Dr. Ben Robinson: I am Profesor Ben Robinson, and I am chair of the Germanic Studies department here at IU.
Eliza Craig: Dr. Robinson began his research in exploring the philosophy, economies, and application of socialism. Outside of academia he has been a long-time political activist.
Eliza Craig: What is Capitalism both in philosophy and applied?
Dr. Ben Robinson: When we’re talking about what is capitalism, really we are talking about property relations, or what Marx calls most generally; a mode of production. So Marx begins his philosophy by saying the basic tasks of human beings is our metabolism with nature, the means by which we, in a natural universe, produce and reproduce ourselves. The way in which we eat, the way we reproduce sexually, the way we reproduce ideologically, That’s the basic thing, for Marx, that philosophy or thought has to account for. Capitalism is one of the modes of production, one of the ways we reproduce ourselves in the world.
But, and here’s Marx’s big point, is that those modes always change. They are historical, they're not what Plato said were “eternal forms” so you can’t define a mode of production and say this is the norm for all time. It changes.
So capitalism was the mode of production that emerged in what we generally say is modernity -- so, around the 15th/16th century. It really came into its own in the 18th century, but it’s a form of reproducing our life with the exchange of commodities. Basically what that means is that we make not because we have a specific use for something. We don’t produce because I want something so I add labor to nature, plant an apple tree and eat the apple. I produce, not for immediate use, but for sale. That’s a commodity system, a commodity is something we produce for sale or for exchange, not for use.
The other trick about capitalism, is that the main distinctive commodity of capitalism is labor itself. So, we no longer produce for use, and in fact in general in capitalism most of us have no property which we traditionally had, and which a lot of definitions of democracy are based on, except our labor power, which we can sell as a commodity, that’s the only property we have. So, capitalism emerges with the rise of trade and exchange in commodities and the loss of property for many and the beginning of trade in labor. That happens around the 18th century in Western Europe and then very quickly spreads over the whole globe. That’s the rough outline.
Noura Ahmed: How does capitalism bleed into facets of American society? Think politics, religion, healthcare, education…
Ben Robinson: And education. Yeah. Right. So we, so we were talking about its emergence around property, and we were talking about small farms and the yeoman farmer and the image of the property owner as the basis of American democracy, that Jefferson, maybe more than anyone lends to our national mythology.
But when we look at today, we find that capitalism has a much different form. I think it's still capitalism, because it's still about the exchange of commodities. And it's still about wage labor, which is commodity labor. And those are the basic features that are still there, but property is otherwise changed in various ways. So labor has changed.
A lot of it is around online knowledge work or information society or social media. Those are the booming companies, even in the pandemic, their stocks are shooting up. So labor has changed, but the forms of property are no longer smallholdings that certain people might have, holdings of land or ownership of slaves or whatever the forms of ownership were back in the 18th century, but are now corporate ownership. And the distinct thing about corporate ownership is it allows much more capital because we can all invest in something. And the reason we do, if that's a very restricted “we” , but the reason we do, up to the extent we do buy in is because we're not directly liable. So if the company blows up half the world we can lose all our invested assets, but we can't be sued ourselves. So that's what the law allows corporations to do. And it allows lots of people to invest in them and the size of capital of investments increases until you get to a society like ours, where to manage capital you can't, you can't do it just with markets. You need the state, you need a lot of government institutions.
And that's where to go back to the question: that's where this idea of bleeding over, we're going much beyond the market because suddenly our state has to give us the statistics. It has to give the laws. It has to give labor protection. It has to give banking regulations. It has to give environmental regulations, taxation, all those things arise. And I think those are part of our life every day.
So when we look at things like the university, even a public university, which you think, Oh, public, it's paid by the state, but IU gets 17% at most, maybe closer to 14% of its appropriations from the state and everything else is tuition and investments from the ICU and foundation endowments. So that means the school has to respond, not only to its stakeholders, to us as students and teachers and buildings and grounds and RPS, but it has to respond to the market and that puts big constraints on how it can operate. If its assets lose value or if people don't choose to come because it doesn't have a nice enough rec center or can't market itself successfully, then it falls apart, but that's no longer an educational issue. So that's one example in education where we really see the market.
So, market society is another word I'll use for capitalism too. So you see the market's starting to bleed into things like education. And we can also find that in things even like how we raised our family and child rearing, because now most families are two-earner families; so often mothers who traditionally were at home are no longer at home, and that's because of new market rules, where in order to get a living wage, you need two-earners in a family. So there, capitalism bleeds over right into our nuclear family form. So there are lots of ways in which it does it.
