Anwar Shaikh’s Capitalism – Notes on Part I, Chapter 3

I. Introduction

As the chapter title “Micro Foundations and Macro Patterns” suggests, this chapter is concerned with what the relationship between “micro processes and macro patterns” is in a capitalist economy. This is the first chapter where Shaikh begins to present in detail his criticisms of neoclassical economics, and as an autodidact I found a good deal of the chapter intimidating in its details. That being said, Shaikh’s main points are quite easy to grasp and I will present them below.

The obsession of neoclassical economics with “micro-foundations” based on their (hyper)rational choice and expectations model is the main object of Shaikh’s criticism here. We must ask if rational choice is a valid way of discussing individual behaviour, and what that implies for macro-economic patterns. The first question of the validity of rational choice is addressed in some detail in the concluding section of the chapter, but Shaikh’s main line of attack is on the argument that “micro-foundations” have a determining influence on macro-patterns.

The way in which he does this is to model a variety of preference models and show that any of them can be made to conform with widely acknowledeged macro-economic patterns. This implies that the assertion that rational choice is validated by macro-economic evidence is absolute nonsense, as is it performs no better or worse than even the so-called “whimsical agent” model where the consumer makes purchasing decisions at random within their budget constraint (In conforming with the observable macro-economic patterns).

The neoclassical approach is in fact revealed to be doubly bankrupt, as it begins with extremely implausible assertions about individual rationality, looks at macro-economic patterns, and then tries to reconcile its model of individual behavior with the macro patterns. What this rules out is an attempt to reconcile the model of individual behaviour with observed individual behaviour. Therefore neoclassical economics not only places macro-economic analysis in a “micro-foundations” straightjacket, it also impoverishes micro analysis by demanding that it exhibits a unity with the macro-economy that is assumed to hold but does not in fact. Why make all these absurd theoretical contortions?

The real function of the notion of a hyper-rational representative agent is that it serves the mission statement of neoclassical economics, which is to portray capitalism as efficient and optimal. (77)

While the neoclassical socialists of the interwar period, or the market socialists might question this assertion, I think that it does contain a good amount of truth. Neoclassical economics is in the first place a pretension to scientific knowledge of the economy that depicts it in such a formalized and idealized manner that it removes the practitioner from any discussion of messy questions like crises or the social surplus. I agree with Till Duppe that neoclassical economics in its postwar form was primarily an escape from politics into a Cold War institutional/professional legitimacy, not a direct apology for capitalism, but that its idealized and apolitical view of markets came to serve as useful fodder for neoliberal activists and that subsequently it was the political path of least resistance for neoclassical economists to either use their theory as an apology for capitalism or to mostly remain quiet about delicate political questions. As we will see, whatever we attribute their motivation to, the neoclassicals were certainly hostile to some of the primary assertions of Marxist economics.

One final point I want to mention about Shaikh’s introduction is his treatment of individual behaviour. We saw above that Shaikh views the micro and macro as conceptually distinct levels of analysis, and we will get into that in much greater detail below, but if it is true that the macro patterns are “robustly independent” of individual behaviour, then what role do individuals have other than as economic particles that gravitate towards a general pattern? Shaikh has an interesting comment here:

This does not mean that micro processes are unimportant. Micro factors come into their own in determining individual paths, can become decisive if people choose to act in concert to (say) produce a general work stoppage or consumer boycott, and are particularly important in evaluating the social implications of macro outcomes. All of this implies…that a correspondence with the aggregate empirical facts does not privilege any particular micro processes. (77)

As we saw in the case of the determination of the wage rate in the previous section, Shaikh’s theory exists against a backdrop of irregular behavior, and this eruption of individual behaviors (which normally emerge into a fairly regular macro pattern) is one such irregularity. While individual behaviour may have some regularities, they are not treated as the business of the economist. At the same time, while capitalism imposes regularity on individuals in the aggregate (whether or not it does on individuals in particular is left to the sociologists) it is vulnerable to revolutionary irruptions. This irruption of the unpredictable “event” or “singularity” is something that was discussed a great deal in the post-‘68 Marxian literature.

II – Micro Processes and Macro Patterns

1. Representing individual human behavior

Shaikh begins this section with a return to the topic of “hyper-rationality.” As he notes, evidence from “behavioral economics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, neurobiology, business studies, and evolutionary theory” (78) all points to the fact that hyperationality is not a good descriptor of how people behave. Finally: “…as any advertiser could tell us, our preferences are easily manipulated, our responses quite predictable.”

The tendency in neoclassical economics is to admit that people are not in fact hyper-rational, but that this type of rationality can be used as an ideal standard with which to assess our real, “imperfect” rationality. Shaikh rejects this view: “It is a topsy-turvy world indeed when all that is real is deemed irrational” (79)

Weirdly, while this image of hyper-rationality as a perfect ideal beyond this world is a popular one in the neoclassical world, there is also a view of “hyper-rationality as a model of actual behavior” which “plays an instrumental role in the depiction of capitalism as the optimal social system, because (among other things) this portrayal requires that all individuals know exactly what they want and get exactly what they choose.” Why is the absurd claim justified?

  1. Because “real economists” believe it! (The “Ptolemaic” argument from authority)
  2. Because it is a “good approximation” of how people actually behave!
  3. Because it’s a convenient way for getting “analytically tractable results!”
  4. Because it “yields good empirical results!”

However as was mentioned above, getting empirical results does not imply that the theory in question is any better than other theories that also get the same empirical results. Furthermore the claim that neoclassical economics models what people want and how they get it is rendered dubious by the fact that “it is possible to define a person’s interests in such a way that no matter what he does he can be seen to be furthering his own interests.” The utilitarian solipcisms required by neoclassical definitions of self-interest are so extreme that any non-market interaction between individuals (such as caring about someone else) is defined as an “externality” (80). Clearly this is not a good approximation of how people behave.

Next we have the problem of the “transitivity” of preferences. This is another well known problem with the neoclassical preference model, which requires that the agent prefer x over z if they prefer x over y over z. Unfortunately, experimental evidence tells us that this is not how people think.

Another field in which very similar assumptions are dogmatically held is game theory, which has been declared to be “a framework within which one can realistically discuss what is or is not possible for a society.” Unfortunately the definition of player preferences in game theory requires “an infinite regress of entirely correct beliefs” in much the same way that is found in neoclassical economic theories.

In a similar vein, Shaikh attacks the Analytical Marxists for their “anti-dialectical and anti-holistic attempt to ground Marxist notions in neoclassical methodology” which “relies on rational choice theory, game theory, and associated neoclassical mathematical techniques to derive its conclusions” (82). The main problem here is that the Analytical Marxists follow the “micro-foundations” approach and therefore reject the existence of emergent properties, which Shaikh strongly advocates as a theoretical device.

Turning to the question of hyper-rationality as a norm of how people should behave as opposed to a description of how they do in fact behave, Shaikh argues that the dismissal of the social component to rationality in the hyper-rational norm does not make it ideal in any meaningful sense. The “social moron” is not much of an ideal to aspire to, except in one sense: “…it provides the foundation for the claim that the market is the ideal economic institution and capitalism the ideal social form. This is its immanent rationale.” (83) Again, the existence of market socialists and Analytical Marxists problematizes this accusation, but I do believe it contains a good deal of truth.

Using the normative argument, some groups like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank advocate programs of social engineering that will make people behave more like the “social morons” that neoclassical theory idealizes (That is as single-minded narcissistic utility optimizers) through the creation of “market friendly” institutions. However this argument relies on the belief in capitalist market optimality, and so does not have much theoretical or practicla merit. Faced with this problem, advocates of capitalism point to its real progressive role in developing the forces of production, but then have to face its history of “violence, inequality, and persistent state intervention” (84).

In the final instance, the advocates of neoclassical theory will defend it on the ground that abandoning hyper-rationality implies falling back on “a hodgepodge of ad-hoc hypotheses” (84) but as has been amply demonstrated, neoclassical theory is itself based on just such a hodgepodge! This is an interesting point, because it gets at the issue of economics’ “scientific” status. In addition to generally being supportive of capitalism, economists are also attached ot the idea of the scientific character of their work. I believe that this has to do with their institutional interest as a discipline and desire to maintain their social status. While acting as a slavish defender of the actions of the capitalist class certainly can reward an intellectual with a degree of wealth and social status (See for example the writings of Thomas Friedman) it cannot afford them the degree of social recognition among intellectuals and the institutional stability it implies. In order to achieve this stability, economists stake their claim to legitimacy on the scientific character of their arguments. This is just as true of Marx as it is of Walras or indeed of Shaikh. As we will see in the next section, Shaikh will explicitly attack neoclassical economics through a reference to scientific methodology, in an attempt to unseat the neoclassicals’ claim to science and social prestige it implies.

2. Representing aggregate behavior

In this section Shaikh details his objections to the neoclassical idea of a “representative agent” that acts as the bridge between micro and macro economics. He begins by noting that neoclassical macroeconomics rests on two assumptions. The first, that hyper-rationality is a useful way to model individual behaviour, has been addressed in the previous section. The second assumption is that “…aggregate outcomes can be treated as the behavior of a single ‘representative’ hyper-rational agent.” (84) Shaikh dismisses this idea as “simply false,” but proceeded to discuss the matter in considerable detail.

Shaikh’s primary argument is that “The behavior of a whole cannot be characterized by that of any of its constitutive elements because a whole is more than the sum of its part” and therefore aggregate behavior “…is generally insensitive to variations in the individual behaviors…Aggregation is robustly transformational“ (84). If this can be shown to be true, then “micro-foundations” will be simply unacceptable under any circumstances as a method for economic inquiry.

Drawing on physics, Shaikh now gives the example of the Ideal Gas Law. The Ideal Gas Law describes the relationship between a number of properties of gases, and was originally obtained empirically. With the advent of the view that gases are in fact made up of microscopic molecules lead to a reconceptualization of the Law. The result was to think of gases as made up of careening, colliding particles within some container. Describing each molecule’s motion would be next to impossible, yet the aggregate of molecule motion can be described statistically, arriving at the same results as the old empirical method. “The aggregate Gas Law now appears as an ‘emergent’ property of the shaped (i.e., contained) ensemble itself and cannot be reduced to, or deduced from, any single ‘representative’ particle.” (85) This is because the properties that are related in the Gas Law are related as a result of the interaction of the ensemble of particles with the container as a limit. Measuring any one particle would tell you nothing about the properties described by the Gas Law.

According to Shaikh, “[e]xactly the same conclusion applies to economic processes” (85); in the case of consumer theory, instead of a container acting as the “shaping structure” of a gas, the “…budget constraint defined by the level of an individual’s income” provides the constraint that defines the emergent consumption pattern. Studies into consumption patterns in models based on hyper-rational neoclassical agents with varying budget constraints have shown that the simple existence of a variation of income distribution among agents is enough to produce an “emergent” effect, where “the shape of the aggregate consumption function is generally completely different from that of individual functions.” In other words, every agent (even) in the neoclassical model must be exactly identical in order for “micro-foundations” to obtain, but in that case there is in fact only one agent and describing a one-agent model as “macroeconomic” is obviously absurd. Shaikh cites the economist Kirman, who writes that it is “illegitimate [to]…infer society’s preferences from those of the representative individual, and use these to make public policy choices.” Another support taken out of the neoclassical house of cards!

From consumer theory, we turn to production theory, which brings us to the question of the Aggregate Production Function and the so-called “Cambridge Capital Controversy”. In its particulars this is a very complicated topic, but I would first like to state what is at stake in the issue. One assertion that neoclassical economics makes is that the owners of each of the “factors of production” (basically: land, labor, and capital) receive exactly the value of their economic contribution in a competitive market. In this view, the Marxist assertion that workers are exploited through the extraction of surplus value is a priori wrong. Any existence of “exploitation” must be a result of imperfections in competition, not a constituent element of capitalist production as such. As you might imagine, this is a very politically charged issue because it provides a theory of “who gets what and why.” This tenant of neoclassical theory has been used, for example, to justify both the extremely high salaries (if we include “bonuses”) that are paid to high-ranking financiers and executives, and the extremely low salaries that are paid to oppressed groups (e.g. Wal-Mart employees, factory workers in the Global South, social workers) and has been used to justify the gender gap in salaries as well. This is the sense in which neoclassical economics can be called without any exaggeration “bourgeois economics.” In earlier times, the French liberal de Toqueville wrote that it was necessary:

to diffuse among the working classes … some of the most elementary and certain notions of political economy, which would make them understand, for example, what is constant and necessary in the economic laws that govern the wage rate. Because such laws, being in some sense of divine law, in that they derive from the nature of man and the very structure of society, are situated beyond the reach of revolutions.

We can see in the way that neoclassical theory was used to browbeat Thomas Piketty after the publication of his modestly critical (and largely in conformance with neoclassical theory) book, that de Toqueville’s sort of thinking still survives in the economics of our day.

