Thursday, June 18, 2009
"Thus, the beginning of the twentieth century marks the turning point at which the old capitalism gave way to the new, at which the domination of capital in general made way for the domination of finance capital." The works collected in this volume demonstrate Lenin's theoretical practice in action. He develops his ideas about the revolutionary party, imperialism, and the socialist state by taking aim at the various opportunistic "vulgarizations" of Marxism of his time (Karl Kautsky, spokesman of the Second International, and Eduard Bernstein, founder of the "revisionist" theory of evolutionary socialism, are targets throughout). Producing theoretical insights in order to contradict and refute his opponents, Lenin immediately reinserts these insights into the service of answering the ever-present question of "What is to be Done?" Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism links the development of finance capital to imperial conquest and international conflict. Though its claims are heavily contested these days and are not that theoretically original, the book is invaluable for exploring how the growth of a specific form of capital - finance capital - historically may have changed the trajectory of capitalism. Borrowing heavily from Hilferding (but still managing to accuse him of isolating the economic from the political), Lenin begins by describing the rise of capitalist monopolies. The concentration of capital in large firms between 1870-1900 (which was true of the U.S. as much as Russia) replaced the competitive capitalism of the earlier 19th century economy with monopoly capitalism. As a result, production became increasingly socialized, creating a new social order. Lenin emphasizes that appropriation remains private and that monopoly capital is quite distinct from socialism, whereas in the U.S. reformers (Lenin would surely call them "bourgeois ideologists") claimed the opposite, seeing in the rise of corporate capitalism a kind of non-revolutionary socialism. As large industries grew, they formed cartels, syndicates, and trusts, further concentrating capital and extending the web of monopoly to all of the nation. For Lenin, perhaps more important than the stunning bigness and manipulative power of monopolies is how the concentration of the financial activities of industry supports the concentration of banking and eventually the freeing of large amounts of finance capital. The banks became concentranted alongside industry, each eventually coming to support the growing monopolization of the other. Lenin claims a complex union forms between the banks and industry, resulting in the "merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of 'finance capital,' of a financial oligarchy." Holding companies are able to acquire controlling shares of large numbers of corporations, granting vast economic powers to a small group of capitalists. Lenin claims that as a result of the growth of monopoly capital, "An enormous 'superfluity of capital' has accumulated in the advanced countries." Rather than reinvesting that capital in domestic production, however, these "advanced countries" begin to "export" finance capital overseas. This is what Lenin calls "the highest stage of capital": the point at which monopoly capital leads to imperialism. The imperial countries replace the export of commodities (which had long existed) with the export of capital. Imperial countries begin to compete with each other for colonial resources and end up dividing the world into separate spheres of influence or going to war with each other. Finance capital is exported in order to acquire the raw materials for domestic production. But perhaps even more often finance capital is exported and invested in foreign production (Lenin's argument remains somewhat unclear in regards to the exact form of the export of finance capital). As the second form of capital export becomes greater, imperialist countries begin to produce less themselves while colonized countries begin to produce more. The imperialist countries continue to receive the profits of the colonized countries, but there is increasing international conflict as the countries richest in capital participate less and less in production (Lenin humorously points out how much money Great Britain spends on "horse racing and fox hunting" and contrasts it with the fact that "The percentage of producers among the total population is becoming smaller"). This is why Lenin calls finance capital "parasitic capitalism" and sees capital-rich countries as decaying, though they remain socially stable due to their ability to buy off the working class using imperialist profits (rather than understanding the growth of finance capital teleologically as the "highest" stage of capitalism, Giovanni Arrighi locates the financial phase as a sign of a hegemonic shift in the capitalist world system and also demonstrates that the growth of financial power has not always generated imperialist tendencies). The State and Revolution contains Lenin's argument that the proletariat must "smash" the capitalist state and replace it with a "dictatorship of the proletariat" that will slowly wither away until a stateless communist society is achieved. According to Lenin, the capitalist state is an "apparatus," a "machine" of class domination, through which one class (the bourgeoisie) violently suppresses another (the proletariat). The proletariat therefore cannot aim to either reform or steal control of the state, even if it is a parliamentary democracy. But the proletariat also cannot act like anarchists and simply destroy the state without replacing it since it will take a great deal of time and experimentation to accomplish the transition away from capitalism. Lenin claims the proletariat has to eliminate the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie and then institute its own state apparatus, the dictatorship of the proletariat, through which it can forcefully, even violently, suppress the bourgeoisie. As the habits of capitalism are replaced by the habits of socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat will slowly lose its function and dwindle away. What is to Be Done? presents Lenin's