Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Gift Beneath the GAA

There's a super article over at Cunning Hired Knaves, a blog that I would recommend as a regular read to you all, on the attempted robbery through privatization of the GAA. Richard makes his point thus:

Let me explain. Contrary to how it gets represented, the GAA isn’t a monolith. It has contradictions and competing tendencies. There are people involved in it who are motivated by power and status and ego and icy cold calculation in the service of market forces. Then you have others who participate in the life of a club or school team or whatever, and give of their time freely because it is part of the essential fabric of broader community life. The former group capitalises on the work of the latter. It is no coincidence that many high-ranking members of the political establishment, including the current Taoiseach, have sought popular legitimacy for their right-wing policies on the basis of their links to the GAA. When bishops used to throw in the ball at GAA matches, it wasn’t just because the Catholic Church was a dominant force in Irish society; it was also because the bishops needed the popular classes to get the impression that they were on their side.

In Irish, the name for the GAA is Cumann Lúthchleas Gael. The first word – Cumann – has the same etymology as ‘common’, ‘community’ – and communism. The Irish for communism is Cumannachas. Now you would need to be away in the head to imagine that the GAA is, on the whole, a communist organisation. I have heard some people describe it as a mass organisation and even a socialist organisation, but never a communist one. However, there is something about the activities that take place on under the aegis of the GAA that is, in fact, communist.

The moral logic of a great deal of its activities is not the moral logic of money, but is rather informed by a sense of basic equality. GAA clubs and matches and training sessions are also focal points that allow communities to exist, and people to interact with each other, with some degree of decency and equality and sense of belonging and maintenance of a social bond. That is not to say that the whole of the GAA operates on this basis. On the contrary: the GAA of the corporate suites at Croke Park and sale of exclusive television rights to Sky is the GAA of the gombeen bourgeoisie, what some people often refer to as the ‘Grab All Association’.
There have been a few comments on Facebook amongst those of us who have shared links to the page about the merits, or otherwise, of supporting practical, mundane, and superficially progressive activities within the structures of organizations such as the GAA, whose ethos has hierarchical and reactionary origins. This is a perennial problem, of course, for the left, with regard to operating within reformist or statist organizations, but the conversation this time round took an interesting turn when people began talking about their own involvement, a turn that arose because so much of GAA activity is voluntary but also highly community based or focused. I'l return to that in a moment, after noting that Richard's observations brought to mind a comment made by David Graeber with regard to the practice of everyday communism:
Consider here the term “communism.” Rarely has a term come to be so utterly reviled. The standard line, which we accept more or less unthinkingly, is that communism means state control of the economy, and this is an impossible utopian dream because history has shown it simply “doesn’t work.” Capitalism, however unpleasant, is thus the only remaining option. But in fact communism really just means any situation where people act according to the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” — which is the way pretty much everyone always act if they are working together to get something done. If two people are fixing a pipe and one says “hand me the wrench,” the other doesn’t say, “and what do I get for it?”(That is, if they actually want it to be fixed.) This is true even if they happen to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup. They apply principles of communism because it’s the only thing that really works. This is also the reason whole cities or countries revert to some form of rough-and-ready communism in the wake of natural disasters, or economic collapse (one might say, in those circumstances, markets and hierarchical chains of command are luxuries they can’t afford.) The more creativity is required, the more people have to improvise at a given task, the more egalitarian the resulting form of communism is likely to be: that’s why even Republican computer engineers, when trying to innovate new software ideas, tend to form small democratic collectives. It’s only when work becomes standardized and boring — as on production lines — that it becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism. But the fact is that even private companies are, internally, organized communistically.

Communism then is already here. The question is how to further democratize it. Capitalism, in turn, is just one possible way of managing communism — and, it has become increasingly clear, rather a disastrous one. Clearly we need to be thinking about a better one: preferably, one that does not quite so systematically set us all at each others’ throats.
When my brother and I were growing up as kids, we played Sunday league football as soon as my dad could get us signed up. From the age of 11 until 17 or so, my teammates and I were chauffeured by dad to matches around Birmingham, and out of season he drove us to mid-week and weekend training. My mom, for her part, would wash our kits, and when my brother and I packed in the Sunday league, my mom and dad carried on (my brother had a go at refereeing too, but what a thankless job that is!). My dad took over a team in Altrincham and my mom used to wash the entire team's strip. She even featured once in the Sunday Mirror, hanging out the strip on the line in our back garden. She got £20 for the photo, if I remember rightly. But that wasn't all she got. She also got enjoyment and satisfaction out of this emotional labour. What's more, she got thanks of the kids and, sometimes, though rarely, of their parents. She also got the thanks of my dad and the knowledge that he was in her debt to the extent that she was helping him out with his hobby.

But of course, this is what people do. This is how communities and relationships operate, whether between spouses, between parents and children, or between neighbours or teammates. A series of reciprocities, of gifts given and received, of pleasures shared, of tasks performed together or singularly for a common end or for individual ends but always in mutual support. Underneath, or alongside, the capitalist economy that sees the impersonal exchange of commodities, there is this gift economy at work, an economy of unspoken but nevertheless real transactions and obligations. Sometimes this gift economy works communistically, wherein equals help one another out and forge bonds of solidarity. On other occasions, this economy is skewed by pre-existing power inequalities that enable some to be more magnanimous than others. This, I think, is where the gift economy comes into contact - and conflict - with the capitalist economy or, if you prefer, with the economy of power. One of the ways, after all, that hierarchies sustain themselves is by making those lower down the hierarchy indebted, not only, or even necessarily financially, but simply by doing favours. Those who have the power in a hierarchy are in a position to grant more favours and to demand, in consequence, more sacrifices, than those who do not.

