Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Thirteen: Eleanor Arnason

Eleanor Arnason:


When the journalist Alexander Cockburn was a teenager his father Claude said to him, “Whenever you are troubled, read a little Marx. It will put things in perspective.”

I found this anecdote a few years back in a column by the younger Cockburn in his magazine CounterPunch. It has stayed with me, partly because it leads to the wonderful image of the young Alex dealing with the ups and downs of adolescence by reaching for The German Ideology or Capital. But it also sounded like good advice.

Watching the ongoing collapse of the international financial system, I feel a little troubled, and have begun to read Capital. I am 191 pages into the first volume. This is not going to be a complete review.

Marx was trained as a philosopher and became an economist in a period when economists taught themselves through study of the existing world and by reading earlier writers who were puzzled by the kind of society coming into existence.

There had always been trade, as far as we know; but after the conquest of the Americas, when the vast wealth of the Spanish empire flooded into Europe, trade became increasingly central to European society; and philosophically inclined Europeans began to wonder what precisely they were seeing. What is the source and nature of value? What is money? What exactly is happening when goods are exchanged for money and then money for more goods? What is a capitalist? How does he gain his wealth, which is not based on inherited land, as was the wealth of the aristocracy, but on some mysterious alchemy that seems to make riches out of thin air?

These were the kinds of questions Marx set out to answer, basing his work on prior writers such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, among many others. As far as I can tell, Marx really did his research. Capital gives you information on capitalism as it existed when he wrote, a philosophic examination of underlying principles and a history of economic thought from Aristotle through the first half of the 19th century. (His focus was always European, but that is where capitalism flourished.) His footnotes are awesome – in six languages, often scathing and sometimes funny. He has no trouble calling a spade a spade or an idiot an idiot.

Because I’m a writer, not an economist, I find myself noticing the way Marx writes. A lot of his metaphors come from chemistry, for example. I knew he was very impressed by Darwin’s The Origin of Species. I didn’t realize he was also fascinated by chemistry.

Claude Cockburn is right in saying that Marx gives readers a sense of perspective. He has an acute sense of social justice and a strong awareness of how much harm capitalism does, but he is also trying to understand the capitalist system – where it came from, how it works, and how it fits into human history.
I find he gives me the same pleasure as books on evolution and paleontology: there is a wide view that extends over time and space; and an interplay of broad scientific principles with specific circumstances. There is the pleasure of ideas, big ideas that make life understandable. There is also a call to action, as the story reaches our age. The dinosaurs are gone, past rescue. But their descendents the birds are still here and at risk. And we are still here and at risk.

It’s no accident that many distinguished evolutionary scientists have found Marx’s ideas sympathetic.

I am going to include two quotes. One is from the Foreword to the first volume of Capital. He is talking about the history of economic theory:

With the year 1830 came the decisive crisis… In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class-struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prizefighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the vile intent of apologetic.

This is pretty good writing. Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentences, the use of repetition, the choice of words: decisive, conquer, threatening, prize-fighter. These lines land like a hammer. Then there is a slowing of tempo, as the paragraph ends in the bad conscience and the vile intent of apologetic.

(I know Marx wrote in German, but there is a consistency to how he sounds in different translations. I suspect he sounded pretty much like this, even in the original.)

When you look at mainstream economics in the 20th and 21st century, especially now as economists stumble to explain how they have been – most of them – so badly wrong in recent years, this passage sounds pretty close to true. We are either looking at a bunch of idiots or at “the vile intent of apologetic.” Or both.

This quote is from the chapter titled “The General Formula for Capital”:

…The possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or mainspring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit of any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.

What strikes me about this passage is the idea of the capitalist as “capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.” I don’t know to what extent Marx meant this to be taken literally. He does use metaphor a lot. But it’s a horrifying and effective image, and it does explain the behavior of capitalists as a class. How can the rich remain committed to “the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone,” when it is clearly endangering the planet? After all, they are struck on the planet. Have they no interest in their survival or the survival of their children? Apparently not. This does not make sense in human terms. But if they are “capital personified,” possessed by their wealth as by a demon, maybe we can find a kind of sense.

Or maybe the process is closer to the one in Book Three of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, when a jealous man turns into the allegorical figure of Jealousy, his specific personality dissolved as by a chemical reaction. The acid of jealousy eats his individual humanity away.

In any case, I am finding the book interesting, though slow going. If you want a quick overview of Marx’s ideas, it’s better to go to The Communist Manifesto or two pamphlets he wrote to explain his ideas to working people: Value, Price and Profit and Wage-Labor and Capital.

