Marx, Shakespeare, King Lear and the modern precariat
Thursday, 13 June 2024 07:41

Marx, Shakespeare, King Lear and the modern precariat

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell outlines a Marxist reading of Shakespeare, and illustrates it with an analysis of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Among Marxism’s core insights is that all history since the end of the primitive society has been a history of class societies and class struggle. Art does not arise in a vacuum; it is an integral part of the historical process and of human comprehension of the world. Therefore, the most appropriate way of reaching the core of a work of art is to understand it in the context of the time in which it originates and the social forces of that epoch.

With Shakespeare an art arises that is historically self-aware, conscious that the reality it represents is historical. Historical change is rooted in Shakespeare’s plays. They are built around a historical conflict. The task of interpretation – in both theatre and criticism – is to grasp this basic conflict. Any serious attempt to comprehend Shakespeare’s plays is to understand the time from which they come, the late Renaissance, early 17th c England: the early modern period as a time of epochal upheavals, the formation of the first phase of bourgeois society in which Shakespeare’s theatre originates.

In his tragedies, Shakespeare presents the fundamental conflict of opposing historical forces that arose after the collapse of the medieval world and the rise of the early bourgeoisie. These opposing forces within the bourgeoisie – in terms taken from the Renaissance – are humanism and Machiavellianism; humanism in the sense of an Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, Machiavellianism after Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the famous breviary on gaining and retaining power.

A third force involved in the basic constellation are the representatives of the old order, the mediaeval-feudal world. The fourth player in this overall constellation is the plebeian element, the working people, who are given a voice for the first time as gravediggers in Hamlet. The conflict of the tragedies originates within these forces.

A Marxist reading of King Lear

The main social forces in the play:
Lear (doubled by Gloucester) is an absolute feudal monarch who has lost touch with his people and with his own understanding. His is the strictly ordered feudal world, where a person’s place within the hierarchy was clearly defined and could not be changed. Lear is incapable of understanding the kind of disrespect shown to him by his elder daughters. Their disregard for him and for his dignity once he has handed over his power and his kingdom to them shatters his world completely. When he abandons the society he has known, and is indeed ejected from it by these daughters, he enters the heath as a naked man, a man who has lost everything.

The tempest that rages on the heath is symbolic of what is going on in Lear’s head. In the middle of this violent storm, in the territory of the poor and “mad,” Lear gains a profound understanding of the condition of the dispossessed. Before he enters the hovel he prays for “you houseless poverty” for the homeless. He realises:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

As he is exposed to the poor and the homeless, the evicted, he realises that this is going on in his own kingdom and that he has not taken an interest in the wretched. This insight is not madness but the opposite of madness. When Lear encounters Edgar, who pretends to be a mad beggar dressed in the most meagre of rags, if not indeed naked, his insight goes further again:

Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.—Off, off, you lendings! Come. Unbutton here. (tears at his clothes)

Here he discovers essential humanity, “the thing itself,” “unaccommodated man.” This is a crucial moment in Lear’s development. Symbolically, to emphasise this new understanding he tears off his clothes. Of course, there are also expressions of genuine madness, sometimes simply for comic relief; but very often there is hidden reason in these, such as in Lear’s mock trial of Goneril and Regan, with Edgar and the Fool as judges. He asks:

Then let them anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?

Lear here seeks a scientific, objective examination of what makes hard hearts. He has come a long way. Later in the play, when Lear meets the blinded Gloucester near Dover, he continues to be “unhinged,” commenting on social injustice:

A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?

Or he observes:

Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

Edgar too recognises Lear’s deep new understanding, remarking: “Reason in madness”. This is a profound growth in humanity in Lear. Lear’s destruction means the loss of his new understanding of the plight of the dispossessed, his appreciation of the fundamental equality of human beings, the loss of his new humanity. This makes his death tragic.

Goneril, Regan, Edmund and Cornwall are the self-interested younger-generation Machiavellians in this play. It is clear to the audience from the start that they are adept at deception. However, just how inhuman they are is revealed only in their actions over time. In many ways they seem quite modern to us in their thinking and acting. Genuine affection, honesty and loyalty mean nothing to them; personal gain is everything, even if it costs the dignity and life of others.

