Revolution and Totality

I just finished putting together a talk I will deliver in the Department of Economics here in Tuzla next Tuesday. The talk (no surprise downloadhere) is on the Chicago School of Economics. Still, as I have been putting this talk together, the unrest in Ukraine, Venezuela, Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have been calling for my attention; which mostly I have given them. For those readers not familiar with my standard “Chicago School” talk, it begins by situating the Chicago School squarely within the Methodenstreit or methods controversy between the Austrian School and the German Historical School and it ends by noting how “Hegelian” Chicago School economic theory has become over the last half century. By “Hegelian” I mean that, in a manner similar to GWF Hegel, Chicago School economists using rigorous mathematical modeling now describe the global economy as integrated, rational, and uniform (excepting a few remaining outliers), but all moving collectively toward singularity. This is intended to sound ironic — which it is — to anyone familiar with Chicago’s place in the history of economic thought.


The idea here is that market equilibrium is reached wherever buyers and sellers agree upon a price. The only problem is that all markets are subject to distortions, which are defined as non-market variables — such as, for example, religious practice, local custom, traditional laws, oligarchic, ethnic, or national factors — intruding into and distorting pure market forces. Pure market forces operate efficiently when all economic actors in aggregate aim to maximize their satisfaction, however understood.

To give an example, private individual religious practices would not distort markets wherever private individual religious actors seek in private religious goods the maximization of their religious satisfaction, however that is defined. When, by contrast, individual religious practitioners seek to coerce other market agents to enjoy the same private religious goods that satisfy them — say by compelling everyone to rest on Sundays or repeat prayers — such coercion distorts the market in religious goods by setting the price and opportunity costs on such goods monopolistically.

Ultimately, according to this theory, public institutions exist solely to enact and enforce laws designed to eliminate market distortions. If public institutions attempt to do anything else — feed the hungry, clothe the naked, maintain a minimum wage or annual income, provide health care — these public actions by definition introduce distortions into the market, pushing or pulling demand and supply curves in one way or the other and compelling or coercing all economic agents into compliance with what ought to be left to private decision-making.

But, in the background, as I am writing my talk I am beginning to appreciate even more deeply how “the people” themselves, “the public” turkey-protestas such, is really the ultimate market distortion. Their unsatisfied needs, which markets have not satisfied, nor are very likely to satisfy soon, come with an insistence to which markets are deaf and blind. In Hegel’s language, their needs constitute the particularities that will either have to be folded into the market, into the universal, or violently expelled. Such is the nature of comprehensive, integrated, rational systems such as global capitalism. Such systems necessarily punish the particularities that they cannot assimilate. And, because global capitalism operates on a singular, uniform logic, its tolerance for alternative practical logics is very low — such logics necessarily amount to market distortions, and market distortions are the very things free markets aim to eliminate.

But then I look from the people filling the streets and squares to the oligarchs and their security forces arrayed against them. In terms of Chicago School economic theory, such oligarchs and forces can play one of two roles. They can either represent counter-distortions, as anachronistic as the demonstrators they are seeking to eliminate; or they can represent the role of divine messengers, eliminating those who want to meddle in the free market, but resisting such meddling on their own behalf.

140227132939-03-venezuela-0227-horizontal-galleryIt is, of course, in the latter guise, as divine messengers, that the authorities would most often like to appear. These authorities are only restoring order, and to the extent that they are successful they actually do “reassure markets.” But, both as a resident of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the past six months and as a careful observer of events in Ukraine and Turkey, I can tell you that “the authorities” also hope to continue to push and pull supply and demand curves to their advantage and maintain the market distortions that feed them.

And it is this that I find so fascinating. For let us assume that both the oligarchs and the demonstrators both represent market distortions, impediments to smooth, efficient market operations. And let us further assume that the market is self-regulating, in the long run eliminating such inefficiencies. Upon these assumptions what we are in fact witnessing around the globe is the self-regulating arm of the global market. To use a Hegelian expression, the global market is “shedding” those particularities that continue to resist absorption into the whole; meaning perhaps that whole societies — Ukraine, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela — will continue to languish in the shadows of a global economy moving ahead without them.

Except, of course, that this is not at all how it works. For this neoliberal fantasy fails to mention that the oligarchic 1% to whom the police report and who own controlling shares in the quasi-private industries from which they draw their salaries are not “shed.” Rather are they nurtured, coddled, and cultivated by the global economy that bears them along like royalty. And, instead, it is the demonstrators in the streets crying for “the rule of law” whom the global economy spurns like a plague. So, how are we to account for this comprehensive, integrated, rational totality that crushes those who call for the rule of law, but rewards those who mock the very notion of law?

The answer, I fear, can be found in neoliberal theory itself which holds that market equilibrium in the long run, in aggregate, represents the rational whole to which all mere particularities must yield. So long as this rational whole is sound — which by definition it is — the whole is sound even where the particulars are languishing. Indeed, the particulars (again by definition) languish in the service of the whole. Which means that like a cancerous patient whom the oncologist declares well, we too may declare well a global economy that crushes its occupants so long as capitalism itself is sound and whole. It is not the patient who is well, but the disease by which the patient is infected.

But, of course, that is only ever what neoliberal economic theory claimed. The market is not a means to do anything at all except create market efficiencies, which, by definition, it always creates. We, the people, are the distortions that the global marketplace aims to eliminate. And once it does so, we will be free?

Islam and Free Markets

Crescent and DollarI find it amusing whenever self-proclaimed religious practitioners seek to leverage their faith on behalf of capitalism. I find this amusing because capitalism, which at the very earliest arose in the thirteenth century, was at the time universally recognized — by Jews, Christians, and Muslims — as fundamentally hostile to any and all genuine religious sensibility. Nevertheless, so incredulous are the Kool-Aid drinkers at the idea that any corner of the universe could possibly fault the virtues of free-markets that they will seize any opportunity, including religion, to show why free markets are the answer to . . . well, the answer to everything.

