[Below is my presentation at NAASN, entitled “Beyond Coops and Currency Alternatives: Towards a Critical Anarchist Political Economy,” which was excellently read by Andrew. This thing needs to be about three times longer to make its point, among other problems.]
As soon as I sent in my proposal for this conference, I sort of regretted the title and abstract of my talk. They are too pedantic, for one thing, but more than that they assume a theory/practice and heart/hand divide that I’m not comfortable with. But I guess I’m stuck with them, so I’ll endeavor to make the best out of it.
I’m going to start with a confession, a definition, and a hypothesis. First, the confession: Even though on most days I identify as an anarchist, I think Marx was right about nearly everything he wrote in his analysis of the mechanisms, processes, and institutions of capitalism. I have no issues with the categories he claimed defined capital and I have only quibbles with his exposition of those categories. My main problem with Marx is that he left too many categories unexplored, which is a lament more than a criticism. An unfortunate effect of this is that Marxists have focused on the narrow facets of capital given to them by Marx. Further, based on a few unfortunate pages Marx wrote about the economic base and the political superstructure, Marxist analyses of capital have often, with their exclusive focus on categories like the commodity and value, tended to be economistic in their outlook.
I think anarchism could, by adding categories that are close to its political concerns, contribute quite a bit to the critical-analytical picture of capitalism that Marx started. Of course, David Graeber has done just that with his work on debt, and others, some who perhaps don’t identify as anarchists but who have state-shy perspectives, have critically examined the important role institutions such as the household, the family, and education, to name a few, play in the reproduction of capitalism. In this talk I would like to discuss two areas I see as essential to the maintenance and functioning of capital: the state, particularly its modern form, the national state; and democracy. Instead of focusing on these as merely political forms, and without instrumentally reducing them to tools of capitalist rule, I will concentrate on how nation-states and democracy interact with, reproduce, and are reproduced by economic practices in the strict, traditional sense. In the process, I hope to complicate some of the functionalist and idealist conceptions of nation-states and democracy shared by anarchists and Marxists alike.
Okay, now that I’ve made my confession, I’m on to the definition: What is capitalism? Theorists Deleuze and Guattari claim to be following Marx when they say that capitalism was born with the conjugation of decoded money and deterritorialized labor. That seems like a pretty good, basic starting point to me. What does it mean? By decoded money Deleuze and Guattari mean money that doesn’t act only as a general equivalent for exchanging goods; they mean money that has become, among other things, credit money, bank money. In a certain sense, Nixon’s decision in 1971 to go off the gold standard formally created what had latently existed in capitalist money for several hundred years–it was an attempt at pure decoding, a detaching of money from nonmarket control and making it purely self-referential.
(As an aside, it was also both a mimicking and short-circuiting of the decoding demanded by opposition movements of the 60s. By maximally decoding money, Nixon was even more radical than the hippies and the Weathermen.)
Deterritorialized labor is simpler: it is labor power that has been shorn of its support and has to be sold in order to ensure its owners’ survival; it is literally labor without territory. To put it more concretely, deterritorialized labor occurs after the enclosures of the commons and after the vestiges of feudalism had been destroyed, which ensured that laborers must submit to the market.
In a sense, this view of capitalism is economistic in its own right: money and labor is all there is. But Deleuze and Guattari stress that the conjugation of the two was merely the birth, not the life, of capitalism. They also know what many Marxists forget but that anarchists don’t (well, except for anarcho-capitalists): namely, that capitalism requires a recoding and a reterritorialization in order to survive its own deterritorializations. Capital is eminently flexible, but can neither survive absolute decoding nor create recodings of its own. This, I assert, is where seemingly noneconomic processes and institutions, such as nation-states and democracy, are so vital to the survival of capitalism.
