Monthly Archives: April 2012

Resignation in Early Spring: On Adorno’s Non-answer

In between grading student essays and reflecting on the history of some pacification of the militant protestant sects, I began thinking about Adorno’s “Resignation”  and the way I have seen Adorno rely on pure negativity as a means to dialectic. Now to get all Hegelian about things, this is a refusal to go to an axiomatic stage of the dialectic,  and thus is a refusal to conceptualize a way out. Now in a crude Hegelian manner, I can point out that this seems like an abnegation as much as a resignation: a refusal to accept the dialectic as more than a via negativa, a negative ecology. to use a phrase from Malcolm Bull:

Even political undertakings can sink into pseudo-activities, into theater. It is no coincidence that the ideals of immediate action, even the propaganda of the [deed], have been resurrected after the willing integration of formerly progressive organizations that now in all countries of the earth are developing the characteristic traits of what they once opposed. Yet this does not invalidate the critique of anarchism. Its return is that of a ghost. The impatience with theory that manifests itself with its return does not advance thought beyond itself. By forgetting thought, the impatience falls back below it. [Adorno, “Resignation,” (1969), in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 292.]

Now I have seen this read as a returning to Lenin’s critique of Left communism and as a embrace of nearly mystical Jewish eschatology, both of these have some rooting in fact no doubt. Yet one cannot help but note that despite Adorno’s Leninism, the Leninist project no longer resembled anything Adorno would be willing to defend (or most probably even Lenin would be willing to defend).   The more critical question would be that psuedo-activity is endemic and if the Frankfurt’s school own fate illustrates, pseudo-activity of the mind is something that dominates most theorists, and yet this is something that is distinct from any pronouncement of Lenin I know of:

This is made easier for the individual by his capitulation to the collective with which he identifies himself. He is spared from recognizing his powerlessness; the few become the many in their own eyes. This act, not unwavering thought, is resignative. No transparent relationship obtains between the interests of the ego and the collective it surrenders itself to. The ego must abolish itself so that it may be blessed with the grace of being chosen by the collective. . . . The sense of a new security is purchased with the sacrifice of autonomous thinking. The consolation that thinking improves in the context of collective action is deceptive: thinking, as a mere instrument of activist actions, atrophies like all instrumental reason. . . .

Notice then that while Adorno critiques seriously the autonomous of the spirit of anarchism, he also psychologizes solidarity politics in a way that makes it also fairly meaningless as a means of avoidance of abnegation of truth.  Adorno has put himself in a double-bind in left-wing politics and removed the meaningfulness of most action in the current context, rendering the situation to many a speed reader, much more eschatological than anything that would have slipped out of Lenin’s mouth.

Yet there is a point to this in which one begins to wonder if Adorno’s answer to this bind, similar to Kolakowski’s prior to him, is actually an answer:

By contrast the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn’t break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. . . . Open thinking points beyond itself. . . .Whatever has once been thought can be suppressed, forgotten, can vanish. But it cannot be denied that something of it survives.For thinking has the element of the universal. What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought. . . . The happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity. The universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such. Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it. By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.

One cannot ignore that whatever one thinks of this answer, it is a dramatic lowering of the bar from anything that ever left Lenin’s mouth.  Regression is the normal answer given, and yet as a concept, do not let any Marxist-academic fool you, regression is not a category that can be simply understood or demarcated as, for some strange reason, as many an academic will tell you the situation of socialist and capitalist society is ALWAYS regressing.  One has an almost inverted Steven Pinker/Pangloss “liberal modernity is the best of all possible current worlds” to “liberal modernity is best of all possible current worlds because we have regressed from prior possible visions.”  Negri and many an Italian Marxist have lost patience with this deconstructive impulse, and criticized Adorno for his lack of a positive construction.  Other friends see this as a point of failure of vision.  Some see it as bad Marxism, a friend of mine once quipped: “it’s all dialectics and no materialism” and at the end Adorno does retreat the field of battle outside of the material world and its temptations of pseudo-activity.  Regression has made that so?

But regression does imply a theory of history in which the future progressive standpoint can be known, which is why contingency is such a threat to the Adorno-influenced Marxist.  Yet as Hegel dialectics can take, if we look at Hegel’s Shorter logic,  both positive and negative forms and moves forward by positing new positives from prior situations.  Yes, Hegel thought philosophy could become objective, but outside from the eye of God, no one knows the outcome of a dialectical moment until it is passed through, contradictions sublated, and new contradictions emerging.

The negativity of the dialectic is a given, but it doesn’t end there.  Whatever you think of Lenin, thought was not a means out of resignation or a hope for a utopia, nor was it the belief that thought itself changed the world as an absolute idea in Lenin.  Thought moves through world because it emerges from it, and is in a feedback loop with it.  Therefore any thought that doesn’t change material condition as well as emerge from them is Utopian in the purely negative sense.

You can’t think your way out of a necessary historical situation.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Andrew Kliman

Andrew Kliman is a professor of economics at Pace University, and the author of Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007) and The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (2011). In his political work, he works with Marxist-Humanist Initiative.  I contacted Dr. Kliman over a dispute on my blog in which I accused him of having automatist views and adhering to a version of an immiseration thesis, after which I apologized to him for misrepresenting (misunderstanding) his views. Platypus Affiliated Society’s Seoul chapter is planning on hosting an event with Dr. Kliman in June, where I will pursue these questions further. 

 Skepoet: Many of your recent articles and books have shown that when you adjust for total compensation, and not just wages and salaries, that the declining rate of profit view from Marx’s Das Kapital still applies despite the change of form in the economy in the neo-liberal period. Were you surprised by these results when you began your research?

Andrew Kliman: Well, there are actually two issues here, since it’s standard practice to subtract all compensation, not just wages and salaries, when computing profit and rates of profit. What surprised me––shocked me, actually––about the compensation vs. wages and salaries issue––was that the conventional line on the left about what’s happened to wages and salaries is utterly misleading. We’re told that wages and salaries in the U.S. have stagnated for decades and that the wage-and-salary share of national income has fallen markedly. Both things are technically correct, but they don’t mean what I––and most other people, I suspect––assumed they mean. Total compensation per hour of work, including the health and retirement benefits received from employers as well as wages and salaries, hasn’t stagnated. And when these benefits as well as benefits provided by the government (such as unemployment insurance, veterans’, and welfare benefits) are taken into account, working people’s share of national income has been constant for four decades and has risen significantly since 1960.

I discovered this last fact when a colleague sent me a graph published in Monthly Review that showed a big nosedive in the wage-and-salary share of income. I went to the government table the numbers came from. I was shocked to find that this table also gave figures for employer- and government-provided benefits, and that the authors of the graph had simply ignored them. It’s obvious that the table doesn’t use the term “wages and salaries” to mean compensation of employees or workers’ income, but that’s certainly the impression one gets from the Monthly Review graph and the text that discusses it.

I should also say that I’ve been surprised at the attempts to argue that employer- and government-provided benefits aren’t really part of working people’s income. In any case, it’s simply a fact that the decline in the “wage and salary” share of national income doesn’t mean that other people––recipients of profit, dividends, interest, and so forth––have been getting a bigger share. They haven’t been.

As I said, none of this has any bearing on why my conclusions about the trend in the rate of profit differ from what others on the left told us, namely that the rate of profit in the US. recovered almost completely after 1980 or 1982. But I was also surprised when I discovered why they came to this conclusion. I knew beforehand that what physicalist-Marxist economists (such as Dumenil and Levy, Husson, Laibman, Moseley, and Mohun) call “the rate of profit” isn’t a rate of profit in any normal sense; it’s not profit as a percentage of the money invested in production. But even their “rate of profit” didn’t recover almost completely. It recovered modestly and was basically trendless from the mid-1980s onward. I was surprised to discover that the “almost complete recovery” conclusion was based on cherry picking the data. They compared the trough, or low point, to a later peak. When you deal with something that fluctuates a lot, like the rate of profit, this isn’t a valid way of assessing its trend. You need to compare through to trough, midpoint to midpoint, peak to peak, or something like that.

