“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 20, 2010

Competition: chose your level and make your bets

We don’t know what is preferable for us: to defeat them or to be defeated. The sons of Dhritarashtra are in front of us. In killing them, we will lose the will to live. – 6th verse, 2nd chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, from the French translation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

“Within the social circumstances prevailing by way of capitalist production, even the not capitalistic are dominated by capitalist notions [Vorstellung]. In his last novel, the Peasants, Balzac, through a deep comprehension of real relationships, strikingly represents in general the small farmer who, in order to remain in the good graces of his moneylender, performs all kinds of labor gratuitously, not thinking that he is giving him anything, because his own labor doesn’t cost himself any ready money. The moneylender on his side thus kills two flies with one blow. He is spared spending money himself in wages and entangles the farmer, for whom the lack of working on his own field is more and more ruinous, deeper and deeper in the toils of the web of usury.” Capital, 1904 Book 3, 14 [My translation]

Adam Smith’s theory gave a robust place to competition in the changing but stable composition of the ‘natural order’ of the economy. Partly, this role was dictated by Smith’s polemic against monopolies - they disturb the economy, that ‘disturbance’ being underlined by their deviation from the natural order of competition. Of course, for Smith, monopoly is a state intrusion into the private sphere – and indeed, one could say that is still so, insofar as the frontier of intellectual property has replaced the frontier of ‘fresh’ territories. But that polemic is partly based on the idea that competition will make for the social good, as it would lower the price of goods. This is obviously good for conumsers. For the capitalists, as competitors, this will create an incentive to the most efficient operation of the enterprise, and make any technological innovation welcome, in as much as it displaces rivals.

Now, as I have pointed out, the ideological work of the capitalist system is seen at its most successful in creating the character mask of the competitor for the laborer. In our time, the workers work against each other not only in terms of the price they put, or can put, on their work, but also in as much as they must partake of the treadmill of skilling and de-skilling, which has advanced beyond what it was in the first industrial era - much as Marx predicted. The capitalist system seeks the maximum level of interchangeability among all the members of what I’d broadly call the working class – that is, the class who do not own the means of production. Thus, as members of that class strive to attain a higher price for their skills – investing in education and training – the organizations that hire them strive to devalue those skills by breaking down the peculiarities inherent in their routines. That is, the system strives to make them purely quantifiable. Consequently, we see such things as this: in the white collar world – say, of academia – the ‘uniqueness’ of the academic skill set is continually confronted (and the academic anguished by) the quantitative protocols by which the organization not only judges it, but by which it shapes an interchangeable work force. This is true everywhere there is R and D – the single inventor is replaced with the laboratory worker, the engineer is continually forced to market his labor inside the organization, etc. In the eighties, it became faddish – and still is – to speak of the worker’s “owning” their projects. Now, of course, the workers know that the projects are owned by the company. But the false ownership relation does its ideological work by turning the workers into small entrepreneurs, engaged in rivalry one with the other, or in temporary alliances. In this way, the workers never face the organization as an associated whole. To call the project workers the ‘owners’ of the project is an interesting instance of what Althusser meant by interpellation – that the first ideological act is the identification implicit in greeting, so to speak.

This is almost all I want to say, at the moment, about competition on the level of the relations of the workers among each other.

Competition as the system wide entrance of the capitalist system into world history has a history in Marx that we have been following too. One way of thinking about it –as per Marx’s example, taken from Balzac – is this: wherever the full force of capitalism confronts non-capitalist economic formations, capitalism devises strategies to exploit that formation. Capitalism, in other words, plays to win. The non-capitalist formation – or at least, those formations that might be considered ‘pre-capitalistic’, with different bonds and obligations that shape what can and cannot be exchanged, what the worker is aiming to achieve, how ‘property’ is owned, and in general, what rules govern the reciprocities that make up the non-capitalist economic order – does not, similarly, play to win. It may resist with military force, but it does not expand – that is, it does not expand against the capitalist system. The Apaches may seize the territory of the Navajos, or the Comanches may raid San Antonio, but their sense of purpose does not have any correspondent to the capitalist desire for new markets.

There are 20th century anthropologists who would disagree with this to some extent. Yet I will hold this out as a general rule over the last three centuries. Although within the capitalist system, as I have insisted, there are strong subsystems structured by reciprocities that capitalism has never been able to overturn, and which it even depends on – the transactional order, to use Maurice Bloch’s term, of the non-capitalist French peasant will never win in its contest with capitalism. It will never even become fully conscious that it is competing until the competition is over – hence, the strong nostalgic impulse in the literature of whatever culture in which this competition has been staged.

But how about the Smithian level of the capitalist class itself? How can we rely on the solidarity of that class, as Marx does, to understand the essential features of capitalism, if that solidarity yields, so easily, to competition among the capitalists?