But before I get into that, I must finish up the confession-definition-hypothesis trinity promised at the beginning. The hypothesis–or guiding principle, or axiom, or assumption, whichever you prefer–follows from the definition: capitalism does not need to own and directly control things (processes, subjects, institutions) in order to use them. That is, it doesn’t have to remake things in its own image to take advantage of the product produced by those things; it’s perfectly content to let them exist as they are as long as it can profit from their activities. It’s true that private property is a central tenet of capitalism, but it doesn’t follow that capital wants to make everything its own property. Indeed, capitalists increasingly would rather not own things. The back of my computer says “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.” Capital doesn’t even want to own the production of its most esteemed and profitable goods.
Two consequences relevant to what I want to get at today follow from this hypothesis. First, because capital does not need to own or mark things in order to use them, it creates a sort of epistemological problem: Things appear not to be capitalist but capital nonetheless uses them. This confusion leads some anarchists, and others, to think that since the majority of institutions are noncapitalist, we are actually living in a postcapitalist present, that we have moved past capitalism. But ownership is not necessary for use. So, for instance, while labor, commodity, and financial markets are obviously capitalist, things like schools would seem not to be. But that doesn’t prevent capital from using schools and the education of subjects, through the training of workers, to create profit and value.
(As an aside, and something I’ll get at later, this view that we are living in a postcapitalist world assumes that capitalist mechanisms of control take the same form and expression as feudalist and sovereign domination. Obviously I think this is a mistake.)
The other consequence of the hypothesis is that it means capital has no internal, endogenous source of support for its continuation and its continued control of social life. In other words, in order to enforce its rule and perpetuate its existence, capital needs agents and innovative process that do not belong to it–including modes of living, new subjectivities, the rule of law, and access to the means of force, in addition to states and democracies. There’s lots that capital can’t do for itself, that it needs from external sources, which really should nullify any illusions about base and superstructure: it’s all base.
Okay, the nation-state. In the last two-plus decades in Europe, a certain narrative has emerged from the twin processes of decommunization and Europeanization. It goes something like this: in moments of crisis and transformation, nationalisms–which in times of equilibrium and peace are quiet–rear their ugly heads. So, for instance, the breakup of Yugoslavia, which had been unified by the wisely market-loving Tito, aroused all sorts latent nationalisms and their so-called ancient hatreds. Something similar is happening today in Greece: the suspension of normally operating capitalism has given rise to the Golden Dawn. When capital ceases to function, nationalism steps into the void.
I don’t like this narrative, for a lot of reasons. For one, it assumes that nationalism is a kind of natural passion, instinctual even, which of course ignores that nations are relatively recent developments, among other objections. For another, the narrative assigns to capital a civilizing influence and makes it the only force that can tame those nationalist instincts.
Of course I don’t want to argue that nationalism expresses itself in the same ways in both times of economic stability and times of economic crisis. It doesn’t. What I want to suggest instead is that definitions of nationalism should be expanded to include the micropolitical, quotidian ways in which the nation is produced and reproduced, in addition to the often-violent outbursts of xenophobia, racism, and exclusion, and the ways in which these national processes interact with the processes of capitalism.
So let’s start with the quotidian and nonexceptional. It’s been often noted that today money and capital cross the globe in unprecedented amounts and with unprecedented speed, which is true. This fact is often taken as a sign of the irrelevance and/or impotence of nation-states and of the dominance of capital. The assumption, in other words, is that capital always exists in some pure state and is unaffected by movement and new circumstances.
But every time capital crosses a border it is transformed, and every time it crosses a national border, it is translated into the conditions that hold in the receiving nation. It becomes situated in the labor, financial, and commodity markets that exist in that country, which necessarily changes its form. Perhaps most importantly, when capital finds a new national home, it is altered by the battle lines of the class struggle in its new environment. This holds true most obviously for foreign direct investment, that is, investment in actual businesses and productive activities, but it’s also the case that less directly productive things like financial markets and currency prices are influenced by the national balance of power.
Another way that nations translate capital is by the institutions that exist in the nation; of particular importance are legal institutions and the rule of law. Capital cannot create for itself the conditions that are favorable to its preservation and expansion, so it relies on robust national legal systems to do so. These systems protect things like patents and intellectual property of course, but more generally, they provide a general framework that creates the stability and uniformity that capital likes.
