Praxis

June 20, 2007

Good news in the Jill Dando case

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 6:26 pm

[24/6/07:  I usually don’t mess with posts too much after the fact; but I’ve edited this one quite a lot.  In its original incarnation, I seemed to equate possibly dubious prosecution evidence with likely innocence of accused.  Sorry.]

Barry George, convicted in 2001 of murdering the TV presenter Jill Dando, has been granted the right to a second appeal. This is good news. I’ve got no special knowledge of or insight into the case – I’ve just followed it in the newspapers and on TV, like everyone else. Still – it’s seemed possible for a while now that George’s conviction could be a miscarriage of justice, and a fresh appeal is to be welcomed.

Of course one should be wary of drawing strong conclusions from casual acquaintance with the complex facts of a criminal case. Appearances can be deceptive: that’s why miscarriages of justice happen in the first place.

All the same, from the middle distance the case against George has always looked flimsy. The most compelling piece of evidence was firearms residue found in the pocket of his coat. But we now know (see, for instance, this panorama documentary) that the coat was photographed by police before it was tested for forensic evidence; for this it was removed from its protective airtight bag, in a room also used for storing firearms. There have also been claims that the police officers who arrested George, or who searched his home, were carrying firearms. The police deny it – but it seems the new appeal may be linked to fresh evidence. According to the BBC, “Mr Moore [George’s solicitor] says there are new witnesses able to contest [the police’s claims].” The Criminal Cases Review Commission have permitted a new appeal on the grounds that (in the words of the commission chairman): “the weight placed on that evidence [the firearms residue] at the trial, and presumably by the jury, was inappropriate, was incorrect.”

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now.

June 17, 2007

The Paradox of Exchange

Filed under: Economics, Marx — duncan @ 4:42 pm

On page 44 of ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, Marx is discussing the exchange relation:

“One and the same relation must therefore be simultaneously a relation of essentially equal commodities which differ only in magnitude, {i.e., a relation which expresses their equality as materialisations of universal labour-time,} and at the same time it must be their relation as qualitatively different things, as distinct use-values for distinct needs, in short a relation which differentiates them as actual use-values.  But equality and inequality thus posited are mutually exclusive.  The result is not simply a vicious circle of problems, where the solution of one problem presupposes the solution of the other, but a whole complex of contradictory premises, since the fulfilment of one condition depends directly upon the fulfilment of its opposite.”

Save for the clause about the labour theory of value {which I’ve placed in brackets}, this strikes me as being entirely correct and perfectly expressed.  This is what I was trying to get at earlier under the heading ‘the substitution of unsubsitutables’.  Exchange is based upon a system of equivalence.  To use Marx’s favourite example:

1 yard of linen = ½ lb of tea

1 yard of linen = 2 lbs. of coffee

1 yard of linen = 8 lbs. of bread

Etc.

But the reason behind the exchange is the non-equivalence of these objects.  I swap my linen for your bread because I’m starving, and you’re naked.  The whole point is that there’s no equivalence here between linen and bread.

The condition of exchange is that commodities be both substitutable and non-substitutable.  Marx says “the fulfilment of one condition depends directly upon the fulfilment of its opposite.”  In Derridean terms: the condition of the possibility of exchange is also the condition of its impossibility.

Of course, we could just say, with Aristotle (quoted by Marx in the first footnote to part II): “Now in truth it is impossible that things differing so much should become commensurate, but with reference to demand they may become so sufficiently”.  I’m not altogether convinced that the problem can be so easily resolved.

 

 

June 15, 2007

Utilitarianism

Filed under: Economics — duncan @ 7:57 pm

God knows there are all kinds of horrifying problems with economics; but one of the biggest is: utilitarianism.

Your basic classical economists – your Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx – didn’t have much time for demand. They focused on the supply side of the economy, emphasising the role that the costs of production played in the creation of economic value. Then, in the late 19th century, various clever people independently came up with the idea of marginal utility (Jevons, Menger, Clark). These folk tended to overemphasise the role that demand played in the creation of price. Two strands of economics, the supply side and the demand side, move towards each other, finding synthesis in the good old supply and demand cross of Marshall’s ‘Principles’.

One of the big ironies here is that the most mathematically literate economists tended to be those who focused on demand. This is ironic because, to put it bluntly, commodities are quantifiable, whereas desire is not. Marx couldn’t care less about maths; but Marx is robustly materialist. Cournot, on the other hand, who was the first to bring the differential calculus into economics, did so by drawing a demand curve.

