Saturday, December 11, 2010

three weeks that were heard around the world

It isn’t exactly the week that changed the world – but the astute observer must find the last three weeks fascinating. It has long been the case that the states within the developed world have encouraged, at one and the same time, the conditions for plutocracy and the advance of the protector state. It is a double movement that is only reflected in a distorted way in the issues about ‘deficits’ or ‘deregulation’ – since the plutocracy could only arise, as it were, in conditions that hid it from the social order, which had temporarily pivoted, after WWII, on ‘democracy’. Of course, this talk about democracy is loose – you will hear Americans go on and on about their ‘democracy’ without the least awareness that, up until 1965, America was anything but a democracy – it was, in truth, one of the world’s worst apartheid states.

However, the very fact that myth disguised this fact is a significant indicator of the hegemony of the democratic reference.

It has been clear for some time that the double movement of encouraging both plutocracy and the protector state – middle class ‘entitlements’ – was eventually going to come up against the limit of its internal contradiction. The only question was whether the plutocratic element was strong enough to overcome the inertia of the democratic culture and the desire of the majority of the population to retain its ‘entitlements’.

2008-2009 should be known, in the future, as a sort of unveiling moment. It is here that the rhetoric about capitalism and free markets were calmly thrown into the garbage can, as the real goal of the state – maintaining the plutocracy – proceeded in defiance of all rules, and against all the surface ‘ideologies’ of the supposed opposite political sides. The most conservative of American Presidents, Bush, and the supposedly progressive Democratic presidential candidate, Obama, made common cause in saving the wealthiest. Of course, due obeisance was paid to democratic rhetoric, and we were told that saving the wealthiest was ‘saving the economy’. The economy was near a ‘meltdown’. In reality, it was only the plutocracy, which had long dispensed with the role of investing in real social goods and innovations in the developed countries and had engaged in an orgy of much more profitable rent-seeking that was truly in danger.

The Anglophone countries were at the heart of the rise of the plutocracies. Not all of them have nurtured the combination of plutocracy/entitlement to the same extent, but in the UK, Ireland and the U.S., this combination has become the template around which all political actors gather.

It is against this background that the three events of the past month – Ireland’s takeover by the IMF and the unprotesting submission of the population to the world’s first case of a nation run solely to pay off bank bondholders – the UK’s decision to slash funding for education to a level not seen since the 19th century, while simultaneously continuing to backstop the bankers –and Obama’s decision to continue the Bush tax cuts while beginning the policy of decimating the Social security fund, in preparation for its future ‘reform’ – take on their significance. A population that has grown comfortable under the entitlements regime is non-plussed by the fact that the plutocrats are openly shrugging off the accountrements of democratic culture. But the struggle that put in place the entitlements is so long ago, and the institutions that guided that struggle are in such disrepair, that the population is, as it were, disarmed. The index of that vulnerability is the fact that the population turns, as though naturally, to the parties.

The political class in all Anglophone countries have long been recruited from professions that are ancillary to the plutocrats – mainly lawyers – and, in their day to day lives, the political class of all parties sees and establishes personal relationships with other plutocrat ancillaries. The political class – whether Labour or Tory, whether Democrat or Republican – is united in the policy that binds together the alliance of the government and the plutocrats. Blair and Obama, insignificant suits in themselves, become potent historical symbols by having been both the recipients of ambient anxiety about the structure of the economy and the great pursuers of policies that were the opposite of what their followers presumed. Obama is, at the moment, subject to a very personal rage on the part of American ‘liberals’ who have reached a point at which they are beginning not to accept the dogfood poured out by the usual media propagandists – the host of media personalities, bloggers, talking heads, and think tankers. The dogfood – usually wrapped around meaningless phrases about the most ‘progressive’ president of the last seventy years, or other kinds of hype – is beginning to stick in the throat. This is the moment that Marx speaks of in the German Ideology – the moment of the ‘unbearable’.

Yet, it is hard to see what will reverse the trend towards plutocracy. I suffered the illusion, in the 00s, that the plutocracy was somehow Bush’s ‘fault’ – that the Bush regime, with its faint odor of an illegitimate coup, its corruption, its gathering together of the very worst of the media messengers and gray eminences, was somehow causing the plutocratic tilt. The salutary experience of watching a very different president, Obama, advocate for the same policies makes one think. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what pony you bet on if they all race around the same circular track.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Notes written in the Haifa coffee shop, Tangiers.

While the division between the city and the country has been noted as far back as Homer’s description of the race of Cyclopes in the Odyssey (“The Cyclopes have no assemblies for making laws, nor any settled customs, but live in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody cares a jot for his neighbours”), it was Marx in the German Ideology first saw how the division functioned as a social structure: “The greatest division of material and intellectual labor is in the division of the city and the country. The opposition between the city and the country begins with the transition out of the barbaric state into that of civilization, out of the tribe into the state, out of the locality into the nation, and traverses all of history up to the present day (the anti-Corn Law League). – With the city we get at the same time the necessity of administration, the police, taxes, etc., in brief the community and thus politics in general. Here the division of the population into two great classes shows itself, which are directly based on the division of labor and the instruments of production. The city is already the fact of the concentration of the population, of instruments of production, of capital, of pleasures, of needs, while the country brings into view the completely opposite fact of isolation and separation. The opposition between the city and the country can only exist within private property.” In his work on peasant rebellions in the 1970s, James C. Scott took up this thread to explore what he called the slippage between the great tradition of the cities and the little tradition of the peasant countryside. It is in the city that theology, science, and modern economics is conceptually developed, and in the country that the little tradition, with local beliefs and cults (or from the city viewpoint, ‘superstition’), archaic modes of exchange, and a conservatism that adheres to older, outmoded strata of the great tradition reigns. The city sends the country its emissaries – its priests or doctors, businessmen or commisars – while the country sends the city its unskilled labor. The city establishes the order of progress in the Country, under the sign of ‘allochrony’ – even if the city and country are, in reality, synchronous, in the time of ideology, the city is ‘modern’ and the country is ‘primitive.’

According to this rough mapping, then, we should locate myth in the little tradition. It should be tied to the local cult, the village cosmology.

This essay, however, proposes to deviate from the outlines of this powerful conceptual grid, for I want to locate and trace a myth that emerges in the great tradition at the very heart of rationality itself: the myth of economic man. Homo Oeconomicus, which appears, as a phrase, for the first time in the writings of Pareto and Walras in the 1890s, has a long prehistory going back to changes in the system of production occurring in the late seventeenth century. In following this myth, I aim to blur the great lines laid down between the great and little traditions, and the tendency to interpret modernization – the creation of a vast monetized economy lubricating every transaction that holds together the treadmill of production – as, ideally, supplanting all other forms of exchange.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

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