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An excerpt from my forthcoming book: ‘The British Ideology: a critique of ‘beyond left and right’ variations’ (Zer0 Books, 2013)

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I finished John Gray’s latest book, The Immortalization Commission, in a cover to cover reading lasting about four hours. Take this as a compliment if you like. Indeed, by way of getting necessary flattery out of the way, there is no denying that Gray’s impressively free-wheeling prose can with ease keep you turning the pages. His is a digestible literary form, intricately spinning together biographical vignettes in order to build up thematic momentum seemingly on the sly. As one might expect, and as with all of Gray’s post-Hayek-disillusionment works, the guiding motif is of the dangerous deceptions cast by ideas of progress or utopian schemes to bring about change for the better. And to his credit, if only the book ended at the close of part one on page 104, he would have succeeded in presenting his case with the kind of light touch pessimism and sense of wistful tragedy befitting of a card carrying cynic. Yet inevitably, as if unable to resist the force of his even more deeply rooted conservative convictions, in part two the Procrustean labour of forcing the history of the Soviet Union into his cynical worldview throws into question whether Gray is really a man without a faith of his own.

* * *

Gray’s book concerns the ill-fated quest to conquer death.  Its broader theme, however, is that of the responses to nihilistic materialism enjoined by the discomforting revelations of Darwinian evolutionary science – humankind as a purposeless accident – and astrophysics – knowledge of the inevitable extinction of the species. Gray approaches the matter by focusing on a milieu of esoteric thinkers spanning from the late 19th to early 20th century. The first section looks at the donnish British figures connected with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an organization established for the purpose of scientifically investigating the paranormal. The second section, more loosely, with the Soviet project to remake humanity and conquer death.

For obvious reasons, Gray is at his best in the first section when discussing the gentle lives of Oxbridge alumni and co-founders of the SPR like Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, blending an evident sympathy for his protagonists’ personal lives with a taste of the spiritual angst and esoterica of the Victorian era. Here, the book skillfully intertwines his characters to build up a sense of the motivations for the Society’s investigations into the afterlife, so that what could have been an easy set of targets for abject mockery, or simply ciphers for the delusions of an era, are instead taken as characters whose responses to the revelations of 19th century science whilst wrongheaded at least demonstrate a sensitivity to the shocks of scientific-materialistic disenchantment unacknowledged by the anachronistic persistence of Christian moral certainties amongst their peers.

In part two of book, on the other hand, Gray loses his way. Without the closely knit intellectual scene which provides a fulcrum for part one, the very terms in which Gray announces his thesis – the success of part one is in some measure because there is no thesis – poses a challenge that his book could not possibly live up to. In Gray’s narrative, Bolshevik ideology was driven by the desire to remake humanity and conquer death, a predictably doomed enterprise “that required killing tens of millions of people.” (p.5) Now, whilst there is certainly an interesting history of cosmism and futurism within Russia, influencing the ideology of the Soviet Union, and contributing the weight it attached to space exploration (see the BBC Storyville documentary ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’), to claim that these ideas assumed an integral part of communist thought, and moreover were responsible for the failings of the Soviet Union in some overarching manner, announces a major project of ideologiekritik which common sense suspects could not be advanced within the sixty or so pages Gray devotes to the subject. These suspicions would be correct. For in fact, there is no real argument advanced in these pages. Rather, the section rapidly degenerates into an anti-communist screed only distinguishable from run of the mill revisionist historiography by its more feckless attitude towards standards of argument and evidence, and its reliance upon tenuous allusions uphold his conclusions.

On Stalin’s White Sea Canal, for example, Gray says: “Like much else in the Soviet Union, this was authentically Marxian. For Marx the natural world had no intrinsic worth. Only by being imprinted with human meaning could the earth acquire value. The White Sea Canal embodied this philosophy. A useless monument was erected (the Canal would in fact be hardly used) while the scarred and poisoned land was filled with the bodies of prisoners. A human meaning was imprinted on the earth!” (p. 148)

One hardly knows where to start with this. A vague allusion to Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (an analytic for understanding the source of capitalist profit) is offered as the driving concept behind Stalin’s ideocratic canal project, with needless deaths labelled as authentically Marxist. This is a type of argument that is difficult to refute precisely because there is no argument; and this is only one example of a persistent tactic Gray employs. On Lenin, particularly, neither quote nor reference is deemed necessary, when conclusions can simply be stated on force of conviction. In terms of his connection with the ‘God-builders’ – Anatoly Lunacharsky, et al. – “He too [Lenin] aimed to realize a myth – the earthly paradise in early Christianity – using the power of science.” (p. 168) A quote? A reference? Not necessary. Assertion is apparently enough to line up the dots of Gray central argument of Bolshevik ideology being in thrall to esoteric philosophy. The claim is repeated on page 181: “from its beginnings Bolshevism was a variant of Gnosticism, a modern rebirth of one of the mystery religions of the ancient world.” A reference this time, surely? Again, no. The entire case for Bolshevik ideology being under the preeminent sway of the immortalist ‘God builders’ comes down to a few letters by Gorky – hardly a pivotal Bolshevik figure – and beyond that solely unsubstantiated assertion on Gray’s part that Lenin was guided by their principles.