Perhaps China is good example of what I’m getting at. We often hear western capitalists complain that China does not adequately protect intellectual property rights, but despite this, it is the world’s prime place for capital and direct investment. Why? Because the Chinese government is good at other things investors like, such as the enforcement of contracts; the management of the flow of labor that (at least until recently) allowed for the predictable and modest growth of wages; and the willingness to use police power to quell labor unrest–to name just a few.
This is a too-brief explanation of what I’m trying get at with the importance of the national in the daily functioning of capital. But the national also supports capital in moments of extreme crisis, which the recent and ongoing economic and financial crises provide examples of. In 2008 and 2009, as we know, the flow of private capital stopped almost completely. Lots of capital was destroyed, with violent consequences throughout the world, but a whole lot more capital was preserved. Specifically, it was preserved by the actions of national governments, which not only instituted stimulus projects but also created massive markets in treasury securities and other safe investments. In other words, governments created guaranteed places in which capital could be stored so that it didn’t have to risk the dangers of circulation and investment.
Because capital can’t govern either itself or its subjects, it needs nation-states to do so both on a daily basis and in times of crisis.
Similarly, I contend that democracy is an independent formation that also acts as an agent to enforce the continuation of the capital-labor relation. I have to stress that I don’t mean that democracy simply continues old ways of feudalist and royal domination. As Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson say in their discussion of democracy, “Historically, democracy displays both a practice of domination and a project of liberation.”
I think that instead of taking this project of liberation as a sham or a fake liberation, as anarchists often do, we should take it seriously. As Marx noted several times, capitalism requires that the subjects who meet in the market be formally free and equal. Democracy is a fitting political form for capitalism because it really does require and found a sort of freedom for its subjects, a freedom that is to a degree beyond it’s ability to direct.
So, the problem with democracy isn’t that unleashes a fake freedom. It’s that the freedom it creates is always reterritorialized in modes of domination and control. Which is another way of saying that the freedom is necessarily compromised by the necessity of work and the politics of the nation-state. As Mitropoulos and Neilson also say, democracy really is the kratos (which means will) of the demos (which means people). And the people are always a national people, with all of the exclusions and striations that come with creating the borders that define the national.
The anarchist response to this situation has often been to find democracy in the local, the intentional, and the personal. As the Anarchist pamphlet in the Lexicon series puts it: “one experiences [democracy] most personally in small-scale projects–from food cooperatives to free schools to occupations–where people collectively make face-to-face decisions about issues large and mundane.”
While I don’t wish to impugn the impulse behind this sort of localism, and even though I find the Marxist taunt that food coops, for example, still contribute to capitalism to be a facile observation, there is something about the quote that reveals a misunderstanding of how democracy works. That is, it assumes that the local and the intentional are exempt from and immune to the national. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite: they are essential to it, and in turn they are also critical to the maintenance of capitalism.
Briefly, a historical example of this. After the 1789 revolution, France largely maintained the highly centralized governing structure that its kings had created. That lasted until the 1850s, when Louis Napoleon began a process of change that included the institution of universal suffrage, among other liberalizations. One key aspect of this turn to democracy was the creation of republican municipalism. That is, the central state was weakened and more power and decision-making was devolved to regional and municipal bodies, which relied on not just elite elected officials to make decisions but on popular participation to create a sense of community and national identity.
In short, it was only when localities became robust self-governing political units that national democracy became possible. The local is not exempt from the political of the nation-state; it is necessary to it.
It’s also important to note that this same period saw an immense transformation in France’s economic profile. In that time it changed from a largely peasant-based society to a country that had a large industrial infrastructure, a distinct proletariat, and a modern system of finance. It became, in other words, thoroughly capitalist in the modern sense.
So, to summarize: I have attempted to use some categories that are close to anarchists’ political concerns and have applied those categories to an analysis of capitalism. There are of course other categories, but I think the role of nation-states and democracy are a good start for thinking about the economic in other than narrowly economistic ways.