In fact, there is a certain folk believe that this is where Marx was wrong. The story goes like this: although in the first stage of capitalism, it was to the interest of the great industrialists to lengthen the work day and diminish wages to the greatest extent possible, at the same time a sector was emerging that depended on the sale of consumer goods – and thus, allied with the workers to pass government imposed reforms that made mitigated the plight of the workers and made them a market. These consumer goods were peculiar in that they increased return on investment, instead of decreasing it. The basic design of an automobile, for instance, allowed for numerous kinds of automobiles to be made, and through marketing and further design, for the conumer to be continually in the market for a new automobile. Thus, competition of various kinds – between branches of production, and between capitalists in the same branch of production – produced an incentive that, firstly, set the standard level of living above the subsistence level, which meant that the workers were not only able to replenish their life functions and become consumers upon whom capitalists depended, but also actually accumulate assets. Keynes once speculated that rentier capitalism would die in the future, as there was less and less need for the rentier. Instead, it widened to include a considerable portion of the working class.

A variant of this folk story has been the legend under which we have lived for the past thirty years.

More in my next post.

Friday, March 19, 2010

the face of necessity: competition

“The true mystificator seeks not to appear to be one, but to be one. On the contrary, Mallarmé is paradoxically conscientious about appearing to be a mystificator in order not to be one. One has already seen this in relation to his obscurity. Imbued with that truth that the highest art is accessible only to the very few, he did as he wanted to by intentionally emphasizing the hermetic side of his genius, sparing the public the pretention to understand him, the error to suppose that they did understand him.” – Thibaudet on Mallerme

But the affair here has yet another background. With insight into the nexus collapes, long before the practical collective collapse, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions. Thus, it is in the absolute interest of the ruling classses to eternalize thoughtless confusion. And why otherwise would the sycophantic pundits (Schwätzer – enthusiasts) be paid, that are able to play no other scientific trumpcard, as that one ought not to think at all in political economics!

Yet satissu perque. In any case it is shown how very much these pastors of the bourgeoisie are mistaken, that workers and business people understand a book and you yourself have found your bearings in it, while these scribes (!) complain, that it is quite an indecent thing to put their understanding at a loss.“
- Marx, letter to Kugelmann over Capital, July 7th 1868.

Irony has many sins on its conscience, even if it is the most useful of all tropes – one of which is that, ironically, what is labeled as ironic is often simply unexpected or paradoxical. We live in the era in which the irony of the masters has become the irony of circumstances. Hardy’s phrase is correct.

And thus, the question of understanding. Mallarme wrote with the full expectation that he would be understood by the few; Marx wrote with the full expectation that he would be understood by the many. Yet, as he was fully aware (as expressed in the letter to Kugelmann), understanding so often depends on what you desire to understand. Malllarme, of course, treats the desire to understand as, primarily, a desire, which requires teasing, flights and returns, follies and almost unspeakable unions. Understanding presents itself as the lab coat and the icy fingers, but to the eye of the poet, these are mere emblems of play. To the eyes of Marx, on the other hand, there is also a strong desire not to understand. In fact, today, it is rather easy to see, looking at the productions of the economists, that the split Marx pointed to between the understanding of the scribes and of the lay people is broad enough that one could say, the economics of the economists are recognized as such only by students in economics classes, while the economics of everyday life are recognized as such by a mere handful of economists, all shunted to the sidelines. Marxism, put into broad outlines, has a history of lighting people’s minds on fire. It seems to align itself much better with the vernacular understanding of capitalism than any theory based on maximizing utility. Hence, the cordial hatred it has always received from the scribes.

And yet… as I pointed out in my last post, there is a tendency to chisel out of Marx’s work the Marx one wants to embrace. The Marx, for instance, who objected to the idea that the historical sketch he had worked out in Capital was a universal solvent was dismissed almost effortlessly by twentieth century Marxist who were sure that Marx had given them the key to all inevitable economic development. In the collapse of Communism, the wheel has turned – and one tends to underestimate the strong, strong tug of the universal history tradition in Marx. But the Marx who sang the World Market in the Communist Manifesto can’t simply be ignored as a babbler, some confidence man pose. He returns to his problems because they are the problems of everyday life in the modern era. He may well be the man of the document and blue book, but he is not weaving the system together in his head. What he is doing – his fundamental move, a move that brings us to the revolutionary core of Marx’s entire work after 1843 – is pointing to the historical conditions that brought about capitalism. It is a move that snaps the bond to ananke – necessity (which, etymologically, is rooted in the Greek term for yoke, fetters, bonds), but poses the problem of the ‘law”.

If Marx were tracing the rise of the ancient system of slavery, he would be dealing with a system that limits itself. Its self understanding is invested in the merging of conquest and growth – an empire grows, but the forces of production depend on purely predatory relations that are, at most, concerned with a systematic need to raid – not to market.

Marx, however, is dealing with a system that exists on a different basis altogether. If, from the revolutionary point of view, the capitalist system is not necessary, from within the system, secondary necessities are created. In the same way, unexpected social features are also created.

One of those features is the advent of a new social identification: the competitor.

Early in the Grundrisse, the idea of competition as a means of breaking free from the bonds of tradition makes an appearance:

“In this society of free competition the individual appears freed from the bonds of nature, etc., that made him in earlier historical epochs the factotum [Zubehör] of a specific, limited human conglomerate. In the prophets of the 18th century, upon whose shoulders Smith and Ricardo still entirely stand, this individual of the eighteenth century makes his transitory appearance – the product on the one side of the dissolution of feudal social forms, and on the other side, of the newly developed forces of production since the 16th century – as the ideal, whose existence is of the past.”

