Praxis

October 13, 2008

Between Totality and Individualism

Filed under: Economics, NP, Politics — duncan @ 4:21 pm

Good old economic individualism: I’m sure I read somewhere in Krugman’s textbook (he’s won the Nobel Prize, you know) that economists have nothing to say about the origin of individual preferences. Contrariwise, your Hegelian Marxists will bang on and on about the need to understand capitalism from the perspective of the totality. Here’s Marx in Volume III: “The distinctions between rates of surplus-value in different countries and hence between the different national levels of exploitation of labour are completely outside the scope of our present investigation. The object of this Part is simply to present the way in which a general rate of profit is arrived at within one particular country.” Why is a country the unit of analysis, here? When your Marxy social theorists talk about the forces present in a society, how is the limit and cohesiveness of a ‘society’ determined? There’s a big problem with the sort of Lukacsian stuff oriented toward a general (hypostatised) social entity, which has, apparently, powers of agency. (I’ve also been reading Postone.) How the fuck is the identity and nature of this social being determined – is it just a Durkheimian social apriori big blob of jelly, floating around, influencing individual actions? Obviously some kind of ‘social’ needs to be posited if you’re not going to end up with wacked up monadic individualism – but a lot of the political-economic stuff I’m looking at seems to alternate between either wacked-up monads or frankly mystical Hegelian-Durkheimian hypostatisation of ‘Society’. It’s enough to turn you Thatcherite.

Take the present ‘financial’ crisis. Boring repetition: the root cause is the decline of US power. Your post-war Pax Americana was a system or set of systems principally oriented toward the appropriation of the ‘developing’ world’s resources. At some basic level, this is all backed up by military power. But of course power and influence work in a multitude of mysterious ways – the system runs on its own; the set of personal and institutional orientations that have their quote-unquote ‘objective’ basis in the threat and reality of violence are monstrously powerful in their own right. The thirty-year credit boom just ended was, in a way, the system continuing to operate toward this end as the ‘objective’ grounding for it ebbed away. So you’ve got a situation where the dollar is acting as the world’s reserve currency, because the US is the biggest of the too-big-to-fail economic entities we hear so much about, and yet the dollar’s supposed rock-solid stability is used to ground the massive indebtedness of the apparent exploiters to the apparently exploited. [and yes yes I know fine.]

Point is that in, say, the Great Depression, the different social forces at work in capitalism ground against each other to undermine the general orientation of the system: blind accumulation / consumption. This kind of thing can’t be understood from the perspective of ‘totality’ – because ‘totality’ (or the Durkheimian ‘social’) can’t provide adequate resources to describe such conflicting or contradictory movements. But neither can these movements be understood from the perspective of individualism – because one needs to take account of social and institutional inclinations and inertia that can’t be placed in the black box of individual preference. You don’t have individual preference on the one hand, and then the system within which individual preferences operate, on the other. Not as in the individuals, states and markets model of economic textbooks – but not as in the Durkheimian distinction between a hypostatised society providing conditions of possibility of social thought or action, and individuals operating within it, either. The social conditions of possibility and the choices that are made within them are ‘ontologically’ the same, if that makes any sense at all. And we need to hold this thought, while also being able to think about social activities that can’t be understood while focussing simply on the micrological. At one level this is trivially obvious. But I find it troublesome.

Newsnight’s economics editor, Paul Mason, has a blog that’s well worth reading. He’s a solid lefty – according to Amazon, he’s written a book about the global labour movement called ‘Live Working or Die Fighting’ (!) – and in this post I think he’s perhaps being a little optimistic. Still:

“My thesis is, now, competition is effectively over. These banks were competing with each other at the margins – churning customers to get people onto more lucrative deals, encouraging credit-card swapping, bombarding us with ads designed to generate specific business etc.

