Friday, May 15, 2009

Markets and the State

The latest issue of New Left Review is really worth checking out. It has Zizek on Left strategy (on which Lenin has a good commentary), Wallerstein with reflections on Fanon, a really interesting looking article about imperialism and art history in China, and a good piece from Leo Panitch about the roots of the crisis. Here's an extended quote from the latter.

Financialization functioned in a number of different ways to drive forward the American-imperial expansionism of the 1990s and early 2000s. The development of securitized markets and the internationalization of American finance provided risk-insurance in a complex global economy, without which accumulation would have been significantly restricted. In addition, the global predominance of us financial institutions helped to mobilize cheap international credit for the American economy and so sustained its role as the world’s prime consumer, even as us capital flowed out in the form of fdi and military expenditures. The dollar served as the key store of value and medium of exchange, while us Treasury bonds became the standard for the calculation of value in the world economy at large. As we shall see, financialization also played a vital domestic role, both by integrating subordinate classes into a web of financial relations through private pensions, consumer credit and mortgages, and through facilitating consumer demand in an era of stagnating wages and limitations on the welfare state.

But for all the functionality of financialization for imperial power, it also brought new contradictions. While asset inflation was considerably more in line with the purposes of American capital than the consumer-price inflation of the previous decades, it was also a deeply uneven process that was responsible for enormous volatility. The emergence and bursting of financial bubbles became a common feature of the system, and successful state interventions to contain them reinforced the notion that future bubbles could be managed. Washington’s highly pro-active role in containing domestic and international financial crises from the 1980s on was perhaps the most concrete demonstration that the alleged withdrawal of states from markets was an ideological illusion. If neoliberal policies engendered a great deal of financial activity, the effect of this was not to subordinate state capacities to market forces but rather to make political interventions all the more necessary—not least in fighting fires sparked by financial volatility—as well as more feasible. Financialization enlarged the American state’s role both directly and multilaterally, even as it extended the strategic leeway available to capital. The result was the step-by-step construction of a too-big-to-fail regime, whereby intermediaries that were so large and interconnected that their failure would bring down a significant part of the system could count on the us state, and especially the Treasury, to come to the rescue.

The repeated economic interventions of the American state, while driven by the exigencies of the moment, were never as incidental or exceptional as they were often portrayed. On the contrary, they were part and parcel of the distinctive policy practices of the neoliberal era. Both the Fed and the Treasury, faced with constant financial volatility and intermittent crises, developed a range of institutional capacities to cope with this. But such institutional capacities should not be seen as standing above the financial world that they regulated; rather, they were embroiled in its contradictions. The increasingly enhanced role of the state, including the discriminatory practice of showering liquidity on crisis-hit banks in the North while imposing discipline and austerity in the global South, built up ‘moral hazard’ even as it generated financial innovation and expansion. Although too-big-to-fail policies are often portrayed as a last resort, indicative of neoliberalism’s essential lack of coherence, instances when the us government led the way by stepping in to contain financial crises were hardly exceptions to the rule. In that sense, the massive interventions by the Bush and Obama Administrations in the course of the current crisis are merely the culmination of the long series of interventions that marked the neoliberal era.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Single Payer in the Senate

I love the look on the faces of congresspeople when they are forced to sit there and listen to protesters denounce them.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pirates and Emperors

Friday, April 24, 2009

Come to Socialism 2009: A New Left for a New Era

Socialism 2009; A Weekend of Revolutionary Politics, Debate, and Entertainment from RedReel on Vimeo.

Building a New Left for a New Era
Socialism 2009
Revolutionary politics, debate and entertainment
June 18-21, Chicago
July 2-5, San Francisco

The world economic crisis has shattered the free-market consensus that has dominated politics for the last generation. Meanwhile, the end of the conservative era and the election of the first African American president have raised expectations among working people that long overdue change is coming. With capitalism in crisis, even some in the corporate media are admitting that Karl Marx was right.

There has never been a better time for those who want to see fundamental change to get together to debate, to discuss and organize for a new society—a society based on the needs of the many instead of the whims of a few. In other words, there has never been a better time to organize a new socialist left to meet the challenge of this new era.

That’s the purpose that Socialism 2009—expanded to two sites this year—has set for itself. Gather with activists from all over to take part in dozens of discussions about changing the world: How can we stop the economic madness? Can we end racism? What kind of organization do we need? What would a future socialist society look like?

Yes we can organize for socialism in the 21st century! Si se puede!

Featured Speakers:

MICK ARMSTRONG, Socialist Alternative, Australia;
ROSE AGUILAR, host, Your Call, KALW,91.7FM;
IAN ANGUS, editor, Climate and Capitalism;
DAVID BACON, author, Illegal People;
NORA BARROWS-FRIEDMAN, co-host, Flashpoints Radio, KPFA;
BARBARA BECNEL,director of Stan Tookie Williams Legacy Network;
ROBERT BRENNER, author, The Economics of Global Turbulence;
DENNIS BRUTUS, longtime anti-apartheid and global justice activist;
PAUL D’AMATO, author of The Meaning of Marxism;
NEIL DAVIDSON, University of Strathclyde, Scotland;
MIKE DAVIS, author, In Praise of Barbarians;
SAM FARBER, author, Origins of the Cuban Revolution;
JOEL GEIER, associate editor, International Socialist Review;
TIKVA HONIG-PARNASS, co-author, Between the Lines;
DR. JESS GHANNAM, Al-Awda Right of Return Coalition, Free Palestine Alliance;
ANAND GOPAL, Kabul correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor;
JAMES GREEN, author, Death in the Haymarket;
DAHR JAMAIL, author, Beyond the Green Zone;
BRIAN JONES, performing Howard Zinn’s play Marx in Soho;
CLAUDIO KATZ, author, Las disyuntinvas de la izquierda en America Latina (the challenges of the Latin American Left);
NATIVO LOPEZ, president, Mexican American Political Association;
ALAN MAASS, editor, Socialist Worker;
DAVID McNALLY, New Socialist Group, Canada;
MARLENE MARTIN, Campaign to End the Death Penalty;
ANURADHA MITTAL, director, the Oakland Institute;
CHINA MIEVILLE, author, Un Lun Dun and Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law;
DERREL MYERS, Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation;
CHRISTIAN PARENTI, The Nation, on Afghanistan;
JOHN RIDDELL, co-editor, Socialist Voice (Canada);
HEATHER ROGERS, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage;
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, co-editor of and author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Green to Me: The Politics of Nature;
MARTIN SANCHEZ, consul general of Venezuela, San Francisco;
LANCE SELFA, author, The Democrats: A Critical History;
AHMED SHAWKI, editor, International Socialist Review;
CINDY SHEEHAN, founder, Gold Star Families for Peace;
BARRY SHEPPARD, author of The Party: the Socialist Workers Party, 1960-1968;
SHARON SMITH, author of Subterranean Fire and Women and Socialism;
LEE SUSTAR, labor editor, Socialist Worker;
SHERRY WOLF, author, Sexuality and Socialism;
KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR, editorial board of International Socialist Review;
DAVE ZIRIN, author, A People’s History of Sports;
SOCIALISTS from France, Greece, Venezuela, Brazil, and many more!

What you’ll find at Socialism 2009: More than 100 meetings, a bookfair, films, entertainment, and parties.

Check out to register and for more information about schedule, housing, and childcare.

Sponsored by:
The Center for Economic Research and Social Change
Publisher of the International Socialist Review and Haymarket Books.

Co-sponsored by:
The International Socialist Organization
Publisher of Socialist Worker

Monday, April 20, 2009

David Simon on Moyers

The Wire's creator David Simon gives a GREAT interview on The Journal.

Report from the Left Forum

Yesterday I managed to crawl out from the book cave otherwise known as my apartment to spend the day at the Left Forum in New York. The Left Forum, for those of you who don't know, is a huge academic/activist conference held every year in the city. It's absolutely massive, with the leading lights from the national and international left presenting. While I've heard that it's been different in previous years, this year there was a strong youth activist presence that balanced out the old balding white guys nicely.

I managed to get to three of the seemingly numberless panels: David Harvey, Doug Henwood, Nomi Prinz, and Fred Moseley's "Nationalize the Banks! What Does it Mean?", Richard Seymour (aka Lenin), Samuel Moyn, and John McArthur's "Liberalism and Human Rights," and Adolph Reed, Jr., and Walter Benn Michaels' "Diversity in the Age of Obama." The first two were excellent, the last was a travesty.

The presentations on banking were extremely interesting. Doug Henwood began by noting that two years ago if the Left Forum had a panel on banking, very few people would have showed up (there were approximately 250 yesterday). He proceeded to argue that, contrary to common sense, booms are often more conducive to radicalism than busts. The antiglobalization movement came after four years of job creation in the 90s, the 60s came on the tail-end of the postwar boom, etc. At the same time, the crisis of the 1970s failed to produce any major radicalization in the US.

Therefore, given the weakness of the Left in this crisis, Henwood argued that we should be putting forth a minimalist program based on nationalizing finance, bringing it under more democratic control, and channeling credit towards more socially responsible projects like affordable housing and green energy. While it's obviously good to argue that crises don't automatically produce radicalization, I think Henwood misses the dynamic in which this crisis, combined with the discrediting of conservatism by the Bush regime, actually is producing a major shift to the Left right now. If we're to have any long term persuasiveness in giving this shift organized form and expression, we need to do more than articulate a minimalist program and talk seriously about our long-term goals for changing society altogether.

Fred Moseley, an exceptional Marxist economist, largely agreed with Henwood. He argued that the demand for a bailout should be used as an argument against capitalism, as it demonstrated both that the system is inherently unstable and that when it does collapse it places the burden on ordinary taxpayers. Somewhat incongruously, he hitched this rather large-scale argument to Henwood's assertion that the Left should busy itself at the moment with articulating a minimalist program based around the democratization of finance.

Nomi Prins, who I hadn't heard of before, provided a somewhat refreshing counterweight to Henwood and Moseley. She delivered an angry presentation about the bankruptcy of the concept of "too big to fail." Interestingly, she argued that the state shouldn't nationalize institutions like AIG, but instead work on breaking them up.

David Harvey went last, and basically delivered a polemic against his fellow presenters. He began by noting that "Economics is a discipline that is dominated by people who have no idea what the fuck is going on." He then went on to argue that it was foolish to talk about "speculation" as a bad activity or to separate finance from the "real economy." Speculation and finance have played a crucial role in capital's development since its beginning, and it couldn't exist without them. Therefore, any move towards addressing the financial crisis would have to come to terms with its role in capitalism. He also argued that there's always been a "state-finance nexus," but that it has undergone multiple revolutions since its establishment, from the gold standard to neoliberalism. With this emphasis on the long term tendencies of capitalist development, Harvey described crises such as the current one as "irrational rationalizers of an irrational system," a brilliant description in my opinion.

The forum then opened t Q&A, but I left when six people wearing Revolution t-shirts bum rushed the mics all at once. Seriously RCP, you give the rest of us a bad name.

I had been looking forward to the next session for some time, having been a big fan of Richard Seymour's writing for some time now. The first presenter, however, gave Seymour a hard act to follow. I hadn't heard of Samuel Moyn before yesterday, but his presentation made it clear that he's one of the best people out there currently thinking about rights discourse, imperialism, and capitalism. Moyn argues that appeals to rights are divided by a fundamental discontinuity between human rights and the rights of man. The latter, arising out of the crucible of the American and French revolutions, were always articulated in an appeal to sovereignty and nationality. Despite this entwinement with some rather nasty formations, insurgent movements, such as the Black Jacobins of Haiti, were able to use the Rights of Man as a framework with which to push some very progressive things. The shift to human rights, in the aftermath of WWII (though crucially, not originally a response to the Holocaust), severed rights from an appeal to a specific polity to the supposedly more universal "human rights." The early codification of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while including a number of economic and social rights which are often elided today, crucially lacked any discussion of self-determination. In the context of decolonization, this was not an innocent silence. Moyn went on to argue that appeals to human rights have more often than not been an excuse to violate a given nation's sovereignty (Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc etc). Thus human rights, while supposedly more universal, have often played a more reactionary role than the rights of man.

Seymour gave an excellent presentation on the history of liberalism's relationship with empire, interspersing it with the great jabs at pro-war leftists anyone who reads the Tomb knows and loves. Since I've read his book and read the Tomb religiously, there wasn't much new for me in his prepared remarks. He closed, however, with a compelling argument that a renewal of Marxism is absolutely necessary if liberal interventionism is to be combated. Simply put, no other framework/movement has been able to combine a militant insistence on self-determination with a broader program of human emancipation. Fabianism lacked the former, while anticolonial movements too often papered over the latter.

John McArthur's presentation was what one would expect from the publisher of Harpers. Lots of really interesting anecdotes that don't necessarily add up to anything convincing. In the discussion, McArthur tipped his hand and argued that he thinks foreign policy is almost wholey determined by domestic politics, an analytically worthless argument that reveals nothing so much as McArthur's demoralization.

I would take McArthur's resignation anyday, however, over the next panel. Adolph Reed is a smart historian and political commentator. His writings on Du Bois, the Black academy, and contemporary politics are sharp and deserve wider reading. He has hitched himself to a rather shoddy star, however, in Walter Benn Michaels. WBM is the author of a book called "The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Forget About Inequality." A promising title, no? Unfortunately, it's little more than a screed that argues that antiracism is a right wing, neoliberal politics. WBM makes this argument by arguing that people who talk about racial disparities in things like income imply that if proportionate numbers of Blacks and whites were in the various income quintiles, that everything would be fine. This, of course, leaves class inequality itself untouched. Therefore, it's neoliberal to talk about racial disparities in income. Any questions?

Of course, WBM's argument is little more than sleight of hand. For one thing, it's hardly impossible to argue that it would be better if the lowest income brackets weren't stuffed with people of color and that we should abolish class society. For another, the argument presumes that the only serious way to talk about racism is to talk about income distribution (a curious proposition in the age of Sean Bell, Adolph Grimes, and Oscar Grant). WBM argued that such blatant bigotry is no longer the rule, and Reed rather cavalierly dismissed the importance of such events.

During the Q&A, I asked what the speakers thought the left attitude towards Islamophobia should be. Since Islamophobia is a major justification for US capital's designs on the middle east, and since it helps to bind US workers to US capital by convincing them that their major enemy is scary Moslems, it seems to me that it's fairly self-evident that a politics of antiracism around Islamophobia is hardly neoliberal. Adolph Reed responded by assuring me of his personal abhorrence of Islamophobia, and then moving on to another subject. WBM, in an evasion charming for its naivete, responded by saying that Obama, raised by a Muslim, obviously wasn't an Islamophobe, and that neoliberals wanted to see more Muslims in the billionaire's club. As if Obama needed a personal fear of Muslims to promote racism against them.

WBM's ideas are nothing less than poison to the worker's movement. I used to think that academic accusations that the left doesn't want to talk about racism were based in little more than caricature and fantasy. Unfortunately, this panel proved me wrong. Apparently there are some walking fossils who think that Eugene Debs was right to say that the Socialist Party has nothing to offer Black folks.

All in all, though, the forum was a huge success. It brought the best of the academic left into contact with some of the most vibrant young activists in the city. If the seriousness with which people were grappling with theories and strategies is any indication, the US Left is laying the foundations for some major growth.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yar: In Defense of Piracy

Johann Hari on why the pirates aren't the bad guys.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Now that I'm a PhD student I have an excuse to write at least twice as pretentiously as before. Thus, I present you with a short paper I wrote last week:

Lukacs/Althusser: Ideology, Interpellation, Reification

Though all aspects of Marxist theory and practice have had ample opportunity to read of their demise, from Benedetto Croce's 1907 declaration that “Marx is definitely dead for humankind” to Philippe Van Parijs' 1980 “rational reconstruction by way of obituary” of the Marxist theory of crisis, the theory of ideology seems today to receive more than its fair share of opprobrium. In the “post-epistemological” environs of the American academy, supporters of a Marxist theory of ideology appear as Dr. Frankensteins, laboring away in the dead of night in a demented effort to sew the monster together and give him life. That this intellectual attack has coincided with, and is indeed incomprehensible apart from, a thirty year ruling class offensive in the United States which has decimated revolutionary organizations has meant that the efforts of the academic spinners of ghost stories have had considerable effect on the state of Marxist theories of ideology.

While this state may not appear substantially different from that of Marxism as a whole, the vitality of the theory of ideology is central to any revival of the Marxist intellectual project. There are two primary reasons for this. First, a vibrant theory of ideology is the sine quo non of any rebirth of Marxism in the contemporary American academy. Since the cultural turn, historical materialists can no longer justify their methodology merely through rigorous historical work. The debate is no longer over the making of the English working class, but its representation. The ability of Marxists to engage with such questions depends on a theory of ideology. Secondly, and more importantly, the revival of the Marxist political project, to which the vitality of academic Marxism has always been linked, depends crucially on the ability to comprehend and counteract the influences of ruling class ideology. Obviously, some theory of ideology is necessary if such an endeavor is to be successful.

Fortunately, attempts at rebuilding a Marxist theory of ideology need not begin from scratch. Twentieth century Marxists left behind an incredible corpus of writing on ideology. Within that tradition, two poles stand out, between and around which subsequent theorists have largely located themselves: Georg Lukács and Louis Althusser. Indeed, the debates over ideology of the past thirty years could be simplified to a contest between varyingly strident Lukacsian and Althusserian positions. This is at least partially due to the radically different philosophical traditions from which each writer emerged. Lukács, a Hungarian philosopher and literary critic, owed his greatest intellectual debts to classical German idealism and the new sociology exemplified by Max Weber. Althusser, on the other hand, was trained as a philosopher of science and drew heavily from the structuralist milieu so dominant on the French intellectual scene at the time of his writing. Writing later than Lukacs, Althusser would actually develop some of his key theoretical positions through a critique of what he called “historicism,” a variant of Marxism of which he held Lukacs to be a key exponent.

Despite the depth of the conflict between Lukacsian and Althusserian positions, I believe that a rigorous Marxist theory of ideology can only emerge from a deep engagement with both writers (among others, to be sure). My purpose in this paper is to stage a confrontation between the two texts I believe are most central to theories of ideology in both Althusser and Lukács: the former's “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” and the latter's “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” It is my contention that the most significant aporias of each text are the sites at which a dialogue between the two can occur.[1]

Lukács' essay is above all a development of the theory of commodity fetishism found in Chapter One, Section Four of Capital Volume One. In contrast to the preponderance of contemporary academic interpretations, Lukács argued that the transformation of “definite social relation[s] between men [sic]” into “relation[s] between things” takes place not primarily on the grounds of ideology but in the structure of capitalist social reality. For Lukács, this reality is rooted in the commodity form, “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects.”[2] As the production of commodities becomes the dominant mode of social production, the logic of the commodity is imposed on society as a whole. Lukács begins his investigation of this imposition with the commodity's most immediate environs: the place of production. Commodity production subjects the labor process to an entirely different logic than earlier forms of production, as there is “a continuous trend towards greater rationalisation, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human, and individual attributes of the worker.”[3] While marks of individual craftsmanship may have been signifiers of worth under artisan production, under capitalism they are marks of impurity. The labor process itself is “progressively broken down in abstract, rational, specialised operations.” Lukács' analysis of the impact of this rationalization on the individual experience of time is nothing short of poetic :

“Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, and flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable 'things' (the reified, mechanically objectified 'performance' of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space.”[4]

The commodity form's manic imposition of a rational metric does not stop with the need of capitalists to extract maximum surplus value from their workers. It is reflected in the economic theory by which the capitalist class apprehends its own mode of production. For the rationalization of production, its subjection to scientific regimes of production, produces nothing so much as a false concrete, a horizon of analysis whose immediacy masks its superficiality. The vast assemblages of data with which commodity production can be analyzed, thanks to its rationalization, do nothing to penetrate beyond the abstract form production assumes. Bourgeois economic theory fails to examine the concrete content of capitalist production.

This failure is, for Lukács, the symptomatic failure of bourgeois ideology. The reification he describes consists in the partial, limited truth of a certain facet of capitalist society assuming the form of an independent, concrete truth, instead of an aspect of a more complex social totality. Though Lukács develops this theory most fully through a critique of bourgeois economic thought, his rooting of it in the commodity form, along with his assignation of that form to a central location in capitalist society, allows him to cast reification as the dominant mode of bourgeois thought.

Lukács' analysis of reification is tremendously powerful, but it is not without problems. The most important of these is the relationship of reification to the proletariat. Though Lukács argues in great detail that the working class has the capability and interest to develop a theory which goes beyond reification, he does not offer any reasons that the proletariat should have accepted it in the first place. Simply because the bourgeoisie seeks to impose rationalization on society as a whole does not imply that subaltern classes should be compelled to accept it in their theoretical practice[5]. As Terry Eagleton argues, “For Luká would sometimes appear as though each social class has its own peculiar, corporate 'world view,' one directly expressive of its material conditions of existence; and ideological dominance then consists in one of these world views imposing its stamp on the social formation as a whole.”[6]

The problem of how the bourgeoisie is able to force its ideology on the proletariat is precisely the problem Louis Althusser takes up in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” His stated goal is to investigate the “the reproduction of the conditions of production.”[7] Of these conditions, Althusser regards the reproduction of labor power as among the most unexamined. He observes that part of the reason for its obscurity is that the reproduction of labor power takes place “essentially outside the firm:”[8] that is, outside of the site on which both bourgeois and Marxist theories of capitalism have focused. Althusser argues that not only does labor power have to be reproduced with the basic skills necessary for any job (under late capitalism, skills such as literacy, computer literacy, social skills, etc), but also “its submission to the rules of the established order”[9] must similarly be reproduced.

Since Althusser has argued that this reproduction takes place primarily outside of the firm, he introduces the state as its primary agent. The state accomplishes its task by making use of two different tools: repressive states apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses. (ISAs) The RSAs are constituted by the everyday symbols of state power: the army, the police, the prisons, etc. Though these are crucial organs of class rule, Althusser argues that “no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses.”[10] As examples of institutions that function as ISAs, Althusser lists the following (among others): the family, the educational system, trade-unions, and political parties.

Following this, Althusser moves through a broader discussion of what exactly ideology is. Here he puts forth his famous definition of ideology as “the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence.”[11] Drawing upon the “theoretical anti-humanism” he developed in earlier texts, Althusser argues that the chief such “imaginary relationship” is the individual's conception of herself as a subject. The idea of human beings as individual, self-forming, rational agents is for Althusser both the most profound effect and most important function of ideology, for it is through the construction of such free, rational subjects that individuals are able to freely submit to “the posts which the socio-technical division of labour assigns them in production, exploitation, repression, ideologization, scientific practice, etc.”[12]

This subjection is able to operate so efficiently precisely because it is based on concrete individuals recognizing themselves as free subjects, rather than the domination implied in Lukács' account. Althusser describes the process by which individuals are invited to so recognize themselves as “interpellation,” or hailing. Thus he compares the structure of ideology to a mirror, built with the purpose of individuals recognizing themselves within it. Importantly for Althusser, this interpellation is not a temporal phenomenon, but one always-already completed. The material rituals of ideology, its lived practice, ensure that “an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is is certain in advance that it will bear its Father's Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable.”[13] Ideology's ability to maintain itself throughout time in this way is, for Althusser, based on its eternal nature. Contrary to a thinker like Lukács, who identifies bourgeois ideology with the specific commodity form of capitalism, Althusser argues that ideology is eternal, for every society has a need for individuals to freely submit to a division of labor. Thus, every society secretes ideology as part of its nature.

Like Lukács' theory of reification, Althusser's account of interpellation and subjection is an ambitious and systematic attempt to account for the functioning of ideology. As should be clear from the above exposition, Althusser's theory has the considerable merit of identifying a sophisticated means by which ideology should be able to secure its dominance over subaltern classes. However, as with Lukács, his account is not without problems.

I believe Althusser's theory of ideology suffers from two, related problems: functionalism and a separation of ideological production from economic production. Briefly described, functionalist explanations are those that explain a phenomenon “by its beneficial consequences...without the mechanism for this process being specified.”[14] Thus cause and effect are reversed, so that the effect which a phenomenon produces becomes its cause. Ideology is produced because the reproduction of labor power is a social necessity, not, as in Lukács, as an effect of the process of commodity production. The functionalism in Althusser's theory is not unique to him; it is a general feature of the Parisian structuralism from which he drew. However, Althusser's consistent emphasis on anti-humanism, his persistent denial of human agents any causal role in his theory, leaves him more cornered than most, with little recourse but to functionalist explanations for the phenomena he describes. Ultimately Althusser's functionalism disfigures his system not only theoretically, as the source of ideology is vaguely located in society's needs, but also politically. For if agents are superfluous to the production of capitalist stability, it is unclear how they are to become relevant to the ultimate production of capitalist instability: proletarian revolution.

Althusser's functionalism is related to his second primary defect: the separation of ideological production from economic production. As we saw above, Althusser is insistent that the production of ideology takes place “outside the firm.” He even goes so far as to identify economic activities which take commodity production as their primary purpose, like literature and television, with the state, because their function is that of the state: the production of ideology. For Althusser, the production of ideology is an extra-economic activity.

This radical separation of commodity production from ideological production is unsatisfactory on both an empirical and theoretical level. Empirically, it is quite easy to demonstrate that extra-state, primarily economic actors play an immense role in the production of ideology in late capitalist society. David Harvey, for example, cites the example of all 247 newspapers around the world owned by Rupert Murdoch all “independently” supporting the American invasion of Iraq in their editorials[15]. As most of these newspapers operate in capitalist democracies, they are subject to minimal interference by the state. The ideology they produce and disseminate is directed not through the state, but through a capitalist whose control over the means of production allows him to dictate what is said and who realizes the importance of the Iraq adventure for his class. By effacing the role of capitalists themselves in producing ideology, Althusser not only forces himself to rely on vague functionalism, but he also obfuscates an important aspect of capitalist class rule.

On a theoretical-political level, Althusser's excision of ideology from the economic realm leads him to identify struggles in the ISAs, such as in the schools or in literature, as an important aspect of the class struggle. However, because of his insistence that ISAs are indeed state apparatuses leads him to conceive of struggle in these areas not as a class struggle of workers to seize control of the means of production, but as the political struggle for state power. This theoretical move was inspired at least partially by Althusser's sympathy with the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As Ralph Miliband has argued, it ultimately wreaks havoc with a theory of capitalist class rule:

To suggest that the relevant institutions are actually part of the State system does not seem to me to accord with reality, and tends to obscure the difference in this respect between these political systems and systems where ideological institutions are indeed part of a State monopolistic system of power. In the former systems, ideological institutions do retain a very high degree of autonomy; and are therefore the better able to conceal the degree to which they do belong to the system of capitalist power.[16]

Working classes have paid dearly at various points in the twentieth century for confusing the differences between liberal democracies and totalitarian societies.

Can Althusser's theory be salvaged? I believe it can, by rigorously integrating it into a Lukacsian framework of reification. While Lukács surely benefits from the tremendous explanatory power of interpellation, Althusser's theory is equally in need of precisely the kind of basis in economic reality that Lukács always maintains at the center of his problematic. This basis can ultimately be found in Marx's “double freedom” of the proletariat.

In Chapter Six, Volume One of Capital, Marx famously argues that

For the transformation of money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the commodity-market; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that, on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization [Verwirklichung] of his labour-power.[17]

In order for industrial capital to achieve the hegemony that constitutes full-scale capitalist production, it is necessary that the originally peasant working class be forcibly dispossessed. Once workers have nothing to sell but their labor power, their ability to work, capitalists are able to secure their free, voluntary efforts to be hired, and thus exploited.

This process mirrors exactly that described by Althusser in his description of subject formation by ideology, and indeed it constitutes the material basis of that process. While Althusser is properly insistent upon the materiality of ideology, his functionalism leads him to bypass any systematic exploration of subject formation's material base in favor of descriptions of social needs. In a fashion homologous to Lukács' description of reification, the position of workers as free subjects is indeed a “true” part of capitalist society. As Marx argues, it is necessary to capitalist production. At the same time, it is an unavoidably partial truth. The freedom to sell one's labor power is a false concrete, developing only out of the brutal violence of dispossession; in the same way, the rationalization of capitalist production is a partial truth, developing as it does out of the anarchy of the market.

Properly subsumed under a Lukacsian framework of reification, both of the problems identified above with Althusser's analysis are resolved. A functional explanation of ideology is no longer necessary, as the task of creating workers who are free in Marx's double sense is one clearly undertaken by the capitalist class[18]. Similarly, the production of ideology is no longer once removed from the structure of social relations, but on the contrast, stems directly from them.

It is on this solid materialist ground that the reconstruction of a Marxist theory of ideology can begin. Both Lukács and Althusser are necessary to such work, but as I have argued, the two cannot stand equally tall. If Althusser can only survive on Lukacsian life support, so much the worse for him, but so much the better for the revival of the Marxist project.

[1] In this paper I shall restrict myself to what Lukács and Althusser have to say about ideology as such, and refrain from engaging their theories on how it can be overcome. At this point I will confine myself to saying that I find Lukács' answer of proletarian revolution to be more attractive than Althusser's “theoretical practice,” although the former is certainly not without problems.

[2] Lukács 83.

[3] 88

[4] 90

[5] I use the term here in the Gramscian sense, rather than Althusser's more technical meaning: “Each man, finally...carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a 'philosopher,' an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.” Gramsci. Prison Notebooks pg 9.

[6] Terry Eagleton 101.

[7] Althusser 1

[8] 3

[9] 5

[10] 14

[11] 24

[12] 37

[13] 33

[14] Callinicos 297.

[15] Harvey 35.

[16] Qtd in Anderson 1976 pg 36

[17] Marx 272-273.

[18] A clarification is necessary here. Enclosure as described by Marx in his section on primitive accumulation was undertaken by the state. However, Marx is clear that the bourgeoisie was the primary actor behind it. See Marx 884-885.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hey Paul Krugman

This is for all the Krugman junkies out there.

“The State of Israel is at war with the Palestinian people, people against people, collective against collective.”

Uri Avnery on Counterpunch reports on a startlingly frank admission from the Israeli Supreme Court.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"The Most Moral Army in the World"

Click the picture for the story.

We'll Give Them Their Bonuses..In the Form of Full Metal Jackets

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Call and Response

My copy of Adrienne Rich's The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 finally arrived today, and as I thumbed through it I discovered a poem that reminded me of Bertolt Brecht's "To Posterity." After checking the two against each other, I'm quite sure that Rich is responding to and updating Brecht in some interesting ways. Here the two poems are:

Bertolt Brecht "To Posterity"


Indeed I live in the dark ages!
A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens
A hard heart. He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings.

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
And he who walks calmly across the street,
Is he not out of reach of his friends
In trouble?

It is true: I earn my living
But, believe me, it is only an accident.
Nothing that I do entitles me to eat my fill.
By chance I was spared. (If my luck leaves me
I am lost.)

They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink
When my food is snatched from the hungry
And my glass of water belongs to the thirsty?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would gladly be wise.
The old books tell us what wisdom is:
Avoid the strife of the world
Live out your little time
Fearing no one
Using no violence
Returning good for evil --
Not fulfillment of desire but forgetfulness
Passes for wisdom.
I can do none of this:
Indeed I live in the dark ages!


I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.


You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think --
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.

For we went,changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do no judge us
Too harshly.

Adrienne Rich "What Kind of Times Are These?"

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light -
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

LA Teachers take over school board meeting!!!

More coverage here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Naomi Klein at Israeli Apartheid Week

Seeing the counter-protestors at the beginning of this video brought back memories...I really hate those people.

Naomi Klein speaks on Israeli Apartheid Week from NOW Magazine on Vimeo.