Charles Ostenle and the Manifesto

Fri, 6 Mar 98 12:06:31
Manjur Karim (mkarim@moses.culver.edu)

Charles A. Ostenle's article "Manifesto for Praxis Societies and for a
Global Democratic and Socialist Political Economy" is really
extraordianry. It's a must read for any of us who particpate in the
political project of historical transformation in the late twentieth
century. In Ostenle's own words "Programs for the 21st century must
be grounded upon an empirically valid and theoretically informed
analysis of the effects of transnational capital. Marx and Engels, in
the Manifesto of 1848, gave the world an analysis most helpful to
workers movements in the 19th and 20th century. Now a new Manifesto,
one oriented to the vast changes in economics, politics, and culture
wrought by the globalization of he economy must brought to bear on the
globalized problems workers and citizens of the world now face." I
hope Ostenle makes this manifesto available to a larger audience.

I just have a few questions for Ostenle which may not be part of the
central focus of his paper but have important implications for the way
we try to grapple with the meaning of the Manifesto within the larger
context of a marxist theory. Let me also take the opportunity to make
a comment about Carl's observation about the relevance of my earlier
post on Frank and Eurocentrism for the present seminar. I really
believe that the reading of Manifesto, if limited to the analysis of
the text itself in a strict sense, ultimately remains a scholastic
practice without any concrete connection with the practical project of
politics. Manifesto is not a text in a self-encapsulated manner, but
a document that makes sense only in the context of a historically
embedded inetertexuality. It also represents a particularly
significant moment in the development of marxist discourse of history,
teleology, and contemporary reality. So, I think questions raised for
Frank or Ostnle are important.

Now that I justified my interventions :), let me focus on
Ostenle's paper. First, His comment "while primitive communism
imprisoned peoples in the daily search for food and lodging...."
I wonder what does he think about the concept of "original affluent
society" put forward by Marshall Sahlin and others. Actually, the
primitive societies' forces and relations of production, their ways of
organizing themselves to acquire food and other resources avilable in
their environments seemed served them well until they were forced to
compete with other forms of social organizations. Ethnographic work
carried out since the 1960s among the few remaining hunter-gatherers
indicates that their lives are easier than the modern
tempo/ethnocentric views recognize. For instance, many
hunter-gatherers may have worked for a shorter average number of hours
per day to meet their basic human needs ( I recognize the structurally
constructed nature of "need") than the modern factory worker or office
employee.

Second, Ostenle states "the need for a docile labor force has driven
transnational capital away from countries have gained some rights and
benifits towards countries still controlled by feudal, religious, or
military elites." Now, whether a feudal elite stil exists in any
part of the world today is a major point of controversy, with
important implications for the late twentieth century application for
Marx's understanding of capitalism, in which the Manifesto played
such an important part. I am not going to touch that issue right now
although I think other fellow subscribers may have something to
contribute in that regard. My own understanding is that
transnational capital is more attracted to countries which are
characterized by different configurations of, to use Peter
Evan's phrase, a "tripartite alliance" among transnational
capital, the state, and the local bourgeoisie. The specific
equation may vary from one nation state to another; for instance in
Taiwan the state and local capital have relatively more
bargaining power vis a vis international capital than they do
in Bangladesh. But I think it is still a lot more useful framework
than the one used by Ostenle.

Third, Ostenle wrote "Economics is the solid base upon which
all else grows or is stunted." I don't think reproducing the
base-superstructure metaphor, one of the weeknesses of classical
marxist discourse, is very helpful. Of course, economy is important,
but I think economy needs to be located within the matrix of a larger
historical totality. I also recognize the possibility for different
readings of Marx (and Engels) on that issue, and the subsequent
debates within marxist theories, but I am more inclined to accept what
Stuart Hall called "Economy in the first instance" (in
contradistiction with Althusser's "economy in the last instance").
Economy has the most concrete, immediate presence for our experience
of social totality and our political praxis, but in the end we need to
grasp the political, cultural, sexual and other spheres of experience
that continuously constitute the realm of economy. Ostenle himself
recognizes that sense of totality in his emphasis on a large range of
political and cultural phenomena. May be his use of the metaphor is a
raher casual oversight, a habit of mind? I am also curious to hear
Louis Proyects' view on this issue. Louis defended the
base-superstructure metaphor in the CM150-l list a few weeks
ago.

Manjur Karim