Dream House

“Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms.”

― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space


On Mikhail Sholokhov’s “And Quiet Flows the Don”

It’s been more than a year and a half since my last post. Rather than recap all that has happened in that time, I figure it would be best to jump back in and try to post semi-regularly (until the next lull, anyway).

Over the holidays I picked up and finished Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, a masterpiece of socialist realism that was begun in the late 1920s and published serially until its completion in 1940. As is apparent from my other posts, I am quite interested in Soviet history and culture, and Russian literature is a genre that I keep coming back to whenever I get a little break from work. Having never read Sholokhov but hearing unflattering things about his complicity in the Stalinist order always kept And Quiet Flows the Don low on my reading list. A copy lent to me by an old friend had been sitting on my shelf for years, and it was only until a few months ago that he brought it up that I decided, on a whim, to tackle this near-600 page epic.

Not only was I pleasantly surprised by Sholokhov’s fluid prose (although rendered somewhat archaically by Stephen Garry) and captivating story arc, but also by the complex psychological portraits of even the tangential characters. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the novel covers the world of the Don Cossacks in south-central Russia during the years of 1912-1918 as their social fabric is torn apart by political events beyond their control: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent bloody Civil War between the Bolsheviks and the Whites. Sholokhov, who grew up on the Don River and was intimately familiar with the Cossack way of life, manages to sympathetically portray not only the motivations of the Bolshevik commissars in charge of revolutionary effort but also of the counter-revolutionary forces made up of Cossacks seeking less to restore Tsarism than to retain their independence against the new Soviet power.

After completing the novel, I turned to Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 as a means of getting further historical context on the impact of the Revolution and the Civil War on the Cossacks. Contrary to what I previously thought, Figes suggests that Cossacks were not unanimously in support of the Tsar and the old order, but were largely split. While the older generation and leadership was conservative and anti-Bolshevik, the newer generation that had fought on the front lines and wanted an end to the war was more inclined to see the establishment of Soviet power as the best way of preserving the peace. One sees this in Sholokhov’s novel, in which brothers and friends find themselves on opposite sides during in the confusion of the Civil War.

Later, I found the excellent 1958 Soviet film The Quiet Don (Тихий Дон) on YouTube, which spans both And Quiet Flows the Don and its sequel, The Don Flows Home to the Sea. All three parts of the film are embedded below, with English subtitles.


Ernesto Laclau on the State

Last month Ernesto Laclau passed away at the age of 78. I came to his work fairly late in my studies, only reading Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in my second year of grad school. Prior to that, it would have been fair to say that I read more about Laclau in other sources. But although today I have an ambiguous relationship to his post-Marxism, both critical and appreciative, at the time it had a large influence on my thinking about the possible strategies of Left politics today.

Here I want to highlight a 2008 interview with him conducted by Platypus, and which was brought to my attention by Ross Wolfe over at The Charnel-House.

Since I’m planning to write a chapter on the post-Marxist turn in my dissertation on Marxist theories of the state, here is an excerpt from the interview specifically on that:

In approaching politics, do you think we should understand capitalism as representing a historically specific, reified form of social relations that poses a challenge to the greater social control over production? In confronting the ubiquity of the commodity form in capitalist social relations, should we think of our politics in terms of a radical break with capitalism, or should we look toward other forms of social organization for the root of the problem, and possible solutions?

There are several questions there. Firstly, social control is control by whom? Because if it is an instance that one calls the state, the question is to what extent this state is a representative of the social will or to what extent this state is some kind of institutional excrescence which is separated from the social will, because the question is how to constitute a social will, and how to have this social will crystallized in an institution. The attempt to think that automatically the state represents the social will lead to the whole disaster of the Soviet experience. So if one thinks of a more democratic mediation of the social will, the problem is how particularity and universality can be combined in such a situation. I completely agree that savage capitalism, in which the mechanism of the market controls everything is a disaster as much as the bureaucratic state of the Soviet system. But the whole problem, which is the problem we have been discussing from the beginning, is how this social control is going to be constituted: through what kind of institutional mechanisms, how the will of the people will act, how you supercede the opposition between the particularism of the different wills and the different social elements. So we are in the center of a hegemonic project.

Here I think Laclau is mostly correct in trying to get away from the liberal/republican idea that the state represents a social will. But what exactly does he mean by “institutional excrescence”?

