“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

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A note on our last Marx post

"But the greatest and the deepest of all the historians of the Slavs is without contradiction Count Jan Potocki. He belonged to the generation of Stanislas-Auguste’s epoch, of whom we have told the tragic end. Having survived the fall of the Republic, he tried to console himself in researching the origins of the history of his country. To this end, he made long trips in Asia, Africa, and tried to penetrate into China. He left behind, it is true, only essays, studies and informal notes. We don’t see the general plan, the final ideas. But he was the first of all the historians of modern Europe to recognize the importance of the oral tradition. Niebuhr asked peasants and old women to explain the story of Romulus and Remus on the steps of Rome. Long before him, Potocki, in the huts of the Tartars, meditated the history of the Scythes.” –Adam Miskiewicz, Les Slaves, 124

That we are trying to read Marx not simply over, in a sense, the system he describes, but horizontal to it – horizontal to the people of the Cauca Valley, for instance – is a strange and probably impossible quest. But we, too, like Jan Potocki, the author of Manuscript found in a bottle in Sargossa, and Niebuhr, are anxious to hear the peasants and old women and Tartars explain the world of labor and money, production and circulation. We suspect that Marx’s dialectical materialism – a dialectics that has been abandoned outside, after having been fed milkbones in an overheated house in Jena, and left to scrounge for itself – will find the world of the classical economists and their successors a funhouse mirror reflection of the world it finds itself in. But what other mirrors are there?

The notion that pulses, vaguely and uncertainly, through this thread – a thread of blood, an artery, a circulation of ideas picked up God knows where and headed towards God knows what, for just as “the circulation of money, like that of commodities, begins at an infinity of different points, and to an infinity of different points it returns,” so does our theme – is that the erasure of being, the famous erased ‘is’, is the erasure of the human limit brought to you by our sponsor, universal history. And that the erasure is enacted in cash registers as well as love lives. But just as the is remains, all the same, potent and portentious, the human limit continues, somehow, to exist when it has been formally once and for all scotched from the earth.

Which leads us to a famous essay, The Problem of the Unseen World of Wealth for the Rich: Toward an Ethnography of Complex Connections by George E. Marcus. To tackle next.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Marx and the devil 2

Wendelin: “The devil is not the worst by far, I can deal better with him than with many people. He honors the elderly, his grandmother stands high in his regard, and that is a fine character trait. When he shakes hands he means it, one can see that he has had much to do with knights; he fills his end of the contract much more promptly than many an earthly dirty dealer. Of course, afterwards, on the delivery date, then he comes on the very minute. On the stroke of twelve, he grabs his soul and goes, with beautiful regularity, with it back to to his house in hell. He’s really a proper businessman, he is.”
Pfrim: I am too old, a satanic pact wouldn’t do me any good now, but when I was as young as you – my soul, I didn’t know what to do with my soul. -Nestroy, Hollenangst

“Just as exchange value, in the form of money, takes its place as the general commodity alongside all particular commodities, so does exchange value as money therefore at the same time take its place as a particular commodity (since it has a particular existence) alongside all other commodities. An incongruency arises not only because money, which exists only in exchange, confronts the particular exchangeability of commodities as their general exchangeability, and directly extinguishes it, while, nevertheless, the two are supposed to be always convertible into one another; but also because money comes into contradiction with itself and with its characteristic by virtue of being itself a particular commodity (even if only a symbol) and of being subject, therefore, to particular conditions of exchange in its exchange with other commodities, conditions which contradict its general unconditional exchangeability.”

What Marx means here by a general commodity is one so purified of its mortal nature, as a use value, that it has been entirely transfigured into a pure commodity, unsoiled by human hands. Particular commodities, on the other hand, like Goethe, have two souls within their breasts – longing to be exchange value, and ending up as use value. In fact, in their end is their justification, at least in one of the social spheres that, altogether, constitute the total society. Yet it turns out that the use value of exchange value embodied in money is involved in a self-referential bind – it can’t quite dematerialize itself. Like the money in Taussig’s story, quarreling in the cash register, money is always in the process of shedding its nature, which is to be an intensional object – dependent for its meaning and existence on a social attitude – and presenting itself as something independent and even autonomous. There have been many dreamers of a utopia of money, in which something would simply be recognized by all as a measure of value outside of all social relations – although, alas, this impossible object would have to fall into the world again if it is actually to be exchanged – that is, if it is actually to be of use. The flies in the spider web dream of the superfly that would deliver them. It is part of the fallen nature of money that, strive as we will to find that unit outside of the social that will operate immaculately inside the social, it always reflects the particular conditions of exchange.

“But on one side, exchange value naturally remains at the same time an inherent quality of commodities while it simultaneously exists outside them; on the other side, when money no longer exists as a property of commodities, as a common element within them, but as an individual entity apart from them, then money itself becomes a particular commodity alongside the other commodities. (Determinable by demand and supply; splits into different kinds of money, etc.)”

When Marx talks like this, of “sides”, what is he saying? Where do these sides exist? This question isn’t impertinent – that is, it isn’t as though the sides are ‘metaphors’ for a logic of, say, the spirit. Later on, Marx will make a note that he has to express these things less “idealistically”. But we can see that these sides are not arising in the kaleidoscopic turns of the Absolute spirit. They are happening in the here and now. They have an actual social existence – that is, the sides are performed. In a sense, this is what is happening in Taussig’s story of baptized money. But it is also what is happening when money exists as, so to speak, an infinitely deferred referent. The wealthy or enterprises concerned with wealth have, so to speak, assets in money, but the real existence of that money is another matter entirely. I’ll earmark, here, a thread I will go into later - I am going to reference another anthropologist, George Marcus, about existences visible and invisible in a future post – Marcus was fascinated by the invisible world of wealth among the American wealthy.