This passage is correlated with others in Marx’s work – he did like Newton’s phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants. When the bourgeois economists try to explain prices in the market, they often turn to the idea of competition (binding it with the idea of freedom) to explain the central nucleus of capitalism, that which makes it freeing and a creator of affluence for all.

Marx deals with the notion of competition as it appears and has effects on several levels in the capitalist system. In the Communist manifesto, of course, Marx is subsuming the whole system to its broadest outlines, with the consequence that competition – which frees the businessman to enter the market – produces a level of necessity – the need to realize the value of his commodities in the market – that creates the expansionistic tendency of the capitalist economy. Under the guise of imperialism, the state, responding to the needs of the bourgeoisie, captures markets and cheap labor – and in as much as imperialism is a state, rather than a private affair (which it evolved into in the 17th century), state economies compete in this way.

However, let’s bracket out this higher level of competition, and turn to something different: the identification of the worker with the competitor – his economic character mask in capitalism. It is at the level of creating the successful synthesis between the person and his or her character mask – on the level of identification - that ideology does its most important work. After all, the point is always to make a given population pliable to the domination of the dominant classes.

That identification is mediated by the fact that, as Marx recognized, ‘the mean of work changes from Land to Land; here it is greater, there it is smaller.” [Kapital, I, Chapter 20] These differences all relate to the world market, of course, which gives us a universal standard of measure. In the considerations on wage labor published in the sixties, Marx considers the ‘small wars” conducted by labor to keep Capital from forcing the wages down to the minimum level necessary to the reproduction of the labor’s life. Of course, this is just one of several strategies involving lengthening work time, or otherwise making more profitable use of the labor power the laborer has sold him. The essential thing here is that the labor power is commodified – and all commodities eventually are priced in the world market. Marx, of course, finds those small wars understandable, but they are still waged under the ‘conservative slogan: an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.” Whereas Marx has his eye on the revolutionary slogan, abolish wage labor.

The history of the trivilization of the revolutionary impulse is the history of the domination of the conservative slogan over the revolutionary one. The necessary function of ideology in capitalist society is to intervene, in a sense, between those two slogans by making the worker adhere to – identify with – the logic of capitalism. One aspect of that is to make him embrace his true identity as a competitor in the labor marketplace. The whole social value put on competition refers, in one way, to a social reality – but its real effect is to leave that social reality protected from any serious questioning. The impress of necessity in capitalist society is expressed in the vocabulary of competition.

If there were such a thing as Marxist social psychology, this would be a good place for it to start. As Marx has pointed out, under capitalism, there exists a double process of de-skilling and specialization. The worker becomes ever more interchangeable as the ‘human capital’ he acquires is subject to processes that strip it of its skill aspect. This is easy to see in the history of many branches of labor. Secretary work is a well known example – partly because the de-skilling was accompanied by the feminization of the labor force, which all in all had the effect of driving down the cost of the secretary to the firm.

But the de-skilling is resisted both because it leads to lower wages, and because the very freedom from the bonds of natural relationships has relied on a virtue ethic that puts an equal value on every human being. To be valued as a unique human being is the equivalent of a lack of interchangeability – and that feeling penetrates all the way through the work life.

The compromise solution, on the social psychological level, is to embrace the idea of competition that preserves one’s uniqueness at the same time that it turns the interchangeability that the system requires into a personal fault.

Now, let me go up a level.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Necessity in History II

That's the way it's done up here yeah,
the boss, the boys, the fight up here
that's the way it's done up here.

In 1877, Marx wrote a letter to the editor of the journal, Otechestvennye Zapiski in response to an article about him by Nikolai Mikhailovski. Marx didn’t like Mikhailovski’s praise – which he felt was based on a misunderstanding. Marx himself compressed his work in the chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital to that of delineating an episode in the history of Western European society in which “the capitalist economic order had emerged from the entrails of the feudal economic order.” He did not think that the same process would necessarily occur in the same way in Russia. And he was moved to remark about the whole notion of historical ‘necessity”

“Now, what application to Russia could my critique make of this historical sketch? Only this: if Russia tends to become a capitalist nation in the wake of the nations of Western Europe – and during the last few years she has definitely given herself a lot of trouble trying to do this – she won’t succeed without having first transformed a good part of the peasantry into proletarians; and, after this, once led to the lap of the capitalist regime, she will be subject to ist pitiless laws like other profane peoples. This is it! But it is too little for my critic. He absolutely needs to transform my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general march, fatally imposed on all peoples, for arriving at last at this economic formation, which assures with the greatest push of the productive powers of social labor the most integral development of each individual producer. (This is at the same time too much honor and too much shame). Let’s take an example. In different parts of Capital I have made allusion to the destiny that the plebians of ancient Rome attained. They were originally free farming peasants, each working for himself on their own smallholdings (parcelles). In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which separated them from their means of production and substance implied not only the formation of great landowners, but of great monetary capitals. Thus, one pretty morning (there was) on one side free men, denuded of everything except the force of their labor, and on the other, to exploit their labor, the holders of all the wealth so acquired. What happened? The Roman proletarians didn’t become wage laborers, but an idle mob, more abject even than the so called ‘poor whites’ of the Southern United States, and by there side was deployed a mode of non-capitalist production, but rather slave-centered. Thus events with a striking analogy, but occurring in different historical milieux, lead to completely disparate results. In studying each of these evolutions one will easily find the key to this phenomenon, but one will never get there with a skeleton key of a general historico-philosophical theory of which the supreme virtue consists in its being suprahistorical.”

