Friday, 31 December 2010

Public space and public sphere: notes on reading Don Mitchell

A curious shift, which could perhaps be referred to as a spatialization of radical politics, has been taking place for some time now. More and more the idea of public space seems to be taking the place of the idea of the public sphere as a focus of radical political action. To put it simply: defending public space sounds more radical and less conservative than defending the public sphere. Why has this come about?

This shift has largely - but not entirely - gone unattended by theoretical attention. Many writers simply use one or the other of the two terms, leaving it to the reader to make inferences about the relation to the other term. Others who use both terms have often treated the relation between them as unproblematical. I myself (in a text soon to be published in Japanese in Impaction) recently wrote that the politics of public space more or less corresponded to participation in the public sphere (unlike the politics of other spaces, such as "autonomous spaces" or "no-man's-lands", which I claimed demanded a quite different conception of politics). However, I now realize that the relation between public space and public sphere is more complicated. The idea of a simple identity between the politics of public space and that of the public sphere is probably mistaken. What, then, is the relation between public space and public sphere? Is there a separate politics of public space and how would it differ from that of the public sphere? Is public space more favorable to radical politics than the public sphere, and, if so, why?

Let me start with clarifying roughly what I mean by "public sphere". When we use this concept we usually have in mind a sphere of social life, distinct from the state and the official economy, in which citizens deliberate on their common affairs, often in a conflictual tension with the political system, and bracketing circumstances deemed to be of only “private” relevance. Such a definition would, I believe, accord more or less with classical thinkers of the public sphere or public life such as Jürgen Habermas or Hannah Arendt. An implicit ideal for participating in these deliberations has often been that of the "responsible" citizen who adopts the viewpoint of the whole, aiming for consensus by arguing from the point of view of what is best for all. It has often been pointed out that the "public sphere" is a despatialized concept - space is not a necessary ingredient in it. What matters in public deliberations is primarily what is said by whom, but not so much where.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two factors that might explain why public space is increasingly seen as a more promising ground of a radical questioning of the established order than the public sphere. The first explanation has do do with historical conjuncture. The public sphere is often said to have followed a trajectory of increasing inclusivity. Although exclusive and elitist, the repeated challenges to it by various "counter-publics" (Nancy Fraser) have contributed to its gradual expansion. Public space, by contrast, seems to have followed a different trajectory, with recent decades witnessing a tightening of controls and surveillances that have made public space more inhospitable and exclusive. This divergence of trajectories is almost certainly part of the background to the fact that public space today seems to attract more radical energies than the idea of a public sphere.

The second factor has to do with the differing content of the politics of the public sphere and that of public space. To illustrate this difference, let me introduce the philosopher Jacques Rancière and the geographer Don Mitchell.

I will start with Rancière. Although he doesn't use the term public space (as far as I can recall), his idea of publicness is akin to such a conception. His belief in disagreement or dissensus as constitutive of politics doesn't sit well with the idea of a "public sphere" as developed by Habermas, but it doesn't imply a rejection of publicness per se. To Rancière, politics no longer rests on any faith in rationality or hope of consensus, but it does involve making oneself heard and visible in public. "There is no consensus, no unmutilated communication, no final settling of accounts of injustice. But there is a shared polemic place for treating injustice and demonstrating equality". The "public" defended by Rancière in formulations like these is not the idea of a "public sphere" so much as a "place" or public space where disagreement can be publicly manifested.

People's Park, 2008
Now over to Mitchell, whose The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (The Guilford Press, 2003) I've been reading during the vacation. This is a forcefully argued, persuasive and well written book. Using examples such as the struggles around homelessness in the contemporary USA or the struggles around People's Park in Berkeley, he shows that public space often plays a role that is far more central and essential in politics than can be conveyed by despatialized concepts such as public sphere. But what does he mean by public space? Although the concept is itself contested and political, it is possible to discern at least three usages in Mitchell's text.
To begin with, the term public space sometimes appears in what could be called the conventional sense of public grounds such as streets, parks or city halls. Public space in this sense corresponds more or less to what is designated as public by authorities. With Lefebvre we could call this a "space of representation".