theory of the party of professional revolutionaries. Throughout the piece, he fights against the ideology of spontaneity, claiming "Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement." Lenin fights primarily against two fronts within Marxism. The first is "Economism," which produces trade union reformism that aims at incremental economic improvements for the workers. Lenin argues Economism both severs economics from politics by rejecting political organization and fails to see how the spontaneous everyday concerns of the labor movement cannot alone achieve the truly social scope of revolutionary practice. Lenin also struggles against what he calls the "modern terrorists," who resist all efforts at political organizing because of their faith in the spontaneous energy of revolution. For Lenin, both tendencies within Marxism had crippled the revolutionary movement, making what little revolutionary practice that did exist fail miserably due to its disorganized amateurishness. He sets forth his own call for a small and secret "organization of professional revolutionaries" drawn both from the labor movement and the intellectuals.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
"[F]inance capital brings into being . . . a play of monetary entities which needs neither production (as capital does) nor consumption (as money does): which supremely, like cyberspace, can live on its own internal metabolism and circulate without any reference to an older type of content. But so do the narrativized image-fragments of a stereotypical postmodern language: suggesting a new cultural realm or dimension which is independent of the former real world, not because, as in the modern (or even the romantic) period, culture withdrew from that real world into an autonomous space of art, but rather because the real world has already been suffused with it and colonized by it, so that it has no outside in terms of which it could be found lacking. Stereotypes are never lacking in that sense, and neither is the total flow of the circuits of financial speculation." The Cultural Turn collects a series of Jameson essays on postmodernism from between 1983-98. The first four essays all revolve around his Postmodernism book, consisting either of the original versions of that book's claims or of responses to criticisms of his stance on postmodernism. These essays contain what by now is a rather familiar portrait of postmodernism: pastiche, the waning of affect, the nostalgia mode, the Bonaventure Hotel, hyperspace. The Postmodernism book remains the definitive articulation of these important ideas, and I doubt that the exhausted debate about postmodernism is going to be resolved through a closer analysis of the textual genesis of Jameson's oeuvre. The real value of this collection is in its last two essays, "Culture and Finance Capital" and "The Brick and the Balloon," which reveal Jameson making a tentative attempt to rework his theory of postmodernism through a consideration of the power of contemporary finance capital. In these two essays, the influence of Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century comes to complement but eventually dominate that of Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism, which so clearly loomed over Jameson's Postmodernism. The turn to Arrighi does not force Jameson to renounce Mandel's framework, but the cyclical model of Arrighi's world systems theory does conflict with the "latent teleology" of the idea of late capitalism. Jameson focuses primarily on Arrighi's argument that financial expansion is a symptom of the waning of the power of the hegemon of the capitalist world system (Arrighi draws this point partially from Braudel's claim that the expansion of finance is "a sign of autumn"). Finance capital has long had its place within Marxist theory, from Marx's discussion of it in the third volume of Capital to Hilferding's Finance Capital and Lenin's Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, but it has tended to be subordinated to the analysis of production except in (the more and more regular) periods of economic crisis. Jameson credits Arrighi with identifying the "moment of finance" within the capitalist cycle: according to Arrighi, in each cycle the hegemon reaches a stage at which there are declining opportunities for investment in production and at which large amounts of capital become "free-floating". Fortunately for Jameson, Mandel's late capitalism overlaps (though not in any exact sense) with the economic crises and growth of speculation that has occurred since the 1970s as well as with the decline of the U.S. as hegemon of the capitalist world system. Arrighi claims his theory is both recurrent and evolutionary: the specific cycles of the capitalist world system repeat the same path each time, but the overall world system considered in a larger historical frame develops in a singular manner and is marked by ruptures. Jameson uses the second point to claim the latest financial phase is unique because new computer and communications technologies have allowed for a new form of globalized (globally flexible?) finance capital: "Globalization is rather a kind of cyberspace in which money capital has reached its ultimate dematerialization, as messages which pass instantaneously from one nodal point to another across the former globe, the former material world." But failing to compare different historical financial phases as carefully as Arrighi does, Jameson's argument about the specificity of the current period isn't as persuasive as it should be. Jameson claims that because of finance capital's abstraction, "any comprehensive new theory of finance capitalism will need to reach out into the expanded realm of cultural production to map its effects." Turning to that "cultural production," Jameson takes a detour through realism, modernism, and monetary abstraction before returning to the present, so his analysis of postmodernism and finance capital ends up being rushed through at the essay's conclusion. He argues that whereas modernist abstraction was only semi-autonomous, postmodern abstraction is fully autonomous, as self-referential as the total flow of the current system of finance, which despite Marx's warnings about fictitious capital has conceived of itself as free of the burden of production. When he returns to this point in the following essay, Jameson gives away perhaps too many of his cards, linking "finance-capital spectralities" to Baudrillard's theory of the simulacrum.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
