Saturday, November 08, 2008

Wild in the Streets

There was dancing in the streets of Berkeley the night Obama was elected––a kind of social eros coursed through the crowd, a spontaneous manifestation of utopian tribal energy rarely experienced in the administered world. Meanings were released far beyond Obama's stated agenda, beyond even the joy at seeing the first African-American elected president––the pitch of feeling, approaching Dionysian frenzy, was appropriate to the fall of a long-imprisoning wall. We remain in crisis, yet it is no longer the crisis of a closed, but an open system. A feeling that far-reaching structural change is possible has entered the mainstream––even though Obama's administration may turn out to be about confining the flow of this feeling in the name of "realism." Reality, however (as we felt on election night), has a propensity for not seeming realistic. Behind the backs and beyond the intentionality of social actors, the very movement of the system itself, with its convergent crises (economic, environmental, etc.), is producing structural change. "Capitalism is doomed," as Immanuel Wallerstein––a systems theorist and sober Yale professor, not a street agitator––said in a radio interview recently. The costs of production (labor and resources), in spite of globalization, have begun to outstrip profits, and the financial bubbles which have occluded this fact have now evaporated. The new mode of production––and we are already starting to see its emergence––can take either a progressive or a reactionary political form, but it will not resemble capitalism as we have known it. Government intervention in the market, always present under capitalism, is shifting to a new and more acute phase, opening the door to increased democratization and to "spreading the wealth around." With breathtaking suddenness, the idea of socialism (McCain's failed scare-word) is back in play (in a way not seen since the thirties). With the election of Obama, the national discourse has shifted: it will no longer be driven by a 9/11-sanctioned imperialist imperative. A new, post-9/11 narrative is taking shape, one that is addressed to the production and distribution of social goods, and perhaps the social Good itself.

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Blogger jane said...

Andrew, I hope you'll forgive my skepticism, but I have a question or two.
1) You say there is a "new mode of production" — could you describe it to me?
2) You quote Wallerstein as saying that "capitalism is doomed," because of a declining rate of profit that produces crisis. This is of course the basic claim of Marx's Capital Vol. III. On what specific grounds do you find that a terminal crisis is imminent, and what exactly does the recent election have to do with it in causal rather than symptomatic terms?
3)"A new, post-9/11 narrative is taking shape, one that is addressed to the production and distribution of social goods, and perhaps the social Good itself." Your writing ("With the election of Obama...") suggests this is related to the change in political regimes. What is your evidence for a meaningful change in this regard within the election and the emerging Obama regime? It would seem from here that his appointment of NAFTA orchestrator Rahm Emmanuel, and his likely choice for Treasury Secretary (either Larry Summers or former IMF enforcer Tim Geithner) indicate a strong commitment to pursuing the neoliberal agenda within straitened circumstances.

Beyond an affective sense of jubilation and your admirable optimism, can you present some empirical information on why we're approaching the end of capitalism as we have known it, and why one would think there's a relationship between that and the election results?

Many thanks for the elaboration —

10:08 AM  
Blogger Andrew Joron said...

Dear Jane, I’m happy to elaborate, although these are big questions to address inside the space of this little comment box.

First, regarding my “optimism”: while the tone of my piece is celebratory (of Obama’s victory), I don’t say the future is rosy. New sources of possibility are certainly opening up as the economic system moves to a greatly different configuration, but the political form that results from this can take (as I stated) either a progressive or a reactionary form.

I believe we are witnessing the endgame of capitalism: a “terminal crisis” indeed, but “imminent” only within the historical time-frame of a half-century or so, when the long-term cycle we are in (which began with the economic downturn of the seventies) finally plays itself out. The cycle began when capital accumulation was no longer able to be sufficiently sustained by the industrial sector, and shifted decisively to the financial sector –- capitalism started to eat itself. But in spite of the resultant speculative bubbles, there’s no escaping the long-term trend toward stagnation. Wallerstein has a neat little essay on this topic online at The radio interview in which he states that “capitalism is doomed” is also available online at

I don’t know what the “new mode of production” that finally emerges from this will look like, although we may be beginning to see its outlines with government management/ownership of the banks and the dying big industries (such as the auto industry). The opening here is that greater government involvement holds the potential for greater popular involvement in, and even control of, the economic system.

