Tuesday, August 7, 2018

On BDS and saying no to nice things

In June, I received a very generous -- and very flattering -- invitation: 

"In the coming academic year we would like to organise in our department a mini-symposium to discuss new advances in Marx scholarship. We suggest that this mini-symposium includes three panellists: Gareth Stedman Jones, Shlomo Avineri and you. The symposium would also be an occasion to mark the opening of the Political Theory MA research programme in our department." 

Academia is a peer-to-peer prestige business. We professors don't bring in the big bucks -- though many of us do very well -- and, generally speaking, no one outside the academy knows our names. What drives us, for the most part, is desire for respect and recognition from our fellow academics. Knowing this does not make me immune. So being asked to be one of three panellists, alongside very distinguished professors thirty and forty years senior to me is exciting, to say the least.

The only problem? The invitation was extended by professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

I am a supporter of BDS, a campaign to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions upon Israel (and businesses and institutions that cooperate with or profit from Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands). The goals of BDS are to compel Israel to: (1) end its occupation and colonization of Arab lands, (2) recognize the equal rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and (3) respect, protect, and promote the right of displaced Palestinians to return to land now controlled by Israel. 

Whether BDS can achieve all of these goals is uncertain, but it is clear that the Israeli government sees the BDS movement as a real threat to its policy of entrenching and extending its conception of Israel as an ethno-state. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu -- the ego-ideal of the Trump administration -- has banned members of 20 organizations that support BDS from entering Israel. A South African model was barred entry because she was visiting Israel on "a program sponsored by the prominent South African Israel-boycott organizations SACC (South African Council of Churches) and SAJP (South African Jews for a Free Palestine)." Advocates for Palestinian causes and critics of Israeli policy are detained and questioned aggressively by Israeli security services when they travel to Israel -- even when they are Israeli themselves. Ariel Gold, the co-director of Code Pink, was denied entry to Israel -- where she meant to pursue a program in Jewish studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem -- and had her student visa revoked because of her BDS advocacy. Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan proclaimed on Twitter that "Whoever acts for a boycott of Israel and comes here to cause damage, will not enter the country." Given these facts, I could not accept the invitation, no matter how exciting it was from a professional and intellectual point of view. My response follows:

Dear Professors,
Thank you for your invitation. I am honoured that you would wish to include me in a symposium on Marx’s writings, especially alongside such respected senior scholars as Professors Stedman Jones and Avineri.
Unfortunately, I cannot accept your invitation. This is not a decision I take lightly, but I am committed to honouring the call by our Palestinian colleagues not to engage in collaborative work with Israeli institutions implicated in the occupation. Taking this decision, I am mindful of Ariel Gold, an incoming student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was refused entry to Israel just on Sunday, and whose student visa was revoked, because of her BDS advocacy. I am mindful of my own status as an immigrant scholar in Canada, and of the fact that it is easier for me to participate in academic exchange in Israel than it is for our Palestinian colleagues. And I am mindful that Marx was sent into exile, unable to live and write in his homeland because the authorities considered his words too dangerous. I cannot afford myself such a wonderful opportunity when similar opportunities for academic exchange and conversation are so unjustly denied to both the people of Palestine and Jewish and Israeli advocates of BDS.
I regret that we won’t have a chance to meet and discuss Marx in this context, but I cling to the hope that a new political situation will arise, and that we will get another chance to work together.
Sincerely, Will Roberts

I want to make my response public because I know that I am not alone in turning down invitations to Israeli universities. I also know that most people do not know how many such invitations are refused. We know about organized attempts to declare institutional support for BDS, but we do not realize how many individual academics are postponing the opportunity for academic exchange and intellectual conversation in the hope that a new and better political situation will arise. Without knowing how many of us are waiting and hoping, the waiting can only be longer and the hoping more desperate. So I make my decision public, and I encourage others to do the same.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

