Friday, November 19, 2010
In For a New Critique of Political Economy, Bernard Stiegler repositions the techno-deconstructive philosophy he developed in Technics & Time squarely within the realm of politics and economics. For Stiegler, any critique of political economy, as well any response to the current global economic crisis, must take into consideration the default of humanity, the prehistoric “structural coupling” of humanity and technics that has made it possible to organize an economy around the externalization and exploitation of different forms of human memory. According to Stiegler, public debate about how to solve the economic crisis is misguided on all sides. Both those who advocate stimulating consumption and those who hope to revive “entrepreneurial dynamism” through investment hope to save an economic system that has undermined its conditions for successful reproduction. They refuse to acknowledge that the “consumerist industrial model” of the 20th century is now “obsolete.” It “has reached its limits because it has become systemically short-termist, because it has given rise to a systemic stupidity that structurally prevents the reconstitution of a long-term horizon.” Instead of dreaming of a restoration of this consumerist model to its former heights, we need “to produce a vision and a political will capable of progressively moving away from the economico-political complex of consumption so as to enter into the complex of a new type of investment, which must be a social and political investment or, in other words, an investment in a common desire.” This political project requires the construction of a new critique of political economy, a critique that Stiegler maintains must be founded on an analysis of the processes of grammatization, the techniques through which memory is externalized, made discrete, and opened up to social and economic investment and control. Stiegler attacks his philosophical peers for having totally failed to engage with the changes in the economy. He asserts that recent French philosophers have “nothing whatsoever so say about the contemporary economy”—they have “abandoned the project of a critique of political economy, and this constitutes a disastrous turn.” Ambivalence about critique—which is suspected of harboring metaphysics—has been a major cause of this “philosophical abdication in relation to economics.” Deconstruction played no small part in undermining the status of critique, though, as becomes clear later, Stiegler believes that “deconstruction remains a critique,” and he places deconstruction at the heart of his critique of political economy. In the last decade or two, the definition of work has been heavily debated, with figures such as Jeremy Rifkin predicting the “end of work” as a result of automation, and others (such as post-Autonomia thinkers who promote a basic income) examining the growth of “work time outside of employment.” Stiegler does not fully endorse any of these positions, but he does use their disagreements as a pretext for his own redefinition of the proletariat. He argues that the “proletariat is not the working class,” and proletarianization should not be equated with pauperization. Instead, proletarianization should be associated with grammatization, and the development of the latter dramatically changes the form of the former. Marx’s discussion of proletarianization focused on the “loss of savoir-faire” among industrial workers, whose skills were appropriated by industrial capitalism’s socio-technical systems. Proletarianization in this context involves the “grammatization of gesture,” the expropriation of workers’ bodily know-how. But grammatization is not limited to gesture: “Grammatization is the history of the exteriorization of memory in all its forms: nervous and cerebral memory, corporeal and muscular memory, biogenetic memory.” The proletarianization of the worker in the 19th century was therefore followed by the proletarianization of the consumer in the 20th century. The rise of consumption over the last century was driven by the development of mnemotechnical systems and psychotechnologies that channeled consumers’ libidinal energy toward commodities. At least until the 1970s, this consumerist economy managed to counteract what Marx described as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Marx’s analysis of consumption failed to recognize the potential of destroying “savoir-vivre with the aim of creating available purchasing power, thereby refining and reinforcing that system which rested on the destruction of savoir-faire with the aim of creating available labor force.” (It was, of course, Guy Debord who first fully addressed this capitalist destruction of the practices of everyday life in favor of controlled consumption, though Stiegler perfunctorily refers to Debord and then dismisses him for his failure to think the question of technics) Today, we are witnessing a “vast process of cognitive and affective proletarianization.” We face the possibility of “the development of electronic and digital devices to the point that all forms of knowledge become grammatized via cognitive and cultural mnemotechnologies. This will include the way in which linguistic knowledge becomes the technologies and industries of automated language processing, but it will also include savoir-vivre, that is behavior in general, from user profiling to the grammatization of affects—all of which will lead toward the ‘cognitive’ and ‘cultural’ capitalism of the hyperindustrial service