May 30, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 6:25 pm

I’m exhausted at the moment so I can’t write about this properly.  But if anyone reading isn’t aware of the latest Terrorism Act outrage, it might be worth looking at this and this‘Stop the Deportation of Hicham Yezza’ site here.

[FWIW, The al Qaeda manual is downloadable here.  It’s a criminal offense to own this, you know.  So don’t go buying it off Amazon.]  [All links from Lenin.]

[NB. I believe this is the relevant section of the Terrorism Act:

Collection of information
(1) A person commits an offence if—
(a) he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or
(b) he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.”

Jesus fucking Christ.]

May 25, 2008

The Economist luvs Blanchett

Filed under: Media, Self indulgence — duncan @ 4:15 pm

Has anyone else noticed that ‘The Economist’ seems to have a serious crush on Cate Blanchett? I’m not about to spend an afternoon trawling through the archives – but I swear at least forty percent of its film reviews are devoted to praising Blanchett’s chiselled features and “cobalt-blue” eyes. It’s a little bit odd. She hasn’t appeared on the front cover yet, but I reckon it’s only a matter of time.

Matter, Sign

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 2:08 pm

Deconstruction, or Derrida’s work, begins in phenomenology. Derrida starts his dismantling or unravelling of the metaphysical tradition by unravelling Husserl. And Derrida’s work will be marked from first to last by this engagement. In a work as late as ‘Specters of Marx’ we find Derrida reading Marx through the prism of phenomenology. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s important – everything that’s wrong with Derrida’s take on use value, and the relation between use value and exchange value, comes from his determination to see Marx in terms derived from phenomenology. The book’s last chapter, containing Derrida’s discussion of commodity fetishism, is subtitled “The phenomenological ‘conjuring trick’.” And here’s a key passage, in which Derrida discusses the transformation of the table’s wood into a commodity:

“Whoever understands Greek and philosophy could say of this genealogy, which transfigures the ligneous into the non-ligneous, that it also gives a tableau of the becoming-immaterial of matter. As one knows, hule, matter, is first of all wood.” [What is the relation of this ‘first of all’ to the ‘first’ that Derrida finds and criticises in Marx?] “And since this becoming-immaterial of matter seems to take no time and to operate its transmutation in the magic of an instant, in a single glance, through the omnipotence of a thought, we might also be tempted to describe it as the projection of an animism or a spiritism.” (‘Specters’, p. 191)

These last references to animism and spiritism aren’t unimportant; but to an extent they’re decoys. The really important phrase here is “the omnipotence of a thought”. Derrida sees exchange value as performing a phenomenological reduction on use value. And this is the basis of Derrida’s critique of Marx. Derrida believes that there is a pre-critical and a post-critical thought – a short-of and a beyond of transcendental criticism. He believes that any ‘materialism’ – like Marx’s – that has failed to traverse a Kantian or Husserlian transcendental space, will collapse into a naïve ontologising metaphysics. And so – with considerable textual violence – Derrida wrestles Marx into this phenomenological space, in order then to move beyond this (supposedly) naïve materialism.

What violence is involved here? In the first place, an understanding of exchange value in terms of “the omnipotence of thought”. Marx isn’t really discussing thought in the fetishism passage –commodity fetishism is not a form of ideology. Fetishism, rather, arises from “the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them” – not ideas, beliefs, or intentions.

But the focus of this post isn’t Marx but Derrida: the relation of deconstruction to materialism. [NB: I noticed, once I’d written this, that The Accursed Share’s latest post also covers this ground.]


May 17, 2008

More Marx Ignorance

Filed under: Economics, Marx, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 12:09 pm

I’m sort of torn between never writing on Marx again until I actually know what I’m talking about, and continuing to use this blog as a place to store my ignorant thoughts. The latter is what the blog’s meant to be for. But now that it actually has (a couple of) readers, there’s a bigger downside to making an idiot of myself.

I am unafraid! I laugh in the face of intellectual embarrassment! And I post the following:

What is this ‘value’ thing then? Specifically, what is this labour theory of value? On any straightforward reading, it seems just utter nonsense. The value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production? Really really not. I don’t think that’s what proponents of the labour theory of value are actually saying… (?). But so what’s going on?

