Contradiction and Dialectic

As students of logic have long understood, there are a wide variety of relationships beside the null set and identity. The only quality that may top difference is indifference. Which is why clarity over what we mean by a “dialectical” relationship may hold particular importance for us.

For example, while no one, I am certain, will question whether there is a conflict between the interests of wage-workers and investors in the private company for which they work, this is not the same as saying that labor and capital bear a dialectical relationship to one another. And I suspect that one of the problems we find with I Wallerstein is that his interpretive framework is insufficiently well-articulated to differentiate the one from the other.

I Wallerstein consistently takes up the position of the “oppressed” over against the “oppressor,” and for this he is to be admired and emulated. And, yet, this oppositional framework does not yet disclose whether this opposition is also dialectical.

The importance of this distinction is more than academic. If, as Marx argued, the relationship between Capital and Labor is dialectical, then these two elements (the dia– in dialectic) mutually reinforce one another in such a manner that the further elaboration of the one—e.g., Labor—entails a further elaboration of the other—e.g., Capital. If, however, the relationship is only oppositional or contradictory, then one can well imagine a transformation in one of these elements—e.g., the elimination of Capital—that leaves the other—e.g., Labor—fully intact.

This is not to suggest that a society in which, for example, all investments were public and all dividends shared publically would not constitute a huge change in social relations. It is only to suggest that such a society, so long as it maintained Labor among its elements would not, in fact, have eliminated Capital. Rather, it would only have socialized Capital, which, however significant, still maintains the dialectical relationship that (according to some critiques of capitalism) is part and parcel of what capitalism is by definition.

However, we need not take the Capital-Labor relationship as our point of departure. One might also take—as I Wallerstein does—the condition of women, minorities, indigenous populations, or alternative sexual orientations—as instances of oppression. And, there is no doubt but that members of such groups often find themselves oppressed by members of the “dominant” grouping, even when this “dominant” grouping is numerically equal to or smaller than their own, as is certainly the case with women and persons of color. And, yet, it is also clear that the line between these kinds of opposition and the dominant social formation are poorly grasped by the term “dialectic.” Is the relationship between Male and Female dialectical, so that, for example, we might anticipate a supercession of the Male-Female dialectic by some Third? Or is the relationship between communities of color and the global north dialectical so that we might anticipate the supercession of this north-south dialectic in some equatorial third?

Clearly the pursuit of such lines of inquiry would lead us into a wide range of absurdities in short order.

But, let me see if I can recover some of the coherence immanent to I Wallerstein’s theory and therein suggest an alternative path. I Wallerstein, I believe, is actually directing his critique against traditional Marxist social theory which, as we have seen, took the industrial working class as its point of departure. The problem here, as we have suggested, is that the modern world displays a wide range of oppositions that fit uneasily if at all into the Labor-Capital opposition proposed by traditional Marxism. Since, however, I Wallerstein believed that this opposition formed the core of K Marx’s critique of capitalism, he was compelled to abandon this dimension of Marxism and replace it with a theory of justice. This theory of justice, in turn, placed distributional issues and fairness at its center.

Yet, having adopted this alternative model for conceptualizing the oppositions within the contemporary world-system, he could do no more than offer formal, operationally defined interpretive categories in the place of Marx’s immanently derived categories. Thus, for example, where Marx noted the increasingly abstract, homogeneous, and undifferentiated character of value determined by labor in modern capitalism and related this value dialectically to the manner in which capital is formed and accumulated, Wallerstein adopts a vantage-point of absolute formal justice, in effect blaming one side of this dialectic (Capital) for the oppression of the other (Labor) and taking up the cause of Labor in the conflict. This absolute (and transcendental)vantage-point of justice completely overlooks, however, the dialectical relationship that Marx was eager to identify.

More to the point, this means that Wallerstein overlooks the ways that capitalism constitutes a totally integrated world that lends itself to the kind of unidisciplinary approach that he is recommending.

Yet, whereas Marx theorizes why such a unidisciplinary approach might be adequate to the capitalist social formation—it is adequate because abstract time and value mediate social relations in a comprehensive and totalizing manner—Wallerstein again simply lays blame for disciplinarity at the feet of western scholars who, piecemeal, were making sense out of a world that, prior to their arrival, was whole and unitary.

