Another left guru bites the dust?

More attentive Troppo readers may have noticed occasional laudatory references (by Mark Bahnisch and others) to the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein, a lefty sociologist/political theorist whose work is currently all the rage with former Marxists who remain convinced that capitalism is rooted and needs to be overthrown, but can’t even fool themselves any more that Karl or Lenin or Stalin really would have had all the answers for a Good Society if only the evil capitalist imperialists hadn’t sabotaged the revolution and suborned the lumpen proletariat with visions of Maccas, Coke and Pamela Anderson’s tits. Not that I’m suggesting Mark B is a closet lapsed Commie or anything, but it’s certainly true of most of the people I’ve heard quoting Wallerstein.

The advantage of citing Wallerstein with an air of mystery combined with sagacity is that almost no-one outside the ranks of the humanities academy has the faintest idea who he is or what his ideas are about. This reasonably succinct 1999 article by Wallerstein gives at least a brief overview of his thinking. My immediate reaction is that it all sounds like complete codswallop, but I’d be very interested in what some of our economist readers might make of Wallerstein’s ideas (I suspect they’re both economically illiterate and counter-factual).

I also located this 2004 review by Axel van den Berg of Wallerstein’s book The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century in the Canadian Journal of Sociology. I located it via one of CDU’s subscription databases, but it doesn’t seem to be password-protected so you may be able to access it using the hyperlink above. Just in case you can’t, I’ve reproduced it over the fold:

For those who haven’t followed Immanuel Wallerstein’s recent work very closely, this collection of speeches and major addresses delivered during the 1990s to academic audiences around the globe probably offers a handy, if rather repetitive, summary. Wallerstein certainly has not lost his taste for sweeping generalization: the title of the book is meant quite literally, without irony or hyperbole. According to Wallerstein, the end is nigh, not only for capitalism, but also for the very structure of scientific knowledge as we have known it for the past several hundred years. Their joint demise is scheduled to take place within the next 50 years or so.

The book is divided in two parts. Part I, “The World of Capitalism” is mainly devoted to the claim that, contrary to most current reports, “[w]e are living not the final triumph of world capitalism but its first and only true crisis” (30). The main causes of this terminal crisis are the following: 1) world-wide deruralization is robbing capitalism of its last reserves armies of cheap and compliant labour without which it is effectively doomed; 2) the ecological crisis is forcing the internalization of the environmental costs of capitalist production which is impossible without fatal cuts in profitability; 3) the democratization of the world is producing world-wide demands for decent and secure income, education and health care none of which capitalism can afford to provide on a global scale without unsustainable profit loss; 4) the retreat of state power, crucial for propping up capitalist profits as well as the capitalist world-system, because of a massive, world-wide loss of faith in its ability to solve the problems caused by world capitalism. Consequently, the “disintegration of the modern world-system, of capitalism as a civilization” (33) is finally really upon us.

What strikes me most in this account is the degree to which it rests on cultural and political rather than the old materialist arguments. The greatest and ultimately fatal threat to capitalism does not come, in Wallerstein’s view, from an impoverished proletariat or economic crises but from the democratic “geoculture” spawned by the French Revolution. Its revolutionary ideal of sovereignty of “the people” posed a continuous challenge to the elites of the capitalist world-system who have been busy ever since trying to contain its potentially dangerous implications.

For a long period of time, from 1848 to 1968 to be exact, the dominant containment strategy of the liberals enjoyed a remarkable degree of success. It consisted of three limited concessions: universal suffrage, the welfare state, and a racist, exclusionary nationalism. During the 20th century, this strategy was expanded to include national self-determination and the promise of economic development for the “underdeveloped” countries as well. In addition, the liberals were careful to counter the potentially dangerous implications of popular suffrage by a variety of restrictions, most important among which was the effective limitation of the options to be considered by “the people” to those offered by “competent experts,” those sufficiently rational and educated to rule out anything “extreme.” In this way, liberals succeeded in restricting public debate to “technical” questions of formal rationality while keeping the ultimate goals served, the underlying substantive rationality, off the political agenda. Social scientists enthusiastically collaborated in this overall strategy as they were offered a key role as policy “experts.” All this, of course, under the cloak of “value freedom” according to which matters of ultimate ends are inherently “irrational” and thus not decidable by rational argument. Finally, and perhaps most perniciously, the liberals were able to co-opt the Old Left, that is, virtually all anti-systemic movements from the socialists of the North to the liberation movements in the South, into their pacification program with the reformist promise of fundamental change “in the long run.” Thus, “[b]y the twentieth century, it could be said that the only thing that effectively stood in the way of real revolutions were the revolutionary movements themselves” (152), keeping the exploited masses of both the North and the South quiescent with “the opiate of hope” (70).

But the entire clever strategy finally came unravelled as a result of what Wallerstein refers to as “the worldwide revolution of 1968.” This revolution, which did not reach its climax until the fall of the Soviet system in 1989, consisted of a dramatic world-wide loss of faith by the popular masses in the entire reformist program, as well as in its Old Left proponents and in the state with its armies of “experts.” As a result the capitalist world-system is now fast approaching “a point of bifurcation,” as every system does at the inevitable “moment when it has or will have exhausted the ways in which it can contain its contradictions” (124). What comes after we cannot know because points of bifurcation open up into a genuinely indeterminate future, a whole range of possibilities.

At this crucial juncture, Wallerstein believes, social science has an especially important role to play. It “must … re-create itself … It must finally accept that rationality involves the choice of a moral politics and that the role of the intellectual class is to illuminate the historical choices we collectively have” (155). He calls for a “utopistics,” “the analysis of possible utopias, their limitations, and the constraints on achieving them” (217). But this will, Wallerstein believes, require a complete transformation of the social sciences and of “the entire thought-system of the capitalist world-economy” (198), starting with the abolition of its baneful division between the “two cultures” of (social) science and the humanities. Instead, we must return to the unity of the search for truth, goodness and beauty.

These latter claims are the main focus of the pieces gathered in Part II, “The World of Knowledge.” Wallerstein’s warrant for arguing that all (social) systems must eventually succumb to their own contradictions does not derive from a historical materialist theory of successive modes of production, for he rejects any such progressivist certainty. Rather it derives from a whole new way of looking at the natural and the social world which is on the verge of revolutionizing the very way we conceive of “knowledge’: the “science of complexity” as promulgated by Ilya Prigogine, the 1977 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, and supported by “a large group of natural scientists” (189). The main tenets of “complexity studies” for Wallerstein’s purposes include: that the future is intrinsically indeterminate; that systems tend to move away from equilibria to the point where they reach “bifurcations” that bring new, intrinsically unpredictable forms of order out of chaos; that the “arrow of time” governs all natural processes making them intrinsically historical; and that science should explain complexity instead of striving for simplicity. On this basis, “Prigogine has reunited social science and natural science, not on the nineteenth-century assumption that human activity can be seen as simply a variant of other physical activity, but on the inverted basis that physical activity can be seen as a process of creativity and innovation” (237). Matter, like humans, has a history that presents it with alternatives between which it “chooses” throughout its existence. This new way of looking at the world holds the promise of “a reunited single world of knowledge that knows no division between humans and nature, no divorce between philosophy and science, no separation of the search for the true and the search for the good” (167), we are told repeatedly.

