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.

I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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.] 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Response to Harvey, part 1

David Harvey has done me a great honor by reviewing my book, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, for Jacobin. To have the first review of my first book penned by the most famous living teacher of Capital is a boon. Professor Harvey’s wide-ranging response highlights a number of disagreements of broad significance, not only for academic Marxologists, but for the political Left. He claims that my book will be “a first salvo in what promises to be a grand battle to redefine Marx’s legacy, both intellectual and political.” I certainly hope that he is right. At present, the Left is weak but energized. Young people are widely disenchanted with capitalism and the post-Cold War global order, and are open-minded about socialism. At the same time, the political and economic organizations of the Left are in shambles, and there is no theoretical or tactical center of gravity. I think this is precisely the moment to reread the history of Left theory, to return to and to rework first principles.

No one is more important, in this respect, than Marx. The question is, which Marx? My book defends the dignity of the first volume of Capital, and argues that it contains the Marx we need to recover today. Harvey disagrees, arguing that “taking Volume 1 as a standalone treatise is deeply problematic.” This disagreement, which he calls his “most serious objection” to my book, reflects three deeper but less apparent divisions. One concerns the sort of theory Marx provides. The second concerns the actual content of Marx’s arguments in Volume One. The third concerns what is needed now, in our present. Each of these deep disagreements should be brought into the open, for wide-ranging debate on these matters is of the utmost importance.

1.       Part 1: What sort of book is Capital?

The research question that my book poses and tries to answer is the old question of Marx’s “method of presentation” in Capital. Why does Volume One take the form it does? Because Marx himself addresses this question – howsoever elliptically – in the course of rebutting the claim that he is applying a Hegelian method to the study of political economy, the scholarship on this question is dominated by efforts to find a Hegelian or quasi-Hegelian method of presentation in Volume One. This has had mixed results. Everyone acknowledges that parts of the text look rather Hegelian. On the other hand, major chunks of the book don’t look Hegelian at all: much of Parts Three, Four, and Eight, together adding up to about 40% of the book. These are the “historical” parts. Hegelian Marxists tend to be embarrassed by these parts, since they don’t add to much to the development of the concepts. Social historians, like Gareth Stedman Jones, think they are the only valuable part of Capital. The two halves are never knit together, though.

My idiosyncratic answer to this problem is that Marx’s structured Volume One on the model of Dante’s Inferno. This is not so weird as it might sound. Metaphorical descents into Hell were widespread in the socialist literature of the nineteenth century. Marx’s bête noir, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, did the most with the trope. Moreover, the moral categories that structure Dante’s Hell – incontinence, force, fraud, and treachery – were pervasive in the moral economy of early socialism, for the simple reason that the Christian-Aristotelian heritage permeated popular morality. Marx, I argue, wrote Capital as a descent into the social Hell of modern capitalism. He wanted to acquaint his readers with the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production, while displacing the categories of socialist moral judgment onto “the ensemble of social relations.” As my book shows, reading Volume One in this way allows us to make sense of its arguments in a connected and holistic way, and as a carefully constructed intervention into the socialist movement of Marx’s day, without excising half the book as “digressions” or “illustrations” or “beside the point.”

David Harvey objects, however, that this “builds a singular and exclusive account that pushes other readings to one side,” and that it rests “on the shallow but convenient grounds” that only Volume One was seen through to publication by Marx. According to Harvey, “if we only read Volume 1 of Capital, … we will also misunderstand the point of Volume 1.” We will do so because “the assumption throughout Volume 1 is that all commodities exchange at their value.” This allows Marx to construct “a model of capitalist activity that reflects ‘the hell’ of the laborer,” but it does not allow him to consider the “alienation”  of “the ‘affluent worker’ who is protected by a trade union, lives in a suburban house, has a car in the driveway, a TV in the living room, and a laptop in the kitchen, and vacations in Spain or the Caribbean.” Nor does it allow him to explain how “capital accumulation … rests on [the] ‘rational consumption’” of the working class, which must be enabled by the capitalist class. Harvey claims that these issues can come to the fore and receive their proper explanation only once Marx’s drops the assumption that prices equal values, which he does in Volumes Two and Three. Hence, Volume One, on its own, gives us a partial, and hence false, picture of capitalism. My book, by arguing that Volume One can stand on its own, does Marx and my readers a disservice.

