Socialist Property

I am entering Week Three of Economies in Transition: Eastern Europe (ECON 161), in which, among other things, we are considering socialist property. Of course, the term itself rings oxymoronic; like socialist unemployment. And, yet, it raises several interesting questions, the most important of which concerns the relationship between res publica — and therefore republican institutions and values — and public or socialist property. This question interests us primarily because so much popular and traditional Marxist discourse turns upon the question of private property and the socialization of private property.

Rarely if ever is it observed that among the ways that K Marx’s critique of socialism differed from traditional left-wing critiques of capitalism is that Marx built his critique not around property rights, but around labor practices. More generally, since private property has been a feature common to all settled forms of society, it cannot be identified as a feature unique to capitalist society. It follows that resolving this matter, let us say by socializing the means of production, while perhaps a good idea under some circumstances, is not particularly Marxist or even socialist.

The second point to be noted is that K Marx was not specially interested in equitably distributing wealth or the wealth connected to property. This is because for Marx the form of domination unique to capitalism, in his view, was the way that the production of value (as distinguished from material wealth) dominates our lives. His focus was therefore on diverting some portion of the efficiencies of labor away from the production of abstract value and toward the liberation of free time and human development.

My students at least will recognize the Aristotelian origins of this vision. Freedom begins where labor ends. But they should also therefore recognize that this vision forms the heart of traditional republicanism, the institutional and legal framework creating and protecting res publica, the wealth we hold in common.

Insofar as this was the vision embraced by those who met in Constitution Hall in 1787 (although not by the anti-Federalists locked out of the convention), this may mean that we need to find better ways to talk about the wealth we hold in common, about res publica, than the simplistic and uninformative contrast between private capitalist property and public socialist or communist property. Perhaps the framers have more in common with K Marx’s vision than at first meets the eye.

Finally, in place of this simplistic and uninformative contrast, it may be more helpful to think about the ends to which our collective wealth is put: is it put to creating and recreating the treadmill of domination that the production of abstract value requires, so that only a small fraction of us can realize the freedom born of efficiency; or might it not be put to opening up ever greater swaths of freedom in education, creativity, enterprise, and the pursuit of happiness?

There is nothing specially magical about socializing private property; indeed, there is nothing specially socialist about socializing private property. On the other hand, when the wealth we hold in common is invested in freeing us from domination by abstract value (a product of labor’s efficiency), this could be truly revolutionary.

Je suis Charlie? An Analytical Framework

This week my friend John Halle posted an initial and, in my judgment, overly hasty assessment of Charlie Hebdo. It ran as follows:

Eight Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

1) The basic philosophy informing Charlie Hebdo (having deep roots in French culture) is misanthropy. Those who produce it are misanthropes: they hate all members of our species.
2) A subset of our species are those belonging to marginalized and oppressed races, religions and ethnicities.
3) It logically follows from 1) that Charlie Hebdo hates those denoted in 2).
4) It follows from 3) that Charlie Hebdo is racist and those looking for it will be able to find plenty of evidence to that effect. But
5) According to another definition, given that Charlie Hebdo’s hatred is indiscriminate, i.e. not directed to any particular segment but all segments of humanity, it is not racist.
6) It follows from 1) that Charlie Hebdo is fundamentally suspicious of the capacity of humans to act decently towards each other, to accept responsibility for their own actions or to be trusted with state power.
7) It follows from 6) that whether or not it is racist, Charlie Hebdo is objectively reactionary.
8) All misanthropes-and a lot of self-identified leftists are misanthropes-are reactionary and they should be viewed by the left as such.

Although years ago I took one of my comprehensives at Chicago in contemporary French social theory, I am no expert on French culture, which I suspect is far more heterogeneous than the appellation “French” culture might suggest. I therefore can claim no particular insight into whether French culture in general is misanthropic.

However, even were I to agree that misanthropy is reactionary, and that much of the Left shares in Charlie Hebdo’s misanthropic or reactionary tendencies, I am not sure that any of these assessments rise to a level of analysis of which I know John to be capable. But as John himself admits, these are “eight thoughts” and, at the very least, they get the ball moving; although moving where I am not sure.

It would be more helpful, I think, to ask whether either “reaction” or “misanthropy” are sufficiently precise terms to identify the shortcoming — whether of French culture, Charlie Hebdo, or the Left as such — and then to identify an analytical framework able to specify Charlie Hebdo’s or the Left’s shortcomings (or French culture’s shortcomings) more rigorously.

