Category Archives: Economics

Ideology and the Individual In Cinema, II

By David A.


First, before I begin, the following is not intended to make a conclusion on whether or not the modern incarnation of film represents “good” or “bad” art; I am not Slavoj Zizek, nor do I intend to be. Instead, this is a matter of examining ideologically functionality. It is intended to glance at what the majority of films, especially films derived from Hollywood, are implemented for with regards to bourgeois cultural hegemony.

We left off roughly at the conclusion that the modern manifestation of the cinematic hero is (consciously or unconsciously) a specific form of interpellation. This edition, however, seeks to understand, at least on an abstract level, the way in which the hero, the protagonist, inevitably serves a different function than it did in pre-Capitalist times given that art then was produced under different ideological circumstances, given the different mode of production which existed at the time. While what I put forth here may, indeed, apply to both the aesthetic form and with literature, I have chosen to dedicate this serial to the subject of film because it is among the chief examples (as well as the most popular) of a form of art which has developed entirely in the context of Capitalist cultural domination, and with regards to Hollywood, is entirely inseparable from the circulation of Capital (as the existence of many a studio film depends entirely on whether or not this is a possibility). This is, of course, not to say that other forms of media have not also been incorporated into the overall bourgeois superstructure; however, having existed throughout the ethos of humankind’s cultural expression, across different modes of production, such an analysis would have to be reserved for another time.

Literature and art of the past has offered us a myriad of heroes, of sagas, which romanticizes the experience of the struggle, something all organisms endure, which, in turn, formulates the narrative itself. Very often, however, the art produced existed in the realm of cultural self-expression wherein, as I previously pointed out, the characters that were produced by the narrative were entirely subject to the objective material conditions which were depicted within the narrative (wherein, also, the line betwixt fiction and non-fiction, myth and fact, was mystified). Let us examine the case of Cao Cao, as so famously depicted in the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It was not Cao Cao, or any of the other romanticized warlords (Lu Bu, Liu Bei, etc.) who forged the narrative – they were the catalyst for the story of China’s upheavals, rather it was inversed. The troubles of that period were the catalyst for their manifestation, both in reality and, somewhat more importantly, in their immortalized depiction across the annals of history, starting from the aforementioned novel. The epistemological rupture betwixt Cao Cao or Achilles and, to use a crude example, a Rambo archetype, is that the latter exerts his determination very often isolated from or hostile to the objective material circumstances of a given situation, i.e. the masses or the environment (very often both). Only occasionally do modern heroes require the help from characters that are, of course, supporting them in their endeavor of personal conquest. In short, Cao Cao and the like are subject to the narrative at hand, whilst on the other side, modern cinematic heroes are very often masters of that very narrative.

Here I must pause, and for a moment explain that since this is being viewed through the prism of historical materialism, I must point out that I do not think that the protagonist, the hero, while nearly ubiquitous in art throughout human history, retains a transhistorical function. On the contrary, the effort must be put forth to thoroughly investigate the modern origins of the individualist archetype, immortalized time after time in the modern cinematic experience. Here, through Nietzschean self-determination and will, the protagonist is never subject to the objective conditions, but the very catastrophe of it’s being, manifested in explosions and gunfights, forms the modern narrative, seeping down into all manners of artwork from the golden screen above. Wherein did the protagonists’ function depart from an agent of cultural self-expression, in which they are secondary to overall drama of the narrative itself, to functioning as an agent of self-assertion whose very existence is the narrative? When did the protagonist become reified into the narrative itself, and when did narrative no longer from the soil from which various characters spring up? Without the Trojan war, without the siege of Troy, the objective conditions of the time, could Homer have had an avenue through which all those heroes could have been highlighted? Fictional or not, the objective events of that time shaped the stories, formed the narrative, from which characters sprang – and to those conditions were they vulnerable. Without the mistake made by Asano Naganori in assaulting Kira Yoshinaka, and without all the developments which transpired afterwards, again the objective conditions from which characters spring, what would have become of the Japan’s national legend, The 47 Ronin?

It should be noted that while looking fondly on storytelling of the past, this piece in no way suggests that the ethos of art return to the way it was in a previous mode of production, as such a thing would be the act of a philistine at best, and the crime of a reactionary at the worst. Springing back to the present, we can see that the narrative, the objective conditions, does not proceed the protagonists, but rather it is composed by the interpersonal affairs of the protagonist itself; the narrative is subject to them, and as such, cannot form independently. How often does the vigilant movie-watcher spot something attributable to the protagonist which forms a plot hole, and upon pointing that out, is met with the usual,

“Well then, there’d be no movie!”

Behold, post-modern fascism.

The most recent example would be the film Django Unchained, which while personally artistically satisfying, exemplifies this motif. It is a fascistic masterpiece insofar as the entire plot arch revolves around the existence and self-determination of a lone individual, in this case Django, and could not even materialize without him. There are rare exceptions, but generally in the modern ethos of film, this is the formula which is employed to tell a story. Perhaps it can be said that the objective conditions forming the subjective experiences exist, but that the subjective experiences are the foreground, while the masses, the landscape, all exist in the background and would not at all be explored save for the existence of the protagonist. A necessary investigation, which should be saved for another time, would be examining the rupture points wherein the modes of expression changed function, even use-value, and responded to the shifts in the modes of production.

