"They talk about the failure of socialism, but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?"
Infographic: Who are the Occupy Wall Street Protesters
On the run from the Nazis in 1940, the philosopher, literary critic and essayist Walter Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish border town of Portbou. In 2011, over 70 years later, his writings enter the public domain in many countries around the world.
The article includes an interesting history of Benjamin’s work and links to where you can find the newly released material.
From an Internet conversation with an online friend last month:
As an on-again, off-again semi- (or perhaps post-) Marxist, I find your question about the nursery rhyme intriguing.
First, why is the spider crawling up the water spout? The question of motivation doesn’t get covered in the rhyme’s text, but we can hypothesize with a fair degree of certitude. Either the spider is using the spout to climb to a water reservoir of some type, or s/he is using it as a convenient mode of transportation without regard to its (human-) intended purpose. Either possibility is revealing. If the spider is after water, then why is the water not simply available to the spider in its natural form, as rivers, lakes, puddles, etc.? Clearly, if the spider has to crawl through a mechanical contrivance in order to obtain such a basic necessity as water, then the resource, naturally the common property of all creatures, has been appropriated by capitalists in order to squeeze an illegitimate profit out of it. Once again, what appropriately belongs to everyone has been taken by those who are already powerful in order to increase their power still more.
On the other hand, if the spider is not after water, then we should look for a metaphorical interpretation. Most likely, the story then becomes a fable: The spider is climbing the spout in order to “raise” him-/herself in the world, probably in an economic and/or class sense. By struggling up the water spout, society tells the spider (who is a figure of you and I, as people pursuing our own educations), we will achieve the reward of upper-class comfort, finally able to indulge the desires and wishes we’ve been repressing while we get to the top. By holding off now, the story goes, we prepare ourselves to receive much more later. It’s like the Christian fable in which Jesus advises his followers to castrate themselves so that they can go to heaven.
In either case, what happens to the spider? Its journey ultimately proves futile: the natural behavior of the water flow becomes unpredictable and violent when channeled into a mechanical contrivance for the convenience and profit of the capitalist exploiters. The spider has been making a good-faith effort to improve its position, but the water (which is capital, based on the symbolic association of water with both renewal and wisdom, both of which map directly onto money in capitalist discourse) is channeled in order to be convenient for the ultra-rich proprietor of the spout. This proprietor directs the flows of money in such a way as to increase his own share, not based on any sense of what is objectively fair to the “little” wo/man. The spider, then, in making its good-faith effort to improve its lot by playing by the accepted rules, finds that the rules have been changed in the middle of the game. Note that, according to a rather interesting dialectic, the capitalist at the top “weaves his web” and directs the effects of his actions from behind the scenes — much more a metaphorical figure of a “spider” than the title character of the rhyme.
Finding itself back at the bottom, one would expect that the spider would develop a sense of class consciousness and join in a struggle for economic justice, abandoning its journey toward personal economic improvement in favor of broader class interests. Indeed, I theorize that this is what happened in early versions of the rhyme, or perhaps that the spider’s drowned body was taken as an object of veneration, igniting a broader consciousness of social justice and a struggle against the exploitative, plutocratic operator(s) of the spout, as in Victorian realist novels. I believe that the current second half is a later interpolation meant to obscure the poignant political message and turn it into a piece of propaganda to keep the working classes hopeful: If the sun is bound to come out (eventually, cyclically, without revolution or other intervention) and dry up all the rain, and no long-term ill effects are to be observed to the spider, than we can justify the spout’s structure by claiming that periodic flushes are a necessary (though distantly regrettable to the plutocrats not personally and directly affected by them) operational feature of the economy, however inconvenient they may (unfortunately) be to whatever spiders happen to be trying to “climb” at the moment.
At the very end, of course, the rhyme encourages us to miss the same lesson that the spider has just missed: unfazed, and no better informed, the spider sets out once again to try to make that same Sisiphyan climb to the top. Children, you may have noticed, intuitively understand the lesson — that the spider never does reach the top — and demonstrate this by singing it over and over, as a round, thereby subverting its sunny assurance to the listener that THIS time the spider has a shot at making it. Once they get older, though, they start missing the point; this is the effect on their thinking of indoctrination in the capitalist ideology, and is evidenced by the fact that they practically never sing the rhyme any more, and never more than once. By unwrapping its round structure, they re-assert the common interpretation that the mutilated song was originally designed to advance: a keep-at-it stick-to-it-iveness that it behooves the idle rich to inculcate in people doing the actual labor.
At least, that’s my reading.
(This originally posted on 6 December 2010, and migrated to Tumblr as part of my conceptual reorganization of my web presence.)