Any state-backed bank that does this will be greeted with howls of protest by the others and some customers…

Once the wing public realises these companies are being run in part in the public interest there will be an avalanche of campaigns: over small business interest rates, over rip off lending practices, over offshoring. The banks, in other words, will be required to show some social responsibility towards their actual customers…

When my grandfather’s colliery was nationalised they stood there and watched the flag go up, got in the cage and hacked away at the same coal on the same wages etc. Only crazy radicals believed there ought to be some actual change in the way the pits were run. This is a very 21st century nationalisation: the first in the age of info-capitalism. I have no way of predicting what its social or economic outcome will be, because there is nothing in the manifestos, think tanks, books, speeches of any of the main parties to indicate what they might do.”

To be honest, I’ll be pleased if the politicians manage a transition to a multi-polar world without killing us all. But if they’re going to be transforming it anyway, it’d be nice to get a banking system oriented towards something other than profit. Fat fucking chance – but possibly worth making some noise over.

23 Comments

  1. praxis, it’s a great post. Thank you. For a more interesting read,I will skip the points with which I agree and get straight to the good stuff.

    Marx was a bit dopey really, as most ‘ground breaking’ thinkers are. He could clearly imagine a world socialism but struggled to see a world capatalism in the same gradiose manner. But that would not really fit his argument would it? I disagree strongly with your suggestion that captalism is over, it has simply moved on. It is not the nature or design of the capatlaist system for somthing to last indefinitley, but rather for it to grow, decay, die and finally be reborn to repeat the process. I really can’t agree with you or any other comentator that describes captalism as failing, or failing because of too much government intervention. It looks to me like it is working perfectly, or better put, as it is designed to work.

    Capatalism is quite transparent, you can be assured of its aims and if given a chance what it will do. I don’t consider that the UK government has socialised banking. It has simply restricted the private sector by insisting that the banks follow the rules. Mr Brown is heading up the most stupid government actions that have ever been undertaken. What is happening is just TAX, thats all nothing more. There is no knew banking paradigim, no new social responsibility, just more tax.

    This government and those of many western countries were presented with a wonderful opportunity to take control of their economies, something the UK has not had since the heights of the 19th century empire. Why didn’t they take it? I can only imagine they have another plan or they all a bunch of fuckwits. Maybe both.

    To truly make ammends for the mistakes a government must rest control of the money supply from the banks and restore this government only as well as take control of the internal supply and demand. I expect we will get this later, in a Euro superstate.

    Do I sound like a fascist?

    Comment by omgdidisaythat — October 13, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  2. Hey – I keep promising myself not to keep commenting, but, you know… :-)

    I didn’t at all mean to suggest that we’re seeing the end of capitalism. Not at all. We’re seeing the end of neoliberal capitalism – that’s it. And I agree about tax. I think that the co-ordinated bailouts are at best a holding pattern. You’ve got unreal value [subject to complicated provisos] created on the foundation of unreal demand [ditto] – consumption in the US, in the UK, across much of the developed world, has been driven to a substantial extent by debt as wages have stagnated, and the creation of this debt has been driven a lag in the orientation of the global economic system as economic and political power shifts away from the US. This is horribly simplistic, but I think it’s right. I stupidly put up a post last night suggesting that the Eurozone and UK plans wouldn’t do anything to stop the rot. Shareprices have soared today :-P, but I still think these plans are in the medium run… problematic. This money that ‘recapitalises’ banks has to come from somewhere – from borrowing, in the short term, then from currency depreciation, debt default, or tax. [Or you can print money - which... not so good.] If you increase tax to pay for the ‘solution’ to a crisis driven by lack of purchasing power, you’re heading into trouble unless you’re counting on huge economic growth – which again not so much. So… I can’t see this ending well.

    On the other hand, I’m shockingly ignorant.

    As for fascism – I wouldn’t like to speculate about your political leanings. ;-) But of course fascism was a pretty direct response – and indeed solution, say what you like – to the interwar depression. So again, I get nervous. Particularly when Gordon Brown, say, starts using ‘anti-terror’ legislation to appropriate foreign assets.

    Low dishonest decade, who can live for long in a euphoric dream, etc.

    (And I don’t really think for a moment that Brown and Darling will actually start orienting UK banking towards benefiting customers. I just think it’s good to point out that there’s no particular reason why they shouldn’t.)

