“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, July 09, 2007

the motor of history goes into the shop

The hardest thing to recover from the wrecks of history is the horizon of expectation that the actors presupposed. Those expectations, that imagined future, all black on black, was intrinsic to the routines and habits that made it the case that people accepted x and came to reject y. The historian can make it easier on him or herself by simply borrowing the economist’s toolkit. It doesn’t really explain expectation, but it gives you a nice labels that you can paste over the gaps – for instance, you can talk about marginal disutility and make a graph.

A more sophisticated stab at the mystery was made by Marx, who assumed class conflict. By assuming an intrinsic violence that exceeded exchange, he opened up history to ethnography. His followers often have a hard time with this – they have a tendency to revert to the economic models of the neo-classicals, with the difference that, for the Marxists, profit is a dirty word, and for the neo-classicals it isn’t. This kind of Marxist will tell you, with a knowing smirk, that everything that has happened in Iraq was planned, usually by some bigwigs, who are motivated purely by profit. Secret plans and the holy elevation of profit are the marks of this line of thought. Marx himself, thank God, was not given to such bogus analysis, since of course he realized that profit and loss has to be reconciled, in the end, with the realities of class conflict. Thus, in his analysis of how Louis Bonaparte became the emperor in France, he is very careful to underline the fact that the working class, which fought for the Republic, was fighting against its own interests, so to speak, insofar as the Republic was dominated by conservative business men, while the bourgeoisie, which did have an interest in preserving the Republic, went, to a man, to Louis Bonaparte’s side. Marx’s analysis – his journalism in general – confronted a fact that he tended to erase in the economic works – the lack of a truly homogeneous class. Actually, he thought that one could be created – that a working class consciousness could be forged that would draw together the entire working class. Briefly, such homogeneity has occurred, but never, it seems to me, because of class identification – instead, it is always about some collective threat. It is war, not the consciousness of one’s place in the system of production, that produces solidarity.

Whenever I read about art and commodification – quite a common topic around the theory blogosphere, hotly and obscurely debated – I always think no, no. As a subcategory of routine, art can say something about commodification as one economic and symbolic routine, but art is never going to be just about commodification, nor is its value about commodification. On the other hand, art is where expectation is most exposed, most vulnerable – although, given the gamelike limits of art, that exposure happens in “free time”. Which is why historians should pay attention to art. Art is about routines. Burroughs is right.


Anonymous said...

Roger, I am unsure what the object of your critique is in the last paragraph? Are you thinking of Adorno? Vulgar Marxism? Bourdieu? Lukacs? I'd be interested in your unpacking of what you are alluding to here.

As to the first point on historiography, I think you are spot on and any genuine understanding of the present by future historians (and perhaps ourselves as well) is going to have to come to terms with the ideological component of the current war - in particular the role of neoconservative intellectuals and their house organs in the war effort. Perhaps the essays of Randolph Bourne on the war and intellectuals might point the way forward.

A good example of your point in the first paragraph is the historiography of the coup against Arbenz in Guatemala. Kinzer et al. in their book Bitter Fruit tend to reduce the motivations of those in the Eisenhower administration to the influence of United Fruit (concerned about the bottom line) and the personal ties of those in the administration to United Fruit (Dulles if I remember correctly). More recent historiography points to policy decisions being influenced and overdetermined by the ideological underpinnings of the Cold War and the perception of a global class war against the Soviet state. Here the framework of class analysis within the larger realm of geopolitics is essential. It would seem that any proper account would have to have both types of analyses allowing the historical material to shape the weight given to different factors.

Today, besides the above mention of ideological factors, we might add a grand strategic view of the necessity of geopolitical control of the regions of the world with the largest oil reserves, the desire for a demonstration effect of US military power to the rest of the world to shock and awe it into subservience, the necessity of healing the perceptions of weakness of the spectacular damage of 9/11, the institutional precondition of the Republicans to forge, at least temporarily, the electoral machinery of the one-party state and the consequent ability of neoconservative and nationalist cliques to use tax cuts to buy off other parts of capital, and the concentration and neutering of the mass media. Of course this list is by no means exhaustive. But it would also be foolish to deny that Bush's ties to the oil industry or Cheney's to Halliburton did not play a role in at the very least shaping their world-views, but also the way that the occupation has turned out (no-bid contracts for "reconstruction" for example).

