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Individualism and the left

“Aggregation… is decentralisation’s paradoxical partner.”

The quote comes from page 11 of Jodi Dean‘s “Crowds and Party” (Dean 2016) paraphrasing the writer James Surowiecki, as part of a discussion of the nature of individualism under modern capitalism.

What Dean  demonstrates is that modern consumer capitalism has a dialectical relationship with ‘the people’ . On the one hand Dean’s analysis makes clear that neoliberalism has done everything it can to separate us from each other, to ensure we remain individuals. Some of this effort is well known such as the assault on unionisation that has taken place since the 1970s, epitomised by the miner’s strike in the mid-80s and leading to a long term decline in unionisation. Just as important though is the progressive ‘individualisation’ of culture and society which has colonised the space vacated by these broken collective structures. We need to be kept separated to ensure the security of the system from collective action.

Capitalism relies on our separation from one another so it does its best to separate and individuate us at every turn.

(Dean 2016, p. 188)

And yet aggregated data collected from large numbers of people is increasingly important to the efficient working of the consumer economy. From Tesco to Amazon understanding how people act in mass is the key to how business operates. The drive to individualise also forms an important component of demand.

Individuality is communicative capitalism’s primary value. We are told that each of us is unique, and enjoined to amplify, advertise, and accelerate this uniqueness. Our media is personalized, and we are encouraged to personalize it even more, for example, with apps and mobile phone cases that meet our singular needs and express our singular brands. Those looking for work are advised to make themselves stand out from the crowd, to distinguish themselves from others by offering that special something that will catch an employer’s eye. Capital accumulation depends on cultivating and monetizing the new and different.

(Dean 2016, p. 140)

The modern world requires us to be both entirely separated individuals acting wholly alone, but also needs to understand how we act together to ensure that the market can operate efficiently. The logical conclusion is that the modern left needs to regain the ability to pursue collective action, to challenge the neoliberal disaggregation of us all into merely an assembly of individuals. To become what Dean calls – in a presumably conscious echo of Zizek’s Less Than Nothing – “more than many” (Dean 2016 p. 166).

What is striking about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 general election campaign is that he seems able to do almost exactly that. To make us feel like a crowd again, rather than merely a collection of individuals.

Dean, Jodi Crowds and Party (Verso, London 2016).

A short note on Marx as a scientist

Marx’s claim that his work amounted to scientific theory are the one aspect of his thought that has been comprehensively debunked in the time since he wrote. There is no doubt that the idea that Marx uncovered “iron laws” of history akin to the law of gravity is utterly implausible.

And yet.

I’ve been reading “Linked” by Albert-Lazlo Barabasi and reflecting on my reading of “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman about Marx’s method. I can’t help but think that there are similarities between the thought process used by Barabasi in his exploration of networks and the processes used by Marx.

Take for example these excerpts from Barabasi’s book on the science of networks:

By distancing ourselves from the particulars, we glimpsed the universal organising principles behind these complex systems.

(Barabasi 2014, p. 89)

it was clear from the beginning that the topology of real networks was shaped by many effects that we had ignored for the purpose of simplicity and transparency.

(Barabasi 2014, p. 225)

These are very similar to Marx’s method of using abstraction as described by Ollman. Specifically in the first quote Barabasi is describing his use of a ‘level of generality’ type abstraction that enabled him to see the outlines of the overall system that colours the individual parts.

In the second quote Barabasi is describing how using an ‘abstraction of extension’ allowed him to exclude factors which were not directly required in the analysis in question, and therefore see more clearly.

Both these approaches can be seen at work in Marx, most obviously at the beginning of Capital Volume 1 in the chapters on the commodity and money.

I’m also reminded of Thomas S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which expresses many of the mechanisms of contradiction and the links between quantity and quality in the process of change which Marx uses in his work on both history and political economy, as well as the impact of vantage point on the development of scientific theory.

Is Marxism a science in the Newtonian sense of a set of laws which rigidly determine outcomes? Definitely not. But perhaps it might be said that Marx is approaching political economy in a scientific way, or at least in a way that has similarities to modern scientific method. And that’s an interesting thought.

Linked, Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, Basic Books New York, 2014.

Dance of the Dialectic, Bertell Ollman, University of Illinois Press Urbana, 2003.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn, University of Chicago Press London, 2012.

Review: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Žižek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book gets it’s title from the famous comment by Marx in his “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Written in 2009, in other words just after the financial crash, it is typically Zizek in style. A discursive ramble around the subject pulling in politics, philosophy, Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis, popular films and cultural studies.