economies.” In the middle of this argument about proletarianization and grammatization, Stiegler pulls back to a more philosophical framework, making the claim, which may seem odd at first, that Plato is “the first thinker of the proletariat.” Plato’s discussion of anamnesis (“remembrance of the truth of being”) and hypomnesis (“mnemotechnics,” exteriorized memory) in Phaedrus first addressed the problem of the exteriorization of memory, and set up, as Derrida famously argued, the “pharmacological question, according to which the hypomnesis is a pharmakon: at once poison and remedy.” Socrates’ fear that the “exteriorization of memory is a loss of memory and knowledge” returns in a pressing form today, when we are confronted by a “generalized proletarianization induced by the spread of hypomnesic technologies” that cause “our memories to pass into machines.” Because “the Platonic question of hypomnesis constitutes the first version of a thinking of proletarianization,” “The truth of Plato would . . . be found in Marx.” But, Stiegler argues, since Marx and Plato failed to adequately address the question of technics, both need to be supplemented by Derrida (and, of course, Stiegler’s rereading of Derrida). Although the proletarianization of the consumer managed for much of the 20th century to weaken the class struggle and delay the rate of profit from falling, it has eliminated its own conditions of success by leading “to the destruction of [consumers’] libidinal energy and to its decomposition into drives.” Instead of “long circuits of individuation” (in the infinite sense of individuation proposed by Simondon), the proletarianization of the consumer creates “short-circuits” that produce only “disindividuation.” It reduces desires to drives, and destroys the forms of anticipatory protention needed for investment of all types (libidinal and financial, in particular). As pharmaka, hypomneta don’t need to have this poisonous effect. Hypomneta can either “individuate [the] psyche” or “proletarianize the psyche.” Hypomnesic techniques and grammatization can generate “long circuits, that is accumulate libidinal energy by intensifying individuation, and give objects of desire to the individual that infinitize his or her individuation . . . because these objects can only be given as infinite and incommensurable.” Or they can “provoke short-circuits, that is, disindividuation, and consequently desublimation, that is the commensurable finitization of all things, leading to the destruction of libidinal energy.” Stiegler calls for the creation of a “system of care” that would coordinate three levels of individuation—technical, psychic, and collective—so that “individuation at the pharmacological level (technical individuation) transductively intensifies the individuation of the other two levels (psychic individuation and collective individuation).” Stiegler is optimistic that “a genuine mutation of grammatization has occurred: digital reticulation, whereby cognitive activities are themselves proletarianized, constitutes a rupture through which associated milieus are formed, that is, milieus of individuation running counter to the processes of dissociation and disindividuation in which proletarianization consists.” In Pharmacology of Capital and Economy of Contribution, a separate text that has been appended to this English translation, Stiegler reworks the argument of For a New Critique of Political Economy by drawing more directly on André Leroi-Gourhan (all of Stiegler’s work is almost embarrassingly indebted to Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture & Speech) and examining the co-individuation of psychic, social, and technical systems. Most importantly, he supplements his discussion of consumerism with a greater emphasis on the tendencies of fictitious capital. He argues that the state has historically served to mediate between the social and technical systems, making sure that the latter does not come to directly dominate the former. But when the rate of profit collapsed in the 1970s, neoliberal deregulation removed those state controls, placing the development of the technical system directly under the control of the economic system. That economic system has become dominated by its “financial sub-system,” which, as seen in its disastrous predilection for short-term speculation, has a “tendency to carelessness.” The destruction of long circuits of individuation and desires started by the proletarianization of the consumer is then catastrophically exacerbated by the development of technology under the control of a financialized economic system focused on the short-term. In opposition to the present “conjunction of the drive-based tendency of the psychic system and the speculative tendency of the economic system,” we need to imagine “that tendencies to investment could be combined with sublimatory tendencies.” We need to “open fields of protentional possibilities,” so that “to the TINA ideology, ‘there is no alternative,’ one must oppose the TALOA argument, ‘there are lots of alternatives.’”
