What I learned in Argentina

What I really learned in Argentina was that “resistance” and mass organization do not necessarily point toward the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production in any way. Back in the U.S., where the Left is so weak, any sign of movement from the working class is both immensely celebrated and also intensely scrutinized for signs of revolutionary subjectivity (not explicitly visible, of course, but nonetheless expressing itself unconsciously through action, we are told).

The movement of worker cooperatives and solidarity networks in Argentina have become world famous in the past decade since their emergence in the midst of the 2001 economic crisis. I came to Argentina excited to learn more about them, since I had heard so much about them and their revolutionary example and potential. I learned, while I was there, that they express nothing of the sort, that they rather express everything that is backward about the process of capital accumulation in Argentina. Capital does not accumulate by way of its historic purpose: revolutionizing the means of production in order to produce relative surplus value by increasing labor productivity. Rather, industrial capital in Argentina accumulates by way of small national and fragmented international capitals producing for the domestic market using obsolete technology and making up for their inability to valorize at the general rate of profit by appropriating ground-rent from the primary sector.

The cooperatives are all tiny capitals which use extremely old technology and basically engage in hyper self-exploitation, only surviving through subsidies from the national state, which are quickly disappearing under the Right wing government of Macri who expresses the contraction in ground-rent that fueled the social spending of “Kirchnerismo”. These cooperatives and other political action of the working class represent its resistance to the absolute degradation brought about by the international fragmentation of the working class in the past decades.

Mass movements and workers’ activity are certainly necessary, but do not in themselves point to an anti-capitalist tendency in any way. We need to think about this when we uncritically celebrate movements in other countries and wish that if only we had something similar here. It is not enough for hundreds of thousands of people to be in the streets, even if they are demanding “out with them all!” Nothing can replace the revolutionary political action of the international working class which puts forth a positive program for the abolition of nothing less than capital and the wage system itself.

 

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Marxism and any critical science seeks to understand and denaturalize the human construction of our social world. It begins from the premise that we are social beings that in our relations to each other and the natural world bring into being specific forms of social life that are historically contingent. It seeks to dissect both social forms and individual subjectivity and show how the two are interrelated.

When I occasionally internalize the common sense that the social world as it exists probably makes some sense—that is, it is the way it should be, it is natural—I try to imagine coming to Earth with no knowledge of human beings, and asking one about the way he lives his life. He tells me that while as a child he was sexually attracted to both boys and girls—these two categories part of a system of binary categorization they have created (despite clear evidence that it is a false binary)—he is a “heterosexual,” that is, he now only has sexual desires toward and relations with members of the “opposite sex.” I would think about how deeply the social structures of his society influenced his individual consciousness, to the point of stamping out desires and coercing (not just through violence, but through uncountable everyday practices) him into forming an aspect of his identity based upon the limiting and packaging of these desires. Does this make any sense? Is this a social world I would want to live in? No. But because it is my social world, and it is the dominant mode of thought, it is so much easier to accept than contest it.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

There is nothing sadder to me than the prospect of accepting the social forms that exist and my internalization of them as natural, and living my life alienated from its full potential. Yet I do not believe in some sort of return to a pre or post-social subject, but in constructing a new self out of the world as it exists.

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

We need not feel bad about our subjectivity and socialization, but take stock of our starting point and see where we can go.

 

On the Right to Criticize

In a time where right wing critiques of our social movements rule the day, it is understandable that many are wary of and even hostile to critiques from among our ranks, yet I think they are both necessary and important. We must not sacrifice honesty for fear of making waves. I want to argue in favor of the right of anyone to speak on anything, at any time. Often criticism is discouraged under the premise that it is not the right time, that the moment is urgent and we must only act. But the moment is nearly always urgent, and there is never a perfect time or place for criticism. Nevertheless, it must be made.

The logic of experience dictates social movements in the U.S. today. A common refrain is that we should “shut up and listen” if we are not part of the identity group in question, or that we must only follow the lead of the most oppressed. Before discussing the problems inherent in equating experience with specific knowledge, I should first note that the way experience is often understood is highly limited. It takes as given that people are only able to understand their strict lived experience (itself a broader category than we give credit), discounting the sociality and complexity of identity formation. The Invisible Committee asks the question: 

 ‘What am I, then?’ Since childhood, I’ve been involved with flows of milk, smells, stories, sounds, emotions, nursery rhymes, substances, gestures, ideas, impressions, gazes, songs, and foods. What am I? Tied in every way to places, sufferings, ancestors, friends, loves, events, languages, memories, to all kinds of things that obviously are not me. Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared living existence, from which emerges–at certain times and places–that being which says ‘I.’

