Monthly Archives: February 2017

RTÉ: Trash on the airwaves

Yesterday afternoon RTÉ Drivetime had a segment devoted to waste collection. The private bin operator Panda was installing cameras in its bin lorries in order to identify households who were putting regular waste into the recycling bin. Dublin City Councillor Cieran Perry was invited on to speak, along with Managing Director of the Recycling Division in Panda Waste, Des Crinnion.

The item was introduced with the claim from Panda that 40% of the content of recycling bins was regular household waste. “Some customers”, the intro said, “going as far as hiding nappies inside cereal boxes”, and asked “what is the best way to get people responsible for their waste?”.

The presenter Mary Wilson began by asking Crinnion about the “abuse” of the recycling bin. Crinnion listed nappies as the number one item, and used the example of how people used the green bin to hide their heavier waste, a reference to how certain bin providers, including Panda, charge by weight for their collections. He outlined how the installation of cameras and chips that matched the household to the bin waste would be used to fine people who persisted in using the green bin as a means of disposing of regular waste.

Cieran Perry outlined how the whole problem stemmed from what the anti-bin charges campaign had highlighted: that people would begin to dump illegally, and use recycling bins for regular waste as a means of avoiding expensive charges. He emphasised that waste management was a vital public service that should be financed from general taxation.

“So you think it’s just to avoid paying bin charges, the bad behaviour”, Wilson asked, and asked why people could not go along to a local authority facility and recycle there instead. It was a curious question, since as far as I know, there are no nappy recycling facilities in existence. And even if there were, it is hard to imagine people loading up with dirty nappies to make the journey.

Perry said that in so far as the general public was mixing recycling waste with normal waste, a lot of it was likely down to ignorance, of not knowing what could and what could not be recycling. Crinnion for his part was keen to emphasise that a lot of it amounted to laziness. That is -though he was not drawn on this point- a lot of lazy parents putting nappies into green bins.

Wilson then asked how much was down to ignorance, how much was down to laziness, and how much was down to ‘couldn’t care less’, having apparently opted to set to one side the matter of cost, and the more general question -proposed by Perry- of how waste collection ought to be funded.

In response to Perry’s suggestion that more education would be a more cost-effective means of ensuring proper recycling, Wilson wondered how much more education people needed. “Every child in junior school up is taught about the green flag and recycling and composting and everything else.” Perry countered, not unreasonably, that people were generally aware about recycling, but not necessarily aware, in the specific case of green bins, of what could be recycled and what could not.

Mary Wilson then asked Crinnion about the roll-out of the scheme, and noted that it would be “the citizens of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown first. They’re probably the best behaved, are they?”. The attempt at jocularity could scarcely conceal the class contempt that motivated the question: less affluent locations could be presumed to be worse behaved.

And that was that.

It was a short segment, but one that managed to ignore the substantive issue of affordability of bin charges altogether, and instead focus on the misuse of recycling bins as “bad behaviour”, allowing the representative of a private company to characterise people who put nappies in green bins as “lazy”.

An underlying assumption of private and individualised charging for waste and water services is that such charging makes people individually responsible for what waste they produce, and what water they consume. When it comes to household waste, people are supposed to have an incentive to recycle more by making it more expensive to not do so: putting recyclables in the black bin costs more.

Adam Smith would be familiar with the reasoning: it is not through a feeling of general benevolence that one recycles, but by acting in one’s own economic interest, a greater level of recycling on the whole will be attained.

However, the logic of this regime inevitably entails that people are compelled to act in their own economic interest, not that of society more broadly. In so far as people use the recycling bin to get rid of general waste because they cannot afford or do not wish to pay the charge, they are merely acting according to the logic imposed. But when this logic produces adverse outcomes, the abusers are singled out as ‘lazy’ and ‘badly behaved’.

Which brings me to nappies. Have you ever taken out a black bin full of nappies? A single nappy in your hand may not weigh much, but a bin full up with nappies requires considerable strength to manoeuvre and wheel onto the street, without it keeling over. Now imagine trying it with a baby in your arms.