Cheers, HerrVonHarmonia

Anonymous said...

Roger, I forgot to add that I think that Gopal Balakrishnan provides an interesting example of this type of analysis vis-a-vis the current fiasco in Iraq in a piece that he wrote in New Left Review a few years ago called "States of War". In that piece he addresses what is a key question for the Marxist theory of imperialism: the "funigibility" of military and economic/political power. If I read him right, I believe that he is putting forth the argument that the current era is characterized by the lack of a metric for such convertibility. On the one hand the sheer size of the US military apparatus (in both relative and absolute terms) has led many in the US elite to a hubristic belief in the ominipotence of the US. On the other, in the era of globalization, it has become more difficult to see how that power can be easily translated into economic or political power. The fact that thirty thousand guerillas in Iraq have managed to tie down the US military seems to suggest that it is no longer while simultaneously the core countries of the Northern economic powers has not witnessed a major war between them suggests that military power as a component of total national power has become uncertain.

Cheers again, hvh

roger said...

HVH, all good comments!
I wasn't really aiming a bolt at Lukacs or Adorno per se, simply at a habit I see on a lot of blogs that combine theory with a Marxist, anti-capitalist bent.

I like your Guatemala example. I just reviewed Tim Wiener's new history of the CIA for the Austin paper here, so as it happens the overthrow of Arbenz is fresh in my mind. Wiener's goal is to use all the declassified material that's come out in the last ten years to revise the way we think about the CIA. One of the striking things, to me, was how much money they had - earlier accounts severely underestimated that amount. When a nation received Marshall Aid from the U.S., 5 percent of that aid had to be kicked back, in repayment, to the CIA, which gave them something like 650 million dollars to play with in the early fifties - quite a lot of money. What they did with it was hard for anybody to oversee. Weiner's point is that the CIA, from the beginning, was given two very distinct tasks - intelligence gathering and providing a guerilla force for the U.S. - which could not be made to cohere. In the case of Guatamala, in addition to Kinzer's account, there was also , within the CIA itself, another motive: the massive failure of the CIA in Korea. American intelligence, which was supposed to be handled by the CIA in the Korean war, was almost laughably wrong about everything - I mean, the CIA was still reporting that the Chinese would never enter the war when half a million were already across the Yalu. Al Haney, who was in responsible for many of the failures in Korea, was given, for some reason, the Guatamala account. In fact, many of the people associated with the guerilla side of the CIA had already developed brutal and sloppy coup techniques which they then applied in a cookie cutter fashion at the slightest provocation. So - there was an internal, institutional dynamic going on the attack on Arbenz as well as the connection to United Fruit. Institutional memory is about models of action that are neurotically repeated, even if those models have failed, IF the models are more familiar than newer models.

Understanding institutional dynamics, especially when the institutions have successfully developed protective "shells" - a combination of secrecy and constituency-making - is really important to understanding U.S. foreign/military policy.

I'm gonna have to check out the Gopal Balakrishnan article you mention on Iraq.

Scruggs said...

This kind of Marxist will tell you, with a knowing smirk, that everything that has happened in Iraq was planned, usually by some bigwigs, who are motivated purely by profit. Secret plans and the holy elevation of profit are the marks of this line of thought.

Ho, ho! But Roger, the "vulgar" Marxist thought is not so neatly encapsulated. The focus on a money trail and a criminal conspiracy are more a part of procedural hangover. These are things that can be prosecuted in a court of law -- assuming the rule of law means anything to (snark) procedural liberals or law'n'ordure conservatives (which it does, but only on a class aspiration basis). The vulgar stuff can be demonstrated and proven to an extent that, in theory, would sway the thoughts of reasonable people. They're easy to understand for people burdened by a leaden Cartesian upbringing. The smirk is most often a rictus of disappointment; the secure academic's knowing condescension notwithstanding.

roger said...

