Dec 31, 2022
Slow Reading 2022
On Reading Slow
My ongoing project began in January 2019. The ultimate goal is to finish one long literary work over the course of a single year -- a work that often seems too lengthy or arduous to complete within my typical reading rotation. This allows me to approach the Official and Irrefutable Great Works in bite-sized chunks, knocking out a few pages a day or a chapter a week without disrupting my schedule. It also helps with retaining information. Or mostly helps. I'll be the first to admit that dull stretches of any book won't be saved by extending your time with it. But at the very least, it turns a seemingly monumental task into something much more manageable.
So far, I've completed a handful of certified, time-tested powerhouses:
- Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (Slow Reading 2019)
- War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Slow Reading 2020)
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Slow Reading 2021)
Though all of the above are certainly long, I wouldn't say any of them were particularly difficult reads, especially given my extended reading timeline. They're plot-driven. Emotional. Perhaps a little intricate, but never confusing. It's clear why these works are so revered as the cornerstones of the Western canon, for better or worse. Overall, I've come away from this project with a deeper understanding that we humans aren't so different from our ancestors. What has been will be again. And we rarely learn from it.
But so far, I've yet to enter the terrifying world of dense and deeply annotated non-fiction. Until this year.
The Big Scary Book by the Big Scary Guy
I was hesitant to speak publicly about my choice for obvious reasons. Even uttering the name Karl Marx is enough to suck the wind out of any room, splitting the crowd in twain like the Sharks and the Jets. It's got the distinct flavor of a Thanksgiving get-together gone awry, devolving into an ever-growing family rift that lasts for generations. Needless to say, Marx's influence casts a long shadow. No man's work has been as praised, mocked, or bastardized in recent years, save for perhaps Jesus Christ. And yet, his work persists.
But how many people have actually read Marx? His ideas are certainly a common topic of debate. His work has birthed a hundred nations, a thousand ever-splintering political factions, and millions of devoted followers (and perhaps even more devoted foes). But I would wager that a minuscule fraction of that number have actually read the work itself. Maybe 10%? 5%? There's an ongoing joke among the new wave of leftists about the lengths one will go to avoid reading theory, most often opting for regurgitated talking points or easily digested video clips. On the other side of the political compass, much of the American right-wing believed that Nancy Pelosi was a devout Marxist. And then there's our beloved centrists, who would gladly vote in a rotting corpse so long as it upholds the status quo. For the amount his name is invoked online, you would think that Marx was required reading for high school freshman. And for that exact reason, he probably should be.
And so, it was decided. I would be one of the few individuals brave enough to wade in the murky waters of 19th Century economic theory. But I wouldn't be going alone.
As with any proper trek into the wilderness, I came prepared. I brought along a map of the territory: A Companion to Marx's Capital by David Harvey, a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at CUNY, as well as a leading figure in the field of Marxist geography (...or maybe the only figure in the field of Marxist geography). It includes a general overview and chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Capital that was indispensable during my read-through, especially during the more detailed passages dissecting a specific town's economic output over a given time period. While Harvey certainly has his own political leanings, he tries his best not to editorialize Marx's words to fit his own narrative, even openly disagreeing with him.
I also brought along a few close companions. Over the course of the year, my partner, Ashlyn Lozano, and I -- as well as our mutual friends Jamie Corliss and Tyler Esselman -- met each month to discuss our reading. Some months, we really vibed with it. Others were more difficult. But we still took the time to figure it out, making sense of the work little by little.
And that's the best advice I can give, should you choose to proceed: leave your preconceptions behind and equip yourself properly. But I imagine that many of you are still wary. That you still don't see the value in this year's project. So, let's do it. Let's go there! Let's talk Marx.
A Red Herring
How many times have we encountered this exact same exchange?
"It sounds like a good idea, but it's terrible in practice," laughs the uncle to himself between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. "People are naturally greedy. Communism always devolves into dictatorship."
"It's actually never been tried before," responds the niece, setting down her fork. "No nation has truly been communist. Just state capitalists in red clothing." She is certain that winning this debate will alter the hearts of the table.
"What we need is a middle road," concludes the centrist. "A little bit of socialism, a little bit of capitalism. Look at Canada!" He hovers two feet above his chair, glowing with enlightenment.
I've seen it enough to make my brain melt the moment I sense it coming. Forum threads have become predictable. Online arguments a bore. All of it is played out. Communism, Socialism, Marxism -- it's all been debated to death, and there's no use adding to it further.
But what if I told you Capital wasn't about Communism at all?
The truth is that Capital has little to do with socialist theory. In fact, it has everything to do with capitalism. If you're looking for a blueprint to dismantle the state, you will leave empty-handed. If you're looking for evidence that teaching Critical Race Theory to pre-schoolers is a secret Marxist plot to destroy your family, you'll be disappointed (and I think that you'll probably be disappointed for a long time). Capital is not The Communist Manifesto. It's not a treatise on communism, nor is it even a guidebook. It's singular topic is exactly what is described in the title: capital. How it was created. How it is accumulated. How it defines and shapes our society.
But Capital is less of a history textbook and more of a continued dialog with various economists. It's a response to the ideas presented by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Malthus (you won't need to have much prior knowledge of their beliefs -- Marx uses plenty of footnotes to fill you in). He utilizes the critical frameworks put forward by Hegel (more on this later) to re-contextualize economic thinking and introduce new concepts. It's not a call for revolution. It's a thorough explanation.
The central idea is simple: value is created by labor, and the exploitation of that labor creates the capitalist system we live under. But more than that, he argues the basic structures of our society -- the foundations on which our everyday lives are shaped and the social rules to which we all abide -- are the by-product of capitalist development. Everything from public schooling to social welfare to settler colonialism to corporate outsourcing -- it all originates within the ever-growing capitalist machine. Where other economists saw capitalism as an extension of our society, our very nature as a people, Marx instead viewed our society as an extension of capitalism. That the social strata by which we define ourselves are in fact unnatural. While this may sound a bit dramatic, consider the ways in which you identify yourself. Is it by your job or trade? Your social class? The media you consume? Your sex or gender? Your hobbies? All of this is defined by the economic system we've lived under for hundreds of years. It's the reason why you must work while others do not. It's the reason why you set your alarms. Why you dress the way you do, why you look forward to the weekends. All of it is in favor of the continued creation of capital. Of profit.
But what was most interesting to me was the amount of material within Capital that has already seeped into our collective conscious. Talk of the working class is decidedly non-controversial. The idea that capitalism trends dangerously toward centralization is a view shared by people on both political wings. Most everyone has shared this thought: "I work hard, so why don't I rightfully get what's mine?" There's hardly anything presented that is wildly unorthodox from current conversations about the economy.
There is Nothing New Under the Sun
A lot of the contextual examples within Capital are understandably dated and obscure. They would have been relevant to any contemporary economist familiar with such-and-such British Reform Act that caused so-and-so group to produce x instead of y. But that isn't to say that Marx's analysis isn't relevant to us today. In fact, I've found it to be more relevant than ever before, especially in our current age of neoliberal deregulation and the widening gap between classes.
As I read, I tried my best not to just underline and move on from a piece of text that stood out to me, but to scribble in a little personal response as well. Why did I find this passage interesting? What can I take away from this? What connections can be made?
What I discovered was unsurprising: I was continually filtering Marx's ideas through a modern lens, connecting his thoughts to what I found in the world around me. And these findings didn't rely on stretching the text too far, either.
Consider this passage from Chapter 10: The Working Day where Marx dissects the ineffectual Factory Act of 1850, which sought to place limitations on the working day to set hours, yet lacked any meaningful penalties for violations:
'The profit to be gained by it' (over-working in violation of the Act) 'appears to be, to many, a greater temptation than they can resist;
they calculate upon the chance of not being found out; and when they see the small amount of penalty and costs, which those who have been convicted have had to pay, they find that if they should be detected there will still be a considerable balance of gain...In cases where the additional time is gained by a multiplication of small thefts in the course of the day, there are insuperable difficulties to the inspector making out a case.'
These 'small thefts' of capital from the workers' meal-times and recreation times are also described by the factory inspectors as 'petty pilferings of minutes,' 'snatching a few minutes' or, in the technical language of the workers, 'nibbling and cribbling at meal-times.'
How often have we seen this today? A company violates a labor law and is returned with a mere slap on the wrist. Just this year, an Amazon warehouse in Washington violated workplace safety laws "by requiring warehouse employees to perform repetitive motions at a fast pace, increasing their risk of injury." And what was the heavy price they had to pay? $60,000. And that's just one small example. Amazon alone has continually violated labor laws at an alarming rate in recent years, not the least of which includes workplace retaliation over the recent wave of unionization attempts.
If the fines can't outweigh the profits, then perhaps the law was never meant to protect us in the first place. What Marx is describing is an early form of the widespread regulatory capture that we see today. Any time a piece of legislation reaches the House floor, it endures a gauntlet of "nibbling and cribbling" from members of all parties, who in turn are acting in the best interest of their primary constituents. I'm not referring to the voters mind you, but to their donors, who ensure our representatives' longevity in their station by providing them with ample funds in exchange for... well, nothing in particular. We all believe that the roster of our favorite team is immune to the sway of the ever-present lobbyist. But the reality is that they always will strike a careful balance between the demands of the people and the demands of capital. We've all learned to never bite the hand that feeds you.
Here's a later passage from Chapter 25: The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation detailing the necessity of an unemployed population for increased productivity:
The over-work of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of its reserve while, conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to over-work and subject them to the dictates of capital.
The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the over-work of the other part, and vice versa, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists...
Here, Marx is laying plain the necessity for a sizable unemployed "reserve army" for continued production. By having large swaths of unemployed people at the ready to take your job, your employer can keep you in a constant state of over-work. But by over-working yourself beyond the typical bounds of productivity, you are then placing someone else out of work... possibly even yourself.
We've seen this same idea pop up time and time again over the last century. Most recently, we've read about the endless hand-wringing from business owners over what has become known as The Great Resignation. The phrase "people just don't want to work anymore" has become so popular among this class, it's nearly reached the point of self-parody. Of course, this notion is false. People are always willing to work. The idea that the lower class is living high on the hog off of their paltry $3,500 in economic stimulus is laughable. What is true, however, is that people are no longer willing to accept less than what they're worth. Plenty of companies are flooded with new recruits; usually due to their generous employee offerings, flexible work schedules, and the ability to work remotely. Other industries, like food and retail, suffer as a result. The threat of unemployment no longer looms over the workforce, driving them to accept working in less than ideal conditions for low wages.
Dialectics Explained (but Not Really)
I think that more than anything, this reading project has taught me a new method of critical thinking. A new lens in which to view the world -- not just economically or socially, but perhaps even personally. Artistically. A way for me to better understand the people around me and our relationship to one another.
I'll be honest: I've encountered the word "dialectic" probably a thousand times before I truly internalized it. It's one of those fantastic leftist buzzwords that force me to immediately check out of a conversation. A nice little dog whistle to pepper into your artistic statements or instagram posts so people know you're a True Marxist (TM). Dialectical materialism. Dialectical naturalism. Hegelian dialectic. Marxist dialectic. I'd seen it so much, I had fooled myself into understanding it. And perhaps I did in context, but not conceptually.
But throughout Capital, Marx breaks down his thought process in a way that allowed me to better understand the dialectical method, or at the very least his interpretation of it. He was a devout student of Hegel, and applied his critical method not just to philosophical ideas but to the development of history and the economy.
So what is this dialectic? There's plenty of write-ups online, each with their own laundry list of ten-dollar words that would rival any thesis-writing procrastinator armed with a thesaurus. And each of those explanations is followed with a legion of counter-arguments that prove how wrong the interpretation was. Which is, ironically, a great example of dialectical thinking, but not entirely helpful for understanding. Now, with the caveat that I am most certainly wrong, and that I am also over-simplifying Hegel and Marx's understanding of dialectical reasoning, here is my attempt at explaining it:
Dialectical reasoning is a means of arriving at a central, unified truth. The most common simplification of dialectical arguments is the classic triad.
- Thesis: A central thought or concept is proposed.
- Antithesis: That thought is negated as a means of testing the theory. A Devil's Advocate.
- Synthesis: The positions of the thesis and antithesis are combined into a new, stronger thought that arrives closer to the truth.
I won't say this model is exactly incorrect, but it certainly doesn't cover the concept completely. Where it fails is in the implication that the final Synthesis is the end of the process. That the debate is over and there is nothing more to explore. You've arrived at the truth! However, you need to recycle this new Synthetic thought as a new Thesis, beginning the process yet again. Rinse and repeat. Again and again.
Which means that you may never arrive at the truth. The world is always progressing. New information is processed, new discoveries are uncovered, new events shake our lives. All of these affect our questions. Our truths. And we can track this throughout history: the moral truths that formed the bedrock of society 1000 years ago are certainly not the moral truths of today. The moral truths of today will seem barbaric to the societies of tomorrow.
