Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Meltdown and Fordist Nostalgia

Does anyone really understand credit default swaps? "Arcane" is really an understatement, and yet it seems that the market in credit default swaps rose to something like three times the U.S. gross domestic product. From what we can gather, credit default swaps are effectively a way of betting that a company will go bust.

Then there is the degree of leverage. Everyone, it seems, speculating with huge sums of borrowed money. Why just invest the thousand dollars you own when you can borrow another 99 and play the tables in the capitalist casino with $100,000? Apparently, this kind of leverage ratio (around 100:1) was behind the collapse of the two largest companies in the mortgage business in the U.S. (Fanny May and Freddie Mac - and who chose the names by the way?).

Trying to make sense of this huge parasitic economy almost makes you nostalgic for the old image of the capitalist who built a real business with bricks and mortar and employed people (even if there was a questionable extraction of surplus value) to manufacture real things that could go in a showroom or on a shelf. Heck, that almost seems like an idyllic state of affairs in comparison to the crazy business of pure speculation where there is no commitment to the kind of real economic activity that creates jobs and keeps communities together.


Suicide rates were used by Durkheim as an indication of levels of anomie (if I remember correctly). Now that the economy is collapsing, aren't levels of anomie rising? Shouldn't a small percentage of players in the leveraged lido of speculative capitalism feel some of that anomie?

In the media, at least, I haven't come across any reports of suicides. Wall St, it seems, is a long way from India, where we heard of the farmers who had taken out loans (miniscule by Western standards) to buy new GM produce from Monsanto promising an unprecedented yield and invulnerability to pests - crops that were then destroyed by pests, plunging the farmers into debt - a debt which was so shameful for them that they chose to drink lethal quantities of pesticide rather than contintue to live.

Does no one in the credit default swaps business feel like drinking pesticide? Is it just impoverished Indian farmers who have a sense of honour?

Monday, 6 October 2008

Castoriadis on the Meaninglessness of Capitalism

In a minor essay entitled The Crisis of the Identification Process Castoriadis really touches base. He sums up the crisis of meaning in capitalist societies - the crisis which is at the root of our search for alternatives.

Every society, he says, needs to develop a self-representation - it needs to come up with an idea, or an image (this being the work of what Castoriadis calls the social imaginary) of what it is (in our case, an idea of who we are) and an idea of what it is up to (an idea of the ends of social action). This self-representation has to move people - Castoriadis goes on to talk about societies loving themselves - and the conception of the ends of social action needs to motivate people. In the words of the psychoanalyst, these must be representations that people cathect.

Modern societies instituted two central significations: the ever-increasing rational mastery of nature and society, and the search for a form of social freedom, whether it be liberal, socialist or revolutionary. The second has virtually withered away, and what remains is no more than rare acts of voting and frequent acts of shopping - neither of them capable of defining a "we" that has some solidity.

To quote: "The sole signification truly present and dominant today is the capitalist one, that of the indefinite expansion of "mastery," which at the same time-and here we come to our central point-finds itself emptied of all the content that might endow it with the vitality it once enjoyed and that could, for better or for worse, allow the processes of identification to be carried out.

"One essential part of this signification was its mythology of "progress," which gave a meaning both to history and to future-oriented aims and which also gave a meaning to society, such as it was, as supposedly the best support for this kind of "progress." We know that this mythology is now falling into ruin. But what, we may ask, is today the subjective expression, for individuals, of this signification and this reality that is the "expansion," apparently "unlimited," of "mastery"?

"For a small number, it is, of course, a certain "power," whether real or illusory, and the increase thereof. For the overwhelming majority of people, however, it is not and cannot be anything but a continual increase in consumption, including alleged leisure, which has now become an end in itself. What is becoming, then, of thegeneral model of identification that the institution offers to society and that it proposes to and imposes on individuals as social individuals? The model is now the individual who earns the most and enjoys the most. Things are as simple and banal as that."

This reminds me of Thatcher's rise to power in the U.K., which was supposed to be some kind of renaissance of British culture - a re-invigoration of what Castoriadis would have called the British imaginary. In practice I don't remember much more happening than a war with the Argentinians (over a handful of islands whose real value was never made particularly clear) and a campaign launched in the media to "Buy British".

It also makes me think of the prevailing image of governments in the West - especially in Europe. The government tries to project itself as little more than a competent manager of the economy. In Europe there is absolutely no attempt to engender a self-consciously European culture with a new social identity and a new sense of purpose as Europeans. From the standpoint of the party politician, society is little more than the market and the institutions that support it. Once society is identified as the coexistence of consuming monads the need to define - to create - some sense of "we" simply cannot register.

