Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Little Bit of Marxist Theory: Adorno & Horkheimer on the Culture Industry

Horkheimer on left, Adorno on right
The consumers are the works and employees, the farmers and lower middle class. Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them. As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rules themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities.[1]
A more profound description of the objective reality of ideology could not be written. It is at once vividly evident, compelling, and yet also horrifying. How can this be? How is it that people choose their own oppression?

This question is taken up in the film The Congress. An entertainment production monopoly called Miramount produces a hallucinogenic drug that places one into a virtual reality called Abrahama in which all of one’s desires are spontaneously converted into reality. They have “cracked the chemical formula of free choice” and can now have everything they want. And yet, it is a fake, unreal life they are experiencing. Their material experience is neglected in favor of endless consumption of fetishized commodities.

The Congress
eerily portrays how the pursuit of pleasure and free choice are perfectly compatible with tyranny. If people understand themselves as free and can pursue pleasure as much as they want, they won’t be led to question authority or challenge the powers that be.[2]

A similar example is found in The Lego Movie, which tells the story of an ordinary worker, Emmet, whose life is completely determined by the mega-monopoly Octan Corporation. He follows the Octan-produced pamphlet Instructions to Fit in, Have Everybody Like You, and Always be Happy, which includes such instructions as “Drink over-priced coffee” and “Enjoy popular music”—i.e. a song called “Everything is awesome!” Emmet’s entire world is designed to reinforce the status quo, to reinforce Octan’s domination over all life.[3]

But these are just movies, right? Surely, they have no relation to reality. Not according to Horkheimer and Adorno. For these theorists, this is precisely the human condition under capitalism.

The worker is not just under the tyranny of capitalism during the workday, but is subjected to a capitalist culture. “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work,” they claim, “It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again.”[4] The culture industry prolongs the worker’s subjection from the workday to her life beyond her occupation, providing her with the escapism she needs in order to come back to work the following morning.

However, entertainment is not merely escapism or distraction, but is itself exertion, service to the culture industry. Entertainment turns “distraction into exertion.”[5] This is made so by the endless desire for consumption that the culture industry creates:
The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu.[6]
Specifically, they explain:
By repeatedly exposing the objects of desire, breasts in a clinging sweater or the naked torso of the athletic hero, it only stimulates the unsublimated forepleasure which habitual deprivation has long since reduce to masochistic semblance. There is not erotic situation which, while insinuating and exciting, does not fail to indicate unmistakably that things can never go that far.[7]
The culture industry dangles an endlessly prolonged promise of pleasure before the consumer. In this endless deferment, the consumer is placed before object after object, commodity after commodity, desire after desire, and never satisfied. “To offer and to deprive [consumers] of something is one and the same.”[8] We can go on having new desires fabricated for us because it is not the objects themselves that we desire; rather, we are consumed by the desiring activity.[9] As was stated in a New York Times article, “Profit and growth stem directly from the ability of salesmanship to create more desire.”[10]

This process ensures two things: 1) that the worker/consumer is always under capitalism, that “The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object,”[11] and 2) the worker/consumer is involved in the choosing the choosing of her own subjection.
The principle dictates that he should be shown all his needs as capable of fulfillment, but that those needs should be so predetermined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry. Not only does it make him believe that the deception it practices is satisfaction, but it foes further and implies that, whatever the state of affairs, he must put up with what is offered.[12]
The consumer has desires and needs. The culture industry presents its commodities before her as accessible, as in her reach, but the nature of these commodities is such that they endlessly defer the consumer’s desire to something else. They promise and deny at the same time. Don’t just have one, have another. Here’s your iPhone 6; ah, but don’t forget about the iPhone 7. As ad man Don Draper says in the show Mad Men, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness!”