I suspect that here he is getting close to the Poulantzian notion that the state is an entity irreducible to its specific institutions, but which nevertheless only exists by virtue of those institutions. This is a position made possible by the structuralist epistemology that allows for the existence of real abstractions such as the state without at the same time needing to put forward a concrete empirical referent for the concept.


Pursuing this question further, this afternoon I read Laclau’s essay “The Specificity of the Political” (1975) reprinted by Verso in the volume Politics and Ideology in Marxist TheoryThe article was Laclau’s intervention into the debate between Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband on the capitalist state and its relation (of relative autonomy) to the mode of production.

Laclau engages with both Poulantzas and Miliband, although the former is the target of a more sustained critique. Recall that one of Poulantzas’s main objections to Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society was that its theoretical problematic was insufficiently removed from a bourgeois framework. As Poulantzas saw it, Miliband’s attempt to theorize the capitalist state amounted to an empirical refutation of the elite-pluralist model in order to show that there was a connection between the state and the ruling class. But for Poulantzas, who in 1969 was still writing from a point of view heavily indebted to Althusserian structuralism, attempting to refute bourgeois analyses by pointing to empirical evidence still operated on its terrain and reproduced its dominant form of thought–empiricism–without first elaborating a different theoretical model and its own set of concepts necessary for a materialist critique of the state.

Laclau agreed on this point. But he also found Poulantzas guilty of an excessive formalism, in which his “taxonomy is set at a level of abstraction so high–without always being justified–that the symbolic functions of the concepts necessary tend to predominate; these symbols enter into relationship with each other and create in turn symbols of these relations, and all contact with the original meaning is lost” (70).

Laclau also saw the same tendency occurring in Etienne Balibar’s attempts in Reading Capital (1965) to theorize the relationship between the different levels of practices in a given social formation–the economic, the political, and the ideological. The Althusserian idea of “determination in the last instance,” meaning that the economic level was always structurally determinant of the other levels, even if not always dominant, was found by Laclau to be conceptually confused and metaphorical, rather than theoretical. “This distinction between the determinant in the last instance and the dominant role seems to be no more than a series of metaphors which attempt to resolve through symbols of little theoretical content, an artificial problem created by the metaphysic of instances” (77).

In other words, Laclau saw Althusser, Balibar, and Poulantzas all falling short in their attempts to outline a theoretical analysis of a capitalist social formation. When working on their degree of theoretical abstraction, one could no longer operate on a strictly logical level without at the same time invoking a symbolic, metaphorical dimension. The unclear relationship between “the political” and “the economic” in their analyses led Laclau to increasingly abandon the idea that these terms were anything more than contingent signifiers, and ultimately to end up at the argument of Hegemony that the social order was a single discursive formation rather than divided into three (or however many) levels.


Critical Theory Conference Write-Up

Last weekend a friend and I drove up to Northwestern University to attend the 2014 International Critical Theory Conference. Although we weren’t able to attend all the panels, having to leave on Sunday morning, we managed to hear a number of interesting presentations, including the keynote address by Jurgen Habermas on Friday afternoon. The following is a brief write-up of the conference, based on my notes and recollections.

Habermas’s talk was titled “The Troubled Future of Democracy: Inside and Outside Europe.” He began by stating that the process of transnationalization involved the establishing of democracy above the organization level of the state. A transnationalized democracy would have a federal character, lack the monopoly on legitimate force that would still be bestowed upon the constituent states, and based on the application of federal laws.

The current global situation, according to him, is the site of a tension between a fragmented state system and an increasingly interdependent global order. Today, states exist within systemic relationships and are increasingly incapable of addressing global problems. The European Union faces economic and structural constraints that need to be reformed through greater political integration. The need to effectively deal with these global problems, beyond the purview of any single state, makes transnationalization a necessity.

Habermas envisioned that this shift toward a transnational democracy would occur through a process of constitution-making in which European peoples would participate on an equal footing. This would be an act of democratic self-legitimation and the formation of public opinion, featuring the inclusion of all citizens in political decision making that would be mediated at a number of levels: sub-national, national, and trans-national.

