Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Liquidity trap or bubble - you choose!

Liquidity trap as the new normal? Full employment only possible through bubbles? In his recent blog posts, Paul Krugman suggests that economic bubbles are not the problem, not the “bad excess” that need to be prevented, but the only way the economy today can be saved from plunging into a permanent state of depression.

Krugman states that this has in fact been a trait of capitalism ever since the 70s. All this, it seems to me, makes for a nice fit with what certain Marxists such as David Harvey, Giovanni Arrighi, or Immanuel Wallerstein have been saying for a long time about shifting cycles of hegemony, signal and terminal crises, and secular trends towards lower profit levels.

But then there are, of course, also differences. 

1) Unlike the Marxists, Krugman blames the secular stagnation not on hegemonic cycles or inherent trends of capitalism to exhaust opportunities for profit, but mainly on demographics.

2) There is no theoretization about the possibility of a new hegemonic cycle centred on China or East Asia that might restore profit levels - at least not in the blog posts.

3) He still believes in a Keynesian recipe for dealing with the stagnation. Not austerity, but inflation targeting is the necessary remedy. Considering that this recepe can only produce what he now admits are bubbles, this is a rather grim (not to say desperate) argument.

The larger question raised by this idea of secular stagnation is whether we must put up with this madness. An economic system that can only survive on a medication of bubbles sounds like sitting in a taxi where the driver is either gleefully drunk or asleep. Isn't there some other way to live in a future without growth?

The best presentation of the argument is here:

And here's a follow-up/clarification:

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

New book on social movements in Japan


So now it's out, my new book on social movements in Japan. I do like it. It's a bit expensive but I do wish it bon voyage. Thanks to everyone who helped me finish it - above all everyone who agreed to be interviewed, and everyone who gave me criticism or comments. Thanks also to Sekine Masayuki-san, who let me use his photo of the 246 Conference of Expressive Artists for the cover!

Cassegard, Carl (2013) Youth Movements, Trauma, and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan, Leiden: Global Oriental

The volume provides a detailed study and assessment of social movements among young Japanese from the late 1980s until the present day. Discussing anti-war mobilizations, freeter unions, artists in the homeless movement, campus protest, anti-nuclear protest and activists engaged in support for social withdrawers, the author documents how new forms of activism developed hand-in-hand with experiments in using alternative spaces outside mainstream public areas and a struggle with the traumatic legacy of the failure of earlier protest movements. Despite the relative absence of open protest during much of the 1990s, the author demonstrates that this was an important preparatory period, full of experimentation, in which the foundations for today’s protest movements were laid. This book will be welcomed by students of sociological theory relating to Japan as well as those studying the trends and dynamics of contemporary ‘post-Bubble’ Japanese society.

Table of contents: 


1. Trauma, empowerment and alternative space
- Collective trauma
- Empowerment and the role of alternative space in social movements

2. Japan’s lost decade and two recoveries
- The end of the bubble and the arrival of precarity
- The sense of closure and the legacy of previous protest
- Lost decade, regained activism?

3. The new cultural movements
- The storm of autumn
- The league of good-for-nothings
- Anti-war protests and the prehistory of sound-demos

4. The rise of movements against precarity
- The General Freeter Union and the ‘precariat’
- ‘Life’ and ‘survival’ in the precarity movement

5. Space, art and homelessness
- Public space, counter-space and no-man’s-land
- Art beyond the pleasure principle: The Shinjuku cardboard village
- Anti-poverty and Viva poverty
- “Waking up from the dream”: Nagai Park’s theatre of resistance
- Miyashita Park: Can a no-man’s-land be defended?

6. Alternative space, withdrawal and empowerment
- Support groups for social withdrawers and NEET
- Freeter Unions: narratives of recovery

7. Campus protest 

8. The recovery of activism
- Three innovations of freeter activism
- The importance of space – contestation and bracketing
- Fukushima and beyond

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Heinrich's introduction to Marx' Capital

One of the books I've been reading during my convalescence has been Michael Heinrich's An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’ Capital (Monthly Review Press, 2012). It's probably the most lucid commentary to Capital that I've read so far. No wonder it's so much talked about. Personally, I was impressed with how much ground he manages to cover in such a slim volume - no mean feat! I don't really have any criticism to offer against Heinrich, but since I find myself with some spare time on my hands, I want to use the opportunity to clarify my own stance in regard to the so-called "new reading of Marx" (neue Marx-Lektüre) by bringing out what I found most valuable in the book.

First I should start with some general remarks about this "new reading", which started to be developed by Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt in the 70s. I'm still not very well read when it comes to the authors associated with this reading, but, among other things, many or at least several of them stress that:
  1. Capitalist rule is the rule of seemingly “natural” or objective relations (fetishism), rather than class rule. This seeming naturalness is not simply an illusion, but a constitutive illusion, implied in the very workings of capitalism. 
  2. This illusion is not impenetrable. However, the working class is as caught up in it as everyone else. Hence the “standpoint of labor” is not a privileged standpoint for criticizing capitalism.
  3. The goal is a liberation from labor, not of labor.
This amounts to a rejection of the "traditional Marxism" that dominated Marxist thought for most of the 20th century and which underpinned the “really existing” socialism of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. By contrast, the three above-mentioned points seem to be far more consonant with the legacy of Frankfurt school critical theory - but that's a point to which I will have to return in the future. Although the three points all point in the direction of de-emphasizing the role of classes and class-struggle, Heinrich never goes as far as, say, Immanuel Wallerstein, who has been much more radical in proceeding in that direction, arguing that free wage labor or "proletarianization" isn't really crucial for capitalism and that what matters for capitalists is profit, regardless of whether commodities are produced by Russian serfs, American slaves, household labor or free wage-labor. Heinrich, by contrast, still emphasizes that the existence of formally free wage labor as part of what defines capitalism, together with the fact that the goal of endless capital accumulation assumes priority over the satisfaction of wants (Heinrich 2012:14f).

The crucial battleground in Heinrich's confrontation with "traditional Marxism" is Marx' labor theory of value, which is also where the originality of the "new reading" stands out most clearly. Here Heinrich makes a great contribution in pedagogically explaining Marx' theory. What creates a commodity's value is not the individually expended labor-time needed to produce it (as Ricardo and many traditional Marxists thought), but the average “socially necessary labor-time”. This value shouldn't be confused with a commodity's use-value. A use-value can be produced without exchange. Value, by contrast, is only consummated through exchange. Only then is it possible to see that the value of, say, two linen sheets is equal to that of a hundred eggs. It is thus not production alone that determines the value of commodities, but their production as well as their circulation on the market. Against substantialist theories of value which see value as a property or substance inherent in the commodity, Heinrich points out that this value is not a reflection of the input of labor-time in individual products: “value is not at all a property that an individual thing possesses in and of itself. The substance of value... is bestowed mutually in the act of exchange” (ibid. 53). The labor used to produce this value can therefore only be known retrospectively. Marx' term for this labor is "abstract labor", which shouldn't be confused with the "concrete labor" used to produce use-values. Abstract labor is the labor used for producing the value of the things that get to be exchanged.

One of the problems Heinrich solves with this interpretation is the so-called "transformation problem" - the problem of how prices can be derived from value. Since value doesn't exist before prices are established, this problem turns out to be illusory. There is simply no “transformation problem” (ibid. 148f). The movement from value to prices is not a temporal sequence whereby a value already bestowed on a commodity through the production process is expressed in prices, but a movement between analytical levels.

Heinrich's solution seems elegant, but let's at least try an objection. What if we venture out into the market and discover that commodities of type A that, on average, require 1 hour to produce are exchanged with others of type B that require 2 hours? In that case, value would not seem to be dependent on labor time at all, not even “socially necessary” labor time. This objection could be handled by using a supply and demand model, i.e. by assuming that the supply of B will be decreased or that of A increased until prices per "socially necessary" labor-time become equal. Heinrich seems to suggest that this is indeed what will happen, since he states that “value”is not independent of supply and demand (ibid 51f). Rather than using the termonology of supply and demand, however, he prefers to describe the adjustment in terms of mediation:
The magnitude of value of a commodity is not simply a relationship between the individual labor of the producer and the product (which is what the ‘substantialist’ conception of value amounts to), but rather a relationship between the individual labor of producers and the total labor of society. Exchange does not produce value, but rather mediates this relation to the total labor of society. (ibid. 55)
The objection falls, since the labor theory of value holds good, not for the relation between the individual labor required to produce a commodity and its value, but for the relation between the totality of labor and the totality of value produced in a society, with exchange mediating the two levels and creating pressure for adjustment if necessary.

