Engels and his Eternal Law of Value


I’ve promised a lengthy post on the so-called ‘transformation problem’, and it will come—eventually. There’s a lot to compile, because I think that the history of the transformation problem debate is as interesting as the theoretical content of each turn of the debate, and it seems to me that examining its various snaking pathways goes a lot in untangling this particularly knotty web. But in the meantime, I’d like to look at a curious episode in the debate before it was formalized as such: an extremely puzzling—and totally erroneous—interpretation of Marx advanced by Engels, of all people, in his Supplement to Capital Volume III.

The Supplement arose in the context of the debates that immediately followed the release of the third volume of Capital, and is intended primarily to deal with the arguments put forward by three interlocutors: Werner Sombart, Conrad Schmidt, and Achille Loria. All three had been involved with Engels’ “prize essay competition” that he had conducted in the decade running up the book’s publication, which seems to have been intended to help him parse the difficulties in managing the implications of value theory present in the new work. Sombart and Schmidt were regarded fondly by Engels: he applauds the former as being the first “German university person” to properly see “in Marx’s writings what Marx really says”, and the latter for penning an “excellent article” providing proof for how the average rate of profit is derived from and determined by the rate of surplus value. Loria, on the other hand, was a longtime object of Engels derision. Here he includes him merely “as an amusing vulgar-economist foil” to Sombart and Schmidt.

But Engels had his problems too with Sombart and Schmidt, for each regarded the law of value as a “purely logical process”, a “scientific hypothesis… set up to explain the actual exchange process”. Such an interpretation rejects the fundamental argument that Marx was trying to make: that the law of value was not merely a logical figment, a loose model through which we can interpret forces that, empirically, cannot be contained within this frame, and that is was instead a historical process with real, material implications.

The groundwork was already being laid at this stage for what would become the transformation problem. Many critics of Marx’s theory, often associated with burgeoning economic school of marginalism, took umbrage at an apparent breakdown that occurred when one attempted to move from the theory of value, as outlined in Volume 1, to that of prices of production in Volume 3. The concept of the ‘prices of production’, briefly, is Marx’s restaging of what Smith and Ricardo called the “natural price”, which is the equalized rate of profit that actual economies tend towards, but do not necessarily reach (except until exception conditions, i.e. a situation of perfect competition). The natural price is the ‘center of gravity’ around which prices fluctuate. In Marx’s argument—which remains very close to Smith and Ricardo—the price of production is the cost-price (here distinct from value, the two being conflated by Ricardo) plus average profit.

Leaving aside the much bigger questions around the transition from value to the prices of production, it is interesting to note that it was a transformation of this sort that Engels zeroed in on to explain the status of Marx’s theory as being about a historical, as opposed to a merely logical, process. The history he has in mind, however, is utterly baffling from a Marxist perspective. He describes the moment that “metallic money” entered onto the scene, which comes to obstruct “the determination of value by labor-time”. If the suggestion that value, understood as magnitudes of labor time, existed deep within the past, seems odd at first, hold onto your hat:

In a word: the Marxian law of value holds generally, as far as economic laws are valid at all, for the whole period of simple commodity production — that is, up to the time when the latter suffers a modification through the appearance of the capitalist form of production. Up to that time, prices gravitate towards the values fixed according to the Marxian law and oscillate around those values, so that the more fully simple commodity production develops, the more the average prices over long periods uninterrupted by external violent disturbances coincide with values within a negligible margin. Thus, the Marxian law of value has general economic validity for a period lasting from the beginning of exchange, which transforms products into commodities, down to the 15th century of the present era. But the exchange of commodities dates from a time before all written history — which in Egypt goes back to at least 2500 B.C., and perhaps 5000 B.C., and in Babylon to 4000 B.C., perhaps to 6000 B.C.; thus, the law of value has prevailed during a period of from five to seven thousand years. And now, let us admire the thoroughness of Mr. Loria, who calls the value generally and directly valid during this period a value at which commodities are never sold nor can ever be sold, and with which no economist having a spark of common sense would ever occupy himself!

“The law of value has prevailed during a period of from five to seven thousand years”. In one fell swoop, Engels transhistoricizes value, and then reduces its character as the determining factor in the capitalist mode of production—in other words, as that which makes capitalism a historically specific world force—by subordinating it to the long-run equilibria of the prices of production.

There are immediate problems with this. The way that both time and labor are concretized in value is specific to capitalism, though by no means is the relationship between time and labor unique to this mode of production—a point that can be tricky, and one wonders if Engels might have fallen prey to this slippage. In the first chapter of Capital Volume I, for example, Marx writes that

Men made clothes for thousands of year, under the compulsion of the need for clothing, without a single man ever becoming a tailor. But the existence of coats, of linen, of every element of material wealth not provided in advance by nature, had always to be mediated through a specific productive activity appropriate to its purpose, a productive society that assimilated particular natural materials to particular human requirements. Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.

Thus labor appears as a constant, existing across a variety of social formations both capitalist and pre-capitalist. The similar holds true for the connection between labor and time, as evidenced by the following from the Grundrisse (a text that Engels seems to have not had access to):

On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for the other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate  to its overall needs; just as the individual has to distribute his time correctly in order to satisfy the various demands on his activity.

The key passage here—”Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself”—is rendered as the less-clunky “every economy is an economy of time” by Stavros Tombazos in his book Time in Marx. This is a good shift, and Tombazos notes that we’re not to take ‘economy’ here in the reductive sense of bourgeois economists (merely as goods trading for goods, sometimes with a monetary intermediary) but in the broader sense, as forms of social organization with differing determinants in different places and times. This shifting nature of economy is the vital point, which Tombazos drives home with a quote from Marx’s Letters on Capital: “No natural laws can be done away with. What can change, in changing historical circumstances, is the form in which these laws operate”.

This is the manner in which historical processes unfold, from Marx’s point of view. It does not follow from this that the logical presentation of capitalism that is set up in the first volume of capital—which, it most be pointed out, takes places at level of abstraction of ‘capital in general’, the totality of the capitalist system—follows a distinctly historical arc. Yet this is what Engels seems to have been doing in his Supplement. It’s a method that Marx directly critiqued in the Grundrisse:

Capital is the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society. It must form the starting-point as well as the finishing-point, and must be dealt with before landed property… It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development. The point is not the historic position of the economic relations in the succession of different forms of society. Even less is it their sequence ‘in the idea’ (Proudhon) (a muddy notion of historic movement). Rather, their order within modern bourgeois society.

Postone drives home this point repeatedly in Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Early on in the work he takes to task Ronald Meeks for assuming “that Marx’s initial formulation of the theory of value entails postulating a model of a precapitalist society in which ‘although commodity production and free competition were assumed to reign more or less supreme, the labourers still owned the whole produce of their labour'”. Postone briefly mentions is that the source of Meeks’ reading isn’t to be found in Marx, but in Engels, yet what he doesn’t point out that this source is in fact the Supplement. 

Postone notes that for Meeks, Marx’s law of value can be equated with the earlier theory of value offered by Adam Smith—despite the fact that “Marx criticizes Smith precisely for relegating the validity of the law of value to precapitalist society”. To support this, Postone offers the following quote from Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value:

Torrens … reverts to Adam Smith … according to whom the value of commodities was determined by the labor-time embodied in them ‘in that early period’ when people confronted one another only as owners and exchangers of commodities, but not when capital and property in land have been evolved. This would mean … that the law which is valid for commodities qua commodities, no longer is valid for them once they are regarded as capital, or as products of capital. … On the other hand, the product wholly assumes the form of the commodity … only with the development and on the basis of capital production. Thus the law of the commodity is supposed to be valid for a type of production which produces no commodities (or produces them only to a limited extent), and not to be valid for a type of production which is based on the existence of the product as a commodity

Marx elsewhere took to task this very notion of a period in which “people confronted one another only as owners and exchanges of commodities”, which after all is the idealized sort of social formation that was advanced by the classical liberals and Ricardian strains of utopian socialism. Meeks, following the Capital-as-history model put in motion by Engels, in fact recourses to the vision of Smith. There’s an irony here, given that the entire assault on Proudhon, cosigned by Engels, operated through the unveiling of Proudhon’s project as being something contained entirely within classical political economy—an aspect of which entailed the transhistorization of value of this very sort.

In pre- or noncapitalist societies, “laboring activities are social by virtue of the matrix of overt social relations in which they are embedded”, a case in point being the communal production mentioned in the Marx quote above. In capitalism, by contrast, labor comes to ‘mediate itself’—it replaces this social matrix with an interdependence of a very different sort, one grounded in abstract labor. This is category of labor exists independently of specific characteristics, as something homogeneous and equalized at the level of the social totality (or, in a more straightforward manner, labor in general). Contrary to Ricardian interpretations of value, which are grounded in labor’s physiological expenditure, it is from abstract labor that value is derived . Marx, in the first chapter of Volume 1, writes that the

labour… that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary.

The historical distinction of abstract labor had already been developed by Marx by this point, having described it, in the pages of The German Ideology as being the determining factor only in advanced capitalist societies:

Labour, not only as a category but in reality, has become a means to create wealth in general, and has ceased to be tied as an attribute to a particular individual. This state of affairs is most pronounced in the United States, the most modern form of bourgeois society. This abstract category “labour”, “labour as such”, labour sans phrase, thus becomes a practical fact only there. The simple abstraction, which plays a decisive role in modern political economy, an abstraction which expresses an ancient relation existing in all social formations, nevertheless appears to be actually true in this abstract form only as a category of the most modern society.

If abstract labor is what helps lend to the capitalist epoch its historical specificity, through the transformation of the relationship between labor and social relations (as well as its utterly modern instantiation as labor emptied of all qualities, existing a mere quantity), and this abstract labor is the “substance” of value, then the proposition that the whole of human history prior to capitalism existed under the sway of the law of value is untenable.

This isn’t to say, of course, that capitalism and the law of value came of this world fully formed, like Nietzsche’s primordial state erupting into history in a single, great flash of lightening. The emergence of capitalism unfolded diachronically, ruptures taking place at different tempos, with a host of contingent factors whose collisions catalyzed grand processes (another important point: transhistoricizing the law of value and displacing it in the capitalist era with the the supremacy of the prices of production portrays capitalism as having been lying in wait for all time—one hardly needs the expropriations, driven by contingent circumstance as much as by historical necessity, “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” that Marx places at the dawn of capitalism). Earlier social formations incubated nascent forms of capital. In the Grundrisse, for example, Marx alludes to how in the Middle Ages “capital itself—apart from pure money-capital—in the form of the traditional artisans’ tools etc., had [a] landed-proprietary character”. Later, when discussing the ‘Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist’ in Volume 1: “the middle ages had handed down two distinct forms of capital, which mature in the most different economic social formations, and which before the era of the capitalist mode of production, are considered as capital quand même [all the same] — usurer’s capital and merchant’s capital”

This rise of merchant’s capital is the shift that Engels uses in the Supplement to mark the shift from societies dominated by the law of value to ones dominated by the prices of production. The merchants were a “revolutionary element in this society where everything else as stable”, and it was through their arrival that the rate of profit first emerged as a world-historical force. In Engels’ schema, the experience of the merchant capital was split between two directions: on the one hand, it sought an equalization of the rate of profit (held in place by the domination of trade by various nations, leagues and associations), but on the other, with the blossoming of the world market, the ‘individual merchant’ was rising. No longer could the rate of profit be split equally between a series of institutional merchant ‘blocs’—competition for the first time truly bared its teeth, as individual merchants sought to claim as much of the profit as possible.