In any case, when I computed the actual rate of profit––profit as a percentage of the money invested in production––I found that it never experienced a sustained recovery. If “profit” is defined broadly to include the portion paid out in interest, sales taxes, etc., U.S. corporations’ rate of profit continues to trend downward during the last few decades. I wasn’t surprised by this, because I didn’t know what to expect.

By itself, the non-recovery or continued downward trend in the rate of profit isn’t evidence that Marx’s law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit (LTFRP) applies, because there are other possible explanations as to why this occurred. But I performed a decomposition analysis that indicates that Marx’s law fits the facts. That didn’t surprise me, but I was surprised at how well it fits the facts. In other words, what surprised me is that other things that influence the rate of profit had so little effect. Very little of the fall in the rate of profit between 1947 and 2007 was due to a fall in the profit share of output or income. Almost none of it was due to changes in the rate at which money prices rose in relationship to commodities’ values as measured in terms of labor-time. Now, after you abstract from those two factors, control for them, the rate of profit becomes a relationship between growth of employment and the accumulation of capital. If the rate of profit still falls, as it did, it has to be the case, mathematically, that employment grew more slowly than capital was accumulated. Almost all of the fall in the rate of profit during the 60-year period is attributable to this. And it’s precisely how the LTFRP explains the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.

S: What do you think drives some of the hostility to your economic work? Particularly the cases of URPE and the Left Forum’s rejection of your proposal on a topic that they had a panel on in 2007?

A.K.:  If the Left Forum hadn’t moved to Pace University, where I teach, I’d undoubtedly still be excluded from it.

There are two main things that drive the hostility. Both have to do with the fact that my and my colleagues’ work has disproved the old allegations that Marx’s value theory––and his LTFRP, which flows out of the value theory––has been proven logically inconsistent. A lot of people want Marx’s work to be inconsistent and they feel very threatened by the disproofs.

First, many people on the left, including the Marxist left, not only reject the LTFRP; they despise it passionately. That’s because Marx’s law has revolutionary implications. It’s not fatalistic––Marx doesn’t predict that capitalism will collapse or decay inexorably because of falling profitability––but the LTFRP does suggest that economic crises are inevitable under capitalism, because they are not caused by things that can be eliminated while still keeping the system. In contrast, theories that trace crises to under-consumption, low productivity, the anarchy of the market, state intervention, and so on––all of these suggest that if you fix the specific problem that is making capitalism perform poorly, its crisis tendencies will be substantially lessened or eliminated. This is in fact the key divide on the left today.

Second, a large number of people have built their academic careers on the myth that the LTFRP or Marx’s value theory are logically inconsistent. Some have “proven” this or that inconsistency. Some have marketed their theoretical revisions of Marx’s theory as what’s needed in order to correct his inconsistencies. Some have done both. Now, they could have been honest. They could have said, “Here’s my alternative to Marx’s theory, which I happen to prefer.” But if there were an open and honest competition between Marx’s theory and any of these revisions––if they had to compete as alternatives to his theory, not as needed corrections of it––is there any doubt about which one would emerge victorious? And it’s been very appealing to many of these people to present themselves as Marx’s successors rather than as critics with competing views, methods, and theories. The myth of inconsistency lets them have their cake and eat it too: they can build their careers on their alternatives to Marx while also presenting themselves as his successors. They simply say that they’ve eliminated Marx’s inconsistencies without undermining his basic account of capitalism.

But let me stress that hostility is not the real issue here. After all, my colleagues and I are arguably as hostile to their work as they are to ours. But we don’t go around suppressing their work, or promulgating falsehoods about what they say that harm their professional reputations, or falsehoods about what they’ve done that threaten their ability to earn a living in academia. These are the other side’s methods, not ours. Ours are the opposite. We do everything possible to encourage engagement and debate. The record shows this very clearly.

So in order to understand their behavior, we can’t talk only about hostility. We have to talk about totalitarianism and authoritarianism, and we have to talk about evil.

S: Do you think that many people operating under the rubric of “Marxism” are crypto-Keynesian and neo-Ricardian then? Given that neither of those intellectual traditions are as contested in the popular culture, why do you think one would still operate under the name of Marxism?

A.K.:  Much of mainstream Marxian economics has certainly had a strong Keynesian flavor since 1942, when Paul Marlor Sweezy wrote The Theory of Capitalist Development. And since the late 1970s, most of it has been either explicitly Sraffian­­––you use the term “neo-Ricardian” for the same thing, but they regard it as a slur, so I won’t––or it has differed from Sraffianism in minimal ways, while embracing Sraffian concerns and Sraffian methodology, such as static equilibrium modeling and physicalism. (Physicalists attempt to account for changes in values, prices, and profits solely in terms of changes in physical input-output relations, in other words, technology and the distribution of physical product between classes.) All this is widely accepted; I don’t think anyone disputes the strong Sraffian and Keynesian (and Kaleckian) influences on mainstream Marxian economics. And although Sraffian and Keynesian models are wrongly attributed to Marx and translated into Marx’s terminology, no one really hides the Sraffian and Keynesian provenance of these models (so I wouldn’t say “crypto”).

Your second question is fascinating. Keynesianism and Sraffianism are certainly more academically respectable than Marxism, and they’re not a threat to official society. So, if you’re a careerist, and your intellectual work isn’t part of the struggle for a new human society, why make problems for yourself by calling your work Marxian and making it look like a continuation of Marx’s work? There are several reasons. I’ll mention three; there may be others as well.

One is that some people are emotionally attached to “the Marxist tradition.” I don’t think that term means anything, really, but it’s widely used. It seems to be about one’s identity.

A second reason has to do with the fact that the key functions that mainstream Marxian economics has fulfilled for the capitalist system, objectively, are to suppress Marx’s own critique of political economy, to thwart a return to and development of it, and in general to see to it that the opposition is a loyal opposition. And so, in the same way that companies don’t hire Wharton School MBAs to try to keep the workers in line and toiling for the benefit of the company–– they select their foremen from among the rank-and-file workers on the shop floor––it’s useful for the system to have what you call people who “operate under the name of Marxism,” rather than orthodox economists, do the work of keeping Marxian economics in line and ensuring that its output is academically respectable.

A third reason, not unrelated, is that being a Marxist economist has been a smart career choice in some circumstances. I didn’t understand this for the longest time. After all, if orthodox economics monopolizes almost all of the really good jobs and money, why not be where the action is? The answer is that whenever you have a monopolized industry like this, there’s little chance that you’ll succeed if you compete in the mainstream of the market. If you produce soap, there’s almost no chance that you can win away some of Proctor and Gamble’s share of the market if you produce similar soap. So you produce for the market niche that wants handmade soap with exotic ingredients and scents, and you distinguish yourself by producing the only soap that contains manioca, yucca, and kiwi. In the same way, few people have really successful careers as orthodox economists, so it’s often a smart move to find a niche like Marxian economics and distinguish yourself by producing a novel Marx-Kalecki-Sraffa-Minsky monetary macro model or something.

S: On your note about totalitarianism and evil, why do you think these sorts of tactics are used by academics arguably close to each other in a theoretical framework?  What is the pathology there?

A.K: Well, they use these tactics because they work. But why do they work? Because no one stops them from using these tactics. In the economics profession and in left politics, there are no institutions that enforce ethical behavior and punish those who act unethically. Indeed, neither economics nor the left even has a Code of Ethics. There are good reasons to be critical of bourgeois right, and of bourgeois justice as it’s actually practiced. But the law of the jungle that prevails in economics and the left is much worse.

As for the idea that we’re theoretically close to each other, I don’t really think that’s true. A couple of years ago, Robin Hahnel, a well-known radical physicalist economist, wrote:

The idea that capitalism contains internal contradictions which act as seeds for its own destruction is simply wrong and needs to be discarded once and for all. …Thanks to work begun by Nobuo Okishio, modern political economists now know better. [Contrary to what Marx hypothesized,] labor-saving, capital-using technical change does nothing, in-and-of itself, to depress the rate of profit in capitalism and thereby generate a crisis of capitalism.[1]

 How theoretically close are Hahnel and I?