External factors such as climate change and resource depletion (not only of oil, but copper and other key ingredients of industrial society) are also pushing the system to a new modality -- a modality whose shape I can’t begin to guess at. But it’s reasonable to assume that the immediate future is not going to resemble the immediate past.

What’s remarkable is that revolutionary changes are beginning to occur at all levels of social reality, without being instituted by the intentional activity of social agents. The crisis is self-organizing, in the language of complexity theory, and a new reality is about to emerge. I think there’s a widespread feeling that large-scale changes are in store; the election of Obama is certainly a registration of this. In times of crisis, people often look to right-wing authoritarians to give them that someone is “in control.” It’s remarkable that U.S. voters did not take this course, this time. Instead, they elected someone whose message was not based on fear and xenophobia (the 9/11 script) but on some notion of the social good (based on dialogue, popular entitlement, and civil rights).

At this juncture, a U.S. president is still bound to serve as a representative of capitalism and imperialism. But along with its inevitably oppressive elements, there’s an atypically progressive aspect to the new administration that can’t help but open new sources of possibility. And in a crisis situation, where social causality is going fractal, tuning itself to a higher pitch than we’ve ever heard before, where the smallest inputs can yield system-altering changes, there’s no way to predict what might happen. Disaster and salvation both make their appearance at such boiling points.

Skepticism is a necessary moment of critical thinking. But how can we start a revolution –- or even catch up to the revolution that Trickster Reality is already starting without us -– without a rush of enthusiasm?

9:37 PM  
Blogger jane said...

Andrew, thanks for your thoughtful response — and yes, of course, in these little boxes much can't be said. But much can. Your response raises certain issues, which I hope you won't mind my lingering over for a moment, with lots of italics.

Indeed, the declining rate of profit since '73 is well-documented (Wallerstein is actually a bit late to the party: Brenner has the definitive economic account, while Arrighi following Braudel the best global-historical). And there is much in their accounts to suggest this is not just a crisis but a "terminal crisis."

However, and it's a huge however, there is little in their accounts (or yours) that suggests anything about a new mode of production coming into view. The heavily managed economy you describe (aka a command economy) is neither new nor good news for the immiserated of the earth. What is the option? and how will it arise?

I do think economic arrangements will change here in the US. But frankly, your language of self-organizing systems worries me. The complexity/autopoetic language game seems to me deeply symptomatic of neoliberalism itself, a celebration of the system left untended to work itself out according to its supposedly independent tendencies, just like the infinitely free market doing its thing without being directed by agents, expanding elegantly into every niche market even as each helps stabilize this emergent system. Luhmann, as I am not the first to note, is the convenient ideology of deregulaton.

So my point is this. This crisis had many novel qualities, but so has each major crisis in capitalism. History's lesson is clear: from Italian city-states to the United Provinces to Great Britain to the USA, we have seen not self-organizing radical breaks, but actual struggles leading to the transfer from one capitalist power to the next. This is not to say that real change is impossible; I am not at all striking a defeatist pose here. But nothing tells me that circumstances and feelings and fractals suggest such a change, or that such a change is earned by anything but radical action.

And it must be understood that Obama's explicit and stated task is to oppose this change. The language of restoration of America's economic and world power is in fact his main discourse, in concert with his neoliberal goals and appointees, his plan to enlarge the military, and so forth.

So I am completely with you that this is a moment when historical change is possible. But my reading of actual history tells me that it's going to require something more than a new reality emerging of its own. Moreover, a failure to understand that the latest regime — doubtless less abhorrent than the last — is still primally tasked with preventing this new reality from emerging would be a disaster both of thought and of action.

In solidarity,

your j

7:46 AM  
Blogger Andrew Joron said...

Dear Jane,

I don’t want to extend this discussion to the bitter end; but I think our basis for solidarity is strong enough to allow me one final reply, before I bow out – and leave the last word to you, if you want it.

