«You are free to share, copy, distribute and transmit the electronic version of this work, in whole or in part, under the following conditions: • ...»
For this reason, we do not pretend to offer a general theory of capitalist society. We limit ourselves to the study of the capitalist creorder only, the dynamic order of those who rule. To rule means to see the world from a singular viewpoint, to be locked into a unitary logic, to be subservient to your own architecture of power. Dominant capital cannot deviate from the boundaries of this architecture, even if it wants to. Its individual members are forced to accept the very logic they impose on the rest of humanity. And the more effective they are in imposing that logic, the more predictable they themselves become. This is why their world can be theorized and to some extent predicted.
Over the past century, the power logic of capitalism has been incarnated in the process of differential capitalization; that is to say, in the belief that there is a ‘normal rate of return’ and that capitalists are obliged to ‘beat’ it. This is the gist of the new capitalist cosmology. Instead of the Holy Scriptures, we now have the universal language of business accounting and corporate finance. The power of God, once vested in priest and king, now reveals itself as the power of Capital vested in the ‘investor’.
And as the capitalization of power spreads and penetrates, the world seems increasingly ‘deterministic’. The determinism of capitalization is now the ‘natural state of things’, the benchmark against which one can estimate ‘deviations’ ‘distortions’, ‘risk’ and ‘return’. It is a logic that looks unquestionable to those who rule and omnipotent to those who are being ruled.
But this determinism of capitalization has nothing to do with ‘laws of nature’, or the ‘inevitable’ progression of history. It is the determinism of the ruling class, and only of the ruling class. It works only insofar as the ruling class rules. Admittedly, that happens most of the time. However, human beings do have the capacity to understand the autonomous nature of this ‘determinism’. And when they realize that the rules are imposed on them by other human beings, determinism disappears, replaced – if only for a historical instant – by the humane promise of autonomy–democracy–philosophy.
Part I Dilemmas of political economy 2 The dual worlds
The bifurcations Capitalism is characterized by several related antinomies and contrasts, basic dualities that resemble the ancient paradoxes of Hellenic philosophy. Of these dualities, the most important are the distinction between politics and economics and the separation of the real from the nominal.
The first duality – the bifurcation of politics and economics – is hardly new. Pre-capitalist history was marked, almost invariably, by a socioecological reality that separated political rulers from their producing subjects.
The concepts of course were markedly different. There was no such thing as ‘the economy’, and the notion of ‘politics’, although dating back to ancient Athens, had little meaning in an authoritarian context. But terminology aside, there was a fairly clear separation between social rule and material provision. The common pattern of power consisted of state or quasi-state entities using organized military force to control dispersed agricultural cultivators. Politically, production was subjugated to state rule; but ecologically, the two spheres were by and large distinct – and, in the extreme case of oriental despotism, entirely alienated.
This duality was heightened by the rise of the autonomous European bourg beginning in the twelfth century. The bourg – although initially embedded in and dependent on feudalism – offered a new alternative. It fashioned a peace-seeking civil society of merchants, artisans and industrialists, a model that stood in sharp contrast to the violent, war-making feudal fiefdoms and states. Bourgeois production and trade, much like feudal agriculture, remained distinct from princely politics. But the bourgeoisie demanded more.
It wanted its ‘new economy’ to be not only distinct from but also independent of princely and feudal rule.
26 Dilemmas of political economy This original demand still echoes today. Whenever we contrast civil society with state authority, free contract with organized hierarchy, horizontal markets with vertical power, or, more broadly, economics with politics – we reproduce the early demand of the bourgeoisie: the demand for particular libertates. This quest for personal exemptions, individual immunities and specific protections from the organized violence of feudalism is the forerunner of modern liberalism and its assertion of universal liberty.1 The first to openly challenge the alleged separation of production from power was Karl Marx. This separation, he argued, was a manifestation of bourgeois ‘false consciousness’. Liberals emphasize the voluntary nature of market exchange, which makes their economics seem like the domain of freedom. But under the gloss of market exchange lies the reality of production – and in the realm of production, it is exploitation, not equality, that rules. In this way, the market merely serves to conceal the underlying power nature of capitalism.
This challenge was important but ultimately insufficient. According to Marx, capitalist power works through two mechanisms: economic exploitation and political oppression. The first mechanism is responsible for extracting the surplus, the second for sustaining the capitalist mode of production as a whole. The crucial point here, which we explain in the next section, is that, according to Marx, capitalist power requires that the two mechanisms be related – yet distinct. In this sense, Marx’s insistence that power pervades the system does not reject but rather necessitates the liberal duality of politics and economics.
The second capitalist duality occurs within economics proper. The ancient ontological distinction between the Thing and its Idea is resurrected here in the two parallel worlds of liberal economics: the real and the nominal. The real world is the material sphere of production and consumption; the nominal world is the mirror image of prices, money and credit. Capital in this context has two faces: a real face made of capital goods and a nominal imprint called finance. The material means of production are recorded on the left-hand side of the balance sheet; the nominal symbols of debt and equity are entered on the right-hand side. The Thing on the left faces its Idea on the right.
1 It should be noted that this historical description, written in the spirit of Marx, is very much out of style – particularly when compared with the fashionable hype of postmodernity.