Mitchell also uses the term in a second, more emphatic sense. Elaborating on Lefebvre's terminology, he calls public space in this sense a "space for representation". What really makes a place public in this sense is the presence of struggle. Public spaces are not simply given; they don't consist simply of the places designed or planned to be "public". As examples such as the struggle around homelessness or the free speech movement show, public visibility for disadvantaged groups can often be achieved only by taking a place and making it public (Mitchell 2003:35). Like Rancière, then, he shows that politics in an emphatic sense arises only when people appear in places where they are not meant to be and put forth their claims in an act which upsets the order. This, he argues very persuasively, has practically always been the only way disadvantaged groups have been able to make people listen.
“Being ‘unruly’ often is a prerequisite for getting heard at all” (ibid 54) 
“Without the occupation of the space, without taking it... the kinds of protests that came to a climax in Tiananmen, Leipzig, Seattle or People’s Park would have remained invisible. The occupation of space is a necessary ingredient of protest” (ibid 148f)
Space itself, then, is often crucial for politics in a way that falls out of view with despatialized concepts like the public sphere. Hopes for "immaterial" spaces like the Internet to develop into an alternative route to public visibility have been overblown. “What is remarkable about the web... is just how little public visibility it has” (ibid 147).

There is, in addition, also a third and more subdued sense in which "public space" appears in Mitchell's book, namely as an everyday and very material arena for daily life. Here the public space is not identical to officially designated public space (space of representation), but neither is it a place for struggle or the visibilization of disagreement (space for representation). It is simply a space to be, to relax, to sleep or take care of other bodily needs, which can be very far removed or even hidden from any public eye - one thinks of parks or empty buildings, where homeless people or squatters manage to find shelter. One could describe it as space appropriated for material living (a kind of mix between Lefebvre's spatial praxis and representational space) rather than for visibilization. The value of public space in this third sense is particularly great for homeless people, since it provides a place to be and live for people lacking private housing. Again it is the materiality of space is crucial. Against those who would point to cyberspace as a new form of public space, he points out what would be lacking in such a space, namely that we wouldn't be able to live there: "there is literally no room in the internet’s ‘public space’ for a homeless person to exist – to sleep, to relax, to attend to bodily needs” (ibid 147).

Whichever of these three senses one looks one finds a political significance different from that of the public sphere. Public space in the first sense is not necessarily political at all since it corresponds to an image of urban life preferred by authorities and planners in which subaltern groups will largely be invisible. Politics in a limited sense - for instance, campaigning by professional politicians or orderly demonstrations by established and recognized actors - can of course be permitted, but that is hardly enough to produce a vibrant public sphere. To become political in the more emphatic sense, public space will have to be turned into a space for making oneself heard or visible. Neither in that sense, however, would publicness necessarily have much to do with rational discourse or the search for consensus. It could be a scream.

In the third sense, publiness consists in keeping spaces open for people to use and make a living - activities close to what Braudel called "material life" that often take place in comparative silence and outside the public spotlight. This aspect of public space too is of political significance, although it has not much to do with either visibilization or deliberation. Raymond Williams helps us bring out this significance. Although we should be wary of romanticizing pre-enclosure villages, he writes that nevertheless "when the pressure of a system is great and is increasing, it matters to find a breathing-space, a fortunate distance, from the immediate and visible controls. What was drastically reduced by enclosures was just such a breathing-space, a marginal day-to-day independence, for many thousands of people” (The Country and the City, 1975:134).

Rancière and Mitchell suggest at least two explanations of what might make "public space" more attractive to a radical politics than the "public sphere". Firstly, participation in public space entails no aspiration for consensus. Its publicity often consists in visibility rather than the practice of common deliberation, and its aim is often to upset order rather than to communicate.

Secondly, public space does not exclude the material and bodily aspects of life. In public space a coexistence of different forms of life is possible despite the fact that bodily or material aspects of life - aspects often excluded from view in the "public sphere" as belonging to the "private" realm and lacking public interest - are kept in full view. It arises between people of flesh and blood, not between abstract citizens (cf Mitchell 2003:134). The freedom opened up by a fully open public space would approach that freedom to difference which Lefebvre set up as a goal of urban politics rather than the freedom to deliberate, criticize and make decisions in common envisioned by Habermas.