There’s a weird circularity to any discussion of value. Let’s say you tell the following story: the value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production. But because of a social/economic system based on exploitation – and because of the difference between labour and labour power – labour itself can produce more value than the value required for the production of labour. That’s surplus value. A certain value of commodities is required in order to keep labour more or less trim – workers have to eat and house themselves, and the capitalist class pays wages that allow this, much of the time. But because the use value of labour is (in part) its ability to produce value, there is a disjunct (a disjointure) between value in and value out, in the production process. The difference between labour and labour power is the disjointure that enables the accumulation of value. So – it’s apparently possible to say – workers aren’t paid for the true value of their labour. Ground of critique.

But all value – every commodity – produced under capitalism is a result of this production process based on disjointure. So it seems to me that everything falls apart if we try to say something like “the true value of labour isn’t represented in labour’s wages”. Because value itself, under capitalism, is based on this injustice. Where are we getting the solidity of value – the ‘true’ value of labour – that allows us to frame a critique of exploitation?

Where does value come from? Is there a real, non-exploitative value somewhere, at the base or root of the system, with surplus value built on top of this true reality of value? I don’t think that Marx believes this. And even if he does believe this – or if some other Marxist thinker believes this – where are we getting this value from? What is the account of the formation of value, here? And why on earth would labour produce value in the first place?

Value has already come on stage when ‘Capital’ begins. Where has it come from? What is it?


I think there’s a parallel here with orthodox economics’ theory of value. Marshallian analysis tells us that value – exchange value – is the result of a meeting between demand and supply… and that demand is a result of the meeting of desire (understood in terms of utility) and ability to pay. Utility – this wholly fantasised concept – is here apparently the ground for value. But of course (putting aside the fact that there ain’t no such thing as utility) utility doesn’t explain exchange value at all. All utility analysis can tell us is why certain things are valued more than others – once value has already ‘come on stage’. Exchange value, in Marshallian analysis, comes from the meeting of utility and cost (more or less) – but cost is already there, already out there, outside of us, in the world, in the system within which exchange and utility-maximisation takes place. The social system of valuation, within which different powers compete to maximise their utility, obviously cannot be explained simply in terms of utility. So where do we get the general concept of value that’s part of the system within which we analyse the determination of specific values, by means of supply and demand?

Now – something along these lines is why I don’t think Marx should be understood as grounding his critique on any idea of value. (And again I think I’m in the ballpark of N Pepperell’s posts here – though very much don’t attribute any of these opinions to N Pepperell, I’ve probably misunderstood everything…). My current take on this situation is: Marx doesn’t say – there’s this thing called value, it’s produced by labour, but under capitalism labour is exploited because the value of its product is more than the value of its wages. Rather, the concept of value that’s operative under capitalism (and, therefore, in Marx’s work too) is itself one of the objects of Marx’s critique. Marx’s idea is that this concept of value is a product of an exploitative social system, and that the system needs to be destroyed. His critique of the system, however, is not based on deploying the idea of value. Exploitation is just exploitation – it’s obviously exploitation. If people have to do work they hate, work that hurts them, that shortens or ruins their lives, and they’re doing this work for most of their waking hours, to serve the interests of the ruling class… that’s exploitation. You don’t need a theory of the production of surplus value to identify it as such. So Marx doesn’t say – here’s my theory of value; it allows us to recognise and analyse exploitation. He says – here’s exploitation; the social syste within which its embedded produces a certain theory of value (and, more important, a set of social behaviours that can be understood in terms of value); let’s analyse this theory, and develop it, in order to better understand exploitation, and the capitalist system it’s part of. Value doesn’t ground anything for Marx – it’s part of what needs to be explained. So, I think, it’s possibly politically misguided to deploy a ‘Marxist’ theory of value as a way of critiquing capitalism. Theory of value isn’t the starting point, here; it’s more like an object of critique.

