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The Bichler & Nitzan Archives Capital as Power Conventional theories of capitalism are mired in a deep crisis: after centuries of debate, they are still unable to tell us what capital is. Liberals and Marxists both think of capital as an ‘economic’ entity that they count in universal units of ‘utils’ or ‘
labour’, respectively. But these units are totally fictitious. Nobody has ever been able to observe or measure them, and for a good reason: they don’t exist. Since liberalism and Marxism depend on these nonexisting units, their theories hang in suspension. They cannot explain the process that matters most – the accumulation of capital.
This book offers a radical alternative. According to the authors, capital is not a narrow economic entity, but a symbolic quantification of power. It has little to do with utility or abstract labour, and it extends far beyond machines and production lines. Capital, the authors claim, represents the organized power of dominant capital groups to reshape – or creorder – their society.
Written in simple language, accessible to lay readers and experts alike, the book develops a novel political economy. It takes the reader through the history, assumptions and limitations of mainstream economics and its associated theories of politics. It examines the evolution of Marxist thinking on accumulation and the state. And it articulates an innovative theory of ‘capital as power’ and a new history of the ‘capitalist mode of power’.
Jonathan Nitzan teaches political economy at York University in Toronto.
Shimshon Bichler teaches political economy at colleges and universities in Israel.
Capital as Power A study of order and creorder Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler First published 2009 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 270 Madison Avenue,New York, NY 10016 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business.
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.
To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk.
The moral rights of the authors have been asserted © 2009 Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Nitzan, Jonathan.
Capital as power: a study or order and creorder / Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler.
p. cm.—(RIPE series in global political economy) Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Capitalism. 2. Power (Social sciences) I. Bichler, Shimshon. II. Title.
ISBN 0-203-87632-6 Master e-book ISBN ISBN 10: 0–415–47719–0 (hbk) ISBN 10: 0–415–49680–2 (pbk) ISBN 10: 0–203–87632–6 (ebk) ISBN 13: 978–0–415–47719–2 (hbk) ISBN 13: 978–0–415–49680–3 (pbk) ISBN 13: 978–0–203–87632–9 (ebk) To our lovely daughters – Elvire, Maryse and Isabelle Thus, the birth of philosophy is not just coincident, but equisignificant with the birth of democracy. Both are expressions, and central embodiments, of the project of autonomy.
Night has fallen only for those who have let themselves fall into the night. For those who are living, [says Heraclitus], helios neos eph’hemerei estin – the sun is new each day.
—Cornelius Castoriadis, The “End of Philosophy”?
1 Why write a book about capital?
Capitalism without capital 1 This book is not about economics 2 How and why 3 What’s wrong with capital theory? 5 Toward a new theory of capital 7 A brief synopsis 10 Part I: dilemmas of political economy 10 Part II: the enigma of capital 12 Part III: capitalization 13 Lineages 14 Part IV: bringing power back in 15 Part V: accumulation of power 17 The capitalist creorder and humane society 19 PART I Dilemmas of political economy 23 2 The dual worlds The bifurcations 25 Politics versus economics 27 The liberal view 27 The Marxist perspective 28 Capitalism from below, capitalism from above 29 Real and nominal 30 The classical dichotomy 30 The Marxist mismatch 31 Quantitative equivalence? 32 xiv Contents 3 Power The pre-capitalist backdrop 34 The new cosmology 36 The new science of capitalism 38 Separating economics from politics? 40 Enter power 42 4 Deflections of power Liberal withdrawal and concessions 46 Neo-Marxism 47 The three fractures 49 Neo-Marxian economics: monopoly capital 50 Kalecki’s degree of monopoly 50 From surplus value to economic surplus 51 Realization and institutionalized waste 51 The limits of neo-Marxian economics 52 The culturalists: from criticism to postism 53 Statism 55 The techno-bureaucratic state 55 The autonomous state 57 The capitalist state 58 The state imperative 59 The flat approach 59 The hierarchical approach 60 Political Marxism 61 The capitalist totality 63
This volume was written in relative isolation, and after reading it you’ll see why. The book questions the very foundations of mainstream and Marxist political economy, and it goes further to offer a totally new alternative. Going against the grain is hardly the best way to make friends, and, as the history of science tells us, those who try to innovate often face a wall of silence.
But the silence is never complete. There are always free spirits who look for new directions, and we have been fortunate to cross paths with some of them.
Our work has benefited from the friendship of Allen Fenichel, Tom Naylor and Robin Rowley, who helped us stand against the academic church; from the thoughtful interventions of Randy Germain, who helped and encouraged us at various stages of the publication journey; from Jeffrey Harrod, whose grassroots analysis shed light on aspects that our power theory had overlooked; from Doug Henwood and Michael Perelman, whose LBO and PEN-L internet lists we found invaluable; from years of discussions with Gibin Hong, who also translated the early incarnation of this manuscript into Korean; from Bob Jessop, who engaged with and supported our work even when our opinions differed; from Moshé Machover, whose personal honesty, clarity of thinking and path-breaking politics one cannot but admire; from Ulf Martin, whose sharp observations and penetrating questions always kept us on edge; from many debates with the colourful members of MISS-Q, whose arguments often gave us food for thought; from the unmatched editorial skills of Daniel Moure, who polished our English and compiled our index; from Akiva Orr, whose deep insights into philosophy and science we found enlightening; from Jeffrey Rudolph, who managed to mix accounting with curiosity; from Herman Schwartz, whose brilliance offered an antidote to academic mediocrity; and, last but not least, from Genevieve Thouvenot, whose expertise in ancient languages saved us from drawing silly conclusions, and whose suggestions often helped us find the answer right under our nose.