In order for this to occur, we would need to resolve the problem of integrating international law and the laws of particular states into a single, federal framework. The integration of governments would mean a pooling of the sovereignty of the people in each member state. The key is that such a federal state would be supported by the national citizenry, not by their governments; the legal equality of states within the federal framework was meant to ensure the equality of its constituent peoples. In that sense, state sovereignty must be seen as a derivative of popular, constituent sovereignty.

Could this kind of process succeed in the face of rising nationalism and mistrust among the people of the EU? Habermas argued that the process of European unification has stalled because of a lack of trust on the part of citizens. But, importantly, this suspicion is not of an ethno-nationalistic kind, since nations today are primarily legal entities rather than ethno-national ones. Rather, the democratic suspicion of European integration is directed against the anonymous bureaucracy that the supra-national government of the EU has become.

Therefore, in order to mitigate this problem, Habermas was insistent that in a supranational entity the higher level should not overwhelm its constitutive parts. Instead, a form of shared sovereignty would need to be established – one that involved a limited conferral of power to the transnational entity and conserved the substance of national citizens’ claims that their constituted states have an emancipatory history. For this reason, the priority of EU laws over those of its constituent states would need to be of a functional, case-by-case sort rather than a legal sovereignty that was final and absolute.

Cristina Lafont, tasked with responding to Habermas, agreed that political decision making has migrated to the upper levels of the EU bureaucracy. She saw Habermas’s project as basically having two interlinked goals: 1) Overcoming the EU’s democratic deficit, and 2) Preserving the equal status of European peoples in a federal framework. But Lafont challenged Habermas’s affinity toward the nation state, and in particular his view that they are guarantors of their citizens’ autonomy, especially vis-a-vis the undemocratic bureaucracy of the EU. Is this a normative fiction? she asked. Furthermore, to maintain that it is every state’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of its citizens occludes the problems of economic integration. In other words, the reality of the transnational economy is at odds with the normative thrust of Habermas’s view of the state as a social guarantor.

Seyla Benhabib’s “International Human Rights and Democratic Sovereignty” addressed the question of how we can integrate democratic self-determination within a global, cosmopolitan framework. The notion of global constitutionalism raises a number of questions: Is it to occur with or without a state? Will it be constitutionally monist (international law would be integrated into the legal framework of individual countries) or dualist (the international and national legal dimensions would be kept separate)? Furthermore, is democratic self-determination at odds with global cosmopolitanism? And in that case, is a constitutional dualism or pluralism the best middle ground that we can hope to achieve?

Shifting to the example of human rights, Benhabib argued that transnational human rights norms strengthen democratic sovereignty rather than weakening it. She distinguished between two forms of cosmopolitanism: a moral form, and a legal form, where legal persons are entitled to rights as moral people regardless of their citizenship status. A legal cosmopolitanism with human rights at its core would include, first and foremost, the right to have rights, and bear on ideas of human dignity and equality.

At the same time, she also distinguished between the concept of human rights, and various conceptions of human rights. The concept of human rights is a general principle; conceptions, in contrast, are specific norms translatable to a variety of contexts. The latter are the reason why the right to self-government is a necessary condition for the translation of human rights principles into practice. Without self-government, human rights would stop being rights and instead become privileges granted by a higher authority. The normative gap between human rights principles (the concept of human rights) and their specific conceptions is precisely the space for the exercise of democratic sovereignty. Democratic authorship means that the people are both the authors and the beneficiaries of human rights.

Conceptions of human rights are then various “democratic iterations,” in which these principles are interpreted and given new content by democratic citizens in the public sphere. This involves a series of disaggregation processes, in which human rights principles are adopted at a variety of levels: the local, the national, and the transnational. These rights are also what prevent democratic sovereignty from becoming democratic populism, an absolute of its own that can violate rights in the name of the majority. The boundaries of the demos are not a given but need to be democratically iterated themselves; as such, the formation of democratic sovereignty involves a moment of normative transcendence.

Rainer Forst’s “A Critical Theory of Human Rights” took Benhabib’s argument to a more philosophical, neo-Kantian level by looking into the transcendental conditions that make grounding human rights possible. Forst saw human rights as social weapons that outline certain standards of mutual treatment. He argued that the moral and social/historical account of rights forms a single unity, insofar as that the transcendental point of critique is the most historical one – the countless times in history in which people stood up to defend their integrity against oppression. For this same reason, critical theory must begin not from the ideal conditions of a freely constructed discursive situation but from the assumption that domination is a regular occurrence of human interaction.

