Monday, August 24, 2009
"Yes, in Benjamin we have both a highly coherent historical-materialist conception of the world and a theological pull toward the transcendent, which are at times very difficult, even impossible, to separate from each other. And there is no doubt in my mind that the tension between these two different tendencies often proved to be extremely productive for Benjamin. . . . But let's be frank here: where is the revolution in all that? This is the question I want to ask Benjamin ultimately! And it's also the question I want to ask Giorgio! It's the question I want to ask all these brilliant people who understand so clearly the epoch in which they live and who can describe so effectively the current modes of existence, without, however, having an intuition of how to break with them." The interviews at the core of this volume invaluably clarify Negri's intellectual lineage as well as the difference between his stance and that of many of his French and Italian interlocutors, friends, and foes. In the interview about his intellectual development, Negri, perhaps falsely, claims, "I don't think my Bildung was very original." Negri's first thesis was on the young Hegel (which was aided by the opportunity to study in Paris with Jean Hyppolite in 1954). From Hegel, Negri worked his way through Sartre, the pragmatists such James, Dewey, and Peirce, and then turned to Wittgenstein. He claims his serious study of Marx was quite belated: "I became communist before becoming Marxist." He started reading Marx in 1962, and around the time he started working on the journal Quaderni Rossi he began to make contact with the world of the factory and the working class, studying them systematically alongside his reading of Marx. He admits that at that time his Italian intellectual friends used to say: "Whoever does not conduct investigations in the factory has no right to speak." In a later interview he reaffirms but revises this linkage of philosophy and labor: "I always try to bring concepts to bear on labor - which is why I still call myself a Marxist." Negri stopped writing from 1962 to 1969, though he continued to immerse himself in the conditions of factory workers and developed his contacts with members of the French Regulation School, including Michel Aglietta. Negri insists his studies fortuitously prepared him for the events of 1968, during which he met a generation of younger intellectuals who seemed to have "naturally" reached the same point as him: "1968 coincided with the first conclusion of a research that had silently developed for ten years." His book on Descartes was followed by work on Keynes and the New Deal as well as "years of political struggle." He fled from an arrest warrant to Paris in 1977 and reconnected with the Regulation School. Althusser invited him to give a series of lectures on Marx's Grundrisse, which eventually became Marx Beyond Marx, a work Negri considers a theoretical summary of all his activities during the 1970s. In the interviews on Empire and Multitude, Negri summarizes his argument about the two modernities (the [bad] Hobbes-Rousseau-Hegel line and the [good] Machiavelli-Spinoza-Marx line) and the constitution of the common as well as relates his position to his intellectual peers'. In response to Casarino's claim that works such as Derrida's Politics of Friendship and Nancy's The Inoperative Community resemble Empire by engaging with concepts of the common and community, Negri asserts that "In none of them subjectivity - and especially militant subjectivity - is central." He admits some sympathy for the stance of Nancy and Blanchot, but strongly attacks Derrida for failing "to move beyond the literary domain" and for relying on Levinas, "who [according to Negri] is lethal for any type of thought that would be truly open." Casarino (rightly) complains about the style of Multitude, claiming that although it is justifiable to create a work that might be sold on supermarket shelves, a work that is so heavily concerned with the expropriation of language - the constitutive core of the common - needs to more strongly avoid reified language. Negri is (surprisingly) rather critical of Paolo Virno for "dehistoricizing and naturalizing the process" of the constitution of the multitude. Negri claims Virno - through a kind of Chomskyian slippage - defines the constitutive relations that bind singularities in terms of "preexistent natural faculties, which follow specific laws." Negri knew both Deleuze and Guattari, and calls his relationship with them less a filiation than an "encounter." He admits, "There is no doubt that Deleuze is my most privileged interlocutor among all contemporary thinkers." Negri resists Casarino's attempt to compare Deleuze & Guattari's concept of multiplicity to his own multitude, finding in the former a mathematical abstraction instead of a "concretely defined mass." "There is a huge difference between, on one hand, considering an infinitely subdivisible set that is reassembled each and every time a division occurs over and over again, and, on the other hand, considering an infinitely subdivisible mass that produces and that is bound up with the emergence of infinite singularities, each of which is itself productive." He adds, "Each singularity expresses - and such expression cannot be captured by any formalism whatsoever." Negri argues that Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault "refuse to identify a constituent power." Though Deleuze - in particular his Difference and Repetition - was immensely important for Negri's thought, "In Deleuze . . . there is always a sense of astonished stupor in the face of singularity, there is always an inability to translate the ontological Event in to a prefiguration or schematism of reason, into a constitution, or even into a merely virtual constitution that would nonetheless contain a constructive element." Finally, it is Agamben who receives the most substantial critique, both in the interviews and Negri's essay "The Political Monster." Negri calls Agamben one of his "most intimate friends. . . . we are basically family," but points out that Agamben "was never involved in political struggles . . . they constitute a great lack in his life." Negri denounces Agamben's concept of "naked life" as an ideological construct, "a mystification that must be antagonized." He gives examples of resistance - the Vietnamese at war, the workers and students of the 1970s - and claims "they could not be naked because they were carrying too much history upon themselves." According to Negri, "ideology [i.e., Agamben!] makes nakedness an absolute and assimilates it to the horror of a Nazi concentration camp!" He objects: "No, life and death in the camps represent nothing other than life and death in the camps. An episode of civil war in the twentieth century." "To use nakedness to signify life means to homologize the nature of the subject and the Power that made it naked. . . . But life is more powerful than nakedness." "'Naked life' is what remains after the terrorism of dying capital has been practiced upon the life and labor of the multitude. It's a scream of impotence, which resounds within a mass of defeated individualities, to make this defeat eternal." He concludes: "Naked life is the opposite of any Spinozian power and joy of the body."
