Marxism 2007: Day Three (Saturday)

“Engels and the rise of class society” wasn’t quite what I expected. Firstly the speaker was not Mark Thomas the comedian-activist, but Mark Thomas the manager of socialist bookshop Bookmarks. And secondly, he was talking not about modern class society, but about the development of class in ancient and prehistoric societies.

Fortunately, neither of these proved problematic. He was an interesting and knowledgeable speaker, and the topic raised valuable points. His basic thesis was that the competitiveness, greed and selfishness that now seem so pervasive are actually fairly recent phenomena. For the vast majority of human history, we lived in egalitarian societies, where sharing was the primary value. So the frequently-quoted notion that human nature is inherently greedy and competitive is, basically, garbage. What we see now is due to the capitalist system we are forced to live in, not hard-wired into our souls. This is something I’ve speculated about in previous posts, but it was nice to have a slightly more informed opinion on the matter.

Engels explored these points through his 1884 book “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, in which he shows that the class society only developed when societies started to settle in bigger towns and introduce the division of labour. Before that, all members of the society contributed to its welfare in similar ways, and so there was no need for inequality. If some were better hunters than others, they would gain prestige not by boasting about it but by sharing their food with others. Women were valued because they performed the vital “gathering” role, a much more reliable means of sustenance than hunting.

All very interesting, although I wish Thomas had also addressed the issue of what happens in the transition to more complex societies. If class divisions and inequalities are not an inherent feature of early societies, fine. But we are not hunter gatherers any more, and have no desire to be (well, I don’t anyway. Tesco may have its faults, but I prefer it to a confrontation with a mastodon). So although class is not inherent to human nature, it does seem a fairly uniform feature of the more technologically developed societies in the world. Why is this? Could it have been any different? Answering these questions may help in our ongoing struggle to find an alternative to the class society today. To be fair, however, it was probably beyond the scope of this particular talk.

Continuing the historical theme, I went next to “Africa before the slave trade” by Gary McFarlane. To be honest, this was a big disappointment. Perhaps the problem was that it is such a huge subject. He was trying to cover every major civilisation in Africa over thousands of years of history, and the result was that the talk became a recitation of facts with very little relevance or depth. These people traded salt with some other people who produced betel nuts, this town had extensive earthworks, that town had beautiful pottery. To make it worse, he had clearly not prepared at all. He had an enormous pile of papers on his desk and kept shuffling through them with much umming and ahhing as he decided what to talk about next. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to talk about the history of an entire continent in 40 minutes, you have to prepare. Bringing along your course notes and reading out bits at random just doesn’t cut it. I don’t feel as if I learned anything, which is a shame. Perhaps choosing just to give a snapshot of Africa in 1500, rather than covering its entire history, would have been good. Or pick out just a few civilisations and talk about them in more detail. Or shoot Gary McFarlane and get someone else to do the talk.

Next I went to “Accumulation – the driving force of capitalism” by Joseph Choonara. Unfortunately Joseph Choonara looked about twelve years old, and after my disastrous experience on day one I decided to cut and run. Sorry Joseph! Very unfair, I know, but I just couldn’t face another dud. So I went instead to Socialism and Democracy by Tom Hickey, but after waiting for 20 minutes we were told he wasn’t coming due to a bereavement. Sorry Tom. So I hurried off to catch what was left of “Gun crime – who is to blame?” As I feared, the answer was predictable. Racism, schools, the government, the media and slavery were to blame. All of this is true, but I learned nothing new from the event, which was why I didn’t choose it in the first place. There were no suggestions for dealing with the problem – just lots of “the government should…” and “the schools should…” and “the media should…” Well I’m sorry but the government won’t and the schools won’t and the media won’t. So what can WE do? I find that blaming racist institutions, as true and valid as it is, has the effect of disempowering the individual. If the institutions of the state are failing young black men, why rely on them for a solution? Let’s create our own institutions, our own schools, our own media. I would have loved a real discussion of some creative solutions, rather than a mere listing of all the facts that everyone in that audience knew to be true before they walked in.

Finally I went to see Richard Seymour on “What’s wrong with conspiracy theories?” In fact I’m not that interested in conspiracy theories, but the speaker is the author of a blog I like and I was curious to see what he was like as a speaker. Quite good, as it turns out. I particularly liked the first part of his speech, which was about the ruling classes using conspiracy theories themselves, for example Hoover in Cold War America seeing reds under every bed, or Burke and other conservative commentators on the French Revolution dismissing it as a conspiracy of a few ringleaders taking the gullible masses along with them. It is thus a way of delegitimising popular discontent and mass movements. Think of modern-day strikes or protests where the authorities target the “ringleaders”. There’s a good summary of this part of the speech on Seymour’s own blog.

