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Not a Bit Surprised: The Financial Crisis, Reading Beyond the Mainstream, Real(?) Estate, Yankee Stadium, and Impeach Palin Now

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2008

So far, the current US financial upheavals have not effected me.  I don’t own stocks or real estate and I don’t carry debt. The collapse of the housing market, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the large insurance and banking houses didn’t even cause my blood pressure to rise.  In fact, they didn’t even come as a surprise.

Reading (and Viewing) Beyond the Mainstream

One reason might be my reading.  In my student years I read Marx.  The effort I put into Marx might have cut into my time at the front lines of the sexual revolution but it paid off by prompting me to see through myths of the efficiency and beneficence of “markets” and realize the myopic inefficiencies of enterprise-based profit motives.  Most important — to my spirit albeit not to my “net worth” — it led me to look for value in the inherent worth of things rather than in their speculative potential.

I’ve also always looked beyond the traditional press.  I cut my political-reading-teeth on the legendary I.F. Stone’s courageous belated “Weekly.”  Since the 1980s, I’ve subscribed to Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer, a little known and erratically published broadsheet that uses economic analysis to see through, rather than justify or exploit, economic news and trends.  Today, in the Internet age, I read Jim Kunstler’s Clusterfuck Nation which  passionately and knowledgeably explores the relationships between infrastructure and economy and the prices to be paid for urban sprawl and SUV-driving suburbia.  And, in the age of diminishing attention spans, I’ve become a loyal viewer of the short videos of the Internets Celebrities, Rafi Kam and Dallas Penn, producers and presenters of “Bronx Bodega” and “Check Mate” (to view the videos click on the appropriate icons at the top of Celebrities’ site).

Real(?) Estate

Back in July I met Dallas Penn for bagels and lox in a luncheonette near Flatbush Avenue to discuss ideas relevant to the Celebrity’s planned new production “Real(?) Estate.”  The basic idea (without giving away plot or “MacGuffin”): The Celebrities would, in their usual mix of contrived innocence and spot-on insight, hit the streets (and apartment buildings) throughout the city to prod and expose the abstract and illusory nature of urban property ownership, down to the trade in air-rights.

The Internet Celebrities, by the way, are models of fiscal prudence.  Their productions are not financed by loans or “IPO”s and will not be bailed-out if they fail.  Instead, their videos are funded by plain old-fashioned cash donations from ordinary hard-working (or slothful) folks like you and me.  You can play your part by clicking here.   And do it quickly!  Had the Celebrities been able to get “Real(?) Estate” out six months ago, the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial implosion might never have taken place.

Yankee Stadium

During our discussion of the tulip-crisis-like trade in sliced-and-diced three-dimensional urban space, Dallas Penn pointed out that sports stadiums occupy volumes of space that could house thousands or tens of thousands of people or serve as immense urban parks, yet they are used for mere parts of each day for, on average, only 80-some-odd days a year.  This does not mean that stadiums should be done away with but that new stadium projects should be carefully weighed.

The Yankee Stadium project is a case in point.  Last week, Bill Moyers echoed Dallas Penn in a close-of-show editorial exposing the new stadium as a publicly-financed boondoggle benefiting the private sector — a Mae-and-Mac/AIG/WAMU meets the “national pass-time” as it were.  At tremendous public expense and little cost to its private-sector owners, the old stadium is being replaced with a new one that will have a capacity of 5,000 fewer seats but a greater number of corporate “private box” facilities.  The new stadium will occupy a larger footprint of Bronx territory than the old one did but will feed less back into the local economy of (as the Internet Celebrities underscored in “Bronx Bodega”) the poorest urban county in the United States.  Not least, the stadium project sweeps away a cultural if not physical monument — the “House that Babe Built” — the longest lasting of New York’s one-time legendary troika of baseball fields (the other two, Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, fell victim to … real estate development).

Footnote: Impeach Palin In Advance and Dallas Penn on the Presidential Debates

Bob Herbert writes about the crisis obscured by the current financial crises, i.e. the apocalyptic crisis that could ensue if Palin would ever accede to the presidency.  Herbert calls on Republicans to dump Palin from their ticket now — abortion for the good of the nation, as it were.  And, voters should think hard about what the Palin nomination tells us about the kind of administration McCain would appoint if elected.