Sunday, August 23, 2009
"1848 was a failure - a failure in France, a failure in the rest of Europe. So too was 1968. In both cases the bubble of popular enthusiasm and radical innovation was burst within a relatively short period. In both cases, however, the political ground-rules of the world-system were profoundly and irrevocably changed as a result of the revolution. It was 1848 which institutionalized the old left (using this term broadly). And it was 1968 that institutionalized the new social movements. Looking forward, 1848 was in this sense the great rehearsal for the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution, for the Baku Congress and Bandoeng. 1968 was the rehearsal for what?" In Antisystemic Movements, the thinkers behind the concept of a capitalist world-system take a break from constructing their historical account of a seemingly all-powerful "system" in order to consider the changing conditions, forms, and strategies of antisystemic groups. In particular, they ask whether traditional categories, such as proletariat/bourgeoisie or class/status-group, are still relevant for understanding "the processes by which groups (and institutions) are constantly recreated, remoulded, and eliminated in the ongoing operations of the capitalist world-economy, which is an actual social system that came into historical existence primarily in Europe in the 'long' sixteenth century, and which subsequently has been expanded in space so that it now includes all other geographical areas of the globe." The authors argue that social groups, from classes to ethnic/national groups, emerge "in specific state structures operating within the interstate system." The operational mechanisms of such groups therefore change with the internal conditions of the state as well as with the evolution of the interstate world system: if we continue to use the same categories (which the authors do), we need to guard against giving them anachronistic contents. Perhaps the most notable change in the world system is the growing potential for conflict between the territorial logic of national political power and the transterritorial logic of multinational corporations/capital. This conflict calls for a complete reevaluation of categories such as class and ethnicity, which the authors claim were developed in a specific national-historical context. They argue that the revolutions of 1848 failed on an immediate level, but eventually "led to the formation for the first time of bureaucratically organized antisystemic movements with relatively clear middle-term objectives," objectives that were understood to be obtainable only through the acquisition of state power or "control of the state apparatus." The Russian revolution of 1917 became the realization and symbol of the "state-power strategy," but in retrospect it is also exemplary of how the antisystemic movements that gained state power across the globe "performed less well than had been expected," leading to widespread disillusionment. Less dramatically, in the social-democratic states it also became increasingly evident that the organization of the old left "was no longer antisystemic, or at least no longer sufficiently antisystemic." This "endogenous" weakening of the old left movements was compounded by the "exogenous" slowing down of the growth of antisystemic movements by the U.S. hegemony of the post-1945 world system. The new left of the 1960s responded to both problems: "We cannot understand 1968 unless we see it as simultaneously a cri de coeur against the evils of the world-system and a fundamental questioning of the strategy of the old left opposition to the world-system." The new social movements that came out of the 1960s were particularly oriented toward improving the conditions of different status-groups - women, gays/lesbians, ethnicities/races - but this altering of the balance of power "has been accompanied by an equally remarkable failure to improve the material welfare of these subordinate groups." This is partially because such groups focused on short-term rather than middle-range objectives (as Walter Benn Michaels would put it, they sought a system that was proportionately unjust rather than one that would be absolutely just). The authors include the crisis of U.S. hegemony, new configurations of the centralization of finance capital and deconcentration of investment, and the continued efforts of class and status-groups as powerful threats to the current world system. The book is a bit dated, especially since the essays it collects were published before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a serious reconfiguration of the world system. The crisis that the authors foresee also may have been largely circumvented or delayed by the creation of what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the third "spirit of capitalism," which has incorporated potentially disruptive status-groups and the critique generated by May '68. Finally, for better or worse, the conceptual apparatus of the world system heavily influenced Hardt & Negri's Empire, which continues to dominate the terms of contemporary debates about antisystemic movements.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
"Those who wish today to philosophize in Marx not only come after him, but come after Marxism: they cannot be content merely to register the caesura Marx created, but must also think on the ambivalence of the effects that caesura produced - both in its proponents and its opponents." Balibar's introduction to Marx as a philosopher contains few revelations, but it manages to outline Marx's major concepts so precisely and freshly that it serves as a worthy companion to Balibar and Althusser's Reading Capital and Althusser's For Marx. Balibar ignores what he considers Marxist "doctrine" and argues that "there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be," but "Marx is more important for philosophy than ever before." According to Balibar, Marx always oscillated "between 'falling short of' and 'going beyond' philosophy." Falling short because he would state "propositions as 'conclusions without premises'" (the finished philosophical system was missing). Going beyond because he refused to consider