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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Gunpowder and Money

George Bernard Shaw’s play, Major Barbara, came out in the year 1905. In that year, the industries of Europe and the United States were humming, and none more so than the Nobel Dynamite trust. Alfred Nobel not only invented safe explosives, but – in his search for strategic partners – he helped invent a new, multi-national corporate form. Munitions industries were peculiar things in the Europe of the time. Many of them were state run, on the premise that the state alone should be trusted with management of weapons manufacture and the secrets of weapon improvement.

Nobel, of course, was not manufacturing for the state. His dynamite built the railroads – or at least blasted out the tunnels through which track was laid – and opened up new passages in mines. Through complicated contracts with Dupont and various German chemical companies, Nobel and associates pretty much dominated the world explosives market. And given the need for ever new markets, the cartel also developed explosives for military use. Thus it came about that in the years before WWI, there was a lively interchange of chemical formulas for blowing things up in ever new and creative ways between Imperial Britain and Imperial Germany.

Shaw’s play is a paen to money, from the point of view of a man who called himself a socialist. The millionaire Undershaft confesses his deepest belief in a conversation with his potential son in law, the Greek scholar Cusins:

“CUSINS. You know, I do not admit that I am imposing on Barbara. I am quite genuinely interested in the views of the Salvation Army. The fact is, I am a sort of collector of religions; and the curious thing is that I find I can believe them all. By the way, have you any religion?
UNDERSHAFT. Yes.
CUSINS. Anything out of the common?
UNDERSHAFT. Only that there are two things necessary to Salvation.
CUSINS [disappointed, but polite] Ah, the Church Catechism. …
UNDERSHAFT. The two things are--
CUSINS. Baptism and--
UNDERSHAFT. No. Money and gunpowder.”

Shaw’s relish of paradoxes has not always worn so well. For instance, the ‘paradox’ that a courted woman also does the courting is not exactly a shocking state of affairs for anybody outside the narrow circle of the Irish Protestant society in which Shaw grew up. Henry James is infinitely more subtle about such things. But in announcing the gospel of money and gunpowder, Shaw found an enduring paradox, one that still digs into us if only because it is a paradox that has unfolded at the cost of tens of millions of lives in the 20th century. The wealthiest nations have also all been the most savage nations. Their wealth stinks of gunpowder. And even those countries that have not, themselves, been great aggressors, as for instance Nobel’s Sweden, have accumulated great wealth by selling weapons to those who want to, and will, use them. In the U.S., the military has long been an economic mainstay, the sector from which all good things flow – such as computers and the internet.

While I have been working out the pattern of Marx’s central thoughts, I have been interested in projecting them against our current circumstances, and the historical circumstances that lie between us and Marx. In the developed world, those circumstances have led to a post-industrial political economy – that is, a shift of the great mass of workers from manufacturing work to circulation work. Just as the agricultural sector was ruthlessly shrunk in the developed economies and is being ruthlessly shrunk in the second wave of development in China and India, so, too, was manufacturing.

These developments came about, partly, as a result of the 20th centuries numerous crises and wars, which seem to cycle between money and gunpowder. Yet, the record of crisis seems to offer us another paradox on the Shavian scale: the crises have strengthened, rather than weakened, the hold of capitalism in general upon us. If we define capitalism solely as ‘free enterprise’, of the ‘private sector’, this may not seem to be the case. Every economy of any size has adopted the mixed economy model, with a considerable part allotted to the state.

But if we define capitalism according to Marx’s standards, viz, a system of production dependent on wage labor, in which value is determined by the abstract labor time embodied in goods and services, then certainly we are still in the belly of the beast.

Looking at the crisis of 2008-2009, we see that it, too, falls into the pattern of crises that strengthen, rather than weaken, the hold of the capitalist oligarchs. There is, however, a difference between this crisis and those of the first half of the twentieth century. In the latter, the working class as a whole came out better than it went in. This time – or perhaps I should say, in the crises that have erupted over the last thirty years – the working class will be considerably weaker than when they came into it. Among the developed economies, the conviction in the oligarchic circles is that competition will demand the takedown of working class perks, and the reversal of working class salaries. The position of the working class had already deteriorated during the boom years, and it is evident that, given one of the unquestioned structures of our society – the increasing appropriation of surplus value by the capitalist oligarchs – capitalism can no longer afford a huge ‘middle class.’ Or I should say, it can’t afford it unless growth is of such a size that the bigger bite taken out by the investor class still allows the fortunes of the middle class to grow. In the Anglosphere, where the concentration of wealth at the top is the greatest, the mix of policies aimed at squeezing middle class salaries while pumping up middle class consumption has bumped up against the limit formed by that proportionality. In other words, the limit is the class composition of the ‘national’ wealth itself. The symptoms of this underlying malaise are everywhere: in the vacant house with the foreclosed sign, in the development of housing in the flood plains around Sacremento and the hurricane vulnerable Florida coast, in the two worker family that lives on income coming in and is in no position to buffer any sudden shocks with savings, and in the curious death of military Keynesianism as a tool that would give a big bang to an otherwise slow business cycle. In the 00s, the government threw trillions into the military, with no appreciable effect on employment numbers. Although the crisis struck, we are told, in 2008, that really means simply that the richest fortunes were imperiled in 2008. The median income household has been going through a crisis since 2000. The machine in the bowels of our noosphere has stopped.

So, let’s look at what the Grundrisse has to say.

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