What of the more damning charge that it was the Bolsheviks’ Promethean futurism which accounts for the bloodletting in the Soviet Union? After spending many pages relishing in the details of the horrors of the Russian Civil War, in order that these not be considered exigencies of the conflict, Gray remarks, “Actually the Bolsheviks welcomed the Civil War, since it gave them the chance to finish with the old order.” (p. 185) As fragile as the connection with Russian futurism might be, given this represents the lynchpin of his entire argument, here at last we will find the quotes and references to indict the unholy alliance between Russian cosmism and Bolshevism with a criminal hunger for terror. . .right? Unfortunately not. Once more, at what is a critical moment for Gray’s argument, he declines to make the case. We must apparently take his world for it that the Bolshevik’s were itching for a devastating civil war to wipe the slate clean in Pol Pot year zero fashion.

This takes us to the central problem of Gray’s book, and of his mature oeuvre of writing as a whole. For a sceptic and cynic who claims to believe in nothing, as The Immortalization Commission demonstrates Gray clearly does believe in something: that a unique evil was unleashed on our godless earth by the Soviet Union. Gray may not believe in heaven, but like a medieval fire and brimstone preacher, he dangles the threat of communist hell to frighten his readers away from ever diverging from his conservative amalgam of nihilism and reformism.

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As we discover reading Marx, money is not just a strange capitalist abstraction, but performs functions which a post-capitalist economy will have to grapple with.

Marx consistently maintained that in transition towards communism exchange of commodities and the use of money would be eliminated. But is this really possible and what are the consequences of eliminating money? Considering his stance that money is not the ‘real’ of the economy, and that communist transition will eliminate it, it is in fact surprising to find that money plays a large role in his analysis in Capital. And not just in the critical sense that money drives the capitalist monster forward; in fact, quite oppositely, when keeping his frame of reference immanent to capitalist mode of production, Marx identifies money’s many positive functions in spontaneously regulating the system into an organic whole (his determination of the necessity of financially induced crises notwithstanding). The question regarding socialist transition is whether these regulative functions can be replaced within a collectively owned economy?And, more specifically, whether Marx’s preferred transitional measure of labour-time schemes (where workers collect paper entitlement to the proportion of the total social product viz. their own hours spent working), implies either utopian assumptions about the new subjectivity of the collective worker in communist society and/or the need for a centrally controlled command economy?

To answer these questions, we have to begin with the role Marx attributes to money. As is well known, Marx considers money as a spontaneous result of the commodity form abstraction, serving as the universal equivalent in the exchange of goods. Marx further sees money developing its higher functions, such as in the credit system, as also spontaneously developing from experience in using the basic monetary form for capitalist purposes. In a lengthy passage he summarises the functions money plays in the circuitry of advanced capitalist reproduction:

The fluxes and refluxes of money which take place on the basis of capitalist production, for the reconversion of the annual product, and which have grown up spontaneously; the advances of fixed capital at a single stroke, to its entire value, and the progressive withdrawl of this value from circulation by a process that extends over a period of many years, i.e. its gradual reconstitution in the money form by annual hoard formation, a hoard formation … as well as the variation in the size and period of the reflux according to the condition or relative size of the production stocks in different businesses and for the different individual capitalists in the same line of business … all these different aspects of the spontaneous movement had only to be noted and brought to light by experience, in order to give rise both to a methodical use of the mechanical aids of the credit system and to the actual fishing out of available loan capital.[1]

