Sunday, February 27, 2011

Social Contract Ideology

One important ideology (though not the most important ideology) structuring common perception of the political-economic order is that of the Social Contract.

Contrary to the notion of power that I have been using, Social Contract ideology treats power as something that is centralized in and wielded by the state, with the consent of its citizens, and is exercised primarily via direct force and/or the rule of law.  The state, for its part, possesses discrete boundaries and is coincident with a "public realm."  Wealth, in this view, derives from property (the protection of which is the primary function of the state) and its acquisition is atomistic rather than relational, such that wealth in itself begets further wealth.

Social Contract ideology is often combined with nationalist ideology, which presupposes that the human race is naturally divided into a number of discrete units (nations or ethnic groups), which should ideally form the basis of state-territorial boundaries.

Social Contract ideology legitimates the social order in a number of ways.  Most significantly, it ignores social structures and forms of power other than the state and sovereignty, and thus conceals real sources and means of domination.  The power of a state, in turn, is seen by the citizenry as deriving from their own consent, for their own benefit and protection (and in a democracy they may even believe they have ultimate power), obscuring the fact that the state is merely a tool employed by the capitalist class in the service of capitalist interests.  The aims and interests of the capitalist class, moreover, are easily construed as "the public good," even as they disadvantage and endanger the majority of the population.  As a corollary, whenever a state is perceived to act in a manner contrary to the public good, this is construed as an isolated abuse of power which can be rectified, and does not call into question the nature of the state in general.

Additionally, Social Contract ideology has enabled the construction of political spectra constituted by discrete "forms of government," often including oligarchies, monarchies, dictatorships, democracies, republics, and anarchy.  This supposed range of options conceals the reality that there is only one type of rule (the rule of the few over the many:  oligarchy), and that the only political difference is the way in which domination is exercised and maintained (which is, itself, merely a function of particular socio-economic circumstances).  Thus, citizens of supposed "democracies" operate happily under the illusion that they live in the best and freest conditions possible, and are too complacent to really challenge the social order.


First, a note on my use of the term "ideology":  contrary to its more common meaning, a more theoretically effective way of defining it is as a framework for understanding the world, as well as the set of discourses (particular ways of talking about things) that support this framework.  Since no one is able to perceive the reality surrounding them without first interpreting it according to some sort of framework, any mode of thought, belief, or philosophy may be properly termed "ideology."

In thinking about the role of ideology in general, or of particular ideologies, it is tempting to try to account for their origins.  However, this is perhaps an impossible task.  Empirically, what we can do is examine how ideology circulates, and what its effects are.

Ideology may be strategically used to support specific agendas.  Ideology may also be sincerely believed.  There are not two mutually exclusive options.  Thus, a person may purposefully deploy an ideology to achieve certain ends, and believe it is true at the same time.

Ideologies are most successful when they are encapsulated in the form of sound-bites which can be easily detached from one context and applied to others.  When sound-bites circulate and are brought into multiple realms of discourse, it creates linkages (in the form of analogies) among these different realms.  When a particular ideology pervades many different areas of life and is easily repeated and brought into consciousness via readily-available sound-bites, the ideology appears as "natural" and "common sense." Furthermore, the more successful an ideology is at seeming "natural," the less likely it is to be questioned and challenged.

These properties of ideology make it a powerful tool for upholding the social order, particularly in the interests of those who benefit most from existing structures of inequality and domination.  Consequently, ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of the capitalist system.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Capitalism is Inherently Unstable

One of Marx's most fundamental arguments is that capitalism is characterized by a number of inherent contradictions. Such as:

1.  Increasing investment in technology reduces the rate of accumulation of surplus value (the amount of human labor in excess of the wages actually paid), and hence, profit.  This is because technology reduces the proportion of human labor embedded in each commodity. Also, as technology develops, production cycles become ever more rapid. This means that there is a greater likelihood that any given technology will become competitively obsolete before the capitalist is able to recoup the cost of the investment (let alone profit from it).

2.  The profit motive seeks to lower wages and expand demand. In other words, workers have less purchasing power, but are expected to buy more.

