Pessimism of the will

I’ve reviewed Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World in the new issue of Jacobin:

It is a little bright spot at the end of the penultimate, gloomiest chapter of Hobsbawm’s history of Marxism: at least the albatross of “really-existing socialism” might not hang around the neck of the latest generation to turn to Marx. “… [E]ven today only those in their thirties and above have any memory of the actual years of Cold War.” The idea that Marx was “the inspirer of terror and gulag, and communists… essentially defenders of, if not participants in, terror and the KGB” was no more valid than “the thesis that all Christianity must logically and necessarily lead to papal absolutism, or all Darwinism to the glorification of free capitalist competition.” Most “really-existing communists” in the West had been critics of Stalinism since 1956 (yes, says Hobsbawm, who stayed in the British Communist Party into the 1980s, even “by implication” within Moscow-line parties). But the line that socialism meant Stalin and Mao was always an effective rhetorical strategy for anti-communists, always a way to change the subject whenever socialists were in the conversation. As the Soviet Union and the Great Leap Forward recede into history, surely the shadows they cast over the very idea of a post-capitalist society will lighten. […]

Published in: on 16 March, 2011 at 8:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Piracy in retrospect and prospect

The Economist (now behind a paywall) had a couple of features last week claiming that music piracy was “in decline”. The claim was based partly on a survey of British internet users in which the percentage reporting usage of file-sharing networks declined from 22% in December 2007 to 17% in July this year. What it didn’t mention is that you don’t need file-sharing software to pirate music anymore since it’s all over the web in plain Googlable sight.

It also cited a Swedish survey in which 60 per cent of former file-sharers claimed to have cut down or quit, with half of them moving to the legal ad-supported Spotify. If such a free (or near-free) service is available in a country, it’s not surprising a bunch of people would quit bothering with piracy. But it’s hardly the case that the pirates lost: rather they won, cutting a lot of the commercial value out of music recordings and massively increasing the quantity people get to listen to.

A couple of good essays on the social and musical impact of piracy over the decade: Eric Harvey’s at Pitchfork is more detailed. But Jace Clayton – who as DJ /rupture is without a doubt on my list of top ten musicians of the decade – is able to be unambiguously celebratory in a way an industry advertising funded site can’t really be, and without lip service to ‘alternative business models’ blah blah blah.

Published in: on 23 November, 2009 at 8:01 pm  Comments (3)  

Laughing last

In a review of Martin Wolf’s Fixing Global Finance Alex Callinicos takes a detour to gloat a little at Leo Panitch, who he had debated on political economy and imperialism just before this whole crisis thing broke out.

But plotting the course of a crisis that has undergone such dramatic twists and turns is a hazardous business even for those not intellectually imprisoned in the theoretical assumptions of neoclassical economics. For example, Leo Panitch and Martijn Konings, introducing a valuable collection of essays written from a broadly Marxist perspective about finance and American imperialism and published last autumn, rather unwisely expressed “some scepticism” about “strong claims concerning the disastrous outcome of the current liquidity crunch for the global system of finance and America’s position in it”. They add, “The main upshot of the current situation is that the American state finds itself with a peculiar and unanticipated problem of imperial management”. I think it’s fair to say the problem lies a bit deeper than one of “imperial management”.

It seems Panitch and Konings might have felt a little remorse of their own, since their (edited) book, American Empire and the Political Economy of Global Finance, published last year, is already getting a second edition.

But it’s unfortunate if Callinicos and others are taking the crisis as a vindication of the idea they were defending through those debates earlier in the decade, that capitalism’s still suffering from the aftereffects of the 1970s crisis and an associated decline in the profit rate. Panitch, with collaborators Sam Gindin and Martijn Konings, has had the stronger argument throughout. It’s never been simply that there would be no crisis, but only that Marxists should think twice before leaping to the ‘imminent crisis’ conclusion, that we don’t have special economic forecasting powers, and that always harping on imminent crisis and/or continual stagnation distracts from other criticisms and strategies, not to mention the continuing dynamism of capitalism.

Here’s a piece from 2002 from Panitch and Gindin on the topic, which I’ve posted before. Calling into question Monthly Review‘s familiar diagnosis of everlasting stagnation and prognosis of imminent financial crisis, it still stands up pretty well even in the midst of an actual financial crisis. (Did Monthly Review predict it? How ‘imminent’ is ‘imminent’?)

To its credit, the ISJ has followed a policy of seeking out and publishing pieces critical of its own editors’ lines, which is how the Panitch-Callinicos debate started, after all. Another critical highlight, which addresses pretty well this idea of permanent stagnation since the 1970s, is this piece from last year by the excellent Jim Kincaid.