#TakeAKnee and the Conditions of Peace

Why #TakeAKnee upsets people is why antifa upsets people. Bear with me.
The national anthem at the beginning of NFL games means, arguably, that the fight on the field, and the partisanship in the stands, is bracketed within an allegiance to national unity, so LA and Denver don't take their rivalry too far, and don't forget that "We're all Americans." So when Kap sat during the anthem, he was saying, "nope, I'm not one of you -- Black folks in this country aren't 'Americans' and fellow citizens, because they don't enjoy the protection of the law." In other words, Kap was denying the performative myth of the anthem, that "we" are united as Americans. Black Americans are subjects, not citizens, and the American state is a conquering force, not a civitas. (This is why all the "unity" bullshit this last weekend is bullshit. "Unity" is just the national anthem again. Kap was denying that there is unity.)
Antifa make the same move, and signify something analogous: they deny that they are fellow citizens with fascists, capable of tolerating their abhorrent opinions so long as everyone agrees that the state is the arbiter of any disputes that get physical. Liberals like Jonathan Chait consistently think that the Antifa are claiming that "either the government or violent street fighters" have "the right to silence opponents of the left." But this is not the Antifa claim at all. They are claiming that they *are right* to fight white supremacists, not that they (much less the police!) *have a right* to fight white supremacists. They are denying that the state is a legitimate arbiter between opposed groups of citizens making incompatible claims. That doesn't mean they are claiming the mantle of legitimate arbiter, but that they do not think a legitimate arbiter is a possibility in this situation. In other words, like Kap, they are denying that the invocation of corporate unity is capacious enough to encompass them -- so long as it also encompasses people organizing themselves to make the US a white "ethno-state."
Both of these claims are genuinely upsetting if you think the constitutional and legal framework of the US is a legitimate one, one that imposes upon people the duty to work through its established institutions and legal mechanisms. But the claim to legitimacy is also -- and always has been -- a claim to have established the conditions of peace. Whether or not a polity has established the conditions of peace is not a moral question. It must, to some important extent, accept the people *as they are.* If people are not, in fact, pacified, you do not have the conditions of peace. You can argue that people ought to be pacified, but they are not under any sort of prior constraint to accept your argument, and you sure as hell cannot presuppose that they are bound to accept it before you have even offered it.
You want peace? You want people to stand for the anthem? You want people to acknowledge their citizenship in the same country, and under the same laws, as you? Fine. Then make the country and its laws fit for their acknowledgement. Make the law and its agents treat them as citizens. Give them a good reason to lay down their arms in the faith that no asshole who thinks they are less than human will be able to subject them to inhuman treatment. Otherwise, admit that they are a subject population, at war with your polity, and get on with it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Antifa and Elephants

In the wake of Charlottesville, the question of how best to respond to a growing and emboldened fascist movement is pressing. People, by and large, take one of two lines. 

The Antifa line is: punch Nazis. That is, confront fascists whenever and wherever possible, show them that their public presence will not be tolerated, and try to make them scurry back to their holes to hide in the dark. 

The liberal line is: sunlight kills more Nazis than punches. That is, speak out and hold demonstrations, if necessary, but don’t respond with violence, which will only spread and encourage the fascists to become more radical and dangerous. 

By and large, people taking one line don’t have any patience for those taking the other. Liberals think Antifa play into fascists’ hands, and escalate social upheaval. Antifa think liberals give cover for fascists, and roll over in the face of the growing threat.

I’m not going to take sides on this question of tactics. Not because I don’t have an opinion (my opinion: the Antifa are usually right about the present situation in the US), but because I want instead to call attention to certain features of both arguments, features that (a) are endemic to arguments about political tactics, and that (b) make it very hard to even imagine settling those arguments in the same time-scale in which they are made and are salient as motivational and justificatory frameworks for action.

First of all, both sides in this non-debate rely on a privileged stock of historical examples. The Antifa think, especially, of the Battle of Cable Street, when rioting Londoners stopped Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; the BUF never recovered. The liberals think, especially, of Weimar Germany, where they see escalating street battles between fascists and communists preparing the ground for Hitler’s rise.

These different historical lodestones derive from different analyses of the social dynamics of fascism. Liberals tend to see the fascist seizure of the state as a backlash phenomenon: increasingly violent social struggle stokes the demand for “law and order,” which the authoritarian far-Right is able to capitalize on. The thought is that most people are basically apolitical, and just want to go about their day-to-day lives. The more political disorder – of whatever sort – intrudes upon that day-to-day, the more likely this mass of people is to become reactionary, to demand that someone, anyone, put an end to the protests, the fighting, the disruption. If this is right, then keeping the political temperature down, and keeping the state’s monopoly of violence intact, seems like the safest path.

The Antifa, of course, thinks this is not right. For the Antifa Left, the state is not a third party mediating social conflicts; it is on the side of the dominant party in those conflicts. If you expect the cops to handle the fascists, you’re going to be disappointed to find out that too many of the cops are the fascists.

To be sure, there are plenty of far-Left analyses that stress the danger of backlash. Gramsci, for instance, advised communist partisans not to mimic the fascists’ militia units lest the symmetry of the opposed civil warriors license the state’s suppression of “all sides” – a suppression which would inevitably be led by the military and police elements that also support or even comprise the far-Right’s militia cadres. Precisely because the Left sees the state as on the side of the dominant, it has always worried about provoking the “legitimate monopolists” of violence. This is why the Left ought to always prefer (and does, in fact, usually prefer) public, mass struggle to clandestine and small-cell operations. 