The first part offers “a diagnosis of our predicament”, a wonderful dissection of the current state of capitalism and how the liberal left either actively delivered it or allowed it to happen. Written 8 years ago and long before the possibility of a Trump presidency was anything more than a fantasy ‘Simpsons’ episode, Zizek can see the direction of travel so:

“The primary immediate effect of the crisis will not be the rise of a radical emancipatory politics, but rather the rise of racist populism, further wars, increased poverty in the poorest Third World countries, and greater divisions between the rich and the poor within all societies.”


“Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!””

Zizek’s thesis is essentially that the liberal left abandoned the pursuit of a truly progressive agenda, abandoned the emancipatory politics of ordinary people, and therefore opened the way for the the populist radical right to capture this discontent. To me that seems like a perfectly plausible explanation for the phenomena of Trump and UKIP.

The second section looks to the challenges for a modern progressive left and is probably less successful. Read in tandem with books like “Inventing the Future” by Srnicek & Williams and “Four Futures” by Peter Frase though it still contains insights. For example:

“The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms which are sufficiently strong to prevent its indefinite reproduction? There are four such antagonisms: the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, thereation of new forms of apartheid , new Walls and slums.”

Assuming you are prepared to accept Zizek’s idiosyncratic style, this is a superb, prophetic book. A valuable read for anyone on the progressive left looking for a philosophical underpinning for their conviction. It’s unlikely to persuade anyone not already convinced, but then that’s not the point.

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Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is a short story by Herman Melville (author of “Moby Dick”) published in 1853.shirtmockup-450x450

The story is told by a narrator who is a lawyer and employs Bartleby as a copyist. As time goes by, Bartleby begins responding to requests with the phrase “I would prefer not to”. Eventually he withdraws completely from any work, remaining a strange silent presence in the office. He seemingly survives without work or money or a home. The narrator tolerates him for a while but eventually after failing to persuade Bartleby to leave (“I would prefer not to”) moves offices to escape him – only to find later that Bartleby has died in prison after refusing to eat.

Most recently the story of Bartleby came to prominence during the Occupy Wall Street movement for Bartleby’s use of passive resistance, an obvious parallel to the tactics used by the occupiers. Bartleby ‘occupies’ the narrator’s offices on Wall Street calmly but firmly refusing all requests that he work and confounding all the narrator’s requests to either work or leave. Bartleby’s actions have been seen as an exemplar for political action, challenging those in authority over him without expressing any concrete demands, seemingly exactly the pattern followed by Occupy.

Is this passive approach effective? In the story, the narrator relocates his business to escape Bartleby, and as far as we can tell continues to run a successful law practice. Bartleby’s resistance leads however to his imprisonment and eventual death. Whatever his grievance, it doesn’t seem to have been addressed. Similarly Occupy Wall Street was eventually evicted without seemingly having achieved much that’s tangible. Perhaps the moral we should be drawing here is about the limits of passive resistance. Both Bartleby and Occupy create disruption that is initially difficult for the authorities to know how to deal with. But eventually the system adapts and neutralises the threat.

I’m not convinced by this explanation however. If this is supposed to be about politics, then it is almost entirely absent from Melville’s story. Indeed the narrator passes a demonstration for the mayoral election on the street but ignores it, rushing on to his next meeting. It is difficult to believe that Bartleby is making a principled stand against, well, anything really. He simply prefers not to. His refusal is rather a failure to undertake the work required by his employer. This is however a more radical position. Bartleby is challenging the fundamental relationship of capitalist society, that of waged labour. He withdraws dramatically from the market economy – but still seemingly works on his own terms. He continues to copy, but refuses requests to take on other tasks. It is not the occupation of neutral space that is significant (as it was for Occupy) but the radical withdrawal from his employer’s authority. The lesson to be learned is a far more active and aggressive one than that of passive resistance taken by Occupy.

In other words, there really is no substitute for effective action which targets the core economic structures of society. Now that’s something for the modern left to reflect on.

Marx and Nationalism

Marx’s writings from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the time of the 1848 revolutions contain some controversial comments on nationality, and especially the Slav countries which at the time formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire including modern Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. A number of these articles are published in translation by Verso in the first volume of their collections of Marx’s political writings.

Lifting just a few quotes out of the articles on the “Magyar Struggle” or on ” Democratic Pan-Slavism” it is hard not to see an outrageous German chauvinism in these writings.

“The historical role of the South Slavs had thus come to an end for all time.” (Marx 2010, 218)

“Does a single one of these peoples… possess a national historical tradition…?” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… this national refuse is always the fanatical representative of the counter-revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or de-nationalised” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… the Austrian Germans… will gain their freedom and take a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians.” (Marx 2010, 225)

“… the general war that will then break out will… annihilate all these small pigheaded nations even to their very names.” (Marx 2010, 225)

These articles are part of a series in which Marx is analysing the failures of 1848, and the forces mobilised by the Austrian and Prussian regimes to overcome the nascent revolution, and this context is significant. To put this in the context of the analysis of Marx’s mode of thinking outlined by Bertell Ollman, Marx is operating at a lower (and very particular) level of abstraction. In other words, Marx is not making a general point, but criticising the specific current conjuncture.

In fact what I think Marx is trying to do here is to criticise the shift towards pan-Slavism among the potentially revolutionary classes in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, and how this led political leaders who prioritised nationality to look to Russia for support and turn away from revolution. As the leader of the Holy Alliance Russia represented a primary threat to any hopes of revolution across Europe, a prop to the existing absolutist regimes. He is criticising nationalism as it is used to deflect from support for the revolution. As he states later on:

“Let us in any case have no illusions about this. With all pan-Slavists, nationality, ie. imaginary, general Slav nationality, comes before the revolution [Marx’s italics].” (Marx 2010, 244)

In other words this is Marx tackling one of the pitfalls facing the modern left. In the UK the UK Independence Party, in the US Donald Trump, and in France Marine Le Pen have all used appeals to nationalism with some success to pursue the support of the working class. In these articles Marx doesn’t find a strategy to tackle this beyond shrill denunciation. The modern left is similarly struggling to find an answer to the modern version of the same problem.

The articles in question are included in The Revolutions of 1848, Karl Marx, Verso London 2010.

Review: The Revolutions of 1848

The Revolutions of 1848
The Revolutions of 1848 by Karl Marx
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most well known piece of Marx’s earlier political writings and journalism included in this selection is the Communist Manifesto, which is as resonant as ever. The remainder primarily consists of a selection of articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the newspaper Marx edited in Germany during the 1848 revolution before being tried, acquitted, and going into exile. With a basic yet insightful introduction from the translator David Fernbach to set the context, these articles chart the revolution and Marx’s changing interpretation of what was going on. There are still some significant insights here on the tactics of the left towards the middle class parties, nationalism, and a surprising amount on what a working class seizure of power might look like.

Just occasionally the writing feels a little too wrapped up in the moment to have wider relevance, and therefore only of historical interest – not surprising as they were written in the heat of a specific political moment. They are nonetheless very readable for all that, and with insight into Marx’s developing thinking.

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Review: Living in the End Times

Living in the End Times
Living in the End Times by Slavoj Žižek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another fascinating ramble by Slavoj Zizek. This one, written in 2010 taking on the current political, economic, and cultural state following the failure of the twentieth century communist states and the triumph of twenty first century neo-liberalism.

The book is based around the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Anger, and Acceptance. It is the first section which contains the most insight into the modern world, dissecting how modern liberal tolerance delivers intolerance. The neoliberal revolution has driven us to a “post-politics” world where the only choice on offer is the neoliberalism itself. This system has successfully destroyed all opponents, but is incapable of surviving without opposition to temper it’s self destructive tendencies. The result is a system bent on it’s own destruction. This thesis is wholly compatible with work by the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck among others and five years on and after everything that’s happened in between is wholly persuasive.

The rest of the book is less immediately insightful, but remains interesting for all that. It’s a typically discursive ramble around philosophy, politics, culture, and psychoanalysis. It rarely seems to reach a conclusion but Zizek always makes for interesting reading. Sometimes offensive, sometimes opaque, always challenging and good at making you really think, properly.

In the afterword, Zizek finishes by making the modern case for communism using Lenin’s analogy (when talking about NEP) of a climber returning to the start so that they can try the ascent again using a different path, acknowledging that twentieth century communism failed, but that modern capitalism is leading us to catastrophe.

“Communism is today not the name of a solution but the name of a problem: the problem of the commons in all its dimensions… that universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution might be, it will have to solve this problem.”

In some ways it is the most inspiring or affirming book by Zizek I have read, and well in tune with the times of Brexit, Trump, and economic and climate crises.

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