Since we know that social systems are the most complex in the universe and since “[w]e can only do what the natural scientists can only do” (214), we must embrace this intrinsic uncertainty “as an incredible opportunity to imagine, to create, to search … a cornucopia of possibilities for a better universe” (245), Wallerstein insists. As a result of the terminal crisis of capitalism and the new ways of thinking pioneered by Prigogine et al., “we are all offered the possibility of reintegrating the knowledge of what is true and what is good. The probabilities of our futures are constructed by us within the framework of the structures that limit us. The good is the same as the true in the long run, for the true is the choice of the optimally rational, substantively rational, alternatives that present themselves to us” (191).

While these are certainly stirring sentiments, the reasons why Wallerstein thinks we should adopt Prigogine’s revolutionary new approach, or why its extrapolation to social systems is justified, are not entirely obvious. As a quick perusal of the reviews of Prigogine’s books in journals like Nature will show, his is hardly the majority or conventional view among natural scientists. And even if it were, would that in itself constitute sufficient grounds for importing it into social science? Wallerstein appears to be particularly enamoured by the notion of the radical indeterminacy of all natural systems–albeit only at certain critical junctures called “bifurcations.” Like so many other self-styled social theorists these days, he seems to think this somehow implies that we are free to choose from “a cornucopia of possibilities.” For some reason, there currently is a particularly strong need out there for the apparent comfort of being able to celebrate human “agency.” But this is not in itself sufficient reason to adopt Pirogine’s or anyone else’s scheme of things, of course–quite apart from the patent non sequitur involved in jumping from indeterminacy to willful “agency.’

As for his announcement of the imminent death of capitalism, you have to give it to Wallerstein, if only for his sheer contrarian chutzpah, at a time when capitalism seems to be more triumphant than ever and without even the slightest sign of a viable alternative on the horizon. In fact, Wallerstein does not present even a shred of evidence for this bold thesis, while at times conceding, however grudgingly, the rather massive evidence to the contrary, including the popularity of the likes of Thatcher, Reagan and Le Pen among those very disaffected “popular masses” who have turned away from the incrementalism of the liberals and the Old Left. Nor does he even give a hint of the kinds of wondrous alternatives that the “utopistics” and “substantive rationality” he calls for might uncover. “Formal rationality is problem-solving but lacks a soul, and is therefore ultimately self-destructive. Substantive rationality is extraordinarily difficult to define, lends itself to much arbitrary distortion, but is ultimately what the good society is all about,” he tells us (101). This sounds remarkably like the old Frankfurt School lamenting the evils of “instrumental rationality,” complete with the studied evasiveness about the “substantive rationality” on which the critique is supposed to be based and the complete begging of the obvious question as to why it has been so devilishly difficult to agree on its content thus far.

Finally, calls for the “reunification” of the search for truth, goodness and beauty may sound noble and open-minded, but at the abstract level at which Wallerstein pitches them they remain quite vacuous whereas, as we know all too well, they tend to become fiercely contentious as soon as anyone dates to give them any concrete content at all. Now, there are ways of reconciling the true and the good, of course. One way is to insist with Hegel that “the good is the same as the true in the long run” (191). But again, either that “long run” never comes or, when forcibly applied to the here and now, such insistence notoriously has a way of producing only massive human suffering and bloodshed. And then there is that other way of reconciling what things are like and what we would like them to be, which, as we know at least since Hume, is called “wishful thinking.” If this collection is any indication, there appears to be more than a hint of both of these in Wallerstein’s recent work.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Remind me not to send you my thesis, Ken :)

I lack the time at the moment to defend every theorist I like from your posts which are based on quick google searches rather than years of engagement with a thinker’s work, so I’ll content myself at the moment by drawing attention to this post where I discussed Wallerstein:

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/007818.html

And I’d recommend that readers follow the links, including to Wallerstein’s own home page where most of his articles are on line:

http://fbc.binghamton.edu/commentr.htm

And also this essay by Brian Bahnisch which assesses the thesis about capitalism which Wallerstein advances:

http://webdiary.smh.com.au/archives/margo_kingston/000272.html#more

Ken, I find your manner of proceeding quite unfair. You caricature a left theorist, and then selectively link to some sort of dashed off critique discovered through a quick google or database search.

The point escapes me unless it’s to establish your centrist credentials as an occasional RWDB. I suspect it’s also demonstrating your position on the po/mo-theory-education wars is quite conflicted.

It’s also unfair to readers because you don’t provide them with the materials to make a fair assessment of the value of the contribution by the writer you attack (which is as usual with everything mixed), and because some of these theorists are working in quite delimited and complex fields, those of us who might feel inclined to defend or explain the contribution of Wallerstein and Derrida (for instance) would need to put much more time and research into it than you do with a quickly dashed off attack.

All you do then is stir up a chorus of RWDB commenters who will say, many without even troubling themselves to read a jot or a tittle of Wallerstein’s work, “ah bloody commie Sociologists and Philosophers – kill them all”.

It’s not particularly productive, and smacks of anti-intellectualism.

I think you should think again.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Gee Mark, it’s not as if you’ve ever caricatured a right-winger. We really do say “ah bloody commie Sociologists and Philosophers – kill them all”.

Lefties always complain bitterly when their own tactics are used against them.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

The post is obviously intended to be provocative, but I don’t accept in any sense that it’s unfair. Sacred cows beg to be slaughtered. How does one expose the work of any theorist to popular discussion without writing a post which must inevitably over-simplify (a criticism that’s equally true of your posts on Derrida etc)? I’ve read your post previously, and I’ve also read numerous of Wallerstein’s essays and speeches (though none of his books). Thanks for the link to your dad’s post, and to Wallerstein’s home page (which I should have linked myself). All this means that readers can immerse themselves in Wallerstein’s work to whatever extent they choose.

You may be right that RWDBs will simply scoff and dismiss Wallerstein. That’s certainly my own reaction, but (as you observe) maybe that’s the RWDB part of me. You and others are free to engage with the criticisms of Wallerstein in van den Berg’s review to the extent you have the time, energy and inclination, and I’ll certainly be very interested in the discussion. Although to be frank, I’m more interested in the assessments of economist readers of Wallerstein’s hypothesis on the inherent contradictions of capitalism and its allegedly approaching “point of bifurcation”.

pamela anderson
2022 years ago

I had to summarise a whole tome by IW once.