philosophy as an autonomous activity, instead positioning it in a field of conflicts. But in either case, Marx was an irreversible event in the history of philosophy: he displaced the "site and the questions and objectives of philosophy," forever leaving his mark on it. Balibar still agrees with Althusser's assertion that a rupture occurred in Marx's thought around 1845, but he adds two more ruptures that he claims forced Marx to reformulate his philosophy. The first was the failure of the revolutions of 1848, which doused Marx's hope for an inevitable and imminent revolution. As a result, Marx replaced his focus on ideology with a "research programme bearing on the economic determination of political conjunctures and the long-term trends of social evolution," which would culminate with Capital. The second rupture that Balibar adds is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the creation and destruction of the Paris Commune. These events revealed the "bad side of history" and "decapitated the revolutionary proletariat of France and struck terror into those of other countries," causing Marx to interrupt the writing of Capital in order to study and rectify his theory of social evolution. Balibar's first chapter reads the works Marx produced right around the break that Althusser defined, such as Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology, and its argument does not stray far from Althusser's analysis of the attack on theoretical humanism and the opposition of materialism and idealism. Balibar spends a great deal of time on the Theses on Feuerbach, which he claims reject contemplation and "demand a definitive exit from philosophy." Balibar expands on Marx briefly, claiming that the latter displaces the question of human essence by putting forth a social ontology of the transindividual (a concept that Balibar borrows from Simondon). If the Theses on Feuerbach privileged practice, The Germany Ideology, which was composed around the same time, furthered the attack on idealist philosophy by investigating the "production of consciousness" and therefore opened up the concept of ideology. Balibar's second chapter therefore traces the transformation of the concept of ideology into the idea of the commodity fetish in Marx's later writings. One of the foundations of ideology is the division of manual and mental labor, which Balibar nicely relabels "intellectual difference." In Marx's early work, the proletariat was conceived of as a "non-class" that was fundamentally propertyless and "external to the world of ideology." The events of 1848-50 proved this vision to be unrealistic by showing "the power nationalism and historical . . . myths and even religious forms exerted over the proletariat." Marx therefore suppressed the concept of ideology and began the extended research and critique of political economy that would also produce the idea of the commodity fetish. Balibar emphasizes that the commodity fetish is not simply an illusion that could be swept aside by itself: it "constitutes a mediation or necessary function without which, in given historical conditions, the life of society would be quite simply impossible. To suppress the appearance would be to abolish social relations." With the commodity fetish, the subject is not prior to the commodity, but rather an "effect or result of the social process." In Capital, there is in fact only a "non-subject . . . namely 'society.'" Balibar concludes the chapter by claiming that "The theory of ideology is fundamentally a theory of the State (by which we mean the mode of domination inherent in the State), whereas that of fetishism is fundamentally a theory of the market (the mode of subjection or constitution of the 'world' of subjects and objects inherent in the organization of society as market and its domination my market forces)." The theory of ideology tackles questions of Hegelian origin, and its proponents would include Gramsci, Althusser, and Bourdieu. The analysis of fetishism promotes instead the study of how the logic of the commodity affects everyday life, and its proponents would include the Frankfurt School, Lefebvre, and Debord. Balibar's third chapter returns to Marxism's flirtation with the dubious concept of progress, and is perhaps the least interesting part of the book. The most useful sections are those in which Balibar reads some of Marx's later works, paying particular attention to Marx's response to questions about the revolutionary development of Russia.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
“[M]onopoly capitalism is a self-contradictory system. It tends to generate ever more surplus, yet it fails to provide the consumption and investment outlets required for the absorption of a rising surplus and hence for the smooth working of the system. Since surplus which cannot be absorbed will not be produced, it follows that the normal state of the monopoly capitalist economy is stagnation. . . . And this means chronic underutilization of available human and material resources." In this older work of Marxist economics, Baran & Sweezy argue that the competitive capitalism of the 19th century has been replaced by monopoly capitalism. Giant hierarchical corporations now dominate the economy, and "smaller business should properly be treated as a part of the environment within which Big Business operates rather than as an actor on the stage." Baran & Sweezy claim both Marxist and non-Marxist economists have failed to place monopoly capital at the center of their analyses. Despite the importance of monopoly capital in Hilferding and Lenin's theories of imperialism, the unique contradictions of monopoly capital have not been widely recognized. Arguing against the numerous writers from the first half of the century who claimed that the corporation's separation of ownership and control and the rise of a professional managerial class threatened the foundations of the profit motive, Baran & Sweezy attempt to demonstrate that the modern corporation, while not reducible to the model of the individual entrepreneur, "is an engine for maximizing profits and accumulating capital to at least as great an extent as the individual enterprise of an earlier period.” The key difference is