“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, March 13, 2010

Leap into the void - the critique of Say's law




It is said – I think by John Kenneth Galbraith in his book on money – that Keynes, rejecting Says law, did not know Marx had been there before him, because Keynes found Marx’s writing repellently obscure. Joan Robinson – the Oxford economist [note - Cambridge economist, as Luke gently reminds me in the comments] and Keynesian – wrote: Keynes could never make head or tail of Marx…But starting from Marx would have saved him a lot of trouble.” [Quoted in Claudio Sardoni, Marx and Keynes in Jean Baptise Say: critical assessments of leading economists, vol. 2, 112] Say’s law is usually conveniently abridged as the idea that markets will always clear. Sardoni defines it as “underemployment from insufficient effective demand is impossible.”

Sardoni sums up Keynes position as follows: Keynes held that Say’s Law could apply only in an economy with characteristics far removed from those of a capitalist economy. In order for the law and all its corollaries to apply, the analysis must imply an economy where money is never kept idle, so that all savings are invested. Keynes labeled such a type of economy a ‘non-money economy’. In contradistinction, in a capitalist economy – a ‘monetary economy’ – a demand for idle money can exist, implying that the level of effective demand can be insufficient to ensure full employment.”

In econo-speak, where a thing is, a demand is – hence, if idle money exists, there is a demand for idle money. Such is the way to make the wheel turn round. But let’s disregard this.

Sardoni refers to Marx’s 1862 Theories of Surplus Value:

All the objections which Ricardo and others raise against overproduction etc. rest on the fact that they regard bourgeois production either as a mode of production in which no distinction exists between purchase and sale—direct barter—or as social production, implying that society, as if according to a plan, distributes its means of production and productive forces in the degree and measure which is required for the fulfilment of the various social needs, so that each sphere of production receives the quota of social capital required to satisfy the corresponding need. This fiction arises entirely from the inability to grasp the specific form of bourgeois production and this inability in turn arises from the obsession that bourgeois production is production as such, just like a man who believes in a particular religion and sees it as the religion, and everything outside of it only as false religions.

On the contrary, the question that has to be answered is: since, on the basis of capitalist production, everyone works for himself and a particular labour must at the same time appear as its opposite, as abstract general labour and in this form as social labour—how is it possible to achieve the necessary balance and interdependence of the various spheres of production, their dimensions and the proportions between them, except through the constant neutralisation of a constant disharmony? This is admitted by those who speak of adjustments through competition, for these adjustments always presuppose that there is something to adjust, and therefore that harmony is always only a result of the movement which neutralises the existing disharmony.


When Marx, in Capital, speaks of the double face of the sale-purchase relationship, you can see how thinking in terms of form and content – the emancipating gift given to him by Hegel that helped him understand ‘negative identity”, a barbarism to English ears, a leap out of the circle of common sense (much like that made by Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, when she finally understands Darcy) – helps him to see through Say’s law, and its presumed equilibrium. Common sense is common blindness - it is a tacit compact not to see certain things. What he sees is precisely what Keynes saw – that the presumption, here, fundamentally misunderstands the difference introduced by money, or rather, capital money. Just as the capitalist advances money to realize, at the end of the production process, a profit on selling the commodities that result from that process, so, too, can the capitalist wait with money on hand – ‘idle’ – within the market economy. Both of these are aspects of the degree of freedom the capitalist has captured by his position. There is no invisible hand forcing him to the optimum and socially beneficial effect of keeping his money continually mobilized. But, at the same time, the capitalist always has an interest in expanding the market – finding ever new markets – because of the peril posed by the fact that markets don’t always clear – that is, without destroying the sellers. Thus, crisis is folded into the very core of growth in the capitalist economy.

I should add a historical note here. Mainstream economists in the West still speak, as though zombified, of ‘full employment.” This is their way of reciting the Apostle’s creed. But if you decompose the economy of any Western country – any developed economy – you will find that full employment – if this is meant to refer to the private market – is a thing of the past. In the U.S., the most ‘laissez faire’ of developed economies, government employment – by which I mean all government employment, country, city, state and federal – has consistently accounted for around 15-18 percent of the employed population since the fifties. This bothersome fact is simply bracketed by economists who speak of full employment as though Say were alive and we were ruled by the Indian civil service of 1840. Here we see one of the great effects of what Polanyi called the ‘double movement’ – for not only has the state expanded to supply social welfare goods and services, but, in so expanding, has become the ultimate stopgap for the permanent underemployment created by the capitalist system. Marx, of course, lived in an era where employers having the whiphand could force down pay and increase work hours far beyond the point they are able to in most of the developed world today – and even in places like China, the brief period of Wild West capitalism is certainly coming to an end.

