Today I would like to talk about some theses that I heard in a short lecture given by Vibbek Chibber, one of the leading figures in the US for anticapitalist thinking. I want to find out if there is anything relevant in his thoughts for my/our question of the relation of artists to capitalism.
Chibber´s most important book is as far as I can see: Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Strangely enough not yet translated into german.
The lecture that I saw on youtube is about "Why do socialist talk so much about workers?", it was held in March 2017 in a bookshop in NYC.
The title of this lecture is a fair question and Chibber argues that there are very good reasons for socialists to talk about workers and the working class. For me it is always a bit odd to see a bunch of intellectuals (like myself) sitting in a bookshop and talk about the working class without having any examples of this "species" around. But I am aware that this is more an aesthetic than a political remark...
Chibbers starts to claim that there are two main issues that have to be available to human beings to give them some social justice. The first one is that they need certain material goods to survive in a manner outside of the mode of desperation: enough to eat, housing, clothing etc. and (I add) some means to join the social life of their societies. I of course agree with this point and artists know often very well how the struggle of surviving on a financial level can become an obstacle for the artistic work. The poor artist who finds inspiration in his/her suffering is only a romantic ideal - most artists have enough sources for suffering without the danger of starvation or not being able to pay the rent.
As the second aspect that is necessary for social justice Chibbers lists autonomy or freedom of domination.
This seems to me much more difficult than the first one. I immediately agree that autonomy is crucial for myself and I guess it is so for most artists - and for everybody who was present in this bookshop in New York City for the lecture. But would everybody else agree with this statement? Do people really think that the freedom of domination will be a condition for social justice? There is a lot to discuss and I come back to this point later.
Chibbers argues that Capitalism is a system that systematically deprives people of both of these goods: basic material goods and autonomy. And the group of people who is the most in danger of being deprived of these goods is the working class.
This sounds like an argument that could have been heard also in the late sixties or in the early twenties of last century in Europe or the US. It is not wrong. But there are so much "Buts" around it that I doubt if the overcoming of capitalism is going to happen if we follow this path (having also in mind how often this path had failed already....). I am not going to explore all these "Buts", but (!) I am focusing on one issue:
Chibbers ignores here that the rise of the idea of autonomy (a very modern concept!) went hand in hand with the rise of capitalism, both starting in the Renaissance and being strongly present in European societies since the 17th or 18th century. This is not by accident. Capitalism needs a type of personality that has a certain degree of autonomy because only autonomous people are willing and able to take risks. And taking risks is (or at least has been) one of the main conditions to be an entrepreneur. The other main type of person that is needed by capitalism is the "Bourgeois" and he or she doesn´t need or want autonomy but safety. He or she doesn´t need to make own decisions as long as he/she can live according to the traditions and values of the social framework in which they were put in.
(If you have read more of this blog you will recognize some thoughts from Max Scheler here.)
Capitalism cannot afford to oppress all sorts of autonomy for everybody because it is needed as a source for progress. We are not hitting the crucial point in claiming that everybody wants or needs autonomy and that Capitalism is oppressing exactly this need. Things are more complex and reducing the struggle against Capitalism to the old fight of the working class is not enough. It is time to see the wider picture.
My point is: As long as socialism focuses only of the working class as the group of people who do not get the autonomy and the basic needs that they should have, the best result they will come to is a better social and financial situation for the workers. Nothing wrong with this. But if we want to overcome Capitalism as the ruling ideology worldwide we have to start somewhere else.
My proposal: Let´s start with ourselves! Let´s start as artists, as intellectuals, as writers, students etc. and find out how and where the Spirit of Capitalism is working against our wishes, values and ideas and how Capitalism deprives us of our dignity as human beings. And then let´s try to step out of the logic of Capitalism.
Max Scheler wrote already in 1914 that the artists have to play an important role in the process of overcoming Capitalism. Maybe the time is now to take this idea serious?