Marx tended, after the Paris Commune, to react more and more with these cautions as his works began to circulate in revolutionary and socialist circles. This period coincided with his re-thinking of what he had written earlier about Indian village communes and the Russian peasant commune. Amie has pointed me to the sketches of the letter that Marx wrote to Vera Véra Zassoulitch in 1881. In this letter Marx retreats from his former certainty about the future of the peasant commune, and its irrelevance to a future communist society. In fact, he now writes that “ In order to save the Russian commune, there must be a Russian Revolution. Otherwise, the guardians of political and social forces will do their best in order to prepare the masses for such a catastrophe” – the catastrophe being the ‘conspiracy’ against the commune mounted by the proto-capitalists, who long to give it the boot.

Interestingly, this letter is treated, by Zassoulitch’s biographer, Jay Bergman, as a document that might have impeded Zassoulitch’s conversion to Marxism. Whey? Because, Bergman writes, “In this letter, Marx stated, in effect, that the general laws of economic development set forth in the first volume of Capital need not necessarily apply to Russia and that institutions peculiar to Russian society could lead it in a direction different from that of every other nation.” Such is the power of the idea that Marx’s Capital outlines what Marx believes to be the ‘laws’ of all economic development that Marx’s own disagreement is considered a lapse on his part, if not a denial of the clear message of Capital.

However, in Bergman’s defense – and in defense of the countless Marxists who have defended just that idea – Marx does have a powerful sense of universal history. The bourgeoisie, as Marx describes them in the Communist Manifesto, seem to face the option of succumbing to economic crises brought about by overproduction of finding new markets – and in so doing, creating a global economy, a world market.

Which I will plunge into in my next post.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The end of the story part 1

Continuing from my post last night.

I resist the teleological interpretation of Marx – that all of Marx is there in every text, and if a text seems to say something that contradicts all-of-Marx, then we just have to either categorize Marx’s works to shunt it to the side – it was polemical! – or decide that it was an unfortunate collateral gesture. On the other hand, I’m not sure that my idea of Marx as constructing his all-of-Marx-ness in his text really purges the teleological impulse completely. Take the issue of the notebook, or the draft. We have these things. They were preserved. But the facile notion that Marx, too, having these things, goes back over them suffers both from lack of proof and automatic assumptions about research and writing that I have found, both in my personal experience and as an editor of others, to be false. I have found, instead, that one’s vital discoveries tend to fade and change and be renewed – that old intentions get submerged by new ones. Yet characteristic themes and inclinations will assert themselves, and the repressed will return.

This is why I favor the problem-based approach to reading monumental texts. For any theme or thesis carries with it both the problems it responds to and the new problems it creates. A problem is as much a token of memory as a thesis. Stripping a writer of his problems – translating his text into something like a list of answers such as you can find in the back of the math textbook - trivializes him.

This returns us to the thesis of necessity and revolution, a combo with a high visibility career in Marxism and twentieth century communism.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx gives the impression that the proletariat will inevitably overthrow the capitalist social order. In a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer dated March 5, 1852, Marx seems to affirm that interpretation:

“Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [dass der Klassenkampf notwendig zur Diktatur des Proletariats fuehrt] 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition [Aufhebung] of all classes and to a classless society. Ignorant louts such as Heinzen, who deny not only the struggle but the very existence of classes, only demonstrate that, for all their bloodthirsty, mock-humanist yelping, they regard the social conditions in which the bourgeoisie is dominant as the final product, the non plus ultra of history, and that they themselves are simply the servants of the bourgeoisie, a servitude which is the more revolting, the less capable are the louts of grasping the very greatness and transient necessity of the bourgeois regime itself.”[Translation from MECW Volume 39, p. 58]