But to return to our hero.

The deeper meaning of the rejection of Say’s law is not that it mistakes the capitalist economy for a barter economy – but rather that the fundamental variables of classical economics, supply and demand, are not, in fact, fundamental.

Let me get all excited here – and in the next post, I’ll translate a bit from the third chapter. [Note: no - I'll leave the translation at the end of this post.]

Marx’s attack on Say (or similar errors in James Mill and Ricardo) is not just a technical matter, for it is here that the great machinery starts switching to full power. The alienation that is, as we have seen, the socially determined level of the unbearability of social arrangements by those disadvantaged by them of a given historical period – in this case, the proletariat; the increasing pace of the division of labor, which produces both specialization and a generalization of skills that has the effect of de-skilling, with the dynamic always tending to make the workers interchangeable; the secret of the commodity, happening behind the back of both the capitalist and the laborer; and, a constant in Marx, the global scope of capitalism, its outward push for new markets – something to some extent seen in the classical economists in their notion of decreasing returns to scale, but which Marx understood in terms of the complex given by capitalism, distinguishing it from past global enterprises of conquest, those attempted by the Alexander the Greats and Napoleons, because this conquest is driven by traveling salesmen and rentiers invested in railroad stocks and bonds. Where the liberals thought that trade would lead to peace, of course, Marx knew that it was founded on profound violence and would create the conditions for war. Marx’s rooting of the economy in the relations between the capitalists and the workers – defined in terms of the ownership of the means of production – gives him the perspective to see that the the equilibrium models of supply and demand that form the common stock between the classicals and the neo-classicals represent an idealization of a surface phenomenon, putting them at a loss to explain the crises that traverse the system, and forcing them to concoct romantic poems – models – that premise perfect competition and full employment, an entry point that cannot help but distort our understanding of the economic system, and that must buttress itself with a host of other fictions – the perfectly rational economic agent, rationality as a sort of perfect vision of the path to gain in the future, an agreement about gain as the most desireable of economic activities, etc.

So, I will translate the passage here:

Nothing can be more foolish than the dogma that the commodity circulation conditions a necessary equilibrium [Gleichgewicht] of sale and purchase, because every sale is a purchase and vice versa. If we mean by this that the number of really realized sales are equal to the number of their purchases, this is a flat tautology. But what demands proof is that the seller leads his own buyer to market. Sale and purchase are identical acts as the mutual interchange between two polar opposite persons, the commodity possessor and the money possessor. They depct two polar opposite acts as the actions of the same person. The identity of purchase and sale thus encloses the fact that the commodity becomes useless when it is thrown into the alchemical retort of circulation and comes out not as money, not sold by the commodity possessor, and thus bought by the money possessor. This identity further contains the fact that the process, when it succeeds, comes to a resting point, points to a portion of the life of a commodity, that can extend for a longer or shorter period. Since the first metamorphosis of commodities is simultaneously sale and purchase, this partial process is also at the same time an autonomous process. The buyer has the commodity, the seller the mone, which means, a commodity that has preserved the form of being capable of circulation, whether it appears in the market sooner or later. None can sell, without another buying. But nobody needs to buy unconditionally, because he himself has sold. Circulation breaks through the limits of production exchange, be their temporal, local or individual to the point that they divide the immediate present identity here between the exchange of own’s own and the intake of an alien product of labor into the opposition of sale and purchase. For the processes standing independently of one another form an inner unity, meaning that the inner unity moves in external oppositions. If the external becoming independent of the internal dependency of the moments (because they complete each other) continues up to a certain point, the unity makes itself felt through a violent crisis. The immanent opposition of use value and value inhering in the commodities, of private labor, that must present itself as immediately socialized labor, from specific concrete labor, that at the same time must be understood as abstract general labor, of the personification of things and the thingification of persons – this immanent contradiction contains in the oppositions of commodity metamorphosis its developed movement form. These forms thus invoive the possibility, but only the possibility of crises. The final development of this possibility demands for its realization a whole circuit of relationships, that from the standpoint of simple circulation do not yet exist. [My translation]

Friday, March 12, 2010

Our foundation is an earthquake: Marx doubts...


“The first work, that I undertook to resolve the doubt that assailed me…[zur Lösung der Zweifel, die mich bestürmten]

Marx is the Leo among philosophers. It is rare that he will express himself in terms of a personal “doubt.” The method of Descartes may have been all very well for his era, slowly freeing itself from the chains of scholasticism – but Marx did not see his own period as one in which the confession of doubts was at all helpful. Like the inventor of a machine who proposes to solve a material problem, Marx wanted, in his published work, to include those things of material relevance for describing and promoting the overthrow of capitalism. James Watt does not tell us of his doubts and woes, but tells us of the trials he makes of his machine, its failures and successes.

