Anti-Capital in the 21st Century

Regardless of what you think of Piketty’s Capital (and I haven’t read it so I’m only comment on his general argument here) he seems to make an effective case that unfettered Capitalism is inherently self-destructive (and destructive of the selves who compose it). There is still a lot of debate about why this is so and the causes of the inequalities underlying Capitalism. Piketty’s claim is that it is a function of an inherent law of Capital – that returns on capital will always outpace the growth of income. Harvey critiques this by suggesting that the inequality is the intentional product of the way that Captialists operate – they produce inequality in order to shore up their own power. Graeber is more specific with his suggestion that the prosperity and relative equality that existed in the post-war era was – at least in part – the result of competition with communism, suggesting that the fall of communism creates the space for Capitalism to grow unchecked. Zizek is a little more vague, suggesting, I think, that there is a kind of ideological background that creates the possibility for inequality. But all three point to the real issue, which is what to do about it.

Piketty’s book, from what I can tell, is largely descriptive. It’s prescriptive elements – though very difficult to achieve – are not very radical: create an international wealth tax of 80%. Okay, but again, that’s not really a prescription so much as a possible mechanism for addressing the inequalities. The question – and I think Zizek points to this most effectively – is how to get to a point where such a mechanism, or any other mechanism is possible in the first place. As Graeber points out:

The 1% are not about to expropriate themselves, even if asked nicely. And they have spent the past 30 years creating a lock on media and politics to ensure no one will do so through electoral means.”

And Zizek follows up:

…my claim is that if you imagine a world organization where the measure proposed by Piketty can effectively be enacted, then the problems are already solved. Then already you have a total political reorganization, you have a global power which effectively can control capital, we already won.”

So how do we create this political reorganization? How do we get to a point where “we already won?” What’s needed is a massive mobilization – an international movement of people frustrated and fed up with rampant inequality. But again, there are steps missing… How do we create this massive mobilization? That’s what I’m interested in. We have enough analysis of the inherent contradictions of Capitalism – they’re out there, all over the place. We can spread that information, but I think information is never enough – if it was, all of these issues would be well on their way to being dealt with. What else can we do? What other options are there? I don’t know, but that’s the kind of thing I think we should be looking for now…

Meditation and Struggle

This post is dedicated to my good friend, Kristin Sullivan who just received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Maryland, and is also actively engaged in meditation and the struggle for a better world. Congratulations, Kristin!

What is the purpose of meditation. Obviously, there are any number of answers for this depending on your spiritual and personal interests – achieving Nirvana, oneness with God or the Universe, managing stress, improving health. These aren’t the purposes I’m going to discuss, though. My concern is with the purpose of meditation in the struggle for a better world. I’ve written before on the issue, but I want to revisit it and think about whether and how meditation can benefit us in this struggle.

Meditation sometimes gets a bad rap in activist communities. It is argued that meditation is an inherently selfish practice, and that its effect is to make us accepting of the unjust conditions in which we find ourselves. Meditation, the thought goes, is about retreating inward and finding “inner peace” rather than looking outward and working for social change – much of the rhetoric around meditation and other contemplative practices in the spiritual and mental health arenas where they are practiced only seems to reinforce the claim. For example, I did a web search for “meditation” and among the first results was a website that claimed

We can learn how to transform our mind from negative to positive, from disturbed to peaceful, from unhappy to happy. Overcoming negative minds and cultivating constructive thoughts is the purpose of the transforming meditations found in the Buddhist tradition. This is a profound spiritual practice you can enjoy throughout the day, not just while seated in meditation.

Every book, website, or guide seems to say something similar about the benefits of meditation, so it is not surprising that radical activists might have a negative view of the practice. Instead of meditating to “transform our mind from negative to positive” how about taking action to transform our world! And I completely agree! But I think that this critique – and the discourse that reinforces it – is based on a rather shallow view of meditation and how it works. And I think it’s a fair critique because this idea of meditation developed, in my opinion, not from the original spiritual practices, but from their appropriation and incorporation into Western Capitalist systems. Meditation has been taken, stripped of its rigorous spiritual and philosophical components, and sold to us as a simple practice that can make our miserable lives a little more tolerable. In other words, meditation has been commodified.

