I admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with the notion of privilege that has come to inform anti-racist and -sexist politics in the last few years. In a personal register, as a white heterosexual male, it doesn’t feel like privilege to work way too much for too little pay and to have my political concerns marginalized. (Cue the world’s smallest violin.) Politically and philosophically, invocations of privilege often seem to be founded on a few noninterrogated things I’m skeptical of: a this-shouldn’t-happen-here progressivism; equality as an aspirational norm; and, in reminders to “check your privilege,” an assumption that people can will themselves to step outside of their historical circumstances.

Then, occasionally, some really stupid critiques of privilege theories come along and alert me that they are at least onto something. The worst kind of critique, and the most obviously racist, goes something like, Well, we are all exploited under capitalism, and though, say, blacks and women do have it worse, that’s not an essential feature of capitalism. This leftist variation on whiteman-burden-ism assumes that structural equality (“the working class”) means equality in how class plays out. It thinks, or pretends to, that capitalism isn’t a differential system in which exploitation and oppression are more or less intense at various points and among various groups. Of course those using the structural argument don’t really believe that; they would acknowledge differences in exploitation and oppression between, say, doctors and nurses, but often in arguments against privilege, other differences are easily forgotten.

Then there’s the kind of critique found in a recent Socialist Worker article:

Privilege theory is predicated on an unchanging status—privilege—rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness or human history. Its pessimism follows from its premise. Privilege theory’s skepticism about social change flows from its investment in a conceptual category that is static and often, as we have seen from the evidence, ahistorical.

That’s the socialist critical method distilled, isn’t it? Call the object or theory of criticism “ahistorical,” dust off your hands, and find the next thing to denounce as bourgeois. (Labeling things reformist and being done with it is another favored technique.)

But every word of it is wrong. Theories that track privilege don’t think of it as unchanging; in fact, the efforts to identify the complex interlockings of privilege recognize that difference plays out in contingent, nonfungible ways that can’t be reduced to identity. That is, invoking privilege as a form engagement–when it doesn’t create a hierarchy of oppressions, as it does admittedly sometimes do–asserts, without apology, that difference is a form of politics, not a personal identification, and that it enacts politics as well as being enacted by it. Consequently, the charge of “pessimism” is pure ad hominem: The caution to “check your privilege” is surely as much an invitation as it is a warning, an encouragement to participate in a being together that forges new relationships and creates new openings. Which is to say, politics.

And maybe that’s why talking of privilege is such a problem for socialists: it posits politics not just as pluralism (in the sense that Ellen Rooney uses the word) and oppositional engagement but as prefigurement and building together. Just the sorts of things parties and aspiring states consider nonpolitical. And ahistorical, of course. Always ahistorical.

Polanyi in Guangdong

Eli Friedman’s article on labor insurgency in China, focusing on migrant laborers, employs Karl Polanyi’s model of countermovement to describe the strike actions and theorize the political effects they’ve had. Why? What could Polanyi’s grid of understanding that was devised seventy years ago in Europe tell us about what is happening today in China? Well, it turns out not much, except to make his theories perhaps even more reterritorializing than they were in the context they were introduced.

Part of this conservatism no doubt derives from the demands of academic publishing, where the m.o. seems to be that when theories associated with great men are applied to contemporary problems, bountiful insights result. But it’s also political choice–one that’s been gleefully made by the likes of Harvey and Arrighi, who, to varying degrees, not only take up Polanyi’s framework but endorse his highly conservative cultural conclusions as well.

To Friedman’s credit, and very much unlike Harvey, in at least one respect he recognizes that Polanyi’s insistence that sovereign regulation is the countermovement is a proposition that today is both technically unlikely and politically undesirable, or at least he knows that very few are gauche enough to aver such undisguised nationalism as the solution. So, Friedman shows empirically that the state consistently sides with employers in labor disputes. But he also adapts Polanyi’s model by differentiating between what he calls the insurgent moment and the institutional moment, the former representing the instances of rebellion and militancy and the latter representing the insurgency’s formation into stable (political) entities. In doing so, he maintains the essential verticality in Polanyi’s formulation while making it possible to name organizational forms that stop short of the national state.