But in the introduction to the Critique of the Political Economy, Marx does feel the need to introduce himself a bit. Thus, the lion, for a moment, a mere flash, reverts to the pussy cat.

What is this doubt about? It regards the very fulcrum of society, and thus of social change. Marx first approaches the question through the study of jurisprudence, in its most philosophical form. But outside of his university classes, out there in the real world, what he sees is that the philosophical view of the law is unable to account for the basic movements that are occurring within the law – say the law of property. In fact, the law was being pulled along by economic forces. Instead of enforcing a definition of property arrived at logically, or from a study of legal precedent, legal precedent was being picked apart and re-arranged to justify vast shifts in property relations. And were these shifts decided by the state and imposed on the population? While his training in both law and Hegel might make this seem to be both the rational and real course of things, it seemed, instead, that the law simply caught up with exogenous pulls.

It is this simplified picture of social change that made Marx reach for a model that had an all too successful career in Marxism: the base/superstructure model. As so often in Marx, his postulates are announced with a certain music, a soundtrack, consisting of the noise of chains – fetters being dragged, or fetters being burst asunder:

“The general result that pressed itself upon me and, once I had gained it, served as the leading thread of my study, can be briefly formulated like this: In the social production of their lives persons enter into determined and necessary relationships independent of their will, that correspond to a specific stage of the development of their productive forces. The collectivity of these relationships of production depict the economic structure of society, the real basis, upon which a juridical and political superstructure is raised, and which corresponds to specific social forms of consciousness. The modes of production of material life condition the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of persons that determines their existence, but, inversely, their social existence, which determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material forces of production of a society come into contradiction with the prevailing relations of production, or (which is only the jurisprudential expression of this), with the relations of property, within which it have moved up to this time. Out of the forms of development of the forces of production, these relationships suddenly change into fetters. There then enters an epoch of revolution.”

Even here, where the base/superstructure notion – first mentioned in The German Ideology, I believe – makes its appearance as a ‘Leitfaden’, the metaphoric tends to metamophose. The superstructure becomes fetters, which implies that the superstructure is imprisoning the base upon which it rests.

This idea has, unfortunately, led to an infinite amount of writing in which all cultural, legal or political events and artifacts become the ‘expression’ of the base – a base which is a very funny thing for a base, as it keeps changing. The metaphoric difficulty here is not just a mere epiphenomena – since the metaphor is the way the model is pictured.

And yet, even if the misery generated by the base/superstructure metaphor makes me want to give it the evil eye and pass on, that would be a foolish thing to do. For Marx is in some ways more right than he knows, here; in addition, by making the base itself a source of change - merging the foundation with the earthquake – he finds the way out of his own model.

The clue that the imperfectly vertical metaphor of the base and the superstructure (in which the former operates not as a secure foundation, but as the very locus of change, and the latter operates not as a house, but as the prison that seeks to cage the earthquake on which it is built) made Marx uncomfortable is found in one of those footnotes in Capital in which the choral id of the system receives its play – although perhaps this is to confine the Marxian id too much, since surely it is at work in one of the first example of exchange in the Critique, that of a volume of Propertius against 8 ounces of snuff.

This is what Marx writes in note 34 of the first chapter of the first volume, breaking off from giving Bastian a drubbing:

“I will take this occasion in order to briefly address an objection which was made to me on the appearance of my text, To the Critique of the Political Economy, in 1859, in a German-American pamphlet. It was said that my insight, that the specific mode of production and its corresponding relations of production, in brief the ‘economic structure of that is the real basis, on which the juridical and political superstructure which are erected and to which specific social consciousness forms correspond that ‘the mode of production of material life in general conditions the social, political and intellectual life process – all of this was true for today, where material interests dominate, but not for the middle ages, where Catholicism, or for Athens and Rome, where politics ruled. Firstly it is strange that someone presumes that these well known clichés about the Middle Ages and Antiquity are unknown to a person. It is at least clear, that the Middle Ages could not live from Catholicism, nor the antique world from politics. The manner in which they gained their life explains, on the contrarcy, why in one case politics, and her Catholicism played the major roles. Anywy, it requires little acquaintance with the history of the Roman Republic, for example, to know, that the history of landed property images its secret history. On the other side, Don Quixote already paid for the error that he incurred by imagining that wandering chivalry was equally in accordance with all the economic forms of society.”

