The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
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DIAL-A-MATERIALIST by Charles Carreon
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Tara and I started talking about Communism today, based on her critique of Carlos Fuentes' essay in Frida's Diary. She mentioned dialectical materialism, and explained that it was an approach to thinking that dictated that you examine the opposites that are found in the material world, and from working them against each other, you make progress. That caused me to point out two facts:
First Fact: Opposites are very hard to find in the material world, and when you do they are inseparable from each other, actually polarities of a single phenomenon. E.g., night and day, up and down, in and out, hot and cold, low and high. One attempted explanation of my argument was this:
CC: What's the opposite of a full cup?
TC: An empty cup?
CC: What's the opposite of a half-full cup?
TC: A half-empty cup?
CC: That means that it is equal to its opposite, which is not the definition of opposite that I usually apply.
(This is how I impress her ...)
Second Fact: Opposites in the world of ideas are easy to find, but impossible to define. Take good and evil or beauty and ugliness. Soon you have people telling you that you cannot do some good thing because it would have an evil consequence. Since when is something separate from its consequence? If a good thing causes an evil consequence, it must not therefore be good. The basic problem with this is that whenever you divide one category into two mutually exclusive categories, it never works. Something always ends up on the wrong side of the line.
I have never understood the meaning of dialectical materialism. However, immediately upon considering the term, I jumped to the idea that Karl Marx had attempted to accomplish something much like Charles Darwin. They were contemporaries:
Robert M. Young wrote:
Darwin (1809-82) and Marx (1818-83) were -- how easily we forget this -- near contemporaries and published their main works almost simultaneously. They died within a year of each other just over a hundred years ago. (Indeed 1986 was the centenary year of Darwin's Life and Letters.)
Like Darwin, Marx wanted to overturn an established belief system. Darwin was the leader of a mutiny against the political-religious cabal that had imposed dark ignorance upon humanity by outlawing inquiry into the origins of our species and all species. The oligarchs had entombed society in a fantasy concocted of Hebrew myths, Italian superstition-mongering, and in England, the dynastic aspirations of Henry VIII, who cloned the Vatican and found turn-cloak clerics willing to legitimize the new, Anglican order. Religion had to be blasted at the root, by destroying the creation myth. If humans aren't the crown of creation, but just the leading edge of a push from simple sentience to complex intelligence, then growth, goodness, and greater understanding lie ahead of us. And explaining that push toward greater complexity as the process of "natural selection" was perhaps the most brilliant minting of a sound bite in all of science history. To say that "nature selected" the winners in the evolutionary sweepstakes took the matter out of God's hands, and placed it in the hands of those of us who are at the helm of evolution. The ones who will live to reproduce, or die without offspring. The ultimate imperative, to which religion ultimately had to bend, as Henry VIII well understood.
Similarly, Marx wanted to throw off the yoke of commercialism that had been settled firmly on London's working class. Like Darwin, he posited that an evolutionary force had been guiding the manner in which humans apply their productive capacity, their labor, in social settings. He argued that the practice of enslaving neighbor nations in the early kingdoms evolved into serfdom and peasantry under feudal conditions, which gave rise to money, mercantile economies, the rise of the trading class, the decline of the economic power of the landed gentry, and the accession to power of the great "captains of industry" as the robber barons of Marx's time were fond of being described by their media lackeys. And what was the evolutionary principle? Dialectical materialism, of course.
The functioning of dialectical materialism would eliminate false consciousness among the workers, causing them to recapture their productive capacity, which in an industrial age is stolen from them by the spectre of unemployment, and sold back to them by the owners of capital. The holders of capital are depicted in Communist mythology as the stuffed shirts of Diego Rivera’s murals, backed with the “ten million men with guns and bayonets” who guard the Czar in Sandburg’s poem, “The People Speak.” They are blood drinkers, Saturnlike devouring humanity in greed. Would that the matter were so simple, that capitalists were at the root of the problem.
The problem with capital is not that it is in the possession of capitalists. The rule is quite the reverse. Once possessed of sufficient capital, unless you are ready to start giving it away, there is only one type of logic for the capitalist – further acquisition of capital. That is because capital is not a thing that appears here or there, or a physical force of known origins and limits, or a moral force that simply has a malignant effect. Gold does not corrupt the mind. It has been known to lie in the earth for millennia with people living right above, and never suffering the effects of greed to possess it. Gold fever is entirely a social creation, a stampede provoked by the lust for capital, which happens, for reasons of history, to be denominated in gold as well as other commodities.