Let me suggest at the outset that, although I can think of pockets of society and of specific individuals that prior to the fourteenth century I would not judge misanthropic or reactionary, I cannot think of a single “culture” that was not. Moreover, if P Bourdieu is correct, then on some level we are all condemned to reproduce our habitus, even (or specially) when we may feel that we are challenging its foundations. Of course, perhaps John would include Bourdieu among the French leftists who are misanthropic and therefore reactionary. And perhaps in citing him as an authority I am displaying my own misanthropic and reactionary tendencies. Let me put that on the table at the outset.

Why the fourteenth century? Or, why, having identified the fourteenth century, might we be any closer to more carefully specifying our or Charlie Hebdo’s or French culture’s specific pathology?

Well, simply put; it was in the fourteenth century, for the first time ever, that social actors who happened to live in western Europe began to mediate their relations with one another in terms of a substantively empty abstraction that would both prove hostile to all specificity and mistake itself for universal. Much has been written here and elsewhere (M Postone, EP Thompson, G LeGoff, J Lough) about why this specific social form might have appeared and flourished in western Europe in the fourteenth century; but that it did is nowhere seriously contested.

Briefly and for whatever reason, when human beings stumbled upon equal units of abstract labour time both as the measure of social value and as the mediation of social relations, they also began to reproduce a form of social subjectivity grounded in objective social action that could not help but perceive and fault the particularity or specificity of all social action and all social subjectivity not grounded in this unique social form. Economically speaking, these particularities will come to be thought of as “inefficiencies” or “distortions” or deviations from equilibrium. Politically speaking, these particularities will come to be thought of as threats to universal, natural law and human rights and liberties. More importantly, however, these thoughts will be practically reinforced and reproduced by a seemingly transcendental regime of practice that appears to operate quasi-scientifically by natural necessity. This will automatically make those shrinking numbers of societies whose members continue to resist this “universal” social form appear obsolete, antiquated, anachronistic, and backward.

At the same time, however, the capitalist social formation — since that is what we are talking about — metes out punishments and rewards on social actors relative to their possession or lack of the immaterial substance that mediates social relations and places them in dependent or commanding relations to one another accordingly. For as Mr Smith notes:

Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniencies, and amusements of human life. But after the division of labour has once thoroughly taken place, it is but a very small part of these with which a man’s own labour can supply him. The far greater part of them he must derive from the labour of other people, and he must be rich or poor according to the quantity of that labour which he can command, or which he can afford to purchase. The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities (Wealth I.v.i).

And since all material wealth and all social subjectivity and all institutions are pulled into the orbit of this universal form, it imposes its own socially and historically specific hierarchies on the particularities that fall in its path: all linguistic particularities or cultural particularities or legal particularities or religious, and so on, are held for this reason to be suspect.

Of course, these particularities no more govern or mediate social relations today than do any other pre-fourteenth century social forms and institutions. Rather does the service they provide function as a kind of social and cultural index. For were, for example, the Holy Koran or Bible or Gitas permitted to actually mediate social relations they would surely generate huge inefficiencies and distortions that, without weakening the overriding universal social form, might be sufficient to terrorize large segments of any public whose social relations were mediated by the universal form.

Which brings us back to John’s thoughts. No doubt much of the Left’s misanthropy and reaction is grounded in the conviction that all our social relations are mediated by the universal form and therefore that compliance with this, the dominant, form makes us complicit in its pathologies as well. However, rather than diagnosing these pathologies socially and historically the Left often falls back upon predigested memes that, instead of pointing the way forward to alternative mediations, isolate and fix social actors and groups into precut molds. We reject the anthropos, humanity, confusing it with the social formation, and we reject the current social configuration. Yet, absent sufficient theoretical rigor, our rejection becomes reactionary.

Indeed, on the Left we often misread the universalism constituted by capital as though it need only be isolated from class difference, private property, and inequality; as though we can retain the universal while rejecting its constituting social form. Charlie Hebdo is a prime example of a social critique whose radical embrace of the universal brings it to satirize every and all particularity and specificity. Until all social actors everywhere are reduced to a bland, undifferentiated social totality, one senses that Charlie Hebdo will enjoy plenty of particularities to satirize.

This may also help us to more rigorously theorize the break that John inserts between 1-4, on the one hand, and 5-8 on the other. For there is surely a way to read Charlie Hebdo not as reactionary, but idealistic. It is its idealistic embrace of the undifferentiated universal and its rejection of particularity that brings Charlie Hebdo to its critique of all particularities, such as Islam, that display universalist pretentions. It is misanthropic. But it is misanthropic because of humanity’s failure to live up to the universal ideal to which Charlie Hebdo — and I suspect most of us —are attracted.