Dallas Penn voices the frustration many of us felt as Obama pulled his punches during the debate, letting McCain off the hook a number of times and compromising his own positions and personality, as well as the stances of his supporters, in a possible attempt to woo centrist and “undecided” voters.  When reading Dallas’s post, however, don’t waste time on the link to the infantile video by Sarah Silverman.  Silverman’s “Uncle Moses-ing” and suburban whine are offensive.  Contrary to Silverman’s view-from-the-suburbs, out here in Brooklyn we have many Jews (this writer included) whose politics are far, far to the LEFT of Obama’s, who do not necessarily define themselves in terms of America’s racial bifurcations, and who have never been to Florida nor even thought of owning a Cadillac (well, one that runs, anyway!).

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Economy, Infrastructure, Links, Marx, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

America’s Labor Day, The Right to Be Lazy, the Photocopy Shops of Istanbul, and the Democratization of Knowledge

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 9, 2007

Last Monday was Labor Day, the annual U.S. holiday marking the end of the summer season. The origins of Labor Day date to the early 1880’s when a New York City carpenters’ union proposed a day honoring the city’s craftsmen and laborers. In 1882, New York was the site of the country’s first Labor Day parade, sponsored by the Knights of Labor, a forerunner of the AFL-CIO. Labor Day was soon taken up in other US cities and states and in 1894, in the aftermath of the breaking of the great Pullman and railway workers’ strike, was declared a nation-wide holiday — possibly as a bone thrown to the less radical side of the nascent U.S. labor movement.

Labor Day vs. May Day

In the 20th century, Labor Day celebrations were contrasted with their more radical European equivalents, the enthusiastic and often explosive mass rallies and demonstrations held on May 1. In the U.S., Labor Day was touted as the non-revolutionary workingman’s holiday and May Day as radical, foreign, anti-American. Ironically, however, May Day had been declared the official holiday of the world socialist movement by a convocation of the Second International in Paris in 1890 in tribute to the victims of a purely American tragedy: the Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886 and the subsequent round-up, show trials, and execution of local German-American craftsmen and anarchists. While European May Day celebrations reflected their radical origins well into the last third of the 20th century, America’s Labor Day celebrations ground to a halt and the holiday devolved into a wistful day off in the fading warmth of summer … and, more recently, into another occasion for the retail store sales and compulsive shopping that accompany most American celebrations, secular and religious.

The Right to Be Lazy

Some weeks ago, a friend who I knew from the 1960s asked me whether four decades after I’d first read Marx — in the process squandering an irreclaimable chunk of the sexual revolution to wade through Das Kapital — I could consider myself a Marxist. My response was to ask: What kind of Marxist? A Stalinist? No way. A Trotskyite? Out of romantic fantasy and ethnic solidarity, maybe. A Western-European-style democratic socialist? Most certainly. A La Fargue-ist? With enthusiasm and a smile!

This Labor Day, I blew the dust off of one the most treasured volumes on my bookshelves, one of the most underrated social and economic manifestos of the 19th-century, Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy. And, in the spirits of Labor Day and May 1 both, I took the leisure to reread it.

Cuban-born Lafargue (1842-1911) was Karl Marx’s very own son-in-law but family ties did not prevent Lafargue from giving Marx’s work a needed tweak. Whereas Marx rails about the necessity of transferring ownership of the means of production from capitalists to the proletariat, Lafargue takes aim at production itself. The real enemy of all mankind, according to Lafargue, is its own senseless compulsion to produce, the self-destructive compulsion to work. Forget about fighting for the right to work, Lafargue argues, one should struggle for the right to be lazy!

Marx’s famed Communist Manifesto begins with the warning that the specter of class-based violence is haunting Europe but the opening paragraph of Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy warns us against a more insidious danger from within, our own supposed industriousness:

“A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds sway. This delusion is the love of work. The proletariat, the great class embracing all the producers of civilized nations, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment! All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.”

For Lafargue, work is, at best, a mere prelude to leisure and to the creativity, inventiveness, and satisfaction that only leisure can yield. To portray the benefits of leisure over labor Lafargue asks us to consider two horses, a pampered and groomed racehorse from the stables of the Rothschilds and a worn dray horse that spends its days pulling endless heavy loads. Which creature, he asks us, is more magnificent, more worthy of emulation?

The Three-Hour Day

Lafargue uses a complex set of calculations to prove that three hours of labor per person per day would suffice to satisfy the needs of most individuals and all of mankind. More than three hours, he cautions, is detrimental to ourselves and to the world at large, leading to overproduction, wasting of resources, adulteration of goods and services, imperial and colonial adventures, and, worst of all, economies that are driven by what we would now call … marketing.