    Comment by praxis — October 13, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

  3. Oh – and also, I didn’t mean to criticise Marx himself by taking swipes at Lukacsian Marxism.

    Comment by praxis — October 13, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  4. Thanks for the reply praxis, It’s good to discuss!

    I cannot see any particularly large amount of interbank lending going on until they come clean about CDS. And god that is going to be an even bigger mess. The main thing Brown needs to do is stop repo’s and defaults. If he cannot do that, it is going to be a god almight disaster when the hedge funds start asking for payments from CDS.

    Anyway, I dislike fascism hugely, yet everytime I open my mouth I seem to talking more and more like one. Shocking!

    I shouldn’t worry about criticising Marx. I am sure that if he had attended university in the modern day he would struggled to get a third with those essays ;)

    Anyway, hope you have alot of gold stashed away, a boat or plane would be good too. See you in China :)

    Comment by omgdidisaythat — October 13, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  5. Alas, no boats or planes. I’m just hoping that if the banks go under they take my debts with them. :-)

    As for gold – that joke about the traders seems appropriate.

    Trader One: I’m pessimistic, I’m buying gold.
    Trader Two: That’s not pessimistic. I’m buying rice.

    Comment by praxis — October 13, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  6. Ha ha ,, I am with trader two.

    Praxis I will add your blog to my favorites and drop by again.

    regards

    Comment by omgdidisaythat — October 13, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

  7. [...] perceived lack might come from the sort of smuggled assumption to which Praxis draws attention in a recent post – the assumption that a theory of the forms of government or power must take the form of a theory [...]

    Pingback by Roughtheory.org » Fragment on State “Intervention” — October 14, 2008 @ 2:46 am

  8. ‘conflicting or contradictory movements’ = the definition of totality, if we take Marx with fidelity.

    Comment by Chuckie K — October 14, 2008 @ 3:15 am

  9. Hey Mr CK. Yes – I don’t really mean to make snarks at Marx with this stuff. More at the way the category of totality’s wielded in some of Marxy stuff I’ve been reading. The slightly mysterious ‘NP’ tag is meant to flag that this post (and I’d imagine plenty of subsequent ones) is in dialogue with the reading of Marx N Pepperell’s outlining over at Rough Theory. Some of the latest posts there talk about how Marx understands contradiction. My beef’s more with how Lukacs and similar folk use totality.

    Comment by praxis — October 14, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

  10. I should be more explicit. I’m also aiming at the Lukacsian line and supporting you.

    Comment by Chuckie K — October 14, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

  11. oops – sorry. thanks. :-)

    Comment by praxis — October 14, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

  12. Hey, entirely my fault. The first time I encountered ‘totality’ in Marxist writing, the term rubbed me the wrong way. I argued against it. Eventually after reading Hegel and then more Marx, I accepted the term as valid in the sense of the entirety of the dynamic interrelationships that generate the sytemic properties. But personally would never *use* the term.

    Comment by Chuckie K — October 15, 2008 @ 1:38 am

  13. Yes – exactly:

    valid in the sense of the entirety of the dynamic interrelationships that generate the sytemic properties. But personally would never *use* the term.

    :-)

    Comment by N Pepperell — October 15, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  14. “Why is a country the unit of analysis, here? ”

    capital controls.

    Comment by chabert — October 16, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

  15. “This kind of thing can’t be understood from the perspective of ‘totality’ – because ‘totality’ (or the Durkheimian ‘social’) can’t provide adequate resources to describe such conflicting or contradictory movements. But neither can these movements be understood from the perspective of individualism – because one needs to take account of social and institutional inclinations and inertia that can’t be placed in the black box of individual preference. You don’t have individual preference on the one hand, and then the system within which individual preferences operate, on the other”

    this liberal fable of “the individual versus society”, whether as tug of war or trade off of perspective of atomised individuals or organism, is dismissed by marxism as the particular mishigas to which the bourgeoisie are prone….

    In 1961 – ancient history! – EP Thompson reviewed Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution?” in the NLR. Here’s a snippet:

    “in The Long Revolution, I find altogether too many constructions of this order:

    The 19th-century achievement . . . shows the re-organisation of learning by a radically changed society, in which the growth of industry and of democracy were the leading elements, and in terms of change both in the dominant social character and in types of adult work. (140).