that “the corporation has a longer time horizon than the individual capitalist, and it is a more rational calculator.” They claim that monopoly capital tends to produce growing amounts of surplus, which overlaps with but should not be mistaken for Marx's concept of "surplus value." “The economic surplus, in the briefest possible definition, is the difference between what a society produces and the costs of producing it. The size of the surplus is an index of productivity and wealth, of how much freedom a society has to accomplish whatever goals it may set for itself. The composition of the surplus shows how it uses that freedom.” Through monopolistic price regulation and increased productive capabilities, monopoly capital tends to generate a surplus that then must be absorbed by some outlet. This contrasts with the Marxian law of the falling tendency of the rate of profit, which Baran & Sweezy claim applies only to competitive capitalism. Clearly influenced by Keynesian economics, Baran & Sweezy claim that if the surplus that is generated does not find investment outlets, it will tend not to be produced in the first place, and the economy will stagnate. They survey possible outlets for the surplus - investments in the needs of the growing population, the development of new products and R&D, and foreign investment - and assert that there is not an adequate outlet for the surplus. They conclude that monopoly capital's tendency toward stagnation has been avoided in America largely through "epoch-making innovations" such as the railroad and automobile, which each restructured the economy and brought into existence numerous supplementary businesses, and war and its aftermath, the latter including Cold War military funding. Important in its time, Monopoly Capital suffers from appearing before Alfred Chandler's (definitely non-Marxist) The Visible Hand, whose detailed analysis of the emergence of American corporate management remains the uncontested reference for any serious account of corporate capitalism. Baran & Sweezy also fail to recognize the potential and power of finance capital: they make some brief references to the postwar growth of consumer credit and financial investment, but overall omit any substantial discussion of how capital is transformed into finance capital when there is a lack of profitable investment opportunities in production (see the work of Giovanni Arrighi for more on this). Numerous Marxist critics, including David Harvey and Ernest Mandel, have also attacked Baran & Sweezy for misunderstanding Marx's theory of surplus value. Mandel and Harvey both argue that Baran & Sweezy's confusion over the concept of value renders their Marxist economics incoherent.
Friday, August 14, 2009
“Was it possible, that at every gathering – concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever – those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?” Pynchon’s new novel is a psychedelic noir, an acid trip version of The Big Sleep whose narrative drives the highways of Los Angeles in a state of stoned paranoia. Around 1970 in Gordita Beach (an imaginary beach community clearly modeled on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon once lived), Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead/hippie private investigator, gets dragged into a kidnapping and murder mystery by his ex-girlfriend. Doc is asked to investigate the disappearance of a real estate mogul who, after taking some acid, decided to make amends for charging rent in the past by creating a free housing community. While searching for his man, Doc encounters Aryan biker gangs that work as bodyguards, black nationalists fleeing from FBI Counterintelpro forces, surf rock bands holed up in Topanga Canyon with groupies, cops with “post-Mansonical nerves” on the lookout for new murderous cults, and an endless series of drugged-out friends and family. After the ambitious historical scope and scale of his last two novels, Pynchon is clearly lowering his aim with Inherent Vice, which returns to the Southern California territory of Vineland, though with far more success. Approached with appropriately reduced expectations, the excessively convoluted plot of Inherent Vice offers a humorous and entertaining portrait of a counter culture being actively repressed. But not even Pynchon can do much to make the drug subculture into a fecund literary subject, and the book’s relentless pothead humor and drug-induced paranoia will immediately bring to mind The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and even The Big Lebowski. More troubling is how the clarity of historical hindsight leads Pynchon to make a bit too explicit and pat his account of the eclipse of the “Psychedelic Sixties.” The cryptic brilliance of The Crying of Lot 49, from the private mail system WASTE to the famous description of Southern California’s sprawl as a “printed circuit” whose meaning is opaque, no doubt was assisted by Pynchon’s proximity to the historical movements being described. In Inherent Vice, however, the 1960s are the clearly delimited and defined “Sixties,” whose corruption by “The System” is a foregone conclusion. At one point, Doc dreams “about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness. . .” Doc predicts the end of the great private investigators, since the outsider anti-heroes of noir, such as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, have been replaced by popular cop television shows that portray the police positively and make the public “so cop-happy they’re beggin to be run in.” Doc reflects on his casual sex partner: “He wished he could believe her more, but the business was unforgiving, and life in psychedelic-sixties L.A. offered more cautionary arguments than you could wave a joint at against too much trust and the seventies were looking no more promising.” Even the cops make such claims, as Doc’s antagonist, the policeman “Bigfoot” Bjornsen says, “Odd, yes, here in the capital of eternal youth, endless summer and all, that fear should be running the town again as in days of old, like the Hollywood blacklist you don’t remember and the Watts rioting you do – it spreads, like blood in a swimming pool, till it occupies all the volume of the day.”
