Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Manufacturing what could not be discovered

After this weekend's post about defining capitalism, it was suggested that I take a look at Charles Tilly's essay "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime" (warning: the link takes you to a pdf that is riddled with an unbelievable amount of typos). It's a useful essay, which I may have something specific to say about later. But it reminded me of aspects of James C. Scott's work, in particular his Seeing Like a State (see previous posts on this book, here and here), and his more recent The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. The latter, as I've mentioned elsewhere, is primarily about the ways in which Southeast Asian "hill peoples" have (off and on, in differing combinations) avoided being incorporated into various states. As such, it ends up being an extended, fascinating discussion of what exactly a state, any state, really is. This is especially helpful, given the common tendency in the liberal so-called democracies for citizens to identify with the aims of the state, or to believe that certain swell-sounding stated aims are its real aims.

There is much in The Art of Not Being Governed that is worth sharing and discussing, but for now I want to leave you with this passage from the fascinating section on "ethnogenesis":
Once launched, the "tribe" as a politicized entity can set in motion social processes that reproduce and intensify cultural difference. They can, as it were, create the rationale for their own existence. Political institutionalization of identities, if successful, produces this effect by reworking the pattern of social life. The concept of "traffic patterns" used by Benedict Anderson to describe the creation by the Dutch colonial regime in Indonesia, virtually from thin air, of a "Chinese" ethnic group, best captures this process. In Batavia, the Dutch discerned, according to their preconceptions, a Chinese minority. This mixed group did not consider itself Chinese; its boundaries merged seamlessly with those of other Batavians, with whom they freely intermarried. Once the Dutch discerned this ethnicity, however, they institutionalized their administrative fiction. They set about territorializing the "Chinese" quarter, select "Chinese" officials, set up local courts for customary Chinese law as they saw it, instituted Chinese schools, and in general made sure that all those falling within this classification approached the colonial regime as Batavian "Chinese." What began as something of the Dutch imperial imagination took on real sociological substance through the traffic patterns of institutions. And voilĂ !—after sixty years or so there was indeed a self-conscious Chinese community. The Dutch had, to paraphrase Wilmsen, through an administrative order, manufactured what they could not discover.

Once a "tribe" is institutionalized as a political entity—as a unit of representation with, say, rights, land, and local leaders—the maintenance and reinforcement of that identity becomes important to many of its members. [...] The more successful the identity is in winning resources and prestige, the more its members will have an interest in patrolling its borders and the sharper those borders are likely to become. The point is that once created, an institutional identity acquires its own history. The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism. Over time such an identity, however fabricated its origin, will take on essentialist features and may well inspire passionate loyalty. (pp. 264-5)
This seems to me to have all kinds of relevance beyond the specific sorts of examples Scott gives. That is, not only did the Dutch "manufacture what they could not discover" in creating a "Chinese minority" in Batavia, but consider how the "Dutch" (i.e., a ruling stratum identified as "Dutch") themselves manufactured the Dutch! The same is true everywhere: ordinary people become subsumed within states and statelets, becoming, over time, "French" or "English" or whatever.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Inseparable development of capitalism and racism

Readers will recall that earlier this year I was reading James & Grace Lee Boggs' 1974 book, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. Here is a passage from that excellent book, about the importance of racism to capitalism:
It is necessary to stress the inseparability of racism and capitalism in the specific historical development of this country, not in order to blame the capitalists and workers, but in order to rid ourselves of the widely held belief that racism has been an imperfection or wart on the face of capitalism in the United States.

Racism has been an integral part of the historical development of U.S. capitalism, enabling it to achieve the material abundance which has made it possible for Americans to pursue happiness and enjoy material comforts far beyond anyone's expectations or even imagination two hundred years ago. And whoever pretends that this is not so or that racism is some kind of "feudal remnant" which has stood in the way of U.S. capitalism developing productive forces without limit or of the common man's pursuit of material happiness, rather than the means by which these two goals have been achieved under U.S. capitalism, is propagating lies about the past and the present.