Passions can’t be measured. The idea that pleasure and pain are even homogenous enough phenomena to be placed on a single scale is ludicrous. How exactly (to take only the most obvious example) is an index of quantifiable pleasure supposed to measure masochism?

But economics is bound to this idea. Perhaps it’s unfair to call it ‘utilitarianism’. Still, it’s no accident of history that the philosophical doctrine of utilitarianism rose to prominence just as economics achieved its breakthrough into academic recognition. (John Stuart Mill was regarded by contemporaries as the leading economist of his day).

If our economic theories presuppose quantifiable utility, and if this utility can’t be measured (because there’s no such thing), how can economics, as a discipline, survive? It survives by finding utility-substitutes: economic behaviours that can be regarded as more or less directly linked to the unknowable fluctuations of our souls’ spreadsheets.

Chief among these behaviours is spending. We can’t know what fevers actually grip the human heart; so we take consumer spending patterns as evidence enough. The result is that all economic measurement of ‘utility’ is driven by whatever forces of power and prejudice influence the movements of our chosen substitute(s). If we choose spending as our measure of utility, our conclusion will be: the wealthy value things more than (and are thus more important than) the poor.

Of course economists are aware of these problems; but they aren’t all necessarily aware enough. I remember an Economist article that unfortunately I can’t now trace. It concerned the efforts of British football clubs to keep tickets out of the hands of touts. The Economist’s argument: ticket touts are responding to a market need; they (the touts, representatives of the market) are raising prices that have been kept artificially low by clubs. This is arguably more just than the present arrangement, because it redistributes commodities from “those who value them little to those who value them a lot.”

I’ve been to precisely one football match in my entire life. I barely know who David Beckham is. (A goalkeeper?) If anybody wants to enlighten me about the economics of the beautiful game, I’d be more than grateful. But surely a non-negligible proportion of football fans aren’t going to be able to afford tickets at ‘market’ price. I’d imagine that’s why many prices are kept (comparatively) low, and why efforts are made to keep many tickets out of the hands of touts. The idea would be: ability to pay for something does not correspond to how much one values it. This idea seems to be obvious; but it didn’t feature in that articles reasoning (as I recall it).

Changing tack, there are other problems with utilitarianism. To take just one example, from close to hand: I’ve been deriving my glib historical summaries from Steven Pressman’s ‘Fifty Major Economists’. On page 87 of that book (in the piece on Jevons), we find the following passage:

“[E]mploying utility theory to study labor casts doubt on the classical theory of wages… Humans were not at the mercy of a subsistence wage; rather, the labour supply depended upon the going wage. If wages got too low, workers would withdraw from the market and enjoy leisure.”

No, honestly. I’ll type it again. “If wages got too low, workers would withdraw from the market and enjoy leisure.” It doesn’t happen often, but this actually made me laugh out loud.

June 11, 2007

A Note on the Bibliography

Filed under: Self indulgence — duncan @ 8:13 pm

This is almost certainly a terrible idea – but I’ve always been a sucker for scholarly apparatus, so my blog’s going to have a bibliography.

I think I’ll divide it (as all bibliographies should be divided) into books I’ve actually read and books I’ve, you know, sort of read. I’ve yet to find a way to distinguish between books I’m currently reading, and books I’ve abandoned forever. As far as I’m concerned, if there’s a bookmark half-way through the book, I’m still reading it. (When you buy bookmarks from Transport for London, you can also use them as tube tickets!) So books of whatever stage of incompletion will all be filed under a single catch-all heading.

But what is completion? What is reading? Wittgenstein: “the same thing may take place in the consciousness of the pupil who is ‘pretending’ to read, as in that of the practised reader who is ‘reading’”. (Another scalp for the bibliography). Have I ‘read’ Keynes’s General Theory? Not if, by reading, you mean actually understanding what it says. My eyes pass over a slew of mathematical symbols, without the smallest flicker of comprehension – this is not reading. But if, by reading, you mean fully comprehending the work, in all its subtleties and implications, then who, if we’re honest, can ever be said to have read anything at all? I’ve looked at almost every character in Keynes’s General Theory (save a couple of the bleaker appendices). For the purposes of the bibliography, then, I’ve read it.

