Marxism and Economics; Part I

Is there such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics? Until 1918 and the coup that won Bolsheviks the authority to develop and implement economic policy in Russia, this question was, of course, completely theoretical. Until 1918, many economists — more than we might imagine — defended or criticized what they identified as “Marxist” economics; but, lacking an economy in which to implement their theories (or, in the alternative, lacking economy to illustrate how and why “Marxist” economics had failed), “Marxist” economics remained, quite literally, academic.

Nineteen Eighty Nine and the “End of History” (F Fukuyama) might appear to have answered the question once and for all: “Yes, there is such a thing as a specifically ‘Marxist’ economics; and, yes, it failed.” But even were we to conclude, as I do, that the economic policies implemented in the USSR are better described as state capitalist, not Marxist, it is still worth wondering whether there is such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics. For the sake of clarity, I would not count specifically “Marxist” an economic policy that displays a preference for the poor, or for workers, or, more generally, for the marginalized or for minorities. Nor would I count specifically “Marxist” economic policies that socialize some — or even all — sectors of the economy. These policies might be advisable or ill-advised. But when we sit down to “run the numbers” and “measure outcomes” (i.e. winners and losers), economists, given the same data, irrespective of their ideological or moral or social or political commitments, will generate the same curves and the same outcomes. Even if we draw different conclusions from the data, which is normal in economics, all economists embrace the same set of models, the same high-level principles.

Again, for clarity’s sake, no one will contest, I am confident, that beginning in the 1970s the Soviet economy began to falter and that in 1989 it failed. Nor can it be said that it “failed” only because it was isolated and targeted by western capitalist powers. Had western capitalist powers adopted the policies that governed the Soviet economy, they too would have failed. They would have failed in the only task any economy should aspire to fulfill: distributing the marginal product in such a manner as to avoid systemic failure. On this scale, the Soviet Union was not the only economy to suffer collapse in the 1980s and 1990s — mostly, but not exclusively, state capitalist. But, more importantly, in all cases mainstream economic analysis has appeared perfectly competent to explain why these economies failed.

So I will repeat what K Marx claimed in his mature social theory; namely that the interpretive categories of “bourgeois economics” were and remained “valid” for analyzing any society whose social relations are mediated by the production and exchange of commodities:

They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production historically adequate to societies whose social relations are mediated by commodity production [objektive Gedankenformen für die Produktionsverhältnisse dieser historisch bestimmten gesellschaftlichen Produktionsweise, der Warenproduktion] (K Marx Capital vol 1:165, translation altered for clarity).

So long as an economy produces and distributes commodities — irrespective of who owns the means of production, the marginal product, or how the social product is distributed — the categories of bourgeois economics will, claims K Marx, maintain their validity.

Is there such a thing as a specifically “Marxist” economics? No.

No? But, then, why all the fuss, the work camps, the Gulag, the centralized planning, the shortages, the bottlenecks, the overproduction? Why 1918 to 1989?

Let me propose that K Marx found the categories of bourgeois economics deficient in one and only one respect: they were insufficiently rigorous. Rather than counting value a socially and historically determinate variable, bourgeois economists were inclined to both transcendentalize and functionalize value; but, in both cases, to place value beyond critical scrutiny. To quote K Marx’s contemporary, William Stanley Jevons:

If there is any fact certain about exchange value, it is, that it means not an object at all, but a circumstance of an object. . . . The word Value, so far as it can be correctly used, merely expresses the circumstance of its exchanging in a certain ratio for some other substance (Theory 1871:77).

Within the universe of bourgeois economics, value is not “a thing or an object, or even . . . anything which lies in a thing or object” (ibid.). More specifically, value is neither derived, nor derivable, from labor:

There are . . . those who assert that labour is the cause of value. I show, on the contrary, that we have only to trace out carefully the natural laws of the variation of utility, as depending upon the quantity of commodity in our possession, in order to arrive at a satisfactory theory of exchange, of which the ordinary laws of supply and demand are a necessary consequence” (1-2; emphasis added).

Where classical economists like Adam Smith mistook labor for the source of all wealth (Wealth 1776:i.v.47), bourgeois economists recognized that labor itself acquired its value only from the ratios in which it was exchangeable for other commodities; other commodities which were, in turn, exchangeable for discrete amounts of every other commodity in direct proportion to the utility these commodities held, not for individual sellers, buyers, or consumers, but for markets in aggregate. Supply and demand, Jevons therefore correctly maintained, were not the cause, but the consequence of “natural laws” governing variations in utility. It follows that observation of the production and consumption of the lone individual will tell us nothing whatsoever about economic value.