Capital exists as soon as there is a wealth surplus. In the feudal economy, a grazing meadow, a cow, and beehive were all repositories of capital. Capital is refined in its accuracy and influence when currency appears, in the form of yams, cowrie shells, or discs of metal. Once it becomes currency, capital becomes a fluid language that enables what I call ICE -- Instantaneous Costless Exchange. Why instantaneous? Because everyone knows the value of a dollar. Why costless? Because if you give me ten singles, I’ll give you a ten dollar bill, and neither of us expects to pay a transaction fee, unless one of us is a bank. I can buy a banana or a banana boat in a foreign land because we can agree on its value in currency. I can buy it in rupees, euros, or dollars, since the value of those related currencies is known. All currency can be flipped over into another purchase without any transaction cost. Thus, currency is the visible form of capital, and will be with us forever, as long as we keep records of acquisitions and payments.
Capital turns out to be the prime instrument of social planning. Capital will, for example, solve problems. No money today? Promise to pay back twice as much next year? Okay, I’ll give it to you. Why would you do that deal? If you can turn around and lend that money to someone else, who promises to pay you back for three times as much in a year, then it makes sense. Why does that make sense? Because capital has its own logic. It is a self-presumed good to have more of it, since it is the marker for everything else from soup to sex. Therefore, any scheme that enlarges your pile of capital is a good scheme.
The attempt to run economic systems without capital has been pretty rocky. Why? Because conquering the difficulty of coordinating the work of producing all the goods necessary for an industrial society to operate proved very difficult. Imagine you are a central planner in a communist nation. You wake one morning to consider a proposal to start a strawberry farm in a place where the little red berries have traditionally grown well. However, it will only produce enough berries to feed a very few of your comrades. In other words, strawberries would sell for a lot. That would make it a luxury product, which would remind us of the bad old days, in which only the rich had nice things. Therefore, there will be no strawberries for anyone. This may or may not be a good result, but to a person who has to hoe potatoes that sell for a tiny fraction of strawberries, the theory, however dialectical or materialistic, will be a hard sell.
How does capital help? By establishing the existence of markets and making it possible to estimate the potential benefit to the laborer of pursuing a certain productive plan. In other words, a person can just decide whether they want to grow potatoes or strawberries based on how much people are willing to pay for them. If you have a huge farm in a cold place, potatoes may be a great thing. But why not put an acre or two into berries, sell them by the roadside in the summer, and can the rest for the winter? It all pencils out, and most people will stop doing these things when it no longer pencils out.
Nevertheless, capital can be the instrument of enslavement, and for the most part, is. People, who have no capital, have only their labor to sell. Further, once industry routinizes tasks, everyone’s labor is worth the same. The goal of modern industry is to idiot proof tasks so that one TV-watcher is as good as any other to get the job done, and the really smart people get raises based on how many people they can cut from the payroll. The fact that capital works well to organize a productive economy does not assure the elimination of poverty, pollution, drug addiction, homelessness, or any other social evils. It probably does assure that, if you have the capital, you can buy whatever you need.
Unless of course you need to reclaim the productive capacity of your labor for internal, personal reasons. Like you want self-respect, an opportunity to do the things with your time that you want to. Or perhaps you want out of a psychological reality in which the days of your life are already spoken for, and you have already been conscripted as one of the workers whose value is measured in keystrokes per hour, or some similar deadening measure. Perhaps this is the real evolutionary force at work that will move us away from the primacy of capital and towards the primacy of human experience. Individuals eventually may learn that quantifying their labor and exchanging it for capital to purchase goods makes them feel like fungible members of a worker-ant-population. If enough people learned it at once, that would be evolutionary.
When people decide they want control over their time, that is a dialectical insight. When they ask themselves why they should have to dance a jig because that is what the rich man wants, and he has the capital, that is a dialectical insight. When they ask why the bankers build high-rises for “investment” when the poor live in slums, that is a dialectical insight. When the people ask why we must pay so much to spill blood in foreign lands, rather than buying needed commodities at home, that is a dialectical insight.
These dialectical insights however, will not bring an end to capital, or its primacy to our economy. They should give us pause, however, and stimulate these questions:
1. Despite capital’s efficiency in structuring productive efforts, are there other factors that should help us decide how hard to work, and on what?
2. Does the fact that some nations have little capital not deprive their citizens of a voice in determining what they shall sell, and how they shall produce it?
3. Since the largest accumulations of capital stem from past exploitation of the western hemisphere by a gang of ruthless Europeans, can it be ethical to continue to profit from such aggressively-garnered advantages?
4. Until the excessive advantages gained by excessive capital holdings are equalized, can any player in the world economy claim to be prevailing based upon merit and skill, or must they all accept that they are the product of wrongful advantages?
5. In the dialectical scheme, if capital is one polarity, then what is its counterbalancing opposite?