Thursday, 21 April 2011

Saving what classes? Saving what dream?

Better than Scott Walker
This will be a long entry, because I will quote a lot from a text by Franco Barchiesi (thanks to Peter Waterman for recommending this) - his ”Notes on the Wisconsin Insurrection”, published on Edufactory on April 14. The quotes are there as a service to the reader - because I find them impressive. If anyone wants to read my own reflections on them, you'll find them at the end of the entry. 

Just two remarks. First: if any reader feels that his or her time is too limited to read all of this, go directly to Barchiesi's text and just read the last paragraph - highly recommended! Secondly, let me state here at once one reason that I found the text so illuminating. It helped me understand better the centrality of slogans about "saving the middle classes" or "saving the American Dream" in the recent demonstrations in the US (See for instance the detailed reports here about "Rally to Save the American Dream", a nationwide manifestation expressing solidarity with the struggle in Madison. “This is more than unions now. This is a fight against the extinction of the middle class,” one protestor is reported to have shouted).

Here's a quote from the beginning of the article, describing the wave of demonstrations in Madison, culminating on March 12 with a 100,000-strong march. The background is of course the rightist Wisconsin state government proposed budget and anti-labor laws which would strip public sector employees of collective bargaining rights.

It was an eruption of iconoclastic irreverence, a joyous mood of insubordination that often contrasted with time-honored imageries of a liberal left – also quite abundant in the Madison demonstrations – sturdily attached to flag-waving and the buzzwords of the “American dream” and the defense of the “middle class"
This passage introduces what I see as the central theme of the text. The protests are placed in a force field, still captive to the "time-honored imageries of a liberal left", but also with a "distinctly new quality about them". Something new and promising is taking form here. "They represented the first instance of a mass, nationally visible mobilization explicitly directed against corporate power and its institutional representatives since the start of the current economic crisis".

In an important next step, Barchiese turns to history to give us some background. It's a long but rewarding quote. In it, he shows that the conservative or "liberal" tendency to back away from open confrontation is rooted in the strong progressive or Leftist legacy of Wisconsin itself. The argument is provocative but important.
The size and radicalism of the Wisconsin demonstrations far surpassed other still significant protests against even more draconian legislation in other Midwestern states, such as Ohio and Indiana. Observers and commentators have explained the particular radicalism of the Wisconsin mobilizations in terms of popular reaction to the authoritarian disruption of local political cultures and moral economies. Many have therefore emphasized labor’s deep roots in the state, the home of a progressive-populist republican strand impersonated at the turn of the past century by senator Robert La Follette and his fulminations at “vast financial power in private hands” and related foes of “the common man – the worker, the farmer.” Historical precedents used by way of explanation are, however, deeply problematic to the extent they assume a static view of political identities that – in a way that surely assuages the celebration of a linear progress so central to the self-image of American left liberalism – reproduce themselves mostly in terms of “tradition” and “heritage”. More useful would be an analysis of the shortcomings, failures, and ambiguities of such political and ideological threads to understand how they are modified and contested by forces, subjectivities, and desires making sense of present social dynamics and power relations.
    In the early twentieth century, agrarian populism and a burgeoning white industrial proletariat boosted by Northern European immigrants echoing German and Scandinavian welfarist ideas propelled both a pioneering social and fiscal legislation and – especially in the 1924 elections when the socialist-backed La Follette ran for president beating the Republican and Democratic candidates in the state – working-class politics. Later Wisconsin became a stronghold of public sector unionism, and was the first state to allow, in 1959, collective bargaining for teachers and local government employees. Central to La Follettian progressivism was the collaboration between the state and the public higher education system, namely the University of Wisconsin (UW) centered on its Madison campus. The state government regarded then the university as a “laboratory for democracy” and a site to experiment with corporatist social compacts infused with strong doses of Christian social doctrine and work ethic. The aim was to turn capitalist industrialization into a process of social stability, reining in the disruptions and dislocations of waged employment. That was dubbed the “Wisconsin idea”, to which prominent intellectuals like labor scholar and UW professor John R. Commons added their contribution towards work-based social measures like unemployment compensation. It was a nationally significant experiment with harnessing workers’ power through productivity pacts for the purposes of orderly capitalist development. It was also a project underpinning specific social hierarchies and orderings of citizenship, at the pinnacle of which stood regular white male breadwinners as embodiments of productive virtue and personal responsibility, the necessary counterparts of the governmental welfarist deal and the factors enabling the participation of the “common man” to the affairs of the state. Commons himself, as a key advisor to La Follette, was in fact convinced that recent immigrants and non-white “races” were prone to sloth and laziness, which made them unsuitable for democracy. His ideas propped up a eugenics movement that was in full swing in the US as similar concepts were translated into policies in the very Scandinavian countries where so many of the Wisconsin working class originated.
Especially people in Sweden, with its "consensus culture" and its pride in a "Swedish model" in which basic social justice is combined with labor peace and superior economic performance, should find ample food for thought here.

Bachieri then turns to the present conjuncture:

It is at this point that historical similarities give way to the need of analyzing the innovations of the current phase and its unfolding antagonisms. At odds with capital’s optimism for its ability to reshape the social and natural reality, central to the mythology of the old Gilded Age, the new Gilded Age is rather marked by the desperate quest by the US ruling classes of profit-making alternatives to the continuous decline of the country’s imperial position and the still unresolved accumulation crisis following the 2008 collapse. It is a frantic search that, nonetheless, reveals little vision beyond the most blatant and shortsighted financial grab of livelihoods and resources. Organized labor, the partner of old techniques of social control and progressive-Fordist productivity pacts, is now cast as an “un-American” self-serving special interest, when not a cause of economic decline and social decay. Far from confidently representing itself as the pinnacle of an inclusive, upwardly mobile social order, the white middle class is increasingly lured into resentful images – which movements like the Tea Party consciously abet by fanning popular anxieties over imperial eclipse – of national purity under threat by a host of imaginary assailants, which depictions rife with racial stereotypes of the public sector, its programs, and its beneficiaries ominously fit. The evaporation of organized labor, sponsored by neoliberal administrations and aided by unions assuming the role of enforcers of productive discipline and global competitiveness, has resulted in a working population with a unionization rate of less than 7 percent in the private sector, rising to 12 percent overall due to the organization of public employees. In Wisconsin, about half of the 300,000 government workers are unionized, but they are only 6 percent of those with jobs, two million of which work in casual and precarious positions. The convenient rhetoric of “change” generously deployed by Obama to win the 2008 elections gained a lot of traction in Wisconsin too as the state went Democratic, but was followed by the usual rude awakening once President Obama and his aides quickly and cynically dismantled their left-wing grassroots support. The White House and the Democratic National Committee have actually intervened to discourage party representatives from endorsing the Wisconsin protests, the timing of which interfered with the President’s priority of recruiting bipartisan consent for his “win the future” vision. As an unforgiving approach to global competitiveness seen as a cut-throat race against China and other emerging economy, Obama’s “winning the future” requires the systematic defunding in the present of public entitlement-based programs and the reorientation of state support towards a cognitive capitalism where corporate interests determine the content and objectives of knowledge while critical debate as well as workers’ rights and social contestation are deemed unaffordable luxuries.
Note that the passage portrays two "actors" that are both struggling and in the course of their struggle inflicting injustice on others. First, there is the American elite and their frantic quest to keep up a tolerably profitable level of capital accumulation and preserve their imperial hegemony from slipping over into Chinese hands . Second, there is the resentful white middle class, jealous of its rights and seemingly not giving a thought to the mass of cheap and dispensible workers.