The Modern World System III : The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730s-1840s (Studies in Social Discontinuity)

Salad days.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

You haven’t entirely convinced me, Ken. You could set out in your post what you think the salient features of Wallerstein’s argument in respect of capitalism are then rebut them. But you ascribe motives to people instead. Not that ex-Marxists might not like Wallerstein’s work, but that has nothing to do with the validity of the conclusions he reaches as a social scientist.

I’d pause to observe that I’m not an ex-Marxist (closet or otherwise) as you acknowledged, but I still think that Marx had a lot of valid insights into how capitalism works (and some invalid ones too). As Chris said on numerous occasions (including his history and po/mo thread), and as we discussed at length on the Ghost of Ideologies Past thread before it went Troppo, much contemporary social science simply presumes and has incorporated Marx’ insights without in any way being “Marxist”.

It seems to me that your post is capable of being interpreted as suggesting that Marxist is a dirty word (not that I’m saying that’s your intention), and perhaps you’ll get the predictable reaction from the bulls to whom you’ve thrown a red rag. I don’t know.

I actually think the article you’ve linked to speaks for itself, and I read it before wondering whether I should spend some time defending Wallers, but I’ll leave him to talk in his own words.

Let me just remark, as anyone who’s read Braudel knows, capitalism had a beginning and there’s every likelihood that it won’t last forever and will one day come to an end. Wallerstein thinks this *might* happen in the next century, and realises and admits he may be wrong. The Romans were proclaiming the eternal nature of their Empire 2000 years ago, and their claims about the end of history proved premature as well.

The important thing, and I don’t think you’re doing this with your call for economists to comment, is not to simply dismiss Wallerstein’s contention that capitalism has limits to its ability to reproduce itself as self-evident nonsense. It’s not. He makes some powerful arguments which are no doubt capable of refutation. But I suspect all we’ll get is “bloody commie – how ludicrous – capitalism is ace and will always be with us”. We’ll see.

EP, I’m completely unaware that I’ve every put up a post criticising a right-wing thinker (let’s not class op/ed columnists as theorists, please). In comments on several occasions, here and at BP, I’ve said Hayek is a tricky bugger to refute. I don’t judge academic theory on the basis of its or my politics.

Niall
Niall
2022 years ago

Tsk! Tsk! Ken. You’re displaying much less than the much-espoused centrist ethos you purport to adhere to. Having personally met Mar B, I’d have to say he’s as far from a lapsed commie as any RWDB I’ve ever read. Not to say that he’s of that ilk either, but at least he’s an equable human-being…..unlike some, eh, EP?

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Ona caricature is as good as another, Mark. I don’t consider professional “theorists” to be a class apart.

Of course, considering the crap that some come up with, such as Luce Iragaray, Mary Daley or Ward Churchill, one might be tempted to cut them some slack for being retarded — but I think everyone in the political arena deserves similar levels of treatment.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, you and I differ on that, EP. Yes, there is a political component to academic theorising but to the degree that it claims to make sense of the world or social phenomena, it has to be evaluated on the basis of its success or otherwise in that field – the politicisation of science and social enquiry is a bad thing for the development of human knowledge generally. Columnists on the other hand are engaging in political discourse in the purer sense of the word and deserve evaluation on that basis, particularly since most rarely back up their opinion with facts, and indeed, often distort the truth.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

van den Berg is engaging with Wallerstein’s arguments in a scholarly spirit rather than one of political journalism. I’m interested in what you and other readers make of both Wallerstein and van den Berg’s criticism of him. I had intended to write my own original post critiquing the Wallerstein article I linked to initially, until I found the van den Berg review and concluded that it reflected my own reactions but expressed them better than I could have done.

As I said, I’m also interested in the reactions of economict readers to this aspect of Wallerstein (extract from his linked article):

“But how does one accumulate capital? The crucial prerequisite is obtaining profit from economic operations, the more the better. And profit is a function of the differential between real costs and possible prices. I say possible prices because of course no seller can infinitely increase the price demanded for a commodity and expect to sell it. There are always limits. Economists call this the elasticity of demand. Within the limits of the rate of elasticity, the actual profit depends upon three costs: the cost of labor, the cost of inputs and infrastructure, the cost of taxation.

Now suppose we were to measure these costs globally as percentages of total sales prices and arrive hypothetically at average levels. Of course, this is an operation no one has ever done, and is perhaps not doable. But it is possible to conceive of it, and to approximate the results. I would suggest to you that, over 500 years and across the capitalist world-economy as a whole, the three costs have all been steadily rising as a percentage of total value produced. And the net result is that we are in, and ever more coming into, a global profit squeeze that is threatening the ability of capitalists to accumulate capital. …

Not only am I skeptical that global production is more “efficient” from the point of view of the producer, but I am contending that the curve has been steadily downward. All the so-called triumphs of efficient production are simply attempts to slow down the pace of the downward curve. One can regard the entire neoliberal offensive of the last two decades as one gigantic attempt to slow down the increasing costs of production – primarily by lowering the cost of wages and taxation and secondarily by lowering the costs of inputs via technological advance. I believe further that the overall degree of success has been quite limited, however painful it has been for those who have borne the brunt of the attack, and that even the limited gains are about to be reversed.”

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

watch yrself, EP, my nefarious femonazi Commie plan to steal yr sperm is approaching perfection :)

Niall’s right. anyone who’s met Mark would know that Commies or ex-commies aren’t fashion obsessed and dare I say it, metrosexuals? he’d never be seen in a che guevara t-shirt or a red beret – so last year… :)

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

I think that almost all “social science” has been politicised to the extent that it is pretty much indistinguishable from partisan polemics.

“Intellectuals” like Noam Chomsky and the paragons of “Social Work”, “Political Economy” and “Women’s Studies” are merely skilled at expressing stupid ideas in complex language.

There is still some valuable work being done in real science such as physics, chemistry and technology — because in those fields you can’t get away with handwaving or politically approved absurdities. But the “soft sciences” are mainly political, and mainly wrong.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Whatever, EP. I’ll remember that next time you or any other RWDBs quote any social scientific research in support of your viewpoint. I suppose it’s a movable feast though – if you find something whose conclusions you like, you’ll just tell me that this is an exception to the lefty/po/mo/politicised rule.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

On the van den Berg review, he’s being specious by suggesting that Wallerstein presents no evidence. In his monographs he does. The book that van den Berg is reviewing is a collection of occasional interventions, conference papers and so forth. Wallerstein refers readers to his longer and more substantive texts where he discusses capitalism’s limits.

If you want other sources from a similar perspective, try the work of the geographer David Harvey or the sociologist Giovanni Arrighi. They’re heavy going, though. What Wallers is doing is summarising his views for a broader audience.

Volume IV of “The Modern World-System” is due out this year and I expect that Wallers will take the story up to the present day with a mass of statistics, footnotes and exegeses.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I’d be interested to know what Wallerstein thought capitalism would be replaced by.