As a result of these factors, capitalism is subject to continuous cycles of expansion and contraction.  Crises are inevitable.

In addition, for any person who wishes to start a capitalist enterprise, the risks and costs of initial investment become more prohibitive as capitalism develops, for the following reasons:
  • the shortening cycles of production mentioned above
  • globally organized vertical integration (to be most efficient, you must have all stages of the production process under your control)
  • following from the quickening pace of production cycles, the increasing importance of Research & Development (constantly finding new ways to out-do competitors) also raises the investment costs and potential risks (unfruitful research)
Because of the heightened difficulties of realizing surplus value and maintaining profitability, capitalist interests resort to two ultimately self-destructive strategies:  limiting competition and trying to manufacture demand (e.g. Keynesianism). According to Marx, the results of these dynamics are:

1.  Increasing centralization of capital (monopolies, huge corporate conglomerates)

2.  Expanding state interventions (subsidies, credit expansion, inflation)

3.  Increasing personal, public, and private indebtedness (since personal and public "deficit spending" is encouraged in order to prop up demand)

State interventions and debt-fueled booms (bubbles) can only slow down the decline of capitalist accumulation for so long.

Ultimately, capitalism is difficult to sustain because, while the total value (corresponding to the total number of hours of labor available) remains fixed, an increasingly small number of people are enabled to draw upon a larger proportion of the pool, thus straining the entire system.  If the pool is fixed there must be limits to the accumulation of wealth, while capitalist accumulation constantly strives to push beyond these limits. Capitalists try to sustain their profits in the face of this reality by driving unnecessary consumption and massive indebtedness:  obviously not a viable solution in the long run.

Thus, capitalism is ultimately unsustainable.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Socialism is a Form of Capitalism

Socialism and communism are generally held as rival economic systems to capitalism, and more often than not, in the creation of economic spectra, are placed in complete opposition to capitalism.  However, as far as socialism and communism have existed historically, this is not the case.

First, remember that in order for capitalism to succeed, some sort of regulation/manipulation of the market is necessary.  The state has been, for the most part, the most important tool in achieving these ends.  However, the way in which a particular such "tool" may be utilized in a given situation (i.e. the degree of state organization of production, types of market regulations pursued, state spending patterns, etc.) is determined by its relation to the world market as a whole.  Thus, the level of state involvement in the market is an attribute of global relations and not a means by which to categorize isolated economic systems.

In socialist and communist nations, the state essentially acts as a large capitalist firm.  Production is still rooted in wage labor and generalized commodity production.  Participation in the world market still occurs, though certainly a different set of regional constraints are put in place via the state.

Take, for example, Russia.  Prior to the Revolution, the economy of the Russian Empire rested primarily on a feudal-type system of labor and production.  Industrialization was quite nascent and weak compared to its development within other imperial powers. The primary objective of the communist leadership after consolidating its power was to heavily increase its industrial base and "catch up" with the other powers.  As the sort of industrialization pursued by the communist leadership is precisely the sort which constitutes the basis of capitalism, Russia, under communist rule, became more capitalist (in other words, expanded capitalist relations of production at the expense of non-capitalist ones).

Thus, the types of socialism and communism that have existed throughout the last century are not alternatives to capitalism, but part of the capitalist system.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Capitalism is Inherently Global

National boundaries do not represent the natural limits of capitalism.  All economic activity is ultimately determined by global market forces; the state merely provides regional constraints for global competition.

The actions of one state affects all others.  For example, accumulation of wealth in the industrialized core only occurs at the expense of other nations, through relations of exploitation.  Primarily, these relations involve unequal trade, creating dependency through specialization, and control of the economic policies of underdeveloped nations by the industrialized core via transnational organizations such as the World Bank and IMF.  I will discuss this in much greater detail later.  However, the most important point to bear in mind for the moment is that the global political-economic system is structured in such a way that resources and capital are constantly flowing from poorer countries to richer ones, creating an ever widening gap between rich and poor.

