Saturday, December 12, 2009

Historical Materialism: 2nd North American Conference

Historical Materialism, Second North American Conference
January 14-16 2010, New York City

Opening Plenary Thursday January 14th, 7pm
Graduate Center
City University of New York
365 5th Avenue
New York, NY


Please join us for the second North American Historical Materialism Conference, beginning the evening of January 14th, 2010. Founded in 1997, the quarterly Historical Materialism (HM) journal is among the foremost publications of critical Marxist theory in the world, known for both its breadth as well as its intellectual rigor. Following upon successful conferences in London and Toronto, the New York City conference – the first ever in the US – will provide a lively space for scholars and activists to critically engage theoretical, historical, and practical issues of crucial importance to the movement for a world beyond capitalism.

The ongoing economic crisis continues to disrupt political and business establishments across the planet and inflict suffering upon millions in the form of mass unemployment and food shortages. Despite the popular expectations raised by a new presidency, U.S. imperial ambitions appear locked in place. The existential threat of climate change looms. Economic, political, military and ecological crises intersect as they intensify, making the world a much more dangerous place— but also one in which the space for theory and practice aimed at challenging capitalism, and exploring systemic alternatives, has grown.

The conversations between those who seek to both interpret and change the world have become more urgent. Some are attempting to piece back together the neo-liberal or Keynesian paradigms of the past, while others are re-discovering Marx – Marx the prophet of crisis, Marx the communist theorist, even Marx the materialist philosopher of nature, anticipating the ecological perils of modern capitalism. The need to innovate and critically engage with the traditions of Marxist thought has taken on a new importance.

In organizing the first US Historical Materialism conference we hope to open a space for critical, rigorous and boundary-pushing theory, to explore and provoke our understanding of capital and anti-capitalist alternatives with a critical eye to the traditions of the past, while confronting the crises and struggles unfolding around us.

Panels Include:
The Future of the Radical Left / Theories of the Developmentalist State / Witch-Hunting and Enclosures / Philosophy of Finance / Race and Labor / The Politics of Oil / Communism and Catastrophe / Women, Work and Violence / Theories of Exploitation / Ecology and Crisis / The Problem of Organization / Commons and Subjectivity / Capitalism, Slavery and the Civil War / Communization / Sexuality and Marriage / Fetishism and the Value Form / Marx’s Theory of Money / Post-Operaïsmo / Crisis Theory…

Confirmed speakers:
Anna M. Agathangelou, Stanley Aronowitz, Gopal Balakrishnan, Benjamin Balthaser, Banu Bargu, Deepankar Basu, Karl Beitel, Riccardo Bellofiore, Aaron Benanav, Jasper Bernes, Paul Blackledge, George Caffentzis, Dana Cloud, Patricia Clough, Gérard Duménil, Hester Eisenstein, Sara Farris, Silvia Federici, Robert Fine, Duncan Foley, Benedetto Fontana, Maya Gonzalez, Paul Heideman, Nancy Holmstrom, Matt Huber, Robert Hullot-Kentor, Andrew Kliman, Sabu Kohso, Michael Krätke, Tim Kreiner, Deepa Kumar, David Laibman, Neil Larsen, Paul Le Blanc, William Lewis, Geoff Mann, Paul Mattick, Michael McCarthy, Annie McClanahan, Geoffrey McDonald, Alan Milchman, Simon Mohun, Gary Mongiovi, Fred Moseley, Justin Myers, August Nimtz, Bertell Ollman, Melda Ozturk, Ozgur Ozturk, Mi Park, Nina Power, Nagesh Rao, Jason Read, John Riddell, William Clare Roberts, Heather Rogers, Sander, Anwar Shaikh, Hasana Sharp, Tony Smith, Jason E. Smith, Richard Smith, Hae-Yung Song, Marcel Stoetzler, Lee Sustar, Peter Thomas, Massimiliano Tomba, Aylin Topal, Alberto Toscano, Ben Trott, Ramaa Vasudevan, Antonio Y. Vázquez-Arroyo, Chris Vials, Marina Vishmidt, Joel Wainwright, Victor Wallis, Paul Warren, Evan Calder Williams, Ted Winslow, Christopher Wright

Conference supported by:
The Center for the Study of Work, Culture and Technology
SpaceTime Research Collective
Haymarket Books

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Progressive Marxism vs. Negative Marxism

There was a book launch session for Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy at the Historical Materialism conference in London on 28 November. Meade McCloughlan and Nick Gray gave papers responding to the book. Their papers can be found here.

Gray's response chracterizes my contribution, together with those of Moishe Postone, Chris Arthur, and Patrick Murray, as "negative Marxism," in the sense that the four of us stress the discontinuity between Marx's project and the modern project of enlightenment, especially as the latter is represented by Kant and Hegel. Alternatively, we are negative Marxists because we think Marx's critique of political economy is also a critique of Hegel, insofar as, according to our readings of Marx, Hegel's spirit is isomorphic with capital. On either version of the characterization, we set ourselves apart from "progressive" Marxists who see Marx as augmenting, radicalizing, or otherwise furthering the modern project.

I think this is an astute way of drawing what is perhaps the major line of demarcation in the field of Marxism/Marxology. Moreover, I'm happy to embrace Gray's nomenclature. Negative Marxism is hereby emblazoned upon my standard!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What are the technocrats supposed to be doing, again?

Dean Baker:

If Bernanke Did Not Know the Fed's Mission, Would That Be News?

Not at the WSJ, nor it seems anywhere else. Yesterday, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke referred to the "our dual mandate, which is growth and inflation." In fact, the dual mandate is full employment (defined as 4.0 percent unemployment) and price stability. Presumably Bernanke had unemployment in mind when he said "growth," but it striking that he would not use the right term. The two are of course not synonymous.

Here's a better explanation of the dual mandate than the Wikipedia entry Baker points to.

UPDATE: More grist for the mill here.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Libertarian or Maoist?

A new quiz show! Everyone can play! Can you correctly match the ideology to the statement? (No cheating! Follow the links only after guessing!)

Promoting equality of the sexes...

by excluding women from citizenship. Notice that her husband, who presumably shares her religious views, is already a citizen.
2. (via this wonderfully fun book)
Grandiose causes need new-style arguments. For example: hijab must be banned; it is a sign of male power (the father or eldest brother) over young girls or women. So, we'll banish the women who obstinately wear it. Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. [...]

Or, contrariwise: it is they who freely want to wear that damned headscarf, those rebels, those brats! Hence, they shall be punished. Wait a minute: do you mean it isn't the symbol of male oppression, after all? The father and eldest brother have nothing to do with it? Where then does the need to ban the scarf come from? The problem in hijab is conspicuously religious. Those brats have made their belief conspicuous. You there! Go stand in the corner!

Either it's the father and eldest brother, and "feministly" the hijab must be torn off, or it's the girl herself standing by her belief, and "laically" it must be torn off. There is no good headscarf. Bareheaded! Everywhere! As it used to be said-even non-Muslims said it-everyone must go out "bareheaded."
How'd you do?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Comments on Cohen

Here are the comments I delivered yesterday as part of the Cohen symposium:

Analysis Terminated? Towards a Post-Analytical Marxism

Or: What Can Bullshit Marxists Learn from G. A. Cohen?

I never encountered Jerry Cohen, the man. I only knew G. A. Cohen, the author of important and influential books and essays in analytical Marxism. Jerry Cohen, so I’m told, was playful, funny, kind, and generous. The G. A. Cohen I knew was dead serious – if also capable of wit – harsh in his judgments, and quite intimidating. He was also incredibly sharp and really knew his way around Marx. I read his work – everything relevant to the study of Marx, that is – when I was in Amsterdam working on my dissertation on Marx’s concepts of labor. I found some of it helpful for my project, much of it ever so slightly disagreeable, and all of it rather less enticing than the Althusser I was reading at the same time. Nonetheless, even in my youth I recognized that Karl Marx’s Theory of History was the most formidable exposition of that other kind of Marxism, the attempt to make sense of Marx in the terms and by the conventions of Anglo-American academic philosophy and social science. I took Cohen much more seriously as a Marxologist than I did Jon Elster, for instance (indeed, footnote references to Elster in my dissertation included a parenthetical “sic!” after the title of his book, Making Sense of Marx). It was quite apparent to me that Cohen was seeking to clarify what Marx wrote precisely because he was convinced that, in rough outline at least, Marx was right: right about history, right about society, right about capitalism and the need to overcome it. His was not my kind of Marxism, but it seemed to me an intellectually honest, respectable, and challenging kind of Marxism, nonetheless.