This is, in one way, a robust defense of the idea that the ‘secret history’ of the politics of a society is – to use an image Marx couldn’t have used – like x raying the politics and finding the mode of production behind it, the skull, or caput mortuum, behind the skin. And yet this actually changes the terms – the base and superstructure won’t stand still. For how has the base now become a secret history? In a sense, the base, here, is a secret shame – it is abasing. But surely there was nothing the Church or the Roman senate talked about more than rents, tithes, production, land, interest, etc. It was, if anything, an open secret, known to all men. There is a sense in which Marx, reaching to strip off the justifications of politics, becomes a sort of negative image of Don Quixote – mistaking politics or the law as pure epiphenomena, which, by stripping it of anything but a justificatory character, begs the question of why it needs to be justified in the first place. If Don Quixote mistakes the windmills for giants, isn’t Marx, here, mistaking the giants for windmills? The function of politics and law is utterly lost if they are utterly superstructure. By combating the dualism between the idealist and the materialist, we lose, here, our sense of the dense knitting of reciprocities of which politics, religion and culture must be a part.

There’s a passage in James Buchan’s Essay on Money, Frozen Desire, in which he, too, examines Don Quixote, in the light of the influx of gold from the Indies. Actually, it is in light of the confrontation between a society that is already on its way to fetishizing money, in terms of Gold, and a society in which gold is primarily an ornament. The latter should not be taken to mean ‘only’ an ornament – the only is introduced by the cash nexus. Buchan, a marvelous rifler of the old books, quotes Cortes’ words as recorded by Gomora’s History of New Spain – asked by the Mexican ambassadors sent by Monteczuma why he had landed in Mexico, Cortes explained the ‘disease of the heart, that infirmity, that we have, my companions and I, and that we cure with gold.” Yet in Spain itself, which like all of Europe in 1492 suffered perpetually from a lack of money in circulation, the disease and the cure weren’t well understood – and of course, by understood, I mean felt. Buchan takes up not the fight against the windmills, but the first aventura, in which Don Quixote, mounted on Rosinante, comes to an inn which, of course, he doesn’t see as such:

“In the adventures of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, we at last have a hero who confronts the world of money in all its fluidity and relativity, not on its own terms,

“He [the innkeeper] asked if he had any money on him, and Don Quixote replied that he hadn’t a penny on him, for he’d never read in the histories of the knight-errant of anyone who had.”

but on his own. Like Columbus, he hadn’t got a blanca; unlike Columbus, he doesn’t care. He mounts his steed, which has more quarters than a real, and sets out to do battle not just with the world of capital – configured in the famous windmills – but with money itself. In the process, Don Quixote inaugurates in prose, which is the language of commerce, the novel of the modern West, whose very greatest exemplars – Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, the Wings of the Dove –re-stage that combat to the death of money and romance.”

From the margins, I’d put my two cents in here, that the narrative regression that we are experiencing in our culture can be measured precisely in terms of the fact that Hollywood, unblickingly, has created whole worlds in which the heros, villains, comedy and tragedy contend with money only, if at all, as an intermittent plot device – their clothing, houses, food, autos, all are simply givens, existing to cretinize the audience into a sort of compromise Quixoteism of absolute greed.

But to return to our texts.

Marx’s rather worried footnote is not false – but it falsifies the import of the base superstructure image. Which, as we have seen, does more dancing than the wooden table in the Commodity Fetishism chapter.

I am reminded of Karl Polanyi’s notion that the economy as defined by the non-Marxist political economists of the nineteenth century – that is, in terms of self-regulating markets – actually induced a political remedy – what Polanyi called the double movement. On the one hand, the movement to “free the markets” – on the other hand, the movement to regulate them. This movement responds to the collective effect of capitalism, or the Great Transformation – disembedding economics from its place in the social and attempting to embed the social in economics.

“… never before our own time were markets more than accessories of economic life. As a rule, the economic system was absorbed in the social system, and whatever principle of behavior predominated in the economy, the presence of the market pattern was found to be compatible with it. The principle of barter or exchange, which underlies this pattern, revealed no tendency to expand at the expense of the rest. Where markets were most highly developed, as under the mercantile system, they throve under the control of a centralized administration which fostered autarchy both in the households of the peasantry and in respect to national life. Regulation and markets, in effect, grew up together. The self-regulating market was unknown; indeed the emergence of the idea of self-regulation was a complete reversal of the trend of development. It is in the light of these facts that the extraordinary assumptions underlying a market economy can alone be fully comprehended.”

