October 28, 2007

Andrew Moonen Should Be Charged With Murder

Filed under: Literature, Politics — duncan @ 6:11 pm

Limited Inc. suggests that bloggers spread the word, helping move us towards the outside chance that Andrew Moonen, and the U.S officials protecting him, will face criminal prosecution. Andrew Moonen’s the Blackwater contractor who, on Christmas Eve 2006, got drunk at a party and killed one of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi’s bodyguards, Raheem Khalif Hulaichi. Moonen was discharged from Blackwater for “violating alcohol and firearms policy”. A cover-up was unsuccessfully attempted, Hulaichi‘s family were given $20,000 [Correction: as of October 7th no compensation had been paid], and Moonen quickly got a job with a Defence Department contractor in Kuwait. No charges have been brought.

On the other hand, I’m not a U.S. citizen. So in the interests of balance, I also want to mention Aegis Defence Services, based right here in London. In October 2005 a video was posted on a website run by a disaffected company employee. It showed Aegis contractors shooting, apparently at random, into civilian vehicles. At first Aegis denied that the video, or the website, were anything to do with them; then both Aegis and the U.S. Army conducted investigations. They concluded that the contractors in question were operating within the rules for the legitimate use of force. Aegis got a high court injunction to shut down the website, and no charges were brought.

Last month, Aegis’s contract with the U.S. State Department was renewed. They now have a two year contract in Iraq for $475 million.

In 1917 A.E.Housman published a poem about the battle of Ypres. He called it ‘Epitaph On An Army Of Mercenaries.’ He wrote that the British Expeditionary Force “held the sky suspended”; they “saved the sum of things for pay.” In 1935 Hugh MacDiarmid published a slightly belated response.

Another Epitaph On An Army Of Mercenaries

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

The corporate armies currently operating in Iraq are not regulated, and they are not subject to the law. Nobody knows how many private military contractors are in Iraq; nobody knows how many have died; nobody knows how many they’ve killed. In the absence of a victim connected to a high-profile figure, an incriminating video, or an especially brutal massacre with multiple credible witnesses, their crimes go unreported. And since Paul Bremer’s Order 17, no coalition forces or contractors in Iraq can be prosecuted by anyone other than their “sending states” – who refuse to do so.

Why isn’t Andrew Moonen being charged with murder?

October 25, 2007

Freedom and Power

Filed under: Economics, Friedman, Philosophy, Politics — duncan @ 5:24 pm

So last month I wrote an unsatisfactory post about Milton Friedman’s use of the opposition between freedom and coercion. I said that Friedman imagines the state as always and essentially coercive, and market exchange as always and essentially voluntary; and that this understate the extent to which the relation between citizen and state can be beneficial, and, more importantly, the extent to which market exchange can, and does, involve violence, and the threat of violence, and a host of marginally more subtle but nonetheless just as powerful mechanisms of coercion and control. Well, I didn’t say that, but I should have done. What I actually said was that any exchange or relationship involves an admixture of both freedom and coercion: that even torture leaves a sliver of freedom, and that even the most bilaterally voluntary exchange involves dissymmetries of power.

What was I thinking? In the first place – it’s obvious and sinister nonsense to imply that the self’s freedom can survive any violence inflicted on it. Violence can destroy anything; it’s nothing more than a consoling or self-exculpating fantasy to believe that the true free self is untouchable by the exigencies of physical trauma. Moreover, to phrase the matter in this way – to speak of an admixture of freedom and coercion – is to perpetuate the idea of a fundamental (if you like, metaphysical) opposition between the sovereign self and the world around it. Friedman uses the terms ‘voluntary’, ‘freedom’, ‘coercion’, etc., with an alarming lack of investigation into what they mean. If we take on board Friedman’s uses, and simply argue about the terms’ appropriate fields of application… well, we’ve already fucking lost.

