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"How Good 'We' Have It"

At various points in the blog I have discussed the tension surrounding using bourgeois rights in a non-bourgeois manner.  Moreover, I have argued that what are often misunderstood as "bourgeois rights"––that is, rights that capitalism gives its subjects out of the goodness of its heart––are actually not essential to capitalism and primarily exist under capitalism because of struggles against capitalism.  To paraphrase from memory a comment made by Jeff Noonan at Rethinking Marxism 2009: capitalism's essential logic is antithetical to life and the only things that have made capitalism liveable exist because of anti-capitalist struggle.

If capitalism is a system based on the logic of surplus-value (which includes accumulation, expansion, the subordination of use to exchange, economic alienation, militarism, and anything that means in a very simple and very crude sense profit over people), then the only individual "human" rights that matter are those rights required to allow exchange to persist.  The only reason that there are such things––and in a limited sense only at some points in the capitalist-dominated world––as labour rights, freedom of expression, social welfare is because, faced with the possibility of revolt, the capitalist ruling class at different points in society and history were forced to realize it was more feasible to grant concessions in order to neutralize revolution.  This is the reason welfare capitalism exists, or that Keynes argued for what amounted to social capitalism.  Of course, there are always other ways for capitalism to deal with revolts, especially during times of crisis, which is why the possibility of fascism always lurks as a possible response to anti-capitalist revolt.  At this historical conjuncture this threat is perhaps more imminent.

In any case, the rights we are supposedly provided by capitalism at the centres of imperialism, besides the fact of having emerged from the crucible of rebellion, generally work to sustain capitalism by muting its contradictions in those areas where these rights exist.  Better yet, they provide capitalist ideologues with arguments against anti-capitalism.  When people in the centres of global capitalism take positions against capitalism they are generally told by the most cynical and common-sensical individuals who can neither think globally nor beyond the boundaries of a limited bourgeois imagination that rebellion is hypocritical: "you have it so good, the only reason you can protest is because this system gives you the right to protest."

Well, we should know what this means.  One of the key liberal thinkers who, unlike his predecessors, understood the need for capitalism to provide a certain level of individual rights in order to sustain itself was J.S. Mill.  And yet Mill's argument for freedom of expression is an argument for a marketplace of ideas: the freedom to express anti-capitalist opinions should be allowed as long as it remains in the realm of expression and opinion; the moment it harms others–-especially capitalists and thus the market––this freedom should be disallowed.  So in essence: you have the right to protest, to complain about what you shouldn't bother complaining about, as long as your protests do not transform into concrete rebellion.

Even now, when the liberal capitalism of the centres is eroding, a century of "equal rights" liberalism has successfully worked its way into the consciousness of not only the defenders of capitalism but also the consciousness of those who are supposedly anti-capitalist.  And thanks to imperialism, where the surplus lost at the centres can be regained through capital expansion into the peripheries, these supposed anti-capitalists are also affected by a labour aristocrat consciousness: social reforms in the capitalist modes of production, though partly a response to rebellion, are also connected to the logic of increased exploitation in the peripheries.

So here we have a strata of anti-capitalists who want to argue for the end of capitalism but who are still so often invested in the persistence of liberal capitalism.  Those of us who are "marxist academics", or whatever flavour of anti-capitalist "intellectual", are especially prone to being affected by liberal capitalist ideology.  Really, all we need to be happy anti-capitalists are tenured positions, publishing contracts, and the right to express our "anti-capitalism" in the marketplace of ideas.  We might believe in revolution in theory, but in practice we are acting as if good arguments and a shit-load of papers and books will bring about the end of capitalism.

The irony, then, is that while we get annoyed by those capitalist ideologues who argue that we shouldn't protest because "we have it so good" (as if there is no other we besides the we at the is both at the centres of capitalism and are moderately privileged), so many of us act according to this argument.  For if we truly wanted to reject the argument that we're so privileged to have bourgeois rights, our practice would not merely be about saving these rights: the majority of anti-capitalist organizations and groups at the centres of capitalism, regardless of what they argue, do little more than produce ideological debates and reformist movements.  And leftist academics are especially notorious for doing nothing beyond (if even this) defending protests and actions that are primarily reformist.  Hell, some of them don't even do this very well: for example, when my labour union was on strike (and strikes, though important, are generally reformist), there were "marxist" professors who refused to support us… These are professors who are proud to sit on "worker" organizations but, despite all their talk of labour rights, have actively undermined my union's collective agreement.

Thus, although it is easy to understand why smug liberal arguments about "how good we have it" are essentially idiotic, some of us continue to act as if this is the case… And this is because some of us are those who do have it pretty good under capitalism because we are petty bourgeois intellectuals, a privileged strata of the labour aristocracy that have far more to lose than our chains if a revolutionary movement, and the resultant counter-revolutionary actions of the state, began to make a privileged life under liberal capitalism uncomfortable.


  1. Reminds me of the arguments I hear when I criticize militarism and endless war: "the only reason you can say that is because our troops are over protecting our freedoms!" etc, etc.


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