Marx makes, then, a valid point through the use of the base/superstructure metaphor, but the metaphor can’t really contain that point, overdetermined as it is with both an implicit value system that comes with vertical metaphors (the base as, indeed, base) and failing to structure the relations between the base and the superstructure in such a way that we understand the way in which an economic dynamic axis is embedded in society. Life, for humans, is social life – you are not going to get down to the natural basics, food, sex, shelter, and find some a-social element. But the vertical ideology is a powerful reaction formation to the money economy in the West, a disguised piece of nostalgia.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Money just seems to make the world go around




There is a drop of blood on the ground
And it seems to me that it's not my kind
but I can't be sure if its yours or mine



Substitution. Replacement. Fungibility. I have so far been hammering home a point about one of the great, novel features of capitalism, but it is a point that is, inherently, difficult to express. When money is paid for an object, in one sense it operates as a substitute for the object – and in one sense it doesn’t. For the object does not operate as a substitute for money. If I pay 2 dollars for a bag of sugar, as we all know, this does not mean that I can then go into a store and trade my bag of sugar for 2 dollars worth of oranges. In this way, money is a commodity unlike any other in the body of commerce. “It is a matter of complete indifference to money into what kind of commodities it is transformed. It is the universal equivalence form of all commodities, which already show in their prices, that ideally they represent a specific amount of money, awaiting their transformation into money, and only through changing places with money maintain the form in which they are convertible into use values for their possessor.” [Capital II, 36 – my translation] The principle of substitution, the universal equivalence seemingly embodied in cash, not only supplants the system of in-kind payments which, theoretically, held together the feudal world – it becomes a sort of multiplier of other substitutions. Or, to put it another way, it reveals the variables that structure the new world of capitalist production, most notably in the convergence of the specialization and fungibility of the worker.

But is money really, then, impervious to all social boundaries? On one level – for instance, in buying a bag of sugar – money holds its place as a great converter. But though the capitalist would like to think that the worker is merely a screw, a stopgap, Marx clearly does not believe that the human – the social - is so easily liquidated. Rather, we must operate one of those inversions of the terms in place to help us see what is happening here:

“If M-L appears as a function of money capital, or money here as the existence form of capital, thus in no simply because the money steps out here as a means of payment for human activity, which has a useful effect, that is, for a service; thus absolutely not through the function of money as a means of payment. Money can only be disbursed in this form, because the labor power finds itself in the circumstance of being divided from its means of production (including the means of subsistence [Lebensmittel as the means of the production of labor power itself); and because this division can only be abolished through the fact that the labor power is sold to the possessor of the means of production. Thus, even the mobilization of labor power, whose limits are not synonymous with the limits of the necessary quantity of labor involved in the production of its own price, belongs to the buyer. The capital relationship emerges during the production process because it exists in the act of circulation, in the different basic economic conditions by which the buyer and seller confront each other, in their class relationship. It is not in the nature of money that the relationship is given; it is rather the existence of this relationship that makes it possible to transform a simple monetary function into a capital one.” [Capital bk. 2, 36 – my translation. Compare with the David Fernbach Penguin translation, p. 115]

As a character says in Moulin Rouge, “a girl has got to eat/or she’ll end up on the street.” Money’s power as a universal equivalent, in the capitalist era, gives to the capitalist a weapon. That weapon derives from the division of labor. The weapon does not fall from heaven. Rather, all must agree on the weapon, as in a game in which the opponents moves against each other reference agreed upon rules. Why would the worker agree to these rules? Because of the division of labor that separates the worker from the means of production. In this game, one side created the rules – we will call them, as Marx did, the bourgeoisie. I hasten to say that this is not a whole truth – Marx sometimes considers that the rulemakers, the state, are only tools of the capitalist class, and sometimes complicates the base/superstructure model. In fact, he would have no interest in democracy at all if a strong version of the base/superstructure model held – whereas he is always politically throwing his weight on the side of democracy, suffrage, all the gains of the French revolution. However, leaving this aside for the moment - it is in the interest of the (variously changing members) of those who own the means of production that the weapon will be agreed upon in as much as the can valorize their ownership of the means of production. Notice, you tastemongers of dialectics, that this means only that the form of money is agreed upon – the substance – including its practical loss or gain of value, inflation or deflation – is not under the control of the ownership class. Seeds here for future drama.

There is no such thing as good work

I absolutely love the following excerpt, which better captures what it is like to hang around with Chicago economists than just about any quote I have ever seen:

“We should have a recession,” [John] Cochrane said in November, speaking to students and investors in a conference room that looks out on Lake Michigan. “People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.” - Freakonomics blog




In a famous passage in The German Ideology (which I take to be ironic), Marx writes that, as a result of the revolutionary takeover of society by communism, the person will be able to “do this today, to do that tomorrow, in the morning hunt, in the afternoon fish, in the evening herd the cattle, after dinner criticize, as I have a mind to, without becoming a hunter, fisher, herder or critic.” Of course, Marx, more percipiently, warns against dreaming of communism in terms of the beatific everyday life – communism is not a state of affairs but a movement within society.

Why this emphasis, however, on not becoming a hunter, fisher or herder? In other words, why this push against the division of labor?

