Radical Ideology and Indispensable Goods

Towards the end of the manuscript of my book, in a chapter entitled “Producing Indispensable Goods,” I offer the example of an amateur theater group as a kind of proto-communist ideological practice.  At this point in the book, I have been arguing that capitalist arose because proto-capitalist practices were created to produce the indispensable goods not provided by the feudal mode of production, and eventually these practices spread and became the mode of producing all goods.  I take the term “indispensable goods” from Althusser, who argues that there are many things we need to flourish a human beings, beyond merely food and shelter.  This includes, but is not limited to, the ability to participate in deciding on our way of life, and the recognition (in a Hegelian sense) of other humans.  My suggestion is that something like an amateur theatrical group could provide some of these needs, which are not at all provided by the capitalist MoP.  Here’s part of the relevant chapter:

If ideology is a belief-in-practice that works to reproduce a mod of production (MoP), can there be non-capitalist ideologies in an overwhelming capitalist world?  The answer to this depends on whether there can be multiple MoPs, which is to say multiple concurrent ways of producing and distributing our human necessities.  I would argue that it is today clear enough that global capitalism is failing to meet the basic needs of most people, so a competing MoP would seem to be required. Can we find ways to produce our indispensable goods, or at least some of them, outside of the capitalist system?  

Because this is what I’m suggesting: that we begin by developing practices which will provide us with exactly those indispensable goods which the capitalist economy does not provide.  Certainly we should work to ensure that everyone has adequate food, shelter, clothing and health care.  These are the things that our dominant MoP has a monopoly on producing, even if the way they are distributed requires that someone make a profit and so requires that many people will not get access to them.  So people starve in our country even as enormous amounts of food get destroyed and landowning corporations are paid government subsidies to let their farms lie fallow in order to keep prices up.  These are the economic practices we should be actively struggling against.  But the greatest impediment to solving these problems lies in the beliefs of most people in America that there is no alternative—that any other manner of distributing our social surplus would be somehow “inefficient” or would lead to immorality in the form of promoting laziness.  

Those of us who have given serious thought to such things know the absurdity of these beliefs. We are often astounded when we hear them most passionately advocated by exactly the very homeless and hungry people who are most disadvantaged by them.  Nobody is more dead set agains socialism than the chronically underemployed.  Nobody is more passionately opposed to universal healthcare than those whose hundreds of thousands of dollars of life-sustaining medical treatments are paid for by Medicaid.  

We also know that there has never been a less efficient system than capitalism.  What its advocates seem to mean by “efficient” is that whatever you happen want is instantly available to you—even if that means we must produce enormous quantities of commodities that wind up as landfill just so that we will have on hand whatever someone with money happens to want.  In fact, as the examples of Walmart and Amazon would seem to indicate, the most efficient system is exactly what those opposed to socialism would have you fear most: an economy planned by a centralized bureaucracy.  

The point of this little digression into the obvious is simply to suggest that one of the greatest impediments to our thriving is our own ignorance, our inability to question the received wisdom we get from our parents, the media, our college professors, or common-sense wisdom.  One of the most important, and most lacking, of our indispensable goods is exactly our need to understand the workings of the world around us and be able to participate in constructing our Md world.  Until we have this basic good, we will never solve the problems of supplying the basic material necessities like food and shelter to everyone.  

This book, then, is addressed primarily to those who already have the minimal needs of physical survival.  The average college graduate today is not likely to be homeless or to go hungry. She probably has a smartphone and a car.  She may even have access to healthcare.  

And so she likely can’t figure out why she is still so miserable.  Or, if she does have an answer to this, it is probably that she just doesn’t have enough stuff yet. Maybe she thinks living with her parents and working at the Au Bon Pain is too constricting, or he thinks that not being able to afford to travel to Europe to play golf in Scotland or to buy that new Mercedes is what is really making him unhappy.  We think, that is, that more stuff will solve all our problems.  But what if it doesn’t? 

What if, like Tony Montana in the movie Scarface, we wind up with enormous wealth, with every thing we think we wanted, and find out we are still dissatisfied?  Most of us, of course, will never get there, and so the promise of imaginary plentitude still acts as a lure.  In fact, this promise is all the more important because we cannot even conceive of any other source of happiness than getting all the things we want without effort.  Nobody today remembers the discontent that arose in the fifties and sixties when the long postwar boom gave so many people houses in the suburbs, cars and televisions, retirement accounts and golf-club memberships…but somehow no contentment.  

What was missing?

