Thursday, 21 February 2013

Does Communism Need a Better Aesthetics?

In talking with a friend of mine who identifies as Marxist, I realized that my position on communism is fairly muddled. While I generally consider myself a socialist rather than a communist, I realized that I had no particular reason to choose socialism over communism besides complacency. Part of my preference for socialism is probably quite unlike most people's criticisms of communism: I grudgingly endorse strong state control as a means of enforcing environmental and anti-discrimination initiatives (largely because I'm cynical about the efficacy of grassroots activism to make any difference), and socialism requires a centralized state in ways that communism does not (or, at least, I tend to associate socialism with a centralized state and communism with communes and collectives). However, I do not think that that really explains why I dislike communism.

The real reason I dislike communism is that I find it ugly.

For me, the communist aesthetic is founded entirely in the realm of labour. Of course this makes sense, since communist thought has historically been a critique of capitalism and the particular labour relations within capitalist economics. It is perfectly logical that communism would return repeatedly to labour, and given Marx's historical position, that labour tends to be imagined as industrial. The images of communism are of factory-work and by extension of automation. At times, the images might be agricultural, but they are not particularly pastoral. Thanks perhaps to Soviet Russian propaganda but almost certainly to the reality of farm work as well, agricultural work in communist aesthetics appears mechanized and labour-intensive. Not only is none of this pretty, it is also undesirable. In truth, I dislike both the idea of difficult manual labour and the idea of work in a factory setting. (As Northrop Frye explicitly puts it, the world of labour is not the worst of all worlds, but it is closer to the world we reject than the world we desire. I don't think I need to lean on Frye for such a claim, though. Among other things, I am only making claims about my imagining of these economic systems; I am not making claims about a universal imagination.)

Of course it is the case that unpleasant working conditions are even more characteristic of capitalism than of communism; uncovering that fact is one of communism's chief critiques. But because communism makes the reality of hard work, industrialization, and mechanization apparent, it is communism that I associate with those realities. Capitalism, meanwhile, promotes an appealing fiction as its aesthetic, one of hygienic consumption, choice, and leisure. Of course, all of these are fictions: we work more, destroy more, have fewer meaningful options under capitalism. However, capitalism appears pleasant, especially to those of us in the middle class.

Let's look at that word “pleasant,” because it's also important. The primary emotions promoted by capitalism (or, I should say, capitalist advertising, because I'm reifying capitalism and I shouldn't do that) is pleasure, satisfaction, and admiration. The emotions that I associate with communism are much different. In fact, I don't associate many emotions at all with communism, since I think of it as largely dehumanized and mechanized. But when I think of communism I also think of revolution, and I associate revolution with anger or some similar passion. And I also think of union meetings, and I associate union meetings with frustration and discomfort.

Of course I know that advertising is a lie and I am at times able to return to capitalism the aesthetics of labour, alienation, struggle, anger, and destruction, but it is ordinarily free-market capitalism that I think of in those senses. Socialism, or the kind of socialism practised in Canada, at any rate, is really capitalism with sort-of-communist aspirations, and it ought to be subject to many of the same critiques as free-market capitalism. However, since socialism is certainly less subject to some of those critiques, I associate socialism with other, more attractive aesthetics: trees and clean water (ie. environmentalism), the redemption of criminals (ie. rehabilitative programs), the rescue of the downtrodden (ie. welfare, public health care), the inculcation of culture (ie. public education), the connections that connect and thereby produce a nation (ie. postal system, roads). Socialism obviously looks better than capitalism (as it should!), but somehow it manages to dodge the trap that caught communism by not directly critiquing capitalism itself, instead appearing as an improved form of capitalism.

A political position's aesthetics is a very silly basis on which to judge it, but I think I'm right in attributing my preference to aesthetics, and I suspect I'm not the only one to do so. The problem isn't just understanding that advertisers, and others invested in a capitalist economy, have produced an aesthetic of capitalism that is fictitious. The problem is with the aesthetics I associate with communism: perhaps communism needs a better PR job, but perhaps it is also true that I need to re-think my own conception of communism's aesthetics.

I am not stating that I now am a communist; rather, I am noting that in order to think through economic systems I need to first address how concerns about aesthetics are impeding the clarity of my thought. It also occurs to me that in other countries, or even other parts of this country, or even other demographics in this part of Canada, such aesthetics might differ.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very insightful. It definitely made me re-think my conception of the aesthetic of communism. -First time reader

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