As Marx well knows, the division of labor did not start with capitalism. And as he also knows, it is precisely due to the specialization of labor that capitalism has released the enormous productive potential of human society. In fact, when we read about cities that have been besieged, struck by earthquake, or undergone some other disaster, the key note is the collapse of specialization. All tasks become arduous precisely because the division of labor that we unconsciously rely upon vanishes. When reading Lydia Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary of the great siege of Leningrad, we are acutely aware that people are being worn down to grubby points because they have to do everything in their private lives themselves, from figuring out how to find a way to heat whatever shelter they have found to scrounging for food and disposing of their wastes in subzero temperature. In Port au Prince, the earthquake that destroyed an already weak and incompetent state left people to fend for themselves – and they did so by spontaneously dividing up the labor in neighborhoods, some guarding houses, some rescuing the wounded, some going out for water, etc. Even so, these ad hoc divisions were extremely inefficient, as the material embodiment of specialization – the tools of all sorts that they needed – were hard to come by.

In fact, the life of doing one thing today, and another thing tomorrow, and not becoming one thing – the life of the jack of all trades on the American frontier – is not a sustainable or desirable proposition. It is a boy’s life vision of society.

Marx was no utopianist. He decisively shifts ground in the Communist manifesto, and changes the focus of the communist negation to private property.

But the original attack on division of labor should not be dismissed as simply a mistake. It is, rather, a response to one of the great structural paradoxes of capitalism, which is that increasing specialization of labor takes place at the same time as the increasing fungibility of the laborer. On the one hand, Marx knows that if the division of labor is dissolved, the cities will tumble into ruin, and we will be left with the rural idiocy of the peasant or the a-social cunning of the frontiersman. On the other hand, let specialization metastasize, and it produces a strange result – the worker gradually sheds, at least from the point of view of the capitalist, all skill whatsoever. He becomes, as Nietzsche puts it, the stopgap for some future machine. The assembly line worker who puts screws into such and such a machine in precisely the right order has himself, in Nietzsche’s words, become a screw – a mere devise. In Alfred Chandler’s Visible Hand: the Managerial Revolution in American Business, he gives this account of an early ‘traditional’ American enterprise: “As early as 1795, Oliver Evans constructed a continuous process flour mill on the Brandywine Creek in Delaware. This mill annually milled 100,000 bushels of wheat into flour. It employed six workers who spent most of their time closing barrels.” [55] The six workers were exercising little skill in closing barrels. They were employed for their willingness to close barrels and their physical capacity to do so. Another employee of a different kind of mill in the 1830s, this time in a novel, is described first in relation to the mechanism by which the mill ran:

“The roof is held up by rafters supported on four stout wooden pillars. Nine or ten feet from the ground, in the middle of the shed, one sees a saw which moves up and down, while an extremely simple mechanism thrusts forward against this saw a piece of wood. This is a wheel set in motion by the mill lathe which drives both parts of the machine; that of the saw which moves up and down, and the other which pushes the piece of wood gently towards the saw, which slices it into planks.”
[Scott-Montcrieff, trans.]

The employee, who was also the son of the sawmill owner, was Julien Sorel – the novel Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. The ingenious mechanism that made the sawmill work was, at the same time, the emblem of the unrelieved tedium that Julien saw before him if he remained in his father’s house. He wanted – as so many of the young men in novels did - a profession. And as so many young men of the 1830s did, his idol was Napoleon, the ultimate emblem of upward mobility.

Thus it comes about that to be both specialized and absolutely fungible was the condition of the worker under capitalism. This, of course, gives rise to a diffuse but socially palpable form of melancholy. For within the social order as a whole, the worker was faced by the fact of his enormous non-necessity. There is, still, a trace left by the craftsman or the peasant – the touch, the style – which was constructed within an order in which necessity is the product of a chain of being reaching up to God and down to the devil. However, that trace is vanishing. And when one comes to the service sector proletariat, that lack of a trace, that feeling of absolute fungibility, that absence of style, can become overwhelming in exact proportion to the fact that the labor required to be a clerk is educated labor. The literature of the clerk, from Charles Lamb to Pessoa and Kafka, is one of ever more ferocious daydreaming, in response to ever more monotonous tasks. Style, here, becomes Bartleby’s I prefer not to – stopping the machine. Which is, as the clerk is educated enough to know, not a real response.

There is, of course, another potent symbol of the effect of specialization and absolute fungibility: the mass layoff. Laying off workers according to some formula that quantifies over them is the overt acknowledgement, on the part of the capitalist, of what is otherwise hidden by the system: there is no such thing as good work.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Capital from the point of view of Revolution


Take! Take! Take! Take! Take! Take! Take! Take!