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked is a popular introduction to “the new science of networks.” According to Barabasi, one of the field’s major scientific contributors, much of 20th-century science was aimed at decomposing objects of study into their simplest components. Despite its many accomplishments, this reductionist approach prevented science from realizing how “everything is linked to everything else.” In the last decade or so, however, “We have come to grasp the importance of networks.” We now recognize that “[n]etworks are present everywhere” and “that amazingly simple and far-reaching natural laws govern the structure and evolution of all the complex networks that surround us.” The theory of networks began with Leonhard Euler’s creation of graph theory. Around 1736, Euler innovatively answered a trivial question about whether it was possible to walk once across all of the bridges connecting an island in Konigsberg to the rest of city without re-crossing any of the bridges. Euler approached this mathematical problem by “viewing Konigsberg’s bridges as a graph, a collection of nodes connected by links.” By treating the bridges as a network, Euler was able to clearly and definitively solve the problem. A more recent and influential contribution to the theory of networks came from the mathematician Paul Erdos, who around 1959 “laid the foundation of the theory of random networks.” Ignoring the diversity of natural examples, Erdos created a general model of complex networks by constructing a graph through randomly connecting nodes. Because links are formed randomly in this model, most nodes have the same number of links. “We obtain a network with a very uniform fabric in which the mean is the norm.” The simplicity of this random network theory made the model extremely appealing, and helped it dominate thinking about networks for decades. “[The model] equated complexity with randomness. If a network was too complex to be captured in simple terms, it urged us to describe it as random.” In 1967, the sociologist Stanley Milgram made another contribution to the theory of networks that later would be popularized in a play as the “six degrees of separation.” Milgram performed a study asking, “how many acquaintances would it take to connect two randomly selected individuals?” The answer was shockingly low: 5.5. “Stanley Milgram awakened us to the fact that not only are we connected, but we live in a world in which no one is more than a few handshakes from anyone else. That is, we live in a small world. Our world is small because society is a very dense web.” More recent research has demonstrated that the smallness Milgram discovered is the norm, not the exception, in networks. “’Small worlds’ are a generic property of networks in general. Short separations is not a mystery of our society or something peculiar about the Web: Most networks around us obey it.” In the 1960s and 70s, another sociologist, Mark Granovetter, discovered that “[w]hen it comes to finding a job, getting news, launching a restaurant, or spreading the latest fad, our weak social ties are more important than our cherished strong friendships.” Granovetter demonstrated that, in the terms of graph theory, nodes tend to be clumped in clusters, in which each node is linked to all the others in the cluster (for example, a group of friends), and that only a few long links (such as relationships with passing acquaintances) connect the nodes of different clusters. Further research on clustering by Watts and Strogatz proved that only a few of these distant links are needed to turn a network with clusters into a small world in which the number of links between any two nodes is relatively small. The existence of clusters initially seemed to contradict the even network texture described by random network theory, though Watts and Strogatz were ingeniously able to reconcile the two. But random network theory faced a more fatal challenge when Barabasi and his colleagues, attempting to map the Web, discovered the existence of hubs. To their surprise, the robot they sent out across the Web came back with “evidence of a high degree of unevenness in the Web’s topology.” Their research showed that the “architecture of the World Wide Web is dominated by a few very highly connected nodes, or hubs.” Although first recognized on the Internet, hubs are not limited to the Web. “Hubs appear in most large complex networks that scientists have been able to study so far. They are ubiquitous, a generic building block of our complex, interconnected world.” In fact, “large hubs . . . fundamentally define [a] network’s topology.” The discovery of hubs indicated that the distribution of links in networks does not follow a bell curve, where large deviations from some norm/average number of links would be rare if not unthinkable. Instead, the distribution of links adheres to a power law. “Power laws mathematically formulate the fact that in most real networks the majority of nodes have only a few links and that these numerous tiny nodes coexist with a few big hubs, nodes with an anomalously high number of links. The few links connecting the smaller nodes to each other are not sufficient to ensure that the network is fully connected. This function is secured by the relatively rare hubs that keep real networks from falling apart.” Because of this power law distribution, there is no average scale to such networks, but rather a “continuous hierarchy of nodes.” Erdos’s random network model therefore was replaced by a scale-free network model, which Barabasi and his colleagues have devoted their efforts to developing. Work on the scale-free model soon addressed the issue of growth, a feature of networks neglected by the random network model. Hubs form as networks grow because of “preferential attachment.” “Network evolution is governed by the subtle yet unforgiving law of preferential attachment. Guided by it, we unconsciously add links at a higher rate to those