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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Review: Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism

Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism
Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Wolfgang Streeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although written four years before Britain voted for Brexit and Donald Trump was elected President of the US, this book is a superb analysis of the political and economic situation that led us to the place we now find ourselves.

In the first section, Streeck suggests that over the last 40 years capitalism has been in the process of unpeeling the post war compromise. This compromise bought social peace at the price of sharing profits more equitably with labour. In conditions of consistent growth, this was a sustainable approach for capital. As a number of shocks threatened the ability of the economy to continue growing this was no longer a tenable position. The neo-liberal revolution is the story of successive attempts to return capitalism to an ‘acceptable’ level of return.

As the owners of capital withdraw their support for the tax and spend, attempts to maintain the post war policies sustaining social peace draw the state into increasing indebtedness. State debt accelerates rapidly which in itself becomes a problem leading to the financial crisis of 2008. Neo-liberalism then turns to austerity and the ‘consolidation’ state. None of these has proved to be a permanent solution. Each has bought perhaps 10 years of survival before problems reappear in a different guise.

This analysis is consistent with Robert Brenner’s in “The Economics of Global Turbulence” suggesting the long term decline of the profitability of capitalism, consistent with a fairly orthodox Marxist view.

Streeck then moves on to assess the political consequences of these changes, which might be summarised as the end of democracy. Neoliberalism’s belief in the freedom of the market means that states are required to prioritise the demands of the “marktvolk” ahead of the society at large. No government is allowed to survive that does not respect the requirements of the market. “All that capitalism still wants from people is that they give back to the market”. The goal is to free the market from political intervention. As Streeck says, to most people in society politics then becomes a form of “middle class entertainment” from which they can expect nothing. Four years on, it is all too easy to see how given the opportunity to seize this status quo and shake it by supporting a Brexit referendum campaign or a rogue Trump candidacy voters not benefiting from the neoliberal turn have been tempted to grasp the opportunity with both hands.

Streeck finishes by showing how the European Union has been a vehicle for driving the neoliberal revolution into the heart of Europe. It is a pessimistic view where the only solution which can be conceived (let alone implemented) in the minds of the current political class is “more of the same” with no prospect that it will create a turn for the better. Streeck encourages us to think of how we might challenge this dead consensus and deliver politics and economy for the people and not just the owners of capital. Four years on, its an analysis that seems more relevant than when it was written and a direct challenge to the modern left.

View all my reviews

Review: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a curious mixture. As noted by David McLellan in his “Karl Marx – Selected Writings” the bulk of the text itself is essentially repeated in reworked form as the first chapters of volume 1 of Capital. It is an interesting but dense read covering commodities and money.

The real interest lies in the very well known Preface (found in it’s entirety in McLellan’s Selected Writings) and the unpublished Introduction which was found in Marx’s papers and published after his death. Both are included in the 1971 Lawrence & Wishart edition.

The Preface is often regarded as the standard statement of historical materialism, and includes what McLellan describes as a short “intellectual biography”. It is a short but interesting read.

The Introduction is more detailed and covers Marx’s approach to method. It makes a good follow up read to Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method. Reading the Introduction you can trace the key elements brought out by Ollman such as how Marx uses abstractions, vantage point and a theory of internal relations to develop his analysis. In short it is a practical description by Marx of his basic analytical approach.

In summary I agree with McLellan’s view that the book itself is of less value as it is generally repeated in more depth in Capital itself. The Preface and Introduction are more valuable, in particular the less well known Introduction as a description by Marx himself of his analytical method.

View all my reviews

Dance of the Dialectic notes #4

A fourth and final set of rough notes taken while reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following the first, second, and third chunks.

Step 5

Critical Realism in Light of Marx’s Process of Abstraction

Broadly a restatement of earlier parts of Ollman’s book, particularly the use of abstraction and a philosophy of internal relations, as it might be used to alter and enhance the work of “Critical Realism”, primarily the work of Roy Bhaskar.

Marx’s Dialectical Method is More Than a Mode of Exposition

This section takes issue with an analysis which considers dialectics to be solely Marx’s means of exposition, of expressing his analysis. Rather that dialectics used by Marx in a complex intellectual process – first using the process to analyse and gain insight, then  reconstruct that analysis in his own thought. Only then can Marx uses what is in fact a carefully calibrated subset to attempt to explain his analysis to others.

In fact, Marx’s internal analysis is more complex and nuanced than shown in his published works which were carefully written for a more general audience. Therefore the key works to understand what he “really thought” are the Paris Manuscripts and Grundisse.

Why Does the Emperor Need the Yakuza?

In the final chapter, Ollman uses some of this mechanism of analysis to assess the Japanese state as a practical demonstration.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #3

A third batch of rough notes while reading Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” following on from the first and second installments.

Step 4

Studying History Backwards

For Marx, the best approach to studying how the past developed into the present is to work backwards from effect to cause – instead of more usual assessments of the influence of the “economic factor” in tracing causality forwards. This is rooted again the philosophy of internal relations. His approach is therefore rather “precondition and result”, the two things viewed dynamically. Investigating how something comes into being is done from results backwards through the necessary preconditions – ie. from the vantage point of what things turned into.

Ollman emphasises that this is not teleological – nothing is inevitable. Rather it is a question of what had to happen to make just this present possible. This is not to deny human agency – people could have chosen differently. Vantage point is the key. The alternative in writing history is to make choices about what to focus on based on criteria outside the historical process itself.

Marx’s interest in eg. feudalism is therefore not in explaining feudalism but looking for the things which were important in the rise of capitalism.

The section on the future is far less convincing. Marx projects current trends into the future to identify what communism might look like using the same tools, but this short segment is weak.

Dialectic as Inquiry and Exposition

As inquiry, the methods outlined (internal relations, abstraction, and the various dialectical tools) provide the means by which Marx investigates his subject. “The dialectic as inquiry is the search for internal relations within and between abstracted units”.

As exposition, the dialectic “is Marx’s means of expounding these relations to his readers”. The difficulty of making language explain the analysis explains why Marx continually reworked Capital for example. Main features include dealing with each subject from many vantage points, along with following each subject through the particular forms it assumes at different times and in different contexts.

Marx assumes or masks the larger part of what he identifies in a Relation in order to be able to express and explain the point he is trying to bring out. In other words we only see part of the meaning he sees or is trying to convey. He uses many different phrases to signal this, including ‘reflection’, ‘manifestation’, ‘in one of its aspects’.

The ‘identity’ of things which are seemingly different (“division of labour and private property are identical expressions”) causes confusion among critics. Critics also tend to look for causal relationships “setting apart horse and cart where Marx meant each conception to convey both”.

Marxism and Political Science

Marxism has not to date formed a significant part in political science. But he does have a theory of the state, albeit not one that is written clearly in a single place. Underneath these theories is Marx’s concern to locate relations within a system and depicting the effects of that system on the relational parts.

Ollman then restates Marx’s method, stating that it exists on 5 levels:

  1. Ontology: study of ‘being’. Marx asserts that reality exists outside us, but as a totality of internally related parts.
  2. Epistemology: how what is known is arranged in thought.
  3. Inquiry: what Marx is looking for and how he understands what he finds.
  4. Intellectual reconstruction.
  5. Exposition: how to explain capitalism as a system of structural interdependence relationally contained in each of it’s parts.

Ontology: the conception of ‘totality’ is the structured independence of its parts – interacting events, processes, and conditions – as viewed from any major part. This is contrasted to a structuralist conception which asserts the predominance of the parts over the whole.

Epistemology: four interlocking processes – perception; abstraction (how Marx separates what is perceived into distinct units); conceptualisation (the translation of what is abstracted into concepts with which to think and communicate); orientation (the effects abstractions have on his beliefs, judgements, and action). This last point is important. What any group believes and does is inextricably linked to the ways in which it grasps and defends both.

Inquiry: tracing out relations between units, frequently changing vantage point to see it from all angles.

Intellectual reconstruction: Marx’s ontology is the world as an internally related whole; he breaks this down into relational units with structured independence which through inquiry he traces the links between. Ollman suggests that Marx’s personal understanding is not the same as the analysis in his published work. The key difference in his work is not between the young or old Marx, but between the published and unpublished. The key texts to trace his personal understanding are the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundisse.

His reconstruction is a success because a) having connected the main parts he is able to catch a glimpse of the overall system at work in each of them; b) the reconstruction is both ‘superstructure’ and ‘base’, the key contradiction being between social production and private appropriation.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

Exposition: comprehension and explanation are distinct functions and involve different techniques. Marx attempts to explain capitalism from the perspective of each major social Relation. It seems that he was broadly dissatisfied though as he continually revised Capital for each new edition. As a book it is best approached as offering “successive approximations” looking at various different angles in turn.

“force the frozen circumstances to dance by singing to them their own melody.”

Why Dialectics, Why Now?

A recapitulation of the analysis that history should be studied “backwards”, using abstraction to bring out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur, and study in a way which never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part.

Four stages to this study:

  1. Look for relations between the main capitalist features of society;
  2. Find the necessary preconditions of just those relations;
  3. Project these into the future;
  4. Look backwards from the projected future to identify what in the present would form the preconditions for that future state.

We can differentiate between near and far futures, marking the need for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.


The End of Liberalism

Slavoj Zizek has not had a good 2016 US election, arguing that Trump is just another centrist liberal and that given a vote he would vote for Trump.

There have been a number of explanations given in the regular media for Trump’s unexpected victory, but common among them is that racism is at the core of his success. Should we ascribe Trump’s win to intolerance? And what are the implications if we do? Is it the “whitelash” identified by some commentators?

Then I came across this passage in “Living in the End Times” from 2010, in which Zizek gives a typically eclectic take on “the coming apocalypse”, and I thought about the light it throws on the liberal media reaction:

“of course I am not against tolerance per se; what I oppose is the (contemporary and automatic) perception of racism as a problem of intolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, or even armed struggle? The source of this culturalisation is defeat, the failure of directly political solutions such as the social-democratic welfare state or various social projects…”

There can be no doubt that Trump ran an openly racist election campaign. It is also clear that race is an important influencing factor in US politics and society. Exit poll data suggests that 58% of white voters voted for Trump which at face value seems to suggest that Trump’s outward racism had a significant impact, that intolerance was at the heart of his success. But 57% of white voters chose Romney in 2012 so perhaps race isn’t the unique factor behind Trump’s success.

Similarly, 53% of voters with an income below $30,000 voted for Clinton which would seem to support the standard narrative. Poorer voters supported the Democratic candidate and therefore Trump’s victory was driven by angry white people, and economics had nothing to do with it.

And yet.

That 53% of voters in the under $30,000 income bracket voting for Clinton was 16 points down on Obama’s performance against Romney. 90% of voters who thought the country “generally on the right” track voted Hillary, but just 25% of those who thought it seriously off track. 63% of those who expected their children to have a worse life than today voted for Trump. Hillary was the continuity candidate, maintaining the existing economic settlement. The 53% from the lowest income bracket voting for Hillary masks the catastrophic shift to Trump. The economics is important.

In other words analysing Trump’s victory in terms of race (or gender, or sexuality) is an example of the left’s subordination to “identity politics”. By seeing politics through the lens of individual identities the left has lost sight of the economic system which colours voters’ willingness to support a continuation of the current state of affairs.

Although inflected by race and misogyny Trump’s pitch was aimed fundamentally at “the system”, a system which isn’t working for a large chunk of the population. His overt racism is part of the narrative he adopted to attracted voters disaffected voters.

The challenge for the left is therefore not to demand tolerance from a Trump administration but to lead social and economic change in a progressive direction. To change the system.

This leads to a final quote from Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic“.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

The left in both the US and Western Europe has approached social and economic change as separated things which can be tackled individually. In the face of Trump we need to avoid both condemnation and despair and instead craft a genuinely progressive movement for change.