I passing, perhaps I should point out that classical thinkers of the public sphere like Habermas and Arendt are fully as appreciative of the possibility of an opening up of politics or of the "public" in undesignated places as Mitchell or Rancière (Arendt, for instance, writes in The Human Condition that the agora shouldn't be confused with a particular place but is something that arises anywhere that people speak up for a common cause). What matters, however, is that the "public" that opens up is clearly a space in the case of Mitchell: by speaking up in a certain place, one is not merely making a claim in the abstract but also claiming a right to be where one is and use that space.

Let me end with two critical comments to Mitchell. Firstly, I wonder if he is not overtaxing the idea of "public space" somewhat. Can public space in the three senses above - as institutionalized space, as a space of struggle, and as a space for the survival of homeless people - really be subsumed under the same concept? Isn't the relation between the different kinds of politics associated with them at least as problematical as that between the politics of public space and that of the public sphere? Here I can't help thinking that my attempt to distinguish public space in a limited sense from "autonomous zones" (corresponding to spaces for struggle) and "no-man's-lands" (corresponding to spaces for living) might be useful since it would make the concept of public space a bit less unwieldy.

Secondly, I wonder to what extent "public space" is free of the drawbacks of "public sphere". Mitchell argues that material space is essential to politics since disadvantaged groups have no other way to make themselves visible than to intrude in or occupy space where they are not meant to be. But visible to whom? Isn't the answer - "the public sphere"?  If so, isn't the politics of visibilization dependent on or part of the politics of the public sphere? Couldn't one say that public space is simply one of the imput-channels into the deliberative processes of the public sphere? This seems to be especially so to the extent that the aim of visibilization is to claim "rights" that can be guaranteed by courts or state authorities, as Mitchell emphasizes. To this, Mitchell could of course reply that public space is not just one imput-channel among others, but essential for politics since many struggles that don't take place in public space won't be given attention at all. In that sense, the relation of dependency would be inverted: the public sphere would depend on well-functioning and open public spaces.

Despite this rejoinder, the fact remains that public sphere and public space are entwined in each other. Mitchell is right that aspiring for participation in the public sphere through, say, the Internet won't be enough for visibility in many cases. But conversely, participation in public space will clearly also not be sufficient by itself. The "street" is not in itself enough to ensure visibility. Just think of how common it is to hear protesters complain about the lack of mass-media attention!

To the extent that visibility is the aim, I see very little prospect for any neat separation of the politics of public space from that of the public sphere. The emphasis on visibility and representation almost by necessity presupposes a public sphere. This is not to say that all kinds of politics of public space do. As mentioned, there is also a kind of politics related to public space that doesn't necessarily aim for visibility or representation. What Hakim Bey calls a "temporary autonomous zone", for instance, is not necessarily established for the purpose of representation. Space can also be occupied for realizing different ways of living, a "prefigurative politics", in which the exercise of autonomy might be just as important or even more important than visibility. Such a politics would also be freer of the entwinement with the politics of the public sphere.

I really should stop my criticism here. My aim hasn't been to find any faults with Mitchell or Rancière - if anything, I feel a deep sympathy for their writings - but rather to clarify to myself why I don't feel persuaded by the ideal of public space which I read into their writings. In another entry, perhaps I will have reason to return to them and give them the praise they deserve.  

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Heterotopias and dead zones

I need to put down a brief thought after having read the book on heterotopia edited by Dehaene and De Cauter (Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, London & New York: Routledge, 2008).

What strikes me is the movement of the concept of heterotopia itself. In Foucault, who made it famous with his lecture on "other spaces" in the 60's, the concept is notoriously multifaceted. It is a fusion of incarceration and ship, a place of exclusion as well as a place of adventure. Despite the bleakness of the image of heterotopia conjured up by his many examples, it is clear that he is fascinated by them, by the otherness they offer. The light his lecture throws on his work on prisons and asylums is of great interest. As critics have remarked, however, his concept is also very ambiguous. It's hard to use, and furthermore it is unclear to what extent he considered heterotopias as places of resistance.

