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Henri Lefebvre in his foreword to Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. I:

We ask ourselves: ‘What is socialism exactly? How does it intervene in everyday life? What does it change?’ And the answer is unclear. The elimination of the bourgeoisie and class antagonisms? The suppression of capitalist relations of property and production? These are only negative definitions. We find the picture of a bourgeois society without a bourgeoisie neither reassuring nor satisfying. We think that there is, or will be, something else. But what? Accepting one’s work, making it – willingly if possible – one’s first priority, working harder, willing productivity to increase rather than merely putting up with it? These ideas are fine as far as they go. Admittedly they are probably all essential, very important for the social relations of production, and perhaps they would go some way towards defining a mode of production economically. But as a definition of a culture, a civilization, a humanity, they are inadequate. Nor can they define a worthwhile way of living which could come into being thanks to its own powers of persuasion. *

Ah, that last line is a killer. Perfect! And here’s what he says in the footnote attached to the end of that passage:

* Unfortunately materialism is presented in far too many publications as the most depressing of platitudes, In fact it appears to reach the heights of platitude (so to speak). If it were a completed system, or simply a weapon for the working-class struggle, why indeed would it have to be interesting? After all, when philosophy lost metaphysics, it might also be said to have lost its picturesqueness!….

Exciting to be re-reading Lefebvre. I had forgotten, in the way that one does, the fact that every line of thought that I follow on just about any topic that matters very clearly started nowhere and nowhen else than with my first reading of this book.

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April 8, 2009 at 11:22 am

24 Responses

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  1. So, Lefebvre’s position is something like: “life in socialism has to be about more than a better working life and equal access to social wealth, because human needs go beyond these “material” aspects. . .” I don’t disagree with him here, but isn’t the idea that these things are unpersuasive in their own right–enough to eat, a job that isn’t totally soul-crushing, health care, a place to live–assume that the person who requires persuading is already doing pretty well by such standards. I assume that, for %95 of the people on the planet, these things are entirely persuasive on their own. Who’s being persuaded?


    April 8, 2009 at 4:32 pm

  2. Jasper: for example, third world countries that can pursue uncertain aspirations of capitalistic development or pursue uncertain aspirations of socialist reorganization. It’s undeniable that ‘class mobility’ exists at least enough to tantalize at the world-system\country level, just as it does at the country\family level. There is an open question of why should the population of a country aspire to realize a socialist asymptote rather than aspire to be a rich Scandinavia-style welfare state.

    peli grietzer

    April 8, 2009 at 7:03 pm

  3. I think he’s mostly (though, sure, perhaps not entirely) talking here about the mode of presentation. In particular, the idea that presenting socialism via “negatives” – no more hunger, exploitation, homelessness, precarity, somehow isn’t enough.

    I happen to think he’s right about this. Exactly, who’s being persuaded? That’s my question too.


    April 8, 2009 at 7:06 pm

  4. And peli grietzer has it right too. (We posted simultaneously…) There’s all sorts of (ugh) freakonomics stuff to explain why it is sadly the case, but it is the case that people don’t reflexively pick the low-downside/low-upside alternative. Lefevbvre to my mind is saying that one would do well to establish the upside part of the equation, sketch it as not merely negative.


    April 8, 2009 at 7:09 pm

  5. Hmm, I smell some assumptions. If it is true that, as Peli writes, “It’s undeniable that ‘class mobility’ exists at least enough to tantalize at the world-system\country level” — one must ask, Of what does that existence? consist? “Tantalization” seems an apt figure, since the belief in class mobility — and this is perfectly verifiable, empirically — simply doesn’t not accord with the actual possibilities for class mobility and de-immiseration.

    So are we simply arguing here that capitalism has a better bullshit game and socialism needs to step up its own bullshit? Yes, that’s one way to discuss ideology, though not a very interesting one, frankly. I leave it to George Lakoff and his framing discourse.

    Peli’s case also requires a prefixed nationalism, since without it there’s a very easy answer: if I identify my approach to a “rich Scandinavia-style welfare state” to be at the expense of my neighbor’s poverty, rather than Somalia’s, the question will require some new thoughts.

