The last wave

Over at Homo Ludens Paddington wallows in the British floods and evokes great watery apocalypses of myth and literature.

Speaking of Dreamtime floods… a great cinematic rendering is Peter Weir’s The Last Wave [1978]. The premise is ever-so-slightly cliched: modern civilisation with its delusions of linear progress runs up against an Aboriginal vision of a cycle (and, of course, civilisation is on the down-stroke). But the execution is wonderfully creepy. Check out Pitt Street under water:

Shamefully, The Last Wave is out of print in Australia, and you can’t find it in the video store. I had to import the US Criterion Collection version.

Another great literary flood is in Wakefield’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which my evil twin blogged here.

Published in: on 31 July, 2007 at 9:05 pm  Comments (5)  

Nerd + punk = postpunk

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So I’m about a third of the way through Simon Reynolds’ history of postpunk, Rip it Up and Start Again, and it’s great. It is shot through with questions about the troubled relationship between bohemia, modernism and radical politics, and eventually I want to write a much bigger post about it. But for now, a few fun facts I never knew:

• That in 1978 John[ny Rotten] Lydon from the Sex Pistols was accompanying Richard Branson to Jamaica as an adviser on reggae. Branson flew the members of Devo over from Michigan, fed them lots of pot, and presented the proposition that Lydon front Devo. It never happened.

• That the last track on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light – ‘The Overload’ – was written by David Byrne as an attempt at a Joy Division impression. Byrne had never actually heard Joy Division but was intrigued by what he’d read and only had reviews to go on to recreate their sound. It does indeed sound impressively like one of Joy Division’s dirgier tracks.

• That Brian Eno was omnipresent and approaching omniscience. (I already knew he was pretty cool.)

Published in: on 30 July, 2007 at 9:45 pm  Comments (4)  

Back on the planet

One funeral was unfortunately followed by another and I have been out of reach of the internet, and for that matter, my mind, for some time. Back in Sydney now, back here very soon, but I have a few things to catch up on first.

Published in: on 25 July, 2007 at 10:30 am  Comments (2)  

Home again

Suddenly I’m back in New Zealand, this time for a funeral. Back late in the week.

Published in: on 15 July, 2007 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Troops out now

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I like it when protests start at the Block in Redfern because I can get from bed to the rally in less than 10 minutes. A 10am starting time can be forgiven.

It was a relatively small march for Sydney, 400 at most, but spirited. This was Sydney’s part of the national day of action against what amounts to martial law in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. In fact it was international, because protests were happening in New Zealand as well, and organiser Lyall Munro got a big cheer from the crowd when he mentioned Maori support.

There are vast differences between the situation of Maori in New Zealand and indigenous people here, who on average have things much worse. The last few weeks have demonstrated one major difference – the complete lack of independent indigenous political power at a federal level. Thanks to their weight in the New Zealand population and the Maori seats, Maori can’t be ignored – this has long been an electoral handicap for National and lately troublesome for Labour.

Here, despite the valiant efforts of indigenous activists, independent Aboriginal voices are almost inconsequential in national politics, except those voices cherrypicked as useful for the government. A constituency of white liberals has to be appeased, but even on the left proper, their concerns often take a paternalistic form. Many are surprisingly susceptible to the warping of self-determination rhetoric by the likes of Noel Pearson – New Zealanders will find phrases like ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘the failure of liberalism’ familiar from people like Donna Awatere-Huata and John Tamihere. The ALP leadership has been shameless in jumping on the bandwagon to avoid the wedge.

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What happens now will depend on the extent of resistance in the invaded communities themselves, from the Northern Territory government, and among the professionals the government will rely on to carry out its plans. (As if to highlight that the police and military are not bringing extra welfare spending, Howard has called on doctors to volunteer to carry out the compulsory checks for sexual abuse.)

For the rest of us, the immediate goal is to keep trying to swing public opinion against the invasion. According to a Newspoll poll last week, 61 per cent of voters support the Howard plan.

Published in: on 14 July, 2007 at 4:16 pm  Comments (1)  

Technological regress

A few months ago I got very excited when I discovered that you could use Google Books to read whole books. Google has permission from a lot of publishers to return from their books a ‘limited preview’ of a few pages around the text you searched for. By typing in a few words from the end of the ‘limited preview’, you could read the next few pages and read your way through until your eyes got sore.