So where, then, does the radicalism come from, that genuinely "new" quality Barchiesi detected in the protests? One source is the university, home of the cognitariat, part of the very stratum of precarious workers customarily neglected by the unions and left out of all agreements with power. 
In a state with a 90 percent white population, the numerical success of the protests can also, sadly and paradoxically, be explained with the fact that the institutions could not resort to usual racial scapegoating by presenting the beneficiaries of union rights and collective bargaining as undeserving, dependency-prone, and work-shy blacks and Latinos. As the legacy of Wisconsin progressivism many demonstrators reclaimed also contains distasteful aspects of the state’s settler inheritance, the place of whiteness as a factor underpinning collective solidarity remains a thorny, little debated question in the demonstrations. Yet, even if only 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population is black, the large African-American community in Milwaukee – one hour drive from Madison and a local context of appalling poverty, segregation, and mass incarceration – remained largely distant from the protests. How resonant is, therefore, the Wisconsin insurrection with oppositional practices where blacks, Latinos, and migrants constitute the majority? Similar questions can be raised on the unassailable centrality of “the unions” in activist discourse: how does it speak to the precariously employed? How does it come to term with organized labor’s own history of corporatism, racial exclusions, defense of occupational privilege, and collaboration with neoliberal restructuring? Finally, one should also question how the nostalgic evocation of past welfarism, of which collective bargaining is ostensibly a cornerstone, keeps presenting governmental intervention as the harbinger of progress and social justice, ignoring how, even in the golden age of US social policy, such intervention has operated through the stigmatization of the poor, extremely residual and racially biased safety nets, gender hierarchies, and the unrelenting injunction to find employment as the exalted condition of virtuous social inclusion. In the absence of a critical interrogation of these trajectories, which optimistic claims of an unbroken left progressive legacy tends to paper over, the resignification of social struggles into a language of liberal-democratic freedoms is not only shortsighted as a discourse of alternative, but operates indeed as a key component in the very structure of subjection that the Wisconsin events questioned. Not only did the demonstrations and occupations reclaim rights and protections now under threat; they also practiced a reappropriation of politics as the autonomous expression of common forms of life. Thinking of the reappropriation of the common as a political project means critically engaging this and similar movements as much as the forces and strategies they oppose.
Barchiesi's assessment is thus that there is potential here after all, provided that the Wisconsin insurrection can "contribute to advancing a democracy of the common" not just in slogans but in actual practices. However, his closing words a grim and come close to sounding like a condemnation.

The radicalism of the demonstrations and occupations drew its energy from the fact that those taking part in them articulated not only the concerns of worn-out identities of past struggles (the union-based “middle class” with its productive patriotism) but also the claims arising from the precarious predicament of multitudes with little or no direct experience of the socially stable, protected life such identities nostalgically fantasize. In this perspective, the conflicts that originate from higher education as it embraces corporate imperatives and rationality are decisive elements of innovation in the Wisconsin struggles. Walker’s envisaged separation of UW’s two flagship campuses (Madison and Milwaukee) reflects the “New Badger Partnership” advocated by UW-Madison’s chancellor “Biddy” Martin. The result would be to restructure the most prestigious sites of the waning public system from “state agencies” into semi-private, commercialized “public authorities” or “charter campuses” with broad and autonomous powers in setting tuition, employment conditions, tenure criteria, and relations with outside contractors. It is a major step towards the end of statewide systems of “land grant” public institutions, pioneered in the Midwest and of which the old Fordist-welfarist social compact of the “Wisconsin idea” made a cornerstone in the state’s economy. In their place there would thus be a tiered university system mirroring labor market inequalities and hierarchies: private elite and nominally public campuses aspiring to Ivy League-type status would provide a diverse, well-rounded training, administered by academic superstars, for the children of the ruling classes; the remains of the existing public system would focus on professional degrees for intermediate managerial and technical jobs; finally, a vast layer of depleted colleges and universities would offer vocational and practically-oriented training, through legions of adjuncts and teaching assistants at poverty wages, for the swelling ranks of the precarious cognitariat. [...]The sustained participation of graduate students in the Wisconsin insurrection revealed not so much the appeal of old left – liberal or populist – identities, narratives, and traditions, but a critical awareness of the contradictory place cognitive labor occupies in governmental imagination: praised as the engine of recovery, yet invited to continuous sacrifices and to think of itself as infinitely flexible and malleable; productive of knowledge in the socially cooperative networks of a university system that still calls itself “public”, yet subject to the constant private appropriation of the fruits of this social cooperation; invited to play a crucial role of economic stabilization, yet having its own daily existence constantly destabilized and precarized by market discipline.


Let me now, loosely based on the quotes above, put down a few brief reflexions. In these I will try to expand the picture a bit further than Barchiesi. The result will be a sketch, and a rough one at that. Let me call it a kind of rumination on the kind of politics that might be possible today.

Let me return, first, to the observation I made above that both the corporate elite and the white middle class come forward as fighting rather desperate battles. They both appear as what I think could be termed conservative actors, anxious to preserve on the one hand a threatened hegemony and rate of profit, and on the other a threatened status and standard of living. The defensive nature of the both these struggles strikes me as significant for three reasons. Firstly, it confirms the observation - made by Ulrich Beck and others - that today's struggles don't seem to be so much about the distribution of wealth and riches any more, as about the distribution of risks and sacrifices. Secondly, it seems safe to say that the shift towards the latter kind of distribution struggle goes hand in hand with an intensification of the struggle. The Swedish socialdemocratic model as well as the "Wisconsin" idea both demonstrate how easily it is for workers and elites to come to amiable agreements as long as the conflict is mainly about the distribution of wealth. Thirdly, the fact that both elites and middle classes share a certain conservative orientation creates something likea paradox: the fact that both are keen to defend something is what intensifies the conflict, but it is also what creates a possible - and from a Leftist perspective, rather poisonous - common ground for these antagonists, noticeable in slogans such as "saving the American dream", a dream, one could say, about restoring the old harmonious relationship between billionaires and workers in which large parts of the working class started to identify as middle class.

