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.


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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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A Fragment on Saint-Simon

First post in a long time. This is an excerpt from a paper I am currently working on.

While any effort to sharply mark the beginnings of the notion of modernization are bound to be reductive, it seems reasonable to begin with the figure of Henri Saint-Simon, the declassed aristocrat who synthesized and advocated ideas drawn from Bacon, the Scottish Enlightenment, the French philosophes and ideologues, the Catholic theocratic philosophers, and various other contemporary sources.

Saint-Simon was not unique in his utopianism, nor was he especially influential during his time, but he is deserving of note because of the considerable influence his ideas had following his death. Among the most important of these are: the remaking of society on the basis of a meritocracy that would neutralize class struggles in the name of “organic” and “systemic” unity, the establishment of a “monistic” positivist social science on the model of Newton’s physics, the establishment of rationalized religion for purposes of education and social harmony, and the enthusiastic pursual of the development of science, technology, and manufacturing in the name of the progress of humanity. As Frank Manuel describes his vision of progress:

Talleyrand’s image of the national workshop survives in Saint-Simon’s writings, where the goal of the new society is maximum production through maximum utilization of individual capacities. In Saint-Simon’s vision of the golden age of plenty, the emphasis is placed upon ever more production and creation, rather than upon consumption and distribution. The banquet spread before mankind is so sumptuous that dwelling upon material rewards, so characteristic of a world of scarcity, seems to be beside the point (302).

Saint-Simon’s class allegiances shifted over his career as an intellectual along with the vagaries of national and personal politics, from the ideologues of the Directorate who wished to establish the rule of scientists, to capitalists of Restoration-era France, and later to the increasingly immiserated proletariat who were joined with capitalists and scientists under the label of “industrials,” and who were destined to overthrow the class of aristocratic and religious “idlers” who held back social progress in a peaceful revolution (Manuel 255). Because of the variation of his allegiances and the ironically chaotic nature of his writings Saint-Simon has been read as a supporter of both capitalism and socialism – of “free markets” and centralized social regulation. Prior to his intellectual career he was a financial speculator, and in his final days he was something closer to a socialist. He dreamed of great projects, and “[h]is new world society was to undertake great public works through ‘association,’ building highways and canals, founding credit institutions, developing techniques to increase the yield of agriculture and the output of industry, multiplying the discoveries of scientists” (312). An advocate of both social planning and private ownership of the means of production, this turbulent if not contradictory figure became in his final years an advocate of a “New Christianity,” and was taken up as a prophet by his small group of followers, who subsequently spread their beliefs through Saint-Simonian cults among the students of the elite École Polytechnique, many of whom became passionate modernisers after the failure of the 1848 Revolution and the establishment of the Second Empire.

It would be overstating our case to argue that Saint-Simon can be seen as the father of modernity, but it seems fair to argue that in his strange figure there took place a kind of ideal convergence that prefigured the explosive changes that were to follow. This convergence did not form a unity, but rather a seething mass of contradictions which would seize the globe as a material force, and whose complex dynamics of attraction and repulsion remain far from resolved today. If there is any thematic unity to be found in Saint-Simon’s legacy at all, it is most likely to be seen in the radical change in humanity’s relation to nature. As a prophet of productivism and planning Saint-Simon called for the restoration of the organic unities of medieval society lost through the traumatic transition to capitalism through the subjugation of all of existence to rational fiat. Modern reason was not only a structuring force, but a teleological one as well – it demanded the actualization of all potentialities in a moment of total rational unity. While in the works of Bacon and Saint-Simon this demand appears as one of human mastery over nature, this aspiration, no matter how efficient its motivational character, was illusory. The actual process that began in this period was of the predominance of the rational totality over all its momentary aspects, for the modern relation to nature was not constituted by the independence of humanity from nature,1 but rather the increasing dependence of nature upon humanity, a relationship that could only be maintained through the infinite expansion of rational elaborations. The dependency of both nature and humanity on this expanding mass of rational elaborations has acquired its own inertia, so that while the character of the relation to nature has changed, humanity is in fact no more or less free from nature than it was in the first place. In fact, any such change was always a logical impossibility. Yet whereas in the past nature’s power appeared as an inscrutable alien force, it now takes the guise of a reflex of humanity’s own alienated reason. Historically, our arrival at this perspective has been realized through the development of the sciences of government, medicine, demography, economics, information, and most significantly ecology. It has entered into conventional understanding with the declaration of the anthropocene. Yet a description of this process at such a high level of abstraction can afford only an impoverished and idealist understanding of its development which can be enriched through a historical analysis of the history of planning, on which we will now embark.

1Indeed, this independence was always impossible to achieve, because as Marx understood, the human relationship to nature is a metabolic one.

EDIT: I replaced the word “libidinal” with “motivational” because while the drive to mastery over nature had a very deep affective character, it was not so deep that I believe we can classify it as instinctual.

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Why Should Anyone Bother Reading Capital: Volume II?

I’m finishing up my read through of Capital: Volume II, and thought I would provide a short list of what valuable insights I think it offers the reader.  David Fernbach, who provided the translation for the popular Penguin Classics edition of the volume, notes that

Volumes 2 and 3 follow much more in the wake of the less purple passages of Volume 1.  Their content is to a far greater extent technical, even dry; and Volume 2, above all, is renowed for the arid deserts between its oases.  From the scientific point of view, this is all quite contingent; but it has caused many a non-specialist to turn back in defeat.

Because Volume II can be such a slog at times, most people choose to skip reading it, and it is certainly fortunate that David Harvey and his students have provided us with a free lecture series to help make things a bit more lively.  There is some talk that he will publish a companion volume summarizing his lectures, as he did for Volume I.

In any case, here is my list of what I thought the “oases” of insight were in Volume II.

-It examines in much greater detail than Volume I the question of “What is capital?” and therefore also the question of “What is capitalism?”  The examination of the various circuits of capital allows Marx to do this.

-By examining the various circuits of capital, Volume II does much more to highlight the contradiction between use value and exchange value that was first introduced in Chapter  1 of Volume I in the discussion of the commodity.  Marx does this by examining the specificity of the various forms of capital, and how the points of their transformation at various stages of circulation provide the possibility for crisis.

-Although it does not examine its functioning in much detail, Volume II also highlights the vital importance of the credit system to the reproduction and expansion of the capitalist system by describing the points in circulation where credit plays an important role.  In doing so it provides some ideas for those who would like to reform or revolutionize that system.

Volume II also reveals the importance of temporality and continuity to capitalist production, particularly in its discussion of turnover times.  This should be of considerable interest to anyone studying the geography or history of capitalism.

-It also shows how “moral depreciation” can create crisis conditions if technology is being revolutionized too quickly.

Volume II describes the contradiction between production and consumption under capitalism.  While Marx only notes this important contradiction in passing, his comments are of considerable interest.

-This volume also contains some of Marx’s clearest descriptions of his ideas about economic planning under socialism.  His ideas here formed the basis for some of the efforts in the USSR at establishing a planned economy.

Volume II (through its reproduction schemas) is also arguably the major point of departure of the macroeconomic analysis of capitalism.  While Keynes claimed to have never read it, he was influenced by economists who drew directly from it, including the famous Michal Kalecki.

If any of these points pique your interest, you may want to head off into the desert of Capital: Volume II and go searching for its oases.

EDIT: While I did not originally mention this, Harvey’s reading of Capital should be taken with a grain of salt. I still recommend his video lectures for lack of a better alternative, but readers would be well advised to heed criticisms such as those found here on Michael Roberts’ blog.


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