Today, because of the inseparable development of capitalism and racism, the main contradiction in the United States is the contradiction between its advanced technology and its political backwardness. We are a people who have been psychologically and morally damaged by the unlimited opportunities to pursue material happiness provided by the cancerous growth of the productive forces. As a result, the pursuit of happiness for most Americans means the rejection of the pain of responsibility and learning which is inseparable from human growth. Liberty has turned into license. Equality has become the homogenization of everybody at the lowest common denominator of the faceless anybody. Fraternity has become mass-man cheering and groaning at the various modern spectacles—sports, lotteries, and television give-aways.(p.181)
They talk about "U.S. capitalism", which for me is not a terribly meaningful distinction, in this case not least because of the crucial importance of racism to capitalism, period. Wallerstein demonstrates the extent to which the division of labor in the capitalist world-economy has always been racially organized, for the purposes in part of keeping workers separate.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Capitalism and Definitions

We have argued that the essential element of capitalism as a system is not, as is often contended, proletarian wage labor or production for the market or factory production. For one thing, all of these phenomena have long historical roots and can be found in many different kinds of systems. In my view, the key element that defines a capitalist system is that it is built on the drive for the endless accumulation of capital. This is not merely a cultural value but a structural requirement, meaning that there exist mechanisms within the system to reward in the middle those who operate according to its logic and to punish (materially) those who insist on operating according to other logics.

We have argued that, in order to maintain such a system, several things are necessary. There has to be an axial division of labor, such that there are continuous exchanges of essential goods that are low-profit and highly competitive (i.e., peripheral) with high-profit and quasi-monopolized (i.e., core-like) products. In order to allow entrepreneurs to operate successfully in such a system, there needs in addition to be an interstate system composed of pseudosovereign states of differing degrees of efficacy (strength). And there also have to be cyclical mechanisms that permit the constant creation of new quasi-monopolistic profit-making enterprises. The consequence of this is that there is a quite slow but constant geographical relocation of the privileged centers of the system. (xiv)
These words are Immanuel Wallerstein's, from his new prologue to the 2011 edition of volume III of The Modern World-System: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s. I quote them here because definitions matter and we have too many of them for capitalism.

I have, in the last year or so, found myself embroiled in various online discussions here and there about capitalism and our current predicament, etc, in which the conversation can only go so far because we, the participants, are not operating under the same set of assumptions on what capitalism, in fact, is. I tend to avoid lengthy online back-and-forths, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the inadequacy of my available devices (which means the mechanics of it are unpleasant). But also, where once I was quick to write lengthy responses to people, usually via email, now I shy away from them. In part, I don't want to lose a piece of writing in the bowels of another blog's comments, and I write too slow to effectively respond here. It's also true that I'm simply not read deeply enough in the Marxist or liberal economic literature to respond to certain kinds of pedantry. So if someone cites a particular of a given debate, I'm often at something of a loss. However, though I would like to deepen my reading of such literature, the truth is I'm only going to get to so much of it, and things are happening right now. My gut tells me that most of it is unnecessary.

A few years ago I read Ellen Meiksins Wood's Origins of Capitalism, and I found it very helpful. She is, of course, a Marxist, writing in the aftermath of the Brenner debates of the 1970s. She helped me to see a number of different things much more clearly than I had seen them before (for just one example, the state's role in enforcing propertylessness). I was further helped along by essays from the Midnight Notes Collective, and then David Harvey's book-length study of Marx's Capital, The Limits to Capital, as well as a couple of Harvey's other books. Then came the first volume of Capital itself, along with Harvey's online lectures, and the feminist approaches of Maria Mies (Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale) and Silvia Federici (Caliban and the Witch). The feminist works are crucial; they seem to take the analysis to its logical conclusions that too many Marxists seem unwilling to take it (so they said; but I had no trouble taking their word for it, given my own limited experience with the literature). Readers will notice that I've rehearsed this sequence before. All apologies. In any event, my point here is that something nagged at me. I was still having trouble understanding where it came from, and why, and it seemed really important that I do understand it, in order to wrap my head around the problems facing us today. Then I read Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century, my first exposure to world-system analysis, and many things began to fall into place in my mind. This led me to Wallerstein. First to his slim World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, then to his now four-volume study, The Modern World-System. (David Graeber's work plays a big role here, too; I'm thinking a few of the essays in Possibilities, as well as the more recent Debt.)