“The labor process becomes an arena of class conflict, and the workplace becomes a contested terrain. Faced with chronic resistance to their effort to compel production, employers over the years have attempted to resolve the matter by reorganizing, indeed revolutionizing, the labor process itself. Their goal remains profits; their strategies aim at establishing structures of control at work. That is, capitalists have attempted to organize production in such a way as to minimize workers’ opportunities for resistance and even alter workers’ perceptions of the desirability of opposition. Work has been organized, then, to contain conflict. In this endeavor employers have sometimes been successful.” Contested Terrain is a Marxist history of capitalist efforts to gain greater control over labor. Part of a brief burst in the 1970s of Marxist studies of labor under corporate capitalism, Edwards' book should be read alongside David Noble's America by Design and Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital. Edwards begins with your typical Marxist account of the capitalist's relation to labor: the capitalist purchases labor power from the worker, but because labor is inseparable from the body of the worker (or as Paolo Virno would put it, the abstract potentiality of labor cannot be detached from the body), the capitalist faces the additional task of finding means to extract the maximum amount of actual labor from the worker. Because the capitalist quest for profit typically conflicts with the interests of the worker, the capitalist is forced to seek out new ways to control the worker. Edwards labels the most rudimentary form of control "simple control," which commonly takes the form of personal relations between the entrepreneur and his small group of employees. But with the rise of monopoly capital (i.e., corporate capitalism), simple control was generally no longer sufficient to control a large body of workers who were increasingly distant from the upper levels of the expanding management hierarchy (Alfred Chandler's The Visible Hand remains the universal reference for this kind of argument). Corporate management produced a number of "experiments" in control, among which Edwards lumps corporate welfare programs and scientific management. Edwards argues that all such experiments were failures because they neglected to address the real contradiction at the heart of the production process: the conflict between the interests of the capitalist and that of the worker (Edwards rushes through these points since his interest is in other forms of control, and the work of Harry Braverman, Stephen Waring, and Daniel Nelson paints a more complex picture of these attempts at control). According to Edwards, the real breakthrough occurred with the development of what he terms forms of "structural control," which he divides into technical and bureaucratic control. Technical control is best pictured as Ford's assembly line, a mechanical invention that not only carefully coordinated the steps of the production process but also forced labor to submit to the pace and demands of the technical system. In technical control, conflict between labor and management is mediated through technology to the extent that the real nature of the conflict, and even conflict in general, becomes invisible: “Instead of control appearing to flow from boss to workers, control emerges from the much more impersonal ‘technology.’” The widespread conflicts that appeared between foremen and workers when Taylorism was first introduced disappear when the only immediate opponent is an impersonal machine (there is no discussion of Luddism). Capitalist interests and decisions are as present as ever in the production process, but they have been naturalized or mystified by being embedded/embodied in the technical set-up of production. The second kind of structural control - bureaucratic control - functions in the same way, depersonalizing control by institutionalizing it in job descriptions, promotion procedures, wage scales, etc. Edwards claims, "bureaucratic control institutionalized the exercise of capitalist power, making power appear to emanate from the formal organization itself. Hierarchical relations were transformed from relations between (unequally powerful) people to relations between jobholders or relations between jobs themselves, abstracted from the specific people or the concrete work tasks involved." Of course that organizational structure was decided upon by management in order to serve management's interests. Having classified the different systems of capitalist control (Edwards' typology would surely have to be supplemented by recent and more theoretically sophisticated work on the control society), Edwards shifts his orientation and uses this classification to explain the splintering of the working class and defeat of socialist politics in the postwar era. Edwards argues that the different systems of control - simple, technical, and bureaucratic - have come to produce what he terms different "fractions" within the working class. Jobs that rely upon different systems of control tend to draw from different labor markets, demand different qualifications from applicants, and produce different occupational identities. The system of control is perhaps more important than the specific job to be accomplished for determining what kind of labor is demanded and what kind of class identity is developed by the worker (the production process can always be changed, but the demands for control may be less flexible). Edwards "suggests that it is the system of control that creates the context within which experience, training, schooling, skills, and other attributes assume their importance.” Unfortunately, the historical effect of the development of different systems of control is a divided working class that is easily set against itself.