Firstly, the western world can hardly be accused of inventing distinctions or difference. (Note M Foucault’s amusing opening paragraph to The Order of Things, originally written by J Borges.) Secondly, I am not sure that I Wallerstein wants to fault the preponderance of difference or the absence of a totalizing logic for the kinds of domination that have prevailed under capitalism. But, third, Wallerstein’s transcendental and decidedly non-dialectical critique fails to grasp the dialectical and immanent relationship between the specific totalizing narratives developed by scholars and the partial and incomplete approaches they adopted within the disciplines—a relationship between whole and part for which the commodity form may itself serve as the ultimate archetype.

Yet, it is a fourth and final dimension of Wallerstein’s argument that may set the entire issue in clearest relief. Recall that Wallerstein embraces F Braudel’s identification of capitalism with the anti-market. This is because, for Braudel as for Wallerstein, the state is the agent whose regulatory framework compels social actors to behave contrary to their nature and to treat their labor as simply another commodity, like unto any other. In pre-capitalist or non-capitalist societies, by contrast, markets embedded in and governed by communities prevailed.

This would suggest that the reintroduction of markets, absent state or monopoly intervention, would also signal the end of capitalism. Capitalism, therefore, is not characterized so much by abstract value determined by abstract labor time expended as much as by state (or monopoly) intervention in markets and communities.

This explanation places the state and human agency at the center of Wallerstein’s interpretation; that is to say, makes Wallerstein’s interpretation dependent upon an institutional arrangement and human will.

When Wallerstein notes that his approach is not consistent with orthodox Marxism’s explanation, he is correct. And, yet, insofar as orthodox Marxism held to a non-dialectical understanding of the proletariat—e.g., Labor is not a partner in, i.e., stands outside, the form of domination unique to capitalism—orthodox Marxism proposes a similarly willful resolution to the “contradiction” within capitalism: Labor defeats Capital and assumes power. Moreover, insofar as orthodox Marxism faulted not the process of commodity production and exchange (not value formation itself, but rather the party who appropriates value, i.e., the bourgeoisie), Wallerstein offers a very similar critique as orthodox Marxism. The problem with capitalism is institutional and organizational, not practical. [That is to say, for Wallerstein we need not concern ourselves with the specific way that abstract labor time expended becomes socially generalized and comes to mediate social relations by way of the abstract value that abstract labor confers to the products of labor. Of interest to Wallerstein is not the pratice through which this value is constituted, but rather whether the value so-constituted is distributed fairly.]

An immanent critique, by contrast, holds that, since the relationship between Labor and Capital is mutually constitutive, the determinate resolution to the contradiction “annihilates” both, giving rise neither to the victory of one over the other, nor to the reproduction of the practical regime that gave rise to the contradiction—e.g., to the production of abstract value by abstract labor—but to a regime of practice in which both Labor and Capital are “sublated” or overcome.

Right Wing Evangelicals the real Constituents of US Catholic Bishops? With Contraceptive Coverage Plan 2.0, Obama Pleases Allies, But Not Everyone : Shots – Health Blog : NPR

Why are the US Catholic Bishops running headlong into the arms of the world’s most radical right wing evangelicals?

According to an NPR report this morning, 98% of Catholic women use some form of officially proscribed birth control. An informal survey outside a Catholic parish confirmed that not one person could be found who supports the Conference of Catholic Bishop’s position on birth control. So to whom is the Conference appealing?

You won’t have to go far to find out. Just walk across the street to the radical right wing conservative evangelical megachurch. That’s where you will find the Catholic Bishops’ true constituents. And, yes, these are the same folks who pass out Chick tracks denouncing His Holiness as anti-Christ and who believe that the Vatican is Satan’s home base on earth. So what gives?

As a practicing Episcopalian, I am the last one to believe that minute-by-minute polling research should ever become the foundation for doctrine and practice within the Church. Nor, however, am I of the opinion that classical pagan Greek or Roman teachings about sexuality should serve as the foundation for Church’s teachings on the same. As every good Episcopalian knows, teaching and practice within the Church should be founded solidly on Scripture, tradition, and reason, so that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, listening carefully to how the Church believed it was hearing and obeying that Spirit in the past, and attending in particular to the teachings of the Prophets and Apostles, we can, over time, recognize and root out past error and embrace sound doctrine and practice in the present, by God’s grace.