Eliza Craig: Now almost everything is a commodity. Like I think about my own childhood and how I was raised. I'm being raised to be a commodity to this institution. And the institution may react to certain things in certain ways to increase their capital.
For example, the institution just renamed the former Wildermuth Intramural center to the Bill Garrett, after the first Black basketball player in the Big Ten, which is almost a strategic financial move in response to what society is demanding. So it's almost like every single thing is structured to further capital.
Dr. Ben Robinson: On the one hand, it's true. Everything is about the market. So even something which we should celebrate, the renaming of the athletics center from a racist wilderness to Garrett to celebrate the racial diversity of our country, even that has a marketing aspect to it.
But, we can still do creative stuff with it. So I often like to say that the modern state in capitalism grew up together, but they grew up with tensions. So in a way, when we talk about democracy, we do want to recognize that there are forces that are contrary to capitalism and then there are forces that want to reestablish the dominance of capitalism. And in fact, I want to talk about three forces, and I want to distinguish them from the market, the state, and then the third one is the tricky one. What is it? The term I like to use is public, but if we talk with an academic, social theorist, Michel Foucault, we could talk about it as power. You have a market on one side, a state on the other, and power in the middle.
You could say when we look at democracy and capitalism today, and I'll put it really crassly, you could say, does democracy conform to the market or the market conform to democracy? And that way it's not just the man who is making us do one thing and we have no agency: we're all just plugged into a machine and nothing matters. So even the multiracial protests now are just in vain because the market has recaptured them, but that there's an actual struggle. Because there are more than one force in play. So that's always important to remember when we talk about capitalism and democracy, that there are these multiple forces. So I think you're right on the one hand, when we look at this phenomenon. The markets permeate everything, even the things that we conceive of are so personal or of non exchange values; values like dignity and justice, the market finds its way into that. So we also have ways of pushing back, it's not a one-way street. That's how I like to think about that.
Eliza Craig: So the pushing back is the middle, the power, the public?
Dr. Ben Robinson: Well right. Yes. So you're picking up on that term and why I put it so contested is I like emphasizing the word public. It’s also an 18th century term that has gone through many changes, just like property has gone through changes since the 18th century. So in the German tradition that emerged in the enlightenment, the German word "Offenherzigkeit," which means the openness. In the 18th century. It was very small and it was the realm of scholars mainly, so universities have a lot to do with democracy. And then it spreads through you newspapers and coffee shops and things like that. And, it created this discourse that was neither directly related to profit, but it also wasn't part of the state. So where do you fit this explosion of language and opinions? And that is, I think, a space where we can figure out how we want the market and state to interact, or we can create a space between market and state.
We talked briefly about ideologies and like how do we get buy in? What are the stories we tell ourselves? You know, when we tell stories about Lincoln and Jefferson and the founding fathers, and even like the play Hamilton, we just take founding fathers who were often slave owners and whatnot, and make them into people of color. What are we doing ideologically with that?
The more we talk about the public as an ideological space and say it's essentially been colonized by markets or by the state, then we're looking at a space of conformity. When we talk about it as a public, we tend to look at it as a space of resistance, but it's the same space we're talking about there. But, it's just important to me that we see this third space, whatever we call it, and that we recognize it as a terrain of conflict because if we just tell either a left-wing story of the market taking over everything or a right-wing story about the state Leviathon taking all our freedom we're missing the biggest part of the picture where we can act and that's the spaces of publicness or power, depending how you want to see it. That's a changing space and we can give it various nuances.
You know, you're faced with that challenge, right? What do you do with this public space? Do you even perceive it, or do you rush to a job or do you find some place where you can articulate yourself? Like how do you become part of that space?
Dr. Robinson: And it's a hard question.
Noura Ahmed: How does capitalism honor or disparage an ideal democracy?
Dr. Ben Robinson: Well, well see, now that's the thing. I'm not sure there is an ideal democracy. That would be the, that would be the problem. I mean, it's again like an ideal form of property or an ideal mode of production.
I think the thing about democracy is that it's also always in time, right? That there are different forms of it. So if we go back to the ancients and the word is a Greek word; “demos” “kratia,” the people and the power, you could say democracy is people power, but then you wonder, well, what does that mean? For the Greeks, it really meant participation, at least for the white male property owners of Greece, so very limited franchise, but I want to emphasize less the limitation, but this idea of participation.