But abstract labor doesn’t arise in the context of merchant’s capital. The ranks of the merchants were themselves leveled, with their capital eventually becoming a functionary of industrial capital, as one of the faces of commercial capital. It is industrial capital that marks the most modern of societies—and it is only there that the law of value truly begins to make its mark.

Decadence & (Po)Mo

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ... exhibited 1817 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

On the tl, Moct chimes in on my post about capitalist space-times:

It’s an interesting point that says something about the distinct social and cultural patterning that typifies capitalist development. I would absolutely agree with Moct here in that the frozen desert of temporal spatialization is the defining characteristic of our current epoch. We can see clearly that the postmodern, which persists despite the cliched nature of the term, corresponds quite directly with the movement of capitalism in a retrograde, if not outright stagnant, form. ‘New Economy’ mania from the center (which has evolved into discourses around ‘creative capitalism’, ‘knowledge economies’, ‘smart development’, etc over time) and the celebration of post-Fordist flexible production from certain sectors of the left have lent to capitalism a certain ideological legitimacy that papers over this decline—though it can scarcely obscure the sort of (non-)functional cynicism that has replaced ardent belief in the progressivist dimensions of this system.

This raises an important question about we how hold both—temporalization of space, spatialization of time—as both being constant (via mapping them to inseparable capitalist process, per Marx)  while also suggesting that one is capable of producting particular and distinct socio-cultural formations capable of being (loosely) periodized.

As an aside, uwunil pointed me to Susan Buck-Morss’ Dialectics of Seeing for some other reflections on modernism and postmodern—understood here in a primarily aesthetic register, though one plugged into wider economic relations—as being constants. It looks like an interesting book, and I’m looking forward to diving into it more thoroughly, but for the time being here’s the passage in question:

The Passagen-Werk [Benjamin’s Arcades Project] suggests that it makes no sense to divide the era of capitalism into formalist “modernism” and historically eclectic “postmodernism”, as these tendencies have been there from the start of industrial culture. The paradoxical dynamics of novelty and repetition simply repeat themselves anew.

Modernism and postmodernism are not chronological eras, but political positions in the century-long struggle between art and technology. If modernism expresses utopian longing by anticipating the reconciliation of social function and aesthetic form, postmodernism acknowledges their nonidentity and keeps fantasy alive. Each position thus represents a partial truth; each will recur “anew”, so long as the contradictions of commodity society are not overcome.

What I’d like to add to this is the hypothesis, tentative at this stage, that the ‘postmodern condition’ asserts itself when the ‘modern’ goes into recline. This seems difficult to parse, given that these map to fixed dynamics in capitalism—I’ve suggested, for instance, that the spatialization of time that underpins the postmodern experience is linked the blind quantification advanced the forces of value and surplus value in the core of the capitalist system, with the temporalization of space indicative of modernity being related to the rapid development of productive forces, evolution of communication and transport technologies, and the deepening of the world market’s penetration. The reconciliation here is that as the latter declines—and the indices of world trade volumes, productivity measures, the rate of profit, etc. have indeed declined—the more the cold, steely mechanisms of the law of value are laid bare.

The period that most closely approximates what we are currently describing as postmodernity are the years towards the end of the 1800s typified by many artists and intellectuals as being under the sway of decadence. While the 1890s was itself the main locus of this line, it is important that this ultimately emerges in the context of the what has been described the “Long Depression”, which kicked off around 1873 and ended—depending on who you’re talking to—in 1879 or 1896. The National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, reads the depression as having run from October 1873 to March 1879, an analysis closely matched by Fred Moseley in his entry in David Glasner and Thomas Cooley’s encyclopedic Business Cycles and Depression. In the UK, however, the closely-related agricultural depression persisted well into the 1890s, and across Europe as rates of growth post-1879 remained well below their pre-1873 levels. In both Russia and the United States, whatever recovery might have taken place at the end of the 1870s paved the way for additional recessions, with agricultural and manufacturing sectors taking the hardest hits. France faced deep economic hardships in the 1880s and 1890s, compounded by the country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the subsequent reparation payments it was forced to pay.

However one reads it—as a singular, lengthy depression, or repeating clusters of depression and recessions—it is undeniable that these decades were characterized by extreme economic turbulence not isolated to one or two countries, and instead swept the whole of the capitalist world. The fallout was predictable: mass transitions from laissez-faire market orders to protectionist regimes, ballooning monopolies and cartels, and the re-institution of colonialism (in other words, the putting into place of the dominoes that would fall with the outbreak of the First World War).

That such a series of events would be crystallized into a veritable cultural obsession with irreversible decline and decay is unsurprising, and as Anson Rabinbach shows in his magisterial work The Human Motor, much of this contextualization centered around the intrusion of the discovery of entropy into previously-held beliefs in the eternal efficacy of progress. It was in the 1860s when von Helmholtz formalized the discovery into a series of apocalyptic predictions, writing that all things tended towards the eventual heat death of the universe. Against the prophets of progress saw human development as a great train rocketing into the future, this was a vision of a gradual breakdown into stillness: “[t]he universe from that time forward would be condemned to an eternal state of rest”.

Rabinbach points out that while von Helmholtz would quickly “retreat from the more apocalyptic  conclusions of entropy”, such ideas had already taken hold. Herbert Spencer, for instance, would suggest that all civilizations would ultimately tend to decay (though his brand of historical dissolution inverted entropy’s tendency towards homogenization by posing a law of increasing heterogeneity). Nietzsche, meanwhile, would pose the question “[w]here does our modern world belong—to exhaustion or ascent?” So many responded, loudly and with detached despair, that it belonged to exhaustion. As a proliferation of scientific studies into exhaustion and fatigue took place (leading, interestingly, to all sorts of proto-Taylorist techniques for better managing labor in a manner perfectly equitable the large-scale industrial monopolies that were beginning to hold sway), European culture found itself under the shadow of the fin-de-siecle. Rabinbach quotes Saul Friedlander as saying that this period found a replacement for the myth of progress in a “wholly new vision: that of the total end of man”. Similarly, David Weir, in Decadence and the Making of Modernism, seizes upon the notion of ‘decline at the peak’ to capture this particular sort of vertigo and quotes Vyacheslav Ivanov’s description of “the feeling, at once oppressive and exalting, of being the last in a series”. Such language cannot help but invoke the moment in H.G. Wells’ 1895 book The Time Machine, when the nameless protagonist arrives at a point, distant in the future, where human existence has vanished and the universe itself is slowing down to its final end state:

While I was musing upon these things, my attention was attracted by a pretty little structure, like a well under a cupola. I thought in a transitory way of the oddness of wells still existing, and then resumed the thread of my speculations. There were no large buildings towards the top of the hill, and as my walking powers were evidently miraculous, I was presently left alone for the first time. With a strange sense of freedom and adventure I pushed on up to the crest.

There I found a seat of some yellow metal that I did not recognize, corroded in places with a kind of pinkish rust and half smothered in soft moss, the arm-rests cast and filed into the resemblance of griffins’ heads. I sat down on it, and I surveyed the broad view of our old world under the sunset of that long day. It was as sweet and fair a view as I have ever seen. The sun had already gone below the horizon and the west was flaming gold, touched with some horizontal bars of purple and crimson. Below was the valley of the Thames, in which the river lay like a band of burnished steel. I have already spoken of the great palaces dotted about among the variegated greenery, some in ruins and some still occupied. Here and there rose a white or silvery figure in the waste garden of the earth, here and there came the sharp vertical line of some cupola or obelisk. There were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden…

It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough.

Other identified the origins of decadence in precisely the ferocious pulsations of modernization that it was so contrary to. Max Nordau’s simply-titled Degeneration is the principle work of this tendency, shot through with deep paranoia of the effects of urbanization, the development of rapid transport, communication systems, electrification, and feverish cultural production—in other words, many things that we might consider to be not only characteristic of the temporalization of space, but were in fact productive of this very dynamism. Fatigue, for Nordau, is the natural result of modernist speed, and fatigue converts “healthy men” into ‘hysterics’. “All… conditions of life have, in this period, experienced a revolution unexampled in the history of the world”, and for this reason “the whole of civilized humanity has been exposed for half a century” to the conditions optimal for breeding hysteria. Nordau’s vision of society is a hellish landscape dominated by irrationalism, mysticism, and bizarre physical maladies; page after page document the rise of ‘degenerates’, populations undergoing premature loss of hair, teeth, and eyesight, so on and so forth. “Railway spine” and “railway brain” are of particular interest to him, these being the degraded physiological and mental states allegedly induced by the shocks of traveling of great speeds.

Nordau, at his fever-pitch:

Hysteria and degeneration have always existed; but they formerly showed themselves sporadically, and how no importance in the life of the community. It was only the vast fatigue which was experienced by the generation on which the multitude of discoveries and innovations burst abruptly, imposing on upon it organic exigencies greatly surpassing its strengths, which created favourable conditions under which these maladies could gain ground enormously, and become a danger to civilization…

We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria, and it is natural that we should ask anxiously on all sides ‘What is to come next?’

Nordau was, at the end of the day, a liberal, albeit a disaffected one who saw the promises of liberalism deferred by the world it had celebrated. He stands at a different end of the pole of his great contemporary Nietzsche, who he regarded as a madman characteristic of this doom-laden time. Nietzsche offered his own vision of a world in decline, which nonetheless swam in the same waters of the ‘entropic paradigm’ as Nordau and the others:

Disintegration characterizes this time, and thus uncertainty: nothing stands firmly on its feet or on a hard faith in itself; one lives for tomorrow as the day after tomorrow is dubious. Everything on our way is slippery and dangerous, and the ice that still supports us has become thin: all of us feel the warm, uncanny breath of the thawing wind; where we still walk, soon no one will be able to walk.

Yet, in contrast to so many others, Nietzsche marked a point in which the decline was not absolute. Civilization wasn’t fated to decadence, and an escape from the glide to complete breakdown and stasis was capable of being converted in an intensive regeneration. On form of this can be found in his prophecy of the impending ‘transvaluation of values’ that was to occur on the far end of degeneration. From weakness (the primary symptom of decadence) to strength, from man to the superman: these were the pathways of the transformation. But it such a historical mutation isn’t only to be found here in Nietzsche’s writings: the ‘realization’ of the eternal recurrence poses its own cataclysmic challenge to the entropic paradigm, which suggested a unilateral and unwavering voyage into cosmic descent.