The culture of happiness, that is, the culture in which the ideal is given as either the individual pursuit of happiness or the collective’s pursuit of happiness, presupposes a certain interchangeability of happiness, a certain harmony that would make all happinesses consistent one with the other. At the same time, the real conditions for growth – the overcoming of the human limit upon which the pursuit of happiness is premised – is dependent on a system in which the opposition of happinesses are understood as the drivers of growth. This is a “contradiction” in the Marxian sense – not of logic, but of elements within a total system.

“The dissolution of all products and activities into exchange values presupposes the dissolution of all fixed personal (historic) relations of dependence in production, as well as the all-sided dependence of the producers on one another. Each individual’s production is dependent on the production of all others; and the transformation of his product into the necessaries of his own life is [similarly] dependent on the consumption of all others. Prices are old; exchange also; but the increasing determination of the former by costs of production, as well as the increasing dominance of the latter over all relations of production, only develop fully, and continue to develop ever more completely, in bourgeois society, the society of free competition. What Adam Smith, in the true eighteenth-century manner, puts in the prehistoric period, the period preceding history, is rather a product of history.”

The all-sided dependence of the producers – in this way, the people come into history. In this way, the caterpillars begin to develop wings. In this way, universal history is born. This is one of the contradictions that gets in the throat both of capitalism and Marxism. There is, on the one hand, an all-sided dependence that breaks man out from the condition of idiocy, of private servitude and local superstition, in which he had been bound. But how does this happen? It happens through the division of labor, and the de-personalizing of the routine of labor. Just as with the peasants of the Cauca valley, the dominance of exchange value over all other market systems – of which we now have an extensive anthropology, thanks to Polanyi – produces not the all sided perfect man, using Forster’s capacity for perfection, but an all-sided wage laborer – besieged, as it were, on all sides. Where you gonna run to where you gonna go? Well the rock won’t hide you, and the rivers are bleeding. And after the revolution, what is to become of your all sidedness?

“Just as the division of labour creates agglomeration, combination, cooperation, the antithesis of private interests, class interests, competition, concentration of capital, monopoly, stock companies – so many antithetical forms of the unity which itself brings the antithesis to the fore – so does private exchange create world trade, private independence creates complete dependence on the so-called world market, and the fragmented acts of exchange create a banking and credit system whose books, at least keep a record of the balance between debit and credit in private exchange. Although the private interests within each nation divide it into as many nations as it has ‘full-grown individuals,’ and although the interests of exporters and of importers are antithetical here, etc, etc., national trade does obtain the semblance of existence in the form of the rate of exchange. Nobody will take this as a ground for believing that a reform of the money market can abolish the foundations of internal or external private trade. But within bourgeois society, the society that rests on exchange value, there arise relations of circulation as well as of production which are so many mines to explode it. (A mass of antithetical forms of the social unity, whose antithetical character can never be abolished through quiet metamorphosis. On the other hand, if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic.)”

Yes, let’s read that last sentence again. In another post.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Marx and the devil

“He’d sell his soul for gold, and he’d be right, for he’d be exchanging dung for gold”
– Mirabeau on Tallyrand.

The great myth under which modernization understood itself in Germany was an old chapbook tale about an obscure professor selling his soul to the devil – an old story indeed. The professor, Faust, was taken up by Goethe and placed at the center of a poem which touched the thoughts of every German intellectual in the 19th century, including, certainly including, Karl Marx.

Meanwhile, as we pointed out in our last post on this topic, Michael Taussig found that the introduction of a fully monetized exchange value economy in the rural community in Colombia that he chose to study in the 1960s was interpreted by the myth of selling a soul to the devil. Why this convergence of sense-making narratives?

Taussig suggests that we can use Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism to explain how, spontaneously, a “primitive Marxism” springs up among the people. One wonders, however, if the direction of the interpretation can be reversed as well. Could we explain Marx from the direction of the people of the Cauca Valley? Could it be that Marx’s method reflects, unconsciously, the observation of the work of the diabolic in the capitalist system? Can we read backwards – the witch’s direction – here?

First, this is what Taussig writes:

“Rather than dismissing these responses as "traditional" or irrational, the approach adopted in this essay is that it would seem to be more true to the facts as well as more enlightening to consider these reactions as outcomes of a clash between a use value orientation and an exchange value orientation, thus viewing them as the beginning of a potential critique of capitalism. They provide us with insights into the irrational basis of our own economy and stereotype of homo oeconomicus, and can be usefully considered as illustrative of a form of "primitive Marxism."

Which raises the question: How is contracting with the devil derived from understanding a change in economic regimes from a “use value orientation”?

But to continue with Taussig:

This "primitive Marxism" was undoubtedly inherent in the outlook of the European proletariat in the early stages of the birth of the capitalist system, but has since been largely superseded by a new world view which regards the wage contract system, market pricing, and the institutionalization of profit and greed as natural and ethically com- mendable.1 In the light of this historical amnesia, which afflicts all social classes in a developed market economy, it is all the more important to dwell on the critique offered us by those neophytic proletarians in the Third World today, who are just entering the capitalist system with their goods and labor and who often appear to regard that system as anything but natural and good.2 In the Cauca Valley the sense given to the devil and his role in contracting wage labor is like the definition of the early Christian fathers as "he who resists the cosmic process," which in this context comes close to the idea of forcing things in the interest of private gain without regard to what are seen as their intrinsic principles (cf. Needham: 69-71).”

The “forcing” is an imposition from the outside. As I have previously remarked in my posts on the image of the limited good, Forster’s theory is incomplete, in as much as it neglects the attitudes of the powerful towards the peasant and vice versa. That attitude is, I claimed, mediated by the notion of sacred predation – the powerful have a divine sanction to take more than their share, but this sanction does not make them non-predatory. Rather, it institutionalizes their predatory status. The fall of this old ethos is recorded throughout the eighteenth century, masked to an extent in the rise of happiness as the social justification of the power structure. Taussig is talking about a culture moment that occurs, theoretically, as a result of the dissolution of sacred predation in the emergence of a new economic system, a new totality of social forces. But it doesn’t simply emerge – it is ‘felt’ as being imposed by something outside the social whole. Its exteriority joins it, archetypally, to images which exist (as portents?) in the old system. This is a thread expertly danced by Deleuze and Guattari in The Anti-Oedipus. We will dance it too.