Sunday, August 9, 2009
“As science-minded corporate leaders strove to comprehend and meet the demands of industrial expansion and stability, as technical educators attempted to formulate the training requirements of the new industries within an academic setting, and as professional engineers tried at once to organize themselves and define their proper social function in the dual world of science and industry, corporate social production steadily became a conscious process and gained both direction and momentum. Attuned to the history that had produced them and their world, the corporate reformers of science-based industry now undertook to anticipate, and commit themselves to making, the history that would perpetuate both.” Noble's Marxist history of the rise of science-based industry argues that the “history of modern technology in America is of a piece with that of the rise of corporate capitalism.” The growth in the size and number of large, hierarchical corporations in the last three decades of the 19th century was assisted by the haphazard development of new technologies and engineering knowledge. In the decades following the Civil War, science-based industries appeared (most notably the chemical and electrical industries), patent laws secured the rights of inventors of technologies, and engineering became increasingly important for the capitalist mode of production. But for the most part, prior to 1900 there was no systematic relation between the development of capitalism and that of science. This situation dramatically changed around the turn of the century when American corporate capitalism - led by what Noble terms the "corporate reformers" - consciously attempted to design a new social order "dominated by the private corporation and grounded upon the regulated progress of scientific technology." New economies of scale, increased competition, and the accumulation of surplus capital that could be invested in research all contributed to corporate capitalism's growing investment in science and technology. Laws, educational institutions, research organizations, and professional identities were all deliberately molded to fuse "the imperatives of corporate capitalism and scientific technology" into a single system guided by so-called "modern management." Patent laws and the patent office were reformed and "formalized" at the same time as corporations began developing patent-pooling agreements and oriented research toward monopolizing the development of existing patents and pre-emptively appropriating the territory of anticipated ones. The consequences completely contradicted the individualist ideology of the first patent laws: “In 1885 twelve percent of patents were issued to corporations;” by 1950 three fourths were issued to corporations. The engineering profession grew immensely, and engineering education at universities was drastically expanded and restructured to produce graduates who were not only technically competent but also adjusted to the demands of capitalist profitability and corporate management. Throughout the book, Noble emphasizes that the engineers were largely hostile to the working class and sympathized with management, mostly because professional success as an engineer often meant becoming a manager: “Roughly two-thirds of all engineering graduates were becoming managers in industry within fifteen years after graduation, and they increasingly put pressure on the engineering schools to provide training for all aspects of an engineering career rather than the merely technical.” The standardization movement also took off as the corporate reformers attempted to rationalize and systematize all of society so that it could be administered to meet the needs of corporate capitalism. Scientific standards were extended to the standardization of production, and eventually to the standardization of labor through scientific management. Research and development truly began in the first three decades of the twentieth century, with corporations creating their first research departments, universities such as MIT collaborating closely with industry in their research projects, and the establishment of national organizations and programs to coordinate research activities. Yet labor - the "man problem" - remained a threat to the new system of corporate capitalism. Noble argues that modern management was in fact an engineering movement: “Modern management was . . . not simply the creation of engineers; it was the product of engineers functioning as managers.” In fact, modern management was first debated and promoted within engineering journals, and it was not until the 1920s that these debates about management were transferred to what would today be called business journals. Modern management "reflected a shift of focus on the part of engineers from the engineering of things to the engineering of people.” F. W. Taylor, who began his career as an engineer and promoted his ideas about scientific management in engineering journals, remains the most infamous figure of this modern management movement. But scientific management was almost immediately resisted by both workers (for obvious reasons) and managers (who did not want to submit to its system). Scientific management in most cases was only partially implemented, and reformist versions that included "industrial relations" and "personnel management" quickly supplanted Taylor's original version. As engineering broadened its scope to include the engineering of people, it integrated psychology and sociology and produced the field of "human relations" that dominated much managerial thought over the middle of the century.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