Pierre Bourdieu's separation of "cultural" and "economic" capital does not do justice to what is going on here, I think, and I note that the Great British Class Survey felt it necessary to include "social capital" alongside "cultural capital" and "economic capital" in its efforts to situate people in class terms. There, too, though, the logic of capital misses the point. The implication of categorizing these social activities as a form of "capital," that is, as a collection of assets to be manipulated and wielded within a social field in the same way that "cultural capital" and "economic capital" are wielded within their fields, is that these social relations operate according to the same kind of logic, a "capitalist" logic of impersonal exchange of commodities. But of course, these social relations and actions are precisely NOT commodities. Commodities are what capitalism would like them to be. On the contrary, social relations take place according to a different logic and within a different kind of economy, namely, a gift economy, in which there are, naturally, reciprocities and exchanges that take place, but these are not impersonal exchanges; they are about establishing bonds between particular people, about friendships and solidarity, the sorts of things that capitalist businesses try to fake when you've shopped with them a few times by suggesting other purchases you might like - as a favour, you understand. They would like to reproduce the solidarity generated by genuine non-economic relations - the affections, the emotional investments, the sense of belonging - but they can only ever manage simulacra. Run out of money and the friendship ends.

Arlie Russell Hochschild has already written on this extensively, and, much to my shame, I have yet to finish The Commercialization of Intimate Life and The Managed Heart, so I don't know whether she or anyone else has developed this idea of conflicting but contemporaneous economies to any great extent. I'm happy for any anthropologists or sociologists out there who've read their Mauss and more to point me in the right direction. I'm little more than an interested layperson and open to illumination and refutation. I'd also be forever in your debt. :-)

addendum: A subject that was touched on in the original FB discussion but not here is the issue of wages for housework and how this would fit in with attempts to commodify social relations. If I remember correctly, there was a debate between Andre Gorz and several critics of his Critique of Economic Reason, in which he discussed the issue, but I can't recall the specifics now, and my copy of the Gorz book is back in Dublin. Damn.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014


I'm not sure how regular publication of this journal is going to be, or even if it is going to be anything other an an online project, but the University of Wollongong in Australia has a link to the Review of Capital as Power.

There's a list of articles here and you can download the individual pdfs. I note only that Volume 1, Issue 1 for 2012 had only one article and that Volume 1, Issue 1 for 2013 has carried over to 2014. It is clearly a work in (slow) progress. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Interstitial Emergence

Human beings are social, not societal
A theoretical assumption lies at the base of the unitary conception: Because people are social animals, they have a need to create a society, a bounded and patterned social totality. But this is false. Human beings need to enter into social power relations, but they do not need social totalities. They are social, but not societal, animals.

Let us consider some of their needs again. As they desire sexual fulfillment, they seek sexual relations, usually with only a few members of the opposite sex; as they desire to reproduce themselves, these sexual relations usually combine with relations between adults and children. For these (and other purposes), a family emerges, enjoying patterned interaction with other family units from which sexual partners might be found. As humans need material subsistence, they develop economic relationships, cooperating in production and exchange with others. There is no necessity that these economic networks be identical to family or sexual networks, and in most cases, they are not. As humans explore the ultimate meaning of the universe, they discuss beliefs and perhaps participate with others similarly inclined in rituals and worship in a church. As humans defend whatever they have obtained, and as they pillage others, they form armed bands, probably of younger men, and they require relations with nonfighters who feed and equip them. As humans settle disputes without constant recourse to force, they set up judicial organizations with a specified area of competence. Where is the necessity for all these social requirements to generate identical sociospatial interaction networks and form a unitary society?

Tendencies toward forming a singular network derive from the emergent need to institutionalize social relations. Questions of economic production, of meaning, of armed defense, and of judicial settlement are not fully independent of one another. The character of each is likely to be influenced by the character of all, and all are necessary for each. A given set of production relations will require common ideological and normative understandings, and it will require defense and judicial regulation. The more institutionalized these interrelations, the more the various power networks converge toward one unitary society.

But we must recall the original dynamic. The driving force of human society is not institutionalization. History derives from restless drives that generate various networks of extensive and intensive power relations. These networks have a more direct relation to goal attainment than institutionalization has. In pursuit of their goals, humans further develop these networks, outrunning the existing level of institutionalization. This may happen as a direct challenge to existing institutions, or it may happen unintentionally and “interstitially” – between their interstices and around their edges – creating new relations and institutions that have unanticipated consequences for the old.

This is reinforced by the most permanent feature of institutionalization, the division of labor. Those involved in economic subsistence, ideology, military defense and aggression, and political regulation possess a degree of autonomous control over their means of power that then further develops relatively autonomously. Marx saw that the forces of economic production continuously outdistance institutionalized class relations and throw up emergent social classes. The model was extended by writers like Pareto and Mosca: The power of “elites” could also rest on noneconomic power resources. Mosca summarized the result:

If a new source of wealth develops in a society, if the practical importance of knowledge grows, if an old religion declines or a new one is born, if a new current of ideas spreads, then, simultaneously, far-reaching dislocations occur in the ruling class. One might say, indeed, that the whole history of civilised mankind comes down to a conflict between the tendency of dominant elements to monopolise political power and transmit possession of it by inheritance and the tendency toward a dislocation of old forces and an insurgence of new forces; and this conflict produces an unending ferment of endosmosis and exosmosis between the upper classes and certain portions of the lower.

Mosca's model, like Marx's, ostensibly shares the unitary view of society: Elites rise and fall within the same social space. But when Marx actually described the rise of the bourgeoisie (his paradigm case of a revolution in the forces of production), it was not like that. The bourgeoisie rose “interstitially”; it emerged between the “pores” of feudal society, he said. The bourgeoisie, centered on the towns, linked up with landowners, tenant farmers, and rich peasants, treating their economic resources as commodities to create new networks of economic interaction, capitalist ones. Actually, as we see in Chapters 14 and 15, it helped create two different overlapping networks, one bounded by the territory of the medium-sized state and one much more extensive, labeled by Wallerstein (1974) the “world system.” The bourgeois revolution did not change the character of an existing society; it created new societies.