Here in Tuzla of course free market evangelists come touting the free-market bona fides of Islam. And so we have Admir Čavalić making the circuit with his new book “Islam i slobodno tržiśte,” Islam and Free Markets.

Now, obviously, it goes without saying that educated teachers of Islam will not be swayed one way or the other by an, at most, six hundred year old economic philosophy with such discredited credentials. And, yet, faithful Muslims without advanced training, when presented with selected proof-texts from the Holy Quran or anecdotes from Islamic history, might be swayed.

Here briefly is the problem. Like nearly all religious communities, the Islamic community holds that the decision-making and practice of the faithful are to be guided not by the market, or even by individual choice, but self-consciously, deliberately, justly and mercifully by the community itself in prayerful response and gratitude to Allah. This is why, throughout the Middle Ages, Jews, Christians and Muslims continued to adhere closely to theories of just wages and just prices based not on abstract, blind market forces, but on the careful deliberation and reflection — and planning — of religious leaders.

And when in the fourteenth century a handful of entrepreneurs began to measure market value without reference to either justice or mercy, but strictly in terms of abstract labour time expended, a loud and sustained outcry was heard not only from faithful Muslims, but from Jews and Christians as well. Moreover, when this novel practice was formalized in the eighteenth century, no faithful Muslim was tricked into mistaking Adam Smith’s invisible hand for their all-merciful and loving God.

I am not a teacher of Islam, so I will not pretend to speak on behalf of today’s Muslim community. Nevertheless, it strikes me that all religious people must learn how to live in the societies into which they are born. And it strikes me that into whatever community they are born they will continue to uphold justice and mercy. Is it possible to be a good Muslim or Jew or Christian in a capitalist society? Yes, of course. Is it possible to be a good Muslim or Jew or Christian and defend the religious merits of capitalism? No, of course not. For such would place the faithful at direct odds with the most basic tenets of their faith.

Mr. Čavalić is evidently a very religious man. But his faith is not Islam. It is capitalism.

“Dreadful Socialist Idealism”

Last week a friend related a well-known saying from the former Yugoslavia: “No matter how little you pay me, I will work less than its worth.” The saying is instructive on several levels. On the surface it displays a keen grasp of economic rationality: no investor invests more in any investment than it is worth; savvy investors in fact always try to invest less than their return. From this vantage-point, we are led to believe that the workers who repeated this aphorism in the former Yugoslavia were already displaying one the signal qualities of economic rationality: buy near, sell dear. Makes sense. Yet I am sure that those who repeat this aphorism today — and perhaps those who told it initially — meant something else. “Do you want to know why the former Yugoslavia is suffering such economic woes today?” they ask. “Well,” comes the answer, “its because they lost their work ethic under Tito’s Yugoslavia.” “Or,” in evidence of the lack of a work ethic in the former Yugoslavia, “here is an aphorism the workers used to repeat among themselves.”

I am thinking of this aphorism today because an extremely brilliant scholar in the United States (who shall remain unnamed) recently commented on one of our blogs that it was naive for today’s protestors in the former Yugoslavia to hope for a return to “dreadful socialist idealism.” We can ignore the oxymoron here for the moment. Nor do I probably need to tell you that this scholar is a fierce defender of free markets and a critic of public regulation of private industry. Finally, let me admit from the outset that just as in the United States and Europe, there is no small amount of nostalgia in left-leaning circles for the good ol’ days of Fordist accumulation and regulation. Big production. Big factories. Big checks. Big pensions. “Those were the days,” we all say with a wistful gleam in our eyes.

Instead, I want to challenge the notion that socialism in the 1960s and 1970s was either idealistic or destructive. This is because, first in the United States and then following World War II in Europe, the growth of organized labour and the power organized labour came to exercise over public policy followed from the historically unprecedented expansion of industrialization beginning in the 1930s in the United States. This expansion took place of course in recognition that the United States was entirely unprepared to win a two-front war, Picture2in the Pacific against Japan and in the Atlantic against Germany, and that, should Great Britain fall to the Germans, which at the time appeared possible, this is precisely what the United States would have to do. Rigorous wage and price controls and rationing notwithstanding, American industries made a killing off of the war. Moreover, since production was expanding at a clip that allowed expanding wages to maintain their value, this left American consumers with an exceptionally strong dollar with which to purchase consumer goods. Big war-time industry was generally happy to work together with big war-time labour in what was experienced at the time as a Keynesian win-win victorious cycle. When following the war Europe’s war-devastated nations took advantage of the generous Marshall loan and aid program in exchange for promises to join America in its war against Soviet Communism, one of the less often commented conditions of this deal was the formation of labour organizations that pulled toward the political center generally and toward the AFL-CIO in particular.

Of course, for some free market advocates, this was not enough. They point out that the trade unions in Europe were always far to the left of American trade unions and that the social franchise in Europe always made far less room for free markets than did the social franchise in the United States. Fair enough. Still, I am not sure what ground can be gained (or lost) contesting the indisputable fact that throughout the 1940s and 1950s in the US, and then in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s in Europe, big industry was more than happy to make up for the losses in fixed capital destroyed during the war, and organized labour was more than happy to lend a hand at a reasonable price; a price that, more often than not fell sufficiently behind actual economic growth to keep inflation in check and win handsome rewards for investors.

These facts are neither naive, nor idealistic, nor destructive. Nor are they really in dispute except perhaps by the few lost souls who have drunk from the jar of von Mises’ Kool-Aid. So the only question is: are they socialist? My friends in the free-market camp will probably want me to concede (just as von Hayek does) that there is a difference between rigorous theoretical socialism, which never actually happens to materialize, and run-of-the-mill social planning, which often materializes, but not always under the “Socialist” banner. So let me make this concession up front, both to make it easier, but also because this is really not what is at issue. What is at issue is the naive, destructive, and idealist grasp of “freedom” embraced by defenders of the free market system.