In his 1976 lectures, which I’m reading now, Foucault discusses the concept of sovereignty, which he believes has dominated Western political discourse since the end of the middle ages. (I should have known all this already, of course, but I’m behind the curve, trying to catch up…) Foucault says that all theories of right are based on the attempt to establish a line between legitimate contract and illegitimate oppression. They attempt to establish a space of sovereignty, within which power is exercised legitimately, but beyond which power turns into coercion. And Foucault affiliates himself with (or expresses strong sympathy for) an alternative tradition, for which “the pertinent opposition is not, as in the previous schema, that between the legitimate and the illegitimate, but that between struggle and submission.” (‘Society Must Be Defended’, p. 17).

In other words, Foucault’s trying to do away with the opposition between freedom and coercion as our fundamental tool for political analysis. Power is everywhere; every relationship is a power relationship. The individual who exercises freedom, or is subject to coercion, is already a product of and conduit for power.  “The individual is not… power’s opposite number; the individual is one of power’s first effects.” (p. 30). We therefore need to, as it were, strategically suspend the concept of freedom, and instead examine our societies and economies in terms of power relations. “[T]his means that rather than starting with the subject (or even subjects) and elements that exist prior to the relationship and that can be localized, we begin with the power relationship itself, with the actual or effective relationship of domination, and see how that relationship itself determines the elements to which it is applied.” (p. 45).

This is obviously relevant to economics. Rather than seeing the economy in terms of utility-maximising individuals, we should start by examining the power-relations that influence any given exchange – and create the possibility of exchange. “The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation rests on the elementary – yet frequently denied – proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed.” (Friedman.) This valorisation of individual freedom destroys at its origin any attempt to examine the real power relations behind market transactions; and one of the ways it does so by inventing a fictional, subjective, and thoroughly un-analysable concept of ‘utility’.This means that an alternative economics, which takes power rather than freedom as its starting point, could in fact be more empirical and objective than the mainstream orthodoxy.

All this is probably desperately obvious. More to come as soon as I actually know something about anything.

October 20, 2007

Labour Time, Money Time.

Filed under: Economics, Marx, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 4:15 pm

In the first chapter of ‘Capital’, Marx quotes Aristotle on value. “’There can be no exchange,’ he says, ‘without equality, and no equality without commensurability’… ‘It is, however, in reality, impossible that such unlike things can be commensurable,’.. This form of equation can only be something foreign to the true nature of things, it is therefore only ‘a makeshift for practical purposes’.

Marx disagrees. For Marx, human labour is the homogenous form of value that underlies the commensurability of commodities. This is “[t]he secret of the expression of value.” And knowledge of this secret distinguishes Marx from the vulgar economists who see money as the principle of commensurability. “For them… there exists neither value, nor magnitude of value, anywhere except in its expression by means of the exchange relation, that is, in the daily list of prices current on the Stock Exchange.”

What’s striking here is that both Marx and the economists he criticises are working from similar perspectives: they share the idea that capitalist exchange would be impossible without a certain fundamental homogenisation of value. There must be some substrate or matrix shared by all commodities, if they are to be commodities at all. For Marx it is human labour; for the vulgar economists, money; but the principle is the same.

I want to say a few quick, stupid things:

1) This substrate or matrix could be called ontological or transcendental. Marx’s enquiry could be called ontological in the sense that it uncovers the necessary underlying form of value; the vulgar economists’ could be called transcendental in the sense that it tells us the form our experience of value must take. (So, for instance, we are supposedly unable to properly comprehend the value of environmental resources except through cost-benefit analysis: money is, for orthodox economics, the form through which all value must be experienced.) For Marx, we might say, a commodity’s use-value is ontic; its labour-value ontological. This is why the promised revolution is a messianic unveiling of true reality. For the vulgar economists, by contrast, the movement is one of assimilation: the dark corners of the world not illuminated by money’s civilising power must be brought into capitalism’s sight, and the threat of incommensurate, unknowable values destroyed. Here a commodity is empirical, the commodity’s price transcendental, and the non-commodified object noumenal – unthinkable and disruptive.