The culture industry sucks you in with promises, but never comes through, because its fetishized commodities cannot satisfy the needs and desires they address. No one really “Opens happiness” when they open a bottle of Coca-Cola, but the slogan appeals to the consumer’s own, free (!) pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of pleasure spontaneously feels free, and yet is determined by the culture industry, by the prolonged exertion of pursuing pleasure through the culture industry’s means. This is how capitalism manages to inspire workers to choose their own subjection.
All are free to dance and enjoy themselves. … But freedom to choose an ideology—since ideology always reflects economic coercion—everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same. … The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.[13]

[1] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1969), 133–134.
[2] Jack Holloway, “The Congress is a dystopia where all of our dreams come true,” Narrative Muse:
[3] John Daniel Holloway, III, “Everything is [Not] Awesome: Critique and Embrace of Ideology in The Lego Movie,” The International Journal of the Image, 7, no. 3 (2016): 55–63.
[4] Horkheimer and Adorno, 137.
[5] Ibid., 138–139.
[6] Ibid., 139.
[7] Ibid., 140.
[8] Ibid., 141.
[9] Similarly, Slavoj Žižek says, “Desire’s raison d’etre … is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.” Slavoj Žižek, “Desire: Drive = Truth: Knowledge,” Umbr(a) 1 (1997), 151.
[10] New York Times, July 12, 1949, quoted in Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 23, emphasis added.
[11] Adorno, quoted in Jan Rehmann, Theories of Ideology: The Powers of Alienation and Subjection (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 86.
[12] Horkheimer and Adorno, 142.
[13] Ibid., 167.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Little Bit of Marxist Theory: Rosa Luxemburg against Lenin

A particular concern of my recent posts on Marxist theory has come from the Lenin-Kautsky view that “socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without (von Aussen Hineingetragenes), and not something that arose within it spontaneously.”[1] That concern remained as we discussed the work of Rosa Luxemburg, who early on in her career distinguished herself from Lenin on this point.

Already in 1904 she saw in Lenin an “ultracentralist tendency.”[2] Lenin, she says, separates the “unorganized” revolutionary activity of the class-conscious proletariat from the discipline of a decisive central authority.[3] The social democratic movement would thus be based “either on blind obedience or on the mechanical submission of the part’s militants to their central authority.”[4]

Luxemburg countered that the social democratic movement is based “on the organization and the independent direct action of the mass,” or it is nothing at all.[5] “The most important and profitable changes of the last decade,” she says, “were not ‘invented’ [—“from without”—] by any of the movement’s leaders … but were in every case the spontaneous product of the unfettered movement.”[6] On the next page, she adds, “they are the consequence of a continuing series of great creative acts of experimental, often of spontaneous, class struggle.”[7]

This is in direct opposition to Lenin, who resisted the conception of revolutionary consciousness as the spontaneous product of the proletariat. Lenin’s problem, according to Luxembrug, is that he claims too much authority for intellectuals like himself, does not trust the mass with revolution, and consequently tends toward an ultracentralism which is “imbued, not with a positive creative spirit, but with the sterile spirit of the night-watchman state …, with narrowing and not with broadening, with tying the movement up and not with drawing it together.”[8] This betrays the very heart of the social democratic movement, which consists of the spirit of mass organization.

This concern is reflected in her pamphlet written two years later on the mass strike. The 1905 Russian Revolution, she says, shows us that “the mass strike is not artificially ‘made,’ not ‘decided’ at random, not ‘propagated,’”—that is, not made, decided, or propagated by bourgeois intellectuals![9]

Instead, she says the mass strike consists of “a multiplicity of the most varied forms of action,” taking place within a long, drawn-out class struggle.[10] It is “not a crafty method discovered by subtle reasoning for the purpose of making the proletarian struggle more effective, but the method of motion of the proletarian mass.”[11] It does not happen in a vacuum but is an event which explodes from a history of struggle. “The various undercurrents of the social process of the revolution,” she says, “cross one another, check one another, and increase the internal contradictions of the revolution, but in the end accelerate and thereby render still more violent its eruptions.”[12]

Here, Luxemburg is akin to Gramsci, who stated that the development of revolutionary consciousness is a dialectical negotiation “between the intellectuals and the masses.”[13] It is “a ‘philosophical’ event,”[14] which comes out of “a long process, with actions and reactions, coming together and drifting apart, and the growth of very numerous and complex new formations.”[15]

The point is that the mass of workers is not in need of revolutionary parents who tell them what to do in order to be liberated, who set out a blueprint for a future revolution that they must abide by in order to become free. Revolutionary impulses arise out of class struggle. Revolutionary consciousness is not a gift given from above by economic scientists, but develops out of an historical dialectic of forces.

