For a Kantian public role: Go Project and OWS by Konstantin Kaminskiy

playing with blocks

by Konstantin Kaminskiy
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
Questions of Political Economy in Modernity
Oct. 22, 2011

Kant, in his “What is Enlightenment?” will give you two roles. In your private role you are a cog in some machine. In this case I a cog in the Go Project machine. Every Saturday I help a teacher teach a class of first-graders. This is frontline duty, as I think of it. The teacher directs, we the volunteers implement. Most of the time I find myself working with individual students. The goal is to help the students, both academically and socially. They have been selected for this by social workers at different local schools. In the private role I am bound to do as the machine tells me to do – if I disagree on a fundamental it is only right that I resign.

I am now in my public role. Here Kant tells me that I can critique, think about, what is done privately. I attempt to analyze what it is that I actually do, and it leads to. Here I can ask – should it even be done? Can it be done better? What would better even mean?

The major task in first grade is not so much education as it is socialization. The students become students, in other words. We take raw children – who are loud, disorderly, dynamic, or very quiet, basically who have no order and uniformity, and we give them that order. We tell them again and again to raise their hands if they want to say something, that they should sit “criss-cross applesauce” on the carpet. We also tell them to keep their hands to themselves, and to walk silently in the hallways. We do this constantly, patiently, and it is certain that it is done in their regular school – the end result is that even when they do not have to, the older students sit quietly. (Then, as teenagers, they rebel, doing all sorts of silly things – one wonders why, right?)

This does not work for one student. (Names are left out to protect the innocent.) He has been left back in first grade. It shows, he is a head taller than most of the others. Academically, he is behind. He is highly energetic, and does not deal very well with discipline – he resists, he has his own things that he wants to do. He shouts out of order. What is my response? I cannot foster his rebellion. I cannot work with him one on one, carefully channeling his energy into productive and interesting directions.

No, he must submit and I must suppress, I must tell him that he should be interested in what is to him uninteresting. I do not know if it is above or below his level – he is smart, that is clear, but in first grade behavior, level of socialization, is the defining factor. One must sit still to write simple sentences, and listen to be able to hear facts in a story, after all.

Today, he got lucky. The machine is not so direct, no so forceful or crushing. It accommodated, and he got his own book and he even wrote about it a very little bit. The concept of destiny was in it – I asked him to explain it to me. He was unsure of his own answer, but I asked him for it. He was right. But what happens in the future? What happens during his regular school time? Unless his energy is productively channeled the pressure to conform will be only greater. There will be less and less tolerance for his behavior. I went to middle and high school with some of the results of that. It is the greatest sorrow – a powerful mind that is unable to productively use its own power. (Dare I say that it is quite like capitalism?)

If he opposes, throws tantrums, and does not fit in in a violent way, reacting way, the other student does not fit in in a quitet way. In fact she does not talk at all. She communicates by gestures, by pulling people’s hands, and the like. She does not disrupt the machine, so it shrugs shoulders – “What can I do?” it must think. So she is largely left alone.

If that were everything there would be no story. In the class there is a set of wooden construction shapes. Picture different sized cubes, cylinders and the like. During the first time she played with those bricks she build a structure as tall as herself. She demonstrated perfect command of architectural and artistic concepts. It was symmetrical, stable, and even aesthetically appealing – she also made good use of irregular figures, creating empty spaces. No other student constructed anything like it.

Last Saturday I worked with her – she set the general shape, I made sure that the parts went in evenly. She even abandoned gestures and used simple words, in a very exited tone. Finally, with a beaming smile, she destroyed the structure, which was actually a structure inside a structure.

Today I showed her how to draw in three dimensions, with a cube. I showed a line on the cube I was going to draw, and then drew it. She seemed very interesting. Generally she pays attention and is aware of what is going on. I think that she has a mathematical mind – she had no problem with the math problems but did not even attempt to write the numbers in letters. I also drew a cylinder. She responded by drawing a circle inside a square. She eventually drew me – hair, glasses, striped sweater, and then wrote her name. All without speaking a word.

I am sure that similar stories can be told about the other students. But we do not think of education in such terms. The children become students; they are molded into that shape. And then we wonder why for vast majority pleasure and learning are separate, and then work and pleasure are separate too. We, with the machine of education and then with the machine of capitalist production and consumption, made such people.

Then we blame everything on “human nature,” laziness, and say “that’s how it is, that’s life.” We have made it that way?

But I promised some words on the thing of the season, OWS, right? How does this Kantian stuff have anything to do with it?

The occupation has disrupted a very large machine, or a number of machines. The Manhattan community board speaks – the occupation is loud, it is dirty, it smells. People complain about their commute being messed up. Bloomberg says that it cannot go on forever, obviously. Eventually, everything must go back to how it is. “You gotta do what you gotta do,” shrugs the machine. Even the economic models show this – there is equilibrium, some normal rate of something, and movements to and away from it.

The political machine also moves in. Occupy Wall Street is told that it must become like the Tea Party. It must have demands. It must pressure elected officials. It must vote. If the political machine could speak it would say – “Play the game. You gotta do what you gotta do, right?” Yet that is exactly the opposite of the sentiment of the occupation. They do not want to have anything to do with the politicians, who they think are owned by the corporations. They even use the word revolution.

The machine cannot understand that word. To it revolution is a dark, bloody, tyrannical thing that never happens. Not here, not in America. Here in America, a movie called “The One Percent” told me, we picked the New Deal and reformism over socialism and communism. Historical process is apparently a matter of choosing. That is the sentiment of Kazin, and his new book about the left– the left must push, it must play the political game, take part in the machine. The machine cannot understand fundamental questioning of its own existence; it can only attempt to absorb those that question into itself.

So I must disagree with Chris Hedges. The occupation’s best weapon is not non-violence. That is really a second-order issue. What really matters is the question of its role, in the Kantian schema set out here – are they a part of the machine that can only produce more of itself, or are they playing a public role? That is really of importance, unless what we really want is just more of this world, perhaps with a New New Deal. Are we really so machine? Is that everything we can do? The question cannot be answered outside of practice.

They seem to both question the current system and think that they have a model of co-operative society already set up in the park. The political machine surrounds it, and waits. Police batons are tricky, especially now – more attention would be drawn to it if riot police cleared the park. So they will let the coming winter do the job? Or the machine will just shrug shoulders. If it has desires it desires that – itself, as it is. The focus on demands demonstrates that fact to me most clearly.

So protestor, thinker, reader, writer, in a word person – your one demand, I implore you, should be the public role of Kant, the right and ability to question systems and machines as such, and to not reduce yourself to the level of demands or reformist schemas. I think that to ask that question the modern world is to ask the question of Marxism, and what it means.


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The toppling of the corporate state by Chris Hedges

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