In any case, closeness often fails to deter evil behavior. Men beat their wives, and plantation owners in the South enslaved the women who nursed and raised their children. And as I noted earlier, the key objective social function that those who “operate under the name of Marxism” play is much like the social function of foremen or police. Foremen and police are often close to the people they boss or police. They frequently grew up in the same neighborhood, they went to the same schools, they’re from the same class, and their race and ethnicity is the same. I haven’t heard that black cops refrain from racial profiling.

S: What would a leftist code of ethics look like exactly?

A.K.: I haven’t given much thought to the details, since there seems to be so little interest in adopting a code of ethics, much less adhering to one. But this isn’t rocket science, as they used to say. The rules we need to follow to treat each other decently have been evolved through thousands of years and are pretty well understood. The key idea is the one in the Christian Bible: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”––and don’t do to others as you would have them not do to you.”

Drawing on my personal experience with unethical behavior on the left, I think that the following components would have to be part of any decent code of ethics: don’t steal the organization’s money; don’t lie about what other people say; don’t substantively alter what people write (their articles, descriptions of their meetings and seminars, etc.) without prior consultation and permission; don’t suppress the dissemination and discussion of others’ ideas; establish procedures to ensure that proponents of different perspectives engage with one another––not just each saying their own thing, but responding to others’ points; establish formal procedures to adjudicate disputes, with disinterested third-parties having the final say; and don’t cooperate with those who violate these norms.

Formal procedures for a whole variety of things are tremendously important, because they help guard against double standards being employed. I work with Marxist-Humanist Initiative, a new organization whose members had been seriously burned in other organizations that called themselves Marxist-Humanist. In light of those experiences, they realized that future of Marxist-Humanism, including their own future work in helping to develop and promote the philosophy, required that the organization abide by a whole slew of formal procedures that help safeguard against unethical behavior. Its By-Laws, which are available at  www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/philosophyorganization/by-laws-of-marxist-humanist-initiative, are 5600 words long and include 80 paragraphs. I think they’re exemplary, though of course not all of them are applicable to other kinds of organizations.

What I conclude from this is that ethical behavior isn’t just a good thing. It has great practical value for the left. People who’ve been victims of unethical behavior tend to drop out and become disillusioned. But the power-hungry and those with ulterior motives tend to stay, and do to others exactly what’s been done to them. So you get this very negative dynamic, kind of like Gresham’s Law––“bad money drives out good.” It weakens the left, and it certainly doesn’t help anyone believe that an alternative to existing society could actually work.

The key, of course, is that a code of ethics be enforced, not just adopted. This could be done without violence and without state power. All kinds of associations do so. You just exclude from the association the groups and people who violate the code, and let the public know who meets the ethical standards and who doesn’t. This would work if, but only if, the public cares.

S: So “revolutionizing radical economics” to make it look like neo-classical economics would be a way to defuse Marxist analysis while making yourself marketable. Interesting and plausible. So are there thinkers you see as being positive instead of negative examples in leftist economics right now?

A.K.: I don’t follow much of most kinds of economics that might be called leftist, so I really can’t comment on them. I’m not even sure that “leftist economics” is an identifiable entity.

Although I’m critical of Robin Hahnel, I think that his and Michael Albert’s Parecon, participatory economics, is a real step forward in thinking about what is needed in order to have a free society with a non-capitalist economy that can reproduce such relations, instead of collapsing or retrogressing into capitalism or something worse. I don’t think that Parecon actually achieves this, but it’s a step in the right direction. There’s been far too little recognition on the left that this is a crucial issue; almost everyone is fixated on political change, evidently because they think that once you have power, you decide what you want and then just implement it. But that’s not how economies work. Actions have feedback effects and unintended consequences, a problem which decide-and-implement thinking completely ignores.

The work of all of my colleagues who have helped develop the temporal single-system interpretation of Marx’s value theory (TSSI)––Guglielmo Carchedi, Alan Freeman, Nick Potts, and several others––has been very important. So has the work of Brendan Cooney. He’s not a professional economist, but a videoblogger who makes educational videos about Marx’s critique of political economy and has helped bring the TSSI to the attention of the broader public. This interpretation eliminates the apparent inconsistencies in Marx’s value theory. The reason why this is so important is that internally inconsistent arguments are always invalid; they must be corrected or rejected. So the elimination of the apparent inconsistencies allows those of us who want to return to Marx to do so in good conscience. We don’t have to follow the “corrections”––or the “syntheses” of Marx and Keynes, Marx and neoclassical economics, etc.––that have been proposed by this or that Marxist economist.

I think the development of the TSSI has also shown the importance of interpretation, especially the importance of getting right what someone said before critiquing it. It serves as a counterexample to the way in which academics generally, including academics on the left, do economics, which is dominated by fads and self-promotion and the unquestioned assumption that newer is better.

S.: What do you see as the weakness in Parecon?

A.K.: I think there are two main weaknesses. The first concerns remuneration in proportion to the amount of work you do. Albert and Hahnel think this is crucial, and I agree. So did Marx. In his “Critique of the Gotha Program,” he argued that remuneration according to the amount of work done would naturally flow out of the direct sociality of labor, and the elimination of value production and exchange, in the initial phase of what he called “communist society.” So if you can’t sustain remuneration in proportion to work, it’s a sign that labor is still indirectly social and that value relations persist. Also, if you have unequal remuneration for equal amounts of work, there’s a real danger that you’ll start to have accumulation of capital, wage-labor, and all the rest. In other words, there’s a real danger that the society will slide back into capitalism.

Now the problem is that, in Albert and Hahnel’s Parecon, remuneration isn’t really proportional to the amount of work done. In order to deal with incentive problems—people receiving equal remuneration but goofing off, doing their own thing, etc.—they establish output quotas for work teams. So remuneration is actually proportional to the amount of output that’s produced rather than the amount of work that’s done. So labor isn’t really directly social; if a work team produces only half of its quota during an 8-hour day, 4 hours of the labor it performed doesn’t count as labor. I think this could be the start of a slippery slope.

They also specify that the work has to be “socially useful,” and Albert at least construes this very broadly, such that a professor who gives all of her students A’s could be said not to have done “socially useful” work. What about a restaurant staff that prepares meals that the restaurant patrons happen not to like, or people who make movies that moviegoers happen not to like? It’s one thing to move the professor or the restaurant staff or the filmmakers into a different line of work. It’s another thing to make their labor only indirectly social (and thereby deprive them of the remuneration they need in order to live?) by retroactively deciding that the labor they already performed doesn’t count as social labor.

I think incentive problems are real and serious. They need to be solved. But I don’t think these are good ways to solve them. Whether there is a better way is an unsolved question.

The other main problem with Parecon is that Albert and Hahnel imagine that it could operate in a single country. This makes it attractive to people who want to try to create a new world within the existing world, and their related idea that participatory structures and institutions that already exist are steps down that road makes it attractive to people who are anxious to do something “positive” here and now or who want to follow David Graeber’s advice: “act as you were already free.” But I think the history of the USSR shows that you can’t have socialism in one country. What you get is state-capitalism, a state-run system that is still embedded in the global capitalist economy, and which is still locked into a competitive battle with capitals elsewhere in the world. And in order to compete efficiently––whether you’re competing for markets or competing for global supremacy––you have to produce capitalistically; that is, you have to minimize costs and maximize output. That’s the source of exploitation, unemployment, and all the rest.

For instance, in an effort to deal with the tremendous problem of global inequality while still adhering to the notion of Parecon in one country, Albert has suggested that a Parecon in a place like the U.S. could decide to pay more than it needs to for its imports from poor countries. But if this was done on a scale that had a real effect on global inequality, it would significantly increase the Parecon’s costs, making its products uncompetitive on the world market. It is likely that the loss of markets (as well as the higher costs) would ultimately make it so poor that it would be among the countries that need handouts.