In Dehaene and De Cauter (as well as to most of the contributors to their volume) the concept noticeably shifts. It becomes, perhaps, somewhat clearer, although it is still far from unambiguous. Just as in Foucault, it is still a largely ahistorical concept - rather than tracing a history of the forms and shifting functions of heterotopias, they attempt to assemble its meaning through a juxtaposition of examples. The greatest shift, however, lies in the dilution of the scent of otherness in the concept. To Dehaene and De Cauter, heterotopia is delineated by the sphere of culture as exemplified by art, sports, leisure and the sacred. Theoretically, they try to define it as the sphere of activities that fall outside Arendt’s typology of labor, work and action. If labor and work belong in oikos, the private world of the household, and action belongs in agora, the political “space of appearance”, then the heterotopias constitute a “third space” beyond oikos and agora. Examples of this kind of space include the church, the theatre, and the stadium. The borderline to what we ordinarily refer to as public space is thus not very sharp (I think one needs to recall here that the agora was never denuded of sacred or ludic elements). Their heterotopias are communal, publicly recognized and often given prominent urban visibility through  monumental buildings. They are largely institutionalized spaces, often given official backing and funded by wealthy citizens (today, the authors claim, golf clubs can be heterotopias). Hence, their concept of heterotopia seems to be a far cry from the ephemeral wasteland, the suddenly appearing interstice, the homeless and squatter communities which the original conception of Foucault still seemed to encompass.

Maybe this is what prompts Gil Doron to reject the concept in favor of the notion of dead zones in one of the best and most thought-provoking contributions to Dehaene's and De Cauter's volume (“‘…those marvelous empty zones on the edge of our cities’: Heterotopia and the ‘Dead Zone’”). What are dead zones? First, he likens them to the desert. He then discusses derelict land, using an arena near the sea in Tel Aviv as example. This area was called “dead zone” by the city planners. It was, however, a place where Palestinian fishermen had used to live before being driven away. There was also a ruin of a Roman fortress, dilapidated warehouses from the 1930s, and the area was often used for rave parties, bonfires, fishing, sex, and graffiti. “While the planners portrayed the area as a void, the city authorities were trying to evict a descendant of one of the Palestinian fishermen, who was claiming back the family hut and had opened a small café in it” (p205).

Pointing out that many so-called dead spaces are populated is important. To call them “tabula rasa” is a prelude to colonization, as in the foundation of Israel. They can be shanty towns or squathouses or areas used by homeless immigrants. Such places “are rarely empty but… they have been portrayed as empty… for economic, social and political reasons” (p 207). “These spaces are named ‘dead zones’ when the hegemony wishes to reuse them” (209).

Here’s a passage that makes dead zones look just like the way I describe the "no man’s land" Kamogawa riverbanks and that also recalls what Ogawa Tetsuo says about wastelands being the place where art is born. 
Omitted from many of these empirical reports and theoretical texts is the fact that most of these terrain vagues have been populated by marginal communities and they have certain physical and non-physical qualities that are unique to them. These places also present history (rather than represent it), foster creativity and nourish the aesthetics of ruins; they are a habitat for wildlife and plants, places in which the body has to adapt to its environment rather than being cuddly choked by its surroundings. In short, these zones are a space of suspension, of solitude and silence within the bustling cities, sites that are a viable alternative to the heterotopian public space. (p204)
Significantly, he distinguishes these zones from heterotopias. If heterotopias exist everywhere, the dead zone is their residue. Unlike the heterotopias the dead zones have always been sites of transgression and excess. The heterotopias can tolerate dead zones but not vice versa – blind spots and openings can exist in heterotopian spaces like shopping malls, cinemas, hotels, gardens or gated communities, but when heterotopias intervenes in the dead zone “it either takes it over or pushes it aside: as with the colonies, the garden in the desert... In heterotopias the sacred is present, but the dead zone is profane and everyday. Unlike the heterotopias, which are exclusionary, the dead zone is always open, although entering there can be ‘at your own risk’" (p210f).

To summarize: to Doron the heterotopias stand for an institutionalized and officially recognized alterity, existing as dream and compensation, while the dead zone is the remainder, the leftovers. The dead zone - one could perhaps say - is the real exteriority, not only as conceived and dreamed.

I will continue discussing this some other time. Let me just say that I'm pleasantly surprised by the many convergences I find in Doron with what I have been trying to explore myself with the idea of "no man's land" (Solà-Morales' idea of terrain vague is another similar notion), and that I find much of interest in the meandering history of the idea of heterotopia from its suggestive multifariousness in Foucault to its clear contraposition to dead zones in Doron.

