Correlationism?

July 31, 2009

I’ve just been re-reading G.E.Moore’s classic 1925 essay A Defense of Common Sense – and I thought the following passage was perhaps relevant to some of the current debates about ‘correlationism’.

Some philosophers seem to have thought it legitimate to use such expressions as, e.g. “The earth has existed for many years past,” as if they expressed something which they really believed, when in fact they believe that every proposition, which such an expression would ordinarily be understood to express, is, at least partially, false; and all they really believe is that there is some other set of propositions, related in a certain way to those which such expressions do actually express, which, unlike these, really are true. That is to say, they use the expression “The earth has existed for many years past” to express, not what it would ordinarily be understood to express, but the proposition that some proposition, related to this in a certain way, is true; when all the time they believe that the proposition, which this expression would ordinarily be understood to express, is, at least partially, false. I wish, therefore, to make it quite plain that I was not using the expressions I used in (1) in any such subtle sense. I meant by each of them precisely what every reader, in reading them, will have understood me to mean. And any philosopher, therefore, who holds that any of these expressions, if understood in this popular manner, expresses a proposition which embodies some popular error, is disagreeing with me and holding a view incompatible with (2), even though he may hold that there is some other, true, proposition which the expression in question might be legitimately used to express.

In what I have just said, I have assumed that there is some meaning which is the ordinary or popular meaning of such expressions as “The earth has existed for many years past.” And this, I am afraid, is an assumption which some philosophers are capable of disputing. They seem to think that the question “Do you believe that the earth has existed for many years past?” is not a plain question, such as should be met either by a plain “Yes” or “No,” or by a plain “I can’t make up my mind,” but is the sort of question which can be properly met by: “It all depends on what you mean by ‘the earth’ and ‘exists’ and ‘years’: if you mean so and so, and so and so, and so and so, then I do; but if you mean so and so, and so and so, and so and so, or so and so, and so and so, and so and so, or so and so, and so and so, and so and so, then I don’t, or at least I think it is extremely doubtful.” It seems to me that such a view is as profoundly mistaken as any view can be. Such an expression as “The earth has existed for many years past” is the very type of an unambiguous expression, the meaning of which we all understand.

I’m reading Simon Clarke’s Marx’s Theory of Crisis, which is, I’d imagine, not without flaws, but which I’m finding very lucid and helpful as intellectual history. Like any good intellectual history, it’s also a history by proxy of historical movements and tragedies. A sample: [The whole thing can be downloaded from Clarke’s homepage here.]

For Luxemburg imperialism and militarism provided the markets required to sustain capitalism, but in the 1920s the possibility that rising wages and/or rising state expenditure might provide a renewed spur to accumulation was considered, raising the possibility that social democratic class collaboration might provide a basis for the stabilisation of capitalism, a possibility for which Keynes provided new theoretical foundations in the 1930s. There were obviously very close affinities between Keynesian and Luxemburgist underconsumptionism, the principal differences between Marxist and Keynesian underconsumptionism being not theoretical but political.

The dominant Marxist response to Keynes was to recognise that Keynesian reformism could in principle resolve the problem of underconsumption, but to argue that it was unrealistic to expect such reforms to be realisable under capitalism, since capitalists would resist attempts to expand consumption at the expense of profits, while no capitalist state could be expected to implement a Keynesian programme which put social need above profit. In the post-war period Keynesianism was adopted by the Western Communist Parties as the basis for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ through a political alliance between reformists and revolutionaries in which the balance of forces would shift in favour of the latter as, in the face of the inevitable crisis, capitalists resisted the attempt to bring the accumulation of capital under democratic social control.