Alas, sometime in the last couple of weeks the loophole seems to have been closed. Google Books now skips pages and won’t keep serving up consecutive pages for long. It was great while it lasted.

For people with access to university library accounts, the web is much bigger. Through a library you can generally search or read almost any periodical you want these days, including decades of back issues.

But now I’ve started to feel that even this charmed world has started to narrow. I’ve developed a sense of entitlement to text, and it has come to greatly annoy me if I can’t read something online – I was aggrieved to discover that the London Review of Books was not available through the Sydney Uni library. Fairfax recently decided to remove access to the Australian Financial Review from Factiva. Now you have to search via its own website and pay to read articles, or pay a prohibitive monthly subscription for online access. This is pretty dire for a major daily newspaper, but possibly a good business decision, since I imagine many businesses will cough up for continued access. It has certainly made me buy it more regularly than I otherwise would.

It’s funny how much effort now goes into disabling the distributive potential of the internet, in order to protect the commodity status of text, music, films, etc. Was there ever a clearer case of the productive forces straining relations of production?

Published in: on 10 July, 2007 at 9:17 pm  Comments (8)  

Marx’s value theory of labour 1

So, this talk on Capital I mentioned. Since the audience had previously looked at Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and David Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, and were mainly interested in Marx as an economist, I decided to focus on two things. First, to relate Marx to Smith and Ricardo, and second, to defuse a common myth about Marx’s theory of value – that he believed commodities exchanged at a rate based on the quantity of labour expended in producing them. Here’s the first part of what I said. (I’ll post the rest as I get a chance to write it up.)

Marx admired Ricardo much more than Smith. In Theories of Surplus Value he writes:

Smith himself moves with great naïveté in a perpetual contradiction.  On the one hand he traces the intrinsic connection existing between economic categories or the obscure structure of the bourgeois economic system.  On the other, he simultaneously sets forth the connection as it appears in the phenomena of competition and thus as it presents itself to the unscientific observer just as to him who is actually involved and interested in the process of bourgeois production.  One of these conceptions fathoms the inner connection, the physiology, so to speak, of the bourgeois system, whereas the other takes the external phenomena of life, as they seem and appear and merely describes, catalogues, recounts and arranges them under formal definitions.  With Smith both these methods of approach not only merrily run alongside one another, but also intermingle and constantly contradict one another. [Chapter 3]

In other words, Smith had some understanding of the inner logic of capitalism, but mixed it up with endless description that didn’t explain anything. To see what Marx was talking about, see Smith’s ‘digression on silver’, which takes up a large chunk of Book One, in which he traces movements in the price of silver relative to other goods and to gold over hundreds of years, and in which exceptions pile up much faster than rules.

Ricardo, on the other hand, got much respect from Marx. In fact many 20th-century economists have seen Marx as basically an extender of Ricardo. Paul Samuelson famously dismissed him as a “minor post-Ricardian”. Schumpeter, on the other hand, called him “Ricardo’s only great follower”:

Ricardo is the only economist whom Marx treated as a master. I suspect that he learned his theory from Ricardo. But much more important is the objective fact that Marx used the Ricardian apparatus: he adopted Ricardo’s conceptual layout and his problems presented themselves to him in the forms that Ricardo had given them. No doubt, he transformed these forms and he arrived in the end at widely differing conclusions. But he always did so by way of starting from, and criticising, Ricardo – criticism of Ricardo was his method in his purely theoretical work. [History of Economic Analysis, 1954: p. 390]

What did Marx like so much about Ricardo? Obviously, first, that Ricardo did not assume a harmony of interest between the classes, and foregrounded in his analysis the distribution of the economic product between them. But, more broadly, Marx admired Ricardo’s method, his rigour:

But at last Ricardo steps in and calls to science: Halt!  The basis, the starting-point for the physiology of the bourgeois system—for the understanding of its internal organic coherence and life process—is the determination of value by labour-time.  Ricardo starts with this and forces science to get out of the rut, to render an account of the extent to which the other categories—the relations of production and commerce—evolved and described by it, correspond to or contradict this basis, this starting-point; to elucidate how far a science which in fact only reflects and reproduces the manifest forms of the process, and therefore also how far these manifestations themselves, correspond to the basis on which the inner coherence, the actual physiology of bourgeois society rests or the basis which forms its starting-point; and in general, to examine how matters stand with the contradiction between the apparent and the actual movement of the system.  This then is Ricardo’s great historical significance for science. [Theories of Surplus Value, chapter 10]