Forst outlined three elements of human rights, which together amount to a critique of domination without reason. First, humans claim to have a right not to be subjected to an order they have not assented to or that has not been justified to them. Second, justification is a practice; rights express the autonomy of the people and make the right to justification a substantive principle. Third, rights possess an emancipatory function in that they make possible a discourse-theoretical view of non-domination.

In contrast to functionalist, consensus-based accounts of human rights such as found in John Rawls’s Law of Peoples, as well as the minimalist views of Michael Ignatieff and Jean Cohen, all of whom share an account of rights as politically effective even if morally ungrounded, Forst argued that it is possible to ground rights on the principle of justification. Although human rights cannot be grounded on a notion of the good life that extends to all cultures, the principle of justification can be used as a grounding point insofar as people cannot be forced to live in an order that has not been justified to them. In that sense, human rights are veto rights against impositions.

Is this a foundational conception of human rights? Forst argues that it both is and isn’t. The principle of criticism of authority is the foundation – but this makes it a self-destructive foundation. Such a “foundational” conception necessarily involves a larger list of human rights than one that uses rights as “thresholds” to legitimate humanitarian intervention. This is because human rights are not a possession of liberal societies (contra Rawls) but of all those denied equal political rights; there is a notion of dignity that each individual possesses when it comes to not being subjected to rules that others define for him or her. For this reason, rights contain three dimensions: those of authorship, interpretation, and use. Like Benhabib, Forst argued that a constructive argument involves both general rights that consist of what we owe others in a normative social order, and particular, democratic iterations where these rights take specific legal forms.

Coming from a radically different perspective, Wendy Brown’s “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism and the Economization of Political Rights” drew upon Foucault’s genealogical approach to argue that neoliberalism is converting democratic institutions into economic ones. Although the origins of neoliberalism lay in a historical accident – the unexpected rise to prominence of a marginal economic theory (Milton Friedman and the Chicago school) – today it has expanded far beyond the realm of the economy, growing into an entire order of normative reason and governing rationality. This development has resulted in the merging of a national security apparatus with an ongoing process of neoliberalization that turns all facets of social life into the production of human capital.

In Brown’s point of view, the traditional homo economicus of classical and neoclassical political economy has been reshaped into financialized human capital. Whereas previously this meant the harnessing of human productive power for the purposes of generating surplus value, the economization of today is not reducible to this older conception of wealth generation. Competition and financialization, not exchange, are the dominant logics of this new order. Alongside this, the neoliberal hostility to the political has remade the purpose of the state from being a public power to a corollary of the economy.

The final (and best) presentation I attended was Nancy Fraser’s. Unfortunately, I couldn’t write down its title in time, although her argument was largely based on her recent piece in New Left Review titled Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism.” Fraser argued that Marx’s socio-economic critique contains many important insights about the nature and functioning of capitalism that have been unfairly dismissed. In particular, Marx was prescient enough to see that at the heart of capital is a self-expanding value, and that in a capitalist society, capital itself, not human beings, becomes the subject.

At the same time, her critique was premised on the idea that certain elements of Marx’s thought cannot be reconciled with our contemporary problems, such as ecological crisis and the aspects of social reproduction concerned the formation of human subjects, such as gender divisions. For one, Fraser disagreed with the Frankfurt School’s understanding, taken from Georg Lukacs, that capitalism is a reified view of ethical life characterized by the expanding commodification of all life. In contrast, she sided with Immanuel Wallerstein in suggesting that capitalism to this day depends on non-commodified goods and forms of social life in the periphery, including the gendered division between wage labor and unpaid domestic labor. Wallerstein’s idea of “semi-proletarianization” figures largely here, in the sense that capital can only sustain itself by siphoning off value from informal gray zones that are not entirely under its sway. Markets depend on non-marketized social relations. As Marx alluded to in his chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital Vol. 1, exploitation is driven by expropriation.

