Friday, July 04, 2008

Political Economy links and quotes

Today seems the best possible day to post links about Marx and political economy. Last time I mentioned Reading Capital with David Harvey. I found the link to that marvelous resource at From Despair to Where?, a blog I re-discovered as I was cleaning out my bookmarks last week. That blogger also wrote this review of Marshall Berman's Adventures in Marxism, at the Socialist Standard@MySpace blog. I've been struggling, in my limited time, to articulate a connection between my reading of the literary Modernists and my left-wing political outlook. Here is a passage from Berman's book, quoted in the review:
Marx's point in presenting this immense and bizarre chorus is to show capitalism as a maelstrom that sweeps the whole world into its flood, past and present, reality and mythology, East and West: everything and everyone is caught up and whirled in the world market, nothing and no one has the power to hold back. We the readers – along, of course, with the writer – are part of it; we respond, our voices are incorporated into the chorus; the audience finds itself on stage. This may be one reason why, like many great modernist works, Capital never really comes to an end: it reaches out to us in the audience, and challenges us to give the work an ending, by bringing an end to capitalism itself […]

[Marx's] feeling for contradictions infuses the whole of Capital with vitality and adventure. An adventure is not an idyll: much of its excitement springs from its risks, from the chance that it could end horribly; but we go on, because we are moving in an ambience of life and hope. The ambience could be a great gift to us today. It is right there, in Capital: the book lies open and open-ended, waiting only for us to give ourselves.
We happen to have a copy Adventures in Marxism. I'll be reading it.

Last week at The Pinocchio Theory, Steven Shaviro wrote about an essay by Graham Harman which, he says, "draws surprising parallels between Husserl’s phenomenology and the 'weird fiction' of H. P. Lovecraft" and "argues that Lovecraft’s tales of unrepresentable monsters cannot be read in a Kantian register". My familiarity with Kant, Husserl, and even Lovecraft is precisely nil, but in his post, Shaviro takes the opportunity to bring in Ellen Meiksins Wood's thesis in The Origin of Capitalism, which he summarizes quite well. For example:
there are markets without capitalism, but there is no capitalism without the absolute reign of the market. As Wood puts it, “this unique system of market-dependence means that the dictates of the capitalist market – its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity – regulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general” (2002, 7). And this is the key to what I have been calling the monstrosity of capital. It is utterly contingent in its origins; and yet, once it has arrived, it imposes itself universally. Capitalism might never have emerged out of the chaos of feudal, commercial, religious, and State institutions that preceded it, just as [Lovecraft's monster] Cthulhu might never have stumbled upon our planet. But in both cases, the unfortunate encounter did, in fact, take place. And it is only afterwards, in its subsequent effects, once it has in fact arrived on the scene and subjugated all its rivals, that capitalism is able – again, much like Cthulhu – to present itself retro spectively as an irresistible and all-embracing force. Capitalism arose “in a very specific place, and very late in human history” (2002, 95). But once it arose, it made market relations compulsory: as Wood says, the so-called “free market” became an imperative, a coerced activity, instead of an opportunity (6-7).
There is a great discussion in the comments. One commenter, JCD, provides a link to his own, more detailed discussion of Wood's book at his Fragments, or: blog, here. One of the posts there is specifically about the concept of "improvement"--which I found most fascinating in Wood's book, and which threw my lame Poli-Sci 101 understanding of John Locke into a whole new light (which is to say, no understanding at all). There's no good way for me to quote from it, without simply quoting the whole thing. But you should read it if you're curious, and unsure about whether to dive into Wood just yet. (This idea, incidentally, is directly linked with my problems with the notion of "progressivism". More on that in another post.)

I spent some time tooling around JCD's site and discovered that he and some others have embarked on a group blog called Final Cause, "dedicated to radical political economy". As it happens, in the comments to his post, Shaviro himself links to two posts there called "Capitalists not Burghers" (part one, part two), which also discuss Wood's arguments. Good stuff. I also appreciate the post "Capital currently has every disease known to man". Here's an excerpt from it:
It’s sort of crazy when you think about it. The capitalist steals what you make. That’s not crazy, that’s just violent. But then he tells you he’s giving you the privilege of getting back some of what he and the other capitalists have stolen with credits earned through the labor which the capitalist forced you to do in the first place. It’s like winning the right to buy back your stolen goods from the trunk of a car on the side of the street two weeks after your house was robbed. If that happened, you wouldn’t feel privileged to buy your stuff back. You’d be pissed and call the police. But no one polices the capitalists but themselves.

You might wonder why people would ever stand for something so simultaneously unnatural and idiotic. The truth is that they don’t, and they never have. In any social organism where one class pumps surplus out of another class (i.e., steals what they make), the overriding and perennial problem is to maintain control over the class from which the surplus labor is pumped. In a sense, that’s exactly what the history of any class society is about: the changes undergone so that one class can continue to pump surplus out of another class. But the history of all societies is equally the history of resistance to this imposition of work and the various measures the ruling classes take to adjust to that resistance and keep the extraction going. When the extracting class runs out of options to meet these challenges, or when the challenges become so formidable they overwhelm all attempts to contain the contradictions, the pump stops moving surplus from one side to the other, and the history of that social organism is at an end.
Returning to The Pinocchio Theory (which is a consistent combination of, or alternation between, fascinating and way over my head), Shaviro's three posts just prior to the one linked above were about Capital (in which he discusses the work of, among others, Hardt & Negri and Deleuze & Guattari, to name just four of the oft-referenced authors I haven't yet made my way to): "What is to be done?", "Monstrous Flesh", and "Body of Capital".

To wrap things up by bringing things a little closer to the present situation, some time ago there was a great article in CounterPunch by Stan Goff and De Clarke titled "Politics is Food is Politics". A small sample:
Though the brunt -- as always -- is now being borne by the most marginal and fragile, the over-developed industrial metropoles are not escaping the impact of this crisis. In the United States, the culmination of a decades-long crisis of capital accumulation -- which has heretofore been exported to the rest of the world -- is coming home to roost in the form of a severe "credit crisis" at the same time as the oil price spike. We are entering a protracted period of stagflation: economic stagnation (recession) combined with price inflation (due in part to the impact of oil prices on virtually all economic sectors). We in the US are more deeply in debt, personally and nationally, than at any time in our history. And the key products that are driving up our cost of living -- even as our net worths stagnate and fall back -- are basically gasoline and food.

We metropolitan Americans panic when we contemplate the possibility of becoming unable to afford our private automobiles. This is not just because of our legendary ego-attachment to the car. The primary reason we panic is because we need our cars to get to our jobs (at least one study has suggested that Americans spend 20 percent of their take-home pay on their cars, so we are working one day out of five to pay for the car so we can drive to the job). And we need our jobs.

It's a given: people need their jobs. But why? Because without the income from those jobs, we and our children don't eat. Our access to food is permitted only when it's mediated by money -- which we can only obtain by working (for the ruling class) or by becoming wards of the state (which, increasingly involves coerced labour).
Goff and Clarke are, of course, the proprietors of the essential Feral Scholar blog, where increasingly of late they have been discussing food and debt and what to do when the society we all depend on, however warped and unnatural it may be, is itself heading towards a major fall. I've been wanting to talk here more about what they've been getting up to over there (and, of course, at Insurgent American), but my own problems with work and life have sucked my time away. I hope to get into in later posts.

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