Marshall Tito, we all will acknowledge, charted a course for Yugoslavia very different from the course charted by Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Poland and other participants in ComIntern. Yugoslavia’s worker-managed, regionally coordinated industries sought to situate themselves somewhere in-between totally free markets and totally planned economies. And, in the 1970s, when it was clear to most economists that the Fordist mode of capital accumulation and social regulation was nearing its end, Marshall Tito was among the first to begin dismantling Yugoslavia’s social welfare system and restructure its economy. Nevertheless, during that brief beau epoch, in which nearly all industrialized economies shared, running roughly from the middle of the 1950s to the end of the 1960s, all Fordist-based regimes of accumulation — socialist, capitalist, or in-between — enjoyed a period of prosperity that even Paul Samuelson, the Nobel Prize winning neo-Keynesian economist, felt would continue into the indefinite future. Samuelson won his Nobel Prize in 1970. Two years later President Nixon, acknowledging that something was terribly awry, took the US dollar off the Gold Standard, easing the transition to the new Post-Fordist regime of capital accumulation and social regulation.

What this means, however, is that ideological and even policy differences had very little effect on how any given nation faired from 1945 to 1972. The same cannot be said for the period from 1972 to the present. The new regulatory regime to which President Nixon gave birth when he ditched Breton Woods in 1972 (whose momentary motivation may have been his fear of repeating the disaster of 1960 when President Eisenhower’s refusal to ease the monetary supply probably sunk Nixon’s changes to defeat Kennedy), completely severed the already tenuous relationship between the volume and value of capital in circulation and anything like a Gold or “goldish” reserve. The decline in the dollar’s value that Nixon’s action precipitated had little influence on the election, which Nixon won by a landslide. Momentarily it increased the dollar value of foreign-made goods, leading to a decline in their consumption, and it increased the purchasing of US produced goods in America’s largest market — the US — and so had a slight effect on US employment. But its most significant effect was the flooding of world markets with cheap dollars at bargain basement prices. (Among those to take advantage of these cheap dollars was Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavia.) Still, Nixon cannot be faulted either for the creation of the crisis or for the consequences that followed from his global intervention.

image001Rather does it appear that the “crisis” was caused by the appearance globally of something that had been in retreat since the beginning of the war in 1939: competition. Since 1939 there had been only one game in town — the United States. Following the war, at the expense of huge sums of American tax dollars, Germany and Japan began rebuilding their economies. And so long as the United States was both the consumer and the producer of the world, without parallel, this was only a win-win investment: Germans and Japanese purchasing US goods and financial instruments and helping therewith to grow the US economy. Eventually, however, Germany’s and Japan’s economies recovered and began to compete against US producers. The effects of their recovery began to be felt in the late 1960s, but were probably muted somewhat by the huge sums the US was spending expanding its military. By 1972, however, global competition was beginning to be felt everywhere: Germany, Japan, and the US. The consequent decline in returns on investment, particularly when pegged against their spectacular performance from 1932 to 1968, struck investors, who almost always think in the short-run, as an unacceptable long-term anomaly. Actually, the anomaly was the long-term rise in returns following the end of the Great Depression. Declining returns under competitive conditions is not the exception, but the rule.

Still, economists largely at the University of Chicago, my alma mater, saw persistent economic sluggishness as an opportunity to press their case for deregulation and privatization of public assets and reduction or complete elimination of public spending on unproductive, inefficient public programs. We would regrow the economy, they argued, by putting money back in the pockets of private investors. President Carter began to heed their calls for change. But it was not until Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s terms in office that the heart and soul of Fordism were removed and buried.

Of course, since neoliberalism defies every macroeconomic principle ever conceived from Alfred Marshall and Carl Menger all the way to Frank Knight and Jacob Viner and beyond, the policies based on it proved to be an unmitigated disaster. There was almost an immediate transfer of wealth from working families, who use their income to purchase consumer goods, to the increasingly small and increasingly wealthy top 1% of the population who spend their returns purchasing financial instruments. But since deregulation dictated that it would be improper to regulate the soundness of the assets underlying these financial instruments — caveat emptor — and since mark-to-market made it possible to count an asset before it had actually matured — since otherwise investors would have no incentive to part with their capital — it was as though a huge vacuum cleaner had been erected at one end of the economy with global currencies at the other. Since capital was now gauging its value according to a demand that completely by-passed the consumer behavior of working families — investors setting currency values solely according to their demand for capital destined for the very financial instruments whose value they were setting — marginal profits were no longer dependent on the wages or benefits enjoyed by workers and their families, which, of course, began to drop through the floor.

IncomeDistributionBut, again, no one disputes these facts. The dramatic change in regimes of regulation and capital accumulation have had just the results identified here: massive under- and unemployment, the dramatic expansion of the “inferior goods” market and the specialization of markets targeting the top 1%, whose consumption accounts for an every increasing proportion of aggregate demand, but not nearly the volume of demand were the income curve to be flattened. What is disputed, instead, is the metaphysical, quasi-theological insistence that this shift in regulatory regimes is tantamount to a new birth of freedom.

As though he were completely oblivious to the upheavals of the last century in the 1910s and 1930s, or as though he were reading a play-book written for alien beings on another planet, my brilliant scholar friend evidently believes that it should be possible to dramatically drive down or even eliminate the means for living of large segments of the planet and then expect water canons and shock grenades to clean up the mess. Let freedom ring! Or, as though the radically deregulated, privatized, and deinstitutionalized face of the planet were somehow unrelated to dramatic increases in violence, poverty, hunger, disease, and political turmoil.

To note these facts is neither idealistic, nor particularly socialist. But nor is the destruction we are currently witnessing. Rather is this Income-Inequality-Chart-032713destruction the direct and proximate consequence of the very neoliberal economic policies that my brilliant scholar friend holds dear. But why?