It seems somewhat contradictory to me that people who would be the first to argue that humans are not inherently selfish or greedy have no problem with the idea that we cannot see beyond the bounds of our “identities,” especially as we see that identity itself, if we entertain such a category, is in constant flux. 

Back to the issue at hand, the commonplace insistence on the need for “allies” – people who do not belong to the oppressed group in question, for those not acquainted with the current activist-speak – to simply follow the lead- demonstrates two problems. First, it discourages critical thinking and excludes the input of those who may have something important to add. To point to one example, I am grateful that Sartre decided to write “Anti-Semite and Jew,” despite being a gentile.  Without having the direct experience of being Jewish, he took the risk of speaking on the “Jewish Question” and wrote a flawed but valuable text that gave me – a Jew – insights into not only the history and philosophy of anti-Semitism, but also myself and my Jewishness. I think many people today silence themselves despite having something of value to say, for fear of being torn apart for speaking beyond what would be considered their experience.

Sartre did not need to share an identical experience in order to contribute something useful, which brings me to my next point: even among those who supposedly share an “identity,” there exists a vast array of experience and thought. Saying, “listen to Black people about racism” is meaningless. Those who insist on the utmost importance of identity as a marker for good politics have apparently never spoken to a Black conservative. But more to the point, among those whom we would consider to be broadly on our side, there exist disagreements on everything from the nature of the problem to how to go about solving it. To take one opinion from a diverse group and use it to represent the group serves to ignore and even silence those who disagree. It also lets the “ally” off the hook. Instead of making their own critical analysis and being held accountable to it, the “ally” can simply claim that they were “listening to those more marginalized.” Instead, I suggest we all commit to critical thinking and claim our views as our own, of course acknowledging how deeply informed they are by others.

The logic of experience also argues for uncritical support of all movements resisting oppression, regardless of their ideological and/or tactical shortcomings. Ross Wolfe has written in detail about this phenomenon, pointing to instances of leftist support for Hamas and Hezbollah, despite their openly anti-Semitic rhetoric. The logic of such uncritical support is befuddling. Theoretically, pledging support to a movement is to root for its success and therefore the success of its principles. However, most supporters of such movements would likely add that they do not support those problematic parts, but nonetheless, the fact of oppression overshadows such minor concerns and it is not their place to criticize.

Unfortunately, the belief that movements will shed their unfortunate parts when they come to power is not well supported by history, which if anything, leans the other way. Another common justification for such support stems from a (usually hidden) belief that the movement in question will not actually succeed, and thus the nasty bits of its politics will never see the light of day. However, this view is short sighted and U.S.-centric, as numerous revolutions have seen the oppressed become a new oppressor. But perhaps most importantly, deferring criticism may actually harm the movements we wish to see succeed. Free flowing criticism and debate is the sign of any healthy movement, essential to forming effective tactics and vision, as well as ensuring problematic events and tendencies do not get swept under the rug.

Though it may appear at first counter-intuitive, unconditional support for movements resisting oppression holds the possibility of fostering a dehumanizing and fetishizing attitude toward the oppressed. It treats oppressed people as delicate, incapable of critical thought and engagement that may lead to a change in their views.

Here I would like to make a side note. It is important to understand the causes of reactionary responses to oppression. The pain and suffering brought on by capitalism, racism, sexism and all forms of exploitation is of course deep. Oppression often makes people do things that those who do not occupy a similar position cannot easily conceive. However, to treat reactionary responses to oppression as inevitable is to deny the full intelligence and capability of oppressed people, many of whom do not take a reactionary route.

One of the most troubling consequences of the logic of experience is the fetishization of oppressed people and eventual desire to become oppressed. If we are told we have nothing to contribute unless we share an identical experience, we begin to wish that we too were oppressed. We assign moral value to suffering, an uncomfortably religious sentiment. The aim must be to end oppression, not make sacred the oppressed.

The point of writing this is not to say that all voices are equal, or should be respected, or anything like that. It is only that no one actively working for justice should feel that their voice is worthless, or censor themselves for fear of consequence.