Tuesday, 3 May 2011

An unexpected digression on eggs and omelettes during the course of an investigation into the concept of unity in the theory of David Harvey

The greatest art in theoretical and practical life consists in changing the problem into a postulate...' 
Goethe

Organised labour may lead the way. But it needs allies from among the precarious workers and the social movements. We might be surprised to find that, united, we can make our own history after all.
Nice day for a revolution
David Harvey is a marxist, and also the 'Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York'. He seems to be not overly despised within the vituperative milieu dedicated to 'Value form critique'. And by these qualification we should know him as the practitioner of a sophisticated and nuanced critique of capitalist society, its processes, its borders, its thresholds, it cycles and its relations. All the stranger then, as with so many within his milieu, that the political inferences he makes should appear like unexamined idealist categories in relation to the refinement of his economic analysis. 

One of these inferences, the concept of unity, occurs blankly stated, invoked even, in several of his essays and interviews. It is difficult to know what he, or anyone, might mean by 'unity'. We do not know where unity is to be sited: perhaps at the level of interpersonal relations; perhaps as an emergent property of communal undertakings; perhaps it is his term for the proletariat becoming history's identical subject-object. But we do know that the  practicality of the goal of unity is comprehensible only in terms of a violent suppression by means of centralisation of the 'social movements' which he both praises faintly and obliquely condemns. There can be no 'higher' unity without a preceding suppression of heterogeneity at a lower level. This ambiguity in the concept tears the politics of liberation, which he espouses, from his economic analysis. 
All of these struggles are very specific and we have to acknowledge their diversity and appreciate their diversity.  I don't think it's a matter of saying to people, forget your specific struggles and join the universal proletariat in motion; I don't think that's what it's about at all.  What we have to do is to find a way of politically uniting those struggles, and that's why I think something like the concept of neoliberalism and its penchant for accumulation by dispossession provide a kind of vocabulary to start to bring together those struggles around a more general kind of theme.  So that an Iowa farmer who's just lost his farm can understand how a Mexican peasant feels, can understand how the struggles going on in China are parallel, so we start to see a certain unity in all of the struggles, at the same time as we acknowledge their specificity. 
On Neoliberalism: An Interview with David Harvey
There can be no social unity arrived at by means of agreement. As soon as all have their say, there can only be disagreement. There can be no social transformation based upon unity. As soon as all sketch out their vision, an infinite number of different paths emerge. There can be no benign 'scaling up' of social movements, in order  'to translate their often fecund local schemes into a global strategy to deliver an adequate and healthy social life to the 6.8 billion people now on Planet Earth' without the engine of a centralising violence which would expropriate these movements, thus destroying the very qualities which Harvey identifies as 'resistance'. 

Unity of purpose then, may only appear in the form of domination by a state or para-state, i.e. through the actions of an agency that will enforce unity. The political agreement and shared interest implied by unity of purpose may only function on a global scale at the level where the highest possible abstraction forces through its codification of social behaviour. In the cited interview he invokes that ends and means euphemism concerning omelettes and eggs to emphasise his point (this euphemism also appears in his essay Accumulation by Dispossession.) In other words, unity is possible only through the agency of expropriated 'post-capitalised' (as distinct from 'communised') institutions. These would punitively control social divergence, i.e. the movements which Harvey identifies as both struggling against capital and as being inadequate to the task of what he implies is necessary (global planning):
This sprawling and often chaotic movement bids fair to take on the role that organised labour once played. Animated by autonomist and alternative lifestyle thinking and with marked preference for locally-based and networked organisational forms, these movements, often backed by a powerful but insidious NGO culture, have trouble combining and scaling up to translate their often fecund local schemes into a global strategy to deliver an adequate and healthy social life to the 6.8 billion people now on Planet Earth.
There is no practical unity which is not an institutionalised unity and there is no institutionalised unity which is not a violent institutionalisation of the range of permissible relations of unity. Harvey ends politically where many value form theorists end, in a form of unacknowledged accelerationism where the tendency of the forces of production to centralise and massify is understood as a necessary condition for social revolution. At least that is what we must infer from his proposals for the practical measures to be taken, the proposals are actually as vague as they are unpalatable. We must suppose that subjective agency appears on the scene in the form of communist consciousness and is directed towards both the suppression of the established form of the commodity fetish and any consequent divergent flights of dissent. The carrier of this consciousness functions in a context where the infrastructure itself has done the major part of the historical work of revolution and is implicitly mutable for other purposes, like a car parked out in the road with a full tank and its engine running; 