But, when we consider the consumption of a nation as a whole, the consumption [of any individual] may well be conceived to increase or diminish by quantities which are, practically speaking, infinitely small compared with the whole consumption. The laws . . . are to be conceived as theoretically true of the individual; they can only be practically verified as regards the aggregate transactions, productions, and consumptions of a large body of people (48; emphasis added).

Value in bourgeois economics is therefore not only “the circumstance of its exchanging in a certain ratio for some other substance” (77; emphasis in original), but, according to Jevons, it is an abstract social substance deemed “theoretically true of the individual.” Or, as Jevons later puts it:

When we speak of the ration of exchange of pig-iron and gold, there can be no possible doubt that we intend to refer to the ratio of the number of units of the one commodity to the number of units of the other commodity for which it exchanges, the units being arbitrary concrete magnitudes, but the ratio an abstract number” (82; emphasis added).

“Marxist” economists will fault bourgeois economics of the sort practiced by William Stanley Jevons for his rejection of “Marx’s” labor theory of value; when, in fact, what he rejected was Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus’ labor theory of value: “As to Ricardo, Malthus, Adam Smith, and other great English economists, . . . I am not aware that they ever explicitly apply the name ratio to exchange or exchangeable value” (82). Jevons was right. They do not. But Karl Marx will, most notably in his 1867 Das Kapital. “We have seen,” Marx wrote, “that when commodities are in the relation of exchange, their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value” (Marx 1982:128).

This sounds very close to Jevons’ claim. It is. But there is a difference. Like Marx, Jevons had denied that value might be a quality found in things. And, like Marx, Jevons too counted value an abstract social substance. But, as we have seen, unlike Marx, Jevons was eager to ground value in natural laws: “we have only to trace out carefully the natural laws of the variation of utility . . . in order to arrive at a satisfactory theory of exchange, of which the ordinary laws of supply and demand are a necessary consequence.” Marx, by contrast, had by 1876 given up on his search for natural laws, whether of history or of economics. To be sure, value, Marx agreed, describes a relationship between exchangeable goods, not in an isolated exchange, but in aggregate across an entire market and, in fact, across global markets. Yet Marx was willing to pursue this line of analysis far more rigorously than Jevons. Abstract value did not halt at the doorstep of labor. Labor — labor in the abstract — was instead value’s “natural,” or, rather, value’s naturalized home.

Jevons was correct. Empirical, individual labor was not the source of value. And to the extent that this was the position of Adam Smith or David Ricardo or Thomas Malthus, then Marx agreed: they were mistaken. But the fault Marx found among classical economists was not their having mistaken labor for the source of value. The fault he found was in their level of abstraction. It was from labor in the abstract, in aggregate, that goods, also in aggregate, acquired their abstract value. In Marx’s view, then, Jevons’ return to utility counted as a theoretical regression. So eager was Jevons to establish the natural and therefore necessaryscientific character of value, that he was willing to ground it empirically in the utilitarian binary pleasure and pain. “As Senior most accurately says, ‘Utility denotes no intrinsic quality in the things we call useful; it merely expresses their relations to the pains and pleasures of mankind'” (Theory 43). But, surely, if anything defies abstraction, surely pains and pleasures do. Pains and pleasures, specifically, cannot be measured in aggregate. And they, most definitely, are not quantities measurable across all of mankind “mankind.”

Marx will agree with the bourgeois economists:

If we abstract from their use-value, there remains their value, as it has just been defined. The common factor in the exchange relation, or in the exchange value of the commodity, is therefore its value. The progress of the investigation will lead us back to exchange-value as the necessary mode of expression, or form of appearance, of value (Marx 1982:128).

Where he differs is in his readiness to consider value not from the vantage point of quasi-natural, empirical qualities such as pleasure and pain, but to count all value, including labor, in the abstract as socially and historically determinate. Bourgeois economists, such as Jevons, insisted that value described a market-wide ratio among values in the abstract. Marx agreed. And it was because he agreed that he found fault with their attempts to ground value empirically, whether in pleasure or pain or in some other (quasi-)natural law of economics.