As I have already said, my friend is brilliant. But I also fear he is somewhat naive and idealistic, not to mention just a tad lacking in curiosity about actual, real, economic history. At some point, I have no doubt, my friend read some philosophy books. (I have actually discussed these books with him.) I also know that his background and upbringing have mercifully spared him — as it has spared me — any but the most superficial appreciation for how working families struggle to get by. So, no doubt he probably feels that by boldly, “realistically,” advancing hard-nosed economic policies that call for belt-tightening and privatization, he is helping to promote a new birth of freedom. He probably also is sufficiently lacking in familiarity with history that he paints all public institutions with the same “government” brush, without for one moment reflecting on the harsh light this sheds on even the most conservative theories regarding the “rule of law.”

Instead, fixed upon the empty notion of freedom contemplated in Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy (and therein rejecting 6000 years of western philosophical reflection), my friend mistakes the absence of constraint for the presence of freedom, a notion that mistakes vacuity and (literally) a vacuum, where nothing by definition can live, with freedom of choice. This is unfortunate, because I know that my friend is capable of more refined reflection.

Finally, I suspect that he believes that further belt-tightening, further privatization, and further deregulation are enough to address the economic woes of the former Yugoslavia. In this suspicion he is, of course, quite simply delusional. What the former Yugoslavia needs, in the words of another document with which, as a legal scholar, he might be expected to be familiar, is to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for its peoples and their posterity. Such, however, is not formed by eliminating government, but by forming a more perfect union ordained and established through and in a workable Constitution.

This is not a return to “dreadful socialist idealism.” Nor is it a return to Marshall Tito’s own version of Fordism. Rather is it an attempt, perhaps for the first time, to put real teeth into the liberty the peoples of the former Yugoslavia so long for and deserve.

Law and Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Communist Rally in Berlin in 1918Two years ago when Damir Arsenijevic was a Fulbright Scholar living with us in Berkeley, just as Occupy was drawing to a close, a number of us decided to devote several evenings to a close read of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Zur Critique der Gewalt,” which Benjamin wrote in 1920 or early 1921 in response to the still inconclusive violence coursing through Germany following World War I. However, the essay also fits uneasily among a collection of essays composed by scholars cum revolutionaries and revolutionaries cum scholars — Rosa Luxemburg, Georg von Lukács, Georges Sorel, Ernst Bloch, and VI Lenin are worth mentioning here — who were eager to unpack the inherently troubled relationship between order and violence within a potentially emancipatory context. Such a context was arguably present for Occupy in 2011 and 2012 just as it is now present for Plenum in 2014. Which is why reading Benjamin’s essay critically in the present context might prove particularly helpful.

Benjamin points out at the beginning of his essay that the way that the question of violence is usually raised is as a choice of lesser evils: is the (by definition immoral) violence of the moment balanced by the benefits it will bring in the future?

If violence is a means [Ist nämlich Gewalt Mittel], a criterion for criticizing it might seem immediately available. It imposes itself in the question whether violence, in a given case, is a means to a just or an unjust end. A critique of it would then be implied in a system of just ends. This, however, is not so. For what such a system, assuming it to be secure against all doubt, would contain is not a criterion for violence itself as a principle, but, rather, the criterion for cases of its use. The question would remain open whether violence, as a principle, could be a moral means even to just ends. To resolve this question a more exact criterion is needed, which would discriminate within the of means themselves, without regard for the ends they serve (236).

This problem arises not only because violence and the destruction it implies is widely felt to take apart things that are whole, but more importantly because every whole by necessity arises from acts of violence. This implicitly Hegelian formulation of the problem would later be popularized in a memorable phrase Joseph Schumpeter may actually have lifted from Werner Sombart: “creative destruction.” But whereas Sombart had deployed the term in 1913 to point specifically to the ways that the “consumption” constituted by war calls forth both inventiveness (marginal substitution) and increased production — military Keynesianism — Schumpeter was thinking more generally of the ways that capitalism both destroys and creates, destroys as it creates, and creates as it destroys.

Again, the destructiveness of the new creative spirit arises: the lack of wood and other necessities prompts the discovery or invention of substitutes for wood, channels coal into use as a fuel and therein shapes the development of the use of coal in the production of iron. There is no doubt that the greater part of development of capitalism in the nineteenth century thus owes itself to the needs provoked by war. [Wiederum . . . steigt aus der Zerstörung neuer schöpferischer Geist empor: der Mangel an Holz und die Notdurft des täglichen Lebens drängten auf die Auffindung oder die Erfindung von Ersatzstoffen für das Holz hin, drängten zur Nutzung der Steinkohle als Heizmaterial, drängten zu der Erfindung des Kokesverfahrens bei der Eisen bereitung. Daß dieses aber die ganze großartige Entwicklung des Kapitalismus im 19. Jahrhundert erst möglich gemacht hat, steht für jeden Kundigen außer Zweifel.] Sombart, Werner (2012-11-27). Krieg und Kapitalismus (Kindle Locations 3689-3692). . Kindle Edition.

For Benjamin, by contrast, the question is both more specific, but also, therefore, more socially generalized. “All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving” [Alle Gewalt ist als Mittel entweder rechtsetzend oder rechtserhaltend] (243). All law aims to limit, compel, channel, force, coerce, cajole, and so forth. The condition ex ante was unacceptable to those possessing the power to change that condition. But in order to change that condition, no matter what “that condition” is, requires those who possess power to deploy it in such manner as to do so: i.e., to use violence. Or perhaps some others wish to change existing law, but I have the power to prevent them from changing the law. In that case, I will deploy violence in order to preserve the existing law. “All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving.”