Here the US Conference of Catholic Bishops should stand with the Episcopalians. Instead, seemingly for the sole purpose of defending what all historians recognize as a thoroughly pagan teaching about sexuality, the Catholic Bishops are looting wayward Episcopal priests and running into the open arms of misguided right wing Christians who regularly label His Holiness the living embodiment of the Anti-Christ.

From where I sit, this looks to me as though the tail (or some other less appropriate appendage) is wagging the dog. Time for a little more Reason and Scripture?

With Contraceptive Coverage Plan 2.0, Obama Pleases Allies, But Not Everyone : Shots – Health Blog : NPR

Pro-democracy feeling wanes in parts of E.Europe-EBRD | Reuters

According to many economists and political theorists, there may be a calculus between economic well-being and democracy. A Gerschenkron was not the first to identify this possible relationship. Others include K Polanyi and, further back, JM Keynes. Its most celebrated example is Germany’s headlong slide into fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

This raises an important set of problems. Democracy—a procedure that should empower the demos—is not predisposed to favor any particular demos. It might favor an anti-democratic demos. In which case it is self-defeating. But when does the demos choose not to be democratic?

The demos chooses not to be democratic when it feels powerless to enact needed systemic changes, such as a more equitable distribution of wealth or the amelioration of some other hardship.

But this begs two near opposite responses. In the face of spreading fascism and totalitarianism, JM Keynes recommended that western democracies do all in their power—including deficit spending—to reestablish full industrial capacity and full employment. And there is no question but that the Eastern Europeans questioning democratic procedures are tired of the lack of social security, consumer goods, and common wealth. If private investors are not responsive to their needs, the reasoning goes, perhaps they need a heavier, more authoritarian hand.

The other response—the response of most of western Europe until now—has been to reinforce institutions that empower citizens to act effectively: making sure, for example, that all citizens enjoy cheap, affordable, universally available health care; making sure that citizens are cared for irrespective of the disposition of their employment; making sure that all citizens enjoy a bare minimum of cultural, political, and industrial literacy. This solution goes further than JM Keynes’, recognizing as it does that the surest barrier against fascism and authoritarianism is a public that values not simply things—full employment, full capacity use of the industrial plant—but the institutional arrangements and values that mediate political and social relations.

The conclusion is that while the shortage of social security and consumer goods is surely a formula for anti-democratic sentiment, the mere provision of consumer goods and employment (generally identified with free markets) is no formula to ensure democracy. As good Ben Franklin might have told us, what we need is to all be healthy, wealthy, and wise; but it is not merely going to bed and rising early that wins us these benefits.

Pro-democracy feeling wanes in parts of E.Europe-EBRD | Reuters

Santorum is right . . . and wrong –

Senator and republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum claims that requiring health care institutions covered by national health care to offer affordable birth control is an infringement on the First Amendment. And in a sense he is right. But for all the wrong reasons.

Santorum is not alone. It turns out that former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Governor Mitt Romney share Santorum’s belief that the application of consistent standards of health care delivery for all covered providers “forces” individuals opposed to abortion to adopt President Obama’s “secular values.”

As you might have gathered, none of the republican candidates are particularly interested either in history or in the values that shaped and are now memorialized in the U.S. Constitution. And that includes the self-proclaimed historian, Newt Gingrich.

However, both as a practicing Episcopalian and as a real historian, history holds some importance to me.

The claims by Santorum and his colleagues brings to mind the flood of Anglicans who in 1783 boarded ships and returned to England because of their allegiance to their sovereign, the King of England, who also stands as the Head of the Anglican Church. At issue for these faithful was the question of republican institutions and values, which they claimed violated their religious principles and values.

Now, on one level, these faithful Anglicans were absolutely right. By definition, an individual cannot without contradiction embrace republican values and institutions and honor their sovereign. And so their long and painful migration back to England following the revolutionary war.

Yet some Anglicans remained, eventually becoming Episcopalians. These Episcopalians decided that their allegiance to the English monarch was less central to their faith than was their commitment to republican institutions and values. Or, rather, they determined that res publica, shared or common wealth, was more central to their religious identity than was their sovereign.

