Basic Badiou

I have read some Alain Badiou before, but his short book “Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil” seems to me to be a good basic introduction and I wanted to capture some basic notes on the key elements as I see them for future reference.

One caveat, I am no Badiou scholar, and my background in philosophy is ropey at best. So if a real philosophy student should stumble across this, please forgive my naivete.

A ‘situation‘ represents the world as it is now. This is the status quo – but also the ground on which radical change can take place. Within this world as it exists ‘knowledge‘ describes how we think that world works.

The ‘void‘ of a situation is the blind spot of the status quo. Something that exists as a gap or a hole that does not form part of existing knowledge. The world as it is does not see this void and cannot address it.

An ‘event‘ is the key break in a situation – in the current state of things – that opens the possibility of radical change. An ephemeral things which but one which has high impact, it

“brings to pass ‘something other’ than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the event is a hazardous, unpredictable supplement, which vanishes as soon as it appears;”

(Badiou 2012, p.67)

An event ‘forces‘ knowledge to change, causes both a rapid and a radical development of what we think we know about the way the world works.

The ‘subject‘ is then not an isolated individual or some kind of subject of history. Rather subjects are ordinary individuals who are faithful to an event and to the truth it brings into being. They then cease to be ‘mortal’ individuals and instead realise their potential to be ‘immortal’. Despite the slightly opaque language I read this as reflecting the impact of the radical break represented by an event, something that changes how people see the world and react to it. For example, after the Russian Revolution, for a long time the working class outside Russia saw their struggle within capitalism in a different light. This subject therefore does not exist before the event.

Fidelity‘ represents the ongoing and continuing break in the situation. Subjects who stay true to the event are faithful to it, and their fidelity is what drives the truth-process.

Truth‘ and a ‘truth-process‘ is then a description of the complete process. That is subjects acting in the situation but faithful to an event which drives radical change. Truth is used in the sense of ‘holding true’ to something.

There are four specific categories which Badiou sees as being subject to this procedure: politics, art, love, and science, and it is possible fairly easily to think of examples of ‘events’ and the influence that they hold over subsequent history – the revolutions of 1789 and 1917 being the most obvious in the political arena where you can see their influence echoing through subsequent history well beyond the actual historic events. The influence of both revolutions on subsequent radical struggle is clear to see.

I think this way of thinking provides a powerful way of describing progressive movements and how the driving forces behind radical change are created and perpetuated. Time to re-read Badiou’s “The Communist Hypothesis“.

Badiou, Alain Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso, London, 2012)

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Review: The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

A great short volume with all the standard Zizek style. In other words it is an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary with a vague underpinning theme. If you like Zizek then you’ll enjoy it, if you hate Zizek you’ll probably hate it.

His focus here is the various protest movements which erupted across the world in 2011, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. When I say ‘focus’ though bear in mind that this is Zizek, so what that means in practice is a vague theme that is used as the springboard for a slightly rambling text that takes in The Wire, West Side Story, G K Chesterton, and the social taboos against smoking.

But if you enjoy Zizek’s writing then that is part of the attraction. He begins by outlining the current state of things from a basically Marxist perspective, while acknowledging that ‘immaterial’ labour is currently ‘hegemonic’ in place of the highly organised industrial workforce of Marx’s time. He moves on to make the case for resistance and fundamental change. That the attempt to preserve the remnants of or return to the mid-twentieth century post war consensus is doomed to fail. That democracy can no longer contain or control modern capitalism.

Zizek reasserts the need for a revolutionary break rather than an incremental or democratic approach. This leads him to reviews of the protest movements of 2011 and in particular Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

On Occupy, Zizek makes the case for it’s importance as protest, as the recognition that things are broken and must change. He refutes the common criticism that the movement didn’t express concrete goals. This would be a failure, indicating acceptance of the need to operate within the rules of the status quo when what is needed is in fact a radical rupture.

On the Arab Spring Zizek addresses the desire for the west to see the various movements as an attempt to move to western liberal democracy and not acknowledge the actual desire for change. He attacks the subsequent rise of radical Islam as a failure to allow space for radical change that is not towards western (neo-)liberalism. “We do not need a dialogue between religions (or civilisations) we need solidarity between those who struggle for justice.”

