Explaining: ‘material conditions’

As Leftists with much to say, sometimes we can get ahead of ourselves when explaining concepts to those who spend time frolicking outside as opposed to wading through Capital. Recently I had an experience where I realized that some concepts need to be minutely taught in language accessible to the everyday person. That without understanding this facet of linguistics, your attempt to talk about materialism will come off as metaphysics, or worse, religion.

I say ‘religion’ because upon contemplating how revolutionaries theorize materialism, coupled with my own explanation, I realized that an improper dissemination results in pseudo-religious sounding dialogue. An epiphany such as this struck me after trying to explain to a friend the concept of ‘material conditions.’ To me it was a straightforward enough concept: the basis of which capitalist society is composed. Yet he did not understand my initial clarifications. While eventually some impasse was reached, I knew that I would have to consider how to relate this seemingly incorrigible concepts to people unversed in political economy. Juxtaposed against my own lack of engagement with people who actually listen when I venture a word about my political beliefs, this seemed to be an uphill battle.

In a way it still is. No matter the topic we will always face this challenge of being able to relate our obtuse theories to the working class. The spectacle of society, after all, has reached such a point where no one cares about these things anymore, so even something as seemingly simple as ‘material conditions,’ becomes a challenging obstacle to surmount.

So this being said, I did ponder how to best detail this concept without falling into intellectualizing tirades. I came up with the following: “Material conditions are what makes a society, a society. It is the amount of bridges, schools, power plants, and industrial factories; more to the point, it is also the condition of these infrastructure, of how long they last and how safe they are to use. It is the working conditions of the working class: are workplaces sanitary, well light, are the hours congregate to a living wage? Additionally, it is the state of minorities: where do ethnic and sexual minorities reside? In upper-class neighborhoods, or slums? How many slums are there? Are there more slums than suburban utopia? Yet material conditions also mean governmental assistance: is there a welfare state? If so than we may posit that the bourgeoisie is an imperialist one and therefore rich. Does the average citizen own a television, have access to the internet, keep up to date on all the latest happenings in the popular media? If so then we can, again, assume that there is an advanced capitalist society, as opposed to a weak one, which is influencing people’s opinions to embrace counter-productive social policies. Yet above all, material conditions can be reflected in the production and consumption ratio: how much (and what) is produced, and how does it get produced; meaning, to what extent is there poverty and how does this poverty, which intermingles with consumer culture, affect working class militancy? This is the basis of material conditions.” Admittedly, this is not the best explanation; it could be more revolutionary in places. Yet this is exactly part of the problem: in adding those revolutionary parts we must ensure that they are given in a manner which only assists the receiver in understanding instead of retarding their comprehension.

This can be a tall order. With so much to explain and so much history to cover, it is difficult sometimes to not skim content and resort to jargon as a quick fix. Even so, for those of us who engage in a manner less than missionary, we must take strides to remember how it was (sometimes long ago) when we first encountered revolutionary ideas, terms, and theory; we need to be sympathetic to those who struggle with accepting and understanding our viewpoint while creating a mode of explanation, and debate, which corresponds to their existential standpoint. For if we do not than I am fearful of any significant change occurring. In fact, I am positive nothing would change. Ever.

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