I think they were right. But I also know that many Americans, Episcopalians and not, have disagreed fiercely over the policies of their elected leaders over the years without feeling they needed to challenge the fundamentally republican, and therefore secular, foundations of their nation.

What Senator Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney have all announced clearly in this election is that they will no long stand by the republican and secular principles upon which their nation was founded. But—and here is where they differ from my fellow-religionists in 1783—instead of returning to England, they have decided to incite a revolution against these founding principles, in effect promoting a theocracy.

No, Rick, no one is going to compel your co-religionists to abort a pregnancy. That is not simply hype. That’s a lie, which I am guessing is still a sin for Catholics too.

Are they going to compel you to embrace republican institutions and values? Well, no, not yet. But when the new President is inaugurated next Spring, that President will swear to uphold the Constitution. And, should you be that President, you will then be forced to choose: do you want to overthrow the republic or do you want to uphold the Constitution.

Perhaps we should ask all three of the leading Republican candidates to let us know right now what they intend to do.

Don’t lie.

Obama Addresses Ire on Health Insurance Contraception Rule –

UC Students Propose Alternative To Tuition Increases : NPR

A student prepares to speak in opposition to proposed tuition increases at a University of California Board of Regents meeting in July 2011.

UC Students Propose Alternative To Tuition Increases : NPR

Students from my Chicago School and Contemporary Political Economy seminars will recognize the proposal advanced by Fix UC as that once proposed by Nobel Prize winning Chicago economist Milton Friedman. The idea is that, if education is an investment, whose investment is it? It is the student’s investment, some say. Others that it is the investment of some future employer. And still others say, no, it is the investment of the student’s family or of society at large.

The question is: who benefits from the student’s education? And once we state the question in this way, then we can see why there may be so many stakeholders laying claim to any one student’s education.

Before automatically assuming that Friedman would deny any public interest in education, we need first to acknowledge that Friedman viewed basic education as a public good because, in his view, it prepared future citizens to make basic choices. Friedman therefore viewed basic literacy in the fundamentals as an essential right for every citizen and an essential obligation for every republican government.

Back to the proposal floated by Fix UC. The idea is that students will not pay a dime for their education up front. After they have graduated, students agree to letting the UC system garnish their wages until their debt is paid off. Call it Social Security for education. Like Social Security, each generation pays the tuition and fees for the next.

So, who, in the end is actually paying the bill? The students of course. To be sure, one could argue that, insofar as the student’s wages come from an employer and insofar as a student will only accept a wage that will cover both their garnished wages—their past tuition and fees—plus their post-graduation living expenses and investments, this burden will place pressure on employers who will have to cover both.

Still, this is a pressure that no employer is obligated to meet, but that every student, upon employment, must meet.

Some will argue that, since it is the student and the student’s family that benefits from his or her education, it is only fair that he or she should foot the entire bill. But, then, where are the other investors and their stake in the student’s education?

Curiously enough, it was University of California President Mark Yudof who has raised this question most pointedly in the discussion over Fix UC. According to the NPR report, Yudof has made know that he would “prefer that the taxpayers pay their fair share — that we not treat higher education as a complete private good, in the sense that only the direct beneficiaries pay for it.”

The model that Fix UC contemplates is one that may be more appropriate for private colleges and universities, where students, their families, and future employers make no claim to public benefits, goods, or obligations. Which ought to give a moment’s pause to anyone tempted by the Fix UC solution.

The Fix UC solution contemplates a UC system that, for all intents and purposes, is private. Such a system welcomes private underwriters, donors, and sponsors. It makes no demands on state legislators or on California taxpayers who are, in any case, in no mood to help pay the salaries of faculty and staff or tuition for students. The very notion that public institutions serve public interests or that a quality education is a part of what liberal democratic republics do as a matter of course; that very notion is as anachronistic as, well, political candidates without super PACs.

The question, therefore, is not whether the UC system will go private. For all intents and purposes, it already has. The question is, now that it is private, which private sponsor will pay the bill?

The Vantage-Point of Labor?

“Why did we begin with David Harvey?” you might be tempted to ask.