And this isn't a purely intellectual exercise either, but a social one, too. Consider you're living in colonial America. The revolution has just begun. You could choose to join in the fight for independence from tyrannical rule. You could fight to maintain civic order and join with the British. You could believe that all forms of violence are immoral, and choose to remain neutral. Or perhaps you're a member of one of the indigenous tribes, many of whom chose to side with the British due to decades of mistreatment from the American colonists. No matter what decision you make, it's influenced by your history. Your surroundings. You have no choice but to react to your historical moment. Is killing a British soldier a moral choice? Is fighting for independence just? And what about sitting it out?
This opened up a new line of questioning: how do we judge the moral failings of the past? Even the lowliest peasant -- fully adhering to the moral codes, laws, and norms of a medieval society -- could be seen as wholly immoral today. Society synthesized into a new form, which synthesized into a new form, etc, etc. And how should we judge ourselves? How can we live under the moral codes of the future if we don't have the information to understand what that might be?
We are only given the information of the time we're in. We can only live as morally as our times allow. I cannot expect the societies of the past to live up to my standards, and I cannot expect myself to live up to the standards of the future.
But more importantly, we must rid ourselves of the idea of a utopia. There will be no perfect ending, because there will always be a way to make it more perfect. All we can hope to do is improve upon the times we are in. To learn from the missteps of history and make our life a little better for those in the future.
And that's where Marx's ultimate take on capitalism begins. It was the Antithesis to the feudal system of our ancestors, and liberated our work from the lords and kings whose only claim their rule was that of God. However, it consolidated ownership of that work into the hands of those who owned the land. The factories. The means of producing their goods. It separated us from reaping the benefits of our own labor, and kept us working for far longer than we needed in order to generate a profit. It erased centuries of tradition by forcing us into the workplace for all hours of the day, removing the ability to mend our clothes, cook our food, and build our homes. Instead, we now purchase these with the small fraction of the income we generate.
So what do we learn from this? We have our Thesis and our Antithesis. Where is our Synthesis? What future can we create where all of us can fully own what we create? Maybe that's for another time.
The Map is Not the Territory
Any attempt to distill Capital into a simple summary is going to fall short of the writing itself. There are plenty of concepts presented within its pages, each with their own volumes of ongoing discourse, arguments, and interpretations. Even my writing here is tainted by my own political sympathies. My personal experiences. There's simply no way to objectively communicate the contents of Capital without bias, though I found Capital to be fairly unbiased in its presentation (or at the very least openly biased when he wanted to be). But how can you believe me? Why take my word at face value? And that, Dear Reader, is exactly why you should read it.
So much of our political and economic understandings today are gleaned from various online takes. Perhaps a tweet thread or a Facebook post. An in-depth article or an Op-Ed from the New York Times. Even so much as an image macro can have an effect on your thinking, should you like to admit it or not. There's a constant battle waging over control of your attention. We consume more information on a daily basis than any other time in history. But how much of that information is straight from the source? Clean, organic, grass-fed, farm-to-table information? Certainly not the majority. Maybe you've read the headline of an article. A short, quippy summary highlighting how wrong the author's take was. A pulled quote to prove their guilt. Or maybe you actually read the article itself, which quoted another article, which quoted another article, et cetera, et cetera. Well, if you want to have a truly unbiased understanding of Marxism -- free from the perpetual remodeling of the text by everyone from Info Wars to Vladimir Lenin -- then you actually have to read the damn thing.
Final Thoughts and Next Year
There's plenty of misconceptions out there about socialism, communism, anarchism, and generally any other -ism that defines the left. You can thank a century of rugged American "individualism" for that. I could try and convince you otherwise. I could give you an endless list of bullet points and examples and articles. But I'm going to go out on a limb and posit that nothing I could possibly write here will change your mind.
So instead, I'll speak more generally about what I've learned this year. I've learned how to think critically about our society. I've learned how to engage with history. How to be in active dialog with what came before us. How to respond to the events of today.
I'm glad I took the time to actually slow down and give this one a shot. I'll admit that it was more difficult than previous years, though our emergence from the years of isolation contributed to that. Will I continue on to Volume II? Maybe someday, but not next year. I need a tolerance break. I need something light. Breezy. Something without such a rabid following or endless tomes of interpretation and analysis.
So naturally, I picked Ulysses.