2) Both these forms of value have a fundamental connection to time. For Keynes, recall, “the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.” And for Marx, the underlying meaning of value is not just labour, but labour time. Of course for Heidegger Time is the horizon of Being; and, for Kant, the most basic transcendental form of experience. I think it’s tempting to run with the following idea: Marxism and liberal economics both see value as fundamentally connected to time, but have different concepts of time. Marx sees time in terms of living flesh; liberalism in terms of circulating currency. But, as we know, these oppositions – between the natural and the artificial, the living and the dead, and the ontological and the transcendental, are all more than a little suspect.

3) Still, let’s assume the following: Marxism and liberal economics both imagine a homogenous and homogenising time, as the substrate or matrix of value. If we want to interrogate these traditions we could do worse than to start with analysing this concept of time. Which brings me, again, to that Derrida quote I’m circling around: “[I]s not Time the ultimate resource for the substitution of one absolute instant by another, for the replacement of the irreplaceable…?” We need to place all possible weight on this idea of the irreplaceable. What is it to value something, if not to say: this cannot be substituted, this cannot be replaced, nothing can make good its loss, and if it dies, I will mourn forever? How, then, can we say that value is based on commensurability? Rather, we have here a dialectic: commensurability and incommensurability both essential to the paradoxical nature of value.

All this subject to the ‘vitiated by ignorance’ tag above. I need to do a lot more reading.

The Corporation as Feudal Estate

Filed under: Economics, History, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 4:11 pm

One of the weirder aspects of laissez-faire economics is that its advocacy of individual liberty goes hand in hand with praise for the corporation. The state, we learn, can’t possibly look after individuals’ interests – because to do so would require an inefficient and corrupt command economy. Instead we must look to the market, and the interaction between consumers and corporations. Very few economists go on to mention that… the corporation is a command economy.

The corporation can at times resemble a state (as with the East India company – which wasn’t so much a state, as a state’s ruling class). More often it resembles a medieval manor, with its rigid hierachies, its idle owners of the productive resources, and its payment in kind, not cash. Yes, I know, we get our wages in money. But this is not really a market exchange. Rather, we work at producing cash (just as a medieval serf worked at producing grain) – then we receive some fraction of our product as our wage. For there is no market within a corporation. The corporation is a world to itself, based more on patronage and fealty than laissez faire supply and demand.

The movement from feudalism to capitalism went hand in hand with a change in the dominant modes of production (I’m sure I’ve heard this somewhere before…) Feudalism died as industry was born. The manorial estate was based on the pre-eminence of land: “no land without a lord, no lord without land.” When the link between land and productive resources was severed – when land ceased to be the dominant form of capital – the feudal estate went mobile, or virtual. The modern corporation has its lords and its serfs; but because its resources are diffuse or even incorporeal, this fundamental relationship of bondage is obscured.

October 14, 2007

Poverty as Metaphysics

Filed under: Literature — duncan @ 8:15 pm

“The realisation that art has always been bourgeois is finally of scant interest…” (Samuel Beckett, Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit)

Here’s a way to read Beckett: by making destitution metaphysical, Beckett goes as far as he can in rejecting art’s relation to production while remaining within the form of art. Beckett’s tramps are utterly unproductive, but because this non-production is not real, but allegorical, his protagonists’ travails can reflect back on the lives of Beckett’s audience. In this sense Beckett’s poverty is the mirror image of Proust’s wealth: the one minimalist, the other expansionist, both make a social position into an aesthetic and philosophical experience. It could be said of Beckett what Walter Benjamin said of Proust:

”This disillusioned, merciless deglamorizer of the ego, of love, or morals – for this is how Proust liked to view himself – turns his whole limitless art into a veil for this one most vital mystery of his class: the economic aspect.” (The Image of Proust).