Not sure how much of this is incredibly obvious and how much of it’s incredibly wrong. The interesting point, for me, I think, is that if something like the above is in the ballpark of right, it may be a mistake to see Marx as offering a theory of value that’s been occluded in the economics canon. Marx deployed the economic theories of his time, and, more importantly, analysed the social conditions that created them. The ‘labour theory of value’ was the principle economic theory he analysed, because it was prominent when Marx wrote. But the labour theory of value is no longer prominent (though it may not be as dead as we’re told…). It would, I think, [perhaps] be a mistake to read Marx and say ‘the (Marxist) labour theory of value needs to be brought back’. Rather, we should say – ‘the labour theory of value is no longer so prominent; economics now understands value in other ways; what has changed in the structure of capitalism such that economic theory has also changed?’ That, I think, would be a ‘Marxist’ question. (And another question, while we’re at it: why has no one developed a comprehensive critique of political economy since Marx? What the hell happened to left theorising? We’re due another proper critique, folks, come on, get busy…)

Needless to say, all this is just totally underinformed. I wonder why I’m writing it down, when I could be studying…

May 13, 2008

Liar’s Poker

Filed under: Anecdote — duncan @ 2:04 pm

Let me take a break from trying to get my head round whatever Marx is saying (thank you all who’ve tried to inform me…), and mention a couple of pot boilers I’ve also been reading, both about Wall Street.

First up, ‘Liar’s Poker’, Michael Lewis’s bestselling memoir of his time as a Salomon Brothers bond salesman. Lewis describes the years of the firm’s greatest success and decline – he describes, among other things, the creation of huge speculative markets in junk bonds and mortgages… and the repackaging of those mortgages as bonds… His book begins with a probably apocryphal anecdote about two of the firm’s partners – John Gutfreund, the chairman, and John Meriwether, a bond tradesman. Gutfreund challenges Meriwether to a game of ‘Liar’s Poker’ [something to do with betting on the serial numbers of one dollar bills…], “one hand, one million dollars, no tears”. Meriwether (supposedly) calls Gutfreund’s bluff, upping the stake to ten million dollars. Gutfreund declines to play. Victory for Meriwether – wouldn’t you like to be such a big swinging dick?

Lewis’s book ends with the crash of 1987 (“Time and time again someone stood up and shouted, for no particular reason, ‘Jeeee-sas Christ!” They were helpless as they watched their beloved market die.”) Lewis leaves the firm shortly afterwards, to become, I think, a freelance writer. (According to the author bio, he’s “served as editor and columnist for the British weekly The Spectator”, which doesn’t inspire confidence.) But although he describes the greed, mismanagement and suicidal short-termism that were at the heart of the firm he left, Lewis still has faith. “As it happens, I still own shares in Salomon Brothers, because I believe it will eventually recover. The strength of the firm lies in the raw instincts of people like John Meriwether, the liar’s poker champion of the world. People with those instincts, including Meriwether and his boys, are still trading bonds for Salomon.” With them on board, what could go wrong?

Move on to ‘When Genius Failed’, Roger Lowenstein’s account of “The Rise and Fall of Long Term Capital Management.” In 1991, Lowenstein tells us, scandal engulfed Salomon, when one of Meriwether’s traders was revealed to have lied to the US Treasury, about something or other. Gutfreund and Meriwether resigned; and Meriwether set about establishing another trading company – ‘Long Term Capital Management’, a hedge fund (the largest start-up ever) staffed by his former “boys” at Salomon.

Between March 1994, when it started trading, and April 1998, the height of its success, ‘LTCM’ was the brightest star in the finance firmament. “The firm had racked up returns of more than 40 percent a year, with no losing stretches, no volatility, seemingly no risk at all.” Then in August and September 1998, it imploded. The firm’s strategy, Lowenstein tells us, had been to bet, across all the markets it traded in, on the return of the market’s volatility to its long-run norm. In late 1997 “[w]ith Asia still in turmoil and stocks at nosebleed levels, investors were understandably jittery.” LTCM, believing that protection was therefore overpriced, became (in effect) a massive seller of insurance. But since “Long Term would have to settle up – paying or receiving monies according to how option prices moved every day”, the firm “wasn’t betting only on the extent of ultimate realized volatility, it was betting on the day-to-day inferred volatility, as determined by what other investors would pay for options.”