Redistribution of production

Another article about Japanese NEETs (Not in Employment Education or Training)...

When I read articles like this I can't help thinking that one day a better society will come, where many people who today feel miserable for being out of work will be able to find worthwhile things to do rather easily, even if they are unemployed - things like writing, or cooking, or building things, or taking care of others, or just helping in with whatever - and all that would be valued. It would not be looked down on as idle or useless or as mere preparation for "real" work.

The precondition for that, however, is a redistribution of resources not only for consumption but also for production. Not production of whatever, but of things that will be valued by society, that will be recognized as good and important. People today who are unemployed do have access in a certain sense to means of production - they have their brains, their muscle power and perhaps even tools and material to work with - but what they don't have is the possibility of producing things that will be valued by society. No matter how hard they work, they will be looked down upon as a burden for others. Distributing money - the means of consumption - is certainly necessary to help these people get by in today's society, but it won't be enough since it won't free them from dependency.

The word "dependency" must be used with care. Employed people too are dependent. The dependency I am talking about is not dependency on welfare or the benevolence of other humans. I am talking about being dependent on the labor market. The root of that dependency is plain to see. Historically, people only became dependent on the labor market when they lost access to the means of production, for instance by being driven from the land through enclosures. The so-called idleness of the unemployed is a symptom of our dependency on the labor market just as much as the work (or overwork) of the employed. Liberating them from their idleness by grooming them for another bout of precarious employment by job-coaching will not free them from this dependency.

This is no advocacy of self-sufficiency or independence from the productive activity of others. The problem is not the division of labor per se, but having access to the means of production. Let there be division of labor - that's fine!

The solution is not to limit oneself to activities that sell. Such a world would be intolerable. We know it isn't true that only such activities are valueable. The solution can only be that every meaningful and useful activity be awarded value.

That would include activities like music, poetry or drama, or the writing of books and blogs, or household work, or planting flowers and vegetables, or caring for the elderly, or the building of barricades (Benjamin's favorite example of unsalaried work), or Marx' famous "criticizing in the afternoon". All of these are activities that usually don't sell - but we all know that they are worth a damn. It isn't true that they are valueless.

If our deepest hunches don't accord with the facts - desto schlimmer für die Tatsacken!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Wallerstein, Amino, Harvey

Some of you probably already know, but let me start by recommending this anyway: Its a site where you can read and subscribe to Immanuel Wallerstein's bimonthly commentaries to the contemporary world scene (as seen from the perspective "of the long term").

Lately I’ve been reading some of the older well-known texts by Wallerstein, Robert Brenner etc. The occasion has been my preparations for a course next spring. Partly this has been a rereading of books I once read as a student. This has been a pleasant exercise, which has suggested some interesting possible connections and similarities.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how similar the debate between world-system analysts and their critics is to the debate in Japan between Amino Yoshihiko and Araki Moriaki – with one side leaning towards emphasizing the role of trade and transborder traffic in the birth of capitalism, and the other side focusing on the class relations between landlords and peasants and more or less staying within the bounds of the nation-state as a unit of analysis. The template for the Brenner-Wallerstein debate, the classic debate on the ”transition from feudalism to capitalism”, is similarly structured with Paul Sweeney on one side and Maurice Dobb on the other. 

Braudel and Wallerstein, 1977
In these debates the proponents of the ”trade”-side, although part of a broadly Marxist tradition, have usually been viewed as heterodox and marginal to this tradition. Sweeney is less of a ”good Marxist” than Dobb, Wallerstein less than Brenner, and Amino is certainly less so than Araki. The role of the French Annales school as a catalyst of Marxist heterodoxy in these debates is interesting and deserves to be pointed out. World system analysts like Wallerstein and Arrighi endorse Fernand Braudel, Sweezy relies on Braudel’s forerunner Henri Pirenne, and Amino’s historiography is often compared to that of the Annales historians (although he was unaware of them when he developed his ideas).

There are also differences (of course) between Amino and world-system theorists. Wallerstein somewhere mentions the debate on the ”Asiatic mode of production” among Soviet scholars as one source of inspiration for world system analysis. However, far more than Wallerstein (or any of the classics dealing with this issue, such as Wittvogel), Amino has contributed to clarifying this concept. Above all his discussion of the role of the emperor in promoting ”non-agricultural” activities such as trade have shown how conductive such a mode of production in fact is of a certain kind of capitalism. He's also better than either Wallerstein or Brenner in bringing out how inappropriate labels such as ”feudalism” are when applied to societies or periods as a whole, entities which are inevitably much more complex composite formations in which feudal social relations can co-exist with ”Asiatic” as well as capitalist elements.

Speaking of Japan, it is gratifying to note how the Brenner-Wallerstein debate links up with the old "capitalism debate" (shihonshugi ronsô) among Marxist scholars in prewar Japan (as well as, incidentally, to what appears to have been a similar debate in Latin America mentioned by Wallerstein as the background of the emergence of dependency theory). From the theoretical vantage-point of people like Brenner or the Japanese Kôza faction, countries outside of the industrialized West are not yet part of capitalism, and rather than aiming for socialist revolution they should concentrate on overcoming feudalism and achieving economic development. To Wallerstein and the Rônô faction, by contrast, so-called underdeveloped or non-Western countries can already be considered part of a fully capitalist world. We can note that the position of the Rônô faction was considered a heterodox one in Japan, departing from the “official” Comintern standpoint of the time.

Part of the air of heterodoxy of people like Amino or Wallerstein springs from their unmistakable and, to many, provocatively positive view of the ”market”. To Amino the market is a space of muen and an area of relative freedom for outcasts, lepers and other marginals. Wallerstein claims that capitalism is possible only by virtue of oligopolistic or monopolistic tendencies that run counter to the ideal of a free market (in which, he claims, profit would be impossible). 

In rejecting the identification of capitalism and market economy Wallerstein relies on Braudel (see Wallerstein's "Braudel on Capitalism, or Everything Upside Down", The Journal of Modern History 63:2, 1991), and no one is as eloquent as Braudel in expressing the incompatibility of the market with capitalism. I can only recommend the reader to have a look at his Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century (especially volume one and three) for the wonderful formulations that express his evident nostalgia for markets, the local beehives of fairs, shops, and transparent transactions – a world on ground-level that exists apart from the forbidding ”commanding heights” of the properly capitalist economy, a shady world in which the great capitalist predators roam, controlling the international flows of capital shielded from public view.

What people like Brenner, Araki or Dobb might ask is what role production plays in the distinction between capitalism and the market. In fact, the image conjured up by Braudel is of an economy in which trade and finance play the central role - with labor being largely confined to a third level, that of everyday "material life". The sinister nature of capitalism seems to derive more from secrecy, ruthlessness and power than from the fact that workers are exploited. Here we approach one of the most central points of difference between the antagonists in the abovementioned debates. Their definitions of capitalism are not identical. While the exploitation of wage labor is central to most orthodox Marxist definitions, Amino, Wallerstein, Sweezy, Braudel and the Rônô all appear to be interested primarily in capitalism as a trade-based, profit-driven activity. 

In view of this wide definition, it is not surprising that, to them, capitalism goes far back in history. Locating any proper temporal limit when capitalism starts has in fact usually been rather difficult for these scholars. Amino discovers capitalism in the exchange taking place already in primitive times. The Rônô-ha faction argued that capitalism developed in Japan long before the Meiji Restoration. A forerunner and fellow-traveller of world-system analysis like A. G. Frank claims that a trade-driven "world system" (without the hyphen) has existed for five thousand years. Wallerstein himself settles for around five hundred years since earlier long-distance trade had been more episodic and production for such trade less systematic. 

To their critics, by contrast, capitalism is defined not by trade but by a particular class relation, involving capitalists extracting surplus through the employment of free wage labor (and, in order to prevent the fall of the rate of profit, the drive to constant improvement of the means of production). The two sides in the debates, then, seem to arrange themselves somewhat along the old divide of “production” versus “circulation” as the source of value in Marxist theory. The fact that these debates seem to connect up with one of the central problems in Marxist theory, that of the value form, was one of the most pleasant realizations I had while reading these texts.