    Meanwhile, and I think this may have been at least implicit in Jasper’s point, I thing the language of the “negative” here is probably somewhat at variance with real world experience. That is, I don’t think that the people I know without quality health care for their infants experience the change in that situation as the filling of an absence. They experience health care as a positive goal. Very hungry people don’t think of dinner as a problem of the negative but as food.

    So the discourse of positive versus negative programs is a little mystificatory; isn’t it more useful to work through the issue of how people conceive of what will be efficacious and lasting routes to these goals?


    April 8, 2009 at 8:47 pm

  6. So long as we’re talking about persuasion, I came across a most interesting little book some time ago, part of a series published by Novosti Press in the mid-seventies, and it was all about a quasi-entirely fictional land of socialism, but if one got past that, it was interesting nonetheless to observe what that fiction consisted of, and it was a positive pictures built on a negative, the mirror image of Western economies then in a(nother) state of crisis: we have housing, we have free healthcare, we are provided for, and yet we are sophisticated consumers, just like you folks. What the burgeoisie aspires to in a time of uncertainty.

    Admittedly, it was a booklet that specifically addressed “people’s well-being”. I would be most interested to get my hands on the ones about “cultural life” and “education”.

    (I talk about the book a little bit three quarters of the way down this page).


    April 8, 2009 at 9:01 pm

  7. Jane: I have absolutely no interest in being an apologist for class mobility. But the ‘bullshit’ game is one of salience, not (just) of fabrication. I seriously doubt that the middle 50% of Swedish population would be driven to start a revolution simply by being shown the correct statistical figures of upwards mobility.

    As for the cross-country exploitation argument, you’re right, but. If by ‘Scandinavian welfare’ one refers simply to the condition of a country having enough GDP so that a redistribution of roughly 50% of its GDP in welfare form can prevent hunger and homelessness, and in fact doing so, I am unconvinced that this degree of prosperity demands imperialism (that this is the case today is a different fact, though I agree that matters and possibly makes the whole question irrelevant).

    peli grietzer

    April 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm

  8. jane,

    I’m hesitant to speak for peli, but I have a feeling we both would agree with lots of what you say here. The problem is that you’re going through and draining half of the complexity out of the issues, one by one. I’d never dispute that the appeal of “class mobility” can be figured as “tantalization” – and I’d even go further to suggest that somewhere in the back of their minds a lot of people understand this. The problem, as I see it, is that given a choice between tantalization and, well, abstract critique sans advertisements, they do tend to pick the former. This is perfectly verifiable, empirically, as well.

    My feeling is – the point of the post – is that it would be nice to come up with a way to balance out the images on offer. It’s only bullshit if you don’t believe in what you’re selling. And I, as a rule, would only ever sell what I believe in.

    And yes, Peli’s case requires a prefixed nationalism – I think that’s just the point. I think that “open question” is one of the toughest ones of all. And simply to give it the dodge would seem to require that ones practices head in directions in which none of us are willing to go. For instance, we could fuck off the notion of socialism in the developed economies, as they’re bound to depend on the world-system that you’re describing. But none of us is ready to say that, nor are any of us really at work on the question of the establishment of socialism in Somalia first, are we? And for very good reasons. If you can think of a workable way that you and I can get around the issue of uneven development and the potential emergence of socialism, I am all ears.

    (I see – while I’ve been typing this – that Peli’s responded and responded well….)

    And look, we certainly agree on the health care issue. The problem is that soon or already (I dunno – I’m not over there) the same fucking dinner-table ads will start to run as ran in 1993, and what I’m talking about in a sense is coming up with better ads than the other side. I agree with how people experience these things – I am just worried, as always, about why more people can’t get onboard with the alterations that would fix the issues. I am worried not about what should happen, or whether what should happen would help – I know that this is true. I am worried, rather, about why a rational, enlightened, and humane set of practices hasn’t yet found the popular support it deserves. Of course there are police out with truncheons to stop it from happening – literally and metaphorically – but the bigger problem to my mind is the fact that they’re are so few whose ideas merit a beatdown.

    Before we “work through the issue of how people conceive of what will be efficacious and lasting routes to these goals,” I believe it’s necessary to work through how people would conceive of this goals as actively desirable in the first place, as I’m quite sure they’re not there yet. I do not understand any politics that starts from any other position. It may be – and here perhaps we back into other questions that you and I have taken up over the last few months – that I think this is the right place to start because I have an active interest in the aesthetic as a category.