    . . . a society which had changed its economy, which under pressure was changing its institutions, but which, at the centres of power, was refusing to change its ways of thinking. (143).

    It seems obvious that industrial democracy is deeply related to questions of ownership; the argument against the political vote was always that the new people voting, “the masses”, had no stake in the country. The development of new forms of ownership then seemed an essential part of any democratic advance, although in fact, the political suffrage broke ahead of this. (313).

    Abstract Social Forces?

    What is evident in all these passages is that certain difficulties in Mr. Williams’ style (that “density” of which some reviewers have complained) arise from his determination to de-personalise social forces and at the same time to avoid certain terms and formulations which might associate him with a simplified version of the class struggle which he rightly believes to be discredited. But I think that he has evaded, and not circumvented, the problem. The first example says a great deal less than might be supposed upon a rapid reading—in the 19thcentury society changed, and so did education, and there is some correlation between them. The phrase, “the growth of industry and of democracy”, conceals more than it reveals about the crucial social conflicts. The second example is a contortion, almost like mirror-writing, which avoids identifying the points of conflict: if Dame Society was changing all these garments, who or what bewhiskered agent was standing outside the boudoir and forcing her to this exercise? And in the third example I am simply lost. Whose argument against the political vote? To whom did the question of ownership seem bound up with that of political democracy? In answer to the arguments of Ireton, Burke, and Bagehot, those who represent the majority tradition in the fight for the franchise until 1884, were at pains to separate the questions of political democracy and of social ownership. The political suffrage had already “broken”, in 1867 and 1884, before British socialism emerged as a significant force. But why “broke”? Is it not another example of a term chosen according to some principle of selection which prefers the impersonal to the personal and the passive to the active construction? If he had said, “the political suffrage was won”, it would have implied the questions by whom and against whom, and this would have entailed re-writing the entire passage. Nor do I think this to be a quibble. Behind the words “broke” and “won” one might detect two very different statements about history: “history happened like that” and “men have made history in this way”.

    The Collective “We”
    I do not think that Mr. Williams makes either statement in The Long Revolution: this is the central ambiguity which the book, despite all its great merits, does not finally resolve. The tone of Mr. Eliot and Mr. Williams’ own constructive sense of democracy are at odds to the very end. To make his meaning finally clear I think he must re-make his style. He must resist the temptation to take his readers and himself into the collective “we” of an established culture, even when he uses this device to challenge assumptions which “we” are supposed to hold (and yet which have been under challenge from a minority for over 100 years). And I must plead with him to erase such sentences as this:

    Few would now regard (Chartism) as dangerous and wicked, as it was widely regarded at the time: too many of its principles have been subsequently built into the “British way of life” for it to be easy openly to agree with Macaulay, for example, that universal suffrage is “incompatible with the very existence of civilisation”. (58).

    Oh, the sunlit quadrangle, the clinking of glasses of port, the quiet converse of enlightened men! And Jude and Sue in their lodgings across the way, which have now been “built into” our way of life. And what about their way of life, the way of the common people? Is it not relevant that they also had opinions, and regarded Macaulay as dangerous and wicked in their turn? And how wide (or narrow) must an opinion be to be handled with this deference—does it become a part of The Tradition only when it can be washed down with port?”

    Comment by chabert — October 16, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

  16. Thanks Chabert. Do capital controls make it legitimate to talk of a general rate of profit for a particular country (which seems to implicitly treat a country’s society as homogenous in some relevant way)?

    And yes – “why “broke”? Is it not another example of a term chosen according to some principle of selection which prefers the impersonal to the personal and the passive to the active construction?” First rule for the new Marxist style and usage guide: avoid passive constructions.