But to return to Taussig, it is not the simple form of the contract with the devil that fascinates me as much as the “money as double” form – a story that hss striking resemblances with Marx’s treatment of money in the Grundrisse, and with Balzac’s story, the Peau de Chagrin.

According to the belief in el bautizo del billete (baptism of the bill), the Godparent-to-be conceals a peso note in his or her hand during the baptism of the child by the Catholic priest. The peso bill is thus believed to receive baptism instead of the child. When such a baptized bill enters into general monetary circulation it is believed that it will continually return to its owner with interest, enriching the owner and impoverishing the other parties to the deals transacted by the owner of the bill. The owner is now the Godparent of the peso bill. The child remains unbaptized, a cause of great concern since the child's soul is denied supernatural legitimacy and has no chance of escaping from Limbo or Purgatory, depending on when it dies. This practice is heavily penalized by the Church. The baptized bill receives the name-the "Christian name" as we say in English-that the baptismal ritual was meant to bestow on the child and is now referred to by that name. It is then set to work as follows. The Godparent pays the bill over as part of a routine monetary transaction, as when one pays for goods in a store. The Godparent mutters the following type of refrain:
Are you going or are you staying?
Are you going or are you staying?
Are you going or are you staying?”

,,, And here are Taussig’s stories, which have such a strong glamour that I, who have tried to understand the Satanic sublime as well as I can, fall before them and worship, first, their beauty. I am tempted to make some interlinear collage between this and Marx’s brilliant demonstration of the doubling to which social labor, embodied in the commodity that is raptured by money, which also embodies a social, exterior force, is subject. But let’s not muddy the track. Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care:

The bill, referred to by its name, is asked three times whether it is going to return to its Godparent or not. If everything works as it should, then it will soon return to its Godparent, bringing a large amount of money with it. This transfer is accomplished invisibly. A black middle-class family owned a corner store in the village. Halfway through the morning, when the wife was alone, she went out the back and then quickly returned because she thought she heard a noise in the till. Opening it she found all the cash gone. She then remembered that one of the customers had behaved peculiarly earlier that morning, and realized that someone had passed her a baptized bill. As soon as her back was turned, this bill had made off with all the money in the cash register. In a busy supermarket in the large city nearby, a shop detective was startled to hear a woman standing near a cash register chanting under her breath: "Guillermo! iTe vas o te quedas? ,Te vas o te quedas? ,Te vas o te quedas?" He promptly concluded that she had passed a baptized bill and was waiting for it to return to her with the contents of the register, and he immediately arrested her. She was taken away and nobody knows what happened thereafter. One of the few successful black store owners in the village was saved from a great loss only by a most unusual coincidence. Serving in his shop he was startled to hear a strange noise in his cash register. Peering in he saw two bills fighting with each other for possession of the contents, and he realized that two customers, each with their own baptized bills, must have just paid them over and were awaiting their return. This strange coincidence allowed him to prevent the spiriting away of his cash.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Another one bites the dust

The zona landed at my place this afternoon. I may have to interrupt Limited Inc for a bit, although I hope not. My landlord wants 450 dollars in back rent which, long story short, I didn’t know I owed. Possible eviction looms – but such,such are the breaks! It will be hard to plug in this laptop into a sapling in a field.

However, while I’m still electrified: LI readers should check out the discussion between James Surowiecki and John Quiggin
about nationalizing banks, since it gets to the heart of a matter that has been obscured by the thousandfold murk of pundits and University of Chicago economists.

Surowiecki starts things off by putting all his cards on the table:

“Like Kevin Drum, I think that as the “nationalize now” meme has taken hold in the blogosphere, people are talking about nationalization “awfully casually.” One way this manifests itself is in the argument that the only reason people are skeptical of nationalization is because it’s “un-American,” when, in fact, I think people are skeptical of it for two big reasons:

1) Two years of financial crisis does not invalidate the general principle that private enterprise is typically better at efficiently allocating resources than government; and
2) the idea of the state literally determining which companies and individuals do or don’t get credit is, even to a non-libertarian, at least a little troubling.”

Quiggin keeps the discussion confined, unfortunately, to the technical question of the state of the financial services sector:

“What’s needed in the present case is not only to fix the problems of individual banks, problems on a much bigger scale than have been seen before (even in the leadup to the Great Depression, the financial sector played a smaller role in the economy than in the recent bubble), but to reconstruct a failed global financial system. It’s kind of like rewiring an electrical system in near-meltdown, while keeping the power on (this is possible, but tricky and dangerous). The job is likely to be much slower than the rescues mentioned above, and the institutions that emerge from it will be very different from those that went in.
But, contra Surowiecki this time, this only strengthens the argument for nationalisation. Financial restructuring is going to be a huge challenge, involving both a radical redesign of national regulations and the construction of an almost completely new global financial architecture. To attempt this task while leaving the banks under the control of discredited managers nominally responsible to shareholders whose equity has, in the absence of massive transfers from taxpayers, been wiped out by bad debts, seems like doing live electrical work while wearing a blindfold and standing in a pool of water.”

I commented extensively at CT. Arguments which I’ll repeat here.

“I like the way Surowiecki casts the terms of the argument. It is precisely the fact that, contra his Chicago-ish point of view, private enterprise did not do a good job of allocating capital which is the strongest argument in favor of a national bank.