However, it is also why the Antifa do sometimes embrace tactics that especially rile liberals. Because Antifa expect the police to be on the side of the fascists, they are especially wary of being identified. Hence, they are especially wary of being filmed. Hence, they sometimes attack reporters covering protests. This seems to have happened twice in Charlottesville, and it has Jake Tapper and Jonathan Chait especially up in arms.

Fundamentally, liberals don’t want private individuals making judgment calls about when physical violence is appropriate. And they don’t want this because they think such private judgments are both unaccountable and given to indefinite expansion.

I understand this liberal perspective. I don’t want unaccountable people making decisions about the meting out of physical violence, either. But I also think that liberals (a) overestimate how accountable the public authorities are for the violence they mete out, and (b) underestimate the checks that Antifa ideology and organization place on Antifa violence. 

Leaving the policing of violence to the authorities is not, in the world we actually live in, leaving it in democratically accountable hands. And whatever tendency there might be for political justifications of violence to expand their mandate, this tendency runs up against certain counter-tendencies. It is easier to maintain the discipline, fervor, and group-cohesion necessary for mounting effective street battles in the face of actual, armed Nazis, but much harder to do so with each step on Chait’s slippery slope of inference.

More importantly, for me, is that the liberal opposition to Antifa tactics – like the justification of Antifa tactics themselves – relies upon a predictive model of social and political dynamics that operates on a timescale a thousand times larger than that of the Twitter controversy cycle. To be frank, we cannot know whether the Antifa opposition to the brown shirts of Charlottesville helps or hurts the struggle against fascist resurgence in America. 

At some point in the future, perhaps we will be able to retrospectively ascertain this, but even this is unlikely. Certainly liberals do not look at the Battle of Cable Street and say, well, in that case Antifa tactics worked. Rather, they will explain the failure of fascism in Britain by pointing to the stability and good order of the British government, the elite consensus around the rule of law, or some such. And the Antifa will certainly not grant that communist battles with Nazis in Weimar Germany drove the electorate into the arms of the Right. Even if each side granted the other its preferred historical case, there would be no basis for generalizing the conclusion.

In the end, we all want to act as if the deeds of a discrete set of addressable agents are consequential and variable, even as we treat the actions and reactions of  everyone else as predictable constants. Liberals want to hold Antifa responsible for any reactionary backlash. Antifa want to hold those who stand by and do nothing responsible for the belligerence of the far Right. And we may not have the conceptual tools to do otherwise, to knit together our ethical discourses of individual responsibility and our social scientific discourses of large-scale movement and change. 

The long-term and large-scale dynamics of history are always the elephant in the room. If there is no agreement about those, I don’t see how there could ever be any rational argument about political tactics. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Why I am not a fan of “the radical Enlightenment”

Invocations of Enlightenment, Reason, and Universalism too often substitute the name for the thing. Trumpeting Reason is too often a substitute for offering reasoned arguments.

Take, for instance, the recent claim by Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim that “core Enlightenment principles” are “the original basis for modern political emancipation,” and that the contemporary Left should “ground” its politics in these principles once again.

According to Fluss and Frim, the “Enlightenment worldview” comprises five essential principles: rationalism, materialism, humanism, hedonism, and perfectionism. I am immediately suspicious. Materialism and humanism are not obviously harmonious, insofar as humanism so often relies upon an implicit spiritualism. Why wouldn’t a rigorous materialism undermine any strict species distinction between humans and non-human animals, for instance? (On this, see the work of Hasana  Sharp.) Perfectionism is just as awkward a fit. Most versions of perfectionism rely upon a teleological conception of human nature that runs afoul of both materialism about causality and rationalism about the order of nature.

Are these doubts just a consequence of the rough-and-ready form of a popular presentation? Maybe this “Enlightenment worldview” just needs to be more fully fleshed out.

Perhaps, but I also have concerns rooted in what Fluss and Frim actually say about the implications of these principles. They claim, for instance, that “the overriding principle of rationalism implies that people ought to have conscious control over the greater part of their lives, the perfection of their talents, the ways they contribute to society, and how they cooperate with others.”

No, it doesn’t. Rationalism is, according to Fluss and Frim, the thesis “that the universe is essentially knowable and that all limits to knowledge are merely provisional.” The knowability of the universe does not imply that people ought to have conscious control over their lives. The universe remains knowable whether or not its is actually known, and whether or not that knowledge gives any individuals actual control over their lives. The rational explicability of all phenomena does not even secure the possibility of conscious control. Knowledge may just as well reveal the limits of our power as extend that power.