[Brief note: it’s interesting that in the midst of this period of decadence that we find a proliferation of new articulation of temporality. It was in The Gay Science, published in 1882, that contained the first references to it, while eight years later in 1890, Henri Poincaré unveiled his famed recurrence theorem. While not dealing with the nature of time itself, as Nietzsche’s model did, it concerned things happening on immense time-scales, and the surface-level resemblance (not to mention their historical coincidence) between the eternal recurrence and recurrence theorem was not lost on all; in 1896, the mathematician Ernst Zermelo, for example, wrote in his notebook the name of an essay that would never see the light of day: “The Eternal Recurrence According to Nietzsche and Poincaré: A Theorem of Dynamics”.

Likewise, this was also the era in which Henri Bergson was unveiling his own idiosyncratic theories of time and memory—theories that, perhaps importantly (though unfairly), were soon thereafter regarded as being indicative of the flight into mysticism that characterized this era. And following in his footsteps was the psychologist Pierre Janet, himself quickly displaced by the rise of the Freudians, who built a model of the unconscious mind that profoundly temporal in nature. Looking back on this moment in his Deleuze and the Unconscious, Christian Kerslake notes that “[i]f this tradition evokes any associations for the English speaking world today, it is with a peculiar lost Victorian and Edwardian world, a world in which journals of psychology and physiology were filled with cases and analyses of mediums, somnambulism, hypnosis and spiritualistic phenomenon”…]

Nietzsche’s untimely attack on decadence was profound in France, at the time smoldering in the malaise of its post-war defeat and the wider economic crisis of the Long Depression. It was in this place and time that the most pronounced articulation of the fin-de-siecle mentality were taking hold: Decadents like Joris-Karl Huysmans and Charles Baudelaire depicted a darkly luminous world, lush and damp, that had rejected wholesome the myth of progress, while the closely-related Symbolists eagerly embraced the slow end of things. To quote C.F. Forth,

Positing the absurdity of political action and the inevitable suffering of human existence, the Symbolists rejected external reality in favor of a new kind of idealism, which in its variety of forms included solipsism, occultism, mysticism, and a fascination with the morbid. Paramount to this movement was the artists’ resolve to flee reality through a variety of means, such as hallucinatory drugs, dreams, or other altered states of mind. Finally, the decadent Symbolists refused to participate in political and social life, arguing instead for the detached position of “l’art pour l’art.”

Forth argues that this movement met its own demise in 1892, with two events: the launch of the avant-garde journal La Banquet, and the release of the French translation of Nietzsche’s Der Fall Wagnera fierce denunciation of the composer, who was a living legend for the Decadents and the Symbolists. Nietzsche was also promoted in the pages of La Banquet, having been founded by Daniel Halevy and others as a “reaction against symbolism” with the goal of “renew[ing] the pure and rich French tradition”. Nietzsche, read as a “philosopher of confidence, health and joy” who had “spent his staunch life struggling against nihilism and pessimism”.

Thus the political Nietzsche came to fruition, the one who provided ammunition to a motley and contentious range of actors, including right-wing nationalists, socialists and anarchists. It is in this particular context—or more properly, the context of these events in the wider socio-economic situation—that we can understand the writings of Georges Sorel (himself a close associate of Helevy of La Banquet), who filtered the Nietzschean influence through a heterodox Marxism. Rejecting the deterministic Marxists who spoke of the Zusammenbruch—the inevitable catastrophic breakdown of the capitalist mode of production—Sorel described the proletarian revolution in terms of a “moral catastrophe”, a “transvaluation of all values”. This catastrophe would tear civilization away from stagnant decadence, which was in turn denied its scientific status per its equation with laws of entropy. Decadence, for Sorel, becomes exactly what I’ve staked out here: the social and cultural effect of a capitalism that has become retrograde.

Perhaps the most important take-away here is this: Sorel’s vision of overcoming decadence does not follow along the path of empowering the capitalist classes, or investing the population with unbridled enthusiasm for the state’s conflict with an enemy, or from some pre-determined ebb and flow of naturalistic processes. It is instead the product of the class war itself, the repayment of “black ingratitude” to the ‘civilized’ bourgeoisie and the parliamentary socialists.


In The Postmodern Condition, Fredric Jameson describes decadence not in terms of a particular time, but an intangible feeling or shadow that exists as the underside of the modernist mind. “Why should proud modern—or modernist—people, at best merely apprehensive about their insufficient modernity, harbor this secret fantasy of languid, neurasthetic difference?” The answer is that it is both specific period and permanent shadow, because of the fundamental co-existence of the registers that decadence and its opposition index. And indeed, Jameson finds in decadence a ‘foreshadowing’ of the postmodernism, though clearly at this point this sort of language is insufficient to capture the real dynamic at play. Similarly, the very terms in which he addresses decadence fall short of the particularities of that moment:

“Decadence” is… in some way the very premonition of the postmodern itself, but under conditions that make it impossible to predict that aftermath with any sociological or cultural accuracy, thereby diverting the vague sense of a future into more fantastic forms, all borrowed from the misfits and eccentrics, the perverts and the Others, or aliens, of the present (modern) system. In history, finally, or rather in the historical unconscious, “decadence” comes before us as the ineradicable otherness of the past and of other modes of production — an otherness posited by capitalism as such, but which it now, as it were, tries on, as with old costumes, since these ancient decadents (who have no concept of decadence themselves) are the others of an other, the difference of a difference: they look at their own surroundings with our eyes, seeing nothing but what is morbidly exotic, but complicitous and finally infected by that, so that the roles slowly reverse and it is we moderns who become “decadent” against the backdrop of the more natural realities of the precapitalist landscape.

He goes on to add that the fin-de-siecle atmosphere of decadence was ultimately an apocalyptic fantasy, and that postmodernism lacks this dynamic. One might immediately protest such a charge—after all, hasn’t the apocalypse not inserted itself into every pore of the social machine? How different things are today! The spectacle of apocalypse has inserted itself in every pore of the social machine. Discussions of the current long-range economic crisis sometimes take up dressings of  zusammenbruchstheorie, but these are socially marginal compared to the great source of doomed-out visions: climate change. But we must ask, as Jameson did, if “such anxieties and the narratives in which they are invested really ‘intend’ the future… or somehow convoluted and return to feed on our own moment of time. Shades of Baudrillard appear at specifically at this point, with his understanding of hyperreality—the ecstatic, science fiction version of the present—as being a Möbius loop that infinitely turns things back upon themselves. But there’s a much more down to earth conclusion as well: people may belief in the apocalypse, but not at the level where habit-changing practice induces real belief (and thus real practice).

At this point we discuss the distinction between decadence and postmodern not in terms of the thing itself that underscores each (which of course takes beyond the relative autonomy of the cultural sphere, to the gears churning beneath), but in the depth in which these experiences are registered. Decadence as a form, the content being the entropic paradigm that filled it—at this level, there is still a directionality. Entropy, as Jameson points out, acts as a grand narrative that provides an end, even if that end is a homogeneous steady-state or a landscape of rubble, like Philip K. Dick’s “transformation of the world into kipple, the layers of dust, the rotting of all that’s solid, a destruction of form itself that is worse than death”. Decadence in the historical sense thus wasn’t a total inversion of progress, but a re-articulation of its commitment to some form of telos.

The same, it seems, cannot really be said of postmodernism—which makes sense. The compounding of capitalism’s negative tendencies would be reflected, presumably, in the cultural reflection of these tendencies. And it is here, in this zone, that class struggle re-asserts itself.

Spatialization of Time/Temporalization of Space


Last night I came across this interview with Moishe Postone via Ross Wolfe’s Charnel House blog. I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t seen it before—it’s definitely an example of Postone at his best, and (like many of his other interviews and shorter articles) brings into relief the positive political dimensions that are often missed if one sticks to Time, Labor, and Social Domination alone.

One of the more difficult conceptualizations at the heart of Time, Labor, and Social Domination is that Postone posits not simply one temporality unique to the capitalist mode of production, but two that unfold in a dialectical relationship. On the one side, there is ‘abstract time’, which operates like the new sense of time ushered in by Kant: it is “uniform, continuous, homogenous, ’empty’ time'” that serves as an “independent variable” with respect to events. On the other side, ‘concrete time’, the time of events, processes, cycles and movements—historical time as “dependent variable”.

In this interview, Postone’s interlocutors—Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda—pose the question of how this particular dialectic can be applied in a way that allows us to understand the dynamics of capital in the present moment:

You indicated that with the development of technology an hour of work can become intensified, denser, condensed and such that there is specific relation between to historically determined forms of time, so there seems to be a quantitative intensification that may ultimately even lead to a qualitative leap into the converse direction, such that at one point this is precisely where there might even arise a possibility for overcoming and liberating the worker from work, when technology reaches a point where the worker is no longer needed? Would you agree with this trivializing reconstruction? If so or even if not so, how does your analysis of time in and under capitalism relate to analyses of contemporary capitalism that seek to demonstrate how capitalism subtracts one or maybe even more than one dimension of time, such that there is a peculiar absence not only of future (as the no-future attitude asserts), but rather of a proper present (and therefore even of a proper past)?

to which Postone offers this rich and stimulating response:

The time(s) of capital are of a complex dynamic, that entails at one and the same time ongoing and accelerating transformations, which are not only technological but of all spheres of life on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the reconstitution of the fundamental basis of capital itself. That process of reconstitution of the basis of capitalism within the framework of Marx’s critique is the reconstitution of labour, not only as the source of the value form of wealth but, relatedly, of labour as the necessary socially mediating activity which gives rise to an entire structure of abstract domination. I suggested that people tend to view only one dimension of this complex dialectic: either they notice that the more things change the more they remain the same, everything is just this constant featureless desert of the present, or they become very excited about everything solid melting into air, about how everything is acceleration. The actual trajectory of capital’s development within the framework of the theory, as I understand it – and this is particularly powerful – should not be understood with reference to the one nor the other but as both at the same time. This means that it is not a linear development. There are growing shearing pressures, as one would say in physics, that are internal to the system. Both the form of production and the sense of historically constituted possibilities have to be understood with reference to what I call the shearing pressures of capitalist developments. Does this make sense?

One of the things that is interesting to me here is the way that Postone’s description of these two sides intentionally nods to distinct theoretical currents, by extension revealing the way in which what is offered as a theoretical reading is in fact the incomplete crystallization of some objective tendency. The static, frozen eternity of the present—this is the situation measured with equal parts dread and delight by Baudrillard, where capital’s furious compulsions to deterritorialization gives way to the motionlessness of the hyperreal. The other side, meanwhile, is the purview of the various accelerationisms (and indeed, Hamza and Ruda raise the question of accelerationism directly): not the cool desert of simulation and simulacra, but the liquid-hot torrents of development driving History itself to undergo escalating compression.