I term such processes interstitial emergence. They are the outcome of the translation of human goals into organizational means. Societies have never been sufficiently institutionalized to prevent interstitial emergence. Human beings do not create unitary societies but a diversity of intersecting networks of social interaction. The most important of these networks form relatively stably around the four power sources in any given social space. But underneath, human beings are tunneling ahead to achieve their goals, forming new networks, extending old ones, and emerging most clearly into our view with rival configurations of one or more of the principal power networks.

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760, pp. 14-16.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stream of (Class) Consciousness

Despite no longer having a 50-minute train journey into work every morning, I've maintained my early morning routine, at least to the extent of rising around 7.00, making a cup of tea, and heading for work. Work these days is the room next door, but that short commute is no guarantee that anything gets done for an hour or so that might deserve remuneration. Instead of work colleagues to chat with in the office kitchen, I now have Facebook friends whose translations I have to read, photos I have to like, witticisms I have to LOL at. This morning, for example, I had a paper to edit on the design of genealogical trees in Persian texts of the 14th century. (Un)fortunately, I checked into Facebook first, where someone unknown to me had left a comment on a friend's post about Michael D. Higgins's speech in Manchester. The comment was entirely tangential to the post, but it  made the argument that the reason for locating factories in the developing world was related, purely and simply, to the circulation of capital.

Now, ordinarily, when I hear jargon like this I head back to bed like any sensible person because I don't need a lecture first thing in the morning from someone regurgitating Marx's greatest hits, but on this occasion it just so happened that I'd just finished reading Steven Sanderson's Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development. I may review this book in more detail at a later date (I bet you can't wait), but briefly, Sanderson's book draws on Immanuel Wallerstein's world systems theory and extends it back over the past 10,000 years to provide a general explanation for social change. It's a fascinating idea and the book's worth checking out if a little weak on the details (it does describe itself as a general theory, in its defence). Incidentally, anyone read this one? Nice cover, don't you think?

I digress. In Social Transformations, Sanderson discusses the criticism that Wallerstein's theory has received at the hands of Robert Brenner thusly:

Finally, there is the famous charge, made first by Robert Brenner (1977) and repeated many times since, that world-system theory rests upon a "circulationist" rather than a "productionist" conception of capitalism. The argument is that Wallerstein's world-system takes into account only relations of economic exchange (via trade) and ignores production (and thus class) relations. This is, quite frankly, a silly and quite false charge (Blomstrom and Hettne, 1984; Chase-Dunn, 1989). As Chase-Dunn (1989:5) has said, "Contrary to the popular misconception that world-system theory emphasizes exchange relations over production relations, capitalism is defined as a system in which commodity for profit occurs in the context of differentiated forms of labor control." Indeed, in the world-system perspective capitalism is a vast system of hierarchically organized production. Core states do not merely  exchange products with the periphery, but play a crucial role in establishing various forms of production there.
Hm. So there. I Googled "circulation of capital" and naturally Volume 2 of Marx's Capital was top of the list, followed by David Harvey's Enigma of Capital. Not the book, but a paper prepared for meetings of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta in 2010. You can read it here. Which I did. It's really a super article. Until it comes to the end, that is, where Harvey discusses the "left alternative":

Unfortunately, the fierce attachment of many movements to what can best be termed a “fetishism of organizational form” gets in the way of any broad revolutionary movement that can address this problem. Anarchists, autonomists, environmentalists, solidarity economy groups, traditional left revolutionary parties, reformist NGO’s and social democrats, trade unions, institutionalists, social movements of many different stripes, all have their favored and exclusionary rules of organization often derived from abstract principles and sometime exclusionary views as to who might be the principle agent sparking social revolution. There is some serious barrier to the creation of some overarching umbrella organization on the left that can internalize difference but take on the global problems that confront use. Some groups, for example, abjure any form of organization that smacks of hierarchy. But Elinor Ostrom’s study of common property practices shows that the only form of democratic management that works when populations of more than a few hundred people are involved, is a nested hierarchy of decision making. Groups that rule out all forms of hierarchy thereby give up on any prospect whatsoever for democratic response not only to the problem of the global commons but also to the problem of continous capital accumulation.19 The strong connection between diagnosis and political action cannot be ignored.20 This is a good moment, therefore, for all movements to take a step back and examine how their preferred methods and organizational forms relate to the revolutionary tasks posed in the present conjuncture of capitalist development. (emphasis mine)

Two things struck me immediately. First, I think this is a misreading of Elinor Ostrom's work. Ostrom's Governing the Commons is largely descriptive, rather than prescriptive. She does not conclude, as far as I am aware, that "the only form of democratic management that works when populations of more than a few hundred people are involved is a nested hierarchy." Rather, she reports that, in those examples studied that are successful, for common pool resources that are part of a larger system, appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises. In other words, the analogy with a political organization is inappropriate. A political organization is a self-contained entity that can be organized federally, horizontally, hierarchically, and in a nested or non-nested manner.

The other thing that struck me was Harvey's generosity and honesty in drawing attention, in final footnote (No. 20), to the fierce criticism his comments on organization forms had received from some quarters. He even provides a link to the journal in question Interface, and tells you where to find his critics. They're here, "Debating David Harvey".