Fluss and Frim also claim that “Since all people are conditioned by common, natural laws, then there can be no stark separation between different peoples, sexes, races, etc.” As mentioned above, this claim can just as easily undermine the stark separation between different species, and so does not guarantee humanism. But if it proves too much, it also proves too little, since the common conditioning of all human beings by natural laws does not in any way entail a set of common interests. We can affirm that all human beings are equally human and then turn around and wage war on other human beings over scarce resources or ideological disagreements. That “diverse needs, desires, and conditions of flourishing are ultimately translatable across all parochial boundaries” does not mean that our needs, desires, and conditions of flourishing are compatible. I can understand you and still want to kill you.

As Fluss and Frim would have it, “it is only a movement steeped in Radical Enlightenment principles that will develop ever more coherent political demands.” I don’t think this is right, and I think my arguments above show why. Adherence to abstract principles does not produce political demands. Politics is not derived from principles. Principles are not foundational, but guiding. If you are committed to rationalism, then you should keep that commitment in mind as you make your arguments, not try to make your arguments follow from your rationalism.

My inclination is to say that the Left needs more and better arguments, not more rationalism. It needs more and better explanations, not more materialism. It needs more and better organizational and institutional ties, not more humanism. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Comments on Ngugi

I guess I am supposed to say something about Professor Ngugi's influence upon my field of political theory. I will speak prospectively, instead, about the influence I hope he has some day.

In 1893, Friedrich Engels addressed the Italian readership of the newly-translated Communist Manifesto. “The close of the feudal Middle Ages,” he wrote, “and the opening of the modern capitalist era are marked by a colossal figure: an Italian, Dante, both the last poet of the Middle Ages and the first poet of modern times. Today, as in 1300, a new historical era is approaching. Will Italy give us the new Dante, who will mark the hour of the birth of this new, proletarian era?”
Engels had a remarkable historical sense, but his guess was far off in this case. Dante, possessing all the wealth of the imperial, Latin tradition, left behind that language of popes and emperors and wealthy elites in order to write his greatest works in the vernacular dialect of Tuscany, a region torn by civil wars and invasions. In so doing, he helped to set the path taken by the European renaissance, and helped to create Italian literature.
It is impossible that an Italian could perform this role again, for the modern era has also been the era of European colonialism and imperialism, which have subjugated the peoples of the world. Italy was hardly one of the foremost colonial powers, but, even so, there is no way that any author writing in any European language could signal the postcolonial rebirth of the globe, the renaissance of the invaded and colonized cultures of the global proletariat.
Engels did not live long enough to see the beginnings of the postcolonial transformation. He did not foresee that the watershed moment of cultural rebirth would be when authors of the colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas abandoned the English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese of the conquerors and colonial administrators in order to tell their stories again in the “vulgar” tongues of the people. He did not foresee that the new Dante might write in Gĩkũyũ.

The relationship of language and conquest, language and domination, has been at the center of Ngugi’s political theory and political practice. If Dante was primarily concerned to insist upon and demonstrate the eloquence of the common tongue, Ngugi has been concerned to demonstrate its power. The “civilizing” mission of the colonial powers has always entailed spreading the masters’ word. To be civilized is to be cultured, to be cultured is to be educated, and to be educated is to learn to read and write and speak the language of civilization and culture – the language of the powerful.
This resonates here, in Québec. And “here” is also unceded Kanien’kehá:ka land, where it resonates again.
An old article from The Spectator can give us the flavor of history. In the midst of curious incomprehension at the phenomenon of Quebecois nationalism, the author notes that, while Montreal was (in 1963) 65% francophone, “only 22% of its economic activity” was run by members of the francophone majority. “Among the more uncouth of the members of the richer race,” he continues, “an exceptionally offensive phrase is not infrequently heard … when a French-speaker is brutally told to ‘talk white.’”
Bosses can no longer issue this command to workers in Québec, thankfully. But this does not mean that the compulsion to use the language of the powerful disappeared. When the conquerors control the wealth, they don’t have to command explicitly the use of their tongue. Speaking the language of the powerful just makes economic sense, as they say. Thus, forty years after the Charter of the French Language, pressure is mounting on Québec to improve and expand English-language education, and de facto anglophone workplaces are on the rise. The imperative is no longer a personal command. It issues from “the way things are.”
Marx called this sort of phenomenon “the fetishism of commodities.” In a society in which goods and services move to the music of market-prices, our “social movement has for [us] the form of a movement of things, and instead of us controlling this movement, [we] are controlled by it.” We bow, of necessity, to the impersonal power of prices. Is our labor-power worth more if we speak English? Then we must speak English. No one has to tell us to do so. We don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
But the wind blows bitter for the smaller communities of the world. Its howling drowns out the small voices of history. The extinction of languages has, by most accounts, accelerated to the point that 60-80% of the languages spoken in the world today will likely not be spoken by any children within a century. The French fact in Québec is not endangered to this extent. The language of the Mohawk people is much more precarious.
There is an irony of history here, though, and a lesson. Kanien’kehá was probably in a more precarious position in the mid- to late-‘70s. Over the prior half-century, most Mohawk families, impelled by their integration into the anglophone labor market, had come to speak English at home. The passage of Bill 101 in 1977 posed an existential crisis for the language, since it introduced new restrictions on instruction in languages other than French. The response among the Mohawk community in Kahnawà:ke was to establish an immersion program for young children.
In other words, it took a political threat to the language to provoke a political effort to safeguard and strengthen it. The open, avowed enemy is easy to recognize. Being easily recognized, it is easily emblazoned on the banners of political resistance. The economic threat is harder to counter, since it seems to operate from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Because the domination of the market is impersonal, it may not evoke the protest that a law or a command evokes.

