Praxis

October 20, 2008

Working Definition of Capitalism

Filed under: Economics, Keynes, Marx, NP, Politics, Social Theory, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 5:29 pm

I’m feeling a bit behind in economics stuff. So I thought I’d throw up a working definition of capitalism, open to wholesale revision if necessary, of course.

Say that capitalism has two main features.

1) Blind accumulation / consumption.

Capitalism is a system of economic and social organisation oriented toward production as an end in itself. Clearly the ‘profit motive’ is important here. But the ‘profit motive’ is only one of the more important of the various group or individual inclinations created by and sustaining a system oriented to production for its own sake. It’s a secondary question what is produced, and why – which is why Marx talks about people being subordinated to the processes of production, rather than the other way around. Another useful touchstone here is Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

The immense accumulations of fixed capital which, to the great benefit of mankind, were built up during the half century before the war, could never have come about in a society where wealth was divided equitably. The railways of the world, which that age built as a monument to posterity, were, not less than the pyramids of Egypt, the work of labour which was not free to consume in immediate enjoyment the full equivalent of its efforts.

Thus this remarkable system depended for its growth on a double bluff or deception. On the one hand the labouring classes accepted from ignorance or powerlessness, or were compelled, persuaded, or cajoled by custom, convention, authority, and the well-established order of society into accepting, a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce. And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion. There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated.

Another good touchstone here would be Weber on the Protestant Ethic, but it’s a while since I read it. And thinking of Weber, an important point of divergence from Keynes in this passage, I think, should be his analogy with religion. Depending on our understanding of religion, this may be fine – but it’s important to register, I think, that a general social inclination towards blind accumulation need not be produced by any individual or group faith in or orientation towards that end. We ourselves don’t need to believe in the virtues of blind accumulation in order for our actions to part of a social-economic system oriented towards it.

Another question here is what we mean by ‘production’. Capitalism counts certain behaviours as productive and others as non-productive. Indeed, there’s a two-fold division – between those activities that supposedly fall entirely outside the capitalist system of production (say, much of family life), and those in some sense non-productive activities that are universally acknowledged as central (e.g. finance). Not sure I’ve got anywhere to go with this just yet. But worth noting, I think, that lots of stuff that’s supposedly external to capitalism even in the former sense is no doubt important to the reproduction of the social forms that everyone acknowledges as capitalistic.

More should be said on all this, obviously, but moving on…

2) A system of production oriented around wage labour.

This is altogether shakier than #1, I think. Clearly slavery has played and continues to play a profoundly important role in capitalist accumulation. Nevertheless, the reason Marx gives labour such an important role in his economic & political writings isn’t just that he’s participating in and trying to foster a political movement of the working class; and isn’t just because labour as a transhistorical activity is essential to any production at all. Marx also sees wage labour as an essential feature of the capitalist system. (c.f. Diane Elson on The Value Theory of Labour.) My historical knowledge is more than a little shaky – but I think it’s probably fair to see capitalism proper emerging alongside the social upheavals that created a large-scale market in wage labour.

~~~

Probably worth noting, however, that we don’t necessarily need to find an essence of capitalism in order to, like, talk about or oppose it. It’s worth at least thinking about what such an essence might be, however, since lots of the central features of capitalism that we want to fucking abolish – e.g. massive exploitation – clearly aren’t specific to capitalism (even if capitalism’s specific forms of exploitation are). Also, contrariwise, because if we have an inaccurate sense of what’s essential to the capitalist system, we may direct our critiques and action against political or social forms that capitalism (and its regimes of exploitation) can operate perfectly well without.

Or it may be unhelpful even to think in these terms, I’m not sure.

[As will become customary, the ‘NP’ tag means that this stuff is… erm… in dialogue with Rough Theory. NP has a couple posts about Diane Elson’s essay here, for instance.]

June 14, 2008

N Pepperell Has Some Things To Say About The Emergence Of Modernity. [UPDATED]

Filed under: Blogroll, History, Politics, Science, Social Theory, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 11:22 am

Okay. I’ve been spending really quite a lot of time recently talking with N Pepperell (of the Rough Theory blog) about, you know, Marx and stuff. (Conclusion, at least on my end: ‘Capital’ = work of genius, but WTF with the Hegel already?) I’ve found it all just incredibly illuminating and enjoyable. But – I guess unsurprisingly – it turns out that only a fraction of NP’s ideas actually make their way onto Rough Theory. So I’m going to perform a dubious public service, by trying to summarise one of NP’s claims. I put up endless apologies and qualifications for almost everything I post here: the coin of the realm has been sadly debased. But let me especially stress: my attempted summary is going to make complete nonsense of NP’s ideas. My sneaky plan is to force NP to jump into the comments box below to correct me – and thereby elaborate this stuff in person. The provocation, then, is as follows…

At some historical point I’m more or less vague about [since, unlike NP, I’m not the sort of person who walks into copyright libraries and says ‘bring me everything you’ve got from the thirteenth century’ ;-)] something peculiar happened. You get the emergence of 1) the natural sciences; and 2) the social sciences. Now – the social sciences proper don’t turn up until, like, the nineteenth century. And we’re talking more like the seventeenth century here, I think. [This is completely embarrassing – I know nothing; nothing - but with courage and fortitude in the face of humiliation I persist…] NP’s claim is that you start getting the theorisation of society in a way that wouldn’t have made much sense to, say, the scholastic philosophers – a theorisation that would eventually become, thanks to further historical shifts I’m unclear about, the tradition on which the social sciences proper draw. (I guess we’re talking Hobbes, here, or something.) And at more or less the same historical moment (17th century ish, I think) you get the beginnings of an obsessive search for regularity in nature.

Question: Why?

Well, I guess the standard answer – the answer I imbibed when studying A-level history (I got top marks folks! O yes…) – is the rise of the Enlightenment; the decline of arguments from authority; the death of dogmatism; the emergence of empiricism. When I was studying philosophy at uni, this stuff tended to be keyed to Descartes. Scepticism! The refusal to accept aught but personal judgement! The speech of the senses, not the dogma of the schools! It is, of course, a world-historical-class irony that Descartes’ sceptical method has become a canonical authority. An irony, indeed, that it was even communicated, if we take its actual claims seriously. But this is by the by. (I’m deep into personal preoccupations here; this has nothing to do with NP’s argument…)

Enlightenment not authority, yes? Fine. But this has some flaws, explanatory-power-wise. Because, first off, why the Enlightenment? And second off, why the emergence of the theorisation of society at around the same time? There’s no very obvious reason why natural science and the theorisation of society should go together, historically. And yet – apparently – they do.

NP’s answer: It’s about capitalism. Or, rather, it’s about the development of social structures that would make the emergence of capitalism possible. Specifically (I think): urbanisation; the movement from forms of communal organisation that are more or less personal in nature (small communities more predominant than large ones) to forms of communal organisation that require substantial mediation through impersonal structures if they are to function. Markets, I guess, in part – though NP more or less comes out in hives if you start reducing capitalism to markets. Plus more complicated things I’m in no position to gloss – stuff, I think, about the genealogy of the transformation of the concept of ‘value’ that NP’s been discussing in relation to Marx.

So – you get a reconfiguration of society. And this relates to the emergence of the category of the social. And this happens in a complex and interesting way. We’re getting to the actual content of NP’s claim now – which I’m more than a little nervous about fucking up. (It’s just inevitable.) But with the move to new and much more substantial forms of social mediation, you get a new form of sociality, which one could call (if one were in the mood ) impersonal sociality. NP has developed this idea in great detail in relation to Marx. (There NP calls it ‘real abstraction’). The point is that this is a form of sociality that can be decisively distinguished from any form of intersubjectivity. It is a form of sociality that need not be conscious; need not be meant. Now in a sense all forms of sociality possess this property, in spades. Any kind of interpersonal relation has countless features that are not present to the wakeful consciousness of the persons interrelating. (Freudian & Derridean that I am, I tend to think that such features of interpersonal relations are totally predominant; but let me stress again that I’m largely wittering on my own account here, not glossing NP). Nonetheless, with the emergence of large-scale, highly complex, highly mediated forms of social organisation, this attribute of sociality takes on a unprecedented power and prominence.

NP’s claim is that this new form of sociality is not theorised as sociality; not at the time, or for a long time after. On the contrary, this new form of sociality is theorised as natural. What is theorised as sociality is the intersubjectivity that suddenly becomes more accessible as a theoretical category because of its social differentiation from the ‘impersonally’ social. The new dominance of the impersonal social divides the social against itself. The social becomes: 1) the intersubjective (theorised as the new category of the social) and 2) the impersonally social (theorised as the natural).

And this social change is what produces the new categories of both the ‘social’ and the (law-like) ‘natural’. Intersubjectivity becomes available as an object of enquiry as never before – it becomes ‘relativised’ as social when it suddenly breaks away from a newly emergent other form of sociality. And at the same time, it becomes plausible to treat the ‘natural’ as organised on law-like principles, because the ‘impersonally’ social is being treated in this way. One could say that the impersonally social is naturalised and then projected onto the natural world (just as the political economists ‘naturalise’ the laws of political economy). But the claim isn’t that scientific endeavour is based on some misunderstanding or projection. The claim is just that people become familiar with the idea of treating a non-intersubjective, non-intentional ‘law’ as impacting their lives – because such ‘laws’ are produced by the new enacted mediations of the impersonal social realm. So it becomes intuitive to investigate nature itself for ‘natural’ laws… with all sorts of interesting results.

(There’s some connection, I guess, then, between what NP’s trying to do and the ‘strong program’ in sociology. The point is that even if we like some contingent historical project, we can’t use that as an explanation for its historical emergence. Regularities in nature themselves can’t provide an adequate explanation for the sudden desire to look for regularities in nature. Similarly, the real existence of ‘society’ can’t explain the emergence of this concept of society – a concept we can then reinscribe in our articulation of the concept’s emergence. When NP talks about ‘reflexivity’, the point is that we have to also give an account of the historical changes which produce the concepts we use to analyse those historical changes.)

Anyway – all this is no doubt a travesty of whatever NP actually thinks. So: let me end by quoting (as I like to) Wittgenstein – busy justifying the (as it turns out posthumous) publication of the ‘Philosophical Investigations’…

“Up to a short time ago I had really given up the idea of publishing my work in my lifetime. It used, indeed, to be revived from time to time: mainly because I was obliged to learn that my results (which I had communicated in lectures, typescripts and discussions), variously misunderstood, more or less mangled or watered down, were in circulation. This stung my vanity and I had difficulty in quieting it.”

I’m not planning to sting any vanity here. :-) But I hope these results, more or less mangled or watered down (and communicated in discussion) have some sort of provocative force. What’s the real deal, as regards this stuff, I wonder?

[So as I say in the comments below (and as I predicted in the post…) plenty of this misrepresents NP wildly. A few quick (attempted) corrections, then:

1) Not theorisation of society/nature. Rather, experience of society/nature.
2) Not just emphasis on natural law, but also an organicist vision of nature associated with romanticism.
3) A whole host of problems involving the characterisation of the ‘impersonally social’. Basically: the sort of things implied by the phrase ‘impersonally social’ (e.g. markets) are part of the intersubjectively social. The real ‘impersonally social’ (asocial social?) can’t be identified with institutions, but rather operates through them.
4) Strike the use of the phrase ‘real abstraction’ – which is relevant, but not like that.

Any better? Hum. Well I'm going to bed, anyway...]

The WordPress Classic Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.