Marx contends that money plays only a functional role in the process of expanded reproduction and accumulation within capitalism. “The money on the one side calls into being expanded reproduction on the other only because the possibility of this already exists without the money; for money in itself is not an element of real reproduction.”[2] Yet what does it mean to say money is not an element of real reproduction when Marx has already established the development of money as one of the preconditions of capitalism? This appears to be attributable to his quantity theory of money, where the total quantity of money maintains an identity with the total value of commodities in circulation, and the value of these commodities in circulation is in identity with the labour-time invested in their production. This monetary theory explains why, at an aggregate level, total price = total value[3], since money is a universal abstraction of the value of the commodity form: its universal equivalent. The fact that price and value on an industry-specific or commodity-specific basis fall out of sync with each other lies behind periodic crises of accumulation.[4] At the same time, the disequilibrium between value and price – value being the long-term anchor of price variations – is what tendentially drags profit rates across industries towards one another. The formation of a general rate of profit across spheres of production results from the same process by which value comes to determine the rates of exchange between commodities.[5] Through the price mechanism, supply and demand serve to regulate the amount of socially necessary labour expressed in a commodity’s market value; the process of competition perpetually drives down socially necessary labour to its minimum.[6] The point is, the gap between value and price, or what is much the same thing at a higher level of complexity, the difference between the rate of profit and the rate of surplus value, are tendentially reunified through market competition regulating socially necessary labour time.

Capital withdraws from a sphere with a low rate of profit and wends its way to others that yield higher profit. This constant migration, the distribution of capital between the different spheres according to where the profit rate is rising and where it is falling, is that produces a relationship between supply and demsnd such that average profit is the same in the various different spheres, and values are therefore transformed into prices of production.[7]

This process is crucial so that some spheres of production are not, in the long term, able to extract permanent rent from supplying commodities necessary for production in other spheres. Money, then, should not be seen in any crude way as just a reflective, ideal mirror of the real commodity economy underlying it, but serves a systemic function to regulate across capitalist industries and prevent severe sectoral imbalances. This function of money is thrown into stark relief if one attempts to imagine, as Marx does in places, a collectively owned and managed economy in the absence of money as we know it, with labour tokens issued in place of monetary remuneration for workers.

With collective production, money capital is completely dispensed with. The society distributes labour-power and means of production between the various branches of industry. There is no reason why the producers should not receive paper tokens permitting them to withdraw an amount corresponding to their labour time from the social consumption stocks. But these tokens are not money; they do not circulate.[8]

In the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx makes the same suggestion, only further specifying that (1) these tokens operate in the absence of the exchange of goods and (2) that they are only drawn on the means of consumption (called Department II in Capital).

Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society—after the deductions have been made—exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labour. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labour time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour from the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back as another.[9]

Significantly, however, Marx qualifies that this process also takes place in the absence of exchange. “Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products”.[10] Marx has good reason for wishing to write exchange out of the collectively owned and managed economy.  As he shows in Capital Vol. III when imagining an economy where workers are in control of the means of production, but continue to exchange their goods according to the labour they have expended in production, the values of commodities would fall radically out of sync and so too would profit rates, since there would not be an equalization between the production prices and value forming the constant capital component.[11] Rather unconvincingly Marx nonetheless claims that despite the possibility of sharply diverging profit rates, “Under these conditions, the difference in the profit-rate would be a matter of indifference, just as for a present-day wage-labourer it is a matter of indifference in what profit rate the surplus-value extorted from his is expressed.”[12] I say unconvincing, first because workers in a cooperative or particular sector could exchange their goods by distorting the labour-time they claim to have invested in production, second because there would be no regulative mechanism for correcting false reporting, and third because such imbalances would, after time, lead to serious systematic imbalances in the economy.

Let us explore this problem in more depth. In the paragraph below we are going to analyze two possibilities resulting from implementation of Marx’s labour value token scheme. Since one of which takes place in the absence of a centrally controlled economy, we will discount Marx’s qualification that products are not exchanged and follow the above scenario from Capital Vol. III. We do this for it is not clear how, in the absence of centralised mediation, exchange could be avoided. The Roussauian-influenced idea that through the revolutionary process a new humanity will emerge around the subjectivity of an altruistic and consistently honest collective worker seems extremely utopian when considered on a national or global scale. Michael Lebowitz, for instance, when describing the birth of the worker subjectivity necessary for the unmediated giving between the network of producer associations, has to resort to the metaphor of unconditional familial love.

Characteristic of the social relation among the producers in this structure is that they recognize their unity as members of the human family and act upon this basis to ensure the well-being of others within this family. Solidarity, in short, is at the very core of the social relation… the productive activity of people flows from a unity and solidarity based upon recognition of their differences.[13]

Granted that the expectation of the  revolutionary process giving birth to new worker subjectivity can be found in Marx’s writings right to the end of his days, it is an idea which remains in conceptual externality to the analysis in Capital. Yes, Capital shows capitalism separate workers and pits them against one another; but, no, it does not show how collective ownership of the means of production will create a new humanity – this has to remain a political wager (and in my opinion, an untenably utopian wager) external to the conceptual analysis conducted in the book.