Here we could try a new objection. Is Heinrich's break with substantialism really complete? If the labor theory of value hold good on the aggregate level of total labor and total value in a society, then it certainly no longer makes sense to see value as a substance enveloped inside the individual commodity. However, it could still be argued that value is a “substance” enveloped in the totality of commodities produced in a society.

To this, Heinrich might of course well reply: so what? What matters is not whether substantialism is wholly refuted or not, but that Marx' theory is made comprehensible and coherent. The point is established that labor is the source of value in capitalism, and hence also of the surplus value that keeps the system going. While the individual labor-time expended on a product is certainly no guarantee that the individual capitalist who bought this labor-time will profit, profitability in the system as a whole is only possible because of the exploitation of labor. 

Still, one might argue that Heinrich's fidelity to the idea of free labor as the utltimate ground of value in capitalist society leaves him open to criticism from those, like Wallerstein, who prefer to expand the concept of capitalism to make it compatible with a heterogeneity of relations of production. How about when the capitalist system incorporates products obtained by slavery or colonial robbery? How useful is the labor theory of value then? I suppose that Heinrich would reply that products not produced by wage-labor per definition lack value (just like, for instance, virigin soil, which can function as a commodity despite not being produced by labor). That would be a theoretically reasonable answer, but at the same time it would point to the need to supplement the labor theory of value with other concepts - such as those of "primitive accumulation" or what David Harvey calls "accumulation by dispossession" - to account for the many ways in which capital can be accumulated without having to rely on free wage-labor.

To wrap up about the labor theory of value, I think Heinrich is quite successful in laying the "transformation problem" to rest. The relation between value and prices has long been considered the Achilles heel of Marx' theory of value. Heinrich doesn't take the trouble to clarify in detail how the "mediation" between individual and total labor occurs, but this, I think, is something he can do with good conscience. That simply is not the central problem. If individual prices are what we are interested in, neoclassical economics will do fine. Heinrich instead helps us focus on things that were probably more central to Marx. This was, of course, first of all to demonstrate the role of labor as the source of value. This in turn helps us understand how capitalism functions. Without labor, there can't be any surplus value either, and hence no capital accumulation. Here, however, I need to register a slight reservation. As I've indicated above, I think that people like Wallerstein and Harvey have a point when they claim that labor isn't the only source of capital. To me the weakness of the labor theory of value is not that it can't explain individual prices. It's that it doesn't offer a complete explanation of capital accumulation.

Before finishing, let me just quickly mention two other spectacular punches Heinrich delivers to traditional Marxism in this book. Firstly, he repeatedly states that the proletariat is no revolutionary subject, but just as caught up in fetishism as everyone else (ibid. 180f, 194ff). Secondly, he points out that there is no theory of collapse of capitalism in Capital. In contrast to what was believed by traditional Marxism and the more recent “Krisis” group developed around Robert Kurz in Germany in the 90s, nothing in Marx' theory says that crises will bring about an end of capitalism. On the contrary, each crisis performs a service to capitalism by restoring profitability (ibid. 175-178). Here I can't help thinking of Moishe Postone and his argument that Marx never intended to establish any dialectical necessity leading history out of capitalism to the next stage. When Marx reinterpreted Hegel, the totality that set the horizon for dialectics was capitalism, not world-history as a whole. Not the proletariat, but capital was Geist and subject of this movement. To get out of capitalism, we can't rely on historical necessity. Labor is itself part of the capitalist whole. Not the liberation of labor, but the liberation from labor points to the way out.   


For Swedish readers: Heinrich's book has recently appeared in Swedish translation as Introduktion till de tre volymerna av Marx kapitalet (Tankekraft, 2013)

Monday, 29 April 2013

On the notion of the precariat


San Precario, patron saint of
all flex workers
The notion of the precariat - derived from "precarity" and "proletariat" - has made quite a career. For a long time I was used to hearing it primarily in street demonstratons, but nowadays it has become academically respectable. I suspected that this might happen already when I read Guy Standing's 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. But, still, I was quite stunned earlier this month, when I read in the news (here) that a team of British sociologists had employed it in its analysis of the results of the BBC's Great British Class Survey of 2013. The "precariat", they declared, was one of seven classes in British society, the one that was most deprived in terms of economic, cultural and social capital. Towering above it were the other six classes: the elite, the established middle classes, technical experts, new affluent workers, the traditional working class, and emergent service workers.

The results featured prominently on the BBC site, where the results were summarized by two of the team members, Mike Savage and Fiona Devine. Visitors to the homepage were also invited to take a simple test - in the "Great British class calculator: What class are you?" - to see in which class they would fit in. Curiously, precarity of employment appeared to play no role as a factor in this class calculation. Neither, as far as I could see, was it much of a criterion in the survey analysis itself (see Savage et al 2013). The "precariat" is simply the label used for the category of people who score lowest on all forms of capital. Why then did they use the term? This, they state, was largely due to inspiration from Standing (ibid 243).

More than any other, Standing has paved the way for the academic respectability of the term precariat. Unlike the analysts of the BBC survery, he is careful to link the precariat to the global shifts in production processes that engender precarization. But very much like them, he sees the precariat as belonging to the bottommost rung of the class ladder (below the elite, salariat, proficians, and the old manual working class, and flanked by the unemployed and social misfits). Like them, he also stresses that members of the precariat are deprived in many ways apart from job insecurity: they lack work-based identity, career prospects, self-esteem and social worth, and are insufficiently integrated in society and community (Standing 2011:9, 12, 21f, for a summary see Standing 2012).
While the definitions used by Standing and the analysts of the BBC survey are different, both locate the "precariat" at the bottom of the class ladder. Apart from suffering economic insecurity, members of the precariat are also prone to be socially isolated, culturally impoverished and lacking feelings of self-worth. This means that their notion of the precariat is rather narrow, since it leaves out a lot of people whose job situation is precarious but who might not be as deprived in other respects. To be sure, Standing acknowledges considerable variety in the composition of the precariat - which can contain migrants, people who drift into precarity from the "old" working class, as well as young people "over-credentialised for the flexi-jobs on offer". Still, as far as I can see the following groups would fall outside his notion of the precariat: students or young post-graduates (who may have careers), art workers (who often have a strong work-based identity or ”calling”), middle-aged dismissed workers (who also often have work-based identities), social withdrawers and mentally ill people (who often have support from families or institutions), day laborers (who again often have strong work-based identities), and many migrant workers (who may have communities supporting them).

Precariat or not?


It is not my intention here to criticize these scholars, but I'd like to counterpose their use of the notion to another one - a notion more common among activists. The term precariat was not invented by Standing. Without citing any references, he claims that it was first used by French sociologists in the 1980s to describe temporary or seasonal workers (Standing 2011:9). Be that as it may, the term only gained wide popularity though the EuroMayDays beginning in 2004. At that time, no-one really seemed to know where the term came from, except that it was said to have originated as street graffiti in Italy in 2003.

The sense in which the term was used by the EuroMayDay activists was well expressed by Alex Foti. Cross-cutting traditional class boundaries, he wrote that it included “chain-workers” as well as “brain-workers”, free-lancers as well as manufacturing temps. Unlike similar terms, like “flex worker”, he stressed that the term carried strong connotations of political agency: “The precariat is to postindustrialism as the proletariat was to industrialism: the non-pacified social subject" (Foti 2004, 2005).

A striking trait of this notion of the precariat is that it cross-cuts class, rather than designating a class by itself. Rather than limiting the notion to the most deprived, an effort is made to invite students, artists, actors, and others in the knowledge industries to identify with the precariat. People can be in the precariat even if they score high on cultural and social capital, provided that they lead precarious lives. Why, one might ask, is the term is not limited to the most deprived? I think there are two reasons. Firstly, what Foti and other activists in the Euro Mayday tried to do was not to pinpoint a new stratum so much as to suggest how widely different stratas were affected by precarization in contemporary capitalism. "We are hirable on demand, available on call, exploitable at will, and firable at whim. We are the precariat" (Foti 2005). Secondly, they sought to use the term polemically, to help forge a sense of solidarity among those people. What mattered was not what strata you belonged to so much as your realization that neoliberalism had created your predicament.