    Comment by praxis — October 16, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

  17. “Do capital controls make it legitimate to talk of a general rate of profit for a particular country (which seems to implicitly treat a country’s society as homogenous in some relevant way)?”

    the “general rate of profit of capital” has to refer to the rate for a pool of capital which moves freely exploiting a given population. I think it is fair to say there was no global general rate of profit in Marx’ day. Each industry had as today its rate, changing in time, differing from another industry or competitor enterprise, from rents and interest, but in Marx’ day, a general rate of profit for capital in general appears in that space in which a single fungible of pool of capital is sloshing around, without checks to its movement. That area is at that time national. In this area where capital moves freely Marx showed there was a tendency of the general rate to equalise and fall. In Marx’ day, the country was the area in which a basically discrete, national pool of capital could move freely exploiting a national population, and where therefore a “general” rate appeared. The world was divided, as today, into independent legal jurisdictions, but unlike today each had their largely seperate pools of capital.The conditions in which capital operates globally still differ but its movement between them is unchecked. Of course both capital and people could move from one to another in Marx time but not easily and not without considerable expense. So the situation was Italian workers locked in struggle against Italian capitalists, English workers locked in struggle with English capitalists. French workers locked in struggle against a French ruling class. Capital was not rapidly flitting in and out of nations. So countries – a single legal jurisdiction, a single political jurisdiction, with no internal customs, a single commodity market, all goods including labour priced in a single currency, capital moving freely – were the appropriate unit for study of the capitalist mode of production, rather than regions (because both capital, labour and commodities could and did move between regions in a single country without barriers) or industries (capital moves between industries, and was still at that time blocked from moving into areas of some industries – cotton was produced by peasants in the Ottoman empire for example) or continents, which were divided into these seperate jurisdictions which are nations. Capitalist imperialism can only be explained historically if you begin with an understanding of the situation of capital nationally. Today a single pool of capital exploits worldwide, moving freely and indeed all but instantly across national borders. But this was not the case in Marx’ day. But even so, even today, the division of the world into seperate legal jurisdictions affects rates of profit, which require an elaborate financial apparatus now to spread around a globalised ruling class, and to exhibit the same tendencies to equalise and to fall on this global level that was detected by Marx on the national level in his time, but did not appear globally then.

    I don’t like the hegelianism much but will play devil’s advocate here and defend “totality”, a word which was shamed during the Reagan era perhaps not accidentally.

    At NP there was mention of this now oft heard demand to “save capitalism from capitalists”. This should not be considered any more ironic than saving capitalism from workers. Or saving baseball from pitchers (by say shrinking the strike zone). After all capitalists didn’t design and don’t like capitalism. What every capitalist is trying to do is destroy all others and get all the property. Capitalism is a state of war, intraclass (competition) (which can be undertaken by blocs, such as national) and interclass. Each capitalist is not out to prolong the war, but to win it. Thus end it. Individually every capitalist is trying to destroy the competition. But of course while other capitalists exist, they can’t. Thus capitalism – this state of competition between exploiters/appropriators in seperate and collective struggle with exploitees/producers – persists. When some get great advantages, however, become too dominant, it becomes a threat to the others – all others must cooperate, suspend the ferocious competition, to prevent it, and do this sometimes through the state. Thus “saving capitalism from capitalists” is the routine duty of the state in capitalism, acting on behalf of the ruling class, that is, mutually hostile owners of capital who are socially friendly, that is, who possess class consciousness and cohesion despite their competition as capitalists, and who can collaborate not only in the class war but for the advantage of the majority of owners of capital over the too powerful minority while they compete ruthlessly among themselves.

    Capitalism is a name for this situation. It is not the religion of capitalists, the dictatorship of Capital, and it is not a design for society, and it is not the essence of a community of people characteristed by these relations, and nobody but ideologues, a specific profession, and state bureaucrats, actually likes it or does anything to maintain it. Capitalism is the status quo that is loathed by everyone enduring it; it is a situation which arises from everyone in it trying to change or abolish it. Eventually someone will succeed.

    How does it endure if everyone is trying to change or abolish it? It arises from the struggle between different parties with conflicting interests and unequal resources, in situations of antagonism and inequality which evolved historically. Everyone is trying to put an end to capitalism differently, and this struggle between all these different agents trying to end the struggle as winners forever is itself capitalism.