But what of the circumstance where I do not want to compel. I do not want to use violence. What of the circumstance where, to use Jürgen Habermas’ model, I want to achieve agreement communicatively using only speech? While admitting this possibility, Benjamin is also eager to point out its central flaw, at least where the law is concerned:

We are above all obligated to note that a totally nonviolent resolution of conflicts can never lead to a legal contract. For the latter, however peacefully it may have been entered into by the parties, leads finally to possible violence. It confers on each party the right to resort to violence in some form against the other, should he break the agreement [Vor allem nötigt sie festzustellen, daß eine völlig gewaltlose Beilegung von Konflikten niemals auf einen Rechtsvertrag hinauslaufen kann. Dieser nämlich führt, wie sehr er auch friedlich von den Vertragschließenden eingegangen sein mag, doch zuletzt auf mögliche Gewalt].

Benjamin’s observations in this regard are specially relevant for transformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. Many participants in this transformation are rightly suspicious of institutionalizing — legalizing — the transformation under way since, by definition, every legal formulation comes to be contractually fixed and therefore implicitly enforceable through what can only be an act of violence, by compelling parties to submit to the law. At the same time, where transformation is not institutionalized, or where institutions fail to recognize the necessity of legitimization, according to Benjamin they fall into irrelevance.

When the consciousness of the latent presence of violence in a legal institution disappears, the institution falls into decay. In our time, [post-war radical socialist] parliaments provide an example of this. They offer the familiar, woeful spectacle because they have not remained conscious of the revolutionary forces to which they owe their existence. Accordingly, in Germany in particular, the last manifestation of such forces bore no fruit for parliaments. They lack the sense that they represent a lawmaking violence; no wonder they cannot achieve decrees worthy of this violence, but cultivate in compromise a supposedly nonviolent manner of dealing with political affairs [Schwindet das Bewußtsein von der latenten Anwesenheit der Gewalt in einem Rechtsinstitut, so verfällt es. Dafür bilden in dieser Zeit die Parlamente ein Beispiel. Sie bieten das bekannte jammervolle Schauspiel, weil sie sich der revolutionären Kräfte, denen sie ihr Dasein verdanken, nicht bewußt geblieben sind. In Deutschland insbesondere ist denn auch die letzte Manifestation solcher Gewalten für die Parlamente folgenlos verlaufen. Ihnen fehlt der Sinn für die rechtsetzende Gewalt, die in ihnen repräsentiert ist; kein Wunder, daß sie zu Beschlüssen, welche dieser Gewalt 191 würdig wären, nicht gelangen, sondern im Kompromiß eine vermeintlich gewaltlose Behandlungsweise politischer Angelegenheiten pflegen] (244).

Benjamin’s concern, which may mirror the concerns of participants in the current movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is that the Benjamin-smmovement becomes easy prey to counter-movements whose members have no reservations about the use of violence. However, another concern, also addressed by Benjamin, is how the decision to make law changes the character of a movement. By making law it fixes itself in a specific place from which, because of the nature of law itself, it may prove difficult to subsequently be dislodged. In our closest, most intimate relationships, Benjamin notes, we take pains to avoid getting lodged in precisely such irreversible, inflexible, and fixed arrangements for the simple reason that we do not wish the relationship to be characterized by violence. Indeed, it is in order to avoid this violence (and not only out of fear, as Fukuyama argues) that communities, which are always more than the laws by which they compose themselves, decide in favor of compromise when faced with bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. But it is also for this reason that love or affection prove such poor foundations for law, since they assiduously avoid violence.

Since it is the only means of establishing law, however, violence is not only a means but is also therefore the very foundation of law, its singular characteristic. Those who would avoid violence therefore must also abandon all pretenses of making law. All communities are thus built on an initial restriction, exclusion, and limitation, a legal contractual obligation, explicit or implied, violation of which initiates a process of violence against those who want to be members.

Finally, however, Benjamin contrasts “mythic violence,” which always rests at the foundations of any community of law, to what he calls “divine violence,” which resists ownership by any community. For unlike “mythic violence,” “divine violence” cannot become an underlying theme in the narration a community composes about its origins. This is because “divine violence” always sets itself up precisely, narrowly, against these very origins, which, as we have seen, are inevitably violent;  divine violence opposes the institution of law, which can only be law against the divine. Indeed, it is precisely here that Benjamin catches of glimpse of the divine in all revolutionary violence, since, like divine violence, its aim too is to annihilate the law and the violence with which law is inevitably associated.

On the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythic forms of law, on the suspension of law with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore on the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded. If the rule of myth is broken occasionally in the present age, the coming age is not so unimaginably remote that an attack on law is altogether futile. But if the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, is assured, this furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible, and shows by what means. . . . Once again all the eternal forms are open to pure divine violence, which myth bastardized with law. Divine violence may manifest itself in a true war exactly as it does in the crowd’s divine judgment on a criminal. But all mythic, lawmaking violence, which we may call “executive,” is pernicious. Pernicious, too, is the law-preserving, “administrative violence” that serves it. Divine violence, which is the sign and seal but never the means of sacred dispatch, may be called “sovereign” violence.

Should the process currently unfolding in Bosnia and Herzegovina aim at creating law? Or should it instead aim at opposing both lawmaking and law-preserving? If it adopts the former, lawmaking and law-preserving, will it recognize its complicity in the very process it claims to be opposing? If it adopts the latter, will it recognize its vulnerability to the sword of the “realists” who want to get on with state-building? Whichever choices individual members of the movement make, their choices will not alter the fundamental reality: states, state-building, and laws, which rest upon violence, will not disappear. Nor will the suspicion that any community resting upon such foundations is, in Benjamin’s word, “pernicious” (verwerflich).

Where our Future Lies

Back in August 2013 when in anticipation of my family’s immanent departure to spend a year in Bosnia and Herzegovina I first began contributing to this blog, I gave it the tag-line “Where our Future Lies.” You can read my thoughts at the time if you like by going back to my first few entries. You will see that the problem I was grappling with then — and am still grappling with now — is that, if large-scale industrial mass production with sufficiently high-paying employment to drive demand is not in our future, and if neoliberal economic policy (that places the burden of productivity on the shoulders of an ever dwindling, unskilled or semi-skilled workforce condemned to send the rewards for its efficiencies — low wages, no benefits — to the top of the income scale) is also unacceptable, then how are we to construct an institutionally democratic and constitutionally republican future?