What are the bibliography’s purposes? First, it has some sort of dubious reference function. You can use it for whatever people use bibliographies for (fact checking, or something). Second (like published lists of local paedophiles) it’s a spur to good behaviour. Perhaps it’ll force me to actually read some relevant books, by showing you that I haven’t, yet. Third, it gives the lie to my more specious displays of pseudo-erudition. When (for instance) I quote Alfred Marshall’s ‘Principles of Economics’, if you actually care enough to look at the bibliography you’ll see that I’ve not read even a little bit of Marshall, and so I must be taking the quote from some bluffers’ guide or other. (Of course if I was serious about this I’d tell you straight off in the body of the text; but candour has its limits). Fourth, it satisfies my Nick Hornby-esque desire for list-making. And, fifth and finally, it’s a slightly pathetic way of showing off. In my utopia, ‘pretentious’ is a term of approbation.

You can refer to the bibliography at an easy glance by using the categories buttons over on the right there. The dates are of first publication, even if it’s the nth revised edition, but publisher = publisher of my copy. I’ll only include books that I refer to or steal from. You can therefore, if you wish, imagine a vast delta of scholarly sediment surrounding this feeble flow.

And why isn’t the bibliography longer? Why isn’t it growing faster? Because I’ve got to work for a fucking living. Jesus. Give me a break.

Bibliography

Filed under: Bibliography — duncan @ 8:12 pm

Explanatory notes and justifications see above.

Books Read:

Bataille, Georges, The Accursed Share, Volume 1 (trans. Robert Hurley, 1967, Zone Books)

Baudelaire, Charles, The Flowers of Evil (trans. James McGowan, 1857, Oxford University Press)

Bely, Andrei, Petersburg (trans. Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad, 1916, Indiana University Press)

Campbell, John, Margaret Thatcher (2 vols, 2001, 2004, Pimlico)

Cleaver, Tony, Economics: the Basics (2004, Routledge)

Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference (trans. Alan Bass, 1967, Routledge)

Derrida, Jacques, The Work of Mourning (need to chase up the details of this one; it’s in the attic)

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1880, Vintage)

Jenkins, Roy, Churchill (2001, Macmillan)

Keynes, John Maynard, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936, Macmillan, Cambridge University Press)

Shaxper, Will, Macbeth (1623), Romeo and Juliet (1597) The Tempest (1623, Penguin)

Skidelsky, Robert, John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman (abridged 1 vol, 2003, Macmillan)

Staten, Henry, Wittgenstein and Derrida, (1984, University of Nebraska Press)

Wheen, Francis, Karl Marx (1999, Fourth Estate)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations (trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, 1953, Blackwell Publishing)

Hopefully being read / mostly read / partly read / glanced at:

Bataille, Georges, Eroticism (1957, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd)

Black, John, Oxford Dictionary of Economics (2nd Edition, 1997, Oxford University Press)

Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom (40th Anniversary Edition, 1962, The University of Chicago Press)

Friedman, Milton, Essays in Positive Economics (1953, The University of Chicago Press)

Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Revolution (1962, Abacus)

Marx, Karl, Capital, Volume 1 (1867, Penguin)
Marx, Karl, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859, Progress Publishers, Lawrence and Wishart)

Mauss, Marcel, The Gift (1950, Routledge)

Pressman, Steven, Fifty Major Economists (2nd Edition, 1999, Routledge)

Shaxper, Will, The Famous Historie Of Troylus and Cresseid. Excellently expressing the beginning of their loues, with the conceited woouing of Pandarus Price of Licia. (1609, Penguin)

Journals and blogs and so on:

The Economist.

Limited Inc.

Radical Philosophy.

Good Old Wikipedia.

This’ll be intermittently and unreliably updated.

June 9, 2007

The Good Old Particular and General; Substitution of the Unsubstitutable

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Unreadable — duncan @ 6:05 pm

Not sure of the wisdom of putting this down; but I’m going to fling out some quotes and make a few connections.

1) Alfred Marshall: “the element of Time… is at the centre of the chief difficulty of almost every economic problem.” (Principles of Economics, Preface to the first edition)

2) John Maynard Keynes: “For the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.” (General Theory, p. 293).

3) Jacques Derrida: “For is not Time the ultimate resource for the substitution of one absolute instant by another, for the replacement of the irreplaceable…?” (The Work of Mourning, p. 60).