I don’t think Cohen would have had the same judgment of me. In the introduction to the 2000 edition of Marx’s Theory of History, Cohen recollected that “before others taught me to call what we were doing ‘analytical Marxism,’ it was my own practice to call it ‘non-bullshit Marxism’” (KMTH, xxv). He admits that the term is “aggressive,” since “when you call what you do non-bullshit Marxism, you seem to imply that all other Marxism is bullshit.” He seems for a moment to undercut this aggressiveness by conceding that “there exists Marxism which is neither analytical nor bullshit,” but this concession has a sting in its tail, for he concludes by naming this non-analytical, non-bullshit Marxism “pre-analytical Marxism,” and declaring that whenever “pre-analytical Marxism encounters analytical Marxism, then it must either become analytical or become bullshit” (KMTH, xxv-xxvi). Since my Marxism encountered Cohen’s analytical Marxism in 2003, and did not, after that encounter, become analytical, then it seems that I have been, for the last six years or so, a bullshit Marxist. Hence, the alternate title for this talk. Since I nonetheless find much to respect and value in Cohen’s work on Marx, I want to press his definition of and commitment to analysis, and to see whether or not it makes sense to proclaim myself – not to mention numerous others who are similarly situated vis-à-vis Marxist theory – a post-analytical Marxist.

To that end, I want to do what Cohen claimed in 2000 he and his fellow analytical Marxists never did, put analysis in question. The first task will be to get clear on just what analysis is, on Cohen’s account. It has both a broad and a narrow sense, and I will proceed to challenge each sense, beginning with the narrow one, anti-holism. I will argue that, in the narrow sense defined by Cohen, analytical Marxism is not actually analytical. That is, it is committed to a certain sort of holism. Then I’ll move on to discuss the broader sense of analysis, which is opposed to “dialectical reasoning,” something Cohen does not actually think exists. In other words, Cohen takes analysis to be identical to reasoning as such. I think there are good reasons for resisting this view, and that Marxists in particular ought to be wary of it. In order to show why this is so, I will enter into the realm of Cohen’s Marx interpretation. I think that Cohen makes a number of observations about Marx and Marx’s project that can actually be read as motivations for a post-analytical Marxism.

Monday, November 23, 2009

G.A. Cohen In Memoriam: A Critical Celebration of His Life and Work

This Friday, 27 November 2009, 10am - 4pm
McGill University, Old McGill Room, Faculty Club


  • Joseph Carens (Toronto) "Motivation and Equality in Cohen"

  • Jurgen De Wispelaere (CRÉUM) "Cohen in the Real World? Equality, Justice and Social Institutions"

  • Pablo Gilabert (Concordia) "Cohen on Socialism, Equality, and Community"

  • Jacob T. Levy (McGill) "Cohen on the Tasks of Political Philosophy"

  • William Clare Roberts (McGill) "Analysis Terminated? Towards a Post-Analytical Marxism"

  • Daniel Weinstock (CRÉUM) "Cohen and Cohen on Jokes"
I don't know that this is the actual order in which we'll be speaking* -- an earlier version of the program had Roberts and Levy going first and second. Regardless, come for the whole thing.

By the way, I feel a little odd being the only person who didn't include Cohen's name in the title of his talk, but if it makes a difference, my talk also has an alternate title: "What Bullshit Marxists Can Learn from Cohen." (You can tell, perhaps, why that is not on the program.)

* UPDATE: The "definitive" schedule:

William Clare Roberts: Analysis Terminated? Toward a Post-Analytical Marxism
Joseph Carens: Motivation and Equality in Cohen

Jacob T. Levy: Cohen on the Tasks of Political Philosophy
Jurgen De Wispelaere: Cohen in the Real World? Equality, Justice and Social Institutions

Lunch break

Pablo Gilabert: Cohen on Socialism, Equality, and Community
Daniel Weinstock: Cohen and Cohen on Jokes

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CFP: Roundtable on Marx's Capital

Via the Society for Social and Political Philosophy:

The SSPP is pleased to issue a CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS for a

Roundtable on Marx’s Capital

Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, February 24-27, 2011

Our second Roundtable will explore Volume One of Marx’s Capital (1867). We chose this text because the resurgence in references to and mentions of Marx – provoked especially by the financial crisis, but presaged by the best-seller status of Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Marx’s surprising victory in the BBC’s “greatest philosopher” poll – has only served to highlight the fact that there have not been any new interpretive or theoretical approaches to this book since Althusser’s in the 1960s.

The question that faces us is this: Does the return of Marx mean that we have been thrust into the past, such that long “obsolete” approaches have a newfound currency, or does in mean, on the contrary, that Marx has something new to say to us, and that new approaches to his text are called for?

The guiding hypothesis of this Roundtable is that if new readings of Capital are called for, then it is new readers who will produce them.

Therefore, we are calling for applications from scholars interested in approaching Marx’s magnum opus with fresh eyes, willing to open it to the first page and read it through to the end without knowing what they might find. Applicants need not be experts in Marx or in Marxism. Applicants must, however, specialize in some area of social or political philosophy. Applicants must also be interested in teaching and learning from their fellows, and in nurturing wide-ranging and diverse inquiries into the history of political thought.

If selected for participation, applicants will deliver a written, roundtable-style presentation on a specific part or theme of the text. Your approach to the text might be driven by historical or contemporary concerns, and it might issue from an interest in a theme or a figure (be it Aristotle or Foucault). Whatever your approach, however, your presentation must centrally investigate some aspect of the text of Capital. Spaces are very limited.

Applicants should send the following materials as email attachments (.doc/.rtf/.pdf) to by September 15, 2010:

  1. Curriculum Vitae
  2. One page statement of interest in the Roundtable. (Please include a discussion of the topics you would be willing to explore in a roundtable presentation. Please also discuss the projected significance of participation for your research and/or teaching.)

Ben Fowkes’ translation of Capital (Viking/Penguin, 1976) is the official translation for the Roundtable, and should be used for page citations. However, applicants are strongly encouraged to review either the German text of Capital (the 2nd edition of 1873 is the basis for most widely available texts) or the French translation (J. Roy, 1872-5), which was the last edition Marx himself oversaw to publication; both of these are widely available on-line.

All applicants will be notified of the outcome of the selection process via email on or before October 15, 2010. Participants will be asked to send a draft or outline of their presentation to by January 15, 2011 so that we can finalize the program.

In order to participate in the Roundtable (but not to apply or to be selected), you must be a member of the Society in good standing. You can become a member of the Society by following the membership link at:

Friday, October 30, 2009

We're All Israeli Now

...and it has nothing to do with the easy availability of good falafel.

I just watched Waltz with Bashir (an excellent movie, by the way), and was struck by the contemporaneity of the depiction of Israel's 1981 invasion of Labanon. The catch-all extension of "terrorist" was central to this feeling, I think. But I would go further and say that Israel is now, in many respects, the exemplar of the West, in the way that the US used to be, and Britain was before that. The striking difference is that previous exemplars have also been military hegemons, even if exemplarity and hegemony have not been completely synchronous. Israel remains a client state of the US militarily, but nonetheless articulates in the sharpest way the experience of being Western at the current moment. It is ideologically hegemonic without being militarily or economically so.

What I mean is that the Occupied Territories, the terrorist, the border wall, the settlements, the car bomb -- all originally Israeli phenomena -- are now archetypes of Western life in the same way that cowboys and Indians, the frontier, and the goldrush used to be. What it is to be European or American now takes its reference, to some critical extent, from what it is to live in the midst of enemies who are at once akin to you and alien, and whose mode of life and struggle confound the partitions between secular and religious, military and civilian, national and international, which confounding leads us to question the very reality of those seemingly foundational distinctions in our own societies.

One of the fairly explicit lines of thought advanced by one character in the movie is that Israel has such a hard time remembering and facing up to its role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre because the whole complex of mass murder and camps is overwhelmed by the memory of the Holocaust. According to this argument, there is among Israelis a massive psychic investment in seeing themselves as the victims of the camps, an investment that makes it impossible to see and recall their complicity with anything that resembles the camps in any way.

Regardless of whether this is a good or bad descriptive account of the Israeli psyche, it suggests to me in the context of the present that one of the reasons for Israel's new centrality to Western consciousness is the liberal repudiation of violence. To whatever extent liberalism cannot acknowledge its own complicity --not an accidental or mistaken involvement, but an essential and necessay participation -- in the violence of the past, neither can liberal Westerners see or recall the violence of the present as their own.