Therefore, there are three epistemic shifts that we need in order to supplement Marxism: 1) The shift from focusing exclusively on commodity production to social reproduction (the formation of human subjects outside markets and in public institutions such as schools), and the gendered division; 2) The ecological turn, since capital treats nature both as a source for raw materials and as a deposit for waste; as well as the development of new enclosures and technologies that blur the relationship between the natural and the human; and 3) The question of public power, since neoliberal capitalism is mutating the structural division between polity and economy (public and private power) upon which the territorial system previously rested.

All three are potential flash points from which capitalist crisis could emerge. Fraser argued that we need to see capitalism not simply as a form of economic organization, but as a structurally differentiated social order, containing a number of distinct and functionally-interrelated ontologies. As an institutionalized social order, it is akin to the integrated form of life previously found in feudal societies, including gender oppression, political domination, and ecological degradation. Since the notions of “society,” “polity,” and “nature” arose alongside “the economy”, they are its Others rather than being wholly external standpoints of critique. But precisely because they are the boundaries (or as she put it, the background conditions) of capitalism, being both internal and external to it, they, and not the internal contradictions of the economy, are also the points from which a systemic crisis could unravel.

As I wrote, Fraser’s account resonated the most with me because it provided the kind of materialist, historical critique that I think was also the best aspect of Marx’s work, while supplementing it with a number of other elements that he did not address. Habermas’s, Benhabib’s, and especially Forst’s accounts, while important, remained too distant from the socio-economic conditions of the present moment, since their primary focus was almost exclusively on the political dimension (namely, rights and sovereignty). Brown’s talk, while insightful, too often seemed to reify neoliberalism into a totality. Not only that, but her emphasis on the decline of public power in the face of neoliberalization revealed a blind spot to the Marxist critique of the state, which has always posited the interrelation between state and economy as an outcome of the capitalist mode of production.

This will have to be it for the time being. I hope to return to this soon in another post, in which I will try to draw some broader implications of these arguments, in terms of what contemporary critical theory (if we can even talk about it as a single discourse) gets right and wrong in its analysis of the current moment.

Stalin: A Documentary

YouTube is often a treasure trove of interesting programs. Most of the time you don’t even have to search long – all it takes is typing a word or two into the search bar. The other night I came upon a good documentary on Stalin that I’ve been watching, made in 1990 and narrated by British actor Ian Holm. Here are all three parts:

Reclaiming Orwell?

A new article in Jacobin by Scott Poole argues that we need to reclaim “Comrade Orwell” from conservatives who invoke his two most famous works, 1984 and Animal Farm, when speaking of the dangers of socialism.

Orwell (third from right) in Catalonia, 1937

Orwell’s place on the Left has always been a matter of controversy. As Poole argues, his other works like Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier demonstrate an obvious commitment to socialism (or, as in the case of Homage, to a vaguely-defined anarchism). It is this Orwell, who commonsensically proclaimed that we could do “with a little less talk about capitalist and proletarian and a little more about the robbers and the robbed,” that needs to be upheld as one of the preeminent speakers for the Left in the twentieth century.

I’m not as enthusiastic. Never mind that Orwell’s legacy has suffered in the last ten years thanks to writers like Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen, who filtered his ideas into their own arguments for hawkish liberalism. Even more so, I think many of Orwell’s writings reveal him to be less of a modern Leftist, and more a social critic who was the last remnant from the era of Victorian moralism. Behind his appeal to “common sense” and his suspicion of the obscurantism of socialist doctrine, there lay a set of attitudes that were often nationalistic and paternalist.

Orwell was a strong opponent of imperialism. His first novel, Burmese Days, at once humorous satire and tragedy, is a brilliant condemnation of British colonial attitudes. But another work derived from his experience as a police officer in Burma, the short story “Shooting an Elephant”, perpetuates the myth of the colonial experience. There Orwell the individual juxtaposes himself against an amorphous multitude of “sneering yellow faces” and “evil spirited little beasts,” who appear entirely alien to the white European narrator at the center of the story.

Alongside this inability to fully see the native as a moral subject without defining him vis-a-vis the European, Orwell’s anti-imperialism is made even more problematic by his own Englishness. In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism” he defined patriotism as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” For Orwell, patriotism was a virtue, being unlike nationalism in that it was defensive, and therefore lacking the desire for power.

This distinction between nationalism and patriotism is odd to see from a writer who for the last fifteen years  witnessed authoritarian and expansionist regimes effectively blur any line dividing a confidence in one’s way of life and a desire for power. What’s more, the defensiveness of patriotism and devotion to a way of life also often give way to ugly xenophobia, as the plight of migrant workers across the European Union tells us today.