Was the allocation of capital towards financial innovations and away from, say, energy innovations, and towards inflating assets, like homes, and away from infrastructure an accident of the system? I’d argue that it wasn’t. That is, I’d argue that the private enterprise system was caught in a trap in which it couldn’t profitably allocate capital in the most efficient way. The allocation of capital to the housing market was both inefficient and the best solution that the private enterprise system could come up with. Like all bubbles when they pop, the housing bubble is now being seen as one big mistake. It wasn’t – it emerged from a crisis in the system of the Great Moderation as a logical solution to the problems caused by the collapse of the tech bubble. And, in fact, it was entirely rational to bet that rising housing prices would still find a market with a population of homeowners who, in the nineties, seem to shake off the slowdown in the rate of income increases they’d suffered under Reagan and Bush. I believe the standard ratio for buying a house is that its price be three times the yearly income of the household. From what I read, nationwide, in the naughties, that ratio went to 4:1. If you look at the spread, you’ll see that this reflects, exactly, the stagnation of incomes over the last eight years. And that reflects, exactly, the cul de sac in which we sit with a system that has overemphasized free market solutions over the last thirty years.”

Now, an objection was made to my statement of the case by a conservative, who brought out the argument that conservatives have now been forced back upon. Basically, we are told, due to the government refusing to regulate Fannie Mac and Freddie Mae, this mess happened – so it is the government’s fault again.

I find this argument false in its details, but, more than that, misplaced in terms of the level of argument. In actuality, as conservatives happily pointed out in 2005, and as neo-liberals pointed out extensively in the nineties, we live in an economic environment in which business is freer to operate as it will than at any time since the 1920s. If this isn’t true, than of course we need some explanation of what happened to the Republican revolution of 1994, what happened to the innumerable references to the American model versus the European one, or what happened to Alan Greenspan, or what happened, indeed, to Greg Mankiew, one of Bush’s economic advisors in 2003-2004, who is now promoting the Fannie Mae story. Memory hole has never widened so suddenly or so fast.

So, let’s hypothesize that the conservatives, before the crash, were right – that is, their description of the general tendency of the American economy was right.

This, then, is what I would say:

“But, in essence, that is neither here nor there. In fact, the private sector acted as rationally as it could by pumping money into the housing bubble. In other words, it wasn’t some contingency that caused the private sector to misallocate capital. Nor was it interference from the government – in fact, the degree of government regulation diminished. Rather, the problem was one of structure. The private sector, contra the neo-classical model, doesn’t operate under conditions of full employment, and does operate within a business cycle that determines the investment landscape at any one time. In other words, it was due to the structure of the private sector that capital was allocated suboptimally and inefficiently. The conservative economic policies of the Clinton and Bush administration had retracted the kind of positive interference by the government to give the private sector the fullest possible space to maneuver. And the private sector took advantage of that space – in fact, in 2004, you would find conservative economists or publicists, like Mankiw and Larry Kudlow, bragging about how well it was operating. It was a boom. However, this boom depended on battering the bargaining power of labor so that there was no median rise in household income, while at the same time creating more credit for the median household to use.
The housing bubble, in other words, was the best solution the private sector, under the freest conditions since the 1920s, could come up with.
Now, those conditions are not going to be changed no matter how much money is poured into failing banks and hedge funds. They are only going to be changed by inflating incomes. This will not come about if business and commerce aren’t revived. But there are no sources within the private sector for that revival. Which is why liquidate liquidate liquidate will only lead to ever worse conditions. To revive the economy in this phase of the business cycle, command and control economics, using the power of the state to, for instance, capitalize a Reindustrialization facility, is the best and shortest way.
Again, the argument here isn’t whether the Democrats or the Republicans should have done x or y to regulate Fannie Mae. The argument is that the regulatory environment was the most business-friendly since the twenties, and the Free markets responded by allocating capital in those ideal conditions as the market decided was most efficient – that is, most profitable. it seems to me that you don’t get to test many economic models as well as we get to test the model of free markets lately.”
To put this as strongly as possible: the housing bubble saved our national ass in the post tech crash. It was deliberately intended to. The private sector was allowed to allocate capital with few strings attached. The mangle of inequality – that is, the increase in both the relative poverty of the median household and the increase in its buying power, or credit line – worked to create the necessary political atmosphere in which business could operate with less and less regulatory supervision by the government. The crash we are feeling intensely now was simply postponed a few years by policies that allowed ever more money to be made by the ever fewer. And the result is this disaster. But this disaster would have happened in 2003 without a deliberate policy of easy money and de-regulation. We are suffering through a structural contradiction that was bound to hit us one day or another.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

the Zona, Marx and the necessity of universal prostitution

Ah, I’ve been tearful all day – that was a beautiful speech by Obama. Those were beautiful crowds. But where are the ghosts of some half a million Iraqis? And what is the sound at our backs – the scuttle of rats in the alley? The fall of the market? The zona, phase 2?

Yes, yesterday the zona quietly settled in the UK. The Royal Bank of Scotland basically declared insolvency. This will (prediction prediction/here’s my malediction) be bigger, in the end, than the Lehman brothers. However, the oligarchy seems to be proceeding, robot-like, as though the financial sector could, somehow, be restored, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas. You were there! And so was my yacht! And my trophy wife! And the 40 room pad in Greenwich, Connecticut! And I never want to leave home again!

Of course, the problem is not that the banks aren’t loaning money to homeowners – it is that the homeowners incomes have been frozen or gone down since 2000. You don’t have to use a complicated equation to see what happened. Put this in your model – Homeowner A receives y amount of money per year in 2001. He receives y-x amount of money in 2004. However, he can buy much better cell phones with it, and great plastic tat at Walmart, and sign up for a teaser rate credit. In 2007, however, he has bought all the cheaper tat he could stand, he owes y x 4 for the new house he bought, and his income is still y-x. You figure it out. Then multiply by 80 million households. Quick, how soon then can you loan more money to Homeowner A to make all the mortgage vultures happy? Answer is: as much time as it takes to travel to the Alpha Centauri galaxy and back. Which is why, incidentally, TARP is not only a bank robbery, but it has created quite a large hole in the future, which has literally been mortgaged to a bank system that cannot pay back the loans. As in, can’t pay back that 7 trillion dollars in loans on junk assets our kindly Government has pumped out. When Paulson announced that the sky was falling, there was, admittedly, no alternative but to pass the bill – but it was precisely then that the alternative should have been floated. Dems should have gotten together to pass a bill capitalizing a national bank with the Tarp money, with a charter to finance industry and commerce in the U.S., until further notice. It is employment and increasing incomes that will repair the much shrunken financial services sector. Not all the Fed chits and all the T-men will build back the castles of ruin again.

