Meanwhile, in Kentucky

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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.

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The New Religion and Its Schisms

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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.

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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

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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:

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“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:

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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)

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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.

 

Marx on Geometric Change (1. The Rate of Profit)

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While… productive power increases in a geometric, the extension of markets proceeds at best in an arithmetic ratio. —Engels, preface to the 1886 English edition of Capital Vol. 1

Change and Progress

Theories of ‘accelerating change’ are mostly commonly associated with a particular strain of techno-utopian thought, concentrated primarily on the libertarian—and perhaps at this point, postlibertarianside of the politico-economic spectrum. The fabled law proposed by Gordon Moore, the co-founder of the Fairchild Semiconductor company and later CEO of Intel, is exemplary in this regard. In its earlier form, unveiled first in a 1965 paper bearing the cumbersome title of “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits”, and updated a decade later with “Progress in Digital Integrated Electronics”, the law suggests that the average speed of processors, the source of a computer’s processing power, would double every time years. While it would become something of self-fulfilling prophecy, with the eighteen month-to-two year time horizon becoming targets that the industry strove to hit, its recognition triggered a veritable cascading of other exponential trends: the falling movement of information technology pricing; Keck’s Law and Butter’s Law of Photonics, both of which concern the amount of capable of moving through fiber optic cables; the Carlson Curve, which concerns biotechnologies like gene sequencing; so on and so forth.

In the hands of futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, the sort of auto-magnifying trend that underscores Moore’s Law becomes identified as a condition of technological development as such—if not the general condition for any and all evolutionary processes, of which technological development becomes only a particular iteration. For Kurzweil, it is the “law of accelerating returns”; integrating Moore’s Law with W. Brian Arthur’s insights into the phenomenon of increasing returns and lock-in effects (which arose, incidentally, through studies of nascent tech industries in the 1980s), this forms the basis of what constitutes something of an eschatology. “[T]echnology, particularly the pace of technological change”, he writes, “and has been doing so since the advent of technology, indeed since the advent of evolution on Earth”—adding then that this culminates at the Singularity, the imminent situation in which this rate of change becomes “so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history”. Similarly, Marovec extrapolates from these trends a host of near-unimaginable technological advances.

Despite the cutting-edge character of these sorts of theories, their fundamental core—that science and technology has an accelerative character, graspable as exponential or geometrical progression—is not in itself new. In 1904, the American history Henry Adams proposed a “law of acceleration”, which if properly elucidated could serve as a silver key for unlocking the inner motion of “all history, terrestrial or cosmic, mechanical or intellectual”. Adams would elaborate further on this law in his 1909 work The Degradation of Democratic Dogmawhere he argued that not only were developments in science and technology unfolding in an exponential rate, but that they also unfold in series of phases (e.g. the “mechanical phase”, the “electrical phase”, and the “ethereal phase”) tending towards the “control of cosmic forces on a cosmic scale”.

A very similar line of thinking appears in R. Buckminster Fuller’s notion of “ephemeralization”, which made its first appearance in his 1938 book Nine Chains to the Moon. It too is a theory of exponential change; inspired by the great acceleration of industrial productive power set-off by Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line, Fuller’s ephemeralization offered an understanding of efficiency as the situation in which output increases while input decreases—a tendency not towards ever-bigger, more concentrated production or the small-scale alternative that is so often reactively posited as the alternative, but the progressive honing of the ability to do more with less. As he wrote in his later work Critical Path (1981), “[e]phemeralization trends toward an ultimate doing of everything with nothing at all, which is a trend of the omniweighable physical to be mastered by the omniweightless metaphysics of intellect”.