Which of course introduces all sorts of other problems, leads him to tautologies, and forces him to conceive of workers’ struggles only as lack. Specifically on the last, he claims that the moment of institutionalization is blocked, particularly the state’s attempt at “appropriated representation”; that is, preemptive efforts–legal and otherwise–by the state to anticipate and address workers’ grievances by granting the employment rights, in the form of contracts, social welfare, and (limited) collective-bargaining rights, in hopes that the granting of such rights will lessen the inclination to strike.

But it’s not just that the state is being cooptive. (Friedman, it should be noted, is a contributor to Jacobin, a journal oddly obsessed with cooptation for a publication whose politics are left-Keynesian to begin with.) The workers themselves don’t seem interested in fulfilling his institutional moment, which he posits as lack, though whether that’s of will, desire, or representation is not clear. And in the end it doesn’t matter: by not concerning himself with the strikes themselves and focusing on institutionalization, he assures us that the strikes are prepolitical and because they get “stalled out” at institution-making they fail to form an intermediary level, a labor union, that is the teleology of countermovement. In so doing, he leaves out a whole series of factors: the constitutional uselessness of the ACFTU, the official union, which the workers insist on bypassing; the migrant networks and alliances that acted as a substrata for the strikes; the contagious effects the strikes have had; and more. One doesn’t need to be an infantile spontaneist to see that there are politics at work here.

Perhaps this is too harsh. Friedman does strain a bit at his own model when he compares 2007 strike at Ascendent Elevator with the 2010 Honda strike. He notes how both that events refused the official representation of the ACFTU and institutionalization more generally, but the latter progressed pressed further along that path. Which is to say, he hints at an analysis that transcends the framework he theorizes. But he ends up affirming his theory nonetheless, because, one gets the feeling, he’s invested in the progressivist model of struggle and development.

This shouldn’t, if one goes back to the beginning and to Friedman’s inspiration, be a big surprise. No amount of tweaking can rid Polanyi’s work of its utter conservatism. Nations and unions can both be new shelters from the capitalist storm, ones that displace current lines of exploitation but nonetheless act as the foundation for new ones, perhaps centered on less objectionable subjects.


Speaking of white-male-leftist concerns, it’s been a rough last few months for Jacobin, a magazine that started out interestingly but has evolved into a publisher of a series of hand-wringing articles about inequality, cooptation, and the lack of effective political leadership. Which is to say, the talking points of socialists. (One article was properly skewered here, and this article was a fortunate exception to the recent trend.)

A recent article on China was not quite as bad as some of the rest, but, in addition to having a dubious thesis about the separation of production and reproduction, it contains this:

If the ideal of public goods is to serve as a bulwark against the market’s inherent tendency to reproduce class inequality, in China such institutions serve just the opposite purpose. This is not the informal class- and race-based segregation of today’s America, but old-fashioned, formal exclusion based on inherited characteristics. The implications for the rigidification of class structure are legion.

Putting aside another dubious (which is to say stupid) idea about the function of public goods, the reliance on “old-fashioned” processes of stratification and the implication that the “new” kind are not operative in China is not only more than a little Orientalist, but it doesn’t at all begin to grasp the changes afoot in the country (as I’ve written about here). Of course “old-fashioned” ways are still at work, but reducing the processes in China to those is comically insufficient.

Turns out, though, this is a Jacobin thing. Here’s Corey Robin, an editor of and contributor to the magazine:

Against critics—inspired by Michel Foucault—who focus on disciplinary institutions like prisons, hospitals, and schools, these books remind us that the workplace remains the central institution in most people’s lives. Foucault and his followers would have us believe that liberalism and the Enlightenment have vanquished the medieval world, and that discourses of freedom, reason, and individuality are the instruments of contemporary domination. But in the workplace, men and women are disciplined not by an impersonal panopticon but by the all-too personal figure of their boss. Liberalism is nowhere to be found, and Enlightenment might as well be the name of the utility company.[…] Workers inhabit a world less postmodern than premodern, whose master theorist is neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith but Joseph de Maistre.

Now of course Foucault’s schemata deserves criticism and refinement—and there’s certainly a lot to be said about those who treat it as absolute and serial, including Foucault himself—but I can’t think of many things more reactionary that retreating to a predemocratic, almost precapitalist, past to explain how labor today is controlled, managed, and captured. There are thousands of studies about contemporary work, and I bet none of them, and certainly not Ehrenreich’s, indicate that we’ve returned to an (imagined) brute past in which bosses have complete control over workers. Such theses are not only ridiculous, but are dismissive of how workers’ struggles have changed workplace politics (they also forget the immense effort required of states in those days just to get people into workplaces).