There is an undeniable element of spontaneity in all revolutionary outbursts, precisely because, as Luxemburg says, “revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them.”[16]

This conception guided Luxemburg’s assessment of the Russian revolution in 1918. She attributed the Bolshevik success to the fact that all the power rested “exclusively in the hands of the worker and peasant masses,” which “feed the revolution from a narrow blind-alley and opened up for it an untrammeled path into the free and open fields.”[17]

She further thought that power should continue to be held exclusively by the proletarian mass, and was angered by the actions of Lenin and Trotsky following the revolution, as they disassembled the Constituent Assembly which would have been made up of workers.[18] They came out against democracy as such, and so, in her words, stopped up “the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active untrammeled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people.”[19] Her indictment of Trotsky and Lenin is quite powerful, and worth quoting at length:
“As Marxists,” writes Trotsky, “we have never been idol worshippers of formal democracy.” Surely, we have never been idol worshippers of formal democracy. Nor have we ever been idol worshippers of socialism or Marxism either. Does it follow from this that we may also throw socialism on the scrapheap … if it becomes uncomfortable for us? Trotsky and Lenin are the living refutation of this answer. 
“We have never been idol worshippers of formal democracy.” All that that really means is: We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom—not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy—not to eliminate democracy altogether. 
But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of social dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. 
Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class—that is, it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.[20]
By taking exclusive political power away from the mass of workers and placing into the hands of a central authority, Lenin and Trotsky eliminated an essential element of social democracy. Did they not open the door for the authoritarianism of Stalin?

Lenin himself saw this toward the end of his life, and urged that Stalin be deposed and the Central Committee made up of workers and peasants. But the damage was already done. One wonders if Stalin’s dictatorship would have been avoided had Luxemburg’s democratic vision been realized instead of the Lenin-Trotsky centralism.

[1] Kautsky, quoted in V. I. Lenin, “What is to be done?” in Essential Works of Lenin, ed. Henry M. Christman (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), 82.
[2] Rosa Luxemburg, “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy,” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, eds. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 250.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 252.
[5] Ibid., 251.
[6] Ibid., 254.
[7] Ibid., 255.
[8] Ibid., 256.
[9] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions,” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 170.
[10] Ibid., 173.
[11] Ibid., 192.
[12] Ibid., 182.
[13] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 334.
[14] Ibid., 325.
[15] Ibid., 395–396.
[16] Luxemburg, “The Mass Strike,” 198.
[17] Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 287.
[18] Ibid., 299.
[19] Ibid., 302.
[20] Ibid., 308.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Little Bit of Marxist Theory: Gramsci on Common Sense vs. Good Sense

In my last post, I covered Lenin’s essay “What is to be done?” where he claims that workers must have Socialist theory introduced to them without because it would not be introduced to them organically from within. I claimed that this way of rendering things is elitist and problematic. Here, I will demonstrate why I think Gramsci’s theory of common sense vs. good sense is a better alternative.