I would dispute Lafargue’s results. Almost a half century of work has taught me that daily bursts of four to five hours of labor are more than sufficient, providing one is rested and relaxed and at least somewhat motivated and dedicated. Additional hours are padding — needless meetings, gossip and make-work, real and virtual trips to the water cooler (including the contemporary equivalents of compulsive email checks, web searches, and online gaming), avoidance of going home, or expressions of managers’ sadistic desires to make employees endure needlessly long days as punishment for being paid. And, padding is not without cost, compromised quality and declining productivity being among the obvious over the long run.

Lafargue is oddly prescient. He foresaw the near suicidal overwork that characterized sweatshops, Soviet idealization of “Stakhanovites,” U.S. misadventures in “scientific management,” and the expansion of the American workweek over the past few decades from a hard-won forty hour week back up to a nerve-fraying fifty to sixty hours or more. Lafargue also anticipated the waste and environmental damage of economies based on continuous expansion of production, the conflicts caused by continuous seeking out of new markets, and the torpor and perennial dissatisfaction occasioned by cajoling existing markets into ever-increasing consumption. His model also provides insight into the short-sighted moves of the present-day newly elected right-of-center government of his adopted country, France, against its 35-hour work week and strong social services and towards the American model of lower pay, less security, and longer hours for those not at the top and tax breaks for those who are.

Syphilis and Production

The Right to Be Lazy, by the way, merits a reading not only for Lafargue’s analysis and prescriptions but also for his (and 19th century translator Charles H. Kerr’s) delightfully ironic style, another way in which Lafargue sets himself apart from his father-in-law. For example, in the midst of a pointing out how the middle-class moved over the centuries from industriousness to a life of indulgence built upon the overwork of wage earners Lafargue posits this paradox:

“Today every son of the newly rich makes it incumbent upon himself to cultivate the disease for which quicksilver is a specific in order to justify the labors imposed on the the workmen in quicksilver mines.”

The Photocopy Shops of Istanbul

The full text of The Right to Be Lazy is available on the internet but I prefer to read it in hard copy, a medium more conducive to a leisurely afternoon on a park bench or a peaceful coffee or beer at an outdoor cafe. My own copy of The Right to Be Lazy is hardcover, bound in embossed imitation leather and gold-stamped with the title and author’s name. It even has a ribbon (more of a shoelace actually) sewn into the binding for marking one’s place.

My personal edition Lafargue’s book is one of many volumes that I have bought over the years at a category of institution that occupies a minuscule but important niche in world’s information infrastructure: the photocopy shops of Istanbul.

Istanbul’s photocopy shops copy are crowded storefront affairs crammed with photocopy machines, bookshelves, and hundreds or thousands of bound and unbound volumes. They smell of paper, xerox toner, bookbinder’s glue, and cheap take-out lunches and are usually silent but for the shuttling of photocopier lamp heads, the rattling of automatic collating racks and the occasional ringing of old fashioned telephones.

A typical photocopy shop works as follows: A customer comes in to have a book photocopied. The shop photocopies and binds the book’s pages but also produces as second set of photocopies that it keeps as a master for preparing additional volumes for shelf display or for order from the shop’s catalog (as often as not available in pamphlet form or on 3.5″ floppies as a grudging concession to the digital age).

The shop I patronize is located in the warren of streets bounded by the immense Byzantine-period underground cisterns of the Yerebatan Saray and by the Divan Yolu, the ancient main thoroughfare and axis of old Istanbul. The shop is just around the corner from the Turkey’s central archives housing the tens of millions of documents that are the administrative patrimony of the Ottoman period and only minutes from the tourist magnets of Haghia Sofia and the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet. The shop’s stock varies from historical and literary works in Turkish and Islamic religious volumes to an erratic variety of historical and lingusitic arcana in English. A small sampling of my own purchases over the years reflect the scope of the shop’s usual contents: Gibbs’s six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry, F.W. Hasluck’s classic Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, Mason’s Passion of Al-Hallaj, Millingen’s books on Byzantine Constantinople and its churches, Galante’s 1930s monograph on the synagogues of Istanbul, and a number of memoirs by now-forgotten 19th-century Protestant missionaries to Anatolia and the Balkans, as well as, of course, Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Photocopies and the Democratization of Knowledge

At first glance, Istanbul’s photocopy shops appear to be involved in blatant copyright violation and theft of intellectual property. But the situation is far more complex, an analogue precursor of contemporary issues facing the internet, libraries, and the publishing industry. Many of the works available at photocopy shops at $10 -$20 per volume are long out of print and otherwise available only through antiquarians or in low-run limited-edition reprints at prices in the $100 – $200 range, via high-priced subscriptions to online data bases, and, of course, to those with the credentials and sufficient leisure, at specialized libraries. The effect of this is magnified in Turkey, a country in which income distribution is decided unequal and most people’s disposable incomes are far below Western European and even American levels.