Scepticism of the political practicality of Keynesian reformism persisted on the Left well into the 1950s, as the momentum of the post-war boom was sustained by the exceptional circumstances of reconstruction, re-armament and the development of new mass production industries. However, as the boom persisted, underconsumptionist theories of secular stagnation and inevitable crisis appeared less and less convincing, while the claim that Keynesian reformism was in some way anti-capitalist appeared increasingly hollow. Underconsumptionism was now turned on its head, to explain the persistence of the boom as the result of Keynesian policies of public expenditure and fiscal regulation, the socialist character of the analyses lying in their identification of the class basis of such policies, with their emphasis on unproductive waste and military expenditure, rather than meeting basic human needs… Thus Marxist underconsumptionism was gradually assimilated to a left Keynesianism, the differences between the two being primarily rhetorical rather than theoretical.

Okay – this series of posts is about The Theory of Capitalist Development‘s discussion of crisis theory – though obviously I’m assuming some degree of broader relevance. I’m focussing on Sweezy largely because I haven’t read a whole lot of other crisis theory – but also because Sweezy’s discussion strikes me as being very lucid and contentful, and as giving clear expression to a lot of ideas that float around in less clearly stated forms elsewhere. If anyone has any suggestions of reading matter on crisis theory – especially though not necessarily from the Marxist space – please feel free to offer them.

Like the previous post on the Labour Theory of Value in Sweezy, this is largely note-taking, so don’t expect big laffs.

Okay. We’re working through more or less from the start of Part IIICrises and Depressions.

Sweezy starts by discussing Marx’s failure to give a fully worked-out and systematically explicated theory of crisis. For Sweezy this is due to the fact that Capital starts at a high level of abstraction, and gives progressively less abstract accounts of capitalist society as it unfolds. Crises, apparently, require a very concrete theory, and so Marx never got round to giving a full account of them.

To flag up some points of disagreement – I don’t think Capital moves from the more abstract to the more concrete. (I’m persuaded, as regular readers will know[1], by N. Pepperell’s argument that Capital operates through a kind of dialectical embedding of successive analyses in the social conditions that produce them – social conditions which the analyses require and therefore in some sense imply, but which they cannot describe in their own terms. This doesn’t map very cleanly onto the ‘more abstract’ > ‘less abstract’ narrative Sweezy’s got going, though there are, to be sure, points of contact.)

Moving through Sweezy, then:

“1. Simply Commodity Production and Crises.”

Because he’s an economist, when Sweezy thinks things through he moves in his head from barter economies to money economies. Barter transaction is C-C. Simple commodity production and exchange in a money economy is C-M-C. “It is thus the function and purpose of money to split the act of exchange into two parts which in the very nature of the case may be separated in time and space.”

Money economy brings possibility of crisis. “While in earlier forms of society economic disaster was synonymous with unwonted scarcity , here for the first time we meet that peculiarly civilised form of economic crisis, the crisis of overproduction.”

Put otherwise: “The familiar result of a crisis, coexistence of stocks of unsaleable commodities and unsatisfied wants, emerges.” Capitalist crises are, in the first place, crises of distribution, it would seem – money is one of the means of circulation of capitalist commodities, and when something bad happens to money, circulation stops, leaving a big heap of food in one place and a bunch of starving people in another. (Of course – there are always countless starving people, under capitalism. What’s drawing our attention is unexpectedly starving people.)

A crisis, then, is created by an interruption in the process of capitalist exchange – the question of the causes of a crisis is the question of the causes of this interruption.

“[I]f producer A sells and then, for whatever reason, fails to buy from B, B, having failed to sell to A, cannot buy from C; and C, having failed to sell to B, cannot buy from D; and so on. … Thus a rupture in the process of circulation… can spread from its point of origin until it affects the entire economy.”

Sweezy continues: “Now actually it is not easy to think of reasons why producers should behave in this disruptive way [selling but failing to buy – capitalist crises, as crises of overproduction, are going to be created by shortfalls in demand, not (at least in the first instance) by shortfalls in supply (unless we mean a shortfall in the supply of money)] in a society of simple commodity production…. The conclusion seems warranted that, barring external factors like wars and crop failures, crises are possible but rather unlikely, or at most accidental, under simple commodity production.”

Section 2.

Marx rejects Say’s law. C-M-C as opposed to C-C opens the possibility of selling without buying.