In number 206 of Dawn, Nietzsche addresses the worker problem under the heading of three “phooeys”:

The impossible estate [Stand] – Poor, joyous [froehlich] and independent! – all of that together is possible; poor, joyous and slave! – that is also possible – and I don’t know what I could tell the laborers of factory slavery better than: given, that you do not feel that it is generally a scandal to be exploited to such a degree, as it were, as a screw of a machine and something like a stopgap of human ingenuity! Phooey! [Pfui] to believe, that through higher pay the essence of your misery, I mean, your impersonal enslavement, will be lifted! Phooey! To let yourself be persuaded that the scandal of slavery can be made a virtue through an increase in this impersonality within the mechanical enterprise of a new society! Phooey!to have a price for which one becomes no longer a person, but a screw! Are you co-conspirators [Mitverschworenen] in the present folly of nations which, before all else, wants to produce as much as possible and get as rich as possible!”

The Dawn was written in 1881, at a time when, as the British quarterly review put it that year, “some Social Democrats have deserted Lassalle’s standard and openly gone over as State Socialists to Bismarck as their leader. Both the so-called “Christian socialists” and the “State Socialistts” calim for the new programme of Bismarck that it has effected the commencement of a separation of the reasonable portion of the Social Democrats from their revolutionary dreams and associations.” [Vol. 75, 443]

Nietzsche’s contempt for Bismarck’s combination of strategic aggression abroad and social insurance at home permeates his writing, and makes him difficult to locate on any map of modern politics – like de Maitre, but for different reasons, he sets himself against the entire project of political modernity, which Bismarck’s politics prefigure.

Given this nihilistic political position, what is Nietzsche’s solution to a problem of Gogolian dimensions – that is, the transformation of man into screw?

After leaping to another metaphor – that of the pied piper of Hamelin, or ‘pipers’ – as Nietzsche conceives of the socialists – who make the workers warm [brünstig – literally, put them in heat] with wild hopes of the day of the ‘bestia triumphans’ – against this Nietzsche has some advice:

Against this each should think to himself: “rather to wander out to become Lords in wild and fresh areas of the globe, and to become lord firstly over myself; to change places so long as any kind of sign of slavery still marks me [Zeichen von Sklaverei mir winkt]; to not avoid adventure and war, and in the worst cases hold myself prepared for death: only to no longer this indecent servitude, only no longer this becoming acidic and poisonous and conspiratorial.” This would be the right idea: the laborer in Europe should make themselves advocates as an estate for a human impossibility, and not only, as mostly happens, declare themselves as something hard and pointlessly instituted; they should lead an age of great swarming out in the European beehive, as has never yet been experiences, and through this act of freedom in the great style protest against the machine, Capital and the current threat of suffrage, to have to become either the slave of the state or slave of the overthrow party. Let Europe be lightened by a quarter of its population: it and they will be lighter at heart! In the distance, only, by the employments of the swarming colonists, there will emerge recognizable features, how much good reason and cleverness, how much healthy mistrust of mother Europe has been inherited by its sons – these sons which could not longer bear to stay in the proximity of the dull old woman… [My translations]

Nietzsche’s advice, of course, takes no account of the populations that might be living in those ‘fresh’ places of the earth. On the other hand, this is no call for state imperialism. In fact, as Nietzsche well knew, that swarming out was going on already.

Which leads us back to the limit of the bearable in Marx. In the wake of the failure of 1848, there was a massive immigration of Germans to America. From 1852 until the Civil War, nine hundred thousand Germans immigrated – and after the Civil War until the 1890s, there was a remarkable influx of between 100-200 thousand per year on average. Of course, in the wake of the Irish famine, the flow of Irish also increased – although of course the Irish also emigrated to England – with the numbers averaging between 70-100,000 from the much smaller population of Ireland. And so it goes. According to Raddatz, Marx’s pathographer – to use Joyce Carol Oate’s term for biographers who present themselves as hanging judges – Marx exchanged letters with the Burgomeister of Trier, his home town, in 1845, in which he claimed to be planning to emigrate to America – which, in Marx’s case, was only a ruse to get the Prussian spies off his back.

The 19th century was a time of the great movement of the peoples – one could even say that the choice, in Europe, seemed to be that between revolution and emigration. As I’ve tried to show, the concepts Marx is dealing with in the forties – alienation, universal history, ideology – all converge on revolution –the dynamic force in history. But revolution doesn’t automatically arise out of oppression. It works to make history in as much as it disturbs history’s ‘manorial’ process – the inheritance – the passing down - of the “historically created relation to nature and the individual” of one generation to the next – which plays a part in the general rule in The German ideology. That massive inheritance – in Edmund Burke’s words, traditional society – has a tendency to get out of synch with the real social conditions that arise in these generation, where the sum of the forces of production tend to transform quantitative change into qualitative change.