He ends with thoughts on the state of the modern left, chiming strongly with my own view that the lack of an overarching analysis as a driving force is holding back practical action. “What is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist reply to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

As always with Zizek I suspect some will not enjoy this book. But for me it is both a challenging and thought-provoking read with much to say about the state we’re in and some pointers to where progressives should look to make future change happen.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)

Overdetermination

Overdetermination is a concept I recall being introduced to during my undergraduate course on Marxism as part of Louis Althusser‘s “structuralist” approach. It’s not something that I ever really felt I had a grip on. Althusser’s writing feels very much in the French philosophical tradition, and isn’t helped by being read in translation.

My university notes about overdetermination say that Althusser is making the point that there is no simple deterministic relationship between “base and superstructure“. The superstructure both determines and is determined by the economic base, each part shaping and being shaped by the whole. The autonomy of the superstructure is not absolute however, and the economic base is still determinant in the final analysis.

In his monumental work on Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski is dismissive of the concept:

“The upshot is simply that particular cultural phenomena are generally due to a variety of circumstances, including the history of the aspect of life they belong to and the present state of social relations. We are not told what is so ‘scientific’ about this obvious truth, why it is a revolutionary discovery of Marxism, or how it helps us to account for any particular fact, let along predict the future.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1176)

My reaction to Laclau & Mouffe’s analysis in “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy” is similar to Kolakowski’s damning verdict. They analyse overdetermination in the context of their construction of a theory of hegemony, building on the work of Gramsci as well as Althusser.

Laclau & Mouffe deny a determining role for the economy and therefore also class in the structure of society . Instead they theorize society as broken down into a wide range of different interests and actors not determined or even strongly influenced by any economic relationships. In this analysis more important than class is the complex intermeshing of ‘elements’ or ‘moments’ which are ‘articulated’ together each influencing and influenced the others. In other words these elements are ‘overdetermined’. In Laclau & Mouffe’s words there are

“a multiplicity of antagonisms whose effects, converging and overdetermined, are registered within the framework of what we have called the ‘democratic revolution’.”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.152)

This covers what might otherwise be considered various separate struggles operating almost in conflict with traditional working class campaigning such as feminism or anti-racism. Again in Laclau & Mouffe’s words:

“Once the conception of the working class as a ‘universal class’ is rejected, it becomes possible to recognise the plurality of the antagonisms which take place in the field of what is arbitrarily grouped under the label of ‘workers struggles'”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.151)

This “overdetermination of some entities by others, and the relegation of any form of paradigmatic fixity to the ultimate horizon of theory” (Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.91) means that while it is not possible to assume that the working class will on their own create a revolution, it is possible to stitch together progressive blocs as part of unified progressive struggle.

Wading through the complicated language, what I think this means in more practical terms is that society is complex and different groups within it interact in ways which are not solely dictated by economic relationships. Any effective progressive strategy must be aware of this, building alliances, and developing shared goals. It cannot simply wait for the tide of history to deliver a working class revolution. Laclau & Mouffe contrast this with the simplified view of orthodox Marxism.

To the extent though that Marx presented a simplified view of society as divided into just two classes, it is clear that this is an abstraction from a more complicated reality to allow him to develop his theory of the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. When he comes to apply this theory to the analysis of real situations (in for example “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” or “The Civil War in France”) his writing reflects the more complex world.

After reading Laclau & Mouffe I do now feel that I have a better grip on what the concept of ‘overdetermination’ might mean, however as Kolakowski suggested that concept doesn’t seem particularly useful. It appears to indicate what is an obvious truth, that society is complex, but in Laclau & Mouffe it is used to support the removal from left strategy of the struggle by economically exploited classes. It is then unclear what common ground should be used to underpin the hegemony which they believe holds together the coalitions that they suggest as the way forward for progressive politics.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (W W Norton & Company, London, 2008)

Review: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

The main challenge with this book is wading through the opaque philosophical style in which it is written. Laclau & Mouffe do however make some interesting points.

At it’s core the book seems to be a rejection of a mechanical and deterministic versions of Marxism. The emphasis is on the development of the concept of ‘hegemony’, and the first part of the book traces its use through thinkers from Luxemburg to Lenin to Gramsci. Laclau and Mouffe seek to develop the concept further into something which can be used to underpin a modern approach to politics.

The key point is that society is not structured in monolithic economic classes whose existence determines how ‘superstructural’ elements are constructed. On one level this seems sensible. It is common sense that political action is built on coalitions, and that any successful revolution will be the same.

That an economic ‘base’ does not mechanically determine a social ‘superstructure’ is surely obvious and I think Laclau and Mouffe are wrong however not to see this already in Marx. There is a divide between his theoretical work, in which her operates at a high level of abstraction to make the underlying ‘laws of motion’ clear. Conversely in his political work such as “The Civil War in France” and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx uses his theory for more practical analysis. In theory, Marx presents society as containing just two classes to simplify the analysis. In practice he understands that it is more complicated than that.