Cordelia and Edgar are established as independent, loyal characters (Edgar after being initially deceived by the Machiavellian brother), willing to sacrifice their lives for justice. Cordelia and Edgar embody the tradition of Renaissance humanism; they are wise, honest and loyal and have a sense of the common good. Although Cordelia dies as a result of Edmund’s machinations, Edgar, who is proclaimed king by Albany, vows to rule in her spirit.

What is the play about?

The threat of a new Machiavellian order
A major theme in this play is the cataclysmic clash of social orders: the old absolute, feudal monarch is deprived of his royal status and power, his dignity, his right to house and home, by his elder daughters, the new Machiavellian generation. Alongside the dangerous, indeed murderous new power there are humanist forces that are in a position to lead society forward in an inclusive, honest and humane way.

Good kingship or leadership
In this play, as in Hamlet and Macbeth, Shakespeare brings to the fore the question of what makes a good leader, or king. Such leaders must be, above all, honest and wise and must act in the interests of the common good. Good leaders must be willing to sacrifice their lives in the defeat of evil forces.

The fundamental equality of humankind
Lear, the anointed king, is driven into a space outside this new society. At that moment, he shares his life with the naked wretches of his realm, recognises and affirms their common humanity. This in turn makes him realise the enormous social inequity and corruption in his kingdom, wrongs for which he is responsible. Ultimately, his experience leads him to understand that only a fair distribution of wealth can remedy this.

Social injustice created by social hierarchy
All the outcasts on the heath arrive at an understanding that the way things are in England is wrong. All of them describe corruption, the ignorance of the powerful, and the indifference towards the poor. They all envisage the possibility of a different kind of society, one in which, as the Fool says, the world will be put on its feet. This theme of a utopia, of what might be, is inherent in the central themes of the play.

Shakespeare is still relevant today. His plays are not about some hazy universal human condition – unchanging and unchangeable. His tragedies are rooted in history, in early capitalism. They are about his times and therefore about our times.

In an expression of their new historical place in early 17th c Britain, the bourgeoisie developed both a humanist and a Machiavellian rationale. These are two sides of the same society, its potential for both a utopian and a totalitarian direction. In the tragedies both potentials are put on stage, as well as characters caught in between. Interestingly, while we see a number of “pure” Machiavellians, few characters are cast as “pure” Christian princes or princesses, in Erasmus’s terms; examples might be King Edward I in “Macbeth” or even Cordelia in “King Lear”. These characters are often in the background, like a moral compass.

Instead, Shakespeare finds the idealised Renaissance image of humankind scattered among a number of people. The human potential that many of his characters show combines into a future vision of a social order commensurate with the needs of humankind and so points into the future of humanity. In this respect, Shakespeare’s positive characters are of their time and also born before their time in terms of their potential.

The Machiavellians present the greatest danger to the common good. They are depicted as dangerous and murderous. In each case their inhumanity causes the downfall of the tragic hero. Shakespeare’s historical optimism at the beginning of the era in which we still live allows him to end his tragedies with the destruction of the Machiavellians.

By revealing the nature of the epoch Shakespeare alerts us to the dangers. He points to who is the enemy of humanity and who fights to preserve it. In this sense, Shakespeare is not simply of historical interest, he has something valuable to contribute when we think about the times we live in now and our future.

King Lear takes the gravediggers’ understanding of human equality in Hamlet to a different level. Lear’s literal nakedness on the heath marks an unparalleled insight into common human nature and identification with the poorest of the poor. Lear discovers human dignity when he is stripped of everything.

In today’s world, the plight of the precariat and of refugees comes close to what Shakespeare was illustrating. Lear’s recognition of human dignity, of social injustice, and the need for an equal distribution of wealth, has lost none of its urgency. By putting before his audience the very essence of his time, and thereby ours, Shakespeare shows how it can and must change. This is what makes his plays so important for us now.

