May 2012


A new piece after yet another trip to China, this time on the tensions of Confucius – over at Political Theology.

While we’re on that theme – liberal democracy – it’s worth remembering that even Stalin toyed with the possibility. In 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War and with eastern Europe moving rapidly to socialist systems through popular elections, Stalin opined:

Your democracy is special. You have no class of big capitalists. You have nationalised industry in a 100 days, while the English have been struggling to do that for the last 100 years. Don’t copy western democracy. Let them copy you. The democracy that you have established in Poland, in Yugoslavia and partly in Czechoslovakia is a democracy that is drawing you closer to socialism without the necessity of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat or the Soviet system. Lenin never said that there was no path to socialism other than the dictatorship of the proletariat, he admitted that it was possible to arrive at the path to socialism utilising the foundations of the bourgeois democratic system such as Parliament (Roberts, Stalin’s Wars, pp. 246-7).

Similar statements can be found from the same period. Soon enough, however, Stalin learned again the wisdom of Lenin’s reflections in The State and Revolution: bourgeois democracy has a structural default in favour of capitalism, systematically excluding any viable alternative. That is, one cannot use the system for something it simply cannot handle. For that it needs to be smashed.

Nothing like returning from an ‘authoritarian’ communist country like China to encounter a great moment in bourgeois democracy: back in Australia, Tony Abbott (leader of the opposition) runs from parliament so he doesn’t have to vote on his own motion. No argument here about which system is best.

I know many people feel like time flees by and life comes to an end before we are ready. But for some reason, I find that each day is an incredibly long time, let alone a week, month or year. Usually, that feeling is associated with boredom. Far from it, for a day is usually full of many, many things. Remember that by the time you reach 50, more than 400,000 hours have come and gone. Now that is a seriously long time.

It takes a little more than a national health scheme … (ht sk)

I have just returned from China, where an increasingly strong feeling is that a critical reappropriation of the Cultural Revolution is around the corner – as part of retelling the story of the past to open up possibilities for the future. More of that later, especially in relation to Confucius. But it is worth noting a few other signals, over against ‘romantic’ Western Marxism that I have taken to task in earlier posts and that always imagines the perfect revolution is yet to be achieved (the flabby Žižek, among others, take note).

From Russia comes a story of the steady increase of the Pioneer Communist Youth League:

Over 5,000 boys and girls clad in red ties and side caps flooded onto Red Square in Moscow to be accepted into the ranks of the Pioneer Communist Youth League.

Almost 90 years ago to the day, the Soviet scouting movement was created at the second All-Russian Komsomol Conference. Komsomol was the youth division of the Soviet communist party.

And while the original Pioneer youth organization of the Soviet Union has been defunct since 1991, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has continued the tradition.

Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov told the youths gathered on Red Square“pioneers have always been model examples of how to love one’s motherland, how to be a good and honorable student, and how to help one’s elders and juniors alike.”

The children who were sworn in on Sunday came both from Moscow and surrounding regions.

CPFR secretary Yury Afonin says there were delegations from 30 different regions across the country, including Siberia and beyond, RIA Novosti reports.

Afonin insists “it isn’t just a tradition; they are doing real work with the children.”

He also said that around 4,000 youngsters from around the country take the oath to“warmly love and protect their homeland” annually, though the number who want to join is actuality much higher.

But while logistic and security concerns have limited the number of the movement’s slowly building ranks, next year even more youths will be wrapping themselves in the red pioneer scarf.

Despite a lack of state support, Afonsin believes the enthusiasm of today’s generation of pioneers keeps the movement alive.

For the children,“it’s a holiday that lasts a lifetime,” he concluded.

The video on the link noted earlier is worth watching.

(ht sk)

Back home and one of my favourite spots in town beckons again, the obelisk on the top of ‘The Hill’. It is still used as a a navigation device, having replaced a windmill pulled down a few years before 1850.