nodes that are already heavily linked.” Growth combined with preferential attachment gives the first nodes in the network a competitive advantage, since they have more time to accumulate links that make them attractive to nodes appearing later. But this model was obviously reductive, ignoring the creation of internal links or the deleting of older links, and it also could not explain how latecomers—such as Google—could become hubs. One problem was the model treated all nodes as if they were the same. So a concept of “fitness,” the attractiveness of a node, was added to the model. Although growth and preferential attachment were still the dominant laws, the addition of a category for fitness modified the model so that “[b]etween two nodes with the same number of links, the fitter one acquires links more quickly.” However, fitness was not enough to explain how some hubs, such as Microsoft, come to completely dominate a network. A supplementary network model based on the concept of “condensation” was needed to explain this elimination of competition in a network. So in some cases, behavior on the network “destroys the hierarchy of hubs characterizing the scale-free topology, turning it into a starlike network, with a single node grabbing all the links. . . . A winner-takes-all network is not scale-free. Instead there is a single hub and many tiny nodes.” Further research on networks has addressed issues relating to network strength and failure. Scale-free networks show “topological robustness”: “a significant fraction of nodes can be randomly removed from any scale-free network without its breaking apart.” This “[t]oplogical robustness is . . . rooted in the structural unevenness of scale-free networks: Failures disproportionately affect small nodes.” But this same topology makes networks vulnerable to attack, since hubs play such a major role in maintaining the network. “Disable a few of the hubs and a scale-free network will fall to pieces in no time.” In other words, “scale-free networks are not vulnerable to failures. The price of this unprecedented resilience comes in their fragility under attack. The removal of the most connected nodes rapidly disintegrates these networks, breaking them into tiny noncommunicating islands. Therefore, hidden within their structure, scale-free networks harbor an unsuspected Achilles’ heel, coupling a robustness against failures with vulnerability to attack.” Hubs also make networks susceptible to “cascading failure,” in which the failure of a major node shifts that node’s responsibilities onto other nodes, overwhelming them and causing them to also fail, creating a pattern of failure that spreads across the network. Recent mapping of the Web has underscored that it is a “directed network”: links often only take you in one direction. “[T]he most important consequence of directedness is that the Web does not form a single homogeneous network. Rather, it is broken into four major continents, each forcing us to obey different traffic rules when we want to navigate them.” There is an “easily navigable” central core containing the major websites. There are then “in” and “out” continents, the former easily taking you into the core (but not back out), the latter easily taking you out of the core (but not back in). Largely disconnected from the core and these continents are islands and tendrils. The directedness of the Web makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accurately map it (robots are unable to find nodes on the “in” continent or islands). This fragmented shape of the Web might seem rather unique or contingent, but its pattern is typical of all directed networks. In his final chapters, Barabasi considers how a wide range of social, biological, and economic topics can profitably be treated as networks. His reduction of complex phenomena to network models becomes quite problematic in the chapter on business. Unsurprisingly, he repeats post-Fordist clichés about firms becoming lean, flat, and flexible, in other words, becoming networks. On a more macroeconomic scale, he also asserts, “the market is nothing but a directed network. Companies, firms, corporations, financial institutions, governments, and all potential economic players are the nodes. Links quantify various interactions between these institutions, involving purchases and sales, joint research and marketing projects, and so forth. . . . The structure and evolution of this weighted and directed network determine the outcome of all macroeconomic processes.” According to this network logic, economic crises are due to cascading failures. He even claims, “Understanding macroeconomic interdependencies in terms of networks can help us to foresee and limit future crises.” Although there is some truth to this equation of markets and networks (see the work of economics-oriented actor-network theorists like Michel Callon or Donald MacKenzie for better examples), Barabasi here risks naturalizing post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalism. By importing scientific “laws” into economics, Barabasi makes a contingent economic formation seem like an objective necessity, and he limits resistance to that economic system to the range of behavior described by a network model.