Section 3.

Under capitalism (according to Sweezy’s Marx) we move from simple commodity production to expanded reproduction – from C-M-C to M-C-M’. That is, we are dealing with production for profit or for surplus, both with regard to the individual capitalist firm and with regard to the system as a whole, which is oriented to expansion. C-M-C, simple commodity production and exchange, is incorporated within the expanding system characterised by M-C-M’. The worker is not driven by the profit motive – the worker sells labour power (C) for money (M) to buy commodities to consume (C), simply for the commodities’ use value. But because the worker’s labour power is a commodity purchased with an eye to profit, the C-M-C of the workers’ sales and purchases is part of the M-C-M’ of the capitalists’ growth-oriented system.

Fine. We’re going to want to add a fair bit of nuance to this at some stage. (Like – there is a kind of moralisation here, whereby the worker is motivated only by use-value and the capitalist is motivated only by profit. There’s obviously a lot of truth to that – including ethical and political truth – but I think care ought to be taken before incorporating this kind of distinction into our critical analysis – not least because it can incline us to overlook more systemic factors.) (With regard to the distinction between C-M-C and M-C-M’ Sweezy writes: “Through failure to make this distinction orthodox economics has often been led into one or the other of two opposite errors: the error of supposing that under capitalism every one is driven on by a desire to make profits, or the error of supposing that every one is interested only in use values and hence that all saving is to be regarded in the light of a redistribution of income over time.” This is quite good, I think – it points us towards the way lots of economics explains social formations by psychologising either the products of those formations or the formations themselves, and then explaining the social formations via the supposed nature of human psychology. [Sweezy suggests that there are two alternative psychologisations thrown up by the capitalist system here – but the good old utility-maximisation stuff surely contains at least elements of both: everything being ultimately oriented to consumption (not reproduction), but consumption being understood on the model of a profit-oriented balance sheet, maximising pleasure & minimising pain.] The point, in any case, is that neither C-M-C nor M-C-M’ are best understood as being driven by, respectively, a pure desire for use-values or a pure desire for profit. Rather these two sets of ‘desires’ are subject-positions within the social system that generates C-M-C and M-C-M’, and actual human desires can slot into these subject-positions and – potentially – be shaped by them, or by the social forces that make these the dominant subject positions in that social space, rather than others. But all this is a digression.)

So. Running quickly through Sweezy’s argument.

Capitalist wants to maximise profit.

Formal possibility of crisis present in both simple commodity production and capitalism.

You get crises practically every other fucking week under capitalism.

What’s changed (to create crisis tendencies under capitalism)?

Sweezy’s answer: profit.

“[I]f anything happens to ^M [that is – profit] the capitalist will immediately reconsider the desirability of throwing his M into circulation. ^M constitutes the Achilles heel of capitalism which was missing from simple commodity production.”

In other words, exchange gets interrupted when a capitalist sells but does not buy, because the capitalist suddenly becomes worried than he won’t make a profit when he buys and then resells.

This analysis prompts two questions. First up – what creates this anxiety about profit? Second – how does this interruption in profit-oriented buying and selling become system-wide?

I guess that’s a natural stopping point.

[1] ‘Regular readers’ here serving more as component of a hypothetical regulative ideal or condition of intelligibility than as an actual empirical entity, obviously.

Brassier Paper

July 2, 2009

So here’s the paper I presented to Queen Mary University’s recent Immanence and Materialism conference. (A number of papers are also available on the University website.) At the event itself I also got the chance to speak about Brassier’s hypostatisation of Capital as Thought-Thing. But that stuff’s not written up, so below is just the philosophical critique.  Comments are of course welcome.

[NB:  I should also add that I wouldn’t have been able to write this paper without the resources and translations made available and produced by the folks at the Speculative Heresy site (notably Taylor Adkins’ translation of Laruelle’ Dictionary of Non-Philosophy) – Speculative Heresy is certainly the place to go online if you’re interested in speculative realist / non-philosophy stuff.]

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