"Gorky records Lenin's characteristic comments on listening to Beethoven's Appassionata: 'The Appassaionata, is the most beautiful thing I know; I could listen to it every day. What wonderful, almost superhuman music! I always think with pride - perhaps it is naive of me - what marvellous things human beings can do.' Then he screwed up his eyes, smiled, and added regretfully, 'But I can't listen to music too often. It works on my nerves so that I would rather talk foolishness and stroke the heads of people who live in this filthy hell and can still create such beauty. But now is not the time to stroke heads - you might get your hand bitten off. We must hit people mercilessly on the head, even when we are ideally against any violence between men. Oh! our work is hellishly difficult.'" Lukács published this brief book shortly after Lenin's death and before Stalin's consolidation of power. In the book, Lukács has nothing but praise for Lenin, arguing "Lenin must be studied by Communists in the same spirit as he studied Marx," and adding in his 1967 postscript, "the figure of Lenin as the very embodiment of permanent readiness represents an ineradicable value - a new form of exemplary attitude to reality." As his subtitle indicates, Lukács aims to study the unity of Lenin's thought, taking it as dialectically composing a totality. Lukács therefore does not divide his study into discussions of different books by Lenin (in fact, Lukács does not even name or cite Lenin's books). Whatever its dialectical justification, this holistic approach greatly limits the depth of the book's analysis and erases most of the interesting/productive contradictions of Lenin's thought. As an intervention in the immediate post-Lenin Soviet conjuncture this method is justifiable, but readers today would be better off sifting through the complexity of Lenin's original books (Lukács' book could serve as a useful introduction to undergraduates). According to Lukács, the core of Lenin's thought is a belief in "the actuality of the revolution." For Lenin, even if the surface of society did not always reflect it, the revolution was already underway. Rather than starting the revolution, the task was to intervene in the revolutionary process in which one was already caught up. Lenin's theory of the revolutionary party was based on a critique of "mechanistic" and "evolutionary" theories of the revolution. Lenin denied that "the mechanical evolution of the economic forces of capitalism or . . . the simple organic growth of mass spontaneity" would be sufficient to produce revolution. Thinking dialectically, Lenin was particularly aware of how the contradiction of any situation might be resolved in two ways, so that the economic contradictions that made socialism possible at that moment in Russia might also produce a reactionary alliance between capitalism and feudalism. It is important to remember that for Lenin, the professional revolutionary does not "make" revolution or force the inactive masses into confrontation. "Lenin's concept of party organization presupposes the fact - the actuality - of the revolution. . . . The party, as the strictly centralized organization of the proletariat's most conscious elements - and only as such - is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period." The party tries to accelerate the period's revolutionary tendencies, fight off divisions and obfuscations of proletarian class consciousness, and prepare the proletariat for the tasks that will arise in the revolutionary situation. Lukács emphasizes that Lenin's concept of the party is dialectical and fluid: the party's organization, ideas, and tactics need to constantly adapt to the changing revolutionary situation. The party is "both producer and product, both precondition and result of the revolutionary mass movement." The theory and practice of the party must continuously submit itself to the reality of ongoing social revolution: "The party called upon to lead the proletarian revolution is not born ready-made into its leading role: it, too, is not but is becoming." Lenin's ideas on capitalism and imperialism drew heavily from and lacked the rigor of Hilferding's analysis of finance capital and Rosa Luxemburg's discussion of the accumulation of capital (It should be noted that all of these theories of imperialism are now mostly dismissed or heavily qualified when referred to. For example, see Giovanni Arrighi's distinction between a logic of capital and a logic of territory in The Long Twentieth Century). Lukács still praises Lenin's theory of imperialism because Lenin, unlike Hilferding or Luxemburg, was able to concretely articulate the theory with all of the political problems of his time. Rather than describe a general imperialist tendency of capitalism, Lenin's theory explains the class forces unleashed by imperialism and functions to concretely direct political practice. Lukács denies Lenin was guilty of opportunism, framing Lenin's "realpolitik" as strategically oriented towards identifying the central problem at each moment that was key for the further development of all social tendencies (that is, the contradiction that mostly strongly structures the totality of society). If Lenin was willing to make compromises, this was not because he was like opportunists who see utopia as being so far off that cynical pragmatism is justified in the present but rather because such compromises were "a direct and logical consequence of the actuality of the revolution." The party cannot remain pure because the revolution is realized in a society composed of contradictions and revolutionary praxis functions by developing those contradictions. The "Russian communist Party's policy, Lenin's policy, is only contradictory in so far as it seeks and finds the dialectically correct solutions to the objective contradictions of its own social existence." Lukács concludes, Lenin's "whole life-work is the consistent application of the Marxist dialectic to the every-changing, perpetually new phenomena of an immense period of transition. But because the dialectic is not a finished theory to be applied mechanically to all the phenomena of life but only exists as theory in and through this application, Lenin's practice gives it a broader, more complete and theoretically more developed form than it had when he inherited it from Marx and Engels."