Prevailing views on household waste production come with a moralistic streak, often encapsulated in the view that ‘the polluter pays’. In the case of homes where there are babies, the polluter in question is someone who cannot help it. All other things being equal, the weight of a bin for a home where there are babies in nappies is far greater than that of a home where there are no nappies used. And they fill up more quickly: we took out the black bins with far more regularity when subjects to the nappy regime. Hence the costs of waste disposal for homes where there are babies are far higher than those where there are not. Not everyone with babies in nappies has the money at hand to pay for a black bin collection every time it becomes necessary, or, for that matter, the presence of mind required to always throw the right waste into the right bin. That kind of thing is often quite hard, when there are babies to be fed and cleaned, and a home to be maintained.

Thus beneath the moralising disciplinary talk about ‘laziness’ and ‘bad behaviour’, there is the brute fact of a waste disposal regime that penalises poorer parents with babies, one more indication that we have no responsibility for other people’s children, or their welfare. Moreover this regime can only but penalise poorer single parents -usually mothers- even more. But the consequences of this regime are cast by the public broadcaster -through the words of a private company representative- in terms of the virtue of the rich and the wilful vice of the poor. What is all this, if not a form of widespread pollution?


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Trump Arrives (a Marxist hypothesis on the new power of capital)

Translation from Spanish of a piece by John Brown, published 10th November 2016.


The societies we live in today are capitalist societies. A capitalist society is a class society. In class societies, a minority sector of the population appropriates the surplus of material production. By surplus of material production, we mean that part of wealth produced in excess of what has to be allocated for the reproduction of the life of the worker, and the reproduction of the means of production necessary in turn for this. In every class society, without exception, the principle of the Chinese philosopher Mencius holds: “Some work with their minds, others with their bodies. Those who work with their minds rule, those who work with their bodies are ruled. Those who are ruled produce food, those who rule are fed.” What justifies the appropriation of the surplus, according to Mencius, is the fact that there are those who have the knowledge of how to rule, and those who lack it. This is the usual justification in a bureaucratic society in which the ruling class and the State are fused together.

In any case, whatever the justification given, the appropriation of the surplus also requires legal sanction, which translates into ownership of the means of production, and an amount of potential violence in order to give effect to the rights associated with this ownership. A feudal lord can be the owner of the lands that a worker cultivates, but in order to collect his tributes, he needs armed men. The appropriation of the surplus by the ruling class, depends, in non-capitalist class societies, on a political relation of dependence with regard to the sovereign or the lord, and on a capacity for armed violence. Ownership of the means of production, whether the land or any other means, is an expression of the relation of the worker’s dependence upon the ruling class or particular members thereof. The appropriation of the surplus, or in other words, the exploitation of the worker, is carried out through the two elements that determine the political relation: the law that legitimates ownership of the means of production (mainly land) and the personal dependence of the worker, and the violence that creates and reproduces the social conditions for the law to function.

In non-capitalist class societies, relations of class and exploitation are not only visible but are openly justified by ideology and by law. A lord exploits the peasants who work in his fields because he exercises over them a political domination that is open, legal and legitimate. Elsewhere, in such societies, it is not the owner of the means of production who controls them during their use in production. A peasant in a feudal regime controls the productive process autonomously, without the interference of the lord-owner of the land. The latter only intervenes in order to appropriate the surplus already produced, and does so from outside the production process.

In capitalism, as Marx shows in the first book of Capital, exploitation is inseparable from the production process, and as such has no direct connection to a relation of political domination. The worker produces in the same day of work, and in an indistinguishable manner, the part of wealth necessary for the reproduction of her life (of her ability to work) and the surplus appropriated by the owner of the means of production. This owner, the capitalist, controls the entire production process and combines in this labour power (the capacity of human individuals to work) with machinery and raw materials, with the object of producing commodities. During this process the body and the potency of the labourer dominate, at least temporarily, without there being a political dependency of the worker with regard to the owner of the means of production. The appropriation of the surplus as such becomes invisible, since the boss pays the worker for her “work” as stipulated in the contract and appropriates as a net benefit the value of the part of production that is not turned into wages, in paying off the means of production, payment for raw materials or reinvestment. The political and social domination exercised over the worker by the owning class is no less invisible than the exploitation itself