My suggestion is that you try to find that out.  Most college graduates today will wind up as part of what is sometimes called the precariat class: those who are not really poor, but are endlessly struggling on the verge of economic disaster, working short-term jobs and paying off enormous debt and never reaching the level of security their grandparents and parents saw.  Because you are part of the growing class of surplus people.  That is to say, the global economy requires fewer and fewer people to actually be members of the capitalist class.  As enormous wealth condenses in the hands of fewer and fewer multi-billionaires, they need fewer servants on call to fulfill their demands.  The rest are unnecessary people, who increasingly become nothing but a burden to the endless growth of great fortunes.  To put it bluntly, there needs to be a mass of people ready to do the bidding of the very wealthy, but there needs to be an even greater mass of people prepared to do this bidding but never getting a chance, because most of them will serve only as a threat to keep wages down. If there are fifty million underemployed adults with graduate degrees in STEM fields, those few with the good jobs have no real leverage to ask for more money.  

Okay, enough of the basic economic nightmare. What might we do about it?  

Instead of indulging futile dreams of one day becoming one of the very rich, or even one of the relatively affluent servants of the very rich, why not spend your time investigating exactly what is really missing when you have the basic material necessities of life?  What other indispensable goods do you really lack?  What if it isn’t stuff, but ways of acting in and understanding the world?  What if our human nature requires that we have the power to choose our collective social projects, to decide what will be meaningful for us?

We can do this not because we have anything like the kind of free will we usually think we have (remember Chapter 9).  That is, we cannot just freely decide what to do in some completely undetermined way and set out to do it.  We can only begin from where we are, notice the sources of limitation and dissatisfaction, and begin to make these explicit in some collective discourse (recall Chapter 5).  The history of humans is the history of our collective intentions—of which ones become dominant and which don’t, of the effects of those collective projects on all of us.  The meaning of the Enlightenment, in its most positive sense, is that we can begin to become aware of what those intentions and effects are.  We don’t need to assume only Mi things are causal; we can come to the understanding that Md things are causally real and can be up to us.

What I want to outline here, as a mere suggestion, is a practice we might undertake to make meaningful to ourselves the kinds of activities that might fulfill our human nature.  If, as I have argued, it is the goal of our current ISAs to convince us that we must merely adapt to the world we have been thrown into, because it is natural and inevitable…then the goal of this kind of practice would be to convince us that we can choose a new world.  Not only that, but that the act of choosing, even if we fail to carry out our collective projects, is itself one of the most fundamental needs of our human nature. And we must do it collectively; we need to understand that any social project will only be fully meaningful if we choose it in negotiation with other people.  Contrary to our ordinary assumption, caught as we are in a pervasive fear of sociality, it is not the case that actions will feel meaningful only if they are either imposed from without or chosen to individually without the need to consider others; instead, actions have meaning when we commit to them by choice as part of a collective intention.

The practice I go on to suggest, then, is amateur theatrics.  I intend this only as an example, an illustration.  But I have some concerns about this particular example.  Mostly, I am worried that it falls into the usual Romantic answer to all social ills: aesthetics.  I don’t want to promote the tired old illusion that art allows us to escape the suffocating trap of ideology or of the Habermasian “system.”  The idea, instead, is that art produces ideology, it never allows an escape from it (on this point I differ from Althusser).  But producing an ideology is a good thing—if we can produce non-capitalist ideological practices.  

So my question is, can anyone suggest other practices that might produce indispensable goods but which would not fall into the general bourgeois category of art?  Not that art is a necessarily bad example—Eagleton uses a jazz combo as his example in his book The Meaning of Life, for instance, very effectively.  But still, art does require an audience…and that leads to a whole other set of problems.  What about a practice that does not require an audience, only participants?  What kind of indispensable goods migh it fulfill?  What might it look like?  

In part, the end of the book is a challenge to the reader to come up with such practices for herself.  But I’d appreciate suggestions for even one other example, besides theater, I might offer.  

Leave a comment


  1. Tom,

    I understand that by ideology you mean a belief-in-practice that serves to reproduce a given MoP. I think that ideology’s strict relation to the MoP, as you define it, makes the problem of coming up with new ideologies especially difficult. For instance, what would the relationship be between the kind of theatrical practice you suggest and the capitalist mode of production? Surely such a practice would not directly be involved in the productive process, other than through its mere negative character of not reproducing capitalism.

    I suppose you would argue that such a practice, while not being productive of the kinds of goods provided (to some subset of people, anyway) by capitalism, is productive of other kinds of indispensable goods that capitalism is incapable of providing for most people? This is the way I understand what you’re arguing here. In this sense, can there be such a practice that also has some relationship to the capitalist MoP as a whole, in the sense that the practice would contribute in some way to the transition to, say, a socialist society?

    I’m thinking here of a practice such as participating in a revolutionary organization, discussing and spreading the ideas of Marxism in a collective manner, etc. Would such a practice be considered ideological, under your definition?

    Another difficulty, I think, is even just thinking of specific indispensable goods. It seems that one would first have to have an idea of a kind of good one wants that is not provided by the capitalist MoP, and only then could one try to come up with an ideology to meet that need. Unfortunately, capitalist ideology is remarkably effective at mystifying human nature and obscuring our view of the kinds of things we need to live a meaningful life. Once rid of the errors in thinking that you clear up in the book, how might we go about becoming conscious of the kinds of indispensable goods we need, for which capitalism cannot provide?

  2. Chaim,
    I would return to my concept of human nature. What is indispensable to fulfilling our nature, but either not provided or thwarted by our current dominant MoP?

    Do we need to increase our understanding of what the world around us is and how it works? On my account of human nature we do. And our current educational system not only does not provide this, but actively works to prevent such understanding. Any practice that serves to provide this indispensable good is then already an alternative MoP. As such, it might require that we abandon some of the beliefs-in-practice that are part of the capitalist MoP. Such as considering accumulation of exchange value as the primary good, or relating to all others in a competitive manner.

    In short, I would consider the practice of studying the marxist explanation of the capitalist economy (something which cannot be done within the existing university system) to be a radical ideological practice. It may be dependent on a scientific truth, but the ideology is in the belief that gaining such understanding is good, and in the practice of gaining it collectively.

    Clearly, in most capitalist ideological practices, increasing our understanding of the world is not considered a good. In psychology, for instance, it is considered something detrimental to ‘happiness’ and so something to discourage or prevent. Psychologists are terribly fond of suggesting that people “think too much,” and claiming that more correct understanding of how the world works leads to depression and lower self-esteem. Ignorance really is bliss in contemporary psychology, and they have a whole elaborate pseudo-science with a bizarre attachment to a naive methodolatry that works to support this belief, a whole industry of ideological interpellation of the suffering to put it into practice.

    We need things like an increase of our engagement with and understanding of the world, recognition from others in the sense of active collective participation in determining our social formation, the ability to decide, in language and so with others, what kinds of thing we will collectively do and why. These are just as indispensable as food and shelter. In fact, the ability to decide for ourselves what kind of food we will eat and how we will shelter ourselves might be an indispensable good denied us in the current dominant MoP.

  3. Patricia

     /  January 17, 2020

    Hi Tom

    The lack of comments is telling. It just goes to show how hard it is to think of what kinds of practices would lead to a more Marxist or socialist society—or at least what practices could put people in the position of imagining non-capitalist ideological practices. There’s a danger, I think, to looking at only intellectual or aesthetic practices. What if we looked to practices that would develop the “values” of community, of cooperation, instead of atomistic and competitive individuality? If it is true that we kneel and pray and so we believe in God, then perhaps the practice should come before belief (or even an intellectual recognition) because, as you argue, these are the kinds of Subjects we become. I don’t know if these are the kinds of practices you’d think were useful as examples, but I was thinking of two that currently exist today, that people already participate in, but might be a way to engage in different practices that would shift our ideological relationship to the MofP: habitat for humanity (or some other organization that builds houses in communities) and CSA (community farms). Granted there’s probably some changes that would be needed, but as a way to conceptualize what difference might entail, we might start with these. The point here, I think, is not just engagement with a community or a service to it, but a communal production that is not dependent on “buying and selling” of labor or a commodity. Of course, there is the sticky problem of property ownership that undergirds both of these organizations. I don’t have much experience with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, except for volunteering once or twice when I was in still grad school, but my understanding is that “laborers” are people from surrounding communities (usually Church groups or students) who work to construct housing for people and do it alongside the families/person who will be living in them. Materials are donated too, and it doesn’t take expertise, just a hammer. I did it, after all! If the moral litmus test is eliminated (must be a “family” or a “mom and children” who are deemed deserving—though I’m not sure it’s all that rigorous a process), then the model could be more generalized to include a way of thinking at housing is right to all. CSAs, or community-sponsored agriculture, is another possibility in the sense that one household “buys” a share in a local farm (I just received my mail invitation to join again this year). The farmer, whose expertise is needed to grow food, can then plan the farm in relation to the shares he has. This is a more sustainable model of agriculture that doesn’t depend on transporting food long distances or selling food for a “profit” – though I’m assuming there’s enough for the farmer to live on. Community farms sometimes include volunteers to work the farm, and thus that labor is not alienated. This is true for the housing model as well. Though private property is involved in both, one can question “ownership” if one participates in a “share of the farm’s produce” or if someone installs a toilet in someone else’s house. The value of producing something together that is necessary and sustaining, but to a certain extent can elide the “market” and the commodity form is at least a step in the right direction. There are dangers here as well—is it a supplement rather than an alternative? Is it reliant on the current MofP to work? Is perceived as philanthropic, and therefore paternalistic? I think maybe less so, but no practice is perfect. But there’s also the idea that this kind of practice would engender subjective change and shift toward more social values than individual ones. Not: what can I buy at the grocery store, or how can I leverage the house I own into a bigger one? But rather: can I help someone have shelter (a real need no matter what the social formation), and can I eat while I don’t deplete the earth for profit (another need no matter what the social formation)? I think these practices provide some reorienting for different priorities.

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