The dictatorship of the proletariat has, of course, a different coloration for readers in 2010, who are distant both from the experience of the 19th century and who are conscious that Stalinism and Maoism were formed under that slogan, among others. In Marx’s time, he could look around the world and see no society that allowed women to vote, no society in which blacks were allowed to vote, and few societies in which there was anything close to democracy in any real sense. Until 1913, in the U.S., the Senate consisted of white men appointed by state legislators. In the UK, the percentage of eligible voters out of the total population put the country on the level of a free medieval German town. According to Frank Thackeray, only about 15 percent of British males were eligible to vote up until the reforms of 1867, after which only one in three males - and all women - were excluded from the vote.In France, before 1848, suffrage was limited to about a quarter of a million voters - out of a population of 34 million. I am, of course, outlining democracy according to its thinnest definition. In the U.S., as is well known, anti-democratic measures were inscribed in the constitution - some of which, like the electoral college, are sill valid. Suffrage was more extensive for white males there, though. Never, until the dissolution of the empire, did Britain’s colonial subjects have any right to vote in Britain’s elections. In 1852, of course, the four hundred million people of India were held, by main force, in the clutches of an old British monopoly, the East India company, which existed as a quite open Mafia, a protection racket. Given this reality, the projection back into the England of Marx’s time of ‘representative institutions’ – such as delight the late Cold Warriors and those who, like Francois Furet, represented some kind of new "anti-Marxist left' in France – will always turn out to be the purest charlatanism, projecting the hard won virtues - such as they are - of the modern state back through its history - as though the Civil Rights marches of 1965-1968 are a good description of the state of ‘civil rights” of Dixie in 1848. Here one sees ideology at its most pathetic. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was the literal truth of Marx's time; of course, Marx and the worker's movements had a lot to do with destroying that state of affairs. That the Western "democracies" owe this to Marx does make the ideologues grumble and moan, since, essentially, they are the ardent workers for bourgeois dictatorship.

Given these cardinal points, the dictatorship of the proletariat would, of course, have been more democratic, even in the 2 percent milk sense of ‘democratic’, than the political arrangements of Marx’s day. If there was a specter haunting Europe in 1852, it was not that the dictatorship of the proletariat would lead to totalitarianism, but that it would upset the system of monarchs, upper bourgoisie and great landowners whose power was woven out of a complex of rotten boroughs, slavery, a bribed press, a servile judiciary operating as an instrument of the executive, and the hocus pocus system of colonial administrators oppressing the great mass of mankind on the ‘periphery’. Capitalism would not have survived real democracy – a point that was clear to all observers, who tended to call real democracy ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’.

However, I am more interested in necessity as it appears in the Weydemeyer letter. What is ‘necessary’ in history? And what is the relation between revolution – the overthrow of the current system in response to its level of unbearability – and historical necessity? As we know, these questions found their political correlate in the 1880s, as the Socialist party in Bismark’s Germany organized itself as a parliamentary party. Doesn’t necessity find its own instruments? If the new society choses the path of reform to overturn the old society, do we need revolution? Isn’t revolution an outmoded cult, worshipping the past – particularly the French revolution – with the same pathetic vigor Marx skewers in the 18th Brumaire, when he observes that revolutionaries in the past donned the masks of some chosen predecessor and its dead language in order to perform their work?

Guizot, one of the French historians Marx read attentively, produced a theory of civilization based on a primitive bi-polar dialectic. This dialectic captured the positivist sense of what was meant by ‘progress’ in the first half of the 19th century. In the lectures collected in ‘The history of civilization in France”, (1828-1830) Guizot writes:

“I researched what ideas attached to this word [civilization] in the good common sense of people. It appeared to me that in the general opinion, civilization consisted essentially in two facts: the development of the social state (l’état social) and of the intellectual state (l’état intellectuel); the development of exterior conditions in general, and that of the interior, personal development of man; in a word, the perfectioning of society and humanity.”

Perfectioning was still the preferred verb among the liberals in 1828, like some last unexploded bomb from the French revolution. Progress – that ameliorating word, that half and half word that the God of Revelations would surely have spewed from his mouth – just as Marx spewed it from his – had not replaced the icy utopian glitter of the perfect with the tradesman’s bonhomie of profits accrued, year by year.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

on the new society that forms within the old one

In Ma Nuit chez Maud, Jean-Louis, the Catholic engineer, bumps into an old college friend of his, Vidal, who is now a philosophy professor. Jean-Louis confesses that he is still an observing Catholic; but, he says, he has his own ideas about Catholicism. For instance, he recently read Pascal and felt that if Pascal’s rigorism was Christianity, he would rather be an atheist. Vidal, on the other hand, claims that, as a Marxist, Pascal has a peculiar meaning to him. His choice of Marxism, he claims, was decided by something like Pascal’s wager about the existence of God. As Vidal sees it, there are two ways of looking at history. Either it doesn’t make sense or it does. If the first view, A, has an 80 percent sense of being true, and the second a 20 percent chance, it is still rational to bet on the second view – as it fills one’s life with meaning.

I doubt that there are many Marxists today who would say, with Vidal, that Marxism is identical to the decision to see a meaning in history. They are far more likely to explain that Marxism points to the way in which the meaning of history changes with the historical circumstances of the interpreters – which tends to undermine any objective claim to discern the meaning of history. And, to an extent, I would agree with the disabused Marxist. Vidal is the mouthpiece of a fairly common strain of rhetoric in the years after WWII, when the defeat of Nazi Germany and decolonization of the Third World seemed to be objective proof that history was ‘on our side’. Which isn't to say that this was the only sense one could see in history – it could be an infinite abasement, as it appears to have been to Cioran. By the sixties, however, the notion that there was some inevitable development in history – inevitability being one way to construe the ‘meaning’ of history – was on the wane. The notion that there was a discontinuity in history tended to make the idea that there was a sense in it seem quaint. On the other hand, there was also positivist variant that stretches from the Rotary club booster to the University of Chicago prof, which opined that the progress of science was, in some general and vague way, the progress that had brought us liberal capitalist society. In the late 80s and 90s, a variant of this idea was that capitalism as globalism was the end of history. This sounded more apocalyptic than the Babbit insistence in this snatch of dialogue from Flannery O'Connor's The Life you Save May Be Your Own:

Mr. Shiftlet's eye in the darkness was focused on a part of the automobile bumper that glittered in the distance. "Lady," he said, jerking his short arm up as if he could point with it to her house and yard and pump, "there ain't a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn't fix for you, one‑arm jackleg or not. I'm a man," he said with a sullen dignity, "even if I ain't a whole one. I got," he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the immensity of what he was going to say, "a moral intelligence!" and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.The old woman was not impressed with the phrase. "I told you you could hang around and work for food," she said, "if you don't mind sleeping in that car yonder."
"Why listen, Lady," he said with a grin of delight, "the monks of old slept in their coffins!"
"They wasn't as advanced as we are," the old woman said.

Marx had a strong sense of history. This, it is usually said, is his inheritance from Hegel; however, even a glance at the Enlightenment and Romantic culture of Germany would show us that history as a “force” of some kind precedes Hegel. Herder, the translators of the Scots like Gentz, romantic critics like Schlegel were very invested in seeing history as a force. And who could blame them? Looking about, it was hard to find institutions that would help overthrow the impediments to modernity - everywhere were crappy small landholders and tax collectors, peasants and pastors. History was treated as all the more autonomous as the historian was all the more feudally dependent. The peasant society of the limited good was particularly strong in the German states, and the distrust of growth was shared by peasants and Junkers alike. Faith in history as a force was the face of the modernity longed for by a section of the intelligentsia.

Marx’s original views about history were, I think, entangled with his sense of Germany’s underdevelopment. The double aspect of Marx’s description of the capitalist system – on the one hand, as the expression of the revolutionary force of the bourgeoisie, and, on the other hand, as a system that had to be overthrown – lead to a certain confusion in reading Marx chronologically. That double aspect allows Marx a lot of elbow room for his irony – and Marx always viewed irony as a high intellectual gift. I need to find that passage where he laughs about the political economist's blindness to irony. That was a fatal flaw.

It is in the Manifesto that Marx makes certain statements about history that, themselves, have a history leading up to the conversation of Jean-Louis and Vidal in Ma Nuit chez Maud. As with Baudelaire’s notion of the modern, history is obviously a bit of an intoxicant to Marx. And why not? Who has not known the sublime feeling of standing with the devil above it all, at say 6,000 feet above all human kind – although it is best not to bow down to the devil at that moment, no matter what he promises you.

“One speaks of ideas, which revolutionize a whole society; one thus only expresses the fact, that within the old society have been moulded the elements of a new one, for the dissoluton of the old ideas keeps pace with the dissolution of the old relations of life.”

The uncompromising phrase, a “whole society,” seems to infer a unilateral motion, pressing on all levels of society. Everything goes at once, for all pieces of the old relations of life are connected to each other. And we do see this. Who can’t see, for instance, that the old ways of human locomotion – mainly by walking, sometimes by horse – were so completely swept away, first by the railroad, then by the automobile, that walking in many places in the developed world – for instance, Texas – has become a minority option. The old times – the week it would take to go from London to Edinburgh – have disappeared – or exist only in the minds and careers of bums and tramps. But bums and tramps can’t simply walk across the countryside like they could in 1900 or 1800 – they are bounded by the roads they can travel, as they cannot walk besides a highway, and would certainly draw police attention if they walk along other roads. At the present time, China, in one of the greatest engineering feats ever attempted, is automobilizing its human locomotion. All over the world, the car is uprooting and changing the old relations of life.

And yet, is it true that the surface of life is so homogeneous that it can simply change like this?

That question gets to another aspect of Marx’s ironic praise of the bourgeoisie: that homogeneity is the result of capitalism. The homogeneous society, in which the archaic has no place to hide, is the effect of the features I’ve already alluded to in past posts. And, if we at this point give capitalism much more time than Marx could give it in the nineteenth century, we can watch the process. A recent book – which I must get! –about the pharmaceutical/psychology industry, Crazy like Us, by Ethan Watters, has pointed out that the variegated understanding of emotions in different cultures are being confronted with the American model – for the American model is the model of Big Pharma. This is from the NYT magazine article:

“We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience what is called amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia; men in the region also suffer from koro, which is characterized by the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their bodies. Across the fertile crescent of the Middle East there is zar, a condition related to spirit-possession beliefs that brings forth dissociative episodes of laughing, shouting and singing.”

The marketing of mood management is by now a well known ongoing scandal – one that has produced almost no opposition. Whenever marketers change the laws to allow for the mass advertising, over tv, of various anti-depressives, the amount of anti-depressives goes up far, far over anybody’s estimate of the real number of pathological depressives. And so it goes – what, in an earlier age, would be considered an illness in itself, can now be dismissed as a side affect and become the locus of a new marketing campaign and a new drug. Here, the homogenization promised by the term ‘whole society” seems armed and should be considered dangerous.