[On a macroeconomic level, of course, just as central monetary and fiscal bodies have reshaped the regulatory environment in order to push wealth upward, where it is least productive, it would be relatively easy to deploy macroeconomic forces that would push wealth downward, where it is most productive. But with greater overall consumption and production globally, these forces would have two undesirable consequences: (1) they would hasten the carbon restoration project initiated by the industrial revolution and so hasten climate change, leading to vastly increased costs to overall production; (2) they would automatically strengthen the tie between abstract labor time expended and consumption, and so further erode deliberate, thoughtful reflection and action regarding labor, production and consumption. If our challenge is to construct res publica in politeia — i.e., the wealth we hold in common through a thoughtfully responsive public vehicle — then “automaticity,” while more “efficient” (since thoughtfulness and deliberation introduce economic distortions and inefficiencies), is not the direction we should be heading.]

Back in August, I was ready to hear how Bosnians and Herzegovinians were going to address this problem. And I must admit, until last week I was not at all hopeful. If melancholia is the fixation on a lost and irrecoverable object, then most Bosnians and Herzegovinians I met were melancholic. While the global economy was firmly lodged in post-Fordist regimes of regulation and accumulation, Bosnians and Herzegovinians longed for the Fordist regimes of Tito’s hay-day: full industrial production, near full employment, and all purchased (at least in the 1970s) by America’s deindustrialization and so the flood of cheap money onto the world markets. But the 1970s are not going to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is not where our future lies.

IMG_2689But, then, last Wednesday (5 February) something I hadn’t anticipated happened: workers in Canton Tuzla, in northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, created a public space where, seemingly for the first time in nineteen years, citizens could look ahead to a future without the oligarchy, without a corrupt government, where their voices would be heard, their dreams registered, and their hopes realized. In classical terms, that space is called res publica, radical republican space, where wealth, however small or large, is held in common. (In the English-speaking world, the Latin res publica is literally translated Commonwealth.) Here in this space it is not a matter of automatically mediating exchanges of privately owned money and goods. In this space, rather, it is a matter of recognizing the wealth we hold in common, res publica, the Republic or Commonwealth emerging in Canton Tuzla, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tuzlans were, in effect, identifying and naming the crime whereby, quite literally, their elected leaders sold off res publica; sold off, privatized, “the wealth we hold in common,” the Commonwealth, the Republic. The citizens of Canton Tuzla identified the fundamental illegality of the government selling what was not theirs to sell in the first place. And they were setting a legitimate claim upon what was theirs: res publica, the Republic, the Commonwealth.


Political representation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, like political representation wherever abstract labor time mediates social relations, is bought and sold to the highest bidder. Like everything else, political office is a commodity. Only in those few places where regulations strictly prohibit and vigilantly enforce laws prohibiting the buying and selling of public offices does anything remotely resembling democracy prevail. But in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which lacks a robust, independent, educated political class, the wall between oligarchs and politicians is even more tenuous. The gravy train from the World Bank to members of parliament to oligarchs (who are often identical) is fairly seamless. In order to get anything done, you need to be a member of the oligarchy or have connections to the oligarchy. Nothing gets done without their approval, which means that nothing gets done for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Tuzla. Moreover, since the world leaders are still living in a dreamworld that promotes neoliberalism as a means for greater democracy, the world leaders are busily undermining and destroying the very public institutions and regulatory framework that could have reined in the economic-political oligarchy. No government is good government, right? So instead Bosnia and Herzegovina has a bloated government that feeds upon the systematic, deliberate disempowerment of the people they are charged with representing and serving.

But, then last Wednesday (5 February), something I had not anticipated happened. The people of Tuzla did not so much proclaim IMG_2874themselves the real government. No. The people of Tuzla began to govern themselves. Government began to happen, real government, real democracy. Now, if this is where our future lies, then this is a spectacular, horizon-shifting set of circumstances. Genuine republican values are being embraced and carried forward through genuine democratic means. “Occupy,” it is sometimes said, began simultaneously, spontaneously, in Tunisia and Madison, Wisconsin. How transferable is Plenum?




If Bosnia and Herzegovina is where our future lies, then we must anticipate workers setting up and inviting fellow citizens everywhere to reclaim the wealth they hold in common and to resume their responsibility to govern themselves in Plenum.


On Thursday, I returned home from a protest rally staged by un- and underemployed workers in Tuzla. Since then the movement has spread to other cities across Bosnia and Herzegovina, resulting in property damage, injuries, violence, and arrests. Four Premiers from four of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s largest cantons have resigned in direct response to the movement’s published conditions. The additional conditions were outlined in a document released by the leadership of Front Sloboda, the independent political movement representing the workers laid off from illegally privatized companies in which they owned controlling shares. The clearest explanation, in English, of the causes behind the movement was published by the Rosa Luxemburg Society, in an article subsequently picked up by Le Monde Diplomatique and the BBC (E Eminagić Yours, Mine, Ours, We’re all in This Together). The conditions published by Front Sloboda are sensible:

7 February 2014: Tuzla is creating a new future today!
The government has resigned, thereby fulfilling the first demand of the protesters and allowing for resolution of the current problems. Anger and accumulated rage were the causes of violent behaviour. The attitude of those in power has led to an escalation of that anger and rage.

In this new situation, we wish to channel our anger and rage towards building a more productive and useful governmental system. We call to all citizens to support realisation of the following demands:

1. Maintenance of law and order through cooperation between the citizens, the police and civil defence, in order to avoid criminalisation, politicization, and any kind of manipulation of the protests.

2. Establishment of a technical government, comprising skilled, politically independent and uncompromised members who, to this date, have not had mandates at any governmental level, and who would lead the Tuzla Canton until the 2014 elections. The technical government will be obliged to submit weekly plans and reports about their work and will have to fulfil the goals they set for themselves. The work of the Government will be monitored by all interested parties.