But as capitalism emerges in the 18th century, it really takes all a different hue. So for Hobbes, the idea is people can be democratic in civil society, and just to define that, that's the space where we pursue our private ends: anything from family to business, to farms or Hobbes used the word industry, where we just do the things of, of regular life and accumulate our living space. And he wanted to free up that space, but he thought the best way to do it was absolutely authoritarian state. So the state takes care of everything. We give our freedom, our right to kill each other or whatever. We give that over to the state. We say, I'm giving up my freedom in order to subordinate myself to the law. But in exchange, I get, under the law, this chance to earn money. And so you could say, well, democracy then is pushed out of the state in that form, the initial forms of liberalism. But then you have Locke saying, no, you know, the state of nature wasn't so bad. We can always break that contract. We go to government as long as the government protects business and doesn't do anything more than that and asks our consent. Then we can have a government. So the state as capitalism emerges is not conceived of as this sort of robust place with a public in it. So that's why public sort of gets pushed out, but there's minimal state, which just gets the consent, not the participation of the governed.
So those are two different ideas of democracy. Do you participate in it or do you just give your consent to it? And I think once you get to a contemporary field, what does it feel like in democracy? I think for most of us, we have to rush to a job. We have to do something quickly. I mean that's one of the reasons why I think Black Lives Matter protest emerged so robustly now because jobs are so constrained. You know, many people are unemployed. We have time to go out and experience this public.
But, usually in modern capitalism, democracy is a game that elites play to decide which member of the elite will govern by means of a vote by the governed. That's no one's ideal of democracy, but it's probably a pretty adequate description because we're not being asked to participate in, in fact, when we do participate too much, that's often when state violence comes down and says "No, too much, you're going to make our markets unprofitable" and bam! we get cracked down on. So yeah.
So what would be the ideal? Well, I guess it's the idea of that space of the public to work out what would the ideal be? What do we want it to be? And so, we can talk about that, but the first point I'd make in response to the question is to say democracy is changing through time and those two forms of participatory versus minimal consent maybe are the two poles. And we could think of what would we want in democracy between those two poles or at one of those two poles where in addition to those.
Eliza Craig: In considering consent versus participation, I can see how capitalism limits participation, because it ties everybody up in jobs because that's the only way that people can survive, and then it limits consent.
How does it limit consent? I guess, I don't know. I guess I don't know that side.
Dr. Ben Robinson: Right, I mean, we have forums, like we have electoral forums and, we express our consent every four years to our federal government. Now it's true we have lots of local elections, so we can participate in those, although we have very low participation levels in the U.S.
Oh, I'm confusing things by using the word participating in the electoral process. I don't mean that as the robust participation.
Eliza: Righ. That's where I'm ...
Dr. Ben Robinson: But consent, we have, I would actually say even more than elections we've reached a point in information society, in our modern technological society, where we feel like citizens if we answer a survey. I mean, I know as chair of a department, I have to send out surveys all the time, and I can't stand filling them out, not only with work, but even political surveys, even surveys where I share the politics of the surveyor, it's just sort of like, I don't think that's citizenship, but that is more or less the way we are solicited around our consent.
The ideal that emerged way back in ancient Greece, but really it became an ideal that was championed in the emergence of liberal democracy in the 18th century. I'll use the French word because I don't want to imply immigration status, but “un citoyen“ a citizen, not in the sense that you have immigration papers, but that you're a full participant in an emerging public. Now, instead of being citizens, we're asked to be consumers. If we're buying stuff, we like it. Or if we're answering the Google survey we're revealing our preferences somehow. And in fact, that's a term of art that the economist Paul Samuelson used. He said, well, we have all sorts of stated preferences when we are dealing with politics in some limited way, like we might state a preference for in this moment, racial justice, but buy a house in an ethnically homogeneous neighborhood where we feel there are good schools. And, Paul Samuelson called that our revealed preferences rather than our stated preferences. So, consent often in our society when we're not asked to be citizens but a consumer, consent is our revealed preferences, not even our stated preferences. As long as we reveal a preference to continue buying, the state is not worried about our protests. So yeah, sort it's an important question, where do we, how do we express consents now?
Eliza Craig: This is clearing up a lot of the discussions that I've been having this summer with my dad, where we're in our like predominantly white neighborhood and right by a school that I went to because our property taxes pay and it's a great school. Even though we may state and I may study a specific thing I'm continually participating in consenting to a system that goes directly against a lot of what I stand for. Like would I still call the police? That's consenting. Um, so that's just, that's, that's very clarifying. So, I appreciate that.
Noura: What is the relationship between unionism and capitalism?
Dr. Ben Robinson: Noura, it does bring the two together in a way. It's funny. I recently taught a course on utopias, but I don't consider myself a utopian. In other words, I like my politics to be real, if you will. And so often when you just pose, what, what would be the ideal alternatives? And we sort of tinker around and say, well, this would be my vision. I find that all too abstract. Like, what is, what does that even mean?
Also, to bring in Eliza, something that you just said about, you know, our revealed preferences, our neighborhoods our good schools, you know, they also implicate us with reproducing the system. But I would say rather than feeling guilty, I mean, I don't like feeling guilty all the time. I have a celebratory sense of populist politics. That there's something irresistible about the political struggles we’re involved in, and there's something gratifying about our solidarities and powerful. Um, even if they can be dangerous, even they could be the wrong solidarities, racial solidarities rather than class solidarities or so on. I'm not saying it's easy, but I do still find something very powerful about that. So it's not saying, well, there would be this ideal and we're not living in the ideal. And I'm implicated. I would say that doesn't make me feel guilty. That's just a beginning recognition. We're all implicated subjects. And in fact, I don't like the sort of politics which has a nostalgia for a purity. I mean there's a lot of powerful aspects of intersectionality where we think of the multiple identities and positionalities from which we all concretely occupy, but there is also a sense where it's looking for the most purely exploited as a place of almost innocence. And often I think it's somewhat dangerous on the left today, the nostalgia for that innocence of “I’m not implicated in anything, I’m exploited by everything.”
I think we're all implicated and that idea of an implication rather than being something that defeats us can give us a sense of what are the concrete challenges.
So now to get to the question of unionism, unionism is something where we really think of who we are in terms of how we create that word “we.” So how do we construct that “we”? Whenever I use “we” I'm a white male, so people might say, well, you know, that's pretty a traditional “we” of power. And I think it's right to question it, but I don't think it's right to say therefore, any “we” is just effacing differences that we have to maximumly expose because if we do that, it's very easy for a human resources department of a corporation to say, well, we'll inscribe the multiple pronouns, we'll inscribe the racial differences, the gender differences, generational differences. We'll inscribe them in our HR protocols and we'll manage people; we’ll serve that management function for you. And I think corporations have been very successful at that also in this moment. And so the idea of creating a “we” isn't to efface differences, but on the basis of our differences, find out what we have in common.
And so that's what unionism does, unionism emphasizes the class aspect of it. It emphasizes things like unequal access to the resources by which we produce our material lives and asks, how can we come together as a “we” around demands on the basis by which we have the means to live a happy and fulfilling life. So to make it one step more concrete: what makes it really interesting in this moment of political protest is that rather than looking for the least implicated position by virtue of multiple exploitations, unionism looks at what are the fragile commonalities.
I'll give a real concrete example that disappointed me with the left. In San Francisco, during the protests after George Floyd was killed, the BLM protests, there were protesters—and not saying they are representative—but they tore down the statue of Ulysses S Grants in Golden Gate Park.
And I thought, well, Grant, why Grant? Grant was the commander who not only led the Union victory in the South, but as he marched South, when he would come to a plantation he would immediately publicly appropriate the plantation, and immediately declare slaves war contraband, and liberate the slaves. And this was all before Lincoln's proclamation. And that was the biggest public appropriation of private property besides the Russian revolution. I mean there's this massive transfer of property. And that was huge.
And what happened in the wake of it, called Reconstruction, was the first attempt really on a world historical scale of building a multiracial democracy. And what that meant is the Freedmen Bureaus were set up as these new state congresses or state house of representatives were elected, was finding the commonality between Blacks and whites. And a lot of historians say, it's not that whites suddenly got over their racism and werb no longer implicated subjects, but that they found these common moments by which they could participate in. So not just get their consent, they could be participants together in power and it was super fragile. And ultimately it was destroyed by, not only the South and Jim Crow, and Black codes which took years to emerge, but was destroyed by workers being offered little benefits or offered homestead properties, and it broke that solidarity. So to create that solidarity between races, genders, sexualities, between the populace, the “demos” of democracy, to create that solidarity in a way that's not just asking for consent, but looking for joint participation in the public is a hard job. And how do we create that “we” and going from the 1860s and Reconstruction to the postwar period?