Antiquity clearly employed one distinct form of function in artistic expression from modernity; where we are lost is the in-between, where the function ceased one form and manifested into another.
If we work alongside the notion of material progression, then we are of course bound to incorporate the status of artistic mediums into that overall equation. The key is watching for new artistic mediums as well as the movements which start in their wake, which have a tendency to react to external stimuli, mostly springing from the masses. Clutching to the events and upheavals of a given time, the points demonstrated earlier that art directly corresponds to the ideological mood of the time, and most of it is in turn completely overtaken by the cultural hegemon.

The presence of the gaze, which is something acknowledged throughout production of a film, is itself a direct result of the current mode of production, forms a key function of the shift in artistic, especially cinematic, function, The gaze, often contained within the span of two or so hours, fixates you upon a particularity, who’s aesthetic appeal has a limited span of time, and cannot enjoy the sort of permanence that a book, painting, sculpture, etc. enjoys. Meanwhile, a particular scene can be enjoyed multiple times, but against, within a specific time/framework, while consciously being subjected to the gaze of the viewer. Add the subjective perception of the viewer into this framework, whom is aware of the conditions in which the illusion of film takes places (ignoring it via the suspension of disbelief), here we already have a relationship with a disposition towards atomization. Here, the time to espouse an artistic point is not measured in lifetimes (such as the cultural importance of a particular painting or piece of literature), at most it is measured in generations with the case of film, and certain hastiness must take place. A scene, a filmed narrative, must work to have all the necessary details ready at once, while producing the agents of narrative whose composition is entirely sweeping enough to at least appeal to a majority of the viewership, at least the intended viewership (again, this is a matter of Capital circulation). Here the intention is established; that insofar as it will circulate capital, the development of a narrative which does not relate to a culture-at-large, but rather individual dispensers of cash, i.e. the viewership, films will continuously produce narratives composed by irrational individual heroes.

Knowing this, it cannot be emphasized enough to remember that film is rarely produced for the sake of artistic satisfaction, but instead serves an economic use-value (entertainment) and has proven to a be an extremely viable method of capital accumulation and circulation. We have only faint glimpses of what cinema looks like divorced from bourgeois cultural hegemony, and most of said material has been produced in the past from consciously revolutionary movements which sought to do this very thing, existing only in brief spats of time. Inversing the narrative and protagonist, or clearing distinctions between the two, demonstrates the ideology of rash individualism in society-at-large; through this, even in the most crowded theater or in the thickest of a party, atomization (cinema being on aspect of interpellating this point) has ensured that we shall all continuously be alone together.

In the modern narrative form, which is embodied in most cinema, adapting to all new forms of media, it enforces the notion (consciously or unconsciously) that the mostly socially-constructed notion of the individual exists in its most terrifying form, in completely isolation from one another, and the heroics of modern cinema only serve to reinforce this idea that you and you alone are the master of objective material circumstance. It serves to inject the idea into the masses that the individual exists in the foreground of all matters, severed from the backdrop.

Another crude example is the Batman; Bruce Wayne is the avenue through which we come to explore and understand the city of Gotham, which is the crux of the narrative even though it is quite obvious that because of that environment itself is he initially. Even long before the narratives of Batman, when cowboys were still in style, we see that, no, it is not the chaotic, beautiful (already inhabited) lands of the American West, with all its towering heights, that forms the prerequisite from which the fascistic heroic cowboy emerges; rather, because of that hero and the endeavors which he undertakes do we understand the latter.

Again, partly because of time, because of the gaze, the subject may not be presented with the totality from which our gun-toting ranger first bolts out of upon his trusted steed. Setterlism, in all it’s grotesque romanticism, must be at once personified into a Clint Eastwood, whom above all else is both in the narrative but at the same, because he has the ability to intervene in affairs, is above it. There are, again, always exceptions; however, the ontology of cinema, especially in the United States, can be characterized in this way, albeit very roughly at this stage in the analysis. Art, like many things in bourgeois society, requires remnants of past times to be incorporated into the mold of the superstructure when the use-value of a particular cultural ethos is favorable to bourgeois cultural hegemony. In the case of film, the ethos of the hero, which of course, has thus far manifested throughout history, has been entangled in the affairs of cinematic interpellation, a reactionary left-over from times bygone, yet still retaining the ability to captivate an audience. Although in this way, it shifts in function, and the hero itself transformed into something extreme, into something irrational. Boundless, the narrative must now surrender to the modern individual protagonist, whom now, more than ever, it owes its existence to. Now, more than ever, the narrative is not producing agents of storytelling, but as we have said, it is borne from an agent. Serving numerous functions, chief among them capital accumulation via entertainment value (the economics/chrematistics of the matter of the material base), the precise character of the modern hero fits neatly into the manifolds of bourgeois cultural hegemony, in both the productivist sense as well as feeding the ideological necessity of irrational individualism.