They are just-so stories for socialists who lament their lack of control over the politics of renegade workers, feminists, queers, and many others.

Proper victims

More and more, I’m amazed at how leftists (especially of the white male variety) assume that, by sheer will and intellect, they transcend the social order. The recently commemorated September 11th is a prime holiday for such displays, which usually get expressed in moral-equivalency arguments about empire, imperialist violence, etc. This year I noticed a new wrinkle, a leftist aspiration to define the border between legitimate victimhood and illegitimate:

On this twelfth anniversary of 9/11, I’d like to point out the pathology of coveting traumas, especially when you’re merely a spectator, not an actual victim. As someone wrote with total seriousness not too long ago, “If you were in the tri-state area on 9/11, you are a victim.” No, you’re not (and note the present tense). You’re just hankering for victimhood — and an easy mark, in that self-righteous and unearned state, for any scumbag who’d like to use that event to further his or her own agenda to go kill and crush some other group of people. Not my kind of memorial for mass murder. But do what you like.

Even though I agree with some of this, it’s really annoying on an analytical level, especially in its willingness to designate the proper victims. I lived in New York at the time of the attacks, and I sympathize with the revulsion at using the tragedy as a pretext for war (and the legal and extraterritorial architecture that went along with it), especially considering that most of the time New York is not really considered part of the nation.

But it’s precisely the contingent, partial inclusion of New York–and that other hotbed of anti-American activity, Washington, D.C.–that nationalism makes possible. There is nothing irrational or even surprising in this. The author–a disciple of Chomsky’s, to give an idea of the general politics involved–completely fails to understand, or pretends not to, the passions of nationalism that give rise to “victimhood,” of how nationalist solidarity is often founded on trauma and tragedy. It’s precisely those negative foundations that enable the creation of the not-national, the outsider, the enemy. Nationalism always operates by a differential inclusion. All the author has done is engage in a different kind of national-border drawing and drawn the circle a little tighter, all while assuring us he sees through the bullshit.

However, such distinctions are only available to the enlightened, or those that should know better. It would never be said by the author that, say, Afghans in Kandahar are victim-mongering if they are affected by a U.S. drone attack in Helmand, just as discussions of chavismo ignore the revolution’s segmentations and focus on its macro economic stats or its social processes. Difference doesn’t hold there.

Especially annoying about the above is that it contains an implicit critique of nationalism, but it’s a completely moralistic kind of critique, one that’s designed to allow the author to both escape implication in the response to September 11th and pathologize those who think differently. It treats nationalism as a choice (for some at least) rather than a social bond. It’s crap antinationalism, at a time when critiques of nationalism’s material and quotidian functionings are urgently needed and being vigorously tested on the ground.

Not in Europe

Hannes Swoboda, the president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European parliament, said: “Golden Dawn’s openly xenophobic, neo-Nazi hatred even goes as far as murdering political opponents. This is shocking and intolerable by any standards, and more so in a European Union country.”

There’s a lot in this quote, about the killing yesterday of Pavlos Fyssas, that is symptomatic and deserves unpacking, but I’m most charmed by the eight words appended to the end. The guy who wants to rid the body politic of xenophobia also has no problem saying unblinkingly that the EU is superior to the rest of the world in political civility and tolerance. Harrumph.

Making this even harder to swallow is that it is precisely the leftist and socialist parties Swoboda is a part of and is speaking for here that have in the last twenty years been building the juridical and physical infrastructure that’s made Fortress Europe possible. As a member of the European Parliament, his function is to solve the problems of overlapping sovereignty created by the EU project, and the solution has mostly been to resort to radical violence: mass deportations, the forced exclusions of migrants arriving by boat, the extension of sovereignty to extraterritorial zones where national prerogatives apply but legal norms don’t. Most of these techniques have been enacted at the national level, but the EU’s task, through Frontex, has been to rationalize and coordinate them.