I am also reading The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time by Istvan Meszaros, a Marxist philosopher who left his native Hungary in 1956 and now lives in England. This book is harder than Capital, mostly because Meszaros is a difficult writer. One has to dig through his language to find his ideas. But there are flashes of insight that make it worthwhile. He is writing – among other things -- about the nature of time in a capitalist society. According to Meszaros, capitalism divides time into labor-hours, which are measured by money, and this is the only kind of time that matters.

I suspect he is right. I have done accounting for years; and I know in a system set up to track money, anything that is not easily turned into money disappears.

Thus, the hours that are spent with family and friends, working on a garden, building a community, carrying for the vulnerable on a volunteer basis, doing unpaid art tend to vanish from economic theory and description, though they are much – possibly most -- of what happens in society; and they are certainly most of what holds society together.

Granted, as capitalism has matured, the market has invaded more and more of human life. But it is not everywhere yet.

To give an obvious example, it is not economically rational to have children. They may care for their parents when the parents get old, or they may not. They will almost certainly not take over the family farm or business and keep it going. Taken all in all, they are a risky investment and often a financial loss. Yet people persist in having children, though economic theory says that people are motivated by rational self-interest.

An even more obvious example is art. Almost no one makes money from art, yet people keep on creating it.

When Studs Terkel did the interviews for Working, he asked people over and over what they would do, if they could do any kind of work. Two answers came up over and over: they would help other people, or they would write.

In addition to turning time into money, Meszaros says, capitalism denies that it – the system of capitalism -- exists in history. It’s easy to find examples that support Meszaros. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Francis Fukayama told us that capitalism has triumphed and – with this triumph -- history had come to an end. Margaret Thatcher is famous for saying that there is no alternative to contemporary capitalism. This seems very close to saying that change is not possible, which means we exist in some strange condition of stasis outside history.

We have a system that only understands time if it can be priced, and which thinks that the broad flow of time – history – has stopped.

I think Meszaros is on to something here, though I find him so difficult to read that I’m not sure I really understand him.

Farther on in the book, Meszaros says:

1. The time-horizon of the (capitalist) system is necessarily short-term. It cannot be other than that in view of the derailing pressures of competition and monopoly and ensuing ways of imposing domination and subordination, in the interest of immediate gain. 2. This time-horizon is also post festum in character, capable of adopting corrective measures only after the damage has been done; and even such corrective measures can only be introduced in the most limited form.

You will notice that Meszaros is not as good a writer as Marx. I looked up post festum. It means “after the feast,” a ten-dollar way of saying “after the fact.”

Looking, as we are, at a very major financial and economic collapse, these comments seem plausible. Capitalism can’t plan. It can only react, and its reactions are not likely to be adequate. How did we end up in the present situation, after more than two hundred years of bubbles and panics? Could we learn nothing?

The crises were not all remote in time. We are not talking about tulips here. There was an American stock market crash in 1987 and another 2000. The savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s resulted in the bankruptcy of half the S&Ls in the US. The collapse of the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund in 1998 was seen a threat to the American financial system so severe that the government organized a bail-out of LTCM in order to prevent financial melt-down. In the same period, the mid 1980s to the present, there have been were major financial crises in Japan, East Asia, Russia, Argentina and Sweden. That is 9 crises in 20 years for an average of one every two years. We are now up to #10, though I have probably missed a few.

We have an economic system that like – the Bourbon kings – forgets nothing and learns nothing. Mainstream economists are still puzzling over the same problems their ancestors puzzled over a century ago. This is not true of other sciences, which have – for the most part – managed to find new problems to worry over. Physics and chemistry and biology are not the same as they were in 1908.

Which brings us back to Marx’s comment about hired prize-fighters; and maybe it brings us back to Maszaros’ contention that capitalism does not believe it exists in history.

Anyway, that’s what I’m reading right now, along with the Dozois-Strahan anthology The New Space Opera and Dianna Wynne Jones’ new YA fantasy.

Have a good new year, everyone.

Eleanor is the author of several novels, including To The Resurrection Station, A Woman of the Iron People, which won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and Ring of Swords. Her short stories and novellas have appeared in Asimov's SF, Realms of Fantasy, Tales of the Unanticipated, and in numerous anthologies. Aqueduct published her collection, Ordinary People, in 2005 and will publish the sequel to Ring of Swords when she finishes writing it.

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