Political domination is not, under capitalism, an explicit condition for exploitation. This allows capitalism to divide social activity into two major spheres: an economic sphere that is considered autonomous and self-regulated, ideally without political interference, and a political sphere that is also autonomous in which in principle economic inequalities play no part. Classes are thus rendered invisible, and liberalism historically has boasted of having constituted a society without classes, in contrast to the feudal society characterised by its juridical institutionalisation and ideological legitimation of classes. This separation of politics and economics is not based, however, on the disappearance of social inequality, but rather its rendering invisible by means of law and ideology.

Under capitalism, as in any class society, there exists a direct relation between exploitation and domination, but the fact that the exploitation takes place within the very labour process, in the economic sphere, does not allow this relation to be seen. This relation between domination and exploitation is invisible because it occurs on two levels that are neither perceptible nor formalised by either law or ideology, nor are they present in the consciousness of subjects: in the microphysical realm of productive processes, discipline in the factory or other spaces of production (now blurred in many cases with spaces where one lives), and in the macro-physical realm of overall political domination by the ruling class or classes unified in the State. Both dimensions, which are invisible in the intermediate space represented by law and the market, function outside the latter and they constitute, in Marx’s terms, forms of despotism (factory despotism) or dictatorship (class dictatorship).

The invisibility of exploitation and domination does not prevent the worker, even if unaware of them, from feeling their effects in her own body. Within the framework of freedom provided by law and the market, each worker feels, in one way or another, the submission and physical and mental atrophy that a regime of exploitation involves. However much the submission to a work regime organised by a boss might be seen as normal and not as ‘wage slavery’, resistance to exploitation does manifest itself, at the very least, and still unconsciously, as rejection, boredom, laziness, sabotage, as material, corporeal resilience. Neoliberalism, by intensifying exploitation and extending the space for labour into the entirety of life’s activities, has eliminated neither this dark feeling of submission, nor the sad passions that constitute it, nor people’s resistances against it whether individually or collectively. There are classes and there is class struggle, however much these appear invisible to the naked eye and the microscope and telescope of historical materialism are required to bring them to light. This does not mean that these classes are subjects with perfectly defined interests of their own, nor does it mean that they have a political programme arising spontaneously or through their own essence. This is so much the case that resistance to domination by capital can even prove, within certain limits, useful to capitalist development itself. Without class struggle there would have been no large-scale industry, or machinery, or rational organisation of labour, or computers, or communications revolution. All these innovations correspond to capital’s need to maintain the submission of the worker, be it through discipline of her body (in the phases of industrial capitalism that lead to Fordism) or as control over life and ways of life (under the present, post-Fordist, capitalism).

In the political, too, which under capitalism appears as an autonomous sphere, the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and other capitalist classes demands the mobilisation on the part of the ruling minority of wide sectors of social majorities, specifically the exploited sectors. As Althusser reminds us, the ruling class, by being few in number in society, has never been able to exercise its domination on its own, and has always needed, within the frame of its political action, to recruit among dominated sectors. This does not only mean that the ruling class unified in its State generates obedience throughout the whole of society, but that it actively mobilises for its party -or parties- masses of people from exploited and dominated categories. In certain cases, this mobilisation has been combined with forms of social negotiation such as Roosevelt’s New Deal, or the Keynesian, ordo-liberal and social-democratic policies of Europe following the Second World War. In other cases, there has been no negotiation as such, and this has translated into the offer of unilateral protection from an authoritarian leadership, as in the case of fascisms.

