Belmont Club

The Unacknowledged Legislators

The bad news about the Internet is that it has reduced the royalties that successful artists who could get published, recorded or filmed used to enjoy. The good news is that it has opened up huge new opportunities for creative persons. Software has given everyone his easel, studio, scribe and crier. Even poetry, a form of art long considered moribund, is making a comeback. When Glenn Reynolds mentioned a book by “the poet laureate of the Internet”, I thought that he was referring to Walt, who comments on this site. But no, he was referring to to Will Warren, whose Unremitting Verse is now available on Amazon. The excerpts on the Amazon site show work of a very high standard, but I must say without thinking any the less of Will Warren that Walt could certainly have given him a run for his money.

That only means we have two poet laureates of the Internet.

Technology has put a massive amount of creative potential into the hands of people in all walks of life. Whether that efforts winds up on a gaming site, online commerce, services or YouTube, print on demand publishing or the blogosphere doesn’t really matter. Never have so many produced so much intellectual product. A growing percentage of the workforce is engaging in artistry, often for its own sake. The interesting thing is that this wasn’t supposed to happen under capitalism. Marx believed it could occur only under Communism. That the reverse proved true shows how easy it is to attribute ends to the wrong means. When Marx wrote these words describing slave-labor, it is instructive to recall he wasn’t talking about being a Census-taker, which is the kind of job that government knows how to produce.

In what, then, consists the alienation of labor? First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., that it does not belong to his nature, that therefore he does not realize himself in his work, that he denies himself in it, that he does not feel at ease in it, but rather unhappy, that he does not develop any free physical or mental energy, but rather mortifies his flesh and ruins his spirit. The worker, therefore, is only himself when he does not work, and in his work he feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor, therefore, is not voluntary, but forced–forced labor. It is not the gratification of a need, but only a means to gratify needs outside itself. Its alien nature shows itself clearly by the fact that work is shunned like the plague as soon as no physical or other kind of coercion exists.

According to Marxist dogma creativity would only emerge when the market were finally beaten down. To work outside the liberating atmosphere of state-run enterprise or co-operative was slavery. Even today the words “commercial” are a synonym for ‘cheap and nasty’. If you really want quality product get it from a government store or a co-op. One writer put it thus: “Despite our best efforts, everything from our health to our personal relations is deeply affected by our lack of control over the central social processes. Certainly it is key to socialist politics that under capitalism no part of the production process can escape the alienation imposed by the capitalist market. The priorities of a co-operative or a state run industry or a whole national economy run by the state will ultimately be distorted by the needs of competitive accumulation, and in the process genuine popular control will be lost.”

‘Genuine popular control’ is a phrase which simultaneously suggests copyright, spontaneity and the Cheka. If they had managed to achieve it then they could have achieved anything — including perpetual motion. “Heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will,” because capitalism as an alternative was unacceptable. Marx himself wrote that ‘labor was privation’. “Labor, to be sure, produces marvelous things for the rich, but for the laborer it produces privation. It produces palaces for the wealthy, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but cripples the worker. It replaces work by machines, but it throws part of the workforce back to a barbarous kind of work, while turning others into machines. It produces sophistication, but for the workforce it produces feeble-mindedness and idiocy.” Too bad it didn’t work out that way. How would the world have looked under Communism? We can’t save for sure since they never got there. But fortunately the Soviets made a few World of Tomorrow type films and we can get a glimpse into what they wanted.

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The major difference between creative life in this gigantic antheap and the one in which people can publish their own verse over Amazon is over the understanding of what constitutes art.  In the Communist world, art had to be outsized and mass produced because it required an audience for its fulfillment. It required statuary that was visible from the horizon. William Shakespeare on the other hand seemed to argue that art lived of itself; that it needed no patron, not even remembrance. Even love hidden from the intended would live in some garden after those who planted the blooms had passed. To that way of thinking both Will Warren and Walt are poets for their own sake. In some place we can always visit — if we want to go there — the poets are eternal.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room,
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

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