Capitalism – crisis and critique (defunct)

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The normative basis of critical theory

June 21st, 2010 · general

What values are the basis of critical theory’s a) negative critique of the (capitalist) status quo and b) whatever else it proposes as the ideal society to be achieved?

My starting points for a discussion of normativity:

1. There is no god so any normative position based on a religion is non-starter, for me at least.

2. The universe has no meaning or purpose other than that constructed by human beings who, through the evolution and development of consciousness is ‘nature becoming conscious of itself’ in the words of Marx.

3. Any normative discourse is a human creation/social construction.

4. There is no transcendental normative position that exists or can be grounded in any supposed pre-human or pre-social nature. Nature is both red in tooth and claw no doubt but it also provides many examples of symbiotic and apparently ‘altruistic’ behaviours. Ecological systems can have aspects construed and socially constructed under either heading. Neither is more real or authentic than the other ofrany possible interpretation and construction in between.

5. Democracy, equality, freedom, justice or any other normative term has no independent ontological reference or grounding.

6. All such terms, to the extent they have the empirical correlates, are partial. All freedom is within constraints. All democracy has asymmetries of power and influence. All equalities are formal and constructed.

7. All normative positions are matters of convention, negotiation, and in some way or another human made, elaborated and implemented.

8. This is an uncomfortable position in the sense that it asserts a radical normative relativism but is is encouraging as it does not hide from confronting the necessity for a political and social process to establish the normative basis of society.

9. Freedom equality and democracy, if agreed upon, are therefore achievable though action.

So critical theory’s normative basis is grounded in a Marxist analysis of capitalism and notions of equality, freedom and democracy. Can critical theory operate on the basis of the Marxist account of capitalism without also taking on its normative basis? Are the two inseparable anyway? Is an objective account of how capitalism works compatible with a variety of different normative bases?

If capitalism is criticised in terms of the distorted democratic systems, and the inequalities and unfreedoms it produces, then presumably the distortions are at least implicitly measured against ideal forms of democracy, equality and freedom. It is these specifications of the ideal that are the normative base. These, it could be argued, are transcendental. But do they have to be? For instance, as Sen points out, we do not need a philosopher’s specification of ideal equality to know that, in some places and at some times, some women are more equal than their mothers and grandmothers, or that the condition of some black Americans are in some important aspects more equal and free than their slave ancestors? Or am I wrong about this? Surely a critical theory can be built on this approach to looking at changes in freedom and equality? But if this is the case, then the normative discourse could be built on other approaches to critical theories not based on Marxism perhaps.

Sen? Norbert Elias? Who else?

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History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays

June 1st, 2010 · general

Published by the University of Tokyo Centre for Philosphy

Table of Contents, Copyright
Preface: Yasuo Kobayashi : Download

Reconfiguring Historical Time: Moishe Postone’s Interpretation of Marx
Viren Murthy : Download

1. Rethinking Marx’s Critical Theory
Moishe Postone : Download

2. Critical Theory and the Twentieth Century
Moishe Postone : Download

3. The Subject and Social Theory: Marx and Lukács on Hegel
Moishe Postone : Download

4. Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brennet, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey
Moishe Postone : Download

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The Laws of Motion of the Capitalist Mode of Production

May 24th, 2010 · economics

If Marx’s theory of surplus-value is his most revolutionary contribution to economic science, his discovery of the basic long-term ‘laws of motion’ (development trends) of the capitalist mode of production constitutes undoubtedly his most impressive scientific achievement.

No other 19th-century author has been able to foresee in such a coherent way how capitalism would function, would develop and would transform the world, as did Karl Marx. Many of the most distinguished contemporary economists, starting with Wassily Leontief (1938), and Joseph Schumpeter (1942) have recognised this.

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Feast and famine

May 13th, 2010 · general

As the world is hit by a food crisis, the markets see nothing immoral in skimming off a profit

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The realism of the abstact – an encounter with Sekula

May 1st, 2010 · general

Today I went to a viewing of Allan Sekula’s 2006 film Lottery of the Sea followed by a symposium to layout and discuss the main themes of the film. The event was entitled Critical Realism and was hosted by CentreCATH at Leeds – A Transdisciplinary Initiative in Cultural Analysis, Theory and History. The film was 3 hours long and after a late lunch break I was only able to stay for the first three talks, all very interesting. Given the title of the session was critical realism it was not surprising that the content of the film was discussed in terms of a critique of global capitalism. This in any case was Sekula’s own purpose. Much of the discussion was, to my ears at any rate, a stimulating but unfamiliar mixture of the language of Marxist analysis of capitalism with that of aesthetics and photography and film as art.

A key topic of debate was how to interpret photographic images from a critical realist perspective. We no longer assume that a photograph is an objective and neutral record of what simply ‘is’. We are aware of how the photographer’s point of view and selection of subject constructs a photo before the process of cropping and post production manipulation. And, in any case, as one of our speakers said, “pictures know more than their authors”. The content of a picture is not bent entirely to the photographer’s will or subconscious framing. It is a representation of a reality that is initially autonomous with respect to the representation’s author. In documentary photography the reality pre-exists the photographer’s interest and intent and was already there to be found. Critical realism is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens. From a critical realist perspective the underlying processes and mechanisms are fundamentally those of the workings and logic of the globalising capitalist economy. It is this that prompts the (re)turn to Marx.

Marxist ideas also talk about hidden processes that need to be excavated so that what is apparent and visible can be understood as the product of the underlying processes. This structure of argument is explicit in Marx’s notions of reification, ideology, abstract labour and so on. The implication is that the photographic image can be unpacked in terms of the labour relations under the conditions of global capitalism that constructed the surface reality depicted in the image. The underlying process is what Marx tries to get at with his concepts of the labour process, use value, exchange value, surplus value, commodification, the ‘dead’ labour embedded in commodities, commodities as ‘abstract reality’ –  abstract ‘reality’ because it is the product of social relations.

to be continued ……………..

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Sen and sociology

April 3rd, 2010 · general, Sen

There is obviously a lot of sociology in the background to Sen’s thought, sometimes quite explicit. This post just notes a number of issues that require sociological clarification so far. The reading of Sen undertaken here will be a sociological critique of Sen’s sociology.

He refers with approval the ‘anthropological’ turn in the later Wittgenstein and ‘ordinary language philosophy’ and links this to Gramsci (via Sraffa). From Gramsci he takes the idea that our language constructs our concerns, meanings and understandings. One always belongs to a particular grouping that shares the same mode of thinking and acting. We are all conformists of some conformism or other, of the group.

Sen insists on a notion of veracity and objectivity but grounded in public  standards of communication and discourse, mentioning Habermas.  He points to the need for ‘countervailing’ power in the public discussion against overly powerful sectional interests and the crucial necessity of impartiality.

In the pursuit of impartiality and objectivity he invokes Adam Smith’s idea of the ‘impartial spectator’. These can be ‘real’ outsiders or hypothetically constructed outsiders on the basis of a will to self-distancing. It will be interesting to see how this compares with Norbert Elia’s account of personal and community detachment as characterises scientists and the scientific community.

But Smith’s and Sen’s impartial observer can only be superficially impartial to the group and issues viewed as an outsider. The observer’s own way of understanding the world (familiar and alien) that is not impartial with respect to its own ‘habitus’ and will tend to translate the strange culture into its own concepts and frameworks of meaning. Also, as a reflexive exercise imagining a detached (preconcpetionless?) observer, we would understand the outsider’s apparent view in our own language and meaning frameworks. If we have access to ‘real’ impartial observers then we would likewise assimilate their account to our own language, etc.

We would need to see how Sen’s ideas and formulations stack up against or alongside reasonably established sociological ideas like, for instance, identity formation and ideological construction, the embeddedness of behaviours and attitudes in networks of social practices, the well rehearsed and established critique of methodological individualism and voluntarism, the operations and structures of power, dependency, dependency, and so on.

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Reading Amartya Sen (2)

April 2nd, 2010 · Sen

I have just recieved a copy of Sen’s The Idea of Justice. Despite the fact that the term ‘capitalism’ does not appear in the subject index, the subject matter is of great relevance to an investigation of capitalism, and particularly a normatively based critique of capitalism. This is evidently what Sen has in mind, to some extent at least. In the introduction he cites the work of Marx (as an example of a ‘realization-focussed comparative’ economist as opposed to the ‘transcendental institutionalists Sen finds so dangerously unhelpful) with approval. Further, in the his previous article he refers to in the first chapter (Sraffa, Wittgenstein and Gramsci) he speaks with approval of the influence Gramsci had on the latter Witgenstein via Sraffa). In the same article he identifies the differing normative relevances of depicting profit as the just reward of capital, as a factor of production, or as surplus value extracted from labour. However, Sen goes on to say that he doesn’t find it necessary to be sceptical about unrestrained capitalism on such technical and theoretical grounds  “rather than on the mean streets and strained lives that capitalism can generate, unless it is restrained and supplemented by other – often non-market – institutions”. p1247 Journal of Economic Literature Vol XLI December 2003). Obvious and remediable injustice on the ground and its causes are what concerns Sen.

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The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits

March 30th, 2010 · economics

The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits (full article) by Milton Friedman.  Also at

[But contrast the historical origin of keizai or “economy” in Japanese – Keizai comes from keisei zaimin, or “administering society and deliverance of people” in 18th century Osaka. Also Sen shows Friedman’s view is not that of Adam Smith].

The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970. Copyright @ 1970 by The New York Times Company.

When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the “social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,” I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free en­terprise when they declaim that business is not concerned “merely” with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing em­ployment, eliminating discrimination, avoid­ing pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of re­formers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism. Busi­nessmen who talk this way are unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.

The discussions of the “social responsibili­ties of business” are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor. What does it mean to say that “business” has responsibilities? Only people can have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but “business” as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense. The first step toward clarity in examining the doctrine of the social responsibility of business is to ask precisely what it implies for whom.

Presumably, the individuals who are to be responsible are businessmen, which means in­dividual proprietors or corporate executives. Most of the discussion of social responsibility is directed at corporations, so in what follows I shall mostly neglect the individual proprietors and speak of corporate executives.

In a free-enterprise, private-property sys­tem, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct re­sponsibility to his employers. That responsi­bility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. Of course, in some cases his employers may have a different objective. A group of persons might establish a corporation for an eleemosynary purpose–for exam­ple, a hospital or a school. The manager of such a corporation will not have money profit as his objective but the rendering of certain services.

In either case, the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them.

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Basic statements about capitalism

March 29th, 2010 · general

This won’t be very systematic but Iwill be keeping notes on this blog on the basic ideas and statements about capitalism.  I have started reading Economics and the Crisis of Ecology by Narindar Singh (3rd edition 1989 OUP). For him the real villain of the piece are the petrochemical and associated industries.  The initial argument of the book is that no proposed solution to the forthcoming environmental crisis has a hope in hell of working if it tries to do so within (and thus preserve) the capitalist status quo. He goes through a range of strategies including zero growth, the marketising of externalities, population control, and technological fixes, including nuclear power, and demostrates how none of these can possibly work leaving capitalism in place as the fundamental and defining characteristic of capitalism is its need for continuous growth.

According to Marx, the capitalist “shares with the miser the passion for wealth as wealth. But that which in the miser is mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist, the effect of the social mechanism, of which he is but one of the wheels”.  Capital Vol I Allen &Unwin 1957 p 603.

Look up Schumpeter’s ideas on capitalism as creative destruction.

Treadmill of production: “In 1980, Schnaiberg developed a conflict theory on human-environment interaction. The theory is that capitalism is driven by higher profitability and thereby must continue to grow and attract investments to survive in a competitive market. This identifies the imperative for continued economic growth levels that, once achieved, accelerate the need for future growth. This growth in production requires a corresponding growth in consumption. The process contains a chief paradox; economic growth is socially desired but environmental degradation is a common consequence that in turn disrupts long-run economic expansion”. Taken from

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Reading Amartya Sen (1)

March 27th, 2010 · economics, Sen

Sen seems to be popping up everywhere these days. He was mentioned by a couple of speakers at the recent Roundhouse Critical Theory conference and his latest book The Idea of Justice will be the discussion topic at the BSA Theory study group at the forthcoming BSA conference in April. So I had a quick look at his 1987 book On Ethics and Economics.  This is a detailed critique of the narrow impoverishment of modern economics focused as it is on producing logistic and predictive models of markets based upon the notion of a purely self interested rational actor. “… there is nevertheless something quite extraordinary in the fact that economics has in fact evolved in this way, characterizing human motivation in such spectacularly narrow terms”.  Sen claims in its origins modern economics had both a practical ‘engineering’  aspect and  one concerned with human behaviour in the round and ethical considerations of what a good life should be. Both these aspects are fully present in Adam Smith for instance, but modern economics has expunged the ethical, normative aspects to produce a distorted orthodox “Smithian” view. To the extent Smith was at all sociological, this has been erased.

While looking for information about Sen on the web I coincidently found a blog entitled Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (by-line “In 2009, we again saw why Adam Smith’s invisible hand often appeared invisible: it is not there.” Professor Joseph Stiglitz, 31 December 2009. The blog post I found was Amartya Sen’s Two Brilliant Essays on the Relevance of Adam Smith Today. I shall be looking at these soon. Thanks to Gavin Kennedy for bringing my attention to these, albeit via the beneficence of Google.

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