The victory, with strong support from popular and working class sections, of Donald Trump, a multimillionaire, racist, xenophobic, sexist and socially reactionary businessman, in the recent North American presidential elections, is not, in this context, any surprise. Nor is the fact that he won wide support among sections of the white working class and petty bourgeoisie.  Given the impossible situation in which neoliberal capitalist rule, personified in the US elections by Hillary Clinton, found itself, unable to offer any kind of real social negotiation to popular sectors under attack from the neoliberal system of financial pillage, Donald Trump was able to portray himself as the candidate of resistance against globalisation, with a programme based on a rejection of free trade and the constitution of an ideological solidarity between popular and oligarchical sectors around the defence of a supposed North American white nation. The rejection of immigrants and free trade appears in Trump’s programme as the most widespread expression of rejection of the cosmopolitanism of globalised elites. In the same way, Ford, the foremost businessman in the automobile sector, and admired by Hitler, linked, in the 1930s, a common antisemitic and anti-cosmopolitan hatred of the Bolshevik Jew perverting the working class, which also included many poor Jews, and of the financial elite represented by a Jewish oligarchy symbolically associated to the name of Rothschild. Ford, however, had something to offer: a stable job and a decent wage in exchange for the obedience of workers under his despotic control. Ford, however, did not take up political roles and respected the separation between politics and economics that constitutes a pillar of the capitalist regime. This was possible in so far as the economy was a limited activity: material production and financial speculation had precise times, places and agents, and was territorialised in spaces such as the national economy, the factory, or financial centres. There were spheres of life that had nothing to do with the production of wealth. This model lasted until the 1970s, when it entered in crisis, no longer able to contain the demands for wages and rights from workers. Indeed, a wide section of workers played a leading role in revolts in major capitalist centres against the factory and its discipline, which converged with revolts of students and sections of the middle class.

Neoliberalism changed this situation entirely. In order to save capitalist profits, it destroyed the Fordist pact, making each worker a supposedly free economic agent, an entrepreneur. The relation between the worker and capital was no longer a collective negotiation as with Roosevelt’s New Deal or Fordism, but rather a strictly mercantile relation in which the worker is merely an agent of the market who submits to the conditions of the market. Labour and social rights fade away, and the State that had itself elevated collective bargaining into law, merely protects forms of individual contract. It did not take long for this to produce a redistribution upwards of wealth once the relation between wage incomes and capital incomes had been altered in favour of business profits, especially those of finance.

Elsewhere, the worker-cum-entrepreneur-of-the-self, increasingly lacking in rights, experiences the whole of life transformed into time and space for labour. Not only are the limits of the working day dissolved, but every activity, whether consumption, leisure or rest, is turned into a potential source of profits. Data exchanged through communications networks, as well as any other social activity, whether public, private, or even intimate, are turned into units of value that become the object of appropriation and trade for businesses. Nonetheless, the resistance, of workers now converted into a multitude put to work for capital, did not disappear. In fact, the demand for rights and social payments and the desire for access to consumption -indispensable conditions for the functioning of capitalism- were satisfied in the only possible and desirable way for finance capital: through debt. The debt crisis announced in 2008 that continues to work its effects put an end to this safety release valve. Easy credit was ended, and with it, the access to consumption of various goods for large sectors of society. The immediate consequence of this was a crisis in the system of political representation. It was no longer possible to maintain the illusion that debt was a merely economic reality and that the power of finance was not political, especially when the response of states to the crisis was a massive rescue operation for banks and financial entities. The illusion of a liberal State that gives economic agents a free hand such that the very creation of financial wealth for a few could generate positive (trickle-down) effects for the vast majority of the population, became evidence of a class power that imposed upon the population the payment of public and private debts that it had not chosen, or had no means of not choosing.

It is this ugly face of neoliberal political power that has been gradually showing its face in the near ten years of crisis that the system has undergone. This power has been turned directly into the collection agent for financial creditors, and as a consequence, for direct extortion of the surplus. In a way, neoliberal capitalism has returned to extra-economic forms of exploitation typical of pre-capitalist regimes. This produced a brutal crisis of representation: it is now impossible to make out as if the economy exists on the one hand and politics on the other. The economy is directly political and politics is exercised from the ruling classes and its State as a direct form of exploitation. Naturally, a situation such as this has eroded the democratic illusion in two senses: on one hand it has eroded the illusion, by showing the profound incompatibility between democracy and capitalism, but, on the other, it has eroded democracy itself, by turning it into something that broad sectors of societies reject, seeing in it only the form of their exploitation. The alternative presenting itself today is clear: either a democracy deployed against the capitalist order and its State; or a capitalist State highly personalised in boss-sovereigns such as Trump or Berlusconi, who impose capitalist rule in mafioso style, at once brutal and protectionist, offering protection in exchange for obedience, a global Corleone. Capitalism, following a long period in which it was able to play with the autonomy of the political and the correlative autonomy of the economic, is once again showing its nature, which, despite the disguise, was never absent, of a regime of class political domination and exploitation. Characters such as Trump or Marine Le Pen are the face of the new political regime of capital.