So how can this neoclassical just-so story be justified? One way is with the Aggregate Production Function (APF). As Shaikh notes, Paul Douglas, its creator wrote that “the approximate coincidence of the estimated coefficients [of a Cobb-Douglas APF] with the actual shares received…strengthens the competitive theory of distribution and disproves the Marxian” (86). That is, of course, if the APF is in any way plausible, and this is what the Cambridge Capital Controversy and subsequent debates was all about.

Essentially the APF is intended as a model that describes how each of the “factors of production” receive back what they put into the production process through market distribution. If the APF were generally accepted, it would exclude the Marxist theory of exploitation. The difficulty that the APF encounters is in trying to specify what the “capital” factor of production is, and how it is employed. As the Wikipedia entry states:

…the rate of profit…is supposed to equal the marginal physical product of capital. (For simplicity, abbreviate “capital goods” as “capital.”) A second core proposition is that a change in the price of a factor of production will lead to a change in the use of that factor – an increase in the rate of profit (associated with falling wages) will lead to more of that factor being used in production. The law of diminishing marginal returns implies that greater use of this input will imply a lower marginal product, all else equal: since a firm is getting less from adding a unit of capital goods than is received from the previous one, the rate of profit must increase to encourage the employment of that extra unit, assuming profit maximization.

Piero Sraffa and Joan Robinson, whose work set off the Cambridge controversy, pointed out that there was an inherent measurement problem in applying this model of income distribution to capital. Capitalist income (total profit or property income) is defined as the rate of profit multiplied by the amount of capital, but the measurement of the “amount of capital” involves adding up quite incomparable physical objects – adding the number of trucks to the number of lasers, for example. That is, just as one cannot add heterogeneous “apples and oranges,” we cannot simply add up simple units of “capital.” As Robinson argued, there is no such thing as “leets,” an inherent element of each capital good that can be added up independent of the prices of those goods.

So while labour in theory can be reduced to the common unit of unskilled labour, “capital goods” cannot be reduced to a common unit of homogeneous “capital.” The neoclassical response was to argue that capital goods are rendered homogeneous in their money form. The problem then arises that the money value of capital is in part determined by the rate of profit, and the rate of profit is in turn affected by the employment of capital. Because the money value of capital is not independent from the rate of profit it cannot serve as a proper independent measure of the capital “factor of production.” We therefore have an “aggregation problem” in both physical and monetary terms.

The other major problem with the APF is the “reswitching problem.” Again, quoting Wikipedia:

Reswitching means that there is no simple (monotonic) relationship between the nature of the techniques of production used and the rate of profit. For example, we may see a situation in which a technique of production is cost-minimizing at low and high rates of profits, but another technique is cost-minimizing at intermediate rates.

Reswitching implies the possibility of capital reversing, an association between high interest rates (or rates of profit) and more capital-intensive techniques. Thus, reswitching implies the rejection of a simple (monotonic) non-increasing relationship between capital intensity and either the rate of profit, sometimes confusingly referred to as the rate of interest. As rates fall, for example, profit-seeking businesses can switch from using one set of techniques (A) to another (B) and then back to A. This problem arises for either a macroeconomic or a microeconomic production process and so goes beyond the aggregation problems discussed above.

As we saw above: “A second core proposition is that a change in the price of a factor of production will lead to a change in the use of that factor – an increase in the rate of profit (associated with falling wages) will lead to more of that factor being used in production. The law of diminishing marginal returns implies that greater use of this input will imply a lower marginal product, all else equal…” but because the relationship between the techniques of production and rate of profit is not “monotonic“ (As one goes up so does the other, without reversing direction) the stability of the whole system is undermined. The long and short of the issue then is that the APF does not provide a reasonable model that can grant legitimacy to the neoclassical story of distribution.

The only case in which neoclassical economics can provide a production function is when “all firms have the same capital-labor ratio and the same wage and profit rates.” (87) But in this case there is no “aggregate” production function at all because it is in fact a one-agent model. Just as with the neoclassical consumer theory, the neoclassical production theory is a “…trivial [case], because by construction there is effectively only one agent in each domain.” Therefore even if we accept the “hyper-rational” model, neoclassical economics cannot provide anything more than a trivial one-agent model that is completely static and utterly unrealistic.

3. Aggregate relations, micro foundations, and the question of rigor

In this section Shaikh attacks the methodolgical assumptions of the “micro-foundations” approach. To begin, Shaikh points out that “micro-foundations” is not an accepted standard of rigour in physics, the ur-reference for almost every school of economic thought. He offers the example of the Gas Law, which was accepted before it was derived from statistical thermodynamics, the laws of hydrodynamics, crystalization, and magnetism, which have never been derived from “micro-foundations,” and indeed the theory of General Relativity, which is accepted as rigorous despite not being derived from quantum mechanics.

Next, it is not clear that micro-scale theories are in any sense superior to macro-scale theories. Shaikh points out that a minority of physicists have persisted in attempting to abolish quantum mechanics in favour of a physical theory based on the “macro-level” general relativity. It is not as a matter of course assumed that the micro-level theory is superior to that of the macro level.

Shaikh then returns to the example of the Gas Law, pointing out that “it is perfectly possible to derive empirically supported macro patterns from micro foundations that are known to be false.” (88) The Gas Law is commonly said to be derived from a micro-theory of Newtonian collision of atoms “like billiard balls,” but we know that atoms are not anything like billiard balls, but instead “ethereal quantum-mechanical entities lacking the most central of all properties of an object – an identifiable position.” This derivation of a correct law from false premises is possible because “…the Gas Law is an emergent property which is ‘robustly insensitive to details’.” The interaction of micro entities give rise to the emergent stable properties of the Gas Law at the macro level. As we saw above in the case of consumer theory, macro level patterns can persist wildly different, and often absurd micro-level assumptions. To support his argument in the realm of economics, Shaikh points to Keynes’ argument in favour of “…the unimportance of the assumption of individual rationality for the derivation of economic patterns at the macro level” (89) and points to research by other economists that mirror his own previous demonstration in the realm of consumer theory.

Shaikh concludes the section by writing:

In each of these cases, economic shaping structures create limits and gradients that channel aggregate outcomes: the positive profit survival criterion in the case of the firm, individual economic characteristics in the case of income distribution, and the budget constraint in the case of individual consumer choice. Each of these gives rise to stable aggregate patterns which do not depend on the details of the underlying processes. And precisely because many roads can lead to any particular result, we cannot be content with considering a model valid simply because it yields some empirical pattern. Other facets of the model may yield conclusions which are empirically falsifiable, for which the model must be held responsible.

So the aggreement of a theory with some set of empirical facts is not enough to hold it up as a standard of rigour, broader considerations are necessary. In the face of broader considerations, neoclassical economics clearly does not pass muster.

III – Shaping Structures, Economic Gradients, and Aggregate Emergent Properties

Having thoroughly attacked the notion of the “representative agent” based on “micro-foundations,” Shaikh now attempts to describe what his method based on emergent properties will look like. As was described above, these emergent properities are given their particular characteristics in interaction with “shaping structures.” Here Shaikh returns to the question of consumer behaviour, (See Section II – 1) and investigates two shaping structures:

  1. “A given level of income which restricts the choices that can be made…”
  2. “A minimum level of consumption for necessary goods that introduces a crucial nonlinearity”

Shaikh argues that these two structures provide a basis for explaining the following empirically observable patterns:

  1. “Downward sloping demand curves”
  2. “Income elasticities of less than one for necessary goods and more than one for luxury goods”
  3. “Aggregate consumption functions that are linear in real income in the short run and include wealth effects in the long run”

As in the discussion in Section II – 1, the discussion is supplemented by a simulation involving the following types of agents:

  1. “A standard neoclassical model of identical hyper-rational consumers in which a representative agent obtains”
  2. “A model of heterogeneous hyper-rational consumers in which a representative agent does not obtain”
  3. “A model with diverse consumers in which each one acts whimsically by choosing randomly within the choices afforded by his or her income”
  4. “A model…in which consumers learn from those around them (their social neighbourhood) and also develop new preferences (mutate) over time.”

While we might expect such widely varying models to yield widely different results, in fact “all of the models give rise to the very same aggregate patterns. The essential point is that the same macroscopic patterns can obtain from a great variety of individual behaviors” (90).

Sections III – 1..4

In these sections Shaikh outlines a simple mathematical model to demonstrate his ideas about consumption. In the first section he establishes a two good economy of luxuries and necessities, with a budget constraint that all individuals will have to consume within. In the second section he establishes that according to this constraint demand curves will be “downward sloping.” As the price of a good rises, the budget constraint will move “inwards,” restricting the quantity of the good consumed. In the third section Shaikh accounts for Engel’s Law: “…that people buy proportionately less of necessary goods, and hence proportionately more of other (luxury) goods as their income increases.” (92) Shaikh provides a number of assumptions within his model that could “derive” Engel’s Law, according to whether the minimum consumption of necessities varies with income, the slope between necesssity and luxuries varies, or neither varies. Finally he provides a formal definition of his consumption model, and notes that the results are “robustly insensitive” to models of individual behaviour because they are defined by the “shaping structures” of the budget constraint and minimum level of consumption.

5. Simulations: Insensitivity of aggregate relations to micro foundations

In this section Shaikh provides the details for his simulation of various agent behaviour types, with the introduction of various behaviours, both plausible and wildly implausible having little to no effect on the resulting consumption patterns, which remain determined by the shaping structures as he has claimed.

Section IV – Methodology for Economic Analysis

Shaikh begins this section by introducing the question of the importance of heterogeneity among individual agents. He notes that the heterogeneity of agents does “[invalidate] any notion of a representative agent” (101) but it is not sufficient to explain aggregate consumption behaviour. Shaikh explains the reason why heterogeneity invalidates the notion of the representative agent as follows:

Individual actions underlie market, industry, national, and regional macro patterns. But more aggregate sets have properties not possessed by the individual agents, which means that we cannot model the whole ‘as if’ it were merely one large individual. The representative agent is a convenient untruth.

So in the first place agents are not homogeneous, and modelling them as if they were would be illegitimate. However, beyond this point heterogeneous agents give rise to emergent aggregate patterns that diverge from the representative agent. Yet beyond the point of heterogeneity Shaikh adds that of “shaping structures” such as those that we saw in the previous section (e.g. The budget constraint) that give a form to the aggregation of heterogenious agents. Out of the selection of agents we saw in Section III, three of the agent types were heterogeneous, while only one was homogeneous, but under the influence of the shaping structures that Shaikh specified: “…all four simulation models yield the same demand and Engel curves and associated elasticities” (101). If heterogeneous and homogeneous agents yield the same patterns then the explanatory factor must lie elsewhere – namely in the shaping structures.

Shaikh then notes that even agents whose consumption patterns vary at the micro level converge at the macro level using the same relevant variables – in this sense the macro pattern is precisely emergent. He finally notes that while some “information” is destroyed in the transition from the micro to macro level (The assumptions of what it is that makes heterogeneous agents different, such as variation in income) what is really important is “…the existence of a theoretical connection between consumption and the particular variables that affect it, and some understanding of which of the latter count at the aggregate level” (102).

With this background in mind Shaikh goes on to “…specify five characteristics of rigorous aggregate analysis” (102).

  1. “It should be rooted in some theory of the relevant factors at the micro level”
  2. “It should allow for the fact that only a few of these factors may be relevant at the macro level”
  3. “It should recognize that the aggregate functional form will be quite different form corresponding microscopic ones, whch implies that there is no such thing as a representative agent”
  4. “Rigorous macroeconomists will also keep in mind that there will be many micro foundations consistent with any given aggregate pattern”
  5. “…rigorous economic theory must always keep in mind that equilibration is a hypothesis whose existence, stability, speed, and manner of operation must be explicitly addressed”

So in simplified terms, we need to maintain an awareness of the distinction between micro and macro levels of analysis, the problematic relationship between the two, and we have to think about the real implications of economic dynamics over time. Shaikh concludes the chapter by pointing out how certain aspects of “old-fashioned” macroeconomics does satisfy his requirements for rigorous analysis, using the examples of Keynes, Kalecki, and Friedman.

Section V – Turbulent Gravitation

1. Equilibration as a turbulent process versus equilibrium as an achieved state

Here we return to the issue of dynamics that was brought up as point 5 in the previous section. The main distinction, which was also discussed in the previous chapter, is between the “classical” notion of equilibration as a turbulent process versus equilibrium as an achieved state, which is “the most prevalent notion of equilibrium in both orthodox and heterodox economics” (104). The classical notion is “gravitational” and recognizes than any “exact balance is a transient phenomenon because any given variable constantly overshoots and undershoots its gravitational center.”

2. Statics, dynamics, and growth cycles

Shaikh here is trying to explain how the growth rate can actually be dynamic, but the equations he is referring to are completely foreign to me and I was not able to follow his point.