As a psychoanalyst Castoriadis emphasizes the psychological role that an enduring sense of this "we" can play for the individual. The identification serves as a defense against death - the identification with an imagined imperishable collectivity is a way of living with one's mortality. The absence of this helps to explain the modern individual's desperate need for a continual supply of distractions. In the words of Cornelius: "The modern individual lives in a headlong flight from the knowledge both that he is going to die and that nothing he does, strictly speaking, has the slightest meaning. So he runs, he jogs, he shops in supermarkets, he goes channel surfing, and so on-he distracts himself."

However much liberals insist that there is a liberal society (and for the market to work there must be a society of sorts) there is still this lack of a meaningful sense of who we are, what we are doing and where we are heading. Some liberal theoreticians might have an answer to that question and feel happy with it, but in actually existing liberal cultures no answer is instituted - we are not (consciously) doing something together, striving to achieve some collective goal. As individuals we are just out to maximize our personal happiness, and as politicians we are just trying to tweak the money supply to ensure that there is continual economic growth (because if gaps started to appear on the supermarket shelves the entire liberal edifice would crumble).

Toward the end of the essay Castoriadis makes a point that has been on my mind for a while now: going beyond capitalism requires going back to the past. History has become virtually meaningless. The liberation of the individual as a consumer presupposes that the past is made irrelevant (because history is our past, not mine). As he puts it: "I do not see how a new historical creation could effectively and lucidly stand up to and oppose this bizarre formlessness in which we live unless it were to instaurate a new and fecund relation to tradition. ...Thatdoes not mean that we should restore traditional values as such or because they are traditional; rather, we should establish a critical attitude whereby we are capable of granting recognition to some values that have been lost."

In a sense, a new radicalism will also have to be a new conservatism.

Marcuse, the Media and Perpetual War

Here is a quotation from Herbert Marcuse (from his essay "Repressive Tolerance") that touches on the issue of peace.

"The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs - the mature delinquency of a whole civilization."

In connection with the debate about peace Marcuse's essay has an interesting implication: We need to understand the delinquency of our civilization. The cause of peace needs more John Lennons and more songs in the style of "Imagine" but it also needs more thoughtfulness. The thinking is especially necessary because of a strange phenomenon - the strange coexistence of a popular belief in peace and a popular tolerance of perpetual conflict and war. Many people have got John Lennon's message and they support the ideal of peace, but they see it as nothing more than a dim and distant goal - little more than a pleasant dream - and they accept that in the meantime the fighting is bound to continue. For the sake of peace we need to understand how people can believe in peace but tolerate war.

Undoubtedly there are numerous causes. One of them, though, must be the influence of the media. In addition to turning violence into a form of entertainment and allowing each child to see thousands and thousands of entertaining murders, there is also the peculiar way that violence is treated in the news.

For the editors of news programmes, terrible acts of violence make good news. If Palestinian rockets hit an Israeli house, this is news. People must see the house, the hole in the roof and the fragments of the rocket. They must hear the local people denouncing Palestinian terrorists. The average viewer is left with the impression that the world is filled with warring parties. There cannot possibly appear to be a solution because nothing is explained. The terrorists appear to be incomprehensible beings who were presumably born to hate. But behind every Palestinian rocket is a long history - almost invisible in the media - of injustice. I don't think I have ever seen a report on the news of Israeli checkpoints on Palestinian soil, and it does not take much imagination to appreciate the damage that is done when the Israeli army controls the movements of Palestinians in and out of their villages on land that is internationally recognised as theirs. Similarly, I have never seen a report about the Israeli policy of cutting the supply of water to Palestinian villages in the area where the Israeli Wall is being built. If the events leading up to the violent outbursts were better understood, people might be able to see how easy it would be to prevent the violence and the so-called terrorists would cease to be incomprehensible aggressors.

Another questionable aspect of the news is its attempt to be "objective" or "impartial" or "neutral". There are two sides to every coin. If there is an interview with the spokesperson of one side, there must be an interview with the spokesperson of the other side, and the interviewer cannot appear to take anyone's side. Every report of a violent outburst carries the silent message that we cannot say who is in the right and who is in the wrong; there are just these two parties fighting and so far the death toll is X and the number of injured is Y. In this message there is a lesson for the viewer: Like us (we who speak and write in the media) you should not take sides; just tolerate the fact that there is so much conflict in the world.