These ‘Directions for Entering the Port of Newcastle’ come from the Government Gazette of 1850.

When the Obelisk is in with the tower by the light you are nearly off the rocks east-southerly of the Nobby’s; and when the Nobby’s is in with the same you are off the rocks north-west of the same.

The Obelisk open to the west of the Queen’s Wharf will head you clear off the rock on the port land going in.

The Obelisk open to the eastward of the Wesleyan Chapel will clear the Oyster Bank and the North Bank, and will lead in from twenty-four to fourteen feet of water as you approach the Oyster Bank on the starboard side going in, and from eighteen to twelve feet as you approach the North Bank, also on the starboard side.

Merion Moriaty, Port Master.

I am off to give a few lectures in China (once again), this time at the Nishan Forum and in Xi’an, the beautiful former imperial capital. Having just received the program for the Nishan Forum, which will take place at Confucius’ birthplace, I am happy to say that it is a standard, garden-variety conference … with, to give a small sample, ambassadors, journalists (they have a separate registration procedure and place to stay), senior communist party officials, UN representatives, director of the Central Institute for Socialism, cultural director to the former President Chirac, the Executive Vice-Chairman of the China Association for International Friendly Contact, nearly the whole people’s government of Shandong Province … and me. Apparently, we will open monuments, be hosted to vast meals put on by the government, and explore what it means to have ‘harmony and diversity in a harmonious world’.

I am involved in:

1. Confucius and Jesus Christ: Dialogue Between Scholars from Diverse Civilisations.

2. Retrospect and Transformation of Civilisations (a modest theme, where I will speak on the false universal of Western ethics)

3. Dialogue Between Well-Known Experts.

Actually, I’m not on this one, but would love to have been. At every conference I attend from now on I will propose, insist upon and (where possible) organise a session like that.

And in Xi’an it will be a lecture on an old favourite, ‘Marxism and Religion’.

Thoroughly looking forward to it all – as well as the long-haul rail travel between places.

When were veils invented for women? Was it Muhammad, or perhaps one of his followers? Not at all, for veiling is first attested in a Middle Assyrian law code from between 1400 and 1100 BCE. It distinguishes between five classes of women: respectable women (married or concubines), widows, daughters of free men, prostitutes (both temple and street) and slaves. The first three classes were to wear a veil, the other two not. And for not observing this rule – the prostitutes and slaves were to be beaten if seen wearing a veil.

The context was an ongoing class conflict, between the ruling class and increasingly impoverished farmers. Part of that oppression involved women – wives and daughters – being sold to slavery and/or prostitution. Soon enough, poor women regularly engaged in periodic prostitution, while the women of the ruling class were increasingly guarded. The law was an effort to determine who was who.

But veiling took off in another society somewhat later but with similar approaches to women – ancient Greece, the source of all those beautiful things such as philosophy, democracy, sculpture, architecture and plays. The wonderful aristocracy, which included figures such as Plato and Aristotle, thought it was perfectly fine to bugger adolescent boys while their women were sequestered at home, chaste and modest, away from the sordid life of the streets. And if she went outside, a woman in a democratic city like Athens would never be seen without a veil. What began as an aristocratic affection soon became a practice for all ‘respectable’ women.

While there is a plenty of material one can use from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, most of it appears on the edges, in insights scattered here and there. These include, in random order: a market is not necessarily tied to profit, indeed, most markets in history have not had profit as their prime function, if at all (which leads one to the logical position that capitalism and markets are by no means synonymous and may be opposed to one another); debunking Adam Smith’s quaint founding myth of the origins of ‘the economy’; labour under capitalism has hardly ever been ‘free’; the reason why the treasures of the Americas were mined at all was due to Chinese need for bullion (90% of the total output) – most ships simply sailed straight there; redistributive economics is based on the violence and war of warrior aristocracies; markets always arose as a side product of the state’s activities, rather than state and economy being separate spheres; his redesignation of the Near East as the Near West, indeed that the West begins somewhere around Iran and Iraq, since from a global perspective there was little that distinguished Muslim, Christian and Jewish parts of the world.