Enough of the zona. Because I am broke and idle this month, I’m working quite a bit on the Human Limit. So, resuming the glowworm thread…

Let’s put our piton in this remarkable passage in the Grundrisse (wait for it) – especially as we are mulling over the first generation of Romantics. This passage – we can’t name it, give it a proper name, it comes from the flow of the notebook, Marx not as the systematic but as the notebook thinker, there’s no subsection for it - comes at the end of four or five pages the proceed out of the consideration of the utopian banking scheme of the Saint Simonians, as well as Proudhon’s idea of being paid directly for one’s time itself – the time-chit – instead of in money (wait for it). The passages I want to consider go from this sentence: “The dissolution of all products and activities into exchange values presupposes the dissolution of all fixed personal (historic) relations of dependence in production, as well as the all-sided dependence of the producers on one another,” which begins a consideration of the universal history (wait for it) and the universal subject (about which Marx says, later on: “The exchangeability of all products, activities and relations with a third, objective entity which can be re-exchanged for everything without distinction – that is, the development of exchange values (and of money relations) is identical with universal venality, corruption. Universal prostitution appears as a necessary phase in the development of the social character of personal talents, capacities, abilities, activities.” I hardly need to point out to LI’s readers that this could easily have come out of Baudelaire’s Mon Coeur mis a nu – and so we have two secret notebooks, written about the same time, converging on the same images. Vases communicantes indeed, man).

Here’s the passage (just a second) that caught my eye:

“Universally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal [gemeinschaftlich] relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control, are no product of nature, but of history. The degree and the universality of the development of wealth where this individuality becomes possible supposes production on the basis of exchange values as a prior condition, whose universality produces not only the alienation of the individual from himself and from others, but also the universality and the comprehensiveness of his relations and capacities. In earlier stages of development the single individual seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself. It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness [22] as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.)”

Marx, of course, has more than an honorable place in the history of the overcoming of the human limit – he is, in a sense, its clearest theoretician. More than any other thinker of the nineteenth century, he sensed the shape of the web that was being blindly woven by the colonial offices, the businessmen, the political economist, and the rentier, and he saw what they couldn’t see, the pattern of Nemesis that was impressed upon the weave. But this was not a vision that appalled him – on the contrary, when in the utopian mood, he saw in this work the product of the discovery that there was no human limit. When in the utopian mood … and against this, with the eye that Shestov claims is given by the angel of death, who has a thousand eyes, to those they come for whose time, it turns out, has not arrived – he writes of the dissolution of the human limit as a system of “universal prostitution”. It is the third eye that leaps out of the intricate jumprope rhymes of the dialectic and looks about in this world and sees the ruins and the small pleasures, the pleasure in smallness, which is what is being taken away forever.

Yet seeing this loss for what it is, Marx still connects resentment over it, mourning, – which is to some extent what LI has identified with the great reactionary theme of irrevocability – with a romantic point of view that he feels is discredited and unreal from the outset. It is a point of view that depends upon the bourgeois point of view to which it forms an antithesis. It is a parasitic existence that denounces conditions that it practically exploits. The romantic point of view would unwind history, undiscover the new world, and return to the giants – “the single individual [who] seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself.” The characteristic of that erection of independent social powers and relations is found precisely in money. The romantic point of view longs for another kind of independent power, the power of the gods, the power that antedates the discovery that there is no human limit and emerges as a protest against the world in which man is made a “universal” in relation to the great world universal-maker: money.

One should ask, however, whether Marx is right to connect this romantic viewpoint exclusively with a dissident faction of the bourgeoisie. I, too, am emphasizing nests of gentle folks in my history, but in actuality, many of the romantic themes transform popular, grass roots themes and conceptual schemas – touch, as it were, on superstition, that lose system of beliefs which it was the point of the enlightenment program to overcome. In fact, as a sort of check on the emergence of attitudes that come with the advent of universal history, we have interesting anthropological data which is uncontaminated by readings of Ruskin or Tocqueville. In a famous paper, The Genesis of Capitalism amongst the South American Peasantry: the Devil’s Labor and the Baptism of Money, Michael Taussig wrote this about a population he did field work among:

In the southern extremities of the Cauca Valley, Colombia, it is commonly thought that male plantation workers can increase their output, and hence their wage, through entering into a secret contract with the devil. However, the local peasants, no matter how needy they may be, never make such a contract when working their own plots or those of their peasant neighbors for wages, It is also thought that by illicitly baptizing money instead of a child in the Catholic church, that money can become interest bearing capital, while the child will be deprived of its rightful chance of entering heaven.” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr., 1977))

Taussig explored popular sense-making of the effect of the implantation of the regime of capitalism – a good developmental project – on a primitive peasant culture. We will remark more on Taussig’s essay in our next post.

The Era of the Great Fly, 2000-2008

Amie suggested I write something about the inaugural. Which I am watching among tears – for relief for the end of the era of the Great Fly, and actually naïve delight in Obama, or rather, the crowd gathered hopefully to listen to him.

"For in that day every man shall cast away his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which your own hands have made unto you [for] a sin."