In fact, developing this theory of hegemony leads the authors to remove the class based element from their analysis almost completely. And that doesn’t seem correct either. They make what seems to me to be a theoretical justification for the ‘third way’ approach and identity politics. What they propose is that people fit into society through a range of different and often conflicting identities which are not determined by economic class, and that this complexity is growing in modern capitalism. The role then of progressive politics – in the absence of an apriori class conflict which has been removed from the analysis – is to stitch together “coalitions of the willing”. In pursuit of what goal, if the liberation of the oppressed class cannot be the goal, it is not clear.

I say ‘seems to’ though because the mode or expression is very challenging indeed. I’m sure this seems reasonable to the authors but it does not help with deciphering what it is the they are trying to say.

In short, this is a book with a lot of value in thinking about what sort of progressive alliances are likely to be necessary if the left is to be successful under modern capitalist conditions. But hamstrung by removing the theoretical underpinning provided by Marx and the analysis of how the ‘laws of motion’ of the economy interact with society to constrain what it is possible to achieve. In the absence of this underpinning it becomes unclear what the goal of progressive politics is, and ends up being a justification for the ‘third way’ approach of Clinton and Blair.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Financialisation and Modern Capitalism

“Financialisation” is an insightful concept when thinking about the modern economy, and how it has changed over the course of the last fifty years. It is something discussed in particular in Greta Krippner’s book “Capitalizing on Crisis” (Krippner 2011).

According to Krippner “financialisation” is associated with a post-industrial economy, and means:

“a broad based transformation in which financial activities… have become increasingly dominant… over the last several decades.”

(Krippner 2011, p.2)

Krippner outlines an example of this process in practice analysing changes in the US economy from the 1960s to the 2000s. Successive policy changes in response to developments in the real economy led to the highly developed financial economy of the 2000s.

In practice this means the corporations come to rely on increasingly on the income from financial investments for their profits, and less on the return on investment in productive industry. Krippner quotes a 2006 study of the Ford Motor Company generating profit primarily by selling loans to purchase cars rather than from the sales of the cars themselves (Krippner 2011, p.3).

This is a fundamental change in how the economy functions, reducing investment in production as companies instead chase profitable financial investments. The system becomes increasingly disconnected from the ‘real’ economy and prone to oscillation and crisis. It’s a process that Marx touches on in Volume 3 of Capital when he describes ‘fictitious capital’, speculation, and the credit system. As more money is invested, the banks use it to create more ‘fictitious’ capital to create more investments and so as the system begins to spiral out of control. It was a process like this which drove asset prices for ‘subprime’ US real estate to unsustainable levels leading to the global financial crisis of 2007-9.

Michael Roberts takes up a similar theme in his analysis of the economy since 2007. His focus is on how companies need to search for different sources of profit as they try to survive a declining rate of profit overall, something which is a standard part of Marx’s analysis of a capitalist economy.

“After 2000, the rate of profit based on net worth remained under the rate against tangible assets for the first time on record, suggesting that the “financial” part of the assets of the capitalist sector became a significant obstacle to the recovery in capital accumulation.”

(Roberts 2016, p.122)

“Profit margins for the large companies are near all-time highs and cash reserves have accumulated, but there is little corresponding investment in the real economy; instead, it is in dividends, stock buybacks, and speculation in financial assets—and, of course, a revival of the property markets.”

(Roberts 2016, p.144)

There is little doubt that weak productive investment is driving poor ‘real world’ economic performance. Analysis by the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purposes suggests that “at the root of the UK’s weak economic performance is a low rate of investment“.

“The UK banking sector has largely retreated from funding productive activity in the real economy, and is instead focused on financing and trading existing assets.”

(MacFarlane 2018)

Krippner’s view that individual policy decisions designed to tackle an isolated problem have resulted in long term and fundamental changes to the functioning of the economy  also complements David Harvey’s view on how capitalism handles crises.  For Harvey, building on Marx, capitalism is an inherently unstable system with a number of points where crises can form for different underlying reasons. When a crisis occurs, the response tends to address the immediate short term problem by moving the point of tension elsewhere in the system to re-emerge later.

This is exactly the process that Krippner describes in the US. Policy responses developed in reaction to a present crisis put the economy on the path to the next pinch point and the next crisis, each widening and deepening the influence of finance on the economy as a whole.