In mid August 1998, Russia defaulted on its debt. “Investors, at first singly, and then en masse, concluded that no emerging market was safe.” And investors fled “not just from emerging markets, but from investment risk wherever it lurked.” LTCM went into meltdown. “The losses came from every corner. They were so swift, so encyclodpedic in their breadth, so utterly unexpected that the partners felt abandoned.” In late September, with LTCM hours from bankruptcy, the Fed got the leading Wall Street banks together to bail out the firm – for fear of systemic crisis if it collapsed.

That’s the “raw instincts of people like John Meriwether, the liar’s poker champion of the world”. Now in that silly ‘Fooled By Randomness’ book I was reading a few weeks back, Nicholas Naheem Taleb remarks that the strategy that guided LTCM’s trades – like the strategy of a lot of investors guided by the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ – is sort of a performative contradiction. Investors look for market mispricing, in order to profit from the market’s eventual readjustment. But whatever forces generate the mispricing, are also forces that can continue to generate the mispricing. In ‘The Alchemy of Finance’, which I’ve also been reading, George Soros argues that the whole idea of market equilibrium – and therefore of ‘correct’ market pricing – is flawed. The ‘reflexivity’ that governs market behaviour means, according to Soros, that ‘fundamentals’ are always produced, in large part, by speculation, expectation, belief, fear, panic, hubris, craziness.

“’No, John,’ he [Meriwether] said, ‘if we’re going to play for those kinds of numbers, I’d rather play for real money. Ten million dollars. No tears.’… Gutfreund declined. In fact he smiled his own brand of forced smile and said, ‘You’re crazy.’” Crazy. And these “crazy” gamblers don’t get decide “no tears”… It’s not their tears that are at stake.

May 11, 2008


Filed under: Derrida, Marx — duncan @ 6:59 pm

This is really just me going over ground that’s already been comprehensively covered by N Pepperell’s posts on the early chapters of ‘Capital’ (to which it’s just totally indebted, to the point of outright theft). It was all meant to be part of a longer post on ‘Specters’, which recently collapsed under its own weight, onto its shaky foundations. There’s something I’m not happy with in the below – something that doesn’t seem right. But I can’t figure out what it is – so I’m ignoring it. Perhaps sometime eventually we’ll get to temporality in Derrida.


When the commodity comes on stage, in ‘Capital’, according to Derrida, it comes on stage first of all as a ‘Thing’. “To say that the same thing, the wooden table for example, comes on stage as a commodity after having been but an ordinary thing in its use-value is to grant an origin to the ghostly moment. Its use-value, Marx seems to imply, was intact. It was what it was, use-value, identical to itself. The phantasmagoria, like capital, would begin with exchange-value and the commodity form. It is only then that the ghost “comes on stage.” Before this, according to Marx, it was not there. Not even in order to haunt use-value. But whence comes the certainty concerning the previous phase, that of this supposed use-value, precisely, a use-value purified of everything that makes for exchange-value and the commodity form? What secures this distinction for us?”

Yes, what? Derrida insistently reads Marx in terms of a before and after – a before of pure presence; an after of spectral capital. First use-value; then exchange value.

But this reading requires a somewhat doubtful interpretation of Marx’s text. For when the commodity first “comes on stage”, in ‘Capital’ – in the book’s first sentence – it comes on stage not as a simple Thing, but already as a commodity.

“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’ [Marx citing his own earlier ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.”

Marx begins with the commodity; he then disassembles the commodity into what “appear” to be its component parts: use-value, and exchange-value. And once Marx begins this disassembly, he does indeed “appear” to give temporal priority to use-value.

“The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its properties satisfies human needs of whatever kind.” [my emphases]

First of all an external object – a thing. What could be clearer? But it is perhaps worth emphasising: this “thing” is not in itself a use-value, not as such. Rather, use-value is the product of the ability of external objects to satisfy human needs – and it is only this relation that makes an object into a use-value. “The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value.” Thus an external object ”is” a use-value, but it is a use-value (of course) only through its involvement in human society. Use-value is socially conditioned, or produced.