Therefore, on a technical level, where such issues as not supposed to be overcome by the honesty and altruism arising from new communist humanity, the problem with Marx’s suggestion relates to how socially necessary labour will be measured and regulated. Since socially necessary labour is regulated under capitalism by both real subsumption on the level of manufacturing processes and by money acting as a spontaneous universal equivalent exerting convergence tendencies between industries, directly substituting money with labour-time tokens would have two consequences.[14] Across different cooperatives and/or industries in a decentralised economy, a permanent structural disequilibrium would occur in exchange due to the different organic compositions (and rates of change in composition) resulting in inter-sectoral productivity imbalances. Since the labour-time invested in goods is non-transparent between one industry and the other in the absence of an overarching regulative authority, the amount of labour-time tokens exchanged between productive units for each others’ goods would result in permanent disequilibrium. On the other hand, presuming central planning, an enormous, continuing operation of monitoring the labour time used in the production of goods would be necessary, which while technically possible would contradict Marx’s anti-statist principles as proclaimed after the Paris Commune.

In fact, with regard to the latter approach, Marx himself anticipates the problem of labour tokens and how they would give rise to the need for a command economy in the Grundrisse. While it is important to emphasize that in this text he is forwarding a critique of Proudhon on the basis that his schemes are being proposed in the absence of a demand to radically reconfigure the relations of production, nonetheless, Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s labour money proposal – which involves the problem of establishing equivalence of socially necessary labour time, and the way it implies an omnipotent central bank – is no less applicable for thinking post-revolutionary economic transition if exchange is considered necessary.

A second attribute of the [central] bank [issuing labour-time chits] would be necessary: it would need the power to establish the exchange value of all commodities… But its functions could not end there. It would have to determine the labour time in which commodities could be produced… But that also would not be sufficient… The workers would not be selling their labour to the bank, but they would receive exchange value for the entire product of their labour, etc. Precisely seen, then, the bank would not only be the general buyer and seller, but also the general producer.[15]

It is beyond our capability here to explore in any greater depth the problems implicated by Marx’s analysis of money and economic planning in thinking post-capitalist transition. But what the above discussion should make clear is that even once the abstraction of workers from the means of production is overcome in a collective economy (either centralized or decentralized) then issues related to the formal properties of money persist. In order to circumvent these issues Marx  places another condition on a communist economy – namely, that no exchange will take place – which merely displaces the problem of the money form on to the utopian suggestion that social production and development can take place on the basis of altruistic giving between the different branches of the collective association of labourers.

If we are to develop a post-capitalist economic vision which seeks to build a spontaneous dynamic into the system, monetary theory emerges as essential even if reading Marx’s Capital as the final word on the economic system.


[1] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 555-556.

[2] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 566.

[3] In chapter 9 of Capital Vol. III on the ‘Formation of the General Rate of Profit’ Marx provides an example of 5 capitals in different spheres of production. On the aggregate level, “The total price of commodities I-V would thus be the same as their total value, i.e. the sum of the cost prices I-V plus the sum of the surplus-value or profit produced; in point of fact, therefore, the monetary expression for the total quantity of labour, both past and newly added, contained in commodities I-V.” (Karl Marx, Capital Vol. III, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin Books, 1981), 259.) Therefore, the cost price plus profit of all commodities in the economy is equal to the total value produced: total price = total value.

[4] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 486.

[5] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 281, 293-294.

[6] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 296.

[7] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 296.

[8] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 434.

[9] Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, 21-22.

[10] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme” In: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, Volume II (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951), 22.

[11] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 276-277.

[12] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 277.

[13] Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 202.

[14] A third option, which we discount for being too utopian, would be the democratic planning of production and consumption and the assumption of honest multilateral reporting of labour productivity across different cooperatives and industries.

[15] (Karl Marx, Grundrisse [1857])

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The 2005 Hollywood biopic of the life of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, looks at first glance like it does little more than reprise a typical sexist narrative shoehorned into a dialectical dramatic structure. Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) plays the role of the male visionary encumbered by the domestic shortsightedness of his loved one. Following a hasty marriage which leaves him struggling to support his wife and children, against all odds Cash gains a record contract and heads out on tour. Despite now finally gaining financial security through his new rockstar lifestyle the change alienates his wife, and he struggles through the extreme adversity of drug addiction and alcoholism, losing family and friends in the process. The familiar dialectical coup de grace comes when all this negativity is recuperated by way of his relationship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) who recognises his brilliance and guides him back to sobriety and musical form. When by the end of the film he returns to the life of domestic bliss, for all the apparent similarities with his previous marriage, his return to domesticity in his relationship with Carter is raised to a higher level. Through Carter’s recognition Cash then goes on to record his famous tour of high security prisons. The legend is complete.