It is at this point, between thoughts 1-4 and 5-8, that G v Lukács would want us to identify the common thread connecting reaction to its idealistic double. (Failure to identify this critical relationship is perhaps the greatest weakness of, e.g., I Wallerstein’s analysis.) As material beings, human beings are (all pretentions toward the universal notwithstanding) particular. There is no universal to which we are being ineluctably drawn and not only because this constitutes a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments (M Horkheimer). If in the name of capital many previous violent and misanthropic particularities were swept into the dustbin of history, this fact sheds little light on the violence and misanthropy peculiar to capital, whose supercession, good or evil, will assuredly give rise to still another particularity.

I cannot speak to humanity’s capacity to develop institutions and mediations that no longer punish particularity and difference. I am not hopeful. But I do not believe this makes me either misanthropic or reactionary. Nor is it for these qualities that I would fault Charlie Hebdo. Rather would I fault its implicit universalism and idealism by which it is misled into an undertheorized attack on all particularity and difference. A more rigorous analytical framework would identify the socially, historically, and culturally specific conditions shaping Charlie Hebdo’s cultural production and would show interest in teasing out the elements within this production that point beyond it to something genuinely emancipatory; it would also tease out those elements that show it to be, like all of our production and my production, shaped and structured and utterly dependent on the dominant social form. For, as T Adorno has rightly noted:

Finale. – The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light (Minima Moralia 247).

The Huge Disconnect over Terrorism

Today’s New York Times bears on its cover a photo ( of Europe’s political leadership displaying solidarity with one another and with the French people in the face of the expanding threat of terrorism both in France and in the world at large — this nearly fourteen years into the world’s declaration of an all out war on terror. But since terror has not retreated during these years — since, to the contrary, it has expanded (notwithstanding the $6T spent combatting terror by the US alone, with another €500M spent by the EU) — there may be good reason to doubt whether the military approach to combatting terrorism, not to mention the martial metaphor that undergirds this approach, is not itself symptomatic of a larger problem that the war on terrorism cannot touch and may even make far worse. Perhaps economic history can help us understand why.

In the History of Economics and Economic Theory classes that I teach at the University of California, Berkeley, much is rightly made both of the historically unprecedented boost that World War II and post-war reconstruction delivered to the global economy and of the global downturn that resulted from restored global competition beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Obviously in any absolute terms, the decision to combat Nazism and Japanese expansionism with unprecedented outlays of public resources, leading to full employment and scary economic growth in the 1940s and 1950s, need not have been made. Just as in any absolute terms, there was no historical necessity dictating the resolve of western powers in the 1950s and 1960s to develop and implement policies designed to expand the economic power of the lower and middling economic strata — a decision whose effect was to shift wealth downward. Similarly, when competition returned to the global economy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was politics and not historical necessity that dictated the neoliberal response to the resulting economic downturn. Financialization, deregulation, and privatization were choices made in order to maintain for the top centile the kinds of returns on investment that they had grown accustomed to in the 1950s and 1960s. But we can also easily theorize alternative regulatory decisions that would, instead, have allowed gains in productivity and efficiency to benefit the middling and lower strata, albeit without the huge returns enjoyed by the top centile. My only point is to note how the fraying at the edges of the global social contract which we have experienced since the 1970s was — contrary to historical determinists on the left and the right — far from necessary. Neoliberalism was a choice, not a necessity. But why might this choice have coincided with the rise of global terrorism?

Is not this coincidence between neoliberalism and terror coincidental? No, it is not. As Francis Fukuyama noted in his End of History (1992), loosely based on Alexander Kojève’s reading of the German philosopher GWF Hegel, whereas the Hobbesian and Lockean political tradition foregrounded fear of death and therefore the protective social contract, the Hegelian tradition foregrounded the Slave-Master relationship wherein the superiority enjoyed by the Master is earned by his willingness to sacrifice his life in the cause of freedom. And, since the freedom embraced by neoliberalism differs substantively from the substantive freedoms advanced in the rights-based constitutional and legal arrangements promoted in the 18th and 19th centuries, those attracted to Hegel’s approach (like Fukuyama) find fault in those (Hobbesian and Lockean) social arrangements that guarantee mutual protection and the enjoyment of life, liberty and happiness. For neoliberalism, empty freedom — freedom in the abstract, “market choice” — must take precedence over the latter (i.e., over life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). If the arrangements of the 1950s and 1960s were explicitly grounded in defense of the social welfare state, the arrangements promoted in the 1970s and 1980s were just as explicitly grounded in defense of the Slave-Master fight for freedom, even to the point of death.