This brings me to a final point – a point which I think suggests a contemporary relevance for these debates about the origin of capitalism. In works like A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey famously claims that today’s capitalism is increasingly relying on on an ”accumulation by dispossession” rather than on extracting surplus through the wage-relation (an idea which has influenced Hardt and Negri). Such dispossession includes, broadly, all kind of appropriations of value that is produced outside the capitalist system proper – including the redestribution of already formed wealth from the poor to the rich, the commodification of natural resources such as water or forests, the exploitation of the knowledge of indigenous peoples or the privatization of public goods provided by states. Although the exploitation of labor (through precarization, the intensification of work or outsourcing of production to places of weak labor rights, or the colonization by work of so-called leisure time) is an undeniable fact, capitalism is increasingly relying on taking rather than producing wealth for its accumulation of capital

As Harvey points out, this is a return to what Marx called ”primitive accumulation”. The idea of such accumulation, Harvey suggests, shouldn't be seen as a dubious myth about the violent origins of capitalism. It is a process that is constantly repeated today and that perhaps is even necessary to keep capitalism alive. That capitalism isn't limited to systems of wage labor may sound like an un-Marxist idea, but the idea of ”primitive accumulation” shows that not all value in capitalism needs to be derived from wage labor, even from a Marxist point of view. As Wallerstein points out, the capitalist world-system works comfortably with all kinds of relations of exploitation – from slavery to wage labor, and from serfdom to unpaid housewives. 

"Accumulation by dispossession" would certainly be easier to fit into a world-system analysis than into the theoretical framework of its critics. World-system analysis could also supplement Harvey's analysis in important ways. His portrait of "neoliberalism" is rather insensitive to regional variations (his analysis of China is one example) which I am pretty certain could be better captured with a world-system model.

I admit that my attempt to link together the debates on the origin of capitalism to the theory of the value form really should be done with much more care. What makes people like Wallerstein so heterodox is in part that their theories no longer rely on a Marxian theory of value. But in order to theorize any linkage between world-system analysis and "accumulation by dispossession" properly, clearly some form of reworked theoretization of value is necessary. Above all it would be interesting to look further into the relation between the labor theory of value and the idea of primitive accumulation in Marx. That Brenner rejects the very idea that Marx ever seriously considered ”primitive accumulation” to have had any basis in reality looks symptomatic of the uneasy relation between these two theoretical ideas (see Brenner’s “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review I /104, July-August 1977, p.66f). While exchange and labor can't be neatly separated in Marx' theory of value, it seems undeniable that a stubborn tension exists between these two elements.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

"Badlands of the Republic" - three quotes

Mustafa Dikeç's Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics and Urban Policy (Oxford: Blackwell 2007) is a really excellent work for understanding the revolts in the banlieus in France. I don't have time here to dwell on all its strong points. Let me just quote three passages I liked particularly much:

Firstly, I was happy to see that he is courageous enough to see the revolts as something deserving of the same respect as ordinary social movements, although they are not social movements in the conventional sense.
They are neither pre-conceived nor organized, and they are not articulated as collective efforts aimed at transforming the established order. However, […] they are not intrinsic acts of violence either. They all mobilize with a demand for justice and as reactions against perceived injustices. ‘Let justice be done’ or ‘J’ai la haine’, as was heard – again – during the revolts of autumn 2005. (Dikec 2007:152f)
Secondly, he points out that what motivates the revolts are inequality, discrimination and repression - not religion.
[S]tating that the revolts were ‘ethnic’ (dark skin) or religious (Islam) is almost as absurd as stating that the May 1968 uprisings were ‘ethnic’ (white) or religious (Christian). There was nothing to suggest that the revolts were ‘ethnic’ or religious. (ibid 176)
Thirdly, a penetrating remark on the meaning of republicanism.
The problem is not that republicanism is inherently incompatible with diversity. The problem is that the republican imaginary is so white and so Christian that any manifestation of discontent […] quickly evokes concerns about the values and principles of the republic. This is the paradox of actually existing republicanism in France. When those who do not quite fit in the republican imaginary mobilize, the principle of equality – otherwise strongly defended – gets displaced by a preoccupation with ‘ethnic’ origins and religious affiliations - otherwise strongly criticized. Rather than a defence of the equality of all its members regardless of ethnicity or religion, republicanism becomes a denial of diversity. (ibid 177).

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Murakami Haruki, reality, trauma

A just read Murakami Haruki's essay in the New York Times, "Reality A and Reality B".

Note first the inversion: something has happened which has made the real world change places with the unreal. The unreal, contrafactual world of what never happened has become more real to us than the real world we’re inhabiting.

The analogy seems to be that of traumatization. In a traumatized state, the ego is trapped in the past, which is more real than the present, which has turned into a meaningless and indifferent chaos. The structure of the inversion is the same.

Note Murakami's huge ambitions, which almost seem to border on hubris or at least on the heroic. Words must be coined, he asserts, that help connect past and future. The task he sets himself as a teller of stories is, in other words, the healing of the world – its recovery. The teller of stories takes on the role of a healing angel or boddhisattva surveying the disaster.

Many have written a lot about the shift from detachment to commitment in Murakami’s writings in the 90s. In the 80’s, he could still write – as he does in his masterpiece Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World – how life is like a beach where junk is washed ashore by the waves and then washed back into the sea.
When I look back over my life so far, I see all that junk on the beach. It’s how my life has always been. Gathering up the junk, sorting through it, and then casting it off somewhere else. All for no purpose, leaving it to wash away again.[…] This is all my life. I merely go from one beach to another. Sure I remember the things that happen in between, but that’s all. I never tie them together.
Here too an inversion has occurred. And it occurs on many planes. Compared to the earlier text, detachment has turned partially into commitment, acceptance of discontinuity into a stoic groping for words that tie together, and self-chosen isolation has turned into the shouldering of what almost appears as a communal task. But underlying it all is a continuity – a chilly sadness at what one of his contemporary soul mates, Thomas Pynchon, called ”the spilled, the broken world”.

I won’t venture further here into the many questions that open up here. Let me just say that I think there is much that speaks for a view of the world as traumatized, just as Murakami suggests. I once wrote that being an angel was revolutionary. That may sound silly. But in a traumatized world, it’s true.

Kristianstad is in the NY Times!

Thanks to its recycling of waste, this city uses essentially no oil, natural gas or coal to heat houses or industries:

We live in the aftermath of an alien invasion

Krugman directed my attention to this funny piece, "Invaders from Mars", by the science fiction writer Charlie Stross.
"Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win." 'Twas not always so, but I'm hearing variations on that theme a lot these days, and not just in the UK.

  Why do we feel so politically powerless? Why is the world so obviously going to hell in a handbasket? Why can't anyone fix it?
  Here's my (admittedly whimsical) working hypothesis ...
  The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations.
  Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)
  Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.
  Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies.
  Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes.
  For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered.
  We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
  In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
Krugman thinks this is so 60s - today we're living in the age of kleptocrats rather than technocrats; "the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit".

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

This may sound a bit ridiculous, but...

It's December and most people seem rather tired. Let's try to be as kind and lenient towards each other as we can!

Monday, 6 December 2010


Does anyone remember the 1992 currency crisis? The speculative attacks on the lira, the crown, the pound, and the franc? That was when people said: only joining the euro would prevent national economies from being easy prey to financial speculators.

In those days speculation was about the value of the currency, today it is about loans, credit-worthiness, and investors getting their money back. But still, it's the same old domino game: Iceland, Greece, Ireland. And next - Portugal, Hungary, Spain or Belgium? The irony is that this time it is largely because of the euro that countries are vulnerable. Those that never joined – like Iceland – seem better positioned for recovery than those that did.

But "countries" are perhaps the wrong unit to use. Another irony involved here is our commonsensical belief that a crisis for capitalism must also be a crisis for the capitalists. Remember Marx and his idea about the expropriators getting expropriated? That was before mechanisms were invented to nationalise the crises and pass on the bill to tax-payers. The process whereby economic crises have been redefined into crises for "countries" is certaintly not innocent and would be well worth a discourse analysis. Sometimes I wonder whether the fact that today's capitalists don't need keynesianism anymore is not best explained by the fact that they've become just as adept at making money out of economic downturns as out of upswings.

So what economists ought to think about is: how can crises be turned into crises for the capitalists again, without anyone else having to suffer?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

RSF on wikileaks

One of the most sensible things I've read so far about Wikileaks:,38958.html ("Wikileaks hounded", Reporters without borders)

From the text:
We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed. [...] Reporters Without Borders can only condemn this determination to hound Assange and reiterates its conviction that WikiLeaks has a right under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment to publish these documents and is even playing a useful role by making them available to journalists and the greater public.
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