Consequently, limited motion is possible within the global hierarchy of wealth.  For most underdeveloped nations, increased integration into the world market has resulted in increased poverty.  For "semi-peripheral nations" (the handful of countries whose fortune lies somewhere in between the wealthy, industrial core and the destitute Third World), some movement in either direction is possible, but "economic miracles" are rare and often fragile.  Socialism/communism, in so far as it limits integration into the global economy, protects nations from such exploitation, to a certain degree.  Historically, if it has had any effect, it has mitigated the impoverishment of countries relative to others of an initially similar position in the global hierarchy of wealth.  (Usually, the success or failure of socialist states is measured against the standard of wealth enjoyed by the industrialized core; however, this ignores the fact that the wealth of similarly positioned but non-socialist states has steadily decreased against the core.  Hence, the comparison needs to be made against these latter states.)  Furthermore, on a domestic level, the poorest classes have generally fared better within socialist nations than within non-socialist ones.

Another example of the way in which the economic policies and fortunes of one state affects all others is the fact that within the industrialized core, nations must constantly compete with one another to retain or expand their share of the world's wealth.  Accumulation of wealth in one country always occurs at the expense of others.  Since the decline of manufacturing profitability in the 1970s, economic growth has occurred primarily via manipulation of exchange rates and monetary policy.  Thus, for the past few decades, all boom cycles have occurred directly at the expense of other countries rather than by increasing productivity and profitability.  In this zero-sum game of global tug-of-war, upturns are short-lived and frequent crises are inevitable.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The End of Poverty?

I just saw a documentary called, "The End of Povery?" I think it is one of the most accurate and thorough explorations of the cause of poverty that I have seen. I highly recommend it!!

State Power Is An Illusion

If power extends to all level of societies and does not exist in any single person or entity, and if government has only been appropriated to a limited degree by the state, how, then, are we to understand the state when we commonly think of it as a "container for power," the seat of government?

"The" state has a dual nature. First, it is a site of coordination (real or symbolic) and intersection of various institutions whose primary existence lies beyond the state. It is in this sense, also, that the state is not a source of power. For example, the activity of any health-related state agency only secondarily derives from the work of "outside" medical and public health institutions, both national and international.

Second, the state is a tool of enforcement of the regional boundaries (involving territory, resources, and citizenship) and constraints to competition that help to sustain profitability in the global economy. The explanation of this claim requires a slight tangent.

Capitalist producers increase their rates of profit by maintaining competition within certain bounds. Too much competition drives down prices below the level that is necessary for capitalist investment, while too little competition makes it difficult to maintain a rate of profit much above the total social average rate of profit (since this can only occur to the extent to which rivals can be forced below the social average rate of profit).

Uneven development (regional, sectoral, etc.), by creating inequalities, is a key means of regulating competition in this way. The state promotes regional unevenness in a global arena to enable profitability for some by:

1. Regulating imports and exports
2. Monetary regulation (interest rates, money supply, credit, international exchange rates)
3. Subsidizing national industries
4. Regulating wages and employment rates (and thereby, production costs and demand)
5. Financial/corporate regulation

The goals of such regulation include:

1. Expanding its share of the global market
2. Increasing exports
3. Decreasing imports
4. Reducing the relative value of the currency

Without state intervention, competition would render any sustained capitalist accumulation (and hence, investment in new technology) impossible. "The state" serves as a vehicle for erecting regional constraints to competition, and it is, furthermore, a vehicle that is managed and controlled by a spate of conflicting capitalist interests. In this sense, as well, the state is more of a tool than a source of power.

"The state," therefore, is not a unified whole. Its nature is heterogeneous and the foundation of its power is diffused beyond its bounds.

It does not make sense to speak of "bigger government" and "smaller government." If it refers to the scope of the governmental/regulatory functions of the state, the "size of government" is only a reflection of the expansion of governmental institutions in general, which extend beyond the state. If it refers to state budget/spending, this is a particular economic strategy, necessary to the development of capitalism. Moreover, since "the state" is not a single, unified object, it does not possess a "size" that can increase or decrease.

In sum, the nature and form of "the state" is only a reflection of other social-economic conditions and its power is derived from other social forces.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

More on Government

Government emerged within specific institutional settings, and has only been appropriated, to a limited degree, by the state.