It occasionally strikes me that the one constant in all societies, once they have reached a certain point of social evolution, is trading for profit – and this includes trading one’s own labour for reward, or profit. I don’t see many (if, indeed, any) societies on the historical or archaeological record that did not spontaneously ‘invent’ a trading regime, whether by way of barter, exchange of goods in kind, or – and they all seemed to reach this point eventually – cold hard cash. My Braudel is rusty, I’m afraid, but is this not consistent with the ‘deep structures and currents’ focus of the Annales school of historians?

If this is true (and I’m certainly not saying it’s unarguable) then it seems to me that capitalism may, in fact, go on forever. Some latterday defenders of capitalism have argued that capitalism succeeds because it reflects human nature. I wouldn’t go that far; but I would say that it seems to be more in tune with people”s ‘natural’ desires and aspirations, as reflected in the written and non-written records than any available alternatives.

Baudrillard, in his ‘Mirror of Production’, is explicitly critical of Marxism because it relied on exactly the same dynamics as capitalism – the labour/capital conflict – and simply re-created them, but in reverse. In other words, Marxism was born of capitalism and could never free itself from its grip. If this reading has any traction, it follows that Marxism was never going to overthrow capitalism, merely replicate it in a reconfigured form. (Mark, your knowledge of JB is greater than mine, so if I have misrepresented his position I’m happy to be corrected.)

As for the Roman Empire, I don’t see how you can draw a parallel with the potential for capitalism to come to an ‘end’. The Roman empire was a political system that overreached itself, became fatally weakened internally, and was eventually overrun – the western empire, at least: the eastern empire continued for many more centuries in Constantinople. Arguably, though, Roman economics were capitalist: and capitalism certainly survived the fall of its host on that occasion; or at least it was ‘re-born’ again when Europe moved from a gift to a money economy in the 12th century, and the mercantile revolution began.

In an interview given shortly after 9/11, Christopher Hitchens argued that there is not any longer a general socialist critique of capitalism, in the sense of offereing an alternative or a replacement. that’s bad enough; worse is the possibility that the deeper truth is that there never really was

Maybe we’ve all been capitalists all along. I don’t get any more joy from that sombre reflection than anyone else.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

I’d say that capitalism reflects the nature of life in general, rather than merely the nature of human life. As with the biosphere, it’s self-propagating: It grows because it works, and it works before it grows.

Of course, neo-malthusians will protest that eventually growth must stop. This objection is not ironclad, however. Limitless growth may be possible with finite resources by increasing sophistication of information rather than raw resource use. Alternatively, capitalism may reach a steady state once it has engulfed all human economic resources.

In any case, objections based on Marxism are naive and unjustified by actual conditions in the world.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

“Baudrillard, in his ‘Mirror of Production’, is explicitly critical of Marxism because it relied on exactly the same dynamics as capitalism – the labour/capital conflict – and simply re-created them, but in reverse. In other words, Marxism was born of capitalism and could never free itself from its grip.”

Wallerstein essentially says the same thing.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

EP – I would agree at least that the potential for wealth generation is infinite, given human ingenuity, enterprise, entrepreneurship and, yes, probably, greed.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, Braudel agrees with you that there have always been markets and exchange (as long as societies have reached the point where a tradeable surplus can be produced) but capitalism as such only existed in pockets until the modern era.

It’s correct to say that there is no chance that capitalism can adequately be opposed unless one can counter it with an opposing version of how the economy should be run. Attempts to claim there is life left in Soviet Marxism are unconvincing in the extreme. There is some interesting work being done in participatory economics, but it requires a corresponding political theory and the ability to identify a social group who can be mobilised in its support.

Wallerstein sees two main alternatives to Capitalism – something more humane, or a sort of autarkic authoritarianism. Brian has more on this in his article, which I suggest you read. Wallerstein also emphasises that the future is open, and it’s not for him to stipulate what ought to come about. In this, he’s very far indeed from the Marxist paradigm.

In fact, the key point of differentiation is that all orthodox Marxists define capitalism as being in existence when the wage relation is the predominant social form of production (= “free labour”) whereas Wallerstein and Braudel do not.

“Arguably, though, Roman economics were capitalist: and capitalism certainly survived the fall of its host on that occasion; or at least it was ‘re-born’ again when Europe moved from a gift to a money economy in the 12th century, and the mercantile revolution began.”

Not really, Rob – the problem with the fall of the Roman Empire was that it increasingly prevented trade to the degree that markets for tradeable commodities existed (most goods were provided by the State). It’s more accurate to see it as a slave-based form of production. The Byzantine East, where markets and trade were more in evidence, had a better chance of surviving the Barbarian Invasions because of their greater economic resilience.

Haven’t read JB for years – remember thinking “The Mirror of Production” was interesting – the argument is not original to Baudrillard but it has a lot of force. Wallerstein, of course, is not a Marxist.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“Alternatively, capitalism may reach a steady state once it has engulfed all human economic resources.”

But capitalism can’t operate in a steady state and without growth because it works on constant expansion of markets and thus of profits, or on speeding up the circulation of capital. Arguably, the Great Depression was a consequence of the protectionism and autarchic trade policies of the time because they prevented both these conditions of capital’s reproduction from occurring to the degree that they could – though it’s more complex than this, obviously.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rob
I’m not sure it’s all that useful to conflate modern market capitalism with earlier forms of trading systems including mercantilism. It’s a sin of which Wallerstein is also guilty in arguing that capitalists’ profits have been getting squeezed progressively for 500 years!!! Modern market capitalism has only existed in a meaningful sense for 250 years at most. It’s no doubt true that some system of economic organisation involving trade has always existed and probably always will, but it’s a somewhat trite point.

Wallerstein is only interesting to the extent he can demonstrate that the specific modern global capitalist system under which we currently live involves the internal contradictions he claims, that will lead to an eventual and inevitable “point of bifurcation”. I doubt that the argument is sustainable, but I’m not an economist and I want some economists like Jason Soon (or whoever) to engage with this aspect of Wallerstein.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

“But capitalism can’t operate in a steady state and without growth because it works on constant expansion of markets and thus of profits, or on speeding up the circulation of capital.”

That’s what the current type of capitalist economy depends on — but it might not be the limit for all possible types of capitalism.

In an analogy to the ecosystem, it might be possible for individual capitalist entities to grow for a period, then die, leaving subsequent entities to feast on their remains. Thus like plants and animals, corporations could continuously grow (most of the time) while their totality remains steady.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I think ‘capitalism’ simply represents the systemisation – perhaps ‘re-labelling’ – of an instinct that is as old as organised society. Capitalism won’t fail because of its ‘contradictions’, however understood, either for Marx or for Wallerstein. On the contrary, it grows and strengthens precisely because of those contradictions.

I have slowly and unwillingly come to the conclusion that there is no viable alternative.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

The only thing that saved capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s was War.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Hardly. A flirtation with Communism wouldn’t have lasted long in a democratic society like the US or UK. It only survived in other countries because of a ruthlessly oppressive totalitarian government.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

“The only thing that saved capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s was War.”