Published in: on 6 July, 2009 at 6:26 pm  Leave a Comment  


So despite my long absence from these parts Nate has tagged me with this very fun meme about music counterfactuals. Who would I like to have another album from? and who would I like to see live? with time machines available so they don’t have to reform and splutter out again tragically. And most fun of all, who would I like to see get together in a supergroup? Here is an interim report on the last question, breaking Nate’s rule about conciseness but picking up where he left off with the inspired Fugazi vs. Massive Attack.

Jimi Hendrix, Can and Brian Eno

Eno’s not exactly a guitar hero, but he is a great curator of the guitar solo. See Roxy Music’s ‘In Every Dream Home…’ and ‘Bogus Man’, his own ‘Baby’s on Fire’ and ‘Third Uncle’, and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. Here’s how it happens: in 1971 Jimi and the Can boys jam for three days and four nights as house band in a GI coffeeshop in Berlin. Three weeks later Jimi’s found dead in a London bathtub and Damo Suzuki is a Jehovah’s Witness. Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, the frag rate starts to climb… A few years later Eno visits Bowie and Iggy Pop in Berlin. Their dealer says, ‘hey, I have some tapes you might be interested in’. Eno retires to the studio for four days and three nights with Suzuki’s discarded I Ching and a deck of Oblique Strategies. The rest is history.

Tom Waits, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and Einsturzende Neubauten

With found percussion, naturally. Lyrical themes include the collapsing, rebuilding and slow decay of various vintages of architecture; late 1940s letters written home by GIs stationed in Berlin to their wives; the last days of Weimar. Some covers of Brecht/Weill classics, including ‘Mack the Knife’.

Patti Smith and Television

This one kind of really happened since Tom Verlaine hooked up with Smith and played on and co-wrote some of Horses. But I love that guitar and those lyrics and want more, about a thousand dances under a marquee moon on Redondo Beach with that chick Gloria.

Mark E. Smith and Mouse on Mars

Wildman of the people post-punk extraodinaire with gentle German electronic twiddlers?? The Great MES belts out borderline schizophrenic rants and boasts about wandering the city and what he had for dinner, while the whimsical Westphalians ramp up the volume and the discordance and sometimes just let the machines take over. It would never happen… or would it?

Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney and Throbbing Gristle

Live at Disneyland. Heal the world.

Published in: on 12 September, 2008 at 10:13 am  Comments (2)  

Scene in a Honolulu courtroom

Last Tuesday, September 2, in the court of District Judge Helen Gillmor:

Justice Department attorney Andrew Smith: OK, let’s assume that there was a NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] obligation, and maybe there’s a NEPA document out there, maybe there’s not. But we don’t even need to get there. Plaintiffs’ complaint says they have to be injured by this project. Their only claim to injury…

Judge Gillmor: … is that the world might blow up, and so we shouldn’t get concerned about that. You’re right. Why was I even considering it? Mr. Smith, I mean, I really find that, you know, I don’t know if there’s anything to this case, but that’s just not a great direction to be going.

Smith: I’m not following you. I mean, if their only claim to injury is that the world’s …

Gillmor: That they might die.

Smith: Right.

Gillmor: Yes.

Smith: So they have to show that that’s a credible injury. Is it actually going to happen? I can’t just go into federal court and say, you know, ‘the United States is participating with Israel to launch a nuclear missile, satellite that has nuclear material in it, and that nuclear material might land on my house in Albuquerque. They didn’t do NEPA. I have standing.’ That’s what this case is about.

Gillmor: I understand what you just said, that hypothetical, but that’s not his [Wagner’s] hypothetical. His hypothetical … I mean, and you know, his hypothetical is that the world would be made into a, you know, hard iron rock, which is different than ‘I might be an unintended casualty of something that’s happening half around the world – way around the world, but the person next door wouldn’t be.’

Published in: on 10 September, 2008 at 7:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

On the liberal use of artificial ice in the ruling of India

In the context of a discussion of the impact of climate on various races’ fitness to rule:

This may have to be modified a little, but only a little, if F. Galton should prove to be right in thinking that small numbers of a ruling race in a hot country, as for instance the English in India, will be able to sustain their constitutional vigour unimpaired for many generations by a liberal use of artificial ice, or of the cooling effects of the forcible expansion of compressed air. See his Presidential Advice to the Anthropological Institute in 1881.

– Alfred Marshall [1920 – but 1 ed. in 1890], Principles of Economics, 8 ed., p. 603.