Ricardo, then, was no mere describer, like Smith. He explained, he got at the hidden mechanisms (well, “physiology”) of the economy, and did not waste time with surface appearances. In fact, Marx thought that most of what was worthwhile in Ricardo’s Principles was in the first couple of chapters, and the rest was just application anyone could have done.

So Marx took Ricardo’s style of analysis as a model to some extent, though he was still a student of Hegel and more dialectical in his method – which, if nothing else did, would make Capital a very different work to Ricardo’s (and which economists often find incomprehensible). What Marx appreciated in Ricardo was logical rigour and a preoccupation with the inner determinants of economic life, which would not be immediately visible in surface phenomena. Marx certainly did not want to be a Smith, a cataloguer.

When you start to read Capital you can see that desire for rigour. (Also you see a tendency for verbosity – as Marx wrote to Engels on June 18, 1862, “I am stretching out this volume, since those German dogs estimate the value of their books by their cubic contents.”) You get the commodity, use value and exchange value, an abstract conception of money, and so on. But very quickly things get messier. History starts to intrude. Before long you are reading chapters on technological advance in the weaving industry, legislation on child labour, the battle over the working day.

By the end of Volume One, you are reading a history of the transition to capitalism in Britain: land enclosures, sheep eating people, the Poor Laws, etc., etc. By this point, Marx’s own work is looking much more like Adam Smith’s: sociological description, historical movement, escaping the conceptual net of any rigorous definition of value.

If you go on to read Volumes Two and Three, you realise that things do not get any tidier, although things are certainly drier than in the first. Marx is continually trying to expand the reach of his concept of value, constantly reframing it to explain more and more dimensions of capitalism. But in doing so, he is always going off on tangents, opening up whole new problems to solve others. In fact, many of the most important and enduring insights in Capital come from the tangents and the observations rather than from what Marx woud have considered adequate and finished.

Of course, Capital never was finished. Volumes Two and Three were pieced together by Engels from sometimes fragmentary manuscripts. In the Preface to Volume Three, Engels complains:

The real difficulty began with Chapter 30. From here on it was not only the illustrative material that needed correct arrangement, but also a train of thought that was interrupted continuously by digressions, asides, etc., and later pursued further in other places, often simply in passing. There then followed, in the manuscript, a long section headed ‘The Confusion’, consisting simply of extracts from the parliamentary reports on the crises of 1848 and 1857, in which the statements of some twenty-three businessmen and economic writers, particularly on the subjects of money and capital, the drain of gold, over-speculation, etc., were collected, with the occasional addition of brief humorous comments.

Capital is, then, a sprawl. It is not a complete or internally consistent theory of capitalism. Marxist economists have shown that internally consistent, insightful theories can be derived from it, but to the extent that they are internally consistent, they are incomplete. Marx did not find in ‘value’ a unified field theory of bourgeois society, nor would he have claimed to, and nor would such a thing be possible. From a modern perspective, Marx has been read as a general equilibrium theorist and as a monetary economist prefiguring Keynes, and both readings have some basis.

David Harvey explains Marx’s approach well, borrowing a metaphor from Bertell Ollman:

It is rather as if… Marx sees each relation as a separate ‘window’ from which we can look in upon the inner structures of capitalism. The view from any one window is flat and lacks perspective. When we move to another window we can see things that were formerly hidden from view. Armed with that knowledge, we can reinterpret and reconstitute our understanding of what we saw through the first window, giving it greater depth and perspective. [The Limits to Capital, 1982: p. 2]

To be continued…

Published in: on 8 July, 2007 at 2:46 pm  Comments (6)  

Where angels fear to tread

A month ago I agreed to give a talk on Marx’s Capital. I wasn’t the first choice, but my thesis supervisor had another engagement. Actually he sounded quite happy to have another engagement and warned me that it would be impossible to boil Capital down to 20 minutes. I wasn’t too worried – I’ve spent so much time reading it and the secondary literature that it couldn’t be too hard, surely. Besides I had a holiday in New Zealand and a wedding in beween promise and delivery, so I wouldn’t have to think about it until a couple of days before. I would dash up some notes on the day and things would be splendid.