I realized that what had troubled me were questions of focus and certain sets of assumptions. I had difficulty with the idea of a particular capitalist "state" (or "states" competing with each other) (though, indeed, Wood, in her Empire of Capital, had helped clarify for me the necessity of the state apparatus for capitalism), with the very focus on "mode of production", with questions and apparently long-running debates about such topics as whether or not slavery was capitalist, which seemed silly on their face (of course it was capitalist; for just one point, the feminist focus on how unpaid labor underpins the wage system is important here). I desired, and insisted, without knowing it, a longer view (somewhat ironic, considering the subtitle of Wood's book is, in fact, "a longer view"; it's not quite long enough), and a more detailed view. Arrighi's and then especially Wallerstein's books have helped me enormously, providing a framework in which things fit together much better (not like a puzzle, but like life, if you'll pardon the expression). Anyway, I provide the passage at the top of this post as a placeholder and reference point: this is the definition of capitalism I'm working from, the one that makes the most sense to me. Recent claims that we've already moved away from capitalism into a feudalism-like "rentism" seem to me to misunderstand both feudal arrangements and capitalism itself, and especially miss the ease with which the former historically shaded into the latter. There's nothing un-capitalist about monopolies or rent. Misplaced emphasis on wage labor and modes of production are distracting. Here Wallerstein continues:
Capitalism is a system in which the endless accumulation of capital is the raison d'ĂȘtre. To accumulate capital, producers must obtain profits from their operations. However, truly significant profits are possible only if the producer can sell the product for considerably more than the cost of production. In a situation of perfect competition, it is absolutely impossible to make significant profit. Perfect competition is classically defined as a situation with three features—a multitude of sellers, a multitude of buyers, and universally available information about prices. If all three features were to prevail (which rarely occurs), any intelligent buyer will go from seller to seller until he finds one who will sell at a penny above the cost of production, if not indeed below the cost of production.

Obtaining significant profit requires a monopoly, or at least a quasi-monopoly, of world-economic power. If there is a monopoly, the seller can demand any price, as long as he does not go beyond what the elasticity of demand permits. Any time the world-economy is expanding significantly, one will find that there are some "leading" products, which are relatively monopolized. It is from these products that great profits are made and large amounts of capital are accumulated.
I could go on, but will not, not now. But consider this a re-beginning, of sorts, on this topic.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Second Quarter Fiction Notes: The Johns Hopkins Connection

I read a bunch of fiction in the first half of this year, in an effort to cull the personal library. I was going to do a single re-cap post of this reading, with short remarks, but some of the remarks ran long. So I'm going to separate them out a bit. Here, then, are some notes about books written by two writers long associated with Johns Hopkins University here in Baltimore, John Barth and Stephen Dixon. (Oh, and the "second quarter" in the title is a misnomer of sorts, since the Dixon books were read in the first quarter, but no matter. No one but me's keeping score.)

On With the Story, John Barth - This is a short-story collection from 1996, Barth's first since his much-loved 1968 collection Lost in the Funhouse, a book I frankly found rather annoying. This is the first Barth I've read in years (I still have the enormous novels Letters and The Tidewater Tales sitting on my shelves; it remains to be seen whether I'll take the time to read them). I found that, overall, I enjoyed On With the Story. As is typical with Barth, story-telling is the story. He tries out different modes of telling stories, interrupts frequently to comment on the telling, foregrounds the artificiality of the constructions, writes in very playful, overly punny language that isn't afraid to be annoying, throws in theory about storytelling, including references to how this or that story measures up to the theories, etc. And there's an interspersed framing story throughout (which I suspect was new for the book, whereas the stories themselves all appeared elsewhere previously), with a couple on some kind of perhaps-but-it's-not-clear-last-hurrah vacation, the husband telling the wife stories, which are the stories in this book. All well enough done, some more interesting than others, some admittedly irritating (the sexual wordplay especially: William H. Gass also indulges in too much of this kind of boring guff), but what I really want to highlight is Barth's remarkable ability, amidst all of these meta-fictional methods, to nevertheless create characters and situations that seem real and that we care about. I know, I know; forgive me. Often this kind of observation is made as part of a criticism: why doesn't he just stop with all this tomfoolery and get back to telling the "real story"!? as if there is one somewhere in there in the absence of the so-called tomfoolery. Rather, I think it's fascinating how these so-called "games" both comment on and constitute the "real story". The characters actually attain whatever solidity they seem to have through these very "games" themselves.

