Tag Archives: Review

Review: Society of the Spectacle

Despite being written in the 1960’s this book feels very current. It’s depiction of a world where even time is commodified and where we are all in thrall to alienated images built to bind us into the class relations that underpin the modern world, fits well with our world of ‘reality’ television and celebrity. A world in which the abundance delivered by capitalism remains under the control of existing property relations, and as a result the majority of us remain dominated by the ‘machinery of modern consumption’. Things have only accelerated since this book was written.

In some ways this book is part of the “rediscovery” of Hegelian Marxism. Certainly it emphasises dialectical analysis and the ‘humanist’ side of Marx, the need for us to take control of our own future and create a world where we are connected to, rather than separated from, reality. It also emphasises the importance of the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. We can only understand how to theorise about how the world should change by actively seeking to change it.

It shows an open antipathy to Stalinism specifically and to ‘standard’ soviet communism in general, and there is an interesting critique of the communism of bolshevism and the second international. While this probably felt radical in the 1960’s when the book was written, 27 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union it feels more routine. We have moved beyond the opposition to capitalism consisting only of a single monolithic alternative state, and in that sense this book feels ahead of it’s time.

Despite it’s association with the situationist movement in art, it is in fact the sections on art which feel least successful, the most over-intellectualised. While it makes good points about the commodification of art from across history, it is unclear what a more ‘real’ art, one less in thrall to the status quo, might be composed of or how it will come about.

That said this is a fascinating reflection on the impact of modern consumer capitalism on contemporary culture, and no less relevant to today for being 50 years old.

Debord, Guy Society of the Spectacle (Rebel Press, London, 1983)

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Review: The Politics of Friendship

I know I’m supposed to find Derrida interesting and challenging and stimulating… etc.. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to follow his line of argument, certainly my background is not in philosophy. There is surely however an unnecessary level of obfuscation in the language Derrida uses in this book. Phrases such as:

“possibilisation of the impossible possible”

and

“the long time of a time that does not belong to time”

defy any meaning that I can uncover. This is not the language of someone trying to get complex philosophical points across to the reader, it is the language of someone showing off.

Buried underneath all this are some interesting points. The analysis of the need for an enemy in political discourse chimes well with the experience of the west since the fall of Communism. The interaction between this need for an enemy and the nature of modern warfare, and its impact on democratic politics is insightful. There are interesting points about the nature of friendship built on three separate bases: virtue, utility, and pleasure.

It’s just a shame that it is so hard to get to these points you have to wade through such a cascade of meaningless literary contortions.

While there is mention of how friendship and ‘fraternity’ influences the democratic polity this is essentially a bourgeois vision. The focus is on how the connections between individuals are created and maintained, with some discussion of what might be thought of as ‘identity’ – race, gender, etc.. What is entirely missing is any sense of solidarity, of a group finding common cause, of class.

There is no doubt that this is complex work of philosophy with insights to offer. I just can’t help thinking that the same points could have been made much easier to understand and in about half the space.¬†And it doesn’t have an index either, which seems odd for a non-fiction book looking to be taken seriously.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

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)

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)

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)

Review: The Meaning of Marxism

This is not a terrible book. But it is a limited one. As a basic introduction to a lot of the basic concepts in Marxism it has some merit. D’Amato sweeps across the range of Marxism from the economy to exploitation to the state to the revolutionary party, covering each at a basic introductory level. What then is the problem?

Partly it is that D’Amato’s treatment is quite dogmatic. He discusses Marxism as a fairly monolithic source of truth without acknowledging debate or variation other than to condemn Stalin and Mao as dictatorial and not true Marxists. But Marxism is not a monolithic entity, certainly not anymore. It’s use in the modern world must surely be as an analytical toolkit to prompt debate and the exploration of alternatives to the neoliberal capitalism. This requires the sort of argument that doesn’t form any part of this book. On top of this, D’Amato’s own (undeclared) viewpoint is sectarian Trotskyist, a fairly specific clique within modern socialism.

It doesn’t feel like D’Amato engages with modern uses of Marx’s analysis at all. He doesn’t mention such thinkers as David Harvey or Wolfgang Streeck, both of whom make intelligent use of Marxist thinking to break down modern society and economy. Jodi Dean is mentioned only to attack her as not adhering to the true nature of socialism. Yet these writers (and I’m sure others that D’Amato doesn’t mention) are all critically engaged with Marx and Marxist thought.

In fact this book feels like a simple restatement of a revealed truth. D’Amato quotes Marx and Trotsky extensively, and often follows this up with an assertion that whatever point is being made remains relevant to the modern world, without attempting to actually apply the analysis to the changed world. And it is important to remember that the capitalist world has changed since Marx was alive and we cannot simply treat his work as truth. It is telling that D’Amato quotes the Communist Manifesto extensively, written before Marx began his economic work and while it has value doesn’t reflect the depth of his later work.

It does not feel like D’Amato is trying to reconstruct a modern left progressive movement that can take on the world of capitalism. He is simply reasserting the world view of Trotsky in the 1930’s and D’Amato’s belief that it remains relevant to today.

Finally the bibliography is limited and strongly slanted towards Trotsky and with very few recommendations of modern writers. While it does reference Capital, it doesn’t really provide a guide to getting further into Marx’s analysis (for example D’Amato doesn’t reference key works by Harvey, Michael Heinrich, or Ben Fine that can help ease the difficulty of getting to grips with Marx’s economics).

In short this is a limited book. It does have value, it is written in clear language and covers a wide range of subjects. It is by no means a definitive introduction to the basics of Marxism.

D’Amato, Paul The Meaning of Marxism (Haymarket, Chicago, 2014).