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Chapter 13 broadens this notion by offering to think of capitalism not as mode of production, but as a mode of power. The argument proceeds in two steps. First, we rewind the story back to the ancient power civilizations, where, according to Lewis Mumford, the first large-scale machines had been assembled. As noted, these mega-machines were not physical contraptions;
they were social structures. And their goal, says Mumford, wasn’t production but the very exertion of power.
The same view, we argue, applies to capital. Political economists are not entirely wrong to see capital as a ‘machine’. But this machine isn’t material 9 The term ‘autonomy’ here should not be interpreted literally. As we shall see, ‘price makers’ are just as subservient to the logic of accumulation as ‘price takers’ are, and they too tend to move in herds – only that the path they trot tends to upset the expectations of economists.
Why write a book about capital? 17 but social: it is a modern mega-machine. Ultimately, capitalists are driven not to produce things but to control people, and their capitalist mega-machine exerts this power with an efficiency, flexibility and force that ancient rulers could not even fathom.
The capitalist mega-machine defines the capitalist mode of power; and a mode of power, we argue, constitutes the ‘state’ of society. The second part of Chapter 13 historicizes this proposition. It begins with the feudal mode of power from which capitalism emerged; it traces the process by which the feudal mode of power gave way to a capitalist mode of power; and it examines how the logic of capital has gradually penetrated, altered and eventually become the state – the state of capital.
This state is not an ‘actor’ that stands against or with capital. Nor is it an eternal Newtonian space that simply ‘contains’ different actors at different times. As we see it, the state of capital is a historically constituted Leibnitzian space, an ever-changing structure of power defined and shaped by the concrete entities and relationships that comprise it.
Part V: accumulation of power Social power is commonly sanctified by the heteronomous dictates of God or Nature. These pronouncements of power, coming from ‘outside’ society, seem inevitable, and the tangible symbols in which they are expressed – temple, palace, army, slaves and material wealth – make them look absolute.
But social power is autonomous, not heteronomous. It comes from within society, not from without. And for that reason, behind the absolute symbols of power there is always a deeper, relative reality.10 In the final analysis, power is confidence in obedience. It expresses the certainty of the rulers in the submissiveness of the ruled. When this confidence is high, the rulers actively shape their society. They view its trajectory as customary and natural, while treating revolts, uprisings – even revolutions – as mere disturbances. By contrast, when this confidence is low, the rulers tend to react rather than initiate. Social development loses its coherence, while revolts, uprising and revolutions suddenly become manifestations of systemic chaos.
In our own epoch, the central relationship between confidence and obedience is embodied in capital. The process of accumulation represents the changing ability of dominant capital – namely, the leading corporations and key government organs at the epicentre of the process – to control, shape and transform society against opposition. The conflictual underpinnings of this process make capital a relative entity; and that relativity means that we need 10 The difference between heteronomy and autonomy is developed in the social and philosophical writings of Cornelius Castoriadis – see, for instance, his Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (1991b).
18 Why write a book about capital?
to think not of absolute accumulation but of differential accumulation – the ability of dominant capital to accumulate faster than the average.
The fifth section of the book builds on the twin notions of differential accumulation and dominant capital to develop a concrete theory of capital as power. We begin by defining historical society as a creation of order, or creorder – a word that connotes the paradoxical fusion of being and becoming, state and process, stasis and dynamism. The algorithm of the capitalist creorder is capitalization. This is the mechanism through which capitalist power is commodified, structured and restructured. The static architecture of this power is defined by differential capitalization. At any point in time, the distribution of capitalized values maps the division of power among the different owners. But the capitalist creorder compels owners not only to retain their power, but to try and augment it; not only to protect their differential capitalization, but to increase it through differential accumulation.
The result is a strong gravitational force. This force – anchored in power rather than productivity – pulls the independent units of capital closer together. It causes them to join, coalesce and fuse into ever larger units.
Eventually, it gives rise to tight constellations of large corporate–government alliances. These constellations constitute what we call dominant capital.
Chapter 14 examines the general contours of this process in the United States and comes up with seemingly paradoxical results. Most critical observers associate the past half-century with a protracted accumulation crisis. And yet, during that very period, dominant capital appears to have enjoyed virtually uninterrupted differential accumulation. How can this stellar performance be reconciled with notions of capital in distress? What are the underlying power processes that make differential accumulation feasible in the first place? How have these conflictual processes panned out historically to generate such a remarkable feat? And why haven’t political economists noticed any of this?
To answer these questions, we develop the notion of differential accumulation regimes. Dominant capital can increase its differential earnings and capitalization in two principal ways: (1) by increasing the relative size of its organization, which we call breadth; and (2) by increasing the relative elemental power of its organization, which we label depth. Chapters 15 to 17 examine the salient features of these power regimes and in the process deflate some of the more cherished beliefs of political economists.
One of these beliefs is that capitalism is hooked on economic growth. This conviction is shared by liberals and Marxists alike, and it is so strong that many now conflate growth and accumulation as if they were one and the same. But they are not the same, and Chapter 15 shows why. From the viewpoint of dominant capital, green-field growth is a double-edged sword. It can both undermine and augment the power of dominant capital – and in so doing hinder as well as assist differential accumulation. But green-field isn’t the only route. Dominant capital can also grow ‘inorganically’, via mergers Why write a book about capital? 19 and acquisitions. And unlike green-field growth, the impact of amalgamation is decidedly positive: it boosts the organizational size and power of dominant capital, it augments its differential accumulation and it does both with enormous thrust.