"Conservatives" -- bad liberals, authoritarians -- are thus so far necessary for the Western liberal psyche that if they didn't exist they would have to be invented. Conservatives do the things that liberals can then repudiate as merely accidental to Western liberalism. This sort of point is made by liberals about conservatives all the time: that no failure of conservatism is possible, since failure can always be attributed to insufficient conservatism. But this is just one more sign that "conservatives" are liberals in the broad sense; the same structure of repudiation is endemic to liberalisms left and right. Every liberal liberal says they wouldn't bomb Afghanistan, wouldn't invade Gaza, wouldn't target Hamas leadership with missile strikes, wouldn't build a wall, wouldn't hold people without due process, etc. But every liberal liberal who has the chance to do otherwise ends up doing all of these things -- perhaps with greater circumspection than would a conservative liberal, but doing them nonetheless.

To be Israeli, in this sense, means to struggle with self-recognition in this way, to hate and condemn what one does, and yet not be able to do otherwise.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Notes from Texas

Just turned on the TV in my hotel room and caught 5 minutes of Glenn Beck mixing architecture criticism -- he's for real American architecture, like the Chrysler Building -- with a discourse about how imperfect but truthful and transparent politicians are better than those perfect, shiny politicians who only reflect their surroundings and want universal healthcare. Or something.

Anyway, that was interesting to behold, but then the commercial break came. First was an ad for Tax Masters, telling you that if you haven't filed tax returns in years you should hire them to stand between you and the IRS so that the feds treat you with respect and decency.

Then there was an ad for some mysterious quicky face-lift procedure that ended with the tag-line: "In these hard economic times, you should invest in yourself!"

Next up, G. Gordon Liddy hawking gold, the amazing commodity whose price goes up but doesn't come down! In these hard economic times, you need to keep inflating the price of GG's gold stash (which he admits he bought ten years ago)!

Holy shit.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Correspondence Received

From my inbox:

Dear William Clare Roberts:

Your paper entitled, "Post-Modern Aristotles: Strauss, Arendt, Virno" was recently listed on SSRN's Top Ten download list for HPT: Ancient (Topic) and HPT: Post-Modern (Topic). To view the top ten list for the journal click on its name HPT: Ancient (Topic) Top Ten and HPT: Post-Modern (Topic) Top Ten and to view all the papers in the journals click on these links link(s) HPT: Ancient (Topic) All Papers and HPT: Post-Modern (Topic) All Papers.

As of 10/16/2009 your paper has been downloaded 20 times. You may view the abstract and download statistics at:

My ego is kept in check (barely) by the facts that a) 20 is not a very large number and b) my bete noire Brian Leiter has the top three spots in the all-time top ten for postmodernism, with over 1800 downloads spread over those three papers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Obama's Nobel Peace Prize

I think a lot of the commentary on Obama's peace prize is well off the mark. The major theme, from the left and the right, from the major pundits and my facebook friends, is that Obama hasn't done enough to deserve this prize. After all, Obama has only been President for a few months, still presides over two wars, one of which is escalating, and, while he has made some gestures towards international diplomacy on several fronts, the critics left and right are fond of saying that he has only given a few good speeches, and hasn't actually done much.

I think this is analysis is wrong-headed for two reasons. First, the Nobel Peace Prize is as much about encouraging and supporting agents of peaceful change as it is about recognizing already accomplished deeds. Several commentators have quoted the statement of former Nobel Committee chair Francis Sejersted:
The prize [...] is not only for past achievement. [...] The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act.
In other words, the Nobel Committee is, by confering this award, endorsing and encouraging Obama's efforts at international diplomacy, especially in the Middle East and regardign nuclear nonproliferation. They like the direction Obama is heading, and they want him both to succeed in the endeavors he has undertaken and to take his diplomacy further. Whether or not this success and expansion of diplomacy takes place, the Nobel Committee has done the only thing they can to make it so. That is both a legitimate use of the prize and a fairly taditional one.

Ronald Krebs, the author of the Foreign Policy essay I linked to above, lumps aspirational bestowals of the prize in with bestowals upon intranational dissidents and activists in order to conclude:
When the Nobel Peace Prize rewards past accomplishments, it is to be welcomed -- not because it changes the world, but because it celebrates and reaffirms liberal ideals. But in the increasingly frequent cases in which it is bestowed for actors' aspirations and in which it seeks to promote democratic political change, winners beware.
First of all, I don't see anything especially liberal about Alfred Nobel's charge that the prize be awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Modern liberalism has never been especially opposed to standing armies (republicans and communists are the ones who worried about those), and international fraternity and peace congresses are the purview of no particular political philosophy. But whatever. The more important things to note are that 1) the award to Obama seems to fit Nobel's intention quite well (except for that abolition or reduction of standing armies thing), and 2) all of Krebs' data regarding the perverse effect of the prize pertains to the promotion of democratic political change, not to aspirational awards per se.

This brings me to the second reason the dominant take is so wrongheaded. Without a doubt Obama's biggest accomplishments to date have been speeches, especially the Cairo speech. This is what Obama does -- he talks, and he listens to others talking, and he talks in such a way that his audience knows he has listened. Far from being negligible, this is actually a very big deal. I have mentioned this before; Obama is good at politics because he is good at talking to people who are not like him. Not to go completely Arendtian, but speaking is the substance of political action. There is no divide between "giving speeches" and "doing things," and those who think there is reveal themselves to have a technocratic, antipolitical streak.

This is why diplomacy is interesting -- in a world full of nation states given over largely to technocratic administration, one of the only spaces given over to political action is the diplomatic arena. In his "Critique of Violence," Walter Benjamin indicated "the conference, considered as a technique of civil agreement," as one of the only venues for the deployment of purely discursive means of agreement, unalloyed with any violence. Although it would be a stretch to say that any conference with the executive of the US, holder of more military might than the rest of the world combined, is unalloyed with violence, it remains true that diplomacy, giving rise as it does to no law, and employing the whole range of linguistic communication, seems more political and less violent than anything else in the world right now. And if the reemergence of this power, after the last eight years in which diplomacy seemed to vanish from the face of the earth, does not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, I'm not sure what does.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Promisory note

Among the posts I've been meaning to write but haven't yet:
  1. What it means to call Marx an Aristotelian
  2. Sohn-Rethel 101: why don't more people study this guy?
  3. Why liberals are lucky George Bush was in the White House on 9/11 (it's not what you think...)
  4. How Aristotle can help us think about political violence
  5. Why I'm a member of the surreality based community
There, now I've put those out there, and will either: a) feel a nagging obligation to actually write what I have promised, or b) feel relief from my nagging guilt because I've at least confessed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

CFP: Politics of Hope/Politics of Fear

Via the Society for Social and Political Philosophy:

The Eastern APA (American Philosophical Association) in 2010

The SSPP invites papers for two conference panels. We are seeking papers that address issues pertaining to:

Politics of Hope / Politics of Fear

Hobbes famously wrote, “The passion to be reckoned upon is fear.” The connection thus established between the state and fear has been the basis not only of various political regimes, but of political theory by philosophers such as Spinoza, Hegel, Arendt and Massumi. In an age of color-coded warning systems, terrorism, and pandemic disease, the essential link between fear and politics seems beyond dispute, and demands investigation: How does fear work? Does it always reinforce authority, as Hobbes imagined? Can there be a revolt of fear? What is the connection between the fear that the masses fear and the fear they evoke in the corridors of power? More importantly, what remains of fear’s opposite, hope, in this Hobbesian world? How can hope function in a world overrun by fear? Does hope require a vision of a better world? Is there anything beyond the relation of hope and fear, a politics beyond the vacillation of these affects? For this panel we invite papers that examine either the “politics of fear” or the “politics of hope” in terms of both broad theoretical discussions (including examinations of the politics of the affects and imagination) and specific investigations into regimes of fear and hope.

Complete papers of 3000-5000 words (that can be summarized and presented in 20-30 minutes) should be submitted for consideration for the 2010 meeting (deadline: March 1, 2010). The APA Conference scheduled for December 27-30, 2010, in Boston, MA.

Authors should include their name(s) and contact information on the cover page ONLY.

Papers should be emailed as attachments in Word or RTF format to:

CFP: Politics and Ontology

Via the Society for Social and Political Philosophy:

SPEP (Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) in 2010

The SSPP invites papers for two conference panels. We are seeking papers that address issues pertaining to:

Politics and Ontology

We seek to explore and challenge the hypothesis that all political theory presupposes an ontology. From the presumption of universal rationality, to the potency of class consciousness, to the privileges shaped by the social existence of race, gender and sexuality, political order always is or implies an ontological order. In many respects, the ontological question is the political question. Struggles for political change are as much about the expansion (or contraction) of shared ontological categories as they are about the rewriting of legislation or the redistribution of power and resources . The traditional allocation of rights, for instance, has been determined almost entirely on the basis of who, or what, one is presumed to be. While ontology and politics share a long, interconnected history, for much of modern history the connection between them has been downplayed or denied, since liberalism is premised on bracketing such supposedly insoluble and inherently conflictual metaphysical questions. In recent decades, however, this has changed. The explicit investigation of political ontology has taken center stage and, as a consequence, what we understand to be political or ontological has changed as well. Politics is no longer limited to the state, but permeates all of social existence to include the terrain of imagination, emotions, and representation. Ontology is no longer an ultimate foundation, but is constituted through relations of power and affects. In the works of such authors as Gilles Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz, Giorgio Agamben, William Connolly, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Antonio Negri, and many others, the subject of political ontology has surfaced in an array of new formulations. For this panel, we invite papers that extend this investigation or that challenge this resurgence, both within the context of work that has already been done and in anticipation of work yet to be conceived.