“No but see that’s the whole thing Bast see it’s not money anyway it’s just exchanging this here stock around in like this merging it with this here X-L subsiderary which it’s worth like twenty times as much as, you know? See we just give these here Ray-X stockholders one share of X-L preferred for their share of Ray-X only this here X-Ls common stock capitalization is real low see so we have this here tremendous leverage see and . . . no well I don’t exactly either but that’s what this Mister Wiles said see he . . . No but . . . no I know but . . . No but see I was just to ask if you heard anything from the U S Bureau of Mines see because . . . No I was going to ask you about how’s old Mister Wonder see because . . . No but see I was just going to tell about this here Indian preservation because like did this here Charley Yellow . . . No I know but wait hey look did . . . No but see that funeral homes things is just I had this neat idea see you now that big right of way up at Eagle by that there cem . . . No but wait hey wait, I mean how am I supposed to tell you about all this stuff when you don’t hardly even come out here I mean what am I suppose to . . . No I know I said that but . . . no I know but see we’re just building up these here assets for like getting incorporated with these directors and all for this here stock issue see so we can like exchange it around for these here other assets and get all this here borrowing power to . . . No wait wait I know I said that but . . . No but holy shit Bast I didn’t invent it I mean this is what you do!” Composed of 700 pages of fragmented dialogue about corporate finance, Gaddis’ J R is not exactly an endearing work of literature. But I can think of no other novel that so successfully engages with the entropic reality of contemporary corporate capitalism and that so admirably and fully resists retreating from this reality into the enclave of art. J R may not be the kind of novel people want to read (Pynchon’s picturesque style or Delillo’s intellectual diatribes will always be more popular), but it is the kind of novel everyone should be reading (and writing). The first word of the novel is money, paper money is referred to almost immediately after, and every single page of the novel deals in one way or another with money, credit, stocks, and bonds. Hidden underneath the novel’s relentless description of business deals is a plot involving an eleven year old boy named J R who creates a corporate empire. Early in the book, J R’s elementary school class takes a field trip to Wall Street in order to learn about “corporate democracy” or “people’s capitalism.” The children are invited to no longer play a passive part in the economy by investing their meager savings in “a share in America.” J R takes the lesson to heart and begins ordering brochures and books with titles such as “Frozen Fresh Boneless Beef Futures,” “Understanding Financial Statements,” and “Executive’s Complete Portfolio of Letters.” He educates himself about corporate law and financial speculation and is frustrated by his teacher’s refusal to explain how trading in futures works. He borrows on the stock his class purchased in order to acquire surplus wooden forks from the Navy so that he can sell them to the Army. From there, he borrows and trades in order to acquire control over a growing group of corporations, creating a “Paper Empire” that becomes the J R Family of Corporations. With the assistance of his former music teacher Bast, J R runs his corporate empire from an apartment on 96th street in Manhattan and through telephone calls from his school, the latter technology hiding his age. Not that his age would even matter, as he says, “They don’t give a shit whose it is they’re just selling it back and forth from some voice that told them on the phone why should they give a shit if you’re a hundred and fifty all they . . . .“ J R is a master of finagling corporate laws, doing whatever is legally allowed. He buys, trades, and reorganizes corporations in order to minimize tax liabilities and to maximize his capability to borrow on their assets so that he can buy even more stocks. J R buys a matchbook company, plans on opening booths within nursing homes that will sell pre-packaged funeral services, wants to insert advertisements into novels and even textbooks, and hopes to restructure private schools so that students are paid instead of receiving grades (an F, however, would require students to pay the school). J R gets caught up in the expansionary movement of capital and is unable to imagine any stopping point or final destination: “-No but that’s what you do! I mean where they said if you’re playing anyway so you might as well play to win but I mean even when you win you have to keep playing!” The finances of the J R Family of Corporation are completely entropic, and possibly illegal, and Bast futilely advises J R to stop. At one point Bast plays J R one of Bach’s cantatas in order to demonstrate that there are “intangible assets,” but J R doesn’t understand his intentions. Bast himself is overwhelmed by his work for J R, and whenever people want to speak with him about music they find out that he instead will only discuss business. Near the novel’s end, a lawsuit threatens both Bast and J R, but in different ways. Bast is accused of insider trading (in reality he merely took out a clumsy loan on his stocks), but he objects to J R, “-Inside? That’s, how could I be inside there isn’t any inside! How could anybody believe the, the only inside’s the one inside your head like these statements you make, these tapes you play over the phone to these newspapers virgin minerals gas discoveries the health plan of tomorrow travel of the future.” This summarizes how corporate capitalism is represented within the novel: there is no longer any clear inside or boundary to the corporation, as there was at the height of Fordism with its large, hierarchical corporations, controlled monetary policies, and restrained stock markets. Instead there is the endless horizontal networking of firms and the constant incorporation of new realms of society into financial speculation. As a result, everything is now “inside” capitalism, but not really inside anything. Unlike Bast, J R hides behind corporate liability laws when threatened with a lawsuit, claiming “you can’t go put a corporation in jail, I mean it would be like sticking this bunch of papers in jail.” Near the novel’s end, there are hints that an economic crisis will cause everything to collapse and leave “a near fatal wound upon the nation’s body politic.” Even if Gaddis began composing the novel much earlier, J R resonates with the financial crisis of the 1970s and therefore with the crisis of today. Gaddis’ novel narrates what Marx saw as finance capital’s tendency to collapse the circuit of money-capital-money (M-C-M’) to money-money (M-M’). J R cares little for the actual businesses he invests in, typically using them to gain access to more credit in order to buy more stocks, more fictitious capital, which ultimately does not refer to anything for him. As the broker lectures the students who visit the market, “money is credit . . . [someone] Tells you your money should work for you you tell her the trick’s to get other people’s money to work for you, get that?”