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Twitter, ideology, liberals, fascism

I spent a little time going back and forth with someone who took issue with my single-item list of early warning signs of fascism (the only item on the list was ‘capitalism’). The context for the list was a host of things I’d seen getting shared outlining this or that feature that was supposed to indicate that fascism could be on its way, but none of them made mention of capitalism. This particular individual maintained that there was no evidence for the claim that fascism arises from capitalism, that capitalism was a pre-requisite for fascism.


A longer list

As it’s Twitter, it is quite easy to ignore the obvious (for example, that there is no fascism pre-dating capitalism, and that fascism has reached its highest expression in capitalist societies) and try to compel your interlocutor to answer things on your terms.

Also, given the brevity of the medium, it is quite difficult to make more elaborate points concerning such things as the class structure of capitalist society and the kind of world-views and orientations that wind up lending support to fascism.

The individual maintained that fascism was in fact anti-capitalist, and, therefore, how could capitalism give rise to fascism? Here, capitalism, by his lights, was not a historically specific social form (the term is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s) but rather an array of certain things -private property, market competitiveness, voluntary exchange (obviously ignoring any consideration of labour power), accumulation of capital- that laid the basis for the kind of society he viewed as desirable.

Moreover, part of the oppression conducted by Nazism in particular, as he saw it, was ‘oppressing and controlling the market’, ‘the market’ thus conceived as the instrument of human freedom.

The anti-capitalist rhetoric of Italian fascism and Nazism was treated as decisive evidence that fascism was anti-capitalist in character (corrollary: fascists always tell the truth) and even when I was pointed out how big business had been supportive of Hitler in the drive to eliminate the labour movement, his contention was that this had nothing to do with capitalism as such.

This kind of stance is a curious mirror image of the kind of criticism often levelled at socialists and communists: such that you can’t get off the hook for atrocities committed in the Soviet Union by claiming that it was not really communism, the insistence being that such societies really were communist and hence any actions carried out there were eo ipso communist.

If, from this viewpoint, the drive to liquidate the labour movement, for example, can be considered nothing to do with capitalism, one can imagine that slavery, colonialist expansion and imperialism can all be treated as by the by as well.

Capitalism, by these lights, is not a system based on class exploitation, but at best a set of instruments, political and economic, by which true freedom is guaranteed. Capitalism and human freedom, then, are roughly one and the same.

All this flies in the face of actual historical evidence, but given formats such as Twitter, the need to consider historical evidence is too all too tedious and trivial.

What prevails from such quarters, in its strongest expression, is the idea of capitalism as a reflection of human nature but one that by its own workings constrains the worst excesses of human nature and tends towards greater freedom. In weaker expressions, capitalism is a system that is good overall but since no system is perfect, there will always be adjustments to be made.

Moreover, if some of these adjustments, historically speaking, had to be won by organised labour and popular mobilisation, it is tacitly understood that there is no need for this kind of business nowadays since market rationality really has everything covered. By the way, this is the kind of argument capitalists made 200 years ago about the need for guilds and the like.

What also comes with this -and such was the case with my interlocutor- was the conception of fascism and communism as two sides of the same coin, or, too use a more popular image nowadays, two ends of the same horseshoe. Both are extreme ideologies into which the proper order may keel if one is not too careful, if one is insufficiently moderate. ‘Both ideologies’, according to him, should be viewed with ‘equal opprobrium’.

I imagine this all sounds quite familiar to a lot of readers, since it really just echoes standard representations in public debate, and prevailing common sense regarding contemporary history.