The basic presupposition of Harvey’s interpretation is that, when Marx wrote and published Volume One, he was “presenting his findings,” and that, in the service of presenting them in a “persuasive” and “palatable” way to a readership of “self-educated artisans and laborers,” he “simplified” those findings, “even to the point of falsification.” If this is true, then only his unpublished works – the Grundrisse, Volumes Two and Three, the various preparatory drafts – can give us a true picture of Marx’s “findings.” In short, Harvey’s Marx is an explainer. He has a grand, unified theory, but knows that it is too difficult to communicate to “self-educated artisans and laborers,” so he simplifies it, and dresses it up with “literary and cultural references,” so as “to make sure his audience would get what he was talking about.”  

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

I think my picture of Marx, and of Capital, is more accurate that Harvey’s. After all, it is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.” That I try to read the book this way does not mean that everyone should just ignore Marx’s unpublished writings. My reading does not exclude those efforts, or push them to the side, simply because it does not engage in that sort of work. There are many excellent scholars who have shed much light on Marx’s unpublished writings. There is next to nothing on Volume One of Capital as a published work. I think, frankly, that we are more comfortable with Marx if we picture him as a scholar unable to communicate the complexity of his truth in a mere 900 pages, instead of as an engaged political thinker, working out his ideas in the scrum of debate.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Can sucking up make you free?

Daniel Oppenheimer has a very thoughtful essay on Mark Lilla and Corey Robin in the Washington Monthly. Among his observations is this: "Modern secular liberal society, of the sort Lilla prefers, will survive and flourish only if it’s able to reckon with the insights of those who critique and reject its premises. In fact it’s one of the necessary virtues of liberal society, for Lilla, that it’s capable of reckoning and sometimes even reconciling with its critics and haters. It’s also one of the responsibilities of liberal intellectuals to act as facilitators of this process." I think this really does get at the self-conception of many liberal intellectuals.
But then there is also this: "From this perspective an intellectual like Robin, who conspicuously rejects that conciliatory role, makes sense as a villain. And yet by this standard of villainy, many of the reactionary intellectuals whom Lilla respects and even admires would count as villains. These were people who had no interest in serving modernity, or contributing to its stability, because they saw it as hollow or rotten at its core, not worth serving or shoring up. They were not, in other words, liberal intellectuals, and had no desire to be. I would guess that Robin would say the same of himself, though from a very different ideological vantage point than most of Lilla’s subjects. So why not extend to him, and to the class of left-wing intellectuals of whom he’s fairly representative, the same intellectual courtesy, the same kind of sensitive, nuanced, historically informed and emotionally reserved critical treatment that Lilla is able to give to the subjects of his book, from whom he has more distance, either in time, space or ideology?"
Yes, why not? Why are many liberal intellectuals more understanding and sympathetic -- and astute -- readers of the anti-liberal Right than of the anti-liberal Left?
This has me thinking of an argument Philip Pettit makes in "On the People's Terms." Arguing against Isaiah Berlin's conception of freedom as non-interference, Pettit subjects it to what he thinks is a reductio ad absurdum. He argues that, if we are free so long as we are not being coerced or threatened, then this entails "that ingratiation -- toadying, kowtowing, and cosying up to the powerful -- can give you freedom of choice." It is not a very charitable or sympathetic thought, I admit, but I wonder if what Pettit thinks an absurdity is not actually a sincerely held belief of many liberal intellectuals: that getting cosy with the powerful can make you free.
When Lilla attacks Robin, when Jonathan Chait attacks young leftists, the animating intuition is that if the outsiders, rebels, and radicals of the world would just be nice to those in positions of power, their complaints would, if not evaporate, at least be significantly ameliorated. They can put themselves easily in the shoes of those who rule and govern, and can appreciate that ruling is hard. They also think that large differentials of power and wealth are inescapable, and so we ought to mitigate their dangers by attending to the resentments and complaints of the wealthy and powerful, to keep them in good humour lest they desire to employ their wealth and power more intrusively and despotically. And, from where they stand, why would they think otherwise?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Back from the dead?

Facebook killed the casual blogger.

But there is a lot going on that I would sort of like to make note of. And there are a lot of texts that I would like to preserve in a more public way. So...

1. The Quebec "special law" (i.e., dictate) regarding the student strike, now under debate: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/357492-quebec-education-special-law.html

More to come?