On Art and Commerce and Pseudo-Activism

Let’s talk about art and commerce.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way, first, I am using here a very broad definition of art, so we can simply skip the arguments about what is and isn’t art. Second, those of you who want to make Garfunkle jokes, or any of the other oh-so-original cracks playing off the word “art,” please feel free to do so in the privacy of your own blog.

It is obvious that art and commerce are intertwined, and have been since class society has existed, and will continue to be so as long as class society exists. That does not, however, mean we have to be pleased about it, nor that we cannot do what we can to fight it. Simply accepting it, is to accept money as the measure of quality of a work of art, and I am unwilling to do that.

And yet, here is the problem: among so many people today, particularly people who call themselves progressives, there appears to be a conviction that the most important thing about a work of art is not if it moves the audience, not if it shows us something about life, not if helps us understand people who are unlike us, not if it challenges our beliefs, not if it helps us work through moral issues that perhaps we haven’t considered, but, rather money. Because I keep hearing things like this:

We cannot support support this person, he gives money to bad causes. And this person has been accused of having done terrible things, so we must deprive him of money. That person is clearly evil, and must be punished by having his income reduced. This person over here is much more deserving of reward, and therefore the money that would go to someone else should go here instead.

Have you considered that, when you say that, what you are really saying is, “The most important aspect of a work of art is what the artist does with the income it generates”?

That’s it, that’s what you’re saying. This is such a complete capitulation to the values of capitalism, an utter surrender to the most loathsome forms of commercialism, that it astonishes me that anyone who expresses it could consider her- or himself anything but an utter conservative.

There is one writer—I shan’t name him, because I fear some of you would stop reading him—who is, or at least was, a conservative, right-wing Republican. As a writer, he has a sharp eye for detail, a deft hand with touching one’s emotional buttons, and an outstanding ability to express human interaction. I consider his work to be among the most subversive in our field; it takes a real effort to read him and not have one’s view of society called into question, to not see how capitalist society degrades and tries to crush the human spirit, and how we are capable of heroism in resisting it.

To get personal for a moment, I consider myself a red, a revolutionary. If I had the talent and skill to do one tenth as effective a job of calling the status quo into question in my books as he does in his, I’d be satisfied indeed.

Would he agree with this analysis? Hell no. I don’t care. What I care about is that his work challenges society as it is, and encourages everyone who reads it to do the same. If he then takes the money he’s paid and gives it to causes I consider vile, that is more than made up for by the truth he reveals; his work is a thousand times more progressive then the philistines who would attack him.

You are not standing on the moral high ground, it just looks that way because your vision is impaired.


Creeping Fascism

Among the most engaging passages in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution are those dealing with the weeks and days leading up to the October insurrection,  when the Petrograd Soviet, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, began pushing.  That is, they gradually took for the Soviet more and more power from the Provisional Government, waiting at each step to see if there would be resistance. The more they gained, the more certain was the victory.

In the past, reading about this, I was focused on the importance of revolutionary leadership—indeed, this tactic was one of the reasons the October Revolution was all but bloodless. But now I’m seeing it differently: the same tactic applied by our enemies.

Each step of militarizing police, of normalizing murders by police, of increases in surveillance, of attacks on the free press such as Julian Assange’s extradition, and now of the reversal of Roe v Wade, needs to be seen as fascism pushing, seeing how far they can get before there is resistance, thus weakening the resistance in advance.

In this, the Republican Party—by now openly fascist—has no greater ally than the Democratic Party, which plays the role of stifling the resistance, of keeping everything within the safe channels of electoral politics.

You don’t stop fascism by voting for the non-fascist party. It takes a mass working class movement under a socialist program. The working class has, right now, no more dangerous enemy than their own illusions in the Democratic Party.

All Science is Social Science

All science is social science, because the development of knowledge of the laws of nature take place within society, are subject to the limitations of resources produced by society, and in turn have an effect on society. As capitalism was clawing it’s bloody way toward world dominance, it brought with it a remarkable boom in the sciences, because understanding natural processes results in improved technique for changing nature, which, in turn, results in greater profit. The funding of Universities, the establishment of public education, the general high regard for scientists, were all hallmarks of capitalism in its rise.

But the more scientific thought comes into conflict with private profit, the more scientific thought comes under attack. Public education is being gutted and teachers are treated with contempt. Climate change is denied. Virology and epidemiology are treated as enemies by the ruling elite. University research budgets, especially in the hard sciences, shrink. Pseudo-science replaces the search for objective truth, while many scientists, in self-defense, seek to draw in the borders of what science even is, thus fostering the notion that a scientific approach cannot even exist when it comes to history, economics, or politics.

All science is social science, and the abandonment of and disdain for scientific thought is symptomatic of a decaying social system even as it contributes to that decay.

Competition and Cooperation

The question of competition versus cooperation among humans has come up on my Twitter timeline again. It emerges every now and then, when someone desperate to find a defense for capitalism falls back on, “You socialists want to eliminate competition, but competition is a part of nature, so eliminating it is impossible.”

Okay, let’s talk about it. To take the easy answer first, I should point out that, while yes, nature is full of competition, it is also full of cooperation. Human beings in particular, by virtue of being born premature (ie, instead of taking days or weeks or maybe a few months before an infant can survive by itself, human beings must be cared for for years), we are required to be social animals. Cooperation is so fundamental to human biology, that I’d call it “human nature” if I weren’t allergic to that term.

But let’s go a little further.

Competition is such a vague word. What competition, under what conditions, for what stakes, against whom? The argument of those defenders of capitalism who say socialism wants to “remove competition” are simply confused. Competition in a market economy takes certain specific forms. The most significant for our purposes is that it assumes scarcity, which means the most basic competition is for those scarce resources necessary to life. But under contemporary conditions, where the only reason for the scarcity of the most important resources (food, shelter, medical care) is distribution rather than production capacity, then what becomes absurd is not competition as an abstraction, but those specific forms of competition.

What forms might competition take in a rational society, in which every human being had not only the basic necessities of life, but leisure to pursue his or her inclinations? We can’t know. I might guess—competition over different plans to improve our environment, or over who gets this or that luxury item, or over different plans for improving everyone’s life.  And I’m certain there will continue to be sporting events, games, and so on. But when it is not, as it is today, literally a life & death issue, might we not be permitted to hope and expect that such competition as still exists will be less toxic?

An Open Letter to Volvo Truck Workers in Dublin, Virginia

To the members of UAW Local 2069:

I don’t think you can realize how much of an inspiration you are to how many people.

The battle you’re fighting goes far beyond the immediate issues. We’re living in a world where you can’t open your eyes without seeing a cause for despair: the pandemic, first of all, with the refusal of public officials to keep schools and factories closed to prevent the spread. But it doesn’t stop there: endless war, abuse of immigrants, climate catastrophe, cops who commit murder with impunity, attacks on voting rights.  War criminals walk around free, while Julian Assange, who exposed them, remains in Belmarsh Prison. I could go on and on.

We look for political solutions, and what do we see? The Republicans are moving toward becoming an openly fascist party, while the Democrats, more frightened of mass resistance to fascism than of fascism itself, do everything they can to stifle opposition to the Wall Street bloodsuckers. And the Unions, which I grew up believing were the means of defense of workers right, are now entirely under the thumb of the very corporations they should be defending us against.

And this is when you stand up and say, “No, we’ll take you all on, the corporation, the corrupt union, and the political toadies.” It is inspiring, it is uplifting.

From my position, I can’t know how this battle will turn out—if this is the spark that ignites other auto workers, and from them, those in other industries both here and abroad, as you’ve already inspired your brothers and sisters in Belgium. But I’m watching, and hoping, and so are many, many others.

I’m a supporter, though not a member, of the Socialist Equality Party, and I read the World Socialist Web Site to help me get a handle on what’s going on in the world and what it means, which is how I’ve been following your fight. But what I’m saying to you now is not coming so much from a political stand, as an intensely personal one: You are giving me, and others like me, hope, and you ought to know that.

Warmest Regards,

Steven Brust