    I could start talking about aesthetic, the place of it, the role of aesthetic work, and what our work might reasonably and pragmatically do to help, but I’ll leave that for another post or comment. Or, I hope, some of what I think about all of that is implicit in the above (the above meaning this post, and basically everything I’ve ever said on this blog….)


    April 8, 2009 at 9:51 pm

  9. Giovanni,

    I’d really like a copy of that book, damnit! I’m looking around on-line and can’t find it for sale.


    April 8, 2009 at 10:18 pm

  10. Oh, I’ve been looking for a while, trust me, they’re hard to find. The rest of the series includes Industry, Agriculture, Science, Education and Cultural Life. I can scan People’s Well-Being and email it to you if you like. It’s only sixty pages or so, about half of which pictures (and what pictures!). I was going to write a whole post about it but in the end it left me kind of wordless – there’s so much to unpack there, whole worlds of assumptions and contradictions that need exploring.


    April 8, 2009 at 10:43 pm

  11. Well, that sounds like a lot of work! Let me look around first – I have very good libraries to consult for things like this. But if I have trouble, I may well take you up on it…. And thanks for offering.

    (It looks like I’m about to do some work in part on a similar volume – Maria Macchiocchi’s Daily Life in Revolutionary China… So this is something of a thing for me, this type of book….)


    April 8, 2009 at 10:49 pm

  12. I scan stuff all the time, it really would be no trouble, but see how you go first if you like – I’m only an email away.


    April 8, 2009 at 10:51 pm

  13. Ads — Thanks, these are all things I should have said but failed to say. I’d magic-marker specifically your note (as I understand it) that the prospects for lasting sustainable socialism can only arise for an economic ecology that’s at least on the borders of the sunny side of the world-system, though I guess Maoists would disagree.

    But I do agree with something Jane is implying, though perhaps Jane would resent my claim that it’s implied: that mobility real or imagined turns class struggle (on whatever scale) into a function of ethics as much as of class interest. Or rather that the self-identification of a country or a person or a family with class interests rather than with class mobility, is no longer pure habitus and involves ethical considerations of the sort that class struggle was never supposed to depend on. Or, if you want to keep ethics out of this, at least class interest becomes a form of reflexive, motivated identity rather than identity already implicit in everything one does (not that the class habitus isn’t implicit in everything one does, but that the class habitus is more likely to begin in the shape of aspirations of mobility than of class interest). And this is exactly when having an idea of society etc comes in.

    peli grietzer

    April 8, 2009 at 10:53 pm

  14. Another point — The idea of free health-care as a tangible step towards socialism rather than a basic tenant of welfare capitalism is very confusing to any non-Americans. So when I see it listed as something marking socialism as apart from mere welfare I don’t really know what to make of this.

    peli grietzer

    April 8, 2009 at 11:06 pm

  15. The poll above notwitstanding, I’ll agree that there’s a problem with our persuasion and its ability to make a case for socialism. But I’m just not sure that such a case is going to be much more effective if routed through claims about “a culture, a civilization, a humanity,” unless we’re talking about winning over the middle-class (which is probably a necessary strategy). As I see it, the fact that socialism doesn’t convince is because there’s this idea that it’s unpracticable and likely to lead to forms of alienating state capitalism, not because what it offers in terms of meeting basic necessities is untantalizing in its own right. I’m all for propaganda and ads for socialism, Ads. And ultimately I’m all for a vision of socialism which includes people getting to use the full range of human expressive possibility, what Marx calls the “social individual,” an expansion of the realm of knowledge, play, leisure, art. But I’m not sure that those last elements will be determining for the majority of people we should set our sights on convincing.


    April 10, 2009 at 2:34 pm

  16. Jasper,

    But I’m just not sure that such a case is going to be much more effective if routed through claims about “a culture, a civilization, a humanity,” unless we’re talking about winning over the middle-class (which is probably a necessary strategy)

    This is exactly the sentence that I’d put pressure on – the last parenthetical sort of does the work that I’d do for me, I think.