The project Ngugi has called “decolonizing the mind” is not an idealist “revolution in the mind.” Decolonizing the mind is a political and material project. It means decolonizing the hand, decolonizing the tongue, decolonizing the classroom, and – thereby – decolonizing the imagination. It means destroying the colonial and collaborationist project of mastering the world by mastering the masters’ language.
Ngugi is best known for his work decolonizing literature, orature, and theatre. But decolonizing the mind is also a political practice of theory, and a practice of political theory. Ngugi noted long ago that, while the anticolonial and postcolonial intellectuals “were busy haranguing the ruling circles in a language” – English –  “which automatically excluded the participation of the peasantry and the working class,” “the most reactionary African politician, the one who believes in selling Africa to Europe, is often a master of African languages,” and “the European missionary believed too much in his mission of conquest not to communicate it in the language most readily available to the people.”
This is still a problem everywhere. The most sincere devotees of universal liberation couch their arguments in language that is incomprehensible outside the seminar rooms of elite universities, or address themselves – plaintively or legalistically – to those who hold the levers of government. This is not an argument for  “dumbing theory down,” or for forgetting that “common sense” is often common nonsense. But Ngugi provokes me to wonder what is gained by speaking the language of power, and what is lost.

Do we believe enough in the mission of emancipation to communicate it in the language most readily available to the people? As Ngugi insists, the alternative to sharing and enriching the common tongue is abandoning it to the most reactionary forces. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Response to Harvey, part 3: Socialisms, then and now

The part of my book that Harvey most appreciates is my discussion of “Marx’s relation to Proudhon, Fourier, Saint-Simon and Robert Owen.” Harvey is convinced by my argument against G.A. Cohen, who (along with many others) stressed the continuity between this socialist tradition, with its emphasis on “equality and social justice.” My challenge to Cohen insists that Marx was decisively opposed to much of this tradition, which he regarded as moralistic and mistaken about the operations of the capitalist economy. Although Harvey is appreciative of this aspect of my argument, I am left a bit puzzled by his response to it, for three reasons.

First, Harvey seems to skip right over the point of my argument. In his words, I argue that Marx “reached back into an older aristocratic tradition of republican governance as non-domination,” which “transformed by the experience of capitalist industrialism, produced a unique Marxist political vision.” Harvey asks, “If inequality and social justice are insufficient to the task of defining a socialist alternative then what might replace it?” He then goes on to talk about Owen and Saint-Simon on industrial administration, without even pausing to consider the answer my book proposes (and that I think Marx proposed): freedom. The “older aristocratic tradition of republican governance” was not just older and not just aristocratic. The republican concern with freedom from servitude and domination ran through much of the radical, popular, and plebian politics of the nineteenth century. It ran alongside the Rousseauvian concern with popular sovereignty and the utilitarian concern with rational administration, even as it clashed with these. It preached resistance to concentrations of power, and cooperative and deliberative association. My book argues that Marx’s entire argument in Capital is oriented by this republican desire for freedom from domination. And so I find it disconcerting that Harvey only mentions freedom once in his entire review, and then only to ask why I don’t talk more about the Jacobin tradition of republicanism, “which is very different.” I will return to the Jacobins below. For now, let me just indicate that my reconstruction of Marx’s republicanism resonates with some analyses on the contemporary Left. Alex Gourevitch has argued – in Jacobin and elsewhere – both for the historical credentials and the contemporary salience of “a vision of a society of equal freedom.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has made a powerful argument for reviving the movement for Black liberation. Corey Robin has, for several years now, called on the American Left to re-appropriate the politics of freedom from the Right. On my reading, Marx would agree with these calls.