The question of how to reclaim Orwell for the Left necessarily raises the much harder question of what kind of Left do we want? Orwell was a master stylist and an earnest opponent of injustice. But he was also a product of his times, his writing better for understanding the final days of the British Empire than guiding us in the current moment. He was far from a reactionary, but his love for the quaintness of small-town English life, his suspicion of cosmopolitanism, and his insistence on casting socialism in a moralistic framework all read as the work of a man forcefully resisting modernity.

Hannah Arendt interviewed by Gunter Gaus

This is the video of Arendt’s 1964 interview with Gaus. There are many interesting moments here, including Arendt’s famous clarification that she is a political theorist and not a philosopher. She also goes into some personal details about her relationship to politics in the context of Weimar. But as someone who had been reading Arendt for years and yet saw very little footage of her, what I found just as fascinating are her mannerisms and tone.

A longer version of this interview was published in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954. Cut from the interview here is a discussion of The Human Condition, where Arendt discusses the meaning of “world” and the connection between philosophy and politics.

Nietzsche, Hayek and the Marginalists…and Max Weber?

Corey Robin has just published a provocative and interesting essay in The Nation on the connection between the conservative doctrine of Nietzsche, the marginal revolution, and the Austrian school of economics. I won’t summarize the entire piece here – it is well worth taking the time to read – but merely provide some initial impressions.

Basically, Robin traces something of an “elective affinity” between Nietzsche and the 19th century economists who ushered in the marginal revolution. These figures, namely William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras, initiated a movement in political economy that replaced the heretofore dominant labor theory of value (subscribed to by Smith, Ricardo, and Marx) with the theory of marginal utility and subjective value. According to the latter, economic value was not inscribed in an “objective” world of commodities and relations of production, but instead in the subjective value or worth that consumers were willing to place in those objects. In other words, the value of an object depended on the lengths that individuals were willing to go to acquire it (i.e. pay for it), rather than the amount of labor that went into producing it.

Despite their pronounced political differences – Nietzsche is best characterized as an aristocratic conservative, the marginalists as pro-market liberals – Robin claims that Nietzsche’s ideas make him a useful diagnostician for the rise of the idea of subjective value and, eventually, for contemporary neoliberalism (by way of Hayek).  Whereas Nietzsche set the stage by pointing to the limits of metaphysics for grounding the world and giving human life authoritative meaning, and thereby arguing for a transvaluation of the heretofore dominant values of Western civilization, the marginalists, and later “classical liberals” like Mises and Hayek, saw the free market as the only possible arbiter of value in society. Furthermore, both Nietzsche and the marginalists shared a hostility to trade unions and the burgeoning socialist movement of the 19th century, which Robin points to in arguing that implicit in the doctrine of the free market (and particularly in Hayek) is a critique of “mass society” and an aristocratic conception praising the wealthy as the avant-garde of taste and of social value.

Taken separately, Robin’s exegeses on Nietzsche and the marginalists and Hayek are excellent and insightful. But something of a disconnect remains in the link he tries to draw between them. For one, there is little evidence to suggest that Nietzsche was aware of the innovations of Menger, Jevons, or Walras, although we are told that he did critique unnamed contemporary economists for their fixation with the term “value” and, of course, understood enough about political economy to argue that the vitality of classical Athens depended on the sequestering of slave labor away from the public life of the polis. Neither is there an indication that the marginalists read Nietzsche, their contemporary (although I’m guessing Hayek almost certainly did).

Of course, Robin is not arguing that there is a direct line of influence between these thinkers. His claim is rather that Nietzsche’s insights best capture the cultural and social forces at work from which the marginalists would draw their economic conclusions. This may be perfectly true, but there is nevertheless a kind of “x degrees of separation” game being played here, in which the appeal is more to a fin de siecle European cultural Zeitgeist than of a causal connection between Nietzsche, the marginalists, Hayek, and postwar neoliberalism. My hunch is that Robin wants to claim that one can make that connection, but it does not come through here.