There is no mystery over why Marx found fault with bourgeois economists. He agreed with GWF Hegel. The world, as a whole, had reached a point where it had become aware of the conditions of its own production. It had reached this point because the subjective principles governing individual social action had constituted a social world adequate to — i.e., in agreement with — individual subjectivity. Where Marx differed from Hegel was in the identity of the Agent each credited with this universal coherence. Hegel credited this universal coherence to a Weltgeist, a world spirit who’s inner principle was to externalize, objectify, itself and then expand to reincorporate this externalization into its own Being. Through this process, spanning all of history, the world had grown conscious of itself as both spirit and objective truth: as objective spirit.

The young Marx, 1843-1850, had differed with this Hegelian interpretation only in one respect. What Hegel had called the Weltgeist, Marx identified as “real man.” To this extent, the young Marx was a humanist and a romantic. Over the course of the 1850s, however, Marx became convinced that the substitution of Man for Weltgeist failed to accurately grasp the social and historical specificity of the spirit at work in the modern age. His conversion to neoclassical economic theory at the end of 1850s has often been counted a regression. But, in our interpretation, it is a step forward. Yes, the integration of the world into a coherent whole can legitimately be ascribed to labor, to labor in the abstract; or — and this is the same thing — to value in the abstract. But we might equally describe this comprehensive integration as the form of domination unique to the contemporary world.

When neoclassical economists characterize the comprehensive, universal coherence of the the dominant social form, are they describing something different than what Marx describes in Capital? Yet because Marx grounds his characterizations historically and socially — when he shows how this coherence is generated by capital — he is also showing the conditions under which this domination might be superseded.

Is this a specifically “Marxist” economics? And in what does its specificity consist?

Christmas and the Information Fallacy

Surely did we only let people know, they would change their minds, reform their conduct, and make it right. Surely, except that it simply is not so.

Image result for christmas quattrocento
“The Nativity” Piero di Giovanni. ca. 1406–10. Gallery 952. The Met Fifth Avenue

True, information is indispensable. But by itself it counts for very little. Because we see and hear and understand only what we can. I suspect that God, the Infinite One, that Greater than Which Cannot be Thought, the “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” (Hymn No. 424) arrives in Bethlehem, born of an unwed refugee, to make just that point.

“You believe you have placed God at an infinite distance from what is perishable out of respect and devotion; while the truth is that you cannot bear the thought — much less the experience — of God in your world. So, here!”

And so the prophecies and the star and the shepherds and (twelve days later on Epiphany) the wise men — all of that information: Emmanuel, God with us. And (not simply for the sake of coherence or consistency): yes, He Who is born will die, naturally, unnaturally (it hardly matters). God will die. Got that?

Information gold. And we still do not get it.

What we are in need of is not information, but knowledge. We need to know how it is not only possible, but necessary for this God to become flesh; not only possible, but necessary that this God be poor, in need, in turmoil — not at peace, not tranquil, not disembodied, but incarnate. We need to know why His birth announces trouble for (and eventual annihilation of) all principalities and powers.

But to know this we need to reject what we believe we know: Gods cannot be human; Gods cannot suffer; Gods cannot be finite; Gods do not reject power; Gods do not embrace poverty; Gods cannot experience pain; Gods cannot die. These things we know we need to unknow, not because they are based on unreliable information. They are based on the best information. But they are not grounded in the knowledge of the Son of Man.

This we begin to know more fully in Bethlehem.

Brexit: Terrifyingly Familiar

It was Winston Churchill who in 1944 was doomed to repeat a warning first articulated by George Santayana in 1905: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Churchill was repeating it. So are we.

It was with some nausea that I listened today to Michael Barbaro’s December 11 The Daily: “Waiting for Brexit.” Yes. Of course. No one who actually has command of the data felt that Brexit would do anything but hurt the working families who were inclined to vote for it. And, yes. With or without Steve Bannon’s or Russia’s assistance — although it is certain that both were involved — the Leave campaign blatantly lied its way to victory. All of that is true.

Truth is, there is no fail-safe way to make sure that voters enjoy, much less act upon, accurate information. I am thinking of 1914, of the Black Hand, and of the pan-Slavic disinformation campaign that eventually triggered WWI. But I might as well be thinking of the 1920s and Germany and the pivotal role disinformation and misinformation played in building a genuine — albeit “alt-right,” i.e., fascist — movement at that time.

In each instance, including the most recent, the success of these campaigns rests on genuine economic hardship and neglect of large segments of the population by those with the capacity to change those fortunes; and in each instance that hardship has arisen out of the kinds of policies now promoted by regimes found promoting the financial interests of those at the top of the income hierarchy. But, of course, these policies’ success rests upon a misinformed and disempowered public ready to believe the demagogues who promote them.

