Monday, April 18, 2016

Three revolutionary epiphanies

Office in the sky. By Qantas, 2014.
1. Millerites

The Millerites were the ancestors of all the modern Adventist denominations, a millenarian Baptist cult in the Burned-Over district of upstate New York, led by a farmer, William Miller, who discovered in the early 1830s, based on his research into the Bible and Apocrypha, that the Second Coming of Jesus would occur sometime in 1843 or 1844. Eventually it acquired a substantial body of followers spreading all over the northeastern US and Canadian Eastern Townships into Britain, Australia, and even the Sandwich Islands, thousands of them, discussing their experiences and hopes in correspondence with Miller's Signs of the Times newspaper (still published today by the Seventh-Day Adventists) and various other publications throughout their increasingly international community.

Miller had been unwilling to predict exactly when this event was going to take place, but he was confident that March 21, 1844 was the last possible day the thing could happen, and when the Lord failed to appear then he may to some extent have lost control of his flock, who began working independently on the important question. Eventually they settled on April 18, when nothing happened, and then sometime in July, and then finally October 22.

When the Millerites awoke on October 22 1844 to learn that the old world was the old world yet again, the day known as the Great Disappointment, there were various reactions, varying from those who refused to stop calculating and recalculating the possibilities through an ever more arcane use of ancient Hebrew calendars to those who simply gave up and went back to being Baptists or Quakers or whatever they had been to begin with, but there was one strain of believers who insisted that the Second Advent had actually arrived, but in a manifestation too subtle for sinful humanity to recognize. These faithful felt called to live as if the Savior had embarked upon his reign, in the expectation that all would be made clear to them one day.

Which is pretty amusing, but it also might make you think about that other millennium, in Marxist-Engelsist thinking, when capitalism will be destroyed by its internal contradictions. Because there's a disjunction in my mind between that and the concept of the revolution, where the aroused vanguard of the proletariat will seize control of the means of production and so on. We've been disappointed by that scenario quite enough, thanks, but is it even necessary to the theory? Capitalism will inevitably destroy itself anyway, right? The contradictions are real! It will grind to a halt of its own accord, whether a revolution materializes or not. But then when it does, how exactly will we know? What, other than that visible revolution, would be the signs?

First-class boudoir, Singapore Airlines.
2. Class system up in the air

Sometime maybe ten or twelve years ago, I can't remember for sure, I was boarding a plane for a long trans-Pacific flight and noticing the way the first-class and business-class were set up that year, with a whole environment for each passenger sculpted out of plastic molding, but with a difference: the first-class cell was a tiny bedroom, designed for pleasure, eating, drinking, watching movies, and above all lying down at full length unobstructed, in a real bed; while the business-class cell was an office, meant for working, ergonomic, for an upright seated body surrounded by paraphernalia, the sleep position being secondary, though no doubt comparatively comfortable. The rest of us back in economy class weren't meant to be doing anything, really, though we had our screens and frequent feedings to keep us quiet; we wouldn't be able to sleep or work. We weren't so much people as cargo.

It struck me that this was a kind of metaphorical epitome of our class system on earth, as it was becoming in those days, when the whole idea of industrial production seemed to be evolving away from American shores and the economy seemed to be more and more about consumption, as if consumption were our civic duty (as when George W. Bush advised us to combat terrorism by going shopping, to take only the most obvious example).

The only real work was the mysterious activities conducted by the executives in their offices, making spreadsheets, ordering stuff from the overseas factories and having it distributed to the big box stores, hiring and doing the payroll so consumers could have money to drive out and buy the stuff as it arrived in the country. The function of the richest was not so much to do anything as to represent, in their immobile majesty, wealth itself, sleeping like Fafner the Wagnerian dragon on top of his horde of treasures: "Ich lieg' und besitz'—lasst mich schlafen!" (I lie supine, and possess—let me sleep). And as for us in the rear with the bathrooms and galley, we were those consumers, buckled into position to be fed microwaved chicken-and-MSG, like farm animals in their measured-out stalls, and order things from the on-board duty-free. And then of course was everybody not on the plane, stuck on the soil as sure as an 11th-century serf, whose function wasn't even of any interest.

Nobody in this new world was in control of the means of production! We were all proletarians in our own way, some no doubt almost infinitely more privileged than others, but all equally alienated; the executives slaves as much as the office boys, subject to being fired at any time by their august boards, and the boards generally unaware of anything that was going on, out on the golf course or toddling from port to port on a cruise. They didn't really own anything either; they just owned shares, or more likely shares in accounts that owned shares, mutual funds and hedge funds, and changing hands maybe dozens of times per second. Since production had stopped being a problem in the developed economies, thanks to automation and outsourcing, it didn't need to be controlled any more. What defined the new class system was the relations of consumption, and the lenses of traditional theory were trained in the wrong direction.

Image via Boomeresque.
3. Bye-bye bourgeoisie

And when it happened could be specified, thanks to Michael Lewis and that great passage from his 2008 update to Liar's Poker, which I saw in a post by Paul Campos at LGM on the death of former Salomon Brothers chief executive John Gutfreund: when Gutfreund, cheerfully breaking a solemn commitment, destroyed the Salomon Brothers partnership tradition and turned the old firm into a public corporation:
I asked Gutfreund about his biggest decision. “Yes,” he said. “They—the heads of the other Wall Street firms—all said what an awful thing it was to go public and how could you do such a thing. But when the temptation arose, they all gave in to it.” He agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. “When things go wrong, it’s their problem,” he said—and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. “It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit,” he said, with a half chuckle. He was out of the game.
It was now all someone else’s fault.
For decades, all the productive industries had been turning themselves into limited liability corporations, first to increase their capital, then precisely for the limited liability, to make it "their problem", dissipating and dissolving the concept of ownership into the ether of the stock exchange, and the grand old bourgeoisie, with its uprightness and family pride and sense of responsibility, disappeared as well. But when capital itself abandoned traditional ownership, when Gutfreund took Salomon Brothers public in 1982 and the other Wall Street firms followed suit, there were basically no more capitalists at all: the random force of capital itself, independent of the people that had deployed it, took over.

In other words the capitalism described by Marx had, in fact, collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, as predicted by the theory, and nobody noticed.

Like the Millerites in 1844, we are wandering around looking for the signs of the End Times, but in the wrong places: we keep looking up, toward the arrival of a revolutionary Savior who is never going to show up (or whose showing up is specifically conditioned on our not looking, arriving "as a thief in the night", I Thessalonians 5:2), instead of around us, at what's already happened, in the ongoing restructuring of the socioeconomic world. And they're not the End Times anyway, not a new heaven and a new earth, merely the next phase, better in some ways and awful in others, with a new set of problems to struggle with, and a need for a new kind of politics, tactical and tentative, experimental, mindful. (Spoiler: there's going to be a certain Obot-pragmatic element to it.)

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