Whereas Lenin privileges a group of bourgeois intellectuals with the ability to arrive at and introduce truth, Gramsci claims that every person is an intellectual:
"Each man … carries one some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a “philosopher”, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought."[1]
Every person is committed to a philosophy, and each person’s philosophy has some kind of logic to it, a logic that is not completely lost on them. The critical theorist’s challenge, then, is not to teach her truth to passive workers waiting to be taught by intellectuals, but the true challenge lies
in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone at a certain degree of development, modifying its relationship with the muscular-nervous effort towards a new equilibrium, and ensuring that the muscular-nervous effort, … which is perpetually innovating the physical and social world, becomes the foundation of a new and integral conception of the world.[2]
In other words, the critical theorist sublimates unquestioned common sense (or, “spontaneous philosophy”[3]) by preserving the good sense within it and transforming it into a more excellent mode of thought, “to make it a coherent unity and to raise it to the level reached by the most advanced thought in the world.”[4]

Gramsci further expresses that the process of leading a mass of people to this level of thought “is a ‘philosophical’ event far more important and original than the discovery by some philosophical ‘genius’ of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals.”[5] This is in contradistinction to Lenin’s theory of the bourgeois intelligentsia. This is not the introduction of advanced modes of thought to the working class from without, but the transformation of thought from within, using the established common sense as a starting point.

We are still talking about intellectuals like Gramsci (and, indeed, Lenin) leading laypeople from “their primitive philosophy of common sense” to “a higher conception of life.”[6] Gramsci still advocates for “the creation of an elite of intellectuals,” because a mass of people “does not become independent in its own right without … organising itself; and there is no organisation … without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people ‘specialised’ in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideals.”[7]

This is not an imposition of thought from without. Here, there is a more organic and democratic understanding of the development of the higher conception of life. He describes it as “a dialectic between the intellectuals and the masses.”[8] It begins with the cultivation of the “good sense” already present within the spontaneous philosophy of the workers. “The [theoretical consciousness of the] active man-in-the-mass,” he says,
can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficial explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.[9]
There is already present within the consciousness of the worker the material necessary for cultivating a new and coherent alternative to common sense—that is, there is within common sense “good sense.” Good sense “is common sense’s ‘healthy nucleus.’”[10] Furthermore, the cultivation of good sense entails the “diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered, their ‘socialization’ as it were.” [11]

Tilling this ground, furthermore, is not simply the business of intellectuals teaching the masses, but requires time, commitment, and, let’s be real, luck. He refers to it as “a ‘philosophical’ event.”[12] He says, “creating a group of independent intellectuals is not an easy thing; it requires a long process, with actions and reactions, coming together and drifting apart and the growth of very numerous and complex new formations.”[13]

The class struggle is, in fact, a struggle. It is a war of position, not a plow-through-it-quickly war of maneuver. Gramsci’s theory is not incongruous with reality, nor is it overly idealistic and presumptuous. He realizes that he is up against a system, a system which is pervasive in everyday life, its claws running deep into the lives of a mass of people. The answer to this system is not simply the pedagogy of an enlightened group of intellectuals, but the organic, dialectical struggle of outing the truth.

[1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 9.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 323.
[4] Ibid., 324.
[5] Ibid., 325.
[6] Ibid., 332.
[7] Ibid., 334.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 333.
[10] Jan Rehmann, “The Relevance of Gramsci’s Theory of Hegemony for Social Justice Movements,” in Pedagogy of the Poor: Building the Movement to End Poverty (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011), 118.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Gramsci, 325.
[13] Ibid., 395–396.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Little Bit of Marxist Theory: Lenin on How to Inspire a Revolution

In “What is to be done?” Lenin argues against the idea that revolution just happens, that resistance manifests itself spontaneously among the working class. Lenin saw this view espoused in the paper Rabochaya Mysl. An article in this paper claims that “The virility of the labor movement is due to the fact that the workers themselves are at last taking their fate into their own hands, and out of the hands of the leaders” (quoted on p.78). Lenin explains that those who espouse such views “imagine that the pure and simple labor movement can work out an independent ideology for itself, if only the workers ‘take their fate out of the hands of the leaders’” (p.81).

Lenin calls this “a profound mistake,” because it neglects the all-too-important aspect of ideology, the way that the masses are manipulated into embracing the status quo. “Consciousness was completely overwhelmed by spontaneity,” he claims (p.79).