Well, the supervisor was right, and I’ve had a nail-biting couple of days working out what the hell to say. I found out just how little I could really say confidently about value or capital, how much the wandering in the labyrinth of the secondary lit had confused me about what Marx Actually Said.

The occasion was a meeting of the Monty Pelican Society, a pretty casual reading group with a random membership that’s been meeting for the last few months in a little office in Surry Hills to read through the classics of economic thought. I went along myself while the group worked through Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

It happened tonight and in the end it went pretty well. The group ranged from a pair from a feminist reading group who had been reading Derrida’s Spectres of Marx and decided to get a more solid look at the spectre himself, to a risk analyst for a major investment bank, slumming it. The discussion was great, especially considering most of them were reading Marx for the first time.

Afterwards I ended up having a few beers with the banker, and he told me things were “coming apart at the seams” in the market for commercial paper, and that the general consensus among his mates in the investment banking community was that a big financial shock was coming by 2010 at the latest. Now this is the kind of investment banker who goes to the odd reading group on Marx, but still, if a run on commercial paper sparks the next 1929 (his comparison), well, you heard it here first.

Anyway, I will try to post what I said on Capital here soon, but really this is just a note to explain that life is still hectic. Away for another couple of days at the Society for Heterodox Economists’ Winter School. I might also look into this commercial paper business…

Published in: on 4 July, 2007 at 10:25 pm  Comments (3)  

Today, tomorrow, Timaru

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There are some great wilderness areas in New Zealand, but the Canterbury Plains are not among them. This is a totally man-made landscape, geology aside – and even the geology has had some fiddling with: land reclamation et cetera. Beginning as a Wakefield colony, centred on Christchurch, farmland stretched from the foothills of the Southern Alps to the coast.

Driving through last week I was struck by a subtle change in the landscape. This was once quintessential NZ sheep country, but now it’s all cows. Dairy, traditionally, is a North Island industry, but no longer. This is a further-reaching transformation than it sounds because cattle are much more resource intensive than sheep, and because dairy is a higher-value output on the world market. Lakes and rivers have been drained for irrigation, and effluent and fertiliser-enhanced run-off given in exchange.

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An enormous Fonterra milk powder factory opened a few years ago in Clandeboye, near Timaru, and rejuvenated Timaru’s port, which has long played second fiddle to Lyttleton (which is really part of Christchurch).

I doubt any of this is exciting to you, but it is to me. Timaru, you see, is my birthplace. Grandparents and cousins live on the clifftop above the port and every time I’ve visited since I was a kid I’ve loved to sit there and watch the port tick over. Thanks to growing Chinese and Japanese appetites for dairy, nowadays it’s busier than I remember it, and all futuristic with electromagnetic cranes and robot dockworkers.

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I only lived in Timaru for the first five weeks of my life, before Mum and Dad took me to California. When we went there on holidays as a little American kid I remember thinking it was just like Coronation Street. Of course, Timaru looks nothing like Coronation Street, and I guess to the impartial observer it looks just like any other provincial New Zealand town.

To me, though, there’s always something a bit magic about Timaru. This is a little embarrassing because Timaru is often something of a joke among New Zealanders, much like New Zealand itself is among Australians. Timaru even achieved international joke status in 1993 when Guardian travel writer Mark Lawson included a chapter on it in his book on the world’s most boring places, The Battle for Room Service. (Note, though, that Richard Gott wrote in the New Statesman that Lawson himself exemplifies the “prevalence of the bland and obsequious” in the Guardian. Also the average Amazon rating for the book is two stars. Ha.)

Whatever may happen to its port traffic and tourism, Timaru’s immortality is truly assured, though, by this single and video by New Zealand’s own Spinal Tap, Deja Voodoo. (“They’re my favourite band, they’re your favourite band. Who do? You do… they’re Deja Voodoo!”)

Today Tomorrow Timaru

Published in: on 2 July, 2007 at 9:38 pm  Comments (2)