Jenny Farrell is the author of “Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies. A Comprehensive Introduction.” Nuascéalta, 2016.

the employed poor
Thursday, 13 June 2024 07:41

the employed poor

Published in Poetry

the employed poor

by Martin Hayes

they have a car a job with no contract they work for a company that has
a zero-tolerance policy on sick days and non-attendance they have a
flat with heating and food they have a bottle of wine of a night
they cook a pasta dinner for their two kids they try to buy their
kids’ new clothes and a mobile phone but it’s never the right
ones always 2 or 3 generations behind they are healthy but
nervous strong but fragile they have nothing in their
hands or tucked away under their beds they
are only one withheld monthly pay cheque
away from disaster one boss’s decision
away from hunger one unfortunate
accident away from annihilation
one unplanned bill away from
tipping point one illness
away from seeing the
whole edifice of
their lives come
tumbling down
with no one
around to
help put
any of it

 the employed poor

This poem is from a new collection from Martin Hayes called The Things Our Hands Once Stood For.

Martin Hayes is the only British poet who writes consistently and seriously about work, and about the insanity of a society where employees are seen as mere ‘hands’ whose sole role is to make money for the employer.

The publisher and poet Alan Dent has contributed an illuminating introduction. He says, 

Hayes speaks for those whose lives are supposed to be not worth speaking about. He is intent on revealing the significance of the lives of ordinary people in the workplace. When current employment relations are consigned to the dustbin of history, and are viewed as we now view the feudal relations between lord and vassal, will people wonder why so little was written about it?

Martin’s poems are direct and simple, and full of black humour. Like the grainy black and white images that illustrate them so well, they expose and express the simple, terrible truth – that the human relation on which our society is based, that between employer and employee, is morally indefensible. The clear message of his poetry is that those who do the work should own, control, and benefit fully from it. They should, in the last words of the last poem, ‘start the revolution that will change everything’, and show that

all of our fingertips combined
might just be the fingertips
that keep us and this Universe
stitched together.

The booklet is priced at £6 (plus £1.50 p&p), and is available from here, Manifesto Press and the usual outlets. ISBN 978-1-907464-32-4.

The architect as activist
Thursday, 13 June 2024 07:41

The architect as activist

Published in Architecture

Peggy Deamer, on behalf of The Architecture Lobby, introduces their manifesto.

As professionalized architecture eradicates the discourse of design as labor, it does so in capitalism’s favor, not to the advantage of the profession. On the one end, the discourse of the lone genius with single authorship, creativity and talent and, on the other end, the willingness of everyday practitioners to work long, unregulated, and underpaid hours for the “sacrifice” we make for society are aspects of capitalism’s ideology’s success. The system prevents us from identifying as workers and, as a consequence, we remain ignorant of our exploitation by others who aren’t so uninformed and can profit from the value of our work.

The Architecture Lobby is an organization that argues for the value of architecture as productive work - aesthetic, technical, social, organizational, environmental, administrative, fiduciary - and architects as productive workers. The goal is to build on this fundamental understanding of value to become perceptive operators in our contemporary political economy.

It has not always been the case that architecture ignored labor. 19th century architects developed their designs with particular regard to the expertise, knowledge and creativity that the various trades -skilled and unskilled - brought to their projects; they saw their immaterial work as part and parcel to the subsequent material labor. In the US, members of the AIA in the 1930’s called for the organization to become a union. When this did not come to pass, the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT) - formed in 1933 and terminated in 1948 - took up the need for architectural labor advocacy. In other words, it is neither God-given nor “natural” to think that architecture isn’t part of a labor discourse.

Still, it has taken a number of convergent events to make clear that today action had to be taken. Advances in technology that foreground the work of fabricators has put the expertise of those usually at the back end of construction and previously dismissed as mere “subcontractors” now at the forefront of design expertise; “manual” labor can no longer be shunned as inferior, post-design work. The labor practices of professions that approach their work habits, fees and hiring practices in a more enlightened manner become more and more obvious; lawyers advertise their family-friendly policies to attract the best graduates and medical residents unionize to be relieved of inhuman hospital hours. Artist who protested the slave labor building the new Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi by refusing the exhibiting of their works put the indifference of architects to these same conditions in sharp relief. The ongoing willingness of bright architecture graduates claiming their willingness to work for next to nothing for a firm they admired because they knew the firm earned next to nothing have only intensified in the new economy. All of this has made clear that our refusal to identify as workers has relieved us of any familiarity with labor discourse or labor’s role in a neoliberal context. In response, the Architecture Lobby produced this manifesto:

We are precarious workers; these are our demands!