Complete papers of 3000-5000 words (that can be summarized and presented in 20-30 minutes) should be submitted for consideration for the 2010 meeting (deadline: March 1, 2010). The SPEP Conference is scheduled for October 2010, in Montreal, Canada.

Authors should include their name(s) and contact information on the cover page ONLY.

Papers should be emailed as attachments in Word or RTF format to:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Postmodernity to Aristotle

Here are some thoughts about what it means to live in postmodernity, taken from an essay I'm writing. I claim to identify three problems faced by "we postmoderns" which might motivate a return to the ancients, and especially to Aristotle. Thoughts?

The first problem of postmodernity that I would identify is the eclipse of the rule of law. Despite the resonance this might seem to have with a definitively liberal political discourse generated out of the Bush presidency, I am not referring to any empirical violation of the law, or even to the explicit Hobbesian argument that the chief executive is not bound by the law. Postmodernity is not marked by the return of extra-legal rule – tyranny or dictatorship – which was certainly a familiar-enough phenomenon during the reign of the modern consensus. Rather, to be postmodern is to suspect that the rule of law is, strictly speaking, nonsensical. The problem is conceptual, not empirical, as it were. The landmarks are not Guantanamo Bay and John Yoo, but Wittgenstein’s reductio ad absurdum of the notion of “applying” a rule, or Benjamin’s argument that all law is founded on and enforced by an essentially non-legal recourse to violence. The rule of law seems to be impossible to think, to be a sort of oxymoron. The universality of the law seems incommensurable with the singularity of the scene of its application. Hence, denizens of postmodernity feel the need for something like what Aristotle calls φρονησις, a sort of political wisdom or judgment that proceeds otherwise than by applying rules. This is the first call to return to Aristotle.

Moreover, postmodernity can also be characterized by the eclipse of the modern distinction between public and private. The division proposed by the liberal tradition, according to which the ends of action are private, while the means to those ends become public insofar as they impinge upon one another, seems to have lost its purchase. Again, the problem is not empirical; the liberal paradigm is founded upon diagnoses of and remedies for the empirical tendencies of the state to impose ends on its citizens and of those citizens to trespass on one another’s liberty. The postmodern problem arises when it seems that those very remedies only accelerate the tendencies they are supposed to check. We are forced, repeatedly, to choose between tendencies toward privatization and tendencies towards politicization that are equally merciless and asymptotically totalizing. The market increasingly subsumes not only the non-governmental institutions that are supposed to be the conservative bulwark of civil society – clubs, churches, families, universities – but even the very state functions – policing, soldiering, administering law, and even writing legislation – that are most central to public affairs. On the other hand, since everything seems to affect everyone (as revealed by the very cost-benefit analysis that articulates the calculative logic of privatization), everything seems to fall within the purview of administration and regulation by the state, or at least of political debate. Consequently, we postmoderns feel the need to rediscover some principle that would demarcate and harmonize the arenas of common being and private life. This is the second call to return to Aristotle.

Finally, postmodernity is marked by what I would call the eclipse of autonomy. Modernity was the era of the serene certainty that only those laws or norms were binding for a person which that person could be considered to have authored. We postmoderns, by contrast, experience a profound disquiet about the origin, force, and appropriateness of rules or norms, a disquiet that is not comforted by inquiring into whether we might ourselves have authored the rules and norms we obey. In fact, one lesson that could be drawn from the mid-to-late-20th century conjunction of a) rebellions against and flights from secular organizations of all kinds, and b) the metastatic growth of enthusiastic, fundamentalist, and evangelical churches of all stripes is this: the more we are told that we can, do, and/or should construct our own sets of rules or norms, the more oppressive and paralyzing such norms feel. We no longer trust ourselves with ruling ourselves. In this situation, the old questions – What is it to rule and to be ruled? Where do rules come from? Who should rule? – are questionable and interesting once again. This is the third call to return to Aristotle.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

CFP: Hegel After Spinoza

Hegel After Spinoza: A Volume of Critical Essays
Edited by Hasana Sharp and Jason Smith

Call for Papers

The names Hegel and Spinoza have come to represent two irreconcilable paths in contemporary philosophy. This opposition has taken different forms, but has its roots in mid- to late-20th century French philosophy. Althusser announced that he required a “detour” away from Hegel and through Spinoza in order to arrive at a genuinely materialist Marxism. Pierre Macherey staged a careful deconstruction of Hegel’s claim to have superseded Spinoza’s system in Hegel ou Spinoza, which concomitantly served as a defence of Spinozism against the Hegelianism dominant in France in the 1960s and ‘70s. Among the most influential articulations of this antagonism are the polemics of Deleuze celebrating the immanent and vitalist thinking of a materialist tradition beginning with Lucretius and passing through Spinoza to the present, to which he opposes the logic of totality, negativity, and contradiction found in Hegel. Spinoza, for Deleuze and others, stands for a rejection of negativity and lack as the foundation of philosophical and political thought, and as a salutary alternative to the negativity (in both the logical and existential senses) associated not only with Hegel, but with Hobbes, Freud, Sartre, Heidegger, and Lévinas as well. Feminists have likewise celebrated Spinoza as providing a joyful alternative to a tradition that emphasizes anxiety, mortality, and combat. This opposition, in its various expressions, underscores that reading Hegel has always been and remains a political act.

We are seeking essays to contribute to an anthology on the relationship between Spinoza and Hegel that move beyond the stalemate of current debates in continental philosophy. The title we have proposed for this collection points toward a horizon that no longer opposes a “bad” Hegel to a “good” Spinoza; we seek essays that indicate how contemporary readings of Spinoza—no longer the thinker of absolute substance, but of immanent causality, singular connections, transindividuality, and the multitude—might illuminate otherwise less visible threads in Hegel’s thought, and open the way to a re-reading of Hegel, beyond the institutionalized figure we take for granted. How might a productive and mutually enlightening encounter be produced between these two great systematic thinkers? What political possibilities are opened up by reading Hegel and Spinoza as useful contrasts rather than moral alternatives? The anthology will be published in a series that treats historical topics in light of contemporary continental thought. We are open to a broad range of topics within this rubric, but are especially interested in new readings that avoid simply recapitulating either the pantheism controversy in 19th century Germany or the French polemics of the 20th century.

Please send papers of 7,500-10,000 words to
Hasana Sharp ( or Jason Smith ( by 15 June, 2010.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Arendt In a Nutshell

Marx is wrong! (What Marx said.)

For example:
World alienation, and not self-alienation, as Marx thought, has been the hallmark of the modern age. Expropriation, the deprivation of certain groups of their place in the world and their naked exposure to the exigencies of life, created both the original accumulation of wealth and the possibility of transforming this wealth into capital through labor. (The Human Condition, 254-5)
I know from her letters to Jaspers that Arendt found Marx extremely frustrating ("a pain in the neck" are her words). Maybe it was the anxiety of influence...


I guess Hanna Pitkin said much the same:
Although its [Arendt's criticism of Marx] overall thrust may well be valid and is surely defensible, its detailed formulations are almost always mistaken, sometimes blatantly so. Arendt’s account of Marx, moreover, leaves out about half of that admittedly inconsistent thinker, and what is missing from her Marx remarkably resembles Arendt’s own ideas in The Human Condition, particularly about the social.
(The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 115.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What sort of activity is exchange?

I've been reading a bunch of Arendt, and, in light of my recent re-reading of Sohn-Rethel, I've noticed something both odd and, I think, revealing about Arendt's understanding of the vita activa--she completely overlooks commodity exchange as a distinctive form of activity.