Mista Scruggs, I don't want to wholly discount the profit motive, of course. What I do want to discount is the control motive. There is a certain type of leftist who think that no matter what happens in Iraq, it is all part of the grand plan of the Bushies, or the oil companies, or whatever. So chaos in Iraq - that's part of the plan. The oil infrastructure being ripped up and bombed by the insurgents - ah, that's just an old Halliburton trick to raise the price of oil. And so on. This weird faith that there are no unexpected outcomes is, I think, logical if one simply throws out Marx's class conflict thesis and replaces it with a sort of Adam Smith version of Marxism. No doubt, profit is important, but time after time businessmen have subordinated profit to retaining or preserving the positional structure in a society.

Scruggs said...

I agree with the argument supporting that second discounting, just to be clear. The totalizing, deterministic explanations make me very nervous. Before you can say, "Boo!", you're objectively pro-Halliburton -- only you just don't know it, but you do, or you should, etc. . .

pmlickteig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

There's a connection here between a seemingly sizeable part of the anti-war movement's embrace of conspiracy theory and a hyperfunctionalist account of the profit motive as determining all policy by various government and state agencies, especially in the foreign policy arena. There's a tie here to populism as well - most people that I've met who claim a heritage from Marx are usually a bit more nuanced about this if they've spent a little time on his work.

American populism however has a history of this type of analysis dating back to the attack on the gold standard and currently the notion of fiat money. In my mind, it's not so much economism that is the problem as functionalism (and yes, Marx too could be guilty though his best writing tends to avoid it). Populism's target tends to be small cliques of individuals (this has at times taken on anti-semitic hues) as opposed to a class analysis that focuses on structures and institutions. Alot of this type of thinking has been criticized by Marx in the German Ideology and the Poverty of Philosophy, particularly in the criticisms of Proudhon.

There are two tacks that I can think of for such a functionalism to take: one which reduces all policy to the requirements for the reproduction of the current system or structure of capitalism and that reduces all elite/ruling class (I know! I know! There are a million questions to be asked here.) agency to such, and only such, policies. The second is to reduce the structure to a predatory racket with key groups able to extract "rents" and determine policy - Bush and Cheney as the Man with the master plan. Here you have all agency and the structure is mere window dressing.

Both of course are inadequate and undialectical. First, there is the point that you raise Roger: the importance of institutions, bureaucratic inertia, and habits. Here Weber and Veblen are necessary as a supplement to Marx. Such concepts as path-dependency are also quite helpful in analysis.

Second, there is the issue of the time-horizons of the relevant actors and this in turn would seem to require a sort of political ontology that could sort these horizons out in different fields of action as well as within the life-world of contemporary societies in the advanced capitalist world. This directly ties in with the ability of planners and strategists to be able to cope with contingency while remaining flexible enough to achieve their goals. And not just planners are effected but groups and populations that are needed in some fashion for the achievement of these plans (here, think of the US population's eroding support for the war-effort).

Third, if Marx pointed out anything in the first volume of Capital, it was the effect of competition between capitals and, by extrapolation, between different sectors of capital and that this competition was zero-sum for some capitals even as it might be positive-sum for the system as a whole (outside of crisis situations).

All of these issues point towards problems with the conception of foreign policy as being driven by pure, profit motives. First off, whose? Big oil? High tech? Investment banking? Housing? Second, at what time horizon? Quarterly profit reports? Annual bonuses and stock-compensations? That the next generation might enjoy higher living standards then the previous generation? R & D that might only pay off only in fifteen years? And what does it mean that shorter-term profit maximization seems to be encroaching into other fields and the lifeworlds of citizens themselves (especially in the forms of privitizations. the constant turnovers of the media cycle, and erosion of historical consciousness)? Finally, which sector(s) of capital is/are profiting? How does this effect inflation and the costs of inputs? How are these particular sectors influencing the state and through what institutions and agencies and through what mediums? What of the interests of these agencies themselves?

Anyway, I've gone on too long, but you've gotten me thinking...thanks. hvh

roger said...

hvh - such an excellent comment! The only thing I'd add is is that even given the triumph of the money economy, one can easily see competing symbols of prestige at work, especially within the sorting out of those time horizons.