3. Differences in the temporal dimensions of key economic variables

This section focuses on specifying the length of various economic cycles. The first cycle addressed is that of profit rate equalization between industries. This is a phenomenon that occurs over four to five years, and:

…is driven by the reaction of industrial investment to profitability. The higher the profit rate, the greater is the incentive for firms to accelerate the expansion of output and capacity…Industries with higher profit rates will experience growth acceleration until their output begins to grow faster than their demand, at which point their prices and profit rates will begin to decline. The opposite holds for industries with lower profit rates. Two things follow from this. Individual industry profit rates on nw investment will fluctuate around the corresponding overall average rate. This is the equalization of profit rates. But as the average profit rate on new investment itself fluctuates, so too will the overall growth rates of output and investment in the economy as a whole. (106)

Therefore the profit rates of individual industries are equalized around a moving average over time. There is no achieved state of rest at any point.

Shaikh next turns to business cycles:

  1. Inventory cycles (3-5 years)
  2. Equipment cycles (7-11 years)
  3. Long waves (45-60 years)

The inventory cycle is related to the balanced between supply and demand, while the equipment cycle is related to the balance between capacity and actual output (That is, how much is that capacity used in production). Equipment purchases are made in anticipation of future sales, and inventories of raw materials and work in progress are needed to maintain continuous production. Then there are the inventories of finished goods needed for continuous supply for sale. There are normally divergences between expected/desired sales and inventories, and with these divergences come divergences between production capacity and the amount of production required to maintain inventories. The inventory cycle is the most responsive to supply and demand, and with a length of roughly three to five years, Shaikh takes it as a measure of the economic “short run.”

The equipment cycle is taken as representing “the time it takes for actual capacity utilization to cycle around the normal level” (108) and therefore as representing the economic “long run.”

Next we turn to other cycles. While the financial markets are largely trading in “futures” and other virtual entities, instead of labour intensive goods, they seem to follow long term bubbles. Shaikh unfortunately does not have any more to say about this subject here. Labour markets are “…complicated because of the special nature of labor power as a commodity,” a point that appeared earlier, but which we get more information this time. Because (except in some kind of slavery) humans aren’t generated in response to labour demand “the global supply of labor hours is not demand determined” (108). This is a very obvious point in countries like Japan, where the population is aging visibly before my own eyes despite capital’s protests that this will have dire implications for the Japanese economy! There are some ways that the “local effective supply of labor hours” can be increased however:

  1. Changing workers from the inactive to the active labor force (e.g. Encouraging women to work outside of the home, hiring from the “reserve army of the unemployed”)
  2. Changing workers’ geographical location through emigration
  3. Changing the length and intensity of the working day through overtime or speed-up of the labour process

These offer capital “wide limits” in employing labour, but they are not infinitely wide, as the Japanese situation has demonstrated. We will see more about the labour market a long time from now in Chapter 14, but for now we will have to accept that “…the labour market is likely to be the slowest of all the aggregate markets” (109). Shaikh therefore arrives at the following adjustment speed schema:

  • Short Run (3-5 Years): Commodity marukets, inventory cycle, profit rate equalization
  • Long Run (7-11 Years): Capacity utilization, equipment cycle, labor market

This scheme varies from that commonly accepted in the literature, which is longer and has other determinants.

Section VI – Summary and Central Implications

As in the previous chapter, much of this section is summary, as I have provided in this post! My summary is of course more extensive, but Shaikh does add some new points in his own. There are two points that I think are worth mentioning. The first is Shaikh’s survey of popular approaches to human behaviour in economics. He lists four:

  1. Behavioral theory
  2. Evolutionary theory
  3. Agent-based computational economics (ACE)
  4. Stochastic approaches

Shaikh accuses behavioural economics of “[accomodating] some of the knowledge derived from [broader] behavioral within the framework of standard economic theory” (115). In other words behavioural economics cherry picks “disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neurobiology” for ideas that will not rock the boat.

Evolutionary economics is praised for noting “…that the whole can have characteristics that differ from those of individual elements” and that it has attacked the Spencerian notion of the “survival of the fittest” used to propagandize in favour of “the superiority of market outcomes” but is accused of not offering much of an alternative to the neoclassical paradigm and hewing far too close to it in the case of evolutionary game theory. In particular Shaikh accuses it of assuming that too many evolutionary processes are equivalent to calculation, when in fact they are something quite different.

ACE is attacked for being far too arbitrary and “ad-hoc,” (117) and so falling into the same sort of fallacies that we saw with the representative agent earlier in this chapter.

Unsurprisingly, the “econophysics” stochastic approach is the one that Shaikh approves of the most, as its emphasis on macro patterns and physical metaphors most closely resembles his own work found in this chapter.

One final point of interest is the divide that Shaikh highlights between consumers and businesses in “the classical approach”:

…capital is the dominant force and profit the veritable bottom line of capitalism itself. This leads them back to production, to the surplus product as the objective foundation of profit, and to competition as the means by which profit regulates exchange. It is important to note that profit is a potentially objective measure, subject to constrant scrutiny by the firm’s managers, by the stock market, by the banks, and by the public in general. Profit is the survival condition for firms. Individual firms are punish by extinction if they make persistent losses, and can be threatened even if they merely make lower profits than their competitors. Hence, the constant pressure to cut costs so as to improve their odds of survival. In turn, these individual imperatives give rise to a series of ordering mechanisms such as the tendency to equalize profit across industries. Competition is a war among firms, and it is this, the imposed rationality of warfare, which [is] their objective guiding principle. Individual consumers face no such objective winnowing process. They are, of course, subject to social influences which form the the ‘macro foundations’ of their microeconomic behavior. But within these confines they can operate out of habit, out of tradition, or even out of whimsy. Theirs is the domain of the social-subjective. Hence, in the classical approach, there is a great asymmetry between the treatment of businesses and that of consumers. (119)

This might seem like a great deal of common sense, but it is in stark distinction to the “Walrasian” (i.e. neoclassical) approach, which “insists the consumer and the firm be treated in a perfectly symmetrical manner.” (118) As we saw above, the neoclassical approach can only really deal with one agent at one point in time, and this homogenizing approach is evident in the consumer/business divide as well. Shaikh’s “classical” view does seem to capture more of how life as a consumer is actually lived, with a certain amount of freedom experienced by the consumer as to their choices (limited by their budget). The choices we make as consumers are not a matter of strict ranking and optimization, but they are still limited. However it should be emphasized that this freedom is one that is not only limited by how much of the social surplus we can spend as personal income, it is also limited by the fact that we are shut out of the world of production, finding ourselves embroiled in the “imposed rationality of warfare” that is characteristic of capitalist competition and unable to freely act in this sphere. Capitalist consumer freedom, based on “consumer choice” is therefore the free part of a economic split that runs right through us as individuals. This is part of the limitation that Marx recognized in the capitalist system, and demanded be overcome.

In the next chapter we will turn to a discussion of production.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shaikh

Anwar Shaikh’s Capitalism – Notes on Part I, Chapter 2

In this chapter Shaikh takes empirical data on long-term patters of recurrence and turbulent growth as the point of departure for his study of capitalism. This distinguishes Capitalism from Marx’s Capital, in that it does not begin from an analysis of the commodity form, but rather from a “bird’s eye view” of the history of the capitalist system. Why would Shaikh choose this approach rather than that chosen by Marx? In the first place, it is obvious that in 2016 we have much better access to economic data than Marx did back in the 1860s. Economic history is now a formal discipline with various established institutions and regular funding, and is able to take advantage of the data-collection capabilities of large state and corporate bureaucracies which simply did not exist in Marx’s time. We also have the ability to look back on a longer and more diverse history of capitalism than Marx did. Because of the proliferation of various “varieties of capitalism” and “regimes of accumulation” across geographies and time there is more that needs to be explained.

We can also point to the fact that Marx modeled his introductory approach on that of Hegel’s Science of Logic. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “…being is the thought determination with which the [Science of Logic] commences because it at first seems to be the most immediate, fundamental determination that characterises any possible thought content at all.” Comparing this to the opening of Capital‘s first chapter, we can see the obvious similiarity: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities,’ its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.” Both Hegel and Marx begin their analysis with what is “immediate” and therefore “appears” or “seems” to be “fundamental.” In the course of dialectical development, we see that what appears to be obvious and simple in fact contains the entire logical structure within itself.

Shaikh takes a rather different approach to his work. He provides a “list” of “long-run economic patterns in developed capitalist countries” that provide a “physiognomy of the system.” He does argue that “Concepts such as recurrence and turbulent regulation arise quite naturally from a scrutiny such as this” (56) but the approach is to argue his point by refering to a list of related examples rather than to focus on a single object and try to tease out its underlying structure by way of considering its contradictions. The advantage of this approach is of course to be able to lay claim to the title of “realism.” By showing that the evidence supports his arguments (and that it does not support the arguments of the neoclassicals) he gains a strong debating position. He is also able to immediately state what the large-scale questions he is concerned with are, unlike Marx who spills a great deal of ink before ever introducing something as fundamental as surplus value to his analysis. While Marx’s logical demonstration is impressive, it requires quite a bit of patience from the reader, to the point that many readers of Capital skip the first chapter altogether. Thankfully, Shaikh’s introduction is much more straightforward.

Section 1 – Turbulent Growth

Shaikh begins his analysis by looking at the history of industrial output and investment in the United States. He chooses the United States for his analysis because “it is the preeminent advanced capitalist country and because it generally has the best available data” (56). The United States demonstrates an “apparently inexorable tendency towards growth” (56) but its growth, whether measured through industrial output or investment is “turbulent” in that it has many ups and downs. Furthermore investment is more turbulent than industrial output in its growth. This is one point that Shaikh will seek to explain. He then turns to examining fluctuations in output: “booms and busts…overshooting and undershooting, in never ending sequence” (58). Upturns in output are associated positively with wars, and downturns with the end of wars. This is a point that was already familiar to Marx, but it is not the underlying cause of the “business cycle” of booms and busts. The most extreme busts are known as “Great Depressions,” and they occurred in the 1840s, 1870s, 1930s, and Shaikh argues, in the 1970s and after 2007 up until the present. He will attempt to explain why these depressions occur in the course of the book.

Section 2 – Productivity, Real Wages, and Real Unit Labor Costs

Next we turn to the history of productivity, wages, and labor costs. As mentioned above, this chapter is a list of topics, so these subjects do not follow logically or directly from the topic of the business cycle and depressions. They are still related, but one could imagine another order of analysis with which to proceed. The last section began with the fundamental fact of long-term capitalist growth, and this section begins with the fundamental cause of that growth – technological progress and productivity growth. As Shaikh argues “Productivity growth is essentially a measure of technical change” (60). Other factors can raise productivity a modest amount in the short term, such as intensifying work or lengthening the working day, but “both of these methods face practical and social limits.” (60) Marx discussed this matter in his analysis of absolute surplus value, but essentially it comes down to the limitations of time, the human body, and the dignity of the worker. At any rate, the long term growth of capitalist productivity is a fact, and generally speaking it has been associated with growth in real wages. However Shaikh notes that this association broke down “in the early 1980s, beginning with the Reagan-led assault on labor and compounded by foreign competition” (60) – these trends of what are commonly called “neoliberalism” and “globalization” initiated a decoupling of productivity and wage growth that is unprecedented in American history (and which forms the current social basis for both Sanders-lead socialism and Trump-lead fascism). This decoupling, Shaikh argues, shows that the relationship between productivity and real wages is mediated by “social and institutional mechanisms” (60). As Marx argued, the wage rate is determined in part by the state of the class struggle. Contrary to the arguments of the neoclassicals, the relationship between productivity real wages is not given, but is subject to “conjunctural” change. This is a thorny issue for any economist, because such turns in the class struggle are not regular or even “turbulently” regular, but are instead exceptional and therefore irregular. As I will note below, this presents significant difficulties for a discipline that wants to emulate the physical sciences.

Shaikh then argues that while “social and institutional mechanisms” can improve the labor’s wage share, “they do so within strict limits” (60). Why? Firms with higher than average total costs will lose out in competition, and labor costs form a very large share of total costs. Furthermore, “at the agggregate level, a rise in real unit labor costs lowers real profit margins.” (61) Looking at the history of real labor costs we see the following periods:

  • 1889-1909 Falling
  • 1909-1929 Stable
  • 1929-1939 Rising
  • 1947-1963 Stable
  • 1963-Present Collapse

It may seem strange that real labor costs rose during the Great Depression, but this was because they remained somewhat stable against collapsing production levels and nominal prices. Shaikh’s real point here is that the “Golden Age” from ‘47 to ‘63 “led to the sense that wages automatically rise alongside productivty.” but the subsequent collapse has shown that this is an illusion and that “the relation between real wages and productivity has always been conflictual and that the balance of power between labor and capital can always shift” (61). Shaikh here seems slightly confused. This was the point he demonstrated in the previous section. The point that he had to demonstrate here was that there are “strict limits” on the rise in real labor costs. The real issue is not that the relations between labor and capital in dividing up the surplus are conflictual, but that the system tends to frustrate any long-term victories on the part of labor because of the limits on labor cost enforced by competition and the profit rate (As we will see, the profit rate is all-important in capitalism). However we do get some more discussion of this problem in the next section.