This power rationale explains why, over the past century, mergers and acquisitions have grown exponentially while green-field growth has decelerated. Moreover, since amalgamation is a change in ownership and therefore a transformation of power, the merger process tells us plenty about the changing nature of capitalist politics at large. It explains the sequential breaking of sectoral envelopes, as dominant capital transcends its original corporate universe seeking to expand into bigger universes; it accounts for the social transformation that accompanies these leaps; and it unveils the conflictual underpinnings of capital flows and the power politics of global ownership.
A second cardinal belief among political economists is that capital loves price stability and hates inflation. Yet this conviction, too, doesn’t stand up to the facts. Chapter 16 shows that although capitalists constantly try to cut their costs, this endeavour merely keeps them running on empty. The way to beat the average is not to cut cost but to increase prices. Those who inflate their prices faster than the average end up redistributing income in their favour – and in so doing augment the elemental power of their organization and boost their differential accumulation.
The inflationary path to differential accumulation is highly conflictual and therefore anything but smooth. And, sure enough, contrary to the theories and instincts of most economists, inflation tends to appear as stagflation: it comes not with growth and stability, but with stagnation and crisis. This fact makes the depth route uncertain and seemingly far more risky than breadth.
Yet return is often commensurate with the risk, and when dominant capital finds itself gravitating toward conflictual inflation, the common result is accumulation through crisis.
And so emerges a very different reality of accumulation. Whereas liberals and Marxists emphasize the capitalist quest for growth and price stability, dominant capital seems to thrive on amalgamation and stagflation. Chapter 17 ties the final knots by bringing together these two key regimes of differential accumulation. It relates the long histories of breadth by amalgamation and depth through stagflation; it examines how these regimes shaped the twentieth century of capital as power; and it closes by speculating on what their relationship may imply for the future.
The capitalist creorder and humane society We are now ready to start our exploration, but before doing so we should perhaps say a few words on the limits of our journey. The study of capital as power does not, and cannot, provide a general theory of society. Capitalization is the language of dominant capital. It embodies the beliefs, desires and fears of the ruling capitalist class. It tells us how this group views the 20 Why write a book about capital?
world, how it imposes its will on society, how it tries to mechanize human beings. It is the architecture of capitalist power.
This architecture, though, tells us very little about the human beings who are subjected to its power. Of course, we observe their ‘behaviour’, their ‘reaction’ to capitalist threats, their ‘choice’ of capitalist temptations. Yet we know close to nothing about their consciousness, awareness, thoughts, intentions, imagination and aspirations. To paraphrase Cornelius Castoriadis, humanity is like a ‘magma’ to us, a smooth surface that moves and shifts.11 Most of the time its movements are fairly predictable. But under the surface lurk autonomous qualities and energies. The language of capitalist power can neither describe nor comprehend these qualities and energies. It knows nothing about their magnitude and potential. It can never anticipate when and how they will erupt.
Consider that none of the pundits – communist or anti-communist – foresaw the collapse of the Soviet bloc (although, in retrospect, the victory of liberalism was of course ‘inevitable’). Similarly with the May 1968 revolution in France. This was arguably the most important revolution of the twentieth century. And yet, even a few days before its explosion, no sociologist – conservative or radical – had a clue as to what was coming (Anonymous 1968;
Orr 2003). The story repeats itself with the first Palestinian Intifada that started in 1987. The uprising took everyone by surprise, including the critical ‘orientalists’ and the orthodox PLO establishment. The list goes on.
These revolutionary instances cannot be theorized easily, and for a good reason. They are rooted in the original spark of free human creativity. ‘[M]en cannot be treated as units in operations of political arithmetic’, observes Arthur Koestler, ‘because they behave like the symbols of zero and the infinite, which dislocate all mathematical operations’ (1949: 76). Their originality and creativity cannot be modelled or reduced to historical laws of motion.
They cannot be predicted systematically. They do not follow a clear pattern.
They are unique.
Karl Marx, the first to investigate the dynamic architecture of capitalism, tried to fuse the two movements of power and resistance to power into a single language. For him, the power of capitalists to accumulate and the political struggle of workers against that power could both be derived from and analysed by one basic logic: the labour theory of value.
In our view, this fusion is impossible to achieve. It is impossible to impose the logic of labour (and of human activity in general) on capitalists. We cannot denominate the pecuniary architecture of capitalization in homogenous units of abstract labour. Capitalization and productivity/creativity are two distinct processes, each with its own separate ‘logic’. The destructive clash of these two processes is the engine of the capitalist dialectic, but the dialectic itself cannot be understood with one common language.
11 Castoriadis develops the ontology of the magmas in Chapter 7 of The Imaginary Institution of Society (1987).
Why write a book about capital? 21 Instead, we prefer to imagine two general ‘entities’. The first entity is the capitalist creorder, whose pattern is imposed on society. The gyrations and development of this creorder can be subjected to a systematic, quantitative theory of power. The second entity is a stealthy humane society. This society exists mostly as an unknown potential. Usually, it is dormant and therefore invisible. Occasionally, though, it erupts, often without warning, to challenge and sometimes threaten the institutions of capitalist power. These eruptions – and their consequences – do not follow a pre-set pattern. They cannot be systematically theorized.