“Every useful thing, for example, iron, paper, etc., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. [And these “two points of view” may “appear” to map on to the use-value / exchange-value distinction…. (“As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can differ only in quantity…”)… but this parallel will be complicated as ‘Capital’ advances.] Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history.”

Marx is enough of a Hegelian that we should prick up our ears when he mentions “the work of history”. And there is a footnote appended to this phrase:

“’Things have an intrinsick vertue’ (this is Barbon’s special term for use-value) ‘which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron.’ (op., cit., p. 6).” And then Marx adds: “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had lead to the discovery of magnetic polarity.”

This comment disrupts the associations that the concept of “intrinisck vertue” may seem to carry. (It is, perhaps, moments like this that lead Engels to insist, in his Preface to the third edition, that Marx should not be read as endorsing the theoretical views of the economists he quotes.) For on the one hand, the property of attracting iron is intrinsic, is a material property; on the other hand it is a use-value… thus use-value is material. But, of course, since a use-value is only made into a use-value by its social and historical position, in another sense this “intrinsick” virtue is far from intrinsic at all. “[G]eometrical, physical, chemical or other natural… properties of commodities come into consideration… to the extent that they make the commodities useful, .i.e. turn them into use-values.” Commodities, as Marx here says, have to be turned into use-values – just as they have to be turned into exchange values – and this transformation, this ‘turning’ (like the table-turning that Derrida later discusses) is “the work of history”.

So use-value is both social and historicised. And in the next sentence, Marx draws out the parallel between historicised use-value and historicised exchange-value.

“Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of these things is the work of history. So also is the invention of socially recognised standards of measurement for the quantities of these useful objects.” [my emphasis.]

The historical and social processes that give a material thing its exchange-value also give it its use-value; and use-value is not assumed to exist prior to this general social entanglement.

All this is, perhaps, tediously obvious. Of course in some sense use-value is already social, or relational – whoever thought to deny that? But I think it’s important to emphasise this stuff if we’re to discuss Derrida’s reading of ‘Capital’.

Here’s a famous passage, from the start of Marx’s discussion of commodity-fetishism, that is one of the key moments Derrida uses to convict Marx of a metaphysical privileging of the purity of use-value.

”A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it [and this is the position Derrida emphasises in his reading – an apparent treatment of use-value as non-mysterious, as escaping the mysteriousness of fetishism, and therefore as the locus of the metaphysical idea of purity that fetishism contaminates], whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour [my emphasis]. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”

There seems to be a movement here from ‘ordinary’ use-value to the ‘metaphysical’ subtlety of exchange-value, or of commodification. But it should be emphasised that (as Marx says quite plainly) the “ordinary, sensuous thing” that is an object in its use-value, only becomes a use-value through the same social processes that make it into a commodity, and thus make it “transcend” sensuousness. “[I]t first takes on these properties as the product of human labour”. Ordinary sensuousness is not, in itself, enough to make the table a use-value – even though the use-value is that ordinary sensuousness.

The relevant distinction here, I think, is not between materiality as use-value, on the one-hand, and exchange-value or commodification, on the other – but rather between materiality as such, independent of human needs, and materiality as use-value. Derrida seems to assimilate use-value to materiality in general, in his reading of Marx – which is why he calls Marx’s idea of use-value ‘ontological’. And this has some justification – because a commodity’s use-value is its materiality; Marx says this very plainly. But this is a materiality – an ordinary sensuousness – that is not use-value in itself, but that has to be made into use-value, through labour (which is the basic institution of capitalism), and through the social and historical production or invention of the needs use-values satisfy. Use-value, like exchange-value, is an outcome of the general social system Marx analyses.

Is this belabouring the obvious? Maybe. But I think Derrida neglects this aspect of Marx. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about that some other time.