So applying Chomskyite logic, we can say that because capitalism benefited from the war, it must therefore have started it. Nothing to do with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, then. Strange, I thought the capitalist countries were shit-scared of war – something Hilter understood very well – and also that the arch-capitalist country, the dreaded US of A, didn’t bother to get involved until it was itself attacked by the Japanese.

Come on, Mark.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Have you forgotten the Great Depression, EP, and the fact that the US economy only revived in the late 30s because FDR effectively put it on a war footing? Post-war, the US economy was able to deal with its tendencies to over produce through creation of massive consumer export markets through the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Japan. Of course, the Japanese and Germans caught up with the US when Nixon became President and then we got the beginnings of neo-liberalism, and the deregulation of international finance that goes under the name of globalisation.

I’m sorry to tell you this, EP, but Capitalism only survived the 30s because of massive government intervention. The reason why Keynesianism became popular post ww2 was that economic planning was held to have proved its worth in the war.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

You’re putting words into my mouth, Rob. I’m a big FDR fan and have no doubt his decision to go to war was right. FDR also wanted war from the mid 30s, as most biographers show. But for a good reason. He didn’t believe that fascism could be confonted any other way. Nor am I saying that there was some economic determism at work causally, but if you go back and look at the history, economic factors played a part.

I’m off to pick up my pizza now. Au revoir!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’ve been thinking about Niall’s comments, Rob’s attribution to me of a Chomskyist position, and my reaction to Ken’s post.

Chris argued repeatedly that there is usually no centrist position. There’s some merit in that. I do accept with Ken that you can stick to the evidence, and hold people to rational argument, but there’s been precious little of that in evidence in the debates over education. I think that Ken, consciously or otherwise, has been over-emphasising his evil RWDB twin to provoke.

I also feel that on these sorts of comments thread that I’m about the only identifiable lefty seriously engaging these days, and it’s becoming too heavy a burden to bear. Because I dislike caricatures and distortions, I find myself defending left positions with which I disagree because I don’t like to see them distorted. Hence I then become a lightning rod for any sort of position (demonstrated in Rob’s comments on Chomskyism) that could remotely be characterised as Left, regardless of the specificity of my own views. If anything, I’m a social democrat with libertarian tendencies, and rather a pragmatist at that.

I’m sick of it.

Someone else can take up the cudgels on behalf of the broad Left, and the RWDBisation of Troppo can be proclaimed complete. I’m sure we’ll get some fascinating insights and debates about sperm theft, the wonders of 50s schooling, the necessity that every 16 year old should be able to locate the Suez Canal on a map, how great everything was before evil lefties stuffed it up and how femonazis and elites are running rampant despite the Right’s control of just about every political and public institution. Not to mention fascinating insights into how good Americandemocracy is, and look at how even them Ayrabs are grabbing it with open hands. Enjoy your RWDB dreams – one day you’ll realise that the world isn’t amenable to dreams.

I’m off to eat my pizza. Goodnight, and goodbye to this comments thread.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

“All cultures, even the most sophisticated, have magic formulas, words or phrases that cast an emotional spell totally unrelated to their basic meaning. No one is free from this effect of language, though the basic formula may be quite different in two different cultures or even for two individuals of the same culture. Witness the definition of infidel in Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Devil’s Dictionary’: “In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion, in Constantinople, one who does.” A more current example, of course, is the differing reactions in the US and the USSR to the word socialism. To those who consider themselves first and foremost patriots of the US, this word connotes a great evil, an evil of particular virulence. Their response to the word is so highly emotional that they become incapable, when under the influence of the word-formula’s magic, of understanding the thing the word denotes. If the spell affects enough people simultaneously, it can lead even to ritualistic murder, such as the executions following the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago or the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, which ended in the death of the two defendants in 1927.”

Charles B. Maurer, Call to Revolution: The Mystical Anarchism of Gustav Landauer (1971:9)

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Lefties were so much tougher in the good old days of the 50s, before they were seduced by capitalistic pizza parlours.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

if Mark’s a closet anything, from talking to him, he’s a closet anarchist…

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, I was extrapolating from what you posted to a Chomskyist position, I was not attributing it to you. If I gave that impression I was wrong and I apologise. Commenting can be tough, too. I’ve had moments here on Troppo and on Tim Dunlop’s blog where I’ve said something dopey (and I’m NOT saying that you have) and people have justifiably got stuck in.

I think one of the great strengths of Troppo is that it is prepared to host a lot of divergent views without reacting in a doctinaire way a la Tim Blair/Andrea Harris about hateful trolls and banning them. Not that Tim B’s site doesn’t have certain attractions of its own.

All that having been said, and in the spirit of perfect amity, I nonetheless believe that the contemporary left should not feel that it alone commands the heights of moral rectitude and that no-one else has any right to challenge for that position. I recognise that you have never said that but it’s an important point for a number of reasons.

Right now, the world is full of middle-aged left-wing revisionists, like me, who are uneasily wondering about the doctrinaire positions they have taken over the years. Part of the time, at least some of us are trying to work off the feelings of guilt we feel for a whole range of what now seem to be blindnesses – like, why did we never care about the gulag, or the annexation of the Baltic states? And why did we buy a bunch of shit from Ivan Illich in the 70’s when the only tangible result seems to be that our kids – or our friends’ kids – are turning out to be culturally illiterate. These are tough things to work through,and sometimes it gives rise to sharp words.

I don’t think you should at all feel that you’ve been singled out or are carrying the burden alone. It’s just that the burden of the left now is a lot more complicated and difficult and there are a lot more critics who are quite familiar with the old left thought processes and have gone through a process of doubt that inclines us to uncomfortable – maybe wrong, maybe Right – questions.

Happy blogging. There’s no reason for you to retreat from anything.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Mark, I’m not sure if that means this box is closed. If not, some random thoughts:

I agree that Ken was being unnecessarily provocative. But if someone begins a statement by lumping Marx with Stalin, it’s pretty clear he’s not at his sensitive best, so I wouldn’t have worried about his tone from that point on.

Resist getting into argumnts with EP. It’s about as dignified as having a shouting match with a drunk on a park bench.

I haven’t read much Wallerstein, although one of my undergraduate lecturers was a disciple. In the passage Ken quotes above he certainly sounds like an amateur on economics. (‘Rate of elasticity’?) He’s obviously the first person to assert a secular decline in the rate of profit; but without reading more I can’t evaluate this version of the theory.

Notwithstanding your earlier dismissal of Chomsky, which I protested against, I’m surprised to find you so sensitive about being associated with Chomsky. I didn’t know that Chomsky had written much about the causes of World War II, but if he has I doubt you’d find much in it to disagree with. And I’m sure that ‘social democrat with libertarian tendencies’ is how he’d characterise himself.