Sunday, June 7, 2009
"The carrying out of new combinations we call 'enterprise'; the individuals whose function it is to carry them out we call 'entrepreneurs.' These concepts are at once broader and narrower than the usual. Broader, because in the first place we call entrepreneurs not only those 'independent' businessmen in an exchange economy who are usually so designated, but all who actually fulfill the function by which we define the concept, even if they are, as is becoming the rule, 'dependent' employees of a company, like managers, members of boards of directors, and so forth. . . . On the other hand, our concept is narrower than the traditional one in that it does not include all heads of firms or managers or industrialists who merely may operate an established business, but only those who actually perform that function." The Theory of Economic Development presents in larval form most of the economic ideas for which Schumpeter is famous. Schumpeter's later and more widely read Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy (1942) analyzed the economy through a historical-sociological framework. In that book, Schumpeter argued that while the logic of capitalism is not essentially contradictory, the historical development of capitalism's institutions would inevitably lead to the dwindling of capitalist motives and a non-revolutionary transition to socialism. In contrast, history and sociology are deliberately excluded from The Theory of Economic Development, which at numerous points brings up non-economic factors - such as wars, famines, etc. - only to claim they are chance events and irrelevant to economic theory. Schumpeter presents a purified economic theory aimed more at explaining the internally-generated development of the economy than at accounting for the reaction of the economy to historical change. Lacking the provocative grand narrative of Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy and bogged down in criticizing late 19th-century "marginal utility" economists, The Theory of Economic Development is dry reading, and most non-economist readers who are interested in Schumpeter's early work would be better off reading the pieces in his collected Essays. The book begins in a strange manner: Schumpeter spends the first chapter developing a description of an economy in which the "circular flow of economic life" is in a perfect equilibrium, in which production exactly matches consumption and the costs of the former are completely compensated by the payments from the latter. Schumpeter demonstrates that such a system would require no innovation and could "mechanically" function, making both profit and entrepreneurship unnecessary. Of course Schumpeter admits that such a perfect economic equilibrium is impossible, but he uses the imaginary construct to isolate what is genuinely novel in a dynamic economy. Gradual growth would not require any changes to this equilibrium model, but in order for there to be true "economic development" - by which Schumpeter means the revolutionary change of the structure of business - the model would have to be supplemented. Though the term "creative destruction" is not used by Schumpeter at this point, the basic idea is already at work in Schumpeter's distinction between the economy in equilibrium and the economy in development. To explain the latter, Schumpeter introduces his famous concept of the entrepreneur, the figure who does not merely passively adjust but creatively introduces innovations into production. It would actually be better to speak less of individuals who are entepreneurs than of the function of entrepreneurship. Any figure - regardless of his occupational position, social status, or institutional affiliation - who introduces innovations and new combinations into business may be considered an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur also does not need to be an inventor or the source of new ideas, merely the one who gets them implemented. Economic development and the entrepreneurial function go beyond what is known and calculable: they involve chaos and risk that is not present in a stable economy. The entrepreneur's introduction of innovation into production gives the entrepreneur a temporary stream of profit. In fact, in Schumpeter's peculiar analysis of the economy, entrepreneurial innovation is the major source of all profit, since when the economy heads toward a stable state, costs and payments tend to balance to the point where surplus profit disappears (this is one point where Schumpeter differs greatly from Marx). In economic development, other businesses follow the entrepreneur and imitate the new form of production, causing entrepreneurial profit to decline as the economy asymptotically heads towards a stable state. Schumpeter concludes the book with his theory of the "business cycle." Observing the same crises and contradictions that led Marx to conclude that capitalism must eventually overcome itself, Schumpeter sees merely periodic waves of innovation. According to Schumpeter, entrepreneurial innovation occurs in "swarms," in which the introduction of innovation in one branch of production makes it easier for and motivates the introduction of innovation elsewhere. There is a widespread boom until the new forms of production become generally adopted. During the last half of this process a depression occurs as change and profits decline. Schumpeter argues that depression is a necessary part of the cycle of innovation, one that is more mild and acceptable than usually admitted. He claims that despite the immediate impact on those who become unemployed, in the long run everyone as a result of the business cycle ends up at a higher standard of living. In other words, if we want the economy to improve, we have to accept the existence of depressions. But Schumpeter does distinguish between depression and crisis. A crisis occurs when historical and institutional contingencies cause a depression to be far worse than is necessary to set up a new production norm and to prepare society for a new round of innovation. Schumpeter argues that crises can be planned against and regulated by the government, in particular through monetary policies.
Friday, June 5, 2009
"Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it. The ancients staged mock battles to parallel the tempests in nature and reduce their fear of gods who warred across the sky. He worried about the deathward logic of his plot." Delillo's fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald and history of the assassination of JFK unmasks a conspiracy only in order to expose and undermine the very logic of conspiracy theories. Delillo tactfully represents the known events of Oswald's life, using clinical prose to keep a fair amount of distance between the reader and Oswald, who remains a kind of void in the narrative. Delillo portrays the young Oswald as already attracted to socialism, largely because the mythical leaders of communism - Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky are always on Oswald's mind - seem to prefigure and frame his own antisocial character in a heroic light. "These were men who lived in isolation for long periods, lived close to death through long winters in exile or prison, feeling history in the room, waiting for the moment when it would surge through the walls, taking them with it. History was a force to these men, a presence in the room. They felt it and waited." The sense of being an agent of history that Oswald draws from socialism later makes him an easy target for others with their own