Here’s the playlist for Social Democracy:

Higher Ground


The Message

You gotta Serve somebody

Evolution Revolution Love

Walls come tumbling down

Rebel Girl

Bongo Bongo

Sinnerman where you gonna run


Monday, January 19, 2009

From the caterpillar factory to the extinction of the glowworm

First things first - on MLK day, who'd you rather read than yours truly on the Dream speech? Okay, perhaps I am n. 45 million on that list, but if you want to, here I am in the statesman on Eric Sundquist's book.

Now, onto our show...

This is Pasolini, analyzing Italian history:

Since I am a writer and I write polemically or at least polemicise with other writers, let me give a poetico-literary definition of the phenomenon which occurred in Italy about ten years ago. This will help to clarify and sum up what I have to say (and perhaps make it more easily accessible). In the early 1960s, owing to the pollution of the atmosphere, and especially in the countryside because of the pollution of our waterways (the blue rivers and limpid springs), glow worms began to vanish. The phenomenon was sudden and devastating. In a couple of years there were no more glow-worms. (They are now a rather distressing relic of our past: an old man who recalls them can’t recognize in the boys of today the boy he was, can’t have the pleasant regrets he once would have had.)

Thus I shall call that phenomenon which occurred about ten years ago “the extinction of the glowworm.”

The Christian Democratic regime had two distinct phases that not only can’t be compared to each other – which would imply a certain continuity – but which have become historically incommensurable.

The first phase of this regime (as the radicals have always rightly insisted on calling it) goes from the end of the war to the extinction of the glow worm. The second goes from the extinction of the glow worm up to the present.” – Quoted in Leopoldo Sciascia’s The Moro Affair.

Forster’s human factories of caterpillars overseen by butterflies, as I said, signaled an inflection in the metaphor of the revolution, gave it a standing in natural history, while at the same time extending it to describe any order. In fact, Forster throws the term revolution back at the defenders of the old order, which is seen as a revolution that was affected to change the very nature of men; the old order was an intervention in their natural history, an inhibition of their natural capacity to perfect themselves. Although I don't want to press too much on Forster’s originality - these ideas were in the air of 1793 - it is from his pen, perhaps, that we get what was taken up by the first generation of Romantic philosophers - Schelling, Hegel - that mixture of natural and universal history. Although surely this is one of the lesser tributaries. Still, it is significant that both Herder and Forster were fellow travelers of the French Revolution, and both saw it in terms of universal history - a distancing device, in some ways, that justified the war and bloodshed. Or so one might think, in the reactionary era we live in. Another interpretation would, of course, remark on the war and bloodshed that stains every year of the ancien regime, which was right in the faces of these thinkers.

Marx, too, seizes upon the idea of this transformative moment - that is, the moment when natural history and the history of men merge, as it were. This is the importance of the remarks about universal history in the Grundrisse. Oddly, the remarks emerge in the context of his his meditation about the real nature of money. Roberto Calasso quotes from this section quite a bit in The Ruins of Karsch. Some of those quotations were so striking that I had to look them up myself - since I had never read the Grundrisse. I found that the section, even in Niclaus' translation, is compelling - alternately mindblowing and mindblowingly boring.

The notebook entry on Money contains an argument that seems to jump about, to embrace, for instance, a delirious sideview of the history of precious metals – whipped up contra Proudhon – while it tells a story with a motif Marx, like Dostoevsky, loved: the story of the double.

"Just as exchange value, in the form of money, takes its place as the general commodity alongside all particular commodities, so does exchange value as money therefore at the same time take its place as a particular commodity (since it has a particular existence) alongside all other commodities. An incongruency arises not only because money, which exists only in exchange, confronts the particular exchangeability of commodities as their general exchangeability, and directly extinguishes it, while, nevertheless, the two are supposed to be always convertible into one another; but also because money comes into contradiction with itself and with its characteristic by virtue of being itself a particular commodity (even if only a symbol) and of being subject, therefore, to particular conditions of exchange in its exchange with other commodities, conditions which contradict its general unconditional exchangeability. (Not to speak of money as fixed in the substance of a particular product, etc.) Besides its existence in the commodity, exchange value achieved an existence of its own in money, was separated from its substance exactly because the natural characteristic of this substance contradicted its general characteristic as exchange value. Every commodity is equal (and comparable) to every other as exchange value (qualitatively: each now merely represents a quantitative plus or minus of exchange value). For that reason, this equality, this unity of the commodity is distinct from its natural differentiation; and appears in money therefore as their common element as well as a third thing which confronts them both. But on one side, exchange value naturally remains at the same time an inherent quality of commodities while it simultaneously exists outside them; on the other side, when money no longer exists as a property of commodities, as a common element within them, but as an individual entity apart from them, then money itself becomes a particular commodity alongside the other commodities. (Determinable by demand and supply; splits into different kinds of money, etc.) It becomes a commodity like other commodities, and at the same time it is not a commodity like other commodities. Despite its general character it is one exchangeable entity among other exchangeable entities. It is not only the general exchange value, but at the same time a particular exchange value alongside other particular exchange values. Here a new source of contradictions which make themselves felt in practice. (The particular nature of money emerges again in the separation of the money business from commerce proper.)"