In a way, these two vantage points can be broadened beyond these distinct theoretical currents to the conceptual epochs that capitalism has often been divided into. Baudrillard’s hyperreal is, of course, ultimately a diagnosis of postmodernism, and effectively pushes Jameson’s conclusions—postmodernism as a cultural timelessness triggered by the advent of a global and financialized ‘late capitalism’—to an apocalyptic extreme, where terms like ‘post-‘ and ‘late’ can hardly even apply. Accelerationism, meanwhile, is all about modernity: each of its own internal currents, regardless of the contention they may regard one another with, seeks out identification with the processes of modernization, or more properly, seeks to reclaim the combustive energy of modernity in the face of the postmodern condition.

By denying the superiority of one of these positions against the other, and by tying them to a multi-faceted temporal dynamic oscillating in the heart of capitalism itself, Postone thus denies the logic that slates ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’ into a linear and successive framework. What was previously a rigid periodization is thus folded and twisted back on itself, producing the odd architecture of a contradiction-riven model of history, characterized by ruptures as much as by continuity.

The first two posts on the present blog [1, 2] were about Marx’s usage of geometrical growth—what today we would more commonly refer to as exponential growth—to define certain aspects of capitalist development. Foreshadowing a lot of technophilic theorists and utopians of today, Marx suggested that the development of the productive forces would tend towards geometric growth, and along with it, the deepening of the world market and the descent of the rate of profit. Presenting as such paints the picture of the capitalism as a globalizing, technologically-oriented accelerative force. But that’s only half the story: the rate of profit is as much an indicator of rising as it is impending stagnation and crisis. Everything is pregnant with its opposite, and ‘progress’ is denied any sort of smooth curve and intrinsic superiority: capitalist development comes into conflict without itself, and immense power translates effortlessly into extreme frailty.

This is the progressive side of capitalism being constantly checked by its regressive side, a situation which is reflected in Marx’s discussion of the limits of capitalism. Capitalism appears, as Deleuze and Guattari would masterfully describe in the most sublime—and overlooked—passages of Anti-Oedipus, to have no external limits, with each that it encounters becoming a threshold through which it simply expands itself. At the same time, however, it has an internal, absolute limit, which is capital itself. This seemingly esoteric formulation becomes clearer when one factors in value, as the magnitudes of socially-necessary labor time expended in commodity production, as the ultimate source of profit in the form of surplus value. What this means is that while capitalism might go stratospheric, “dispatch itself straight to the moon” or to Mars or wherever, it can never break with itself. The exploitation of human labor remains inscribed into the core of the system.

Postone again:

The fact that there is a limit to capital does not mean that capital collapses. Rather the limit is an asymptotic curve, you get closer and closer to an absolute limit but you never reach it.

One of the dynamics that has fascinated me over the past year (though I’ve unfortunately blogged about very little, relegating most conversation to twitter) is the double relationship between time and space that can be found in Marx’s analysis of capitalism: the spatialization of time and the temporalization of space. I’d like to suggest that this double character is precisely what gives rise to the two visions of temporality alluded to by Postone AND is intricately bound to capitalism’s external limitlessness and internal limit.

The ‘temporalization of space’ makes its appearance in the tenth chapter of the Grundrisse, where Marx takes up the relationship between the means of transport and communication and the sphere of circulation—that is, the market nexus of exchange relations. It is precisely here that we find the most clear of example of capitalism’s capacity for liquidating limits to itself:

The more production comes to rest on exchange value, hence on exchange, the more important do the physical conditions of exchange – the means of communication and transport – become for the costs of circulation. Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it. Only in so far as the direct product can be realized in distant markets in mass quantities in proportion to reductions in the transport costs, and only in so far as at the same time the means of communication and transport themselves can yield spheres of realization for labour, driven by capital; only in so far as commercial traffic takes place in massive volume – in which more than necessary labour is replaced – only to that extent is the production of cheap means of communication and transport a condition for production based on capital, and promoted by it for that reason. All labour required in order to throw the finished product into circulation – it is in economic circulation only when it is present on the market – is from capital’s viewpoint a barrier to be overcome – as is all labour required as a condition for the production process (thus e.g. expenses for the security of exchange etc.).

The operative phrase here—”the annihilation of space by time”—is the root of theories, advanced by folks like David Harvey, around “space-time compression” (something that, while close to acceleration, is only a reduced conception of it). Space-time compression indexes a world getting smaller, as spatial distance between points beings increasingly irrelevant in the circuits of production of exchange. This is accompanied by a generalized speeding-up of history itself, as events multiply, refract, and evaporate before one even has a chance to get a handle on them…

In Capital Volume 2, Marx revisits these elements via his discussion of turnover time, which is the circuit of capital—the reciprocal unfolding of production and exchange in pursuit of profit—understood as a recurrent and periodic system. Under the whip of competition, the capitalist seeks to shorten its turnover, and to achieve this end calls upon a whole ensemble of means. To accelerate the production process, “cooperation, division of labour, application of machinery”; and to accelerate circulation, “improved shipbuilding”, the construction of great railways, etc. This implies, in turn, a greater amount of capital advanced by each capitalist: “The time of turnover is lessened in that case by an increase of the advanced capital. More means of production and more labour-power must be united under the command of the capitalist”. This raises the specter of the organic composition of capital, the ratio of constant and variable capital, and with it, the question of the rate of profit. As mechanization of production (i.e. rising constant capital) becomes a tool for the shortening of turnover time, it becomes clear that the “annihilation of space by time”—the temporalization of space—is plugged directly into the rate of profit’s tendency towards or away from geometrical growth.

As Marx writes in the fourth chapter of Volume 3:

It has already been shown in detail in Book II how the quantity of produced surplus-value is augmented by reductions in the period of turnover, or of one of its two sections, in the time of production and the time of circulation. But since the rate of profit only expresses the relation of the produced quantity of surplus-value to the total capital employed in its production, it is evident that any such reduction increases the rate of profit… The chief means of reducing the time of production is higher labour productivity, which is commonly called industrial progress. If this does not involve a simultaneous considerable increase in the outlay of total capital resulting from the installation of expensive machinery, etc., and thus a reduction of the rate of profit, which is calculated on the total capital, this rate must rise… The chief means of reducing the time of circulation is improved communications. The last fifty years have brought about a revolution in this field, comparable only with the industrial revolution of the latter half of the 18th century… The period of turnover of the total world commerce has been reduced… and the efficacy of the capital involved in it has been more than doubled or trebled. It goes without saying that this has not been without effect on the rate of profit.

What of the ‘spatialization of time’? This, too, is first alluded to in the Grundrisse, in the course of a discussion of surplus labor (labor undertaken that is beyond what is necessary for the worker to survive) and surplus value:

…labour as such is and remains the presupposition, and surplus labour exists only in relation with the necessary, hence only in so far as the latter exists. Capital must therefore constantly posit necessary labour in order to posit surplus labour; it has to multiply it (namely the simultaneous working days) in order to multiply the surplus; but at the same time it must suspend them as necessary, in order to posit them as surplus labour. As regards the single working day, the process is of course simple: (1) to lengthen it up to the limits of natural possibility; (2) to shorten the necessary part of it more and more (i.e. to increase the productive forces without limit). But the working day, regarded spatially – time itself regarded as space – is many working days alongside one another. The more working days capital can enter into exchange with at once, during which it exchanges objectified for living labour, the greater its realization at once. It can leap over the natural limit formed by one individual’s living, working day, at a given stage in the development of the forces of production (and it does not in itself change anything that this stage is changing) only by positing another working day alongside the first at the same time – by the spatial addition of more simultaneous working days.

What this concerns, in the first instance, is the organization of the working day under the law of value, which then manifests in two internal forms: the prolonging of the working day (something that Marx would later discuss under the rubric of ‘absolute surplus value’), or the intensification of labor via mechanization (later to be understood via ‘relative surplus value’). Working from these two positions, one could even draw out models for periodizing capitalist development; it was after the great victories to shorten the working day, for example, that intensifying labor through mechanical means took priority over indefinite extension of labor time. But just as the hard boundary between modernity and postmodernity collapses under the double character of capitalist temporality, so too does the distinction between absolute and relative surplus value, which constantly glide into one another in a dialectical fashion.

In order for the law of value to structuralize social relations, a profound alteration in the experienced nature of time takes place. Time rich in qualities is emptied out, opened up, and made into something quantifiable. Value is both producer and product of a colossal leveling process that flattens the bourgeoisie and proletariat alike, making them little more than interchangeable cogs in a fearsome machinery. “Time is everything, man is nothing”, wrote Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy. “[H]e is, at the most, time’s carcase. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day… [this]  is purely and simply a fact of modern industry”.

Lukacs, no doubt having Marx’s suggestion to understand the organization of the working day through a spatial lenses, drives home the implications of this leveling:

Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, free flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’ (the reified, mechanically objectified ‘performance’ of the worker, wholly seperated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space.

Because we’re dealing here with value and surplus-value themselves, we’re in the zone of capitalism’s internal limit. This is exactly why the spatialization of time and the temporalization point in these two directions, and why we can understand Postone’s two registers of time in relationship to these two tendencies. In the case of the temporalization of space, we find capitalism as its most revolutionary and accelerative, transforming the productive forces, their effects rippling across an ever-more connected globe: there is here an absolute sense of futurity, marked by the dissolution of past forms. Creative destruction, in the clearest sense of the phrase. But in the case of the spatialization of time, we find the utterly unchanging, frozen world devoid of qualities. Because it poses the barrier that capitalism can never transgress, it denies the possibility of a future, which it rebounds into the permanence of the present. The higher the former climbs, the more the latter asserts itself: the end of capitalism becoming a forever-receding spot on the horizon.

It’s not enough, however, to make these tendencies into an oppositional polarity. They each penetrate one another on each level, even call one another into being: what is it but the increasingly spatial character of the working day that helps drive the temporalization of space, that is, the very destruction of space itself? And likewise, what does this destruction do but install the law of value everywhere, reconstitute the same flattened labor relations in every place, with all of the same mechanical, spatialized orders of lived time?

Meanwhile, in Kentucky


This dismal eyesore, courtesy of ultra-lib ‘grassroots’ organization Mad Dog PAC, went up near my house recently. It’s one of three new billboards appearing around the state as part of the new anti-Mitch blitz. Unseating the self-described “Grim Reaper” of all policies progressive or vaguely left-ish, the Democrats have finally realized, is what needs to be nearly at the top of the priority list. Even if we get Trump 2020—and at this point there seems to be no reason to suspect we won’t—at least without Mitch, there’s a sliver of hope for the ability to advance some sort of legislative agenda.