But even if we set that suggestion aside, Parecon in one country wouldn’t function the way Albert and Hahnel would like it to, because it would have to be competitive, which means that it would have to minimize costs and maximize output. So it would have to speed up production, have unsafe working conditions, produce what will be profitable on the world market instead of producing for need, and declare that work isn’t “socially useful” as work if it doesn’t produce a sufficient amount of profitable output.

Marx hailed workers’ cooperatives as harbingers of the new society, but he was also acutely aware of this problem. So in volume 3 of Capital, he cautioned that, as long as they exist within capitalism, the cooperatives “naturally reproduce in all cases … all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them … the opposition between capital and labour is abolished here … only in the form that the workers in association become their own capitalist.” In other words, the workers end up exploiting themselves. Parecon in one country would be a system of participatory exploitation, Parexploit.

S.: Do see you the Marxist focus on primarily a critique of capitalism as an issue limiting its ability to articulate a positive alternative to market economies?

A.K.: Definitely. But this applies to post-Marx Marxism rather than to Marx himself.

Although it is commonly said that Marx was a theorist of capitalism, not of socialism, there is a lot in his work that pertains to the new society, sometimes indirectly, sometimes directly. It’s true that he left no “blueprints” for what to do––no “recipes … for the cook-shops of the future,” as he put it. Yet he battled Proudhonism and similar tendencies in the movement throughout his life, demonstrating that what they proposed, in order to get rid of capitalism and/or the defects of capitalism, would not be viable and would lead to a return to capitalism. And he worked out to some extent what would actually need to be changed in order to transcend capitalism. That work needs to continue—Marx does not provide “the answer” —but I think his work provides a foundation.

The first of his works that criticizes Proudhonism and similar supposed alternatives to capitalism is of course The Poverty of Philosophy. Then the Grundrisse begins with a 60-page critique of Alfred Darimon, a Proudhonist. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, there’s a short but very important critique of John Gray’s proposal for a state bank to coordinate a “labor money” system. Then, in Capital, the whole third section of the first chapter, which people generally can’t make heads or tails of, is a dialectical demonstration that the Proudhonist proposal to abolish money while leaving commodity production in existence is like a proposal to “abolish the Pope while leaving Catholicism in existence.” The first necessarily and inevitably arises on the basis of the second. And much of the theory of the determination of value by labor-time in Capital is a development and refinement of ideas first put forward against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy.

Finally, there’s Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program.” The core of it is his contention that “[R]ight can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” On the basis, he criticizes the Program’s call for “fair distribution” within capitalism as empty sloganeering, and he details of the new relations of production that would be needed in order to have a distribution of income that’s substantially different from what now exists. He discusses the production relations that would allow remuneration to be based on the amount of work people do, relations that characterize the initial phase of communist society, and then he discusses the production relations that would exist in a higher phase of that society. He concludes that “only then”––only on the basis of the production relations that characterize the higher phase––“can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

I think the most important aspect of Marx’s work on the future society is the methodology: don’t try to mentally construct the world you want or negate a particular aspect of the present society that you dislike––money, markets, or whatever. Instead, think through how proposed alternatives would actually work, how the various aspects would interrelate, and what the unintended consequences of these proposed alternatives would be. Identify what exactly must be changed, and all of what must be changed, in order to actually transcend capitalism. Far too much leftist thinking ignores all this; it seems to be based on an implicit belief that you can just implement any decision you make and that it will work according to plan, without any unintended consequences. That’s hopelessly naïve.

S.: Most Marxist scholarship has moved itself into the domain of the humanities/cultural critique and away from the economic critique. Do you think this has led to a situation where certain left-wing economists can assert that there are contradictions within the economic realm of Marxist critique without a fairly significant scholarly backlash or even discussion within the larger “Marxist” intellectual milieu?

A.K.: I don’t think there is anything particular about a turn to humanities and cultural critique in this regard. But this turn is an instance of a broader fragmentation of Marxism that has taken place. This fragmentation is certainly among the factors that allow assertions that Marx’s Capital is internally inconsistent to go unchallenged.

If one is eclectic, the internal consistency of Marx’s thought, and maybe even the internal consistency of one’s thought, isn’t so important. In addition, many people’s interest in Marxism isn’t interest in Marx’s own Marxism, and many others’ interest in Marx’s Marxism is actually interest in certain specific facets of his thought that don’t include his critique of political economy. They might be interested in political economy––for instance, concepts of “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” developed by the Regulation school are important parts of a lot of the Marxism in cultural studies and the humanities––but not Marx’s specific critique of political economy. None of these people’s oxen are the ones being gored, so the allegations of internal inconsistency aren’t going to matter much to them.

Of course, such people, as well as non- and even anti-Marxists, might regard false allegations of inconsistency as a serious ethical problem that demands a response from them. But unfortunately there are very few people like that.

There are also other phenomena that hinder what you call “fairly significant scholarly backlash.” One is that a fair number of non-economists have a stake in Marx being internally inconsistent. For instance, David Harvey’s work is built on the alleged inconsistencies and the need to revise Marxism in light of them. Another is the academization of Marxism. Much of academia in our day operates on the basis of a drive to say something novel in order to promote one’s career, and I have a sense that many academics think it’s cute, just “boys will be boys,” when Marxist and other left-wing economists justify their novel approaches and ideas by claiming that Marx was inconsistent and needs to be corrected. They recognize kindred spirits.

S.:  Do you think that lack of economic and mathematical knowledge has played a large part in “Marxists” claiming that the last decade somehow disproves the declining rate of profit thesis and (in the acceptance and popularization of this rejection by left-wing publications like Monthly Review?

A.K.: Not really. The Monthly Review school has a long track record of opposing Marx’s law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit, or at least rejecting it in practice. The principal founder of that school, Paul Marlor Sweezy, was no lightweight in economics, including mathematical economics.

I am quite troubled by claims that the rise in the rate of profit during the middle of the last decade somehow disproves the idea that the fall in the rate of profit was an important cause of the Great Recession. It’s a straw man argument, because I don’t think anyone has said that the fall in the rate of profit was a proximate cause of the recession. I for instance stress that it was an underlying and indirect, but nonetheless key, cause. And I frankly don’t think that lack of economic or mathematical knowledge is at all responsible for this straw man argument. You don’t need to know any economics or math to understand the distinction between an immediate cause and an indirect cause.

However, I do think that lack of economic and mathematical knowledge plays some part in the debate. Because of its lack of knowledge, most of the public has a hard time understanding a lot of the debate. So it doesn’t call authors out for bad arguments, bad evidence, or bad criticism. That helps them get away with it; and authors sometimes exploit this problem by being unnecessarily technical when they make their arguments and criticisms. This is why I’ve been emphasizing that there is no serious controversy concerning how to measure the rate of profit. It’s not a measurement issue. It’s a conceptual and ethical issue: one side calls something a “rate of profit” that just isn’t what people almost always mean when they refer to the rate of profit, namely profit as a percentage of the money that was invested.

S.: I know that I have had to learn large amounts of nonmarxist economics to really discuss Marx and sometimes I feel like these later developments distort my reading. What do you see is necessary prior knowledge before seriously embarking to understand Das Kapital?

A.K.: I don’t think you need to have any specialized knowledge beforehand. You don’t need to have read all of classical political economy, or even the whole of Ricardo’s Principles, ahead of time. You don’t need to have read the whole of Hegel’s Science of Logic ahead of time. I do think Lenin was quite right: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic.” But “impossible completely to understand” is very different from “completely impossible to understand.” If you’re just reading Capital for the first time, you’re not going to understand it completely even if you do read the whole of the Logic and Ricardo’s Principles and whatever.

Reading all this stuff as a prerequisite to reading Capital is a great way never to get to it. And it wouldn’t help much, because you need it mostly as reference material, not as general background material. For instance, if you read the first chapter, the way in which Marx uses the opposition “concrete/abstract” might be unfamilar to you, so you need to read a bit of philosophy. And if Marx’s statement that the commodity in the equivalent form is “endowed with the form of value by nature itself” seems mysterious, you need to go back to his basic definition of “exchange-value.” If you still don’t get it, you need to read a bit of classical political economy.

