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kvond

“Capitalism’s Agents”: Seeing the World Straight

K-punk in his review of Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies has an interesting sentence that perhaps characterizes the way that people of a certain project think about the happenings and organizational properties of the world. He wants us to realize ourselves as “agents” of something, some kind of resistant mission, and that as such agents we should draw our lessons from the agents of other missions, like those of the dread neoliberalism, and those of Capitalism itself:

Capitalism’s agents were a revolutionary class which had to dismantle feudalism, undermine the authority of the Church, and challenge practically every vested interest before they could succeed.

Perhaps it is just this kind of “agents” think – could it be, drawn out from James Bond films where covert, organized action occurs beneath appearances – that gives oppositional thinkers such an essentializing view of others. Are you an agent for the other side? Are you a double-agent? Who are you working for?

But really, I would like to know just who “Capitalism’s agents” were? Having not read the reviewed book I just have to let the phrase stand at large, for it surely is operating as a generalized category. Thinking of 17th century Dutch Republic, was Descartes one of Capitalism’s agents? Were the merchant Jews in the Amsterdam Ghetto in which Spinoza lived? Was Spinoza “Capitalism’s Agent”? Was Johannes Hudde (a father of actuarial mathematics, reactionary against the Koerbaghs, burgomaster of Amsterdam)? Was Newton? Was Van den Enden? Was Grotius? Just who made up this “revolutionary class”? There was a flowering of both Capitalism and Republican ideas during this century, a redistribution of wealth and social power in great contest with the Church and Royalty, but to project back onto this time and speak of a “revolutionary class” seems almost mindless of the interwoven allegiances and cross-investments that seldom if ever broke into a polarity wherein one class of persons found themselves united in anything at all. When the mob/multitude tore the forward thinking Dewitt brothers to pieces, were they Captialism’s agents even though they were ushering stadtholder William III of Orange back into power? By what order is one qualified as an “agent” of Capitalism?

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12 responses to ““Capitalism’s Agents”: Seeing the World Straight

  1. Daniel Lindquist October 9, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    These shorter, critical posts of yours are a lot of fun. I like them.

    • kvond October 9, 2009 at 11:02 pm

      Thanks Dan. I know my long-winded twistings are a bit tedious (truly, probably for me too). Good to know that some other form is working.

  2. anodynelite October 10, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Kvond,

    This is something I’ve wondered about also, more recently in light of anthropology’s narrative concerning the flowering of capitalism: for anthropologists, “capitalism” happens just about anywhere that agriculture is happening. Farmers have to take their wares to the marketplace. This creates a barebones capitalist economy, and the beginnings of economic stratification the way we experience it today.

    Of course, what most Marxists call Capitalism big-C happens a little later than early agrarian markets do, and capitalist societies are usually identified as coming into being alongside globalization post-merchantilism. But I think it’s interesting to take the anthropologists lead on this… capitalism has been around for much, much longer than most Marxists think it has, and it’s never been an organized conspiracy perpetrated by a few Illuminati… I mean, agents. I wonder if Gruber would have something to say about this…

  3. kvond October 10, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    Yes, Graber would be interesting on this. I do think that there was a particular phenomenon, or experiment in the early Dutch Republic, partly brought on by the coincidence that Royal power had been vacated, and there was a chance that Republican solutions could at least for a time be tried. And that this corresponded to a definite change in the distribution of wealth towards a merchant class certainly had strong commerical/political consequences. There is a remarkable story, I forget which royal from England but one of them, had to travel to Amsterdam and into the Jewish ghetto in order to sell her jewels to finance the war. The idea that royalty had to mix with a people that just a few decades earlier were being tortured systematically by the Spanish Inquistion was a remarkable reversal, a note that “things done changed”. If you look into the intense melting pot of Dutch society in these years, Capitalism and relative democracy were certainly flexing new social forms in the context of Lutheran reform. But this aside, I certain agree that the notnion of “Capitalism’s agents” is almost pure fantasy, I supppose of the kind that makes people feel like they are “part of something”, that they themselves are important social actors.

    And yes, the notion that Capitalism started “here” at this time or another seems pretty silly too. There was a flowering of some kind in the Dutch Republic, but it would be wrong to simply characterize it as a flower of Capitalism alone.

  4. Mark Crosby October 12, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Just happened to finish David Graeber’s August MUTE article, today, “Debt: The first five thousand years”, where he argues that we have cycled between “commodity money” (gold and silver – dominant during times of conquest in order to pay the soldiers) and “virtual money”, which reached its previous height in the Middle Ages (“Religions began to take over the market systems”) and has returned in the current age of floating exchange rates.
    http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2009-08-20-graeber-en.html

    • kvond October 12, 2009 at 5:53 pm

      Yes, I recall David on this, and I believe he has something of this in his new book (he shared a chapter with me not to long ago and it was very thought provoking, I assume it was for the new book). What is interesting about debt is the way that it operates as not only a leverage for future expectation (insurance), but also a psychological deficit. I should read the Graber article, which I haven’t.

  5. Carl October 12, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    I like this critique of vicarious agency very much. I don’t think there’s a problem with saying that there were certain agendas that assembled into a more comprehensive and regularized set of practices that at a certain scale are conveniently labeled ‘capitalism’. But to then read this convenience back into history and turn capitalism into a something that made itself happen by using human actors is weird.