Photocopy shops also provided a physical and spatial means for expanding one’s knowledge of the world and of the millennia of discourse examining it. Photocopy shops offer the curious an opportunity to browse through categories of books — volumes at the edges of mainstream of knowledge and rarefied areas of specialized research — and thumb through titles they most likely would not find in Istanbul’s otherwise excellent Turkish- and English-language bookstores and would not otherwise encounter unless they have the luxury to be involved in full-time studies or research.

As haphazard as the collections of photocopy shops maybe, they do have their logic. In the case of my own favorite shop, that logic is a function of its spatial location, which serves as filter for its stock. What photocopy shops offer for sale is determined the books that are brought it for copying in the first place and the tastes and interests of the people who bring them. The location of my favorite shop, only tens of meters from the Ottoman archives and a little more than a kilometer from Istanbul University, gives it an academic and Ottoman-period focus. This reflects the intellectual lives of its copy service and book buying customers and their daily trajectories, through their inner selves as well as through the physical complexity of Istanbul. It also forms a case study in the dynamics of traditional cities and is an analogue mirror of concepts of community and social networking that we now associate with the internet.

Afterthought: Lafargue, the Future of the Copy Shop, and Reclaiming the Leisure and Focus to Read

The photocopy copy shop in which I bought Lafargue’s manifesto in praise of the three-hour workday is open eleven hours a day, seven days a week — a function of low margins, high rents, increasing paper and toner costs, skyrocketing cost of living, and, maybe, as Lafargue would have it, a dose of misplaced industriousness as well. Most of the shop’s customers work equally long days. In a more Lafargue-ian world would the store survive and its customer’s reclaim the leisure and focus to read more? I’m willing to gamble on it.

Posted in Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Marx, Work | 4 Comments »

Michael Polanyi, Articulation, and Marx’s Fatal Flaw

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 10, 2007

The obscure Hungarian philosopher Michael (Mihaly) Polanyi surfaced this week on Doc Searls’s Weblog. Referring to our years together as philosophy undergraduates, Doc supposes that Polanyi might still influence my thinking. After reactivating my philosophy “chops,” I realize Doc is right, Polanyi does continue to influence my thinking … and my work and personal life as well.

I remember two things from Polanyi. The first is his succinct summation of his investigations into epistemology and the role of intuition in scientific discovery, as expressed in his simple dictum: “We know more than we can tell.” The second is his concise critique of some streams of Marxist thought. In his examination of the personal nature of knowing, Polanyi seems to have stumbled onto Marx’s Achilles heel.

In Polanyi’s view, what we are able to put into words is only a part of what we actually know; indeed, there are many things that we know and learn viscerally and intuitively in ways that defy articulation. A mystic Slavo-Semitic side of me likes this idea, as does the side of me that photographs, for it leaves room for wonder and for the ineffable. But a more Anglo-Saxon side of me (a tip of the hat to the logical positivists), takes Polanyi’s dictum not as a description but as prescription, a challenge to spend a lifetime trying to articulate all that I see, sense, and feel. This is been the driver of my life-long obsession with multidisciplinary learning that is my real “core business.” It also has been the basis of my decades of work in strategic consultancy, policy analysis, organizational change, and corporate communications and public information.

In the work world, I’ve found that strategy and policy can be successfully formulated, applied, and refined only when articulated over and again until all ambiguities and all misrepresentations of external realities disappear. Likewise, organizations achieve successful change only when they can fully articulate what they do, and why and how, and in what environment. In the same way, project management is dependent on continuously articulating where one stands and should stand. Successful marketing communications, in turn, is dependent on clear articulation of who one is addressing and what one really has to say. It sometimes takes an irritating gadfly like me to help companies and institutions achieve this, but I believe in the mission and even enjoy it. Maybe this is what has enchanted me about the internet, i.e. the theoretical possibility it affords for ultimately articulating all that is from every perspective possible.

To close, a few words about Polanyi and Marx. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi examines what may be Marxism’s tragic flaw, the key to its self-destruction, this being its futile attempt to clothe moral rage in the guise of scientific objectivity and historical necessity. By abandoning the language of morality some streams of Marxism lost their moral rudders and became sidetracked, preoccupied with their own rectitude and the illegitimacy of all who questioned it, rather than with the wrongs and inequities Marxism was conceived in response to in the first place. This also poses a lesson for all of us in our personal lives — and not just to moderate our Marxism! – but never to forget that all that we seek, desire, approve of, or work toward is not necessarily what is right or what should be. (In this light, another tip of the hat to G.E. Moore.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Marx, Philosophy | 3 Comments »