A whole series of different components serve as the intersecting lines that give rise to these various articulations of accelerating change. There is, of course, the interrelated forces of scientific development and technological evolution that have progressively diffused over, above, and below the thin surface of the our terrestrial sphere, penetrated deep into every pore of society. On another level, there is the mathematical history of exponent or geometrical processes, which curiously appears as having always bore a striking relationship to economics: in an interesting history of ‘exponential law’, Lorenzo Curtis cites several Babylonian cuneiform tablets, dating back to around 2000 B.C., that pose questions around the moving value of precious metals in relation to annual interest rates; while the tablets fall short of discovering exponential law proper due to an inability to develop a mechanism for dealing with continuous rates of change, the tablets clearly usher in this direction (and serve as an interesting addendum to Sohn-Rethel’s argument that abstract thought itself is ultimately downstream from the social emergence of money). Fast forward to 1826 and we find Thomas Malthus, in An Essay on the Principle of Population, locking geometrical change into political economy via his (in)famous formula: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio”.

As Curtis points out, the term “exponent” derives from the French exposant, which was also used for “index”. In his history, Curtis makes the point that successive multiplication series were expressed formulaicly , beginning with Rene Descartes’ La Geometrie (an appendix to his 1637 Discourse on Method) as right superscript index—though perhaps we can make a more generalized point regarding this relation: the exponential curve in development serving as an index of the more abstract notion of progress, the other line that courses through discourses around accelerating change. The ideal of progress too is baked into the foundations of political economy; it was Adam Smith, after all, who proposed a progression across four stages of development. Smith begins with ‘hunting societies’ that, via the introduction of animal domestication, advanced into the ‘age of shepherds’. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for agricultural societies—and these societies, by generating a high degree of independence for various economic actors and a compounding surplus of goods, tend inexorably towards the epoch of commerce. Smith’s theory is a stadialism, in which society and culture pass through a series of fixed stages. If Meghnad Desai is correct, Marx’s own writings bore the imprint of this thread running through the Scottish Enlightenment: from Smith’s four stages of hunting, shepherd, agricultural and commercial societies to Marx’s fivefold progression through primitive communism, slave societies, feudal societies, capitalism and socialism.

It has often been remarked that Marx abandoned stadialism towards the end of his life, exemplified by his turn to anthropological studies and the revolutionary questions surrounding the Russian agricultural commune. This thesis has been laid to waste, however, by Raya Dunayevskaya (in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Theory of Revolution) and Kevin Anderson (in Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies), both of whom demonstrate quite clearly that while Marx’s early writings did indeed contain elements of stadialism, this progressively fell away in the period between the period that birthed Communist Manifesto and the early prepatory work on what would become Capital—in other words, decades prior to the anthropological turn, which appears here as the summit of this long-burning theoretical development.

This is further indicative of Marx’s complex and oppositional stance towards the very ideology of progress, at least in the presentation of a smooth, linear movement that dictates historical development. Such a movement ultimately cashes itself out in an positivistic understanding of science; consider, for example, Auguste Comte, who under the influence of Henri Saint-Simon (whose followers, the Saint-Simonians, were among the utopian socialists attacked by Marx and Engels) and Anne Roberts Jacques Turgot (a French physiocrat whose ideas freely circulated with those gesticulating in the Scottish Enlightenment, and who shared with Smith the four-stepped model of history) developed a stadialist law of scientific development. “The Law of Progress”, as he described it, holds that human intellectual development is the motor of historical development, which unfolds through the evolution of science. Each science passes through three stages: a theological stage, in which the laws governing nature are attributed to the divine; the metaphysical stage, which replaces divinity with the philosophical articulation of abstract essences, and the positive stage, in which science itself unmoors philosophy through the proper explications of natural laws as they are in themselves. The positivist approach would not only help lay the ideological justifications for the technocratic threading running through progressivist managerialism to “End of Ideology” liberalism to “End of History” neoliberalism, but also influenced theorists of accelerating change like Henry Adams, who clearly aligned the universal triumph of positivism with the apex moment of transhistorically-occurring exponentiating techno-scientific development.

Detailing the full Marxist critique of positivism is far beyond the scope of this present set of scribblings, so it is suffice to say while Marx did indeed share certain commonalities with the nascent perspective, his position on science and technology emphasized their relation to the wider social ensemble in which they were developed. In this schema, science often lagged behind technological development that in turn produced it, while also bearing the mark of that social ensemble. Consider his comments on Descartes in a footnote to chapter 15 of Capital Volume 1, that by “defining animals as mere machines, [Descates] saw with eyes of the manufacturing period”, or the famous description of Darwin as having reflected the attitudes of British political economists in his study of the natural sciences. And yet, at the same time, there is a side of technology that unfixes these assumptions (without, however, falling into positivism) as indicated in another footnote to Capital Volume 1, chapter 15:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.

There is thus something of a notion of progress at work here, but it no longer resembles the organic and linear progression messily sketched above—a natural compliment of Marx’s own break with the stadialist account of history that the ideology of progress is wedded to. This would seem to shake the latter theorists of accelerating change at their very core, precisely by injecting contingency and a decidedly non-linear understanding of progress into their baseline assumptions, which ultimately depend on deterministic accounts of history. It is interesting to find, then, that Marx himself discovers within the movement of capitalist development a cascading accelerative change in the technical side of production, which he interprets precisely through the frame of exponential or geometrical growth. This sense of geometric change doesn’t conform precisely to the those of later theorists. It complicates the picture, denying the smoothness of the upward-curving trendline—a corrective that is apt and immediately relevant in the current time, when techno-scientific explosions and singularitarian moments have failed to materialized and the specter that haunts the world is not one of unlimited progress, but a profound and seemingly-unending stagnation.

Explosion and Crisis

Marx only makes a scattered handful of references to ‘geometrical progression’ in his work, with the bulk of these to be found in the Grundrisse and Capital Volume 3. There are three points in which he takes up the language: in his critique of Malthus, in the explication of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and in his discussion of interest-bearing capital. In the separate discussions around Malthus and interest-bearing capital, his comments with regards to geometrical trends is negative, while in the context of the rate of profit and its tendency to fall, he affirms an account of exponential change—albeit with conditions. I’m going to avoid the critique of Malthus (best leave this to future blog posts!) and relegate the discussion around interest-bearing capital to a follow-up post to this one. This leaves the relationship between geometrical change and the rate of profit to be drawn out in full here.

First, a few words about the rate of profit and its fall. Marx was not the first to have recognized the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, with important precursors to his work having been identified by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. As Philip Mirowski describes, “[t]he classical long-period conception of the rate of profit was a quantum which was a center of gravity towards which subsets of the economy were constantly moving”. In Ricardo’s reading of Smith, the possibility for the rate of profit to fall emerged from increased competition. Simply put, the greater the competitive pressures of the market, the more the amount of profit capable of being realized on the basis of a given commodity decreased downwards, tending towards the very cost that was required to produce this commodity. It’s worth pointing out that Ricardo’s reading of Smith has been contested; in an illuminating essay, Francisco Verdera has suggested that Smith’s understanding of the falling rate of profit was a more direct precursor of Marx’s own, which emphasizes the centrality of developments in productivity.

At any rate, Marx accepted Ricardo’s reading of Smith, though he categorically rejected Ricardo’s own suggestion, against Smith, that increases in wages drove down the rate of profit. In making this proposition, Ricardo made the tendency of the rate of profit something that is ultimately contingent and bound to employee/employer relations, while Marx understood the tendency as one of the inner laws of motion governing capitalism. Similarly, Marx utilized a distinction between capital as such or capital in general and competition, which corresponded respectively to the production of surplus value (surplus value being, of course, the ultimate source of profit) and the distribution of surplus value, in which surplus value was distributed across the various branches of industry in accordance to the movement of the market (I’ve written a little bit on this distinction elsewhere). Because capital in general took primacy over competition—in other words, the sphere of production, as opposed to the sphere of circulation, as the source of capitalist determination—Smith’s market-based theory (or Ricardo’s reading of Smith’s theory that Marx took up) of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall likewise could not hold.

Marx’s most mature version of the theory, which is found imbedded implicitly in the Grundrisse but only made explicit, in its full terminological might, in the three volumes of Capital, revolves around what he calls the organic composition of capital. The organic composition of capital is the ratio of constant capital to variable capital, with constant capital marking the value of machinery, raw materials, and other non-human inputs into the production process, while variable capital concerns the investments in wagesThese are the requirements for the production of commodities, which are then sold on the market; for the capitalist, the goal is recuperate these investment outlays (the ‘recovery’ of constant and variable capital), plus an excess above them—surplus value, realized as profit. The rate of profit, then, is the ratio of profit—at the level of the totality of the capitalist system—to the total capital. Expressed as a formula, this p’=s/(c+v), where p’ is the rate of profit, s is surplus value, c is constant capital and v is variable capital.

At this level, this seems all very straightforward. The problem arises, however, when we consider the ultimate origins of surplus value. Surplus value may be realized via competition in the sphere of circulation, but it is produced in the sphere of production. The English rendering is a little obsfucating in this regard: surplus value is translated from the German word mehrwert, meaning “value-added”. For Marx, surplus value arises in the first instance from the excess above their necessary-labor time, which is to say the actual value of their labor. The amount of this excess is, in turn, a question of the level of productivity that governs the dynamics of the industrial process, which brings Marx to the tendency of the organic composition to rise. Over time, capital must ever-increase the level of productivity, which leads to a higher rate of investment in constant capital over variable capital. A corresponding increase in the excess beyond necessary-labor time occurs—a situation in which the number of commodities produced climbs ever higher, though each commodity reflects less value. Extrapolated across the totality of capitalism, the falling amounts of value translates into a falling rate of profit, which is easily obscured by, on the one hand, a growing mass of profits held by certain capitals, and on the other by a generalized condition of overproduction. Capital thus simultaneously puts into motion an upswing of efficiency and productivity and a contradictory fault-line that courses through the whole of the system, in which this upswing clashes with the very foundation of the system. Marx’s enthusiasm for this discovery radiates through the following passage, found in the Grundrisse: 

This is in every respect the most important law of modern political economy, and the most essential for understanding the most difficult relations. It is the most important law from the historical standpoint. It is a law which, despite its simplicity, has never before been grasped and, even less, consciously articulated.

It is precisely at this point that Marx brings the language of geometrical progression into play, as a theory not of external techno-economic innovation, but as the internal trans-innovation tendency to increase the productivity of labor through predominantly technical means:

Every increase in the mass of capital employed can increase the productive force not only at an arithmetical but at a geometrical rate; although it can increase profit at the same time—as increase of productive force—only at a much lower rate. The influence of the increase of capital on the increase of productive force is thus infinitely greater than that of the increase of the productive force on the growth of capital.

In the thought experiment that gives rise to this suggestion, the “mass of capital” alludes to both of what would become known as constant and variable capital, that is, the organic composition. In keeping with general investment trends, both are increasing, though constant capital is increasing at a rate much higher than that of variable capital. Thus we have the possibility of a rising rate of profit, but the rate of productivity itself runs far ahead it. Insights like these are perhaps the source of the suggestion made by Engels, quoted at the outset of this post, that productive power increases at a geometrical or exponential rate, in contrast to the arithmetical rate that the market increases. The wording of course is vague and difficult to quantify (how exactly would market increases be measured arithmetically in a way that can be compared with exponentiating productivity?), but what is telling is the way that it maps across the distinction between the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation: with the former developing at a much higher rate than the latter, we arrive back at this problem bracing capital, the specter of overproduction (and at the limit, the absolute crisis of overproduction).

When we move from the simultaneous-yet-unequal increase of constant and variable capital to the point in which variable capital investments stay stationary over time or begin to fall, the tendency of the rate of profit manifests itself proper. The exponential churn of productivity gives rise to crisis; while Marx never truly offered a comprehensive crisis theory, he remained adamant that the falling rate of profit was an integral component in their realization. In the Grundrisse, Marx begins to form a picture of crises exhibiting a rhythmic character, periodic events that explode the ebb and flow of the rate of profit. Drawing a picture that brings to mind Benjamin’s vision of history as a succession of compounding catastrophes, Marx offers us the following apocalyptic image:

…the highest development of productive power together with the greatest expansion of existing wealth will coincide with depreciation of capital, degradation of the labourer, and a most straitened exhaustion of his vital powers. These contradictions lead to explosions, cataclysms, crises, in which by momentaneous suspension of labour and annihilation of a great portion of capital the latter is violently reduced to the point where it can go on. These contradictions, of course, lead to explosions, crises, in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide. Yet, these regularly recurring catastrophes lead to their repetition on a higher scale, and finally to its violent overthrow.

There’s a common argument that Marx’s early writings, such as the Communist Manifesto, where written under the cloud of a capitalism seeming like it was the verge of imminent collapse. There’s an immediacy to these texts, which were after all written in the context of an economic depression that rocked Europe and served as an accelerator for the class struggle. Later writings like Capital, however, are often seen as having abandoned this position, replacing the atmosphere of turbulence and violence with a more gradualistic, evolutionary understanding of capitalist development. If this schema is accurate, the Grundrisse appears as something as a halfway point: as the quote above clearly illustrates, the sense of capitalism’s catastrophic character and inevitable violent collapse is retained. But something else is emerging alongside this. The catastrophe of economic crisis might be taking on a rhythmic character that is chugging its way towards an ultimate breakdown, but they also serve to forestall its advent by “lead[ing] it [capital] back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide”.

By the time Marx was working on the 1861-63 manuscripts, this picture had become more pronounced. To quote from a section titled “General Law of the Fall in the Rate of Profit”:

The whole of the Ricardian and Malthusian school is a cry of woe over the day of judgement this process would inevitably bring about, since capitalist production is the production of profit, hence loses its stimulus, the soul which animates it, with the fall in this profit. Other economists have brought forward grounds of consolation, which are not less characteristic. But apart from theory there is also the practice, the crises from  superabundance of capital or, what comes to the same, the mad adventures capital enters upon in consequence of the lowering of [the] rate of profit. Hence crises—see Fullarton—acknowledged as a necessary violent means for the cure of the plethora of capital, and the restoration of a sound rate of profit.

This is the mature understanding that would be cemented in place in the three volumes of Capital. The apocalyptic moment, in which capital hits its absolute limit, falls into the background, and what rises to the fore is a something that could neither be described as linear (the straightforward progression of the the rate of profit downwards into crisis) nor cyclical (the momentary lapse in a rate of profit brought back to stability), but something like a spiral: an overarching tendency, punctuated by rises and falls, periods of stability and crisis, that is constantly changing, constantly evolving, constantly compressing itself into higher phases of productivity that are violently assaulted by their hidden implications.

The Historical Mission and Its Discontents 

A recurring motif in Marx’s writings is an emphasis on the joint-stock company acting as  reflection not only of capital’s tendency towards mass-scale exploitation, but of the progressive element, the side that is angled towards a world beyond capital. Take the letter from Marx to Engels, dated April 2nd 1858, where Marx provides the first faint outline of the project that became Capital:

Capital falls into 4 sections. a) Capital en général (This is the substance of the first instalment) b) Competition or the interaction of many capitals. c) Credit, where capital, as against individual capitals, is shown to be a universal element. d) Share capital as the most perfected form (turning into communism) together with all its contradictions.

[for an interesting discussion of Marx’s elaborations on share capital and joint-stock companies, I recommend Judith Dellheim’s paper “‘Joint-Stock Company’ and ‘Share Capital’ as Economic Categories of Critical Political Economy”]

In the Grundrisse, the joint-stock company is connected to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Marx quotes the political economist Thomas Hopkins (who offered a version of a falling rate of profit close to the Ricardian interpretation of Smith): “Joint-stock companies, to accomplish great improvements, are the natural offspring of a falling rate of profit. It also induces individuals to fix their capital in the form of buildings and machinery”. Recall that for Marx the falling rate of profit proceeded from rising investments in constant capital as a means to raising the degree of labor’s productivity. From one direction, this capital-intensive nature of this drive towards intensification is carried out by those with the greatest access to investable capital, which thus tends more and more towards large-scale industry. From another direction, the elimination of the ineffectual firms on the terrain of the competitive market also reinforces this drive (this is closer to how Hopkins understood the joint-stock companies as the offspring of the falling rate of profit, as detailed in his 1834 book Great Britain for the Last Forty Years).

In Capital Volume 1, these considerations around joint-stock companies and share-capital are subsumed into the discussion of the tendencies of concentration and centralization of capital, in particular this latter form. As Bukharin put it, centralization of capital is the process of “the joining together of various individual capital units which thus form a new larger unit”—or, in the words of Marx, anticipating later theories of lock-in and increasing returns by centuries: “the attraction of capital by capital”. This attraction “always ends in the ruin of many small capitalists, whose capitals partly pass into the hands of their conquerors, and partly vanish completely”. Taking cue from Hopkins, Marx further argues that

Centralization supplements the work of accumulation by enabling industrial capitalists to extend the scale of their operations. Whether this latter result is the consequence of accumulation or centralization, whether centralization is accomplished by the violent method of annexation—where certain capitals become such preponderant centers of attraction for others that they shatter the individual cohesion of the latter and then draw the seperate fragments to themselves—or whether the fusion of a number of capitals already formed or in process of formation takes places by the smoother process of organizing joint-stock companies—the economic effect remains the same. Everywhere the increased scale of industrial establishments is the starting-pint for a more comprehensive organization of the collective labor of many people, for a broader development of their material motive forces, i.e. for the progressive transformation of isolated processes of production, carried on by customary methods, into socially combined and scientifically arranged processes of production.

From this high level overview of the capitalist totality, Marx plunges us back down again, into the circuitry which loops together these violent clashes and ongoing integration of titantic economic forces with the oscillating changes taking place within the organic composition of capital. He does not mention the geometrical change in productivity here, but he does touch on precisely what ongoing technical transformation as this pace entails: the phenomenon of accelerative change. Reiterating his comments in the Grundrisse that productivity will run ahead of capitalist accumulation, he alludes to “change in the organic composition of capital” and the “productivity of labor” developing at a “quickening rate”, and then to the “accelerated rate” in the decline of the demand for labor relative to the growing magntitudes of total capital. Soaking up capital, flinging labor from itself through mechanization and intensifying the work carried out by what remains, the entire ensemble speeds itself up:

 The intermediate pauses in which accumulation works as a simple extension of production on a given technical basis are shortened. It is not merely that an accelerated accumulation of the total capital, accelerated in a constantly growing progession, is needed to absorb an addition number of workers, or even, on account of the constant metamorphosis of old capital, to keep employed those already performing their functions. This increasing accumulation and centralization also becomes in its turn a source of new changes in the composition of capital, or in other words of an accelerated diminution of the capital’s variable component, as compared with its constant one. This accelerated relative diminution of the variable component, which accompanies the accelerated increase of the total capital and moves more rapidly than this increase, takes the inverse form at the other pole, of an apparently absolute increase in the working population, an increase which always moves more rapidly than that of the variable capital or means of employment. But in fact it is capitalist accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces indeed in direct relation with its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population.

The rate of profit hasn’t been brought into this picture yet, though it moves beneath these interlocking processes. It won’t be until Capital Volume 3, and most specifically the 15th chapter, that the falling rate of profit is integrated into this diagram. In many ways, it reads almost like a direct follow-up to the above passages from Volume 1, plugged together via some imperceptible hyperlink:

A fall in the rate of profit and accelerated accumulation are different expressions of the same process only in so far as both reflect the development of productiveness. Accumulation, in turn, hastens the fall of the rate of profit, inasmuch as it implies concentration of labour on a large scale, and thus a higher composition of capital. On the other hand, a fall in the rate of profit again hastens the concentration of capital and its centralisation through expropriation of minor capitalists, the few direct producers who still have anything left to be expropriated. This accelerates accumulation with regard to mass, although the rate of accumulation falls with the rate of profit.

On the other hand, the rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals and thus appears as a threat to the development of the capitalist production process. It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population.

The falling rate of profit (tending towards geometric progression), the acceleration of capital accumulation, the annihilation of small capitals by a great centralizing motion, progressive mechanization driving up the productivity of labor, and the tendency towards overproduction—each of these constitute chaotic iterations of a singular processes, the multifaceted curve of capitalist development. Underneath it lurks the great contradiction, the conflict between the productive maximization of surplus value and downwards pressure on value itself. For this reason, Marx writes that the “capitalist mode of production involves a tendency towards absolute development of the productive forces, regardless of the value and surplus-value it contains”—obscured beneath the gains of productivity, the deluge of commodities and the swelling mass of profit, the industrial-commercial system swings out of joint with itself.

Marx goes as far to describe the progressive side of these development—the development of productive forces, the increased centrality of science to production, and the emergence potentiality, left un-actualized, of time liberated from labor—the “historical mission” of capital. And yet, as we’ve seen, none of this proceeds in a linear fashion. The revolutionary, progressive side crashes into the regressive, as the fall of the rate of profit ultimately produces the barrier preventing the “unconditional development of the social productivity of labour”. Capital becomes the site of “a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production”; this is not only the locus of the class struggle, but the point in which the winds of crisis begin to blow. Marx:

Alongside the development of productivity there develops a higher composition of capital, i.e., the relative decrease of the ratio of variable to constant capital.

These different influences may at one time operate predominantly side by side in space, and at another succeed each other in time. From time to time the conflict of antagonistic agencies finds vent in crises. The crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions. They are violent eruptions which for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium.

[…]

The periodical depreciation of existing capital — one of the means immanent in capitalist production to check the fall of the rate of profit and hasten accumulation of capital-value through formation of new capital — disturbs the given conditions, within which the process of circulation and reproduction of capital takes place, and is therefore accompanied by sudden stoppages and crises in the production process.

[…]

Capitalist production seeks continually to overcome these immanent barriers, but overcomes them only by means which again place these barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale.

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.

The crisis serves as the means to restore the rate of profit, through the simultaneous depreciation of existing capital and the liquidation of small capitalists. Investment capital and resources are freed to expand production at a higher level, though this inexorably tends back to the falling rate of profit and, again, crisis. It appears that for Marx this too was an accelerative process, with the periods between crisis becoming shorter and and their intensity sharper—though the ambiguities and multitude of forces and countervailing forces (that is, forces that are capable of slowing or temporarily reversing the falling rate of profit, such as the opening of foreign markets, the cheapening of constant capital, etc.) triggered a cascade of debates later known as the ‘revionist controversy’. At the heart of these debates was the question as to whether or not these forces implied the collapse of capital, with the fall in the rate of profit paving way for generalized stagnation, or if the continual restoration of the rate of profit, coupled to ongoing advances in productive efficiency, was meant that capitalism wasn’t heading towards collapse, and that socialism appeared through other means.

At any rate, the problem of geometric development appears clear. Unlike early philosophers of progress, and the later theorists of accelerative change, the movement is anything but linear, smooth, and straightforward. Exponential growth is denied its perfect curve, and instead appears as proceeding in starts and fits, punctuated by catastrophe and intrinsic counter-revolution. Thus the following passage from Capital Volume 3, where this is brought into sharp relief:

The law of increased productivity of labour is not, therefore, absolutely valid for capital. So far as capital is concerned, productiveness does not increase through a saving in living labour in general, but only through a saving in the paid portion of living labour, as compared to labour expended in the past, as we have already indicated in passing in Book I (Kap. XI II, 2, 5. 409/398). [English edition: Ch. XV, 2. — Ed.] Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction. Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity. It thus demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived.

New Blog, New Era

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I’ve been feeling like I’ve been in a rut lately, at least when it comes to writing and blogging and things of that nature. There’s certainly no shortage of ‘projects’ to be had—there are too many self-imposed tasks, as a matter of fact!—but the concrete follow-through of these has to date been negligible. Part of this is no doubt related to a nagging sense of burn-out: I spent much of the end of last year and the beginning of this year in a mad rush to finish a book that will be published sometime between now and the end of this year by NERO Editions, and then followed this up with a handful of others projects like the piece that myself and Kevin Rogan put together for Sum’s Hypersonic Hyperstitions issue and a forthcoming essay in an upcoming issue of the La Deleuziana journal (this issue incidentally will be edited by the always-great Obsolete Capitalism group). It has been a lot in a short amount of time (no complains though, of course).

In order to try and shake the dust off, I’m starting a new blog to replace my stagnant old one! As always, it will be a mixed grab-bag, but I’d like to use it as a dumping ground for more long-term projects, with the hope that by making research fairly public I’ll be prompted to stick to things. We’ll see how it goes, but here’s some of what is on the docket:

  • In my book Uncertain Futures (written in the end of 2015-early 2016, published early 2017), I tried to demonstrate the validity of Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and illustrate that it could help us understand both ongoing economic and political turmoil. The book, which was really notes drawn from a reading group, activist discussions, and a Marx-oriented ‘drinking club’, had a host of problems (an insufficient understanding of the distinction between overproduction and underconsumption, a lopsided historical account of neoliberalism that muddied the waters, lack of attention paid to the productivity slowdown and an unintelligible politics), has been on my mind a lot of late, since it too was written in pre-election season. I’m going to be returning to the question of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and attempt to work out a more accurate measure of it, based on the methodology utilized by Fred Moseley in his book The Falling Rate of Profit in the Postwar US Economy. Because the statistical data and units of measure that Moseley was able to use has shifted considerably and is now less amendable to Marxist theory, this promises to be an uphill struggle.
  • There’s a tendency in Marxism that looks at the nonlinear connection between class struggle and the technological side of economic development. Marx notes this repeatedly, particularly in the first volume of Capital, and it appears later in Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, where he proposes that the cessation of class struggle has led technological and economic ‘decadence’. A more concrete form appears in the studies of Italian workerists like Raniero Panzieri and Mario Tronti, who theorized a give-and-take between class struggle and the technologies and techniques developed by capital to break and/or route around it. A complimentary analysis comes from world-system theorists like Beverly Silver, who emphasize the connection between organized struggle and the spatial reconfiguration of capital. I hope to dive more into these theories in the coming months, which seem like a natural compliment to work on the tendency for the rate of profit to fall—though I’ve yet to see these two really get put into alignment.
  • We’re coming into the American election season, and the field is populated by, on the one side, an unpopular president who is midway between the fundamental paradigm-shift in political reality that he promised and a recoding carried out by the Republican party establishment; and on the other side a split between the old guard of the Democratic Party and a coterie of the party’s fringe (and fringe-of-the-fringe). This is playing out against a slow-burning economic disaster: conditions that preceded the financial crisis (falling rates of investment, slowing world trade, a slowdown in productivity growth) persist and are being exacerbated by the return of protectionism and trade wars. So hopefully more writings and reflections on this situation as they unfold.
  • I’ve had plans for a book rattling around in my brain since early 2017 on Marx and Proudhon, motivated by the one-sided overview of the Marx and Proudhon debate offered by the AnarchistFAQ as well as the lack of a comprehensive account from the Marxist side. I’ve started a potential outline for this project (a faint of hint of which can be found in this twitter thread).
  • More to do about the social myth!
  • Pseud theorizing on time, space, spatialized time, temporalized space, clocks, calendars, spirals, time zones, free time, superfluous time, compressive time, Messianic time, mythic time, empty time, deep time, blessed Bergsonianism and millenarianism.
  • Of late I’ve become obsessed with 19th century American communalism and all the various utopian socialist communes, religious sect communities and snake-oil townships. Gonna be deep-diving this history and hopefully be visiting some of these sites, many of which are in this region (Kentucky-Tennessee-Indiana-Ohio).