And so, I’d contend, Marx began to think in the years after the Commune. I’m going to jump to that thought tomorrow – I’ve been rather pointed to this by some references Amie gave me, which have the excellent effect of throwing a certain retrospective ambiguity on Marx’s notion of historical ‘necessity’.

Monday, March 15, 2010

drowning,not waving

From the perspective of mainstream economics, Marxism is hopelessly out of date. Where are the models? From the perspective of Marxism, mainstream economics is hopelessly naïve. It is still engaged in creating creatures behind its own back which bite them in the ass.

A case in point is the causes of the current crash. The NYRB features a review, by Roger Alcaly, of two books, Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged, and Worsened the Financial Crisis by John B. Taylor and The Fundamental Principles of Financial Regulation by Markus Brunnermeier, Andrew Crockett, Charles Goodhart, Avinash D. Persaud, and Hyun Shin, which is a beautiful instance of the blind reviewing the blind. All participants are acolytes of the Great Moderation principle that the economists have invented a magic machine, the Central Bank, that creates the best of all possible worlds once it is correctly tuned up. This belief rests, of course, on a host of other barbarian superstitions, including the belief that if markets don’t really clear, they are best analyzed as if they do, and if they don’t perfectly compete, they are best analyzed as if they do, and if they don’t really efficiently allocate capital, they are best analyzed as if they did. You could call this the three fiction pillar of the perfect economy. Once you have swallowed these romantic premises, you can swallow others without flinching: that there really is an ontological divide between public and private enterprises, that governments don’t produce anything, etc. etc.

Alcaly sadly agrees with Taylor that it is all the fault of the Fed. If only the magic button had been pushed in 2003! If only interest rates had been raised, the crash would have been avoided.

This is a tale for and by simps.

I am a dissenter from the current patriotic slogan, give me amnesia or give me death. Thus, I actually remember the 00s.

And so I know this: what caused the current crisis solved the last crisis. In general, the slowdown in compensation to the working class - and the middle class is largely a working class that aspires to be thought a gated community, although they only own the means of the production in the distorted sense in which the fans own a band - and the unemployment that was bound to result from the crash of 2001 was solved by the same clever economists who are now bemoaning their Oops moment. The solution was a boom that largely depended on milking the one real asset people had - houses. It was a political solution to insure the survival of the politically constructed "Great Moderation", which in turn depended on extruding the care and maintenance of social welfare goods into the private sector and the destruction of labor bargaining power. Economists, now, have flipped the question not to whether the solution to the last crash has delivered us to a bigger crash, but the more sportif question of who predicted the crash. Amnesis requires bread and circuses – in our current parlous state, it requires the destruction of our narrative intelligence through a media regime of absolute pablum and the framing of the debate about our national fate in terms that would shame a seventeenth century peasant. If we want to know what caused the present crash, we have to have an answer to the question, who benefited most from the solution to the last crash? Who benefited from the housing bubble that was the response to the tech crash of 2001? The political answer is, of course, the plutocrats, the financial sector, big oil and defense, and their political proxies, the Bush administration and the Republican congress. The larger answer is the same class of oligarchs that have made such huge strides in entrenching their economic and political power since the country chose to the path of conspicuous consumption, loose credit, and a completely impotent and unorganized labor force – also known as Morning in America. When Alcaly gravely agrees with Taylor that the rates should have been raised and the houseing bubble crushed in 2003, he turns away from the consequences of this retrospective policy choice. It there had been no housing bubble, there would have been no surge in consumption. Instead, the real consequences of the tech bubble crash – overproduction, an unaffordable seizure by the wealthiest 1 percent of a quarter of the nation’s wealth, an out of control rise in the prices of welfare goods – education, medicine, infrastructure upkeep – would have had to have been faced. Taylor can face these consequences with equanimity: he would find decrease in the average median income of the American household a wondrous thing, preparing us for a competitive future. Preparing us, that is, to largely impoverish the working class, so that it is on the same level as, for instance, the Mexican working class. This is exactly what ‘equilibrium’ means. The middle class in this country, which routinely swallows the idea that the problem is the government, is the direct outcome of government action.
There are certain obsessive gestures in Alcaly’s article that one will notice in all mainstream economist’s articles. The funniest by far is the notion of “full employment”.

“Nonetheless, housing is still depressed and nearly 10 percent of the labor force was unemployed in January. We have lost more than eight million jobs, over half of them permanently, since the recession began in December 2007; and long-term unemployment is at record highs. Even if the economy grows 5 percent a year over the next three years, which seems unlikely, the US will probably not return to full employment before 2013.”

What is this “full employment”? You don’t have to dig far to find out that the economists routinely equate employment with non-government employment. That is the presupposition behind the 5 percent figure – that the private sector will do all the hiring.

This is, of course, a joke. In the developed world, no nation has that kind of full employment. In the U.S., government employment is the largest employer, and has been since the fifties. We made it out of the Great Depression partly by accepting the terms of the Great Depression – the private sector will never, ever lead to full employment. It was one of Keynes’ insights that you didn’t even need, as Marx thought, overproduction – underemployment, he showed, is endemic in a money economy – in capitalism. Since then, every state has operated in its own way to sop up unemployment through the state. The U.S., having a massively refracted government structure – not for us the centralizing tendency of the French – consequently shove much of the work, here, onto state and local governments. But the result is the same.