Just as sovereignty derived from the relations of production and other social relations/structures, government also derives from these same relationships.  Government, as a means of fulfilling the need to more effectively regulate life and productivity, arose in various social institutions that were employed in the pursuit of these aims.

If any social institution could lay claim to being the primary birthplace of government, it would have to be science. Science is vital to the management of populations and productive activity, and is, perhaps, the most important source of the technologies and strategies that constitute government.  Engineering and other physical sciences are applied to the enhancement of the productivity of labor, while human sciences are used to predict and manage behavior:  psychology, in particular, is a fundamental modus operandi of government, and statistics is one of its most important tools.  All sciences, as they are institutionalized academically, as well as politically (in government agencies) and economically (Research & Development, marketing, etc.), are a vital component of the very fabric of government.

Government has also concurrently developed within other social institutions.  Public health, for example, has become central to the cultivation of life and productivity.  The institutionalization of medical care coincided with its employment as a governmental tool.  Consequently, there has been a visibly shifting focus toward prevention and the management of lifestyle choices (regulation of salt content, giant labels on cigarettes, the proposed "fast food tax," etc.).  Likewise, education has been penetrated by a governmental logic geared toward producing efficient, skilled laborers.  Witness in the U.S. concerns about how American children compete with those from other countries, which subjects are most valuable in the training of a future workforce, etc.

Techniques of government have dispersed and been appropriated by other social organizations:  families and smaller social units; corporations (in their pursuit of team-building, employee satisfaction, marketing, etc.); and, of course, the state and other large-scale social organizations (most notably transnational organizations and NGOs).

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Capitalism and Power

It is important to emphasize that sovereignty and government are wholly distinct forms of power.  They have independent origins, distinct spatial organizations, and different mechanisms of operation.  Capitalism, however, links sovereign, territorially-based and governmental, transnational forms of power.

Since value, under capitalism, has come to be based on labor, this provides a point of intersection between sovereignty and government.  Territory, resources and other material forms of wealth are still significant components of capitalist accumulation; thus, sovereignty retains its importance (even as material wealth and circulation patterns become de-linked from, or increasingly crosscut, territorial boundaries - consequently creating new, conflicting zones of sovereignty).  Yet, as all material forms of wealth now ultimately derive from labor, as the primary form of value, life itself has come under the purview of sovereignty (supported by human rights discourses and Enlightenment philosophy, which establishes "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as the foundation of the state).  At the same time, sovereignty, as a form of power, is not well equipped to regulate and manage life, beyond taking it away, defining its boundaries, and protecting it to a limited extent.  Thus, government has emerged as a form of power better able to cultivate life and productivity.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sovereignty Versus Government

It is important to distinguish between two types of power relationships that are relevant to the modern state.

Sovereignty operates according to the common conception of power.  It works by means of the law, in particular by determining to whom and in what circumstances the law applies, and the threat of violence.  The aim of sovereignty is best understood in terms of the character of the sovereign, in whose hands rest the application of the law and the use of "legitimate" violence.  The rule of the sovereign derives primarily from territorial acquisition, and its aim is in maintaining or strengthening its claim to that territory, with the ultimate goal of exploiting its resources and inhabitants for personal enrichment.  Thus, another way of understanding sovereignty is the ability to dispose of the resources within a certain domain.

Government, in contrast, utilizes a less centralized and coercive form of power, resembling more closely the characteristics outlined in the previous post.  While sovereignty is immediately self-serving and only encounters people as objects of secondary importance, government considers as an end to itself the management of people, as subjects (conscious beings) and populations.  Likewise, in contrast to sovereign power, which is primarily restrictive and grounded in the taking away of life, government is concerned with its preservation and cultivation.  

Government works by way of tactics (including strategic use of the law), and employs more subtle and diffuse forms of power.  These mechanisms of power may penetrate each individual by molding consciousness, creating identities, and instilling bodily dispositions.  At the other extreme, people are  managed as populations, through the use of statistics, demography, and the application of human sciences.