I., End of I., & Meyer, Stephen Dixon - I had had four unread Stephen Dixon novels sitting on my shelves, and have now read three of them; the massive Frog remains. As I was reading these novels, I was also trying to decide whether Dixon's books would remain in my personal library, or be discarded. Ultimately, I decided that I like him just enough, and find him just interesting enough, to keep (On With the Story, on the other hand, was discarded, somewhat arbitrarily, I admit, since I clearly liked the book and found it similarly interesting, but I don't know...). In a post I wrote about Dixon several years ago, I said the following:
Dixon's fiction manages to be […] both experimental and realistic, as well as often being emotionally affecting. By exploring the areas of life usually ignored by so-called "realistic" fiction, by worrying at these lines of inquiry, teasing out countless permutations of a line of thought, Dixon risks irritating or even boring the reader. I think that in some way much of the tension in his fiction lies here. If we stay with Dixon through one more apparently tortured locution, or seemingly unending digression, we find that the work builds on what has come before, so that even those moments of irritation and tedium become essential to what makes the fiction work.
It's interesting that in almost all of his fiction, Dixon's narrator, or the main character (or both), is a writer, like he is, who splits his time between Baltimore and New York, like he does, or did, and who is married, usually to a woman with MS, who he takes care of. Many of the details change; he's not always exactly the same. But the focus is often on tedious everyday life stuff, and especially on the minutia of care, the difficulty and unpleasantness in caring for his wife (I often cringe reading this stuff, imaging Dixon's [now deceased] real-life wife reading it; and the writer character often does not come off well at all). The narrator often starts and re-starts the same bits of story, from different places, details changing with each re-telling. I. does this very effectively at times; the narrative is unstable, as if the narrator is trying out different possibilities.

In this sense, Dixon, in these books, struck me more than ever as a kind of Beckett-lite. Not in the sense of Beckett's actual increasingly spare project, but, say, the Beckett on the cusp of that project, the Beckett of Watt. (also, Dixon's prose is pedestrian by comparison with Beckett's, and all too often comes dangerously close to being outright bad). Recall, there, the passages which unfold various possible ways in which Watt may have entered Mr. Knott's house, or the sequence describing the preparation of food, and the availability of the dog, and so on—recall, that is, Beckett's apparent reluctance to "bully the reader", to insist on his story, resulting in, as Hugh Kenner put it, the "provisional nature" of the narrative. In I., as noted, Dixon considers his narrative from all possible directions, all possibilities. He won't let the reader settle on a given sequence of events. In particular I'd direct the interested reader's attention to the final chapter, "Again", by far the longest, in which we read several somewhat overlapping accounts about how I. and his future wife met. Was it at a party? Was he invited? Was she already in a wheelchair? The details shift across the chapter, never allowing us to settle into a "real" story. There is also, throughout, evidence that what we're reading is being written, perhaps a rough draft, with occasional interjections, such as "no, that's not right", or comments on word-choices. "Again" is an example of this too, and not only because of the shifting nature of the narrative. Here's how that chapter begins:
He meets her at a dinner party. Did that he doesn't know how many times. Meets her walking up a building's stoop to the party. Meets her while resting on his way up the brownstone's stairway to the party. Meets her in the apartment building's elevator going up to the party. Meets her outside the door of the party where she's taking off her snow-wet boots and changing into shoes. Meets her coming out of the one bathroom at the party which he knocked on repeatedly because he had to pee badly and thought the person inside was taking too much time. Meets her on line at the buffet table where they're both helping themselves to food. Meets her at the drink table which he followed her to so he could introduce himself.
That second sentence stands out a little (who did what how many times?) so that it seems that it's the writer writing. Perhaps the subsequent sentences are some of the many times he's attempted the meeting in writing, and so on.

Meyer focuses on the writer character's inability to write. Each chapter is a different attempt by Meyer to get moving on his writing, though distractions abound. It's an enjoyable read. Of the three novels, End of I. is by far the weakest, and most irritating. My understanding is that Dixon had expected to be writing three novels for McSweeney's (publisher of I.), who then decided they either weren't interested after the first one, or had stopped publishing fiction for a bit (that doesn't sound right, somehow, but I can't be bothered to look it up), so then he re-used some of the material for books published through Melville House (publisher of Meyer, as well as Old Friends and Phone Rings), then McSweeney's called back, wanting another book, and he cobbled together a short second volume, End of I., and it does indeed read like leftovers.