Finally, I wonder exactly what you meant by: ‘…on these sorts of comments thread’. I take it that on some sorts of threads you’re happy with the service!

Better go and read some Wallerstein (after I’ve finished with Wolin).

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, thanks, Rob – of course I was a kid in the 70s so don’t have similar feelings about what went on then. I do feel somewhat outnumbered here at Troppo these days, and I get frustrated, and I’m rather frustrated because Ken, I think, framed his post in such a way as to throw me a bone as well and I’m damned if I’m going to enjoy chewing on it.

I’ve always been happy to defend my own positions.

When’s the last time Ken put up a centrist post or a post bemoaning the errors of a RWDB figure? That elusive balance is slipping away, methinks.

Anyway, if I’m not enjoying engaging, and just getting frustrated and worked up by it (which no doubt is also because I’m tired and stressed), I may as well not engage. I don’t need the aggro at this point.

Yellow’s probably right btw – there’s certainly a big part of me that’s an anarchist.

Oh, and I highly recommend Arriva on Merthyr Road, New Farm if anyone’s in town and wants a very fine Italian meal indeed. I had the pizza with artichokes, ham, olives and garlic. Good stuff :)

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

EP you’ve said some stupid (and offensive) things in the past, but that was a bit snaky, surely?

btw I was quite interested in your characterisation of capitalism as a biological system. It’s only an analogy, of course, but I’ll have to think about it.

Ken, I don’t really have time to engage on this one, but I too have wondered what resident web economists thought of Wallers.

I think you underestimate his own knowledge of economics, though. A cursory reading of his cv (you can find the 39 page document in this large pdf file: http://fbc.binghamton.edu/cv-iw.pdf) would suggest that he knows a great deal.

I might say a bit more tomorrow night if I can.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James, as I said, a lot of Wallerstein’s longer articles can also be found on his website, should you choose to continue your way through the Ws of political theory :)

http://fbc.binghamton.edu/papers.htm

Ken might also be interested in this link, which is a web based journal on World Systems Theory, which has free access to everyone regardless of university library database subscriptions etc:

http://jwsr.ucr.edu/index.php

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James, here’s the bibliography that Margo K didn’t publish at the end of my Webdiary piece last year:

Brenner, Robert ‘Towards the Precipice’, London Review of Books, vol 25, no 3, 6 February, 2003 (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n03/bren01_.html)

‘Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein’, Journal of World-Systems Research vol 6, nos 2-3 2000 (http://jwsr.ucr.edu/index.php)

Goldfrank, Walter L “Paradigm regained? The rules of Wallerstein’s world-system method’ Journal of World-Systems Research vol 6, no 2, 2000, pp150-195
(http://jwsr.ucr.edu/archive/vol6/number2/index.shtml)

Martin, William G. ‘Still partners and still dissident after all these years? Wallerstein, world revolutions and the world-systems perspective’ Journal of World-Systems Research vol 6, no 2, 2000, pp 234-263
(http://jwsr.ucr.edu/archive/vol6/number2/index.shtml)

Modern History Sourcebook: Summary of Wallerstein on World System Theory (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/wallerstein.html)

Wainright, H “Reclaiming ‘The Public’ through the People”

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

“EP you’ve said some stupid (and offensive) things in the past, but that was a bit snaky, surely?”

What was snaky? What? Don’t leave me in suspense here!

I think the biology/capitalism analogy is a good one. We can observe the evolution of capitalistic organisations over time, and competition between different companies or even whole economies, in which the fittest survive.

After all capitalism is a process performed by the human species, and the human species is a part of the bniosphere. So we shouldn’t be surprised that our societies mimic some aspects of the environment of which they are a part.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Thanks for all those references Brian. I’m a bit tired and emotional now having just got home from a very convivial dinner in town, but in the morning I’ll hyperlink all these references and the ones Mark supplied earlier, in a weblink bibliography at the end of the main post. That way readers can, as I said previously, engage with the topic to the extent they want. That’s the beauty of the web, and blogging in particular.

Mark seems a little overwrought tonight, and I guess that’s understandable given the pressure to finish his thesis and all. I hope he understands that my primary motivation is always to gain knowledge and understanding, often on issues about which I don’t initially know all that much, and do so by stimulating constructive discussion. That sometimes means being provocative and irritating, because otherwise you risk becoming turgid and losing reader interest. It’s a viewpoint I explained and explored in the article I wrote for Chris Sheil at Evatt Foundationa year or two ago, and one I try always to implement. Sometimes it results in interpersonal tensions, as it seems to have done here. So be it. That certainly isn’t my intention, and Mark would be the last person I would want to antagonise.

I must say I do sometimes feel a compulsion to be fairer and less dismissive of some right-ish viewpoints than I might in another situation. For example, my reaction to much of Kevin’s work is fairly similar to Mark’s. But for Troppo to be a reasonably congenial venue for people of diverse ideological persuasions, I think I need to bite my tongue on occasions. Given Mark’s (moderately) left of centre position on most things, I think I need sometimes to be a bit more reticent than I might otherwise prefer. I think the overall atmosphere created at Troppo is one of balance and civility and openness to a wide variety of viewpoints, to a much greater extent than just about any other blog achieves. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I don’t think so, and hopefully Mark will agree on overnight reflection.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Glad you had a convivial and enjoyable dinner, Ken. Yes, I think I’ll sleep on it all.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Re Wallers basic economics. All very othodox. Profits are the differential between costs and returns, and orthodox theory says they decline to the point where returns to factors equal marginal costs, afterwhich production ceases. There is a good deal of hocus pocus in valuing capital’s contribution to production, but there you have it: over time, the factors occupy a larger share of returns, as he observes – given unlimited competition and whatever prevailing population, technology and tastes.

The question therefore is then, on a world scale, where is this story up to? There is a good deal of empirical evidence to suggest some sort of fresh phase was entered into from the mid-70s, the more recent story is mixed, and it would be a brave person who boasted confidence in making long-term predictions.

Wallers is trying to figure the big picture, and draws suggestive outlines. The period from the war to the mid-70s may have just been a freak, by virtue of the fact that so much competition was knocked out by the war. Once modernisation resumed on a sufficient scale, international competition started flattening profits, and neoliberalism is just gloss on increasing returns to capital to avoid the cost of scrapping; a form of capitalist rent-seeking, if that’s not a tautology.

This type of study is valuable. Wallers is in the Braudel tradition, who in turn inherited the project of the great Marc Bloch. Dumbing down in the name of ‘I mightn’t like the outcomes on idelogical grounds’ is just, well, dumb.

And while I’m here, the origins of capitalism are complex and lengthy. Marx dated industrial capitalism from the 16th century, with precocious Middle Age examples. History is rarely tidy.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Thanks for the reference Ken. I read Immanuel Wallerstein and really disliked it. The economics looks aweful to me. The passage about the decline in the rate of profit was written as if there was no literature on it. It was written as if IW had just thought it up.

