Sunday, June 10th, 2012

A couple of days I ago I had a thoroughly enjoyable, comradely and fiery discussion with a militant icon of the Left in Australia, the 70-something Carole Ferrier. In reply to her accusation that I am a pseudo-Marxist, I told her she was full of old-fashioned, economist and crude understandings of religion. I guess there are still those who feel that religion is simply an obfuscation, a mystification used by the ruling class to further its exploitation (in short, Althusser’s ‘cynical priests’).  Pity really. But it also struck me that many Marxists are perfectly happy being in opposition. Any successful revolution – of which there are many – is simply a betrayal of the ideal, romanticised revolution that never comes. This is of course a position particularly endemic among Trotskyites, even though Trotsky himself (as Lunacharsky noted) always acted with one eye on the mirror of history. Here Lenin’s criticism of the various Mensheviks, liberals and assorted others is worth remembering: ‘Away, away! Let this cup of revolutionary-democratic dictatorship pass from me!’ (Collected Works, vol. 8, p. 288).

Of course, on saying farewell, I gave a Carole a hug and said ‘Keep the faith!’ She growled and said, ‘I ain’t got no f&@kin’ faith’. Love her all the same.

Why is it that the practitioners of a particular academic discipline think theirs is superior? I used to think that this annoying trait was due to individual egos, to social pathologies endemic among intellectuals, to the desperate need for some intellectuals to assert that they are more important than they really are. The catch with this approach is that it fails to account for the sheer pervasiveness of this attitude. You find it with historians, anthropologists, neurosurgeons, engineers, cultural critics, sociologists, religionists, even the odd theologian … Why?

I suspect this disciplinary chauvinism is built into the very structure of disciplinary identity. This finally became a little clearer with my investigations into the emergence of economics as a discipline, although I had encountered this question a while in my inquiries into cultural studies. Basically, the moment of disciplinary independence requires a careful brushing over of the footprints on the path along which a discipline has tramped. And with that independence come claims to universality, superiority – in short, disciplinary chauvinism. In the case of economics, the specific and troubled engagement with the Bible and theology (Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Malthus), is subsumed under a moral agenda (Smith, Mill, Ricardo) which carefully banishes the account of the road to independence. Only by this means may such a discipline assert its independence, its universal relevance, its deeper insight and superiority over all others. That would mean that chauvinism is an inescapable and defining element of what it means to be a ‘discipline’. Of course, the very existence of a pure, distinct discipline is itself a fable.

A small insight into how the German approach to debt operates, at least on a personal level. Earlier this year, I purchased a ‘Bahn 25′ card: at 25 Euro it gives you 25% discount on all travel on the German rail network for three months. The German network is adequate, not brilliant, but the deal sounded attractive. Soon enough, the outlay seemed to be returned. Generous buggers, I thought, especially if you book early, get the 29 Euro ticket for anywhere and then an additional 25% off.

But … when the initial period of my Bahn 25 card ran out, I was sent a friendly looking notice about renewing it, now for a year. This time it was over 60 Euro. Since this one wasn’t worth my while, I simply ignored it. Before I knew it, a stern letter arrived in the mail (or in Christina’s letter box in Berlin). Pay up, it said. You have seven days or the debt collectors will call, with leather straps, pliers and chains, in order to extract that amount. A flurry of inquiries ascertained that I had automatically, without any acquiescence on my part or even notification, been signed up for the year-long contract and that I was now – without warning – indebted to the German state.

A small insight into the experiences of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, let alone all those countries in eastern Europe?