FH Knight and the “Economic Interpretation”

It is at least closely related to the doctrine of the " economic interpretation ", the falsity of which has received brief consideration previously.

The “economic interpretation” here is short-hand not only for Marxist, but for materialist interpretations more generally, which, according to FH Knight, hold not only that all social, cultural, and political relations should be interpreted through the lens of economics, but that they also have an economic solution. What interests us in Mr. Knight’s foregrounding of the “economic interpretation” is the specific weight he places on it. Human societies inevitably and invariably are accompanied by sometimes violent conflict. Removing economic occasions for conflict, according to Knight, does not remove conflict. It follows that eo ipso economic reform will not lead to an end of conflict. Conflict comes to an end, rather, by the imposition of law (see FH Knight, “Ethics and Economic Reform. I. The Ethics of Liberalism,” Economica, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 21 (Feb., 1939), pp. 1-29).

T Veblen’s Rights of Man

The vulgar element, held cheap, kept under, but massive, in the medieval
order of society, comes gradually into the foreground
and into the controlling position in economic life;
so that the aristocratic or chivalric standards and ideals
are gradually supplanted or displaced by the vulgar apprehension
of what is right and best in the conduct of life.

You got to love Veblen. He tells it like it is. The origins of the modern—he is writing in 1910, a mere 135 years after the American Revolution—sense of liberte, egalite, fraternite are actually, says Veblen, to be sought in the displacement of aristocratic and chivalric standards by the vulgar standards entertained by the rest of us . . . or not.

T Veblen’s Islam

There is, in point of practical morality, not much to
choose, e. g., between the upper-class medieval Christianity
and the contemporary Mohammedan morality.

Although it might be difficult for contemporary readers to comprehend, in 1910, when T Veblen composed this article, “Christian Morality and the Competitive System,” Islam lay fairly soundly defeated as a comprehensive political-social-cultural form. It is therefore all the more remarkable that Veblen recognized a kinship between attitudes entertained by upper-class medieval Christians and early twentieth century Muslims with regard to the principle of non-resistance. It was, or so Veblen theorized, the subjected classes that embraced the Christian principle of non-resistance. In a kind of back-handed way, therefore, Veblen is crediting early twentieth century Muslims with the forward-looking, advanced, perspective of the master, who refuses to be mastered and refuses to embrace non-resistance.

T Veblen’s Anthropology

Summum crede nefas animam praeferre pudori
et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.

Count it the greatest sin to prefer life to honor, and for the sake of living to lose what makes life worth living (VIII, 83).

Although it is not entirely impossible that Veblen, like Juvenal (Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis), here intends to satirize those who sacrifice their lives for honor, I find it doubtful since the sentiment is so pervasive among those who fall (or will fall) within Veblen’s orbit.

Later this semester Alexander Kojeve and then Francis Fukuyama will take this preference for death and honor over life and dishonor as a leading quality of the master race (an interpretation that Fukuyama ascribes, not unjustly, to GFW Hegel’s master class). And Hannah Arendt, another Chicago luminary, will come to fault the working class for failing, when granted leisure time, to know quite what to do with it, since they had long ago sacrificed their human dignity in the pursuit of industry.

PE 160 will take up this topic more fully on Monday.

T Veblen’s Anthropology

I love this piece, which enjoys just enough verisimilitude to what contemporary anthropologists actually believe about semi-nomadic and nomadic communities that, in addition social subjective validity of T Veblen’s categories, it also seems to enjoy scientific validity as well. I can find little fault with Veblen’s characterization of the earliest hominid communities—peaceable, collective, non-acquisitive, non-competitive—for all of the reasons that M Sahlins and N Bird-David have identified in their research.

I might even entertain T Veblen’s admittedly fanciful reconstruction of original acquisition and his grounding of this acquisition in the drive to engage in exploits in order to be able to make invidious comparisons with others in one’s own favor.

Behind and underneath Veblen’s account, however, is a secreted Hegelian spirit that lends his account its directional dynamic. For the stages that he adduces appear to unfold naturally and inevitably on their own as if drawn or propelled forward by a secret telos—their end or goal. This implicit teleology, from which Veblen adduces the anticipated taxonomy of primitive/advanced, early/recent/late, etc., makes the earlier, primitive way of life appear less fully human and less rationally advanced than the later stages in which invidious acquisition have been fully elaborated.

Once stripped of this implicit teleology, T Veblen’s account invites the following question: is it our ingrained aptitude for invidious acquisition that gives rise to the contemporary pecuniary practices or is it rather contemporary pecuniary practices that lead us to believe that all humans (as soon as they become truly human) discover the aptitude for invidious acquisition in their breasts? Identifying this causal—as opposed to imposed teleological—relationship would help us to better understand the socio-historical foundations of contemporary social subjectivity and social practice.

The larger question might be: why does T Veblen feel that inferring this teleology is preferable to securely establishing a socio-historical causal basis?

Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979 | Informed Comment


Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979 | Informed Comment

I like this blog, forwarded to me by one of my students. Obviously, among post-secularists, the specter of religious governance structures is of considerable interest, not only in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but in the US as well. However, at least in the US, where there is reasonable transparency and religious freedom (ask the Coptics in Egypt about religious freedom), the rise of the religious right has been a well-known, publicized, public, and, for all of this, fairly terrifying process. In Egypt, where Muslims with extreme views have been subject to brutal state action, and whose voices have been deliberately silenced in the press and at the polls, there is good reason to wonder how accurate polling data can be in the first place, but also whether, once granted the kinds of freedoms they deserve, Muslims holding more extreme views might not view the Disneyland overlay tourists have placed on pyramids and other pre-, non-, or anti-Islamic theme parks is not worth the revenues they it generates. Faithfulness, I am led to believe, might not in all instances be inclined to bow to the great dollar.

This said, we might want to engage in a well-informed, eyes-open, discussion of the range of possible futures for Egypt and the Middle East and ask ourselves whether the indeterminacy generated by revolution—because we really do not know where revolution leads—means that we should act to suppress all revolutions (siding always with the devil we know), or whether even the possibility of greater emancipation is worth the price paid.

As of this hour, the US appears to be siding with the devil it knows. So, if this is not 1979, is it 1848 in Egypt? Or 1917? Or  . . .

Concept of the Political

In his Concept of the Political, C Schmitt wants us to draw a line between individuals or groups who are political merely by convention or law and those individuals or groups who are political because they are able to successfully create the friend-enemy distinction. Setting aside consideration of whether or not this definition is adequate, we can still look at C Schmitt’s review of the 18th and 19th centuries, when, according to Schmitt, the political became increasingly confused with and submerged under the social and the economic. Rather than defining or creating the friend-enemy distinction, the political found itself in a seemingly endless series of compromises, with individuals and groups who were, in effect, competing with the sovereign. Under the best of conditions, such competition is inconsequential, since the state is sufficiently strong and independent to withstand this low-level “civil war” without, in fact, jeopardizing its sovereignty. Yet, even under these best of conditions, Schmitt points out, the state survives because it is dependent not on political decisions, but on impersonal processes (economic, legal, even political) governed by their own internal logics.

It is then only under extreme circumstances—economic, political, social upheaval—that these impersonal processes display their political impotence. Under such circumstances, only the political can provide the definition and direction necessary to restore sovereignty/agency to the state and so avoid a complete collapse of the political. Moreover, under such circumstances, all pleas on behalf of due process actually serve to delay the restoration of state sovereignty and so further undermine the political.

Under these circumstances, the political is de facto the agent who steps in and restores sovereignty by identifying the enemies who are preventing or delaying this restoration.

What I would like students to notice in C Schmitt’s presentation is the long list of enemies that he accumulates along the way—political opponents—whose opposition is constituted by their opposition to “the political.” This includes, for example, those who mistake republican ideals or democratic process for “the political,” or those who wish to cover over the friend-enemy distinction by appealing to Jesus’ command to love your enemies, or those who wish to submerge the friend-enemy distinction in socio-economic, class distinctions. His opponents even include the pacifist who refuses to harm the enemy, but instead insists on turning the other cheek. Eventually, this pacifist will either be killed and removed from the political stage, or they will fight on behalf of their principle (and so deny it).

We might call this way of defining the political pragmatic, since it is based almost solely on practice: the individual or group able, practically, to define the friend-enemy distinction—that individual or group is the sovereign.

To this, let us call it the “Roman” legal foundation of sovereignty, we can contrast the ideal or principled legal foundation of sovereignty, grounded, however distantly, on the Lockean notion of popular sovereignty, which, substantively, is (or so Schmitt feels) vacuous, since it is based on process and not on de facto, pragmatic, successful seizure and maintenance of power.

One can well appreciate, I think, why such a pragmatic conception of the political might obtain when—as was arguably the case in Germany in 1932—a society is in a state of civil war.

Which brings me to my rather leading question. Since the 1970s in the US, and increasingly so since then, this “Roman” model of sovereignty has gained increasing currency within law schools and jurisdictions across the US. Cases are decided less and less on principle and process and more and more by reference to their individual, discrete pragmata.

Here there are a number of critical test cases that come to mind. In Gore v. the US, a Court that previously had sided almost exclusively on behalf of states rights, in this case decided that, for the welfare of the nation, it would not permit Florida’s recount to proceed, even in the face of substantial evidence that the count would fall in Plaintiff’s favor.

More ominously, when John Yoo famously advised President Bush that he was well within the law to permit the torture of prisoners, his advice was based on the legal principle that, absent a successful legal contest, which could be mounted solely through an independent counsel and ultimately impeachment, presidential acts were by definition legal, irrespective of their content. In other words, if the President can successfully establish the friend-enemy distinction, then his very success constitutes the legal precedent necessary to justify his action.

Does the fact that the rule of principle and precedent have given way to the political—does this fact provide sufficient grounds to argue that we are at civil war?

Thomas Hobbes in Cairo

Hobbes in Cairo

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

C Menger on Primitive Accumulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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