So you don’t need prior knowledge, but you do need to fill in the gaps along the away, as you encounter all manner of difficulties. Trying to intuit or “getting a general sense of” a passage doesn’t get you very far with a book like Capital. You need to pick up bits of a lot of different disciplines­­––mostly economics, philosophy, and political thought, but also bits of mathematics, history, literature, physical science, etc.

One thing that long experience with learning and teaching Capital has convinced me of is that you should absolutely never use primers on it or popularizations of it in order to try to understand its arguments and lines of argument. The main problem is that popularizations make it harder, not easier, for you to understand them; this is a major reason why they are still so misunderstood and little understood. Precisely because Marx’s ideas are difficult and popularizations are easier, the latter become an easy substitute for the original text. If we read the original text at all, we do so through the eyes of the popularizer. That’s a great way to remain unable to follow Marx’s own arguments no matter how much time you spend “reading” the book and no matter how much of it you’ve “read.” An additional problem is that none of the secondary literature on Marx provides an “innocent” or neutral interpretation, and a huge percentage of it is in bad faith. Its commonplace to write “Marx says,” followed by what you think––which you know he never said.

 S.: Anything that you would like to say in closing?

A.K.: I look forward to meeting you in person soon. And I greatly appreciate that you’ve given me the opportunity to share my thoughts on these issues with the public. This isn’t just a pro forma “thank you.” I answer a lot of questions, in e-mails, after public talks, in interviews, etc. They’re almost invariably questions that the questioner wants answered. But you’ve given me the very rare opportunity to also answer some questions that I want to answer. I don’t mind answering questions that others want answered, but it’s nice when my wants matter as well, and nice when there’s a genuine dialogue. I greatly appreciate the fact that you’ve made this interview into one.

S.: Thank you. I have learned quite a bit from this dialogue, and I look forward to meeting you too.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking Series can be found here, here, herehereherehereherehere, here hereherehereherehere  here, here, and here. 


[1] Hahnel, Robin, “The Economic Crisis and the Left,” Znet, Mar. 16, 2010, emphases in original. Available at tinyurl.com/638c84l.

Logical Fallacies and the Internet Left/Liberal Trolling

It’s a nice evening in the mid-60’s Fahrenheit and the cherry blossoms are blooming, and I am finishing some grading after cleaning the apartment. My girlfriend’s cat is nuzzling me, and I can’t get the absurdity of a K-pop song’s questionable English out of my head. This said, I made the horrible mistake of getting on a facebook group of the left-wingers. I have made New Years resolutions to back away from the massive troll wars of the left as leftist internet trolls are a special breed of troll–admittedly often slightly more erudite than your average American conservative troll arguing on Huffington post, but only in the margins of difference.

So today I read an internet argument about Nationalism and racism. Now, as an avowed “anti-racist” and someone who takes nationalism seriously both positively and negatively, I would want to not call out basic mistakes in logic, but alas, being in the skeptical tradition and hating general illiteracy, I had to point out that the following paraphrased statement makes no logical sense: American capitalism developed among an explicitly white supremacist milieu, therefore any anti-capitalist movement is also anti-racist.

Now, I am not going to get into the history of how this is explicitly not true: the Southern Agrarians hated liberal capitalism and the decline of tradition therein, the National Syndicalists were explicitly anti-capitalist and were nationalists (which most said leftists and liberals would have considered racist, and the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the left-wing of the fascist movement. I won’t even get into how unbelievably wrong this sentiment is historically. Nor will I make too much hay on the fact that capitalism is much larger than the particular semi-hegemonic power in the United States, and it’s origins do happen to emerge roughly contemporaneously to European nationalism, but also play against it as many nationalists knew.

Setting all those criticism aside: this is a formal logical fallacy.

The fallacy at hand is the “Illicit contraposition,” which does sound like a new Cold War plot, is the following formal logical fallacy:

All S are P.
Therefore, no non-P are non-S

In this case:

All capitalism is racist*
Therefore, all anti-capitalism is anti-racist.

This not only is illicit contraposition, *whose first formal syllogistic statement is incoherent anyway (it does not follow that sense capitalism developed in a racist context that it would be always and forever racist), it also formalizes the informal logical fallacy of “No True Scotsman.” So historical examples to the contrary, I wouldn’t need that, I can merely point out that this short statement includes, at minimum, one formal (*always wrong) and one informal (*usually wrong) fallacy.

So the deeper question is this: Why do trolls not even bother to make convincing arguments? The hyper-reification of concepts leads to all sorts of fallacious foundations to arguments? This isn’t quite to “my” side: Derbyshire’s Taki Mag article last week is no less than a whole-to-part fallacy mixed with well-poisoning. Yet one sees “said abstract developed under context of said abstract, therefore anti-said-abstract must also be anti-said-other-abstract” is fallacious in the extreme and common as “sin” on the left-wing blogosphere.

No ideological position has a mandate on illogical thinking.

Enlightenment Contested: Scientific Skepticism

Despite my love of philosophy, my first love in philosophy was philosophy of science and as a child, I read Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer to show up the locals in science in my small middle Georgia town. My first love was biology and anthropology, and my first crush on a writer was the science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, and the scientist and science journalist, Stephen Jay Gould. One of the things you will notice is that while I will make critiques of scientific community’s publishing practices, of the sociology of research, on fields with have little historical, comparative, or experimental checks (such as Evolutionary Psychology): I do, however, think the chanting of many in the New Atheist and “Skeptic’s Community” about “reason” is vapid and more than a little unreasonable as what is meant by “reason:” moves from meaning “science” to “logic” to “commonsense” to “critical thinking” without realizing that these are not the same thing, and even individually

Despite my philosophical critiques, I actually still consider myself part of that moment. I listen to Skeptic podcasts, and while I avoid the new atheist, one of my favorite popular philosophers is Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking (Blog and Podcast). I was struck, however, listening to a recent episode of Rationally Speaking: the difference between intuitive and deliberation reason is fascinating as it indicates that a) most people actually don’t think deliberately rationally, and b) this is rational in a extreme way. This leads to a set of flukes: human beings do not have a base-line “system b” intuition about probability and advanced numbers.

If one wanted to talk about “dialectics of Enlightenment” (to borrow a phrase from Horkheimer and Adorno and use in in a completely different way), it is clear that the more you study the “reasoning brain,” the more complicated our picture of human logic becomes. Most logical skills are not innate, and the optimistic vision of the 17th century Enlightenment enables the science which makes us question “natural” reasoning states. No wonder why post-structuralists philosophers can appear so convincing when you understand them, the more you know about science and logic, the more you realize that people do not automatically think scientifically and logically even without “substitution” and other forms of cultural habit.

So the legacy of the Enlightenment, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Israel, is contested within itself. This, by the way, is why I am not “anti-modern” in a simple sense: I am a loyal opposition to modernity because I think “reason”–by which I mean logic and scientific rigor–actually undoes most of the optimism in the early parts of the Enlightenment and the violent meloncholia that Nietzsche calls nihilism can emerge if one is burned to bad by the dreams of a completely reasonable world. I, however, don’t think it is just philosophy that gets you there–either in analytic breakdown of modal logic or the speculative categories of modern European philosophy and critical theory.

Still understanding “reason” in a not naive way, and realizing the limitations of framing and limits of a particular sociology, science is one of the modern gifts that one should fight, tooth and nail, to preserve even when one is critiquing “scientism” (abuses of the scientific demarcation line) and bad practices, of which there are many, in the scientific community.

Abstraction, Academia, and Analogy: The politics of abstraction and the abstraction of politics

On theory, theories exist. In practice, they do not. — Bruno Latour

I have just come back from the market after walking my fiancee to her teaching job: my students are doing independent work for the mid-term, so I have only had to be available by consultation, which I have been by phone, e-mail, and skype. There is something to being an academic and a teacher, even one is not phoning things in, that makes for time to reflect, plan, critique, and study. In other words, to propose knowledge for students as oppose to merely replicating prior knowledge. Or, at least, that is the hope. There are moments in my more cynical periods where this seems far from clear to me: particularly given the staggering number of papers and projects that either don’t go anywhere or don’t do anything.

