Sunday, February 15, 2009

Tantae molis erat

Alfred North Whitehead famously characterized western philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato (I paraphrase). I have the strong impression that a significant portion of contemporary historical work would fit comfortably into a few footnotes in the last 40-odd pages of Capital.

For instance, I recently read a short, popularizing essay by on globalization and politics by Kevin O’Rourke—I had already noticed his textbook, and thought idly about reading it. The article is interesting, and argues generally that geopolitical equilibrium has as much to do with patterns of global trade as to ‘technical’ capabilities. An important part of the article is an analysis of the uses to which certain European powers put their ‘comparative advantage in violence’—that is, they used this power-imbalance to seize or create monopolies where this was possible, to drive up prices, and pay for more violence. Marx, in chapter 31 (pg 917), describes these very same monopolies as moments of ‘primitive accumulation.’ Where O’Rourke suggests that we can ask whether or not the monopolies, given the costs of the military required to protect them, were really ‘worth it,’ Marx would say that they achieved their real purpose, which was capital accumulation rather than profit, per se.

More strikingly, in the final chapter on ‘The Modern Theory of Colonization,’ Marx describes in outline the very same economic process—the problem of creating in land-rich colonies a floating population of ‘free’ workers—that Thomas Holt puts at the center of his excellent The Problem of Freedom. Holt is certainly marxisant, if not explicitly Marxist; I’d check to see what he says specifically if I had his book here. In any case, I can now recognize that book as a sophisticated revision and expansion Marx’s basic framework in order to include and explain the trajectory of racism as a political force.

I also do not see, despite the prophecies at the end of chapter 32, how a historiography taking inspiration from Marx himself could be inflexible or deterministic. The very grammatical structure of Marx’s predictions set them apart from the rest of the text:

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (pg 929)

Most of the sentences in Capital do not have this kind of lucidity (though I should really look at the German). Here, for instance, we are again in the philosophical realm: “this is the negation of the negation.” The historical narrative Marx has given us about the development of property relations in England (the so-called ‘classic’ case), in fact is contingent and flexible. It is eminently empirical, and although many people are starved to death, although this narrative does contain contradictions such as the presence of at once a great demand for labor and unemployment and starvation wages, this narrative is able to unfold across hundreds of pages without even a single ‘negation of the negation.’ Its logic is, rather, historical. The development of the English economy cannot be understood outside larger, essentially global series of events. This is not to say that god touched England, and the whole world moved in such a way as to produce capitalism at a given spot. Rather, as it happened, this particular geographical location witnessed the conjuncture (not, at least here, one of Marx’s words) of a set of circumstances that were propitious for the exploitation of the surplus-value of labor and the development of industrial machinery.

I would like to write some kind of summary, some sort of more comprehensive reaction, on finishing this book. I can’t. It’s too big, too rich with detail. I can only say that I understand how it became a classic (following, shall we say, Antoine Compagnon’s definition of the classic). The disjunction between the philosophical and the empirical, between the necessary unfolding of ideality and the contingent play of violence and power—such is the unevenness that makes a book a classic.

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