Saturday, April 14, 2007

Barbara Ehrenreich has long been one of Molly's favourite left wing writers. She's had a long and distinguished career on the left, and her feminist books such as 'Witches, Midwives and Nurses:A History of Women Healers', Complaints and Disorders:The Sexual Politics of Sickness', 'For Her Own Good:100 Years of the Experts' Advise to Women' amongst others have become classics. Ehrenreich began her adult life as a scientist, beginning with physics and later obtaining a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University. her interest in social change, however, drew her away from pursuing a career in science and she embarked on a life in journalism. She is presently co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Ehrenreich is one of that small breed of writers whom Molly terms as "Marxists with a mind". Even though she had a youthful flirtation with Maoism, as most of her generation of American radicals did she rapidly recovered from the foolishness. She later came into contact with two ideas that would pretty well seal her exit from both the world of the sects and the claustrophobic world of acceptable American academic leftism. In 1977, long before the "discovery" of the 'professional-managerial class' by what is now Parecon, she wrote an essay for the journal Radical America called 'The Professional-Managerial Class'. She was hardly original in identifying this class which Marxists generally make heroic efforts in ignoring. Anarchists such as Bakunin formulated a crude description of what it meant many decades before it came to power for the first time. The idea was fleshed out by other people to the left of Marxism such as Machaijski and his admirer Max Nomad decades before Ehrenreich was born. The most grandiose description of this new ruling class was made by James Burnham in 'The Managerial Revolution' as he was making his supersonic transition from Trotskyism to conservativism. The phenomenon was extensively described before Burnham by the non-radical economists Berle and Means.
The main point about this is that once you come in contact with this idea-even if you don't know its full historical pedigree- and begin to take it seriously you can no longer remain a "revolutionary Marxist" in any sense, and you will also be provided with a tool that allows you scepticism about the fads that pass as "theory" amongst the American academic left. Where you go from there is anybody's guess. Some may follow the well trodden road of "repentant leftist" and make a career of attacking their own ex-comrades for the entertainment of conservatives. Burnham certainly did this. But the prospect of becoming a court jester doesn't appeal to everybody. Many others such as Ehrenreich, Michael Albert, Christopher Lasch, etc. may draw different conclusions from seeing this reality. They may become social democrats like Ehrenreich, may become anarchists or may try and formulate a new way to avoid the dangers of traditional leftism, as Albert has done. The whole thing is a "door jamb" that keeps the mind of the Marxist open and allows the fresh air to blow in from outside. The fresh air that cleans out the odors of rhetorical thinking, whether it be traditional Leninism or the "issue du jour" of activist and academic leftism.
The second thing that Ehrenreich came into contact with that helped open her to reality was the ideas of evolutionary psychology. This is hardly as much of a "clincher" as realizing that left wing movements often (usually ?) disguise the efforts of a would be new ruling class to come to power or to shift resources to others of their class within the present society. Knowing that there is a large component of genetics in modern human behavior will perhaps help you to decipher the agonistic behavior of leftist groups. It may give you the tools to see how dominance is achieved even in those groups that eschew the whole idea of dominance as "the work of the devil". What it won't do is allow you to see how leftist social campaigns that end in providing little more than jobs for those who wish to manipulate others come about. It will, however, bring a large amount of fury and denunciation on you if your are "indiscreet" or if your leftist opponents are swift enough to see what you are doing. In the end the ability of leftists who are statist, Leninist or otherwise, depends on the belief in a "blank slate" that well intentioned individuals can write upon by legislation and coercion. Challenging this misconception, however, is hardly as direct a challenge as saying that there are others than "capitalists" who can rule, sometimes much more brutally than the capitalists ever could. Exposing the existence of would be rulers is far more offensive to them than arguing about their ideological justifications.