So that's where I went next. And in one of those articles, Benjamin Shepard observes that

Foucault long ago said movements do not need intellectuals to lead them. They do just fine by themselves (Foucault and Deleuze 1977). It is hard to disagree. This is not to suggest these are diametrically opposed points. They are not. You cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a graduate student or sociologist at many of the current global justice protests. “Grassroots leadership collectively requires many skills sets, and then more importantly the ability of participants to share their skill sets with each other,” argues San Francisco organizer James Tracey(2010). “So yes intellectuals need to be PART of the leadership of movements--but only one of many parts.” Tracey describes leadership based on the group as a brain with multiple forms of intelligence and knowledge to be shared, not monopolized.

A conversation between Foucault and Deleuze. How did I miss that? Must go find.

Turns out that it's here. So I downloaded it for reading later. In the meantime, I do another search for Elinor Ostrom, to see if she'd said anything more explicit about nested institutions that might conceivably be interpreted as justifying political hierarchy. No luck. A reference to a later work edited by Ostrom, here, that immediately went onto my wishlist and, amusingly, a link to a newslist where a bunch of U.S. economics grad students were slagging off the Nobel committee's decision to award Ostrom the economics prize. Apparently  you're not an economist if you carry out empirical research.

That newslist did alert me, however, to a couple of other books in which Ostrom appears: Philip Mirowski's More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics. This went onto my wish list immediately. Here's why:

More Heat Than Light is a history of how physics has drawn some inspiration from economics and also how economics has sought to emulate physics, especially with regard to the theory of value. It traces the development of the energy concept in Western physics and its subsequent effect upon the invention and promulgation of neoclassical economics. Any discussion of the standing of economics as a science must include the historical symbiosis between the two disciplines. Starting with the philosopher Emile Meyerson's discussion of the relationship between notions of invariance and causality in the history of science, the book surveys the history of conservation principles in the Western discussion of motion. Recourse to the metaphors of the economy are frequent in physics, and the concepts of value, motion, and body reinforced each other throughout the development of both disciplines, especially with regard to practices of mathematical formalisation. However, in economics subsequent misuse of conservation principles led to serious blunders in the mathematical formalisation of economic theory. The book attempts to provide the reader with sufficient background in the history of physics in order to appreciate its theses. The discussion is technically detailed and complex, and familiarity with calculus is required.
I've had heated (forgive the pun) discussions with Marxist friends on here about the theory of value and the role of energy in generating a social surplus. I'm not going to re-hash all that now. It's an argument that's been going on since Anti-Duhring and Sergei Podolinsky's Economic Thermodynamics, and to paraphrase Stewart Lee, if there's anywhere that we're going to establish precisely where value comes from, I don't think it's going to be in the Comments section of Counago & Spaves.

The other book I was alerted to by the newslist was Samuel Bowles's Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution:

In this novel introduction to modern microeconomic theory, Samuel Bowles returns to the classical economists' interest in the wealth and poverty of nations and people, the workings of the institutions of capitalist economies, and the coevolution of individual preferences and the structures of markets, firms, and other institutions. Using recent advances in evolutionary game theory, contract theory, behavioral experiments, and the modeling of dynamic processes, he develops a theory of how economic institutions shape individual behavior, and how institutions evolve due to individual actions, technological change, and chance events. Topics addressed include institutional innovation, social preferences, nonmarket social interactions, social capital, equilibrium unemployment, credit constraints, economic power, generalized increasing returns, disequilibrium outcomes, and path dependency.
Each chapter is introduced by empirical puzzles or historical episodes illuminated by the modeling that follows, and the book closes with sets of problems to be solved by readers seeking to improve their mathematical modeling skills. Complementing standard mathematical analysis are agent-based computer simulations of complex evolving systems that are available online so that readers can experiment with the models. Bowles concludes with the time-honored challenge of "getting the rules right," providing an evaluation of markets, states, and communities as contrasting and yet sometimes synergistic structures of governance. Must reading for students and scholars not only in economics but across the behavioral sciences, this engagingly written and compelling exposition of the new microeconomics moves the field beyond the conventional models of prices and markets toward a more accurate and policy-relevant portrayal of human social behavior.

I have vague memories of Bowles and Gintis from A level sociology over 30 years ago. There's an attic in Altrincham containing a stack of revision flashcards in a cardboard box, one of which says "Bowles & Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life", along with a one-paragraph summary of the book's arguments. Like this, only shorter.

I searched Bowles's book for Elinor Ostrom and found references to this and this, a summary of the Ostrom-edited book mentioned above. The Conclusion section here is particularly interesting: 


Central governance and privatization only lead to deterioration of shared resources and communities, as well as to the failure of governance at the coarser scale. This implies that the organization at the macro-level is the deciding factor. However, we have seen sustainable management of natural resources over years and centuries despite macro-level restructuring, therefore the initial implication does not tell the whole story.
The authors set out to answer:
  1. What new developments challenge traditional common property institutions and how do they adapt?
  2. How is the increasing scale of human action affecting governance of shared resources?
  3. Can we make progress in institutional design?
Some lessons learned:
  1. The increased interconnection of the biophysical across scales and institutions across levels requires adaptation to change at multiple levels.
  2. The interests of resource users at multiple levels often conflict.
  3. Allocation of resource rights is a political process.

  • Access to this political process is limited by the structure of the macro institutions and also by the human, political, and social capital available to each group of actors.
  • More open political systems and more interconnected economies provide a larger set of adapt strategies.
  • Adopted policy solutions are incremental and not linear.
  • Our terminology needs refinement. Words like “local”, “regional”, and “landscape” erroneously imply that these are nested entities. We still lack conceptual tools with which to integrate the biophysical and the sociopolitical across multiple scales. For example, mobile resources (like fish) require complex polycentric management. Too-decentralized governance can serve as an impediment to meeting needs of a broader society.
    Perceptions of fairness reinforce a climate of trust. Success of any mechanism relies on trust to enable cooperation. When participants do not come face to face with the consequences of their actions they feel no responsibility for them. Different forms of capital (physical, economic, political, and social) are intrinsically linked and one form can be used to create others, but social capital can lead to collective action for or against the commons.
    In the end, a dynamic view of property rights is likely to be more appropriate to ensure sustainable and fair use of the resource than one that is static. Creating forums for negotiation and reallocation of such rights may be more important than laying down rigid rules and resource allocations.