Information — accurate information — is little help when the public is devoid of receptors equipped to process this information. The conviction that truth will prevail is, in fact, not accurate. The US, which held all of the cards in 1945, would have done well to throw its chips — all of its chips — not simply into public education, but into promoting a social franchise among whose benefits would have been a public empowered and equipped to stare down the difficult choices currently facing the world. Instead, we are saddled with what may be the least well-equipped electorate in US history standing toe-to-toe with the best-financed fascist — I am sorry, “alt-right” — movement ever.

“Resistance is futile” — Star Trek, Next Generation, the Borg Collective.

Brexit is so frustratingly familiar because we have all seen it before. And even — best outcome — if we get another, more informed, vote on the actual Brexit (and not some unicorn-based fantasy Brexit), this will do nothing to help working families who — can we now admit? — desperately need to be heard and acknowledged. (And, let me tell you, Ms May is not the PM to help working families.)

In the hi-tech 1990s, we all forgot about labor, about work, about how hard a schlogg it is always to put food on the table and, God forbid, actually enjoy life. “Tech happens.” Well, yeah. But, like all values, its benefits are distributed differentially. And this “natural,” differential distribution is where fascism — sorry, “alt-right” — comes from.

So, let me be very clear. You are hearing, now, from the working class. The working class is not liberal, progressive, and advanced. It is only liberal, progressive, and advanced where it enjoys sufficient means to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. In the real world, the working class is angry. It votes fascist — I’m sorry, “alt-right”; and, when all of the dust has settled and the bodies have been counted — far, far, far more than in WWII — a story will be told, much like the story Friedrich August von Hayek told in 1944 and that all “serious” conservative policy-makers still believe, that the die-off happened because authoritarian states intervened in private markets. Bullshit. Like 1914 and 1932, the massive die-off will happen because publics were insufficiently empowered.

Brexit is frustratingly familiar.

What Does Capital Know?

It is common for us to speak about corporations as though they were people. In fact, for many legal purposes, we treat corporations as though they were people. But this only a legal device, right? Corporations are not aware of our actions, are they? Do corporations make informed decisions?

Back in the early nineteenth century, Romantic artists, writers, and thinkers began to marvel at how all of nature, including, of course, human beings, were linked in a web of life. So taken were they by the comprehensive character of this web that many began to doubt whether individuals were not themselves, in their entirety, products of interactions in whose composition the individuals played no meaningful role. They called this sense of ultimate finitude the “sublime.” One of these thinkers, GWF Hegel, wrote about the totality of relations among all these individual parts as a Spirit or Mind (der Geist) in which we individuals took part.

And then I listed to Michael Barbaro’s December 10 “The Daily.” On this particular show, Barbaro and his guests drilled down into the kind of information that data corporations collect from us, how they map our movements, how — in a sense — they know who we are. And that’s when it struck me: this is Hegel’s Geist, the universal Spirit, or universal Mind.

In Hegel’s interpretation, it is not only that the universal Mind knows the world; it is also the case that the world shapes Mind. As the world changes, this also changes what Mind knows. It changes how Mind interacts with the world that it knows; and so it changes what Mind knows about the world.

But, of course, we are talking about corporations, right? And corporations can’t know; or can they?

Back in the day, when I learned that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were collecting and processing data they collected from my phone, email, and texts, I decided to make it easy on them. I decided to cc: all of my email to John Ashcroft, who at the time was the Attorney General. “On my way home,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Picking up the kids,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Running late,” cc: John Ashcroft. “Do we have dinner plans?” cc: John Ashcroft. It’s probably safe to say that I am not a real big privacy nut. If John wants my information — legally or illegally — John has ways to get it.

But this is different. To my knowledge, although the  corporations that track my purchases and movement adjust their behavior to suit my movement, purchases, and browsing habits — and although they certainly wish to alter my behavior and even my thoughts and desires — to my knowledge no one is really conscious of Me. I am simply one among millions of data points being purchased, sold, and traded in a general effort to expand what economists call the marginal product — that one additional unit of any good, including information about me, that holds value to some investor somewhere. In the New York Times piece, “How the Times Analyzed Location Tracking Companies” (also December 10), a map of Manhattan displays in real data points the precise locations of users when their data was traded:

The map and the story reminded me of Hegel’s description of universal Mind or Spirit. It suggests that we are known and that what is known about us shapes how the world interacts with us.