The great thieving empire

I appreciate the many thoughtful responses to my quirky first post regarding reading Zerzan prior to going shopping at a big box store, especially skepoet2’s post. There is a lot to chew on there, and rather than spiral into back and forth contretemps, I thought I would try to clarify a little more what I meant in the initial post, and perhaps show my own hand concerning my opinions if they have not been sufficiently articulated.

First of all, some of my points concerning the division of labor should have highlighted better the problem at the international level, rather than just hypothetical questions as to who takes out the garbage. I think, for example, of Bolivian president Evo Morales’s overly simplified but still rather intriguing description of the causes of the economic crisis in the “developed world”:

There’s a crisis in the United States, there is a crisis in some countries of Europe. What conclusion do I reach: since they are not robbing us, since they are not looting us, there is crisis in the capitalist European countries, and we are lifting ourselves up… Now that they can’t steal, they are having an economic and fiscal crisis.
Read the rest of this entry

The Egalitarian Rejoinder

Derick writes: “The conservative retort that “if we are all equal at the lowest common denominator, then our future is blend indeed” is fundamentally true.  The dangerous of this focus on equality for equality’s sake even in equality of substance is subtle but acute in its problem: problems of substantive equality are problems of distribution, but if these problems of distribution are fixed by a structural economic process that is dependent on classes of people doing  particular kinds of production, so then we are still left with a fundamental contradiction.”

I reject “bland” or wooden equality, but still we don’t have a better word to characterize the difference between our current social and economic orders and the Communist future we are fighting towards. The distribution of wealth in the world today is grotesquely unequal. Simply reducing that maldistribution would do wonders. How we get there is not easy or obvious, but that we get closer to such substantive equality seems the inescapable consequence of forging a “classless society.”

Human needs do not vary infinitely; we all need a scientifically measurable nutritional intake, a decent place to live, reliable transportation, quality medical care, and a shorter workweek. Nobody needs caviar, a mansion, a Rolls Royce, multiple cosmetic surgeries, or to be able to live off their inheritance. At the opposite end, nobody should be forced to live off of Dickensian gruel, in a rotting shack, chained to one spot, exposed to unsanitary conditions, or forced into constant overtime labor. Between the extremes of opulence and destitution, there is a zone of basically reasonable ordinary needs.

Maybe someday, after the Singularity, we might be able to give everyone free body modification surgeries on a whim, but that day is so far from today it has minimal political implications. The scary blandness of equality is also just that, a boogie-man that doesn’t exist and probably never will. Someday, we might be unfrozen into a future world where everything is bland and sameness, but without poverty and oppression. I’ll take the boredom, please!!

The Egalitarian Principle

Recently, SkePoet posted a critique of Bhaskar Sunkara’s “Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism.” He quotes from Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” a text that is often quoted these days as objecting to equality as a socialist value. SkePoet specifically takes aim at Sunkara’s invocation of the French Revolutionary slogan, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” He chides Sunkara for using the term “equal respect,” which he charges is “fundamentally liberal” not socialist.

So, on the point that “equal respect” or its cousin, “equal opportunity” are not in any sense socialist values, I concur. However, I have found myself increasingly uncomfortable with a sort of Marxist distancing itself from what I would call “substantive equality.” While making sure that people aren’t discriminated against when seeking employment is a fundamentally good thing, and a part of a socialist reform agenda that overlaps with liberalism, I can’t escape my conviction that when we propose a socialist revolution, we are proposing a leveling that radically alters the economic and political power differentials in society from those in the ruling classes to those in the working majority. The working classes become self-ruled in order to abolish class rule forever. To say this is not a process of equalizing wealth and power seems to deny the meaning of the word “equality.”

Yes, the liberal view of equality is formal and thin, and in any event always contested from the Right, who in our day are winning substantive roll-backs to gains in formal equality won in earlier struggles. We are seeing massive unemployment and incarceration of young black men in our day, that makes the celebrated gains of the 60s Civil Rights movement seem stunningly irrelevant. Only substantive egalitarian reforms, such as changing draconian criminal statutes, radical improvments to education, poverty relief, and economic leveling could make a dent in this deadly and tragic situation. Such reforms seem almost impossible within the current configuration of our political and  economic systems, so calls for radical change are the only route for advancement.

So, we do make common cause with liberals on formal equality, but radicals must push further and demand substantive equality against a world system of horrendous inequalities.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO. part 2

Continued from part 1. A note: it took KMO a few days to answer the last two questions because he found them much more perplexing upon reflection than he thought at first. 
Skepoet:   You and Doug Henwood have been calling out NPR lately.  Why do you think it has so much cache among liberal and lefty types?

KMO:  I love NPR. I’m a lifelong listener. I think it appeals to lefty Baby Boomers because that’s the target demographic. It’s clearly aimed at people with too much education, critical thinking facility and attention span to take more ‘mainstream’ news and current events programming seriously, and so it flatters its audience with the tacit message, “You’re so smart for not settling for low-brow sound bite journalism and fake debates between shrill talking heads.”