Anyway, being in Academia, particularly in the social science and humanities region thereof, I often linger in philosophical abstractions, and there is a good reason for this, as I am trying to deal with conceptual frameworks for handling and speaking about highly, highly complex issues, but I find myself more and more finding a certain level of philosophical abstraction completely not only alienating, but itself obfuscating issues. I have been critical of the way math is used in economics in a way that often hides important qualitative information, such as behavioral cues, which the Austrian economists were right to critique (there are to this is a set of apriori rationalistic arguments, however, is worse than the disease). I also critical of methodologies being given as an answer without specifics or context.

In a sense, this seems to serve two functions: to avoid symbolic violence and to distance oneself for failures of theory in action. I feel that when I read hyper-abstract theories of meta-history and teleology, which one sees in most Marxist writings and, frankly, most Anarchist writings. Why? In Marx and even in Lenin, one sees all sorts of specifics being dealt with in addition to a Hegelian dialectic. After Adorno (in one tradition) and Althusser (in an opposed one), the critique you get is either not theoretical at all in “actually existing socialist” societies or it is highly abstract dialectics or structuralists analysis in which the analysis seems to be subject of politics. There the lack of abstraction and the hyper-abstraction seem like moves of avoidance.

I am speaking know of Marxism and anarchism because that is what I write about here. I also despite appeals to simplicity and absolute concreteness as somehow proof of deep thought: such clarity can be profoundly muddling and obfucatory, but when abstraction is not backed with something concrete other than form immediately, I am beginning to think that this is an abstraction of politics. It is a form of obfuscation and avoidance.

BiFo on Futurism, Post-Futurism, with some stuff about Lenin thrown in..

A friend of mind pointed me to this passage from the above referenced book:

“I believe that there is a profound relationship between the drive to activism and male depression in late-modernity, which is most evident in the voluntarist and subjectivist organisation of Leninsm. Both from the standpoint of the history of the worker’s movement in the 1900’s and from that of the strategic autonomy of society of capital, I’m convinced that the twentieth century would have been a better century had Lenin not existed. Lenin’s vision interprets a deep trend in the configuration of modern masculinity. Male narcissism was confronted with the infinite power of capital and emerged from it frustrated, humiliated and depressed.

[…] Lenin emerged from the 1902 crisis by writing What is to be Done? and engaging the construction of the ‘nucleus of steel’, a block of will capable of breaking the weakest link in the (imperialist) chain. The second crisis came in 1914 at the height of breakup of the Second International and the split of the Communists. The third crisis, as you might guess, occurs in the spring of 1917. […] Lenin conceived of the April Theses and decided to impose will on intelligence: a rupture that disregarded the deep dynamics of class struggle and forced on them an external design. Intelligence is depressive, therefore will is the only cure for the abyss: ignore but do not remove it. The abyss remained and subsequent years did not uncover it; the century slipped into it.

[…] Leninism’s intellectual decisions were so powerful that they papered over depression with obsessive male voluntarism.”

I don’t have After the Future in English or Italian on me, but I did find a similar passage in Precarious Rhapsody.:

Lenin’s depression

I believe that there is a profound relationship between the drive to activism and the male depression of late modernity, which is most evident in the voluntaristic and subjectivist organization of Leninism. Both from the standpoint of the history of the workers’ movement in the 1900s and from that of the strategic autonomy of society from capital, I am convinced that the twentieth century would have been a better century had Lenin not existed. Lenin’s vision interprets a deep trend in the configuration of the psyche of modern masculinity. Male narcissism was confronted with the infinite power of capital and emerged from it frustrated, humiliated, and depressed. It seems to me that Lenin’s depression is a crucial element for understanding the role his thought played in the development of the politics of late modernity.

I have read Hélène Carrère D’Encausse’s biography of Lenin. The author is a researcher of Georgian descent, who in the 1980s also published L’empire en miettes, where she foresaw the collapse of the Soviet empire as an effect of the insurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. What interested me in Carrère D’Encausse’s biography of Lenin more than the history of Lenin’s political activity was his personal life, his fragile psyche, and his affectionate and intellectual relationships with the women close to him: his mother, his sister, Krupskaia, comrade and wife, who looked after him at times of acute psychological crises, and, finally, Ines Armand, the perturbing, the uneimlich, the lover whom Lenin decided to neutralize and remove, like music, apparently. The framework of the psyche described in this biography is depression and Lenin’s most acute crises coincided with important political
shifts in the revolutionary movement. As Carrère D’Encausse writes:

Lenin used to invest everything he did with perseverance, tenaciousness and an exceptional concentration: such consistency, which he thought necessary in each of his efforts, put him in a position of great superiority over the people around him… This feature of his character often had negative effects. Exceedingly intensive efforts would tire him and wear down his already fragile nervous system. The first crisis dates back to 1902 (1998: 78).

These were the years of the Bolshevik turn, of What is to be done? Krupskaia played a fundamental role in the crisis of her comrade: she intervened to filter his relations with the outside world, paid for his therapy and isolation in clinics in Switzerland and Finland. Lenin emerged from the 1902 crisis by writing What is to be done and engaging in the construction of a ‘nucleus of steel,’ a block of will capable of breaking the weakest link in the imperialist chain. The second crisis arrived in 1914 at the height of the break up of the Second International and the split of the Communists. The third crisis, as you might guess, occurred in the spring of 1917. Krupskaia found a safe resort in Finland, where Lenin
conceived The April Theses and the decision to impose will on intelligence: a rupture that disregarded the deep dynamics of class struggle and forced onto them an external design. Intelligence is depressive, therefore will is the only cure to the abyss, to ignore it without removing it.

The abyss remains and the following years uncovered it, as the century precipitated into it.

Here I do not intend to discuss the politics of Lenin’s fundamental choices. I am interested in pointing out a relationship between Bolshevik voluntarism and the male inability to accept depression and develop it from within. Here lies the root of the subjectivist voluntarism that produced the setback of social autonomy in the 1900s. The intellectual decisions of Leninism were so powerful because they were capable of interpreting the male obsession with voluntarism as it faced depression.

I won’t comment too much on this except that everyone is always trying to parse a subjectivity as a means to figure out Lenin and the course of the socialist at end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21th. Why so much focus on what cannot be know about one man’s subjectivity? Something crucial is in that impossibility, and hence why everyone focuses on it. Yet it is totally outside the bounds of reason, and take very weird forms: What makes Lenin’s willfulness particularly masculine? suffragettes and Temperance movement women both manifested it. Why I get tired of trying to justify Lenin’s works with the actual actions of the Bolshevik party during his rule, I just must admit that given the way Lenin acted and Lenin wrote, and the tosses and turns he made in response, this sort of psychologizing is an avoidance.

Exhaustion sets in over time: Or how I learned to quit arguing about “the left” and started see politics for what was (meta-relationships).

In the rush of cars outside in cool evening air calms me. I have written about a page on my short story today, gotten more house work done around my fiancee’s apartment, and went back to a politics and philosophy group I started almost a year ago.  I must admit: I am tired of the concept of the generic, non-liberal left.  I am tired of even the generic Marxian left as a concept and as a practice.  I would rather listen to the cars outside because it is about of the same usefulness.

I have already spelled out that I doubt that the teleological view of history, even the contingent or “dialectical,” teleological view of history avoids the fact that we speak as if we know what is good or possible, and we do not. We only know the probable. We can only have probable knowledge through a variety of processes.  We may call them “truth” processes.  Meta-theories about these processes, the content of philosophy and non-philosophy (to use term by Laruelle), are necessary just like science is justified in a variety of epistemological frameworks, but they cannot in any strict sense be known to be true.  Our evidence for them is in the effects.  Hence, my point about Hegel’s, History is the judge of human ideas.  These things can only be seen in hindsight, and the conservative caution about them is not unwarranted.