Arendt's overall project, post-Origins of Totalitarianism, is centered around a rearticulation of active or practical life as of principles and a dignity separate from but equal to that of contemplation. I'm very sympathetic to this project, at least in such broad outlines. I'm especially attracted to her recognition of the fundamental plurality of activities, which sets her apart from all the mythologies of utilitarianism and rational choice action theory. However, I've always been nagged by a sense that her effort to separate out the various modalities of active life--labor, work, action--was itself a bit of a simplification or homogenization. However, nagging doubts do not an assessment make. Now I feel like I'm on somewhat more solid ground. Let me lay out the indicators of the problem:

Arendt's only prolonged discussion of exchange (that I know of) is in the "Work" section of The Human Condition (pp 159-67). The discussion is situated as it is because Arendt thinks that the exchange market is the public sphere corresponding to and growing out of work or fabrication, the making of persistent objects of use or artifacts. In Arendt's words, "homo faber, the builder of the world and the producer of things, can find his proper relationship to other people only by exchanging his products with theirs" (160).

But she immediately introduces a consideration that flagrantly contradicts this proper fit of the market to the artisans as producers. The sentence I just quoted continues by "explaining" this propriety; the artisan finds his proper relation to others in the exchange market "because the products themselves are always produced in isolation" (160-1). This sounds strange, I think, because we immediately think of assembly lines, factories, and cooperation when we think of production. Arendt has an explanation for this--basically, the division of labor within a process of production she associates with labor, the reproduction of life, and the conquest of production by the division of labor is therefore the subordination of work to labor--but I'll leave that aside for now. I think the plausibility of her insistence on the solitude of the artisan can be rescued by reference to such commonplaces as "too many cooks spoil the broth," and the certainty that doing anything "by committee" is sure to be a disaster from the standpoint of the quality of the end result. The work, for Arendt, is characterized by a singleness of intention and attention, and hence the artisan qua artisan is alone.

But for precisely this reason, the people who meet in the market are not artisans qua artisans, as Arendt herself recognizes. "The people who met on the exchange market, to be sure, were no longer the fabricators themselves," she writes; "when homo faber comes out of his isolation, he appears as a merchant and trader and establishes the exchange market in this capacity" (162-3). Therefore, she also claims that exchange value cannot be grounded in any "specific human activity" (164).

So, Arendt, it seems to me, is caught in the uncomfortable position of affirming both that exchange "develops without break and consistently" from "the world of the craftsman and the experience of fabrication" (166) and that this exchange presupposes a change in the personae and a dissociation from any actual activity of making things.

This is where Sohn-Rethel can meaningfully supplement Arendt. The recognition that commodity exchange is a separate mode of activity, and a specific from of human interaction, undermines the assumption that Arendt shares with the utilitarians and economists from whom she so radically diverges otherwise: the assumption that a generalized "utility" can be unproblematically extrapolated from the concrete uses of the objects we make. This presumptive link between use and utility is the unthought ground of modern economics, and exposing the absence of any such link is the ongoing task of the critique of political economy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Religious ideology, political ideology

Man, it's hard to figure out what's going on in Andy McCarthy's head. I'm not sure why I do this, but sometimes I go over and read the National Review Online blog. I did so this morning, and the first thing I ran across was this post by McCarthy. After going through what he considers to be the relevant range of opinions about the situation in Iran, he closes with this:
Considerations of Islamic ideology have been discouraged in this country since 9/11 — lest we detect a nexus between Muslim doctrine and Muslim terror. Consequently, there is general ignorance about the Islamic political program (Islam is not just a religion, it is a comprehensive socio-political program [my emphasis]). But for a few nettlesome differences (like equality for women and hostility to homosexuals), the Islamic political program — especially the totalitarian version regnant in the Islamic Republic of Iran — is something the American Left would be very comfortable with. Obama understands this, and I think it is a better explanation for his solicitude toward Khamenei than any hope of reversing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
I'm not even going to say anything about the bizarro-world claims that litter the unbolded parts of this paragraph (though they are instructive, I think, of how far removed we are from any robust ideological consensus in the US at the moment).

I was just struck by McCarthy's notion of what a religion is. Islam is, horror of horrors, a comprehensive socio-political program! Certianly, religions differ in the extensiveness of their socio-political doctrine. To my (extremely limited) knowledge, Buddhism doesn't have a lot to say about the institutions and methods of rule. Among western religions, there is a commonplace division made between Christianity (a religion of faith) and Islam and Judaism (religions of law). Both of the latter are thought to have far-reaching consequencs for the mode of life and social organization of adherents, in a way that Christianity does not. I think it is very odd, to say the least, that McCarthy would say that Islam is comprehensive in its socio-political teachings while ignoring its fellow religion of the law, Judaism. On what basis does McCarthy think Islam is more comprehensive in its legal teaching than Judaism?

But aside from this, theocracy is not restricted to religions of law. There have been theocratic regimes based in Christianity (Catholic and Protestant--though I don't know of any Orthodox theocracies...) and Buddhism (pre-Chinese Tibet). Claiming proximity to god as warrant to rule is pretty close to a universal temptation among us human beings. I would think (again, this is arm-chair history of the most egregious sort) that when and where a particular religion becomes theocratic in its aspirations has more to do with external factors than with the content of its holy texts and teachings. Paul told Christians to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's when they were a tiny and dispersed community, but this did not prevent popes from crowning emperors and leading armies a millenium later. Looking at the Torah or the Koran or whatever will not tell you a) how political a religion can become or b) how extensively and intensively its adherants will live holy teachings as a set of practices.

Moreover, I'm pretty taken right now with Foucault's thesis about government: that the Christian pastoral introduced a practice of government into European life that is without precedent, and that this pastoral form has permeated the modern state in the guise of what the Germans call the Polizei (the administrative and regulatory enforcement arms of the government). Thus, if you set aside the question of theocracy--that is, the directly religious form of the state--you must still consider the myriad other ways in which a religion (a set of practices of worship) can imply, shape, and sustain political, legal, and social practices and institutions that are not explicitly or directly religious.

In short, if McCarthy wants to consider Islamic ideology, he should go right ahead. But he's not off to an auspicious start.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Short Essay in Self-Criticism

So I have slightly mixed feelings about my essay in Marx and Contemporary Philosophy. Of course I'm thrilled to share space with so many of my Marxological heroes--Meikle, Postone, Murray, Carver, and Arthur, especially--from whom I have learned so much over the years. And I am quite happy with many aspects of the essay. And yet...

The root of the problem is that I'm re-reading Alfred Sohn-Rethel's Intellectual and Manual Labor for the first time since I was writing my dissertation. Unfortunately, I read it in German the first time, and apparently I didn't understand it nearly as well as I thought I did. It turns out that Sohn-Rethel should have influenced me far more than he did, and exactly on those questions with which the newly published essay is concerned. In other words, just as this essay is venturing out into the world on its own, I am looking up from my desk and crying, "Wait! You're not ready! Please let me make you a bit more presentable!"

Here's the issue: Understanding Marx's account of capital hinges on understanding the differences between exchange-value and use-value, and between abstract labour and concrete labour. Marx is adamant that exchaneg abstracts from use-value, and that, therefore, use-value plays no rule in the determination of the magnitude of value. Instead, the magnitude of value is determined by the abstract labour-time necessary to produce the commodity under given conditions. Thus, everything that is distinctive about Marx's approach gets off the ground here, where use-value and exchange-value part ways, and abstract labor-time appears as the substance of value. This is where all liberal economists (and most Marxist economists!) lose the thread (all of two pages into Capital). The question is, how does exchange abstract from use-value?

In my paper, I try to answer this question in what I guess could be called a phenomenological manner. I argue that the agents in exchange act as if use-value didn't matter, and that this "acting as if" amounts to a practical abstraction from use-value, which is intensified when a) labour-power becomes an object of exchange and b) is employed within a capitalist production process.

In the essay I waffle a bit on how intentional this abstraction is. My "as if" construction allows for the possibility that the consciousness of the agents does not apprehend what they do. But I also say things to the effect that we "disregard" the use-value of commodities in exchange, or "ignore" thereby the particular usefulness of labor. These formulations suggest, if not full consciousness, at least a sort of intentional structure to the practical abstraction.

In contradistiction to my rather muddled language, Sohn-Rethel is crystal clear: the abstraction from use effected by the practice of exchange is completely unconscious, and the furthest thing from the minds of the participants in exchange. Exchange excludes use in the sense that I can't exchange what I am using, or use what I am exchanging. This brute, physical abstraction from use is the original abstraction, and, according to Sohn-Rethel's analysis, contains all manner of counter-factual norms that structure the practice of exchange apart from any conscious or half-conscious intention. In fact, he even insists that the practice only works if the participants don't pay attention to the abstractions performed by it. I'm not sure I'm convinced by this bit, but he seems to think that exchangers have to think about use-value in order to practice an abstraction from use-value.