We also feel indebted to the brave women and men of MATZPEN, the Alternative Information Center and others too numerous to be listed here, whose struggle for freedom and autonomy in the Middle East inspired our early research and continues to influence our thought.
xxvi Acknowledgements Finally, we wish to thank the three anonymous referees who read the early version of the manuscript; the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for its financial assistance; and our students, whose desire to think for themselves made writing this book worthwhile.
1 Why write a book about capital?
Capitalism without capital We grew up in the ‘affluent society’ of 1950s and 1960s. As children and then as young adults we rarely heard the word ‘capitalism’. It was the Cold War, and speaking about capitalism, although not strictly taboo, was hardly a popular pastime. The term smelled of extremist ideology; it connoted communist rhetoric; it conjured up bygone debates and obsolete ideas.
As a theoretical concept, capitalism seemed hopelessly unscientific. It was a remnant from a different era, from a time when people, haunted by ‘scarcity’, still viewed society through the hazy spectacles of political economy.
The new social sciences – and particularly the science of economics – boasted far better and more precise categories.
These categories were grouped under a new buzzword: ‘modernization’.
Talk of modernization opened all the right doors. It invited American aid, it paved the road to development and it helped academic promotion. The word ‘capitalism’ became redundant, if not counterproductive. Gradually, it vanished from the lexicon.
But beginning in the early 1990s a strange thing happened: capitalism staged a remarkable comeback. Suddenly, social scientists and post-scientists alike wanted to talk of nothing else. The capitalist world, capitalist markets, capitalist governance, capitalist culture, capitalist institutions, capitalist wars, capitalism and race, capitalism and gender, capitalism and libido – no matter where you turn, you cannot escape the C-word.
Debate over capitalism is everywhere. The newspapers, radio, television and the internet overflow with talk of neoliberal globalization and crisis, imperialism and post-colonialism, financialization and government intervention. Experts preach the gospel of capitalist productivity, while alterglobalization protestors blame the IMF and transnational companies for 2 Why write a book about capital?
many of our social ills. Some view capitalist growth as a magic bullet; for others it spells ecological disaster. Some celebrate the deregulation of the capitalist state and the fall of Keynesianism; others mourn the decline of the welfare state and the rise of zapping labour. Many interpret the new wars of the twenty-first century as serving capitalist interests and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a backlash against Western liberalism. For some, capitalism means the end of history, for others a source of conflict and an engine of change. No aspect of capitalism seems to escape debate.
Or perhaps we should say almost no aspect. Almost, because something really important is missing. In all the commotion, we seem to have lost sight of the concept that matters most: capital itself. Capital is the central institution of capitalism – and yet, surprisingly, we do not have a satisfactory theory to explain it. In fact, we do not know precisely what capital is. And worse still, there is little or no discussion on what this omission means or how it can be rectified.
The issue is crucial. Without a clear concept of capital, we cannot hope to understand how capital operates, why it accumulates or how it drives the capitalist order. Until we understand capital, we are destined to misconceive our political institutions, misjudge our alternatives and have trouble imagining the way to a better future. In short, in order to debate capitalism we first need to debate capital itself.1 This book is not about economics Many people who are otherwise keenly interested in society get cold feet when confronted with ‘economics’. The symbols seem mysterious, the logic baffling, the language incomprehensible, even threatening. The dread is real. Ever since Thomas Carlyle, the ‘dismal science’ has been frightening most people.
But that fear is irrelevant to our book. Our subject is not economics; it is capital. And capital, as we hope to show, is not an economic entity.
It should be noted upfront that economics – or, more precisely, the neoclassical branch of political economy – is not an objective reality. In fact, for the most part it is not even a scientific inquiry into objective reality.
Instead, neoclassical political economy is largely an ideology in the service of 1 Of course, not everyone shares this sense of urgency. Quite the contrary. These days, many academics tell us that, in fact, there are no facts (in a conversation or a speech, a speaker will typically use her fingers to encapsulate the word ‘facts’ with invisible inverted commas, pointing to its obvious ambiguity). In postmodern space, these academics explain, there is nothing much to ‘know’ (again in inverted commas). Everything – including capital – is merely a ‘narrative’. Capital is a ‘discourse’ that cannot be known, only ‘deconstructed’.
And who knows, since nobody ‘really’ knows, maybe that is indeed the best way to conceal capital. This convenient conclusion, though, begets a somewhat embarrassing question: if capital is merely a discursive text, one faith among many, what is the point of talking about – let alone criticizing – capitalism? And if there is no point in such critique, who needs the postmodern critics?
Why write a book about capital? 3 the powerful. It is the language in which the capitalist ruling class conceives and shapes society. Simultaneously, it is also the tool with which this class conceals its own power and the means with which it persuades others to accept that power.