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Primarily known today for its influence on Lenin’s theory of imperialism, Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital is an important, but flawed, work of Marxist economics that has much to offer contemporary readers, especially as the global recession continues. Taking for granted the analysis of capitalist production in the first volume of Marx’s Capital, Hilferding develops Marx’s claims from the second and third volumes of Capital about commodity exchange and credit. Hilferding begins by analyzing the functions of money and credit, moves on to examine the creation of corporations and cartels, and then critically reflects on the causes of imperialism and the revolutionary opportunities created by the concentrated power of finance capital. The book starts with a long, and rather dry, discussion of money. “A society based upon private property and the division of labour [i.e., a capitalist society] is only possible by virtue of . . . exchange relationship among its members; it becomes a society through exchange, which is the only social process it recognizes from an economic standpoint.” Since commodities do not directly express each other’s value, a general equivalent – money – is needed to facilitate exchange. Money, “as a form of value, is always a temporary transition stage to the value of a commodity.” In other words, in the exchange sequence C-M-C, money is a passing stage, not the final destination. Paper money, when legitimated by the power of the state, can fulfill as well as gold this function of a “medium of circulation.” However, gold is not just money but also a commodity itself, and embodies value even outside of the exchange process. Gold is therefore important for international trade and for stabilizing the valuation of paper currencies (Hilferding here anticipates the issues that would appear when nations went off the gold standard). “[M]oney with an intrinsic value – such as gold – is always needed as a means of storing wealth in a form in which it is always available for use.” In commodity exchange, payment is often not immediately settled between buyer and seller. When the debt that arises in such situations is finally paid, money takes on a new function: “it becomes a means of payment.” “The contraction of a debt and its repayment are separated by a period of time. This means that the money which is turned over in payment can no longer be regarded as a mere link in the chain of commodity exchange or as a transitory economic form for which something else may be substituted. On the contrary, when money is used as a means of payment it is an essential part of the process.” Promissory notes that have not been redeemed can be circulated themselves, and function as “credit money” that eventually must be converted back into real money. Banks assist in the canceling and settling of such debts, and grow alongside the use of commercial credit. However, “Once money is used as a means of payment a complete mutual cancellation of payments at any given time must be seen as a sheer accident, which will never occur in reality. Money concludes independently the process of moving commodities from place to place. . . . The link in the sequence C-M-C is broken.” Yet credit can also take a quite different form and function. In contrast to such commercial credit (which primarily facilitates exchange on the market), capital or investment credit is invested in production and used to produce surplus value. When offered as capital credit, money becomes capital. As Marx shows in the first volume of Capital, “Value becomes capital when it is used to produce surplus value,” and surplus value is produced only in capitalist production. The capitalist uses money to purchase labor power and commodities. However, the commodities purchased by the capitalist are used to produce more commodities, which, because of the addition of labor power, have a higher value and can be exchanged for a greater value of money than was originally invested in production. In this situation, the original money is capital not because of any inherent qualities (as usual, money is just exchanged for commodities), but because it is used to eventually produce surplus value. Importantly, the capitalist need not own the money capital originally invested, but rather can have it lent to him. Capital credit is available because industrial capitalist production produces idle money for a number of reasons. Because fixed capital (like factories or machines) has to periodically be replaced, money has to be hoarded in preparation for that moment, and remains idle in the meantime. Also, beginning or expanding capitalist production typically requires a large minimum sum of money capital, which, before it is completely accumulated, also may lie idle. For these and other reasons, “there arises from the very mechanism of capital circulation the necessity for a larger or smaller amount of money capital to remain idle for longer or shorter periods.” But idle money produces no profit, and therefore is an affront to capitalism itself. Offered as credit, however, this idle money is able to produce profit. “Investment credit . . . transfers money and converts it from idle into active money capital.” “Once [money capital] is released from the cycle of any one individual capital, it can function as money in the cycle of another capital if it is made available to other capitalists in the form of credit. . . . All the factors, therefore, which have led to the idleness of capital now become so many causes for the emergence of credit relations, and all the factors which affect the quantity of idle capital also determine the expansion and contraction of credit.” Although the productive capitalist may directly loan idle money