All of which give us the general outline of a problem that is eclipsed, in the Communist Manifesto, by the broad historical sweep, and the listing of proletariat grievances. As we’ve pointed out, the basis for the worker’s ‘uniting’ requires that we retain the notion of alienation, even if it is translated into the analysis of the exploitation at the root of the capitalist valorization process. Still, victimization is not enough. Marx’s writings in the forties treat the working class mainly in terms of its lack of property (they have nothing to lose but their chains). A world historical lack – as Marx well knows – does not the overthrow of a system make.

We pair socialism or communism so naturally with the working class that we don’t notice, as Kautsky did, that this synthesis was forged by Marx.

Thus – in my view, there’s no epistemological break in Marx’s work, but rather the creation of a research problem that the economic works address, always with revolution – rather than any model, including that of labor value economics – as the central truth-maker. It is in relation to revolution that Marx writes Capital. To use notions that fill out this problematic ground in Capital itself is unnecessary – what Marx wants to do is see if these notions can be derived from the analysis of Capital, rather than imposed from without. Marx, the insider from the outside.

Monday, March 08, 2010

the sensual reality of time/the social reality of time

History is made of time – evidently. But time, we should remember, is a socially processed parameter in our lives. It is to this parameter that Marx will turn in Capital, putting to use insights from the theoretical phase of his work in the 1840s. This is from the German ideology – I would love to be able to spin on at length about the tree that ends this passage, since wood – and the organic growth time embodied in wood – is a sort of background noise in much of Marx’s writing. Trees have a special place in Marx – after all, it was the forest laws that he criticized in Köln which, on his own account, started his intellectual journey from philosophy and law to the political economy.

“He [Feuerbach] doesn’t see, how the sensual world around him is not immediately given by eternity, an always self-same thing, but instead is the product of industry and social circumstances, in the sense of actually being a historical product, the result of the activity of a whole series of generations of which each stood on the shoulders of its predecessors, constructing its industry and commerce, modifying its social order according to its altered needs. Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensual reality’ are present to him only through social development, given through industry and commercial interactions. The cherry, as almost all fruit tress, was, as is well known, only planted a few centuries ago through trade in our zone and was thus first through this action of a determined society in a determined time given to the “sensual certainty” of Feuerbach’s.”

As is well known, Marx cast a jaundiced eye on country life – the idiocy of country life, as he liked to call it. Of course, Marx’s phrase has a scholastic side – the idios, the private man, is the man who doesn’t participate in the life of the polis. He is the clown in Shakespeare – for clown, etymologically, takes us back to the inhabitant of the backwater, cultivators of the soil, colonnus.
One of the social aspects of country life that creates the clown is the allotment of time. Marx, in Capital, uses the time of the day as the great natural parameter with which the worker, under capitalism, deals. But this natural parameter is, as is always the case in Marx, not simply a given ‘sensual reality” – rather, it is an indicator of a great change in the mode of production. The temporal determinants in the cultivation of the soil are seasons. Of course, under the season comes the working day – but, in the 1840s, there is nothing to do but wait upon the time of growth of the plant or animal. A few years ago, I reviewed Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and I made much of the sparsity of his data in relation to the generality of this conclusions. One of his data points irritated me more than most – a comparison of the use of time of the European peasant compared to the use of time of the Chinese peasant. Gladwell took a passage from, I believe, Robert Gildea about the 18th century French peasant, who went into semi-hibernation during the winter, as opposed to the rice cultivating Chinese peasant, who was active all the year round. This was wrong on every count. Historians, work in the line of Charles Tilley (among whom Jan de Vries, with his notion of the “Industrious revolution”, is important), have destroyed the clownish image of the peasant as the simple herder or cultivator – as James Richard Farr points out, even in 1600, there were probably more looms than plows in Picardy, as cottage production was a vital source of peasant incomes. De Vries quotes a study by George Grantham of the increase in agricultural productivity before the 1840s – when Marx, of course, wrote the Communist Manifesto – which attributes that increase to more productive time use:
“Technical innovation was not a central feature of the growth of agricultural output throught he 1840s, when the appearance of commercial fertilizers and the elaboration of mechanical harvesting equipment began significantly to affect methods of production. Rather, up to that time, the growth of output depended more on intensive use of known technology than on novel methods.”

But even given this more complex picture of economic life, the peasant world was governed by longer increments of social time. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the capitalist system was to replace this parameter with another – the time of the working day. Even as we have developed the information networks that, in many ways, seem to make the factory working day an anachronism, capital still clings to it fiercely.