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 There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment.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

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 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.

September 25, 2008

The Financial Crisis

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 9:51 pm

Okay. So I think it’s clear enough that I don’t know what I’m talking about. But even though the blog is, yes, still dormant, it seems shameful not to post anything at all on the financial crisis. Major apologies for ignorance & incomprehension. This incredibly confused stuff is all coming out of newspaper-skimming and blog-glancing. But so:

First aspect of crisis: Panic in the financial markets. Nobody trusts anybody; nobody will lend to anybody. Collapse of public fact. Made possible by. 1) Deregulation. (See below.) 2) Hideously complex and complexly interlinked financial assets. (Nobody really knows where the ‘bad debt’ is.) Plus you’ve got all sorts of vast financial institutions that aren’t investing from any kind of semi-solid capital base (say, bank deposits), but are relying rather on short-term interbank lending. Domino effect, positive feedback loops, etc. (Plus everything’s leveraged to the gills). Deregulation to blame for all this.

Domino effect prompted, obviously, by specific bad debt = subprime mortgages. Flogged dead horse, this. Banks lying to borrowers about seductive but extortionate deals; borrowers lying to banks about whether they have money, etc. Deregulation to blame here also.

Subprime mortgage fiasco symptom of larger problem. Crisis aspect the second: recent U.S. consumer spending fuelled by debt. Middle and working class wages stagnant for thirty years; breaking of the back of labour; long-term retreat / collapse of left; victory to capital in the capital-labour conflict. Economic growth nonetheless still fuelled by increasing consumption. Gap between consumers’ income and expenditure plugged by household debt. Debt has to be repaid, and can’t be repaid without decline in expenditure. Unsustainable growth. (Enables a massive transfer of resources to the capitalist class.) (Roger‘s been talking about all this for years.)

Credit bubble made possible at a domestic level by Fed policy – interest rates kept low; value lost in internet bubble’s collapse recreated in housing bubble. Vast credit boom sustaining domestic expenditure itself sustained by US borrowing from overseas. Dollar = world’s reserve currency, so US able to run eye-boggling external debt.

Crisis aspect the third, then. Burgeoning external debt corresponds with decline in credibility of US as debtor. Postwar credit boom backed by dollar as reserve currency; dollar as reserve currency backed by US hegemony. Rise of China, India, Russia, developing nations all over, producing now-very-advanced transition to multi-polar geopolitical order.

All this is, I hope (???), passably adequate, as horrible crude summary. The post-war order has worked to appropriate the resources of the ‘developing’ world, based on a system of free trade oriented towards and underwritten by American power. The conveyor belt of resources from poor world to rich is maintained by the power-sodden ‘price mechanism’ – the products (and labour) of the poor priced cheap, the products (and labour) of the rich priced high: exchange of equal values = massive appropriation.

As US hegemony falters, expenditure comes to rely on borrowing from overseas. Within the US economy, comparable movement of resources from the working- and middle- to the ruling classes also comes to based, from the eighties onward, on the extension of credit. The deregulation that permits massive debt expansion is also part of the market fundamentalism that justifies and underwrites the global system of free market exploitaiton. [Apologies for so much boiler-plate stuff. There’s some content here, I think, beneath the confusion.]

Three interlinked failures of the economic system, then. 1) Just general shadiness of deregulated financial markets, which make panics, and corresponding liquidity-collapses, more likely and more severe. 2) But panic’s based on the fact that it’s not possible to appropriate indefinitely income that only exists through borrowing. Solvency, not just liquidity, failure. 3) And all this based on a more general failure of globalised markets, in an era of waning American power, to supply quite enough resources to the developed world, given growth requirements. The financial sector is, by definition, non-productive. If it’s going to keep making people money, there has to be a corresponding growth in the real economy. US production ain’t all that; and the global trade system isn’t supplying enough stuff to sustain expansionist greed. I think. (?????)

Plus, you know, crises are just a feature of capitalism. Wages are depressed by the capitalist drive to profit – which means demand is reduced, because no one can fucking buy anything – which means a crisis of overproduction. Since the long-term depression of wages has been ‘masked’ by the credit bubble, its only when the bubble bursts that the crisis hits, and the ‘real’ redistribution takes place. That redistribution is currently being managed by the US elite, obviously – but it also involves systemic change, as the capitalist institutions that enabled the appropriation are threatened or destroyed by its effects. We’re in the middle of a major structural transformation – and there’s little thought going into how it’s managed – what kind of capitalism ‘we’ (whether Bushites or the all-but-non-existent left) want to see, after the death of neoliberalism.