    This entire site actually looks like it might be of interest to C&S readers of a particular bent, btw. Although if you're of that particular bent, you probably already know about it.

    At about this time, another Facebook message came through, informing me about this:

    The 4th and final seminar in our contemporary capitalism series will take place this Thursday (November 22) at 7pm in Dubzland Audio and Visual Gallery. This week will feature Rachel O’Dwyer speaking on ‘The new commons or the new enclosures?’. Full details below. This is a BYOB event.

    The new commons or the new enclosures? Rachel O’Dwyer

    ... In recent years, notions of ‘the commons’ and associated practices such as sharing, grassroots collectives, gift economies and peer production have really come to the fore. This is partly the result of a reinvigoration of social cooperation in online spaces and partly the product of attempts by social movements and critical thinking to formulate alternative courses of action for the management of resources, for cooperative decision making and for collective production.
    Today, more so than ever, ‘the commons’ has become a difficult issue. We’re frequently led to believe that concepts such as ‘open’ and ‘free’ are by nature non-market and that the commons, because it stands opposed to property and operates outside of traditional labour/wage relations, is in some way diametrically opposed to capitalism. But is this really the case? Today we’re seeing a growing centrality of different forms of the commons to contemporary capitalism. Examples include the role of cultural-artistic activities in gentrification, the primacy of open source platforms and user-generated content to the information economy and the enclosure of forms of shared and local knowledge by corporations and institutions.
    It seems like the traditional distinctions of socialism vs. capitalism or private property vs. the commons are no longer adequate to apprehend this system. In contemporary capitalism we need to rethink ‘the commons’, not as some abstract equality, but as a conflictive terrain. This talk explores how forms of the commons are enclosed today and how value continues to be extracted outside of traditional wage and property relations.
    How timely! I thought to myself. And what a coincidence. I went to the Facebook page in question for a quick browse and saw a link to this and, by extension, to this:

    Class War University: Composing resources for anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian movements on the terrain of universities and beyond.

    What have I learned from all this? That I really need to develop a work ethic.

    What did I fail learn? Anything about the design of genealogical trees in Persian texts of the 14th century.

    I can survive on tea in the morning for four hours.

    Thursday, November 22, 2012

    Yes We Kan

    Many thanks to William Wall for drawing my attention to the podcasts from the Philosophy faculty at Oxford University, including Dan Robinson's lectures on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which I downloaded for free onto my Kindle Fire (see post below) and which I now feel morally obliged to read. A categorical imperative, no less.

    I've no idea what 'Power Structuralism in Ancient Ontologies' involves. I'll see how I get on with Kant first.

    Thursday, November 15, 2012

    Christ, Kindle.

    My fabulous better half had the characteristically smart idea of buying me a Kindle Fire earlier this year for my 50th birthday. We were getting swamped with books and had downsized to an apartment from our sprawling country home, so it made sense to celebrate a "big birthday" with a present that also accommodated a bookcase-worth of tomes even if I'd already made it clear that I planned to curtail my book buying in light of 1) redundancy and 2) having hundreds of books still unread.

    The main downside to the Kindle Fire is having to charge it every six hours or so, fine if you're at home, a pain in the hole if you're at the beach, particularly given that beach reading demands that the backlight be turned up to counter the glare, using up more power and reducing untethered time to two or three hours. The main advantage, besides having a portable library to hand, is the option of downloading samples of books from the Amazon website before buying. And owners aren't restricted to buying from Amazon, incidentally. Reading pdf files on the Fire isn't ideal, but I reckon I have more than 50 books in pdf format on the Fire that I've downloaded from various websites, not to mention journal articles, conference papers and the like. What's more, there is a stack of out-of-copyright texts on Amazon  that you can download for free.

    I was inspired to write this post by a chance encounter with a newspaper article in which someone listed the books currently on their e-reader. It was a short and uninspiring list of mediocre novels, but, hey, whatever turns you on. Here's my list, for what it's worth. I have an ulterior motive of wanting to find out folks' opinions on the books I've downloaded samples of from Amazon before I actually commit to buying them. Help me out here, folks. This is what I have:

    Complete books (purchased [yeah, okay, I'm weak])

    Chavs, by Owen Jones (latest edition, no less)
    The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller
    Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
    Fool, by Christopher Moore
    Lamb, by Christopher Moore
    I, Partridge, by Steve Coogan et al.

    Complete books (free): A veritable first-year undergraduate course 

    Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant
    Critique of Practical Reason, by Immanuel Kant
    An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, by David Hume
    Essays, by David Hume
    Miscellaneous Essays, by Thomas de Quincey
    A New Philosophy, by Henri Bergson
    Selected Essays, by Karl Marx
    Anarchism and Other Essays, by Emma Goldman
    Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust
    Signs of Change, by William Morris
    The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, by William James
    Philosophy of Mind, by G.W.F. Hegel
    Human, All Too Human, by Friedrich Nietzsche
    The World as Will and Idea, by Arthur Schopenhauer
    An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation, by Thorstein Veblen
    Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
    The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates, by Xenophon
    Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, by Peter Kropotkin
    Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, by Alexander Berkman
    The Soul of Man under Socialism, by Oscar Wilde

    Free samples: Help me out if you can.