When it’s done properly, meditation isn’t easy. I think it was never meant to be. It is hard work – a process of confronting and engaging with the othernesses that compose* us. In that sense, meditation is simply another dimension of struggle – the intentional act of engaging with others, affecting them, and allowing one’s self to be affected by them. Through these intentional engagements, we are able to build build better relationships with those others over time – a never ending process of action, feedback, and reaction. In the case of meditation, we are able to build a better self – a more effective self, a more compassionate self, a more aware and attentive self. We will be more attuned to our interactions with “external” others and the changes and movements that have to be made to improve those interactions.

My own meditative practices haven’t been entirely peaceful, tranquil, or happy. I have stirred up a number of “demons” in the process – fear, sadness, anger. Sometimes sitting, breathing, and being attentive is the hardest thing for me to do – and I certainly don’t do it often enough. However, all of these engagements, I believe, have made me more capable of engaging with the broader world – whether that means fighting against injustice, or simply working through a disagreement with another. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that every activist has to practice some kind of meditation. Engagement with others takes many forms, and the benefits I’ve described can come from any of them. But I do think that meditation can be a valuable form of engagement that contributes positively to the struggle.**

 

 

*I cannot stand the inside/outside dichotomy that underlies the initial conception of meditation. I think it is founded on a confusion of relationships. The relationship between a container and the thing it contains is not the same as the relationship between a thing and another thing that is part of it and works to produce it. If I eat a rock, it is inside me – I am its container. That’s different from a cell of my body – I am not the container for the cell because the cell is part of me and it is because of the collective work of these cells that I even exist. So I prefer to use the word “compose” to describe this relationship because of the dual connotation of something that is part of something else, and also the act of composition or production – to compose a play, symphony, or work of art.

**Another approach might be to look at the possibility of public meditation as a form of direct action. Meditating in a public space, collectively or alone depending on the circumstances, can have an effect on others that reshapes the way they think about a space, interact with one another, or any number of other things. I don’t know if there’s been any thought or writing on this – if anyone can suggest something, I’d love to hear it.

What Ontology does for my Anthropology

Ontology has been the key buzzword in anthropology since late last year – perhaps earlier – and I’ve, of course, been engaged with the “ontological turn” for a few years now. But ontology in anthropology has taken a turn that I didn’t expect and that doesn’t reflect my own interests in the approach. Ontological anthropology – maybe not the appropriate term – has come to mean an interest in different ontologies around the world, and an ontological politics in the sense of making those subaltern ontologies real and present in the world. But that’s not the way I think of ontology. For me, an ontological anthropology is an anthropology with an ontological sensibility – one that’s informed by and engaged with the recent ontological explorations in philosophy. The question remains, though, what does that mean for anthropology and why is this turn necessary now?

With that in mind, I want to briefly examine what ontology does for me in my own practice as an anthropologist. I obviously can’t claim a monopoly on the ideas, and I can’t say that ontology is necessary to have these effects. These are just the issues that concern me, and the issues that I think are in need of attention in the field. I think ontology helps bring them to the fore, but I’m more concerned about the issues and less with the particular concept or set of concepts that make them visible. So here’s what ontology does for me:

1) Ontology shifts my focus from texts to practices.

For decades the study of anthropology has been a study of cultural texts. Even the cultural practices that we study have been reduced to texts that can be examined. Don’t get me wrong, this has been a valuable phase in the field. It made us pay attention to the way that meaning is produced rather than looking for general principles or underlying causes that shape meaning. I would say, though, that the linguistic turn – as it’s sometimes called – didn’t take the issue far enough. With the recognition of global environmental change, the idea that our knowledge of the world is constructed is actually a pretty conservative claim. The newer ontologies, on the other hand, make the radical implication that reality itself might be constructed. And it is through the practices and work of beings – human and non-human alike – that this process occurs.