“In effect, [capitalists] are talking about using fewer people to produce the same amount of goods, or of obtaining cheaper inputs (which often includes fewer people to produce the input). It is of course the case that in inter-capitalist competition, the producer who is more efficient is likely to gain more profit than his competitor. But my question is different: is production, considered globally and in all sectors taken together, more “efficient” today than 100, 200, 300 years ago? Not only am I skeptical that global production is more “efficient” from the point of view of the producer, but I am contending that the curve has been steadily downward.”

Why is IW ‘contending’ this. Why doesn’t he refer us to some secondary literature on it? There is a literature on it you know – going back at least to Ricardo and running through Keynes. People publish papers on it – including empirical ones on it. But IW ‘contends’ things which are foundations of his discussion without so much as exhibing the curiosity – or the shame – to go look them up – or maybe ask someone.

Throughout there was the strong hint of a kind of economic fallacy of composition. “[N]ormal inflation is indeed the consequence of rising wage and taxation levels.” Where do I start with that little line. Does anyone reading Troppo think that? How can I take IW seriously if he thinks he can just toss off stuff like that?

“Wages rise because workers organize. This is an ancient truism, but it is nonetheless accurate.” Tell that to the workers of Hong Kong. Again IW doesn’t seem aware that he is making a controversial statement. The controversy is the extent to which wage rises brought about by workers organising might otherwise have been brought about by market forces. I don’t have any strong views on this, only suspicions, but IW just proceeds on faith.

There’s lots of other stuff to object to. I might try to collect my thoughts and expand sometime later – its getting late!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Nicholas, note what I said above and what Brian said about the nature of the paper by Wallerstein that Ken linked to. It’s a summary of views he’s expounded at much greater length (with detailed attention to the literature) elsewhere.

He’s also talking about the long haul – ie over the last century and a half wages have had a tendency to rise and one factor has been unionisation. Perhaps he’s being too sweeping in his statements but remember the audience for what was basically a talk on his views on politics.

That goes to the basis of my (continuing) objection to Ken’s post – it’s picking out Wallerstein as populariser and political activist to criticise Wallerstein as social scientist. If people want to assess World Systems Theory on economics, then I suggest they look at Brian’s article, and also the links he posted – many of which are to refereed journal articles which are therefore in conformity with scholarly canons in a way that an occasional intervention into political debate is not.

I don’t footnote or discuss the literature when I blog. Two different genres, different audiences. I might also make some generalisations when I talk about politics – you have to.

It’s worth remembering that Wallerstein is taking a very birds’ eye view of long term tendencies in generalising in the Braudelian tradition.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

For instance, I’d find it more productive to hear Nicholas’ or another economists’ opinion on this article by Wallerstein’s colleague and fellow World Systems Theory Giovanni Arrighi, which is a scholarly paper:

http://fbc.binghamton.edu/gairvn97.htm

For another instance, the economic analysis of World Systems Theory is better captured in Arrighi’s book “The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times”.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1859840159/104-9560309-4397546

To save you the trouble of reading 400 odd pages (which I argue you would have to do to seriously assess all this – and as Brian and I have said, you need to read Wallerstein’s monographs as well), here’s part of a review by one Immanuel Wallerstein:

http://www.etext.org/Politics/World.Systems/bookrevs/arrighi_giovanni%3Along_twentieth_century

What can we say about such a vast canvas, most inadequately summarized here? Its greatest strength is its clear vision of capitalism as a single-mindedly rational attempt to accumulate capital endlessly, which means, says Arrighi, capitalists are interested in the expansion of production only if it’s profitable, which is true
only about half the time. The rest of the time, the capitalists expand their money stocks by playing financial games. They can internalize or externalize their protection costs (Frederic Lane’s very fruitful concept) and there are pluses and minuses in each path. But it’s not a matter of capricious option. The structure forces capitalists to alternate in a sort of ratchet fashion: one step backward, two steps forward.
Arrighi’s intellectual indebtedness to Marx and Schumpeter are well-known. What he has done is this book is take Braudel seriously as a source of data and hypotheses and cast him in a Marxo-Schumpeterian mold. The work is truly a political economy, one in which successes breed failures, where “the real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself” (Marx), but [or is it and?] capital ism is the “anti-market” (Braudel).
This book will not make everyone happy. There is no discussion of class, but then there is none in Marx’s Capital. Perhaps more surprisingly, in a work written by Arrighi, there is scarcely a hint about the core-periphery antinomy in the organization of the world-economy. What Arrighi is concentrating upon in the organization of the cycles of accumulation as the key to the story of the historical development of the world-system. And finally, for a political economy, which in theory emphasizes the role of political factors in the process of accumulation, there is little real politics in the book. Words like left and right do not appear, and ideology is never mentioned. The current very central concerns of racism/sexism or culture do not appear in the index.
Nonetheless, this is an important and exciting work, which challenges most people’s approach to the understanding of the world-system. It is argued intensively, if a bit kaleidoscopically. It forces the reader to reflect, if only to locate the potential inconsistencies in the fast-moving narrative. It is not bedside reading. It is a serious book for serious people in serious times.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

This is probably OT for this thread but Mark’s response to my comments has prompted me to collect some reflections of my own.

I would like put on record why your average ex-left RWDB has some problems with the left and its impermeable sense of moral self-complacency, since Mark has flushed out some of the deeper currents.

For decades we blinked at atrocity. We knew about the gulag and the millions of dead but we ignored it. We knew about the abuse of psychiatry in loathsome institutions like Lubyanka, but we ignored it. We knew about the dawn raids and the torture cells of the KGB, but we ignored them. We knew about Stalin’s manufactured famine and the millions it cost but we said nothing. We knew about the suppression of every kind of human freedom under the Red Guards but we said nothing. We knew about the subjugation of Tibet and the murder of its priests and yet we said nothing (until it unexpectedly became fashionable, maybe because Bob Brown took an interest). We knew about the cost – 30 million, wasn’t it? – of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, yet we said nothing. About the invasion of Afghanistan and the destruction of its ancient ways, which paved the way for its later insanity, we said nothing. Of the two million Vietnamese who fled their country when we abandoned it we said, ‘Sorry, you’re just fascists. Don’t bother to apply’ (oh yes, Labor said that all right; it’s a bitter memory. It was Fraser rescued us from that moral abyss).

All the while we obsessed about bloody El Salvador and Nicaragua where the scale of human rights violations was miniscule compared with what we studiously averted our eyes from.

So when people of the left complain about not getting an even break, let them weigh it up against history’s uncompromising record.

The left HAS NO RIGHT to stand on the top of the mountain and peer superciliously down at us poor sods who just don’t understand because we haven’t read the right books. We DO understand. That’s the problem.

That’s why we RWDBs get upset.

That said, I will now crawl back under my rock, anticipating the withering storm.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“The left HAS NO RIGHT to stand on the top of the mountain and peer superciliously down at us poor sods who just don’t understand because we haven’t read the right books.”