The problem with the conservative position is that historical contingencies do change: material conditions change, cultures interaction, events happen.  The rupture of an event changes everything, and just like the you who is a person tomorrow is not the same as a person today nor totally distinct from it, the needs of a culture do change over time.  The needs of an ecological system changes. The needs of an individual changes.  The individual is a complex system and the ecology is a complex system: neither a unitary nor a plurality.  Yet we can’t assume the needs of either scale up.  This is why the personal is political is a too reductive and simplistic to be useful.

One of the things I have noticed, sitting here thinking about it, is that I have been forced to try to defend or condemn the subject impulses of anarchists or Leninists, the pluralism of Lenin whose next moves after said pluralism were to ban all political parties opposed to him?  Or to defend Bakunin who endorsed “invisible dictatorship” and whose associations with barrack’s anarchist Sergey Gennadiyevich Nyechayev blacked his name when Nyechayev killed many of his own comrades. Nor I can defend Nestor Ivanovych Makhno, hero of so many left anarchists, who tried to ethnically purge the German Mnennonites from his city. It is not that I don’t understand that politics contains violence. Violence is a fact of human relationships. It is that I cannot make excuses for it.

To say that history has judged this harshly is to say that events have emerged that show the problems of these positions. The subjectivities or fidelities to the intention of these ideas is irrelevant, ultimately.

Don’t worry, I am not going to hand in my cards, and become a Democrat, and retire as a head of a non-profit. Nor will I take the false pretense of being a moderate: I do think violence is sometimes necessary, but these aims have historically been against real people. Marxism dominates among scholars, I think, because we can disconnect events from theories. After all, Marx only gave us critique: critique of the socialist movement (Blanquists, Saint-Simonians, LaSalleians), critique of political economy (against Proudhon, against Bentham, moderating and expanding Ricardo and Smith), and critique of Hegel and the Young Hegelians. The dialectics in Marx and Frankfurt School have only ever been negative, and in most Leninism and Maoism have only ever been justifications. That’s a huge generalization, but the incoherence of the practice indicate that theory lacked, not led, the discussion. In all “communism” states, positive political economy was given by another theory beyond Marxism. Take the Soviet example: for NEP-period and for Stalin, Taylorism. For the 1950s and early 1960s, US cybernetic theory. For late 1960 and 1970s, limited forms of social democracy. In China, you have similar issues: Mao borrowed much of his positive proscriptions from Chinese Legalism and from Stalin’s forced collectivization, and after Mao, we saw Mercentilism and development along state-capitalist lines like an accelerated form of policies from 17th century Europe. One of my friends says this because of the managerial class infecting Marxism, I go much further them him: it is from from lacking a positive vision of social organization that could actually work.

In a different way anarchists too have been primarily about opposition: to various forms of rulership, to the state, etc. Syndicalism was the only form of anarchism that I know actually developed a long-range coherent political economy, although Murray Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism did attempt to do this as well. Mostly, however, this is been active critique. Anarchist victories have been, well, small. Confederations have never been able to counter well-heeled states, nor have autonomous zones really been able to resist. Most anarchists I deal with instead of offering real fixes this, justify loses as virtues. Yet there is much to admire in the anarchist vitality and the Marxist historical rigor: much to admire and I used to think bring these groups together would lead to a way through this impasse. A lot of people believe this as it was the zeitgeist of Occupy. To be honest, I don’t think this works now.

I could go on about Social Democrats being unable to resist market forces, and left-liberals almost always letting conservatives define the debate for them.

Chastising the left alone, though, is a form of posturing. An exhausting one which hollows out one’s tactical political goals, and leaves one a husk of a person. Critique should always have an axiomatic aim: a dialectical process must be able to handle the sublation and know what it is not acceptable as an answer. Dialectics isn’t politics though, its a form of logic.

The “revolution”–which has become an over-full signifier–will not be televised. It will not be an “inner” revolution. In fact, I don’t know what it will be, but I am pretty sure it won’t be televized. I also have a feeling that most of the existing ideologically-driven left will not recognize until it hits them square in the head. Until then, we have to do the hard work: this is issue work, and its outside of electoral spectacles. Of course, we must make concessions to the societies we actually live in, but let’s not be false about it.

IF I go searching for pathology, I will find disease or possible disease, particularly if my guide isn’t anything objective. There is a point where this is a waste of time. I have issues I care about, I have axioms for what I find unacceptable: I don’t think electoral reform will fix these issues, but trying to battle this as a totality seems, well, like a recipe for failure.

History is the judge of ideas. This not mean there is some meta-historical or trans-historical meta-logic to which we will be able to have a theory of the correct idea, it can, however, show us with ideas where botched, maladjusted, and counter-adaptive. This is the way history shows us things. Anything thing else reifies the concept.

I am going to go back to listening to cars.

Korean Elections, Skepticism, New books, Science fiction, and The Enlightenment

It is election day in South Korea, so the dancing girls and old woman handing fliers with numbers on them (as candidates are assigned a number here) with the booming trucks trying through small city streets and crowding the corners.  There is not much in American style attack ads and the spectacle is limited for a month or so. In Mohyeon-meon on the outskirts of Yong-in, where my university is nestled in the side of a mountain, I see little of this, but in visiting my beloved in Daejeon and travelling through Seoul, which I do weekly, I see the carnival of democracy.

Of all forms of democracy, I value representative democracy the least: in either its American or Parliamentary form.   The tendency for “rational irrationality” to creep into deliberation and the human inability to intuitively understand probabilities make this almost a given.  There is one maxim that Badiou gives from his various sets that I take more seriously as I get older: Politics is what cannot be represented.  However, I am not taking the purist stance of many anarchists who wish that there are no concessions to spectacles as people’s lives are made and broken in public policy.

At least, in Korea, election day is a national holiday, so people do not work in the mildly warm spring air, one sees children playing in the knocks of the side walk and the edges of the street while street vendors , I stopped by my local fruit vendor and bought some naval oranges.   I don’t drive here in South Korea and “New Urbanism” is just, you know, the way cities organically function here for all their problems. So I stop by and interact more with people, even as just as respite from the carnival.

I keep mulling some of my new story in my head: It’s refreshing to be writing something other than critical theory or political blogging for once.  Not that there isn’t politics in my short story, even in the long arm of the Hegelian geist:  I deal in science fiction because I can critique what is and what could be.

Yesterday I completed most of my spring book buying: I tend to seasonally allot myself reading.  In Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanhamoon in Seoul, there is little fiction so no new Paolo Bacigalupi that I wanted, although I have quite enjoyed re-reading his “Pump Six” collection of stories, which rank up their with Philip K. Dick and early J.G. Ballard, as well as China Mieville for writing that truly deals with issues substantively without reading like it is a fictionalized version of a Berkeley culture studies class.    So I got a few more shorter Badiou works after looking fruitlessly for anything else by Francois Laruelle.

I noticed a few more “skeptical” titles on religion that I considered:  I have become re-engaged with Skeptical Thinkers in both the classical tradition and in the so-called “Skeptic’s Movement.” I am still highly critical of the positivistic inclination in many of the Skeptic’s movement, and the want of consensus of scientists to decide norms from descriptions.    In many ways, I find it philosophically undeveloped, and politically naive.   The rampant soft-libertarianism, un-reflective left-liberalism, and the acceptance of bad economic thought as well bothers me.   Furthermore, I doubt I could get a one of them to put Bertrand Russell, quit whining about relativism and post-modernism without understanding them (or even knowing what isn’t Post-modern or Post-structural.), and realize that criticizing scientific practices in both practical and scientific grounds is often not done out a fear of science, but a love of it within its demarcation.