Regardless of how closely this narrative conforms to the real factual details of Cash’s life, one can easily get carried along uncritically by the satisfying dialectical structure. Yet what if, like Marx’s great critical operation on Hegel, we were to break down this narrative into it real parts: namely, what is the real abstraction at work that allows us to experience this narrative as so satisfying and unproblematically complete? Because if one introduces the gender divide and examines the narrative along an axis attentive to this divide a slightly less flattering picture comes to light. For the Idea of Cash to emerge in its developed form, the female protagonists in his life have to be reduced to mere supporting roles. His first wife’s role is to provide a constructive barrier of incomprehension to fuel the angst-ridden necessities of his musical innovation. Carter’s role is to recognise Cash, and also to place a barrier between their relationship. Yet in the final accounting, Carter’s role becomes to nurse him back to health and agree to marry him. The concept of Cash comes to fruition over the ruins of his relationships with women and the reduction of them to unconscious actors in the birth of a legend. We might ask how many narratives show the development of successful women through their relationships with men reduced to supporting roles?

Moving from inversion to subversion, one can reverse this narrative in a form of a pseudo negative dialectic. For example, in Lars von Trier’s films the realisation of the male hero concept is rendered cynical and diabolical. Von Trier’s 1996 film, Breaking the Waves, can be seen as a direct reversal of the structure of the likes of Walk the Line. Naïve village girl Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) marries oil rig worker Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård). Bess falls in absolute love with Jan—she is not ‘right in the head’ according to her best friends in the community—and this is expressed through both her uninhibited sexuality and emotional absorbsion in the relationship. When Jan suffers a major drilling accident and is left paralyzed he asks her, against all her wishes, to have sex with other men and tell the stories back to him. This leads to a downward cycle of degradation for Bess, who is inevitably killed fulfilling Jan’s demands. Yet after her death Jan unexpectedly recovers. He organises the capture of her body from the oppressive village community and gives her a sea burial. Bells in the heavens sound in an ironic play on the martyrdom theme. The reversal at work here, then, does not turn the sexist dialectical structure on its head as much as draw attention to the ruins, prejudice and exploitation of women when they are reduced to supporting roles in the psychic realisation of male protagonists.

So why, given all the above, does the relationship between Cash and Carter in Walk the Line nonetheless remain compelling? If anything, the best thing about the depiction of their relationship is the unwillingness of Carter to simply accede to the role of female support figure. Her intransigence in the face of Cash’s relentless advances and desire for her—to not be absorbed into the pre-prescribed role of fading into the ‘fat shadow’ of Cash—that is, where her actions run contrary to the overall narrative structure—is where the film it is at its strongest. Cash’s unrequited desire for Carter during large stretches of the film pushes him right to the edges of self-destruction. And even when she is forced into the conventional nursing position of providing care for him during his drug rehab, she does not agree to marry him afterwards. This is why it feels such a fake when at the close of the film Cash puts her on the spot on stage to ask her to marry him and she agrees. For a structural completeness and archetypal happy ending the film sells out the one dimension of its presentation that bucked its otherwise standard sexist narrative structure.

….But Johnny Cash really did propose to June Carter on stage. And he did keep asking until she said yes. Its not the film at fault; its reality itself.

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How much of the left's energy and finances is invested into producing newspapers and is it for the right reasons?

In the wake of the student movement’s success in stirring up some of the most rowdy street protests and wave of activism witnessed for decades in the UK, the inevitable internecine battles have begun. The division within the ranks has distilled into a war of words between young journalist, Laurie Penny (known for her well written and incisive street reports on the protests), and Alex Callinicos (central committee stalwart and key political theorist of the Socialist Workers Party) — a debate played out primarily on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, along with a meta-debate unfolding across numerous Facebook walls .

Penny’s offending words were an undeniably derogatory comparison between Socialist Worker sellers and cockroaches: “It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.” Consequently, the debate has for the most part centred on whether you need an organized movement in order to effect change, and, as a corollary, whether the print version of a political party’s newspaper is of any relevance for those involved in a networked movement of online blogs, Facebook events and Twitter feeds. In such fashion the question of technology is bundled in with the question of horizontal movement contra vertical, hierarchical direction.

Do online networks constitute a new form of mediating and constructing ideas, impossible for the centrally determined sectarian ideologies of the "old left"?