It is important, when reading Marx, to have a firm grasp of just why he uses the method he uses to talk about political economics. After all, it was available to him to employ the methodology of conjectural history created by the classical economists and their successors, who put these histories in the framework of mechanical systems – their own way of being scientific. Marx, however, uses Hegel’s dialectical method – freed from its idealistic tendencies, and set loose in the real world. The question has always been if this is good for the method, or if, like a household cat, setting it 'free' in the wild will lead to no good end. (although Marx insisted that what he was doing was conjoining materialism and dialectics, LI thinks the name "materialism" is a legacy of Marx's grad student days. Materialism seems to be little involved in what Marx is doing. LI calls it wild dialectics - what the hell). Paul Piccone makes the sensible remark that the primary thing for Marx is not value or production, but “people suffering and struggling to be human”. The point is to get out, to use Forster’s image, of the caterpillar factory. It seems to me that Marx’s decision to use the dialectical method to explain political economics was not a matter of applying the dying fashions of provincial German universities, but rather, emerged from the subject matter itself. The first thing that impressed him about the capitalist system was its contradictions. The contradiction, firstly, between the riches produced by the mechanical system of capitalism, and the poverty it produced among the producers. To grasp this as a contradiction in Hegel’s sense is to grasp it not as something to be explained mechanically – but rather, dynamically, functionally. One has to see not only that the system functions in such a way as to produce contradictions-in-use, but also that, as a human system, agents within it have to produce explanations for it. These agents like to explain the system as a vast dead machine. If the output of the machine is both greater wealth and greater poverty, such is the machine. Tampering with one of the outputs will screw up the other. Now, in the 20th century, the claim that capitalism indeed produced poverty among the producers has been roundly booed – since we are at a safe from the world of 1848. But the booing is misplaced. Gregory Clark in A farewell to Arms, certainly no friend to Marx, recently made the econometric argument that capitalism introduced a crash in the lifestyles of the populace when it first gained critical mass in the U.K., and that it still effects this crash when it is introduced into third world countries. I would argue that Marxism, anarchism, socialism and all the old causes introduced elements into the economic mix such that labor acquired an unparalleled bargaining power, which decisively effected the distribution of the system’s benefits – but that is an argument for another time. I’m more interested in taking one of those startling sentences in the Grundrisse and, like many another Marx-climber, putting a piton in it and making a scamper up one of the old man’s rocky faces – all to zigzag and weave together happiness and the human limit.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Biggie and Robert Burns

I’m working on a little review of a Robert Burns biography. And, by one of those coincidences that strolls over to you and puts its muzzle in your palm, looking for the sugar, Biggie’s biopic is out. Notorious. You say, where’s the coincidence? In your pants? I say, Burns is, with two centuries difference, so so recognizable in the rap star persona.

So let’s lay this down.

Burns is, for one thing, a big cocksman, and proud of it – although my biographer is, as they all are, too apologetic about it to look at it. Burns had perhaps six, seven bastards by various women, which on the one hand is a great curse on the women, and not excusable even back then – contraception was by no means unknown of. On the other hand, lets not pretend that in the cauld cauld age of patriarchy, there was an infinite difference in the treatment the married woman and the single mother could expect, or that the children who'd been routed into this world through the good and proper channel of a Calvinistic blind poke on the marriage bed were infinitely a different matter. Burns raised some of the children - or his poor wife Jean did – and some were raised by girlfriends who got married themselves.

Jean Armour, Robert Louis Stevenson thought, informed by some rumor, never loved Robert. This is probably not so. She definitely bore with him, and definitely lay with him right willingly. She had three of his children before they got married, and he did miss his “sweet armload” even when he was cavorting with a higher class of people. Most biographers have stumbled and been quite horrified about a letter he wrote to his friend Ainslie about her on the eve of her giving birth to twins – before he married her:

'Jean I found banished like a martyr — forlorn, destitute and friendless; all for the good old cause: I have reconciled her to her fate: I have reconciled her to her mother: I have taken her a room: I have taken her to my arms: I have given her a mahogany bed: I have given her a guinea; and I have f---d her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory. But — as I always am on every occasion — I have been prudent and cautious to an astounding degree; I swore her, privately and solemnly, never to attempt any claim on me as a husband, even though anybody should persuade her she had such a claim, which she has not, neither during my life nor after my death. She did all this like a good girl, and I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones. Oh, what a peacemaker is a guid, weel-willy pintle ! It is the mediator, the guarantee, the umpire, the bond of union, the solemn league and covenant, the plenipotentiary, the Aaron's rod, the Jacob's staff, the prophet Elisha's pot of oil, the Ahasuerus' Sceptre, the sword of mercy, the philosopher's stone, the Horn of Plenty, and Tree of Life between Man and Woman. »

Myself, I don’t take this as the literal truth of the matter. That Burns could get it up for two big fucks while Jean, nine months pregnant, was being electrified by his thundering scalade – I sense a joke, here. It wasn’t, however, a joke that Burnsians have appreciated – in Victorian times, this letter was heavily edited, and now, in our politically correct times, my biographer opines that maybe Jean was in pain from the application of the Aaron’s rod.

Burns was a great believer in fucking, and recommended it as the remedy against war in his political poems, as in:

“Some cry Constitution
Some cry Revolution
And Politics kick up a Row:
But Prince and Republic
Agree on the subject
No treason is in a good mowe”

(mowe is the Scots for fuck.)

Burns, in fact, was a lot more happy about cunt – or cunthappy - than Biggie, who was much more sentimental and responsible in many ways:

What do you do
When your bitch is untrue?

This wasn’t such a problem for Burns, who had a looser sense indeed about untrue and not. My biographer claims that there is some evidence of Burns corresponding with Mary Wollstonecraft – I do wonder, if this is true, what could have been in those letters? But unlike a cocksman like, say, Henry Miller, Burns loved to look through the eyes of the very women he ‘seduced’. As Raymond Bentman has pointed out in his edition of the Collected Poems, no male eighteenth century poet, and perhaps no other comparable English poet, wrote as many poems in the female voice. His poem, Wha’ll mow me now? Is about the predicament he left many in – for instance, Jenny Clow in Edinburgh, who he seemed to have fucked primarily because she was the maid of an upper class woman he was obsessed with (Burns always fucked maids and peasants of his own class, and was always falling in love with upper class women). In this case, the woman is a prostitute:

Wha’’ll mow me now, my joe
An wha’ll mow me now
A sodger with his bandeleers
Has banged my belly fu’.

Now I maun stole the scornfu’ sneer
O mony a saucy quine
When, curse upon her godly face!
Her cunt’s as merry’s mine.