To bring out a little bit more of how the term has been employed by activists, let me illustrate with some material from Japan, where the media activist Sakurada Kazuya was the first to popularize the term through events at the NPO Remo in Osaka in 2005 (see Sakurada 2006). It gained wide currency when a special issue on the precariat appeared in the journal Impaction in early 2006. Soon afterwards it was picked up by the General Freeter Union (Furîtâ zenpan rôdô kumiai), which used it for its May Day street party (the "Freedom and Survival May Day") in Tokyo the same year, the term's first appearance in a street demonstration in Japan.

One of the early "Freedom and Survival May Day"
demonstratons (photo Mkimpo Kid?)
As one activist in the General Freeter Union pointed out, part of the attraction of the term was that it had originated from the worker movement itself, not from the corporate world or academics: “The word ‘precariat’ differs from, for example, the word ‘multitude, since it didn’t come into being as an academic term but was born from anonymous wall-graffiti” (Settsu 2006).

Interestingly, in Japan, the term came to take on a wider meaning than in the Euro Mayday. Apart from people forced into a state of uncertainty because of the labour market, it has also come to include mentally and physically disabled, social withdrawers, wrist-cutters, the homeless, overworked regular workers and even small shop-owners. A good example of this wide definition is this forceful announcement of a street party in 2006, written by an icon of the precarity movement in Japan, Amamiya Karin:
You to whom living is hard, freeters, NEETs, social withdrawers, paupers, working poor, workers on the verge of death from overwork, temp workers, illegal overstayers, regular employees without insurance, you who long for suicide, all kinds of addicts, all you with physical or mental handicaps, wristcutters, or in other words: all members of the precariat – let’s roll out on the street and demonstrate! (Amamiya 2006)
It should be noted that “precariat” is only one in a "family" of similar terms used in the Japanese precarity movement. Some groups stick with terms like “good-for-nothing” (dame) or “losers” while others prefer the simple “pauper” (binbô). Others terms appearing from time to time are those of “rabble” (uzômuzô), “desperados” (narazumono) or “unstable poor” (fuantei hinmin), all connoting lowly social status as well as a heterogeneous composition.

Students protesting against high university fees
The term precariat should, I think, be grasped in conjunction with these other terms. Common to them is, firstly, a self-deprecating humor lacking in the official or academic terminology. Secondly, the terms stress material and social deprivation, and imply identification with the underdog. Thirdly, they imply rebelliousness. Denigrating terms are taken over, but only to be turned into objects of polemical affirmation. When activists use terms like “losers” they are at the same time signaling their rejection of the value judgments inherent in it.

The polemical nature of these terms is connected to the fact that they so often appear fuzzy, ambiguous or paradoxical. To understand this, I think it is useful to recall Rancière’s suggestion that politics is quintessentially about “improper” names, or “misnomers”. According to him, the political act par excellence is what he calls subjectivation, an act whereby subaltern groups make themselves visible by polemically rejecting given identities, often in favor of new categories that appear unreasonable, “impossible” or paradoxical. Conversely, politics dies whenever groups submit to given, unambiguous categories, through what he calls “identification” (Rancière 1999). When demonstrators call themselves the “precariat” or “good-for-nothings” or “paupers”, then this is subjectivation, not identification. Flex workers may be submissive, but not the precariat.

To summarize, the "precariat" as used by activists differs from the academic notion by being used polemically by people recognizing themselves in it, instead of being imposed scientifically from above. It is not limited to the most down-trodden or worst-off, but is deliberately turned into a wide, elastic and ambiguous category capable of attracting many different kinds of groups and of being flexibly deployed according to the needs of the situation.
When academics like Standing or Savage et al use the term, there are few or no traces of the term’s activist roots and its subversive connotations. In their texts they seem to address a general non-precariat audience, without ever trying to get across to the people they refer to as the precariat. I am not accusing these academics of being apolitical or of aspiring to the impossible positivist dream of neutrality. As far as I know, they are progressive and probably even favorably inclined to the precarity movement. Standing, as is well known, has played an important role in promoting the idea of basic income. But the fundamental gesture of imposing a term from above remains - what Rancière saw as the provision of categories readymade for identification. 

My intention is not been to criticize the academic usage of the term "precariat", but rather to throw light on the other, activist usage which also still exists. Maybe it's a good thing that the term has become academically respectable. But academics should be clearer than they are now about the history of how the roots of the concept were nourished in activism - roots which are still alive, and which mustn't be run over by terminological Juggernauts. I hope that the day will never come when activists who use the term will be told by academically inspired besserwissers that they are not the "real" precariat.


Amamiya, Karin (2006) “Demo da, demo da, mô sugu demo da!” [Demonstration coming soon], Sugoi ikikata, entry for 2006-08-01.

Foti, Alex (2004) “Precarious Lexicon”, pp 18-20, Greenpepper Magazine (special issue: Precarity) 2 (Amsterdam, Greenpepper Project)

Foti, Alex (2005) “Mayday Mayday! Euro Flexworkers,Time To Get a Move On!”, EIPCP 04.

Rancière, Jacques (1999) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Sakurada, Kazuya (2006) “Purekariâto kyôbô nôto” [Conspiracy notes for the precariat], Impaction 151 (April): 20-35.
Savage, Mike et al (2013) “A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC's Great British Class Survey Experiment”, Sociology 47(2):219-250.

Settsu, Tadashi (2006) “‘Purekariâto’ ni tsuite” [On the precariat], blog entry 2006-09-11.
Standing, Guy (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Standing, Guy (2012) ”The Precariat: Why it Needs Deliberative Democracy”, Open Democracy, 21 January. 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Daruma-san has fallen

Woodblock by David Bull
(copyright M. Schumacher)
“Even if you fall, don’t worry. Just rise to your feet again.” This is a saying attributed to Bodhidharma, a legendary monk said to have introduced Zen (or Chan) Buddhism to China in the 5th or 6th century.

Bodhidharma is often depicted in Japan as a cute doll, known as Daruma-san. Sold in temples with blank, round eyes, you're supposed to fill in an eye and make a wish when you buy it and then fill in the remaining eye when the wish comes true. Apparently these dolls started to be made in the 18th century. Many are tumbler dolls, made in a round shape with a weight attached to the bottom so that the doll will automatically "rise to its feet" as soon as it is toppled over.

A friend of mine who is fluent in German once claimed that the doll expressed an important Zen truth: "unten schwer, oben leer". That may be true or not, but the popularity of the doll probably has more to do with the fact that it works as a symbol of recovery from illness or injuries and for rapidly overcoming difficulties. This symbolism is also expressed in a popular proverb connected to Bodhidharma, nana-korobi ya-oki, literally meaning "falling seven times, rising eight times", which is used to express the attitude of never giving up.

By Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768)
There are also some gruesome legends about Bodhidharma which are connected to feet and eyes. According to Chinese legends, he is said to have meditated facing a wall for nine years until his legs atrophied and fell off. According to more recent Japanese legends, he is also said to have torn off his own eye lids in anger over having fallen asleep during meditation.

Being in bed with a calcaneus fracture, I guess it would be easy for me to be ironic about people talking about how easy it is to rise again. But actually, these legends about feet, falling and recovery made me look around for a little bit more to read about him and doing so proved to be a very pleasant pastime. 

One thing I found out through this nice collection of Buddhist artworks with commentaries by Mark Schumacher was that these stories about falling and rising were sometimes given a phallic symbolism. What falls and then quickly rises again is the male sexual organ. I'd really recommend interested readers to have a look at some of the artworks on his site - like so much else produced in Edo period Japan it is quite delightful and sure to guarantee a few laughs (as they were meant to do already then). Meanwhile, let me quote the relevant passage from Schumacher's text:
As shown above, Daruma artwork lent itself easily to phallic symbolism without any need for folkloric references. Yet, there is little doubt that Daruma's metamorphosis into the male organ was pushed along by the widespread use in the late Edo era of the armless and legless Daruma tumbler doll talisman against smallpox. When knocked on its side, the doll pops back to the upright position and therefore symbolizes (1) a speedy recovery from illness, akin to "getting back on one's feet;" or (2) resilience, undaunted spirit, and determination. Such imagery can be easily employed to describe the down-up, soft-hard nature of the male sexual organ. With only a little imagination, one can easily understand why Daruma paintings and talismanic representations fell naturally under the same phallic sway. Says scholar Bernard Faure: "Until the Meiji period, phallic representations of Daruma in stone or papier mache were sold. The name 'Daruma' was also a nickname given in the Edo period to prostitutes, perhaps because, like the doll, these specialists of tumble could raise the energy of their customers........ There is also in Zen iconography a representation of the 'erect Bodhidharma.' The sexual symbolism is played out in the ukiyoe [woodblock prints], where Daruma appears as woman — a courtesan, or a transvestite Daruma and Okame" (the quote is from this text by Faure)
One reason I liked this passage was that Schumacher here confirms so much about the phallic or yang associations connected to Bodhidharma that I myself once tried to excavate with the help of a few old artworks. I could have saved myself at least some of this interpretative toil by reading this earlier! (See my previous entries: "Big eyes" and "White and red").

Totem pole
Incidentally, the phallic symbolism also helps explain this -Takewo Yoshizaki's "Daruma-san totem pole", one of the few three-dimensional artworks produced by the young artists engaged in creating art in the "Cardboard Village" of homeless people living in the underground passages near the west exit of Shinjuku Station in the mid-90's (For a look at the artworks, see this site or Sakokawa Naoko's recently published photo collection, Shinjuku danbôru-mura). Take Jun'ichiro, another of the artists, often spoke about the underground passages as a womb. Perhaps the totem pole could be seen as a phallus that would impregnate this womb? In fact, many of the artworks depicted births or newborn babies. 

I once wrote a text on this cardboard village in which I pointed out how one of the most famous paintings - the "Shinjuku Left Eye" - was also connected to the Daruma-san motif. The painters had decided to paint it to supplement an existing art work, the "Shinjuku Eye" (a rather monumental glass eye located nearby that was made by Miyashita Yoshiko in the late 60's), thereby repeating the gesture of filling in a missing eye. The artists spoke about it as signifying the birth of a huge living creature, a monster living in the underground passages ready to howl its resentment and "turn its fangs against shit-Japan", symbolized by the Metropolitan Government skyscraper at the foot of which the passages ended.

Shinjuku's Left Eye
So here again the Daruma-san motif is connected, if not to a phallus, than to a kind of fertility idea and to the idea of a rectification of the world. Such symbolism was also present in artworks depicting Daruma-san in premodern Japan, where Daruma-san was for instance sometimes depicted as a namazu, a giant subterranean catfish through to cause earthquakes and used to symbolize the idea of yonaoshi, the rectification of the world, the punishment of the greedy and the redistribution of wealth (see Gregory Smits's site here or his "Shaking up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints", Journal of Social History 39:4, 2006). 

Daruma namazu, 1855 woodblock print
(courtesy Univeristy of Tokyo, via M. Schumacher)
Perhaps it's time to leave the phallic symbolism. The saying about just rising again if one happens to fall is one which I like and which I think may have some truth even outside the phallic context (however hard it might be for some to rise). Let me end by quoting one of my friends, who has a special talent for paraphrasing and détourning quotations. Once in a letter she wrote: "We are ridiculous! Disarm your enemies by laughing (AND THEN RISE!)". On another occasion she was feeling a bit blue and said: ”Even if you fall, don’t worry. Just stay in bed.”  Now there's some good advice which I will follow!

One step at the time

My foot, which underwent surgery four days ago, insists on constant attention like a child. Every movement I make is a trial. The fact that I must concentrate on every move involves me in an elaborate kind of dance, which I'm sure must look rather hilarious to my family. My body tells me that it needs to be this way or that. And no, the toes can't point that way. At the toilet, put your knee here. Breathe deeply if you need to. Now get down on all four. Point the leg skywards while you read the book!

It's a slow and awkward dance, but it still feels like a dance since the movements need to be right and since they absorb so much of my attention. Maybe it's like walking on thin ice. Maybe it's like climbing in a tree where I don't know if the branches will hold.

At the same time, no movement brings total relief. With every move, I grope towards a state that feels a tiny bit better, that's all. Like in a labyrinth, the exit from pain is nowhere in sight. I need to grope my way towards it. Sometimes it feels like there's a line which I cannot see, but which I can feel my way along.

Pain is my Ariadne's thread. It's what I want to get away from, but it's also my guide. It's the language of my nerves. It can come unexpectedly, in flashes. Sometimes it wells up like a wave. Usually it wants me to move, but sometimes it's just there, like a stone, an object demanding all my attention and refusing to go away.

When I talk about pain, I'm really talking about the movement of heart and mind. You guessed it, right? It's ki (or qi in Chinese), or part of ki to more precise. You all know it from Star Wars. It doesn't provide me with a map, but it can be quite stubborn about what my next move should be. It can be wrong, but usually, if I follow it, things become a little better. They lighten up somewhat. At least that's my experience so far. Here comes a generalization (somewhat on the cheap): Whenever you're stuck, do one thing at the time. One small step, and then another. It works for pain, for human relations and for too much work. Don't try to move the mountain. Go for the pebbles, and forget about the mountain. Think of how winter turns into spring. A little at the time!

Don't put the foot here! Point it in the other direction! Now, lower it to the floor! Let your toes touch the carpet! And listen to your stomach as well. It's time to get something to eat!

Labyrinth by Voitv

Sunday, 21 April 2013


Stuck now in my home with a heel fracture, I feel like I'm entering new territory. I'm awaiting operation now, pain is only moderate and I'm gradually learning how to go about doing daily tasks. My damaged foot has helped me get to know my body a bit better. As I wrote in a Facebook entry some time ago: "Dear body, I'm glad to see you again. It was a long time ago".

But this is not just about the body. Body and mind cannot be separated. If this feels like new territory, it's also because I'm rediscovering parts of my mind. I've long been used to thinking of my mind as possessing a certain geography, a landscape of emotions and cognitions that include some places that I almost never visit. To reach them I need to break with the routines of my daily life. Being home with a damaged foot is one way of achieving this.

During the first days after my accident, I sometimes ventured out on crutches into the living room, after my family had gone to sleep. I would feel like a ghost haunting the old places where it had once lived. During those days, I still felt a lot of pain, especially during the night. Lowering the foot to the floor would feel like sinking it into a bucket of pain. Still, strangely, I loved this pain, which so obviously was a sign that my body was still alive. I would also feel dreadfully stupid for the accident, which was all my own fault. In the midst of all this, I would feel and think, think and feel - a process which is typical of being alive in an emphatic sense, and which is contrary to the diluted life of everyday routine (a life when I think little and feel little).

It might be a trite commonplace by now, but one of the most stupid illusions produced by the routines of ordinary life is the illusion of self-sufficiency. Even though I know this, convalescence has helped me realize again how helpless I would be without others. Receiving the help of others is good, because it erodes pride.

One thought that struck me was that convalescence helps me prepare for the way I will probably die. I know little of dying, but what I know tells me that it is a process so full of pain and hardship that it seems absurdly unfair that most of us will have to undergo it when we are old and weak. Dying is a falling apart of the landscape of the mind, and the roads and cities of routine will be first to disappear. To be terminally ill is to live in a shrinking world. Gradually, the things that I have amassed during my life will lose importance. I will lose interest in books I once wanted to read. I will cease to care about things that once made me happy. I will still love people and I will wish them well. But the armies of pain and fatigue will advance every passing day. Every day will mean a further defeat, a discovery of a new incapacity, a further league added to the distance between me and the living.

I've seen people who have walked this road turn into almost angelic figures. Even as they grew weaker, they surprised me with their strength since they were able to preserve what was really important - kindness and, strangely, a clarity of vision surpassing that of us who, so full of sad confusion, had gathered around them - when everything else fell away.

I have no faith in life after death, but I do believe in a life beyond routine. Some places hidden among the hills are among the most precious and wonderful that I know of. Lush and sunny, they are places where a sweet wind is blowing, gently caressing my senses. Every time I find them, I feel that I have not lived in vain.

Where you are going, you can only enter empty-handed.
Whatever you find on the road, just leave it where it is.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Inherent Vice

I finished reading a great book yesterday. A book taking place in the late 60s. People have already started to sense that “the prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest”.

Near the end Doc is driving on the freeway. Caught in the night fog blowing in from the sea, he sees “one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except for hippies, do for free”. The car drivers form a convoy, “a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog”, one car settling in behind the taillights of the other as they drive on.

The book, if anyone's interested, is Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The ignorant schoolmaster

JosephJacotot.jpg Just a few words about Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Stanford University Press 1991). This book is a lot of things. Most immediately, it's the story of Joseph Jacotot, the teacher and educational philosopher who, while in exile in Brussels, discovered that students could learn perfectly well without any explanations from the teacher. Even the ignorant, he concluded, can teach. He called his method that of "intellectual emancipation".

