Book Reviews: ‘The Revolution Will Be Hilarious’, ‘ Can Income Redistribution Rescue Capitalism?’ & ‘ Spindleopolis – Oldham in 1913’
The Revolution Will Be Hilarious. By Adam Krause, New Compass Press, 2013
The cover of Adam Krause’s book features the unlikely combination of Lenin and Groucho Marx. Groucho would be uncomfortable with being in such proximity to Lenin whose regime announced ‘without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds, let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood’. Groucho observed about capitalism ‘the secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’
Krause opens his book with a scene from Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories but the more appropriate film would be Annie Hall where Allen places comedy in the service of the radical left:
‘Allison: I’m in the midst of doing my thesis on Political Commitment in Twentieth Century Literature. Alvy: You’re New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, socialist summer camps, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, strike-oriented. Allison: That was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype. Alvy: Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but for the left.’
George Carlin and Bill Hicks have used their comedy to question the way we live and posit an alternative to capitalism. Carlin’s lines like ‘that’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it’ and Bill Hicks’s statement ‘It’s not that I disagree with Bush’s economic policy or his foreign policy, it’s that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth’ contribute to developing class consciousness.
Krause cites the role of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear as a character that can speak the truth to authority without fear of reprisal. A different Shakespearian reference could be the role of ‘working class’ characters in Henry IV Part 1 such as Poins, Bardolph, and Peto who ‘hang out’ with Falstaff and Prince Hal (the future Henry V) in taverns drinking, whoring, and engaging in tomfoolery and even robbery. Here, the class boundaries are blurred in a revelry of youthful rebellion paid homage to in Gus Van Sant’s film My Own Private Idaho.
Krause cites Emma Goldman’s popular misquote ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution’ although it is never clear from Krause’s book what this ‘revolution’ is. Krause does not mention socialism although he refers to William Morris’s novel News from Nowhere. Krause’s ‘three favourite Marxists’ Groucho, Harpo and Chico hilariously send-up militarism and nationalism in the film Duck Soup which is also used in Woody Allen’s film Hannah and Her Sisters as motivation for a character to carry on with life.
Socialists expect the aftermath of ‘revolution’ to be as Guy Debord writes in Theses on the Paris Commune: ‘the Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century’. Krause concludes that ‘the revolution will be hilarious. Seriously’ but during his book he forgets EB White’s advice ‘humour can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind’.
No, it can’t
Can Income Redistribution Rescue Capitalism? By Andrew Kliman, Marxist-Humanist Initiative, 2013, $8 plus postage from firstname.lastname@example.org
Subtitled ‘Monthly Review’s Factual & Theoretical Myths’ most of this pamphlet deals with the theoretical and statistical errors used by the USA’s dominant left-wing journal in explaining the latest capitalist economic crisis. The Monthly Review attributes the crisis to rising income inequality, with the clear implication that income redistribution can rescue capitalism, though it is doubtful that Monthly Review would admit to that implication. Underpinning Monthly Review’s explanation is an underconsumptionist theory of capitalist economic crisis, and this is Kliman’s main target. Underconsumption theory argues, basically, that crises are caused by a lack of effective demand.
Kliman shows that in Marx’s crisis theory crises result from the normal functioning of capitalism and are inevitable under it. Underconsumption theory, on the other hand, typically implies that something has gone wrong and can be remedied. Kliman also challenges the popular notion of the alleged success of the ‘neoliberal’ assault on the working class, the supposed decline in workers’ share of output, and their allegedly stagnating wages. He provides evidence that this notion ignores the substantial growth in the incomes of older, female, and more highly-educated working people. The evidence Kliman cites is mainly drawn from the USA but the point generally still stands. The history of capitalism shows that it is not inconsistent with rising living standards for the working class, and the 100 years prior to the 1970s saw consistently rising real wages in the USA and elsewhere but still with regular crises.
Kliman maintains that undue concern over inequality can divert attention from major economic problems like mass unemployment, people losing their homes, and poverty. And what about the fact, he says, which dominates most people’s lives, that they are forced to do what bosses tell them to do, day after day, year after year––or else starve? ‘Why is there so little outrage about this’, writes Kliman, ‘or even concern about it?’ The criticism here is mainly directed at the 2011 Occupy movement which generally focused less on these concrete problems and more on the abstraction ‘rising inequality’. Some may find this line of argument controversial, while for others it will be a breath of fresh air. It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, Marx did not condemn capitalism for its inequality (rising or not), nor did he frame his arguments for socialism in terms of material equality. For revolutionary socialists, claims Kliman, the interests of the working class and the interests of the system are fundamentally opposed and ‘this is the primary reason why they maintain that revolutionary transformation of society is needed’ (Kliman’s emphasis).
Included in this pamphlet are selections from Kliman’s book The Failure of Capitalist Production (2011) where underconsumptionist theory is examined in detail. It is sometimes suggested that Marx held to an underconsumptionist position with this statement: ‘The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses’. However, capitalist production is production for the market with a view to sale and profit, not directly for human needs. It is profitability, or the lack of it, which creates the possibility of an economic crisis. And this possibility, argues Marx, is ‘no more than the possibility. For the development of this possibility into a reality a whole series of conditions is required’ (emphasis added). As Kliman points out, there is no suggestion here that crises are the result of persistently inadequate demand. Kliman is worried about the political implications of underconsumptionist theory because ‘underconsumptionism implies that a more equitable distribution of income will make capitalism work better’. This is a fallacy all socialists oppose.
Spindleopolis: Oldham in 1913. Alan Fowler and Terry Wyke, Oldham Council and Manchester Metropolitan University £3.95.
A century ago Oldham, with a population of 150,000, was the world’s leading town for the spinning of cotton, with 10 percent of all the cotton spindles in existence. There were also thousands of looms for weaving, and large factories that produced textile machinery, such as Platt Brothers. The townscape was dominated by smoke from the chimneys of the coal-fired mills, though the more recent ones were powered by electricity.
The mills were very profitable, most paying an annual dividend of eight percent. The mill-owners, of course, lived in more scenic surroundings away from the noise and smoke and the pavements made dangerous and unpleasant from the habit of public spitting. Oldham apparently had a reputation as a prosperous town (which can only mean in comparative terms). Children worked full-time from 14 years, and from 12 they split their time between work and school. Many married women worked in the mills, and it was only the combined wages of parents and children that kept workers’ heads above water.
Housing was often expensive and overcrowded, but home-ownership was surprisingly widespread, with about one house in three owned or being bought by its occupants. An enlightening aside is that workers’ houses were increasingly being built with front doors that contained letter boxes. Holidays were mainly the annual ‘wakes week’, usually featuring a stay in Blackpool.
Workers organised themselves in unions such as the Oldham Spinners. Politically, the town veered between supporting Liberals and Conservatives (Winston Churchill was MP 1900-06). Sadly, the major event of 1913 for many residents was the visit of the king and queen in July.
The First World War disrupted the cotton trade, and enabled Japan and other countries to take over the markets once served by Oldham and other Lancashire towns. The cotton industry gradually declined, mills were closed, and Fred Dibnah found a kind of fame demolishing their chimneys on TV.
This booklet was prepared to accompany an exhibition ‘When Cotton was King’ at Gallery Oldham. It includes some superb contemporary cartoons by Sam Fitton from the Cotton Factory Times.