4) Milton Friedman: “So long as it is insisted that differentiation of product is essential… the definition of an industry as firm producing an identical product cannot be used. By that definition each firm is a separate industry… The theory of monopolistic competition offers no tools for the analysis of an industry and so no stopping place between the firm at one extreme and general equilibrium at the other. … the one extreme is too narrow to be of great interest; the other, too broad to permit meaningful generalisations.” (Essays in Positive Economics, p. 38-9)

What we’re loitering around here is the infinite philosophical theme of the particular and the general, plus the infinite philosophical theme of the nature of time. A few thoughts:

1) As soon as you start talking about ‘the particular’, you are of course really talking about the particular in general. Not any particular particularity, but particularity as such. Immediate betrayal of the theme (the theme its own betrayal). Since all thought deals in generalities, to think the particular is a contradiction in terms.

2) Any particular thing is in principle irreplaceable. (To replace it is simply to do away with it, in its particularity). At the same time, any particular thing is always already part of a system of replacements, or substitutions – it must be, to be an object of thought at all.

3) There is a connection between this and the element of time.

4) In economics money is given special status: it is the commodity that represents the general. And this special status derives from money’s apparently special relationship to time. Benjamin Franklin’s ‘time is money’ is an axiom of capitalism.

5) The betrayal of the particular by the general is, then, in economics, the betrayal of the real by the monetary.

Infinite number of things to say about this. But let’s start with:

There are two objections to the system of valuation that is money.

1) X should be more/less valuable than the price Y it is given. 1% of the retail price of product Z goes to the wage labourer who produced it. This is unjust.

2) Monetary valuation is in principle a betrayal of the true value of X – because X (a human being, say, with loves and griefs, dreams and memories) has a value wholly unassimilable to any system of exchange. X is irreplaceable; how then can X enter into any system of substitution?

These two objections are very different. The second says: money is evil, because it assimilates value to price, and neglects true value. The first says: money is evil, because it prices falsely.

Alternative economics is always going to be uncomfortably caught between these two objections. To the extent that you make the second objection, you leave economics behind. To the extent that you make the first, you are acquiescing in the idea that monetary valuation is in principle legitimate in whatever context.

This is a first vague feeble pass around this subject. The aporias (to use the Derridean term) or stupid contradictions (to use a perhaps less partisan phrase) in what I’ve just said are legion.

Still, if we start from the idea that pricelessness is an essential part of any pricing system, perhaps we can begin to get somewhere. If the concept ‘that which is beyond valuation’ is not exterior to any system of valuation, but is in fact constitutive of it…

June 8, 2007

The Wreck of the Cutty Sark

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 7:51 pm

The other week the famous clipper Cutty Shark was destroyed by fire. Police believe the blaze may have been started deliberately. They are pouring over CCTV footage for clues. I live in South London, so I felt I should follow my inclinations, do my psychogeographical duty, and visit the location. On Wednesday 23rd, after work, I walked over to Greenwich. You can’t see much – the ship surrounded by hoardings, the rigging already taken down, the blackened timbers like a collapsed barn. A big white spiky bulbous tent at one corner: some kind of ticket entrance, a cousin to the Dome along the river. The History Channel: Proud to Support the Cutty Sark Conservation Project.

All talk among the tourists and commuters is of the unfortunate or malicious fire. People take photos; some pose in groups beside the wreck. They express sadness, curiosity. “What did they use it for in the past though anyway?” I too had failed to read my history. What was the Cutty Sark’s role in the expansion of the British Empire? It was a tea-clipper. It carried tea from China to London, beating rivals by virtue of its great speed. I consulted Eric Hobsbawm. The Chinese market, he told me, had been a hard one to crack: “the conservative and self-satisfied Chinese still refused to buy what the West, or western-controlled economies offered, until between 1815 and 1842 western traders, aided by western gun-boats, discovered an ideal commodity which could be exported en masse from India to the East: opium.” The Cutty Sark’s exploits fuelled by drug-pushing.

No longer. Opium is not now part of the Cutty Sark’s power. A string of ornate catchwords spell out the conservation project’s vision for the ship: Fame, Speed, Beauty, Embark, Inspire, Renew, Awe. The Cutty Sark is a tourist attraction. No longer transporting commodities, it is a symbol of past glory; and this symbol is a commodity. London converts the physical into the ideal. On the other side of the river, the towers of Canary Wharf blink impassively. These monuments to international finance, built on the former docklands. It’s all too perfect.

