Marx Got a Lot of Things Right

Yanis Varoufakis was Minister of Finance in Greece 3 years ago, helping to organize a failed movement to escape from the austerity imposed by the European Union.  He came away chastened about the present, but more hopeful than ever for the future.

“Inevitable are both the bourgeoisie’s fall and the victory of the proletariat.”

Writing for The Guardian, Varoufakis sees the predictions of Karl Marx playing out in the West of our lifetimes.  The proletarian revolution has been held in check for a century more than Marx envisioned, by use of concessions, tricks, and deceptions that were beyond his imagination.  But capitalism is collapsing before our eyes, just as he predicted more than a century and a half ago. Unless capital is socialised we are in for dystopic developments.

On the topic of dystopia, the sceptical reader will perk up: what of the manifesto’s own complicity in legitimising authoritarian regimes and steeling the spirit of gulag guards? We might respond defensively, pointing out that no one blames Adam Smith for the excesses of Wall Street, or the New Testament for the Spanish Inquisition.

In praise of The Communist Manifesto, Varoufakis says that the main thing that Marx failed to anticipate is his own influence, and the effect his thought would have both on the behavior of the working class revolutionaries and on the capitalists who have strategized to retain their power.

Anyone reading the manifesto today will be surprised to discover a picture of a world much like our own, teetering fearfully on the edge of technological innovation. In the manifesto’s time, it was the steam engine that posed the greatest challenge to the rhythms and routines of feudal life. The peasantry were swept into the cogs and wheels of this machinery and a new class of masters, the factory owners and the merchants, usurped the landed gentry’s control over society. Now, it is artificial intelligence and automation that loom as disruptive threats, promising to sweep away “all fixed, fast-frozen relations”. “Constantly revolutionising … instruments of production,” the manifesto proclaims, transform “the whole relations of society”, bringing about “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.

Finally, Varoufakis offers us his suggestion for what we can do to hasten the Marxist utopia:

We need more robots, better solar panels, instant communication and sophisticated green transport networks. But equally, we need to organise politically to defend the weak, empower the many and prepare the ground for reversing the absurdities of capitalism. In practical terms, this means treating the idea that there is no alternative with the contempt it deserves while rejecting all calls for a “return” to a less modernised existence. There was nothing ethical about life under earlier forms of capitalism, just as capitalism today is devoid of human values.

Adapted from Yanis Varoufakis’s introduction to The Communist Manifesto, published by Vintage Classics on 26 April.


How to lengthen your (subjective) life

From the Book of Life:

Five minutes can feel like an hour; ten hours can feel like five minutes. Our subjective experience of time bears precious little relation to the way we like to measure it on a clock. When we think about a long life, shouldn’t we be imagining a life that feels full and rich, not 120 years of repetitive stupor, one day just like the next?

The difference in pace is not mysterious: it has to do with novelty. The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel.

One solution: We must go to Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat, Astana or Montevideo, we need to find a way to swim with dolphins or order a thirteen course meal at a world-famous restaurant in downtown Lima. That will finally slow down the cruel gallop of time.

But this is to labour under an unfair, expensive and ultimately impractical notion of novelty.  We have barely scratched the surface of the lives we live already. We have grown bored of a world we haven’t begun to study properly. And that, among other things, is why time is racing by.

The pioneers at making life feel longer in the way that counts are not dieticians, but artists. At its best, art is a tool that reminds us of how little we have fathomed and noticed. It re-introduces us to ordinary things and reopens our eyes to a latent beauty and interest in precisely those areas we had ceased to bother with.

Here is Albrecht Durer, looking – as only children usually do – very closely at a clod of earth:

Image result for durer clod of earth

We don’t need to add years; we need to densify the time we have left by ensuring that every day is lived consciously – and we can do this via a manoeuvre as simple as it is momentous: by starting to notice all that we have as yet only seen.

Read more…



Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, IV

O ihr Zärtlichen, tretet zuweilen
in den Atem, der euch nicht meint,
laßt ihn an eueren Wangen sich teilen,
hinter euch zittert er, wieder vereint.

O ihr Seligen, o ihr Heilen,
die ihr der Anfang der Herzen scheint.
Bogen der Pfeile und Ziele von Pfeilen,
ewiger glänzt euer Lächeln verweint.

Fürchtet euch nicht zu leiden, die Schwere,
gebt sie zurück an der Erde Gewicht;
schwer sind die Berge, schwer sind die Meere.

Selbst die als Kinder ihr pflanztet, die Bäume,
wurden zu schwer längst ; ihr trüget sie nicht.
Aber die Lüfte … aber die Räume …

— Rainer Maria Rilke


Thanks to Joe Riley at for both poem and photo.

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins beside you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.

Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, tr Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

A century before Bach

A fountain of gardens, a cascade of living waters, streams from Lebanon.  Awake, O north wind, and come, thou, south!  Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat partake of its gifts.

Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice: cause me to hear it.  Make haste, my beloved, to this mountains of spices.