One of the other billboards features a photograph of Mitch McConnell and his wife, quasi-notable grifter-bureaucratic Elaine Chao (whose pedigree spans multiple administrations: commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission under Reagan, Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Bush I, Secretary of Labor under Bush II, Secretary of Transportation under Trump), and next to it the provocation “We’re rich. How are y’all”. The folksy pandering of the ‘ya’ll’—and dreadful design—aside, this is a decent message. Mitch McConnell’s net worth is estimated at some twenty-two million dollars. He’s not the wealthiest senator, falling far below Virginia’s Mark Warner, who clocks it at first with around a net worth of two hundred and forty-three million. But juxtapose it against Kentucky, the state whose interest he ostensibly represents, where the poverty rate has consistently been above the national average, and which currently holds the 14th position on the ranking of states with the highest unemployment rates. Combine this with his propensity to be identified as one of the most corrupt members of the senate, his voting record that panders to lobbyists, and his consistent struggle for unlimited campaign donations (he famously described the day that President W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 as the “worst” of his “political life”), and a pretty clear image of Mitch emerges.

Which brings me to the third of the Mad Dog PAC billboards. It’s the same dull red background, and in large yellow letters it reads “Russian Mob Money… Really Mitch?”

Three billboards, one that strikes some sort of populist note hinting at the terminal condition of Kentucky’s apparently permanent underclass, and two that play into the national din around so-called Russia-gate. If I want to put on my own tin-foil hat for a moment, the timing is rather suspect, as it occurs in syncopation with Joe Scarborough coining the catchy “Moscow Mitch” on the Morning Joe, which was instantly picked up and became a trending hashtag on Twitter. “Russian Rand”, alluding to junior Kentucky senator (and son of Ron Paul) Rand Paul, quickly followed.

On the one hand, there is a Russian dimension to the story of Kentucky’s moribund industrial history, and not all of it savory. Rumors of Russian mob involvement in the state’s coal industry have circulated for years, and in April 22nd a story appeared in the Courier Journal that one Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch purported to be linked to the country’s notorious criminal enterprises, is looking to invest a sizable sum in an aluminum processing plant in the eastern side of the state. It’s this strand that has brought the Russophobes in the media circus down on Mitch. Of course Deripaska has been linked to Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced campaign chairman. Of course Deripaska is close to Putin. Bring Deripaska money to Kentucky, mix in the power of the Donald-Mitch alliance, and we’re cooking with gas.

On the other hand, it all looks so absurd. Deripaska is close to Putin—ok. What still-standing oligarchs aren’t close with him? Russians want to invest in Kentucky industry. And? The last time I checked, the United States was deeply reliant on foreign direct investment for economic growth. It goes without saying that this always ends up interfering with the political process, with varying degrees intensity; Giovanni Arrighi, for example, has drawn attention to how flows of investment coming from Asia in the 90s made it difficult for America to pursue a national agenda in the face of international pressure—a contradiction that helped set the stage for the Bush administration’s schizophrenic pursuit of neoliberalism transnationalism and neoconservative national unilateralism. While sinister, this doesn’t exactly raise the specter of conspiracy in the sense of that the new Russophobes seem to believe that it does. It points instead to the general condition that under capitalism in its neoliberal mode, the nation-state loses some of its autonomy as it becomes more porous and riven with global flows.

Finally, to wrap this into some sort of explanatory framework for the Donald-Mitch machine is to profoundly miss the mark. Mitch is a powerhouse in the Republican Party. He’s the majority leader, and Donald is the head of the party. To see them as anything other than as a unified entity that undergoes the occasional disagreement is to not understand how American politics works. If you’re expecting Mitch to buck Trump and for some reason join the ‘resistance’, you’re delusional.

But delusional is exactly what the mainstreamers of the Democrats are. ‘Russia-gate’ is proof of that. Month after month, this vortex has spiraled more and more out of control. It dominates the social media landscape—twitter is a perpetual chorus of cringe-inducing hashtags like #MuellerIsComing, #WeBelieveMueller, #GOPcommunists, so on and so forth—and is in permanent coverage mode on Dem-linked media outlets like MSNBC. Memes featuring poorly-photoshopped Republican politicians in Soviet-era uniforms and hats emblazoned with the red star swirl about, and every boomer in the ‘resistance’ has become an expert in investigoogling and conclusion-leaping that rivals the right’s Pizzagate losers in frantic, wide-eyed paranoia. And while the Russia conspiracy is by far the loudest in its ability to dominate discourse, it slots neatly into a parade of competing (or, if you’re so inclined, overlapping) explanations for what happened in 2016. It was nihilistic e-savy youths hanging in their mom’s basements stoking the fire, or it was an emboldened racist white working class pissed about Obama that did the deed. In more sophisticated dimensions, it was an interlocking coterie of firms like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook that hijacked the election through mass data collection and micro-targeting the population with personalized ads.

The latter is the most compelling, and it cuts right to the heart of the pernicious character of Silicon Valley capitalism and its caustic effect on political life. To focus on this in isolation, however, is to receive a lopsided narrative, and that’s precisely the narrative that documentaries like Netflix’s The Great Hack advance. Little attention is paid to the circumstances that made this machinery so successful in the first place. Likewise, nobody seems very interested in looking at what blacked-out ‘no future’ scenario that makes these supposed cyber-gangs of wayward trolls so nihilistic in the first place. Progs are quick to denigrate the great racist masses, but are very obviously recalcitrant to examine the very real conditions of economic degradation that marked the slow churn of the Great Recession’s aftermath. In each case—Zuck’s digital golem going out of control and getting swept up in the machinations of conniving right-wing operators, meme-savy anti-social kids, racist whites, Russians—easy answers that masquerade as complex analyses are selected and mobilized for political point-scoring.

This reveals something about the pathological character of the Democrats. These easy answers and blame-games are intended to operate as technicalities: the system of liberal market democracy has been working just fine and will continue to do so, but in the meantime it has been corrupted by some sort of outside force. Purge this invader, in whatever mask it is wearing, and everything will go back to the way it was before. Nothing is rotten in the very core of the whole thing, rotten due to objective tendencies and long-term evolutionary movements, to economic dispossession and political disempowerment—an enlightened mission has been only momentarily derailed. It’s a curious parallel to the attitudes of the far-right, which holds up its own host of invaders—Jews/banksters/globalists as well as minorities and immigrants—as contaminating an otherwise pristine or pure situation. In each cases, it’s an inability to come to terms with an abstract domination that can’t be identified with any group or institution.

I have little doubt that it will blow up in the Democrats’ face. In the case of Mitch, it has plenty of ammo that could be used against him—the state’s poverty, the opioid crisis, the long war on labor, inequality, the dismissal of environmental concerns. But instead they choose to align themselves with this flimsy story of conspiracies and backroom deals with Russians, all of which is rewarmed Cold War propaganda. He has already issued a statement playing off this fact, drawing comparison between the Dems and Joseph McCarthy. The measured and calculating wording of the statement, which points to a concrete history of wariness towards Putin and Trump’s sanctions against Russia, appears as the antithesis of what his opponents are offering—and this divergence will likely continue up through 2020.

At least we’ll get some corny billboards to look at in the meantime.

The New Religion and Its Schisms


Last night I finished reading Diana Pasulka’s American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology. It’s a fascinating book, written from a religious studies perspective, about a little-known ‘faction’, so to speak, of the ufology community that Pasulka has called the “scientist-believers”. As the term suggests, these are accomplished scientists, often in considerable positions of power,who are not only convinced that the UFO phenomenon is an actuality, but that they themselves are actively working with artifacts pulled from the wreckage of spacecrafts (or whatever else they may be), or in psychic contact with non-human intelligence—or, quite often, both.

Pasulka’s narrative overview opens with an excursion to a remote locale in the New Mexico with “Tyler” and “James”, two scientist-believers whose background is in the field of biomedical technologies, and in the case of “Tyler”, a long history in NASA’s space shuttle program. The destination is what Tyler claims is a UFO crash site—and, curiously enough, near a mesa featured prominently in the first episode of the final season of the X-Files “Someone from their production team had either been here or knew someone who had. It makes me wonder if they had an insider on their team”, Tyler muses, before setting out their real task: to find a piece of the wreckage in order to test its properties in a controlled laboratory setting.

After we had recovered from the trip and sipped some water, Tyler configured two metal detectors and showed us a map of where the craft had landed. He said that, when the crash occurred in 1947, the government had taken the craft, hidden it away in a secret place, and disguised the area with tin cans and debris to prevent others from finding any remaining artifacts. In fact, looking around, the area was covered over with tons of tin cans. The cans were rusty and most of them had disintegrated into a powdery rubble that resembled compost. He further explained that our metal detectors were special and had been configured to identify the artifacts.

Artifacts are indeed recovered, and the subsequent testing reveals the conclusion that whatever these things are, they are not of this world. The scientific validity of the tests and independent verification are not a question that is probed here, but then again, it’s less important that the picture that slowly emerges: there’s a network of scientists, entrepreneurs, astronauts, and governmental officials that not only believe in the existence of UFOs, but that the further implications of this existence cuts to the heart—or, more properly, the bleeding edge—of questions surrounding consciousness, physical reality, and quantum entanglement. Case in point would be parapsychological research outfits like the Institute of Noetic Sciences, set up in the 1970s by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell following what can only be described as an ‘ecstatic experience’ during his time in space. Another would be the activities, beginning in the late 60s and lasting until the 90s (at the very least), that took place at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) that examined parapsychological phenomena such as remote viewing. The most infamous of SRI’s activities was the Stargate Project, a joint operation carried out with the Defense Intelligence Agency to study the potential applications of psychic phenomena for intelligence-gathering purposes.

One would be remiss not to throw into this weird bucket the ‘consciousness exploration’ goings-on at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. As Jeffrey Kripal points out in his book on Esalen, these happenings were closely tangled with both Mitchell’s Institute for the Noetic Sciences and what was taking place at SRI. Esalen also figures in one of my favorite books on the history of cybernetics, Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain, where he notes the continual slippage towards what he describes as ‘non-modern ontologies’ in cybernetic research, and again in Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which tracks the evolution of today’s Silicon Valley technocapitalism from the fusion of cybernetics, computer sciences and the 60s Californian counterculture. Pasulka avoids going down these weird roads in American Cosmic, but they do come up in an interview she gave on Erik Davis’s Expanding Minds podcast. Noting that the ‘cosmic’ in the book’s title is a deliberate call-back to Russian Cosmism—a scientific-philosophical movement that arose in pre-revolutionary Russia and persisted, in a rather occulted form, into the Soviet Union, particularly in its space program. The ideals of the Cosmist’s ideals sort of prefigure a lot of the tropes that have returned again in the more utopian strands of the tech industry: life extension and perhaps immortality, space exploration, the resurrection of the dead, encounters with extraterrestrial life, etc. But as Davis points out, drawing on the work of Douglas Rushkoff, it may very well be more than passing similarities at play here, with Esalen serving as a point of connection in these snaking continuities.