Unfortunately, however, most of the speech and almost all of the comments and questions afterwards were focused on 9/11 conspiracies, which he was basically concerned with debunking. It soon became clear that this was some kind of internal debate in the Socialist Workers Party, the organisers of the conference. They were concerned with how to speak to 9/11 conspiracy theorists, a topic of no interest to me whatsoever. In fact, 9/11 conspiracy theories are of no interest to me whatsoever. Did the government know? Did they arrange it? I don’t know. What I do know is that they have killed 600,000 people in Iraq. Even if they did kill 3,000 Americans, it kind of pales in comparison. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the 100:1 rule I mentioned in a previous post (1 white life = 100 “other” lives).

Another thing I know is that we are never going to find out “the truth about 9/11” by going on the internet. If the U.S. government is clever and duplicitous enough to kill 3,000 of its own citizens, it’s probably clever enough not to put the evidence on the internet. You can study shadows on grainy photos all night looking for evidence that the plane was coming from a different angle or that there was no plane at all or that a particular kind of explosive was used. But you might as well just masturbate. The whole thing is a ridiculous delusion, narcissistic in its obsession with becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein, lazy in its refusal to go beyond surfing the web for answers, and utterly racist in its assumption that the hypothetical murder of 3,000 white people is more important than the real, indisputable murder of 600,000 Iraqis. I was disappointed that Seymour cut short what was starting to be a very interesting speech in order to pay so much unwarranted attention to this bullshit.

To be fair, he denounced the conspiracists himself for similar reasons, and said the only way we’d get to the truth was by overthrowing the government. I agree, but I think there’s also a quicker way: old-fashioned reporting. Talking to people, developing sources, following leads. If it was a conspiracy, a lot of people must have known about it, and a lot of those people are probably quite pissed off about the US government right now after the failures of Afghanistan and Iraq. They might be willing to talk. This is how every major conspiracy was uncovered in the past. Think about Gary Webb exposing the CIA’s operation to bring crack to the ghettos, or Woodward and Bernstein uncovering Watergate. The question to me is why today’s media are not doing this. I think there are a lot of reasons. Reflexive support for the government, inability to believe their own government capable of such a thing, unwillingness to piss off the sources they rely on for news, the dominance of advertisers, cost-cutting and the consequent reluctance to let a reporter spend months on an investigation that might come to nothing. Maybe, like me, they don’t see it as that important compared with reporting on the real crimes being committed by the US government every day. But it’s clear to me that the truth will only come out in the near future through a dogged piece of investigative reporting. Otherwise it’ll be the revolution that Seymour hopes for, or a release of official documents in a hundred years time when nobody cares any more. But Googling flight manifests is a complete waste of time. And talking about people who Google flight manifests is an even bigger waste of time. And writing about people who talk about people who Google flight manifests is… Oops. Sorry. I’ll stop now.

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There are 5 comments

  1. Shame you didn’t stay for Joseph. He is an very knowledgable speaker, with a great understanding of marxist economics. He is also a brilliant speaker and had some interesting props to enlighten what some would think a difficult and complex subject matter. You missed out.

    Still there is always next year.

  2. Thanks for letting me know. You know, isn’t life like that sometimes? You get burned by one experience and end up taking it out on someone completely different. I thought as I walked out that it was not the right thing to do and I’d probably regret it. Oh well, serves me right. I was actually planning to go to Joseph’s talk next year anyway out of curiosity/guilt, so it’s good to have a recommendation for it, even if only an anonymous one 🙂

  3. Probably anon. because it’s Joseph himself. Hehehhe ….

    I have to say that I was très disappointed in the ‘black’ forums I went to. Obviously couldn’t attend all, but the ones I did attend did not extend any debate in any way whatsoever. Gary McFarlane’s (who the hell is this guy) talk was very poor, made me wish I’d brought my slingshot. Where are the brilliant African-British intellectuals? The Gun violence talk, sent my blood pressure up … what was the point?

    I’m giving next year a miss myself, I feel like ‘been there done that’. Think I’m better off investing my energies in a more worthwhile exercise than sitting through endless rhetoric, that is … unless I have a book to promote …then I might just show up as an ‘expert’. 😛

  4. You’re right about Gary McFarlane – Africa is a fascinating subject that’s far far too big to even overview in a single meeting.

    I didn’t go to the Conspiracy Theories meeting because, although I have a perverse fondness for them, it was obvious what the speaker would say.

    Slavoj Zizek’s meeting on Tolerance as a Political Category was interesting – largely because half the audiance of 1000 loudly applauded his statement that the SWP has a lot of theoretical catching up to do, and it can’t defer an in depth analysis of the economy and the anti-war movements forever.

    Did you see the CPGB telling everyone how Martin Smith had punched up one of their members. Interesting that, less than three hours after the “incident”, they had managed to write, layout and publish a leaflet about it.

    Surely they couldn’t have planned the whole thing in advance? That’s so unlike them.

    Anyway, my own brief review is on my little blog, here.

  5. no no no…. not Joseph himself, just someone who appreciates a speaker who takes time to think through a subject and present it very well. The cardboard cutout props were, by all accounts an inspiration.

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