The calamitous Paulson plan is calamitous for various reasons. No fucking oversight to speak of. Absolutely no attempt to limit executive pay-packets. But above all, obviously, the fact that it’s a simple redistribution from the taxpayer to Wall Street. As Calculated Risk says: “The plan only limits the Treasury to “$700,000,000,000 outstanding at any one time”, so the total purchases can exceed $700 billion. In fact, every time the Treasury sells some securities, they will probably plow the net proceeds back into more troubled assets until the entire $700 billion is gone.” Paul Krugman has been banging the drum over what price ‘troubled assets’ will be bought at. If they’re bought at market value, there’s no injection of capital; financial trading may be kick-started, but there’s no end to the insolvency crisis. If, on the other hand, ‘troubled’ assets are bought at above market value, it’s just a giveaway (with corresponding theft). And this is a problem not only because it’s obscene, but also because we’re in a crisis driven, in part, by lack of demand due to wage-depression – so transferring money from consumers to financial institutions = extra-bad. Paulson, Bernanke et al are obviously working for Wall Street – but the logic of the system is such that individual capitalists get rich by destroying their means of exploitation.

The Chris Dodd alternative proposal would (if I understand right?), give the newly-created government entity (the ‘bad bank’) conditional shares in any firms from which bad assets are bought. Value of shares = 125% of the losses incurred from resale of assets. Recent news reports seem to claim that Paulson et al have accepted something like this – which I’ll believe when I see.

Point remains: there’s a frightening lack of vision in response to the implosion of capitalism’s current form. Just to be clear: it’s absolutely not worth crowing over former-fat cats getting pissed at the Slug and Lettuce. They’ll all have smart jobs in whatever new order emerges. Capitalism reproduces itself through crises – question is: what’s next. Obviously, nationalisation is back on the policy agenda.

But underlying story = a historic moment in the decline of US power. The Pax Americana was, of course, only pax if you ignored the countless violences that maintained it. But the last time a superpower lost its ability to appropriate the world’s resources through laissez-faire trade, we had two world wars, separated by a great depression. Economists tell us that free trade stops wars. In fact, of course, decisive military dominance enables ‘free’ trade.

The two big questions rasied by all this are, then:

What kind of new capitalist system will be born from this restructuration?

How will it relate to a new multi-polar world?

[Subsidiary question: How many of us will die in the coming wars for resources, as the idea that free trade binds us all together in a Fukuyamian paradise of mutually non-coercive recognition and exchange goes the way of Hegel’s Prussian state?]

[Bonus marks: how hard can it really be to develop a credible alternative to the dominant ideology, so that when that ideology collapses under the strain of its system’s contradictions, something more human is ready to take the stage? This crisis has been a disaster for the left.]

[I should really edit, expand, and perhaps then supress, all of this. But the BBC says agreement’s been reached about the US bailout plan – so I’ll post it now before all of the above is rendered obsolete. Serious serious apologies for incredibly weak knowledge & analysis. Not to mention typos, etc. * sigh *]

September 20, 2008

To err is human…

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Sarcasm — duncan @ 10:59 am

From today’s FT leader:

“Naturally, the need for such a government-sponsored rescue is annoying.  Taxpayers may well wish for the imposition of a special tax on recipients of what have turned out, retrospectively, to be unearned dividends and unjustified salaries.  But demanding such a pay-back is infeasible.  The pragmatic thing to do is let bygones be bygones…”

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…]

June 13, 2008

It’s DD for Me!

Filed under: Politics, Self indulgence — duncan @ 6:03 pm

Still very busy, so no actual content, I’m afraid.  But time enough to say: what the fuck with David Davis?  Best or most charitable guess seems to be: Davis sort of means it when he complains about the destruction of civil liberties; the rest of Tory high command don’t mean it at all; and Davis thinks he needs to a) get the Tories to irreversibly commit to repealing Labour’s more wildly authoritarian legislation before they get into power (otherwise they won’t change a thing), and also b) bring public opinion on side, to that end.  Hence the by-election – a by-election that will, in its sheer political drama, transform Britain’s sense of its political heritage.  I know.  It makes no sense.  But what the fuck else?

Or maybe he’s just bonkers.  As my mum likes to say: If Shami Chakrabarti thinks your defence of civil liberties is stupid, it’s probably stupid. 

Anyway, Davis is of course right to complain about “the monstrosity of [the] law that we passed yesterday”.  Here’s hoping some other major Conservative politicians decide to go similarly kamikaze on us.  (George Osborne resigning because the Tories have failed to reverse capitalist hegemony, perhaps?) 

Also (as regards the commons vote): fuck. 

Proper stuff to follow eventually, I promise.

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’)]

Older Posts »

Blog at