May 5, 2008

The Opposite of Triangulation

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 12:49 pm

A final wholly inadequate attempt at post-mortem, before I try to dismiss the election at least temporarily from my thoughts. [You might want to read this or this.] Clearly, Labour is haemorrhaging on two fronts. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ Tory voters – the middle-Englanders that it was Blair’s great ‘achievement’ to bring into the New Labour coalition – are returning to the conservatives with a vengeance. In London, it woz the suburbs wot lost it. On the other hand, Labour’s ‘core’ constituency, the old labour voters, are abandoning the party in repugnance – turning to Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Greens, the Liberals – anyone but Labour. [The liberals, though, are doing calamitously, given that much of Labour’s lost vote should be theirs for the taking. This isn’t just a product of third party irrelevance, I don’t think – it’s also partly a product of their move towards the right, as the Orange book faction take control. This may be wishful thinking.] The Tories are also picking up new votes, from that same repugnance… as are the far right. It’s a horror story – but it’s a consequence of the policy of triangulation that was the foundation of Blair’s whole project. When triangulation goes wrong, it really goes wrong – the double movement of assimilation becomes a pincer movement bearing in on Labour’s non-existent heart.

New Labour’s politics were formed in opposition, and remained oppositional throughout its decade-long dominance. The plan was always to appropriate right-wing policies, so that Labour would be impossible to attack from the right unless its opponents moved ever-further rightward. The inevitable result was to move political discourse in the UK ever further rightward… and in recent years, as Cameron has successfully repositioned the Tories on the centre ground that has moved to meet them, the strategy has collapsed: there’s no further right to appropriate, in many of the most important policy areas. So we have the remarkable spectacle of Labour triangulating against opposition policies that don’t exist – the creation, in the New Labour hive-mind, of a non-existent right wing ‘enemy’ that needs to be appeased. This, surely, is the only explanation for the bizarre insistence on extended detention periods for ‘terrorists’ – an authoritarianism that was, to begin with, an unprincipled political strategy, has become a simple modus operandi, a way of life and thought.

This isn’t to discount (as regards the election catastrophe) the simple weariness or hatred evinced by governments that outstay their welcome… or the cumulative effect of incompetence and dismal policy decisions. But the pendulum swing between rival parties doesn’t touch the same two points with each outward moment of its arc. This swing is also a reconfiguration of the political terrain; and New Labour’s ‘achievement’ was to bring Tory policies into the heart of the leftist project – the abandonment of the leftist project, in other words; the complete capitulation of the party of the welfare state to right-wing dogma.

On the domestic front, the exemplary New Labour policy is bringing private finance, and private companies, into the body and soul of the state. Thatcherism was about selling off the state; Blairism was about reconfiguring the state as a patchwork of corporations. It shouldn’t have to be said that this is a disaster on every level. What’s most remarkable, though, is its incoherence. Just obviously the ‘efficiency’ lauded in free-market ideology bears littlr relation to the efficiency required of an institution designed to serve the public. There’s a fundamental conflict of interest so glaring that a child of four could notice and polemicise against it.

Here’s a factoid that will have to take the place of countless others: in the NHS (or at least in the hospitals with which my spies are acquainted), private cleaning contractors are not permitted, by the companies employing them, to clean up bodily fluids – because it’s a health hazard. There’s nothing NHS employees can do about this, because the contractors are perfectly within their rights, as laid out in the cretinously drafted contracts. So blood, vomit, urine, faeces cannot be touched by NHS cleaning staff. If our hospitals are to be kept clean, actual state employees have to do it: that is, the qualified doctors and nurses who should be tending the sick. This is, of course, the result of simple incompetence in the drafting of contracts. (Contracts drafted, presumably, by New Labour mandarins who know nothing about the health service.) But this kind of calamity is the inevitable result of introducing ‘market’ mechanisms into organisations dedicated to public service. Corporations aim to make as much as they can from doing as little as possible: that’s efficiency. The government wants the health service to be well run: that’s efficiency. Somehow, along the way, efficiency got confused with efficiency… and so after years of massive expenditure on the NHS, it continues to lag behind even far cheaper continental equivalents.