My problem is that Ken hasn’t read the relevant books. If I were to write a post critiquing one of the legal theorists he admires, impute political motives to people who admire his work, say that my impression was that on a quick inspection his or her work was codswallop, and then link to a paper the legal theorist had given to a non-academic audience, invite others to comment on this basis, and reproduce a hostile review, I would imagine that Ken would get upset. And justifiably so. And he would probably respond that he’d been reading this person for years, and found that their work had applications in the discipline of law, and I ought to read their monographs before passing judgement. And rightly so.

See my point?

Rob, I don’t know that my claim that Wallerstein is being shortchanged has anything to do with his (or my or Ken’s) politics. It’s the scholar in me that objects – and I second Chris’ point that to assess academic work by the political implications it might lead to is fruitless – I’m worried that scholarly work is not assessed on a scholarly basis but through snap political judgements.

And that’s wrong, and doesn’t help anybody or advance any debate.

Rob, I have no idea whether or not you want me to respond to what you’ve just written. You’re quite right that it’s off topic. All I will say is that if you let these sort of thoughts lead you to a dismissal of anything anyone says if they identify with the Left, then I think that’s unfortunate.

I don’t think claims to moral superiority belong in any measured debate, quite frankly.

I’m afraid you might be demonstrating the truth of the feminist axiom that the political is the personal. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, but I was a kid or not born when most of the stuff that troubles you happened, and I personally feel no need to come to terms with it unless we’re specifically talking about those topics.

I certainly do not feel that it’s a legitimate debating tactic to argue that the Left *must* atone for or apologise for what you consider to be its historic errors, mistakes or even crimes whenever we start talking left/right. You can wrestle with these things all you like, but if you think you’re scoring a point against me or against “the Left”, then you’re mistaken.

And as usual, when you post these sort of thoughts, we’re off the topic and into a potentially endless and fruitless discussion.

So I’ll go to bed now.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“the left and its impermeable sense of moral self-complacency”

This is exactly the sort of stuff I was objecting to on the Kevin Donnelly thread. I never accuse the “Right” as an entity (and as Rafe correctly points out) of any sweeping failings such as this.

This is the exact reason why I am getting so very very very very sick of this RWDBisation of Troppo. Because I identify with the Left, I feel that I ought to respond and defend those of us who do. I’ll cease to bother, I think. This sort of “argument” speaks for itself, Rob. Who’s up on the mountain now?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Never mind. Sleep well.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, I’d like to, Rob, so contrary to my previous intention I’ll respond to Ken now because I want to forget about it now and get a good sleep, and not think about it tomorrow either – recognising that I’m obviously steamed up – but for my own piece of mind, I need to get this off my chest.

Ken, I recognise and appreciate that you didn’t intend to antagonise me and nor did I ever think that.

“I think the overall atmosphere created at Troppo is one of balance and civility and openness to a wide variety of viewpoints, to a much greater extent than just about any other blog achieves. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I don’t think so, and hopefully Mark will agree on overnight reflection.”

The frustration that I’m expressing comes from the fact that for a while I’ve been thinking that statement is no longer true. Sure, we’ve always had EP who’s funny, and hates Sweden, and obsesses over sperm theft, and Rafe has the ability to laugh at his own inquisitions. Observa’s always a reasonable interlocutor, and even Yobbo is, in his own way.

But what I think we’ve been seeing is the decline of many Troppo comments threads into an increasingly one-sided non-debate. There are few lefties commenting here these days, and the sensible and reasonably non-aligned and open-minded people seem to get drowned out by all the noise. In fact, someone emailed me to say they’d like to participate but felt that their point would get lost among all the posturing and the bluster. Many of the threads on the culture wars were characterised by predictable RWDB rhetorical moves, ludicrous assertions with no attempt to engage in evidentiary debate, offensive insults and name-calling including from the guest poster, attempts to senselessly provoke, and a general lack of civility.

Maybe that’s not how others saw it, but that’s how I did. I felt that I was fighting not only for a bit of reason in the arguments people advanced, but for the Troppo ethos of civility itself. Have a think about people you no longer or rarely see in the Troppo comments boxes, and have a think about why that might be so.

The ghost of Norman Hanscombe haunts these failed encounters and non-debates. Norman used to be dismissed as a mad crank when he indulged in endless bemoanings of the state of universities, the evils of po/mo, how the Left wasn’t what it used to be and the pathologies of public education. I, in contrast to some, actually found that you could engage with Norman and that he was a reasonable person.

But now we’re living in Norman’s Troppoland.

It’s particularly worrying that so many threads descend into pointless attempts to sledge “The Left” (which contra Rafe, is a complex assemblage of positions, arguments, worldviews and people) generally. The absence of that sort of carryon was one of the good things about Troppo. We might have heard it from EP but his tongue was in his cheek and Nabs is always around to jump on him.

I’d invite people generally to take a step back and reflect on where all this takes us collectively.

It’s incumbent on me to say what I think, and this is my considered position. It’s also incumbent on me, if as seems to be the case, I’m no longer finding my participation here enjoyable and productive, to reassess the extent of that participation. I’ve also found that I’m more likely to lose my temper, am less tolerant and respectful of others, which is how I’d like to be again. But at the moment I’m finding much of what now constitutes debate at Troppo energy sapping, depressing and dispiriting. So I think I need to think about the degree to which I participate in it. So maybe it’s time for this left guru to contemplate biting the dust.

Ken, my fundamental objection to your post, which I’ve thought about further and which I maintain after considering your remarks, is summed up in this quote from my penultimate comment:

“My problem is that Ken hasn’t read the relevant books. If I were to write a post critiquing one of the legal theorists he admires, impute political motives to people who admire his work, say that my impression was that on a quick inspection his or her work was codswallop, and then link to a paper the legal theorist had given to a non-academic audience, invite others to comment on this basis, and reproduce a hostile review, I would imagine that Ken would get upset. And justifiably so. And he would probably respond that he’d been reading this person for years, and found that their work had applications in the discipline of law, and I ought to read their monographs before passing judgement. And rightly so.”

That’s all. Good night.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

can’t sleep tonight. must get stronger pain medication!

ppl probably know by now I know Mark, so I want to emphasise I haven’t talked to him about this, but I think Troppo might be on the verge of losing him, which IMO would be very sad. hope not, just my reading of his comments.

FWIW I thought the tone of some of the comments on the thread about Macquarie Fields and Mark’s on social welfare was pretty horrendous. I made a nuisance of myself on the latter, and argued my point forcefully, but I can well imagine there’d have been some ppl who’d be frightened off.

and on all the education stuff, it seems if you want to question the received wisdom at Troppo these days that the world is going to rack and ruin because of leftie teachers and po/mo theory, 2/3 of the ppl in the room express horror and yr forced to justify at length such heretical sentiments…