Furthermore, Penny’s more important point, for which the  anachronistic image of the dogged SW seller is merely a graphic representation of a much deeper jab at the Party—indeed, all Party structures—is that the ideological battles associated with Partys peddling their own, exclusive, ideologically orientated papers is defunct for contemporary political practice. One could even go a step further and read between the lines of what Penny is really trying to say: the only reason they are their pushing their particular paper, that they have specifically published in a print medium, is in order for them to distribute a controlled message in conformity with the specific ideological prejudices of their own Party. Thus, the SW paper comes to stand for a more sinister attempt to collapse the multitudinous particularity of the student movement—what has provided it with such forward movement and positivity—back into the quagmire of the sectarian politics of the “old left”.

Callinicos’ response was to negate Penny’s tabula rasa presentation of the student movement as an absolute break from the impasses and problematics of “old left” politics, and conversely to highlight the continuities suppressed by fixating on the technological medium used to organize – thereby delinking the question of technology with that of organization to highlight historical continuity. He writes:  “The student protests have in many ways been highly traditional forms of collective action. True, the internet and in particular Facebook and other social media have emerged as very powerful means of communication and mobilisation. But what they have helped to deliver were demonstrations that have confronted both the forces and the symbols of the British state, not in cyberspace, but on the streets.” Subtlety, Callinicos bypasses Penny’s central contention regarding the mediation, or outright vacation, of ideological difference, to focus on the historical continuity of the problem of jointly organizing workers and students to marshal sufficient economic and political clout; and how this still overdetermines any attempt to think ‘outside the box’ or in ‘day zero’ fashion.

On his own re-figured ground Callinicos is certainly right: the problems facing the radical left have not been undone via Twitter; the political continuities rendered invisible in the enthusiasm of youthful narcissism are stickier than anyone may want to believe. However, in another way, Callinicos’ answer serves merely to deflect from a greater underlying issue. It is not necessarily just a Twitter high induced, ahistorical mirage that gives the sense that ideological difference has been pushed aside. If technology is considered to operate in the communicative exchange of the superstructural realm, then it is apparent that it does not fundamentally refigure the structural basis upon which so many of the sectarian ideological struggles emerged. What Penny perceives as the irrelevance of ideological differences is therefore just a de facto repetition of what was previously consciously theorised and centrally determined as a moment requiring a ‘united front’: where said differences are put aside for a temporary defensive measure against a common enemy.

Rage Against the Machine Xmas Number 1: people power in defence of the status quo

This points to a more basic issue, not touched upon by either Penny or Callinicos — that the character of the movement, and its resulting organizational forms, are a product of its strategic aims. And this requires a recognition that at present the student movement aims for little more than maintenance of the status quo (or in its most radical fringes, abolition of tuition fees introduced in 1998).  This is by no means a bad thing given that the novel alternative is so obviously worse. But without a positive vision for reordering education, the economy, society, and so on, it is obviously that ideological differences are unlikely to divide the protest assemblage. Yet the very thing that provides the de facto unity of the movement is at the same time its most problematic limitation. It is increasingly easy to rally people in defence of the status quo, but it remains as difficult as ever—perhaps even more difficult—to win people over to a cause to implement change. For example, the campaign to get Rage Against the Machine to Number 1 was in one sense an  expression of people power, but at the same time represented the regurgitation of the familiar and the commonly agreed upon in place of a new musical breakthrough. In ‘Capitalist Realism’ Mark Fisher posits kitsch as the hallmark of the exhaustion emblematic of late capitalism; and could it be that much the same problem — the problems of real abstraction — have subsumed even the internal resistance to the capitalization process.

More than blogs versus newspapers, networks versus Partys, all those concerned with these issues may do well to consider, instead, the conclusion of Nic Bueret writing in The Commune: “Eventually the inspiration of the initial fight and victory will fade, and the content of the revolt will have to stand on its own. If the content of that struggle is only to restore that machine, to defend the freedom to be unequal, failure is all we can hope for.”

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Was Plato an archetypal communist intellectual, not for his theory of the Republic, but for his embrace of metaphysics and abstraction?

In 1965 Louis Althusser opened his famous paean For Marx with a withering reflection on French theoretical culture at the time. He bemoaned the fact that ‘we have spent the best part of our time in agitation when we would have been better employed in the defence of our right and duty to know’.[i] The result of which was ‘the stubborn, profound absence of any theoretical culture’; whereas, he claimed, ‘Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a ‘method’ of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of fundamental investigation’.[ii] For this task Althusser saw as indispensable the role of intellectuals committed to necessary theoretical work.