So Swoboda’s shock is difficult to take seriously, given that the Golden Dawn seems to be doing the EU’s work. That formulation is probably too neat, but it’s certainly the case that the Golden Dawn patrols for the bordering and monetary regimes the EU has put in place. Located at the physical edge of Europe and designated as a zone where the union’s striations can be partitioned and addressed away from the rest of the political body, Greece is serving as a sort of laboratory for working out the control of labor flows and the policing of populations, and the Golden Dawn has played a pivotal role in that, in its collaborations with the police during protests and street patrols and in its concern with defining the properly European people.

Of course sometimes they might cross a line, and if anything, that’s what Swoboda’s protest registers. Because really, his outrage is tardy by at least three years, the amount of time fascists have been, routinely and without retribution, harassing and beating migrants and queers, among others. Swoboda’s late-arriving horror is aimed not just at the killing–tacitly accepting along the way the less-lethal violence–but at the fact that it was visited on an avowed antifascist, an “opponent,” someone with a politics. The previous victims lacked such subjectivity; they were merely queer, or simply “economic” actors, but whatever they were, they did not have a politics. That’s for Europeans.


Negri’s turn toward Deleuzoguattari-ism came about at the same time Deleuze and Foucault were beginning their split, which has been attributed to many things but philosophically hinged on their differences over resistance and power. Negri certainly learned from this schism, and he sided with Deleuzean assemblages over Foucaultian dispositifs, even if he’s not attached to those terms.

So far so good. Deleuze’s lines of flight give his metaphysics, which is also a politics, an immanent means of explaining both escape and restoration that doesn’t rely on (second-phase) Foucault’s more traditional moments of resistance (and the architecture of consciousness and decision that precede and follow it). “Resistance comes first” seemingly validates Foucault, but it’s a transformed Foucault, one whose “system” is made immanent.

Negri’s working through this problematic began, not coincidentally, with the book on Spinoza, and I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that the results he came up with have been the foundation of all of his work since then. His response to the problematic has been to adhere to the immanence of the constitutive elements that Deleuze insisted on, but to plug in his own elements. To put it probably too baldly, in Negri the lines of flight are replaced with an ontology founded on production and constitution. So, on Spinoza:

In rhythm with the Dutch anomaly a theoretical potential is determined that, while sending down its roots into the complexity of the initial capitalist development and into the fullness of its cultural environment, proceeds toward a future dimension that supersedes the limits of that historical period. The crisis of the utopia of the bourgeois origins, the crisis of the founding myth of the market […] does not mark a regression in Spinoza but a leap forward, an advance, a projection into the future. The basis is decomposed and liberates the meaning of human productivity and the materiality of its hope. The crisis destroys the utopia in its bourgeois historical determinateness, dissolves its contingent superficiality, and opens it instead to the determination of human and collective productivity.

Substituting production and constitution does retain some advantages of Delezuean lines of flight; namely, the neutral valence of the concepts and how they can constitute both/either freedom and slavery. But that’s also where the substitution becomes a problem: While lines of flight suggest something than can be decomposed and/or decomposing, locating production and constitution as the immanent heart of subjectivity indicates that subjects are always productive and constituting; while lines of flight can be imperceptible, taciturn, and immobile (think of Deleuze’s ever-patient tick), Negri’s ontology assumes an ability to produce is always active and central.

And this begins to get at Negri’s inability to embrace antistatism and his lingering, if slightly kinky, attachment to Leninism. His multitude, even absent a leadership apparatus, can’t be without being productive.

Trayvon, redlining, and financialization

[some fragments on Trayvon Martin]

The idea that stand-your-ground/castle laws are to blame for Trayvon Martin’s death is wrong. Yes, those laws are objectionable for many reasons, not least because of the wide differential in their application (as the two verdicts in Florida showed yesterday, in their tragi-comic way). But for the most part, they are just the late-arriving legal expression of the social architecture of postwar US: as official, state segregation was dismantled, millions of new borders have become established, borders that cross traditional jurisdictions and that are largely privatized and, of course, racialized. Nouns like neighborhood associations, gated communities, and citizen patrols begin to describe these phenomena, but they don’t fully capture the new arrangements that span public and private, that define citizen and outsider, and that draw and redraw boundaries. Trayvon’s crime is that he was on the wrong side of one of those borders, and Zimmerman is symptomatic in that he did all he could to defend that border. That’s why Trayvon is dead, and it was all possible without recourse to stand-your-ground laws, which is why the defense didn’t have to invoke them.


When I posted the above to Facebook, someone pointed to redlining as a practice that provides continuity between old/state and new/private. Absolutely, and I understated the continuities. I actually had been thinking of redlining a lot while writing the above, as the practice created an art of spacial differentiation that still informs urban planning and development.

In its popular connotation, redlining was/is the process of marking out certain neighborhoods for exclusion from household loans (and I am thinking primarily of mortgages, though the term gets applied to insurance, credit, etc., as well). Even though it’s true that those who lived in certain neighborhoods or blocks were barred from receiving loans, as a practice, redlining was more about defining the areas and subjects of risk and creating the terms under which those could be included in the circuits of financial capital. In other words, though some were excluded, many were included by the process of redlining; once banks were able to calculate the risks inherent investing in those neighborhoods, they began lending. Redlining, if anything, was about including people in indebtedness, on the condition that certain included subjects agreed to a much higher degree of exploitation and extraction.

It should be noted that redlining was initiated in the 1930s by quasi-governmental agencies, and after the technique was implemented and effective, it was taken up by banks themselves.

It should also be noted that the determination of who got included and who got excluded was seemingly illogical in many ways. In Bill Dedman’s famous journalistic account of redlining in Atlanta, he discovers that many professional, middle-class blacks were denied loans while lower-income blacks received loans at a higher rate. The lines of inclusion don’t always get traced along the lines of status and income.


The case of Trayvon Martin and how he came to end up at that particular gated community on that particular night resonates with the history of redlining. Compared to the demographics of the United States, and certainly compared to the demographics of the Orlando area, The Retreat at Twin Lakes is an integrated, diverse enclave. This was no white outpost.

Or at least the demographics didn’t say so. The neighborhood did employ gated communities’ usual white-flight security architecture, which came from the development’s history: begun as a higher-priced, exclusive area in the early 2000s, the development took a hit when the financial crash and housing crisis forced prices on the apartment units down by 60%. No one seems to have numbers on pre-crash demographics compared to post-crash, but anecdotally, the development became much less white and, of course, much less wealthy.

After the crash and the developers lost some of their hoped-for clientele, the Retreat was opened to a wider population, an opening that allowed the families of both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman to move in. In the time of crisis, they were allowed a new kind of participation in financialization, to be included.

But as Travyon Martin found out, his inclusion was highly conditional, and able to be revoked. He was included, but he never really belonged.


[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.

Risk and investment

I am endlessly fascinated by the contradictory dynamic of risk in contemporary capitalism. On one hand, risk and its management have become a prime ontological condition and command, the responsibility of self-managed subjects. On the other hand, capital itself, particularly in times of crisis like the last few years, is increasingly allergic to risk; its owners are afraid of losing it and so hoard or stash rather than invest in productive ventures.

Neoliberalism’s critics often say its essential component is individualism, an uncomplicated definition that takes its enforcers’ claims too seriously. But to the extent that it can actually said to be individualist, it is so in this way: In moments of doubt, capital tends to fear, more than it has at other times, the social immersion of money and to take flight to safety, in tax havens and in government instruments that, in most of the world, yield returns that are near zero–meaning that in real terms, such capital loses value each year. Capital would rather destroy itself than risk the uncertainty of circulation.

Not surprisingly, then, as this post and its charts detail, recent data shows that private investment in the United States is continuing to mine new lows, less than half of what it was during the heights of the dotcom boom and lower even than the dark days of late ’08 and early ’09. Even though corporate profits remain strong and even though the growth in productivity continues to decline, which indicates a need for upgrades to fixed capital, U.S. corporations continue to keep capital in safe investments and buy back stock rather than invest in productive outlets.

Consumers, on the other hand, continue to spend. As Michael Roberts notes, consumption as a percent of GDP is just off the all-time high, and growth in consumer spending still outpaces growth in the economy as a whole. Consumers in the United States, enduring slow wage growth and high unemployment, continue to spend and assume the risks of living beyond their means.

And so the paradox I mentioned earlier isn’t really much of a one at all. It’s not about contradicting dynamics of risk but, as Angela Mitropoulos has said, its allocation, the lines on which risk is distributed. Right now, capital is counting on highly exploited workers, indebted consumers, and precarious subjects to navigate the dangers of risk so it doesn’t have to.