plans for history. When describing Oswald's time in the army, Delillo focuses on Oswald's court martial and prison sentence in a brig, which functions for Oswald as a metaphor for all of society. Delillo then turns to Oswald's defection to the Soviet Union, disillusionment with factory life, and return to the U.S. with his Soviet wife in tow. Back in the U.S., Oswald lives an impoverished existence, beats his wife, and fails in his attempt to assassinate anti-Cuban General Edwin Walker. When the novel reaches the actual assassination of JFK, in Rashomon style it approaches the event from numerous perspectives, but clearly supports the multiple-shooter hypothesis. Delillo uses the character of Nicholas Branch, a CIA historian working in the present on a secret CIA history of the assassination, to make some rather direct (that is, blunt) comments about the futility of sorting out the historical "data." Branch's Sisyphean task takes place in a room filled with books, papers, photographs, recordings, and other evidence that is sent to him by the godlike "Curator." Looking at the twenty-six volumes of texts and exhibits that accompany the Warren Report, "Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred." He adds, "This is the Joycean book of America . . . the novel in which nothing is left out." Branch surveys the original data, the summarizing reports of that data, and even fictionalized accounts of the assassination, but is still unable to make history into an orderly narrative. Contemplating the odd deaths that accumulated among those somehow linked to JFK's death, Branch begins to see connections everywhere and worries that "someone is trying to sway him toward superstition. He wants a thing to be what it is. Can't a man die without the ensuing ritual of a search for patterns and links?" He concludes that given enough effort, patterns can always be found where they looked for. But contrasting Branch's sense of futility, Delillo elsewhere in the novel clearly lays out who conspired to murder JFK and their motives. By doing so, Delillo shows that the facts still do not provide any clear sense of the forces that shape history. Of the endless number of conspiracy theories, Delillo chooses one that attributes the assassination to a group of disgruntled CIA operatives who were unhappy with the outcome of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the loss of Cuba to communism. These operatives originally plan to carry out a failed assassination attempt on the president - what one agent calls "a spectacular miss" - that will frame Castro and the Cuban government and galvanize the U.S. into a confrontation with Cuba. Coming immediately after White Noise, it should be no surprise that Libra presents the assassination as a staged media spectacle, and the conspirators, in particular Oswald, as a set of actors (though they might be best thought of as extras). Delillo goes for the obvious when he has Oswald, shortly before the assassination, watch two films on television that deal with conspiracies and assassination. But if the assassination must be mediated, this is because the act is oriented towards its future reception: it must leave behind an archive of traces that will support the framing of Cuba as well as allow the event to become an object for historical obsession. One of the agents claims, "As a shooter, Oswald was redundant, strictly backup. His role was to provide artifacts of historical interest, a traceable weapon, all the cutting and hoardings of his Cuban career." Oswald desperately wants to picture himself as taking part in history: "He saw himself as part of something vast and sweeping. He was the product of a sweeping history." As a result, Oswald is like the CIA operatives in wanting to document and archive his actions. He keeps what he calls his "Historic Diary" and in the brief time he spends in jail between the assassination and his murder by Jack Ruby, Oswald begins to act like a historian investigating himself: "There was clearly a better time beginning, a time of deep reading in the case, of self-analysis and reconstruction." Delillo emphasizes Oswald's dyslexia, using the inability to see patterns in language to symbolize the difficulty of understanding the forces that construct history. Delillo writes, "Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not clearly see the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest." Oswald finds himself caught in a particularly complex picture, as one agent thinks, "Lee H. Oswald seems a technical diagram, part of some exercise in the secret manipulation of history." At one point, Branch thinks "a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not." But Branch immediately realizes this is not the case, and that not even the secret conspiracy escapes from the chaos and contingency of everyday life. Ultimately, history seems to function like the unconscious, whose condensations and displacements transform a chance encounter into a necessity, a necessity that can only be retroactively understood. One operative says, "Think of two parallel lines. . . . One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny." Another agent tells Oswald, "We didn't arrange your job in that building or set up the motorcade route. We don't have that kind of reach or power. There's something else that's generated this event. A pattern outside experience. Something that jerks you out of the spin of history. . . . That building's been sitting there waiting for Kennedy and Oswald to converge on it."
Thursday, June 4, 2009
"Among 'the master economists of the past,' [Adam] Smith may well be 'one of the most widely referred to and most rarely read.' But whether or not this is the case, along with Marx, he is certainly one of the most misunderstood. Three myths in particular surround his legacy: that he was a theorist and advocate of 'self-regulating' markets; that he was a theorist and advocate of capitalism as an engine of 'endless' economic expansion; and that he was a theorist and advocate of the kind of division of labor that occurred in the pin factory described in the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations. In reality, he was none of the above." In The Long Twentieth Century and Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, Arrighi used his comparative economic history to argue that there were clear signs that America's time as hegemon of the capitalist world system was coming, or had already come, to an end. In Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi explores how the rise of Chinese economic power might direct the world system away from the imperialist, unequal, and unsustainable path it has taken over the last four centuries. A reevaluation of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations forms the core of Arrighi's argument throughout the book. Arrighi attempts to detach Smith from vulgar conceptions of liberal economics and particularly from his cooptation by neo-liberal economics. In fact, Arrighi portrays Smith as being exactly the opposite of everything he is reputed to be, and as perhaps even a more relevant economist than Marx for understanding the 21st-century economy. Far from supporting the Washington Consensus' neo-liberal "shock therapy" that severely limits the state and banishes it from the market, Smith always "presupposed the existence of a strong state that would create and reproduce the conditions for the existence of the market" and that would intervene in the market to produce socially and politically desirable outcomes. Smith also believed