3. Urgent resolution of inquiries into legality of privatisation of the following companies: “Dita”, “Polihem”, “Poliolhem”, “Gumara” and “Konjuh”, and ensuring that:
◦ employment years of all workers are fully accounted for and employees are provided with valid health insurance;
◦ economic crimes are investigated and all who have committed those crimes are tried;
◦ all property acquired through illegal means is confiscated;
◦ the previously signed privatisation agreements are nullified;
◦ the process of privatisation is reviewed;
◦ factories are returned to the workers and placed under the control of the people’s government with the view to protecting public interests, and production is restored in all factories where feasible.

4. Alignment of salaries of the Government representatives with salaries of those employed in the public and private sectors.

5. Discontinuation of additional allowances for the Government representatives, payable in addition to their monthly salary with respect to engagement in various commissions, committees and other bodies, as well as any other unreasonable and unjustifiable compensation over and above the remuneration package to which all employees are entitled.

6. Discontinuation of salary payments to Ministers and any other officials following an expiry or termination of their mandate.
This Manifesto is issued by the workers and citizens of the Tuzla Canton, and is for the benefit of us all.



IMG_2868 IMG_2866

Tonight these conditions were fiercely debated and then enthusiastically endorsed at a public meeting attended by hundreds of Tuzlans.

But you will also be interested in learning about other actions promoted by Front Sloboda. Following the property destruction on Friday, Front Sloboda organized a Citizens Clean-Up Day, which was so well attended that it took the combined citizens less than two hours to clean up a site that in the morning looked like it was a war zone. Then the following day, Front Sloboda organized a day of Creative Citizens Action at the government building. Kirsten, the boys and I supplied the poster board, white sheets, paints, and magic markers, and citizens across Tuzla showed up to post their own statements.


Finally (although I do not understand all of the tensions in Tuzla), I can say that I personally felt welcomed by at the service of the local Serbian Orthodox Church whose clergy not only invited us to join them for services and invited us to share in Mass, but also recognized Kirsten’s status as a member of the Anglican clergy. (Oh, yes. And, of course, in addition to coffee, tea and cookies following services, there was also the requisite round of Rakia.)


We cannot say what will happen next, but what we can say is that we are inspired by Tuzla’s un- and underemployed working community, by its citizens, from whom we in the United States have much to learn.

What’s Happening Here in Bosnia

Many readers who learn that Bosnia and Herzegovina is the poorest nation in Europe still have a difficult time grasping what that exactly means. So here are some numbers.

UNEMPLOYMENT. Bosnia and Herzegovina endures the highest unemployment rate in Europe, 44.5%, over half a million unemployed in a country of 3.83M. This is well over the percentage of unemployed in countries the CIA places on the brink of institutional collapse and revolution. The World Bank places the unemployment rate among employable youth — youth who are not students and are expected to support themselves — at over 57%. But it gets worse.
WAGES. Those Bosnians and Herzegovinians who are working earn on average 1110.92BAM (Bosnian Exchangeable Mark) per month. 1BAM=$0.69.
COST OF LIVING. The CPI in Bosnia and Herzegovina is 104.97. For a comparison, the CPI for Germany is 105.9. But Germany’s average monthly wage is €2054. At an exchange rate of 1.95BAMs for 1 Euro, this means that working Bosnians and Herzegovinians must pay roughly the same amount for any basket of basic goods as Germans, but at one quarter the income. Of course unemployed Bosnians and Herzegovinians have to pay the same amount, but with no wages.
SALARY OF BOSNIAN AND HERZEGOVINIAN MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT. Some members of Parliament are known to bring home in excess of €20K annually, which is to say 200 times the average wage.

If you are still having a difficult time imagining how depressed and angry working families in Bosnia and Herzegovina have become since “the end of the war,” consider what your community would feel like if almost all of the stores sold only what economists call “inferior goods,” goods that manufacturers produce specifically for poor low income communities. Consider what your community would feel like if half of your husbands and wives were out of work and unable to find employment even at a wage suitable to purchase inferior goods. Consider your teenagers and young adults growing up knowing that no matter how hard they studied in school, no matter how well they performed on examinations, only 43% of them would find work.

These are official statistics. Many officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina confide that the actual figures are probably much worse.

Now you turn on the television and hear politicians in your nation’s capital, or members of the World Bank, or the EU Bank telling you that you are living “high off the hog” and that you are going to have to “tighten your belt.”

Of course, we know that there are large communities in the United States for whom this is a daily and life-long reality. We know that many of the people who live in these communities are depressed and angry. Now imagine a whole country where this holds true.

So, why am I telling you this? Just to make you feel guilty? No. I am telling you this because you may have already read or are likely to soon read stories about massive protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what is already being described as a “Bosnian Spring.” I am telling you this because some media outlets may unknowingly mischaracterize these protests as the work of angry youth, or hoodlums, or anarchists.

But I can tell you that at the heart of these protests are middle-aged men and women, many of whom have been working without pay and without a contract for over four years because they know that if they stop working they will be ineligible to receive a pension. Of course, they know that it is unlikely that they will receive a pension in any case. I can tell you that at the heart of these protests are young people who see no future and who are angered when they see members of the political-entrepreneurial oligarchy speeding around Tuzla and Sarajevo in their spanking new BMWs and Mercedes Benzes. And I can tell you that when young men who have no future pick up stones and throw them at the police men standing in formation before them — police men they have known since they were born, police men who they have had over to their homes — that their aim is not to hurt these men. Of course, they are angry because their fathers have let them down. They are angry because the older generation gave up, or seemed to give up, and left them hanging, without a future.

But I can also tell you that all of these people are good people; the police men, the youth, the old men and women, the middle aged under and un-employed. They are all good people. And it is high time they stood up to the political-entrepreneurial class who are stealing their future. And it is high time the EU and the World Bank and the United States stopped playing games and decided once and for all to place their bets with the people. Because I am telling you, no matter how much money you pour into the pockets of the political-entrepreneurial oligarchy, the people will overcome this obstacle too.