    It’s tricky. I’m not sure the simple fulfillment of basic needs is going to be convincing for any but the bottom, dunno, 10-15 percent in the US, a slightly different figure case by case in other developed economies. I am very much aware that there are many whose basic needs aren’t being fulfilled in the US, but there are many more whose basic needs already are. I think, therefore, the picture needs to be a bit broader than that – in the US. Of course, right here we lapse into the “Sweden on the backs of Somalians” issue from above. I am not sure how to answer except that a) I’m American and I’m not sure that my persistent participation in Somalian politics is warranted or would be received in the best possible light and b) I think a more-socialist America would do much less harm – and might even do quite a bit of good in the world than the America we’ve got.

    It’s a tricky position, I’ll give you that. But so is the advocacy of a dictatorship of the bottom 10 (not because it wouldn’t be better than what we’ve got – simply because it ain’t gonna happen), so is washing one’s hands of American / western politics or, worse, not washing one’s hands of it but pretending, situationally, that one has done so.

    In other words, the Somalia card drawn above isn’t a useful card because no one’s going to live up to it. Or, living up to it might mean, in the most realistic (though not all that realistic) case advocating some sort of accelerationist American political powerdive, something a bit like that. I’ll take a red – or even dark pink – flag over Washington over that any day.

    And just to back up a bit: I’m not saying that we advertise the land of milk, honey, and unlimited free visits to the Gotham Writers Workshop. I think there’s a way to capture the benefits and fringe benefits of social welfare that focus a bit more on needs than wants, and still accomplishes what I am looking for here.


    April 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm

  17. Ads — I think a big thing can be the freedom to work less, or to have more control over when to work and for what. To the best of my understanding, being lower-middle-class American sucks not because you have no money (Americans are fucking rich. I’m living here on a grad-student stipend much more lavishly than I ever did back in Israel as an upper-middle-class teenager or as a post-teenager with a semi-prestigious media job back in Israel) but because a huge part of your life is reactive and you have very little ability to negotiate the course of your life. I feel I lead a privileged life note because I can spend money on whatever I want — I really really can’t — but because I always had the safety to choose to live whatever kinda life I want. So the promise of a (more) voluntary world for all sounds pretty compelling and inspiring to me.

    peli grietzer

    April 11, 2009 at 2:25 am

  18. Ads — you know I’m your biggest fan, or at least your biggest fan in the PST, so you’ll forgive me if I say that this doesn’t seem up to your usual standard of rigor and self-reflexion. First of all, socialism is, in nuce, the end of structural exploitation — or, in slightly longer form, a life without class ownership of means of production that allows the extraction of surplus value from the class that doesn’t own same. It is not a vaguely conceived “way of living,” it is not better redistribution, and it is not even Peli’s stirring cry for “more autonomy for some!” Sure, he says “all” — but saying it doesn’t address the mechanics of economy. Again, socialism is a structural change. It cannot happen in one place but not another — cannot happen successfully, that is.

    So you are in effect not discussing socialism any more than Obama is; you’re discussing liberal-democratic redistribution on a national model. If you believe that a best-case redistribution can advance nation by nation, rather than requiring inequality which are its conditions and limit — that situation you dismissively identify as the “Sweden on the backs of Somalians” issue — then thanks for taking the Facebook quiz, you are Frances Fukuyama. Okay, sorry, that was a cheap shot, you know I love you…moving on.

    You lay out your pragmatist cards: “no one’s going to live up to it,” “realistic,” etc etc). Now perhaps you believe that such structural change is impossible, and you may be right: what theory debates, history decides. But, and here I get to the crux of my puzzlement in your argument, in that case what are you talking about in the first place? Via Lefebvre, your move basically goes like this: “I don’t believe that structural change is realistically possible in advance, and would now like to demand for it a more persuasive rhetoric.”

    Listen, if you want socialism to have a more persuasive rhetoric, you first have to believe in the possibility of socialism, not in nation-based progressive liberalism. Yeah?