For the typical postist, our historical view here is no more than ‘Eurocentric’ arrogance, a remnant of the imperial mindset and its postcolonial successor (see for example Turner 1978). Although we’ll occasionally mention it, we have no intention of arguing with this fashion. There is simply no point. The postists deny the possibility of a universal logic – which pretty much eliminates the possibility of debate. And they are hostile to scientific thinking – which makes impossible if not meaningless any attempt to examine, verify or reject their slogans, narratives and battle cries (including those lifted gratis from past Marxist studies).
The dual worlds 27 Marxian economics, although very different from its liberal counterpart, adopts a similar conceptual division. Here, too, we find the contrast between the real and the nominal – a distinction between the material base of value, where labour, production and exploitation occur; and a monetary superstructure of prices and credit through which politics, ideology, the law and sheer force penetrate and reshape the accumulation process.
Let’s examine these two dualities of capitalism a bit more closely, beginning with politics versus economics.
Politics versus economicsThe liberal view
For the neoclassicists, politics lies outside the realm of capital. The institutions and organizations of the state, electoral parties, the legal system, the organized use of force and international relations certainly impact capital for better or worse (mostly for the worse). But the impact is inherently external.
The common language speaks of exogenous ‘shocks’, of political ‘intervention’ and ‘interference’ that ‘disturb’, ‘distort’ and ‘constrain’ the economic system. These external shocks may hold back the pace of capital accumulation or change its direction; but whatever their impact – and here we come to the critical part – they cannot alter the basic meaning of capital. According to the neoclassicists, capital is the utilitarian manifestation of multiple individual wills, expressed freely through the market and incarnated in an objective productive quantum. As a voluntary, material substance, capital itself is orthogonal – and therefore impermeable – to power politics, by definition.
This view is complemented by the liberal theory of politics. According to neoclassical historiography, the logic of capital accumulation, although inherent in the human psyche, was manifested only after civil society began its revolt against feudal and state tyranny. Gradually, the flat principle of free will, the relentless mechanism of the market and the new creed of growth undermined deference to political hierarchy and the stationary economy of feudalism. In this context, it was only natural for the utilitarian calculus of capital accumulation to become the blueprint for political democracy.
In this blueprint, the ideal political system is one that intervenes the least, and the best way to guarantee minimal intervention is to make politics itself operate as a free market. That is the gist of liberalism.
The metaphors of political liberalism – like those of neoclassical economics – are clearly Newtonian (a point to which we return in Chapter 3). The various political particles – interest groups, electoral parties, coalitions, NGOs and contending state organs – all act and react on one another.
Each particle tries to maximize its own utility. But because the particles are all relatively small, the political bourse remains competitive, the different 28 Dilemmas of political economy demands tend to countervail each other, and the result converges to the least harmful political equilibrium.2 The Marxist perspective Despite their mutual hostility, Marxists share with neoclassicists the view that capital is an economic magnitude. The difference is that, in contrast to the neoclassicists, Marxists deny that capital can exist independently of politics.
The relations of production, they argue, are not separate from, but intertwined with politics and the state – and have been so throughout history. The interesting question is not whether politics affects economics, but the way in which their interaction has evolved over time. And here capitalism indeed seems unique.
Capitalism, argue the Marxists, is the first social order to introduce a clear legal and ideological demarcation between public politics and state on the one hand, and private economy and market on the other. Liberal politics is based on the belief in universal equality: a society governed by the voluntary exchange of private property presupposes and implies equality before the law.
By contrast, the accumulation of capital, despite its voluntary appearance, requires inequality. This necessity, argue the Marxists, is inherent in the very nature of capitalism: the means of production are owned by capitalists who 2 A typical view of politics as a free market is portrayed by Anthony Downs (1957). According to Downs, politics is a form of competition among firms (political parties) over the hearts, minds and pockets of sovereign consumers (voters). Just like in every other market, here, too, each actor seeks to maximize his or her own utility. The voters try to maximize their net political utility (or minimize their net political disutility) by choosing the optimal ratio of public services to taxes. Similarly for the politicians. Their purpose is to maximize their net political assets: more votes, more seats, more spoils.
This vision of politics as a free market is now deeply embedded in the everyday practice of liberalism. Political parties in the United States and elsewhere make extensive use of the Voter Vault, a massive collection of up to 50,000 databases packed with detailed consumer/ voter information. According to the Financial Times, this information, filtered through various algorithms, enables politicians to tailor their messages to the ‘preferences’ of specific
groups of voters:
The technique, known as ‘micro-targeting’ on the right and ‘modelling’ on the left, is a sign of how far modern political campaigning has become a marketing exercise, with techniques that were traditionally used in broadcast advertisements applied to political communications. Nowadays political consultants tout ‘turnout scores’, ‘clusters’ and ‘micro-targeted messages’. In the US, generic electoral constituencies such as ‘soccer moms’ and ‘Reagan Democrats’ are broken down into even more forensic clusters. There are different algorithms to weigh cultural differences between West and East Texas. Strategists target finer demographic slices such as ‘high-income, Godrespecting, terrorism-fearing Republicans’ or ‘white women aged 35–45 with college educations, who are Catholic or Protestant and pro-life, with median incomes over Dollars 35,000 and live in Dollars 150,000-plus homes’.
(Financial Times October 13, 2006, p. 11) The dual worlds 29 do not work, while labour is performed by workers who do not own. Since value is produced only by workers, capitalists can extract, appropriate and accumulate the surplus part of this value only through exploitation. And exploitation, by definition, negates equality.