Given that this is the orientation of my book, I am, therefore, also puzzled by Harvey’s apparent attempt to rehabilitate the Saint-Simonians. Harvey rightly claims that “Marx was reluctant to let go of the obvious enhancements in labor productivity achieved under industrial capitalism.” He also rightly notes that this reluctance was part of the basis for Marx’s appreciation of Robert Owen. However, he then uses one of Engels’s footnotes in Volume Three to bring in Saint-Simon, whom he reads as a harbinger of the joint-stock company, which has the potential – “when democratized to include the ouvriers as well” – to provide “modes of collective governance and administration” for the socialist future. I am extremely skeptical that there is anything of value for the Left in the thought of Saint-Simon. And, Engels’s footnote notwithstanding, there is no credible evidence that Marx thought much of Saint-Simon’s schemes either. Engels always had a soft spot for Saint-Simon, as I point out in my book, but Marx left no record of sharing his friend’s high estimation. That Engels assures us, after Marx’s death, that his friend had come around to Engels’s opinion is not very credible evidence that Marx was “attracted” to Saint-Simon’s “mode of thought.” For one thing, Saint-Simon was an authoritarian rationalist who dreamed only of benevolent hierarchy and orderly improvement. Therefore, he was utterly allergic to anything so disorderly as popular political movements or majoritarian democracy or government from below. When Harvey seemingly identifies the question of the socialist alternative with the question of how “to devise a form of governance that will be consistent with the objective of the principle of association [and] with the need to organize the macro-economy in productive and constructive ways,” he frames the issue is a way that is very congenial to Saint-Simon. I don’t see how it is congenial to a project of building a political movement for universal emancipation, though.

Finally, there is the matter of the Jacobins. Harvey notes that my book “ignores the Jacobin element” in the socialism of Marx’s day. This is basically right. (The only caveat I will offer is that the British Jacobinism of Bronterre O’Brien does appear in my story, if rather on the margins.) It is certainly right that Auguste Blanqui and his followers play no role in my account of the argument of Capital. On the one hand, Blanqui produced almost nothing by way of theory, and what he did produce was not very distinctive. Marx was concerned to close down Proudhonism and Saint-Simoneanism within the socialist movement, since these were the two substantial bodies of theory. Second, Blanquism was not a force to be reckoned with in the International Working Men’s Association, which – I argue in the book – is the most relevant context for situating Capital. There was a migration of Blanquists into the IWMA after the Commune, but Marx hated their conspiratorial methods and worked with his allies to shut them out. Third, Marx’s relation to Blanquism has been exhaustively and authoritatively treated in Richard N. Hunt's The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels (an underappreciated and hard-to-find classic, unfortunately); I saw no value in retreading that ground. Most importantly, however, the French republican tradition, of which Blanqui is one offshoot, is, as Harvey realizes, “very different” from the republican tradition that I think influenced Marx. Rousseau had a massive influence on the French tradition, but almost none on Marx (as David Leopold has shown). I simply see no signs of Jacobin or Blanquist influence in Capital, and Harvey does not point to any, either. If anyone else does, I would, of course, be happy to revisit the question. But, in the absence of any such indication, I am a bit baffled by the suggestion that I cannot pursue the evidence that is in the text “without first opening up the question of Jacobin republicanism.”

And so, to conclude, we seem to have come full circle. Harvey’s overwhelming objection to my book is that it is a reading of Volume One. He does not think that I can establish my interpretation of Volume One on the basis of Volume One. And he argues against my interpretation, but not, for the most part, on the basis of Volume One. This result suggests to me that I am onto something. As I write in the introduction to Marx’s Inferno,
Marx undoubtedly thought of Capital as his chef d’oeuvre. Throughout the twentieth century it was relatively neglected, for it was supposed to be the seat of the Marx we already knew from the proclamations of the Marxist parties. Hence, people who were attracted to Marx but repelled by the parties went looking for one “unknown Marx” or another, as new manuscripts became available. This process has certainly enriched our knowledge of Marx’s thought, but it has also produced the rather perverse situation in which Marx is better known for his unpublished jottings than for his major public intervention. Ironically, we never actually knew the Marx of Capital very well. It is a long and difficult book, lacking the programmatic clarity and generality of Engels’s late works. … Volume one of Capital—Marx’s only fully elaborated and published work of theory—ended up being largely neglected. And, so, I think it is important to go back to it, to read it carefully from beginning to end, and to do so without presuming that we know what we will find. (pp. 15-16)
My hope is that my book might provoke exactly this sort of reading. If it does, then I am sure that people will encounter things that push against my interpretations, that suggest other interpretations, that open up onto other interlocutors. Until then, I am grateful to Professor Harvey for taking the time to read and respond to my book, but I remain unmoved by his objections.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Response to Harvey, part 2:

The obvious response to the preceding part (here) is that, while I am arguing that Volume One of Capital can be read and understood on its own, Harvey is arguing that capitalism cannot be understood on the basis of Volume One alone. I suspect that that is indeed Harvey’s position. I am not opposed to it. I admit in the Introduction to Marx’s Inferno that “volumes two and three may deepen our understanding of how, according to Marx, capitalism works” (p. 16). However, Harvey’s review of my book does not differentiate between understanding Capital and understanding capitalism. It simply proceeds as if the inability to understand Fordism or consumer society on the basis of Volume One invalidates my claim that Volume One can be read and understood on its own.

I am confident that we have to read much that Marx never wrote in order to understand the vagaries and varieties of twentieth century and contemporary capitalism. Nonetheless, I also think that Marx, in Volume One of Capital, does a better job than those who came before or after at getting at what is wrong with capitalism (of whatever vintage). He is able to do so because (a) he has a better grasp of the fundamental dynamics of the market, the workplace, the pattern of capitalist development, and the role of the capitalist state than most of his competitors, and (b) he shows how all of these offend against the all-too-human desire for freedom from dominating power.

Contra Harvey, the republican inclinations I detect in Capital are not evidence that “Marx went far beyond [the utopian socialist] tradition and reached back to an older tradition of republicanism.” The republican concern for freedom from domination was all over the place in the socialisms of Marx’s day. Marx married this concern for freedom to a systematic dissection of capital. He shows how and why the market dominates the producers, the capitalist and the factory dominate the wage-laborer, and capital comes to dominate the state. Capital doesn’t merely show us how capitalist production works; it shows us why we would, for the sake of freedom, want to get out from under the regime of capitalist production.

This argument prompts Harvey to claim that, while I have rightly drawn attention “to the political in Marx,” I have gone too far in the direction of “dismissing the economic.” I disagree. What I have tried to do, on the contrary, is to show that Marx had a better understanding of economics than Proudhon, the Owenites, or the St-Simonians, precisely because he saw what was political in the economy, and in arguments about the economy.

Take Harvey’s claim, already encountered, that, in Volume One, Marx assumed, contrary to his considered position, that commodities exchange at their values. According to Harvey, Marx did so “in order to make the value theory more palatable to his audience.” This badly misrepresents the political intention and stakes of Marx’s argument. The default position among socialists in Marx’s day was that the suffering and exploitation of workers was attributable to the fact that their labor and their goods were unable to command their fair value on the market. Marx’s insistence on treating prices as if they reflected value would have made his value theory more controversial, not more palatable. Marx was cutting against the grain here, picking a fight. Why? Because the prevailing diagnosis, by harping on the divergence between price and value, missed both the dynamics of the market (by which prices converge on value) and the distinctiveness of capital, which can accumulate without extracting rents, as a form of economic power. Far from soft-pedaling the complexities of his theory, Marx is concerned to confront head-on the weak points of existing socialist theory.

On the same theme, Harvey claims that, by assuming that all commodities exchange at their values, Marx is able to “avoid” the problem of effective demand, and thereby – “on the basis of these assumptions” – to construct “a model of capitalist activity that reflects ‘the hell’ of the laborer.” But, as I argue in Chapter 3, Marx does not “avoid” this problem at all in Volume One. Rather than assuming away the issue, Marx builds it into his accounts of the commodity, of exchange, and of money. (Ironically, Harvey himself points us to two places in Volume One where Marx raises this issue; in neither place does he say, “I will be treating this in Volume Two.”) That “the course of true love never did run smooth” is one of the reasons that using the market to mediate the social division of labor produces anxiety, uncertainty, and slavish watchfulness among those dependent upon the market for their livelihoods.

If every commodity found effective demand awaiting it with open arms, Proudhon’s scheme to “republicanize specie” would work (but would also be unnecessary). If effective demand was assumed into existence by Marx, he could not have produced his account of the production of relative surplus value, since the ratchetting up of productivity could not operate unless more productive firms could gain market share. Finally, if Harvey were right that Marx assumes away the problem of effective demand in Volume One, and that he is only thereby enabled to model capitalist production so as to reflect the hell of the laborer, this would be a damning indictment of Marx’s book. It would mean that Marx’s theory of exploitation, development, and accumulation rests on a premise “simplified even to the point of falsification.”