    Ignorance: How It Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein
    The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, by Paul Preston
    The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by Michael E. Mann
    The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 3: Global Empires and Revolution, 1890-1945, by Michael E. Mann
    The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, by Simon Critchley
    Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, by Terry Eagleton
    The Expo Files, by Stieg Larsson
    Once You Break a Knuckle, by D. W. Wilson
    Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World, by Kwasi Kwarteng
    The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century, by Peter Watson
    In Praise of Barbarians, by Mike Davis
    Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right, by Daniel Trilling
    Amsterdam Stories, by Nescio
    How to Change the World, by Eric Hobsbawm

    Pdfs: These too could be yours.

    Society Must be Defended, by Michel Foucault
    Truth and Existence, by Jean-Paul Sartre
    American Empire and the Political Economy of Global Finance, edited by Leo Panitch and Martijn Konings
    From Marxism to Post-Marxism?, by Goran Therborn
    History of Sexuality (3 vols.), by Michel Foucault
    The Making of Marx's Capital, by Roman Rosdolsky
    The Lacanian Left, by Yannis Stavrakakis
    The Enigma of Capital, by David Harvey

    and another fifty-plus titles courtesy of the Fuck Verso website.

    Enough to make any beach-based holiday a delight.

    Friday, November 09, 2012

    It's Friday. Let's Boogie!

    For the week that's in it.

    Thursday, November 08, 2012


    There's an articulate tribute to Steven Aylett's Lint over on Ultraculture that explains far better than I ever could the attraction of Aylett's work. I'm still marginally more disposed towards the Goth-punk excess that is Bigot Hall than Lint, but it runs it a close second.

    As Eli Lee, the author of the Ultraculture piece, explains:

    ... Lint is meant to be baffling. And although it might not come across in these out-of-context extracts, it’s also brilliantly funny. I’d go as far to say that its tone, full of stupid jokes and ridiculous ideas, is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s short stories – praise indeed. Even though it sometimes falls flat, it’s got such a high hit rate that it’s still one of the funniest books around.
    Aylett calls his work old-fashioned Voltairean satire, which doesn’t entirely match my reading of Lint(though perhaps it’s true for his other novels). With his protagonist bent on creating a preposterous, idiosyncratic world that runs parallel to – and is never accepted by – consensus reality, Aylett doesn’t seem to be making the classic Voltairean point about human weakness and hypocrisy. Instead, he seems to be suggesting that most of us are criminally unimaginative. But Lint offsets this. It offers an antidote. It does so to the point that it becomes almost talismanic in its concentration of excessive imagination.
    If you can handle its weirdness – even better if you like it – you’ll see this. You’ll get that it’s something special; a rare piece of art in which an imagination runs wild, and in so doing mercifully evades the exigencies of the banal – so ingrained in most of us that we’re likely only to read a page or two before we put it down in disorientation and distaste. For those who do the opposite, Lint is something to cherish.


    Sunday, November 04, 2012

    Feminist Ireny

    Awful blogpost title, I know. I'm sorry. I’m out of practice. But bear with me, follow the links to the blogs I’m recommending, and you'll eventually get the oh-so-clever references.

    Ire: Anger, Ireland.

    Feminist Ire is a new blog set up by our friend Stephanie and several comrades in arms. “Not your fluffy feminism,” it says. I’m not entirely sure what fluffy feminism is or why I’m against it yet, but I trust Steph implicitly, so I expect to find out pretty soon. A very welcome blog that I hope will feature prominently in future posts. There simply aren’t enough feminist bloggers. Or feminists blogging. 

    Irene: The ancient Greek word for peace. Pronounced Ireny.

    A little bit of nepotism here as I plug the blog of my nephew’s partner. Unfurled is the blog of Holly Klein, who says, “I work as an Animator, Editor and Compositor. In my free time, I sew and knit and make my own films. I move house a lot. I’m currently living in Portland, Oregon.” There are links to lots of free knitting patterns, knitting being, as I understand it, the kind of thing folk do in Portland when they want some tranquillity. Maybe that's what fluffy feminism is. There are also fab pictures of my great niece (which makes me a great uncle) Penelope Amelia, such as these scary Halloween photos of her dressed terrifyingly as Sinead O’Connor. 

    I should probably give the nephew a plug too, though he's clearly too busy to update his blog. Probably because he's been at work on another Hollywood blockbuster. A feeble excuse, though. Holly's in it too, and she seems perfectly capable of juggling all her commitments. Mind you, they're big into juggling in that Portland

    Irony: A rhetorical device featuring an incongruity between implied and literal meaning.

    There is no irony in this blog post, hence the incongruity between the implied and literal meaning.

    Friday, October 26, 2012

    It's Friday. Let's Boogie!

    E for Effort

    Maybe it's the Symbolic Interactionist in me, but one of the things I've come to realize about Facebook is how it turns us all into willing participants in the spectacularization of our own personal lives. Whereas once upon a time we were all passive consumers of the Spectacle, sitting in front of the TV or cinema screen, now we sit in front of the computer screen and not only consume the lives of others as commodities but happily offer up our own intimate details, family photos, personal views and feelings for consumption by others. We're becoming full-time actors, taking to the stage already conscious of the image we are about to project for the benefit of an audience. But more to the point, for the benefit of Facebook itself, for which we are a commodity that sells itself, in the form of information, to advertisers, sponsors, marketing agencies and the like.

    In the dark old days of my life in England, I worked for a time for a small publishing company that specialized in correspondence courses: Learn Yourself Good English, Stop Forgetting Your Name, that kind of thing. The company had next to no online presence back then, relying on newspaper ads. Years after I left, just out of curiosity, I ran an online search on the firm to find out what had happened to it. Not a lot. But interestingly, the one reference I could find was a link to a page on which the company, still going, was selling details of its mailing list to other businesses. Anyone who had ever answered one of their ads in the national papers, seeking more information about the company's courses, had had their details diligently noted, not simply so that they could be targeted by the firm with its other products, but also so that that information could itself be monetized and sold on, no doubt even to business rivals. 