Not only do the theorists Lenin criticizes neglect ideology, but they actually put down theorists like Lenin for “exaggerating the role of the importance of ideology” (p.81). They assume the revolutionary consciousness will organically develop amid the working class. As Karl Kautsky explained, they “believe that Marx asserted that economic development and the class struggle create not only the conditions for socialist production, but also, and directly, the consciousness of its necessity” (quoted on p.81). What is neglected, then, is the way ideology reinforces the status quo, and promotes complacency among the working class. Furthermore, the necessity of a counter-claim, of a subversive ideology, is neglected as well.

Lenin’s concerns, then, should easily be appreciated. We cannot downplay ideology in a resigned, “It will work itself out” mindset regarding revolution. We are up against a vast apparatus designed to pacify the masses. We cannot assume that revolutionary consciousness will just happen. (After all, in our own time the struggles of a good portion of the working class have led not to revolutionary consciousness but to Donald Trump!) What is needed is a Social-Democratic consciousness, and this does not organically arise from the workers, according to Lenin.

The workers are limited to “trade union consciousness,” which only leads to “fighting against the employers and for striving to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.” (p.74). Trade union consciousness is that which is still compatible with the status quo. The theory of socialism, however, is a different matter—and it “grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals” (p.74). Kautsky similarly states that “Modern social consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge” (quoted on p.82).

So, according to Lenin and Kautsky, Social-Democratic consciousness was arrived at by intellectuals who followed the right path through reason, and they in turn introduce it to the proletariat, who can then be equipped to apply it. Thus, as both Lenin and Kautsky state, “socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without (von Aussen Hineingetragenes), and not something that arose within it spontaneously” (quoted on p.82). Resistance is inspired by the philosophical and theoretical wisdom provided by those like Lenin and Kautsky.

This, however, is where Lenin, in my mind, takes a wrong turn. His is a highly romantic rendering of intellectuals, no doubt stemming from Enlightenment ideals similar to those of Immanuel Kant. In “What is Enlightenment?” Kant states that the masses are too fond of their tutelage to enlighten themselves, so that each has become “really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out.” Thus, “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment.” They need help from free intellectuals like Kant in order to be free. The Enlightenment intellectuals are like the philosophers from Plato’s cave analogy, leading the deceived cave dwellers (who cannot lead themselves) to the light of day.

This is the ideological tendency Lenin displays in his essay. On the one hand, he has a consciousness which is sensitive to the interests and needs of the working class (after all, he is a communist); but on the other hand, he displays an elitist and privileged understanding of the theory of resistance. While we cannot depend on the working class organically developing its own revolutionary consciousness, we can no more depend on the reasoning of intellectuals being charitable and just.

Lenin demonstrated with his appointment of Stalin as General Secretary that intellectuals cannot be depended on for doing what is best for the masses. Lenin's philosophy too easily made way for the authoritarian regime of Stalin. And so the idol of the Intellectual Messiah totters.

Page numbers from: V. I. Lenin, “What is to be done?” in Essential Works of Lenin, ed. Henry M. Christman (New York: Bantam Books, 1966).

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Little Bit of Marxist Theory: Karl Marx on Alienation

The worker--"the free proprietor of his own labour-capacity"--meets the owner of money in the market. They enter into a relation with each other “as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law.”[1] The worker does not have the means of production; the capitalist does. The capitalist needs a worker to produce his goods, and the worker needs the means of production necessary to exercise his own labour-capacity. This is a free, mutually beneficial relationship. Or so it seems.

In the actual exchange of goods (the consumption of the worker’s labour by the capitalist and the worker’s compensation), the capitalist is the primary beneficiary. The worker, who does not possess the means of production, is dependent for her livelihood on opportunities where she can use her time and ability to earn a living. Given the nature of the opportunities as the property of capitalists, the worker, when signing the contract, is agreeing to something which is in itself more beneficial to the capitalist than to herself.