But somehow, unlike the web of life for 19th century Romantics, this image of data points fails to invoke feelings for the sublime — or maybe I am wrong. Perhaps it does. Perhaps the sheer immensity of the map, and of the project giving rise to the map — the endless pursuit of an ever larger marginal product; next to this project, perhaps we are right to feel small and powerless. And maybe this is sublime. In our case, however, we probably dimly remember clicking the box next to “I AGREE TO SHARE MY LOCATION DATA [while using?] THIS APP.”

Information has value; which is to say, the more an investor knows about me — my movement, my thoughts, my habits, my purchases, my reading lists, my music tastes — the better able that investor is to use this information to maximize their marginal returns. Defenders of data collection point out — correctly — that these returns would fall were their information less reliable. And they point out — correctly again — that data collection holds benefits for both investors and consumers; the more reliable, the more detailed the information, the better equipped investors are to efficiently serve our needs. Impede or impair the dissemination of reliable information, and you will diminish the marginal product. All true.

This changing, growing, expanding “web of life” is data dependent; information has value. Our movements, thoughts, desires, dreams — all have value; in fact, they have marginal value, value that can be precisely mapped and evaluated. And, as with any “web of life,” it is possible to disrupt and impair its capacity to grow and expand.

But let us now suppose that the Romantics were wrong. They thought they were describing a timeless iterative historical process, a comprehensive whole, a totality, that only within the past century was becoming conscious of itself. What if, instead, we assume that the Romantics were simply picking up on the fact that, for the first time ever in history, global markets had become sufficiently integrated, comprehensive, and rational to give individual investors and consumers within these markets a sense of being very small and insignificant? What if what Hegel called Mind or Spirit (der Geist) was already nearly identical to the data points displayed on the pages of The New York Times article?

If these questions fall not too wide from their mark, then privacy regulations miss the point. Whether or not some data collection firm “knows” the shape of our lives, this will not prevent our lives from taking their shape from the intricate “web of life” composed by capital. But, of course, this is no web of life in any meaningful biological sense. Rather is it  the living, dynamic, transforming and transformative capitalist system, expanding, growing, and occupying every corner of our lives. Controlling the flow of information will do no more than invite it to expand in some other way. What is important is not the data points. What is important is that you are shopping. Happy Holidays!

All Faiths are NOT the Same

The past week I participated in a forum staged by the Interfaith Action Initiative. Happily, the participants — both students and professors — were eager to explore the differences between Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions and forms of observance. Indeed, all faulted our insufficient religious instruction for our failure to grasp “why all the fuss?”

Without blaming anyone, there is something deeply, fundamentally, absolutely disturbing in the interfaith symbol, irrespective of the symbol at its core:

Image result for interfaith symbol

The problem is not that it erases or makes light of 10,000 years of real history. The problem is that it assumes that difference is the cause for violence. Difference is not the cause for violence. The failure to recognize and accept difference is the cause for violence.

Islam is not a more advanced form of Judaism or Christianity. Christianity is not a more advanced form of Judaism. Islam is not a synthesis of Judaism and Christianity. At best — at best — Judaism is a foundation, but only for Christianity and Islam; not the myriad other spiritual formations that have found their place in history.

I will acknowledge that there is something comforting in the notion that we all, ultimately, believe the same thing. But historically, socially, even analytically, that is not true. It is false. Even though Jews find expressions of G_d in Creation, no Jew who is a Jew (as opposed to a “Jew for Jesus”) will countenance a G_d born even of a Virgin. These are not the same things.

The Holy Prophet, blessed be His Name, is not Jesus, but better. The Holy Prophet is wholly human, but not for this reason uninspiring and uninspired. This is different, fundamentally different, than Jesus or Moses. To reduce the Holy Prophet to the latter is to fundamentally misrecognize and disrespect Islam. Salaam.

Not to mention eastern, non-Abrahamic spiritual disciplines.

We behave, all of us, as though difference is a cause for violence. Difference is a cause for understanding, and, we hope, for better appreciation. So please, please, please, do not feel that “we are all the same” is an expression of appreciation. It is not. It is an expression of disinterest and ignorance.

Back Surgery

So, I have a date and a time: December 18, at 8:00 am. At 8:00 am my surgeon will slice through my skin and muscle around H4-H5, peel back the skin, and, if all goes according to plan, begin “cleaning out” the excess bone and debris that has accumulated there, along with a noxious cyst that, truth be told, is the center of all this unnecessary pain. And then they will close me up and administer heavy doses of narcotics to relieve the pain of healing. Six weeks later, I will bounce up to the stage and begin teaching Urban Economics 155. Yes!