to other capitalists, this position of loan capitalist has been almost completely taken over by the banks. The banks serve the “economic function which consists of collecting idle money capital and then distributing it.” As the banks grow in size and scope as lenders of capital credit, banks and the industries they invest in become more closely tied together. Enterprises become more dependent on credit to be competitive, and banks, attempting to guarantee the return on their investments, become more concerned with “the long-range prospects of the enterprises and the future state of the market.” This close coupling of banks and industries creates strong pressures to form joint-stock companies or corporations. Banks obtain “promoter’s profit” by assisting in the creation of new corporations or the transformation of individually-owned enterprises into corporations. Through access to credit, corporations are less financially constrained and therefore able to be more competitive in general than individually-owned enterprises. They can grow to an enormous size and approximate some economic-technological ideal, rather than be limited by contingent factors such as their accumulated capital. Corporations also undermine the traditional form of private property. Corporate shares are fictitious capital because the original capital, which has been invested in machinery or paying workers, cannot be immediately reclaimed. “Once the shareholder has parted with this capital, he cannot recover it. He has no claim upon it, but only a claim to a pro-rata share of its yield.” Unlike with individually-owned enterprises, control of a corporation does not require complete ownership, only a controlling share. Less capital therefore gives more control. Corporations exploit this feature by purchasing shares in each other that allow them to place individuals on the boards of directors and influence each other’s decisions. Banks also attempt to acquire a permanent role in the corporations they invest in by placing individuals on the directorships of corporate boards. Shares double the capital invested in production, and therefore can circulate on the stock market independently of that capital. “Once a share has been issued it has nothing more to do with the real cycle of the industrial capital which it represents. None of the developments or misfortunes which it may encounter in its circulation have any direct effect on the cycle of the productive capital.” Reflecting this autonomy of fictitious capital from industrial capital, speculation on the stock market affects the distribution of profit, not its creation. Money made speculating on the market is only a “marginal gain” - what one person gains another person loses – because surplus value is only created through production. Therefore, “Speculation cannot flourish without the participation of the public,” which must take a loss for the elite to profit. Speculation, which is basically a form of gambling, is not essential to capitalist production, but it does facilitate the “mobilization of capital,” especially in an industrial era when capital invested in production often is tied up for long periods of time as fixed capital. However, speculation, whether on the stock exchange or futures markets, depends on uncertainty and risks that disappear with the concentration of control through cartelization. The interlocking directorships of corporations allow for the elimination of competition and the coordination of businesses. Cartels and trusts emerge as a result: “A consortium comprising as many enterprises as possible, which is intended to raise prices, and hence profits, by excluding competition as completely as possible, is a cartel.” The concentration of capital in banks and the expansion of cartels creates a spiraling effect: “From the outset the effect of advanced cartelization is that the banks also amalgamate and expand in order not to become dependent upon the cartel or trust. In this way cartelization itself requires the amalgamation of the banks, and, conversely, amalgamation of the banks requires cartelization. . . . As a result of cartelization . . . the relations between the banks and industry become still closer, and at the same time the banks acquire an increasing control over the capital invested in industry.” The capital held by the banks at this point becomes finance capital. “The dependence of industry on the banks is therefore a consequence of property relationships. An ever-increasing part of the capital of industry does not belong to the industrialists who use it. They are able to dispose over capital only through the banks, which represent the owners. On the other side, the banks have to invest an ever-increasing part of their capital in industry, and in this way they become to a greater and greater extent industrial capitalists. I call bank capital, that is capital in money form which is actually transformed in this way into industrial capital, finance capital.” “Finance capital develops with the development of the joint-stock company and reaches its peak with the monopolization of industry. . . . As capital itself at the highest stage of its development becomes finance capital, so the magnate of capital, the finance capitalist, increasingly concentrates his control over the whole national capital by means of his dominance of bank capital.” Usurers’ and merchants’ capital was historically important for the initial establishment and success of industrial production. As industrial production developed, it became