    April 11, 2009 at 6:29 pm

  19. Jane — it’s really hard to have a discussion when you respond to remixes. I don’t even get why respond to the worst possible argument you can construe rather than the best argument you can construe; ostensibly these activities are aimed at exploring and testing ideas.

    peli grietzer

    April 11, 2009 at 6:44 pm

  20. The issue is this: whether political action in America is an horizon we’re interested in, and if so what is it that a large mass of American population can find attractive about socialism. Ads argued why we should care about political action in America, I tried to say something about what a large mass of American population can find attractive about socialism.

    peli grietzer

    April 11, 2009 at 6:51 pm

  21. jane,

    Right. Ah, this split in so many directions at once that it becomes difficult to take up in a comment box.

    1) I agree with you about what socialism is in the nutshell: life without class ownership of the means of ownership and concomitant withering away of structural exploitation. I think for the most part, we are arguing about means rather than ends, no? I mean, there’s a good chance that some of the subtleties of the arrival of the ends of exploitation. But we agree about the ends, we really do.

    2) This post – and perhaps this blog in general, when I’m not being mopey and writing mopey diary entries – is about pragmatics. It has taken the concept of marketing as something repurposable, something that might be useful in, well, two things that come from opposite start-points but which converge somewhere I think is good. Those two starting points are: a) from the personal side, what might usefully be done (as opposed to what’s been done for a long long time) at the junction point of the aesthetic and the political and b) from the wide-angle, what might be done to build up a constituency of people actively desiring the arrival of the end of structural exploitation – that is actively and constructively, rather than vaguely and half-heartedly. More on this in a bit.

    3) It is possible for me to hold very tightly to the idea that, as you say, “It cannot happen in one place but not another — cannot happen successfully, that is” (which I do! Very tightly!) while still advocating the approaches that I advocate. Again, means rather than ends. Try to imagine a way that this happens in selben augenblick all over the world is a bit more than I can imagine. It seems, really, to me a disabling precondition: if I talk about America, I am ignoring the world system. If I am Francis Fukuyama, then you are that person at a party or at drinks who always out-pathetics the next guy: you talk about, dunno, Chavez and they say, “Oh, but the refugee camps in Darfur! What is Chavez going to do about that? Why are you talking about insigificant things when there are real problems in the world?” We end up in a position where we can talk about nothing at all, we end up quietistic, eyes clenched-tight, waiting for the arrival of the fucking messiah. Yuck!

    Sometimes it does seem to me that there are only two paths that our work can take. Unglamorous gradualism or sexy messianism. But I believe in neither god nor rupture nor really events, per se – and luckily I am sexy enough to risk drabness in my political posture. The first book that I am (still…. fuck!) finishing is a sort of roman a clef about not waiting for the messiah, the event – and about not wanting everything to happen all at once. Because nothing ever happens all at once.

    I could say more, but let’s move on for now. The question remains – if not thinking through possibly practicable situations, generally in the realm of the nation-states as currently configured, what sort of pragmatics can we actually come up with? How do you start? I simply can’t see it. And look, obviously, I’m not totally locked into the nation-state – if I could come up with one of these Ads (whatever that really means) and the Somalians like it too, well, christ, that’s even better.

    4) ““I don’t believe that structural change is realistically possible in advance, and would now like to demand for it a more persuasive rhetoric.”

    No, I very much believe it’s possible. With all of my heart and mind. I just think it comes, if it comes, piecemeal, bit by bit, even in the best possible case. (Again, HL is very good on the transitional phases – perhaps permanent – on the road toward the “new man.” Very good on the fact that on Day One it’s not like all alienation has simply disappeared. Can’t happen – under no circumstances, save of course for the arrival of that fucking messiah does that happen.

    5) The broad point here, what I’m up to vis a vis “what theory debates.” Simply put, I am concerned with the lack of concern in regard to people actually wanting what we want, what we believe would be best. As far as I can tell, the problem is either ignored or it is magically resolved (there’ll be this, like, multitude. and they’ll all have internet access. And then one day, boom….) I am not interested in the arrival of a political system that most of those who’d be living under it don’t actively desire – even if it’s a good political system. I do not believe any political-economic system, in our world today, will arrive until many of those who’d be participating in it want it. I am neither a whole-hearted democrat nor am I against revolution, even violent ones. I simply don’t believe in vanguards, avant gardes, and the like. Or, that is, I believe in them – I just think they have a tendency to turn good ideas into monstrous surrogates, horrifically perverse machines.

