to another. Superficially we can blame this on the rise of postmodernism, which one critic has described as the logics of disintegration. But as a dialectical and historical materialist, I’m bound to say that Stalinism is the primary cause: On the one hand, it was a counter-revolutionary system, which tried to coexist with capitalism, rather than overthrow it completely; at the same time, it was brutally repressive. Remember the gulag, the Great Purges, Spain, Hungary?....On the other, it allowed capitalism to get ‘out of gaol’ during its greatest crisis; concretely, the Great Depression of the 1930s, which led to the rise of Fascism, The latter, of course, was an EXCRESCENCE of capitalism. Not only did this lead to the showdown at Stalingrad with countless millions of lives lost. More importantly the USA emerged from the ruins of World War Two - just think of the mess the Soviet union was in at the end of the war - and now we have the USA as the world’s first super power. It also presided over a post-war boom, during which the societe de consummation came into its own, not just in the United States; it exported the culture industry to the rest of the world.’
hardly time to pause for breath. ‘Think of it: Before the 1960s, we had Lenin, Trotsky, Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno, to name but a few. All of them shared an anti-capitalist world view in one way or another. (Although some would argue that the rot began to set in with the last two, via critical theory and the Frankfurt School.) So then what did we get? We got all these French philosophers, the authors of postmodernism, such as Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard. This last one - an ex-Trotskyist (!) - started talking about the commodity as a libidinal sphere, which enables the individual consumer to achieve an illusionary sense of fulfilment, as if this was a good thing. See what I mean!’ (Who’s listening now?)
Dazed, confused and bemused, the Dude has forgotten about the spectacle, whatever it is. At this very moment, he is lining up two more pints of Directors on the bar. (Call it the seductive power of the commodity form; this one having a sensuous, arousing taste; an addictive quality!) Right now, I’m a sucker for the Directors. ‘Max, I thought you said you were an ex-rugby player? You’re already two pints behind me. You should be bloody-well ashamed of yourself! Get that down ya, boyo. It’s stronger than the Bombardier too!’
I’ve got to carry on. After all, I’m nearly at the end of my argument. Why stop now? May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb (or is the other way round? Max, you're drunk!) ‘Because the worker suffers under this mind-crippling division of labour, surely, this is all the MORE reason why we must defend Goethe’s Pantheon; NOT mock it, as Kundera does. Intellectuals - like him and YOU should be arguing for a society in which everyone has an equal opportunity - in the REAL sense of the term - to realise their human potential. If only the masses could appreciate Faust, rather than gratuitous violence, which they can now download routinely into their tablets, even their iphones, then humanity might get somewhere. The world would be so much richer, in the real sense of the word, because of it. THIS IS THE OPPOSITE TO ELITISM!'
Bob could have said. ‘Okay, you won the argument about Goethe’s Pantheon and elitism. But I think we are even when it comes to the Enlightenment. We both agree about the iron cage of capitalist rationalism. It is a form of rationalism which places human beings within the logic of the commodity form and its market mechanism; so that we tend to see each other as mere things. Therefore the problem of consciousness remains: How does the class which has nothing to lose but it’s chains; which is the agent of the social revolution; precursor to the communist organisation of society, the true realm of freedom - the proletariat - acquire adequate consciousness; not just subjectively, but also objectively? Yet at the same time, as Marx himself says, it is depressed, both intellectually and physically, by the bourgeois division of labour. This is exacerbated by the rise of the new mass media, the entertainment industry and now the internet. It is the biggest Catch-22 question of all!’ Of course, Bob doesn’t say that. He doesn’t care anymore. After all, for him, it is just a game. Now he is going home with Sue (whether he wants her or not); not you Max; so there! You never had a chance with Bob either . There are many people of his generation who might have started out as marxists; but now they are disillusioned with the past; they have lapsed into cynicism, which is a necessary ingredient for all postmodernists; spokespersons for the zeitgeist. To be radical in these dishonest times, it is enough to be against EVERYTHING. The fact that you are well over the top - and have been for some time - is irrelevant. There’s the rub.
Here I am, back home alone in my empty flat. Heart palpitating after too much alcohol, head pounding, dehydration setting in. Sleepless in Newtown! I’m prepared to concede that perhaps I might have been ‘a tad over the top’ ! To mix a musical with a dancing metaphor, perhaps I indulged himself in too many intellectual riffs! But then again, it takes two to tango and Bob wanted to take me on. I couldn’t ignore the challenge; could I? It might help me get to sleep if I try to draw my fable to a conclusion? Okay then, who among us four is more likely to succeed in this ‘getting of wisdom’; albeit with the help of a second innings? But, of course, there is the small matter of mother nature’s insistence: that we are reborn with the same soul; i.e. it’s a template, but the slate has been wiped clean; it’s a tabula rasa. Why? We are such slow learners. But maybe the next time round, we will have better luck, vis-a-vis chance and necessity. On the other hand, there is every possibility that, at the end, the final end, we are no better off; therefore the ‘getting of wisdom’ is nothing more than the elusive ‘holy grail’. Perhaps Bob is right?
I’ll start with myself: My first problem is that I’m too easily distracted - not by the society of the spectacle - but by ‘Schubert’s Winter Reise syndrome’. (Others might call it self-pity! But isn’t this a matter of opinion? One person feels pain more intensely than another. We cannot measure such things.) Right now, I can identify with Schubert’s alter ego in his song cycle: the story of a young man, an outsider, who wanders through the snow from one village to the next. As he stumbles along, he glimpses life’s warmth through the lighted windows of the village. It is a metaphor for a man - or a woman - who is feeling the pain of rejection. At times delirious with cold and close to suicide, the young man is unable to shake off a deep feeling of loss and longing (or Sehnsucht, as the Germans say). Such a beautiful word, both in sound and meaning’.