I do agree with you (and I’ve said it myself): Obama is undoubtedly an agent of the system; but at this moment he represents, in the popular mind, a focal point for utopian aspirations. The widespread feeling is that we’ve arrived at a turning point.

Despite your skepticism about “feelings and fractals,” feelings are important – and when they become socialized, they do indeed become fractal, achieving self-similarity at all levels from the personal to the global. There’s “something in the air.” Maybe we really are all suffering from false consciousness, apart from a clear-eyed few – but I don’t think so.

Not only the most progressive sectors of the U.S. polity, but people all over the world, including in places that have suffered U.S. domination, are celebrating Obama’s electoral victory. And they are not, needless to say, celebrating the victory of a neoliberal militarist. Even if this characterization turns out to be true (and it may well, all too soon), I think that to stop there is to miss something about the fact, and the feeling, of this historical moment.

Finally, I agree that radical social change has often resulted from the intentional actions of social agents – but often fundamental social change has occurred without such agency. As Marx himself observed, humans make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. Sometimes it’s the turbulent mix of material fluxes at all levels, both human and inhuman, that does the “choosing.” Complexity theory is ideally suited to model this chaotic motion. And not only right-wing thinkers such as Luhmann, but left-wing theorists such as Deleuze and DeLanda have applied complexity theory to the understanding of society.

Examples from history may guide our thought, but I believe there’s no historical template for the phase we’re about to enter - the structure of social being is about to radically change its shape, even in the absence of radical, intentional political action. But the nature of the turbulence is such that even small local (and yes, intentional) actions are likely to have far-reaching effects. And our forces are gathering first at the level of (irresponsible, foolishly utopian) feeling.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Jasper Bernes said...

Hey Andrew,

This is an interesting conversation. It's hard to know the right position to take here. I agree that, beyond and apart from the actual policies that Obama will implment, we need to attend to the kinds of feelings, hopes, beliefs, etc., that his election has stirred up. For all my opposition to the man and his candidacy, I'm not immune to sentimentality here. I was watching a news program the other day that was speculating about whether Michelle Obama's 70 year-old grandmother would go to live at the White House, and when I think about that, what she's experienced in our racist country in the last sixty years, it's hard not to feel a certain awe at the thought of her living in the "white" house. I think Mike Davis puts it rather succinctly:

"More importantly, tens of millions of voters have reversed the verdict of 1968: this time choosing economic solidarity over racial division. Indeed, this election has been a virtual plebiscite on the future of class-consciousness in the United States, and the vote--thanks especially to working women--is an extraordinary vindication of progressive hopes.

But not the Democratic candidate, about whom we should not harbor any illusions"

But the fact remains that Obama's policies are mostly repugnant. He'll spread the wealth around only enough to pull the economy out of its slump (if it can be pulled out), and then toss the poor overboard as soon as it's feasible. And however much his presidency will change personal individual racism (a not insignficant effect) I have my doubts that he'll do much for the forms of cultural and institutional racism that do most of the work in enforcing separation these days. It's hard to hold both sides here. It's an awkward dialectic, an awkward moment of "negative capability," at least it is for me. I do see entirely too much uncritical exuberance right now, and it worries me because things are being set in place that will be hard to undo. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how the affects and ideologies of the happy electorate will interact with (and, one hopes, counteract) the actual work of Obama once he starts betraying his constituency. I'm not sure whether what we're seeing is the beginning of a left resurgence, or a cooptation of the (germinal, tentative, still weak) desires of the electorate for economic justice, racial justice, an end to the wars, etc., to the economic and military imperialism of the Dem Party. We'll see.

About Wallerstein and terminal crisis, I'm inclined to this view myself, although hesitant to commit to some kind of absolute certainty. I think the constraints on capital as surplus-value extraction through the wage are indeed quite hard to imagine solvable. But it's also not entirely possible that a massive destruction of capital--in say a series of wars--and the refitting of accumulation to a slightly lower rate couldn't give the system legs longer than 50 years. But 50 years sounds about right. And I do think there is both a cyclical and a terminal (linear) tendency within capital. . .