Of course, nowadays an opposite problem appears to present itself: the apparent aloofness of ‘ivory tower’ Marxist intellectuals, cosseted by a conference circuit of stimulating debate allaying the, in any case long lost, angst about the severing of theory from practice. It is in this context that an either/or situation appears to logically follow: either resign oneself to scholasticism; or, engage in the rush of unreflective activism, valorising every flight to the barricades. But in reality the two choices operate symbiotically. The studious academic can patronise the spirit of the hyperactive activist, whilst drawing back from engaged criticism (lest he or she be dragged into actual politics, or possibly dent the heroic will of those ‘daring to act’). Conversely, the activist declines to criticise the academic, seeing them as part of the theoretical/ideological wing of the struggle, happy with the current status quo of mutual non-interference.

The inadequacy of this cold peace between theoreticians and activists is both exemplified and problematised by the question of abstraction, which is not merely a register of theoretical depth, but moreover an intrinsically political question itself. Alberto Toscano’s recent book, Fanaticism, convincingly links the embrace of abstraction—and fear thereof—to the difference between universal, emancipatory politics and liberal-conservative politics. Toscano traces the connection back to the Edmund Burke, who in his denunciations of the French revolution condemned the ‘tyranny of the politics of theory’, and ‘the ‘monstrous fiction’ that they could be handled like mathematical theorems or geometrical objects.’[iii] Thereafter, the conservative criticism of Republican, and later Marxist politics, became obsessed by uncovering the will to power of scheming, abstraction obsessed intellectuals attempting to guide the masses’ spontaneous subjectivity to their own, pretentiously altruistic, ends.

Where abstraction links into the present debate is in regard to the foregoing discussion of the autonomy of Marxist intellectual work. Andrew Kliman’s recent talk in London on ‘What has to be done to transcend capitalism’—co-sponsored by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative and The Commune—was greeted with a degree of mixed opinion regarding precisely the abstraction of the theoretical project he was proposing. Without claiming to do justice to Kliman’s talk, the discussion centred on his claim that Marxist politics has been too focused on the political transition to communism, where, on the contrary, not enough thought has been given to the underlying economic basis of value production under capitalism. Most provocatively, he demarked the difference between the political and economic via reference to the distinction between the quantitative and qualitative in Hegel’s Science of Logic. So although the Marxist political theorem of the withering away of the state is based on a gradualist, quantitative transition, the change in the mode of production cannot operate according to the same logic, and must, of necessity, constitute an incommensurable shift; in other words, an event dividing capitalist value production from communist production. The upshot is that since the political is emergent upon the economic, attempts to politically force transition to communism, in lieu of fundamentally refiguring the economic base away from value production, explains the growth, rather than the withering away of, the state in 20th century socialist countries.

During the talk Kliman refused to be drawn away from this emphasis on theorising the shift away from value production by discussion of imperialism, the need for a ‘green economy’, and suchlike diversions, giving the whiff of a faintly Platonic air to his project. Some attendants recoiled at the suggestion of the need for abstract, theoretical work, subtracted from really existing struggles. Yet, in Kliman’s defence, one needs to understand his grand career project of rescuing Marx’s labour theory of value to put his call in context.

In Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital” Kliman shows how Marx’s labour theory of value has been undermined by successive generations of economists as internally inconsistent. Whilst delving into the arcane debates underwriting the question of Capital’s inconsistency is beyond our scope here, the significant point is that like the conservative critique of political abstraction, many of the critics of the labour theory of value have rested on condemning its ‘metaphysical’ concept. Even Marxian thinkers in attempting to rescue the theory have implicitly acknowledged the critique by refiguring it in physicalist terms. The resistance to the abstract concept at the core I think operates on a number of levels. It is not just that the labour theory of value implies, somewhat horrifically, in a precise, scientific sense, that the entire capitalist system is based on exploitation; but, moreover, the sheer absence of intuitiveness to its concepts of ‘abstract labour’, ‘totality’, and ‘socially necessary labour time’ indicates an irreducibly intellectual compartment for understanding the economic base. In contrast to the ‘folk political’ demand to see actual exploitation, actual oppression, or to see the real accounting of profit and production[iv]—to see, touch, and hear their object of study—Marxist ‘economism’ seems to demand a level of abstract thinking, which suggests the separation of the intellectual and the masses.