This transition in the 1970s and 1980s has sometimes been misunderstood as a retreat of the state and an advance of civil society and, in some respects, the misunderstanding would appear to be justified. How else are we to understand the proliferation of private armies, armies no longer subject to civilian oversight by Congress or Parliament, under Ms. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan in the 1980s? Or how else are we to understand the unprecedented transfer during this same period of public resources into the private accounts of the top centile? Can this atrophy of the state and expansion of private wealth and power be understood in any way other than the retreat of the state and advance of civil society?

Yes it can, so long as we are willing to entertain different, non-democratic, and anti-public figurations of the state-form.

Think, for example, of state forms erected by and for enhancing the wealth and privilege of a monarch’s family and relations — a form perfectly natural and even expected in the early modern period. Similarly, although we might identify them today with Russia and the so-called “shatter zone” fixed between Russia and Western Europe, oligarchies are far from unique either to Eastern Europe and Russia or to the modern epoch. Here we need only recall Imperial Rome or the early modern families that governed northern Italy (the focus of Machiavelli’s studies). Or think of Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, which became a model not only for the Nazi German state form, but, imported by Schmitt’s student Leo Strauss and transplanted to the University of Chicago, this concept also inspired generations of so-called Straussians to mock and ridicule the naiveté of those who continue to show faith in democratic institutions and republican values. Therefore, so long as we are willing to see in the contemporary state-form something more akin to these anti-republican, post-democratic archetypes, we need not misunderstand the transition that took place in the 1970s and 1980s as the birth of a new lease on freedom. Rather might we see in the current state-form an illustration of what George Steinmetz has called “authoritarian post-Fordism.”

Look again at the picture displayed on the cover of today’s New York Times: arm-in-arm President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain. Do you see the disconnect? Combatting terrorism in the contemporary world would entail militant promotion of republican values and democratic institutions. It would entail radically broadening the social franchise globally, thereby ensuring that global wealth is held in common — res publica — and it would entail promoting and protecting the voice and rights and active participation of all members of the republic; but the explicit, public, outspoken policies of many of those linking arms in Paris would lead — are leading, have led — in precisely the opposite direction. We cannot combat terrorism by frustrating democracy or privatizing the wealth we hold in common. Rather are these policies the very life-blood of global terrorism, which is why the two have emerged together and why the military response to global terrorism can only feed its appetite.

Some might object to this argument, claiming that the demand for an expanded social and political franchise in the face of terror is tantamount to admitting defeat. “When every child is fed, every family safely housed, and every daughter educated and empowered, then al Qaeda will have won.” But perspectives such as this one not only misunderstand the foundations of republicanism and democracy, but misunderstand the causes and aims of the terrorists, which are transparently neither democratic nor republican, but opposed to both. Which helps to explain the dependent, mutually constitutive advance of neoliberalism, on the one hand, and terror on the other.

Global Dis-integregration and Difference

The events in Paris yesterday now dominate the news-stream, which, all genuine attempts notwithstanding, cannot avoid lumping these events into the cultural-other-as-threat category, therein reproducing the very logic that precipitated the events in the first place: the “other” must be eliminated to vindicate the “same.” The “other” is a threat; the “same” is eternal solace and peace.


In an as-yet-not-integrated world — a world that therefore could not yet undergo dis-integration — the other was not only feared, but anticipated, even desired, particularly among those who — as in the flight narratives from Gilgamesh, from Egypt, from Sodom, from Babel, or from the antediluvian world as a whole — communities felt threatened by the same. So it is that Abraham finds his community outside his community as it were. Both the Hebrew Prophet and “the Prophet” in whose name his self-proclaimed defenders murder comics and critics (who are arguably the real prophets), must leave the city in order to find it, must turn their backs on the same in order to discover their difference.