What this does for me as an anthropologists is that it forces me to pay attention to those practices and the work that is done to produce the beings and relationships that compose our world today. It makes me aware of history, because being is produced over time – things don’t simply emerge spontaneously out of nothing – and it’s the interactions, changes, and repetitions over time that make a difference to the way things develop. So when I’m studying the bloodworm industry, the Chesapeake Bay Model, the Bureau of Land Mangement, I have to study the work that has been done to produce those assemblages, and also the work that is being done now to change or maintain them.

2) Ontology forces me to acknowledge the heterogeneity of existence.

This is not necessarily a feature of all ontological thought, but it seems to be common to most of the new ontologies that have been explored in recent years. That is, that all beings must be taken as beings in their own right and not reduced to anything else. There are a lot of ontological, philosophical implications for this, but what is most important for me is the recognition that all existence is heterogeneous – that all beings are composed of and by other beings, and that any of those beings can (but don’t always) make a significant difference to the situation. It results in a decentering of the human that seems paradoxical for an anthropologist, but humans never exist alone and for themselves – we are always surrounded by other material and living beings.

What this means is that, in my work as an anthropologist, I have to think about all of the beings involved in a particular set of relations because all of them make a difference. It makes for a better approach to the relationship between people and the environment – first, by refusing to reduce those relationships either to material causality or to ideology and meaning, and second, by breaking open that overly encapsulating term “environment” to pay attention to the many different beings that are around us and the many different relationships we have with each of them. Furthermore, I would argue that it makes for a better understanding of our own social worlds. It’s a somewhat bold claim, and I’m not the first to make it, but I agree that human society would not exist without non-human beings (objects, plants, animals, ideas, etc.) and the difference that those beings make for us. Most accounts of human social systems suggest that we absorb those others into our worlds – they become simply a manipulable substrate onto which we can impose our intentions and desires. That does a disservice both to those other beings and to ourselves – the difference that they make to us is part of what enables the structuration of our social worlds. So when I study the bloodworm industry, I have to look at the way that humans interact with the worms, the seaweed packing material, the boxes and containers, the mud, the ocean, the fish, ideas about “invasives”….. All of those things make a difference to the way the assemblage is produced, and without any of them it wouldn’t be what it is.

3) Ontology makes me recognize the social, cooperative aspect of things.

Following from the last, ontology also makes me recognize that, in order for all of these different beings to come into existence in the first place, and to produce anything new there has to be a fundamentally social aspect to existence itself. My existence, for example, is dependent on the work of many others: the cells that compose my body and work to keep it functioning, the plants and animals that I depend upon for food, the other people, friends, family, and strangers who help me, support me, or make the things that I rely on. When taken broadly to incorporate both humans and non-humans, there is no escape from society. The image of rugged individuals able to forge their way, and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a myth made possible, and even inevitable, by limiting society to human interactions. A person who has accumulated enough material support can seem to be doing it all on his/her own when, in fact, there is a lot of human and non-human work that goes into that material support.

As an anthropologist this makes me attentive to the relationships between all of the different kinds of beings that make up an assemblage. It makes me explore and try to understand how those relationships could have been otherwise or could still be otherwise. Looking at the Chesapeake Bay Model, the way relationships between modelers, policy-makers, and stakeholders have been built over its 30 year life has made it difficult for these groups to get along and communicate. The premise of my research is that different methods – different ways of building those relationships – would result in better interactions and communications and have better outcomes for everyone involved.

4) Ontology makes me attentive to my own practices and the kinds of relationships that they compose.