I don’t know what pain after 10 feels like. But I do know something close to 10, which is what I live with constantly, which is what justifies the surgery. So, for example, pain close to 10 did not prevent me from scaling the Tennessee Valley Ridge Trail two weeks ago — I could not feel legs or feet; nor has it prevented me from scaling the six floors to my office twice a week, or the 5-7 miles I walk (wander?) every day in Berkeley. So, if 10 doesn’t hamper my mobility, why even bother?

I am not my “self.” I really am my body. As many who have known me for long will attest, I am not my “self.” It is not that my body intercedes. I really am my body. In fact, I could not religiously participate in Mass were I not my body. The body is not immaterial. It is not incidental. I am not my “self.” I am my body. Which is why, Sunday after Sunday, I consume the Body, which is not immaterial.

When — as brother Foucault would say — when I discipline my body by enduring pain at its highest level, I am not an ascetic. I do not believe this translates me anywhere else. I am not seeking to become a non-body. Were I to seek this, I would thereby renounce my faith. I am a body . . . in pain. Living . . . in pain.

But the pain is not  . . . is not . . . emancipatory; any more than the crucifixion of the Palestinian Jew on the Cross is emancipatory. No. The pain  points beyond itself. It points to a moment when I am without pain, whole, restored, happy. And, in the midst of extraordinary pain, I have looked forward — literally, looked forward — to when there is no pain; fully knowing that that point may never actually arrive. But the pain itself is not the goal, the aim, the solace. That would be perverse. It would erase, eviscerate, elide the meaning of the Cross — which is Life. The Cross too points beyond the Cross. The Cross is not its meaning.

So, I am going under the knife to see whether my mind and body can enjoy a few more years with normal pain; not 10, but, say, 5, or even 3. It may be then that I will be able to focus on more perduring forms of pain that surgery cannot eliminate. In any case, I cannot say for sure that surgery will make me any better equipped to enjoy all of you and the amazing world around me.

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to back surgery.

The National Cathedral

So, yes, I did follow the funeral for George H.W. Bush, the 41st, today, on NPR News.

Image result for national cathedral bush

And, like many of you, I felt conflicting emotions. Not so much because I admire the man (I do not), but because I admire and am connected to the institution. I am an Episcopalian. So was the 41st. So were many, many of the last 45 Presidents.

And so here we are at the National Cathedral, facing a question central to our identities; the relationship between power and emancipation. Not all religious communities face this question in the same way as Episcopalians. Along with Unitarians, Quakers, and Congregationalists, we have a very special relationship to the institutions of our country. When we separated from England, we did not, by any means, separate from power. We assumed it. We embraced it.

And so I listen to my Presiding Bishop, who is also the Presiding Bishop of the Bush family, celebrating a Mass not dissimilar from the Mass celebrated at the most lowly street-person’s funeral, in our tradition.

It is, on its face, democratizing. It presents the low and the high on the same scale. They are now equal.

But why the National Cathedral? Why this monument?

Let me suggest that power is real. Let me suggest that the thousands who lost their lives in Central and South America under George H.W. Bush’s government service — because of George H.W. Bush’s service — is an expression of power; which is not independent from Yale; which is not independent from oil; which is not independent from the National Cathedral.

In some religious traditions, faith and power need not be reconciled. In some traditions, faith has never occupied, is not at risk of occupying, power. Not in my tradition. Power faces faith every day, every moment. The question is: how do we face it?

Are we standing with Mary and the Disciples at the foot of the Cross, or are we standing with the Roman Guards? What I fear is that my tradition, often, regularly, traditionally, stands with the Roman Guards. Not that it does not see or appreciate or value the Palestinian Jew over whose death it has ritually observed. But, true to its form, it has overseen the death, the crucifixion, the execution, with dignity, poise, demeanor. I worry about this. Politics and power intersect faith. How do we do that? How should we?

Will We Survive Climate Change?

As someone deeply committed to climate change mitigation and reversal, there are few things that annoy me more than climate scientists who are oblivious — I mean completely oblivious — to social and political dimensions of climate change. So when brilliant climate scientists, such NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies’ Kate Marvel tells me how “it’s worth pointing out there is no scientific support for inevitable doom” (https://nyti.ms/2zkh7Fh), I literally want to pull my hair out; and not only because I have been breathing climate change into my lungs for the past two weeks (https://nyti.ms/2DvEcHY).