    And now, even here, I am sharing personal anecdotes. Blogging, too, is a form of self-presentation, a chance to don a mask and play a role or else to offer up private thoughts for public consumption. It requires a certain kind of self-confident narcissism to want to do that for a public-at-large, which is why I can understand those who prefer to restrict access to their blogs to their friends and family; it's because they're normal. And one of the reasons why I curtailed my blogging was precisely because I stopped believing my opinion was of any great merit, that I was doing the world any great favours by dispensing my wisdom. Besides, I was adding nothing to the conversation, only drawing readers' attention to material generated elsewhere. And that can be just as easily, if not more easily, done on Facebook, which is part of Facebook's lure; it requires even less work than a blog. Indeed, Facebook has become a place almost entirely devoted to advertising in one form or another, inasmuch as it is a place where people put up links to somewhere or something else, whether that's a YouTube vid, a newspaper article, HuffPo, or a blog post. In that respect, it increasingly resembles Twitter. You're in, you're out, job done, link posted, what's next. There's no space for contemplation, reflection, for thoughtfulness. That has to be done off site. Creativity is elsewhere.

    That urge to be creative just won't go away, which is why Facebook is ultimately so unsatisfying, for me at least. It's not just like watching reality TV, it's like watching yourself on reality TV (*shudder*). Your own life and those of your friends reified. Of course, even within the confines of Facebook, people will spend hours on their Profile, uploading photos, videos, changing their details. We cannot resist our inherent need to produce, to make, to shape, even within such a confined space. Besides, creation requires limits of some sort, requires some rules, otherwise all that is generated is white noise.  That's part of the problem with blogging, and writing in general, and why Facebook is such a temptation: When you have to write something ex nihilo, you are confronted with a blank sheet. With an infinite number of possible creations. How you possibly know where to start? It's so HARD!

    Those who find no satisfaction in designing their own online prison often opt for that peculiar offline existence known as having a life. We should remind ourselves from time to time that there are people outside too, and they contain multitudes, each one a cosmos entire. You could spend a whole life and never fully know one of them. Now, there's a project for you. As for my offline world, it's been all over the bloody shop, a bit like this blog post. Made redundant along with all my work colleagues last year by the publishing company I had worked at since the end of '93, I tried to do something to help in their campaign to secure a decent redundancy package, the outcome of which you can see here. We lobbied TDs, I got Terry Eagleton to write a letter of support, got Noam Chomsky to sign the petition, and joined my former colleagues outside the Dail. You can see some pretty good pics here. The campaign is now at an end. It's fair to say some are happier with the outcome than others, but the organizers of the campaign can hold their heads up high. I, for my part, can say that I am proud to know them and to have worked with them.

    The rest of my offline existence is far too boring to present in a post intended to stimulate renewed interest in this blog. Instead, precisely what I objected to earlier: some ads. ;-) 

    That creative urge I mentioned, long dormant, finally seems to be resurfacing. While we haven't posted anything hysterical or horrific over at Khmer Rouge Strippergram for ages, I have been slowly revamping my first novel, which featured the appalling Joe McManus, over at the superl, home of the wonderful Sweary and Sinead. You can find weekly updates here.

    In the online off-Facebook world, there are a few places I regularly visit that I've added to the Links column. You really should check out every post at Richard's blog, Cunning Hired Knaves. One reason I've been able to curtail my political disquisitioning is that Richard usually says it for me. I don't know anyone who I've agreed with more often on so many issues. He's clearly a very intelligent man.

    I can't believe that I haven't linked to Mark's blog before. I was convinced that I had it on the list, but as I worked my way down it this morning, deleting those links that no longer worked, I realized that it was conspicuous by its absence. Apologies, Mark. Needless to say, it's another must-read for me, and hopefully for you.

    Stuart of Despair to Where? has just recently revived Big Chief Tablets. I always find something to disagree with in Stuart's posts, but that's because his mind is so lively, so fecund. I also find much much more that I agree with, and I've always thought that when it comes to argumentation, the best method of persuasion is to proceed incrementally, not by polemic. There's no point in alienating your readership, after all. You need to bring them along with you and then present them with choices that they have to make for themselves. Stuart does that beautifully, and the result for his readers is that they become willing collaborators in their own education. 

    A shout-out too to Irish Left Review and Dublin Opinion, where Donagh and Conor reside. Not new sites, but too good not to mention. Read them religiously. Or sacrilegiously. 

    There's a stack of other stuff to tell you about, I've no doubt, but it's early and I've got work to do. I hope you'll hang around.

    Wednesday, January 25, 2012

    The Political Metaphysics of Stupidity

    There's a stimulating essay by David Graeber that passed me by in the spring/summer 2005 issue of The Commoner. You can download the pdf file here. If you can ignore all the typos, you'll find some original thoughts and arguments about the theory of value. Much of the work here echoes that found in Graeber's Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, but there are several digressions along the way on such diverse topics as the works of Heraclitus and Parmenides, Roy Bhaskar and Critical Realism, the role of the intelligentsia in America, the significance of Gödel's theorem for social theory, and Piaget's theories of childhood development, all of which make for an interesting read. One section that drew my attention in particular concerned the "Production of Human Beings and Social Relations." A snippet:

    The formal distinction between “the economy” and domestic sphere is also represented, in political-economy terms, as the domain of production, and that of consumption. Obviously, this is only true if one thinks what is really significant in the world is the history of manufactured objects, but this has become, over the last two hundred years, the favored way of looking at societies. We are, in other words, in that strange fetishized world Marx described where we continually forget that the point of life is actually the creation of certain sorts of people, and that the same system—even if we look at it in the starkest, Dickensian terms mainly as an opposition of factories (and shops and offices) and private households (and schools and poorhouses)—can be seen as consisting of a sphere for the making of human beings, that are then in effect consumed again in the workplace. One can hardly underestimate how deep this fetishism runs. In Africa and Asia, for example, it’s perfectly unexceptional to hear government officials remarking that HIV infection rates are a serious crisis in their country, because the fact that in certain regions half the population is dying of AIDS is going to have devastating consequences for the economy. Not long ago, “the economy” was recognized mainly as the means by which people are provided with their material needs so that they stay alive. Now the best reason to object to their all dying is that it might interfere with economic growth rates. The thing to ask, it seems to me, is what it takes to put us in a place where public officials can make statements like this without being immediately put away as psychotics. Ultimately life is about the production of people—and not just in the physical sense of “reproduction”, especially if that’s reduced to pregnancy and childbirth (though, of course, pregnancy and childbirth often end up becoming concrete symbols for the process as a whole)—but in the sense that human beings are constantly shaping and fashioning one another, training and socializing one another for new roles, educating and healing and befriending and rivaling and courting one another. This is what life is actually about, and it can never, by definition, be reduced to a simple utilitarian calculus. In most human societies, the forms of labor entailed in all this are recognized to be the most important ones. The production of material necessities, or material wealth, is usually seen as at best a subordinate moment in the overall process of creating the right sort of human beings. Hence the most important value forms in most societies are those that emerge from the process. Certainly, this might involve all sorts of fetishism in their own right, as tokens of honor not only inspire, but come to seem the source of, honorable behavior; tokens of piety inspire religious devotion; tokens of wisdom inspire learning, and so on. But it seems to me these forms of fetishism are relatively minor—at least, in comparison with the kind of grandiose, ultimate fetishism of capitalism, which places the world of objects as a whole above that of human beings and social relations.

    Much of Graeber's paper is devoted to exploring and improving on the idea of false consciousness, examining how it could be that members of a society don't actually know what it is they are doing—in anthropological or sociological terms—yet managing to do it nevertheless, a problem that he attempts to resolve using the concept, here taken from Bhaskar (but which must, I think, owe some influence to Russell), of higher-order theories. What struck me about this quotation was Graeber's comment that in most societies, the production material wealth is usually seen as at best a subordinate moment in the overall process of creating the right sort of human beings. It brought to mind something that Cornelius Castoriadis said at the end of an interview with Radical Philosophy magazine in 1990 (available here as part of the pdf A Society Adrift) when asked if he saw any reasons for hope in the present situation:

    I don’t much like to talk about “grounds of hope.” I think that you have to do what you have to do—and hope for the best. If you take the rich, ripe capitalist countries, we certainly should not renew the discourse about insurmountable internal contradictions. Yet there are at least two facts that make it extremely difficult to believe in an indefinite reproduction of the present state of affairs. The first is the ecological limit, which we are nearer and nearer to. The second concerns the present state of capitalist society but is somewhat analogous to the ecological question. Everybody is lauding the extraordinary efficiency of capitalism in the field of economic production. This is true. But up till now this has been achieved through the irreversible destruction of a capital of natural resources that had been accumulating for three billion years (or at least 700 million years). This has been thrown away, destroyed, over fifty years or a hundred years. There were sediments of forests, land, oxygen, ozone, a variety of living species, etc. But the same is true on the anthropological level. Capitalism can function—could function—because there was a capitalist entrepreneur who was fascinated and impassioned by producing things and setting up new machines. Very often he was, if not an inventor, at least a quite clever design engineer—Edison and Ford, for example. This type is disappearing. More and more, you make money by playing in the (financial) casino, not by setting up production facilities. Capitalism also presupposes anthropological types—the bureaucrat, the judge, the educator—which are precapitalist products. If the prevailing philosophy and system of values (say) that you try to earn as much money as you can, and to hell with the rest—one doesn’t see why you should have judges, or university professors, or even schoolteachers. You will have them, but they will do their job in the worst possible way: trying to get away with as much as they can; being corrupt, if corruption is materially feasible, and so on. In this respect, capitalism is living by exhausting sediments of previous norms and values, which become meaningless in the present system. Absolutely meaningless. But this is not a “ground” for hope. An ecological catastrophe, for instance, could very well lead to a series of quasi-fascist dictatorships—“The holiday is over. This is your ration for the coming month: ten liters of oxygen, two gallons of petrol, etc. That’s all.”

    Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was single-minded about what it was I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. By the age of 15, such a romantic notion seemed silly even to me, to the extent that when I met the careers adviser, I told him instead that I wanted to be a journalist, which is to writing as dog-walking is to dogging but which had the redeeming quality of mundanity. Even the careers master looked at me contemptuously. Fortunately, I discovered my true passion a couple of years later when I changed school and discovered sociology. Today's kids, supposedly, and by this analysis, don't concern themselves with career ambitions. Their one desire is to be famous. Whether that's marginally better or worse than wanting to be rich, as Castoriadis imagines, if he's right about the collapse of capitalist archetypes and the end of capitalism's ecological sustainability, there are a lot of kids out there who are going to be disappointed.

    The upshot, of course, is that, as both Graeber and Castoriadis argue, we have lost sight of any sense of proper value, not just as a society but also as sociologists and social theorists. It's imperative that we recognise the role of imagination and self-creation in re-inventing the social, thereby re-establishing our ownership over value.

    Saturday, October 01, 2011

    Aftermath Network: Metamorphosis of a crisis

    This is well worth a look: An episode of the Dutch TV programme Backlight on the Aftermath Network, a group of intellectuals brought together by sociologist Manuel Castells to interpret the global crisis, and examine the possibilities it offers.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    Mamgmanimity Revisited

    Here's Dr. Jeff Klooger talking about his book Castoriadis: Psyche, Society, Autonomy, which I attempted to review here.

    Part One:

    Part Two: