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I enjoy talking about the provenance of ideas, both in terms of personal intellectual histories--that is, how I have come to think of an idea, how I have come to hold an opinion and how the meanings of that opinion have evolved over time, the genealogy of things, what a mechanic has meant to me personally over the years--and in terms of societal level intellectual histories--what has "Christianity" the object meant over panoply periods?
The term provenance I take from art history, where it means the history of the ownership and uses of the object. Often it's mere tabulation of accessions and deaccessions, or mentioning that we thought this particular vase lost in a fire, or that one of its owners was sent to the death camps in Auschwitz and we only have it now, intact, because a German general plundered that family's home and appropriated their wealth. It's about the life of the object. For a provenance of ideas, then, it should be about who has held the object. At different periods, different people hold the idea, and their ownership thereof influences it. You may say the analogy is shaky, but do not the Elgin Marbles illustrate the analogy? The Elgin Marbles, by being purchased by Elgin, have had their meaning transformed, not to mention their actual physical status transformed due to the British Museum's richer conservation practices (on account of their money), and not to mention the endless conflict between the Greek government and the British government of who should have them (the answer, clearly, is the Greeks). They have been renamed. They are seen and analyzed by different people. They have become a political object, rather than merely an aesthetic one. The idea is held by people, and it is transformed by people, surely, in similar ways. An idea is held by ourselves in youth and ourselves in old age, and that changing of owners changes it.
For a brief period in time Marx got to hold the idea of Capitalism, and what had once been owned by Smith and by the capitalists themselves found itself transformed by relation to Marx. The meaning of the term changed; no longer did it mean the privatization of risk and a celebration of open trade relative to mercantilist ideals, but the exploitation of the working class under the regime of private property. The meaning of capitalism, the current system of distribution in this world, as determined by machine gun and gentleman's agreement, holds supreme societal implication. And, I would argue, that one of the main transmutations that Marx wrought, and which I am familiar with moreso through the works of Lefebvre and Piketty than through the man himself, is that capitalism is a temporary regime. In this brief period when the idea, somehow, was deaccessioned from the halls of the factory owners and accessioned into the heart of a political philosopher, capitalism became a regime that felt bounded. It became a period in time that felt neccessarily as if it must come to an end. We could build socialism. Even latter developments suppose this temporary nature. What is it that the accelerationists accelerate towards?
But, capitalism, by being defined by the temporary, itself transformed. (Or, maybe, it did not transform at all, and rather had always been this way: how much of the provenance of an idea is transformation via ownership and how much of it is mere teasing out of true identities?) For, capitalism, in seeing its mortality, in understanding itself as a temporary regime, began to recomport itself with relation to the temporary. In doing so, it became an infinite regime of the temporaries. I'm going to tease this out through theory and my own life as a yuppie working in healthcare. Don't worry, by the time that we get to the end, I'll have hopefully had something to say on that famous Mark Fischer thesis: We can imagine the end of the world more quickly than the end of capitalism.
What do I mean by a regime of temporaries? It is meant to evoke contradiction. A regime implies a moment of some stability, but then again, this coined term evokes a stability of instabilities, which seems to be something in which capitalism itself would take pride. The reallocation of capital is something that is celebrated. A fact, explained to me by a finance professor at my undergrad institution, that the Forbes richest person list looks remarkably different in 2018 than it does in 1980, suggesting that, though no Rockefeller will ever work, capital will crown ubermensches only temporarily, was illustrated as the benefit of capitalism, suggesting some sort of egalitarianism in the upper echelons of society, regardless of wealth concentration. I moved across the country for my job: any deep roots to community have become temporary ones, and we name this dynamism, the ideal that capitalists cite when attacking rent control, which promotes staying put and ends the dynamic. Capitalism, in seeing that it has a set amount of time to live, that it is a temporary regime, has made a bet on a type of immortality: if capitalism is to be temporary, why not make it an endless succession of temporaries?
Capitalism, to escape being a temporary regime, must be a regime of temporaries, must be the stable unstable. How else can you end history, a necessary dream of capital, when things keep happening?
I have already invoked Lefebvre and Piketty. I would call myself an acolyte of those two, in part because I think that they make two major points in critique of Leninist communism: (Lefebvre) the fact that Leninism first took root in the underdeveloped countries rather than the developed ones, subverting the scientific progression of capitalism to the point of unlivability, and (Piketty) the fact that Marx wrote in the worst moments of capitalism, and that but a few years after his death wages did, in fact, rise for the working class, and the middle class found itself born. I believe those are critical expansions on the socialist framework. So, without declaring myself anything other than a Marxism noob, I think that there is something to be said about these two major works, Capital in th 21st Century and Critique of Everyday Life that involves the temporary to which Marx adhered fully, and to which capitalism has arguably allied itself and argued as its major asset. Namely, two ideas in these works, the everyday life and its relations to alienation as seen in Lefebvre, and the global wealth tax and stakeholder capitalism as formulated in Piketty, find themselves undone by capital's celebration of the momentary.
I would describe myself as a Pikettian, or whatever we are going to end up calling the followers of Piketty as opposed to Marx. What can I say? I was an economics major, and I get sappy over long strolling works that discuss French literature, history, and expansive new data sets. I believe that the data in his work is compelling, and that his principle concerning the relation of interest to growth is a good general way to think about how capital accumulates. His contribution to Marx, I feel, is that he largely debunks the idea of the infinite accumulation of wealth. The fear that Marx had does not bear out in evidence over the larger sweep of capitalism, even though it certainly looked the case at the time. Growth prevents such accumulation and provides an increase to workers' wages. Furthermore, his discussion of the supermanagerial class, and the birth of those who accumulate wealth through wages rather than capital, is cogent. Hey, AOC, of whom I'm a fan, tweeted out that Capital in the 21st Century was a favorite book of hers. That particular niche of the left, the Saez left, the Piketty left, has appeal to me, maybe because of a false nostalgia for centrism or because I was an economics major in college, or maybe because I remain half-hearted when it comes to revolutions (I'm working on that).
I want to say, as a brief aside: There is no infinite accumulation of capital, and the capitalist class seems to have a limit to how they grow wealth, a limit bounded by the growth rate of the economy. Piketty presents this at the macro level, and my finance professor's factoid presents this at the level of individual capitalists. Maybe this has more of an impact on the decisions of capital: if one cannot accumulate infinitely, thus solidifying an endless reign of wealth, then one must instead accumulate the temporary, and elongate the momentary as much as possible.
Yet, the error in Piketty's conception of a cure for capital, and that is what he is trying to cure, lies in its inability to see the temporary and the unstable as the heart of capitalism in the 21st century. I see this cropping up in the following three ways, (1) His apologia of stakeholder versus shareholder capitalism in the context of Germany, (2) His adherence to the idea that at some point the stress of proletarian sentiment leads to revolution (he cites the French Revolution and its reign of terror as evidence) as a war-torn rebuttal to high inequality, and (3) His proposed cure of the global wealth tax. I want to begin with the last of these, the global wealth tax, for a few reasons. The first is that this is his main idea: to analogize Marx and Piketty, Marx's belief in the infinite accumulation of wealth maps to Piketty's belief in r>g, whereas Marx's belief in a cure through proletarian upheaval meets its Pikettian counterpart in the global wealth tax. It is also the only time that he seems attuned to this polymorphic capitalism, and the adherence to the temporary in the current state of capital.
The fatalistic component of Piketty, which distinguishes him from the relatively upbeat Marx, and deeply distinguishes him from George, is that he understand that his own remedy is untenable: capitalism has already thought things through. The issue, as Piketty notes, with the wealth tax is that it would have to be global in order to work, otherwise the velocity of capital would allow any capitalist to avoid taxation in perpetuity. An illicit version of this is illustrated in the multitude tax havens revealed in the Panama Papers: entire countries betting on the fact that capital knows no borders. A more legal version of this, however, can be seen in Ireland. Google, and many tech companies, frankly, elected to call Dublin their European home because they knew that the Irish government would allow them tax breaks that were simply illegal under EU law. This second example was frankly banal. No one gave a shit; but it also best illustrates the issues with a global wealth tax, which is that this is a group game theory problem without a proper core. It is always individually rational for a country to break away with current tax law in order to maxmize capitalist profits; that is, this is one of the few contexts where the Laffer Curve does manifest: you can guarantee a hell of a lot of taxes by offering Google an illegal rate to enter the common market, thus bilking your fellow member states. (Which is to say: the Laffer Curve does work, but not because high taxes dampen the dignity of work for the supermanagerial and capitalist classes, but because cheating the system almost always pays).
Piketty knows this, which is why he proposes a wealth tax which is global. After all, a Swiss bank account only differs from our Irish example because the Swiss allow the capitalist to cheat the entire world, whereas the Irish allow the capitalist to merely cheat the EU--that is, a Swiss Bank account is the Ireland for the rest of the world, the player who freely chooses to renege on the coalition of wealth taxation in order to sop up Lafferian profits. Even if the EU were to play nice, and make Ireland accept a wealth tax, the capitalist would just live among the sunny Swiss, and, in the event of Switzerland deciding to take economic justice into account, would go down south to Panama. Only a coalition of all countries would be able to outlive the capitalist, and this is simply not a reasonable possibility. There is no rational world where that occurs.
This is, as I see it, a product of the temporary, and the way that capitalism turns the regime itself into the temporary. The issue with Piketty's plan is that the world we've received is one molded by the ideals of the contemporary temporary. What I mean by this is that as long as every nation can exploit the fact that there is a true economic incentive to not participate in a global wealth tax, then there will always be at least one nation in which capital can store itself for future generations. Or, if socialism, which stands for the eternal, was burdened by the ideal of "socialism in one country," capitalism will always survive as long as there is "neoliberalism in one country." The two, sadly, play opposite games. Capitalists will weather any coalition of a global wealth tax, and there will be a series of financial instruments and stock market bets to speculate on when such a coalition would collapse.Lenin was wrong about the whole selling a rope thing. The capitalist won't buy the rope, but they'll buy a series of options on the rope in order to best hedge and secure their future, and then another capitalist will take the opposite end of that bet. With capitalists all making panoply bets, no matter what solution you have thought up, you will have at least one person taking the long on it and winning. That's the global wealth tax problem, and the problem with other solutions. Someone will have selected the right bet, and capitalism will survive. Therein lies the success of private property and private risk.
I think that the temporary, or the dynamic nature of capitalism is what prevents the global wealth tax, but I want to focus, for a moment at least, on his celebration of stakeholder capitalism, since this is an idea to which I once, myself, adhered. Stakeholder capitalism, as practiced in Germany, differs from shareholder capitalism by redefining to whom a corporation belongs by expanding the "rights" to a company past merely shareholders and to all those with a "stake" within the company's success. That is, not only do voting shareholders steer the company, but so do union leaders, workers within the company, and regulators. Elizabeth Warren has suggested a reform to American capitalism of this form: She wants to mandate that workers receive 40% of voting shares in a company, shifting the control of the company towards a more expansive list of stakeholders.
Yet, and here I return to my concerns with respect to the temporary nature of capital, or how it institutes a regime of the temporary. Simply put, I do not believe that this sort of stakeholder capitalism has any chance of remaining intact for a given period of time. The aim of stakeholder capitalism is the aim of all non-revolutionary movements against capital: they are meant to deter the capitalists from succeeding in the permanent and infinite concentration of wealth on which capitalism is predicated. Yet, despite Piketty's beliefs thereof, I will note that many of the regimes that attempted to prevent this infinite accumulation have been temporary. Power always ends up breaking through. Within the American context, there was the inevitable and slow chipping away at the New Deal and the Great Society. Glass-Steagall illustrates this dramatically: though designed to curtail the speculative element of the infinite accumulation (that is, the element predicated upon the temporary, on the ability to move capitalism with ease among different sectors, both banking and securities in this case) capital accumulated elsewhere such that, by the 80s, enough power had been leveraged to chip away at wide swaths of the safety net, and by the 2000s, Glass-Steagall was repealed. At some point, I worry that the shareholders will revolt and will strip stakeholder capitalism of its powers. The end of the Merkel era may spell this for Germany, and under a theoretical implementation of Warren's provisions, some future president Ivanka Trump will repeal it wholesale. Or, Ayn Rand was right. Capital can go on strike.
There are two asides that I will mention now, which is that (a) there are benefits in temporary provisions, benefits of which Piketty is aware, and (b) how Piketty recognizes the polymorphic and temporary nature of the capitalists' toolset to break down this preferred fix of stakeholder capitalism. As for (a), stakeholder capitalism will provide the temporary advantages which benefitted the recipients of the New Deal and the Great Society, but, more importantly, it has already provided a tangible benefit, noted by Piketty, in the German context. Piketty makes the solid argument that German laws dampened the power of the capitalist class and allowed the proletariat to better weather the Great Recession. When shareholders are not given free reign over corporations, they are less likely to liquidate assets, or to speculate, thus preventing the recession from reaching truly dire troughs. There are therefore both distributional and macroeconomic short-run benefits to this approach. Even those with a revolutionary praxis must attempt to assuage the terrors of capitalism, even if we have to admit that such things are bandaids which simply buy us time. As for (b), Piketty largely blames a temporary slowdown in anglophonic economies relative to Asian economies for the rise of neoliberalism therein during the Thatcher and Reagan regimes. The fact that Japan, and then Korea and China, ultimately caught up to the United States and the United Kingdom, coupled with the end of the United Kingdom's empire as symbolized in the Falklands War, caused a panic among the citizenry in which growth, of any sort, be it fueled ultimately by the rise of inequality and the inherently temporary benefits of deregulation, became paramount. That era's neoliberalism was, largely, at least for OECD members, a phenomenon confined to these two countries. Yet, we are seeing this impulse now in France, with the election of Macron, a reaction at least somewhat made in fear of the migrant crisis and in fear of the backlash to the migrant crisis. This is to say that capitalism, in its gross efficiency, is effective at identifying the weak points in a given regime and using it to leverage an end to the stumbling blocks placed in front of the accumulation of capital.
Notably, this is the reason why Georgist thought will never ultimately prevail. It, too, is an attempt to prevent the accumulation of wealth by taxing the "unfair" income from land. But, look around you. What is to prevent an aspring capitalist from collecting enough wealth from "fair" sources, as well as a few handy monopolies on these "unfair" sources of income, and then to use their power to lobby against the Georgist scheme. To return to the global wealth tax, what is to prevent the wealthy from receiving just enough money to bribe just the right politcians to slowly remove the tax? Certainly, I believe that in some ways Piketty's ideal is more ironclad, since the prohibition on unfair income wages will not truly solve inequality--wealth taxation is requisite--it is weak in another way, which is that at some point there will be a country who, witnessing the rise of Ethiopia or Mongolia, elects to remove this tax in hopes of triggering the temporary magic of the neoliberal growth model. And capitalists are smart enough to wait for this moment. They know the only way out of a permanent extinction, as uttered forth by Marx, is the permanent temporary.
There is a final piece to Piketty of which I will only speak briefly, and that is his belief that inequality will at some point dismantle the democratic system itself. This also has some popularity amongst Marxists: we see the great, though temporary, triumphs in France prior to Napoleon and Russia after the October Revolution. Yet, dissolution of democracy, the true outcome of capitalism, can have many forms. You can dissolve into a revanchist regime, as did the Weimar Republic, or you can dissolve into the tame attempts at regulation seen in the New Deal.
To mention betting one more time, which is the modern secret life of capital: you can bet against the US economy by buying Dollar Tree stock, and so if the rope being sold is a global depression, well, at least someone is getting exceedingly wealthy off of that.
I will almost certainly add an addendum to this as I proceed, for I am currently making my way through Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life, which I am enjoying. I think one of its cogent points is that which concerns alienation, and the failure, in many circles of the left, to attempt a sociological critique of alienation. That is: there are too many people who assume that the material is the dialectic, and that a solution to all things is the wresting of the means of production. This is an enthymeme in current wisdom that were we to enter Communism we would all have the time to write, make art, blog, design screensavers, become the total human. One of Lefebvre's points is that Leninism did not get understand how to allieviate the true alienation of the modern era. He talks a bit too much about surrealism, and takes a lot of potshots against it, but still. I think that this matters, and that it relates to the temporary.
One of the things that I notice in Lefebvre is his criticism of "the strange" as opposed to the mythical, the former of which now serves as the substructure of everyday life, and as its main critique. The snake oil salesman, the surrealist, the witch and the palmreader, these are all elements of the merely strange rather than the extraordinary witnessed in old rituals. I'm sure that, if I had paid more attention when reading Benjamin, that I might be able to comment on this in more detail, as the absence of aurality and the replacement of the mythic with the strange are analogues, and are both extensions of Marx's commodity fetishism. When I have finished Zizek, another great commodity fetishist, as well as interrogated The Arcades Project I will have more to say about this.
But, I am someone who feels alienation. I work one of those sad upper middle class gigs that people take with the belief that, soon, they will enter retirement. I don't have friends in this state and my happiness is contingent on Hello Kitty plushies and how well my IRA is doing (it's not doing too hot right now).
I warrant that a lot of alienation, today, in contrast to the time of Lefebvre, in relation to everyday life, is based in the power capitalism holds over the temporary. Lefebvre notes that there was once a time when work and leisure were married in the same space, the home, and in that way everyday life remained in tact. Now, in capitalism, work and life bifurcated, and in this way all leisure becomes a critique of work, which is the everyday life of so many workers. Leisure, like the con man, is a ritual that was once mythic (see the Grand Tour, or further back, the travails of explorers, or further back, Polynesian settlers), and falls into the ideal of the strange.
But, the strange is based in a type of temporary disruption, as is leisure. Hobbies are meant to be provisional. In this age, when people are expected to be called into work at a moment's notice, hobbies are meant to be cancelled, or monetized. If the two meet here in the idea of critiquing everyday life, then it is clear that capitalism and the commodity fetish leverages the fact that one can make the criticism of everyday work life into a temporary phenomenon, thereby preserving capital and the commodity.
Yet, if we are truly in a new stage of capitalism (I will be agnostic to this point, but let's assume), then it is defined by a return to the original means of everyday life that Lefebvre noted, one not based in the delineation of everyday life into equal strides life and equal strides critique of life in the form of leisure and the domestic. The fact that work can call at any time, and that we are permanently at work, makes the entirety of our lives into the new everyday and removes room for criticism thereof. That Huffington Post burnout article, while white and dedicated to the highly educated tranche of the millennial generation, comes to mind. This, once more, is a regime defined by temporaries: the mere chance of being called into work, or having your hours cut randomly, now makes it so that a coherent critique of everyday life becomes impossible. The everyday is no longer everyday because there is no moments for critique of the everyday: it is reduced to a mere structure without a chance of a superstructure.
At one point, work and life were coterminous, and then they separated, and now work attempts to replace life most fully. I think that the way that Lefebvre describes our current moment, or, our now antiquated current moment, as fifty years have passed, surpasses all. He describes the fact that workers now live their lives and find themselves longing for some other sort of life, a second chance at a life they never had. He compares this, in part, to the way that we imagine history, and how we try to think up everyday lives for people in the past, which are always somewhat simulacral, and symptoms of the current era. But both things try to imagine everyday life, and with little success, and they both try to imagine a superstructural version of everyday life. In our imagined history, we take each datum and integrate it together--these are Lefebvre's words--until we have a good sense of what the superstructure ought to be, and we do that with out lives. For, if the superstructure is the integration of the material, then there is both the superstructure of history itself and the moment itself and of the self. The purpose of late capitalism is, in my mind, the attempt to prevent the superstructure from occuring at the individual level by making life into a temporary thing. In my life, I cannot imagine another life that I might have lived because I do not have the time. The temporary has been executed, and the rich fantasies of what we might have been become only brief, temporary sketches. I don't imagine a whole other life that I might have lived. I imagine flashes of what could have been. No new human being and new life appears, only moments without a person attached to them.
I can say it. I lack my own superstructure. Lefebvre makes note of the ways that Marxism is a critical knowledge of the everyday, and in this I see permission to discuss my life in terms of superstructures. I feel empty often. I work 9-10 hour days without a lunch break. When I get home, I do not have the energy, any longer, to conceive of my present or my future.
Which is to say this: I live under capitalism, though I live under a sweet sector therein. My brain, on account of this, has been turned into the temporary. When you spend your days laboring under the regime of profit, which has always been a temporary, something Marx identified, then you start to think in temporaries. The rest of this essay has been, like Fischer for the comatose, a rip-off of left and democratic socialist thinkers, but I want to get personal for half a second: a big part of modern capitalism is that it removes the microscopic dialectic between your everyday life and your work life. But, maybe dialectic is being too kind: work life supplants the everyday, and you begin to think in terms of capital, in structural reoganization and secular growth and temporary profits. Lefebvre, then, was too negative on socialist regimes, which he declared had not sated our alienation, and Piketty is too positive on a stakeholder capitalism that puts workers on corporate boards. For, even if I were on a board, the pernicious dialectic of my life and my relation to capital would still reduce me to the temporary and the profit-seeking, and even though those under the Soviet Union had alienation in spades, reading oral histories of the Soviet Union reveal that, excepting those punished by the regime and those who saw the brutal maw of Chekism, there is a general structure of thinking among these people that is comported to the future, to things that transcend mere moments, to the greater good of socialism and the human animal.
Or: And this is the problem you get when diagnosing the present, and how things may have changed in comparison to times in which you never lived: The temporary has always been a key characteristic of capitalism, and any good socialism must combat this mode of thought. But I think that there's a case that capitalism has found a way to extend their temporaries infinitely. Or, okay, forgive me, this is the last point: Maybe the problem with Capitalism is not as Fischer said; It is not that we can only imagine a capitalism that transcends the end of the world, but that we can't even really imagine the end of the world, we can't imagine any world at all save for our own because of our marriage to the temporary, and our own world has capitalism; the infinite regime of the temporary is based, in part, on making the temporary seem so infinite. But it exends to our private lives as well. In the same way that we can't imagine a time without capitalism, I cannot imagine my life as being dislodged from my current capitalist present, because I cannot, save for in spurts, imagine my life anew.