Biggie, too, mixes sex and class:

“The rap slayer the hooker layer
Muthafucka say your prayers
(Hail Mary full of grace)
Smack the bitch in her face
Take her Gucci bag and the North Face off her back
Jab her if she act
Funny wit the money
Oh you got me mistakin honey
I don't wanna rape ya
I just want the paper”

It is an old story, now, among the tracers of music, that the Scots song mixed in the south with African song, especially Fon and Yoruba songs. There were similar clan systems, similar raiding cultures, similar codes of honor and ecstasy. That some of Robert Burns has made its stealthy way into Biggie Smalls music should be no surprise. Burns was, as well, Walt Whitman’s model – a poet of the people, a literal ploughman poet, with little Latin, no Greek – but an early training in the schools that his father, a tenant farmer, could send him to. Like Biggie, Robert Burns early on found flash his way out of a society he felt was too small for him. This is Robert Louis Stevenson’s shrewd appraisal:

“Robert steps before us, almost from the first, in his complete character--a proud, headstrong, impetuous lad, greedy of pleasure, greedy of notice; in his own phrase "panting after distinction," and in his brother's "cherishing a particular jealousy of people who were richer or of more consequence than himself:" with all this, he was emphatically of the artist nature. Already he made a conspicuous figure in Tarbolton church, with the only tied hair in the parish, "and his plaid, which was of a particular colour, wrapped in a particular manner round his shoulders." Ten years later, when a married man, the father of a family, a farmer, and an officer of Excise, we shall find him out fishing in masquerade, with fox-skin cap, belted great-coat, and great Highland broadsword. He liked dressing up, in fact, for its own sake. This is the spirit which leads to the extravagant array of Latin Quarter students, and the proverbial velveteen of the English landscape-painter; and, though the pleasure derived is in itself merely personal, it shows a man who is, to say the least of it, not pained by general attention and remark. His father wrote the family name BURNES; Robert early adopted the orthography BURNESS from his cousin in the Mearns; and in his twenty-eighth year changed it once more to BURNS. It is plain that the last transformation was not made without some qualm; for in addressing his cousin he adheres, in at least one more letter, to spelling number two. And this, again, shows a man preoccupied about the manner of his appearance even down to the name, and little willing to follow custom. Again, he was proud, and justly proud, of his powers in conversation. To no other man's have we the same conclusive testimony from different sources and from every rank of life. It is almost a commonplace that the best of his works was what he said in talk. Robertson the historian "scarcely ever met any man whose conversation displayed greater vigour;" the Duchess of Gordon declared that he "carried her off her feet;" and, when he came late to an inn, the servants would get out of bed to hear him talk. But, in these early days at least, he was determined to shine by any means. He made himself feared in the village for his tongue. He would crush weaker men to their faces, or even perhaps - for the statement of Sillar is not absolute--say cutting things of his acquaintances behind their back. At the church door, between sermons, he would parade his religious views amid hisses. These details stamp the man. He had no genteel timidities in the conduct of his life. He loved to force his personality upon the world. He would please himself, and shine. Had he lived in the Paris of 1830, and joined his lot with the Romantics, we can conceive him writing JEHAN for JEAN, swaggering in Gautier's red waistcoat, and horrifying Bourgeois in a public cafe with paradox and gasconnade.”

Just as Biggie was by no means conventionally handsome, neither was Burns – every observer says he was too “dark” to be handsome. No milk white skin enveloped our poet, and his seductions had to be conducted by boldness and a gifted, supremely gifted tongue. Nelly Miller, who was a Mauchline neighbor, recalled that he “na to ca a bonie man: dark and strong; but uncommon invitin’ in his speech – uncommon! Ye could na hae cracket wi him for ae minute, but ya wad hae studen four or five.”

Even more than his flash, though, what disturbed the Victorians was his politics. The letter that he sent Ainslie about fucking Jean was repressed by Burnsians – the poem, The Liberty Tree, was disavowed as something that certainly couldn’t be by the author of Auld Lang Syne! With its cracking verse:

King Loui’ thought to cut it down
When it was unco sma’, man
For this the watchman cracked his crown
Cut off his head and a man.

Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, who drew back from the excesses of the French Revolution, Burns, who knew men were hanged for theft and women were transported for prostitution (a trade that he had some kindness for, except when it came to Marie Antoinette), was not disturbed by the murder of the royalty. “What is there in delivering a perjured blockhead and an unprincipled prostitute to the hands of the hangman.” Given the fact that it was awful easy, in 1793, for a man to get thrown into the hulks for Burns’ sentiments, he was pretty open about what he thought. But by 1793 he had seven kids and debts and was working as a cop – the equivalent, I suppose, of working as a Drug Enforcement agent. He was an exciseman, policing the district of Dumfries and capturing smugglers. This was a job that he had serious doubts about – after all, Burns’ favorite literary character was Satan in Paradise Lost. To keep himself in his job, he wrote the occasional servile poem of loyalty – but in all of them he would put in sly jabs at the King.

Biggie’s songs about drugs have the outlaw flavor of Burns’ own sentiments about politics. Supposedly, from the proceeds of one of his snatches, Burns bought some cannons and had them shipped to the French revolutionaries in 1792 – a pretty outrageous gesture.

Well, I should sign this off with a link to my favorite Biggie song – I can’t ever get enough of this song:

“When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell
Cause Im a piece of shit, it aint hard to fuckin tell
It dont make sense, goin to heaven wit the goodie-goodies
Dressed in white, I like black tims and black hoodies
God will probably have me on some real strict shit
No sleepin all day, no gettin my dick licked
Hangin with the goodie-goodies loungin in paradise
Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice
All my life I been considered as the worst
Lyin to my mother, even stealin out her purse
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wished she got a fuckin abortion
She dont even love me like she did when I was younger
Suckin on her chest just to stop my fuckin hunger
I wonder if I died, would tears come to her eyes?
Forgive me for my disrespect, forgive me for my lies”