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 There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment.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.]

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.

Fragments of It

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 3:05 pm

Holy shit everything’s very complicated, isn’t it. Between you and me, I think I’ve done an okay job of crafting reasonably coherent blog-posts as I’ve written this thing. But screw that. I can’t hold it all in my head. From now on the blog’s going to be just… words. I’m also going to respond much less to comments – because much of what I’m going to be writing isn’t proposals, or even particularly thoughts, and so I reject the implication that I ought to be able to talk coherently about posts’ contents. Enough.

Placeholder Post

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 12:45 am

I don’t think I’m going to get a proper post up this evening, what with not knowing hardly nothing – but that won’t stop me making gloomy sounds. The synchronised plan the eurozone leaders are busy announcing obviously fails to address the fundamentals of the crisis. So does Brown’s plan, in the UK. You can’t borrow your way out of debt, as my bank manager keeps telling me. The real-economy problem is that ‘developed’ countries have been consuming resources far beyond their objective ability to appropriate them – and this appropriation has been funded by debts with the countries the resources are supposedly ‘appropriated’ from. Until that global imbalance[1] is addressed, by a massive realignment of economic and political power, things are going to be in ‘oh shit’ territory. (Things may be in ‘oh shit’ territory afterwards too, of course – but that’s a separate thing.) Sobering reading for tonight, then, is this post over at EconoSpeak.

“A change in sentiment on the dollar, if it occurs, will be sudden, unexpected and massive. An outflow of funds would stop the Fed/Treasury strategy in its tracks and mark the end of any meaningful program to restore financial markets. No one knows what the tipping point could be, or even whether the most enlightened policy can avert it.”

Since a change in sentiment on the dollar seems (to me) to be a condition of the establishment of a new global economic system, this fact doesn’t bode well. There’s no particular reason why all aspects of a structural realignment of capitalism around a geopolitical order yet to be established need to happen at the same time. It’s possible, I guess, that the current system can be shored up in the short term while longer-term adjustments… play themselves out. But since the current bailout plans seem to be a continuation, by other means, of the very economic policies and capital-movements that produced the disaster, I find it hard to believe that they’re going to solve anything. My prediction: next week will bring bad news for everyone except Fred Goodwin’s family.

More to follow sooner or later, though.

[1] Don’t really like the resonances of ‘imbalance’, which sometimes implies some sort of movement towards perfect economic equilibirum, but fuck it, the word’s still fine.

UPDATE: Hmmm. Stock markets rally, systemic collapse averted, Gordon Brown sainted, fluffy bunnies become the new global currency. I should make predictions more often.

October 10, 2008

Terrorists are destroying our banking system!

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 10:28 am

The greatest existential threat to our existence:

Imagine this: a ticking nuclear bomb is about to go off in a major European city. You can only stop it by seizing the assets of all Icelandic companies operating in the UK. Can you honestly say you wouldn’t do it?

Some Terrorists.

October 9, 2008

The Melancholy of Non-Resistance

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 2:32 pm

Owen Hatherley has it right:

“There’s something either terribly exciting or terribly melancholy about this. New Labour achieves what the extreme left of Old Labour always dreamt of – nationalising the fucking banks – but they won’t have a vote in what to actually do with the banks they partly own (like the huge public works that are needed, for starters), or even cap executive pay while doing it.”

Goddamn fuckit, etc.

October 6, 2008

March against/in/around the City

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 7:12 pm

Friday 3pm Mansion House tube, as anyone who’s likely to attend will already know.

I’m in fact in another part of the country altogether right now, so may not even be there. But, you know, best foot forward, get in line, etc.

October 5, 2008

Laughing with Kafka

Filed under: Literature — duncan @ 4:00 pm

No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.


(“On Aug. 18, Wallace’s parents came to Claremont to stay with their son. Wallace’s wife of four years, Karen Green, had been called away on an urgent family matter, and Wallace did not want to be left alone. He had canceled previous visits with his parents over the past year, telling them that he couldn’t bear to have people in the house, even those he loved, so the invitation came as a welcome surprise to them.

When Mr. and Mrs. Wallace arrived, they found their son exhausted and gaunt. “He was very, very thin,” says his mother. “He weighed about 140 pounds, so I immediately started to try to put 40 or 50 pounds on him, the way mothers will.” She cooked and cleaned. Wallace couldn’t eat, he told his sister later, but he liked the way the house smelled, and how clean everything was.

Mornings were spent walking Wallace’s two dogs, Werner and Bella. Wallace and his parents strolled the streets of Claremont, talking of small things. In the afternoons, they spoke some more, and helped their son deal with the paperwork and insurance issues that had been piling up. “He was very glad we were there,” says his mother. “And he was very emotional. He was just terrified of so much.””)

September 29, 2008

The Rings of Saturn

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 9:19 am

“the rings of Saturn are in all likelihood… fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.”


The Suffering Channel

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 9:19 am


“still and moving images of the most intense available moments of human anguish.”

(Rosenbaum. “the process by which torture becomes a box office staple may indeed not be too difficult to understand”)

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