Through a greenscreen darkly

Millions of paperbacks from Penguin’s Golden Age now rest in secondhand bookstores all around the English-speaking world. By Golden Age I mean the wonderful range and designs of the 1960s and early 1970s, until the rationalisation following Pearson Longman’s buyout in 1970. The non-fiction Pelican imprint was pretty adventurous, publishing a whole range of series that have become the blue-spined backbone of my secondhand collection – from cut-price economics and social science readers to the New Left Review collaborations.

Penguin Australia was no exception. It rode the wave of student radicalisation to put out editions like Australian Capitalism: towards a socialist critique [1972] But Penguin was playing both sides of the fence. I recently picked up Australian Management and Society: 1970-1985 [1971], edited by Devon Mills. It’s a collection of essays by management gurus avant la lettre and, even better, futurologists.  It is, as you would expect, tragically but humourously dated. You can hear the Kraftwerk as you scan chapters like “Cybernetic Systems and Cybernation” and “Data Banks and the ‘Cashless Society'”. The cover is a wonderful pixellated representation of what appears to be a bald, fat manager:

Australian Management and Society

I have to confess to not having read the whole book. But I’ve been drawn to the last chapter, in which a “syndicate” of economic historians and economists present four scenarios of how the future might pan out up to 1985. These scenarios are written in shorthand timeline form, with a stirring combination of sweeping world historical drama and corporate law minutiae:

1979: On Black Friday in January, all-shares index falls heavily. Government closes stock exchanges for one week in hope that panic will subside, but slump continues for three months. During this period federal election is held. Labour [sic] has sweeping victory…

1981: Gargantua & Sons Inc. of Montana, which dominates Australian baby foods, leads way by enlarging board to twelve and distributing its shares among its Australian directors, thus retaining full voting rights over its Australian enterprise.

The four alternate realities are presented in order of increasing hysteria. In the first, a Labor government comes to power and wreaks havoc with the companies law, seemingly backed by a new party called Student Power.

In the second, Japan and China sign a ‘friendship treaty’, while Indonesia beats the Philippines in a short war, before funding New Guinean radicals for “major acts of violence and dissent”, which “hastens Australia’s decision to grant independence to New Guinea”. Said independent country quickly gets military assistance from the USSR and commences a “confrontation policy” to block Australia-Japan maritime traffic through the Torres Strait. European migration to Australia dwindles. A new political party led by the Chief of General Staff wins office on a platform of “nationalism and discipline” in 1978, and the companies law presumably suffers. (Where is Student Power when you need it?)

In future #3 the US and its ally Australia withdraw from Vietnam but are soon bogged down fighting insurgents in Thailand, while another Red force emerges in the Malaysian jungles. This precipitates a run on the US dollar, and the world splinters into trade blocs. The IMF is stretched to the limit and the world staggers towards depression. Thankfully, the companies law remains unscathed.

Finally, in the fourth alternate reality, Australia spirals into open inflation on the back of wage rises after a lengthy strike in transport and metal trades. China invades Laos and Cambodia, seemingly unprovoked. The US suffers a balance-of-payments crisis (possibly a result of a transdimensional leakage from future #3). Devaluations, recessions, etc. Australia joins American ally in keeping an eye the Chinese from a base in the Philippines, and an Australian spyplane is shot down on the far side of the Yalu River.  Government becomes largest employer. New political party arises demanding the secession of Western Australia. European immigration declines while China takes a proposal to the United Nations demanding immigration rights into Queensland and Northern Territory. All twenty-year-olds are drafted into the military.

The Coalition wins in 1978 but the Liberals are able to govern alone and ditch the Country Party. Japan produces a cheap substitute for wool and floods world markets. There is a large inflow of Asian goods into Australia. Capital inflow ceases. Strikes, recession, etc. Government lowers wages by 11 per cent across the board. Western Australia secedes.

China renews its lobbying at the UN for settlement rights in unpopulated parts of Australia. The US supplies Australia with nuclear warheads and rockets. Australia becomes one of the two most highly taxed countries in the world. Closer settlement schemes are commenced to get to remote regions before Chinese. New political party called Social Credit is a roaring success in the 1982 state elections. Western Australia signs trade agreement with Japan.

Chinese special forces land in Northern Territory. All Australian males under the age of fifty commence military training. Social credit policies are applied at the national level and the states are abolished following a referendum, with consequent deleterious effects on companies law. In 1985 Chinese insurgents arrive in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The US and Britain veto United Nations intervention.

Fantastic, huh? One wonders at the forecasting possibilities of today’s more powerful Cybernetic Systems and Data Banks. And the authors of these national nightmares? One is none other than Geoffrey Blainey, who in a more familiar dimension achieved national notoriety in 1984 when he used his powers of futurology to warn of an Asian Australia, and quickly became John Howard’s favourite historian.

Published in: on 22 May, 2007 at 8:00 pm  Comments (4)