1. Enforce labor laws that prohibit unpaid internships, unpaid overtime; refuse unpaid competitions.
2. Reject fees based on percentage of construction or hourly fees and instead calculate value based on the money we save our clients or gain them.
3. Stop peddling a product - buildings - and focus on the unique value architects help realize through spatial services.
4. Enforce wage transparency across the discipline.
5. Establish a union for architects, designers, academics and interns in architecture and design.
6. Demystify the architect as solo creative genius; no honors for architects who don’t acknowledge their staff.
7. Licensure upon completion of degree.
8. Change professional architecture organizations to advocate for the living conditions of architects.
9. Support research about labor rights in architecture.
10. Implement democratic alternatives to the free market system of development.

The Lobby recognizes that the organization of work has moved on from the time when the economy was driven by manufacturing and labor unions were the preferred method to assure job security and proper compensation. What the new form of organizing and collective advocacy are is unknown but vigorously contested. We have internal debates about whether the decline of unions is a result of the economy’s move from manufacturing to service to knowledge production or whether it is merely ideology’s good work to make unions seem unseemly and old-fashioned. We know that the gig economy is neoliberalism’s pretty face on increased precarity and loss of class identification but wonder if its new model of self-accualization at least breaks the back of exploitive, firm-based “professionalism”. We embrace the label of “knowledge workers” but question neoliberalism’s espousal of its hegemony.

But we do know that architects need to regroup, reorganize, and reinvent themselves. We need to refuse the use of contracts that structurally keep architects and contractors in antagonistic relationships that serve only the developer; we need to use the tools of and share in open sourcing; they need to ensure that those outside the cultural elite have access to architectural education; we need to move beyond (rich) client-driven practices; and we need to resist ever more strongly the move to the right that lies at the heart of our professional organization, the American Institute for Architects (AIA). And here, the election of Trump has pushed new debates.

On November 9, 2016, the AIA, claiming to speak for its 89,000 members, backtracked on years of blustering about diversity, inclusion, and equity with an unqualified statement that they would work with a Donald Trump administration. To the Architecture Lobby and many other architects, this proved beyond a doubt that the AIA’s supposed commitment to diversity and inclusion is not at all about equity, but rather a cynical public relations ploy. And it backtracked on its commitment to sustainable building as Trump’s policies have done away with all environmental regulation and endanger the very cities that we not only live in but are sworn to protect.

The AIA has subsequently issued apologies for its initial Trump embrace. But architects need governmental work and the AIA refuses to take a stand on the inhumane and egregious Border Wall that lies at the heart of “infrastructure’s” call. When President Trump issued a preliminary RFP - request for proposals - for design prototypes of the long-promised Wall on March 20, dozens of prominent architecture and engineering firms threw their hats in for a chance at the multi-billion-dollar project. The concerns that architects voiced in November of professional collusion with the administration’s partisan agenda proved dishearteningly prescient and well-founded.

The Architecture Lobby wrote letters to the press denouncing the AIA’s initial endorsement of Trump. And when, on March 10, the first round of Border Wall proposals from architects and engineers were due, the Architecture Lobby called for a day of action organized under #NotOurWall. It included a 45-minute walkout of workers in architecture firms - regardless of whether that firm had submitted a wall proposal - to indicate a refusal to conduct business as usual and instead, debate the reasons we wanted to become architects, digest the meaning and obligations of architecture, write kand call our congress(wo)men to indicate our refusal to participate in this use of our expertise and the tax payers’ money, and sign a petition to never engage in any and all Wall activities.

The Architecture Lobby believes it is possible to push architecture towards a truly inclusive profession, one with organizations that can stand up for the needs of all its members on the basis of their humanity. In lieu of taking egregious advantage of the symptoms of our national problems - the election of Trump - we as architects can use this moment to reflect on our role in constructing the elite vs. everyman dichotomy that has divided us. In lieu of presenting and thinking of ourselves as part of the elite, we can show that we, too, are workers of precarity and concern; that we, like all workers, can and must fight the 1% and all others who threaten human rights and the rights of nature. Only a bottom up approach built on the principles of radical democracy, economic justice, and quality of life for all can achieve that vision and advocate for the needs of architecture workers and the public we serve.