And if you look at the dispossession of the Mexican peasant or even the dispossession of the Iowa farmer, it's one thing to say that the reorganization of society is such that you have to give up your traditional ways of doing things and doing things in a very different way, it's one thing to say that.  It's another thing to say, you're going to give up all your rights and you're going to lose to the point that you just become a disposable person ... They are people who want change, who are interested in modernization, interested in new technologies, interested in doing things in a different kind of way, interested in decent healthcare and decent education, and things of that kind.  
According to Harvey, the peasants want the gains of capitalist development but not the manner in which that development is being delivered (in some way, he implies, they wish to be dispossessed) : 'But what they are concerned about is that they are losing everything or being deprived of things in such a way that they do not get any benefits at all from it.' Like many marxists, Harvey ends up making arguments for what he identifies as the social gains that are to be derived from capitalist relations. The 'human' in all this operates on a much reduced register, on the one hand it is a convenient victim-image of the wrong way of doing things, and on the other it is an idealised end of marxist politics, a subjectively embodied gratitude that will recognise the efforts of marxism in liberating healthcare and education from the commodity form. 

The 'human' element, for marxists of Harvey's type, is categorically not the basic material of communist society. That is to say, because the 'human' in its works is by nature divergent, it cannot arrange itself into the type of unified subjectivity that is capable of reciprocating marxism's ardour for the work-need ideal that is presented to it. If the 'human' always fails to realise itself within the marxist categories of history, then the major part of communist revolution must be undertaken elsewhere, by other means. After all, what is more unifying, more organising of the proletariat, more just-in-time planned and synchronised across the globe than capitalism (the port of Felixstowe, for example, loads 4000 lorries a day)? And if social movements as Harvey implies, are inadequate to the global task, being localist doodlers, whose very form runs counter to the historical tendency of capital to centralise and massify (which is the highest necessity for communist social planning) what better template might there be for post-capitalism than capitalism itself? 

My own view, for what it is worth, is that the political movements, if they are to have any macro and long-runimpact, must rise above nostalgia for that which has been lost and likewise be prepared to recognize the positive gains to be had from the transfers of assets that can be achieved through limited forms of dispossession (as, for example, through land reform or new structures of decision-making such as joint forest management). 
Accumulation through Dispossession
Why doesn't Harvey pursue these ambivalences in his own arguments? Why isn't his politics a reflexive study of the contradictions that have arisen between his economics and politics? More, specifically, why advocate a pro-human politics on the basis of a strategy of centralising economic violence which would necessitate the suppression of those (divergent) forms which the 'human' assumes? Where out-and-out accelerationists proudly announce their anti-humanism it seems that many marxists retain a sentimental image of 'making history' with a human face even when this runs counter to the conditions which they identify as necessary for communism. The human element is not integral to their notion of either revolution or communism, on the contrary, it is problematic in terms of 'production for need' – a goal so complex in terms of planning that it begins to function autonomously from, and even against, those beings who are supposed to embody need. 

Harvey might do worse at this juncture than to consider Goethe's proposition, 'The greatest art in theoretical and practical life consists in changing the problem into a postulate...' In this particular case the problem is that Harvey postulates 'unity' as a political necessity for 'making history' but we see that actually the struggle against capital takes the form of infinite divergences and it is capitalism itself that imposes social unity. Harvey then finds it difficult to politically square the notion of centralisation, which he disingenuously calls 'unity', with the actual forms of dissent (which follows a divergent path [i]from[/i] unity). Whilst absolutely refusing capitalism he ends by advocating its underlying social tendencies of globalisation. And contrariwise, whilst absolutely celebrating re-humanisation, he finds that its actualising process (i.e. therapeutic divergence) runs counter to the historico-economic exigencies of communist planning. 

