Thomas Hobbes in Cairo

Hobbes in Cairo

While listening to NPR this morning, listening to an Egyptian man plead for the Army to intervene and restore order between Mubarak’s supporters and the revolutionaries, I was struck by the seeming inevitability of this plea for Leviathan to protect the public from itself. Presumably, it was because Mubarak did not serve, or no longer served, this role that the public rebelled against his rule. It is not a rebellion against rule as such. To the contrary, it is a rebellion on behalf of law and therefore, to pull in another classical resource, it takes on the appearance and form of Edmund Burke’s defense of the British, by contrast to the French, Revolution. This is not to say that history is condemned to forever repeat itself, much less that Egyptians are condemned to repeat the history of its former imperialist oppressor. It is, however, to say that freedom—understood as the absence of constraint—is on no one’s radar and that determinate freedom (GFW Hegel, T Hobbes) is much nearer to the plea that I am hearing on the streets of Cairo.

C Menger on Primitive Accumulation

In “B. The productivity of capital,” Menger grounds his argument in the conceit that “a primitive Indian is occupied incessantly with the task of meeting his requirements for a few days at a time” (153). As my IAS 45 students know, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities spend not more, but substantially less, time occupied with the task of meeting their requirements (M Sahlins 1966; N Bird-David 1992). Here Menger conflates the differential between individuals who own their own labor and individuals who own the labor of others (and the savings in time that this affords the latter; see A Smith 1776) with the differential between primitive and modern individuals.

The question may be: why must Menger ascribe to all human beings, everywhere, at all times a practical logic that is unique to individuals whose social relations are mediated by commodity production and exchange?

The answer, I think, is that commodity production and exchange rest upon a metric of value that is itself torn free and isolated from its material form of appearance. Value is now a measure of abstract time expended. Except that Menger has taken the additional step away from classical economics and now maintains that value arises solely from the valuation—the calculation—of the transcendental subject. We saw in lecture two that I Kant theorizes the transcendental subject because this subject has already, through long experience, grown accustomed to handling value nominally; i.e., not as a quality of the material world, but as a quality ascribed to that world. I Kant then lodges the riddle of value’s isolation from its material form of appearance by ascribing this isolation to human ontology (being) as such. Human beings are immortal moral agents whose very morality rests on their indeterminate freedom; their isolation from the material bodies all of whose qualities lend themselves to the interpretive categories of Kant’s first critique. Here I Kant identifies the universal, transcendental, subject of action.

C Menger avoided locating himself and his interpretive categories in the debates that swirled about Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, he could not hope to avoid displaying his Gymnasium and law school training—all by not so prominent Kantians. Had Menger found a social subject who, in fact, located value in the object-world, it would have made absolutely no sense to him. This would entail an extrinsic determination of the form of the transcendental subject—which is impossible.

This argument is so strictly opposed to all experience (p. 146) that it would have to be rejected even if it provided a formally correct solution to the problem of establishing a principle explaining the value of goods. . . . For the value of all these goods cannot be explained by the argument that goods derive their value from the value of the goods expended in their production. Indeed, it makes their value completely incomprehensible (p. 149).

A primitive Indian is occupied incessantly with the task of meeting his requirements for a few days at a time. A nomad who does not consume the domestic animals at his command but decides to breed them for their young is already producing goods that will become available to him only after a few months. But among civilized peoples, a considerable proportion of the members of society is occupied with the production of goods that will contribute only after years, and often only after decades, to the direct satisfaction of human needs (p. 153).

The brilliance of C Menger’s argument consists in his folding of space into the categories of time and judgment—the judgment that I will ascribe a higher or lower value to lower order goods in the future—thereby completely eliminating the causal relation between valuing and the object that is valued. We become human, C Menger is suggesting, when we recognize and act upon (such as the nomad) the value I will ascribe to an object in the future. The nomad is already Kant’s transcendental subject.