“Financialisation” then is a concept that helps the analysis of the modern debt-laden economy both as a response to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (Roberts) and as a means to avoid an incipient crisis while unintentionally preparing the ground for the next (Harvey).

 

Krippner, Greta Capitalizing on Crisis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2011)

Roberts, Michael The Long Depression (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2016)

Harvey, David Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books, London, 2017)

Macfarlane, L State investment banks as a source of patient strategic finance in the UK (online) (UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/public-purpose/state-investment-banks-source-patient-strategic-finance-uk, accessed 19 January 2018)

Marx, Karl Capital Volume 3 (Penguin, London, 1981)

Review: Capitalizing on Crisis

This is a technically complex work of sociology unpicking and analysing trends in US society, economy, and politics over the course of forty years from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Krippner’s basic thesis is that successive policy decisions over the course of this period, each in response to immediate challenges, have ‘financialised’ the US economy. In other words, have shifted the focus of profit making from investment in productive activity to the ownership and exchange of financial instruments. Even major industrial companies come to make significant portions of their profit from activity in the financial market. This shift has significant implications for how the economy is managed, and the location of future crises.

Krippner demonstrates this through a detailed analysis of economic data and a systematic review of policy shifts during this period. Although this is somewhat dry in places the case is convincing. She defines three separate phases. First the deregulation of the domestic financial market as an attempt to get to grips with the social crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, offering policymakers a ‘reprieve from difficult political choices’. Second the response to the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s with growing government deficits which altered the relationship between the domestic and global markets driving a ‘dramatic expansion of credit in the US economy’. Finally on the realisation relying on market mechanisms offered in fact very little restraint on consumers, corporations, or governments how approaches to monetary policy developed incrementally in the period up to 2001 to control the demand for credit through interest rates (as opposed to regulation of the supply).

Although the book was first published in 2011, Krippner stops short of the 2007-9 financial crisis, indicating in the introduction that she considers this to represent a separate stage of development that requires a separated analysis. That said it is clear that the ‘depoliticisation’ of economic decision making that Krippner outlines is a significant factor underpinning the later crisis. As Krippner explains, in making this change the expectation had been that the market would impose a discipline on economic behaviour that political actors were unwilling to do. In fact this has turned out not to be the case at all. The market has promoted and validated a lack of restraint particularly in relation to credit which has left us more exposed than ever to the risk of financial crisis.

Although this is not Krippner’s intention, her analysis is a neat fit for the Marxist view of the long term tendency of the rate of profit to decline (see writers such as Robert Brenner and Michael Roberts). The declining profit possible in productive industry leads to speculation in what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’. This growing financialisation becoming increasing unstable and leading inexorably to crisis. The picture here is one that provides a deep-seated explanation for the financial crisis of 2007-9.

So this is a fascinating book with many implications for further analysis. If a touch dry in places, it is detailed, well researched, and a thought provoking discussion of what underpins the modern economy.

Krippner, Greta Capitalizing on Crisis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2012)

Review: How Will Capitalism End?

Wolfgang Streeck may not in fact answer the question that he poses in the title of this book, but it is still a superb read.

How Will Capitalism End” consists of a set of essays and speeches from the German sociologist published previously in New Left Review (and elsewhere) and organised around the theme of the challenges to capitalism. Each is a thoughtful and valuable contribution to the analysis of modern capitalist, it’s impact on society, politics, and environment, and what our options for the future might be.

The opening essay sets the tone. It poses the suggestion that capitalism has so successfully eliminated all opposition to it’s conquest of politics and society that it’s destructive nature now has free rein without constraint from organised labour or political control. The end result will be the long slow death of capitalism’s ability to deliver for the majority of its inhabitants, without the prospect of its replacement by a different system which can pick up the baton as Marx originally envisaged.

The remaining essays work around similar themes. The emphasis is on the impact of the neoliberal project to disconnect the management of the economy from political and social control. This can be seen in Streeck’s characterisation of the changing nature of the state leading towards the current “consolidation” state where having passed successively through private debt then public debt stages now exists to ensure that we reliably meet our obligations to asset holders.

Another theme of Streeck is the divide between social rights and free markets. Where the democratic state prioritises providing public services for its citizens identified through elections. By contrast the “consolidation” state prioritises the contractual claims of creditors and the servicing of debt. The tension between these two has been a major driver for social and political change since the second world war.

This is a thought provoking and very readable set of essays which should be of interest to anyone who doesn’t accept the orthodox economist world view.

Streeck, Wolfgang How Will Capitalism End? (Verso, London, 2016)