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Marx: Capitalism and Alienation

I ended my last post with the thought about how I would have more to say in the future about how Haystack upended my world. I’m not ready to go there just yet but in that future post I hope to show how the following essay explains just how my experiences at Haystack have led me to where I am now.

For now, this posting will have to do. I will link alienation and art in a future post. I found this essay by typing in “marx theory of alienation” in a search engine. The essay is a chapter in a book by Jorn Bramann, Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies. Dr. Bramann was a professor at Frostberg State University in Frostberg, Maryland in 2009. The book is a course requirement for Phil 490: Special Topics in Philosophy. The book links selected classic movies with topics in philosophy. In this case, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is linked with Marx’s Theory of Alienation, which is taken from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

I’m selecting this quote from the essay because it highlights, more than anything else, why I retired from AT&T:

“Under the conditions of modern factory production, by contrast, the average worker is not much more than a replaceable cog in a gigantic and impersonal production apparatus. Where armies of hired operatives perform monotonous and closely supervised tasks, workers have essentially lost control over the process of production, over the products which they produce, and over the relationships they have with each other.”

BellSouth was not at all like AT&T – I had a degree of autonomy and was able to exercise some control over my work. That all changed when AT&T bought BellSouth. AT&T exemplifies the worst kind of capitalist ideology – they are a throwback to the early 20th century. Perhaps they are even worse – they have a mindset that reminds me of Jeremy Bentham. If you don’t know about Jeremy Bentham, download a copy of Michael Perelman’s book, The Invention of Capitalism, from Libcom.

Read the whole essay – you might be quite surprised that a “Communist” like Marx has something important to say. Perhaps you might even consider that Marx is demonized because of what he has to say. It is fairly common wisdom that speaking truth to power will get you in trouble. That was certainly true for Marx, both during his life and afterwards, for what he wrote precisely outlined what the capitalist class did not want revealed.

Marx: Capitalism and Alienation

Karl Marx (1818-83) grew up in Germany under the same conservative and oppressive conditions under which Kant and other German philosophers had to live. The Enlightenment had had some liberating effects on German life here and there, but most German principalities were still autocratic, and the idea of democracy was combated by all their rulers. The presence of police spies at major universities was a regular feature of German student life, and some students served long prison sentences for their political activism. As a law and philosophy student at the University of Berlin, Marx joined a political club that advocated political democracy. Very soon after receiving his doctorate, however, his ideas went beyond mere political reform. His future friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels introduced him to socialist and communist ideas, i. e., to ideas which progressed from mere political to social and economic reforms. For the rest of his life Marx dedicated himself to the project of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines. In time he became the single most important theoretician and prominent leader of a growing international labor movement.

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Haystack Mountain School of Craft was founded in 1950 and moved to its present location in 1962 after the State of Maine took most of their property via eminent domain for a highway. I found a video taken at Haystack in 2009 on YouTube but it was taken when there were no students there so it doesn’t give you an idea of what a bustling place it is when a workshop is in session. It does, however, give you a view of the buildings, which were designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Both of my parents were commercial artists who, when they had the time, created their own work. That wasn’t often, though, as they had three children to raise. After my father died in 1984, my mother attended Haystack 6 times, coming back each time energized and full of new ideas. After she died in 2004, I established a fellowship in her name at Haystack, which enables artists who could otherwise not attend to come to Haystack.

Haystack is an internationally renowned craft school and I never thought that I would be accepted as a student. I had previously attended Touchstone Center for Craft for 5 years, but I had gotten bored there and wanted a new challenge. So I applied to Haystack and was very grateful when I was accepted. I wanted a new challenge and I got one. It was a very interesting experience, on many levels.

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My last three weeks at work were very interesting. On May 17, I handed my boss a short letter giving him three weeks notice and he did not respond to it favorably at all. He pleaded with me to re-consider but I told him that I wouldn’t. His reaction didn’t make it easy for me and I wish that he hadn’t reacted as he had, but I understood where he was coming from. I was his “go-to” man and he relied on me a great deal to solve problems.

A week later, I sent out an e-mail to around 80 managers and technicians that I had worked with over the years, telling them that I was retiring. The response was stunning, to me. I received about 50 replies and a few telephone calls, all of them simultaneously congratulating me, expressing regret that I was leaving, and some asking if they could come with me! An outlier was a conversation with one manager, with whom I had a good working relationship of many years. She acknowledged my departure during a short telephone conversation that I initiated about a job that I was working on (an e-mux installation at 4649 Ponce de Leon in Coral Gables) but never spoke to me again. I had not had daily interactions with her for about a year, as she had been transferred to a different district. At the time I spoke to her, she was filling in for the manager I worked with on a daily basis. She said that she was “very unhappy” that I was leaving.

On the Wednesday of my last week, the crew took me to lunch at a well-known Cuban restaurant in Miami, La Carreta, and then on Friday, my supervisor took me to lunch at the Canton Chinese Restaurant in Coral Gables. I was very surprised by the generosity of my supervisor and the crew – perhaps they were glad that I was leaving! After all, I had been a thorn in many people’s side for many years with my focus on quality and on doing the job right.

When I left on Friday, June 7, my supervisor walked me out to my car, not because of security issues, but because it was the right thing to do. On the way, he bemoaned my departure, saying that there were plenty of technicians who he wouldn’t mind seeing leave, but that I was not one of them. I told him that it wasn’t personal – that I had to leave while I still had a chance of retaining my sanity. He completely understood (and wished that he could leave, also), but he still wished that I would not leave.

I had thought that I might get emotional when it came time to leave for the last time, but that didn’t happen. I was just so relieved that the ordeal was over. I methodically wound things down over the last few days and then walked away, on my own terms. That is the best way to leave, isn’t it? When I drove out the gate for the last time, I knew that I would never again have to punch in the gate code to get in. What a great feeling that was!

I’m glad that I could leave while I was at the top of my game. In a short time, a year, at most, I’m certain that the forces brewing within AT&T would have rendered me completely irrelevant and unable to cope with the new technology.

I decompressed on Saturday, June 8 and left for Haystack on a red eye flight at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. That will be the subject of a subsequent post.

Another Turning Point

After 34 years in the telecommunications industry, I’m hanging up my hooks next Friday, June 7. It’s been a wonderful ride, but a few years ago, when AT&T bought BellSouth, the lug nuts started loosening up and then the wheels fell off, one by one. For the last few months, the chassis has been dragging on the ground, sparks flying. It’s time to leave. The technology has changed, the people have changed, the management has changed and it most assuredly isn’t fun any longer. A new chapter of my life beckons.

I subscribe to the weekly newsletters from Parabola Magazine and I almost always find something of interest each week. Today, this definitely caught my eye:


Take the adventure, heed the call,

now ere the irrevocable moment passes!

Tis but a banging of the door behind you,

a blithesome step forward,

and you are out of your old life and into the new!

—Kenneth Grahame, Scottish writer, famous for his book, The Wind in the Willows


My immediate reaction to the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, several days after the event (I don’t have a TV, nor do I want one), was amazement at the amount of military force deployed to capture two individuals. I waited, patiently, for a response from more thoughtful individuals and sure enough, those thoughts have started to make themselves known. Here is one of them.

Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. His essay appeared on the Citizen Journalist Exchange.

Within The National (In)Security State: Fear as a Constant Companion

2013 April 26

Life, as lived, moment to moment, in the corporate/consumer state, involves moving between states of tedium, stress, and swoons of mass media and consumer distraction. Therein, one spends a large portion of one’s economically beleaguered life attempting to make ends meet and not go mad from the pressure and the boredom. Where does a nebulous concept such as freedom even enter the picture, except to be a harbinger of an unfocused sense of unease…that all too many look to authority to banish?

Finding a balance between anxiety and freedom is not something that comes easy to us.

In a society beset with a lack of purpose and meaning, patriotism, empty self-promotion and jingoism are mistaken for strength and character, when, in fact, they are anathema. Weakness compensates by affecting a cretinous swagger. Those who lack a centering core crave power. Beneath it all, quakes one who fears risking intimacy…is terror stricken by the vulnerability attendant to risking love. Those who fear the uncertainty inherent to intimacy and freedom perceive a world fraught with ubiquitous danger.

They terrorize themselves; therefore, they see terrorists everywhere.

Recently, a U.S. city was placed in lockdown due to the search for a solitary, nineteen year old suspect. Thirty different law enforcement agencies were involved. This is the sort of authoritarian overkill that is emblematic of a police state i.e., all sense of proportion is lost, and conveniently so…

Why? Because these bloated, overfunded police agencies have a need to justify their existence. And one means of doing so…is to maintain a ramped-up level of fear, by creating a culture-wide, self-resonating feedback loop of hysteria.

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Capitalism, Socialism, & Community

Still searching, still learning … I found these comments on a socialist site and I’m posting them for future reference. I think he is quite correct when he states that there are three reasons why capitalism has disrupted traditional communities: first, the destruction of rural villages and towns, second, capitalism’s emphasis on extreme individualism and consumerism, and third, the structure of the capitalist work place, a “realm of unfreedom and servitude. It is not a place of freedom, autonomy, or creativity.” The author is Glenn King.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Community

I want to add some additional comments to those I made at the last SD discussion on the issue of socialism, capitalism, and human nature. I would argue that while capitalism gives a full reign to the satisfaction of human competitive instincts for wealth and power over others, it does a very poor job of providing for the human instincts for community and solidarity.

In saying this of course I am aware that the word “community” is a very hard word to define. Currently community is used to refer to abstractions as large scale and impersonal as “national,” “international,” or “faith” communities.” The word “community is used to describe to the communal relationships that exist within small religious sects and the various village and clan communities of traditional agrarian societies. So in order to define what I mean I will use the classic definition of community given by the great German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies in his book Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft ( Community and
Society) written in 1887. Tonnies makes a distinction between “society” (gesellschaft) which tends to be the impersonal, large scale world of politics, economics, urban anonymity and atomized individualism and “community” (gemeinschaft) which are the tightly net, small scale, face to face forms of living which have characterized most early human societies. Early hunting gathering bands, early horticultural villages, clan societies, and traditional agrarian peasant villages were all forms of gemeinschaft. Latter forms of community within earlier forms of capitalism would be the working class, ethnic neighborhoods of 19th and 20th century America. Modern religious bodies such as churches, synagogues, and mosques at least to a certain degree recreate ties of community in the modern world with varying degrees of success. The wikipedia article on “gemeinschaft” characterizes it thusly.

Gemeinschaft (often translated as community) is an association in which individuals are oriented to the large association as much, if not more than, to their own self interest. Furthermore, individuals in Gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores, or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the association, to each other and to the association at large; associations are marked by “unity of will” (Tönnies, 22). Tönnies saw the family as the most
perfect expression of Gemeinschaft; however, he expected that Gemeinschaft could be based on shared place and shared belief as well as kinship, and he included globally dispersed religious communities as possible examples of Gemeinschaft…. Gemeinschaften are broadly characterized by a moderate division of labour, strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce social control externally, due to a collective sense of loyalty individuals feel for society.”

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Fortune’s Fools

While cleaning out my inbox, I came across an unsubscribe request to Cyrano’s Journal and decided to re-subscribe to it. I sent a link to the site to a friend of mine and she came back with a glowing review of an essay she had found on the site. I read it and agreed. It really is a perfect complement to retirement thoughts, for it is all about destiny and what we should do with the days we have remaining on this planet. It also ties in with some of the thinking that I have been doing in recent months about community, capitalism, radical imagination and the challenges we face in the years to come. I’m going to re-post it here so that I will have a record of it to read and re-read at my leisure in the days to come.

In a lot of ways, it is a rather dark essay, but we live in dark times and failure to recognize the darkness is the reason we continue to descend into madness. It is one of the most powerful essays that I have read in a long, long time. It bears thinking about and needs to be reflected upon.

Fortune’s Fools: Individual Calling at the Cusp of Ecological Catastrophe

by Phil Rockstroh

“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” — Miles Davis

As a general rule, musicians, artists, and writers, as well as those possessed of an ardor for self-awareness and a commitment to political activism have been advised to avoid a habitual retreat to comfort zones…to take note of the criteria that causes one’s pulse to quicken, brings flop sweat to the brow, causes sphincters to seize up, and delivers mortification to the mind. In order to quicken imagination and avoid banality, it is imperative to explore the fears that cause one to awaken in the darkest of night to stare bug-eyed at the ceiling until dawn; to embrace discomfort; to shun crackpot complacency; to wander through the teeming polis of the psyche, and, in so doing, to not only stray and mingle among the outcasts, demimonde and mad, but proceed to the locked-down wards of the region’s lunatic asylum, and make an exhausting inquest into the nature of the hopeless cases that have been hidden from public view.

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It’s been a month of challenges – I worked until March 15th, when I went on vacation to Virginia to work on my property. I told my boss before I left that I was going to devote some serious thought to retirement while I was on vacation. He told me not to make a rash decision, which I guess is a compliment, after a fashion. But I’m going back to work on Tuesday with the decision: I’m retiring – how much advance notice would you like? I’m not going to retire just yet – I’m fervently hoping that I will be accepted by Haystack for a wood sculpture class that I signed up for in January. That would be the perfect transition into retirement for me. I will have to wait until April 23 for the yea/nay decision on that matter.

In the meantime, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to thinking about how to build the house of my dreams. I found this really cool house while searching on the term “zen wabi wabi” and I’d love to build something similar. I have a two books on Wabi-Sabi – Wabi Sabi Simple, by Richard Powell, and Wabi-Sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence. I should re-read them.

I have a couple of contractors that are going to do a few things for me in the next few months – hopefully, things will all come together in early June – the class starts June 9 and it would be a perfect way to start my retirement!

Another Step on the Road

It’s time for my monthly update, I suppose. I’m not sure how it happened, but I stumbled across the Commons movement recently and everything (including hierarchy) has suddenly come into focus. It’s been a long journey and I surely wouldn’t have predicted that in September 2008 I would be where I am now. I’ll be retiring soon – in early April – and will have plenty of time on my hands to pursue areas of interest to me. One of those tasks (I don’t particularly look forward to it) is to read Capital, by Karl Marx. The work consists of 3 volumes and the first volume alone is 1,152 pages long! That’s longer than any book I’ve ever read before. I’ll be enlisting the help of an online course given by David Harvey, though, so that should make it easier to understand.

Contra the talking heads, the Great Recession is far from over and I’m beginning to understand why. Reading Capital will deepen my understanding of these trying times. Contrary to the belief of many, Capital is not about communism – it is about capitalism.

I’ve been reading selections from the journal Affinities and my eyes are opening wider and wider – everything is starting to make sense now. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it is starting to pay off. I’ll share one essay from Volume 4, number 10, by Judy Rebick, about radical imagination. What struck me most about the article is the following passage:

“But mostly I realized that a radical imagination today has to reach back to before the time of capitalism and colonialism when humans lived in community with each other and with the other creatures that live on this earth. For various historical reasons, the Bolivians never lost touch with that communalism and now are able to combine those ancient ideas with the best of modern society.”

Here is the full article:

Re-Imagining Revolution

Judy Rebick


Imagination is rooted in our reality. That’s why the radical imagination today will emerge from the Global South and from marginalized people in the Global North.

“The radical, committed to human liberation does not become the prisoner of a circle of certainty within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better he or she can better transform it.” – Paulo Freire

Radical imagination is not about letting our imagination run free, it is about rooting our imagination fully in reality. The question is what reality? In North America most of our imaginations are so massively polluted by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, not to mention the privilege of many our lives, it is hard to even imagine how life can be truly different. Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network says that most people are still sleepwalking. We can’t see what is really going on.

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The Heights of Hypocrisy

I read in USA Today that President Obama is going to use the Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. to swear on when he is inaugurated tomorrow. I wonder how much money the MLK foundation received for the use of the Bible. Obama is such an incredible hypocrite – how he can stand there with a straight face and place his hand on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible is incomprehensible to me. MLK would most assuredly not endorse a thing that Obama has done as President. Anyone who swallows this lie is gullible beyond comprehension.