more independent of usurers’ capital and placed more of its idle capital in banks as bank capital. In the final stage, however, that bank capital, as finance capital, is used to dominate industry. “The Hegelians spoke of the negation of the negation: bank capital was the negation of usurer’s capital and is itself negated by finance capital.” Describing the impressive power of finance capital, Hilferding echoes Foucault’s description of biopower: “[T]he specific character of capital is obliterated in finance capital. Capital now appears as a unitary power which exercises sovereign sway over the life process of society.” However, the apparent success of finance capital in solving the “problem of the organization of the social economy” does not prevent crises from continuing to occur. Hilferding bases his theory of crises on Marx’s schema of reproduction, arguing that a lack of proportion between the capital goods and consumer goods industries disrupts simple and expanded reproduction and leads to crises (Ernest Mandel rejects this argument, claiming that Marx’s schema are meant merely to show that capitalist accumulation is hypothetically possible, not to demonstrate how such accumulation breaks down). A “distortion of the price structure” prevents production from being properly regulated. Credit can play a role in this “disruption of the specific regulatory mechanisms of production,” particularly by pumping money capital into industries even though their rate of profit is declining. Despite their power, cartels are still subject to the law of value, and their control of prices and profit rates, while initially benefiting them, may make the underlying economic problems worse: “Cartels do not diminish, but exacerbate, the disturbances in the regulation of prices which lead ultimately to disproportionalities, and so to the contradiction between the conditions of utilization and the conditions of valorization.” That is, “Cartels . . . do not eliminate the effects of crises. They modify them only to the extent that they can divert the main burden of a crisis to the non-cartelized industries.” Because cartelization alone cannot prevent or solve crises, finance capital turns to foreign markets as a solution. “We know . . . that the opening of new markets is an important factor in bringing an industrial depression to an end, in prolonging a period of prosperity, and in moderating the effects of crises.” Cartels use their power to make the state create protective tariffs or export subsidies that give them an advantage over foreign companies. Such tariffs secure their home market, but make penetration of foreign markets more difficult. Exporting capital is one solution to this obstacle. “By ‘export of capital’ I mean the export of value which is intended to breed surplus value abroad. It is essential from this point of view that the surplus value should remain at the disposal of the domestic capital.” By exporting capital, finance capitalists are able to exploit differences between countries’ rates of profit, levels of organic composition of capital, availability of cheap labor, and ground rent. As a result of the export of capital, foreign markets also become capable of consuming more, helping the balance of trade (greater overseas production generates more income for consumption of the capital-exporting country’s goods). But in order for the exported capital to be secure and fulfill its function, a specific political system is imposed on foreign countries, typically through direct imperial control. “Export capital feels most comfortable . . . when its own state is in complete control of the new territory, for capital exports from other countries are then excluded, it enjoys a privileged position, and its profits are more or less guaranteed by the state. Thus the export of capital also encourages an imperialist policy.” Annexing foreign markets, however, leads to hostility between developed countries and an increased risk of war. Resistance to the policies of finance capital and imperialism is complicated by the class composition created by large corporations. The large new salaried middle class, though not owning the means of production, continues to identify with the capitalist class as long as export-led growth continues. “The rapid development of the large banks, the expansion of production brought about by the export of capital, the conquest of new markets, all serve to open up new fields of employment for salaried employees of all kinds. Still divorced from the struggle of the proletariat, they see their best prospects in the expansion of capital’s sphere of activity.” The working class is in a different situation. Labor unions are reformist because they don’t struggle against the capitalist relation itself. But as they become more universal under monopoly capital, they might provide the foundation for a labor party that could work toward more political and radical goals. “Once an independent political party of the workers exists its policy is not confined for long to those issues which led to its creation, but becomes a policy which seeks to represent the class interests of workers as whole, thus moving beyond the struggle within bourgeois society into a struggle against bourgeois society.” Although finance capital’s policies will lead to war between imperialist nations as they fight over spheres of influence, the proletariat shouldn’t just enthusiastically wait for that catastrophe. The collapse of capitalism will “be political and social, not economic; for