    “Totality” names this as this, as a condition of struggle and conflict between parties whose positions are an historical inheritance and who act in inherited conditions with inherited resources. It is not a metaphor for a thing on the order of a blob, society, tradition, a text, potestas, biopower, territory, space or Cthulu. It doesn’t imply harmony, organicism, coherence, unity, laws, order. It’s just ‘everything combined’, combined because simultaneous and mutually impacting, not because designed as a single thing. ‘Totality’ is neither an organism nor a machine. It’s not really a metaphor, it is just a name for everything combined when examined together, all the relations and things taken together, the conditions and the actions in them.

    The suspicion then is of the operation of taking everything together. The God’s eye view. Since such a view cannot be attained, all that can be done is to pretend that a situated point of view commands such a perspective. This is the liberal individualist objection in a new disguise, because the objection is to “totality” in some text of some individual intellectual. And surely totality cannot be accessed like that. But the idea of totality already acknowledges from the start that it could only be accessed by everybody together, that it must include the non existence of a master intelligence which perceives it.

    Comment by chabert — October 17, 2008 @ 4:50 am

  18. (Italian and German only toward the end of Marx’ life, so those are good examples for the concept of national economy, national ruling class, national capital)

    Comment by chabert — October 17, 2008 @ 5:01 am

  19. “English workers locked in struggle with English capitalists. French workers locked in struggle against a French ruling class. ”

    (clarification; i mean “english” or “french” as in “in england” and “in france”, working/owning in this legal and political jurisdiction, not ethnically.)

    Comment by chabert — October 17, 2008 @ 8:26 am

  20. oh and about Lukacs – he didn’t care whether totalising was good for the production of academic texts and analyses in economics or history. His only criteron for judging something like that was whether it was revolutionary, whether thinking this way helps the proletariat overthrow the ruling class and create communism. Totalising thought is obvious good for example for capitalists as a class. A kind of silly example but it will illustrate: the “biggest margin call since 1929″ a couple days ago. Investment banks basically confiscating assets from their clients. Normally, an investment bank which did such a thing would vanish, it would be destroyed quickly in competition because it would have no clients. But on that day, in that situation, the human actors who make decisions in that position were able to make a judgement taking in lots of information and acting on it to their advantage. This does not mean introducing such confiscations into the daily course of running a prime brokerage. It seems simply acting in that situation based on pretty good knowledge of the conditions and judgement of self interest in a context grasped as a totality. Would such a way of seeing reality be useful for revolutionary intellectuals seeking to abet the overthrow by the proletariat of the ruling class? It is it the kind of “philosophising” that does not seek to comprehend the world as exactly as possible but to transform it? This is anyway what Lukacs’ judgement about totalising is based on, so in a way, even if one finds that there are these shortcomings with it if one’s project were to comprehend the world as exactly as possible, to fashion a textual discursive model of reality that is as refined as possible and takes account of every detail of individual experience of performance, desire, shopping and investing in capitalism, it would not really answer his case, which is that totalising thought isn’t for that anyway, but for bringing about the abolition of capitalist property relations and the establishment of communism. and it’s at least possible that this could be done even by people who have no very refined understanding of the topics which interest a lot of contemporary theorists and social scientists.

    Comment by chabert — October 17, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  21. Thanks Chabert – you’re very generous with your time.

    I’d take issue with the capitalism as war stuff – not because I disagree, exactly, but because capitalist-competition-as-war is (I’d say) a (partly) socially produced phenomenon. Its a phenomenon produced, of course, through war and violence – the violence and social upheaval that goes into the creation of a market for wage-labour, for instance. But it’s also maintained through a host of both micro- and macrological social commitments / relationships. If we see capitalism as being a sort of natural war of all-against-all (or of capitalist-against-capitalist) mediated, to a greater or lesser extent, by cooperation between rivals to limit monopolistic dominance, we’re far too close, for my tastes, to the vision of capitalism propounded in the economic textbooks. Which isn’t to say that I’d deny the violence or intense rivalry that’s part of the system, obviously. Just that I worry about treating these as givens, when a huge amount of work – deliberate or non-deliberate – has gone into creating a situation within which this kind of rivalry can play itself out.

    On Lukacs – I’d agree that the kind of social analysis I’m thinking about here isn’t… very politically helpful. I’d probably question the suggestion that this is Lukacs’s main criterion, when he’s writing his own stuff. The potted history of German Idealism in Reification is pretty awesome, for instance, but it doesn’t seem all that handy for the revolution.

    But yes – “capitalists didn’t design and don’t like capitalism.” And so it’s interesting how capitalism reproduces itself even though no-one’s setting out to produce the totality, or whatever. And of course I agree with you and Chuckie K that the term’s fine in lots of ways. On a tangent, I just read that Michael Tratner article Derrida’s Debt to Milton Friedman, and it’s very good in relation to a lot of the stuff you were saying about Specters way back whenever. Here’s a good bit:

    “Derrida then goes on to make the remarkable claim that credit has the same position in the economic system that differánce has in linguistic systems. He says this in an account of Aristotle’s distinction between chrematistics and economy. Chrematistics is the system of monetary circulation, a system that Derrida says “has no limit in principle. Economy, on the other hand, that is, management of the oikos, of the home, the family, or the hearth, is limited to the goods necessary to life” (GT 158).10 The distinction, Derrida says, depends on the “limit between the supposed finiteness of need and the presumed infinity of desire, the transcendence of need by desire” (GT 158). He then writes this sentence: “As soon as there is monetary sign — and first of all sign — that is, differánce and credit, the oikos is opened and cannot dominate its limit.” Differánce and credit are presented here as two essential features of signs that have the same result: they make it impossible to maintain any limits or to have a closed system””

    I think Tratner’s economic history is a bit skewy – but his basic point that this move within philosophy entirely non-coincidentally parrallels the move to monetarism in economics seems to me just obviously right. The rejection of ‘totality’ that’s associated with this kind of theory – and that shows up in Specters too – praises itself for not privileging about limits and closed systems, etc. But in doing so it’s often channelling some highly undesirable political stuff.

    Comment by praxis — October 17, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  22. thanks praxis. didn’t mean to be overly generous.

    I agree of course that “capitalism” isn’t hobbesian; i just meant to say “totality” does not imply an agency but the opposite. (an alternative conception of the total to various ideas of “society” for example the one implicit in Williams to which Thompson objects)

    Like you, I am not persuaded Lukacs’ way of thinking was as appropriate for his project as he assessed – that’s one kind of error – was just pointing to the objective, which is kind of out of favour: another example though of these criteria at work would be Federici’s reply to Negri about immaterial labour. Her point is that while what he is noticing is curious and interesting – not wrong, not like he’s made it all up out of the blue, plenty of fodder there for essays and books – it’s passively registering what the dominant ideology is asking its audience to notice, acceptingly, thus it’s not revolutionary, it’s a way of thinking which helps promote and solidify the division within the international working class – required by capital and materially produced by policy – by making the privileged image the most privileged worker (really petty bourgeois) etc.

    JD and neolib:I guess it’s not surprising that deconstruction was toppled as dominant in US universities by the crash of 87. Bull markets and bubbles – every generation which comes to maturity in them believes they last forever. Bubblethink is constantly renovated (immaterial labour is one). You can sell it when the bubbles are inflating, but when they pop everyone discovers finitude, limits and that labour alone produces value etc. It takes time to sink in though. But in a crude way, we had an experiment regarding the common element of a lot of theory of “new” capitalism – the capitalisation of sentiment and affects (desire for real estate, belief real estate values only go up).

    Comment by chabert — October 18, 2008 @ 5:32 am

  23. “didn’t mean to be overly generous.”

    d’oh – sorry – that wasn’t meant to be backhanded. :-) [Just meant thanks for answering about capital controls etc.]

    “when they pop everyone discovers finitude, limits, and that labour alone produces value etc. It takes time to sink in though.”

    Yes. (Zizek telling us that markets = beliefs, in the LRB, for instance…) (Shooting fish in a barrel a bit, I know.)

    But the capitalisation of affects is excellent. And the consciousness of the missing core, the absent ground, theorised as existential tragedy, metaphysical lack, etc. etc.

    Comment by praxis — October 18, 2008 @ 7:57 am


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