Section 3 – The Rate of Unemployment

The point discussed here is the relationship between Great Depressions and unemployment. Unsurprisingly, they are strongly associated with one another! However, Shaikh makes the argument that “economic policy and social structures” can significantly moderate these spikes in unemployment. He claims that the low unemployment in the Great Stagflation of the 1970s – 1980s relative to the Great Depressions of the late 19th century and the 1920s – 1930s demonstrates that this is the case. However he also argues that suppressing a depression will both extend its duration and weaken the subsequent recovery. Nevertheless, he argues that this is preferable to a laissez-faire approach because the costs to labor of suffering a sharp depression are greater than those to capital. This is because high unemployment weakens both the bargaining positions of individual laborers over wages and weakens the institutions that support the working class (presumably unions and so on). However, at least from the data presented in this chapter, this argument does not seem to hold. The “golden age” of labor came after the Great Depression, and the catastrophic collapse in wages relative to productivity came in and after the “moderated” Great Stagflation. It will be interesting to see what Shaikh’s detailed arguments are on this point. In any case, if we fill in the gaps, we can conclude that a low profit rate will lead to a depression, and that the depression will weaken the bargaining position of labor by means of unemployment. Therefore there are “strict limits” on the rise in real labor costs. This is the “profit-squeeze” interpretation of the 1973 crisis, which argues that labor’s rising share before the crisis triggered the conditions for stagflation and crisis. It has enormous political implications, as I will discuss at the end of this summary.

Section 4 – Prices, Inflation, and the Golden Wave

Shaikh begins here by noting that “…what we now call ‘inflation’ is a modern phenomenon” (63) as opposed to a natural one. If we look at historical prices indicies, we can see that “It is only in the postwar period that prices levels begin to display a new pattern, one in which they rose without end” (63). Before this, they “were characterized by successive waves of rising and falling prices.” Prior to the postwar period, prices rose and fell in “long waves” and the downswing in these waves were associated with downswing phases, but these falls are not apparent in the prices indicies after World War II.

However Shaikh suggests that we look beyond what is apparent in the price indicies. Why? Because we should not think of money only in terms of national currencies. Shaikh argues that there are three “layers” of money:

  1. Credit money
  2. National currency
  3. Gold (Commodity money)

The most important of these three, what we might call the “fundamental layer,” is gold. Gold’s “…official or unofficial status rests on the health of global commodity circulation.” (63) While all three currency forms compete against each other and can devalue relative to one another, gold forms a “common international standard.” This is not to say that gold is always the most valuable of these three forms of money, but that it is the currency of last resort. For example, when the US Dollar’s stability was called into question by the 2007 crisis the price of gold shot up. When the US Dollar regained international supremacy the price of gold fell. The important point is that the “dollar standard” is not an absolute standard, but exists relative to other forms of money, and to global commodity circulation. With this in mind, Shaikh proposes that we look at price levels relative to the price of gold in the postwar period. It turns out that if we do so the long “Kondratieff waves” reappear, with a downturn coinciding with the Great Stagflation and another with our present crisis. The reason why this happens will be discussed later in the book.

Section 5 – The General Rate of Profit

Following up the discussion of long waves, Shaikh notes that “…waves in growth…[are] primarily driven by the rate of profits.” (65) This makes the rate of profit the fundamental determinant of the course of capitalist development, and so very important indeed! He writes: “The analysis of the general rate of profit will provide us with our point of entry into the macroeconomics of growth and cycles” (65). However, while the rate of profit may be just that important, we have to specify what we mean by it. This gets us into a very messy technical problem that goes back at least as far as Capital: Volume II. A common definition of the rate of profit is “the ratio of total net operating surplus to the total net stock of (fixed) capital” (65). This sounds reasonable enough, but the problem is that at a material level that fixed capital is not of uniform age, quality, and productivity:

So at any moment the capital stock encompasses capital ranging from that which was put into place (say) thirty years ago, to that which came on line only one year ago. Since there is no particular reason why a thirty-year-old plant should have the same profitability as a new one, the overall rate of profit represents the average of the rates of profit on the various vintages still in operation. In this sense, it is a useful guide to the health of capital as a whole. For the same reason, it would not be a useful guide to the future profitability of any investment under current consideration. (65).

So this rate of profit is not useless, but it is also quite misleading when thinking about investment, and investment is of course the leading edge of growth. If you want to know what economists spend their time arguing about, it is often finicky definitional issue like this one. Just visit any Marxist economics blog and you’ll find raging arguments about definitonal issues of this type. Putting that issue aside, we will go with Sheikh’s definition and see where it takes us. The important point about this section is that we do not want to use the “general rate of profit” in order to study investment patterns. Instead we need “some measure of the rate of return on recent investment” which will bring us closer to the decisions that investors make based on recent economic performance. While definitional issues like this one are tiresome and convoluted, they have an enormous effect on what sort of “empirical results” one gets out of research. Data is theory-laden, and the devil is in the details.

Section 6 – Turbulent Arbitrage

This section continues the discussion of the rate of profit. Shaikh begins by noting:

The profit rate is central to accumulation because profit is the very purpose of capitalist investment and the profit rate is the ultimate measure of its success (66).

In this argument Shaikh follows Marx. While capitalists are sometimes referred to popularly as “job creators,” job creation is very much incidental to what they are about. It would be better to refer to them as “profit pursuers” instead of job creators, as that is what they actually do. Their profit seeking investment is what gives capitalism its dynamic character. In seeking profit, capitalists invest in profitable sectors of the economy. Shaikh argues that this ultimately has an “equalizing” effect on the profit rate. This is one of those important concepts that came up in the introduction, and we get our first discussion of it here. So how does this work? The process is as follows:

  1. Investment goes to profitable sectors
  2. Investment raises production
  3. Production increases supply, and therefore lowers prices and profits
  4. Investment goes to more profitable sectors

And the process is repeated ad infinitum. This is “turbulent arbitrage” – “A roughly equalized profit rate is an emergent property: it is not desired by any, yet it is imposed on all” (66). Very importantly, this is NOT a form of equilibrium! Equilibrium is a foreign concept to the sort of economics that Shaikh is defining, and readers would be well advised to not get equalization and equilibrium confused! Shaikh’s inspiration is classical political economy, which as Phillip Mirowski noted in his excellent More Heat than Light is a substance theory, as opposed to neoclassical economics, which is a field theory. The fundamental metaphor is of a growing substance in motion, whereas the fundamental metaphor of neoclassical economics is of a field of forces in equilibrium and rest. For example, consider Shaikh’s statement:

…the movement is a never-ending one, with profit rates always overshooting and undershooting their ever-changing centers of gravity. There is never a state of equilibrium, but rather an average balance achieved only through perpetually offsetting errors. (67)

The “balance” that exists in this system is emergent because it is formed by the interaction of objects that are perpetually out of balance. In Hegelian terms, we might say here that “truth is error as such!” This is the concept of “order-in-and-through disorder” we saw in the introduction. Departing the discussion of physical metaphors, and getting back to profit, we see that “competition..produces a persistent distribution [of profit] around the average” and “…because this process is driven by the movement of new capital, the relevant profit rates are those on new investment. It is these profit rates…which we would expect to see equalized across sectors” (67). When we look at the movement of profit rates across sectors in these terms (of new investment) we see the following:

This is profit rate equalization in its true form: incremental rates that careen in rapid succession from one level to another, and even from positive to negative…(68)

Shaikh argues that this is characteristic of “real competition” where investment decisions are not made with reference to stable rates of profit. This “incremental rate of profit” is what is relevant in explaining the movement of stock and bond prices, and therefore interest rates. It also explains the structure of relative industrial prices, to which we now turn.

Section 7 – Relative Prices

This is a short section that discusses the composition of the prices of commodities. Shaikh argues that the prices of commodities are composed of two parts:

  1. Vertically integrated labor cost
  2. Vertically integrated ratio of profits to wages

These are “vertically integrated” in the sense that they are (to take labor costs as the example):

Sum of direct labor costs + Sum of labor cost of inputs + Sum of labor costs of inputs of inputs

The same structure holds for the ration of profits to wages. Essentially this is the ratio of “labor’s share” vs. “capital’s share” in the price of a commodity. This kind of argument was first made by Adam Smith, and then refined by David Ricardo. Ricardo reckoned that labor costs were 93% of prices on a long-term average, and this idea was ridiculed by the neoclassicals, but Shaikh argues based on his research that Ricardo was not too far off the mark, placing the figure at 87%. This preponderance of “labor’s share” will have important consequences down the line but they are not discussed here.

Section 8 – Convergence and Divergence on a World Scale

In this section Shaikh compares the economic development of different regions and countries between 1600-2000, based on the work of Maddison. What we find is that the capitalist era is associated with a growth in world inequality. While it is true that “…growth in living standards is a characteristic feature of successful capitalist development” (71) it is also true that “…in regions that are tangled in the coils of capitalism, such as Africa and Asia, we find stagnation and even decline for almost three centuries.” The relative rating of regions can change, as with the “western offshoots” (including the USA) overtaking Europe, or Asia surpassing Africa economically in the 20th century, but inequality remains the rule. If instead of looking at regions, we compare the four richest countries to the 4 poorest, we see a pattern of persistent and growing inequality. As Shaikh states:

…capitalist development is not just a matter of unequal gains but gains for some alongside extended periods of loss for others.

This is another important pattern that must be explained.

Section 9 – Summary and Conclusions

Surveying what he has discussed in the chapter, Shaikh writes:

The great debate of the times is about whether these deficiencies [declining share of wages relative to productivity and persistent world inequality] are to be remedied by channelling and curtailing capitalism, or by hastening its spread across the globe…The patterns shown in this chapter, and others yet to be elucidated, are deeply rooted in this system. Social and economic interventions have their say within the limits prescribed by these processes. The theoretical task is to show how they are linked. (74)

This brings us back to those “strict limits” we saw discussed above. The theoretical move that Shaikh is making is like that made by Marx. At first glance it may seem arguing that the contest between labor and capital, or between the “multitude” and the rulers is nothing but a naked power struggle subject to total contingency would be a better way of thinking than claiming that the system imposes “strict limits” on what labor can achieve. Why not shoot for the stars? Yet by taking the “scientific” stance that the system has regularities and “regulates” limits, it is possible to argue that only with a profound revolutionizing of the capitalist system is it possible to secure the wellbeing of the working class over the entire world. The more “conservative” position is simultaneously the more radical one. Whether the reader considers this point of view overly rigid or powerfully motivating is something to consider as we go through the rest of this long journey through the book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shaikh

Anwar Shaikh’s Capitalism – Notes on Part I, Chapter 1

I will be writing up a (no doubt long) series of notes on Anwar Shaikh’s new book Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises on this blog. The book was not easy to get ahold of in Japan, and so I am only starting my reading today. I hope to be able to present a paper on the book at this year’s Japan Society of Political Economy (JSPE) conference. In an age of highly specialized research, this is a book of unusual and enormous scope, and unlike Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century it truly does seem to be a worthy successor to Marx’s landmark work. My first impression of the book is that it is aimed squarely at an audience of academic economists, with the intention of having a long-term effect in the academic war of ideas, rather than being oriented to a popular audience of workers and activists. I will try to distill the main points of the book in this blog, but the scope of it is so encyclopedic that I’m worried it will be easy to get “lost in the weeds.” In this sense it seems to be similar to Capital’s volumes 2 and 3. There are points of general interest to be found, but it will take some work to get to them.

Of course, I will start at the beginning because this is my first contact with the text, but writing a summary of an introduction is always a challenge. The introduction to a book is typically written last, so without knowing the contents of the book it is hard to summarize what it is saying. That being said there are a few things I found worthy of comment.

Section 1 – The Approach of the Book

In the first section of the introduction, Shaikh lays out the general intent of his magnum opus. His design is to provide a distinct alternative to the neoclassical account of economic “order and disorder” (3). What is called the economy displays both patterns of regularity, such as “almost constant progress” according to various indicators, and “internal coherence” at the macro level. On the other hand, at the micro, or even at the “meso level” it displays a much more “haphazard” character. This is a world of confused and “entangled” factors: uneven development, class struggle, speculation, state intervention, and so on. Any general economic approach will attempt to account for “these two, equally real, aspects” (3). Shaikh’s intent is to provide a plausible account that is at odds with that given by neoclassical economics.

According to Shaikh, the approach of neoclassical economics is to focus on the patterns of regularity and ignore all the other chaotic aspects of economic reality: “The perceived order of the system is recast as the supreme optimality of the market, of the ever-perfect invisible hand. This optimality is in turn projected back onto microscopic units, so-called representative agents, from whose superlatively rational choices it is said to derive” (4). After this perfect order has been set as the norm, then “disorder” is introduced as a post-hoc attempt to capture some element of reality.