The term “elective affinity” of course invokes Weber and his thesis on the connection between the development of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. Yet perhaps Weber looms here in more than just this way. If the connection between Nietzsche, the marginalists, and Hayek is not quite one of direct influence and yet can provide us with insights about postwar neoliberalism, then why not consider Weber himself, certainly one of the most “Nietzschean” thinkers of the 20th century? Despite being deeply influenced by Nietzsche in his philosophical and meta-theoretical reflections, Weber was far removed from the marginalists and the Austrian school, instead being educated in the German historical tradition of economic thought. To my knowledge, Weber never articulated the kind of anti-statist, anti-interventionist economic policies that have come to be associated with the Austrians today. If the economic legacy of Nietzsche can point in the opposite direction, by way of a thinker who read and knew Nietzsche far better than the ones Robin focuses on, then perhaps the story gets more complicated.

Finally, the idea that an individual’s worth or value depends on how he is held by others originates not with Nietzsche nor the marginalists, but much earlier with Hobbes:

“The Value, or Worth of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another…And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselvesat the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.” (Leviathan, Ch. 10)

This should not be surprising, since Hobbes can certainly be thought of as a political theorist of the nascent bourgeois order (I subscribe to this view myself). But this complicates Robin’s narrative that Nietzsche and the marginalists separately developed their theories partially in response to the labor movement of the 19th century, since we see this strand of thought emerging some 200 years earlier. Perhaps Hobbes was a conservative and a reactionary in the same vein as Nietzsche and Hayek, and this recurring emphasis on the subjectivity of value is a symptom of the pathologies of conservative thought rather than having anything to do with the struggle between labor and capital? But this suggestion in turn raises a different question – how correct would we be in applying these labels to Hobbes, whose pro-monarchist views were underpinned by a fundamentally innovative political theory of authority that in the long run did more to undermine the basis for monarchy than preserve it, and who was writing over a century before the French Revolution, when the true distinction between radicalism and reaction emerged?


UPDATE: Also make sure to take a look at Robin’s post and the unfolding debate in the comments section at Crooked Timber.

The Communist Horizon, contd.

Continuing the previous discussion of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon, in my future post I will note down some thoughts on Chapter 2, “Present Force.”

Before delving into that, however, I want to make one more observation about the argument of the Introduction, having to do with Dean’s ideas about proletarianization and the “radical subject” of politics. I wrote previously that there is at least a potential tension here, between on the one hand seeing communism as the product of a “subjective” politics and, on the other hand, adopting the historical materialist perspective that communism is driven by objective, structural factors. In my previous post, I came down pretty emphatically on the side of the latter and criticized Dean’s position as essentially voluntaristic.

While discussing the Introduction with colleagues at our reading group, it occurred to me that the contradiction is indeed there and even more blatant than I initially realized. What I mean is this: Dean states plainly that “The dominance of capitalism, the capitalist system, is material” (5) and makes the case for “an analysis that treats capitalism as a global system of appropriation, exploitation, and circulation that enriches the few as it dispossesses the many” (6). Capitalism, in her view, is a fundamentally material condition and should be treated as such, rather than be brushed away as a discourse in the way some on the radical Left have done.

Good. But toward the end of the Intro, she puts forward her vision of the People: “the people in their common political and economic activity…’the people as the rest of us,’ the people as a divided and divisive force” (21). This is the radical political subject created through the process of proletarianization.

What’s striking here is the disjunction between seeing the material relations of the economy as the driving force of social change, and the utterly rhetorical aspect of her notion of the people. Dean’s “the people as the rest of us,” like any other notion of “the People” invoked at various points in human history, is performative rather than analytical. Dean apparently believes so herself: “I write ‘we’ hoping to enhance a partisan sense of collectivity” (12). Arguably, the purpose of Dean’s book is precisely to articulate this political subject, to bring forward or reveal it; in other words, to make plain what she believes is always already there.

But is it such a simple matter of articulation? Once you come down on the side of this rhetorical performativity and the anti-foundationalist epistemology it presupposes, how much room really is there for understanding the dominance of capitalism as a material phenomenon? It seems to me that one cannot have it both ways. If one believes that “the people” as a political subject can be brought forward through the act of naming them as such, which is ultimately the position I ascribe to Dean here, then “capitalism” too must be seen as only a social construct or a discourse. If that is the case, then Dean’s position against her targets on the Left falls apart. If anything, they are validated.