In 1584, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina set the entire Latin text of the Song of Songs to music.

William James on Immortality

Immortality is one of the great spiritual needs of man.— William James

A generation before Freud and on the other side of the Atlantic, William James laid foundations for an empirical science of psychology.  Compared to Freud, James was less theoretical, more open-minded.  He styled himself a radical empiricist, and led a philosophic movement away from religion and dogma, rooted in what we can see and hear and measure in nature.

In this essay, James argued famously that there is no such thing as consciousness, which would align him with the most extreme materialist views of Daniel Dennett.

How delightfully surprising, then, to discover that James found support for the belief that the human experience does not end with the death of our physical bodies.  As always, he is balanced and open-minded, presenting arguments on both sides.  He (130 years ago) leans toward a view which I had considered rather modern: that our brains are not the source of conscious awareness, but rather a translator, a transceiver, an intermediating device for conducting awareness into and out of the physical realm from its natural home in a world that knows no space and time.

In 1893, Caroline Haskell Ingersoll bequeathed an endowment to Harvard University, for the purpose of sponsoring annual lectures on the subject of human immortality.  This  lecture series included Alfred North Whitehead, Robert J. Lifton, Marian Wright Edelman, and (recently) Toni Morrison.  The second Ingersoll Lecture was delivered in 1887 by William James of Harvard’s own philosophy department.  Excerpts below:

The first of these difficulties is relative to the absolute dependence of our spiritual life, as we know it here, upon the brain…How can we believe in life hereafter when Science has once for all attained to proving, beyond possibility of escape, that our inner life is a function of that famous material, the so-called ’gray matter’ of our cerebral convolutions? How can the function possibly persist after its organ has undergone decay? Thus physiological psychology is what is supposed to bar the way to the old faith. And it is now a physiological psychologist that I ask you to look at the question with me a little more closely.

Thought is a function of the brainThe question is, then, Does this doctrine logically compel us to disbelieve in immortality?…Most persons imbued with what one may call the puritanism of science would feel themselves bound to answer this question with a yes.

[E]ven though our soul’s life…may be in literal strictness the function of a brain that perishes, yet it is…quite possible, that the life may still continue when the brain itself is dead.  The supposed impossibility of its continuing comes from too superficial a look at the admitted fact of functional dependence.

Suppose, for example, that the whole universe of material things—the furniture of earth and choir of heaven—should turn out to be a mere surface-veil of phenomena, hiding and keeping back the world of genuine realities. Such a supposition is foreign neither to common sense nor to philosophy. Common sense believes in realities behind the veil even too superstitiously; and idealistic philosophy declares the whole world of natural experience, as we get it, to be but a time-mask, shattering or refracting the one infinite Thought, which is the sole reality, into those millions of finite streams of consciousness known to us as our private selves.

[W]hether we care or not for immortality in itself, we ought, as mere critics doing police duty among the vagaries of mankind, to insist on the illogicality of a denial based on the flat ignoring of a palpable alternative. How much more ought we to insist, as lovers of truth, when the denial is that of such a vital hope of mankind!

In strict logic, then, the fangs of cerebralistic materialism are drawn. My words ought consequently already to exert a releasing function on your hopes. You may believe henceforward, whether you care to profit by the permission or not.

James goes on at length (conciseness not being among his abundant virtues) to state the hard problem that David Chalmers made famous a century later: there is no theory that offers us any inkling of how physical processes in the brain might give rise to our subjective experience of awareness—“Sense, pleasure, pain—what are they but a shifting otherness, phantasmal flux of moments?” [George Eliot]  Thus the “transmission” theory is no worse than the “production” theory in this regard.  In favor of the “transmission” theory, James cites experiments in parapsychology and describes (already in the 19th Century) a prejudice against them from established scientists.

A medium, for example, will show knowledge of his sitter’s private affairs which it seems impossible he should have acquired through sight or hearing, or inference therefrom. Or you will have an apparition of some one who is now dying hundreds of miles away.

He ends by arguing that not just human life but all life is immortal.

For my own part, then, so far as logic goes, I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world’s forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not?… If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives, however numerous, however unideal they may seem to us to be. Let us at any rate not decide adversely on our own claim, whose grounds we feel directly, because we cannot decide favorably on the alien claims, whose grounds we cannot feel at all. That would be letting blindness lay down the law to sight.

Link to full text


I only walk on water when I need to

There is the story of an Indian peasant, known to those in his village as a pious, humble, simple soul.  He had a son with vision and ambition who went far away to Tibet, and came home after many years of study, a man of many talents.  Among other things, he had learned to walk on water. Proudly he started to show his simple, ignorant father how he could walk across the foaming river which passed near the village.  He was halfway across when the swirling water frightened him. He fell and would have drowned, but his father calmly walked out, picked him out of the water and carried him to shore.


“Father!”, the young man exclaimed, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“My son, that is the difference between us.  You know many things and I know nothing at all except what is required of me.”  

— as told by Shamcher Bryn Beorse