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.