This leads to Shaikh’s more interesting criticism of the Post-Keynesian approach. He argues that the Post-Keynesians, while focusing on imperfections with the economic system, “being…from the same foundation” as the neoclassicals. He calls this “imperfectionism” – a view that accepts that there is some validity to the “perfectionist” base model that is adjusted with the introduction of imperfections to various degrees. In this view Post-Keynesianism is a kind of system of imperfections that cannot provide any fundamental criticism of neoclassical economics.

This brings us of course to Shaikh’s own approach, which does not accept the neoclassical perfectionist approach at all, but instead “develop[s] a theoretical structure that is appropriate from the very start to the actual operation of existing developed capitalist countries” (5). How does he propose to do this? Well he gestures at a lot at theoretical principles, such as a “hierarchical,” yet “multidimensional structure of influences” or “Order-in-and-through disorder,” “turbulent regulation,” “pattern recurrance,” “equalization” and so on, but these concepts remain too abstract in the the introduction to really evaluate.

One point that Shaikh makes that is easier to grasp is his reliance on the ideas of classical political economy. As Shaikh writes: “The principle of turbulent regulation has its roots in the method of Smith, Ricardo, and particularly of Marx” (7). This approach puts a great deal of emphasis on the importance of production and profit in the “regulation” of the of the economic system: “Supply and demand are co-equals here, strutting on the stage in alternating splendor. But, as always, profit is pulling the strings” (7).

Finally, Shaikh notes that he heavily references empirical evidence in the book. No doubt the book’s extreme length is due in part to this reference to the empirical, as it is a large contributor to the length of Marx’s Capital as well. This evidence is not objective, but instead structured by theory in the terms of its collection, compilation, and analysis. Another contributing factor to the length of the book is the author’s extensive engagement with the ideas of other schools of economics. In Capital reading groups, I have often heard participants complain about the length of the book, but the reason given there, that advancing a new theoretical approach requires extensive demonstration of ideas and reference to examples, seems to be as valid in discussing Shakih’s book as it is in discussing Marx’s.

Section 2 – Outline of the Book

This is a very thorough summary of the main points of each chapter in the book. There is no real point to me summarizing these summaries, but I will note that they seem useful for trying to keep track of the thread of the book as the reader goes through it. I will probably be referring back to this section, but at this point it is simply overwhelming.

For those who are interested, Shaikh does respond to Piketty’s ideas in one of the final chapters of the book. If readers are eager to hear about this section I could skip ahead and try to write about it, but I will otherwise be reading the book sequentially.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shaikh

How is Capital Taught (mostly) in the USA?

Recently there has been a surge in interest in digital humanities (DH) , making use of “big data” methods to collect information about humanistic subjects. A part of that surge is the Open Syllabus Project (OSP), which constructs rankings of texts according to how many times they are assigned in syllabi. According to the OSP creators’ description:

The OSP is an effort to make the intellectual judgment embedded in syllabi relevant to broader explorations of teaching, publishing, and intellectual history.  The project has collected over 1 million syllabi, has extracted citations and other metadata from them, and is now pleased to make the Syllabus Explorer publicly available as a means of exploring this corpus.  Looking ahead, the OSP’s goal is to expand the collection and make it more useful to authors, teachers, administrators, and students.

The OSP is assembled: “Primarily through the crawling and scraping of publicly-accessible university websites” and it has “…around 1.1 million syllabi, drawing predominantly from the past decade of teaching in the US.” While this number sounds impressive, the creators estimate that “…the total number of US, UK, Canadian, and Australian syllabi for the past 15 years is in the range of 80-100 million.” Therefore the OSP only covers about 1% of the English language syllabi from the UK and the former “white settler colonies” (Minus New Zealand and South Africa) of the British Empire. Therefore it hardly offers a complete sample of even the syllabi offered by American higher education institutions (Considering the large number of institutions in the USA). While we can’t know much about the limitations of the data set aside from this, it is still interesting to examine the results drawn from these 1.1 million syllabi.

As soon as I encountered the OSP I was intrigued by the relatively high ranking assigned to Capital (It is ranked 44th out of 933,635 texts) given how the text is afforded little respect among mainstream economists (especially in the USA!) and how few courses focusing on the text are taught lately. The OSP lets us examine what texts are assigned along with any given text, so we can see what texts are assigned in courses that also teach Capital. I performed some simple quantitative analysis of this data set and decided to publish my results here.

In the first place, I was struck how the OSP (aside from its lack of a complete sample) suffers from a common problem found in data sets “scraped” from online sources. That is, the problem of duplicate entries due to slight variations in titles across editions. For example we can see immediately that Capital is in fact under-represented in the total data set because of how differently titled editions disperse its number of assignments. We see “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy,” and “Capital, A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 2” listed as texts assigned with Capital! Apparently Capital is assigned alongside itself! While the total assignments represented by these faulty categorizations is quite small (104 vs. 1447 for the main “Capital” entry) this problem is endemic to the data set, so I had to do quite a bit of tidying up before I could examine the data. In the first place I removed the duplicate Capital entries, since we don’t know which volumes the main “Capital” entry refers to, we can’t say whether the distinction between Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 is meaningful or not. Then I aggregated the assignment counts of other duplicate entries (I could tell they were duplicates because of their similar titles and authors, in some cases I went and checked online to make sure). While I could only examine the top 100 entries listed here, I aggregated wherever I could. Big data promises a lot of academic labour saving, but if you want to get any meaningful results a lot of “cleaning” of the data set by expert workers is still required! Only time will tell if we will one day trust software to do this kind of aggregation work for us. Because it represents a mutation of the data set and therefore a destruction of information, it is usually looked upon with fear by researchers.

First let’s look at the top 10 texts that were assigned with Capital, ranked by their number of assignments:

Top 10 by Assignment

We can see that the top four texts are all written by Marx himself (That the Manifesto is ranked first is not surprising considering that it is the second more frequently assigned text in the entire data set!), followed by Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Malthus’ Essay on Population, both of which Marx refers to in Capital. This is followed by Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which was heavily influenced by Marx, Keynes’ General Theory, which was written as a rebuttal to Marxist economic arguments of Keynes’ time, and finally Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, one of the most famous 20th Century Marxist texts. Therefore (aside from Marx’s own work) we have two texts that influenced Capital, two that were influenced by it, and one that is opposed to it (Although Keynes’ work may have been indirectly influenced by Capital: Volume 2‘s reproduction schema).

Out of the works by Marx, we have the Manifesto, whose popularity is not surprising given its purpose as a political pamphlet for widespread distribution and political agitation, followed by Wage-Labour and Capital, which is a bit of a surprising choice but may be cited in order to explain Marx’s labour theory of value, The German Ideology, which is often assigned to explain the concept of historical materialism and the Marxist conception of ideology, and the Selected Writings, about which not much can be said.

Next let’s look at the top fifty texts that were assigned with Capital, ranked by number of assignments:

Top 50 by Assignment

The overwhelming popularity of the Manifesto is much more obvious here, but we can also see that Marx’s most popular works noticeably surpass those of the other authors. The Wealth of Nations also slightly outstrips the rest of the pack, perhaps because it is often presented as the counter-point to Capital, perhaps because Marx cited it heavily (Although this seems unlikely considering the influence of Ricardo upon Marx not being clearly reflected in the ranking).

Next is the ranking of authors by the number of times their works were assigned in the top 50 set:

Authors of Top 50 by Assignment

Marx is far and away the most assigned author here, which suggests that Capital is rarely taught in isolation as a definitive statement on Marx’s work. This no doubt has to do with the length and difficulty of the text, but it may also support my perception that courses on Capital are few and far between, and that instructors prefer to “cherry pick” certain chapters from Volume 1 in order to suit the purposes of their courses (For example Chapter 1 on commodity fetishism, Chapter 10 on the working day, Chapter 15 on machinery and modern industry, and the final chapters on primitive accumulation). In particular, Wage-Labour and Capital is an odd choice to teach alongside Capital because it represents an immature version of Marx’s labour theory of value. While I can only speculate on the matter, my hunch that this is because instructors want a simple text to refer to on the labour theory of value in order to “get it over with,” and no one chapter of Capital is very well suited to this purpose.

While no one work by Durkheim made it into the top 10, we can see that his aggregate score clearly put him in second place. This is likely because he is considered to be one of the great founding fathers of sociology along with Marx, so his work may often be taught along with Capital in introductory sociology classes. Engels gets a lower ranking than he should here because the data set does not list him as the co-author of the Manifesto and The German Ideology. As per-usual, Engels fades into Marx’s shadow! Foucault’s high ranking is again not surprising because he is conventionally taught as the thinker who surpassed Marx as a social theorist (For many years to declare oneself a Foucauldian was a way to declare radical credentials while distancing oneself from Marxism – In recent years some Marxists have been trying to settle the score). One interesting entry for his relatively low rank is Hegel, whose Philosophy of Right (No doubt taught alongside Marx’s critique) just barely got him into the group. While the debate over Hegel’s influence on Capital springs eternal, it apparently is not of much interest to instructors.

With these bar graphs out of the way, let’s take a look at some analysis of the disciplinary breakdown of the texts:

Discipline by Text Count

Discipline by Assignment

The first pie chart represents the number of texts from each discipline, while the second represents the proportion of assignments of each discipline. Admittedly, the second chart is more meaningful, while the first is more of a curiosity. Because I encoded the texts myself I should write something about my methodology. Texts of revolutionary agitation (e.g. The Communist Manifesto or State and Revolution) and anthologies that covered various areas were encoded as “Social Science, General” because I couldn’t pin them down into one discipline. Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire and Civil War in France could have been included in this category but I chose to instead include them in Sociology because they seemed more analytical than agitational. Also of note is the size of the Philosophy category. Many of the texts included under their heading also could have been labeled “Political Theory” or “Political Science” but were ambiguous enough for me to list them under Philosophy (e.g. Machiavelli’s The Prince or Locke’s Second Treatise of Government). This accounts for the large number of texts in the category. I included the Biography category for Engels’ On Marx, as his essays on Marx seemed more biographical than anything else, and it seemed odd to categorize his writings on his best friend as “Social Science.” Polanyi’s The Great Transformation was the only History entry (although it could perhaps have been included in the Economics category).

Analyzing the assignment count chart, we can see that whether or not we dissolve the “Social Science, General” category into the other categories, Economics is considerably outnumbered by the other disciplines combined. While Capital is a “Critique of Political Economy,” it seems to be more often taught alongside Sociology, Philosophy, and (perhaps) Political Science. This is not to say that its teaching is totally divorced from Economics (as it seems to be with History), but it is notable that Economics only has a minority share of assignments (Although it would hold a plurality if the philosophy category were broken up into smaller subsets). Furthermore the Economics texts that are taught alongside it are mostly drawn from 19th century “classical political economy,” with the exceptions being Keynes’ General Theory, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy and “heterodox” texts like The Great Transformation and The Theory of the Leisure Class. If we were to interpret this in a negative light we could see it pointing to Economics’ allergy to Marx, but in a more positive light we could argue that this points to Marx’s legacy as a thinker who was not employed in any one academic discipline but who freely cut across them when he found the need.

So what can we conclude about the state of teaching Capital? The answer is: not much! While this kind of data analysis is likely better than astrology or the old fashioned reading of tea leaves, the lack of completeness of the data set and the problems with data scraping are always going to cast the results into doubt. While “big data” analysis carries on the positivist dream of a true science of society, the conclusions it offers are often disturbingly subject to interpretation and speculation. We can say with some certainty that our results are mostly indicative of the state of American education, and exclusively Anglocentric, but these conclusions were defined at the start of the analysis and are not a result of it! On their FAQ page the authors write that: “Over time, the project needs individual faculty donations and access to institutional syllabus archives.” They plan to triple the number of entries in the database over the next year, but while this sounds impressive, once again it would place them at only about 3% of their target value. Big data analysis can be sound in principle, but while the field conjures of images of “immaterial” analytic wizardry, what is often required is labour, labour, and more labour to ensure that the data is actually “clean.” That much, at least, Marx would be unlikely to disagree with.

Leave a comment

Filed under Capital, Digital Humanities

Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Everything – Notes on Less Than Nothing and Ontology

The following are some thoughts I have assembled after finishing Less Than Nothing, and I cannot claim that they represent anything like an expert and complete analysis of this vast text. Certainly I do not have the scientific background required to evaluate Žižek’s analysis of physics and can only attempt to provide an analysis of what he has written on the subject. The highly abstract discussion here has no obvious connection to politics, so next month I will attempt to write a follow-up post connecting my interpretation of Žižek’s philosophy to political thought.