I happily admit that my reading of Marx’s economic arguments in Volume One is not the standard reading. Nonetheless, it is far from sui generis: it accords with some of the theses advanced by value-form theorists, for one thing. These approaches to Marx situates him as a proto-Austrian rather than a post-Ricardian (yes, I know that will be a controversial claim!), and they transform the reading of both Marx’s value theory and his account of exploitation. These are fundamental economic matters. What my book brings to the table is the additional claim that the political context and intent of Marx’s argument is crucial for understanding the true content of Marx’s position. When you appreciate Marx’s opposition to all the labor-money schemes, and you see what was motivating those schemes to begin with, you are better positioned to understand Marx’s arguments in Part I. When you recognize the contrast between Marx’s approach to exploitation and all of the St-Simonian-inspired accounts of exploitation-as-extortion, you are better able to appreciate the force of Marx’s argument in Part III. That is my gamble, at least: Marx’s political context animates his economic arguments.

In the final part of this reply, I will turn squarely to the relation between Marx’s political context and our own. 

[Addendum: I forgot to include a discussion of primitive accumulation!

Finally, there is the matter of primitive accumulation, which Harvey ties into the same issue of Marx’s simplifying assumptions. According to him, there is a “dramatic shift of assumptions” at the beginning of Part VIII, and “the figures of the usurer, the banker, the merchant, the landlord, the state (and its debt) flood back into the narrative, as does the power of effective demand in the market.” I agree that the landlords and the state are centrally important to Marx’s account of primitive accumulation, and say so in Chapter 6 of my book. Our real disagreement regards the importance of usurers, bankers, and merchants. According to Harvey, it is the autonomous spread of these “antediluvian” forms of capital that drives primitive accumulation: “the spread of commodification and monetization from Europe,” he tells us, “played a necessary even if not sufficient role in the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain,” for it “engendered the demand for wool that led to Britain being overrun by sheep farming.” “Land, labor and money were commodities way before industrial capital came upon the scene,” he continues. “The problem for Marx is to show how these pre-capitalist forms were transformed and adapted to work within the framework of industrial capital.”

There are at least two problems here. First, Harvey claims that, while my reading of primitive accumulation “may be historically true,” it “is not what Marx says.” However, Harvey does not – and cannot – point to anywhere in Part VIII where Marx actually stresses the role of merchants or usurers. Harvey points to the Manifesto, to Volume Three, to the Grundrisse, and complains that I “ignore all of these,” but he fails to show how Marx’s argument in Part VIII depends upon or reproduces Marx’s claims in these other places. In fact, there are only two places in Part VIII where the antediluvian forms of capital play a role in Marx’s presentation, and in both cases it is a distinctly secondary one. First, in Chapter 26, Marx says that the demand for wool in Flanders motivated lords to clear their estates and turn them into sheep pastures. This episode is integral to my own account, so I can’t see what Harvey’s complaint is on this score. Second, in Chapter 31, Marx claims that “The money capital formed by means of usury and commerce was prevented from turning into industrial capital, in the country by the feudal constitution, in the towns by the guild organisation. These fetters vanished with the dissolution of feudal society, with the expropriation and partial eviction of the country population.” In other words, primitive accumulation empowers money capital to begin functioning as industrial capital. Money capital does not, by its own action, dissolve the feudal constitution of society. Marx’s claim here is the very opposite of Harvey’s. If we are talking about what Marx says in Volume One, then I don’t see any justice in Harvey’s criticisms.

More importantly, I think Harvey’s reading of primitive accumulation erases one of the most important aspects of Marx’s argument: the sharp, epochal break between the feudal constitution and the capitalist mode of production. Harvey seems to take me for a Brennerite, who thinks capitalism sprang up in the British countryside and then spread around the globe. This is far from the truth; settler colonialism and slavery and empire were essential to the constitution of capitalism from the very beginning. I will say, though, that what Brenner and his followers get right is that the capital relation that structures production – the relation between wage-labor and capital – is irreducible to either the antediluvian forms of capital or the directly coercive relations of production experienced by serfs, peasants, and slaves. Only once the capital-relation has seized on the production of basic commodities – in the British context, it was corn – can “the spread of commodification and monetization” really take hold. Commodification and monetization are not, according to Marx, autonomous processes. They do not spread by contagion. A revolution in the relations of production is necessary. Yes, Marx does claim that “the circulation of commodities is the starting point of capital.” But, as I argue, he also begins each major section of Volume One with a new origin story for capital: in the circulation of commodities, in the exploitation of labor, in large-scale production, and in the primitive accumulation of the factors of production. Harvey’s reading, by stressing only the first origin, risks making the market into the root cause of evil, and Marx into another socialist moralizer, inveighing against money and commodities, merchants and usurers, cheating and gouging.]