Work, continued

Filed under: Literature, Media — duncan @ 6:33 pm

Isn’t this the reason for the incredible popularity of ‘The Office’?  Not that it’s funny, but that it puts on screen an experience all its viewers know but that no art has adequately conveyed: the horrifying misery of middle class work; the nightmarish boredom and despair of the 9 to 5.  Since Flaubert, critics and novelists congratulate themselves on their literature’s self-conscious mundanity.  No one seems to have noticed that the bulk of modern experience remains unexpressed, on page or screen.  Forget working class life; forget manual labour.  When was even office work dealt with fully, adequately, profoundly by contemporary art?

Literature is part of the leisure industry.  It is driven by a certain economic form of life.  It sustains itself through the following narrative: you work all day, in order to live large at the weekend.  There is no real difference between going out clubbing and going to the National Theatre – culture is an escape from the daily grind; and the daily grind is justified because it allows you to afford culture.  It is not in culture’s interest to  undermine this lifestyle.  The products of the leisure industry are in a symbiotic relationship with industry as a whole.

The challenge, then (as Tom Tomorrow’s Sparky the Penguin implies), is to create a depiction of modern work that does not participate in the stories modern work tells in order to justify itself.  The genius of ‘The Office’ is in its use of the unreliable narrator: by adopting the form of the documentary, the workers’ ironic digs at their daily routine are revealed as a particularly hellish part of the routine.  At the moment I’m reading Joshua Ferris’s ‘Then We Came to the End’.  Written in the first person plural, it depicts the hive mind of an advertising agency.  But, fun though this is, it prevents Ferris from getting to the heart of his subject: the griefs, desires and miseries that can never surface in the office, but that drive all modern work.

October 12, 2007


Filed under: Sarcasm — duncan @ 8:29 pm


Writing at work: a corporation I can’t name. (I’ve signed a form: no blogs, no internet forums, no discussion.) What is the relation between company loyalty and liberty? Between capitalist and ‘corporate’ values? ‘Corporate values’: “Steve really lived the values of the company”; “Marsha embodies the company’s core values”. This is what you sell, on the free market: an attitude, a set of convictions. It’s not a service industry; it’s a belief industry – disseminating moods and loyalties. This is how the capitalist ideal propagates itself: those who adhere to it most zealously advance; dissent is unproductive. Politicians complain about our generation’s apathy: but apathy is also a political activity, a form of ideological challenge. This is the revolution sweeping corporate life: slight laziness; slight weariness; ennui; griping. A fundamental attack on the American dream. The storming of the Bastille as cigarette break.


October 8, 2007

Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia

Filed under: History, Literature — duncan @ 8:05 pm

I’ve been reading Clive James’s ‘Cultural Amnesia’ on and off for some time now. It’s a collection of biographical essays about mostly twentieth century cultural figures. It took me surprisingly long to figure out the obvious: it’s a bad book. I wanted to write a few quick remarks, and ended up sweating over this rambling post. There’s still almost everything wrong with what I say here; but my patience has run out. For a proper, better review you might want to check out the Millions, here.

Start with the book itself.


October 6, 2007

Stop the War Demo

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 1:24 pm

I’m not sure why they’ve arranged it for a weekday lunchtime (Why not three a.m. on Thursday? Why not a secret gig?) – but the latest Stop the War demo is this coming Monday. (Yes, I know – to coincide with the first day of parliament and the debate on troop withdrawal). Meet 1:00 Trafalgar Square.

The government’s decided to ban the march. According to Socialist Worker: “The ban is being enforced under the terms of the sessional order passed by MPs at the start of each parliamentary term.”

Here’s the relevant order (which won’t in fact be passed for this parliamentary term until Tuesday, but never mind…):

“Ordered, That the commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis do take care that during the Session of Parliament the passages through the streets leading to this House be kept free and open and that no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passage of Members to and from this House, and that no disorder be allowed in Westminster Hall, or in the passages leading to this House, during the Sitting of Parliament, and that there be no annoyance therein or thereabouts…”

Well, an anti-war demo is clearly an annoyance. But according to this 2003 Select Committee report, the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act does not grant the Police sufficient powers to enforce the Sessional Order. “[A]lthough passing a Sessional Order may, in the words of the Clerk ‘make the House feel better’, it does not confer any extra legal powers on the police.” “We believe that legislation on demonstrations is the only way to ensure that the police have adequate powers to achieve the result intended by the Sessional Order. Without such legislation, the Sessional Order is misleading; with such legislation, it would be uneccessary.”

In 2005 the government acted on this advice, and passed the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which prohibits unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square. (Actually, the area is more precisely delimited: “the designated area is the area bounded by an imaginary line starting at the point where Hungerford Bridge crosses Victoria Embankment, continuing along Hungerford Bridge to the point where it crosses Belvedere Road, rightwards along Belvedere Road as far as Chicheley Street, leftwards along Chicheley Street as far as York Road, crossing Westminster Bridge Road into Lambeth Palace Road….” etc. The Act reads like a collaboration between Iain Sinclair and Alain Robbe-Grillet.) If you don’t get permission from the Metropolitan Police to demonstrate within this area, you can’t.

In other words the sessional order’s irrelevant; and is probably just a way for the government to pretend they’re not using the controversial SOCPA legislation to ban the march.

Anyway – whatever the legalitites, the prohibition of peaceful political demonstrations is outrageous.

March on Monday.

[Update: Monday evening.
Well, they lifted the ban half an hour before the demo was due to start – perhaps because of the (relatively) large turn-out; perhaps because Brown bottled out of an early election. Pictures and stuff over on Lenin’s Tomb.
I’ve also edited down the earlier version of this post, because the quotes from the Green Paper ‘The Governance of Britain’ were almost supernaturally boring.]

October 4, 2007

Free to Choose

Filed under: Friedman, Politics — duncan @ 8:40 pm

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Economists love Freedom. And only capitalism can provide freedom, because only capitalism distributes goods and services by market methods. When I clock off at the end of another grisly working day, I can get the bus down to Bluewater, and buy whatever Noam Chomsky book I want – thanks to the magic of the market.

Of course this freedom is really freedom to buy and sell. I sell myself – I rent out my body and my mind – in exchange for money. Then I can use that money to buy, or rent, whatever I please – food, property, other people’s bodies and minds.

The freedom of capitalism is, in the first place, the freedom of the consumer. Only secondarily is it freedom of the worker. It’s a simple matter of power relations: those with money have power over those who need it. As a consumer, I have power; as a worker, I don’t. At the end of the working day you gasp for air – free at last! – because as you leave your employer’s domain you are transformed from servant into master.

In this world, money is freedom. You earn your freedom. You renounce your freedom in order to receive it. Freedom is transmitted, from the wealthy to the poor, in exchange for labour and obedience – the lack of freedom.

Now here’s Milton Friedman: “The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market society is, ‘To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.’” (Capitalism and Freedom, p. 161-2)

Why would this be characteristically the ethical principle of a free society? What is the link, if any, between ethically justified earnings and the possession of productive resources? Furthermore: “What is the relation between this principle and another that seems ethically appealing, namely, equality of treatment?” (p. 162). “Are we prepared to urge on ourselves or our fellows that any person whose wealth exceeds the average of all persons in the world should immediately dispose of the excess by distributing it equally to all the rest of the world’s inhabitants?” (p. 165)

If, within the marketplace, money is freedom, then the question of the distribution of income is also the question of the distribution of freedom. Consider the law of diminishing marginal utility: the first dollar I earn gives me twice the utility of my second dollar, which gives me twice the utility of my third, and so on. Now re-apply this law to freedom. Let’s say the marginal freedom I get from each dollar earned diminishes as my earnings increase – not a wholly ridiculous idea. Don’t we have here a powerful argument for redistribution – based on the maximisation of freedom, and couched in the freedom-loving economists’ own terms?

Why doesn’t Friedman discuss this? Why does he see state-enforced income redistribution as only a theft, never a gift, of freedom?

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