GWF Hegel may have been the first to recognize the threat entailed to that which is non-identical by comprehensive, universal, global integration. Whatever doesn’t fit is expelled or sublated — placed under, made to disappear. Integration — legal, cultural, social, political, institutional, economic, even religious — is the modern world’s prime directive. Difference in this world is a luxury reserved for those whose money, security, health, education, and well-being grant to them the privilege of naming the other; the other, which is always returning to itself, returning to the Whole. And it is perhaps for this reason that the events in Paris pose such an existential threat to our own Dasein, our own being here. For in Paris we are brought face to face with the complex ways that history and culture and law and economy imbricate one another; how a serious challenge to any one of these critical elements threatens to unravel the thoroughly integrated Whole.

It also explains why anyone seriously devoted to or embedded in another epoch — as Christian Fundamentalists are wedded to the late 19th century or Islamicists to an early twentieth century mystical reading of anti-Imperialist resistance — cannot help but perceive in any competing comprehensive, global integration, such as that arising out of global capitalism, a mortal enemy whose elimination is therefore completely justified. As Herman Dooeyweerd and Roosas Rushdoony, the co-creators of militant modern Christian Fundamentalism knew, God’s Kingdom would appear nowhere else than on this Earth and, since when it comes it will be universal and absolute, it will encompass the whole counsel of God: culture, law, aesthetics, institutions, practices, local and family and political relations. And because nothing will fall outside of this totality, there is complete justice in the elimination of those things that fall outside it today, now, right here.

But the recent mint of this worship of “the same” — not Jesus, nor Moses, nor the Holy Prophet knew anything of this sameness — is thoroughly Hegelian in form; its model and template is not the menagerie of beings that populated the as yet unintegrated world of divine creation. Rather is it modeled after the rational, logical, comprehensive, thoroughly integrated totality of modern capital. But the Marxists are mistaken. When this totality dis-integrates, it does not give rise to benign particularities, as Adorno once taught. Nor, even more fabulously, does it yield its place to a new globally-constituted Forum after the manner of the global south (a la Wallerstein). Rather, it now seems clear, does it yield something much more like Weber’s diagnosis. The gods released with the disintegration of capitalism are far from benign. Having been born and nurtured under the fiction of a rational, singular, global totality, they will tolerate nothing short of total victory and therefore total annihilation of “the other” by the god of “the same.”

In the end it matters little whether this “same” is called Capital, or Yahweh, or Jesus, or The Prophet so long as it remains rational, whole, singular, internally consistent and comprehensive. Because in the end, unless I am mistaken, this kind of totality is a fiction; and because it is a fiction, it cannot help but annihilate itself in its annihilation of the other. Existence itself is grounded in non-subsumed difference. The Same = Nothing. It is by definition therefore nihilistic. What could emancipate difference from the same would be the very kind of historical trajectory that capital rejects from the outset: not the global, universal embrace of an identical set of laws, institutions, customs and habits, but the universal recognition that all Dasein, all being here, is particular, partial, and eternally incomplete. Nor does this require that we make a god out of irrationality or difference. The historical and social specificity of Republican values and Democratic institutions — and therefore their complicity in the rise of modern capital and empire — need not bring us to reject our shared existence (res publica) or the benefits we derive from openly reaching consensus together (demokritos) or protecting those who disagree from retribution (dike).

These values are, on the one hand, larger than France — and surely larger than capital — and, on the other hand, smaller and more modest than any metaphysical universal. They rest, as Aristotle once taught us, on quite substantial, even physical (not metaphysical) things: good health, good education, safety and leisure (thus wealth). Following the multiple fatalities of the early and mid-twentieth century, the many belligerents in those disasters committed themselves to providing precisely these good things to all human beings. We are now reaping the rewards of our profound failure to provide these good things to the many, much less to all. Turning ontology on its head, we have instead mistakenly felt that material deprivation is the midwife of freedom, not its reverse. Asking for fish, we have all given the next generation serpents, thus proving Jesus’ assumptions about human goodness (Luke 11:11) fundamentally flawed. Education, health, security and leisure for everyone is the only insurance humanity can lay claim to in the face of rising totalitarianism. Everything else is a serpent or a stone.

France and Europe may be inclined after the events in Paris to further close their borders. But this inclination is based upon a false diagnosis. It faults difference for violence, which is mistaken. Aristotle again had it right when he credited health, education, welfare, and leisure for everyone — and not merely for the few — for “us” as well as for “them,” as the only secure foundation for peace. To be sure, angry men must be restrained — but then they must be fed, clothed, cared for, listened to, heard, and granted freedom of association. Everything else is Platonic gobbledygook, pie in the sky, ideology. For, as Adorno eloquently put it:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects — this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters (T Adorno Minima Moralia 2005:247).