Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Harry Targ

Back in the late 90s I came upon an essay called “Bagel Capitalism: the Theory of Capitalist Development.” While I revised it for my huge blog audience, the original was written by Sydney Glick, a once well-known Marxist theorist. After developing the original theory of bagel capitalism, Sydney disappeared from public view so when I recently saw him sitting in a booth at Schmutz’s Bar and Grill I was taken aback.

I sat down and almost speechless asked him where he had been for the last several years. He told me that he was so deluged with requests to speak before political groups after the draft of his theoretical work on the transformation of the production, distribution, and consumption of the bagel that he decided to drop out. He said he could no longer take the publicity and he was glad that I drew upon his work so he could withdraw to a life of private contemplation, particularly since it looked like the prospects for building a mass movement-this was the late 1990s-were dim. (I told him that I had published an essay on his ideas about bagel capitalism. The audience for the essay, I reported, swelled to the high two figures. And six of my readers were not relatives).

I asked Sydney what he had been doing all these years and what he was doing now. He reported that his work recently has been stalled by the horrible fire that occurred at Kaufman’s Bagel Bakery and Delicatessen in Skokie, Illinois. According to Kaufman’s website-even a real bagel bakery has to have a website-the bakery would be closed for several weeks until they could renovate it.

So, Glick said, he had been going down to Occupy Chicago from time to time and was following as best he could the Occupy movements elsewhere in the country. Also he said he was working on a new theoretical work that links the crisis of bagel production to the broader global and national economic crises of capitalism. In addition, he had begun to think more seriously about how to build a progressive majority and thinking about ways to plant the seeds for a socialist future.

With much excitement, I asked him if he would be willing to talk to me about these subjects. And, I asked if he would mind if I taped his remarks. He was reluctant because he said he was so bothered by the celebrity status he had garnered when the theory of bagel capitalism was first leaked out that he wanted to avoid that happening again. He did, however, indicate that he was willing to share his ideas with me if I, rather than he, communicated them to the public. Since I knew I could handle all the publicity my blog generated I readily agreed.

So, for starters I asked Glick for his thoughts on the Occupy Movements that seemed to be spreading around the country. His eyes perked up, he began to stammer with delight, and he spoke rapidly in response. Glick said that the spirit of revolt was spreading like wildfire from the Middle East, to the Heartland of America, to Wall Street, to college campuses.

He said the mass protests now were mirroring the massive movements against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization of the 1990s. The global character of these movements seemed to be putting the spirit of the World Social Forum into action.

The metaphor of the one percent versus the 99 percent was catching on and resonated with workers, people of color, women, young and old, indigenous peoples and all different sectors of global society. Glick said it was unclear what will happen next, sort of like in Egypt, but it is exciting to watch, reflect on, and to participate in whatever activities were occurring in various locales.

I asked him what the mainstream media and older leftists had been asking for two months now. What is their plan? What do they want? How can they know when victory has been achieved?

In response, Glick pointed out that the Occupy Movement was a little like an ‘everything’ bagel. “You know the kind of bagel that has some garlic and onion on it, and some poppy and sesame seeds, and a few other spices and seeds that could not be identified. In other words, the movement is made up of an extraordinary array of individuals and groups, each with their own flavor. But, in the end, the movement like the metaphor is a bagel.”

I asked him if the metaphor had any additional meanings. “Sure,” he said. “The bagel, as I wrote a few years ago, is a nutritious food-at least filling. It has a nice taste to it-particularly with onion and chive cream cheese. So you could enjoy consuming it. Social movements can be like that as well.”

Then he added, “Remember I said that during the height of intense class struggles in the 1880s and the 1930s in the United States, and during the Russian Revolution, workers could use day-old bagels as weapons. Czarist forces, cops in the U.S. and others were intimidated by the power of the bagels that were available to be thrown at them. In fact, I would argue-and am developing the thesis in my latest book-that the National Labor Relations Act guaranteeing workers the right to collective bargaining in 1935 would not have been passed without the existence of stockpiles of bagels that the ruling class knew existed.”

Let me get this straight I said. “You are suggesting that like the bagel, the Occupy Movements taste good, provide joy to those who consume them and also could be a weapon in the struggle for progressive social change.”

Glick responded that I had understood the subtlety of his argument. But, he said, he was having a little heartburn, and had to go home to take some of his medicine. I asked him if we could meet again. I wanted to ask him what he thought about President Obama’s foreign policy, such as his sending 2,500 marines to Australia to protect that country from a Chinese invasion.

As he meandered off I heard him say: “Oy. Let’s leave that subject for next time.”