I walk down the Greenwich foot tunnel, into the echo chamber beneath the Thames. A handful of people: an army shuffling. As night falls I look back across the river. The sky is purple. A football floats past. A ridiculous paddle-boat, the ‘Elizabethan’, does a U-turn. It leaves a curving wake, slick on the ruffled surface. The smooth curve is borne downriver by the flow. At night a laser leaves Greenwich Observatory, tracing the Meridian. It passes over water. You can stand beneath it on the edge of the Greenwich peninsular, beside the slag heaps and the digging equipment, and watch the foam caught in the tug of the Thames.

I’m no Iain Sinclair, no Stewart Home – but I’ve done my fair share of walking in London, trying to think things through. Now I walk north, up into the Isle of Dogs, beneath the DLR. The towers and building sites of Canary Wharf. The marbled burrows beneath 1 Canada Square. Concrete pillars. Flood lighting. Steps leading down into cold water. Reflected office blocks in office block windows. These are the sacred places. Stone circles channelling money’s power. Vast grey obelisks, gaudily sombre. As I walk among them they seem to slide past each other, in a carefully choreographed dance routine. Perhaps one day they too will be destroyed by fire.

June 7, 2007

Three Shakespeare Quotes

Filed under: Literature — duncan @ 6:43 pm

Since I’m putting up quotes, I might as well mention these three, which I’ve always wanted to place side by side. I’m sure most Shakespeare readers have already spotted the development of this conceit – it gets longer, more intricate, and more beautiful over the years. It must have had quite a hold on Shakespeare’s imagination. He deploys it at moments of curious lull and expansion in otherwise frantic events; moments when the plays seem to step out of time – suspended, like the characters and the words, in the halfway house between waking and sleep.

“and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again.”
Romeo and Juliet. 1.4.85-8

“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried ‘Murder!’
That they did wake each other. I stood and heard them.
But they did say their prayers and addressed them
Again to sleep.”
Macbeth. II.2.22-5

“and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
The Tempest. III.2.139-44

Randy Newman Quote

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 6:40 pm

Listening to Randy Newman’s ‘Bad Love’ album, I want to stop and register appalled admiration for the coldness and emotion of his song ‘I Miss You’. It’s addressed to the ex-wife Randy ditched when he became famous, and it’s a horribly public and specific statement of regret. This being Randy Newman, he can’t let even the most genuine emotion through without an involuted piece of cruelty.

You’re far away
And happy I know
And it’s a little bit late.
Twenty years or so.

And it’s a little bit cold
For all those concerned
But I’d sell my soul [a carefully timed pause]
and your soul, for a song
So I’ll pour my heart out.

[Tear-jerking chorus.]

Has anyone ever been more candidly hypocritical in an expression of remorse? It makes me wince to hear it. Good to know that some of Toy Story’s profits are funding Randy’s self-lacerating retirement.

June 3, 2007

Bataille with Keynes

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Self indulgence — duncan @ 5:56 pm

So I’ve been reading Bataille’s ‘The Accursed Share’, his long-contemplated work of ‘political economy’. (Only the first volume. Volumes two and three peer at me, with unblinking pineal eyes, from library bookshelves. I’ve a feeling they’re going to get postponed for quite some time.) It is, of course, fabulous. This is mostly just because it’s an account of economic exchange that takes its bearings from Maus, rather than Adam Smith. In my wilder moments, I dream of an entire alternative economics, thrusting aside both Marxism and neo-liberalism, growing upward towards the light of actual human behaviour, all rooted in the thick, rich, tawny soil of Maus’s essay on the gift. ‘The Accursed Share’ shows us the way.

(Perhaps worth saying here, to get my cards on the table: it strikes me that nothing has done as much harm to radical economic thought as Marxism. Marx acts as a great centre of gravity, pulling would-be alternative economists into his orbit. But Marx was wrong about so much; as economics, his thought is mostly bunk. I say this in massive, albeit not complete, ignorance of the multitudinous and sophisticated tradition of Marxist theory. I say it in substantial ignorance of Marx himself. Throw the thoughts down, get them out there, revise if necessary, reject if necessary. Debate, discord, progress. This is not supposed to be any kind of measured judgement. (And we’re saying nothing, here, of the historical catastrophes of actually existing communism.))

But I’ve also been reading Keynes’s ‘General Theory’. Bataille only mentions Keynes once – in the Preface, where he’s defending his decision not to get lost in the maze of detailed economic theorising. “I preferred to give, in general, the reasons that account for the mystery of Keynes’s bottles, tracing the exhausting detours of exuberance through eating, death and sexual reproduction.”

(more…)

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