Some reviews of Less Than Nothing suggest that the book does not have a traditional structure of presentation to its argument, but this is only true to a point. Generally speaking the structure of the book is quite clear – it begins with an introduction, is followed by four body sections, and concludes with a political commentary based on the philosophy presented in the rest of the book. The four body sections “The Drink Before”, “The Thing Itself: Hegel”, “The Thing Itself: Lacan”, and “The Cigarette After” form a clear progression (And a typically Žižekian joke). “The Drink Before” deals with precursors to Hegel. First, ancient Greek philosophy, then Christianity, and finally German Idealism, focusing mainly on the work of Fichte. The next two sections, dealing with Hegel and Lacan respectively, attempt first to present Žižek’s unorthodox interpretation of Hegel and then advance his argument that Lacan represents a “repetition” of Hegel (In the specifically Hegelian sense of the term). “The Cigarette After” then combines insights into both Hegel and Lacan. These chapters are interspersed with interludes that deal with issues first related to Hegel, and then issues related to Lacan. Finally we have the “Conclusion”, which is like the concluding chapter to Capital: Volume I in that it is somewhat extraneous to the main argument – a kind of coda or “conclusion after the conclusion.” The real conclusion of the book is arguably its penultimate chapter “The Ontology of Quantum Physics”, which brings together the whole book into a kind of “theory of everything.”

It is when we lose sight of this big picture and look only at the contents of individual chapters that we find Žižek’s style to be unusual. Within and across chapters, Žižek repetitively deploys a method of logical homology. He repeatedly makes use of a small collection of logical forms in his consideration of a vast variety of topics, and this formal structure is at the same time the content of the text as a work of philosophy. This is to say that the “big idea” of the book is the repetition of these logical forms across a variety of fields. While Žižek does make a great number of points about many topics and intervenes in a vast number of intellectual debates in Less Than Nothing he does this through homology in a kind of textual ostinato. This is why Žižek is able to present a topic, suddenly change topics, and then take the original topic up again in another chapter – a form that many of his reviewers have noted. The homologies he employs form the consistency of his argument against the dissonant presentation of content. In this way the changing content reveals slowly to the reader the form of Žižek’s logic at work; the scope of its application and frequency of its repetition impressing upon them its general character.

What specifically then is the big idea that Žižek is attempting to get across in this book, and why can we label it a “theory of everything?” In order to explain this idea, it is important to first understand what the traditional understanding of Hegelian philosophy has been, and how Žižek’s interpretation differs from it. This is accomplished very well in Todd McGowan’s article “The Insubstantiality of Substance, Or, Why We Should Read Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. McGowan describes the “traditional view” as follows:

According to this view, Hegel sets out to describe the structure of being itself without taking into account the epistemological barrier limiting the subject’s access to this structure. It is as if Hegel is able to read the mind of God. To this day, this remains the received wisdom concerning Hegel among those yet to read any of his works. This view of Hegel finds its baldest expression in Hegel’s arch-enemy Arthur Schopenhauer, who attacks “the attempt specifically introduced by the Hegelian pseudo-philosophy … to comprehend the history of the world as a planned whole.”…This interpretation of Hegel views him as committing all the philosophical errors that Kant had corrected in the Critique of Pure Reason.

The abandonment of Kant’s distinction between thought and being manifests itself in a seemingly straightforward way in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Here, Hegel claims that “everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” This statement provides one of the pillars of the panlogical interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy. According to this view, here Hegel is conceiving the external world, the world of independent substances, as the manifestation of the thinking subject. The subject can know the world because the world is the product of the subject’s own activity. Not only does Hegel toss aside Kant’s caution about our capacity to know, he also grants the subject an extraordinary power to create the world in its own image.

McGowan first outlines the view of the late 19th and early 20th century Hegelians:

…the contingencies of history and nature exist within the necessity of the subject’s self-expression and self-externalization. There is no fundamental barrier to the subject’s knowledge of the world because the subject participates in spirit’s production of the world. When the subject attempts to understand what appears external to itself, it is engaged, even if unknowingly, in an act of self-understanding.

According to McGowan this “panlogical” Hegel was not accepted as respectable within the philosophical community, and Hegel’s thought was carried on in the academic world only through “a radical amputation” that moved the focus of Hegelianism away from “the structure of the universe” (Ontology) and towards the structure of subjectivity – In other words by moving to grounds more acceptable to Neo-Kantian – “critical” – thought. This was the trend represented by Sartre, Fanon, Kojève, and the “Critical Theory” of Lukács and the Frankfurt School. As McGowan writes, this Hegel “…could become the ally of Heidegger and the friend of Marxism.” On the level of purely philosophical interpretation of Hegel, McGowan argues that Kojève was the most influential interpreter in this trend of thought, and characterizes his argument as follows:

Kojève centers Hegel’s philosophy on its thoroughgoing commitment to the fact of human reality as the sole province of thought and as the sole source for thought. Far from being a panlogical philosopher, Hegel shows us that thought never escapes the subject itself. As he puts it, “Hegel rejects all species of ‘revelation’ in philosophy. Nothing can come from God: nothing can come from any extra-worldly non-temporal reality whatever. It is the temporal creative action of humanity or History that created the reality that Philosophy reveals.” For Kojève, Hegel has value for what he says about the struggle of the human being in the history that humanity itself creates and not for what he has to say about the nature of being. As a result, Kojève dismisses the entirety of the Philosophy of Nature as a fantasy that anyone who takes Hegel seriously must toss aside…In Kojève’s interpretation, Hegel’s philosophical project comes to resemble that of the early Marx or that of Heidegger in Being and Time.

McGowan sees this subjective interpretation of Hegel at work in Merleau-Ponty’s theory of time and the hostility to ontology in Foucault’s critique of dialectics. Subsequent philosophers went on to develop Hegel’s epistemology (Reading Hegelian thought as an extension of Kant) or elaborated a view of Hegel as a speculative-political thinker, but Hegel’s ontology remained the “amputated limb” that formed the basis for Hegelian philosophical legitimacy. Into this space steps Slavoj Žižek, and his project of reviving Hegel’s ontology, which ultimately culminates in Less Than Nothing.

As McGowan puts it, Žižek re-establishes the legitimacy of Hegel’s ontology primarily through relating it to language. According to Žižek’s account, Hegel’s ontology does not return to a naive pre-critical stance which sees philosophy as a speculative inquiry into the self-sufficient and knowable truth of being, but rather radicalizes Kant’s epistemology by exploring its ontological implications:

There is no being that is entirely independent and self-sustaining, and we know this because our very act of speaking testifies to an incompleteness both in ourselves and in what we are speaking about. Hegel’s ontology begins with this rejection of pure substance and affirmation of the inherent self-division of being… The speaking being’€™s division from itself-its inability to realize its desires or achieve wholeness-€”must have a condition of possibility within being itself. Thus, we can work our way backward from the self-division of the subject to the self-division of being. Our ability to pose the question of our subjectivity testifies to the subject’s non-coincidence with itself, and this non-coincidence appears to separate speaking beings from rocks. This leads Kojève to confine Hegel’s philosophical purview to the speaking subject and its history. But Žižek sees the error in positing this artificial limit to Hegel’s reach. Even beings that cannot speak and demonstrate their self-division through speech nonetheless participate in an ontological self-division, and we know about this ontological self-division because of beings who exhibit it explicitly-that is, speaking subjects. The speaking subject retroactively reveals the contradictory nature of being. Hegel is a philosopher of language who recognizes that the nature of language reveals a fundamental truth about the nature of being.

The point then is to consider the Kantian account of the limited subject in terms of an ontological totality, recognize the logical antinomies that this produces within the linguistic exploration of the matter, and then accept these antinomies as an ontological reality. We could not reach the antinomies in thought if they did not have some real condition of possibility, and the fact that there is such a condition of possibility implies that there is a contradiction in the world that exists in the strongest sense possible: “Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with the irreducibility of the antinomy, and it is in this way that the antinomy loses its antagonistic character” (Less Than Nothing, 950). Therefore Žižek accepts the subjectivist Hegelians’ division of the world into beings-with-speech and beings-without-speech, but he argues that the division of the world into language and nature cuts across both of these categories:

It is therefore not enough to say that, while things exist out there in their meaningless reality, language performatively adds meaning to them: the symbolic transcendentally constitutes reality in a much stronger ontological sense, in its being itself. (Less Than Nothing, 960)

Natural beings without language such as rocks or animals do not exist in a kind of stupid self-sufficiency (e.g. Sartre’s famous door knob in Nausea) but are as alienated in language as beings-with-speech without a capacity for reconciliation with this alienation through language and thought.

Žižek sees this language-oriented philosophy as validated by the theories of language found in structualism and psychoanalysis (and their union in the thought of Lacan). Structuralism teaches us that language is in some sense always “out of joint” because of an ambivalence in the relationship between signifiers and signifieds, where the universality of signifiers in language is never firmly anchored in real things out there in the world, but is rather determined by oppositions between signifiers themselves. In this way signifiers are alien to signifieds, and therefore to sense perception at its most basic. Nevertheless, these alien terms coexist in their antagonism.

The validation that Žižek finds in psychoanalysis comes from its discovery (As McGowan puts it) of the “…split between what the subject desires and
what the subject says” – simply put, a subject’s desire never directly coincides with what it says it desires, or even with what an analyst says it desires. This constitutes another form of linguistic alienation, which Žižek sees as validating the split character of Hegel’s ontology.

The structure of Less Than Nothing is based on Žižek’s desire to establish the connection between Hegel’s philosophy and Lacan’s development of psychoanalysis in a structuralist mode. This is the concern that motivates its more or less straightforward “big picture” narrative. However if we accept this unorthodox Hegelianism as valid, we then are left with an ontology that is everywhere in antagonism and contradiction. If it is the case that language is alienated from sense/nature, that this alienation applies to all things, and that this implies the omnipresence of contradiction, then the Hegelian logic of contradiction (dialectics) applies to all things. In other words the Žižekian Hegel is the “panlogical” Hegel seen in a different light. “The real is the rational and the rational is the real” but rationality is not what we thought it was:

Here, we need only introduce a little displacement, and the entire image of a grand metaphysical process turns into a freakish monstrosity…Yes, antagonism is “reconciled;’ but not in the sense that it magically disappears-what Hegel calls “reconciliation” is, at its most basic, a reconciliation with the antagonism. (Less Than Nothing 951)

Rationality is not a clear and self-sufficient “deployment” of subjectivity, but rather split, impoverished, contradictory, tortured, and so on. The Hegelian real is a real of negativity, nothingness, and evil, but through thought and reason we can grasp it another light:

…in its positive aspect, as a condition of possibility: what appears as the ultimate obstacle is in itself a positive condition of possibility, for the universe of meaning can only arise against the background of its annihilation, Furthermore, the properly dialectical reversal is not only the reversal of negative into positive, of the condition of impossibility into the condition of possibility, of obstacle into enabling agency, but, simultaneously, the reversal of transcendence into immanence, and the inclusion of the subject of enunciation in the enunciated content.

This reversal-into-itself-the shift in the status of what-is-at-stake from sign to Thing, from predicate to subject-is crucial for the dialectical process: what first appears as a mere sign (property, reflection, distortion) of the Thing turns out to be the Thing itself. If the Idea cannot adequately represent itself; if its representation is distorted or deficient, then this Simultaneously signals a limitation or deficiency of the Idea itself. Furthermore, not only does the universal Idea always appear in a distorted or displaced way; this Idea is nothing but the distortion or displacement, the self-inadequacy, of the particular with regard to itself.

This brings us to the most radical dimension of the (in)famous “identity of opposites”: insofar as “contradiction’ is the Hegelian name for the Real, this means that the Real is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is impossible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access; the Thing which eludes our grasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. (Less Than Nothing, 535)

A recognition of these ideas is what constitutes Hegelian “reconciliation.” We become reconciled with reality, but this is reconciliation one stage removed from any positive fact – it is a reconciliation with negation itself and is therefore not a license for the kind of “social adjustment” that is the stock-in-trade of all the therapeutic and disciplinary apparatuses of the state. Given the all-encompassing nature of this theory, it is important to understand why Žižek characterizes it as “materialist” and therefore to understand how Žižek relates it to the physical sciences – for this is an area of his thought that strongly diverges from the subjectivist Hegelians who preceded him (Marcuse famously called for a “new science” that would exist in harmony with his philosophy of life, but he was an exception in this and was strongly criticized for it, notably by Habermas).

It is noteworthy that the culmination of Žižek philosophical arguments in Less Than Nothing is his chapter on quantum physics, which attempts to salvage the reputation of Hegel’s much maligned Philosophy of Nature and develop its themes in a modern context. If Žižek’s Hegelianism cannot be applied to nature, then its claims to refute arguments for the self-sufficiency of nature cannot be taken seriously. In this sense, Less Than Nothing is an all-or-nothing venture.

Žižek approaches contemporary physics through its intersections with ontology, and understanding why Žižek calls himself a materialist despite identifying himself with the “absolute idealist” Hegel will clarify his approach to physics considerably. In the first place, it is important to understand why there has historically been a connection between materialism, communism, and democracy. Simply put, any idealist system of thought will tend to rely on a distinction between spiritual and base-material orders of being. Whether the higher order is spirit, the soul, the intellect, or any other such thing, this higher order can always be used to justify hierarchy in the name of maintaining the proper authority of the higher order of being (Whether it is spiritual or meritocratic or cultural). Certainly revolts can also be carried out in the name of this higher order, but these are in the end necessarily conservative, as they can only aim to reestablish a hierarchy after the dust has settled.

On the other hand, materialism is inherently democratic insofar as it does not recognize a higher order of being. For the materialist, on the most fundamental level of ontology we are all equal. As a matter of practice though it has generally been the case that materialism has also been used to justify hierarchy, except with a secular gloss that claims the authority of knowledge instead of the authority of some higher order of being. Nevertheless, materialism does hold an enduring sort of democratic/communist promise, and this is the promise that Žižek is attempt to hold faithful to in his philosophy.

That being said, Žižek’s materialism is highly unorthodox in that is rejects the “naive empiricist” or “naive realist” form of materialism wherein there is only the self-sufficient determinism of the material whole, within which we as material beings with limited senses and cognitive capabilities grasp an illusory figment of reality we experience as consciousness. As we have seen above, Žižek instead strongly emphasizes the reality of the symbolic, but in doing so he opens himself up immediately to the criticism that he is in fact an idealist in disguise. If we have the natural and the symbolic as two separate orders, a materialist account must find a way to somehow unify them in some common material order. This is where the gap plays such a crucial role in Žižek’s ontology, and it is with this concept that he takes up a consideration of contemporary science.

Žižek chooses quantum physics as his point of entry into the world of physics because as he says, this strange physical world is similar in many ways to the world of language – which we will recall is the cornerstone of Hegelian philosophy. As Žižek writes:

A fact rarely noticed is that the propositions of quantum physics which defy our common-sense view of material reality strangely echo another domain, that of language, of the symbolic order-it is as if quantum processes are closer to the universe of language than anything one finds in “nature;’ as if, in the quantum universe, the human spirit encounters itself outside itself…(918)

It is important to note that Žižek qualifies this statement with “as if,” because the notion that the human spirit encounters its double in the quantum physical world has of course been the starting point for all sorts of idealist and spiritualist obscurantism (a popular example of which is the documentary What the Bleep do We Know!?) which he aggressively attacks. Žižek makes his case for discussing quantum physics in dialectical terms through four main points:

  1. The virtual is efficacious in both the symbolic order and quantum physics. In the symbolic order the potential of exerting coercive force itself has a real effect, in quantum physics the potential trajectories in the wave function of a particle determine its actual trajectory.
  2. In both the symbolic and quantum worlds we find “knowledge in the real” – that is, what we take something as, conditions what it actually is. This has to do with the famous fact that an electron “knows” whether or not it is being observed, and “displays itself” as either a wave or a particle accordingly, almost as if it is following an expected social role.
  3. In both the symbolic and quantum worlds something only “becomes what it is” when it is “registered” in the broader network surrounding it. The wave function collapses when it is “registered” by the observing instrument, a signifier acquires a meaning only in specific context of use.
  4. Both the symbolic and quantum worlds display the phenomenon of retroactivity. In the symbolic world a new master signifier “rewrites history” (e.g. With the dawn of Christianity all of history became a story leading up to the birth and death of Christ, and a path to his second coming) and similarly the “registration” of an electron changes not only its current form, but also the trace it left of its past to be consistent with its particle form. The “history” of the electron is determined retroactively.

Žižek then claims that these four characteristics of quantum physics produce two main reactions: Either the spiritualist claim that the observing subject’s mind creates reality, or the “naive realist” claim that “registration” of electrons is done by instruments with no subject neccesarily involved at all (Which allows the claim that consciousness is an illusion of no real ontological consequence to be sustained):

The basic enigma is the following: insofar as the result of our measurement depends on our free choice of what to measure, the only way to avoid the implication that our observation creates reality is either to deny our free will or to adopt a Malebranchean solution (“the world conspires to correlate our free choices with the physical situations we then observe”). (923)

Žižek rejects the “naive realist” position on the grounds that it can only be defended in terms of an abstract mathematical understanding of reality that is overly abstracted from any basic experience of reality:

“objective reality” as a mathematicized set of relations is “for us” the result of a long process of conceptual abstraction. This does not devalue the result, making it simply dependent on our “subjective standpoint;’ but it does involve a paradox: objective reality”(the way we construct it through science) is a Real which cannot be experienced as reality. In its effort to grasp reality “independently of me;’ mathematicized science erases “me” from reality, ignoring (not the transcendental way I constitute reality, but) the way I am part of this reality. The true question is therefore how I (as the site where reality appears to itself) emerge in “objective reality” (or, more pointedly, how can a universe of meaning arise in the meaningless Real).

He then also rejects the spiritualist claim, on the grounds that it cannot account for the fact that any observer of an experiment will obtain the same results (given the same object being observed and the same apparatus). To Žižek, this suggests that the “finitude” of the observation should be instead read as the “incompleteness” of reality itself. In other words the issue is “to conceive how our knowing of reality is included in reality itself” – to move from epistemology to ontology. Typically, the “transcendental materialism” that Žižek is advocating here is not simply a compromise position between the spiritualist and naive realist positions, but instead focuses on the gap or contradiction that structures their opposition in the first place, producing a new position altogether.

Žižek’s point is that this sort of gap is not only real but “Reality-in-itself” (926):

Reality-in-itself is Nothingness, the Void, and out of this Void, partial, not yet fully constituted constellations of reality appear; these constellations are never “all;’ they are always ontologically truncated, as if visible (and existing) only from a certain limited perspective. There is only a multiplicity of truncated universes: from the standpoint of the All, there is nothing but the Void. Or, to risk a simplified formulation: “objectively” there is nothing, since all determinate universes exist only from a limited perspective. (926)

In other words, if we take what is common to multiple perspectives as what is “objective” we should recognize that the most common property of everything is in fact finitude – nothingness. However as noted above, Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with negation, not with “the Void” as a fundamental reality against which all phenomena are taken as illusory. The void is in fact fecund and active, because in negating itself it produces things which still bear the mark of finitude and are themselves destined to be negated, producing something else. Žižek explains this in terms of the Higgs field:

Left to their own devices in an environment in which they can pass on their energy, all physical systems will eventually assume a state of lowest energy; to put it another way, the more mass we take from a system, the more we lower its energy, until we reach the vacuum state of zero energy. There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that systems energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy-in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing:’

Therefore Žižek’s argument is that reality as a “negation of the negation” is in fact less than nothing – If we take “the Void” as “Reality-in-itself” and self-sufficient, reality-with-consciousness is a subtraction from that strange plenitude, and, like with the Higgs field, there is a natural tendency of reality to continue negating itself (which Žižek identifies with Lacan’s interpretation of the “death drive”). This is the “negation” with which one can become reconciled. It is “immortal” in the sense that every particular negation is survived by yet another negation.

This leads Žižek to a discussion of “the Vacuum” in an attempt to elaborate on this ontology. Žižek argues that “the Void” is always in fact divided against itself into the “false vacuum” and the “true vacuum.” Žižek associates the false vacuum with Buddhist “Nirvana as the return to a pre-organic peace” (945) – it is the Void self-sufficient in itself. The true vacuum on the other hand is the “negated nothing”, it is the nothing which has become something by negating itself. As in the case of the Higgs field it is the “less than nothing” that emerges out of the false vacuum, or taking another of Žižek’s examples, it is like the particle that emerges out of the collapse of the wave in quantum physics.

Žižek then brings the discussion back to Hegel by claiming that this move from the false vacuum to the true vacuum is homologous to Hegel’s claim that reality exists not only as substance but also as subject. The false vacuum is substance “in-itself” and the true vacuum is the subject which disturbs it, the subtracted abstraction that causes substance to appear to itself as alienated. This is why Žižek argues that:

It is crucial that this tension between the two vacuums be maintained: the “false vacuum” cannot simply be dismissed as a mere illusion, leaving only the “true” vacuum, so that the only true peace is that of incessant activity, of balanced circular motion-the “true” vacuum itself remains forever a traumatic disturbance. (950)

The subject then is properly “alienated” from substance. If we simply had substance reality would be “stupid” – there would be no self-reflection and therefore no antagonism. On the other hand if we simply had subject (i.e. the “mind of God”) reality would be just as stupid because it would lack all distinctions and would be without any “content.” Finally if substance could be truly “sublated” into subject so that we could reach the “true peace” of “incessant activity” (as is sometimes argued in Daoist texts, or in the work of the ‘panlogical’ Hegelians) the result would be functionally equivalent to the case of the “mind of God” since substance would no longer be alien to subject. What Žižek calls the “properly dialectical reconciliation” is none of these things:

…the two dimensions are not mediated or united in a higher “synthesis;’ they are merely accepted in their incommensurability. This is why the insurmountable parallax gap, the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible, is not a Kantian revenge over Hegel, that is, yet another name for a fundamental antinomy which can never be dialectically mediated or sublated. Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with the irreducibility of the antinomy, and it is in this way that the antinomy loses its antagonistic character. (950)

Finally Žižek restates this point in ontological terms by drawing a distinction between Being and the Real, arguing that “there is no ontology of the Real” (958). Ontology attempts to give us a complete picture of Being, but it therefore has to “ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology” (961). The abstract, alienated “real” thing we call the subject is therefore never successfully included in any ontology, except of course the sort of “reconciled” ontology that Žižek offers, which only gives us a “complete” picture by recognizing the “incompleteness” of the order of Being created by the subtraction of the subject.

This conclusion allows Žižek to provide the “transcendental materialist” ontology he has been aiming at. The “third term” that unites the symbolic and the natural is the “Real”: “We touch the Real-in-itself in our very failure to touch it, since the Real is, at its most radical, the gap, the “minimal difference;’ that separates the One from itself” (959). There is no “higher” and “lower” orders of being in this ontology, only a reality sustained by its failure to be complete and identical to itself.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Marx’s Name and its Exorcists

All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;

-Tennyson, “Ulysses”


The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

-Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


After the financial crisis, however, it seemed like capitalists had flunked a test they had themselves designed. Marxism might have failed as a political project, but the conditions were set for its recovery as critique, both because of where it diverged from the consensus and what it affirmed. It was easy to swap one kind of economism for another. Like a photographic negative, the Marxist critique took what was light in the capitalist worldview and made it dark. The outlines of the picture were the same, but the shadings reversed. The resulting image was arresting—definitely worth putting on Instagram.

-Timothy Shenk, “Thomas Piketty and Millenial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality”

As a teenager I was always struck by the ambiguity of Ulysses’ “name” that I have quoted here. At first glance Ulysses’ statement “I am become a name” appears to be a part of his boasting of his worldliness – his person and his exploits are so grand that he is recognized by everyone as a “big name.” However we can also read this passage in the opposite sense. Ulysses is old and tired, nothing more than a “name” that has faded from the time of his younger adventures and become a degenerate copy of his younger self. In fact the pathos of the poem arises from the distance between these two different senses of what Ulysses is. Tennyson’s poem powerfully elicits a sense of finitude, loss, nostalgia, and masculinity, but it also points to how we are a part of language and how it is a part of us. More specifically it speaks to the distance between ourselves as “empirically” existing finite creatures of flesh and blood and ourselves as figures existing in the medium of language. One of the strange characteristics of our existence is how these two selves do not quite fit together. It is a commonplace of fiction about celebrity culture that celebrities must struggle mightily to control and not be undone by the simultaneously terrifying  and thrilling power of their names as “stars,” and this is an endless source of fascination for those caught up in the world of the tabloids. To a lesser extent it is a preoccupation of all of us in an age of social networks and omnipresent surveillance, in some sense abolishing the anonymity that grew up with the end of village life and mass migration to the cities in the 19th century. However the phenomenon that Tennyson points to is not quite that of stardom (Which of course he was personally familiar with in its early form) nor that of common personal reputation. He is instead pointing to the sort of names that are recognized by history as agents. These personages are agents in the sense that they are recognized as influencing their immediate historical situation, but more importantly they are agents in the sense that they hold an influence over the present moment through their presence in our conceptual world. Ulysses speaks to us at an imagined moment of parting between himself as a living person of flesh and blood and himself as a disembodied “name” possessing continuing power and agency in its linguistic and conceptual presence. These are the “spirits of the past” that Marx invokes in the Eighteenth Brumaire and although they are often not individuals (The Ancient Romans), they often are (Napoleon).