The problem, in Goethe's terms, therefore hinges on the term 'unity' which sometimes does and sometimes does not function as a cypher for centralisation and global social planning. If there is 'unity' then there is no divergence. And if there is a centralising of organisation to overcome capitalism then there is no divergence (i.e. no innate resistant form of humanisation). If there is no divergence then there is no re-humanisation. If there is no re-humanisation, i.e. if the human form of re-humanisation (which is divergence) is absent, then communism is merely a rationalised form of strategic globalised post-capitalism. If the 'human' is the end but not the means of communism then there is no communism.

Therefore, the multipart conceptual figure, Abstraction-Social Unity-Centralisation-Global Planning must be taken apart. Evidently Goethe's formula may be applied to other 'problems' which have appeared in marxist politics as internal contradictions, i.e. those apparently theoretically nonnegotiable preconditions which are also historically impossible (historical movement, revolutionary consciousness, mass movements and so on.) The transformation into postulates of those problems, which appear irresolvable in their current form, is a purgative means of transforming the constraints set upon the internal relations of the concept's components. Goethe's formula is either an Oulipo type exercise in the investigation of received constraints of discourse, or it is simply the most intelligent course to take; by application of its means, different pathways may be cleared, and unexpected fields opened.  

But Goethe's recommendation is also significant at another level as it encounters instances of that which cannot be relinquished. Goethe's suggestion runs up against the resistance of positions that will not give up on any of the component factors in the specific formulation of their problems. It illuminates the movement of an otherwise displaced vested interest which utilises the specific formulation of a problem as a means to advance itself as its solution. Simply put, it is not always in the interest of an investigative project to resolve the problems that appear in its field. The transformation of a problem into a postulate is a therapeutic procedure and necessarily involves the unpicking of that vested interest which is bound up in the reproduction of unrelaxable tensions. Therefore, Goethe's formula, when it is considered in these terms, also proposes (in the form of a query) another transformation which must be effected at the level of the values of those who reproduce the ownership of their problems: what is it that you are prepared to let go of in order to release the terms of the problem that appears before you? 

Capitalist institutions cannot give up the commodity form in order to side-step the problems that currently beset the world because of the retention of that form (a strategy that would involve the internalisation of costs which Harvey identifies as 'externalities'). The consequence of this refusal is that those problems belonging to the commodity form may only appear within a vague cloud of expert specialisms which can never address the general question of the capitalist social relation. Similarly, and unsurprisingly, marxists are unprepared to give up on those most distinctive elements of their ideology which reproduce the reassuring parameters of their milieu and thereby act as the decisive factors in reproducing the limits in their theory. 

For the reason that he is unable to give up on the notion of centralised planning of the economy, the appearance of the idealist concept of 'unity' in Harvey's politics necessarily takes a vague, aspirational and uncosted form but even so, 'unity' itself continues within this idealist register to represent the realpolitik of centralisation and to which his euphemising of omelettes is directed. 

The more a position emphasises the importance of resolving the set of contradictions that it has produced around itself as the parameters of its field of activity, the less likely it will ever be inclined to arrive at the moment where it is able to identify an escape from that field and thus disperse itself. Intransigence before its own problems, which appear to it in exteriorised form, is the major indicator of a position that has gone to war, and as such the position itself has become lost from the full range of its own potentialities (warfare being the frozen processing of irresolvability, piling wreckage upon wreckage at its own feet).

Therefore, when we follow Goethe's method here and transform the 'problem' of the immediate form of the opposition to capitalism (i.e. of divergence and its failure to achieve the form of 'unity') into a postulate we get something like the following: humanity will only establish communism if communism and humanity are therapeutically structured with human beings as its means, and in accordance with their natural tendency to divergent behaviours (as this is the most appropriate form for reflexive social relations.) As Harvey himself says,
The very thought of doing that – even just saying it and writing it down – is as exhilarating as it is astonishing.

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