Regardles of this last point, I think Sohn-Rethel is invaluable for outlining a performance of abstraction that can proceed without any reference to a determining intentionality. My formulations in the just-published essay lend themsleves to an idealistic (that is to say, ideological) acount of exchange relations arising from conscious subjects. And that idealism of the act is worthy of endless criticism.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The One Product You Need

Out now:

Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy
Edited by Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor

This collection of articles brings together the latest work of some of the world’s leading Marxist philosophers, along with that of a new generation of young researchers. Based upon work presented at meetings of the recently founded and fast-growing Marx and Philosophy Society, it offers a unique snapshot of the best current scholarship on the philosophical aspects and implications of Marx's thought.


‘The Entire Mystery’: Marx’s Understanding of Hegel; J.McCarney
Karl Marx’s Philosophical Modernism: Post-Kantian Foundations of Historical Materialism; M.McIvor
Marx, the European Tradition, and the Philosophic Radicals; S.Meikle

Marx’s Theory of Democracy in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State; G.Daremas
Marx and Conservatism; A.Collier
Forms of Right, Forms of Value: The Unity of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Capital; R.Fine

Species-Being and Capital; A.Chitty
Labour in Modern Industrial Society; S.Sayers
The Concept of Money; C.Arthur
Value, Money, and Capital in Hegel and Marx; P.Murray
Abstraction and Productivity: Reflections on Formal Causality; W.Roberts

The Subject and Social Theory: Marx and Lukács on Hegel; M.Postone
Multiple Returns: Althusser on Dialectics; J.Grant
The Rationality of Analytical Marxism; R.Veneziani

Marxism and Feminism: Living with your ‘Ex’; T.Carver
After Postmodernism: Feminism and Marxism Revisited; G.Howie

Wait, what was that? Go back just a bit...

"Abstraction and Productivity: Reflections on Formal Causality; W.Roberts"

Hey, that's me!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Strauss Contra Neoconservatism

I'm working on a paper that, in part, involves a discussion of Strauss. Hence, I've been reading quite a bit of the fellow of late. I'm also going to be chairing a panel at APSA that will include Nicholas Xenos, Anne Norton, and Shadia B. Drury, all of whom have written anti-Strauss books (all of them, generally, arguing for a connection between Strauss and the Bush-era right in America). Given the repeated attempts to link Strauss to the neoconservative practices of extra-legal executive action, I thought the following passage from On Tyranny--Strauss is responding to Eric Voegelin (p. 180)--was interesting:
To stress the fact that it is just to replace constitutional rule by absolute rule, if the common good requires that change, means to cast doubt on the absolute sanctity of the established constitutional order. It means encouraging dangerous men to confuse the issue by bringing about a state of affairs in which the common good requires the establishment of their absolute rule. The true doctrine of the legitimacy of Caesarism is a dangerous doctrine. The true distinction between Caesarism and tyranny is too subtle for ordinary political use. It is better for the people to remain ignorant of that distinction and to treat the potential Caesar as a potential tyrant. No harm can come from this theoretical error which becomes a practical truth if the people have the mettle to act upon it. No harm can come from the political identification of Caesarism and tyranny: Caesars can take care of themselves.
This passage uses precisely the sort of Straussian argument that his liberal critics find so pernicious--some truths are better kept quiet--in order to defend the sanctity of the rule of law. It is better not to admit that extra-constitutional rule might be necessary and even salutary in certain extraordinary situations because such an admission, while true, makes it more likely that extra-constitutional rule will be exercised in completely non-extraordinary conditions. And such an argument has obvious affinities with a liberal argument against legalizing torture: even if torture would be necessary in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, the torturer-hero of such a situation will be able to break the law to do what is necessary. You can't encode the state of exception in a rule without making the exception the norm.

From a liberal point of view, the problem with neoconservatism is that it makes the state of exception into the normal state of affairs. But that is precisely Strauss's criticism of Voegelin's theory of Caesarism. So, maybe liberals should make peace with Strauss, eh?

UPDATE: I was sloppy in my assimilation of Anne Norton's thesis to those of Drury and Xenos. Norton draws sharp distinctions between Strauss, students of Strauss, and Straussians. She is very critical of Straussian neoconservatism, but does not link Strauss himself to the neoconservative project, and generally casts Strauss as infinitely superior to Straussians and as critical (avant le lettre) of many of their positions and practices.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Learning to Play the Game

Unemployed Negativity has a great post on what we really teach our students. Here's the punchline:
For most students college is bureaucracy 101. This education, the education [in] how to follow rules, bend rules, and keep up appearances is perhaps what will best serve them as future employees. What I wonder is how they learned to learn this; I suppose that it is the lesson of all education.
It remids me of Jacob Levy's response to one of the more recent "those-kids-nowadays" moans that periodically well up from the professoriat. I'll let the two of them do all the talking on this point.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Anti-Delong: Postscript

In my last post I didn't touch on DeLong's other "explanation" for Marx's errors. I'll do this quickly--it's a minor thing, in some ways, but telling.

DeLong thinks Marx and Engels were led astray by the spectacle of hardship in pre-1850 Manchester, which he claims was not representative of England as a whole. He then writes:
Parliament began to regulate conditions of employment in the 1840s. Parliament began to regulate public health in the 1850s. Parliament doubled the urban electorate in 1867, just as volume 1 of Capital was published. Parliament gave unions official sanction to bargain collectively in the 1870s.
Has DeLong read--heck, has he even heard of--Chapters 10-15 of Capital? Marx was hardly unaware of these developments. Moreover, he even has a theory about their cause. He chalks them up to the working class getting organized! Parliament did not swoop down from on high bearing gifts--working class struggle predates and motivates all legislative victories, on Marx's account.

This goes back to what I previously called DeLong's belief in independent state action. It must be nice to be a neoliberal Keynesian who believes that intelligent and benevolent legislation will be the salve and the salvation of the worker--so long as it is directed by neoliberal Keynesians.

The final, ironic coda on DeLong's worship of the benevolent state is his closing line, in which he attributes Marx's late-born interest in Russia to, among other things, "the failure of the Paris Commune and the founding of the French Third Republic," without bothering to mention that the "failure" of the Paris Commune was its failure to withstand bombardment by the French Third Republic! After which, the French Third Republic demonstrated its benevolent feelings towards its working class citizens by summarily executing an estimated 30,000 of them (while arresting, deporting, and/or executing perhaps another 50,000 in the aftermath).

Anti-DeLong: Volume 3

DeLong explains the "intellectual origins" of Marx's errors:
Marx's beginnings in German philosophy, and the fact that he hooked up in the 1840s with Friedrich Engels whose family owned textile factories in Manchester. German philosophy, or perhaps rather Hegel.
Oh, goody. An economist riding the Hegel hobbyhorse. This should be fun.

DeLong produces a long quotation from Chapter 1, section 4 of Capital, on the fetishism of the commodity. He proclaims that he doesn't understand it at all. Then he conflates his own lack of understanding with lack of intelligibility, and attributes it all to Marx coquetting with the modes of expression peculiar to Hegel. Uh, no. Marx does use some Hegelian terminology in Chapter 1, but most of it is earlier, prior to section 4. I don't see a single Hegelism in the quotation DeLong proffers. But ignorance is not the limit of DeLong's special powers of not understanding. To wit:
To say that "the value relation[s] between the products of labour ... have absolutely no connection with their physical properties" is simply wrong: if the coffee beans are rotten--or if their caffeine level is low--they have no value at all, for nobody will buy them.
Marx does not deny this--he says explicitly and repeatedly that commodities must be use-values in order to bear exchange-value. But he denies that the use-value has any real connection with the exchange value, in the sense of determining it. We'll come back to this.
Nobody I talk to believes that "values" are objective quantities inherent in goods by virtue of the time it took to produce them.
Brilliant methodology. First of all, the whole point of Marx's discussion of fetishism is to say that when we exchange goods in the market we don't think to ourselves, "I'm exchanging a quantity of socially average labour for an equivalent quantity of socially average labour." As Marx puts it:
Men do not [...] bring the products of their labour into relation with one another as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true; by equating their various products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. (Capital, Fowkes translation, pp. 166-7)
In other words, Marx doesn't think that values are objective quantities inherent in goods, nor does such a belief constitute the fetishism of commodities. And he says as much repeatedly. Rather the reverse. Values appear to be subjective, to be based on our individual, idiosyncratic preferences. In fact, according to Marx, they are outcomes of the social production process, which goes on behind our backs, as he puts it repeatedly. Back to DeLong:
If the combination of my wealth and its usefulness to me makes me value it the most, then I use it--it is to me what Marx calls a use value.
Use-value in Marx means the concrete functionality of a thing--what it does, in a very Aristotelian sense. There is a persistent tendency in economic discussions of Marx to identify his "use-value" with "utility" when in fact the two are radically divergent. Use-value is function, while utility is, depending on who you're reading, pleasure or preference. DeLong seems to avoid this particular error, at least here, which is admirable. But this does not put this passage beyond criticism, since he seems to imply that I regard a particular thing as a use-value only because I do not regard it as an exchange-value. But use-value is the primitive condition, not the derived condition. Moreover, he drives this home by saying that a thing is a use-value to me only if I value it the most. This is simply not true, both according to Marx and according to, I think, any fair minded consideration of affairs. I might relate to something as to a use-value even if I don't particularly want to use it. The only consideration here is that I treat the thing as a concrete particular, and not as an equivalent to a bunch of other things. The market is not the primary human horizon. Things are useful before (ontologically speaking) they are exchangeable. Indeed, DeLong seems to recognize this in the very next sentence:
But what Marx calls exchange values are really use values to others:
Exchange-values are really use-values to others. Of course DeLong thinks he's criticizing Marx here, when Marx says the same thing. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 2, Marx writes:
For the [commodity] owner, his commodity possesses no direct use-value. Otherwise he would not bring it to market. It has use value for others. (Fowkes trans., p. 179)
DeLong detects here a toehold for The Economists' Criticism of Marx (TM):
Things have value not because of the abstraction that socially-necessary labor time is needed to produce them but because of the concretion that somebody somewhere wants to use it and has something else that others find useful to trade in turn.
DeLong thinks that the latter condition is more concrete than the former, and that they are mutually exclusive. I think he's wrong on both counts.