“Inevitable”? Well, no. But the problem with Dr Marvel’s claim is that her science will tell us absolutely nothing — zip — about the kinds of things we need to know in order to determine whether or not we are doomed. Climate science tells us nothing about political, social, and cultural currents. It tells us nothing about how or even whether we can elect enough policy makers to mitigate climate change in time. So, yes, theoretically today we could adopt and implement policies that will stave off disaster. But will we? Will it be enough? Will it be in time? Climate science has absolutely no answers to these questions. Which is why we must walk to the other side of the campus, to Political Science, Sociology, Social Policy, and Economics, where very bright women and men work tirelessly on other sciences (yes, sciences, social sciences) to find the cracks through which climate change mitigation has a chance of prevailing.

“Inevitable”? Not even Dr Marvel’s science promises 100 per cent certainty. So let me simply identify — scientifically — three of the leading headwinds:

  1. The policy-makers are paid employees of the carbon emitters. Nowhere is this more true than in today’s Washington and in many of the United States’ capitals. But it is also true even in nations whose very shores and air are currently experiencing the consequences of climate change. Scientifically, we can measure how much it costs — not much — to turn a district into a climate change denying district (see http://opensecrets.org).
  2. Gorgias’ “Fine Art. Gorgias is the rhetorics teacher in Plato’s early dialogue, The Gorgias, who claims he is able to teach anyone how to convince non-experts that he or she is an expert. Plato’s point is that until citizens are equipped to distinguish BS from non-BS they will have to rely upon “experts” who, presumably, will break roughly 50-50, on the BS scale. Nationally, as spending on education per capita has declined, spending on prisons has risen proportionally (https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/infocenter/california-expenditures-corrections-and-public-education). Which means that ever fewer among us are equipped to differentiate Gorgias’ “fine art” from real scholarship.
  3. Short- and Long-Term InterestsSocial scientists have known for some time that wealth, education, and security give social actors the luxury of reflecting and planning for a world beyond the present. As social actors are pushed ever closer to the line — on employment security, healthcare, housing, education, and old age expectations — they are compelled to spend more of their time planning for the present. Globally, social actors are everywhere losing the battle over long-term interests. Not simply income inequality, but war, famine, ethno-religious nationalism, many of which are secondary effects of climate change, are forcing social actors to devote more of their attention to the here and now.

“Inevitable”? Well, no. But the problem is that science, narrowly defined, as Dr Marvel defines it, has absolutely nothing to tell us about the likelihood of resolving this problem. Which gives us some idea as to where we ought to be throwing massive resources: into protecting public institutions from private self-interest, transferring wealth and its benefits back down the income hierarchy to the working families who generated them, expanding and lowering the consumer costs of education.

Short of this the only other alternative is the long feared and hoped for benevolent dictator, who will do the “right thing” irrespective of public will.

Economic Geography

Economic Geography could be a more rigorous version of economics. Unfortunately it is not. Instead it combines and features many of the most trenchant weaknesses of both disciplines: of geography’s methodological individualism and economics’ transhistoricism. Economic geography could be more rigorous than economics were it to derive its interpretive categories immanently from the social and historical landscapes it purports to be interpreting. Instead, it often fluctuates between merely oppositional interpretive frames, on the one hand, and fairly crude base-superstructure economic analysis on the other. An immanent critique invites economic geographers to explore the historically and socially specific ways that the commodity form of capital both supplies the interpretive categories adequate to the capitalist social form while simultaneously pointing beyond them.

Oppositional interpretive frames often successfully identify the tensions within a geographic and/or discursive field, but impose a directionality upon this field transcendentally. Labor/capital is the prototypical oppositional form that invites transcendental adjudication (most often in favor of labor). But geographic and/or discursive fields produce a potentially endless network of oppositions for research: race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, wealth, language, and age offering only the most obvious points of opposition. An immanent critique, by contrast, invites us to explore how these oppositions are themselves composed within a socially and historically differentiated, but nevertheless coherently mediated, totality. So, for example, the labor/capital opposition resolves itself into the commodity form, where both labor and capital may be understood in terms of their two-fold perdurance as abstract value and material form of appearance. Resolving this two-fold form in favor of one or the other sides in this dynamic fails to recognize the immanent, mutually constitutive character of both.