In his essay “The Anti-Human Religion of Silicon Valley”, Rushkoff locates this convergence as taking place in the course of Esalen’s US-Soviet Exchange Program’s “Track II Diplomacy” efforts. The goal of this program was to bring “some of the USSR’s leading scientists and spiritualists to the Esalen Institute to mix with their counterparts in the United States”. Rushkoff continues:

They set up a series of events at Esalen’s Big Sur campus, where everyone could hear about each other’s work and dreams at meetings during the day and hot tub sessions into the night. That’s how some of the folks from Stanford Research Institute and Silicon Valley, who would one day be responsible for funding and building our biggest technology firms, met up with Russia’s “cosmists.” They were espousing a form of science fiction gnosticism that grew out of the Russian Orthodox tradition’s emphasis on immortality. The cosmists were a big hit, and their promise of life extension technologies quickly overtook geopolitics as the primary goal of the conferences.

The cosmists talked about reassembling human beings, atom by atom, after death, moving one’s consciousness into a robot and colonizing space. The cosmists pulled it all together for the fledgling American transhumanists: They believed human beings could not only transcend the limits of our mortal shell but also manifest physically through new machines. With a compellingly optimistic have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too gusto, the cosmists told America’s LSD-taking spiritualists that technology could give them a way to beat death.

In Rushkoff’s account, this cross-cultural collision effectively produced an ideology that underpins Silicon Valley’s technocapitalism, particularly in its transhumanist, singularitarian mode (it thus interfaces quite nicely, and adds depth to, Turner’s parallel analysis). Pasulka hints at this as well, tracking a divergent route through the same territory. In the book’s preface she recounts traveling through Silicon Valley one night with the famed ufologist Jacques Vallee, who, along with the aforementioned Kripal, is a mentor to her (Vallee, incidentally, was deeply immersed in the strange 70s matrix where post-countercultural hippiedom and computer sciences collided). “These are the hills of Silicon Valley”, he tells her. “There are many secrets here”. The deep dive into the world of scientist-believers thus appears as the unveiling of this secret: that a rich intermingling of belief in UFOs, psychic phenomenon, anomalous encounters, and technological optimism is the beating heart of this corner of the world.

For Pasulka, this is nothing short of the fermenting of a new religion. Places like the site of an alleged UFO crash that she treks to with Tyler and James become the zone of hierophany—the space where the sacred manifests itself in the physical world with the intent of some sort of communication (think Moses and burning bush). Artifacts recovered from the supposed wreckage of crafts are relics. People like Scott Browne, whose life is consumed in the thankless tasks of parsing faked or otherwise misinterpreted UFO photographs from ones that present something “truly anomalous”, practice a vocation. And like Valleee, Pasulka looks back in time, long before 1947 and the beginning of the modern UFO epoch, and finds distinct parallels in accounts of Marian apparitions, angelic visitations, and religious miracle.


One of the things I noticed reading through Pasulka’s work was the recurring motif of one religion in particular: Catholicism. When she invokes the miraculous, it tends to be those associated with the Catholic Church; Marian apparitions in Lourdes and Fatima feature prominently, as does the angelic encounters experienced by Saint Theresa of Avila. Pasulka’s previous book, Heaven Can Wait, is a historical exploration of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory—and she is, herself a professed Catholic. The climax of American Cosmic doesn’t take place in the research and development labs of Silicon Valley or Cape Canaveral, nor in the wide open spaces of the New Mexican desert. Instead we follow Pasulka and Tyler to Vatican City, where they intend to study accounts of saints capable of levitation and bilocation. In the course of their visit, Tyler undergoes a religious conversion.

There is, however, I think a deeper operation at work, or at least partially at work, in Pasulka’s utilization of Catholicism that doesn’t necessarily rise to the surface of the text. With her emphasis on the scientist-believers—a rather neglected realm of study when it comes to the assessment of ufology and related fields—she effectively splits ufology into two spheres. On the one hand, we have this secretive network that is carrying out this strange work, largely invisible to the public at large and the institutions through which they move, and on the other hand there is the more mass cultural movement that is more commonly associated with theories of extraterrestrial life. This latter sphere is ballooning: while there has been an overall decline in UFO sightings, belief in extraterrestrials and the efficacy of the UFO phenomena is rising. There’s many potential explanatory factors one could point to: the steady trickle of revelations concerning the US government’s ongoing interest in UFOs (from emails unearthed by Wikileaks concerning John Podesta’s involvement in UFO research to the US Navy’s announcement of a UFO documentation operation, which followed in the wake of that video of an alleged close encounter we all saw), as well as the popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens. But Pasulka goes beyond the limitations of merely listing examples, and points to what underscores them: the mass proliferation of means that enable hyperconnectivity, predominantly in the form of social media technology. Alluding to the way in which old sci-fi framed the anomalous experiences undergone by Whitley Strieber (as recorded in his book Communion), she writes:

Whitley’s consumption of Hollywood’s B movies occurred many years ago. Things have changed a lot since then. We don’t have to imagine how this experience has changed. We just have to flip open our laptops or engage our telephones—or even just consult our memories—to recognize (re-cognize) the reality. It’s as if our imaginations have become exterior to ourselves, existing out there in our media, and our media then determines what is in our heads. Where does the spectator end and the screened media event begin? Where do we draw these boundaries? As Andy Clark has observed in his research into extended cognition, the assumption that cognition is brain-bound, or that it just occurs within the skull, is wrong. Cognition occurs within a network that extends into the environment. 

The modern binary of “human” and “machine” is shown to be the real fake, not new religious forms, populated as they are with nonhuman persons and intelligences.

The line that she pursues tracks into the studies of N. Katherine Hayles, who in books like How We Became Posthuman and How We Think pulls apart the ways in which the co-evolution of humans and technology—a process she calls “technogenesis”—induces transformations in the way in which cognition itself unfolds. It’s a provocative line, and is largely left hanging, in need of further elucidation, but the other level, the one that remains obscured, occurs when we compare the relationship between religion and explosions of mass media. The revolution in social media that is most comparable, in terms of magnitude and paradigm-shift, is the introduction of the printing press in the late 1400s. Examined from the position of religious history, this technology quickly became an accelerant in the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent formation of bourgeois society. So pronounced was the effect of this paradigm shift that cities and towns within 10 miles of a printing press were 57.4% more likely to have converted to Protestantism by the year 1600.

Pulaska does make note of the impact of technology on religious transformation, writing that the “mass production of Bibles in the common language of the people soon gave rise to the doctrine of Sola scriptura or Scripture Alone, according to which scripture is the only reliable and necessary guide for Christian faith and practice”. This was the heart of the Reformation—but was also the heart of an apparently unending schism. Reformist successors like John Calvin and Thomas Müntzer made use of the possibilities of the printing press to go beyond Luther; in each case, the open-ended possibilities of re-evaluation and revision became fuel for political and social unrest, effectively setting in motion a series of revolts and conflicts. Going down the line and you arrive at shifting waves of migration, as theological secession opened into outright relocation, resulting in multiple taking flight to the new world.

The depiction of scientist-believers in American Cosmic often takes on the sheen of Catholicism—something that becomes overt with Tyler’s late-game religious conversion. We’re also maybe invited to draw comparisons between the Vatican astronomers and physicists, whose work probes the interzone where faith and the pursuit and science connect, and the way that the scientist-believers conduct themselves: faith in the existence of the phenomena, methodologically rigorous in their approach. While at the highest level the two domains—scientist-believer and mass culture—can be flattened into a singular continuum revolving around the figure of the UFO, digging into the specifies of their distinctions reveals profound tensions. The former appears more doctrinal, the latter willing to engage in constant (re)interpretation and proliferation. In many cases, the possibilities opened by the convergent of overall technological development with the deepening use of social media complicates the work of the scientist-believers; Scott Browne, the hardnosed believer-debunker, frets about the increasing difficulty in being able to find and maintain firm interpretations of photographs. If he’s a pursuing a religious vocation as Pulaska suggests, it is clear the conflict here is the struggle to maintain an orthodoxy in the face of a rising tide of the unorthodox. The split, in other words, recalls that between Catholicism and Protestantism.

There are, of course, limits to this parallel. The ‘orthodoxy’ of the scientist-believers is by no means established, and Paluska herself draws comparisons between them and the early Christians. At present, it is something of a subculture, hidden away and castigated by the status quo as frivolous absurdity, even if it is actively stalking the halls of power (here, she uses the language of camouflage, raising all sorts of unsettling speculations). Likewise, the relationship between these networks of belief and the technological environment that empowers them isn’t linear at all, because they are implicated within one another on a fundamental level. The usual historical understanding of cause and effect, on the side of the orthodox and the unorthodox and that of subculture and technology, is all scrambled. This is probably to be expected.

Going through this book, my mind drifted back to some of the materials I found in Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. At one point, when talking about the overarching flatness of homogenizing global capitalism, he suggests, curiously, that this manifests in the decline of cults:

There’s an optimistic way to describe the results of these trends: today, you can’t start a cult. Forty years ago, people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known. From the Communist Party to the Hare Krishnas, large numbers of people thought they could join some enlightened vanguard that would show them the Way. Very few people take unorthodox ideas seriously today, and the mainstream sees that as a sign of progress. We can be glad that there are fewer crazy cults now, yet that gain has come at great cost: we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.

A response to Thiel was written by Peter Suderman in Reason magazine, and it is about what one would expect from a libertarian publication: the function that cults and fringe subcultures once served have been replaced by the rise of market-compatible lifestyles. “Subcultures now are atomized and personalized, crossbred and constantly evolving”, and to look back at their heyday is to betray “a form of nostalgia for an older order”. In some respects this actually does come close to Thiel’s own position—he recommends that start-ups be run akin to cults—but Suderman misses the Thiel’s Girardian critique (which I wrote about in my previous poast) of the entropic trend towards mimesis that marketization induces. The atomized subculture, from this position, would be precisely the problem.

But if Pulaska is right, then Thiel too is utterly wrong. Strange beliefs are once again surging upwards.


Thiel’s Party


Between the 14th and 16th of July, a conference took place in Washington DC that seemed to have largely slipped under the radar. Titled the “National Conservatism conference”, it was organized and funded primarily by the Edmund Burke Foundation—a conservative philanthropy that, while based in the Netherlands (in the Hague, to be more specific), boasts ties to the better-known litany of neoliberal think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) It’s an indication of a shifting economic climate: both Heritage and the AEI (the latter of which responded critically to much of the conference) have been longtime promoters of what has been called the “Washington Consensus”, which takes a deregulatory approach, coupled to managed globalization via free trade agreements and an agenda of privatization, as the optimal baseline for economic growth. The conference, by contrast, was a debate over the merits of the economic nationalism that has taken root in various forms around the group, typified in the United States by the Trump administration’s skepticism of free trade and the willingness to amplify the use of protectionist measures that had previously taken a back seat, only to be wheeled out in exceptional circumstances.

This sense of economic nationalism appears as the the right-wing counterpart to the critique of neoliberalism that has been the calling card of the populist and social democratic left—but in place of their litany of intellectuals and advocates, the conference’s roster of economic nationalists offers a counter-lineage, one that includes Fox New’s chief right-populist pundit Tucker Carlson and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Thiel himself gave the keynote address to inagurate the conference’s opening, which he titled “The Star Trek Computer is Not Enough”.

According to a summary of the talk posted on Medium (the talks themselves have yet to have been made public, assuming they will be at all), Thiel reiterated his well-known concerns over the efficacy of so-called ‘post-industrial’ growth:

Google is building the Star Trek computer. It knows everything and can answer all of your questions. It’s organizing the world’s information.

But now let’s ask the question on the level of the U.S.: Are people’s living standards improving? Silicon Valley says yes, but their story is at odds with what people are experiencing on the ground.

There’s been a lot of innovation in the world of bits and software, but not in atoms — real, hard engineering problems. If you had been in college a few decades ago, it would have been a bad career move to go into engineering at Stanford. Instead, there has been a narrow cone of progress around bits (software). (Note: This has been a consistent point in Thiel’s talks.)

Maybe we’ve built the Star Trek computer, but we don’t have anything else from the Star Trek universe. We’ve had a few decades of relative stagnation. The younger generation is now finding it a struggle to live up to the living standards of Baby Boomers.

It’s worth looking deeper at Thiel’s claims. The prevailing economic context indeed looks grim. Despite the rapid introduction of new technologies and the excited rhetoric of paradigm-shattering shifts in the make-up of the contemporary American techno-industrial super-structure, there’s been a marked slowdown in productivity since at least 2004. Wage stagnation has been a long-running reality. Even prior the America-China trade war, global trade has been experiencing a decline, as has business investment spending, despite there being a literal superabundance of capital at the global level. For well-over a year, the Bank for International Settlements has issued warnings that raise the specter of a looming recession, noting the existence of a global ‘debt trap’ and the accelerating decreasing returns in the strategy of quantitative easing pursued by worldwide central banks following the Great Recession. Flipping to a Marxist perspective, the rate of profit appears to be moribund, which Marxist economists like Michael Roberts have linked to the deceleration in investment spending.

Other leftist and Marxist thinkers and economists have pointed to a period of stagnation much lengthier than the years clustered around the Recession: the aforementioned Roberts, Yanis Varoufakis, Wolfgang Streeck, Michael Hudson, Robert Brenner, Robert Kurz and others have pointed to the emergence of a terminal conditions in the early 1970s, thus wrapping stagnation into the whole of the so-called globalizing era and the ascendancy of finance capital (I also argued this in Uncertain Futures, using both the Marxist rate of profit and the ‘techno-economic paradigm’ model of Perez and Freeman). Thiel, along with fellow arch-stagnationist Tyler Cowen, shares this frame of time with the left. For Cowen, stagnation arises in the situation in which the ‘low-hanging fruit’—that is, innovations capable of producing high returns— have been ‘picked’ (for a critical take, even anti-stagnationist take on Cowen’s argument, check out Kevin Carson’s analysis).

Thiel’s position is similar to Cowen’s, with several key differences. Like Cowen, he sees the phenomenon of decreasing returns, particularly where information technology is concerned, as an actuality—though this is not first and foremost the reason for stagnation. The replacement of innovations that drive high rates of growth with those that promote low-growth corresponds with the decline of a government willing to underwrite the costs in the promotion of innovation itself. It’s a distinct break with the sort of libertarian orthodoxy that one might expect Thiel to be inclined towards. To quote his 2011 essay “The End of the Future”:

The most common name for a misplaced emphasis on macroeconomic policy is “Keynesianism.” Despite his brilliance, John Maynard Keynes was always a bit of a fraud, and there is always a bit of clever trickery in massive fiscal stimulus and the related printing of paper money. But we must acknowledge that this fraud strangely seemed to work for many decades. (The great scientific and technological tailwind of the 20th century powered many economically delusional ideas.) Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, innovation expanded new and emerging fields as divergent as radio, movies, aeronautics, household appliances, polymer chemistry, and secondary oil recovery. In spite of their many mistakes, the New Dealers pushed technological innovation very hard.

The New Deal deficits, however misguided, were easily repaid by the growth of subsequent decades. During the Great Recession of the 2010s, by contrast, our policy leaders narrowly debate fiscal and monetary questions with much greater erudition, but have adopted a cargo-cult mentality with respect to the question of future innovation. As the years pass and the cargo fails to arrive, we eventually may doubt whether it will ever return. The age of monetary bubbles naturally ends in real austerity.

In his book Zero to One (undoubtedly the downright oddest selection in the vast, dull library of business lit), the gulf between Thiel and the libertarians is even more pronounced. Drawing somewhat covertly on the works of Rene Girard, he contrasts “horizontal or extensive progress”, in which progress proceeds through memetic imitation, and “vertical or intensive progress”, described as “doing new things”. Here’s a rather simple image he provides to illustrate this in Zero to One:


“At the macro-level”, he writes, “the single word for horizontal progress is globalizationtaking things that work somewhere and making them work elsewhere”. Horizontal progress, in other words, corresponds to the unbridled expansion of the market—with the implication that the market ultimately diverges from the production of new innovations. It’s a bracing inversion of the conclusions drawn by the left-libertarians (and the right-libertarians, when they’re being honest) from the classical Braudelian distinction between markets and capitalism, in which capitalism—as a top-down concentration of power that sets prices—is presented as an anti-market system, with markets (or ‘micro-capitalisms’) behind a bottom-up series of fluid organizations that take prices. Against those who would side with the market against capitalism, Thiel, when read from the Braudelian framing, seems to affirm capitalism against the market. But there’s also an interesting, albeit warped, symmetry with Marx’s analysis: for Marx, capitalism unfolds and reproduces itself through the unity of the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation, but it is the sphere of production—which undergoes intensive transformation in accordance with the intensification of productivity—which is primary. The sphere of circulation, manifesting as the world market, undergoes extensive growth in accordance with this intensive transformation.

The intensive production of the new, for Thiel, is of course technology. Hence:


Thiel thus argues that dual subordination of ‘economic progress’ to the mimetic flows of the globalizing market and ‘technological progress’ to the computer is the machine that produces stagnation. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”.

This drive, to turn from supposed market-led innovation to the intensive technological progression, brings us back to the National Conservatism conference. From one direction, economic nationalism’s skepticism toward globalization and willingness to pursue protectionism appears as the cousin to Thiel’s critique of the horizontalist market. From another direction, however, it remains in a secondary position to his primary concern, which is a state willing to play an active role in development. It’s interesting, then, to note that a debate between Oren Cass (former policy director for the Mitt Romney campaign and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research) and Richard Reinsch (a fellow at the libertarian Liberty Fund) took place over the topic of industrial policy. The outcome?

Let’s switch gears a bit and look to Perez’s model of techno-economic paradigms, which is itself an updating of Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of ‘long waves’ of economic development. Without going down the rabbit hole too deeply, a brief summary is in order. For Perez, techno-economic paradigms constitute the rhythm of capitalist development, which unfolding through cycles organized by ‘lead technologies’ whose introductions are capable of obliterating past forms of organization, class composition and governance, and therefore call into being new forms appropriate to the demands of that cycle. Each paradigm is split into two primary phases: the installation phase, in which the new lead technology and the cluster of correlated technological objects and systems are rolled-out, clashing with the legacy of the old, attracting investment, setting off bubble growth, etc. The second phase is the deployment phase, the ‘Golden Age’ of the paradigm in which all forms of organization are reset, growth and investment rates stabilize, and eventually begin to stagnate, priming conditions for the new installation phase to come.

The seperation of the installation and deployment phases are punctuated by a turning point, which manifests as a crisis (usually, in Perez’s work, driven by the bubble that inevitability grows in the installation phase, through from a Marxist perspective I have serious quibbles with situating this as primary). The crisis annihilates old capital, clears malinvestment, and sets the condition for the institutional recomposition that underwrites the golden age. All in all, the totality of a given rhythmic cycle looks something like this:

perez_cycle_0 (1)

Leaving aside the question of the possibility of a long-range stagnationist trend since the 1970s, we can perhaps position the Recession as the turning-point crisis in the current wave. This shakes apart a sizeable portion of Thiel’s position, by recontextualizing the interdeterminacy of his model into the motion of capitalist development: it’s by no coincidence that he points backwards the New Deal and its role in prompting innovation and growth, because the New Deal was the indicator of the institutional recomposition that occurred following the Great Depression, which was the turning point-crisis of the previous wave of growth. Fast forward to the aftermath of the Great Recession, and nothing of the sort occurred. In the midst of the crisis, a handful of President Obama’s advisors urged him to embark on a massive program akin to a New Deal, but the policy solutions that went forward—those that emerged a prominent faction of advisors picked from the ranks of the laughably-named Hamilton Project, a finance capital-aligned policy initiative at the Brookings Institute and launched by veterans of President Clinton’s economic team—moved against this.

While dashed to pieces on the reef of centrist policy, echoes of this agenda have haunted the fringes (fringes which, incidentally, have become something of a counter-mainstream as the years wear on) of the Democratic Party. The now-much derided Green New Deal, which emerged first around 2006, became a central spoke in the policy agenda presidential hopeful Jill Stein in 2012 and 2016, while Bernie Sanders adopted elements of it—alongside calls for a more generalized, yet comprehensive, program for economic redevelopment and infrastructure revitalization—in both his 2016 and current-day election campaigns. A veritable Green New Deal wing of the Democrats emerged in 2018, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey unveiled a rather oblique policy proposal. Assaulted by both the Republican Party and the mainstream of the Democrats, the Green New Deal proposition appears dead in the water, legislatively speaking, though it has been partially taken up by environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion.

Besides the Green New Deal, we could also look at the proposals put forward by Andrew Yang. There is, of course, the “Freedom Dividend”, a universal basic income of $1000 for each US citizen over the age of eighteen (to be financed, embarrassingly, by a value-added tax). More interesting, however, are his proposals to reposition government as a driver of innovation, with massive subsidies for medical research, the re-creation of the Office of Technological Assessment, and a large-scale public works program for infrastructure. Most interesting—and bizarre—is his rather Promethean proposal for a “Legion of Builders and Destroyers”:

Rechannel 10% of the military budget – approximately $60 billion per year – to a new domestic infrastructure force called the Legion of Builders and Destroyers. The Legion would be tasked with keeping our country strong by making sure our bridges, roads, power grid, levies, dams, and infrastructure are up-to-date, sound and secure.  It would also be able to clear derelict buildings and structures that cause urban blight in many of our communities and respond to natural disasters. The Legion would prioritize projects based on national security, economic impact, and regional equity.  Its independent budget would ensure that our infrastructure would be constantly upgraded regardless of the political climate.  The Commander of the Legion would have the ability to overrule local regulations and ordinances to ensure that projects are started and completed promptly and effectively.

From the left to the right, the increasing call for industrial policies, public banks, infrastructure development, government-assisted innovation, New Deals, etc, are all responses to the growing recognition of the necessity for an institutional recomposition. If the National Conservatism conference can be treated as a measure (not to mention Trump’s own economic nationalism), the agenda appears to be advancing relatively smoothly in the ranks of the right. On the left, however, the various propositions have failed to congeal into a coherent tendency, and as of now remain scattered in the wind. This is in no doubt at least partially due to the rear-guard attack that the mainstream of the Democratic Party has been carrying out, choosing to pursue the disruption of Trump via the chase of conspiracy theories, all the while conceeding crucial ground. It’s thus an ironic situation: it has repeatedly failed to address the underlying crisis, even in the limited capacity it can (limited because the Democratic Party, like its Republican counterpart, is a party of the bourgeoisie), even though this crisis is a primary cause of right-populism that it so detests.

Marx on Geometric Change (2. Interest-Bearing Capital)

Screenshot from 2017-07-01 23-51-31

The Good Doctor

The second area in which we find Marx raising questions around geometrical growth occurs in the course of his analysis of interest-bearing capital. Just as the discussions of geometrical growth with respect to mechanization appeared in primarily in the Grundrisse and the three volumes of Capital (namely, the first and third volumes), it is in these same places that we return.

In a subsection of the Grundrisse titled “Dr. Price. Innate Power of Capital”, Marx undertakes a fragmentary critique of the British moral philosopher and political economist Richard Price, whose 1772 essay An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of National Debt had held significant influence on a sizable handful of economists, intellectuals and public figures. Marx, however, has nothing but scorn to heap upon Price’s head, finding him not simply an ideologue for the capitalist order, but somebody who raises political economy to the height of an all-too-empty mysticism. The locus of this critique centers on the following passage from Price’s Appeal:

Money bearing compound interest increases at first slowly. But, the rate of increase being continually accelerated, it becomes in some time so rapid, as to mock all the powers of the imagination. One penny, put out at our savior’s birth to 5% compound interest, would, before this time, have increased to a greater sum than would be obtained in a 150 million of Earths, all solid gold. But if put out to a simple interest, it would, at the same time, have amounted to no more than 7 shillings 4 1/2d. Our government has hitherto chosen to improve money in the last, rather than the first of these ways.

Turning then to Price’s Observations on Revisionary Payments, published the same year as the Appeal, Marx notes that the economist “flies even higher”:

A shilling put out to 6% compound interest at our Saviour’s birth would… have increased to a greater sum than the whole solar system could hold, supposing it a sphere equal in diameter to to the diameter of Saturn’s orbit.

“The good Price”, Marx continues, “was simply dazzled by the enormous quantities resulting from the geometric progression of numbers”. Price’s concern was setting an adequate governmental policy governing the accumulation of capital via interest, and it would be, via the influence he bore on William Pitt, give rise to the idea of the “sinking fund”: a pool set aside for the future repayment of debts or for some unforeseen economic circumstance. Price’s drive was fueled by this creeping paranoia at what he perceived as the uncontrollable momentum of capital. In the proper circumstances, he suggested, compound interest would tend towards an upward exponential curve, a rupture cascading to literally cosmological levels.

So much mystification: Marx charges Price with “regard[ing] capital as a self-acting thing, without any regard to the conditions of [the] reproduction of labor, as a mere self-increasing number”. As outlined previously, Marx wasn’t intrinsically opposed to the possibilities of geometrical progression taking place in the capitalist system. Likewise, he would himself regard capital as something like a ‘self-acting thing’, having in Capital Volume 1 taken his ‘general formula of capital’—M-C-M’—as the basis for describing capital as a “self-moving substance” (a positioning, Moishe Postone argues, that depicts capital as the historical subject). But in this depiction of capital, labor and its reproduction stand central, with the continual destabilization of labor through the endless revolutionizing of production shooting the capitalist system through with contradictions that undermine itself. It’s worth noting, then, that the geometric progression that Marx affirms (or at least halfway affirms) is bound up precisely with this ongoing revolution.

The Grundrisse fragment on Price doesn’t go much further than it, but it’s in Capital Volume 3—the twenty-fourth chapter, “Externalization of the Relations of Capital in the Form of Interest-Bearing Capital”—that the picture is further elaborated. Much of the chapter is reiterated word-for-word from the Grundrisse, with a few added barbs thrown at Price for good measure (“the fabulous fancies of Dr. Price, which outdo by the fantasies of the alchemists”). There’s also a bit of a historical elaboration, in which Marx tracks this belief of the possibility of infinite expansion to a state made by Martin Luther in 1540 that, left unchecked, “usury [would] devour the world in a few years”. Luther thus lays down what Price would pick up: “[t]he conception of capital as a self-reproducing and self-expanding value, lasting and growing eternally by virtue of its innate properties”.

Elsewhere in the chapter he likens this notion to an understanding of capital as a “self-regulating automaton… a mere number that increases itself” not unlike the geometrical progression of the population that Malthus suggested—an argument that Marx spent so much time attacking. It’s also interesting to note this use of the word, automaton, because elsewhere in Marx’s work he affirms the usage of this term to describe other sides of capitalist dynamics. In the infamous ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse, for example, he takes up Andrew Ure‘s description of the industrial system tending towards an “automatic system of machinery”, and describes the factory as being “set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself”. Just as the understanding of capital as a “self-moving subject” is relocated from the sort of surface-level dynamics of capital being assessed by the likes of Price to its basis in labor, here the automaton too refers to the direct conditions of labor and the progressive revolution of machinery.

Returning to the Rate of Profit

The argument presented in Capital Volume 3 goes much further, however. The distinct historico-intellectual line that perceives the movement of interest-bearing capital as a self-moving, exponentiating process—Luther, Price and Pitt being the foremost examples—is not simply a case of poor analysis; it emerges as a mystification that emerges on the basis of capital’s historical development itself. Indeed, interest-bearing capital is presented as an “automatic fetish”, harkening back to the discussion at the outset of Volume 1 concerning the character of commodity fetishism. Fetishism denotes the obscuring of the human social relations by what appears as the relation between things; while in Volume 1 this is analyzed at the level of the physical commodity, what is revealed in Volume 3 is that interest-bearing capital is fetishism raised to the highest power. It is “self-expanding value, money generating money… [interest-bearing capital] no longer bears the birthmark of its origin—that is, labor.

As mentioned above, the general formula of capital is M-C-M’. This formula not only illustrates capital as the “self-moving substance”—it diagrams the unity of production and consumption, the path through which surplus value is produced and realized. Interest-bearing capital short-circuits the general formula, compressing M-C-M’ into M-M’. The unity that M-C-M’ reveals is revoked, effectively obscuring further the social relations that constituted through it. In the situation of interest-bearing capital, Marx writes, the realization of surplus value appears as having taken place “unassisted by the process of production and circulation”. If Price seizes upon interest-bearing capital as an automaton, it is this apparent evaporation of production and circulation gives rise to an image of “[c]apital… as a mysterious and self-creating source of interest—the source of its own increase. The thing (money, commodity, value) is now capital as mere thing, and capital appears as a mere thing”. Marx continues:

While interest is only a portion of the profit, i.e., of the surplus-value, which the functioning capitalist squeezes out of the labourer, it appears now, on the contrary, as though interest were the typical product of capital, the primary matter, and profit, in the shape of profit of enterprise, were a mere accessory and by-product of the process of reproduction. Thus we get the fetish form of capital and the conception of fetish capital. In M — M’ we have the meaningless form of capital, the perversion and objectification of production relations in their highest degree, the interest-bearing form, the simple form of capital, in which it antecedes its own process of reproduction. It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction — which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form.

Against this picture, Marx poses several problems. He notes that the mystified image of (compound) interest poses this mechanism as identifiable with the accumulation of capital as such, a problem that hearkens back to the vicious debates in the field of political economy—that debate between Bastiat and Proudhon coming immediately to my mind—over the nature of interest as such, as to whether or not one can produce a rigorous distinction between interest and profit. For Marx, these debates are problematized by two factors. In the first instance, there is the problem of depreciation of existing capital: Marx suggests that as the productivity of labor rises, all values undergo a decline. This is because value is reflective of the current costs of reproduction. As the amount of value modulates through each reproduction, commodity values in total adjusts to reflect this, as opposed to maintaining their historical costs. This problematizes the autonomy of compound interest, because it recontexualizes the short-circuit of M-M’ on the basis of the productive processes that it obscures.

[For a good discussion of the relationship between values and depreciation in the production process, check out Fred Moseley’s “The Determination of Constant Capital”]

The second problem proceeds organically from this. The expanded accumulation of capital, capitalist reproduction, and the progressive development of productive forces leads to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. By contrast, Marx notes, “[t]he idea that the rate of profit does not shrink is… the basis of Price’s progression and in general the basis of ‘all-engrossing capital with compound interest'”. The rate of profit, then, is the primary, and the rate of interest the secondary. There’s an interesting historical dimension to this relation that Marx notes in the Grundrisse by way of a citation from and elaboration of James William Gilbart’s The History and Principles of Banking:

‘That a man who borrows money with the intention of making a profit on it, should give a portion to the lender, is a self-evident principle of natural justice. A man makes a profit usually by means of traffic. But in the Middle Ages the population was purely agricultural. And there, like under the feudal government government, there can only be little traffic and hence little profit… Hence the usury laws in the Middle Ages justified… Furthermore: in an agricultural country a person seldom wants to borrow money except he be reduced to poverty or distress by misery.’ Henry VIII limited interest to 10%, James I to 8, Charles II to 6, Anne to 5. In those days, the lenders were, if not legal, still actual monopolists, and thus it was necessary to place the under restraint like other monopolists. In our time the rate of profit governs the rate of interest; in those days the rate of interest governed the rate of profit.  [my emphasis]

The implications of this are further elaborated in the twenty-second chapter of Volume 3. Here, Marx takes up the rate of interest directly, arguing that if it is subordinated to the rate of profit, then the rate of profit is, in itself, the upper limit of the rate of interest. It is, however, an impossible limit: if the rate of interest was equalized with the rate of profit, then the profit realized by the “productive capitalist” would be precisely zero. Now, this doesn’t mean that it cannot happen in the case of an individual capitalist’s or firm’s rate of profit: a productive enterprise operating on the basis of borrowed capital can, in fact, realize profit at a level low enough to be consumed entirely by what is dictated by the rate of interest. But at the high level—that is, when we move from the level of competition to the level of capital in general—this is a marked impossibility in the longer run. The delirious exultation and paranoia of the exponentiating climb of compound interest collides with the machinery of production itself.