The fact that Marx’s “specter” continues to haunt us even after the fall of the USSR was well explored and established by Derrida in his Specters of Marx and I do not intend to add much more to the topic in this article other than to note that Marx’s “name” has recently once again become a point of great controversy.  As Shenk notes, Marxism has undergone a “[a] small but serious…renaissance” since the 2007 crisis began because Marx continues to exist for us as a “negative” of capitalism.  Speak the word “capitalism” and you will find Marx’s specter there protesting its continuation. He remains a part of our language, or “tradition” as Marx himself put it. Shenk, for his part, is part of that group of intellectuals who want to see this “nightmare” exorcised from our presence. Shenk’s objection to the force of the Marxist critique is that “Capitalism did not create socialism; socialists invented capitalism” – it was a narrow totalizing concept invented by the socialists, and especially Marxists, that they could use to tar all their opponents with.  In Shenk’s view then, Marx’s name is an obstacle to clear thought and progress.  The discourse of socialism and capitalism is an incestous little language game that weighs like a nightmare on our minds and obscures the truth. The neoliberals were just as entrapped in the Marxist game as the Marxists originally were and all we have been experiencing is a futile series of reversals of these related “economistic” terms. It is unquestionably the case that neoliberal thought is strongly conditioned by Marxist thought, and that the Marxist thought of today is in turn strongly conditioned by that of neoliberalism, however it seems to me that Shenk misses the point when he describes the birth of “capitalism.” Shenk’s objection is that the term that socialists have critiqued was in fact posited by the socialists themselves and therefore a kind of vicious and dogmatic solipcism, but the origins of critique can be seen in a different way. As Zizek writes in his recent book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism:

…one should not confuse dogma with the immediate pre-reflexive acceptance of an attitude. Medieval Christians were not ‘dogmatic’ (just as it is senseless to say that the ancient Greeks ‘dogmatically’ believed in Zeus and other Olympian divinities: they were simply part of their life world ), they become ‘dogmatic’ only when modern Reason started to doubt religious truths. A ‘dogmatic’ stance is always already mediated by its opposite, and this is also why contemporary fundamentalism really is ‘dogmatic’: it clings to its articles of faith against the threat of modern secular rationalism. In short, ‘dogma’ is always already the result of the decomposition of a substantial organic Whole (382).

From this point of view, it is only the critic that can give a name to the object of criticism. The critical negation is what rendered capitalism “in-itself” into capitalism “for-itself” as a entity “dogmatically” opposed to the socialist criticism. This dogmatism should be familiar to any socialist who has met the standard defenses of capitalism (The argument from human nature, the argument from information, etc…) which all amount to the assertion that “There Is No Alternative.” It is not that social truths are there to be discovered as self-evident facts and are obscured by dogmatism, but that they appear to us as truths through their own negation. Shenk’s objection to Marxism then is essentially its own dogmatic position that “There is No Alternative to Our Alternative”, that all other critiques of capitalism are insufficiently radical. Shenk’s complaint is not new – it is exactly the sort of complaint Marx himself made when he called for the poetry of the future to replace the poetry of the past. What is strange about the present moment is that the fall of the USSR was proceeded by the development of “Post-Marxism” and “Third Wayism” which raised just these sort of objections and yet this Post-Marxist moment was followed by the crisis of 2007 which revealed its own blindness to exactly the fundamental questions that Marx had posed. There is therefore a kind of intellectual superposition we are confronted with where it is unclear who occupies the dogmatic position and who occupies the critical position. Is the Marxist criticism of the Post-Marxist and neoliberal dogma of “the new economy” a dogmatic or a critical one? It has been my conviction that it is only through a committed Marxist criticism of the prior dogma that we can arrive at a new critical moment of rupture. It has been my wager that attacking the dogmas of the 1990s with Marxist criticisms in a considered and engaged would allow for the negation of both in the form of a new point of view. In the aftermath of the crisis Marx’s name was on everyone’s lips. We have to remain faithful to that memory of the terrifying power of the alien force of capital in order to challenge the thought that was blind to its growth.

Opposed to this view is Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteeth Century Life which attempts to exorcise the name of Marx through a collection of empirical and biographical facts. Sperber wants to deny the “specter” of Marx by asserting that he was in fact just a person of flesh and blood, and engaged in the immediate commitments of his time. This is a Marx who was a committed political activist but never wrote the abstract theories found in Capital. And yet Marx’s thought did in fact rise to this level of abstraction and his name is still with us today influencing our way of thinking. Sperber’s protestations to the contrary betray their own futility. Every time he points to Marx the man he cannot help but invoke Marx’s name.

Marx’s name also haunts the current hubbub surrounding Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Every review of the book points to its large accumulations of data on inequality to explain its current sensation, yet these reviews also invariably point to its title and to its preoccupation with the concept of capital and its contradictions, which is genetically linked to the Marxist project – a point which Piketty protests, but which the books own title betrays. Before the book was even published in English the controversy over inequality was well underway, engendered by the resurgence of criticisms of capitalism brought about by the crisis. Yet what Piketty has done is allowed for these criticisms to be voiced without any excessive risk of being contaminated by the Marxist label. Piketty’s faith in his data acts as a shield separating him and his supporters from association with the communist project. Nevertheless I believe that it is exactly this proximity-but-not-identity with the Marxist taboo that has generated such a buzz. Like Elvis’ appropriation of early R&B for white audiences, Piketty’s work allows for a consumption of the critique of capitalism at a comfortable distance.

All these denials of Marx’s name only serve to make it stronger. It is my belief that is only through an affirmation of this name that we can in fact overcome its weight on our brains.


Filed under Uncategorized

11 Books From 2013

I haven’t posted anything on here for some time, having been busy trying to write journal articles to get me through my PhD. 2013 has in any case been a year of small victories for radical politics in a sea of gloomy reaction.

The situation here in Japan is especially concerning, as a convergence of factor has allowed for a kind of recreation of the Cold War order in Asia, and the near total identification of a shockingly reinvigorated Japanese ruling class with the American imperial interest. The definitive analysis of this dismal turn of events remains to be written, although it seems clear that it is a result of a combination of global political and economic factors that span well beyond the Japan-US-China relationship alone. For those interested in the subject, and who have access to the journals, I highly recommend reading Ho-Fung Hung’s “China: Saviour or Challenger of the Dollar Hegemony?” and Perry Anderson’s “Imperium” – two recent articles that have done a great deal to clarify the current situation through historical perspective and political economic analysis. In any case there seems to be a sort of agreement between the US and Japan, wherein the US will encourage the success of “Abenomics” through its trade and monetary policy in exchange for Japan’s unwavering support of its policy of containing China (And of course, once the containment succeeds handing over as many Chinese assets as possible to Wall Street) and endorsement of the TPP, a matter which remains politically controversial here in a way it is not in Canada.

While there is a great deal of scare-mongering about China done these days, usually in the midst of talk about the similarity of the situation in Asia now to the pre-World War I situation in Europe, I feel it is important to emphasize that China’s situation is worse in almost every conceivable way than Germany’s was prior to World War I. Germany before World War I was not only industrially, but also intellectually dynamic, with many of the world’s leading intellectuals in a variety of fields living there. Its capital was largely domestically owned, and the surplus value it accrued from its capitalist production was frequently reinvested nationally. Furthermore, Britain never had the immense productive and strategic advantages that the United States does. China on the other hand, is a laggard intellectually, much of the surplus value it produces is snapped up by multinational corporations, and it is surrounded by at least mildly hostile states while the United States remains in splendid isolation, able to present a real threat to a rival half the world away. This is not to make apologies for the Chinese regime, but rather to try to give some perspective to the situation. The CCP has very few cards available to try to maintain Chinese sovereignty and if there is indeed a war in the near future between China and the US and its allies, the Chinese will be sorely outmatched. I feel that leftists need to maintain this perspective in order to work against the escalating atmosphere of jingoism.

The situation in Canada is somewhat less grim, although it is by no means positive. The Tory government has been every bit as much a nightmare of reaction as I had feared upon their election, and it is only on the issues of the Enbridge and Keystone XL pipelines, where activists have made common cause with Aboriginal Canadians’ struggles that the government has been frustrated. The best we seem to be able to hope for as a result of the fight is a greater recognition of treaty rights, but it seems from here that there is not a clear sense on the Left of what the end game is for their fight. It is all very well and good to propose a pipeline running to Eastern Canada in order to increase the number of value added jobs in Canada and to build East-West solidarity, but if the oil is still extracted under extremely lax regulations by capitalist firms it brings us no closer to social management of the resource and our victory will only be a parochial one against our fellow workers in the United States. Furthermore that proposal is concerning in that it could be just as detrimental to Aboriginals as ones currently under discussion. Thinking of the problem in terms of the struggle for an inclusive socialism in Canada that can reconcile the interests of the Aboriginal population with the rest of Canadian workers seems to me a more fruitful direction for thinking.

My contribution to politics this year has been minor, but I thought that perhaps sharing some of the interesting books I read might be of value to those who are engaging more directly in praxis and struggle. The following are a number of the most interesting books I read in no particular order.

Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea – Alberto Toscano

Toscano gives us a genealogical account of the development of debates on fanaticism in Western history. Beginning with the German Peasant Revolts of the Middle Ages, and concluding with a discussion of current Islamophobia. While the conclusions one can draw from the book are a bit muddled, Toscano’s investigation of how the charge of Fanaticism is used by reactionaries to suppress threats to their rule, and how fanaticism has an ambiguous cousin in the concept of “enthusiasm,” as well as a great number of historical points of interest make this book worth reading.

The Reactionary Mind – Corey Robin

Robin’s book pairs well with Toscano’s, both investigating similar phenomena. Robin attempts to articulate a theory of conservative ideology, and his results are very interesting. In the midst of the debt ceiling crisis in the US this year I found this book to be illuminating compared to the lazy Democratic truisms passed off as analysis that were found in much of the liberal press.

The Hegel Variations: on the Phenomenology of Spirit – Fredric Jameson

Like most of Jameson’s books, this is by no means a clearly written text. Yet Jameson’s “variations” on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit were interesting to me because his anti-teleological interpretation of Hegel – which describes the dialectic as a succession of failures – seemed to me to be the philosophical counterpart to the historical theory we find in regulationism, a theory which is so influential today through its critique of neoliberalism. Having at least a basic understanding of the Phenomenology of Spirit would be useful for reading this book.

After Capitalism – David Schweickart

Scheweickart provides one of the most readable accounts of what a future market socialism might look like. I will address this in more detail with a future post comparing his ideas to those of Cockshott and Cottrell, but for now I will simply recommend the book for those who wish to expand their understanding of future socialist possibilities.

A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger – Michael Friedman

This is another difficult read that is not easily accessible to those without training in philosophy, and it is made more difficult by the fact that in order to address its subject matter (The split between analytic and continental philosophy in the 1930s) it has to bridge both varieties of philosophy in order to do so. While I am familiar with continental philosophy, I struggled to get a grasp on the discussions of the analytic philosopher Rudolf Carnap in this book. Nevertheless I found the discussion to be of great historical interest, and the book to be valuable in understanding a wide range of 20th century thought, including the debates regarding socialism that were taking place during and after the period it covers.

Lenin – Lars T. Lih

Any socialist most likely wants to read at least one account of the life of the most famous socialist of the 20th century. Lih’s work attempts to give a fair account of Lenin, and is mainly interesting because of how it attempts to outline the continuities as well as differences between his thought and that of Kautsky and the Germany SPD. This book should do much to impress upon the reader that Lenin was BOTH a Russian and a European intellectual and not simply one or the other.

The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change – Randall Collins

While I have not read this whole book, I recommend it because it brings the methods of sociology (such as network analysis) to bear on intellectual history in a way that is both illuminating and consistent with a historical materialist analysis.Although the author distances himself from Marxism, a Marxist reading of this text is still fruitful. The historical and geographical scope of this book is so massive that I would advise reading the sections of the book that are of interest to you and leaving the rest, unless you have a great deal of time available.

Paris: Capital of Modernity – David Harvey

I consider this to be Harvey’s best book, even though his work on Capital remains of considerable interest. Harvey’s blending of literature, popular and high art, politics, economics, and urban studies into one brilliant historical narrative that culminates in the great catastrophe of the Paris Commune is deeply moving. This book is also notable in how deftly it rejects all the revisionist accounts that attempt to write class struggle out of the history of Second Empire Paris.

The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town – Sharryn Kasmir

This controversial book presents a critical account of the celebrated Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. Kasmir provides a sociological analysis that draws on the often ignored history of the Basque region and an ethnography of the Mondragon workers instead of the sorts of management analysis that are more common to discussion of the cooperative corporation. While I do not believe that Kasmir’s account is so damning as to provide grounds for rejecting cooperatives, I do believe that it is essential reading for any socialist so as to appreciate the complex challenges that the cooperative form of organization presents.

Hayek on Liberty – John Gray

Written by Gray first when he was a disciple of the famous Austian economist and vociferous critic of socialism Friedrich Hayek, and later when he became disillusioned with Hayek’s ideas, Gray provides a brilliant synthetic account of Hayek’s ideas and the theories behind them, even though his prose is marred by occasionally sliding into outright hero worship. This is the account of Hayek that Hayek himself endorsed, and it is a valuable read for socialists who want to know what the substance of Hayek’s criticisms were.

The Player of Games – Iain Banks

The only novel I am including on this list. The Player of Games includes a fairly detailed description of Banks’ far future communist utopia called the Culture, as well as some of his strongest criticism of class society. It is easy to become consumed by the details of the struggle for socialism and lose sight of the sorts of possibilities we are fighting for. Banks’ Culture novels give us a glimpse into what a world without class antagonism, gender discrimination, private property and material want might look like. Orwell complained that leftist novelists were bores, but thankfully this criticism done not apply to Banks’ imaginative work.

I wish everyone the best of prospects in creating a better world in 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized