Thursday, 22 June 2017

Kocka's capitalism

Just a very brief note on Jürgen Kocka's Capitalism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2016). This is a thin volume grasping an enormous subject, and as can be expected Kocka sometimes becomes too sweepingly superficial. It is rather annoying when entire scholarly traditions are dismissed in a single sentence without even the trace of an argument to back it up.

Still, there are two things in the book that I like. One is the definition of capitalism  The second is his treatment of the "great divergence" in Chapter 2. I believe, however, that there is a slight tension between the two.

The definition stresses decentralization, commodification and accumulation as three core elements in capitalism. To put it more precisely:
(1) Property rights enable economic decisions to be made in a decentralized way
(2) Markets are main mechanisms of allocation and coordination
(3) Investment are systematically made in expectation of future gain.
To these elements he adds that in its fully developed form capitalism is also characterized by, firstly, the enterprise form and, second, the reliance on wage workers and the absorption from them of surplus value (Kocka 2016: 21f). A benefit of this definition is that it allows him to speak of early forms of capitalism when it merely represents a minority formation in noncapitalist environments.

The "great divergence" is the one between East Asia and Western Europe made famous by Kenneth Pomeranz in his 2000 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the World Economy.  Why did industrial capitalism take off in Western Europe rather than East Asia, despite similar levels of economic development as late as the 1750s? Pomeranz's answer (which has been much debated) was England's easy access to coal and to the New World.

Kocka, however, thinks that a better explanation can be found by looking at the relation between economy and state. Contra free-market ideologues, his argument is not that the market was somehow freer of state interference in Europe than in China. In fact, in neither Europe nor China was there a clear differentiation between economy and state. The decisive difference was that "in Europe the political system was intrinsically diverse and positively fragmented, while in China there was a centralized empire" (ibid.51). Hence political rulers in Europe had to compete to promote their economies. This meant that they intervened much more than in China to further the interests of capitalists. Furthermore:
[The] merchants who supported capitalism in Europe... exercised direct influence on politics – in part via a symbiosis with rulers in the city-states and free cities... By contrast, merchants in China, as well as in Arabia and India, were confined to the antechamber of power... This explains how, in the final analysis and in spite of many countervailing trends, politics in Europe was decisive for promoting mercantile dynamism and a capitalistic kind of accumulation. (ibid. 51)
The conclusion, then - which I find persuasive - is that it wasn't differentiation between economy and society that helped capitalism in Europe, but on the contrary the much tighter fusion of economic and political power in European states compared to, for instance, China.

Regarding this point, it's interesting to see that Kocka here draws rather near to Fernand Braudel, despite some critical remarks on the French historian's distinction between market and capitalism earlier in the book. Repeating a common criticism, Kocka thinks Braudel's distinction is much too sharp. When discussing the "divergence", however, he seems to implicitly rely on something very much like this distinction. Braudel stresses precesely the un-marketlike behaviour of great capitalists, who use their connections with political power to secure monopoly-like dominance of the most lucrative trades to make much bigger profits than in the ordinary market economy. Using Braudel's distinction, we might say that while markets were just as developed in China as in Europe, capitalism - in the sense of a system of capital accumulation supported by political and military power - was Europe's forte, and this is what explains the "divergence". Braudel himself writes: "China... is a perfect illustration of the fact that a capitalist superstructure did not automatically emerge out of a thriving market economy” (Braudel 1992: 600). Following Braudel, David Graeber similarly argues that premodern China and Islam were thriving market societies, but since the states were indifferent or hostile to the markets they never developed the Western brand of armed capitalism (Graeber 2011, Chapter 8).

Kocka's argument concerning the "divergence" is very similar to Braudel's and Graeber's (although he doesn't mention them). The problem is that his definition of capitalism is not really congruent with Braudel's. If one goes with Kocka's own definition stressing the market as the central mechanism for allocation and coordination, then the system will be less capitalist the more allocation and coordination instead happens politically or through military force. Considering the entwinement in Europe between commercial interests and political power, this would seem to make Europe less capitalist than China. I am not so sure that this is a conclusion that Kocka would want to draw. However, the only way to avoid drawing it would be change the definition of capitalism - probably one would need to deemphasize the role of the market and instead allow for forms of capitalism that achieve capital accumulation not solely by relying on market mechanisms.


Braudel (1992) The Wheels of Commerce, Vol. 2 of Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Graeber, David (2011) Debt: The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn, New York: Melville House.

Kocka, Jürgen (2016) Capitalism: A Short History, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth (2000) The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Lovejoy and the hell-ocentric worldview

Arthur O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being (based on lectures held in 1933) tells the story of an influential idea in western thought, that of the 'Chain of Being', from Plato to Schelling. I read it to familiarize myself a bit more with pre-modern ideas of nature, prior to the establishment of the nature-culture distinction and the associated belief in the superiority of humankind as separate from and standing above nature (beliefs that, as Philippe Descola and others have pointed out, are both parochially Western and historically recent).

According to the idea of the chain of being, humankind was not separated from nature, but part of it, just one rung among others on the infinite ladder (the scala naturae) reaching up to God’s perfection. As Lovejoy points out, a logical corollary of this idea was that humankind was only infinitesimally separated from other rungs. Hence there was a “consanguinity of man and the animals” (pp. 195-198, references here and below to the 2001 Harvard University Press edition).

Scala naturae, Didacus Valades (1579)
The idea, which made its first organized appearance in Neoplatonism, is defined by three principles: those of plenitude, continuity and gradation. These principles say that the world must contain all possible kinds of being (even imperfect ones) and that these must be linked in a chain of continuity and graded according to their degree of perfection. When these principles came together in Neoplatonism, the result was "the conception of the universe as a ‘Great Chain of Being’, composed of an immense... number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents... through ‘every possible’ grade up to the ens perfectissimum” (p. 59)

One of the things I found interesting in the book was how Lovejoy conceptualized the transition from medieval to modern worldviews. He points out that the idea of the chain of being, although forming an important undercurrent in medieval thought, was prevented from becoming dominant during the middle ages since it faced competition from the anti-rationalism of scholastics like Duns Scotus or William of Ockham who saw the inscrutable will of God as the sole ground of all value distinctions. What defines the arrival of modernity isn't the triumphant rise of what most of us think of as 'modern science' so much as the liberation of the idea of the chain of being from its old scholastic competitor. Freed from this competitor, the idea of the chain of being blossoms to its full splendour in early modernity, above all in the 18th century when, for example, it becomes a dominant motif in Alexander Pope's poetry and forms the philosophical core of Leibnitz' "optimism".

In telling this story, Lovejoy makes an interesting digression on medieval cosmology prior to the heliocentric worldview. The aim of the digression is to show that the 'Copernican revolution' wasn't very important in establishing the modern worldview. It certainly didn't mean a shift from a worldview in which humankind was central to creation to one in which it wasn't. “It is an error", he points out, "to suppose that the medieval world was a small affair, in which the earth bulked relatively large” (p. 99). The Ptolemaic system thus saw the earth as a mere dot compared with the heavens, and so did Maimonides.
It has been shown that the distance between the centre of the earth and the summit of the sphere of Saturn is a journey of about eight thousand seven hundred years of 365 days, assuming that one walked forty leagues a day [i.e., the distance, in round numbers, is 125 million miles]... Consider this vast and terrifying distance... Consider, hten, how immense is the size of these bodies, and how numerous they are. And if earth is thus no bigger than a point relatively to the sphere of the fixed stars, what must be the ratio of the human species to the created universe as a whole? And how then can any of us think that these things exist for his sake, and that they are meant to serve his uses? (Maimonides, quoted on p. 100)
In the following striking passage, Lovejoy then points out that the tendency of the geocentric system was the very opposite of giving man a high sense of his own importance.
For the centre of the world was not a position of honor; it was rather the place farthest removed from the Empyrean, the bottom of creation, to which its dregs and baser elements sank. The actual centre, indeed, was Hell; in the spatial sense the medieval world was literally diabolocentric. (p. 101f). 
To paraphrase somewhat, the medieval worldview prior to the heliocentric order was hello-centric.

L'image du monde by Gautier de Metz (1464), showing Hell in the centre of a universe made of concentric circles.
This worldview lingered on in Montaigne, who described humanity's dwelling-place as "the filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house" (quoted on p. 102) and John Wilkins who mentions as an argument against Copernicus that the earth because of its vileness "must be situated in the centre, which is the worst place, and at the greatest distance from those purer incorruptible bodies, the heavens" (quoted on p. 102). As Lovejoy concludes, "the geocentric cosmography served rather for man's humiliation than for his exaltation" (p. 102).

The Copernican hypothesis, then, wasn't important in challenging notions of humankind's centrality. More important was the growing sense that the universe might be acentric, associated with the assumption that the stars might be suns like our own, that these might be encircled by planets inhabited by rational beings like us, and so on - all ideas associated with the Chain of Being and the idea of boundless plenitude.

In Lovejoy's portrayal of early modern thought, then, there are few traces of any ideas of human superiority over nature or human centrality in the universe, and interestingly he argues that the tendency to assign a peripheral role to humankind increases in early modernity, thanks to the dominant influence of the idea of the Chain of Being.

Before ending, it is of course relevant to point out that another part of his argument is that this idea starts to wither away towards the end of the 18th century, when it collides with the idea of progress. To some extent it adapts by opening up for temporality in the realization of plenitude. The program of nature is now seen as carried out only gradually, in a slow ascent up the “ladder”. The idea of timeless fullness is replaced by that of unending progress. With this, a new era of thought begins on which the book hardly touches at all.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Elena Ferrante and Mephisto

Ferrante's Neapolitan novels are terrific – I especially liked the first volume, but also read the others voraciously. 

Just a small note: The epigraph in the first volume is from Faust and deals with Mephisto. During the reading I realized that it must have been chosen with Lila in mind. Throughout the novels, the narrator (Elena Greco) uses her brilliant friend Lila as an anti-ideology device. As soon as Elena gets puffed up with success, Lila says something mean, brutal or harrowing that disorients her and makes her lose self-confidence. At the same time, Elena is painfully honest about the fact that she owes all her successes to Lila. Above all, Lila is the one who makes her write, and write well. 

So her friend is Mephisto: the Geist der stets verneint, but who in so doing brings forth the good. Like in Hegel, Lila is the terrible force of the Negative that always gets aufgehoben into a positive, synthesizing totality. Between the two friends a tension is generated that holds the reader in suspense. Who will carry off the victory? The positive or the negative? Who will have the last word? Hegel or Adorno?

Ferrante comes closest to openly disclosing this logic in the final, fourth volume (all references below are to The Story of the Lost Child, Europa editions, 2015). 

For instance, Elena tells her friend that as a writer she has a duty to make everything seem coherent. “But if the coherence isn’t there, why pretend?”, Lila asks. “To create order”, Elena replies (p. 262).

Later Elena reflects: “I said to myself that to be adult was to recognize that I needed her impulses. If once I had hidden, even from myself, that spark she induced in me, now I was proud of it... I was I and for that reason I could make space for her in me and give her an enduring form. She instead didn’t want to be her, so she couldn’t do the same” (p. 371).

Anticipating her own disappearance (which sets off the novel in the first volume), Lila tells Elena: “To write, you have to want something to survive you. I don’t even have the desire to life, I’ve never had it strongly the way you have. If I could eliminate myself now, while we’re speaking. I’d be more than happy” (p. 454).

And finally, there’s Elena’s admission near the end: “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity” (p. 473).

But extracts cannot substitute for what should be read in its entirety. They're like pebbles in the sea. When you pick them up and let them dry in the sun, they lose their lustre.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Kant's metaphors

I'm just now reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and I'm struck by his metaphors, many of which draw on colonialism, voyages of discovery, sovereignty and constitutional monarchy. I'm starting to wonder to what extent it might be possible to read these metaphors as indicators of a certain layer of ideas - not so deep as to be unconscious and not entirely visible at the surface level of explicit discussion, but residing in the topsoil of the text, so to speak. 

Let me start with the startling and almost poetical passage at the beginning of Chapter III in the second book ("The Ground of the Distinction of all Objects in General into Phenomena and Noumena") where the realm of understanding is described as an island (page references are to Norman Kemp Smith's translation):
WE have now not merely explored the territory of pure understanding, and carefully surveyed every part of it, but have also measured its extent, and assigned to everything in it its rightful place. This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits. It is the land of truth -- enchanting name! -- surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion. Before we venture on this sea, to explore it in all directions and to obtain assurance whether there be any ground for such hopes, it will be well to begin by casting a glance upon the map of the land which we are about to leave, and to enquire, first, whether we cannot in any case be satisfied with what it contains -- are not, indeed, under compulsion to be satisfied, inasmuch as there may be no other territory upon which we can settle; and, secondly, by what title we possess even this domain, and can consider ourselves as secured against all opposing claims. (p 258)
This is a language not only of adventure and discovery, but also of conquest and colonialism. Kant puts himself in the role of a colonial captain who is preparing for settlement and who is much concerned about the "title" to the territories explored so far. This language recurs when later he discusses the limits of reason, which mustn't extend itself beyond the field of possible experience:
... inscribing its nihil ulterius on those Pillars of Hercules which nature herself has erected in order that the voyage of our reason may be extended no further than the continuous coastline of experience itself reaches -- a coast we cannot leave without venturing upon a shoreless ocean which, after alluring us with everdeceptive prospects, compels us in the end to abandon as hopeless all this vexatious and tedious endeavour. (p. 362)
Again, in the discussion of the paralogism of reason, Kant warns against taking even a single step beyond the realm of sense perception:
For by such procedure we should [...] have entered into the field of noumena; and no one could then deny our right of advancing yet further in this domain, indeed of settling in it, and, should our star prove auspicious, of establishing claims to permanent possession. (p. 371)
Passages like these raise the question to what extent Kant's philosophical endeavor was coloured by the historical experience of Columbus and Cook. I'm not suggesting that the former simply reflects the latter or replicates it in thought, but at least it seems certain that it was from such experiences that Kant borrowed the metaphors by which he envisoned it.

Considering this explicit modelling of philosophy on voyages of discovery and colonialism, might we not suggest that the critique of pure reason is also a critique of colonialism? I think we can, at least if we take critique to mean, not necessarily a negative appraisal, but rather a scrutiny of possibility. Rather than as an imperialist, he can more accurately be described as a cartographer, carefully mapping the bounds beyond which colonial ventures must fail. Far from advocating overseas empires beyond the realm of the sensible, Kant seeks to prove the illusory character of such advocacy.

Speaking of territory, the issue of sovereignty is of course close at hand. Kant's use of metaphors related to sovereignty and political struggles is perhaps most apparent in the Preface to the first edition of the Critique, where he describes metaphysics as "the Queen of all the sciences" (p. 8).
Her government, under the administration of the dogmatists, was at first despotic. But inasmuch as the legislation still bore traces of the ancient barbarism, her empire gradually through intestine wars gave way to complete anarchy; and the sceptics, a species of nomads, despising all settled modes of life, broke up from time to time all civil society. (p. 9)
In addition to nomadic skeptics, the queen's empire is also threatened by the plebs of common experience ("dem Pöbel der gemeinen Erfahrung", unhappily translated as "vulgar origins in common experience", p. 9).

In relation to this queen, Kant comes forward as an advocate of constitutional monarchy. Her realm is defended against nomads and plebs, but at the same time her power is circumscribed by the "tribunal" of critique, as befits "the matured judgment of the age, which refuses to be any longer put off with illusory knowledge" (p. 10).
It is a call to reason to undertake anew the most difficult of all its tasks, namely, that of self-knowledge, and to institute a tribunal which will assure to reason its lawful claims, and dismiss all groundless pretensions, not by despotic decrees, but in accordance with its own eternal and unalterable laws. This tribunal is no other than the critique of pure reason. (p. 10)
The monarchy, then, mustn't be despotic. As befits an enlightened age, the precise reach of monarchial power must be prescribed by critique. Kant's metaphors even suggest that "revolution" might be a way to establish this desired form of monarchy:
This attempt to alter the procedure which has hitherto prevailed in metaphysics, by completely revolutionising it in accordance with the example set by the geometers and physicists, forms indeed the main purpose of this critique of pure speculative reason. (p. 26)
Looking at passages like this, it feels like it wouldn't be impossible to extract an entire political philosophy from the Critique. To read a political message into it would probably go against Kant's own intentions (or wouldn't it?). Still, I can't help marvelling at the extent to which Kant, in his use of metaphors, provides a kind of sketch or map of the issues and concerns of his own historical situation, that of the 18th century, reproducing them as philosophical concerns in the mirror world of his system.


Kant, Immanuel (1929) Critique of Pure Reason (tr. Norman Kemp Smith), e-version prepared by Stephen Palmquist and placed in the Oxford Text Archive in 1985; 2017-01-14)


Friday, 9 December 2016

Solidarity with those listed on the "professor watchlist"

The list in question is of course disgusting - an attempt at intimidation that evokes unpleasant memories of fascist witchhunts. In view of my earlier criticism of John Bellamy Foster, I'd like to take the opportunity to express my solidarity with him and others on the list. Fortunately this thing is not (yet) a state project. Here's the message from him, which is now circulating on the Internet:

Dear Colleagues,

This is no game. We are a different period. I have not yet seen the environmental sociology discussion on this, but I am a PEWS, Environmental Sociology, and Marxist Theory section member (a former head of the section) and I am on the list. I believe I am the only one on the list in this region (the Pacific Northwest). In my case I am on it because of the Horowitz Dangerous Professors List of a decade ago, where I was listed. The Professor Watchlist has taken over the statements by Horowitz there word for word, I believe, but now it is more serious. There is a University of Oregon Chapter of the Professor Watchlist established over the last week and I am the principal target. Next week an NPR affiliated local radio station will be interviewing the head of the Chapter in a call-in show, where that individual will no doubt pinpoint me as the local rotten apple and use that as a weapon for threatening other professors. One of my sins is to be editor of Monthly Review. I have been asked to do a separate, “adjacent” interview on the same station, in which I will be able to respond.

Here we have to learn from history. The key to developing a coherent response is the Einstein First Amendment Strategy from 1953 developed in the midst of the McCarthy Era (the initial attempt to use the First in the case of the Hollywood Ten failed) in which Einstein declared that there should be determined non-cooperation and that the goal should be to use the First to attack the inquisition itself. His letter appeared in the NYT in June 1953 and let writers Leo Huberman and Harvey O’Connor, and then Corliss Lamont, Lilian Hellan, and Paul Sweezy, all of whom were closely connected, and linked to Einstein and MR, put it into practice in a succession of attempts to break McCarthyism. Sweezy was the most successful because he refused to turn over his lecture notes and to name names and they hit him with contempt of court and consigned him to county jail and he fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Things are obviously not at that critical state yet (we are not talking about subpoenas and prosecutions with possible imprisonment at the moment), though there are calls to reestablish the House on Un-American Activities Committee. But I think that the Einstein strategy is what we need to adopt from the start. If such a stance is taken from the beginning we may be able to head off further disasters. There should no arguing of specifics of charges, rather freedom of speech and academic freedom and challenging the goon squads should be everything. You might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Supreme Court Decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire of 1957. You can find it online under its case number (354 U.S. 234). Welcome to Gleichschaltung.

P.S. The list has already attracted protests. One way is to turn being listed into a badge of honor and expressing solidarity by demanding to be on the list, as these academics on Notre Dame.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Coming across Lévinas

I'm probably always out of step with the times. Back in the days when Lévinas was in vogue I didn't care much for his philosophy, but today I can't help thinking of it with fondness. There's undoubtedly something right about it. An important moral intuition that what is right has very little to do with legality, the state or the nation. Why are there so few who dare to say that today? Maybe I'm nostalgic for the days when what he wrote didn't seem as controversial and bold as it does today? Today, ever since the "refugee crisis", those who speak up for hospitality are immediately accused of "lacking solutions", but we shouldn't forget that the accusers lack solutions too - namely to the other's suffering.

I came across an essay on Lévinas today, "What Do We Owe Each Other?". It's by Aaron James Wendland, a research fellow at the University of Tartu and it ends like this.
Levinas has taught us that our responsibility for others is the foundation of all human communities, and that the very possibility of living in a meaningful human world is based on our ability to give what we can to others. And since welcoming and sharing are the foundation upon which all communities are formed, no amount of inhospitable nationalism can be consistently defended when confronted with the suffering of other human beings. “In the relationship between same and other, my welcoming of the other is,” as Levinas puts it, “the ultimate fact.”

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos

I want to say a few words on Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015). The strong point of this book is that it grasps neoliberalism as more than an economic doctrine. It is a governing rationality that disseminates itself throughout the social body, transforming the states as well as individuals into images of the firm, thereby crowding out the image of human beings as citizens that is indispensible to democracy. 

Unlike Marxist critics of neoliberalism like David Harvey, she is comparatively uninterested in the economic effects of neoliberalism - widening inequality, commodification and so on. Inspired by Foucault and governmentality theory, she instead sees it as a rationality transforming every human domain - from education to dating and social media - so that they become “framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized” (p. 10). Her claim is not that neoliberalism necessarily privatizes or marketizes all spheres, but rather that the model of the market is dissemminated to all domains and activities. Supplanting concepts like citizen, political public sphere and democracy itself by market terms, neoliberalism becomes "profoundly destructive to the fiber and future of democracy” (p. 9).

A good example of the new practices of self-investment and attracting investors is the university. Universities turn into companies catering to consumers and investors, forgetting their role as providers of public higher education for citizens. Scholars have to be entrepreneurial and investment savvy while students are presumed to be oriented primarily to augmenting their human capital.

Brown's account is clearly useful. She provides the theoretical tools needed for understanding the subject's need today for continuous, compulsive self-investment. She also makes it eminently clear why the spread of New Public Management throughout the sector of public services is part and parcel of neoliberalization. Even if these practices of self-investment and pseudo-market behavior are not monetarized, they all orient themselves to the market as a model and site of truth or veridiction, as Foucault would say. Seeing them as part of the same process, it also becomes possible to diagnose a wide variety of protests - e.g. campus protests - as resistance against neoliberalization.

It's evident that Foucault is central to her account. Above all, she takes over his claim that neoliberalism's central trait is that it generalizes the enterprise form. This doesn't mean that she accepts Foucault uncritically. Above all, she criticizes him on two scores. Firstly, there are no citizens in his account. He lacks a concept of a “demos acting in concert”, making it seem that governing only emanates from the state. As a result, he never reflects on the effect of neoliberalism on democratic political life. Secondly, his aversion to Marxism made him neglect the role of capital (p. 73ff). It is tempting to see Brown as attempting to wed Marx and Foucault, but that would hardly be correct. The latter plays a far more predominant role than the former in her account. Despite her criticism that Foucault neglects the role of capital, capital is almost wholly neglected in her own analysis as well.

My major dissatisfaction with the books is that Brown says nothing of why neoliberalization happens. Why is the enterprise form generalized throughout the social body? Brown is very clearly issuing a sort of call for resisting neoliberalism and defending democracy, but to resist something effectively you need to understand its causes. All we get is a kind of negative delineation of what sort of explanation she rejects - mostly Marxist explanations focusing on economic causes such as Harvey's well-known thesis that neoliberalism should be understood as an attempt to restore class power to the capitalist class in the face of declining profitability. Brown empahsizes the new and revolutionary character of neoliberalism, but gives us few clues as to why this revolution occurs.

A final reflection. In these days it may seem as if the greatest threat to democracy is coming not from neoliberalism but from rightwing populism. Especially after the Brexit referendum and the "Trump shock" it may easily seem as if neoliberalism is defeated. I'm not going to repeat here the pertinent argument that neoliberal policy during the last decades has probably paved the way for these populist triumphs. Instead I'd like to add a thought that came to me the day that the results of the US election came in. I was doing some reading about a particular kind of neoliberal urbanism, namely the "entrepreneurialist" policy of attracting capital to a city by promoting its "brand", usually by creating an image of the city as clean, safe and creative. Here, incidentally, we have the enterprise form again - the city behaving like an enterprise. I asked myself while reading what rightwing populism on the level of urban policy would mean. Evictions of homeless people and penalization of begging? The adulation of "strongmen" mayors? And zero tolerance against graffiti? But these are things that that we've also been told characterize neoliberal urbanism. Isn't it precisely in order to promote the "city brand" that these policies of exclusion and so on are employed?

Neoliberalism may be associated with globalist elites and rightwing populism with the nationalism of "common" people, but on the level of city policies they mesh pretty well. Isn't this reflected in a surprising convergence between the subjectivities of rightwing populism and neoliberalism? The rightwing populist subject and the neoliberal subject both delight in excluding unwanted others. Both believe they have the right to things for which they have paid dearly and which they certainly won't share with freeloaders. The mad chant "Out with the immigrants" is the distorted echo of the neoliberal subject's irritated demand that nothing should be allowed to disturb his or her consumer experience. I have yet to see a rightwing populism that resurrects the idea of a citizenry or demos. What it does is to vent anger at unwanted competitors in a race that remains exactly as neoliberal as before. Urban policy helps us visualize what the rather abstract statement that neoliberalism paves the way from rightwing populism may mean. It is hard to see in what sense the latter implies a threat to the former.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Bloch reviews Lukács

I just read an old piece, Ernst Bloch's review of Lukács' History and Class Consciousness from 1923. No great surprises here, yet it's still an amusing read. Bloch saves his criticism for the last few pages. The review zooms in on the dialectical “now” when the subject freely assumes the future by creating it. According to Bloch, Lukács's social categories - which are "sociologically homogenizing" and miss the "polyrhythmic" character of history (p.618) - cannot do justice to this "now". By limiting himself to a merely social dialectics, Lukács is forced to adopt an ascetic "agnosticism" towards everything transcendent. Yet history is "not just the social acquisition by as yet concealed social humans, but also the artistic, religious, and metaphysical acquisition by the clandestine transcendental humans" (p. 618). All this comes into play in the longing that animates the "now". Lukács misses it, thereby also missing the dimension of the new, the not-yet-conscious. Utopia, in short. Predictable? Perhaps. But quite well argued. And I like Bloch's description of his own brand of Marxism as “the metaphysics of the cosmic interpretation of dreams [die Metaphysik der kosmischen Traumdeutung]” (p. 621)!


Bloch, Ernst (1969) “Aktualität und Utopie. Zu Lukács’ ’Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein’”, pp. 598-621, in Philosophische Aufsätze zur Objektiven Phantasie. Band 10. Gesamtausgabe der Werke Ernst Bloch in Sechzehn Bänden, Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The city and the stars

Having recently read Arthur Clarke's The City and the Stars, I can't help but reflect on the strangeness of the world Clarke lets us inhabit in his books. Isn't it always a world on the verge of a great discovery? I'm thinking not only of this book, but also works like, say, Rama or 2001: A Space Odyssey. There's a sweet and thrilling sense of possibility that the universe just might take us on a fantastic voyage towards previously unimaginable power and knowledge, a sense of humanity just being about to pass a threshold that will unlock some marvellous evolution or possibility of limitless expanse. What we have here, I think, is a very peculiar atmosphere, one that needs to be understood in the context of the lingering belief in progress characteristic of the 20th century before the onset of postmodernism. At the same time, this is no ordinary trust in progress. It is, I would say, distinguished by two peculiarities that probably also need to be understood historically.

Firstly, another "strange" trait of Clarke's universe is that it lacks conflict. There are protagonists but not really any antagonists. HAL in 2001 might be terrifying, but is just a dysfunctioning machine with no malicious purpose. In the end it proves to be but a minor stumbling block on Bowman's triumphant evolutionary journey. Alien intelligences are never hostile. If anything, they are benevolent and ready to guide humanity to greater evolutionary heights. To evolve, however, human beings need to overcome their limitations in the form of superstitions and fears. If we just venture forth with courage, we'll discover how unfounded our fears are. In The City and the Stars, the protagonist Alvin discovers that the “invaders” are a myth, a false memory hindering humankind from venturing outside their isolation on earth and used to justify their fear of the universe. In 2001 humankind even gets the paternalistic guidance of these higher beings to steer itself onwards in evolution. What's so peculiar here is that Clarke's narrative, despite the absence of antagonists, still works as literature. Even without conflict, he somehow manages to make the reader want to go on reading.

Secondly, these books all circle around what can be termed the problem of unbalanced progress. Crudely put, it goes like this: while humanity has made enormous technological progress, it still lags behind morally and spiritually. This has resulted in the horrors of totalitarianism and the world wars and the madness of the cold war, and to survive on this planet we need to achieve spiritual development to restore balance. This is a lament that was very much in the air in the mid-20th century. It may very well have been the dominant idiom in which the criticism of technology was expressed in the decades before the onset of postmodernism. It seems to pop up almost simultaneously in a series of writers from the Frankfurt School to Lewis Mumford. In science fiction, we can see it in Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, where the "first" foundation with its technological mastery needs to unite with the mysterious and psychologically advanced "second" foundation in order to end the centuries of barbary. Unbalanced progress is also a dominant motif in Clarke. It is powerfully present in 2001, which quite explicitly presents a philosophy of history organized around humanity's two successive evolutionary leaps - each one triggered by a black monolith left behind by benevolent aliens - the fist of which triggers technological progress and second of which triggers a kind of spiritual evolution. In The City and the Stars, humanity only exists on two spots on earth: on the one hand the technologically superior Diaspar which is ruled by a computer and on the other hand the low-tech but spiritually evolved Lys where human beings communicate telepathically. The role of Alvin, the protagonist, is to be the mediator who brings them together.

Now, I'm going to leave this motif of unbalanced progress aside - I think it's quite evident in what ways it is rooted in a particular historical moment - and return to the curious lack of antagonism in Clarke's books. Combined with the belief in progress and the strange benevolence of aliens this yields what is easy to criticize as a highly ideological world view. What we see here is in fact the very same kind of ideology that imperialism used to justify itself. Imperialism has always described itself as benevolent, as bringing the blessings of a superior civilization to primitive peoples, as in fact lacking antagonism. In a way, the aliens of Clarke's 2001 and to a great extent also the extra-terrestrial empire of The City and Stars behaves exactly like the imperialist powers did according to their own ideological self-description. They didn't oppress or exploit anyone, they simply shared knowledge and guided those willing to learn onwards. In the same way, oppression and exploitation are missing in Clarke's universe. To use Karl Wittfogel's categories, we might say that the earth's position in relation to the advanced alien civilizations is like that of a "submargin" rather than a "margin". According to Wittfogel, the margin was the barbarous borderland of the empire and was often politically dominated by the latter, while the submargin was beyond the reach of the empire's might but still close enough to receive small glimpses of its civilization and learn from it if it chose to do so. In Clarke's novels, the earth is clearly a submargin - almost always a backwater, seemingly to insignificant for alien civilizations to actually bother much about.

What I'm suggesting here is that Clarke's novels - with their conspicuous foregrounding of the idea of progress and their strange lack of conflict - present us with a reconfiguration of motifs familiar to readers through the experience of imperialism. On the one hand, his novels assume the position of the imperialist: the air of being on the cusp of great discoveries, the sense of adventure and the drive to explore - all of this can well be read as an attempt to evoke the sense of wonder and novelty believed to have animated European colonialist ventures and conquests in early modernity. But on the other hand, it is as if Clarke cannot quite allow himself to affirm this ethos. After all, imperialism is bad, a continuation of the lopsided and catastrophic kind of progress we've seen in modernity so far. And so he effects a replacement: what awaits us out there among the stars is not primitive peoples for us to enslave and exploit, but - on the contrary - higher beings, far more wise and powerful than we, who can help us evolve further in a better and more balanced way, and with this latter move, he paradoxically places us in the position, not of the conquering imperialist, but of the primitives gazing with wonder and awe at the imperial civilization and learning to take its first tottering steps on the road of genuine progress.

Naturally, the motif of the empire is also central to Asimov, and I suppose an interesting comparison could be made here between him and Clarke, but I think I'll stop here. The point I want to make is simply that there seems to be a cluster of motifs related to empire, technology and unbalanced progress that recurs in much of the science fiction of the early postwar decades and that - perhaps - feels somewhat unfamiliar and strange to readers today.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Deborah Cook on Adorno and nature

Just a few words on Deborah Cook's Adorno on Nature (Acumen, 2011), which I finished reading today. Cook shows great familiarity with Adorno and is a reliable guide to his thinking. Usefully, she starts off by introducing two ideas central to his approach to nature. The first is the idea of "natural-history" (Naturgeschichte) which, as she points out, "informs all Adorno’s work" (Cook 2011:1). Correctly, she points out that this idea should be understood as a critical tool. As Adorno writes himself in Negative Dialectics, the task is "to grasp historic being in its utmost definition, in the place where it is most historic, as natural being, or to grasp nature, in the place where it seems most deeply, inertly natural, as historic being" (quoted in ibid. 17).

The second important idea concerns Adorno’s materialism. Adorno conceptualizes materialism not in terms of base and superstructure, but in terms of "the preponderance of the object" (Vorrang des Objekts). To him, matter has priority over mind not only because material objects are never completely grasped by their concepts but also because they impinge on thought, shocking and upsetting it through the pain and suffering that signal their non-identity with the concepts. For thought to develop rightly, it has to pass through and negate itself in this pain, thus reshaping itself and rearranging itself in a way that does more justice to the object. To refer to this thought operation he uses the Hegelian term "determinate negation", but unlike in Hegel the imperative to remain true to the object prevents thought from stabilizing itself in the form of a system because of the non-identity between concept and object. Instead, it triggers a dialectics of disintegration (Logik des Zerfalls) that shows the falsity of such systems and allows us to criticize them.

Here I won't go through the entire book, but will just mention a few points I found interesting.

The first has to do with Adorno’s Kantianism. Adorno combines the Hegelian idea that all is mediated with the Kantian idea of an object non-identical to its concept. But how is this possible? As Cook points out, Adorno links the latter idea to a valorization of immediacy as the truth of what the concept fails to cover - an immediacy that shows up in pain, vertigo and shocks that serve as the propulsive force of negative dialectics. Simply put, the answer is that mediation - as in Hegel - concerns the realm of concepts. But unlike in Hegel concepts are not all. The object remains outside this realm, although never wholly separated from it. To thought it inevitably appears through the mediation of concepts, but nevertheless "preponderates" in the sense described above, generating pain and contradictions.

This Kantian respect for the object means that Adorno is not a social constructivist. Cook rejects Steven Vogel’s criticism in Against Nature that Adorno contradicts himself by positing nature as immediate while at the same time stating that nature is mediated. Vogel himself asserts that nature is nothing apart from its socially mediated forms. But as Cook points out, there are problems with Vogel’s social constructivism, above all concerning the ontological status of the "social":
Adorno would respond to this claim by arguing that Vogel wrongly treats the ‘social’ (which he nowhere defines) as ‘that on which everything depends and by which everything is oriented’ (MCP [Metaphysics: Concept and Problems] 29). Against this, Adorno contends that ‘society itself is determined by the things of which it is composed and... therefore necessarily contains a non-social dimension’ (HF [History and Freedom]122). (Cook 2011: 41)
This points to a larger problem with social constructivism as such. Although Cook doesn't develop her argument beyond the criticism of Vogel, it points to the problematic status in social constructivism of the "society" that is supposed to do the constructing. It's obviously problematic to assign objectivity to the "social" alone - as is implicitly the case when everything else is seen as a mere construction. The opposite position, to see society as well as socially constructed, leads to a self-referential paradox that ultimately leaves us with no explanation at all unless we abandon social constructivism and start to look around for non-social factors behind the construction of society.

A second important point concerns how Adorno's ideas of natural history and preponderance of the object relate to the possibility of a dialectics of nature. As I've already discussed in another blog post, John Bellamy Foster accuses Adorno and other Western Marxists for having restricted dialectics to the realm of society, handing over the study of nature to positivism and ending up in idealism. Not surprisingly, Foster comes in for criticism in Cook's book. “Adorno’s thoroughly dialectical view of natural history puts paid to Foster’s contentious and largely unsupported claim that Western Marxists, including Adorno, ‘increasingly rejected realism and materalism...’” (ibid. 25). The reasons for this criticism of Foster should be clear. Firstly, Adorno is a materialist, although not in the sense of the "dialectics of nature" Foster seeks to develop. The core of Adorno's materialism is rather the idea of the object's preponderance, which implies a denial of constitutive subjectivity (and thus of idealism) that is arguably far more rigorous and thoroughgoing than Foster's.

A second thing Foster misses is that Adorno's rejection of a "dialectics of nature" in the sense of the materialist dialectics developed by Engels by no means implies a rejection of all dialectical thinking in relation to nature. Thinking necessarily involves concepts, and - just like all other objects - "nature" involves a relation of non-identity to concepts that calls for dialectical thinking. As Adorno makes striking evident in his discussion of "natural history", drawing a rigid boundary between society and nature is itself undialectical.
Flatly denying that dialectics can be extended to nature as ‘a universal principle of explanation’, Adorno nonetheless argues that it is just as wrong to say that nature is undialectical and society dialectical. [...] In fact, the trenchant distinction between history and nature, which fails to acknowledge their entwinement, only reflects the deceptive division of labour between the social and natural sciences. [...] Since human beings are inextricably part of the natural world, with which they must constantly interact to survive, nature can be said to be dialectical. (ibid. 28)
Foster's criticism that Adorno restricts dialectics to society is thus clearly a misreading (and a rather baffling one at that). Furthermore, he also seems to overlook the similarities that exist between Adorno’s dialectics and the Marx-based society-nature dialectics that he himself advocates. Cook points out that, ironically, the result of Foster’s attempt to go back to Marx to reconstruct a dialectics of nature and society leads to a Marx-interpretation that “seems to ally Marx much more closely with Adorno than even Adorno thinks” (ibid. 25).

That said, Cook also highlights the contrast between Marx and Adorno. Above all "Adorno’s refusal to identify subject and object ... led him to take a markedly more critical stance towards science than Marx did" (ibid. 29). An example of this is Adorno's criticism of the concept of causality, in the course of which he questioned the degree to which science, with its identitarian deployment of concepts and mathematical formulae, understands nature (ibid. 72). We can note that this criticism makes it plain how absurd the accusation is that Adorno would have handed over the study of nature to positivism.

The suspicion towards science's identitarian logic also makes Adorno much more critical than Marx of the drive towards science-based domination over nature. The utopian counter-image to such domination is not Soviet-style socialism but rather what Adorno calls reconciliation with nature. This, however, doesn't mean that Adorno has given up hope for a better, more rationally organized future in which nature would no longer be dominated. That Adorno is critical of the Soviet Union doesn’t mean that he rejects socialism.

Large portions of the book concern "inner nature", i.e. the self as material, embodied nature, and the relation between self-consciousness and the self's natural, sensory part. Cook, however, also seeks to make Adorno relevant to contemporary ecological discussions. She thus ends the book with a chapter comparing Adorno to three radical ecologists (the deep ecologist Arne Naess, the social ecologist Murray Bookchin and the eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant).

I don't have much to criticize in the book. I think Benjamin and Lukács would have deserved more extensive discussions. The notion of "second nature" gets short shrift and Cook seems to miss out on some interesting differences in how Adorno relates to first and second nature. In regard to these questions, it might be a good idea to supplement her book with Susan Buck-Morss' The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (The Harvester Press, 1977) or her The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press, 1991), both of which contain lucid and very interesting discussions on these topics.

Reconciliation with nature (mediated by Hollywood)

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Lukács's defence of History and Class Consciousness

Following the attacks by Abram Deborin, Laszlo Rudas and others on his History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukács penned an angry response sometime in 1925 or 1926. The unfinished manuscript was never published and remained unknown for a long time (Lukács himself apparently never mentioned its existence), until it was discovered in the archive of the Comintern and the Central Party Archive of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow. It was published for the first time in Hungarian and German in 1996. The English version, titled A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, was published by Verso in 2000. Below I'll simply refer to it as the "Defence".

History and Class Consciousnessone went on to become one of the foundational, classical texts of so-called Western Marxism, but Lukács himself repudiated it in the mid-1920s as part of kowtowing to party orthodoxy. This kowtowing was no doubt the reason the manuscript for the "Defense" was left unfinished. Aoart from the "Defense", few texts exist where Lukács even mentions History and Class Consciousness. There is the preface he wrote for the book in 1967, but this preface is little but an extensively argued rejection of his own early work, a text where Lukács goes to great lengths to castigate himself for a series of errors he believes he committed in it, including idealism, revolutionary messianism, misunderstanding the concept of alienation and neglecting the dialectics of nature (Lukács 1971a). In contrast to this preface, the "Defence" is truly a defence of History and Class Consciousness

What is there, then, of interest in the "Defense"? A noteworthy point concerns the importance of praxis - which Lukács discusses in terms of "moment" and "decision" and which he links to a criticism of the fatalist reliance on "process" (Zizek has a striking interpretation of this in his afteword, which, however, seems to overemphasize the decisionist aspect of Lukács's thought). Here's Lukács's definition of the "moment": 
What is a ‘moment’? A situation whose duration may be longer or shorter, but which is distinguished from the process that leads up to it in that it forces together the essential tendencies of that process, and demands that a decision be taken (Lukács 2000: 55)
This, however, is not pure decisionism, because what matters in such moments is class consciousness (ibid. 56). Another long discussion in the book concerns precisely how class consciousness comes into being. As in History and Class Consciousness, he rejects the "spontaneist" position associated with Rosa Luxemburg. The masses can't be trusted to develop this consciousness by itself. Instead, the party becomes decisive, as the place where class consciousness realizes itself. It's the party that "imputes" the consciousness to the workers (ibid. 71ff).

By far the most interesting part of the book concerns the dialectic of nature. In History and Class Consciousness the general thrust of Lukács's argument was to argue that dialectics essentially involved a relation between subject and object, and thus to deny - against Engels - that dialectics could be extended to the subjectless realm of nature. Spotting the weakness of Lukács's position, his critics accused him of lapsing into "dualism" by separating society from nature. Even today, it's popular among commentators to point to the problems and inconsistencies that arise in Lukács's work because of his refusal to extend dialectic to nature. From a variety of angles, commentators like Vogel (1996), Feenberg (2014), Jay (1984: 116), Foster and Loftus have focused on the following contradiction. If dialectics must halt before nature, doesn't this imply that nature is a realm where non-dialectical methods - e.g. those associated with positivism - are legitimate? But if such methods are legitimate, then how can they also represent an instance of reifying, bourgeois thought, as Lukács claims?

How serious are these accusations? In his 1967 preface, Lukács readily admits to the error of having viewed "Marxism exclusively as a theory of society, as social philosophy, and hence to ignore or repudiate it as a theory of nature" in History and Class Consciousness (Lukács 1971a). This admission is hardly surprising, considering the generally dismissive stance Lukács takes in this preface to his book. One has the feeling, however, that his admission is a bit too facile, that it simplifies matters too much. A more complex and interesting argument is set up in the "Defense" where Lukács puts up much more of a fight to defend his statements in History and Class Consciousness.  

In fact, the position expressed in History and Class Consciousness isn't so simple as Lukács pretends in his preface. The argument that the dialectic doesn't apply to nature is thus modified firstly by the repeted insistence that nature is a "social category" - a claim that suggests that our knowledge of nature is decisively shaped by the historical dialectic shaping society. Secondly, it is also modified by a rather odd, isolated passage where Lukács acknowledges the possibility of an objective dialectic operating in nature independently of humans while stressing that the absence of human consciousness in this dialectics means that it is different from the social dialectics and must be studied in a different way (ibid. 1971b: 207).

Turning to the "Defence", Lukács presents a number of arguments related to nature. Firstly, he clarifies that he in History and Class Consciousness had talked “only of knowledge of nature and not nature itself” (ibid. 2000: 97). That is the sense in which nature is a social category. It simply means that there is no socially unmediated relationship of humans to nature. This, he argues, follows from Marx’s thesis that our consciousness (which of course includes our consciousness of nature) is determined by our social being (ibid. 100). That society mediates our knowledge of nature, however, doesn't mean that one has to deny the objective, independent existence of nature. “Self-evidently nature and its laws existed before society” – but from that doesn’t follow that “nature would be knowable without the mediation of these new social dialectical forms” (ibid. 102). He repeats the acknowledgement in History and Class Consciousness that there is an objective dialectics in nature that is independent of humans, but insists that humans are still needed “for thinking the dialectic, for dialectic as knowledge” (ibid. 107). This first argument, then, amounts to a forceful assertion of the priority of a subject-centred dialectics, not only in the realm of society but also in regard to our knowledge of nature.

The second argument is a continuation of this. Lukács defends his decision in History and Class Consciousness to characterize “as the decisive dialectical categories not transformation of quantity into quality, etc., but rather interaction of subject of object” (ibid. 112). This decison implied a rejection of Engels's material dialectics, which had stressed objective laws such as the transformation quantity and quality rather than praxis. To Lukacs, however, the subject-object relation is central because of the historical situation in which the proletariat rises to transform society. Overlooking this need for transformation leads to eternalizing the categories as in bourgeois immediacy, making the concepts lose all dialectic functionality.
‘Dialectical’ categories that have been severed from this connection can even be used by bourgeois researchers; it is not inconceivable that they might, for example, be able to work with the transformation of quantity into quality. The category becomes properly dialectical only in the context of the dialectical totality (ibid. 113)
This, of course, sounds very much like a defense of the general overall conception of dialectics in History and Class Consciousness. But how about the objection that Lukács in that book fails to clarify whether natural science has a legitimate place or not?

To tackle this question, Lukács introduces an important third argument. While natural science - like all consciousness - is determined by society, it “does indeed adopt a special place in the history of human knowledge” (ibid. 113). It would thus be “false relativism” to dismiss it as a merely bourgeois form of thinking or to treat it “in the same way as the knowledge of nature of past epochs” (ibid. 114). While it was born with capitalism, there is a “factual obstacle” to concretizing how natural science is determined by society. The transformation of science only takes place gradually as the effect of the revolution of the material basis and the course of this transformation cannot be known in advance. This means that even socialism must use natural science in its bourgeois form for the time being since a new science has yet to emerge (ibid. 117). In other words, there mere fact that all knowledge is socially determined doesn't mean that we can transcend the horizon of that knowledge and dismiss it as "relative" or as belonging to a past era that has been overcome by the events of 1917. To jump immediately to a more "dialectical" science would be an illegitimate shortcut.    

The question remains, however, why the natural sciences in particular are so hard to transcend compared to, say, the social sciences. Why is it more legitimate to dismiss the use of non-dialectical methods in the latter? Lukács doesn't provide any clear answer to this question in the "Defence", but a reasonable answer would be that our self-awareness directly affects society in a way that isn't true of nature. We don't really need to transcend the horizon of social science to realize that society can't be fully understood without taking praxis or subjectivity into consideration. The fact that non-dialectical methods can be cogently criticized in an immanent fashion within the field of social science means that there is no need to resort to what Lukács calls "false relativism", e.g. dismissing such methods as "bourgeois" or belonging to a bygone era.
As mentioned, Lukács doesn't spell out this answer explicitly. He does, howeveer, adds a brief, fourth argument which I think suggests that this is indeed how he would have answered it. In the realm of society, our palpable experience of frequent change and of the role of human praxis make it easy for us to realize the limits of trying to understand society through ahistorical, non-dialectical categories. In nature, by contrast, it's possible that certain things are eternal or only change so slowly that they may never be known dialectically:
To what extent all knowledge of nature can ever be transformed into historical knowledge, that is to say, whether there are material actualities in nature that never change their structure, or only over such large periods of time that they do not feature as changes for human knowledge, cannot be raised here (ibid. 118)
This passage seems to suggest, firstly, that the non-dialectical traits of existing natural science may have to be abandoned one day, provided that we come to the realization that nature is more changing and less ahistorical than we thought. Secondly, however, Lukács leaves it open whether or not this will ever happen.

Looking back, Lukacs's presents four arguments that can be summarized as follows:
  1. Our knowledge of nature is socially determined - implying that whatever objectivistic framework we use for studying nature (e.g. an objectivistic dialectics of nature or natural sciences of the positivistic type) it will always be embedded in a social dialectics.
  2. Genuine dialectics is always social in the sense that it involves the relation between subject-object rather than being the merely objective or contemplative. It has to involve a subject-object relation with nature. This implies that even if a dialectics of nature is possible, it can't be merely of the objectivistic kind. Such an objectivistic dialectics wouldn't really be different from ordinary, "bourgeois" science.
  3. But even if existing natural sciences are embedded in a social dialectics, they can't yet be replaced by any dialectical method for studying nature, although this might be possible in the future. This is because we cannot anticipate the future science that may result from revolutionizing the material base. Despite existing forms of natural science having their social roots in capitalism, we are stuck with them for the time being.
  4. To the extent that nature and its lawlike regularities are subject to change, some form of objectivistic dialectics may be taking place in nature, implying that non-dialectical methods will ultimately prove to be insufficient also in the realm of nature. However, we don’t know to what extent such change is happening.
Taken together these arguments do form a kind of defense for, and clarification of, the position Lukács adopts in History and Class Conssciousness. While acknowledging that nature has its own dialectical laws and that our knowledge of nature is socially mediated, he nevertheless refuses to extend dialectical methods to the study of nature. At least for the time being, the existing non-dialectical methods of natural science are legitimate in relation to nature. At the same time, he holds out the prospect of a different natural science in the future, one that will be self-aware of its own social determination. Before that day comes it won't be possible to discern what in science is tied to bourgeois social formations and what is not. This is certainly a complex and rather difficult position to defend. Regardless of its strength or weakness, it is certainly much more interesting than the flat capitulation offered in the 1967 preface.

Post-script on Foster

Before ending, I'd like to add a comment on John Bellamy Foster. As I've discussed already (here and here), Foster bases a great part of his criticism of Western Marxism on its restriction of dialectics to the realm of society and praxis. By rejecting Engels's dialectics of nature, he argues, Lukács and other Western Marxists handed over the study of nature to positivism. In his "Defense", however, Lukács anticipates many of the moves Foster makes in order to reconstruct a dialectics of nature. On the one hand, Lukács admits of the possibility of an objective dialectics operating in nature independently of humans (as Foster himself points out). On the other, he also - like Foster - stresses that the act of knowing nature must always involve dialectics.

Considering these similarities, why does Foster criticize Lukács? An important part of the reason is obviously his dissatisfaction with the fact that Lukács, at least for the time being, admits of the legitimacy of an "undialectical" natural science as a tool for studying nature. Another part of the reason is probably that Lukács never really clarifies what he means by the objective dialectics operating in nature. Foster, by contrast, puts considerable effort into developing the idea of such a dialectics and on the basis of that tries to assert a "unity of method" for both society and nature.

In Lukács's "Defense", however, we find a series of objections to precisely the kind of project Foster seems to engage in. As we have seen, Lukács ultimately asserts the primacy of subject-object dialectics as the basis for studying both society and nature. Foster, by contrast, is only partially relying on a subject-object dialectics (e.g. when he argues that capitalism creates a metabolic rift in the relation to nature). In the main, his project is to develop a "subjectless" dialectics operating in nature itself inspired by Epicurus' atomistics and Darwin's theory of evolution.

Foster's problem is that to the extent that he emphasizes the former type of dialectics, his position not all that different from Lukács and Western Marxism and his harsh criticism of them therefore seems unfair. To the extent, however, that he instead emphasizes the latter type of dialectics, he ends up in a position where he will be vulnerable to Lukács's criticism. Firstly, his attempt to sketch a dialectics of nature on the model of Epicurus or Darwin seems to overlook that nature is a social category. Secondly, since this type of dialectics neglects the element of praxis, he seems vulnerable to the criticism that it will be merely contemplative and therefore easily reabsorbed in bourgeois research. Thirdly, such an objectivistic dialectics of nature would have to compete with the existing natural sciences. Its aim seems to be to do precisely what Lukács says is impossible: namely to anticipate the transformed natural science of the future and, on that basis, replace the existing natural sciences. The only alternative to actually competing with them would be to argue that natural science itself has already developed in a way that has made it less positivistic and more dialectical. To some extent, this is precisely what Foster is trying to argue by referring to Darwin and to contemporary biologists (such as Levins, Levontin and Gould) who are sympathetic to Engels's idea of a materialist dialectics. Against this, however, one might object that the overwhelming majority of scientific studies are still more positivistic than dialectical.

If Lukács's arguments hold, Foster is in a fix. Either he has to adopt a subject-object dialectics similar to the Western Marxists he set out to criticize, or else he has to mimick the natural sciences and compete with them on their terms by developing an objectivistic dialectics of nature. I don't really wish to evaluate here to what extent Lukács's claims can be upheld. It should be clear, however, that he is far from defenseless against the kind of criticism that Foster has directed against him. His position may be difficult to defend, but so is Foster's.


Feenberg, Andrew (2014) The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, London: Verso.

Jay, Martin (1984) Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971a) “Preface to the new edition (1967)”, pp ix – xivii, in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971b) History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Lukács, Georg (2000) A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, London: Verso.

Vogel, Steven (1996) Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Labour and scarcity: Ricardo's caveat

Ricardo states something interesting on the first pages of his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. He states that although scarcity contributes to exchange value he will exclude it from his analysis. That means that his labour theory of value only concerns situations without scarcity.
Possessing utility, commodities derive their exchangeable value from two sources: from their scarcity, and from the quantity of labor required to obtain them.
    There are some commodities, the value of which is determined by their scarcity alone. No labor can increase the quantity of such goods, and therefore their value cannot be lowered by an increased supply. Some rare statues and pictures, scarce books and coins, wines of a peculiar quality, which can be made only from grapes grown on a particular soil, of which there is a very limited quantity, are of this description. Their value is wholly independent of the quantity of labor originally necessary to produce them, and varies with the varying wealth and inclinations of those who are desirous to possess them.
    These commodities, however, form a very small part of the mass of commodities daily exchanged in the market....
    In speaking, then, of commodities, of their exchangeable value... we mean always such commodities only as can be increased in quantity by the exertion of human industry (Ricardo 1996: 18)
This passage strikes me as very suggestive in regard to the question of the relation between nature and capitalism. After all, nature is finite. Many natural resources are scarce. The way nature is priced within capitalism doesn't reflect labour, but - Ricardo seems to suggest - is better estimated through a supply and demand framework where supply is inelastic. This admission clearly makes the labour theory of value easier to defend, since many common objections to it seem to concern situations that involve scarcity.

We should note, by the way, that here "scarcity" doesn't mean scarcity in general, or scarcity in relation to human needs. It means scarcity in relation to economic demand, meaning a situation where the supply of a certain commodity cannot be easily increased to match the demand of people who would afford to buy it. Contrary to the common viewpoint that the "supply and demand" framework in economics is incompatible with the labour theory of value, Ricardo here states that this theory applies best to situations where supply and demand are perfectly elastic, i.e. free to adapt flexibly to each other. In other words, it applies precisely to the kind of idealized, unrealistic markets used in textbook economics. Just try a thought-experiment: if it had been possible to produce oil freely, the price would certainly be far lower than today, possibly reflecting the price of the labour needed to produce it. It seems clear, then, that a lot of problems with the labour theory of value might disappear if we recall Ricardo's caveat that it isn't meant to apply to situations of scarcity.

Is scarcity unimportant? Ricardo seems to think so. The assumption seems to be that we can legitimately abstract from scarcity if we wish to understand the logic of capital accumulation, since scarce commodities are few and since there can't be any long-term growth in such commodities. Against this, it is easy to argue that scarce commodities are not marginal at all, but form a substantial part of our economy. Not only nature, but also real estate, money and labour power are examples of commodities with inelastic supply. Furthermore, scarcity characterizes key commodities - such as oil - that seem central to the functioning of capitalism as a whole. Finally, we can easily realize the importance of scarcity in the economy if we recall that scarcity includes not only "natural" scarcity but also scarcity that is "socially" created, for instance by monopolies, copyrights, patents, custom barriers and so on. As Immanuel Wallerstein (2004:25) points out, all profitable enterprises are in fact monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic, since profits would evaporate if competitors were perfectly free to imitate successful innovations. From that viewpoint, scarcity is key to understanding capitalism. Far from being something that can be legitimately neglected, the role played by scarcity in the process of capital accumulation is precisely what needs to be better understood.

Marx and scarcity

Marx developed his value law from Ricardo's labour theory of value, but he also introduced important modifications to it, above all the idea of socially necessary labour-time. Does Marx's version of the labour theory of value abstract from scarcity, like Ricardo's, or do his modifications mean that it takes account of scarcity? This question is important to clarify in order to: 1) assess the persuasiveness of Marx's value law, and 2) ascertain to what extent this value law helps us understand the relation between capitalism and nature.

Unlike Ricardo, Marx doesn't - as far as I know - anywhere state clearly that he will abstract from scarcity in his analyses. In fact, it's not easy to find much explicit discussion of scarcity at all in his writings. As one commentator states: "Marx did not like to write about scarcity. Malthus ruined the question for him" (Moore 2014:92).

The lack of clarity in regard to how he stands in relation to scarcity has, I suspect, led to some confusion around to what extent Marxist analyses are applicable to "nature", "land" or "immaterial" forms of production (I include "immaterial" production in this list since it's a field where the artificial scarcity created by copyright is important). That Marx appears to neglect scarcity has been viewed as a weakness in his version of the value law since it invites the criticism that the exchange value of commodities such as natural resources, real estate or brands doesn't seem to reflect the labour needed to produce them.

But is it true that Marx disregards scarcity? To some extent, yes. Take this passage in Volume 1 of Capital where he writes about the means of production that “if... it is not the product of human labour, it transfers no value to the product. It helps to create use-value without contributing to the formation of exchange-value” (Marx 1967a: 204). Marx disregards scarcity here, since it is only in conditions without scarcity that nature creates use-value without contributing to exchange-value.

But in Volume 3 of Capital, he does discuss scarcity. A natural power:
does not enter into the determination of price, so long as the product which it helped to produce suffices to meet the demand. But if in the course of development, a larger output is demanded than that which can be supplied with the help of this natural power... then a new additional element enters into capital... a rise in the price of production takes place. (Marx 1967b: 745)
Commenting on this passage, Paul Burkett points out that it is from scarcity that rent arises and that the theory of rent solves the problem of how commodities that don’t contain labour can possess exchange-value. Furthermore, he points out that scarcity is a precondition of monopolization and that land rent is a redistribution of surplus-value derived from a monopolized force of nature (Burkett 2014: 74f, 90). Profits derived from scarcity, in other words, represent a redistribution of surplus-value produced elsewhere in the capitalist system. These profits therefore contribute to the capital accumulation only of certain capitalists, not of the capitalist system as a whole. This argument is fine as far as it goes. We can note that it seems to hold both for Ricardian and Marxian economics.

However, Burkett then adds an important argument that suggests that Marx's value law - unlike Ricardo's - does take account of scarcity: "But these conditions, together with their rents, are freely appropriated insofar as their useful effects can otherwise be produced, if at all, only through an additional expenditure of wage-labor time" (ibid. 75). This means that the value law can account at least to a certain extent for rising exchange values, even where those exchange values seem due to scarcity rather than labor. In such situations, “socially necessary labor-time” may still determine prices since the rent reflects the cost of the wage-labor that would be required to produce an additional equivalent unit. Far from excluding scarcity from consideration, Marx’s theory accounts for the higher prices scarcity gives rise to, since more labor is required to produce the commodity the scarcer it gets:
In Marx’s analysis, if a useful natural condition of production becomes increasingly scarce... the average productivity of the labor appropriating or utilizing this natural condition is, by definition, reduced... The values of the commodities produced with the increasingly scarce natural condition will, accordingly, be increased due to the greater amount of social labor time now required to produce the same use values. (ibid. 106)
What enables Marx to account for scarcity is the concept of "socially necessary labour-time". Interestingly, this concept operates with a kind of marginality: the socially necessary labour that according to Marx gives rise to a commodity's value isn't the actual amount of labour expended in manufacturing it, but the labor an imagined competitor would have to be prepared to expend in order to manufacture one more equivalent unit of the commodity (e.g. by prospecting for more of a scarce natural resource or developing an artificial substitute).

The modification that Marx introduces in Ricardo's labour theory of value then - namely that value is the product of abstract labour, reflecting the labor time that is socially necessary to produce the commodity - means that he can drop Ricardo's caveat, at least to some extent. But can he drop it entirely? Perhaps not. Even the concept of "socially necessary labour-time" cannot account for the exchange values obtained in wholly monopolistic situations, where the socially necessary labour of an imagined competitor would be infinite. Against this, one might turn the argument around and argue that it is precisely the excessive amount of "socially necessary labour-time" in situations like this that explains why a monopoly can be maintained at all. Still, the problem remains that some commodities aren't just monopolized but truly unique (e.g. celebrity items or certain pieces of real estate). In the case of unique commodities, prices seem to fluctuate only according to their desirability. The connection with labour time seems lost totally, and we're back in a situation where supply-and-demand works better. The alternative would be to deny that any commodity can be unique by stretching the concept of "equivalence". If we don't wish to take this step, however, the conclusion seems to be that we still need something like Ricardo's caveat in order to make the labor theory of value wholly persuasive.

By way of ending, let me return to the question whether scarcity is important. I've already mentioned the argument that scarcity is marginal from the standpoint of the capital accumulation of the capitalist system as a whole. After all, if profits obtained by scarcity only represent a "rent"-like redistribution of the aggregate surplus value produced in the system, then it seems legitimate to disregard it if we're interested primarily in the fundamental logic of capital accumulation as such. But it seems to me that one can make two objections to this argument.

Firstly, the argument disregards the role of "socially" created scarcity in raising profits overall by creating new rounds of capital accumulation - namely when it is accompanied by rising demand. For instance, when a new innovation is introduced in the market it is usually "scarce" in the sense that competitors don't yet have any equivalent commodity to offer. As mentioned, scarcity isn't a natural, objective property, but exists in relation to demand. If demand rises - for instance through a technological breakthrough that makes new machinery or new consumer goods available on the market - then a situation will result where scarcity is co-produced with and forms an integral part of the boost in capital accumulation.

Secondly, to disregard scarcity seems extremely unhelpful considering that, strictly speaking, no commodities are unaffected by scarcity. All commodities - both material and immaterial - require finite means of production. Neither raw materials nor energy nor labor power exist in infinite supply. If this is so, then scarcity is simply a too central component of how the economy works to be disregarded.


Burkett, Paul (2014) Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marx, Karl (1967a) Capital, Volume I, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl (1967b) Capital, Volume III, New York: International Publishers.

Moore, Jason (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London: Verso.

Ricardo, David (1996) Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, New York: Prometheus Books

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004) World-systems Analysis: An Introduction, Durhamn: Duke University Press.
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