Thursday, October 21, 2010

Direct action gets the goods

Guy Sorman, Wall Street Journal:

The French have a long tradition of taking to the streets as an irrational answer to economic reforms.

Marx makes a point in Vol. 1 about "capitalists" that is very considerate. He says they aren't good or bad people, but "capital personified" -- agents of capital. Capital, value in motion, has its own internal logic that plays itself out regardless of whether you are Montgomery Burns or Mark Zuckerberg. Whether noble or sinister, the intentions we bring to private enterprise will always be disciplined by capital. We often see this expressed as the stress and frustration brought on by those who think that they, not capital, is in charge.

The international economy reflects the trajectory of capital's logic. This is why when you listen to mainstream economists, they never shut up about very boring things like growth and demand. They never mention whether everyone can eat -- for example, kids. Whether kids have enough food to eat seems like an interesting topic for human beings, broadly within the scope of "economics." But that doesn't really enter into mainstream economics as a primary concern; and the reason it's not a primary concern is because the functionality of kids being fed is kind of variable from the perspective of capital. If kids are dying left and right, that can create social disruption which capital doesn't like. On the other hand, if kids are vulnerable, that can create an incentive for parents to work harder and make fewer demands, which in turn accelerates the capital process. An economist who works as an agent of capital would merely call this "increased productivity," and see it as a good thing.

Most of what's happening today on a global level comes down to communities being disciplined by capital. This is what the author means at the end of the article, when he says: "The best and the brightest now want to become entrepreneurs, not top bureaucrats. Such an evolution was not desired by political leaders but instead has been forced on French society through the liberating influence of globalization and the European Union." It used to be that people were interested in democratic governance, but now they want to become capitalists; not because this was their first preference but because capital is imposing an ultimatum by force -- a "liberating influence" in his words.

Different communities are reacting in different ways. As we know, the French have a long tradition of taking to the streets as an answer to economic reforms. What happens when you take to the streets -- when you strike and shut things down -- is you stop the necessary movement of capital. Capital always has to be moving in an expansionary way, and if you stop that motion, it can't produce value. The ruling class, acting as an agent of capital, then loses its base of economic power. This is the most direct way to undermine ruling class power, even to eliminate it, theoretically. It's an effective tool. And that's why the French working class can retire at 60, take over a month of vacation, and have all kinds of other things that working class people who do nothing, or who only vote, can't have.


Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Marx's triangulating efforts may have been persuasive in the early 1900s but they fall flat for me.

His hobgoblin of "capital" is vague and imprecise. What he's suggesting is the focus on greed. Not capital. Greed.

I guess it was impolite to talk about that in Glossy Karl's day, and still remains so today.

It's not about capital. It's about what motivates people to put primary emphasis on acquisition of whatever those people think are equivalent to their security -- money, big house, big car, fancy diploma. All that stuff isn't "capital." It's about a hunger for security. Greed, when it becomes destructive toward others.

This is the point that Naomi Klein misses too.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

PS to JRB -- aside from the above I think the entry is excellent. And I'm sure there are some to whom the Glossy Karl stuff will speak honestly. It just falls flat for me.

JRB said...

His hobgoblin of "capital" is vague and imprecise. What he's suggesting is the focus on greed. Not capital. Greed.

Capital is a kind of greed, but it's systemic; what Marx is saying is, you have to understand how it works as a system. You're not going to learn anything about it by focusing on individual personalities; you're not going to reform it through John Mackey's "Conscious Capitalism," or Bill Gate's "Creative Capitalism" any more than it will abide sinister influences like Bernie Madoff or Jeffery Skilling when their "greed" comes in conflict with its prerogatives.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Not sure I agree.

The motor of capitalism is greed -- acquisitiveness beyond what's needed for survival.

Marx's flaw is the assumption that greed disappears when capitalism disappears. That's a big problem.

Dictatorship of the proles, whether as a mid-point or an end-game, that won't eliminate greed or acquisitiveness or envy or any other negative human trait.

As to systems, they are naught without the individuals whose negative traits serve as the motors of the systems.

Marx misses a lot because... who knows? Maybe because was a pampered, wealthy child whose views on capitalism are rooted more in infantile rejection of parental values, and less on an honest appraisal of the limitations of consumerist capital.

Beth E. said...

Sounds to me like CFT isn't quite on board with JRB's understanding of capital as a fluid set of relations (not a particular thing or institution). As such, what I'm seeing here is that the post is foregrounding the way in which this set of relations 'speaks' the individuals who enact it, as Foucault (and in a more sclerotic sense) Althusser would describe it.

It's really not just a question of moral values (greed, vs. the milk of human kindness), which is a construct based on a very particular notion of human individuality; I've thought for quite some time that much of this is sprung on deep-seated anthropological issues about how we as primates developed as social beings, perceptions of dominance, etc. (How else does 'keeping up with the Joneses make any sense?)

Anyway, another great post, thanks!

JRB said...


Please tell me you have a blog because I think I need to be reading it!

Mr. Oxtrot often helps me see where I am not explaining myself well enough to a non-lefty audience; in this case, I am vague about the "internal logic" of capital, and coast on what I have touched on elsewhere. This is useful to me because I'm interested in addressing a general audience.

Peter Ward said...

It's always been my impression power is the driving force, as it were. That the economy is basically an instrument in this respect--at any rate, I believe this is true as far as an reductionist attempt goes.*

A critical limitation of the Marxist analysis is that it implies (so it seems based on the assertions of Marx's advocates I've encountered) a the defect is capitalism; whereas I would say capitalism--or what we call capitalism (in fact the economy departs from being truly capitalist in may significant ways)--is largely an artifact of the power structure that presently exists. And I therefore don't think a Leninist utopia would be qualitatively better since we'd simply end up victims of a new method of exploitation.

Not only do we have to understand the nature of capitalism but the fundamental nature of institutions, of which almost all modern examples (nation-states, churches, corporations...even unions) are concerned with--if nothing else--giving a minority a way of dominating a majority.

*Acquisitiveness plays a role, I think. But not a dominate one. Individuals within companies often take actions that undermine profit-growth but enhance their individual power or the power of their class, e.g.

JRB said...


"Marxist analysis," or what Marx called the "materialist conception of history," is rooted in the idea that how people produce or obtain what they need to live is primary among social considerations.

What this "determines" is that people are not likely to take on cultural or legal forms which contradict or undermine the means by which they live. People who live by planting crops aren't likely to practice a religion that involves setting fire to the fields; those of us who live by wages are unlikely to pursue careers in art or music if it creates greater difficulty in obtaining what we need to survive, even if devoting ourselves to such things is what we'd really prefer.

So Marxist analysis looks at the relationship between what is required to live and everything else -- culture, institutions and so on -- in order to understand what is going on around us.

Marx's focus happened to be on capitalism, but the approach can by applied to any method of social production.