The original essay about Bagel Capitalism can be found on www.ragblog.blogspot.com or www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Harry Targ

“And when I think of all the talent and energy which daily go into devising ways and means of making their torment worse, all in the name of efficiency and productivity but really for the greater glory of the great god Capital, my wonder at humanity’s ability to create such a monstrous system is surpassed only by amazement at its willingness to tolerate the continuance of an arrangement so obviously destructive of the well-being and happiness of human beings.” Paul Sweezy in Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital,1974, xii-xiii.

The scurrilous news about Penn State University has led me to reflect upon the context in which higher education, sports, popular culture more broadly, and political, economic and cultural institutions are created, flower and grow, and in Paul Sweezy’s view destroy “the well-being and happiness of human beings.”

Numerous political economists have described capitalism as an economic system that has its roots in global trade, enslavement, and expropriating commodities produced in the “new world” and then processed in Europe into finished goods that were traded on the world stage. Capitalism emerged out of rudimentary trade and production into the most productive, innovative, and technologically creative economic system in the world. The 500 year journey, from an early capitalist stage in which the transport of natural resources and commodities took months or years to a transnational global system that has obliterated differences in space and time, has truly transformed what it means to be human.

The positive features of capitalist development that Paul Sweezy and others recount also are grounded in analyses of the pain and suffering that has been caused by the unbridled pursuit of profit and capital accumulation. The growth, development, transcendence of natural barriers (again ultimately space and time) has come with a price, as millions were enslaved and slaughtered. In addition, capitalism brought wars, starvation, the tearing up of the natural environment and the perpetuation of human misery on a massive scale.

This is a story about the political economy of world history that came to mind while observing the evolving scandal at a major university in November, 2011. The rape and molestation of numerous boys over many years on the campus of Penn State University has been discussed in the context of sociopathic coaches, iconic sports figures, negligent university administrators, bought-off government officials, thoughtless students, and the exigencies of public relations.

Are there connections between the “political economy of world history” and rape on one college campus? I think so. And these connections that have inspired my thinking I am calling “the Paterno effect.”

First, reflections on the capitalist system must include an historical sense of the 500 year struggle to overcome any and all barriers to the pursuit of profit. Words like genocide, massacre, plunder, while not used in polite and proper academic company, are important to jar the conscience of humankind.

Second, the rise of capitalism necessitated the construction of political, economic, cultural, social, and religious institutions that supported it. These institutions stimulated scientific discovery, the organization of production, the facilitation of consumption, the creation of entertainment and culture, and the invention of political/spiritual systems of myths, symbols, and rituals that legitimized the global pursuit of profit.

Third, systems of education have played vital roles in training workers, organizing discovery, and convincing the young of the virtues of the system in which they live. In short, education at all levels is the institution that links the “needs” of the system to the generation of talent and the legitimating of its perpetuation.

Fourth, since the industrial revolution institutions of higher education have served the capitalist system in important ways. Early universities trained clerics or lawyers. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the modern university was constructed to meet the needs of capitalism: for inventors, accountants, engineers, and those who would transmit sanitized histories and cultural artifacts from generation to generation.

Fifth, as the “golden age” of U.S. capitalism developed, 1945 to the 1970s, higher education expanded. Whole university systems were constructed in states such as New York and California. Growing percentages of young people entered college. Job credentials increasingly required college degrees.

Sixth, university campuses began to reflect more the characteristics of parallel institutions and evolved even more directly into instrumentalities of corporations, banks, and the state. Major universities became businesses in their own right.

Today universities produce the human resources for the capitalist system. They collaborate with monopolies in agribusiness, technology, food service and tourist industries, and every other industrial and financial sector of the society. It has been suggested that former President Eisenhower was considering addressing the “military/industrial/academic complex” in his famous farewell address. Although he did not include the “academic,” the connection is clear.

Universities are also big businesses themselves. They regard their students as “customers” and their corporate friends as their “investors.” On campuses and in host communities they sell products. University administrations and campus towns are beholden to corporate and government dollars. The university systems of modern America parallel the quest for profit and capital accumulation characteristic of the corporate and finance institutions of the society at large.

Therefore, a reading of the political economy of world history would lead the observer of higher education to realize that the cover-up of grotesque violence against young boys in one major university occurred in the context of a capitalist institution that craves profit and funding, investors, the celebration of star power in athletics, and the creation of icons in the sports and/or “educational” spaces of the college campus. Scandals that reduce the legitimacy, and hence the profitability, of the total institution must be ignored, explained away, or excused.

Perhaps the Paterno effect can encourage a progressive turn in higher education. There exists a principle of academic freedom that is solemnly defended by most academic administrators and faculty. There is also a legacy of debate and discovery in the history and mythology of higher education. And, finally, in various places in the academy there exist traditions of advocacy research and teaching that engage students and communities in discussions of alternatives to the brutalities of the present order. Advocacy research and teaching is based on the proposition that the validity of ideas comes in part from whether they improve or harm “the well-being and happiness of human beings.”