These are hard times, but they are also necessary times. And I am honored to be able to witness them first hand.

Whistling Calls the Devil

How many readers of this blog have been warned that “whistling calls the devil”? Probably not many, but perhaps some.

My youngest son likes to whistle; and he is good at it. But on the streets of Tuzla, he has repeatedly been warned while whistling that his whistles are invoking the devil.

I have no problem believing in a devil; I lived for eight years under a demon-possessed president and his demon-possessed cabinet. The devil currently occupies US capitalism and the Republican Party. But I had not thought that the devil could be invoked by so simple and happy a practice as whistling. I thought it took a really large bank account, mammoth holdings in Shell or Mobile, or voting for Bush or Reagan more than once. But whistling? Is the devil really that easy a push-over?

And so I decided to check. At first I thought that it might be an Eastern Orthodox thing. Plenty of Orthodox websites warn that whistling takes the place of prayer, fasting, and meditation. Whistling is therefore the occupation of the idle and we all know in whose workshop idle hands work. But then I came across a wealth of websites citing Surah 8, Al-Anfal, Ayah 35:

وَمَا كَانَ صَلَاتُهُمْ عِنْدَ الْبَيْتِ إِلَّا مُكَاءً وَتَصْدِيَةً ۚ فَذُوقُوا الْعَذَابَ بِمَا كُنْتُمْ تَكْفُرُو


Which Malik translates: “Their prayer at the House of Allah is nothing but whistling and clapping of hands: whose only answer can be, “Taste the punishment because of your denying the truth.”

wpid-PastedGraphic-2014-02-6-08-11.pngOf course, we discourage our son from whistling and clapping his hands in the House of God during worship (except, of course, when singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain” or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or other American Spirituals where clapping is required). And I must admit that I find the suggestion intriguing that whistling and clapping hands diverts attention away from and not towards worship. I have a feeling that, except during the occasional Spiritual, our choir director would agree.

But this suggests that most of the folk stopping my son and warning him on the street might also in the next breath ask him to get on his knees and sing prayers, which in Tuzla — you know, the “heart of atheism” in Bosnia and Herzegovina — is as rare as maple syrup. (It exists, but is not plentiful.) But none of the people who stop my son are asking him to pray or meditate.

But what is most peculiar is that this fear of whistling is shared by Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox (and would probably be shared by Protestants if there were any, which there are not). Which has got me wondering whether the prohibition might actually have a far more ancient common ancestor, a commonly cited instruction from the halacha Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 338:

סעיף א – השמעת קול בכלי שיר אסור, אבל להקיש על הדלת וכיוצא בזה כשאינו דרך שיר מתר. הגה: וכן אם לא עביד מעשה שרי. ולכן אלו שקורין לחבריהם ומצפצפים בפיהם כמו צפור, מתר לעשותו בשבת (הגהות אלפסי). ואסור להכות בשבת על הדלת בטבעת הקבוע בדלת, אף על פי שאינו מכון לשיר, מכל מקום הואיל והכלי מיחד לכך אסור. ולכן אסור לשמש להכות על הדלת לקרא לבית הכנסת על ידי הכלי המיחד לכך אלא מכה בידו על הדלת (אגור ובית יוסף בשם פסקי תוספות דערובין).

Which has been roughly translated: “Producing noise from an instrument is forbidden, but knocking on the door or other things that are not musical are allowed. Rem”a: Similarly, if you do no action, it is allowed. Therefore, those who call their friends by making their mouths sound like birds are permitted to do such on Shabbat (Hagahot Alfasi). It is forbidden to bang on the door with the ring attached to the door, even though one has no musical intentions, because in any event, the ring is made especially for that purpose, and it is forbidden. Therefore, it is forbidden for the sexton to bang on the door to call the synagogue using a tool. Rather, he should bang with his hand (the Agur and Beit Yosef in the name of Piskei Tosafot in Eruvin). (

Could it be that, particularly here in Eastern Europe, even among those who no longer have an active religious practice, the fear of whistling and its invocation of the devil recalls the practice among Jews on the Sabbath of whistling in place of the music permitted in the other Abrahamic traditions? I wonder. This possibility seems even more plausible when we consider the many places in the Hebrew Bible where Yahweh is said to whistle (

Judges 5:16 NIV: Why did you stay among the campfires [or saddlebags] to hear the WHISTLING for the flocks? In the districts of Reuben there was much searching of the heart.

Isaiah 5:26 NIV: He lifts up a banner for the distant nations, he WHISTLES for those [Deut 28:49  Re: Curses for Disobedience] at the ends of the earth. Here they come, swiftly and speedily!

Isaiah 7:18 NIV In the day the LORD will WHISTLE for flies from the distant streams of Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria.

Zechariah 10:8 NASB I will WHISTLE for them to gather together, For I have redeemed them; And they will be as numerous as they were before.

Judges 5:16 NIV Why did you stay among the campfires [or saddlebags] to hear the WHISTLING for the flocks? In the districts of Reuben there was much searching of the heart.

My best guess is that God is not felt to be invoking the devil in these passages, but rather calling his people. Yet, if I have come to identify whistling with Jews and if I happen to come from a region that (irrespective of the branch of my Islam or Christianity) is known at least in the last two centuries to have been anti Semitic, it may make some sense that whistling came to be identified with Judaism and Judaism with the devil.

Whatever the case, I find the fear of whistling terribly interesting. And, yes, on occasion I too am annoyed (but not fearful) of my son’s whistling. After all, he has a beautiful whistle. And besides, I seem to recall another great authority saying “Whenever I feel afraid / I hold my head erect / And whistle a happy tune / So no one will suspect I’m afraid” (Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers, “Whistle a Happy Tune, The King and I.)