    Incidentally Marx himself did not make this mistake. Of course markets and local credit systems existed from the dawn of agriculture. The argument is that these economic forms were mixed with and restrained by all sorts of other economic and social relations until the modern period, for a variety of reasons, when they became pervasive and dominant. So the anthropologists are right, but miss the point.

    For me the problem with the account has to do with whether capitalist relations have sufficiently pervaded and dominated all other relations to provide the last-analysis traction that’s imputed to them.

  6. kvond October 13, 2009 at 3:27 am

    Carl: “For me the problem with the account has to do with whether capitalist relations have sufficiently pervaded and dominated all other relations to provide the last-analysis traction that’s imputed to them.”

    Kvond: Whatever in the world would be the standard, or the measure of such a domination? In fact the idea that any one kind of relation would dominate all relations is kinda silly.

  7. Carl October 13, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Agreed! I don’t see what an adequate metric would look like either, so that’s why I see a problem with the account. Or rather, the metrics exist in the theory but they’re circular. Call capitalism an encompassing dominative economic/political/social/cultural system, identify target of analysis as economic/political/social/cultural, ascribe its dynamics to capitalism, lather-rinse-repeat.

    Yet silly as this is, all default theories(tm) work this way: there’s one Big Cause (gods, God, Fate, Fortune, Spirit, Will, Capitalism, the International Masonic Conspiracy) in relation to which all others are dependent or residual. I wonder if we’re ready to stop being religious this way.

    • kvond October 14, 2009 at 10:39 am

      Carl: “Yet silly as this is, all default theories(tm) work this way: there’s one Big Cause (gods, God, Fate, Fortune, Spirit, Will, Capitalism, the International Masonic Conspiracy) in relation to which all others are dependent or residual.”

      Kvond: And why in the world would this be the “default” theory? The point is to take a perspective that gives an analysis ground as neutral as possible (so that differences that make a difference can be noted). The “BIGness” of the cause is simply the equilibrium against which change is measured. So a “Masonic Conspiracy” or the “Dominance of Capitalism” is a very different concept than “the world is made of, and an expression of matter, information and energy” (for instance). What makes the latter more interesting is that it provides a ground for OTHER descriptions, while the former leads to a lot of hunting for evidence of the very somewhat paranoic assumption.

  8. Carl October 14, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Kvond, from the rhetorical flourishes it feels like you’re working real hard to get me to be advocating the thing I’m describing as a common and pernicious syndrome in others. We’ve generally been simpatico about the value of other descriptions, no?

    Why is God a default theory? Why is Fate a default theory? Because they do some work that way, especially by grounding a worldview preconceptually. It’s a premise masquerading as a conclusion, a matter of faith, which is why default theories are so difficult to knock out by pointing at the superiority of other descriptions. For Marxists of the kind Marx famously said he was not, the ‘dominance of Capitalism’ works like that, and we’ve been seeing it pop up in just this way across our little corner of the blogosphere as the economic downturn encourages the marxoids to crawl out from under their damp, dysphoric rocks and declare the world theirs.

    So to your question “why in the world would this be the ‘default theory'” the answer is, for the same reasons people ever get religion. If the point is to take a neutral perspective, which I pursue as a noble but unlikely goal, then the usual questions about how to deprogram the religious come up next.

    • kvond October 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm

      Carl: “Why is God a default theory? Why is Fate a default theory? Because they do some work that way, especially by grounding a worldview preconceptually. It’s a premise masquerading as a conclusion, a matter of faith, which is why default theories are so difficult to knock out by pointing at the superiority of other descriptions. For Marxists of the kind Marx famously said he was not, the ‘dominance of Capitalism’ works like that, and we’ve been seeing it pop up in just this way across our little corner of the blogosphere as the economic downturn encourages the marxoids to crawl out from under their damp, dysphoric rocks and declare the world theirs.”

      Kvond: I feel like we are being simple minded about people’s thinking about the world. Yes, in imaginary ways, in imaginary relations, some people think about God or Fate in the same way that some people thinking about the Domninance of Capitalism (hence “revolutionaries” feeling they have to over throw the “gods” in some kind of prometheian style), premise/conclusion, there are to me many ways of relating to default theories that do not operate like this. There are ways of relating to even concepts of Fate and God, not as a conclusion, but as a kind of operation. Science’s materialism and abstract cause/laws works something like this as well.

      For me the distinction, lies somewhere in the imaginary relations you point out, but also in the way that the assumption grounds, as an object of belief, the valuations we make on other things (valuations we assume to be correct). In this way, K-punkists might look at the world searching it through a lens that sees only “agents” of world orders, identifying with other “agents” of the coming revolution. While a more neutral, less phantasmic ground is needed.

      But I still am at pains to equate these imaginary relations with some sort of “theory”. There is something to it, but K-punk doesn’t even seem to have a “theory” of world agents, just a fantasy.

      This being said, just the notion of a “dominant” relation, under Marxist colors, itself strikes me as rather skewed. Dominant as to what? As I brought up on Shaviro’s blog, it is not Capitalism that is not so pervasive as monetary debt exchange. But I have no idea how this would be decided as “dominating” other relations.

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