Prior to the linguistic turn, ethnographers largely removed themselves from their accounts and failed to examine the ways that their interactions with others and their own texts in many ways produced the cultures that they were observing. The epistemological constructivism that brought about an attention to texts forced us to reflect on the effects of writing culture.

This was a very important step for the field – one whose primary occupation is representing Others to a Western audience. However, I think once again it didn’t go far enough. It made us text focused, literary, idealist. Left out of the picture – both of the texts that we studied and of our attention to our own texts – were a host of other practices with other effects and associations aside from the production of meaning or understanding. Ontology pushes us beyond texts and the construction of meaning to practices and the construction of existence itself. It makes us attentive not only to the meanings that we create through writing about Others, but also to the relationships that we build with others through all of our practices: writing, research methods, teaching, activism, etc. In the same way that a lack of attention to texts makes us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful representations of others, a lack of attention to practices can make us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful relationships with others. A concern for ontology makes me think about my engagements and interactions with others and makes me organize my research and other activities in ways that – hopefully – improve those interactions for everyone involved. Instead of simply asking what kind of knowledge am I constructing about the world, it makes me ask what kind of world am I building, what kind of world is it possible to build, and what kind of world do I want to build?

The effect of this ontological sensibility on my own work is that it makes me experimental. I recognize that every interaction I have with others has an effect on them and on myself. As a result, the idea that an ethnographer can go into a community and simply observe is passé – we are already experimenting through these interactions. With that in mind, I can explore other ways of interacting with them, reflect on the effects and then modify my interactions if necessary. In that way, I can work on building better relationships with others, and work on making those relationships beneficial to everyone involved. It also makes me more attentive to my own and others’ vulnerability in those relationships. We are all vulnerable beings, but we are differently vulnerable. There are many ways that we protect ourselves – preventing others from altering and affecting us. When balanced, these protections are beneficial and necessary – they prevent us from simply being subsumed by the other, and allow us to withdraw from others in order to maintain our identity or substance (I’m using this vocabulary loosely). But when vulnerabilities are imbalanced they can be harmful to those who are less vulnerable. As a researcher, I have tools, techniques, and strategies for remaining invulnerable (objective) relative to my “informants”, but if I am attentive to the imbalances, I can open up and allow myself to be vulnerable to them. It’s through this vulenrability – this mutual capacity to act on others and to be acted upon by others – that we build effective relationships over time. It’s a dance, a struggle. But one, I would argue, that is essential to composing a better world.

Capital Accumulation

It is heartening when books that analyze the current state of global inequality and the historical trends that produce it are given so much attention. Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has recently been hitting best-seller lists, gotten attention from the media, and even sold out due to high demand. Graeber’s Debt got similar attention in the wake of Occupy. The popularity of these books speaks to a growing concern about the problems with inequality and an interest in methods for mitigating the effects or reversing the trends. It is, of course, questionable whether the popularity of such books translates into active transformation of economic and political systems, but it is encouraging to know that it is on many people’s minds. I haven’t read Piketty’s book, so I’m not going to go in depth on his arguments and whether or not I agree with them. Most of what I’m working off of is David Harvey’s review of the book, but my main concern is in developing my own understanding of the issues addressed, and how to move forward.

Harvey critiques Piketty, essentially, for not going deep enough. The econometric analysis of global inequality is useful, he says, but the explanation the Piketty provides lacks historical and political depth. Picketty argues that the inequalities we see today are the result of an economic “law” – that the returns on capital will always exceed the growth of income. That’s reminiscent of what I’ve referred to as Economic Principle No. 1, which I’ve phrased rather crudely as:

Wealth might “trickle down” but it fucking FLOWS up!

There are some differences – most obviously that mine has no quantitative basis, but the idea that there is a fundamental process or force that drives accumulation if left unchecked is the same. Harvey suggests that this fundamental process is not so much fundamental as produced – that it is through the exercise of power that the Capitalist class maintains this imbalance that allows for the accumulation of capital.