Suddenly I can see Sue as she tries to smooch with Bob. ‘She’s a victim too’. ‘Why can’t this guy appreciate this sensuous, warm-hearted and gregarious creature. No doubt they went home and fell into the sack for some drunken ‘rumpty-tumpty’, which they will have both forgotten about come tomorrow morning. Certainly, Bob will. (It is the starving man syndrome again!) Behave yourself Max. Be generous. Think of Blake’s poem, the one where he says, What is it men in women do require?/The lineaments of Gratified Desire./What is it women do in men require?/ The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
Of course, given Bob’s cold indifference to Sue, I’m biased about his prospects. Yet I’ve got to acknowledge that Bob IS an intellectual, my equal, if not my superior! That gives the advantage? Maybe? Still I’m pleased to acknowledge that Bob is not a died-in-the wool English chauvinist, at the level of football anyway. With the game over, he declared that Manchester United did not deserve to lift the chalice (sorry Champion’s League Cup). After all, ‘Barca’ had made the top English club look silly with their one-touch passing, which resulted in three beautiful goals to United’s solitary one. If I could be objective for a moment, perhaps Bob is on course for the getting of wisdom, despite his scepticism, etc. But is that possible for someone who is so cynical and devious?
What about the big Lebowski then? Even after he had taken his sunglasses off, unlike me, he seemed to be oblivious to Sue’s amorous intentions. Rather he wanted to tell me how he had built up a successful business. He was certainly generous with his money, buying rounds at an alarming pace. (I couldn’t not keep up with him; because the big man can knock back a pint in a couple of gulps.) The Dude also considered himself to be a bit of a thinker or so he wanted me to believe: ‘I know a lot about the Middle East....This is where it is all happening, isn’t it’. Yet he failed to elaborate. (Did he mean that this is the place where Armageddon will start or was he referring to Israel’s relentless colonisation of Palestinian land, settlement by settlement, or perhaps the ‘Arab Spring’?)
No! This is not what the Dude meant at all. He went on to talk about Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But then he was only using it as a sort of grand intro for a discussion about Saudi Arabia, which he had visited on business. (At the very least, I would have preferred the Dude to talk about the ‘Arab Spring’. I can’t think of anything positive to say about the Saudis. In fact all I can think about is that old TV drama called Death of a Princess. It ended with the public beheading of two young people. Their crime? A princess and a commoner had dared to fall in love with each other! It really happened, because the whole thing was filmed by a British engineer! Today, Saudi women are still not allowed to drive a car.)
No! None of this adds up to the getting of wisdom. So that leaves the gorgeous Sue. It looks as though she’s already ahead of me when I was her age. Hopefully she hasn’t messed up as badly as I did?’ (By the time I was 40, my teaching career had nose-dived. At least I had taken up photography as a weekend hobby. I needed to do something to alleviate the stress of trying to teach knowledge-phobic children in what had once been a fairly decent comprehensive system. But now they are born into a consumer culture, which distracts and degrades them as human beings. It’s worse for the working class....)
Thinking back, I can see myself as a 40 year-old bloke, who drank far too much. I was a rudderless ship adrift on the ocean with middle age fast approaching; until one day a friend asked me, ‘Max, have you got a plan for the rest of your life?’ This was a rude shock. It was then that I discovered a deep-seated need for this ‘getting of wisdom’. I went back to university, part-time, where I studied the history and theory of photography up to MA standard…tried his hand at being a freelance photographer…couldn’t make a living out of it. At the same time, I dreamed of becoming a critical theorist and lecturer in cultural studies, but I couldn’t cut the mustard there either. So now I describe myself as ‘the in-between-man’, i.e. bright enough to be curious about the best that has been thought and said; but not bright enough to BE an intellectual and start my own campaign against those sodding postmodernists! For years now, I’ve been engaged in a marathon solo effort to write a definitive account of ‘The Decline of Art in the Age of Popular Culture’. But, to return to the cricketing metaphor, I’m beginning to realise that I’m on a losing wicket.
Goodness! Max, you’re digressing again! It’s SUE you’re supposed to be thinking about! She doesn’t look 40…she is also curious, arty and wants to write fiction. Aspiration is a rare thing these days…and she didn't use a mobile phone all evening! Most people her age are constantly checking their messages and answering calls, even in company; such is today’s social etiquette! So the next time I go to the 'Dog and Duck', I’ll be armed with the promised dictionary; praying that Sue will be there and when I greet her, I’ll say: ‘Please accept this dictionary as a token of my esteem. Open it and you will find these pages scribbled here!’
Now whenever Max thinks of Sue, the English ‘rose’, he recalls Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses; especially her final utterance: I drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume Yes and his heart was going like mad and Yes I said Yes I will Yes! But in my heart-of hearts, I know that I’ve lost any chance I might have had with Sue that night in the pub. Put it down to this division of labour thing! If Bob could not be won over, then for sure, my words went right over her beautiful head. Well that was certainly true. At least that’s How I prefer to see it; since it is hard to accept reality (even for me): The fact is, I’m just too old for her, among other things.
But as a good materialist - and a dialectical one to boot - Max also knows that instead of immortality - be it Goethe’s or the man who has plenty of mourners at his funeral - let alone a second innings, we only get one chance for the ‘getting of wisdom’. And, of course, it is not a level playing field either. As the great contemporary writer, Coetzee says in Summertime: There is Just one life and then never again. Never, never, never. Put him in Goethe’s Pantheon!
October, 2011/Revised 2015/2016