After the New Deal, there was another attempt at multi-racial unionism. And there's a book by a scholar named Robert Korstad about tobacco workers and Uka power, which was one of the first multiracial unions in the postwar period. And it was destroyed by Duke tobacco, partly by just offering the white workers, but not the Black workers, YMCA memberships If they didn’t join the union. Something so trivial, but so close to people, you know, you're raising a family, you're also hard-pressed even if you have some significant privileges as a white person, but for that moment of public participation in a multiracial democracy, to be destroyed by that. It's so sad. But it makes us understand what is the task of creating this public “we.” That includes the differences, but also the solidarity of the demos. That's the challenge. So that's where I see the heart of unionism. I haven't talked about it all that concretely. But we could talk today about the fight for 15 being led by SEIU we could talk about a concretely. When you look at what is the importance of unionism in today's social movements, it's good to think about that background. What was reconstruction about in terms of our democracy and this third term of a public and what was multiracial unionism after the war in the wake of the New Deal. You know, the March on Washington where King gave the I have a dream speech that was organized by A. Phillip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It was called the March for jobs and justice. It was a union march, and we forget that all too much, just the role that labor played in the civil rights movement and in creating, again, creating solidarity. So not only creating a space for subjects who long to be un-implicated, pure subjects who haven't done anything wrong just have suffered. I don't think that's the goal. That's a little edge that I want to get in that comment there.
Eliza Craig: You mentioned the multiracial union ended with just giving YMCA memberships the white workers.
Dr. Ben Robinson: Well, if they didn't join the union, they were given the membership. So it was used by Duke tobacco to break the union, to use minor differentials, to break the solidarity, to say, if you're a worker of this status we'll pay as your company for a while YMCA membership, but not if you join the union.
Eliza Craig: Gotcha.
So the union was struggling for both together to, to not exploit the small differentials, whereas Duke saw we can exploit those differentials to break people apart.
Eliza Craig: Do you think that unions have the power to unify people on a class basis and change these systems today?
Dr. Ben Robinson: I do. I don't think alone. I think unions are one vehicle among other vehicles. If we go back to the idea that not only property has changed forms, but also labor has changed forms. The way we work is no longer in industrial factories where the traditional idea of a union emerged, and I think often our struggles aren't about a collective bargaining agreement, but to take SEIU you and the "Fight for 15." SEIU is an service employees international union. So it was a union of public workers, which emerged in Wisconsin in the early early 20th century, but didn't get collective bargaining rights, even under the National Labor Relations Act until much later, but SEIU organized public employees. They've since been thinking a lot about how to expand their base and the "Fight for 15" is the $15 per hour minimum wage. And a lot of the people where they're organizing are fast food workers, so workers in restaurants. Cause you guys and people listening to the podcast might be working over a summer or during a term. And they're not longterm jobs. They're not like old industrial jobs. We, we pass through them and we move on to other things. So any collective bargaining agreement we reached with, you know, a small restaurant in Bloomington is going to be so short term. And so SEIU realizes that we need to also make demands not only on the bargaining unit, not only on the factory or the firm, but also on the state. So the idea of "Fight for 15" is to have a law that, not a contract, but a law and the law would say $15 per hour minimum.
So once you understand that unionism is addressing the state, you don't have to be in the union. I could also be out on the street for $15 an hour wage or out on the street for contingent workers and people who are classified as contractors, if they're working in the gig economy, or if they're working as an opair or a nanny or care worker. These are people who don't have large collective bargains, but I can show solidarity for all sorts of people through other means, but also through union. So we have to find the forms.
If you go back to the question, what is the value of union? I think it is though a form that since Reagan and since the destruction of unionism largely since the seventies, the left has lost one of the forms. So, sometimes what, what comes in its place can be forms of protest with very little leadership and structure and power for self-sustaining. So, I think unions are one way to think about how can we create sustained structures of cooperation and solidarity, but I think there are others. I think there can be party structures. I think schools and education are powerful structures if we can reclaim them from market forces.
Dr. Ben Robinson: Let me throw this one in, the work of Themester, that's an example. It's not helping any one departments enrollments and not, you know, bringing in the tuition money. It's, you know, trying to create a public space that goes beyond the narrow interests of one prof's enrollments or one department's enrollments or one student's major or something, and really address an idea that's important for this idea of a public. To make the public something more than just power to make it meaningful to those who participate in it. So a shout out to you guys.
Eliza Craig: I really appreciate the conversation and your focus on the public power, because I almost think, Noura, every college student, but particularly in the school of arts and sciences goes through an existential crisis of the discovery of capitalism and Marxism. And you're like, “holy shit, my life doesn't matter.”
Noura Ahmed: I think that my dreams were created by like these big corporations. So I would fall into line, but it's like, what if I don't dream of working?
Dr. Ben Robinson: It's hard to participate in the public, but if you guys feel despair, I mean, that's what you're doing now. And to me that expresses, whatever implications in the system that you also have, and I certainly have, it expresses an energy that we want something more, and those are values that capitalism or markets don't necessarily recognize. But I think we assert. And those are the values of dignity, of exchange of ideas, of participation, of building a “we” that isn't necessarily automatic. But this is huge. You're doing something in the moment. So, yeah. So I like to affirm that and I'm glad to be part of it too. So, Thank you.