What was interesting, though, was that the individual in question, when I eventually looked at his bio, was of an atheist-rationalist disposition. And the timeline had a fair few links to stuff about wearing the hijab (bad), Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and also approving stuff about the Liberal Democrats, Ken Clarke on Brexit, some anti-Trump stuff too.

Standing back from it, it is a heady concoction: an atheist liberal centrist disposition that hunts out ‘extreme’ ideologies, seeing them at work in the heads of individuals, at a remove from historically specific material conditions and social arrangements. It is, however, a concoction at work throughout state security forces, political parties, newspapers, social media.

At one point I offered an excerpt from Neumann’s Behemoth to outline the importance of the profit motive in Nazi Germany, and the response was: well he would say that, wouldn’t he? That is, Neumann, a Marxist Jew who had fled the Nazis, was an unreliable source. No doubt any Nazi who read Behemoth would say something similar.

Perhaps the distance between a far-right preoccupied with invading Muslim hordes and ‘Cultural Marxism’, and a ‘centre’ that claims to uphold liberal democracy and moderation, is not as great as we might prefer to think.

What is more, this idea that ideology is mainly a matter of what goes on in people’s heads implies, as Lefebvre has it, ‘the private consciousness’, ‘deprived of a consciousness of the practical, historical and social whole’.

Lefebvre again:

‘Turned back upon himself, secure within some imaginary inner fortress, he is the plaything of every hallucination, every spontaneous or deliberate ideological illusion. The ‘thinker’, self-taught or not, concocts his own little personal philosophy; the ‘non-thinker’ interprets what he reads in books (or preferably in newspapers) as best he can; and then one day individualism begins to collapse (and not as a result of a crisis of ideas or ‘world views’, but because of a material crisis, both economic and political), and these erstwhile individualists rush headlong to form a crowd, a horde, urged on by the most insane, most loathsome, most ferocious ‘ideas’, leaving the last vestige of human reason behind, caught up in a collective mental fever: and we have Fascism, the Fascist ‘masses’ and Fascist ‘organization’.’

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Moments of Candour


‘If capitalism fails, we could always try cannibalism’

In times that appear indelibly marked by ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’, it’s hard not to feel some sense of gratitude towards figures in public life who are prepared to speak truthfully.

I’m referring to Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader in the United States House of Representatives. When asked by a participant in a televised ‘town hall’ meeting about the fact that a majority of young voters in the US, according to a Harvard University poll, no longer supported capitalism, she said, of the Democratic Party:

We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.

It’s hard, for me at least, not to appreciate the candour in the statement. It’s definitely much better than having someone equally committed to capitalism as the Democratic Party undoubtedly is, but preferring to mask this commitment by professing to be in favour of ‘freedom’ or ‘pragmatism’ or ‘pro-enterprise policies’, and leaving people with the vague impression that they might have some kind of inclination towards social justice.

What would happen if everyone like Nancy Pelosi, instead of preferring to hide behind euphemisms when not avoiding the matter of capitalism altogether, professed their belief in capitalism at every turn? What if they said, all the time: it is our highest calling to advance the cause of capitalism, and, therefore, we will not be bound by any commitment to anything by way of fundamental rights for human beings, be it in terms of health, education, safety, welfare, or work?

I’d like to think that this would be the beginning of the end for capitalism, since political institutions across the capitalist world would no longer be able to cope with the glaringly obvious gap between the interests of the representatives within and the interests of the class in whose interests they act on the one hand, and the public at large on the other. But that might not happen at all. For all I know, devotion to capitalism on the part of some might just lead to the ruthless and violent repression of all anti-capitalist feeling and action, and instead of capitalism garnished with democratic formalities, we would just have open tyranny instead.

If I weigh things up, an epidemic of such candour seems fairly unlikely. But then again, the head of state in the US at the minute is the archetypal capitalist pig. Whatever the lies that proliferate from his mouth and from his administration in general, there is something indelibly true about Trump, in how he embodies all that is rotten in capitalism: greed, self-obsession, arrogance, aggression, contempt for weakness, racism, patriarchy, ecological destruction, and so on. I should stress, the fact that a bad thing is true does not make that thing in any way good. But it is always better to have an accurate picture of what you are up against.

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