the idea of a purely economic collapse makes no sense.” It is therefore important to maintain “a steadfast, relentless struggle against the policy of imperialism.” But resistance to finance capital should not take the form a nostalgic desire to return to an older form of capitalism, such as the free trade of the 19th century, but rather must consist of the fight for socialism. Fortunately, because finance capital has already “brought the most important branches of production under its control, it is enough for society, through its conscious executive organ – the state conquered by the working class – to seize finance capital in order to gain immediate control of these branches of production.” Hilferding concludes with a rather Leninist image of the revolution: “The capitalist class seizes possession of the state apparatus in a direct, undisguised and palpable way, and makes it the instrument of its exploitative interests in a manner which is apparent to every worker, who must now recognize that the conquest of political power by the proletariat is his own most immediate personal interest. The blatant seizure of the state by the capitalist class directly compels every proletarian to strive for the conquest of political power as the only means of putting an end to his own exploitation. . . . In the violent clash of these hostile interest the dictatorship of the magnates of capital will finally be transformed into the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Monday, November 8, 2010
Despite having won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1969, Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps has silently slipped into obscurity over the last few decades, just like its author. Not even props from David Foster Wallace have been capable of counteracting the rapid devaluation of Kosinski’s literary reputation, which has been by marred by disputes over the authorship of his first novel, The Painted Bird (editorial assistants, including Paul Auster, are rumored to have written much of it), questions about the truthfulness of his autobiographical claims (especially concerning where he spent WWII), and even bizarre rumors that the CIA helped publish his works. The power of such gossip is a shame, since this a devastatingly harsh and bleak book that demonstrates a rare, cold purity. The narrative is a series of short, disconnected vignettes told by a narrator who is mostly an emotional and psychological void, an impassive witness of cruelty and atrocities, except for when his aggressive sexual desires are aroused. The book avoids using proper names for people and places, offering a generalized, Hobbesian view of the “life of man as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Roughly beginning in communist Poland, the book unsentimentally recounts the narrator’s late childhood and early adulthood. He is traumatized as a child by his bullying peers, shown the murderous absurdities of the Party organization while doing his military service, and publicly shamed by the student union at the university for his lack of involvement. As time passes, he blankly observes an extreme variety of brutalities, including rape, bestiality, incest, and suicide. Routinely, humans are reduced to bare life that can be humiliated, harmed, and eliminated without concern. The holocaust, of course, is one major source for this perspective. For example, the narrator knows a functionalist architect who helped design concentration camps during WWII. “[I]n the concentration camps my friend designed, the victims never remained individuals; they became as identical as rats. They existed only to be killed.” But rather than resist the forces that reduce humans to instruments or objects, the narrator often internalizes them and forcefully wields them against others. For example, in one most of the most disturbing sections of the novel, the narrator’s girlfriend is gang raped while he is held down by her tormenters. But shortly after this horrific event, the narrator begins to sadistically treat his girlfriend as an object, adopting, with little ado, the dominating position of her attackers. Midway through the novel, everything appears ready to change as the narrator gets on a plane to head for a new life in the U.S. After the flight takes off, the narrator comments, “I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.” Of course this ideal state cannot be maintained, and he soon faces the same kinds of systems of cruelty and absurdity in his new capitalist home. He immediately runs into problems with money and work, so he gets involved with the criminal underworld, adopting its exploitative practices as easily as he adopted those of his former country. At one point, he expresses a love of driving and skiing, the latter seeming to encapsulate his tendency to actively throw himself into rather than resist the (typically monstrous) movements that his environment pushes him toward: “[When skiing,] I had to project myself beyond my body into a motion that had and not yet begun but was imminent and irreversible.” Yet he finds a possibility of something better in the lives of the poor and racially marginalized, whom he manages to safely observe in their bars and neighborhoods by acting like a deaf-mute. He wishes he could become one of them, believing it “would banish the dream of possession, of things to be owned, used, and consumed, and the symbols of ownership – credentials, diplomas, deeds. This change would give me no other choice but to remain alive.”