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.