I've read Wallerstein's view on this a few times, and I always find him frustratingly vague. His idea, borrowed from Prigogine, of a bifurcation, rightly acknowledges the role of contingency, but it also seems to abdicate any thought about where meaningful pressure might be placed, even as he's insistent that it will be the will of people that will push the bifurcation toward something socialist as opposed to what I can only assume he imagines as a neo-feudal steady-state form of class-rule (the bad alternative). But are the chances really 50-50? How does he know? Furthermore, his claim that fundamental constraint on production is the rising cost of inputs (labor, raw materials) seems, to put it kindly, simplistic at best and plain wrong at worst, since it's not really "cost" that matters for capital but the percentage or portion that capital can take for itself. I'm not averse to the Prigoginian idea, as long as it doesn't put the force of movement entirely on the side of the system itself, a position which would then, for all its post-Newtonian wisdoms, be no better than the mechanistic progressivism of Marxisms past. . .

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to talk this out. It's an important conversation. I hope to see you around soon.

8:22 AM  
Blogger jane said...

Andrew (and Jasper), thanks again for the discussion. I will certainly take a chance at my last word, though am grateful to hear further from you or others.

I agree that the election of Obama may suggest a desire for real change at the level of fundamental social arrangements on the part of the electorate. And in that regard, the fact of the election might appear to fit within a constellation of "signs of real change," including a potentially terminal crisis of capitalism, rejection of neo-conservative doctrine, various left insurgencies in South America, growing awareness of ecological crisis and so on.

My worry, laid out as basically as possible, is that the conception of self-organizing complexity, and the desire for all these facts to offer a kind of coherent "news," makes it very hard to see some simple truths. Most evident among them, for this discussion, are two. (1) that as much as we may wish for it, there is no new mode of production coming into view as yet, and (2) that however we may feel about hopes of the electorate, the actual person who was elected is explicitly charged with the mission of preventing a new mode of production from appearing.

He himself has said this repeatedly, and has surrounded himself with the priests of the old mode of production (Volcker et al) and the technicians whose only skill is to preserve that mode for as long as possible. Indeed, I am less sanguine that Jasper, who thinks Obama will throw over the poor as soon as is feasible; that strikes me as a nationalist perspective referring only to America's poor. He will be engaged in the increasing immiseration of the world's poor, in their proletarizanization and exclusion, from day one. Again, this is not a state secret, but explicit policy.

So I am with you in the sense that I don't want to miss the hopeful signs. But I would suggest with both respect and the greatest vehemence that to ignore the basic antagonism within these signs, and to miss the understanding that this antagonism will require many kinds of action against the state to effect change and open up the possibility of a new mode and relation of production, is to miss everything.

As a relevant footnote: I think, Andrew, you've misprised Marx in a quite telling way. The quote you mention is "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please." However, it continues, "they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." He refers not to complexity or fluxes or some set of circumstances and forces outside human action, but rather to the circumstances handed down by previous struggles, "The tradition of all dead generations." There is no force whatsoever making history which is not human activity, which must struggle both against inherited forms and immediate antagonisms.

The form this struggle will take is indeed up for grabs, and up for discussion, and I am lucky indeed to have the chance to discuss it with such folks.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Asher Ghaffar said...

there's a good dialogue that you may have seen over here:

6:16 PM  
Blogger Asher Ghaffar said...

This seems to me to be the key question embedded in that dialogue, as far as this discussion in concerned:

"There was a movement, a youth movement, to elect Obama. Will that movement dissolve itself? Will that movement build itself now around the objectives for which it organized? Will America recognize, as I believe South Africa has after the election of Mandela, that the election of Mandela was not change, but an opportunity to change? And whether that opportunity is realized and transformed into a program of social justice within the country and peace abroad will depend on the movement that pushes Obama and gives him the opportunity to respond to it."


7:06 PM  
Blogger Asher Ghaffar said...

another fine article here, sorry cant engage with wallerstein. i dont know much of his work and generally dont trust deterministic world systems theory. i prefer joron's poetry and essays over wallerstein any day.all this utopian post race rhetoric, as hopeful as it all is, really covers over the actual questions like what will obama do for poor people of color, and poor people generally. or what will the movement that crystallized around him do. thanks for allowing an outsider to engage.


9:34 AM  

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