    I’m writing all of this very quickly, jane. We disagree on somethings, but not everything. It’s good to talk it through I think. I am not Francis Fukuyama. I may well be getting a bit William Morrisite, Otto Neurathian, constructivist. And above all else, I take the failure of good ideas to bear fruit very, very seriously.


    April 11, 2009 at 10:23 pm

  22. Ads, point taken — though I must say I’m not terribly worried about being that dude at the party, in part because that position you so trenchantly describe depends on the very liberal humanism that is the ruling ideology of said parties, which is more or less antithetical to my position. When your parties are too cloyingly laden with anti-humanists who managed not to vote liberal, please do send a note and I will buy my Heathrow ticket immediately. The parties I end up at, and perhaps this is merely a measure of my social calendar, are pretty much wall-to-wall with folks wishing away the idea of truly changed social relation by waving around the word “messianism” or “teleology” or etc.

    Meanwhile, I’m not sure my incoherence puzzle has been cleared up, though if you don’t want to answer, that’s fine. I think you’re still saying “Sure, I want structural change; I just think we have to get there is by a series of steps that are counter-structural change.” But perhaps I’m simply not understanding you. What is this gradualism you imagine? What is the nation-based (let’s say US) change you envision that brings structural change closer? I ask this with an open mind. Cheers —


    April 12, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    • Jane,

      Of course you’re not a liberal humanist, but there is a way that the argument from structure can start to take a similar shape to the one that I describe. Is there actually a place to start, when the requirement is that one’s advocated actions must address the structure as a whole from the very start?

      When your parties are too cloyingly laden with anti-humanists who managed not to vote liberal, please do send a note and I will buy my Heathrow ticket immediately.

      Ha! You should probably just go ahead and buy you’re ticket. You know the players over here without a scorecard!

      The parties I end up at, and perhaps this is merely a measure of my social calendar, are pretty much wall-to-wall with folks wishing away the idea of truly changed social relation by waving around the word “messianism” or “teleology” or etc.

      Ha again! Look, “messianism” is a word that I use when I sense the absence of a pragmatics, a path (however halting) forward.

      “Sure, I want structural change; I just think we have to get there is by a series of steps that are counter-structural change.”

      But obviously I don’t believe that they’re counter-structural change! Hmmm my internet’s acting up, so I’m a bit hesitant (as you can probably tell, to go really really long with this – am being throttled by my ISP, fuckers!) but just very briefly – I think a world that shifts in pieces but steadily toward the pink, the pinkish red, the red is a world that I’d like to live in. I actually do believe that the changing sensibilities of voters in democratic nations can push the theshold of pinkness or redness further than the structures of governance seem to permit. I believe that more socialism in developed countries, when pushed even further than that, could augur socialism in less developed countries – via a variety of paths. (I also believe that socialism in less developed countries could have a similiar effect on developed countries, just to be clear….) I believe that contra-liberal moves on the part of large nations could disable the “opening of markets” and liberalization worldwide. I believe, quite strongly, that the fact that the US anted up with the dissolution of the welfare state first provided a moral / technocratic highground for the advancement of the Washington Consensus – not that that was the only high ground in play.

      Look, I believe all sorts of things about gradualism. I’ll try to say more as I can. But I do think it’s always up to you to say more to counter my (implicit) critique of your side. That anti-incrementalism, the structural cancellation of the good of any reform at all, can lead one to cower stridently in one’s house, eyes shut very tight, and waiting, waiting, waiting for the dull boom that augurs, christ, who knows what anyway.

      So I ask you this – and I apologize for being impressionistic above, and you can be as impressionistic as you like in your response – but how does it start in your model and do we have a role in starting it or are we just doing a sort of highly expectant play-by-play?


      April 13, 2009 at 9:54 pm

  23. Jane – if we’re playing the incoherence game, it seems to me that by taking changes that moderately increase the economic welfare of the fucked-over to be ‘counter-structural’ rather than just ‘not structural’ you’re basically conceding to Ads. The whole point was that people’s purely economic anger seems satiable by something less than socialism, and if I understand you’re taking reforms to be counter-structural exactly because they work towards this kinds of satiation.

    peli grietzer

    April 12, 2009 at 6:47 pm

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