For many reasons, I believe that the standard of living must be lowered in the "old" core economies (Europe, North America, Japan) from now on. One reason is the environment. We will not be able to extract energy and other resources forever. Another is the rise of the "rest" of the world outside the West. We will not be able to buy cheap T-shirts from the global south for ever either. Much of the affluent life enjoyed in the "old" core has depended on a de facto imperialism which will have to end. The third reason has to do with the shift of the global hegemony from the USA to East Asia and how this shift is related to debt. The more the motors of capital accumulation move outside the countries of the old "core", the more the populations within that core will have to depend on debt to maintain standards of living. Demand is kept up through a hypertrophy of the credit economy, foreign loans and other infusions of foreign capital. This happens partly in order to keep up the semblance of profitability (Harvey's "temporal fixes") and partly because governments know that politicies that would lower the standard of living will be unpopular.

However, since competitive "new" core economies and other holders of spare capital only have a limited interest in financing high standards of living in the old "core" - namely so long as it yields desirable returns in some form - there will be pressure among elites in the old core to lower the dependency on foreign capital flows, and cutting debts in order to "restore competetiveness". This pressure is manifested in the hypersensitivity of the market to even moderate levels of indebtment (as in Portugal) and in the popular mantras of governments everywhere about the need to cut back and reduce.

So, there wil be pressure for a lowering of standards of living. It can take three forms: 

1) Lowering the standard of living of the poorest, most marginal and politically weakest elements of the population (immigrants, the sick, the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, children, students...). That would meant disbanding the welfare state and curtailing large chunks of the public sector. This is what we see happening in Sweden now under its present rightist government.

2) Lowering the standard of living of the middle classes (including workers with secure employment). This is hugely unpopular, as the protests in Madison demonstrate. It is an attack on the bulk of population, the mass of voters and the very basis of the productive labor force. It risks alienating and radicalizing the middle class. Only some, I fear, will join the Left. Many will turn to rightexremism, fuelling the racisms and "immigrant hostile" movements so conspicuous in Europe today.

3) Lowering the standard of living of the richest. This is certainly the most reasonable and rational solution, but it will encounter fierce resistance from the most powerful elements in society, who - apart from the economic and political clout - today enjoy ideological hegemony. To maintain growth and restore competitiveness, we need to increase the income gap - that is the argument, which almost nobody dares to gainsay nowadays.

The struggle about the distribution of sacrifices will be a struggle about where among these three options the brunt of the lowering of the standard of life will happen.

The right enjoys ideological hegemony today, mainly since they have been able to go for the first option. As long as they limit their attacks to the weakest and most marginal groups in society, they enjoy the support of mainstream opinion and most of the middle classes. That is more or less the situation in Sweden today. The slogan used by the rightist government - "It should pay to work" - is an attempt to drive a wedge between the employed and the unemployed portions of the working class. In a parody of the American dream it is asserted that anybody is able to get a job, provided that they are willing to work. Meanwhile, the brunt of the sacrifices are heaped on the back of the chroncially sick and the unemployed. Not even a collapse of the ideological hegemony of the right will necessarily favor the Left. In Sweden too there are already "white middle classes" eager to lash out aggressively against the weakest in society and eager to save the Swedish dream.

The Left is certainly in disarray. Social democracy was once able to provide a bridge between the weakest groups and the employed classes in the middle, but that was in the age when the prime political issue concerned the distribution of wealth. How will things be when this issue is overshadowed by the distribution of what many will feel to be sacrifices? Raising taxes for the rich is of course a necessary measure which might represent a viable line of continuity for the social democrats. Raising taxes, however, was more popular when Keynesianism still held sway and provided a theory for those who wanted to argue that a greater public sector role in the economy could actually improve economic performance. This worked fine until economic hegemony started to dissolve in the old "core", a process that Keynesianism was unable to reverse. The onset of hegemonic decline coincided in time with the shift away from struggles about the distribution of wealth towards struggles about the distribution of felt sacrifices. The crisis of social democracy in Sweden and many countries today is closely linked to that of capitalism - or at least of capitalism in the "old" core.

If, in such a harsh climate, a possible ground for solidarity can be discerned, how would it look? Merely reviving Keynesianism won't be sufficient. To begin with, the very idea of competetiveness and growth is suspect. In a world in which the the game of chasing hegemony is the only game in town, the idea of competetiveness will always be used as a blackmail against workers. Sharing the meagre resources that are available is the only realistic form of solidarity, plus struggling against the rich and powerful to make them pay their share of course. In the precarity movement there is an inspiring ambiguity, a desire to strive in two directions at once. On the one hand there is an "anti-poverty" orientation expressed in the demand for material security and joyful angry slogans such as "Hand over the money!". On the other there is a "Viva poverty" orientation, an orientation driven by the realization that true freedom is also a freedom from the obsession with material wealth and careers and that it can very well mean self-chosen poverty. There is on the one side a desire for justice, driven by anger, and on the other a desire for peace, driven by what I feel is a desire for happiness and freedom. It may sound schizophrenic, but as far as I can see this movement's hit the right spot. The only way forward is to move in both directions at once.

"If I work, I think I will be a loser" (from the Kyoto Mayday of dispersal and disobedience, April 2010). An expression of "Viva Poverty"?

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Carl Schmitt, Großräume, and the EU

Last week I finished reading Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth (2003), a book which he worked on during the war and published in 1950. I read it because of my interest in the relation between land-appropriations and the “free” or unregulated no-man’s-lands beyond the community of international law. I found two points of interest in the book: 1) The lawlessness and freedom of the oceans are described as homologous to the "state of exception" which Schmitt famously treated in his Political Theology ("Sovereign is he who decides on the exception"), and 2) his ideas about Großräume or blocs, which anticipate the EU.

Dividing the earth

Schmitt's prose is mostly sharp, clear and to the point. Although it usually stays within the bounds of what could be called controlled magnificence, it sometimes gets out of hand and develops into mythological-sounding bombast To illustrate, let me quote from the foreword:
The traditional Eurocentric order of international law is foundering today, as is the old nomos of the earth. This order arose from a legendary and unforeseen discovery of a new world, from an unrepeatable historical event. Only in fantastic parallels can one imagine a modern recurrence, such as men on their way to the moon discovering a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on earth. The question of the new nomos of the earth will not be answered with such fantasies, any more than it will be with further scientific discoveries. Human thinking must again be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now. (Schmitt 2003:39)
So what is the nomos of the earth? The word, he explains, comes from nemein, a Greek verb meaning both to divide and to pasture. Rather than law in the abstract, he describes it as the spatial, political and juridical order considered to be binding in international affairs (ibid 19f). It is the order of society expressed in its ordering of space, “the immediate form in which the political and social order of a people becomes spatially visible” (ibid 70).

The coming into being of the first nomos of the earth is described in lofty, mythical language as a primordial appropriation and division of land. Schmitt talks of the earth as the root of law and justice, of "firm lines" becoming apparent as the soil is cleared and worked by human hands. Gradually fences come into being, along with other boundaries. With them families, clans, tribes, as well as power and domination become visible (ibid 42). Before proceding, I think we should note that already here at the very start of his argument, he reveals an agricultural bias, a bias for the settled population. He talks of lines, but where are the lines of movement - lines surely as important as those of boundaries and divisions? When he writes that land-appropriation is “the primeval act in founding law” (ibid 45), I wonder why - didn't the hunters and gatherers also have laws? Don't nomads too have their own nomos, but without fences? Non-agricultural people are elided from his mythological creation narrative, elided just as the indigenous populations driven away by European colonizers in the "virgin" lands "discovered" by the latter. The primordial nomos described by Schmitt, I can only conclude, was also the founding act of imperialism.

Nevertheless, Schmitt does focus in on one kind of free, unregulated space next to the settled, appropriated one - the sea. In fact, the discussion of the relation between land and sea in legal thought is one of the gravitational centers in the book. To look at how he views this relation, we can follow his division of history into three epochs, each characterized by its own nomos:

In the oldest times, there was no single global order and the oceans were largely unexplored. Every civilization considered itself the center and the world beyond it as ruled by war, barbarism, and chaos. "Practically, this meant that in the outer world and with good conscience one could conquer and plunder to a certain boundary” (ibid 352). The seas were a realm of freedom, but that also implied freedom for booty: “Here, the pirate could ply his wicked trade with a clear conscience” (ibid 43).

The next nomos of the earth came into being about 500 years ago, with the so-called age of discoveries, and it was Eurocentric. This was the epoch of modern international law (Völkerrecht or jus gentium) which rested on belief in European civilization. Non-European space was considered un- or halfcivilized, and as available for European domination or colonization. The new world "did not appear as a new enemy, but as free space, as an area open to European occupation and expansion” (ibid 87).

Treaty of Tordesillas 1494 - example of raya
Now for the first time the entire earth, including the oceans, became ordered in terms of international law. The first "global lines" came into being - first the Spanish-Portugese divisional lines or rayas, and then the French-English friendship lines or "amity lines". While the former were “not global lines separating Christian from non-Christian territories, but were internal divisions between two land-appropriating Christian princes”, the amity lines were based on completely different principles. They delineated the realm where “European public law” held from the rest of the world where it didn’t: “treaties, peace, and friendship applied only to Europe, to the Old World, to the area on this side of the line”. Outside the Old World, the state of nature ruled and the law of the stronger applied (ibid 92).

It is quite apparent that Schmitt is fascinated by these amity lines. Based on them, wars could legally be waged between European powers in the colonies, despite peace being concluded in Europe. The lines also gave free rein to “privateers”, as when Richelieu declared in 1634 that French seafarers were forbidden to attack Spanish and Portuguese ships on this side of the Tropic of Cancer but were free to do so on the other side. Another example of this legal dualism is that English law distinguished between English soil, where common law ruled, and other areas where the king's power was unrestricted. ”The king’s power was considered to be absolute on the sea and in the colonies, while in his own country it was subject to common law and to baronial or parliamentary limits” (ibid 98).

Reading this, many readers will recall Schmitt's famous discussion about sovereignty in Political Theology, and it is interesting to see that Schmitt himself sees a connection between the discovered "virgin lands" and the state of exception. ”The English construction of a state of exception, of so-called martial law, obviously is analogous to the idea of a designated zone of free and empty space” (ibid 98). In both cases the sovereign is free to impose his own order unhindered by the consitution or by common law.

Needless to say, in the colonies the brutality of the "state of exception" was not an exception at all, but the rule. Conversely, the state of exception or "martial law" can be understood as the implementation in the sovereign's own country of the unrestricted powers he enjoyed in the colonies. In both instances the power of state sovereignty is revealed in naked and terrifying brutality. In both instances, the reader is offered a perverse confluence of legally unrestricted freedom and total oppression.

Schmitt's account of the legal implications of the amity lines opens up an interesting perspective on imperialism by showing how much it has in common with today's attacks on urban "no-man's-lands" like the parks or riverbeds where the homeless live. In these "free" spaces freedom is also the freedom of mainstream society to insult or drive away the inhabitants. In The New Urban Frontier (1996), Neil Smith underscores these similarities by comparing the language of gentrification to that of "frontier warfare". What Schmitt brings out is how perversely understandable these attacks become in the light of the principles of sovereignty. The uncivility and brutality of authorities and neighborhood kids in dealing with the homeless would appear simply as a sovereign power let loose from the restrictions to which it is subjected on "this" side of the amity lines but which dissolve into thin air as soon as those uncivilized "others" come into its way that are not considered part of the community of civilized, respectable citizens. Some readers might think of Agamben here - suffice it to say that "bare" life is to be found not only in the camps but also in the colonies.

Before proceding, let me clarify that I do not believe that Schmitt's argument diminishes the importance of trying to create and enlarge no-man's-lands. Schmitt's equation of total freedom with total oppression holds only for situations in which the lack of legal restrictions is not matched by a corresponding lack of power asymmetries. In such situations freedom will certainly mean the freedom of plunder, war and despotism. Freedom from laws is of no use if power is left unharmed. What his argument shows is therefore not that the struggle for freedom is futile, only that legal freedom is never enough - that we should also strive for the freedom from power asymmetries, from the despot himself.


Let me move on to the second topic that interested me - the similarities between the EU and the idea of Großräume promoted by Schmitt in the end of the book.

The old nomos of the earth established in the age of discoveries started to dissolve in the late 19th century. After the first world war Europe was no longer the “sacral center of the earth”. It was already being overshadowed by the United States. With the League of Nations, an empty universalism displaced the old distinctions between civilized, barbaric and savage, which became “juridically insignificant” (ibid 234). The idea of supra-state "just" wars displaced the idea of the idea of war as a sovereign right of nations. But, Schmitt suggests, this normative universalism lacked a secure foundation. The non-European states were regarded as states in name, but never became recognized as partners in the community of international law in the way European states had recognized each other during the old nomos.

Since a secure foundation for a new nomos is lacking, the system is unstable. Schmitt appears to believe that such a foundation can only be provided in two ways - through world hegemony under a single global power or through a plurality of regional blocs or Großräume. Which way the world will develop will, he believes, depend on the United States. Ever since the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, “the Western Hemisphere had found itself facing an enormous alternative between a plurality of Großräumen and a global claim to world power”. The United States now needs to decide whether "to make the transition to a Großraum and to find its place in a world of other recognized Großräume, or to transform the concept of war... into a global civil war” (ibid 296). Schmitt's preferences are clearly with the idea of an equilibrium of several independent Großräume. Such a possibility, he states, would not have custom or tradition on its side, but it would be "rational", provided that "the Großräume are differentiated meaningfully and are homogenous internally” (ibid 355).

The translator, G. L. Ulmen, states in his introduction that Schmitt had alluded to the idea of the Großraum already in 1928, in an article in which he had argued that modern technology had made borders illusory and that the world had ”become smaller” while ”states and state systems had to become larger”. "In this enormous process of transformation", he had written, "perhaps many weaker states will disappear. A few giant complexes will remain”. Germany itself was territorially ”too small” to be a world power and had to find its political future in the future of Europe. These giant complexes, or Großräume, would become the main international agents in the future, rather than states, and they would in turn compete with each other, arranging themselves as friends or enemies ("Introduction”, p19). In 1939, he returned to the idea of the Großraum, arguing that the technical-industrial-economic development necessitated that the segregation into "small-space" (kleinraum) economies of forms of energy, such as electricity or gas, had to be overcome "organizationally” in a ”great-space economy” (Großraumswirtschaft) (ibid 23).