That somebody somewhere has a use for what I sell is abstract in two senses. First, this "somebody somewhere" is both general and futural. The items on the shelves in the grocery store don't lose their value simply because no customer is currently in the act of buying them. Value refers, in DeLong's story as much as in Marx's, to an expectation grounded in a social division of labour, an expectation about what "people" want, need, etc. Second, the exchange of some goods for other goods posits the equivalence of the goods in question, an equivalence that abstracts from the particular functions of those goods. A sandwich is for eating (this is its use-value). A book is for reading. You cannot eat a book or read a sandwich. Hence, when we say that a book and a sandwich are equivalent as values (they each cost $4.95), we are grounding value in an abstraction, whether we consider this abstraction to be "utility" (Hegel's "need in general") or socially necessary labour-time.

Moreover, there is an equivocation in DeLong's use of "because." As I mentioned above, Marx does not deny that commodities must be use-values; on the contrary, he insists that every commodity must be a use-value, and that every commodity proves that it is a use-value, and that the labour that made it was useful labour, by being exchanged. But being a use-value does not explain why something has value, or why it has as much value as it does. As Hegel says, "man, as a consumer, is chiefly concerned with human products, and it is human effort that he consumes" (Philosophy of Right, s. 196). Or, if you prefer Smith's phrase, through commerce, we all come to rely upon "the assistance and co-operation of many thousands" (Wealth of Nations, I.1). Commodities have value, from this perspective, because the represent a certain amount of effort, effort conditioned, again, by the social division of labour and the development of the means of production. Recognizing that value is conditioned by need does not prohibit recognizing that value is also conditioned by socialized labour.

But this has been the realm of honest discussion, which we must now depart for the realm of hackery. Delong continues:
The distinction between use-value and exchange-value is not something invented by or peculiar to the capitalist mode of production: it is found in all human societies, no matter how large or small, no matter what the glue that holds them together.
Marx doesn't say that the distinction between use-value and exchange-value is peculiar to capitalist society, and you cannot have paid the slightest attention to Capital and come away with this opinion. He says right away on the first page of Chapter 1 that this distinction is definitive of commodities. Commodities existed before capitalist production--I should hope that DeLong recognizes this--and so did the distinction, therefore. However, that does not mean the distinction exists "in all human societies" indiscriminately. It exists only where commodity exchange of some sort goes on. As Marx writes in Chapter 2 of Capital:
Objects in themselves are external to man, and consequently alienable by him. In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals. But such a state of reciprocal independence has no existence in a primitive society based on property in common, whether such a society takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian community, or a Peruvian Inca State. The exchange of commodities, therefore, first begins on the boundaries of such communities, at their points of contact with other similar communities, or with members of the latter. So soon, however, as products once become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become so in its internal intercourse. The proportions in which they are exchangeable are at first quite a matter of chance. What makes them exchangeable is the mutual desire of their owners to alienate them. Meantime the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act. In the course of time, therefore, some portion at least of the products of labour must be produced with a special view to exchange. From that moment the distinction becomes firmly established between the usefulness of an object for direct consumption, and its usefulness in exchange. Its use-value becomes distinguished from its exchange-value. (translation slightly modified; my emphasis)
Then, from the misty-reaches of anthropological generalities, DeLong ricochets to the concerns of a contemporary academic economist:
...the labor theory of value [...] is simply not a very good model of the averages around which prices fluctuate. Socially-necessary labor power usually serves as an upper bound to value--if something sells for more, then a lot of people are going to start making more of them, and the prices at which it trades are going to fall. But lots of things sell for much less than the prices corresponding to their socially-necessary labor power lots of the time.
He's not even trying anymore. Marx says the magnitude of value is determined by socially necessary labour-time, not labour-power. Labour-power is a commodity, and hence has a value, and therefore cannot be the determiner of value, since what would explain its own value?

Finally, we come to the punch-line:
This matters because one conclusion Marx reaches is that markets and their prices are a source of oppression--that they aren't sources of opportunity (to trade your stuff or the stuff you make to people who value it more) but rather of domination by others and unfreedom: the system forces you to sell your labor-power for its value which is less than the value of the goods you make. And it is that conclusion that human freedom is totally incompatible with wage-labor or market exchange that leads the political movements that Marx founded down very strange and very destructive roads.
There's a funny conflation of "markets" and "wage labour" going on here, which is telling. Marx is not so much concerned with markets in general as he is with the market in labour-power. Capitalist production--and hence a society of generalized market relations--doesn't get off the ground (or stay in the air), according to Marx, unless there are a whole lot of people who don't have any "stuff" to sell, and so have to sell their labour-power. Their ability to do so on the labour market is most certainly a "source of opportunity" not to starve to death--Marx does not deny this--by selling their labour-power to those who "value it more" in the precise sense that they have a use for labour-power (since they own the means of production) that its bearers do not (since, not owning the means of production, their labour-power is useless to them).

DeLong has quite simply missed Marx's entire argument. And as convenient as it might be for him to blame this on Hegel, I think he amply betrays a real unwillingness "look at the thinker, Karl Marx, and what he actually wrote and thought."

Anti-DeLong: Volume 2

According to DeLong, Marx the economist said three good, still important things, and three bad things. However, the three good, important things turn out to be either so qualified by DeLong or so attenuated in their attributability to Marx that DeLong actually gives Marx almost no credit at all. Thus, he commends Marx's insistence on capitalism's tendency towards crisis, but then adds: "However, I don't think that his theory of business cycles and financial crises holds up." He praises Marx for being:
among the very first to see that the industrial revolution was giving us the statues of Daedalus, the tripods of Hephaestus, looms that weave and lyres that play by themselves--and thus opens the possibility of a society in which we people can be lovers of wisdom without being supported by the labor of a mass of illiterate, brutalized, half-starved, and overworked slaves.
But, of course, Marx didn't think this could happen so long as technology served as fixed capital. DeLong ignores the sarcastic conclusion of Marx's discussion of the ancient dream of the statues of Daedalus:
Oh! those heathens! They understood, as the learned Bastiat, and before him the still wiser MacCulloch have discovered, nothing of Political Economy and Christianity. They did not, for example, comprehend that machinery is the surest means of lengthening the working-day. They perhaps excused the slavery of one on the ground that it was a means to the full development of another. But to preach slavery of the masses, in order that a few crude and half-educated parvenus, might become “eminent spinners,” “extensive sausage-makers,” and “influential shoe-black dealers,” to do this, they lacked the bump of Christianity.
Finally, DeLong praises Marx as an economic historian of England from 1500-1850. "Most important, I think, are his observations that the benefits of industrialization do take a long time--generations--to kick in, while the costs of redistributions and power grabs in the interest of market efficiency and the politically-powerful rising mercantile classes kick in immediately. You have to take seriously the idea that the industrial revolution did not make most or even many people better off right away." This renders toothless Marx's discussions of the struggles over the working day, the rise of industrial machinery, and the processes of primitive accumulation. In DeLong's estimation, the point is that industrialization didn't make many people better off right away, and he only nods to "the costs of redistributions and power-grabs." But Marx's point is rather that capitalization and industrialization make most people far worse off right away, so much worse off that a lot of them starve to death or die very young or spend their lives in work-houses. This is more than just tweaking the cost-benefit analysis by emphasizing the long time-lag before the benefits start to kick in.