By implication, accepting Marx’s labour theory of value has profound political consequences. It undermines a Marxist political subjectivity based on simply cheering on ‘movements from below’, and equally discredits the disavowal of vanguardism (or a least, in its most totalising sense). The responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in the abstract, intellectual work as their responsibility in engaging with the real movement. Like Slavoj Žižek’s call for us to repeat Lenin’s pre-revolutionary gesture of studying Hegel’s Science of Logic, Kliman’s project, much as Althusser’s earlier remarks, treat speculation as the highest calling. Whether many are willing to stomach the political consequences of this division of labour is another question.


[i] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Verso, 2005, p. 23

[ii] Ibid., p. 26

[iii] Alberto Toscano, Fanaticism, Verso, 2010, p. xiii

[iv] See Nitzan and Bichler, Capital as Power: A study of Order and Creorder, Routledge, 2009

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On the uses of fanaticism

Alberto Toscano’s excellent new book, Fanaticism, explores the relationship between the pre-modern, millenarian impulse with the modern political movements following from the French revolution. His central thesis seems to be that the charge of fanaticism is an ahistorical trope leveled across the ages to deligitimize and pathologically psychologise those pursuing radical emancipatory and egalitarian political projects. With the return of the political religion thesis of late in response to overblown threat of political Islam, thinkers like John Gray have carved out media niches regurgitating the Cold War approach of comparing communism, fascism, Islamism, or whatever, to one another and drawing the conclusion that they are all united in their unrealistic hubris based on a millenarian religious impulse.

Ultimately, what this all seems to come down to is an argument that positions pluralistic, liberal capitalism as the unassailable correct line, with advocates of every other position treated as merely flip sides of an infinitely faced coin. In this context liberals’ demonisation of religious political movements cannot be taken innocently as broadly coterminous with the Marxist critique of religion. For what they are opposed to is not just the religious content, but rather all attempts to disjoint the status quo.

Thus revisionist historiography nowadays has to not just rewrite such movements as Bolshevism as an unmitigated evil, but all political movements whatsoever that divert from the linear  narrative of Enlightenment progress to democratic capitalism. Toscano particularly focuses on the story of Thomas Muntzer—Martin Luther’s radical rival during the peasant revolt—but it seems to me that an even more ambiguous and therefore intriguing figure to examine would be Muntzer’s Italian, Catholic contemporary Girolamo Savonarola.

In the recently released computer game, Assassin’s Creed II, Savonarola is portrayed as a totalitarian demagogue demanding absolute obedience to his fundamentalist line.

There is, of course, an element of truth to the game’s portrayal of Savonarola as a fanatic, and one who implemented many socially illiberal edicts. (Although pandering to the video game consumer demographic his ban on sodomy is not given as a rationale for the necessity of deposing him). But in order to force history into a depiction of the opposing forces of Enlightened, rational tolerance versus totalitarian demagoguery, the game’s script writers have to in fact divert from historical truth on a number of other counts. For one thing where the game depicts Savonarola as deriving power in a sinister putsch against the ruling Medici family the fact is that Savonarola was actually given power by Lorenzo de Medici. And where Savonarola is in the game portrayed as attempting to centralise all power in his hands, the fact is that he restored democracy to the city after many decades of Medici dictatorship and asserted his influence through charismatic authority.

The infamous bonfire of the vanities (1496) was not so much simply an act of puritanical thuggery as a high point in Florence’s religious fervour. Boticelli enthusiastically threw one his own paintings on the fire and Michelangelo is recorded as one of Savonarola’s admirers. Even Machiavelli professed admiration for the unarmed prophet’s ability to influence and persuade in the absence of coercive force. Savonarola also railed against the corruption of the Church and became its enemy for his outspoken criticisms. Eventually he was ousted in a coup d’etat by the returning Medici family resulting in his prolonged torture and eventually his public burning.

What is interesting about this story are the ambiguities. Savonarola’s Florence was socially illiberal yet democratic; religiously puritanical and defferent to hierarchy yet scathing about the actually existing religious order. To use one of those ahistorical similes Toscano rails against, if one had to find an analogue of Khomeinian Islamism in European pre-modern history, this would be it.

For the same reason as one needs to be careful with liberal revisionism in regards to Savonarola’s ambiguous story, one also needs to tread carefully in regard to denunciations of Islamism, especially by the likes of Nick Cohen, who drapes himself in the garb of Enlightened leftism. Because just as, I agree, there is nothing much to like about Islamism as a political ideology, at the same time critiques by Cohen and others are wedded to a more general anti totalitarian discourse that warns against all attempts—Islamist, communist, or otherwise—to radically break from the status quo.

The short documentary, The Burning of Girolamo Savonarola, alludes to the necessary caution required with respect to our treatment of political religion. One that Toscano’s book so thoroughly and convincingly explores across a wide historical and scholarly canvas.

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