Piketty’s formulation of the mathematical law disguises more than it reveals about the class politics involved. As Warren Buffett has noted, “sure there is class war, and it is my class, the rich, who are making it and we are winning.” One key measure of their victory is the growing disparities in wealth and income of the top one percent relative to everyone else.

In that I partially agree, but in order to explore it more, I think I have to break open my rather simplistic “principle” to examine exactly what is going on.

It is not that capital attracts capital like some kind of magnet. There are certainly processes at work within the economy and the broader social system that cause wealth to accumulate. In other words, it is not a simple “law” but is the result of interactions and relations that produce the inequality. In that sense, I agree with Harvey that defining inequality as a “law” obscures the socio-political processes at work. However, I do see it as potentially an inevitable result, if left unchecked, in any economy where wealth is linked to exclusive ownership. The reason is that wealth itself is not only an imbalance of material accumulation, but this material accumulation also produces an inequality of vulnerability. This association ultimately drives a systemic feedback that, if left unchecked, produces the inequalities we are experiencing globally today.

As I said in my previous post, we are fragile beings in a world of fragile beings. As a result, we are all vulnerable to one another. However, all beings have different kinds and levels of vulnerability, and vulnerability can be reduced through the process of material-semiotic assemblage. The accumulation of wealth is one kind of material-semiotic assemblage that can create an imbalance of vulnerability, particularly if wealth is linked to exclusive ownership. Even if the wealthy are not actively appropriating wealth from others, their relative invulnerability allows them to simply sit on their wealth when others are forced to spend it. As a result, without some kind of redistributive mechanism, wealth tends to accumulate. Capitalism as an economic theory denies this feedback. It assumes that the natural tendency of wealth is to distribute, but experience and history tell us that this is decidedly not the case.

What we’re seeing now, however, is a kind of acceleration of the process. It’s not just that the wealthy are simply sitting on their wealth – although some certainly are – it’s that the power associated with wealth is being used by many to actively manipulate the system to accelerate the positive feedback. A relative invulnerability like wealth allows those who posses it to act upon others while blocking or dissipating the reciprocal effects of others acting upon them. As a result, they are able to manipulate the system in a way that enhances the vulnerability of others, forces them to give up more of their own wealth, and allows those who already possess wealth to avoid giving up more of their own. In simple terms, the wealthy are manipulating the system so that redistribution feeds back into their own wealth while extracting more from those who lack wealth and are dependent on “social” forms of support. Take from the poor, give to the rich. This can be seen in the deregulation of industries, the privatization of social programs, the association of campaign spending with “free speech.”

What’s the solution, then? Harvey criticizes Piketty’s proposed solutions – global progressive taxation – as “utopian.” I find that solution very pragmatic. Certainly it’s a political non-starter, but that in itself doesn’t make it utopian – any solution to this global problem is likely to be difficult to achieve. I think Piketty’s suggestion would be a good start. What’s needed though is a deeper transformation. What’s needed, in my opinion, is to break the feedback between wealth an power. This can be done in a number of ways, and redistribution is one – it undermines the exclusivity of ownership that drives the feedback – but I can also imagine other approaches that might introduce another kind of vulnerability in those who accumulate wealth. Harvey suggests, for example, the empowerment of labor – strengthening unions, social movements, etc. I think that this too is a good strategy.

Wealth must ultimately be seen for what it is – essentially a social product. The materiality of wealth coupled with the assumption that societies are essentially relations between humans obscures our ability to recognize the social nature of all relations. When an individual accumulates wealth, s/he is creating a society, but because most of the members of that society are non-human, we assume that it’s just an individual at work. The way to resist is to build our own societies while also undermining theirs. The two are not mutually exclusive, and if they are done together, the result will be an acceleration of a negative feedback that would produce a more equal economic system. Ultimately, what will do the most to produce equality is the general recognition that we are all fragile, our existence is always dependent on others, and that cooperation – not competition – is fundamental to all existence.