After this, the Bad Things are rather anticlimactic, and a bit vague. Marx believed:
  1. that "the market system simply could not deliver a good or half-good society but only a combination of obscene luxury and mass poverty."
  2. that "people should view their jobs as expressions of their species-being: ways to gain honor or professions that they were born or designed to do or as ways to serve their fellow-human."
  3. "that the capitalist market economy was incapable of delivering an acceptable distribution of income for anything but the briefest of historical intervals."
The second is just not true, in several ways at once. First, it turns Marx back into an ideologist--since work could never be anything other than an expression of our species-being, the problem is reduced to how people view their jobs; hence, change people's consciousness and voila! Second, DeLong has turned Marx into an advocate of the medieval guilds, which is just bizarre. Third, Marx never argued that work would become beneficence or philanthropy in communism; rather, he insisted that it must become a development of one's individuality.

The first and third are just two versions of the same complaint--that Marx saw capitalism as inherently contradictory, as crisis-prone, and as productive of misery in the same measure as wealth--but they are both confused on important points.

The first version subliminally folds the state into "the market system" as not merely an endogenous development but literally as an organ of the market. This is odd, to say the least. The problem with number three is that he turns Marx's theory of classes into a theory of income distribution. But class has nothing to do with income for Marx, except via a whole series of mediations. What makes you a member of the working class is not your income level. Certainly Marx did think that wages for the mass of workers would always gravitate towards subsistence wages, but DeLong says nothing to indicate why this is not true. Certainly, as above, state action can raise the minimum wage locally, but that is very different from raising the real minimum wage globally.

But this distinction between local and global wages pushes DeLong into the libertarian corner. If "technological progress and capital accumulation" alone are capable of raising the minimum wage and distributing wealth at the global scale, beyond the jurisdiction of any state, then why is this not also true at the local level? Or, if wages only rise globally because of the concurrence of local regulations, then what is to prevent capital flight to those jurisdictions with the lowest labour costs (precipitating a race to the bottom)? Or is everything dependent upon the good will of governments entrusting economic policy to enlightened Keynesian technocrats? If so, then Lord help us! That's not a mechanism, but a daydream, painted on the wind.

But DeLong saves the best for last. Having muddled his way through the good and bad of Marx's economics, he now gives himself the task of explaining the "intellectual origins" of Marx's errors. I'll deal with this in the third and final volume.

Anti-DeLong: Volume 1

Brad DeLong is a successful academic economist. He is a professor of economics at UC Berkeley. Before Berkeley, he was an economic adviser to the Clinton administration, and before that he was an untenured associate professor* at Harvard. (You can see his CV here.) He is one of the more prominent liberal economists in the US (he refers to himself as a "neoliberal").

So when Brad DeLong writes a lecture entitled "Understanding Karl Marx," it does not represent just some guy's opinion. DeLong's understanding of Marx can be taken to be representative of elite academia, of liberalism, of contemporary economics as a discipline. Not perfectly so, of course, since theses domains are chock full of disagreement and contention, but representative enough that one can say with some confidence that whatever DeLong thinks about Marx is at least a respectable take on the fellow. And when DeLong says early in his lecture--"Let us go back and look at the thinker, Karl Marx, and what he actually wrote and thought"--one has every reason to expect a careful, scholarly examination of Marx, even if it is one with which one might have disagreements.

One would then be extremely disappointed.

DeLong's lecture is stunningly and doggedly wrong, and betrays a callous ignorance of both Marx's texts and the scholarship on those texts, all in the service of trying to convince the reader (or listener) that Marx was a silly, wrongheaded, and dangerous thinker who is dead, dead, dead so far as philosophy, politics, and economics are concerned.

I want to wade through this piece by piece. This will take a while. I'll try not to be too tedious or too humourless.

DeLong begins the substantive part of the lecture by telling us that "Karl Marx had a three part intellectual trajectory"--philosopher, political activist, economist. He doesn't have much of anything to say about Marx the philosopher, but what he does say is pretty egregious:
At the start of his career he believed that all we had to due to attain true human emancipation was to think correctly about freedom and necessity.
I would love for DeLong to point to a single text where Marx writes anything that can be construed this way, or to a single secondary source that attributes this belief to the young Marx.

He has more to say about Marx as political activist, but it's not any better. He claims that Marx had "three big ideas" as a political activist:
  1. that capitalism replaced masked domination with naked exploitation,
  2. that the bourgeoisie would never appease the proletariat with income-redistribution, even though it could, and
  3. that factory work would lead to proletarian class consciousness and revolution.
DeLong doesn't think much of any of this: "I see very little in Marx the political activist that is worthwhile today." I have four rejoinders:

First, it seems pretty obvious that DeLong is basing his entire portrait of Marx's political activism upon The Manifesto. Hey, it's a great text. Still, the claims made there are: a) manifesto-esque, in that they have a hortatory and polemical thrust that make it problematic to read them simply as descriptive claims about how the world is; and b) based on an as yet immature critical appraisal of political economy, and are therefore revised and qualified in many ways by what Marx writes elsewhere. Now DeLong may think he has foreclosed this second complaint by claiming that Marx is sequentially a philosopher-activist-economist. In fact, I think my complaint points up the uselessness of the sequential narrative. Marx began his critique of political economy in 1844, and both it and his political activity persisted right up to his death. they were always inseparable, and so any serious examination of the Manifesto has to take into account Marx's shifting approaches to the questions addressed there. This is not to say that a careful reading of the Manifesto would not be a valuable and defensible way to approach Marx's political activism. But DeLong does not give us that. This can be seen from the specific claims he attributes to Marx qua activist.

Hence, second, let's look at the first of those claims:
that while previous systems of hierarchy and domination maintained control by hypnotizing the poor into believing that the rich in some sense “deserved” their high seats in the temple of civilization, capitalism would replace masked exploitation by naked exploitation. Then the scales would fall from people's eyes, for without its masking ideological legitimations unequal class society could not survive. This idea seems to me to be completely wrong. Cf. Antonio Gramsci, passim, on legitimation and hegemony. See also Fox News.
Marx certainly claims in the Manifesto that:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
But to understand this "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" as the end of ideology is just silly. The nakedness of exploitation in capitalism is not equivalent to the nakedness of power. This points to an underlying confusion about just what exploitation is.

Third, there's "could" and there's "could." The redistribution DeLong suggests that the capitalist class engage in to secure its own perpetual domination is either one that allows most wage-labourers to acquire the means of production or it is not. If it is then it spells the end of capitalism, if it is not, then it just increases the cost of labour-power, increases unemployment, and undoes itself. Certainly the 20th century saw a vast array of state interventions into trade and labour markets in order to ameliorate the class struggle and forestall revolutionary movements. Whether or not such efforts will have the necessary traction in a NAFTA-ized world market remains to be seen, but Marx's point is that within a world of free trade capitalist nations stand in the same relation to one another as competitor firms, with the same incentives to raise productivity and decrease labour costs. So long as capital is more mobile than labour--which is to say, always--local jurisdictions will compete to attract capital, and this competition will be bad for workers.

I also think that DeLong's faith here betrays his belief in something like independent state action. Marx wanted to trace all state action back to the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie because he believed that the state would only protect the workers' interests when they forced it to. Nothing about the history of Keynseanism stands as an obvious counterexample.

Fourth, and finally, DeLong thinks Marx's optimism about factory work leading to organization and class-consciousness was mistaken. He writes:
Active working-class consciousness as a primary source of loyalty and political allegiance was never that strong. Nation and ethnos trump class, never more so that when the socialists of Germany told their emperor in 1914 that they were Germans first and Marxists second.
This is a classic case of mistaking hortatory rhetoric for objective analysis. That Marx talks at times as if the revolution will be the inevitable outcome of capitalist development did not prevent him from advocating and taking part in the political work that takes nothing for granted. What DeLong fails to understand is that preaching inevitable working-class unity and revolution is a political tactic for forging working-class unity and promoting revolution. It's a performative speech act. And it was an incredibly important--and effective--one within the European social democracy movement in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

And I can think of a whole slew of instances that "more so" demonstrate other allegiances trumping class--like when the head of the German Social Democrats ordered the fascist shock troops of the Freikorps to assassinate Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, or when Stalin did just about everything Stalin did.

Still, this is all side-show--why would anyone take seriously an academic economist's judgments of Marx's political activism?--to the main concern: the assessment of Marx qua economist. I'll start looking at that in the next post.

* The original version of this post erroneously claimed that DeLong had tenure at Harvard.