What Alcaly means by full employment is: that the private sector will again employ around 75 –80 percent of the employed population. In other words, we will have a normal underemployment situation, solved via Keynesian means.

Yet I doubt very seriously he knows that is what he means. Economists have not only developed a jargon to keep out snoopers, but to blind them to the obvious.

There comes a point in any kingdom or principality when even its cynics toil in the grasp of its superstitions. We are surely in that moment at the present. And it seems to me that we will remain there, drowning not waving, as our ruins pile up.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Marx and his darling

Marx is an altogether slippery subject for biography; the reason lies with the biographers. On the subject of Marx, libidinal investment is always just below the surface. Do you want a demon? Fritz Raddatz’s supposed “political biography” of Marx, written during the Cold War, is a hit job by a ‘leftist’ who has been blinded – in the midst of the 1970s – by the brilliant truths of Bakunin. Politics, in other words, as an infantile disorder, which made Raddatz a tool for the Springer media types. He went on to pathographies of Heine, etc. Of the biographies I have picked up so far, I’d recommend Jerome Siegel’s for its judiciousness. Wheen has written a popular biography which makes good points as well. So often, as in the case of Raddatz, one feels like one is reading a flea with rabies – the manic biting into poor dead Karl’s hide is an itchy business.

Of course, the other, hagiographic tendency was its own curse – censoring letters, providing infinite defense lawyer explanations for Marx, and never, ever putting him in historical context – thus pressing him into the stamp album of “heroes” and thus tossing out the window everything he’d ever written about the historical method.

That method, of course, would ask about the material determinants and opportunities within which Marx lived.

One of my favorite essayists, James Buchan, whose book on money, Frozen Desire, is written with a range and a style I absolutely love, falls down on the job, alas, when it comes to Marx. He has the intuition that Marx’s life and Baudelaire’s should be seen together – with which I heartily agree – but then fails to understand both Marx’s life of exile and agitation and – what is worse for the book – Marx’s theory of money. Worse, from his description, one would think that Marx was a humorless and tragic figure – and so one would be, to say the least, surprised that Capital is, among other things, a very funny book – at least the first volume. The humor of political economists is usually as thin and dry as port at the high table, but Marx, with his Goethean culture, is continually surprising the reader with this or that reference or connection.

There’s a much commented upon love letter – a lovely love letter, called, by one of Marx’s cold war commentators, Frank Manuel, with his narc’s vulgate, a “bombastic” love letter – unlike the sweet modest ones that were presumably being penned by the leaders of the Free World at the time - that Marx wrote his wife Jenny from Manchester in 1856. Jenny was in Trier at the time, and Marx evidently missed her – he begins it with the tone he so often takes in letters, of the complaint: “… it annoys me to converse with you all the time in my head without you knowing or hearing or being able to answer me.” Thomas Kemple, in his book on the Grundrisse, Reading Marx writing, puts this letter in relation to Marx’s writing at the time – and one does overhear, even in those common words, a note that is sounded in the Grundrisse and in Capital concerning commodities – they run through our head all the time, and yet they never speak to us. As Kemple points out, the letter, which is an outpouring of love to Jenny mediated through Marx looking at her photograph, is very much about the power of fetishes. This isn’t a Freudian reading – it is a Marxian one. For Marx is teasing himself as well as his wife in this letter: [My translation]

“Bad as your portrait is, it gives me the best service and I now understand how even “the black Madonna”, the most disgraceful [schimpfiertesten] portraits of the mother of God, can find indestructible admirers, and even more admirers than the good portraits. In any case none of these black Madonna pictures have been more kissed, ogled and adored then Your photograph, which really isn’t black, but sour, and completely fails to mirror your sweet, kissable ‘dolce’ face. But I improve the sun’s rays, that have painted falsely, and find that my eyes, as much as they are decayed by lamplight and tobacco smoke, can still paint, not only in dreams, but also waking. I have you bodily before me and I carry you in my hands and I kiss you from head to foot and I fall before you on my knees and I moan out, “Madame, I love you.” And I love you in fact, more than the Moor of Venice ever loved. False and foul the false and foul world mistakes all characters. Who of my many detractors and snake tongued enemies have charged me with the fact that I am called upon to play a staring lover’s role in a second class theater? And yet it is true. Had those rogues the wit, they would have painted the “relations of production and trade” on one side, and me at your feet on the other. Look to this picture and to that. [in English] – they would have captioned it. But dumb rogues they are, and dumb they remain, in seculum seculorum.

Momentary absence is good, for in the present things look too like in order to be distinguished [ in der Gegenwart sehn sich die Dinge zu gleich, um sie zu unterscheiden.] Even towers appear dwarflike up close, while upclose the small and everyday grow too big. Thus it is with passions. Small habits, that through the nearness through which they adhere to the body, take on passionate forms, disappear, as soon as the immediate presence of the eye is withdrawn. Great passions, which through the nearness of their objects assume the form of small habits, grow and take their natural measure once again through the magical effect of distance.”

To be continued