At every step of the process, Marx says, “the use-value of the labour-power is advanced to the capitalist: the labourer allows the buyer to consume it before he receives payment of the price; he everywhere gives credit to the capitalist.”[2] Furthermore, “The consumption of labour-power is at one and the same time the production of commodities and of surplus value.”[3]

Having already fixed the price of labour-power in the contract, the worker does not experience the benefits of his surplus. The capitalist alone gets to decide what happens with the surplus. The capitalist accumulates all the additional capital which the worker’s labour produces. With this, he is empowered even further to invest in the means necessary to make capital-accumulation easier, ever-maximizing the surplus.

The capitalist can now, say, purchase a machine that can do what the worker does, but can produce more and at a rate no human ever could. The worker “therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which itself is made relatively superfluous … and it does this to an always increasing extent.”[4] Marx explains quite poignantly the great injustice of this arrangement:
All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, [and] degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine. … [Additionally], all methods for the production of surplus value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods.[5]
The worker is reduced by the capitalist to a mere instrument, whose sole purpose as far as the capitalist is concerned is to make him money. As the worker is incorporated into his money-making system, the capitalist accumulates more capital, and so gains even greater power over the worker, even acquiring the ability of making the worker superfluous, widening the power-gap and wealth-gap between them. The worker thus contributes to his own demise.

This is “the alienation of the worker in his product” that Marx describes in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:
The worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object. For on the premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself—his inner world—becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.[6]
The fruits of the worker’s labor are enjoyed disproportionately by the capitalist. This disproportionate distribution system empowers the capitalist with the capital necessary to invest in ever-greater means of accumulation, and eventually to reduce the necessity of the worker. This is the alienation of the worker, in which the worker is perversely made to participate.

As the worker becomes more and more superfluous, there develops a large number of people who are out of work, and thus a substantial stock of available workers—an industrial reserve army. This puts pressure on the employed workers not to strike, as they would risk being fired and easily replaced by recourse to the industrial reserve army. The worker is thus pressured to submit to the demands of the capitalist.[7]

The theologian Karl Barth called this system “oppressive” and a “social injustice” that makes “industrial peace … radically impossible” to attain.[8] Indeed, it is clear this freedom is no freedom. The buyer and the seller are not equal.
He, who before was the money owner, now strides, in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but—a hiding.[9]

[1] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edwards Aveling (Mineola: Dover Publications), 186.
[2] Ibid., 193.
[3] Ibid., 195.
[4] Ibid., 692.
[5] Ibid., 708.
[6] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, trans. Jack Cohen (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 272.
[7] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 697–698.
[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, The Doctrine of Creation, Part 4, eds. G. W. Bromily and T. F. Torrance, trans. A. T. Mackay, T.H. L. Parker, H. Knight, H. A. Kennedy, and J. Marks (New York: T&T Clark, 1961; repr. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 542.
[9] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 196.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lenten Sermon on Prayer (Luke 11:1-13)

A Hermit Praying in the Wilderness, Willem van Mieris
Luke 11:1-13: 
1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: 
Father, hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
3     Give us each day our daily bread.
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

A couple years ago, my wife Debbie and I got in a car accident on a highway in Virginia Beach. We were on the way to lead worship at a memorial service for a friend of ours. He was our age, and he died in a car accident.

We were hit by another car changing lanes. It was a hit and run, and we did a 180˚ and smacked into the guardrail. There was a second when I thought Debbie, who was sitting in the back-right passenger seat, might have been seriously injured.

Thankfully, she wasn’t, but the feeling I had coming that close to such a serious tragedy was one of the single most traumatic experiences I’ve ever had.

At the service a couple hours later, I couldn’t tell if I felt like I was attending Debbie’s funeral, or my own. As you can imagine, neither feeling was pleasant.

To this day, I get anxious in cars. But the most challenging outcome was the death anxiety it introduced, which has continued to be a regular visitor and bedfellow in my life since.

I think a lot about death. I am endlessly baffled by the paradox of the thought of it.