 

We are fragile beings in a world of fragile beings.

I take this to be a fundamental ontological statement, and a central tenet of the philosophy that underlies Struggle Forever! I’ve never been so aware as I have in the past few months that my existence could end at any moment – that the existences of those I love could as well. It is amazing to me still – I once called it miraculous and was chastised for it – that anything exists at all. It is amazing because, in order to overcome the fragility that underlies all existence, things had to come together, to work with one another to produce the beautiful, vibrant, astonishing (but also dangerous, precarious, and troubled) world in which we live today.

From this perspective, cooperation and collaboration are at the heart of existence itself, and yet we live in a society in which the fundamental principle of existence is thought to be competition. We live in a world where what matters to my existence is not the labor of others, but that of a transcendent self that wrestles existence out of nothingness. In this world, what we have is exactly what we deserve, and one must “earn a living” as if life itself is not something that is inherently deserved. This is a philosophy that makes us all killable. It is the philosophy that took my brother’s life prematurely.

In spite of this, cooperation happens. In a world full of different kinds of beings with different ways of existing, it is inevitable that we will have to work to bridge those differences. This can be seen in the way we come together when we feel most vulnerable – when our fragile lives are threatened. However, it is all too easy, in those situations, to come together amongst those with whom we share little difference – where the work of bridging is not so difficult and the demands made of us are not so, well, demanding. This is especially so when cooperation – working with – is not taken to be inevitable or even desirable, where competition is the norm and it’s every man from himself. I see this happening now throughout our society, among liberals and conservatives, scientists and religious people, artists, intellectuals, and laborers. I see all around me a reactionary retreat from one another, and it saddens me. It saddens me because I know that, if it continues, we will never be able to solve the problems that face us all, or care for one another. It saddens me because I see the underlying fragility of existence coming increasingly exposed and our fragile lives becoming more vulnerable with every day.

This is why work isn’t enough. What’s needed is something more, something that pushes all of us beyond ourselves to encounter and engage with true otherness. This is what I call struggle – the intentional engagement with Others in a way that makes demands on ourselves in order to navigate and negotiate our differences. That isn’t to say that we have to agree with those others or that we have to convince them of our own world view. It is not about making the Others into ourselves, but of engaging with them, working with them, exploring the possibilities for connection across difference, and seeing what kinds of relationships can be built. This is an unending process (thus “Struggle Forever!”) because there will always be difference, and that’s exactly how it should be. But it is an essential process now because a new world is needed. Buckminster Fuller said that we now have the choice between Utopia or Oblivion. The philosophy of “struggle forever” recognizes that we can never reach the end perfection of utopia (the process is the product), but every day that we choose not to struggle – not to engage with other fragile beings with whom we share this world – we inch closer to oblivion.

Samuel R. Delany on Genre, Gender, and Imagination

CLOSE LISTEING
Samual R. Delany talks with Charles Bernstein about genres, sex, and dyslexia
 in this wide-ranging conversation with the polymathic author. Delany addresses the role of fantasy and the bounds of imagination in his works and rebuts assumptions about the nature of genre writing.

“The most important political problem of today is the treatment of women… The oppression of women is the model for all other oppressions in the world…Whenever there is a power differential, people learn how to do that because of the way women are oppressed in this society.”

“[Genre literature] is related to every category that is exploited and that is stuck in a power structure where you are not happy with how the power structure works and every time the power structure changes something is going to make somebody unhappy. So what do you do? You think a lot, that’s how you start. and then you start to do something to change it in a way that you want it to change and also in a way that takes into account how it will change other parts of the power structure because if you don’t it will come around and bite you in the ass. This kind of thinking is something that needs to be encouraged. And just as there’s precious little art, there is precious little of this kind of – dare I call it – global or holistic or ecological thinking that goes on in the world.”

“Success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm.” (borrowed from Ruth McClanahan who borrowed it from Winston Churchill)