It's also a story about the practice of equality. Not equality as a legal fiction, but about what happens the moment we really treat each other as equals. Equality, Rancière suggests, is real and a property of the people themselves, not a construction or semblance created through the public sphere of citizens.
We aren’t saying that the citizen is the ideal man, the inhabitant of an egalitarian political heaven that masks the reality of the inequality between concrete individuals. We are saying the opposite: that there is no equality except between men, that is to say, between individuals who regard each other only as reasonable beings. The citizen, on the contrary, the inhabitant of the political fiction, is man fallen into the land of inequality. (Rancière 1991:90) 
As Kristin Ross points out in her preface, the book is an attack on Althusser and Bourdieu, both scholars who personified the attitude of what Jacotot called the "old master", the master standing above the masses and pretending to possess superior knowledge. However, this passage shows that Rancière also attacks the idea of the public sphere as described by Habermas and Arendt. Both of the latter describe this as a sphere or realm where the semblance of equality is created among citizens through a systematic bracketing of real inequality.

This latter attack deserves a little more attention than I think it has been given (at least that's what I feel after a cursory look at the secondary literature). The attack is interesting, given that this public sphere, this realm of citizens, is surely what appears in Rancière's later writings as the "police", the order of the sensible.

In this book Rancière appears to adopt a position in regard to this realm that is close to Jacotot's, i.e. a kind of enlightened quietism which reminds me of Buddhism: ”the reasonable man [must] submit to the madness of being a citizen, while trying to safeguard his reason” (ibid. 91). Rather than rebelling against the dominant order, this "reasonable man" lives inside it while recognizing its madness and untruth. Emancipation, then, is purely intellectual, not a matter of actually challenging existing power relations. In later writings, Rancière instead tends to stress the need for this otherworldly reason to erupt into the fake order and shatter it. When what intellectuals speak about as the people or the masses raise their voices, "subjectivizing" themselves, they also upset the order that has been set up without asking them. Attacking that realm means that he, like Nancy Fraser, associates the realization of equality or truth with the eruption into this order of what is incompatible with it. But unlike her, he believes in no dialectical expansion of the order to make it more inclusive or egalitarian. The citizen is irremediably lost.

I must confess that while reading I scribbled down so many objections to Rancière's ideas that the margins have turned into quite a mess. Is the method really so egalitarian? Surely even an ignorant master is a master - isn't inequality rooted in the very institutional setting rather than in the teacher's pretense to possess knowledge? Is it really convincing to portray emancipation as a purely intellectual liberation? Do all explanations really have to be inegalitarian - how about dialogue and searching together?

But I agree with what I take to be the central thrust of Rancière's and Jacotot's method: that anyone can learn and that learning is possible without a teacher or master thought to possess superior knowledge. That’s how researchers learn. They learn by themselves or by talking to each other. I’ve always thought that all human beings are equally smart, provided that they are interested. Those who do bad in school are usually also those who are uninterested in the subjects (but they may be geniuses at car motors or true connaisseurs of football or fashion or whatever). The appearance of inequality stems from the fact that some are interested in things that are socially valued while others aren’t. I'm not sure Rancière provides much help when it comes to how these social values, and the power relations on which they rest, could be changed, but he does remind us that we can at least try to practice equality. Doing so is not just a matter of ethics, of showing proper respect. It's also a matter of not deluding ourselves, as we tend to do when we judge as the world does.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lit windows / Summer psychogeography

Today, confined to my bed, I discovered among my drafts this fragmentary text, which I think dates from early June last year. I don't know what prudishness prevented me from publishing it, so... here goes. Welcome to the blogosphere, old fragment!  

I spent a pleasant afternoon in the park today - a picnick with my wife and her class mates. An Italian guy who looked like Bob Dylan on the Desire album offered my five-year old son his kite to fly with, and my son learnt to fly the kite for the first time ever.

Summer evenings have always exerted a strong pull on me, even when they are as cold as today. Since becoming a father I haven’t allowed myself many of these evening walks (except during my stays in Japan, where circumstances are different). Going out for a restless stroll tonight I felt very clearly what is so special about these evenings – an atmosphere of slight, but socially accepted inebriation. Don't get me wrong: I was technically sober. This atmosphere is present not only where people hang out, but also and perhaps even more intensely and poignantly in the deserted cobble stone streets. There I discovered today, in an unexpected place, the strangest shop... a place that was both, it seemed, a parfumery and an antiquity shop. What made me stop was a lightly dressed porcelain lady in an old-fashioned hairstyle who was holding a guitarr. A Western Enoshima Benten? Peering through the window I discovered a landscape of the most glorious kitsch that made me think about Aragon and Benjamin, my beloved gods. Diving like Li-Po into the river to fetch the moon, my heart soared through the window and its labyrinthine streets. In the dusk ahead a tram turned its headlights around and starting racing towards me – looking like some steam punk machinery from Teikoku Shônen or perhaps the cat bus in My neighbor Totoro. Flying onwards, my feet stumbling through the air, I ended up in a maze of geometrical red brick houses, vaguely reminiscent of an expressionistic painting, from which from some reason I felt that Alice's Queen of Hearts might emerge any moment.

My head is as full of kitsch as that shop window. But who cares? The night is beautiful. I love cobble stones. And these dour black facades surrounding me, like towering adult strangers gathering around a poor kid who has lost his way... Looking at these shadows with their rows of stately windows - behind which people live! - that were gently showering me with soft light, perhaps some diluted version of Tinkerbell's fairy dust, I felt these windows were like kind eyes looking down at me. Totally lost, not in but outside thought, all I knew was that I love to feel myself walking. I love this air, I love to feel myself breathe.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Why reading Foucault-inspired research makes me long for dialectics

I've been interested for some time in the possibility of using the notions of governmentality and counter-conducts in the study of social movements. In the existing governmentality literature, I think it's a pity that so little attention has been given to protest and social movements.

The problem is that, while there's plenty to fetch in Foucualt's work for social movement scholars, there is also a tendency in much of his work and among his followers to belittle resistance. This tendency is admittendly weak and perhaps marginal to his work, but it is nevertheless (to be frank) annoyingly persistent.

Take the closing words of the first volume of the History of Sexuality. Speaking of the ruses and stratagems that have made us think and speak of sex as central and precious to us, he writes: “The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance” (Foucault 1990:159). What I find uncomfortable here is not at all the substance of his work on the basis of which he makes this statement. What makes me uncomfortable is its slight touch of nastiness, the malicious pleasure and perhaps sense of superiority I imagine it is supposed to produce in the reader.

Or take Carl Death's otherwise admirable article on how the notion of counter-conduct can be employed in resistance studies. Observing that summit protests produce subjectivities and identities, he draws the conclusion that the protests often fulfil an expressive function that serves to stabilize power. The “appearance of challenging power relation”, he writes, can “provide reassurance, a semblance of control and agency, and thereby re-legitimize established… forms of politics” (Death 2010:247). This conclusion may be correct, but surely it is also one-sided. Reading it, I again imagine hearing superior laughter, and again I feel uncomfortable.

How should I understand this tendency for Foucault-inspired research to gleefully restate how deluded protesters are? To begin with, let me spell out more clearly why I find this tendency troubling.

Firstly, this tendency seems to be utterly unecessary. It goes against the grain of what I take to be the main thrust of Foucault's writings, which stress the openness and unpredictability of the effects of power. Nothing says that the fact that power and resistance are mutually constitutive must necessarily mean that resistance always misses its target or that it is actually the victory of power in disguise.

I'm in sympathy with the attempts of Death and others to use Foucault’s ideas to develop an analytics of protest based on a governmentality perspective, in which freedom is not simplistically opposed to power but presupposed in governing. As Death points out, it's often preferrable in the analysis of protest to pay attention to how protest and government are mutually constitutive. Such a perspective captures the messiness of protest better than simple binary thinking. Sensibly, he also elsewhere claims not to be pessimistic about protest and states that he, like Foucault, instead tries to advocate an ethos of continual criticism. But ironical statements about how protests stabilize the establishment is not a way to escape the dichotomy of resistance and co-optation. Instead, they revive it by declaring the victory of co-optation. 

Secondly, the tendency to belittle resistance risks turning Foucauldian analysis into a straightjacket. Let me make a comparison with Hegel. Hegelian dialectics has long been criticized by so-called poststructuralists for the tendency to preclude escape from mediation, of being too watertight. Yet isn't Hegel actually sometimes more open to change and historical novelty than Foucault? Looking at the analyses in the Phenomenology one is immediately struck by Hegel's clear eye for how seemingly opposing forces can be mutually constitutive, the very fact that Foucault-inspired researchers like to stress so much. But unlike the latter, Hegel uses dialectics to show how established powers can be subverted by the very things they produce or “constitute”. The same, of course, goes for Marx: classes are mutually constituted, but the process of constitution itself undermines the system that constitutes them. The idea of mutual constitution is thus not new at all. It's old, and as Hegelian (or Marxist) dialectics show, it can be used in quite other ways than in Foucault.

The gesture which Hegel's critics like to criticize so much - that of gathering up opposing forces, of mercilessly running them through a dialectical round of "mutual constitution" before sending them onwards along a route foreordained by historical necessity - is of course foreign to the gist of Foucault's work. The latter nevertheless, unnecessarily, replicates this gesture in the repeted rhetorical relapses which he and his followers make into the ironic jargon of belittling resistance. 
Against this I think one needs to recall that, just as there is no law of necessary progress, there is also no law of necessary co-optation.

Against the "bad" Hegel and "bad" Foucault, I'd like to steer towards a synthesis of the "good" Hegel and the "good" Foucault. Does this sound surprising? But isn't there also a "good" Hegel - one whose dialectics isn't allergic to contingent imputs, to materiality or to a multiplicity of conflicts? I don't have the time to discuss him here. Let me just state that I think he is possible. As for the "good" Foucault, let me end by letting him speak for himself. The quote is from his discussion of whether it is right to revolt or not. He does not agree with those who say it is useless:

One does not dictate to those who risk their lives facing a power. Is it right to revolt, or not? Let us leave the question open. People revolt; that is a fact. And that is how subjectivity (not that of great men, but of anyone) is brought into history, breathing life into it. (Foucault 2000:452)


Death, Carl (2010) “Counter-conducts: A Foucauldian Analytics of Protest”, Social Movement Studies 9(3):235-251.

Foucault (1990) The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1 An Introduction (tr. of La volonté de savoir by Robert Hurley), London: Penguin Books.

Foucault (2000) “Useless to revolt?”, pp 449-453, in J D Faubion (ed) Essential Works of Foucault 1954 - 1984,Volume 3: Power, New York: New Press.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Lukes on Foucault, Scott and false consciousness

The first edition of Steven Lukes' by now classic treaty Power: A Radical View (originally published in 1974) became famous for its discussion of a "third" dimension of power - the power to influence desires and beliefs - which existed next to the power to prevail in decision making and agenda-setting power. The new edition, from 2005, contains the entire original text plus two new chapters.  

One of the interesting additions is the confrontation with Foucault in chapter two. It is a pity that Lukes engages primarily with one particular foucauldian position, the “ultraradical” view that there is no escaping power and that the subject itself is entirely constituted by power, a position that would undermine any notion of freedom or rationality. Rejecting this position is fine, but Lukes would have benefitted, I think, from also engaging with Foucault’s other explorations in power, where there is much that I don’t think can be adequately captured by Lukes' classification of three faces of power. The idea of governmentality, for instance, led Foucault to theorize about the rise of a special kind of power, which he refers to as bio-power but which is perhaps better described as a regulation of self-regulation. This is a kind of power which is exercised over agents, institutions or systems, such as the economy, that are recognized to possess a relative measure of autonomy or freedom from direct intervention by outside agents. Lukes mentions governmentality in passing in order to claim that with these ideas Foucault somehow fell back into recognizing an autonomous subject (thus retreating from his ultraradicalism), but that's hardly a fair account of Foucault. The autonomy of the subject or of the systems which Foucault talks about is relative, itself a product of power, or, to be more precise, of the recognition by power-holders that things like the economy can only be indirectly steered if they are to produce the desired effects. What never appears to strike Lukes is that such a form of power doesn’t fit neatly into his three-fold classification.

I wonder if this does not point to a serious omission in Lukes’ classification. Apart from the rather sketchy “conceptual map” he provides in chapter two, he is concerned mainly with how power can make people agree or consent to domination. What seems to be missing here is the recognition that one important way in which power can be exercised is by inducing people to act in accordance with the aims or interests of power regardless of their conscious thoughts. Such mechanisms could for instance operate through the indirect steering described by Foucault. It can also operate through social mechanisms such as the “sorting” of young working-class lads described by Paul Willis in Learning to Labour. As Willis showed, power completely failed to produce “consent” among the unruly lads, but ironically this very failure steered them into low-paid working-class jobs. To put this in Marxist terms, the lads successfully resisted the hegemony of bourgeois values, but their very resistance turned out to have an ideological function. The possible objection that such an indirect mechanism of power is not real power since it is not - or at least is not openly admitted to be - intended or condoned by the powerful should hardly trouble Lukes, since he himself argues that the “third” form of power is often exercised to produce consent in such unintended fashion.

Speaking of ideology, I liked Lukes' provocative but refreshing defense of notions like “real” interests” and “false consciousness” near the end of chapter three. Notwithstanding his criticism of Gramsci and Lukács, Lukes ends up defending the possibility of what is essentially a (weak version of) ideology criticism. This is interesting considering how generally discredited the old jargon of “false consciousness” has become. Lukes makes ideology criticism palatable by pointing out, firstly, that employing a notion of “real interests” does not have to presuppose any privileged access to truth. What counts as “real interests” simply depends on the researcher's choice of theoretical framework. In a materialist explanation, “real interests” will be material interests, and so on. Speaking of “real interests” thus becomes a relative thing, subject to the same - ultimately hypothetical - status as all scientific theorizing. Secondly, he concedes that the “third” form of power is never more than partically successful. To use a simile, it might inebriate but it doesn’t produce cultural dopes. These two lines of defense seem quite sensible to me and also seem to be in line with the best Marxist theorizing. I think for instance of how ideology is theorized by critical theorists like Adorno who argue that the ideological Schein or semblance can never be total. Ideology must contain traces of the whole, of the real contradictions from which it springs.

Finally, I found myself agreeing with Lukes in his criticism of James Scott. Scott’s rejection of the idea of false consciousness in Domination and the Arts of Resistance probably fits those societies or situations best where coercion is overt and “free spaces” nevertheless exist where the oppressed can share their thoughts. “In societies and situations where coercion is less overt or absent, and inequalities more opaque, the question of how to interpret quiescence is all the more acute” (Lukes 2005:131). Lukes refers to Gaventa’s classical study of powerlessness as a useful study exploring this issue, and in relation to my own research I think that the trauma of defeat for a social movement may be one way in which such quiescence can be produced. Collective traumas can have as one of their effects what might be termed a discursive defeat that brings about a shattering of the subaltern narratives and discourses that Scott calls hidden transcripts. Trauma, then, may be one mechanism through which Lukes' "third" form power is exercised.

So let me sum up my harvest: Foucault is still fruitful to study. Ideology criticism is possible. Power may be exercised by traumatization.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Confessions of a tram passenger

On my way home in the tram, I'm tired and read a few pages in De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Feeling, as I've often done lately, that I need to read article after article just to keep abreast with the research to which I will have to refer in my writing, it was a great and unsuspected relief to read about "Dr. Edward Peacocke, the great oriental scholar of England in the seventeenth century" or "the supreme trinity of Greek scholars that flourished between the English Revolution of 1688 and the beginning of the nineteenth century – which trinity I suppose to be, confessedly, Bentley, Valckenaer, and Porson". Wonderful names of people of which I have never heard. They're all forgotten now, just as all the people I refer to in my papers will be forgotten in a hundred years, and just as I will be myself. I am soothed the fact that we will all be forgotten one day, and the world will still go on without us. That's just the way it should be. 

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The structure of world history

Marxists have often been said to view the economy as the material ”base” governing the superstructure of culture and politics. Instead of that, imagine history as an interweaving of four different strands of equally fundamental logics. Then imagine a book that attempts to sketch world-history in its entirety based on this idea. That, more or less, is what Karatani Kôjin attempts to do in Sekaishi no kôzô (The structure of world history, 2010).

Sekaishi no kôzô is an ambitious work, comparable in its grand scope to such philosophically informed attempts to grasp world history as Hegel’s Phenomenology or, more recently, David Graeber’s Debt. In many sections Karatani enters anthropological territory, familiar to readers of Graeber, Pierre Clastres, Marshall Sahlins or James Scott. Karatani’s book could well be read along the work of such anarchist or anarchist-leaning anthropologists, as a work that brings them into dialogue with Marxist historiography and world-systems analysis.

What are the four logics? According to Karatani, state, economy and nation have their own specific modes of exchange, none of which is more basic or “material” than the others. The first of the four types is the reciprocal exchange of gifts, the second is the coercive appropriation coupled with redistribution which is typical of states, the third is the exchange of commodities on the market; and the forth is associationism, a free mutual exchange that represents a resurrection on a higher, less locally bound plane of the first type of gift-exchange. The forth type has been foreshadowed in religion, millenarian movements and Utopian imagination, but never yet been dominant in any historical society.

In what follows, I will concentrate on two discussions that I found especially interesting: firstly, the relation between gift-economies and the emergence of states, and, secondly, Karatani’s use of Wittfogel’s notions of core, margin and submargin. Along the way, I will also try to trace Karatani’s (sometimes submerged) dialogue with writers like Clastres, Sahlins, Amino Yoshihiko, Wittfogel or Wallerstein.

Gift economies

As Karatani points out, Marcel Mauss never clearly distinguishes mutual gift exchange from the communism of bands of hunter-gatherers or families where everything is simply shared without regard for reciprocity (Karatani 2010:52). That, however, is a crucial distinction. Gift-economies proper are regulated by a principle of reciprocity, and are neither “primitive” nor the most original form of economy. They develop at a certain stage, when communities start to engage in systematic exchanges or intercourse with other communities.
Pierre Clastres
The first important step in this process was the development of permanent settlements. Contrary to what is posited in the idea of the “Neolithic revolution”, Karatani argues that settlement had nothing to do with agriculture. The first settlers were not farmers but fishermen, and the first settlements were along rivers or close to river-mouths - a pattern that could be seen, for instance, among North American Indians or the Ainu of Hokkaido (ibid. 64). Incidentally, this claim is also supported by Lewis Mumford, who describes the first human permanent settlements as "based on the use of shellfish and fish" (Mumford 1961:10).

I find it easy to hear echoes of Clastres in the criticism of the idea of the “Neolithic Revolution”. As Clastres points out, settlement can occur among hunters who do not practice agriculture and settled populations can abandon agriculture (Clastres 1987:201f). This argument is part of the famous Clastrean claim that most so-called primitive people are not primitive at all, since they have opted out of agriculture, usually in a conscious choice to avoid a development towards centralized power or statehood.
Hence, it is the Political break… that is decisive, and not the economic transformation. The true revolution in man’s protohistory is not the Neolithic (…); it is the political revolution, that mysterical emergence – irreversible, fatal to primitive societies – of the thing we know by the name of the State. (Clastres 1987:202)
Like Clastres, Karatani is concerned to explain the emergence of the State, and like Clastres he stresses that settlement as such is not the origin of the state. Settlement does, however, promote inequality, a serious problem which communities tried to counter-act through the emergence of gift-economies of the type analyzed by Mauss, a peculiar effect of which was to prevent the concentration of wealth. That gift-economies had an economically leveling effect was obvious in the case of ritual competitive gift exchanges like the potlatch, which encouraged chiefs to squander their wealth. As many anthropologists have pointed out, chiefs in these non-state societies are often forced to practice an obligatory generosity which often leaves them in striking poverty – often poorer than other villagers (Clastres 1987:206; Lévi-Strauss 1968; Sahlins 2004:131-136; White 1991:37f, 494ff). Gift-economies thus tended to produce relatively egalitarian clan-societies without any strong central authority or power. Chiefs were seldom more than primus inter pares in the collectivity of elders who jointly made all important decisions. As Clastres writes, “the tribal chief does not prefigure the chief of State” since he was unable to command (Clastres 1987:206). Seizing on this point, Karatani emphasizes that gift exchanges and clan society were not stations on the road to the state, but rather ways to avoid the state (Karatani 2010:70, 80).

Here is the place for my first objection. I am not wholly convinced by Karatani’s and Clastres’ (1987:11, 28) claim that these non-state societies or associations have a built-in barrier to the formation of states or stable hierarchies. Gift-economies may well serve to prevent the accumulation of wealth, but they do not prevent the accumulation of prestige and power. Prestige and honor are what the potlatches are about. Nor is the obligatory generosity of chiefs necessarily a guarantee for their powerlessness. As Georges Duby has pointed out, the same obligatory generosity applied to the early Frankish kings, who had to be generous and pass on their wealth as soon as it arrived in their hands, but who can hardly be described as powerless. “As for these kings, their prestige was a reflection of their liberality; they would plunder with seemingly insatiable greed only to give more generously” (Duby 1974: 51f). As John Keay (2000:219) points out, the same held true of the Chola kings of the early 11th century. The very ability to pass on wealth was, in fact, a precondition of exercising power for these kings, not something that prevented it.

Furthermore, as Graeber points out, gift-economies can produce hierarchies since the inability of one part to repay his or her “debt” makes reciprocity impossible. What starts out as an exchange between equals can thus turn into a relationship in which one part assumes the role of a “client”, “follower” or “dependent”. To talk of a barrier against hierarchies or state-formation in associations clearly runs the risk of idealization.

The mysterious emergence of the State

So how about the emergence of the state then? Why does a mode of exchange based on equality and “reciprocity” become replaced by one based on hierarchy and “appropriation-redistribution”?

Let me start by returning to Clastres’ discucssion of this near the end of his Society against the State, which is remarkably confused – the idea of a barrier to state formation in non-state societies is practically dropped, and the possibility of endogeneous tendencies to state formation admitted. In the final chapter, he discusses three possible triggers of state-formation: war, demography, and religious prophets. Firstly, warfare would bring about an exception to the situation of the normally powerless chief. Sometimes chiefs tried to bolster their prestige and power by continually organizing martial expeditions. “But it never works” (Clastres 1987:209). Clastres illustrates by the Yanomami war leader Fousiwe and by the famous Apache chief Geronimo, who were both deserted by their men. “The Apaches who, owing to the circumstances, accepted Geronimo’s leadership because of his fighting skill, would regularly turn their backs on him whenever he wanted to wage his personal war” (ibid. 211f). Similar things happened to other famous chiefs, like Pontiac (see White 1991).
Tupi-Guarani (ill. Theodor De Bry)
Secondly, Clastres discusses the possibility that demographic growth can set off a process towards state-creation. He admits that such a tendency could be observed among the Tupi-Guarani, but he argues that such tendencies are always checked when society “awakens to its own nature as primitive society”. The Tupi-Guarani shows that this awakening happens through religious fervor and prophetic speech. Against the chiefs prophets would arise, warning about the evil of the state (Clastres 1987:214f).

Finally, however, on the very last page of the book, Clastres suggests that this prophetic speech itself may be the seed of the state. In the discourse of the prophets, “the exalted features of the mover of men, the one who tells them of their desire, the silent figure of the Despot may be hiding” (ibid. 218). Clastres thus seems to admit that, given population increase, tendencies towards state-formation are likely to emerge, whether these processes will be completed by warrior-kings or by prophets. After all, then, he seems to admit that there is no reliable barrier to state-formation in these non-state societies. This is a rather bewildering and disconcerting end to Clastres’ book, the ostensible aim of which is demonstrate that there is no necessity, no historical law, behind the development of the state. One of his main arguments is that there are examples of whole populations that have opted out of this development, thus showing that non-state societies are a real possibility, a real historical choice that was once open, and not just a sign of their “primitive” level of development. Despite this overall thrust of his book, on the last page his conclusion appears to be that, with time and population increase, non-state societies will move towards state-formation.

Karatani’s take on the question of the origin of states is different from Clastres. This origin too – just like the origin of settlement – is dissociated from agriculture and the idea of a “Neolithic revolution”. The earliest states, he argues, were cities, and cities arose before agriculture. As mentioned, the first cities emerged along the rivers or near river-mouths. That was not because such places were suitable for agriculture, but because of fishing and because rivers were good for communication and exchange. Only afterwards did the populations of these early settlements start raising cattle and cultivating the earth (Karatani 2010:87-95). Far from the cities or the state originating in agriculture, then, agriculture originated in the cities or the state. Following Jane Jacobs, Karatani argues that agriculture did not originate spontaneously from hunting bands who settled down. Instead, it required access to the information, irrigation technologies, materials and not least man-power. All these resources were concentrated in the “proto-cities” of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley or China, where the river civilizations later sprung up. Only there had structures of power developed that were capable of mobilizing and coordinating labor in the manner necessary for what Wittfogel termed “hydraulic civilization”.

This is an interesting and provocative argument. However, we can see that Karatani sees cities and states as being born from the same fishing communities which he previously linked to clan-society and gift-economies. The development of a state was what he claimed that these gift-economies and clan-structures were designed to prevent. Why did this attempt to stop the centralization of power and wealth fail? Does Karatani ever really explain why the early settlements by-passed the “barrier” to state-formation and developed into city states? In fact, he does briefly return later in the book to the question of the origin of the state, pointing out that the development of the state cannot be understood as arising only from internal causes within the community. Within the community, gift and redistribution are sufficient to prevent the rise of the state. The state, however, originates in the “exterior” of the community – namely in the conquest of one community by another (Karatani 2010:103). So despite his seeming affinity to Clastres, Karatani in the end rejects the Clastrean suggestion that “prophetic speech” is the seed of state power. Instead, he opts for the hypothesis that Clastres discarded, namely that states are the fruit of war. The state’s origin, then, is when a structure comes into being in which people are treated as a subjugated, colonial population. When one community is subordinated to another, the principle of reciprocal exchange breaks down and that of coercive appropriation-redistribution takes over.

The Asiatic mode of production and the rise of capitalism

Another attractive idea presented in the book is that of core, margin and sub-margin, which Karatani derives from Wittvogel in connection with a discussion of the latter’s notion of the “hydraulic” empires of the Orient (Karatani 2010:160). Karatani identifies these empires with what Wallerstein called “world empires”: polities where one community dominates other communities. Following Wittfogel, he sees the dominant “cores” of these empires as surrounded by subservient “margins” that are politically dependent and culturally dominated by the core. Further away are the “sub-margins” that retain their political independence and their own social structures – usually because they are militarily out of reach of the empires, being protected by seas, steppes or mountains – but which are nevertheless sufficiently close to adopt selected features of the empires’ superior civilization, such as literacy, religion, and technology. Japan, of course, is a good example of a sub-margin in relation to China.

Like Wittfogel, Karatani also links these empires to what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production. One of the most interesting moves that Karatani makes is that he resurrects this old Marxist notion and shows its usefulness in understanding historical dynamics and even solving some of the classical problems which Marxist historiography has been wrestling with, such as the “transition from feudalism to capitalism”. To do this, however, he first delinks the Asiatic mode of production from any specific geographic area. Secondly, he breaks it out of its place in the succession of “stages” in the Marxian theory, where it has usually been rather awkwardly inserted as subsequent to “primitive communism” but temporally prior to the slave-economies of the classical antique, feudalism, and capitalism. Instead of seeing these stages as temporally ordered, Karatani argues that they are better understood as designating spatial positions in relation to world-empires (ibid. 184).

Thus the Greek city states, for instance, existed in the “submargin” of the great world-empires of the Middle East, maintaining their political independence but taking part in the cultural fruits of the latter. That democracy developed in Greece was not because it was more civilized or advanced than the empires, but because political independence had helped preserve the legacy of the old clan-society (ibid. 34, 37f, 167-175). Later, European feudalism developed in the barbarous “sub-marginal” areas of the Roman and Islamic world-empires (ibid. 38, 179-187).

The historical irony here is that the political fragmentation of the feudal society favored the growth of capitalist markets. Backward as they may have seemed, they gave rise to the aggressive modern capitalist states which, during the age of imperialism, overpowered the old empires. The development of democracy too was helped by the lingering legacy of the Germanic clan society. From the hindsight of this attained “modernity”, feudalism was retrospectively revalued as more advanced than the Asiatic empires because of the failure of the latter to develop capitalism.

A similar pattern could be observed in relation to the big East Asian core empire, China, which was the source of learning disseminated to its barbarian peripheries. While neighboring countries like Korea were absorbed into dependency, sub-marginal countries like Japan remained independent but were still close enough to siphon off the fruits of civilization, such as written language, learning, technology and weaponry. In Japan as in Europe, feudalism developed; the old clan society remained strong and no centralized imperial bureaucracy struck root (ibid. 38f, 160f, 165). Again like in Europe, there were free towns and markets that were relatively unregulated by central bureaucracies. Needless to say, Japan was again very much like Europe in quickly making the transition to modern capitalism and embarking on a spree of imperialist conquest.

Karatani’s deployment of the notions of core and sub-margin helps him shed new light on the old debate between Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy and others on the “transition from feudalism to capitalism”. What Karatani succeeds in showing is that an answer to the question why capitalism developed in Europe can only be found if one looks deeper than merely whether the decisive factors were endogenous to the various European societies, as Dobb thought when he pointed to the class struggles of the late Middle Ages, or exogenous, as Sweezy argued when he pointed to the influx of capital through the Mediterranean trade. Karatani points out that both are partly right since the internal and external background factors form two sides of the same coin, namely Europe’s submarginal status. The traits that had marked Europe as backward in comparison to Rome and Islam – its political fragmentation, strong legacy of the old clan-society and lack of a centralized imperial bureaucracy – were also what fostered both the feudal power structure and its attendant class struggles stressed by Dobb and the free towns and trade Sweezy pointed to (ibid. 238ff).

This solution, I believe, represents a definite advance on the clumsy terminological habit, common among (“vulgar”) Marxists, of referring to almost all premodern societies as feudal. I recall how impressed I was once, in the summer of 2005, when I attended a seminar with Karatani and he used these ideas to diagnose Kamakura Japan – in a manner that reminded me much of Amino Yoshihiko – as split between a Western part with strong elements of the Asiatic mode of production (the relatively strong imperial court, the jinin and the horizontal village communities), and a the Eastern part, which was more obviously feudal and dominated by warriors lording it over the peasant population. 

There is, however, one weakness with his theory of the development of market and capitalism. Karatani often suggests that it sprung up where there was no “world-empire”, e.g. feudal Europe or Japan. But the suggestion that trade couldn’t flourish in the “Asian” empires is wrong. In Islam, merchants were as free as in Europe. China had a flourishing market economy and the emperors often stimulated overseas trade as well as trade along the Inner Asian trade routes. In regard to Japan, Amino Yoshihiko argues that trade and capitalism developed earlier in the western “imperial” part of Japan than in the “feudal” eastern part. As for bureaucratic intervention, Karatani himself points out in his other writings that empires have normally interfered little in the economic arrangements of their subject populations. There is therefore no obvious reason why a plurality of independent states, as in feudal Europe, would be more conducive to capitalism than far-flung empires. This is an ambiguity found also in Wallerstein, who similarly explains the emergence of capitalism in Europe by referring to the absence of any “world-empire” that could interfere forcefully with capital accumulation. Behind these explanations, one senses that Wallerstein and Karatani may have been a little too quick in accepting the crude neoclassical doxa that markets thrive best without the state. Today very few economists would deny that states often play a crucial role in creating and sustaining the “free” market economy and that states often intervene unabashedly to promote their own national economies. Going back to the origins of Western capitalism, it is obvious that it developed thanks to the states and their guns.

One mystery or riddle that remains to be solved, then, is why capitalism developed in backward “feudal” sub-margins. Why didn’t it develop in the empires, with their incomparably greater resources? If war was crucial, not only for the emergence of states but also for the emergence of capitalism, why were the old “world-empires” incapable of using their military might to back capitalism? Part of the answer, as Graeber points out, may be that the empires were simply unwilling to let anything so patently absurd and immoral as capitalism loose. Making a distinction here between market economies and capitalism – as Braudel does – is probably necessary. Near the end of the second volume of his Civilization and Capitalism he writes that many regions in the world – China, Islam, Japan – had indeed developed flourishing market economies. Europe alone, however, developed capitalism, thanks to its world-wide trade network, which in turn rested on its guns. Only in Europe, with its competitive state-system, were states forced to resort systematically to capitalism in order to bolster their war-making capacity. Braudel’s account is of course not celebratory – to him the market is the bright and relatively transparent realm of the economy where transactions take place within a set of shared rules, while capitalism is the realm of great profits and quasi-monopolies, where “the great predators roam” and make the rules (Braudel 1992:229f).

It's time to end. Karatani’s book contains much more that I won’t enter into since it has already been treated in previous books. Near the end he discusses the coming end of capitalism and the need for a Kantian world-republic. In a vertiginous ending, he concludes on a note of what might be black humor, or perhaps a genuine mixture of despair and desperate hope, that unless a world-republic is established there will almost certainly be a world war. Such a catastrophe, however, would only strengthen the movement towards a world-republic, so “there is no reason for pessimism” (Karatani 2010 464f).


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Graeber, David (2011) Debt: The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn, New York: Melville House.

Karatani, Kôjin (2010) Sekaishi no kôzô (The structure of world history), Tokyo: Iwanami.

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