The problem is trying to figure it out. What happens when I die? Why can’t I know that? What if there is nothing afterwards? What does that mean? What does that make life mean?

Whatever it is, it’s not this. And the reality that hit me after the car accident was that it’s going to mean separation from Debbie. Death means saying goodbye, and I don’t want to say goodbye.

Following this train of thought, I usually get stuck in a cycle of worry. It is as if I have come upon a tall brick wall, enclosing some mysterious destination, to which I have no access.

I circle the enclosure again and again, but there is no way in. It is a barrier, full stop.

I knock on the wall, but there is no opening. I seek an entrance, but there is none. I ask questions to which there are no answers.

But then I read Jesus in Luke, saying, “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Not only do I read these words, but I have to preach on them!

On the one hand, these words should be encouraging, as if they’re saying, “You are seeking, and don’t worry, you will find what you are looking for.”

On the other hand, they are somewhat discouraging. Am I not promised answers when I ask questions? Am I not promised an open door somewhere? Why have I not heard? Why have I not found?

Are Jesus’ words just another example of happy-go-lucky religion with its wishful thinking? Sigmund Freud said theism is wish-fulfillment. Humans want a benevolent father figure, and so they fabricate a god in their minds to be one. The heavenly Father referred to in Luke 11 is just a figment of your wishful imagination.

It’s escapism. Reality is too harsh, so we escape into a nicer world, one that has a nice god, one in which life has meaning and we have significance.

I actually believed that about Christianity for a while. But, in my experience, when I am caught in a web of my own questions, doubting everything, worrying to no end about my ultimate fate, racking my brain about death and the meaning of life, that is when I am farthest from the world.

I’ve had times when I’m sitting on my couch, staring into space, spiraling into anxiety, and meanwhile, my wife is near me, on the computer, in the kitchen, sitting next to me. I can hear her, feel her, but in my head it’s like she’s not even there.

Worry detaches you from the real world and places you into a world of fear, a world just made up of you and your questions.

So Jesus turns out to be quite down-to-earth and life-affirming when he says, as we read a few weeks ago, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life?” Do not worry, for your Father knows what you need. Instead, seek his kingdom, and what you need will be given to you (Lk. 12:25, 29–31).

This is not a worldview you can develop when you walk by sight and stick only to the earthly reality we see, as Freud would want you to.

Reading the news, for example, is a constant source of worry and fear. You get to thinking that evil and injustice make up the true nature of the world. They are so pervasive and constant that it comes to seem unlikely that things were ever any different.

We maybe even imagine an alternate creation story in which Satan is the primary mover.

“In the beginning Satan said, “Let there be evil,” and there was evil. And Satan saw that it was good. And there was morning and there was evening, the first day.”

Goodness, then, is a deviation from the natural order of things. We think, “We have to fight to keep the flame of goodness alive, or else it will be extinguished completely, swallowed up by injustice, the true substance of creation.”

With this pessimism, we begin to say things like, “It’ll never change,” “It’s hopeless,” “It’s too good to be true.”

When we read Jesus saying, “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” there’s often a serpent who slithers out from a tree to whisper in your ear, “But probably not. It’s too good to be true.”

There’s always that voice of cynicism. And no matter how much I read, worship, pray, preach, live and breathe the gospel, this immediate sense of doubt keeps coming back.

“You’re not praying to anyone. No one is listening. You’re fooling yourself.”

These thoughts present themselves as self-evident. They just immediately seem truer than not somehow, as if just saying them is all you need to make them true. Negativity is thus primary, and cynicism is revelatory.

Jesus’ understanding of the world, however, is the inversion of this. For Jesus, evil and injustice and negativity are not necessary. They deviate from the true order of things, and their days are numbered.

It is because of this understanding that Jesus can speak so boldly about our asking and seeking, our knocking and searching.

He saw the heavenly Father as primary. It is not that we exist and we think up God and we choose whether or not we believe in God. For Jesus, it is rather that God exists and our life stems from God, and whatever we experience is secondary to the reality of God.