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
“People who are liberals look upon the principles of Marxism as abstract dogma. They approve of Marxism, but are not prepared to practice it or to practice it in full; they are not prepared to replace their liberalism by Marxism. These people have their Marxism, but they have their liberalism as well – they talk Marxism but practice liberalism; they apply Marxism to others but liberalism to themselves. They keep both kinds of goods in stock and find a use for each.” In “On Practice,” Mao argues that knowledge is dependent on practice, and that the practices of production are the primary source of human knowledge. “The dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge places practice in the primary position, holding that human knowledge can in no way be separated from practice and repudiating all the erroneous theories which deny the importance of practice or separate knowledge from practice.” In other words: “If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality.” More concretely, he adds in the later “Talk on Questions of Philosophy” that “It is a waste of time to discuss epistemology apart from practice. The comrades who study philosophy should go down to the countryside.” Despite its dynamic description, Mao’s dialectic of perceptual and rational knowledge, empiricism and rationalism, doesn’t really get past the problems of Lenin’s theory of knowledge in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The difficulties are particular evident in the short piece, “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?”, which simply and without analysis asserts that “matter can be transformed into consciousness and consciousness into matter.” In “On Contradiction,” Mao claims that “The law of contradiction in things, that is, the law of the unity of opposites, is the basic law of materialist dialectics.” Mao argues that there “is internal contradiction in every single thing,” and that this internal contradiction generates motion and development. Mao does not ignore the obvious cases of external contradiction, but claims “It is through internal causes that external causes become operative.” There is a universality of contradiction: “contradiction exists universally and in all processes, whether in the simple or in the complex forms of motion, whether in objective or ideological phenomena.” Mao, drawing from Lenin, prescribes “the concrete analysis of concrete conditions” because we must understand how each aspect of a contradiction struggles with its opposite and how a particular contradiction is interconnected with the contradictions of the complex social totality. In the development of every complex thing, there is one “principal contradiction whose existence and development determines or influences the existence and development of the other contradictions.” In a capitalist society this principal contradiction is of course that between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Mao emphasizes that there will always be one principal contradiction and that it is essential to grasp it, but adds that the principal contradiction in a process can change. Political strategy must therefore continuously analyze the concrete situation in order to grasp what is the principal contradiction at each moment. In his introduction to this collection of Mao’s writings, Zizek wisely argues that one should not attempt to identify any Fall in Marxism: one has to take all of Marxism “as ‘one’s own’, taking full responsibility for it, not to comfortably get rid of the ‘bad’ turn of things by way of attributing it to a foreign intruder (the ‘bad’ Engels who was too stupid to understand Marx’s dialectics, the ‘bad’ Lenin who didn’t get the core of Marx’s theory,’ the ‘bad’ Stalin who spoils the noble plans of the ‘good’ Lenin, etc.).” That Mao may have caused 38 million to starve to death in 1958-61 in order to buy arms cannot be expunged from the history of Marxism. Zizek argues Mao was right to deny any “dialectical synthesis” that reconciled opposites, but also claims that Mao was wrong to oppose that synthesis with “a general cosmology-ontology of the ‘eternal struggle of opposites.’” For Zizek, Mao’s failure to recognize the ”negation of negation” produces a “non-dialectical “ “bad infinity” in the form of endless struggle. Zizek argues Mao failed “to transpose revolutionary negativity into a truly new positive Order: all temporary stabilizations of the revolution amounted to so many restorations of the old Order, so that the only way to keep the revolution alive was the ‘spurious infinity’ of endlessly repeated negation which reached its apex in the Great Cultural Revolution.” Zizek even goes so far as to claim there is “a profound structural homology between Maoist permanent self-revolutionalizing, the permanent struggle against the ossification of state structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism.” Zizek’s criticism of Mao should be juxtaposed with Althusser’s analysis of Mao in For Marx. Isn’t it the case that Mao’s supposedly “non-dialectical” theory is precisely what made him attractive to Althusser, who was fighting his own battle within Marxism against the Hegelian dialectic? Althusser’s theory of overdetermination and contradiction and the entire tradition of (non vulgar) Marxist-Leninist materialism should be set against Zizek’s reductive reading of Mao.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