We began with David Harvey—first his Brief History and then his Condition of Postmodernity—for a couple of reasons. First, Harvey presents what I now take to be the received understanding of the history of neoliberalism, if not in all of its dimensions (and certainly not in its interpretation of class), then at least in its grasp of the emergence and elaboration of a new regime of regulation (composed both of lawmaking and of self-enforcement, i.e., cultural production) and a new regime of capital accumulation (composed of new ways to organize capital investments globally and new ways to organize investment and production locally and globally). My sense is that this was a fairly straightforward, if contested, in any case clear presentation.

Second, Harvey does something that many of the other authors we will consider does not. He struggles with the ways that cultural and economic reproduction implicate one another. This problematizes (but, in my view, does not develop an adequate response to) the traditional Marxian base-superstructure presentation of culture which holds economic relations “in the last instance” to be determinative for both institutional and cultural forms. I say that he problematizes this presentation of culture because he calls for us to reflect on the ways that cultural forms both reflect and reproduce the dominant social form. He invites us to look at cultural forms (in this case postmodernism) and he invites us to reflect on these cultural forms in light of changes in regulation and capital accumulation.

This is not our parents’ or grandparents’ Marxism. And, I think, that is good.

But was that in fact where we began?

It was not. In fact, we began with the Gymnasium in a box (or on a stick). Among the elements in this box, you may recall, was Hegel’s “immanent critique” and Kant’s “transcendental critique,” either one or both of which may have struck you at the time as interesting, but perhaps beside the point.

Let me therefore reintroduce the point now. Assume that I take up the vantage-point of the proletariat, the vantage-point of labor. Assume furthermore that I take up this vantage-point because I hold that the vantage-point of the oppressed is superior to the vantage-point of the oppressor; or perhaps because I assume that the oppressed enjoy insights into the way that the world works to which the oppressed do not have access. That is to say, I believe that necessarily something happens to the ways that the oppressed experience their world that grants them deeper and more accurate information about how the world works.

Here, however, I am taking up the vantage-point not simply of any oppressed group, but, specifically, the vantage-point of labor.

And, yet, I also claim that this vantage-point is decisively shaped by, structured by, the capitalist social formation. In other words, this vantage-point is not simply a mechanical reaction to being hurt or harmed, a self-protective response that fascists and communists would presumably share; but a vantage-point intimately and necessarily related to the very structure of the social formation that is oppressing them. The proletariat, after all, is one of the leading, if not the leading, elements in the composition of the capitalist social formation.

The natural question arises then: what is it that grants this element within capitalism a special vantage-point over or outside of capitalism?

Were Marx a Kantian this question would make little sense since, for Kant, the very precondition of cognition itself is transcendental independence from non-transcendental (immanent) determination. (If I think the way that I do because I am hungry or thirsty or ignorant or angry, my thought lacks transcendental objectivity.)

The question only makes sense if Marx is an Hegelian. How does my thinking, which is shaped and structured by its object, grasp this object? It can only do so immanently.

That is to say, I must offer a critique of my conditions that acknowledges that my thinking about those conditions is shaped by them. In this case, there is no “outside” to which I have access. There is no vantage-point from outside capitalism from which I then critique capitalism. Rather, I and my thought are entirely within the object of my critique.

Back to Harvey. Harvey seems to feel that he can take up the vantage-point of unalienated humanity in order to critique alienated humanity. And, yet, since his understanding of unalienated humanity is transparently bound to the conditions of domination unique to the capitalist social formation, he posits a non-alienated humanity that has shed many of the very qualities that human beings across time and space hold in common; such as constructing and using symbols and signs.

He reverts, that is to say, to a transcendental critique from the vantage-point of a (in my view spurious) universal humanity. This, however, is not at all what Marx was doing in Capital. And this means that Harvey inadvertently critiques postmodernism from a vantage-point that he believes to transcend the specific conditions of our contemporary world. And with this he abandons Marx’s immanent critique and exchanges it for Kant’s transcendental critique.

(Obviously, since Harvey is not in fact an extraterrestrial being and therefore does not in fact have access to information or knowledge produced anywhere else but here, we might still be interested in theorizing from where his “misrecognized” (Bourdieu) objectivity springs. But that is another question.)

Modernization and Money

Is any one else troubled by David Harvey’s analysis of money? If money holds the powers Harvey attributes to it, then why did capitalism not emerge in ancient China, India, Greece, or elsewhere where the money form appeared? Or is Harvey really objecting to any and all symbols or signifiers that conceal as much as they disclose?