A final note:  I take great care to distinguish between the state, which is simply an institutional apparatus, and government as an activity that is directed toward the cultivation of life and productivity.  This distinction will become more significant later.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


In order to discuss the role of state regulation in the development of capitalism (as well as touch on current debates about "bigger government" versus "smaller government") it is necessary for me to make a brief excursus regarding theories of power.  (And a huge shout out to Michel Foucault, from whom much of this discussion is derived.)

Commonly, power is defined as an ability to coerce and mold the world according to one's own desires.  It is a thing that one either has or does not have, and  is centralized and concentrated in the hands of a few, especially in institutional apparatus like states.

Yet, more complex and nuanced theories of power shed some light on processes that otherwise remain disguised.  By drawing on these theories it is possible to challenge common sense ideas about state power and its relation to capitalism.

Foucault famously argued that power is not an object or thing of any sort that one can possess.  It has absolutely no material existence.  Rather, it is a property of relationships.  Without a relationship, there is no power.  Moreover, power is a property of every relationship, and is available to everyone.  Accordingly, power is diffuse, extending to all levels of society, and does not presuppose a fixed dominator-dominated relationship.

Power is a way of "acting on another's actions."  If the target of control is not able to act - in other words, if they are essentially a lifeless puppet - there is no power.  A distinction must therefore be made between power and control, for complete control is the end of power.  Power requires free will and the ability to resist.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Essence of Capitalism

I feel like in this initial process of setting out all my positions, I necessarily have to make a bunch of unsubstantiated claims.  In a sense, these first few posts are like a coarse outline of where I am going to go with this blog.  So please bear with me.  I have a lot of lengthy arguments, but I want to make them pithy for a blog, which can be difficult.  I am writing this disclaimer because I realize that my previous discussion went a little more in depth than I had intended, and if I am really going to identify all of the key features of capitalism, as I had hoped, I had better cut down on the explanations!  And with that caveat, I continue.

While wage labor is the primary defining characteristic, other Concomitants of Capitalism include:
1.  Mechanization of production
2.  Mass-produced goods
3.  Growth of monopolies
4.  Expansion of credit and personal, private, and state indebtedness
5.  State economic planning and social welfare programs
6.  International division of labor and colonialism/imperialism
7.  Rapidly increasing income inequalities

Following from these attributes of capitalism, Key Effects of Capitalism (direct and indirect) include:
1.  Technological innovation
2.  Increased efficiency and productivity
3.  Commodification of all aspects of life
4.  Rampant consumerism
5.  Increased costliness of securing the basic needs for existence
6.  Massive waste and unnecessary consumption
7.  Pollution and environmental degradation
8.  Women's integration into the workforce and changing gender roles
9.  Poverty on a qualitatively new scale (much of the world at or near starvation levels)

As you can see, the fruits of capitalism have not been wholly good or bad.  However, you can judge for yourself, based on the above lists, to what side the net balance tips.  Personally, I do not believe that all of the fancy new technology enjoyed by a portion of the world's population is worth the poverty, inhumane living conditions, and human rights abuses suffered by an even larger portion.  And I am not certain that the benefits of technical efficiency offset the inconceivable amount of waste generated by the capitalist system.

Next up:  some basic theory of the state and power, so that I can discuss its role in capitalist development.

Capital Versus Capitalism

The original sense of the word "capital" is that of "money begetting money," which is fairly equivalent to the concept of investment.  There are several ways in which capital may be generated: 

1.  Trade monopolies and unequal exchange
2.  Finance and speculation
3.  Production organized for profit and not for the fulfillment needs

All of these forms of capital accumulation existed, in some form or another, for much of human history.  However, it was not until the past couple hundred years or so that they constituted the basis of the world economy.  On the contrary, this role had long belonged to subsistence agriculture (peasants working plots of land and engaging in handicrafts to satisfy their own needs, while relinquishing their surplus to landlords and other parasitic powers that be).  Even wage labor, which I have just held to be the primary characteristic of capitalism, existed, to a limited degree, prior to emergence of capitalism as a system.  However, it was not until a substantial monopolization of ownership of the means of production (raw material, tools, machines, land, etc.) and formation of a "reserve army of labor" (a mass of unemployed and landless people) - which are two sides of the same coin - had taken place that wage labor came to constitute the basis of the acquisition of surplus value, and hence profit.  Thus, capital and other associated elements of capitalism existed long before capitalism.  This is an important distinction to make

The Definition of Capitalism

This post, along with the two that follow it, were originally written as one long post.  However, I think a blog is more manageable if the posts are shorter and to the point, so I split that original post into three.  I don't know if it really makes a difference whether anyone knows that, but I thought I would share.