that the wealth of a nation was not infinitely expandable. He argued that the particular social-geographical nature of each country determined a point at which the economy would fall into an "equilibrium trap" and no longer grow. Although changes in laws and institutions might allow a country to break out of that equilibrium trap, new growth would eventually be caught in an equilibrium trap at a higher level. Finally, Smith's praise for the division of labor needs to be understood as praise for the "social division of labor" (the division of tasks between parts of society) rather than the "technical division of labor" (the division of labor within a business). Anticipating the effects of Taylorism, Smith found (as Marx did) the technical division of labor to be dehumanizing and socially disruptive. Writing in the 18th century, Smith praised China for its "natural" economic development while criticizing Europe for its "unnatural and retrograde" economic path. Arrighi points out, "Smith upheld China rather than Europe as a model of the kind of market-based economic development that was most advisable for governments to pursue." Smith found China's economy to be natural because it expanded and improved its own national market largely through agricultural and domestic trade with a relatively small amount of manufacturing added in. What Smith considered Europe's "unnatural" path was what Marx would identify as capitalism. Drawing on Schumpeter's idea of "creative destruction" (which was merely an elaboration of a few claims from Marx's Grundrisse), Arrighi describes how European capitalism advanced through a process that destroyed the social framework within which occurred in order to produce a framework in which even greater levels of growth could happen. Rather than falling into an equilibrium trap, capitalist creative destruction led Europe and eventually the US. on an endless accumulation of capital and power. As Arrighi and Silver argued in Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, this process has generated a capitalist world system led by a series of hegemons that have grown in territorial size and military strength. The logical conclusion of this capitalist path is a world state, yet Arrighi argues the U.S. has failed to bring this about. The middle of the book takes up an extended critique of the work of the economist Robert Brenner, who has attempted to explain the economic crises since the 1970s as the result of a process of other nations catching up with the U.S. in productive capabilities. According to Arrighi, Brenner focuses too narrowly on profitability in manufacturing and fails to see how the crisis of profitability interacted with a crisis of hegemony (first apparent in the U.S. embarrassment over the Vietnam War) as well as with the shift of the U.S from the supply to the demand side of finance capital. Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System concluded with the fear that the U.S. might attempt to convert its failing hegemony into international dominance. In Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi finds his worries confirmed. He claims U.S. international activities since 9/11 are just such an effort to avoid the reality of U.S. economic decline through an increasingly obvious use of economic and military coercion. In particular, he portrays Bush's Project for a New American Century and the war in Iraq as being intended as the first step in an effort to reestablish America in the eyes of other countries as an indispensable political-military power. Ironically, while the war was supposed to give the U.S. a new validity that would eventually help it control the growth of China, it merely directed attention and funds away from any attempt at controlling the emergence of China as a global economic power. Turning to the ascent of the Chinese economy, Arrighi hopes that China might bring about the harmonious "world-market society" envisaged by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Contrasting China with Europe, Arrighi portrays the former in a rather ideal light, one that should prompt some skepticism. Returning to the distinction between Smith and Marx, China's "natural" economy and Europe's "unnatural" one, Arrighi emphasizes that China has historically had a market economy, not a capitalist one, despite the presence of many capitalists within it. Drawing from Braudel's portrayal of the capitalist class as being built on top of the market, Arrighi argues that in China capitalist priorities and the capitalist class have been restricted by the state and that economic competition between capitalists has reduced their ability to generate surplus profits for themselves. Unlike Europe's focus on overseas trade and the continuous revolutionizing of the conditions of production, which has led it into wars and imperial adventures, China has historically been content to focus on the growth and stability of its domestic market economy. Despite capitalist objections about how the Chinese state has interfered with China's economic development, this economic path worked well in many ways except for the fact that it did not promote the military and imperial capabilities that would have protected China from European countries that had followed the capitalist economic path. Arrighi argues the British-caused opium wars and the attempt to integrate East Asia into the European economic system severely damaged the Chinese market economy and blocked its growth over the last century and a half. But the growth of the East Asian economy and the reintroduction of the market into socialist China in recent decades along with the crisis of U.S. hegemony and economic competitiveness has enabled the reemergence of China as a global economic power. Arrighi argues that although there are exceptions, China has not simply adopted neo-liberal economic reforms. Although a new bourgeoisie has been created through the privatization of state-owned businesses (what Arrighi calls the contemporary form of "primitive accumulation," which is largely made possible by finance capital), China largely has adopted a path of gradual development that does not destroy the strong educational and cultural framework as well government protections that already exist. Rather than seeing a paradox in the combination of socialism and market economy, Arrighi argues "China's economic success was built on the extraordinary social achievements of the Mao era." In particular, China's strong educational system and socialist-based work ethic has made it the provider of not merely cheap labor but "high quality" cheap labor. Arrighi draws from Hayami Akira the idea of an "industrious revolution" (in contrast to the Industrial Revolution) that relies on disciplined and educated labor that makes possible a high level of productivity without fixed capital investments in expensive factories and machinery. Rather than teleologically seeing industrial manufacturing as a superior mode of production that needs to be exported to the rest of globe, Arrighi argues that production based upon the industrious revolution may be a better model to imitate. Industrious production is less energy- and capital-intensive and more capable of being adopted on a global scale than industrial production, which Arrighi argues is available only to a minority group that drains resources from the rest of the globe. Though the U.S. has not developed any clear response to the ascent of the Chinese economy, Arrighi hopes that China may lead the world economy down a new, "ecologically sustainable developmental path."