In these ideas, Schmitt appears to be anticipating both ideas which we today associate with "globalization" and the economic reasons behind the establishment of the EU.

I suggest that we acknowledge Schmitt as one of the spiritual forebears of the EU - not because he played any active role in its actual preparation or because he was particularly unique in putting forth ideas about Großräume, but because he did so with characteristic and ruthless clarity. In fact, he was far from unique. The idea was very much in the air in the interwar era. Exactly the same idea surfaces at the same time in Japan, as is well known. Take for instance the radio address from 1940 by Arita Hachirô, the foreign minister who originated the term "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" (Daitôa kyôeiken). In this radio address, Arita explains that the world is being divided into blocs and that it is desirable that the blocs should consist of nations sharing the same culture:
The countries of East Asia and the regions of the South Seas are geographically, historically, racially, and economically very closely related to each other. They are destined to cooperate and minister to one antoher’s needs for their common well-being and prosperity. (”The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, pp 1006f, in Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 2, Columbia University Press, 2005)
Arita emphasizes that the system presupposes a ”stabilizing force in each region” and it is not hard to guess that by that he means Japan. He is only one example among many Japanese intellectuals and politicians around this time where we find similar thoughts.

From the Manifesto for Greater East Asian Cooperation (Daitôa kyôdô sengen), a propaganda booklet for children
In these calls for culturally and economically unified blocs the spiritual roots of the EU are already present. Acknowledging people like Schmitt as pioneers of the idea of the EU - perhaps just as important as the celebrated Coudenhove-Kalergi - will help bring out in all necessary clarity that the EU is not solely about the trauma of war after 1945 or the desire for peace and reconciliation. That the idea of such a union didn't need the catastrophe of war is demonstrated by the fact that it surfaced already before the war. To neglect the role played by people like Schmitt is also to miss or downplay the economic or geopolitical arguments for the union. To put it plainly, it is wrong to see the EU simply as an overcoming of Nazism or the Third Reich, since it also represents a continuity of some of the projects with which they were associated. The EU satisfied a need not only for reconciliation or "fettering Germany", but also a desire for a new and more efficient and stable order after the defunct system of the European ”concert” of nation-states - a desire that also nourished fascists and Nazis like Schmitt.

How easily this desire lets itself be expressed or justified as a hope for peace is illustrated by Schmitt himself. Putting the finishing touches to his book in 1950, he writes:
But today, it is conceivable that the air will envelop the sea and perhaps even the earth, and that men will transform their planet into a combination of produce warehouse and aircraft carrier. Then, new amity lines will be drawn, beyond which atomic and hydrogen bombs will fall. Nevertheless, we cling to the hope that we will find the normative order of the earth, and that the peacemakers will inherit the earth. (Schmitt 2003:49)

Schmitt, Carl (2003) The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, New York: Telos Press.


Addendum (2018-10-21): The fact that the there is an "untold" history behind European integration is also stressed by Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson in their Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism (2014). While the dominant narrative of European integration stresses the nobile and benevolent purpose of peace, cooperation and the overcoming of nationalist rivalry and imperial aspirations, the untold history is that European integration was a Eurafrican project aiming at securing the viability of Europe as something akin to what Schmitt called a Großraum in which European states would join forces in exploiting Africa. “According to the Eurafrican idea, European integration would come about only through a coordinated exploitation of Africa, and Africa could be efficiently exploited only if European states cooperated and combined their economic and political capacities” (p. 7). The origins of the idea of Eurafrica can be found in interwar debates about the crisis of Europe - very much the same historical juncture as the one that formed the background to Schmitt's idea of  Großräume.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Nancy Fraser and transnational public spheres

Nancy Fraser makes an interesting attempt in her "Transnationalizing the Public Sphere" to conceive of a "transnational public sphere" in a way that preserves the normative force invested by Habermas in his original concept of the public sphere, which was tied to the nation-state. The paper exists in at least two versions, one from 2005 and one from 2007, with some interesting differences between them. Let me comment briefly on these differences.

Both papers take their point of departure in the same problem. Since Habermas' classical Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere from 1962, “public sphere theory has been implicitly informed by a Westphalian political imaginary: it has tacitly assumed the frame of a bounded political community with its own territorial state” (Fraser 2007:8). Implicitly, the concept of a public sphere has assumed the existence of a national citizenry, a modern state apparatus, a national communication infrastructure, a national language, and so on. So the problem is: “can the concept be reconstructed to suit a post-Westphalian frame?"

Fraser points out that this isn't as easy as it seems. As a normative idea the concept is dependent on two yardsticks: normative legitimacy and political efficacy. Without them, it would lose "its critical force and its political point" (ibid 7f). The problem is how to ensure legitimacy and efficacy under transnational conditions, without relying on the "Westphalian" nation-state infrastructure.

In the 2005 version of her paper, I found her to be surprisingly conservative, basically keeping all the central features of the Westphalian public sphere and hoping for their transnational expansion/extension. The weaknesses of this position seemed to be obvious. In claiming that the transnational public sphere depends on some form of super-Westphalian framework in order to have democratic potential, she was in effect condemning it to irrelevancy in practical politics. Denying the possibility of a public sphere before the establishment of transnational institutions, she also seemed to be leaving today's transnational social movements in a limbo, with no room for them to ground their claims to legitimacy. 
This position is modified in her 2007 paper. Here the argument is more intricate and the outcome more fruitful. To begin with, she revisits Habermas' classical work in order to assess two lines of criticism directed against it. Firstly, there was the "legitimacy critique" which focused on Habermas' neglect of the "systemic obstacles" that prevented subaltern groups in society - such as workers, women, the poor, or various minorities - from participating on a par with others in public debate. Her own 1991 essay, "Rethinking the Public Sphere", which highlighted the role played by "subaltern counter-publics" in challenging exclusions, is a well-known rendering of this line of criticism. Secondly, there was the "efficacy critique" that argued that Habermas had failed to register the full range of systemic obstacles that prevented communicatively generated popular will from being effectively implemented in state policy.
Both these lines of criticism, however, "took for granted the Westphalian framing of political space” (ibid 12) since they identified the public with the citizenry of a territorial state.

So can the two ideas of normative legitimacy and political efficacy can be detached from the Westphalian premises? She begins with legitimacy. The legitimacy of public opinion, she argues, rests on two conditions: inclusiveness and  parity. Discussion should not exclude anyone with a stake in the outcome, and all participants should enjoy equal chances to state their views and place issues on the agenda. In the Westphalian public, however, these two conditions were not always clearly distinguished.
Seen from the perspective of the Westphalian frame, both the inclusiveness condition and the parity condition were yoked together under the ideal of shared citizenship in a bounded community [...]. The effect, however, was to truncate discussions of legitimacy. Although it went unnoticed at the time, the Westphalian frame encouraged debate about the parity condition, while deflecting attention away from the inclusiveness condition. (ibid 20f)
Moving to a post-Westphalian stage could therefore increase the legitimacy of public opinion by stimulating discussion about inclusiveness. But how should the inclusiveness condition be understood in a post-Westphalian age? The answer is already provided by Habermas himself in the form of the "all-affected" principle, which holds that "all potentially affected by political decisions should have the chance to participate on terms of parity in the informal processes of opinion formation to which the decision-takers should be accountable" (ibid 21). This principle should hold true regardless of citizenship.
Henceforth, public opinion is legitimate if and only if it results from a communicative process in which all potentially affected can participate as peers, regardless of political citizenship. Demanding as it is, this new, post-Westphalian understanding of legitimacy constitutes a genuinely critical standard for evaluating existing forms of publicity in the present era. (ibid 22)
Next, she turns to the criterion of political efficacy. Efficacy too rests on two conditions: the "translation condition" according to which public opinion must be translated into binding laws and decisions, and the "capacity condition" according to which the political system must be able to implement these measures. Again, the Westphalian frame truncated discussions of efficacy, fostering interest in the translation condition but obscuring the capacity condition.

It is hard, however, to imagine how an efficacious transnational public should be understood since there is nothing corresponding to a territorial state that might possess the administrative capacity to implement the demands of a transnational citizenry. “The challenge, accordingly, is twofold: on the one, hand, to create new, transnational public powers; on the other, to make them accountable to new, transnational public spheres. Both those elements are necessary” (ibid 23). As Fraser admits, "the job is not easy". But "only if public sphere theory rises to the occasion can it serve as a critical theory in a post-Westphalian world” (ibid 24).

After having read her 2005 draft, I was agreably surprised by reading this. This is better. In the draft, she appeared to neglect social movements and instead called for institutional renovation in a rather strident voice, arguing that the idea of the public would lack critical force and political point without it. Here she “saves” the idea of the public without making it dependent on prior existence of global institutional structures. Instead, the emphasis is more on the public as a normative force that actually only comes fully into its own in the global age. Concerning both the legitimacy and the efficacy condition, Fraser manages to show that globalization can contribute - at least in part - to liberating the emancipatory potential of the public from its truncated form in the Westphalian age, when aspects of inclusion and capacity were obscured. Both these aspects are now highlighted thanks to the flows of people, the potential of decisions to affect people globally, and the weakening of individual states against the transnational power of capital.

The problem is thus no longer posed as how to reconstruct the Westphalian public on a global scale. While she is obviously still seeing the construction of some form of global institutional framework as an urgent task, she is also suggesting that the public might serve as an important transnational arena even in the absence of such a framework. She is no longer categorically saying that the idea of a transnational public sphere is not viable without transnational institutions (an assertion that would have been very tied to an “empirical” understanding of the public sphere as something really existing). Instead she approaches a position which may be rendered as follows: the idea of a transnational public sphere is viable as a normative guideline or yardstick, even in the absence of transnational institutions, just as the public functioned as a regulative ideal guiding criticism in the Westphalian age.

I do, however, have three reservations:

Firstly, alternative notions of public also exist. There is no shortage of reconceptualizations that emphasize the freedom and universality of “publics” far more open than "Westphalian" one. Take Karatani Kôjin, who even opposes the public to any bounded spaces and sees it as essentially located outside all national communities. Amino Yoshihiko's idea of muen is another example. Relying on such conceptualizations doesn’t mean jettisoning the normative content of the public sphere concept, since they are tied to their own very normative concepts of freedom.

Secondly, although I understand her desire to focus on the normative rather than the emprical components of the concept of the public sphere, I do believe her argument would have profited from paying greater attention to questions of what form the empirical existence of a transnational public sphere might take, or what forms it does take already today in those "global public sphere moments" (Eide and Kunelius) when it is temporarily realized. In her old 1991 article, her model was one of a central or mainstream public sphere (the “liberal bourgeois public sphere”) which was opposed by "subaltern counter-publics". This idea of one single center hardly holds if we are to picture a transnational public sphere. In such a transnational setting, subalterns or excluded groups will need to be able to form their own counter-publics in reaction to whatever public oppresses or excludes them, regardless of how "central" it is. Such a conception would allow for a plurality of “centers” in reaction to which a plurality of counter-publics can form. Interestingly, these alternative publics can today, more easily than before, take transnational form. That means that counter-publics will no longer necessarily be more local than the various “mainstreams” against which they are reacting. Interestingly, in her 1991 paper she raised the concern that the counter-publics might turn into parochial “enclaves”, and emphatically claimed that they always return to the mainstream public and expand it. Today, by contrast, the risk that counter-publics will turn into enclaves is probably smaller. In fact, often it is rather the national “mainstream” public spheres that become “enclaves” – closed, parochial and local. That might also mean that there is no longer the same burning necessity for the counter-publics to “return” to the mainstream. To at least some extent they can bypass it. So what I want to suggest is that the key to how a transnational public sphere might arise would lie not only in how the mainstream national public sphere can be made to expand, but also in how the counter-publics from different nations join together into transnational networks.

Thirdly, I am skeptical to her claim that "efficacy" is really essential for the idea of the public to have critical potential. "Legitimacy" appears to be a far more essential component, and as she notes herself, it is not in principle so difficult to construe legitimacy in transnational terms. In fact, a Habermasian framework would seem to demand it. I would therefore like to downplay the tendency in Fraser to portray the construction of transnational institutions as a task for critical theory. Take what is happening right now in North African and the Middle East - the coming into being of a beautiful and revolutionary transnational public sphere from Morocco to Syria. Surely, it would be ridiculous to claim that the critical potential of this public sphere would be enhanced by erecting some supranational governance framework with the "capacity" to respond to and implement the popular demands. Whatever "efficacy" this public has, it possesses because of the strength of its legitimacy and the weakness of the institutional orders opposing it. 

Social movements can certainly contribute to calling global institutions into being by holding politicians accountable and forcing them to act in order to take responsibility for global problems. I disagree, however, that the creation of such institutions per se is a central task for social movements. Their task is not to build those institutions, but to call them into being by their dissent. The pragmatic problem may remain concerning where best to apply pressure – on national levels, on corporations, on supranational organizations etc – but the guiding principle should simply be one of flexibility: hit the weakest link and act so that you will grow stronger, by gaining allies and supporters. Make the opponent and potential allies see that it is in their interest to work together with you. Here a measure of strategic reason is permitted. Transnational movements should not feel confined to addressing transnational institutions. Just as the old "national" movements would sometimes address local governments or companies and sometimes the national governments, transnational movements should feel free to choose their targets flexibly and pragmatically, according to their present needs - just as they are in fact doing today.

The criticial potential of the idea of the public stems above all from the "legitimacy" condition. "Efficacy" is a secondary quality, and a dangerous one. Building institutional "capacity" will also heighten the capacity of institutions to contain criticism and dissent. To build that capacity is not the task of the dissenters. To believe that the public sphere can only function critically if such capacity exists is a delusion, and arguing that dissent lacks force unless such capacity is first created is about as clever as teaching your opponent judo before you start attacking him. Capacity will come in time, as soon as protests make the established elites realize the need for containment. The public, however, gains its critical force by outrunning capacity. The public lives only as long as it is the seedbed of more demands than can be granted.

Habermas 1960 - still a Westphalian public sphere?


Fraser, Nancy (2005) “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere”, March.

Fraser, Nancy (2007) “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World”, Theory Culture & Society 24(4):7-30.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Like a fire? Rosa Luxemburg and primitive accumulation

The idea of primitive accumulation is having a renaissance. Here I will sketch how the idea develops from Rosa Luxemburg to contemporary thinkers like David Harvey, Saskia Sassen, Giovanni Arrighi, and Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri. By right, I suppose I should have started these notes with Marx, but that will have to wait. After all this is only a blog. Suffice it to say that to Marx, primitive accumulation - the appropriation of wealth derived from non-capitalist modes of production, often through means such as fraud, looting, conquest or oppression - played a crucial part in the origin of capitalism.


The first important step in the development of the idea after Marx is taken by Luxemburg. She criticizes Marx for viewing primitive accumulation as merely "incidental" to the functioning of capitalism or as "illustrating merely the genesis of capital" (Luxemburg 1951: 364). She stresses that capitalist accumulation proceeds on two tracks: both through the exploitation of wage labour emphasized by Marx and through ongoing processes of primitive accumulation (ibid. 452). Capitalism's inability to survive without primitive accumulation is part of her explanation of imperialism. Capitalism needs a non-capitalist environment into which to expand and which functions as a safety-valve that saves it from its overaccumulation crises. But this will prove to be its undoing:
Capitalism is the first mode of economy [...] which tends to engulf the entire globe and to stamp out all other economies, tolerating no rival at its side. Yet at the same time it is also the first mode of economy which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and soil. [...] In its living history it is a contradiction in itself, and its movement of accumulation provides a solution to the conflict and aggravates it at the same time. (ibid 467)
Luxemburg conjures up the image of capitalism spreading like a fire, consuming itself: “thus capitalism prepares its own downfall under ever more violent contortions and convulsions” (ibid 453).

Harvey, Arrighi, Sassen

Contemporary authors like Harvey, Sassen or Arrighi have learnt much from Luxemburg. Like her, they stress that capital in today's world is accumulated both through the exploitation of labour and through primitive accumulation, and that spatial expansion plays an important role in maintaining capitalism. What they add is the acknowledgement that: 1) spatial expansion is sometimes a much more subtle process than the image of colonial conquest suggests, and that 2) the "non-capitalist" environment from which capitalism can draw its profits is more diversified.

Harvey develops the first of these realizations into his idea of the "spatial fix" and the second into the idea of "accumulation by dispossession" - his term for primitive accumulation. Let me start with the spatial fix. Luxemburg identified spatial expansion with imperialism, implying that capitalism’s possibilities of expansion were very nearly exhausted by the time she was writing. The “spatial fix” is something much more flexible, consisting in geographical expansions and restructurings that are used as temporary solutions to the overaccumulation crises that are inherent in capitalism. As Harvey points out, spatial fixes are available even in a world that is already more or less fully incorporated in capitalism. Spatial fixes make use of geographical unevenness, but uneveness is not simply a product of "underdevelopment". Capitalism produces its own unevenness, often plunging already “developed” regions into destructive devaluations (a central point in Neil Smith's Uneven Development). The idea implied here is that processes of primitive accumulation are turned not only against the remaining few non-capitalist formations but also against parts of capitalism itself.

Since such processes of primitive accumulation are part and parcel of today's capitalist world, Harvey prefers to term them "accumulation by dispossession". Under this rubric he includes a wide variety of phenomena which have in common the appropriation of wealth that has been formed outside the production processes of capitalism proper, i.e. not through “the expansion of wage labour” (Harvey 2005:178). It includes things like the privatization or commodification of resources like water, land or public services; intellectual copyright; "biopiracy" (”pillaging the world’s stockpile of genetic resources”); or the use of the credit system to redistribute wealth ("reducing whole populations to debt peonage" by rescue packages or managing crises in order to be able to use bailouts as an excuse for pillaging). Things like using traditional songs for making profit in the music industry or the medical knowhow of indigenous peoples in the pharmaceutical industry would be examples of accumulation by dispossession.

Arrighi's and Sassen's analyses of primitive accumulation are inspired by Harvey's and differ only in emphasis. In line with his own theory of accumulation cycles and moving hegemonies, Arrighi (2004) puts particular stress on the tendency for the core of capitalism to move geographically with the search for profitable investment through spatial fixes. Using structural adjustment programmes and the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 as examples, Sassen is even more emphatic than Harvey that today's processes of primitive accumulation are not about the incorporation into capitalist relations of pre-capitalist modes of production but ”the destruction of traditional capitalism in order to extract what can be extracted for the further deepening of advanced capitalism” (Sassen 2010:24).

Hardt & Negri

Hardt & Negri refer to Harvey's idea of "accumulation by dispossession" several times in their 2009 book Commonwealth, but give the idea their own peculiar twist. The "non-capitalist" environment on which capitalism feeds is here designated as the "common". The “common” is defined as consisting both of the wealth of the material world – air, water, fruits, nature – and of those social products that need to be shared in order to for social interaction and further production to take place. The latter make up an “artificial common” consisting in language, images, knowledges, affects, codes, habits, practices, and relations (Hardt & Negri 2009:viii, 139, 171). Their central claim is that capitalism increasingly tends towards a “biopolitical” stage in which it increasingly relies on the common for production, meaning that capital can only parasitize on the resources of the common without being able to create them by itself. In particular, they emphasize the urban environment as a resource for free production and creativity that is central to capitalism. The city “is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class” (ibid. 250). 

Commonwealth is perhaps the book by Hardt & Negri that I like most. It has, however, its weaknesses. Some derive from their neglect of some of the factors in contemporary capitalism that Harvey and the other contemporary authors highlight. In their insistence that the new "non-capitalist" frontier is right here among "us" in the developed world, in the midst of the metropole, they tend to disregard the continuing exploitation of wage labour and the role of spatial fixes in the international division of labor - the fact, to put it bluntly, that next to post-industrial “immaterial labor” there are sweatshops too. This problem is not solved by their insertion of a rather incongruous chapter (chapter 2.1) which is full of praise for anti-colonial struggles and calls for solidarity with the south. This chapter feels too much as an ad hoc reply to certain critics (such as Caffentzis or Dyer-Witheford) and is not theoretically integrated with the rest of the work.  

The fire is still raging

To Marx, primitive accumulation was part of the origin of capitalism, but not an organic component of capitalism itself. Luxemburg took the next step, arguing that capitalism needed constant access to non-capitalist areas into which to expand. With the onset of neoliberalism, the idea of primitive accumulation gained prominence again. Authors like Harvey, Arrighi or Sassen argued that the appropriation of "non-capitalist" wealth could also take the form of predatory attacks on wealth formed within capitalist societies themselves. This transformation of the idea reaches an apogee with Hardt & Negri, for whom the "non-capitalist" environment consists of language and other common resources that make creativity possible and on which capitalism is increasingly dependent. The common denominator of the contemporary authors is that they make primitive accumulation a central feature of contemporary capitalism. Capitalism, they suggest, is losing its capacity to regenerate itself through the surplus value generated by the employment of labour-power and has to rely on appropriating wealth created elsewhere.

For some reason, neither Luxemburg nor any of the theorists of primitive accumulation today point out that their observation that capital accumulation can be driven by other sources than labour power appears to make Marx' so-called value law less relevant to understanding contemporary capitalism. As much as labour remains crucial as a source of "value" in the theoretical sense intended by Marx, I think we need to pay more attention than we have until now to the fact that capital accumulation doesn't depend on the generation of such value alone. Capital can be created through a variety of means, many of them involving the use of state power (so called free trade treaties would be a prime example) or other forms of coercion that enable profits that by far may surpass what would have been possible through the mere exploitation of wage labour.

Many Marxists hold that exploiting wage labour is the only way to generate surplus value in a systematic and long-term fashion. Thus the merchant capital of premodern societies, for instance, is said to have been unable to generate a stable process of capital accumulation since it remained almost entirely within the "sphere of circulation" rather than producing any value itself (except for transportation). Although the profits obtained by merchant capital were sometimes spectacular, it obtained them erratically, depending on the vagaries of power and luck. What is missed in this argument, however, is that power relations aren't necessarily erractic. They too can be systematic, and hence systematic capital accumulation can be based on any kind of capital - even mere merchant capital - to the extent that it can rely on a stable and predictable alliance with political power. As Luxemburg points out, this is exactly what happens with imperialism. Customs, patents, trade monopolies, administrative guidance, lobbying and trade wars are, of course, other ways in which the alliance between capital and state manifests itself.

So, capitalism cannot be understood adequately by focusing only on the extraction of surplus value through wage labour. The political conclusions from this should be clear. As Harvey points out, just as today's neoliberal capitalism is relying not only on exploiting wage labour but also on the plunder of non-capitalist formations, resistance to capitalism likewise must have a dual character. The struggle of wage laborers must be complemented by the struggle to defend things owned by the public or possessed by us in common against expropriation.


Arrighi, G. (2004) “Spatial and Other ‘Fixes’ of Historical Capitalism”, Journal of World-Systems Research, X:2 (Summer):527-539.

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harvey, D. (2003) The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2006) The Limits to Capital (new edition), London & New York: Verso.

Luxemburg, R. (1951) The Accumulation of Capital (tr. Agnes Schwarzchild), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sassen, S. (2010) ”A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation”, Globalizations 7(1-2)(March-June):23-50.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mouffe and Schmitt

Just a brief note here. In my earlier criticism of Chantal Mouffe, I was especially irked by what appeared to me to be a Schmittian note in her insistence on the impossibility of transcending conflict. Like him, she is convinced that there can be no politics without the friend-enemy distinction. Her error is in drawing the conclusion that such a distinction must therefore always be affirmed. Nothing says that the goal of politics must be politics, just as nothing says that the goal of war must be war. 

Be that as it may, I recently had a look at The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, edited by Mouffe, to explore her view of Schmitt a bit further. What is immediately apparent is the high regard in which she holds Schmitt. While he is an “adversary”, he is one “of remarkable intellectual quality” whose “insights... can be used to rethink liberal democracy with a view to strengthening its institutions” (from her "Introduction", p.1). What she values in Schmitt is that he reminds us of the necessary conflictual dimension in politics, which is tidied over in liberal thinkers like Rawls or Habermas. Her only disagreement with Schmitt is that: 

...while he asserts the conflictual nature of the political, he does not permit a differential treatment of this conflictuality. It can manifest itself only in the mode of antagonism… According to Schmitt, there is no possibility of pluralism – that is, legitimate dissent among friends. (p.5)
This sounds disingenious, considering Schmitt's own lament for the decline of the European Völkerrecht, in which war itself was "bracketed", reduced to a contest between legitimate adversaries, i.e. sovereign states and their regular militaries. Schmitt himself is hardly a person who would celebrate the abyss of total conflict or all-out war. What Mouffe does is not so much to introduce the notion of "legitimate dissent" into his thought, as to turn bracketing around, re-applying it to the domestic arena. Where Schmitt talked about international relations, Mouffe talks about political dissent within the state.

The result of this re-application is her own "pluralistic agonism" - a perpetual discursive war contained within the safe framework established by the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy. As she readily admits, this is a very "liberal" and hence circumscribed view of the legitimate manifestations of conflicts. Its necessary corollary is a distinction between legitimate enemies, or "adversaries", who stick to the framework, and the illegitimate enemies who don't.
The adversary is in a certain sense an enemy, but a legitimate enemy with who there exists a common ground. [Adversaries] share a common allegiance to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy. (p.4)
This is an astounding sentence, following as it does her characterization of Schmitt as - remember? - precisely an "adversary". From the standpoint of her agonistic pluralism, this is a generous designation to say the least, but also one that blurs the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate opponents. Where in his works does she detect an adherence to the principles of liberal democracy? Or is being a Nazi after all not necessarily any impediment to being considered a legitimate opponent?

She also contributes to the volume with an essay, "Carl Schmitt and the Paradox of Liberal Democracy". Here she rejects “humanity” and “abstract universalism” as a basis of democracy. Democracy always dismisses and excludes, because “if the people are to rule, it is necessary to determine who belongs to the people” (p.42). I am dismayed by these formulations, not only because of their crudeness but also because they are so obviously bound to please some of the elements I most loath in today's political scene. I know that she is not a racist or nationalist, but she writes this in 1999, near the end of a decade in which such forces achieved a comeback in European politics. What on earth convinced her that attacking Habermas or Rawls was such an urgent task that statements about the necessity of determining "who belongs to the people" had somehow become excusable? 

Mouffe herself seems to realize that upsetting existing determinations of "who belongs to the people" might be at least as necessary as establishing them, and - inconsistently - hastens to add that:
...the articulation with the liberal logic allows us constantly to challenge – through reference to ‘humanity’ and the polemical use of ‘human rights’ – the forms of exclusion that are necessarily inscribed in the political practice of installing those rights and defining ‘the people’. (p.44)
Pulling back from the abyss in this fashion is certainly commendable, but how can she admit of such a "reference" and such “polemical use” if she rejects all universality? And if she does admit of this recourse to universalism, then why the implacable attacks on Habermas and Rawls?

Mouffe, Chantal (ed) (1999) The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, London & New York: Verso.

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