I realized after the last post that I should make a cautionary remark about my use of the term "capitalism."  There is absolutely no consensus, even among Marxists, on how the word should be defined.  Following from the arbitrary nature of language, there is no limit to the number of different ways I could define it, depending on my purposes.  My purpose here, however, is to promote awareness of the nature of the current world economic system, and therefore, for the sake of convenience (not having to use an unwieldy phrase like "current world economic system") I am using the word "capitalism" to denote this system.  Of course, it is more than just convenient:  it also accords with the historical use of the word "capital," from whence the concept of "capitalism" arose (see next post).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Capitalism: It's Not What You Think

Many of the common misunderstandings noted in the previous entry result from a fundamentally distorted view of what capitalism is (i.e. a gross misrepresentation of the nature of the economic system in which we are currently operating).

For instance, capitalism is often equated with free markets and private property.  Yet, both free market economies and private ownership significantly predate capitalism (they are ancient); furthermore, capitalism actually impinges upon the freedom of the market in a number of ways (to be discussed in great detail later), and entails the socialization of a formerly private production process.  Neither of these, then, can be the foundation of capitalism.

Similarly, capitalism is often defined negatively by an absence of state regulation of the market (the basis of the opposition between capitalism and socialism/communism).  To the contrary, state intervention enabled the development of capitalism; capitalism is characterized by an expansion of state economic functions; and state involvement is necessary to the survival of the system.  Once again, all of these claims will be supported at length in another post.

What, then, is capitalism?

The primary characteristic of capitalism is wage labor, plain and simple.  Yet, the organization of production around labor as a commodity has absolutely earth-shattering implications, affecting all aspects of life.  These implications will be the subject of my next post.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


For my first post, I think it will be helpful set out the fundamental terms of my contention that Marx Is Not Radical, which I will expand in following posts.  Since there is so much misinformation circulating about Marx, Marxism, communism, capitalism, etc., it will take a number of posts just to clearly outline the basis of my views on Marx and capitalism.  Beyond this, I would like to use my blog to respond to relevant current events and political statements as they occur, as well as explore other topics of interest (global and domestic poverty, terrorism, the current economic downturn, the American political party system, free trade and fair trade, education, and anything else that catches my attention).  Right now the possibilities seem almost limitless!

But before I get ahead of myself, first things first.  I think the best way to start is by identifying some of the Most Common Myths About Marx and Communism:

1.  Marx advocated the expansion of state power.

2.  Marx called for the obliteration of any forms individuality, and the imposition of complete and absolute equality in all aspects of life, most particularly with wages.

3.  Marx advised the working class to rise up and rule over the other classes, effectively reversing the class hierarchy.

**Note the incompatibility of number 2 and 3

4.  Marx did not find any value in capitalism.

5.  Marx favored violence and insurrection.

6.  Communism, as it has existed historically, is an accurate reflection of Marx's vision.

7.  Communism represents one end of an economic spectrum on which capitalism stands at the other end, along with the free market.

8.  The history of communist and socialist states demonstrates the complete failure of communism and the victory of capitalism.

Second, here is a preview of what I believe to be Marx's Most Valuable Insights:

1.  Capitalism is characterized by inherent instabilities that subject it to repeated cycles of expansion and recession.

2.  The state is merely an instrument of other power interests.

3.  The world as it exists today is only comprehensible in historical context.

4.  The structure of production, the daily activities in which people are engaged, and the relationships into which such activity draws them, are fundamentally important to understanding culture, politics, education, and other aspects of life.

5.  The realm of ideas and art is not autonomous from political and economic activity.

6.  Fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of the system that structures our social, political, and economic relationships (such as, for example, the misconceptions about Marxism!) are instrumental in legitimating and upholding the system, even to those who are grossly disadvantaged by it.