When you doubt God, you assume that your standpoint is the more the truthful one, and God’s truthfulness depends upon God’s ability to satisfy your standards for belief.

Jesus turns this right around. God is the Creator, not Satan. Goodness is the ultimate ruler, not evil. Righteousness and justice are never truly lost; they will never be swallowed up by injustice.

We may not perceive this or understand it, but we, Jesus says, are evil. He says, “You who are evil,” so casually, as if it’s just a given. We are evil. God is good. We are untruth. God is truth. To use Paul’s language, “Let God be true and every human being a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

We’re not accustomed to speaking this way about human beings. It isn’t hard to imagine how this thinking can have negative effects, possibly encouraging self-deprecation and a sense of worthlessness. So it’s not without good reason that many have dropped this language in favor of more positive statements about humanity.

But what I think Jesus means when he says, “you who are evil,” and what Paul means when he says, “every human being is a liar,” is that we cannot lean on our understanding, we cannot depend on ourselves for salvation.

And this is good news because it means you don’t have to make yourself better in order to receive help. Martin Luther even said, “Not despair but rather hope is preached when we are told that we are sinners.”

When I understand my own frailty, my doubt isn’t as decisive as I tend to think it is. I may look at the world and despair, but it is not my view that counts. That my perception is not decisive means that there is hope, and that hope comes from Jesus, who did not come for the healthy but for the sick (Luke 5:31).

But, still, we live in the world. The world we live in is evil, and we are wrapped up in it. We know not what we do. We know not what to do.

And it is not as if we can beam ourselves into a nicer, happier world where God’s kingdom is realized all the time. On the contrary, we are often left wondering, waiting, longing.

Even some of the earliest Christians felt this. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, many were under the impression that Jesus’ return to inaugurate the kingdom was going to happen within their lifetime. As time went on, and more and more of Jesus’ generation died, people started doubting if the kingdom was going to come at all.

At the time Luke’s Gospel was written, this had become a serious problem. How do we pray “Your kingdom come” when we don’t see signs of the kingdom anywhere?

Unfortunately, there is no scientific theory that can work out this problem in a way that will seem reasonable to us.

The disciples do not say, “Explain to me how you logically arrive at the coming kingdom of God. How do you deduce the kingdom’s coming from present observations?”

No, the disciples say, “Teach us how to pray.”

And Jesus does not lay out logically how and when the kingdom is going to come. He only promises that everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find, and for everyone who knocks, the door will open.

We are told to pray and to pray persistently. Indeed, to make a life out of prayer.

What we are promised is the Holy Spirit when we pray. Prayer itself becomes a daily bread from which we can receive nourishment. The life of prayer, unlike the life of doubt and cynicism, promises good things.

Prayer pulls us back from the world of fear and reconnects us to the life that is happening in front of us. As Psalm 116 says, “Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. … I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (v.7, 9).

So, in my case, instead of confining myself to my doubts, withdrawing into isolated worrying, and spiraling into anxiety thinking about being separated from life and from Debbie, in prayer I am united with Debbie in an affirmation of life.

Here at St. Lydia’s, we are united in our prayer together. Amid our worry-laden lives, we gather to a place where Christ’s victory and coming kingdom are proclaimed, where, despite the liturgical calendar, it never stopped being Easter.

There are things that will be different when Pastor Emily leaves, but what certainly won’t be any different is the promise of the Holy Spirit in prayer. We will pray together, and the Holy Spirit will be among us, encouraging us, reinforcing our faith, breathing new life into us.

We are not told that prayer will bring us everything we want, bring our loved-ones back to us, stop people from leaving our lives, or keep bad things from happening.

We are not told that things will stay the same, that we will always have the same comforts, or the same home.

Nor are we told that prayer will satisfy our doubts, or solve our puzzles.

But, as it was said by a priest in the wonderful movie Jackie that came out last year,

“God in his infinite wisdom has made sure it is just enough for us.”