NPR, particularly it’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, annoys the living shit out of me because they respect all of the same taboos that the corporate media hold dear and actually serve to reinforce and legitimize those taboos by posing as a free and unbeholden actor. I think they function as what people more steeped in political language than I am like to call a ‘left gate-keeper.’

That said, let me reiterate; I love NPR. I listen to it all the time,  although less so now that I live in New York City and have more alternatives to choose from.

S:  You have been working with Occupy Cafe and you have recently moved to New York: what are you thoughts on the developments of Occupy?

KMO:  You may have heard that Occupy Wall Street has moved from Zuccotti Park to Union Square. I’ve been by Union Square a couple of times to check out the vibe, and except for the inordinate police presence and a table holding up an OWS banner with a donation jar on it, I saw nothing to indicate that there was anything at all out of the ordinary going on there. I know there have been a few Occupy events at which people were arrested, but I think the mild winter weather has not been a blessing to Occupy. I think people need some recuperation, and I think that 70 degree days in February put psychological pressure on the Occupiers to get back in the game before their batteries were sufficiently re-charged.

As exciting as OWS was last year, I don’t really want to see what it will become now that it has solidified into a recognizable brand and a more-or-less fixed organization. I would rather see everybody change clothes, change dance partners, and let the spirit of protest manifest itself in a new form in 2012.

S:  What would you like to the see the spirit of occupy become?

KMO:  Last year, Occupy changed the parameters of the mainstream conversation. At first the corporate media ignored OWS, then they thrashed about, grasping at any possible means of discrediting or discounting it, and then the 1% / 99% lingo entered the mainstream conversation. Suddenly, the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in our society materialized in view and required acknowledgement and comment in the mainstream narrative. That is but one of a herd of elephants in the proverbial room. This year, I want more elephants to

The Drug War has become an invisible Juggernaut. It’s excesses and the resulting prison nation that have resulted from absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws are completely indefensible from any rational perspective. In the 80s and early 90s, Drug War propaganda was everywhere. Now, prohibition-themed public service announcements are
rare. The whole monstrous program barrels forward under its own steam, but discussion of its utility or whose ends it serves is completely absent from the mainstream narrative. I think this is starting to change, and the recent Summit of the Americas at which Latin American leaders insisted that we examine alternatives to the Drug War now has
president Obama explicitly defending prohibition and the prison industrial complex. By the time November rolls around, I want it to be glaringly obvious to anyone tuned into the mainstream narrative that Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party are the party of Empire, the party of prisons, the party of the surveillance state, and the party
of the financialized economy. Whether it is OWS or some other mechanism that effects these changes in perception doesn’t matter much to me. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy has done a lot more good on this front than has OWS.

S: The drug war is one of the few policies outside of the wars in the Mideast in which the majority of the population, outside of law enforcement, don’t support anymore.  It costs the states incredible amounts of money, and it destabilize Latin American countries. Why do you think it continues?

KMO:  Money.

S:  Money for whom?   That’s the real issue for me.  It actually costs most parties involved more than they make in the long run, so the question becomes “who benefits.”

KMO:  I think the key phrase there is, “in the long run.” The Drug War creates huge flows of money, the channeling of which provides short term benefit to entities like governments and corporations. This comes at an enormous short-term cost to millions of individual humans and an ultimately catastrophic cost to society, but the pressure to favor short
term gain over long term well-being is certainly not the exclusive province of the Drug War.

S:  What are the best ways to frame the issue in the general public ?

KMO:  That’s a really challenging question for a number of reasons. At one level, it seems that my own perspective is so deviant that what seems obvious for me is completely alien to “the common man,” whoever he is. So what are my intuitions worth when it comes to a successful re-framing of the Drug War? That viewpoint is laden with a blinding payload of self-flattery. I suspect that when the Greatest Generation dies off and the Baby Boomers are panicked over the fact that their retirement security has evaporated, we can frame the question as, “We can’t afford to fund your retirement AND the Drug War, so what’s it gonna be?” That, I think, will be a no-brainer for the Boomers.

Finally, the whole Drug War stands or falls with the prohibition of marijuana. The propaganda is all about cocaine and heroin, but without the prohibition on marijuana, there are not enough “drug criminals” out in the world to justify the gazillion dollar Drug War budget. Depending on how you massage the poll results, we’re pretty close to having half of the existing population, complete with members of the Greatest Generation who participated in lynchings, already favoring the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. I heard Ethan
Nadelmann give a talk at the Cato Institute in 1999. He said something that stuck with me for more than a decade. He said, “Support for the Drug War is a thousand miles high, a thousand miles long, and one inch thick.”

S:  Do you think pointing out how insane the prison-congressional complex has gotten which actually privatized profits from prisons at extreme cost to the tax payer could be a way forward? Recently I saw that even at the most high estimates we have beat Stalin’s gulag in raw numbers of people in prison and almost all of it is drug related. One almost sees this as a political crime, like “speculation” was in the Soviet Union, rather than a purely administrative category.

KMO:  The Drug War started in a fairly honest way. It was clear that the prohibition of certain drugs and the enforcement of those prohibitions were intended to single out blacks, Mexicans, and politically and culturally disobedient youth. The architects of the Drug War were fairly open about this motivation, and the majority population favored the suppression of these groups. Now, the official policy of the federal government is one of color-blindness or the embrace of ethnic diversity, and our current cultural narrative condemns racism. While the cultural narrative has changed, the existing apparatus of the Drug War, which systematically imprisons blacks and Latinos, remains in place. Even worse, in the decades since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has entered the mainstream. It’s prohibition, originally meant to criminalize ethnic minorities and rebellious youth, now criminalizes huge swathes of mainstream society. Because the racism at the heart of the Drug War cannot be admitted, the fact that the same Drug War now criminalizes the lifestyles of tens of millions of otherwise obedient whites cannot be acknowledged as an unintended consequence and corrected.

Those who profit from the Drug War  (a set that includes just about everyone, if Catherine Austin Fitts is to be believed – perhaps link to her essay Narco Dollars for Dummies)  cannot acknowledge the size and composition of the prison population without self-condemnation. No rational discussion of the topic can be permitted at this point, as
the avoidable and egregious harm produced by the Drug War is so glaring. It’s grounding in systemic racism and repression of political dissent is so obvious that it cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.

One reason why many whites still favor prohibition and mass incarceration is that most drug criminals are arrested in cities but housed in rural prisons. Prison jobs prop up many otherwise failing local rural economies. I saw a news story (which I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm) the other day (it was really a piece of corporate propaganda branded with the CBS News imprimatur) touting the benefits of a robotic prison guard. Corporate profits generated by mass incarceration can be increased by increasing the prison
population and decreasing labor costs. If labor costs can be lowered in the short term by replacing human prison guards with robotic systems, then the logic of the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value in the short term will dictate that this sort of automation be adopted even if it is obvious that doing so will undermine one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Drug War. This doesn’t give me much reason for hope however. Modern-day logging operations employ very few people because technology has allowed one heavy equipment operator to do the work of an army of men wielding saws and axes. Even so, people who live in the economically devastated husks of rural towns that used to thrive on the basis of logging industry jobs still revile environmentalists as enemies of economic vitality. People in these communities still favor logging industry jobs over forests even though the logging industry no longer provides jobs to a sizable percentage of the local population.

S:  The issue of stacking districts with prison populations is an interesting problem. Even though in many of the states that do this felons cannot legally vote ever, the prison population is counted for appointing state representation. So it can be a form of “empty district building” and this increases rural, generally Republicans, representation against urban centers.  This leads me to think that there structural problems of electoral reform, not just for the drug but for many elements of our society, will actually not be particularly responsive to public pressure.

KMO:  Agreed.

S:  What gives you hope right now?

KMO: I hate to give a nit-picky answer to a straightforward question, but as someone who voluntarily engages in philosophical discussions, I figure it’s par for your course.

Channeling Paul Kingsnorth, now. “Hope for what?”

Hope for the future of life on Earth? I know some people who think that human industrial activity will turn the Earth into a Venus-like world, unfit even to support microbial life. This fear clusters in my own consciousness with the fear that the CERN particle accelerator will destroy the universe or that the Bible is literary true and that Christian true believers will soon be raptured into heaven leaving the rest of us in the clutches of the Anti-Christ.  I’m not saying that the danger of a run-away greenhouse process is as remote as the other  two I mentioned, but I have as much trouble working myself into a state of genuine concern over it as I do taking seriously a Left Behind scenario.

Hope for the future of the human species? Ninety nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Perhaps humans will transcend our biology and project our consciousness out into the larger universe to take our place among the gods, but it’s also quite likely that we will go the way of most of the species that have arisen on this planet, and I’m fine with that. Even if industrial civilization has a short future, I do think that humans will be on the scene for hundreds of thousands of years yet. I’m not worried about
the survival of the human species.

Hope for the continuation of the status quo of global corporate capitalism? For the sake of the non-human life on Earth, I hope it does NOT continue.

Hope for a version of the technological singularity that preserves and advances those aspects of human intelligence that I value? There are people working on so-called Friendly AI, but given the fact that so much robotics research is driven by the military and that the leading forms of artificial pseudo-intelligence operate in the service of corporations and their overriding mandate to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing costs at the expense of future prosperity, which is to say denying the consequences of their actions, I think that the Vile Offspring of Charles Stross’s Accelerondo is the more likely outcome.

Hope that industrial civilization can execute a deliberate soft-landing and transition to a low-power existence without leaving the survivors in a state of collective PTSD? It’s certainly within our power if we decide that that is what we want to do. The real barrier to this is our conditioned expectations and the psychology of previous investment.

Paul Gilding gave an optimistic TED talk recently in which he basically affirmed the Doomer vision that I’ve been articulating in answer to your question, and then he ended by pointing out that 4 days after the USA entered World War II our ancestors halted all domestic automobile production and converted that manufacturing capacity to the
service of the war. We CAN turn on a dime, but we won’t until a serious crisis smacks us in the face. Gilding’s faith is that the crises are coming and that the turning on a dime will follow. He might be right, and I guess that’s where my own hope finds a bit of traction. I hope he’s right.

My fear is that the media apparatus for worldview management has grown so sophisticated and effective that the majority of people will regularly be stepping over corpses on their way to work and that they will continue to believe that everything is on track for a brighter tomorrow and that better times are just around the corner so long as we all keep the faith and keep plugging away at our assigned tasks.

Hope that we can arrest the slide into a high-tech totalitarian society? Occupy Wall Street, the mass demonstrations around the globe,the work of Anonymous and WikiLeaks all give me reasons to hope.

The hope that I hold closest to my heart is that my two sons will get the chance to live full-featured human lives that include education, romantic love, family life, and satisfying work. What gives me hope here is John Michael Greer’s argument that civilizations in a free-fall state of collapse still move so slowly in comparison to a human lifetime that, for the people living through the collapse, everything seems normal. Unfortunately, his arguments are all
historical, and I think that some aspects of our current situation are unprecedented.

S:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

KMO:  Last week I gave a talk at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, and after I had described the seemingly-inevitable and traumatic transition from a growth-based civilization to a steady state or contracting civilization, one audience member asked me what the magic lotto ticket out of our situation was. I said that I didn’t see one that seemed likely. He said he knew what it was, and I invited him to stand up, take the mic, and share with the audience. He did so. His magic lotto ticket: aliens.

He claimed that non-human intelligence from outside of space and time stand ready to resolve our dilemma any day now and that we can make contact with them via psychedelics. I myself have made a sustained and good faith effort to contact and partner with non-human intelligences via entheogens (psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and San Pedro cactus). I’ve had provocative encounters, but nothing that has convinced me completely that I wasn’t encountering myself within the confines of my own skull and nothing that engenders faith in an immanent helping hand from beyond. I remain open to the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. It could well be that aliens or spirits have converged on the Earth to grieve for us and comfort us in
our passing. Or to gloat and feed on our suffering.

I do think that the eager Doomers of the world, the ones who see humans as a plague upon Mother Earth and who want Her to rid Herself of us, have adopted a willful blind spot concerning the progression of information technology, robotics, genetics and nano-materials. What’s more, I feel no sympathy or resonance with their condemnation of humanity. I reject and repudiate misanthropy. I value human imagination and intelligence, and I want to see it continue into the future.

I think that the Techno-utopians of the world have adopted a willed ignorance of hard resource limits in the short term. I agree that some elements of their grand vision, elements that Doomers reject as baseless fantasy, may well be achievable in the long term, but that doesn’t mean that they will come to fruition in time to avert what looks like a looming Malthusian Correction. Techno-utopians like to say that Malthus was wrong, and certainly Malthus failed to predict the Haber-Basch process, mechanized agriculture, and genetic engineering. Even so, by failing to incorporate these factors into his thinking, Malthus may have underestimated the magnitude of his predicted population contraction. It may be true that Malthus was wrong, but that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration.

I’ve related this basic narrative to several live audiences, and it’s always hard for me to end those talks, because I don’t have any rousing conclusion in which I offer reasonable optimism. Some people think that suffering builds character and that we’ll be better humans for having endured the coming hardship. I don’t think so. I think that damaged, victimized people are as likely to harden themselves to the suffering of others, spread the damage, and perpetuate the cycle of victimization as they are to achieve some kind of awakening.

Conclusions are hard, I think, because they are fake. Ends can’t justify means, because there are no ends. The drama continues even though every player will eventually leave the stage.

When Alternet tells you they have alternatives to capitalism…..

When left-liberals and actionists accuse those like me–who may have philosophical departures from Marx and could give two shits about things like revisionism–of being “conservative economists” because we admit that economic limits are real limits and wishing Keynesianism into being won’t be an answer, I laugh.   When we get called techno-utopians for saying that 99.9% of the population would die under primitive conditions and the survivalists would not likely be the survivors because self-imposed austerity doesn’t trump capital production even with reduced natural resources, I get called a dirty Enlightenment thinker.    I am not a raw “base determines” everything Stalinist, as I think capitalism is a culture as well as an economic mode of production: or more specifically, several cultural kluges that share a few assumptions, but when left-liberals at Alternet start offering alternatives to capitalism, I have to just blink.

Sara Robinson offers this gem at Alternet:  Capitalism Has Failed: 5 Bold Ways to Build a New World

The first normal, and weirdly conservative notion, of “Small is beauty.”  One saw this in the small is beautiful movement: it’s a privilege afforded only to the those who live in hyper-affluent and relatively empty countries like the US. Psychologically, it seems to function like the noble savage that comes up every once and awhile for the affluent and privileged to op  ine to fill a whole in the psyches.  Now I will avoid pointing out that the great leap forward and the Khmer Rouge were also infected with this particular virus, because that’s something “right-winger” would point out, and I am a man of the left: however, it is true, localvorism and the small town are inefficient, given to nepotism, and seems to be an inverse of the facts of reality for most people. Here’s Robinson’s claims for who this is accounted for:

“Making stuff locally in small batches increases resilience, and decentralizing the process means that many more people will have jobs. For example: A single factory farmer can manage thousands of acres. An organic farm might have half a dozen workers on just 20 acres.”

And it will require double the land exhaustion as mechanized planting and advanced agriculture. The resilience argument is decent, but also for employing more people: it would do so, but at lower wages as cost gains don’t scale up.   Furthermore, as Robinson admits, most infrastructure even required for localvorism and other such lifestyle pursuits, don’t scale up.

So then she offers:  Marx 2.0

A”s noted, this kind of constant growth simply isn’t sustainable on a finite planet. People will always trade — it’s an essential humaneness that can stay happy and healthy without being pushed to grow. Worker ownership doesn’t really address this problem, though relocalization, which roots businesses deeply in their own local markets, limiting their reach beyond those boundaries, may provide one natural brake on growth.

For many large and necessary enterprises (utilities; essential centralized manufacturing; big, capital-intensive tech industries; and so on) public ownership may be the only way to ensure that they grow no bigger than they need to be to fulfill their mission. If there are other solutions that will allow us to have complex enterprises minus the growth imperative, they’re still lurking out beyond the horizon.”

Now completely missing that the points of Marx were both value theory and the needs for efficient production: I agree with Robinson that there is an ecological limit to development. What I disagree with is that this is fixed by reversals in technologies or simply scaling down.  Inefficient manufacturing and business methods use MORE energy and resources, not less. The answer of public ownership: social democracy a la Chavezistas?  misses the key points of value-theory: that the problem is as much ideological as ownership. Conservative critiques that nationalizing these industries in the hands of the state only leads to a less efficient form of capitalism is more or less born out, but the state wasn’t the focal point of Marx.   Furthermore, she may be offering a syndicalist transition answer, but this doesn’t deal with the problems of value either.

I fail to see how this is Marxism 2.0.

Then Robinson offers: Systems Theory which is a variant of cybernetic theory.  

Robinson, like most American leftists, don’t realize that Soviets tried this in 1960s and failed as it was a botched alternative to market economics. Furthermore for other applications of this problem see Adam Curtis’s documentary: “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”

There are two more options but they are just re-metaphorizations of the first three:   so what is offered as an alternative?    Nothing really.  Most of the alternatives either aren’t efficient or are just modifications of the commodity form already in capitalism. It’s time to be serious.

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, 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

Manufacturing Sector

And now a few more words on the manufacturing revival. Friday’s Wall Street Journal had a piece (“In U.S., a Cheaper Labor Pool”) on how Caterpillar, which has been doing quite well lately, is threatening to close a plant in Canada and move operations to a low-wage site unless it gets big concessions from its union, the Canadian Auto Workers. That low-wage country its threatening to move to? The United States. The Journal also reports on other manufacturing firms moving south from Canada (but without crossing the Rio Grande): Siemens, Navistar, and Electrolux. The reason? American workers are very productive but they earn a lot less. Caterpillar claims that its workers in Illinois cost the firm less than half as much as their comrades in Ontario. Over the last decade, unit labor costs—wages and benefits paid per dollar of output—have fallen by 13% in the U.S. They rose by 2% in Germany, 15% in Korea, and 18% in Canada. When you factor in transportation and other costs, U.S. workers in some sectors are starting to become competitive with China, where wages have been rising sharply for years and workers have developed a habit of striking and ransacking the boss’s office. The trend towards bringing factory work back to the U.S. even has a name: onshoring. A revival of manufacturing would be good in many ways, but one based largely on low wages and high levels of exploitation is not something to cheer. – Doug Henwood

Actually, Doug Henwood’s entire analysis of the recent job’s report is really illuminating.  The interesting point is that it appears that Globalization has reduced the labor pool of the US to an outsourcing sector for other countries, even China, where in some sectors wages are beginning to be comparable.  This is Globalization, the great equalizer to the lowest common denominator what neo-liberals used to say about socialism.  Welcome to the new normal.  All that late 90s and mid-2000s want of manufacturing return as a way to save the economy? Well, look at it for what it is.

We haven’t been comparing value to value: Kliman is right, but it is worse than that…

While I’ll admit to be skeptical about this, I have forgotten how important the distortions of fiat currency play out in the economy.  We compare dollars prior to Bretton Woods and then the Nixon conversation to fait currency, we moved into a different game. A game of monetarist distortions.  The reason is that “money’s” third function according to classical economics no longer applies to modern currency in a real way: it is not based by something with value outside of the promise of the state.  While inflation and deflation are still a problem in commodity-backed currency, fiat currency distorts this furtherer.   This makes the income inequality debate really painful because even when we adjust for inflation, we are not adjusting as compared to the value a commodity. 

I think a lot of reasons we as leftists miss this is that fiat currency problems seem to obsessions of the right–gold standard talk is like that of Ron Paul.  The reasons why neo-liberals oppose the gold standard is obvious in this light: it makes it harder to destroy symbolic value to create new space for the declining rates of profits.  Real value is destroyed more quickly and the deprivations of the market hit in much more obvious and rapid cycles while favoring the habits of the investor class.

As the tweet master and blogger Marxist Jehu has pointed out to me:

If you plot nominal GDP as a function of the price of an ounce of gold since 1929, Kliman’s numbers will look much different. There are two things to remember:

1. Value can only be expressed in a material that itself has value, a commodity. In 1929 GDP was measured in a dollar based on gold.

2. Moving out from 1929, you have to compare nominal dollar prices to those same prices divided by the price of an ounce of gold.

Once you do this Kliman will see that gold GDP shrank from 1971 to 1980. The stagflation was actually the second 20th C. depression. Expansion began again in 1980, as gold prices fell. Also he will see we have been in a depression since 2001. The crisis of 2008 was the collapse of the mechanism by which labor power was being devalued. Between 1971 and 1980, wages measured by the gold prices, fell to 10% of 1971 level, before recovering to 40% in 2000. In this crisis, labor power has been devalued to about 3% of 1971 levels.

Also, once it is understood that the dollar is not money, it will be obvious the global economy is being managed directly by DC. And, it has been since 1945. The dollar effectively give DC control of all exchange wherever it is used as medium of circulation — international trade. Much of the surplus value derived results from DC’s exploitation of the national capitals of other nations.

Tell Kliman to plug his raw dollar numbers into gold prices and notice the significantly altered results of his analysis. Capital went off of the gold standard in 1933 because it allowed labor power to be continuously devalued as H. Grossman predicted it would need to.


I will pass this on to Dr. Kliman, but I am also pondering the real implications of this myself.  To be a communist one needs to consider the philosophical, anthropological, and economic battles one is facing without obscurity. Fait currency is an obscurity.



Looking at Economics, again

So I have written on the Declining Rate of Profits debates before, which has to be up there with base/superstructure analysis, the meaning of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and what is meant by the labor theory of value is on the list of things that Marxist/Left economists never can seem to come to conclusions about in a consensus way. If anything these indicate the problems of reconciling Marx’s unfinished project, but I am digressing. So here are some issues to consider that complicate my view of Kliman. In the US, the rich ARE getting richer,

IN the eight decades before the recent recession, there was never a period when as much as 9 percent of American gross domestic product went to companies in the form of after-tax profits. Now the figure is over 10 percent.

During the same period, there never was a quarter when wage and salary income amounted to less than 45 percent of the economy. Now the figure is below 44 percent.

For companies, these are boom times. For workers, the opposite is true.

The government’s first estimate of corporate profits in the third quarter was released two days before Thanksgiving, at the same time it revised the rate of G.D.P. growth in the quarter down to an annual rate of 2.0 percent.

The report showed that effective tax rates, both corporate and personal, are well below where they were during most of the post-World War II era.

This is hard to reconcile with Kliman’s observations, or is it. As Michael Robert’s points out:

Suffice it to say, that I think Kliman is right about using historic costs, but that contrary to Kliman, it don’t think it makes much difference empirically. See this graphic for the US rate of profit (using the whole economy measure that I prefer) based on both current (replacement) and historic cost measures for fixed assets. The cyclical movements and underlying trends operate for both.

That is Husson’s argument too, but I don’t agree at all with Husson’s interpretation of the data that concludes that because the US rate of profit rose from 1982 onwards, this means that Marx’s law of profitability was irrelevant to the Great Recession. Husson reckons that as profitability rose, investment growth slowed because capitalists made profits not from the productive investment sectors, but from switching into unproductive sectors like property and credit – what Marx called fictitious capital. The crisis in neo-liberalism that culminated in the Great Recession was due to the collapse of this credit-based growth – what he calls ‘chaotic regulation’.

I argue in my papers that Marx’s law operates as the ultimate and underlying cause that breeds the proximate causes of the housing boom and slump, the credit bubble and the leveraging of debt that eventually led to the financial collapse. I note that Kliman in his new book, The failure of capitalist production ( makes these same points (I’ll be reviewing Kliman’s book in a future post). But I back up this conclusion with empirical data that shows the US rate of profit peaked in 1997 at a level that has not been surpassed since, suggesting that Marx’s law started to operate inexorably on capitalist production and the countervailing factors to the falling rate of profit had weakened. Indeed, from early 2006, the mass of profit in the US began to decline, well before the financial collapse, again suggesting that this is a good forward indicator (and cause) of capitalist crisis.

As Kliman said in the session, if you think the causes of the Great Recession are to be found in the financial sector and in ‘uncontrolled credit’ (this seems to be the position of Dumenil and Levy – see my post, The crisis of neo-liberalism and Gerard Dumenil, 3 March 2011), then there is a solution based on regulation of the financial system and credit creation, which is short of a transformation of the capitalist mode of production. If you reckon the cause lies in the mode of production itself (i.e. the production of surplus value) and not in its distribution (credit, rent, interest), then you are saying that credit control and tight regulation of the banking sector will not be enough to stop boom and slump in capitalism.

In other words, the profits and the income increases may seen only tangentially related. Individual incomes are increasing because of politics, and changes in the political matter. So that’s a strike against hyper-economism of a narrow view in the base/superstructure argument, but the declining rate of profits may still hold even despite that. But as Robert’s also points out: this is not a world analysis. If capitalism is a non-ontologic historical totality, then the social relationships it describes are in the entirety of the world not just the US. So much more work needs to be done.


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