“For the process of technological development is essentially social, and thus there is always a large measure of indeterminacy, of freedom, within it. Beyond the very real constraints of energy and matter exists a realm in which human thoughts and actions remain decisive. Therefore, technology does not necessitate. It merely consists of an evolving range of possibilities from which people choose. A social history of technology that explores beneath the appearance of necessity to illuminate these possibilities which technology embodies, reveals as well the contours of the society that realizes or denies them.” Forces of Production is a Marxist analysis of the development of industrial automation. Noble focuses primarily on the machine tool industry, which, despite being relatively small, is essential for the metalworking that is at the core of modern industrial production. The machine tool industry was partially automated through “numeric-control” technology (N/C) that allowed general purpose machinery to be programmed to carry out different actions. It should be noted that Noble’s history of industrial automation is not a history of mainframe computing. Ever since the hysteria over it in the 1950s and 1960s, “automation” has functioned as an unfortunate term whose vague generality covers over the substantial difference between the use of mainframe computers for information processing and the use of cybernetics to control production. As Noble admits, in the early postwar era, mainframe computing was fairly quickly adopted by businesses for data processing, whereas numeric-control, which was developed by different institutions, was only slowly integrated into industrial production. Resisting all forms of technological determinism, Noble begins his book with two chapters of social context. First, he discusses the beginning of the Cold War and the alignment of scientific, military, and corporate interests. He contrasts Senator Harley Kilgore’s failed effort to establish a system that would subject (publically-funded) scientific research to democratic oversight with Vannevar Bush’s more successful promotion of science’s self-sovereignty, the latter paradoxically secured through science’s close relation with military projects and corporate research and development during the Cold War. Noble then turns to “the war at home,” documenting the wave of labor conflicts that appeared in 1945 and 1946 as unions took advantage of the increased numbers and political clout they had gained during wartime production as well as responded to the dangerous working conditions that had been grudgingly accepted during the war (Noble points out that over 88,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents during the war). The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 substantially diminished the power of unions and labor became progressively weakened as the postwar era continued, but management still actively sought out new ways to control, or even eliminate, labor. Automation of course would come to management’s rescue, playing directly into management’s belief that productivity and profitability could best be improved by granting management even more power over labor and by substituting capital (investment) for labor. Industrial automation was first successfully implemented in continuous-process industries, such as the chemical industries, whose complex production processes both called for and were compatible with basic forms of cybernetic control. The machine tool industries, however, traditionally had involved labor-intensive, small-batch production, a kind of production process that was much harder to automate. According to Noble, early research in the automation of the machine tool industries generated two options. The first was record-playback (R/C), which in theory was not that different from the early gramophone players that allowed users to both record and play back sounds. Record-playback recorded the movement of the machine as it was used by the machinist, and this recording could then be used to replicate the original movement. Record-playback was relatively easy to develop and use, but because it continued to rely on the skills of machinists and did not grant management complete control over the production process, it was ultimately abandoned. Noble points out that Kurt Vonnegut based his novel Player Piano on his experience as a publicist for GE, which attempted to develop record-playback in the early 1950s. Noble argues that Vonnegut’s novel, in addition to not referring to the form of automation that was eventually implemented, is incorrect in imagining that record-playback would ultimately lead to complete obsolescence of the worker. According to Noble, record-playback aimed at augmenting, not completely supplanting, the skills of the worker, and that was its fatal flaw in management’s eyes. The form of automation that was chosen over record-playback was numeric-control, which required the abstract coding and programming of the machine’s instructions. Numeric-control did allow a greater level of precision, though Noble is quick to note that such precision was only necessary and affordable for a small range of military-funded projects. In fact, numeric-control involved such complex programming that for a long period of time it proved too expensive, unreliable, and difficult to install in actual factory conditions. But the convergence of the military’s pursuit of total command and control, science’s preference for abstract models and new methods, and management’s belief that greater management control would necessarily produce greater profits, favored the development of numeric-control instead of record-playback. The Air Force in particular - through funding and the technical requirements it set for its contractors - helped sustain numeric-control for the long period during which its cost was unjustifiable and its complexity almost unmanageable. Needless to say, this kind of Marxist history of technology is out of fashion right now in science and technology studies. Noble's deep research closely follows the historical and institutional contingencies that influenced the development of automation, but his hierarchical explanatory framework, in which the economy is determinant in the last instance, clearly does not allow him to address the full material complexity of his technological subject as thoroughly as might the flattened ontology of the actor-network theory deployed in Atsushi Akera’s similar Calculating the Natural World. But I remain far more sympathetic to Noble’s approach than to Akera’s, which in attempting to maximize the number of human and non-human “actors” included in the web of its historical narrative tends to completely lose sight of the fact that in our society most "translations" between actors are in actuality transactions that are guided by a rather exceptional actor: capital.