Ehrenreich took on the ideas of evolutionary psychology seriously in 'Blood Rites:Origin and History of the Passions of War' (1991), and her use of them is extended in her latest book 'Dancing in the Streets' (2007). The good and the bad of humanity if you will. Molly has recently finished reading 'Dancing in the Streets', and I hope to have time to review it here.
Ehrenreich's engagement with ideas such as this have certainly moved her further into the "libertarian camp" as her 1997 essay for The Nation 'When Government Gets Mean:Confessions of a Recovering Statist' where she challenged the left's reliance on government initiatives and put forward an agenda of small scale, grass roots actions such as cooperatives, squats, union action, mutual aid centres that would hardly be disagreed with by anarchists, especially mutualists. Since then Ehrenreich has held to this orientation, even while, as the social democrat that she is now, giving a despairing nod to electoral politics.
Hope and despair!!! the essay that Molly has recently read, 'Pathologies of Hope', not only takes on the ugly and trendy multi-billion dollar ($5.62 billion in 2005 according to the essay but probably much higher) "self-help" industry in the USA but also makes a direct attack on the whole cultural underpinnings of this hucksterism. From "positive thinking", through the academic fad of "happiness studies", the "prosperity preachers" to the supposed scientific evidence for optimism as a benefit to health, Ehrenreich takes a swipe at it all. She also lays out the downside of this cultural belief, something universally ignored by its believers. Go on over to the link above to see what she has to say. You may not agree with it all, but at least you will be intellectually stimulated.
How can one recognize "Marxists with a mind" ? It's hardly as simple as looking for quotes in their writings where they say "Marx was wrong". The sort of situation where intelligent Marxists deviate from the orthodoxy in their own field of expertise while retaining a belief in the correctness of the ideology is fairly widespread. The ideology of Marxism bears no close scrutiny anywhere. Its methods and conclusions have been recognized as false for over 100 years. The quasi religious nature of Marxism, however, as a total world view allows intelligent people to say that Marxism is wrong about things they know more than a little about while still believing in it as an act of faith in other matters. The denial of Marxist conclusions in one aspect hardly qualifies a writer as a "Marxist with a mind". It merely says that they are knowledgeable and intelligent. It doesn't mean that they have learned to think at all.
The whole idea of 'Marxists with a mind' is necessarily imprecise, as it is undoubtedly quantitative rather than qualitative. Go far enough down the road and you are obviously no longer a Marxist in an sensible definition. So how can you recognize a 'Marxist with a mind' as opposed to what could be styled 'an invertebrate Marxist' ? Here's a few Molly pointers:
1)Language. The writer should preferably restrict the use of nouns ending in the suffix "ism" to
nothing but political ideologies. If they use other shorthand terms they should restrict their use to the minimum necessary and preferably make at least one attempt to say that these shorthand terms do not equal coherent ideologies. The writer should at least make an effort to find other words to describe things in everyday culture rather than relying on borrowed terminology that hides as much as it illuminates.
2)Language. The writer should never use the words "dialectic" or "dialectical" in any manner other than an obvious reference to one of their many non-Marxist meanings. This is a dead give-away that the author is incapable of thinking, at least on one subject at one time and that he or she is falling back on words that mean nothing but "look good and intellectual".
3)Political History: The writer must have at least one skeleton in their closet where they are in obvious disagreement with a prevailing opinion in the left wing culture of their place and time. Intellectual courage is a prime requirement for having a mind.
4)Language. No quotomania from long dead Marxists. This may be excused in the case where the author is writing something about history, but quotes from Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc usually mean that the author is more than slightly confused about the concept of "proof" ie that he or she has no mind.
I could go on and on, but lets leave it at that for now.


Daniel said...

I like her and most of my friends on like her too. I think her books are very wonderful and i have read some of it . I hope more and more peopel will know her, like her anf buy her books.

Jan said...

i think that you are to harsh to "positive thinking". of course it could be only a weapon to make people obedient. but this kind of self manipulation could give strenght also... sorry, if i some words in inproiper way... i'm poor english speaker/writer.