The tragedy of Penn State University should stimulate a reexamination of the purposes, functions, goals of the modern university that addresses how it can participate in the dramatic changes humankind desperately needs.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Harry Targ

A powerful concept animated the vision of young people in the 1960s, the idea of community. Many of us came to that decade with little interest in politics. We were not “red diaper” babies but we became outraged by Jim Crow, McCarthyism, and war. Our education had communicated an early version of Margaret Thatcher’s admonition, “ there is no alternative,” and our impulses told us then that “another world was possible.”

New and old ideas about a better world began to circulate from college campuses, the streets, some churches, and popular culture. A whole body of engaging literature caught the fancy of young people. For me Paul Goodman’s description of youth growing up in the sterile 1950s, Growing Up Absurd, resonated. He wrote about alternative possibilities in such books as Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals.

Perhaps most startling to a young reader was the earlier analysis Goodman published with his brother Percival, Communitas. In that book the Goodman brothers argued that societies, big and small, were products of values. Architecture and the organization of space, social and political forms, and the ease with which people could communicate and interact with each other varied. And the variations created in space and social forms affected whether communities valued life and sociability or consumption and profit maximization.

The Goodman’s opened up new intellectual doors for me. I looked at earlier anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin, who argued that humans-if not separated by time, space, and power structures-often lived in solidarity with their neighbors. A “mutual aid” principle was natural to human existence. And, as a result “the state" sought to stamp it out and replace it with top down authority.

Martin Buber, in Paths in Utopia, identified a “centralistic political principle” that emerged when groups and states sought control of markets and natural resources and “the most valuable of all goods,” the lives of people who lived with each other changed as “…the autonomous relationships become meaningless, personal relationships wither; and the very spirit of…” being human “…hires itself out as a functionary.” The alternative for Buber was what he called a decentralized social principle, or community which is “…never a mere attitude of mind” but of “…tribulation and only because of that community of spirit; community of toil and only because of that community of salvation….”

In 1974, I wrote in summation about these theorists and many others that “the architectural forms and social structures of the Goodmans can profitably be blended with the spiritualism and socialism of Buber to construct a synthesis of all that the utopians and anarchists set out to achieve. The Goodmans show how community can be created in the industrial age and Buber illustrates how the best features of the entire community tradition fit together.”

The ideas of community, empowerment, and social justice spread from these and other sources. They were articulated for the sixties in The Port Huron Statement, written by founders of the Students for a Democratic Society. While written by and for a relatively privileged sector of disenchanted youth in a period of booming economic growth and military expansion, the document spoke to the passion for justice, participation, and community; “…unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity.” It called for the creation of “human interdependence” replacing “…power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance…” by “power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity.”

By the late sixties many of us were identifying a new society that must be built on core principles. These included;

- local control and participatory democracy
- racial justice
- gender equality
- equitable distribution of resources and the collective product of human labor
- commitments to the satisfaction of minimal basic needs for all of humankind
- the development of an ethic that connects survival to human existence not to specific jobs
- human control over technology
- a new “land ethic” that conceives of humankind as part of nature, not in conflict with it.

Many of us began to explore the impediments to the construction of a society based on human scale that celebrated both individual creativity and community. Growing familiarization with the critique of capitalism suggested that the capitalist mode of production, dominant over two-thirds of the world, was based upon the exploitation, oppression, dehumanization, and repression of the vast majority of humankind.

Incorporating an understanding of the workings of capitalism did not contradict the vision that Buber called the decentralized social principle and the many eloquent calls by others for “community.” It did suggest that building a new society entailed class struggle which would manifest itself in factories and fields, in rich and poor countries, and in political venues from the ballot box to the streets. Bringing about positive change was a much more complicated affair than activists originally thought but the sustained and sometimes brutal opposition to our visions validated the general correctness of them.

Today, new generations of activists, along with older ones, are reflecting and participating in diverse social movements in our cities and towns. They observe with enthusiasm the mobilizations, the militancy, and the passion for justice still unfolding in the Middle East. The efforts of Venezuelans, Bolivians, Ecuadorians, and the Cubans who inspired us so much over the years are applauded. Important debates about social market economies, workers’ management of large enterprises, this or that candidate or political party are occurring on the internet and in the streets.

Although the times are so different from the 1960s, perhaps the vision of community that animated our thinking then (which we in turn learned from those who preceded us) may still be relevant for today. Without creating new documents or dogmas perhaps it can be proclaimed that we remain committed to the sanctity of human life, to equality, to popular control of all our institutions, to a reverence for the environment, and to the idea that the best of society comes from our communal efforts to make living better for all.