Most of these points you can find elsewhere, but Graeber’s genius is to weave them into an intriguing narrative. But the problems are greater than these insights. To begin with, he is an ardent advocate of the superior role of anthropology, especially in response to economists. This may take the form of some great accounts (the Tiv from Africa is one example, which I read as an instance of the imaginary resolution of a real contradiction), but it usually ends up in a kind of primitivist argument: the true insight into human nature and interactions is to be found in these anthropological investigations into tribal peoples from Africa, Greenland, Asia, the Americas and – Graeber’s own field of research – Madagascar. The upshot is an assumption he shares with Adam Smith et al: human nature is the same wherever we look. The trick is to identify how we tick. All of which leads to a trans-historical assumption, embodied in the inadequate suggestion that all human societies operate on the basis of interwoven patterns of baseline communism, reciprocity and hierarchy.

Further, for a long book that deals with a central economic, social and political issue, there is no systematic economic theory that underpins his argument. For instance, he accepts the common position that the prime economic motor in some periods of history was plunder. The catch here, as Marx drily observed, is that you need something to plunder. Another example: despite his extended discussions of slavery and its crucial role in relation to coinage, one searches in vain for any theory of class. He has many opportunities, such as the ‘military-slavery-coinage’ complex as a way of relieving debt pressure in ancient Greece (228-30). This cries out for a class analysis, but none is forthcoming. And for my purposes, ancient Mesopotamia plays a crucial role in his discussion, for it provides the earliest evidence of what he calls a credit-based economy with far-flung international ‘trade’. Not only does he rely almost solely on the problematic Keynesian approach of Michael Hudson, but he provides no treatment of the crucial economic factor here, agriculture, let alone any effort at making sense of ancient economies.

He also buys into that intellectualist fantasy of the Axial Age, which he extends from 800 BCE to 600 CE. The Buddha, Confucius and Pythagoras were all alive at its beginning, thereby setting in train debate, intellectual schools, traditions of thought. But why is this an intellectualist fantasy? It imagines that the activity of intellectuals may determine a great stage of world history.

Ultimately, his criticism of capitalism is moral. I was taken with his proposal that the absolute thug, Hernan Cortes, is the quintessential image of the entrepreneur – ostentatious, debt-ridden, cunning, unbelievably brutal, with an unhealthily high opinion of himself. Despite this promising beginning, the argument boils down to morality. Self-interest, that key element of capitalism, is simply a derivation from theological notions of sin. That is, capitalism valorises and gives free reign to one of the basest motives of human beings, greed. That point might be worth making when scoring a cheap shot against some dull-witted economist, but it doesn’t get you very far.

A case in point is Graeber’s curious valorisation of village life in Europe before it was torn up by industrialisation and the ideology of self-interest. Despite the gossip, back-biting and scandals, above all people lived together in trust and communal ‘love’. They spent time with one another, valued friendships and family, extending credit to one another in a complex web without coinage. After all, since you know everyone and can trust them, such credit is not a problem. I hardly need to point out that this is a romantic ideal, a fantasy-land that never existed. But the stronger point is that production of such a life takes place under capitalism, that the ‘traditional’ is itself a product of the modern. Apart from that, I grew up in such places, small villages and towns in country Australia. The reality is that you can’t have bucolic bliss without village idiocy – the lantern jaw, the glazed eye of just a little too much inbreeding.

As a result, Graeber’s solution is quite lame (I only hope that his publisher wanted something more positive at the end). It’s a biblical-style Jubilee, a global cancellation of debt. Not only does this contradict his romanticised image of a community based on trust and mutual credit, but it fails to realise that a Jubilee is a system-restoring device, not one that leads to anything new.

Next Page »