The cause of peace does not need this kind of objectivity, impartiality and neutrality. Rather it needs people to speak out against injustice. It also needs people to speak out against the lying declarations of those who profit from war. If someone says: "To stop the spread of the weapons of mass destruction we must use our weapons of mass destruction and unleash the mother of all battles," they must be criticised ruthlessly, not treated with impartiality. No one promotes the cause of peace by treating oppression and injustice with neutrality.

Although the media want to project an image of impartiality, they always end up on the side of the victors. In many cases there are vested interests in the background or there is simply the assumption that every government announcement is news whereas the reports from peace groups and human rights groups are not. Because of the refusal to criticise they also have to accept the terms of the debate which are usually set by the strongest groups in society and those with the funds and the connections needed to promote their views. Hence, the "objective" reporter will tell us about the "violence" caused by the terrorists in one place and about how "effective" the army (our army) has been in another place. Similarly, before the war in Iraq American spokespeople were matched with their Iraqi counterparts on the news. After the defeat of the Iraqis few people in the media see any point in giving the defeated an opportunity to express their point of view. The war becomes history and the media (the writers of the news, at least) just accept the new status quo.

If the media were on the side of peace they would also be more careful about their coverage of protests and demonstrations. Demonstrations for very honourable causes are not seen by the media as occasions to highlight people's grievances. Instead, the cameras wait for the inevitable clashes with the police and the impression is created that demonstrators are aggressive hot heads who have nothing coherent to say.

With satellite television and the internet there are now some alternative channels that are commited to the cause of peace - channels such as Democracy Now. Unfortunately, they are not able to gain a wide audience. Partly, this is a problem of funding but it is also because most people have already been quietly persuaded that peace is a lost cause, and that, anyway, it is much better to just sit back and enjoy the entertainment than worry about issues that require a little thought. It's nice to imagine a world of peace, but let's face the facts, it's just not possible, is it?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

What is (not) to be done. Castoriadis on Lenin.

It has been a long, long time since we read Lenin's "What is to be done?" - so long that we couldn't remember why we were so reluctant to call ourselves Leninists. By chance, though, we have just come across a gorgeous little essay by Castoriadis entitled "The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy" (going back to 1964) and now we remember just what is so cock-eyed about Leninism (and the Trotskyite version to boot).

What it boils down to is our disagreement with the idea that people ought to be subordinated both to the will of the Party and to the drive to increase the forces of production. Castoriadis emphasizes the way work is organised. Workers ought to be directly involved in determining what is done and how it is done. For Trotsky, apparently, there was no need for this because the aspirations of the workers had already been achieved once the Party had gained ascendance. Henceforth the priority was the fastest possible industrialisation, and the prevailing view was that this meant beating the capitalists at their own game - pushing the rationalisation of production further and faster, and cutting out the anarchy of the market. Although it was supposed to be a dictatorship of the proletariat, in practice the workers had no option but to do what they were damn well told to do. As Trotsky put it: "The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the supremacy over the whole Soviet mechanism of the collective will of the workers, and not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered."

Castoriadis has a nice summary of Lenin's advocacy of a rampant instrumental reason, borrowed from bourgeois/capitalist culture as if it were something entirely neutral: "In all Lenin's speeches and writings of this period, what recurs again and again like an obsession is the idea that Russia ought to learn from the advanced capitalist countries; that there are not a hundred and one different ways of developing production and labour productivity if one wants to emerge from backwardness and chaos; that one must adopt capitalist methods of rationalisation and management as well as capitalist forms of work "incentives." All these, for Lenin, are just "means" that apparently could freely be placed in the service of a radically different historical end, the building of socialism."

Castoriadis lets loose and slams into this ridiculous idea of the neutrality of technique: "The idea that like means cannot be placed indifferently into the service of different ends; that there is an intrinsic relationship between the instruments used and the result obtained; that, especially, neither the army nor the factory are simple "means" or instruments," but social structures in which are organised two fundamental aspects of human relations (production and violence); that in them can be seen in condensed form the essential expression of the type of social relations that characterise an era - this idea, though perfectly obvious and banal for Marxists, was totally "forgotten."

What a great guy? Why did we forget about Castoriadis? We were lucky enough to see him speak in Essex back in the 1980s, but then we stupidly forgot about him as everyone became obsessed with Derrida, Lacan and some rubbish about bodies without organs.