(I say ‘market’ mechanisms – but of course one of the problems is that there’s no market to speak of in the provision of public services. We’re dealing with state guaranteed monopolies – which as even the most basic and ideologically slanted economics textbooks will tell you destroys the market efficiency that market methods are supposed to produce. And this ‘market failure’ is inevitable, in the public service sector – because real market competition works by natural, or social, selection – those who can’t provide the goods and services the marketplace demands are driven from the market: they fail. If a public service fails, a better service isn’t chosen instead, by rational consumers. It just fails. (And is bailed out by the government, or the taxpayer). So the idea that even market efficiency, let alone actual efficiency, could be achieved in the public sector is insane. But that’s only one landmark in the grand panorama of private finance incoherence.)

This post won’t win any awards for nuance. But to continue: it’s extraordinary the tenacity and stupidity with which New Labour has pursued this fundamentally misguided project. The result has been massively increased spending on public services, alongside the complete and justified loss of confidence, across the country, in the left’s ability to administer those public services. When the Tories get in, in 2010, we’re going to see, I think, a short period of continuation of basically New Labour policies – paralleling the ’97 Labour adoption of Tory spending plans – and then the Thatcherite project of the destruction of the welfare state will be renewed. The difference, this time round, is that there’ll be no ideological or practical commitment, in mainstream political discourse, to the kind of public service policy that neoliberalism is dedicated to dismantling. Spending on the welfare state will equal, in political debate, New Labour – a vision of the welfare state that is already right wing at its core.

How much does ideology count? [As Le Colonel Chabert asked the other day.] The answer, I think, is that it counts for a lot. Market ideology is a very crude tool developed to serve the material interests of the already wealthy. But a crude ideological tool, once constructed, takes on a life of its own. New Labour’s corruption – its cosying up to the rich and powerful, its infatuation with the City – these may be products of the way power and wealth are distributed in modern Britain. But the application of free market dogma to leftist political goals cannot be explained away as capitulation to the interests of the powerful. It is largely (though of course not entirely) the product of market ideology untethered from the material interests that gave rise to it. Economic and social doctrines created to justify and engender the redistribution of income towards a business elite came to control even the mechanisms by which income is redistributed away from the elite – towards the poor, the old, the sick. And of course you cannot run progressive public services on principles antithetical to their goals. I don’t think that Blair or Brown are exactly insincere in their claim to be pursuing (supposedly) progressive goals. I think they’re creatures of an economic and political ideology that makes the coherent pursuit of progressive goals impossible.

Death of a party, in other words. Death of a coalition. As New Labour’s big tent collapses, and the clowns come running out screaming, we find a political terrain in which the mainstream left have no sense even of what they’ve lost – or killed.


Keynes always stressed, pithily, the importance of ideas. To be sure, Keynes’ emphasis on the power of thought and writing was based on his own class interests – he wrote for, and assumed, a technocratic elite who could translate his economic insights into action. We don’t have – don’t want – that luxury. Nonetheless, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back“. Our current madmen distil their frenzy from academic scribblers of thirty, fifty, a hundred and fifty years ago. The fight for political change needs to be fought, in part, on this terrain – it is, in part, a battle of ideas. Argument isn’t sufficient, of course, but it’s necessary. And so… get scribbling. This ideology needs to be dismantled, exposed, destroyed. We at least have accuracy on our side. “[S]oon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” (Of course, as Keynes also reminded us – if things get “late” enough… we’re all dead.)

[NB:  Though probably worth bearing this in mind, too. “The division of labour… manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood), while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts, which, however, in the case of a practical collision, in which the class itself is endangered, automatically comes to nothing, in which case there also vanishes the semblance that the ruling ideas were not the ideas of the ruling class and had a power distinct from the power of this class.” (‘The German Ideology’)]

May 3, 2008

Death of a Party

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 5:59 pm

Roger linked to this video when McCain became a shoo-in for Republican presidential nominee.  But given Cool Britannia, and all that guff, it seems more appropriate to the collapse of New Labour…  Think back (no, really, think back) to the mid nineties, and the Blur / Oasis ‘duel’… 

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