Unfortunately, the traditional Marxist base-superstructure often serves economic geographers both as foundation and foil in the pursuit of research. Whenever spatial or temporal data points are referred back to economic fundamentals, we have, by any other name, a divided field where interpretive categories (but only of the bourgeoisie) are held to be inadequate where generated by bourgeois science, but adequate when generated from the vantage point of the (speculative) proletariat — restored, universal humanity. Or, more often, by contrast (rejecting this productivist frame), economic geographers focus exclusively on the discursive field, in isolation from its practical constitution. An immanent critique would invite economic geographers to recognize the relative historical validity of economic categories, but then to focus their criticism less on the obfuscatory character of these categories than on their historically and socially limited character; not in contrast to supposedly “natural” or “universal” interpretive categories, but with an aim toward specifying their adequacy and contrasting it to other possible ways of mediating social relations.

The specific interpretive frames offered within economic geography are no mystery. Nor is the alternative I am suggesting. They both emerge historically in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are both embedded historically and socially. And, yet, an immanent critique is better able not only to grasp the complexities of economic geography, but also to shed light on a path out of the social totality that continues to plague social scientific research.

Farenheit 11-9

Went to see Fahrenheit 11-9 this afternoon, Michael Moore’s new movie, with my friend Anna. Yes, the irony of the election night trajectory. Yes, the anti-democratic, self-destructive suppression of Sanders. Yes, the Flint, Michigan, racialist targeting of black Michigan by Rick Snyder. (Was he a model for Donald Trump?) Yes, Stoneman Douglas and the strong spirit of the survivor students. Yes, scholarly — NYU and Yale — validation that the “fascist” attribution is more than vitriol. Yes, the left militancy of the rising stars on the left. How do you narrate this story together?

Image result for fahrenheit 11-9

Not as Michael Moore narrated it. Which is not to say you shouldn’t see it. You should. Each segment is an award-winning documentary short. But, strung together? Meh.

What Moore is trying to grasp is a still reversible spirit; think the “Goebbels Project” but early on. Moore wants to say, we’re almost there — almost really fascist — but that there are counter-movements that are still very active. From that vantage point, the sharp juxtapositions of positive and negative, hopeful and pessimistic, offer fodder for discussion. It is a thought piece. Good.

But, unlike, say, Fahrenheit 9-11, which documented a descent into authoritarianism; or Bowling, which offered us a critique of the military-industrial complex — the central message of 11-9 remains buried and burdened by the layers through which it must climb to present itself.

That message is that the Democratic Party has sold out its working class constituents. Yes. The Christian Democrats and Liberals needed to migrate toward nationalist ideals (and away from Social Democrat and Communist ideals) in order to finally be compromised by fascism. They helped make fascism appear acceptable, much as the Democratic leadership were the opening act for Trump.

But this would suggest a narration that guides us to a coherent account of the mechanisms at play in this transition from — as Moore reminds us, in polling data — liberal, progressive America to fascist outcomes.

Yes. Progressives were deeply, fundamentally, absolutely disillusioned by Clinton and Obama. (The Obama sequence in Flint is for the ages.) They were aghast at a Party that so baldly and boldly and anti-democratically eliminated its own base. The margin in 2016 was far smaller than the disenfranchised excluded by the Democratic National Committee. And Moore’s highlight of candidates who are fighting the DNC is truly inspiring. I hope they win.

But the social and cultural and political analysis is at best weak and mostly non-existent. Moore  lets the events speak for themselves, which they never do. Moore wants the underlying moral weight of the narrative to justify itself. It never does. The implication, but only the implication, of Moore’s documentary is that democrats in general and the DNC in particular are complicit. But how?

The fascists have a clear narrative. In 1960 at best 10 per cent of the public shared this narrative. But the base, funded by wealthy patrons, kept the narrative alive. The left has never had a popular narrative. Their “narrative” was the close to $4.8B the public spent defeating the Japanese and Germans. Their “narrative” was: look what that $4.8B did to our economy. Bang.

Which means that when Germany and Japan recover and begin competing with the US, the progressives have absolutely no response. We should spend lots of public money to defeat . . . drugs . . . crime . . . poverty. Without the least recognition that it is the public distribution of the social franchise down the income hierarchy that generated the growth of the 1940s 50s and 60s.

Instead, the elites within the Democratic Party promoted a counter-narrative about free markets and free trade, that actually bore no empirical relationship whatsoever to the realities of the 1940s and 1950s. Sorry, but JFK’s narrative about the free world? It was a total fabrication.

Instead of wrapping his narrative around this clear economic story, Moore elected a moral narrative; that actually muddies and muddles his story.

But it also muddies and muddles the story of working families. And that, principally, is the problem with Moore’s take.