Monday, June 1, 2009
“The global financial expansion of the last twenty years or so is neither a new stage of world capitalism nor the harbinger of a ‘coming hegemony of global markets.’ Rather, it is the clearest sign that we are in the midst of a hegemonic crisis. As such, the expansion can be expected to be a temporary phenomenon that will end more or less catastrophically, depending on how the crisis is handled by the declining hegemon.” In this collaborative work of economic history, Arrighi and Silver trace the growth of the capitalist world system since the 17th century. The book functions as a supplement to Arrighi’s earlier The Long Twentieth Century, repeating many of its claims in a more condensed manner and saying more about social conflicts and the relations between Western and non-Western powers. Opposing theories of globalization that describe the linear expansion of a single system under a series of different leaders/nations, Arrighi and Silver set forth a model that attempts to acknowledge and explain more of the contingency and discontinuity of the history of capitalism. They argue the world system has had three “hegemons” since the 17th century: Dutch, British, and U.S. leadership. Drawing from chaos theory, they show how each hegemon led a process of the dynamic expansion of the system that eventually exceeded the “organizational capabilities of the particular hegemonic complex that had created the conditions of systemic expansion.” The result is a period of systemic crisis followed by chaos that generates not just the rise of the new hegemon but also a “fundamental reorganization” of the system itself. Whereas the rise and decline of each hegemon fits into a general “recurring” pattern, the transitions between hegemons are marked by indeterminancy, rupture, and discontinuity. In their model, a hegemonic state leads a reorganization and expansion of the system by getting other states to consider its leadership of the system as serving the general interest. Eventually, however, rivalries between states and other social conflicts lead to a hegemonic crisis and the emergence of new configurations of power. This produces systemic chaos and the centralization of systemic capabilities in a new emergent hegemony, which starts the process over by leading a new reorganization and expansion of the system. Using past hegemons as a comparison, Arrighi and Silver argue that there are clear signs that the U.S.’s time as hegemon of the world system is coming to end, but that it remains impossible to predict in what way the system will evolve and what country will become the new hegemon. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is its deep and comparative historical focus. Both the transition from the large, hierarchical corporations of Fordism to the flexible, networked firms of post-Fordism and the recent speculative bubble and financial crisis take on a dramatically different appearance in the light of the book’s arguments. According to Arrighi and Silver, the large corporation greatly contributed to the ability of the U.S. to thrive as hegemon in the two decades following WWII. Yet the conflict between large, rigid firms and small, flexible ones has appeared many times in economic history, most notably when the British joint-stock companies found the colonial order they were necessary to produce overtaken by smaller operations. The ability of multinational corporations in recent decades to undermine state power is a genuinely new and perhaps irreversible trend, but the emergence of post-Fordist forms of corporate organization is less unique when considered historically. Arrighi and Silver also argue that the economic crisis of the 1970s that led to post-Fordism also needs to be comparatively understood through past economic crises, not just the Great Depression but the Dutch speculative boom of the 18th century. They draw their theory of financial expansion from Braudel, who is a major source of information and inspiration for the book’s project (Wallerstein and Aglietta would be two other important influences). According to Braudel, “Financial expansions are ‘a sign of autumn.’” That is to say, financial expansions are less a sign of the health and strength of the hegemon and system than of impending crisis and decline. Financial expansion occurs when there is an accumulation of capital beyond what can be profitably reinvested in trade and production and when there is increased interstate competition for mobile capital. This reserve of mobile capital allows the hegemonic state to slow down its decline, but it ultimately contributes to systemic chaos and allows for the reallocation of capital to emergent centers in the world system. Arrighi and Silver argue that “in each and every financial expansion, world capitalism has been reorganized ever more fundamentally under a new leadership.” In the light of this argument, the recent financial crisis would be less a crisis of capitalism itself than of the U.S.’s leadership of the capitalist world system. Arrighi and Silver argue that the rising hegemons have typically been hit first and hardest by crises of financial speculation. They point out that the fall of the East Asian market in the 1990s therefore should not be seen as the reinstallment of the U.S. as the global leader. They identify East Asia as the main center of future economic expansion, but have difficulties foreseeing how a new hegemon might arise there. Because there has been a split in military and financial capabilities (take for example Japan, whose economic success has occurred at the same time as demilitarization), “The declining hegemon [i.e., the U.S.] is thus left in the anomalous situation that it faces no credible military challenge, but it does not have the financial means needed to solve system-level problems that require system-level solutions.” Arrighi and Silver conclude by claiming that the U.S. still has the strength “to convert its declining hegemony into an exploitative domination,” but hope that its transition from power will be more accommodating of the rise of East Asian economic power and therefore avoid catastrophe