I consider this a sign of the times, though.  The radical Enlightenment never completely one and the few truths of those in the Counter-Enlightenment never really took hold.  It is, however, cowardly not to engage with skeptics. After all, I started blogging in order to combat bad science in education and misreadings of science in the humanities,  then started combating naivete realism in “Skeptical blogs”–structural frameworks have to be engaged in.   As I am not a believer in anything that could be called supernatural, and I detest ignorance as much as arrogance, I should engage with as a person who has come to similar conclusions from radically different means to illustrate the point.

So instead of science fiction, I picked up Jonathan Israel’s massive, “Enlightenment Contested?,” because at the core isn’t this what it is all about?   The skeptic’s movement is sort of a popular form of the French Newtonians which pretty much influenced all analytic philosophy.  But this book not only goes into thinkers like those considered Counter-Enlightenment, but also Asian influences on the Enlightenment, and how three different variants of the mood of the Enlightenment set the stage for most of political theory in the modern period.   As I think we are living in a time when these ideas and the political arrangements, even the aesthetic trends in this, have begun to hit a limit and we can see how they transform.

The spring air calls through the window.  One can forget it is an election sense or that even the environment is beginning to show severe signs of wear-and-tear.

 

The twilight of winter, and historicism

I do not call myself a progressive, as it was a term used by left liberals to distance themselves from communism and for liberal-leaning communists to hide, furthermore as the demonization of the word liberal in the popular imagination and simplification of the political spectrum into a highly misleading and rather vapid binary. Yet in pondering the historicism of Hegel as well as Nietzsche and DeMaistre, there is a tension in all historical thinkers for even the most conservative ones realize that while time may not be moving in a presupposed teleos, it most definitely moves and Hegel supposed as did DeMaistre that history was the judge of right.

This, however, has always problematized the left. The left conception of history can not longer be simply linear. It cannot think this because history did not judge left projects well. One was seen two trends in left philosophy: to embrace and accelerate the end of history within liberal modernity or to see everything that has happened as regressive.  DeMaistre had the same conflict when he saw the Enlightenment win. The Right has not be judged well by history either.

Now I do see a validity to this later view yet this is in fundamental contradiction to a materialist conception of history without a teleos which is known. We cannot know the future, and even the past is but a rhyming dictionary. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. So this fundamental contradiction requires a self dialectic that remains unaddressed.

I say this on a day I am on a bus and ill with cold. The winter is over but peeking its head up for one more day, and the predictable unpredictability of the natural emerges yet the climate is altering slowly day by day. This actually primes my thought.

On the things we like to call “sexuality”

Finally, after a day of travel all of the North end of South Korea, I am back at dorm room apartment.  Oh, the life of an expatriate lecturer, one gets to live in a “dormitory” well into their early 30s.  Anyway, after vowing to move this blog anyway from abstractions, and mix things up a bit.

I am getting married to a wonderful woman: I was hesitant in some ways for a variety of reason, and I am hesitant to talk about my views on the contradictions within our concept of marriage.  With a caveat, I opposed the idea of marriage for most of my early 20s and did, again, after my first divorce.  My ex-wife and I are actually still great friends and both did and didn’t divorce for the common reasons:  it was not infidelity, it was lifestyle incompatibility and money issues that stem from said incompatibility. I used to joke that I being a “Married male of any orientation should be a different gender category from an unmarried one.”   I still, actually, feel that way in a sense.

Now, I am also a believer that no marriage arrangement is entirely natural: both polygamy and monogamy come with some strain and tension with most individuals inclinations and thus cannot be said to be or not be natural unless the social and environmental constraints are accounted for in a realistic fashion.   I also a believer that very little avoidances of marriage are entirely without their aleinations even in a particular context, in Northern Europe where divorce and marriage are no longer common, the unmarried relationships often assume a form resembling in almost all domestic aspects a marriage.   Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá document pretty convincingly that most narratives on sexuality have had a present bias and a pretty moralistically bleak view of libidinal economy, even in good works by Darwin and so forth.  The book “Sex at Dawn” which is often taken as a defensive of polyamory can be properly be read as a defense of contextual relationships.

That said, both the abstracted notions of sex on sees in liberal-radicals like Judith Butler (who would never use that phrase) as well as hyper-conservative notions on sees in most people who defend traditional values as “biological” is highly problematic.   Traditional values may have been biological in a specific context, but it takes more than will-power for a traditional context to make sense.  In this sense, it is not without problems to see our current openness about sex and hook-up culture as a form of liberation.  It seems to me that it makes the real objects of sex taboo and also allows us to turn people into objects in lieu of taking about the real objects of sex.

I use “objects” and not object because I think both “radical” and “conservative” discourse about sexuality is entirely reductive to a stupid degree: if sex were about merely procreation then we would have “heat” cycles to ensure pregnancy like, well, most other males, and if it were merely about pleasure then  the female orgasm would not be so elusive.  Evolution is a harsh mattress and not a teleologically consistent one:  it’s an ad hoc universe  in the biological sphere. (This, of course, makes speaking about “nature” coherently almost in possible? Even nature has a context).

This is not to deny that there are real limits to human sexuality and real battles fought over it.  But in a way, our dialogue on what the “meaning” of sex is may be incoherent to the point of schizotypal because a decoupling of social context and biologic context, but a severing into a dialectical tension that which is not in fundamental contradiction in its unalienated state.

Wait, here I revere to tendencies I dislike about philosophy writing, the tendency to over-abstract:  people love and people fuck for a variety of different reasons in  a variety of different contexts.   Almost none of us are comfortable with that because some form of “other” enjoyment indicates a lack created by our ability to articulate.

What is it Lacan says?  Lack is created by language.  Before we speak, we cannot postulate that which is not?

So I’ll try to avoid name dropping, with the caveat that Foucault’s basic premise that sexuality is a socially situated, seems to be more or less right.  The problem is, as always, that our conceptions of biological and social are falsely separated:   while I am critical of the metaphor as “nature” as a “machine,” I  do fundamentally think that social structures and biological structures are in a feedback loop.  I desire someone both because I have a genetic impulse to desire them, but how I desire them and what forms that relationship takes are, in no small part, socially shaped.   The real dialectical conflicts come when social notions no longer fit biological reality, even if biological reality has changed for essentially social reasons.

Technology changes who you are.  How can you not think it changes your relationships to people?

This leads to all sorts of issues:  I am gay or straight or bisexual?  How is that it appears that while sexuality is definitely determined by social pressures and yet we cannot castigate certain practices out of existence?   Does it make sense to get married?

In my personal life this plays out in a lot of strange ways:  I am getting married to a woman because I love her.  Now, I realize in the grand scheme of things, even from personal experience, love is a weak reason for marriage. In fact, it’s not even a good predictor of martial happiness.  The information on arranged marriages startlingly conflicts with the notion that peer-love marriage is a good means for contentment for most people who are belong a certain social class and income range.  Even the sexual revolution, interestingly, has been more positive for upper middle class women and men who seem to benefit from promiscuity  then still get into relatively stable marriages (of varying degrees of openness) whereas the poor who often value marriage more as a social good see fewer marriages and fewer of its benefits?    I love a few women quite deeply, and yet I choose one of them because I love her and it seems conductive to that kind of social relationship.

In a way, just talking about fucking is avoiding the a lot of the larger issues here isn’t it.

Nothing in modernity seems to be without its contradictions.  Particularly in sex where anything viewed long enough and believed in general in mass culture seems to be fraught with outright contradictions. I, as I stated, am no exception: the polyamorous man entering into a relationship that is rooted in monogamy. Doing so willingly and knowing from personal failure the dangers involved, and yet when I am honest with myself even in my most polyamorous moments my relationships have been based on fundamental rules and commitments that are both from my partners and the larger social milieu. Sometimes, I find it more than a little ironic that liberals for all their emphasis on social importance  and social contextualization, take a completely individualistic view on love and sex.

Funny how so many refuse to look honestly at the contradictions in their lives: dialectics, as I understand it, is a way to look at one’s contradictions honestly and try to move past them.  Most people, however, from the pain of cognitive dissonance cannot do this: doing this in one’s most intimate relationship is even more traumatic.

But it is spring time, after all, and thus we like to think we should talk about love.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,414 other followers