Monday, November 2, 2009

Plato on Love.

Aristophanes, the Athenian comedic playwright is famous for lambasting politicians during the Peloponnesian war. But also according to Plato’s “Symposium” he put forth a theory of love, in a short mythopoeic narrative. Expressing the idea that human-beings are inherently incomplete, wanting for another individual who represents their other half. This theory was counterpoised with several other conceptualizations of what constituted love. Socrates in the “symposium’’ also postulated a conception of love advocating that love constituted the “desire for perpetual possession of the good”. The purpose of this paper will be to render an account of both Aristophanes and Socrates account of love in more detail. Furthermore discussing the contention between the two theories and critically evaluating which if at all these theories adequately elucidate the nature of love.

The story delivered by Aristophanes started with the idea that originally human-beings had three genders (Plato, 2005, p 26). There were males born of the sun, women born of the earth and the androgynous a mix of the two born of the moon. These early human-being were quite different from their current incarnation, having two of everything, two faces, two pairs of legs (Plato, 2005, p. 27). These human-beings were according to the myth stronger and more ambition and tried to assault the Olympian gods. Zeus desiring the continued worship of the gods refrained from destroying the human race for their insolence. Deciding upon another form of punishment, that of cutting the humans in half. Creating individuals who are merely half of a whole Zeus designed these individuals with more weakness, deficient in their isolation and incompleteness.

To overcome this isolation and deficiency individuals sort the company of another. Sex was invented for the reproduction and propagation of the human-race but also to overcome the sense of alienation. Aristophanes claimed sex had this second function not only in heterosexual relations but also homoerotic liaisons. Homosexuality comes about from those who were split from either male or female wholes. Heterosexual individuals were split from the androgynous whole. Each individual therefore searches to find their perfect match, their other half to gain completeness. Aristophanes claims this desire as a human universality of condition, everyone wishes for a perfect union with their own natural counterpart. Love is therefore according to Aristophanes, the volition to become whole.

When Socrates gives his account of love, he reiterates the position of Diotima whom taught him “the ways of love” (45). Diotima communicated the dimensions of love through a narrative about its creation. According to this story, Poverty wishing to alleviate her condition decided to sleep with Resource. The prodigy of this union was love; love gained its nature from the dual characteristics of its parents. From Poverty love inherited that quality of always being in need and from resource love schemes after that which is beautiful (Plato, 2005, p 49). The short story elucidates the nature of lack and desire within loves dynamic as expressed by Diotima’s theory. Love is not itself an object of desire but a desire for an object. The object of loves desire is that which is good. Diotima counters the theory which Aristophanes represented by arguing that we love another not because they constitute our other half but rather because they have the quality of being good (Plato, 2005, p.52).

The possession of the good and the beautiful is taken by Diotima as the definition of happiness (Plato, 2005, p. 47). Pushing this idea further in their didactic dialogue, Diotima proposes that individuals should wish to posses the good forever (53). As consequence of this, particular actions must be taken in order to perpetuate the possession of the good. Love as a result of this logic gains a function, giving birth to beauty both of mind and body (53). Sexual intercourse is therefore a manifestation of this love; procreation is how human-beings attain immortality and therefore perpetuate their possession of the good (54). This procreation functions not only through somatic means but also through mental procreation.

Mental procreation is therefore another way to attain immortality. Lycurgus and Solon creators of the Spartan and Athenian constitution respectively have gained “fame immortal” by the proliferation of virtue, a mental quality (Plato, 2005, p. 59). Diotima went as far to postulate that there is a hierarchy of goods. The lowest form of good is the beauty of the body; one should then turn towards higher goods in the mental realm if one is capable (Plato, 2005, p. 60). The highest form of beauty put forth by this theory put it beyond the realm of “human flesh” and “moral rubbish’’ (Plato, 2005, p.62). Platonic love at its highest manifestation turns away from the world, towards an abstract idea. This idea is only known to “god” the source of our polluted copy, we cannot grasp the original (Plato, 1987, p. 260). Camus argued against this conception of love inverting its hierarchy claiming “those who love truth should seek for love in marriage” further denoting the later as “love without illusions”(1979, P. 271). This partial criticism of platonic love demonstrates its inadequacy when attaching to the natural phenomena of love a religious dimension and hierarchy of forms.

The two theories of love have been elucidated; the theory held by Socrates is implicitly a critique of the theory put forward by Aristophanes. Aristophanes held that we love another for the unique singularity that they are, as they constitute our other half. Love is the desire to attain a connection with that other half and gain completeness. This theory renders the nature of isolation and feelings of alienation which is not captured in Socrates theory. But Aristophanes is severely critiqued by Socrates, when Diotmia argued that we do not love another for their unique singularity but rather the qualities which made them beautiful. This theory at first seems more practical and therefore adequate in explaining the nature of love and attraction, the desire for the good. But it’s hierarchy of forms is lacking. Because it preferences an abstract ideal above all worldly things. It is furthermore an abstraction which cannot be known, which renders this component of the theory superfluous even dangerous if we follow Camus reasoning that it constitutes illusion.


Camus, A. (1979), “Notebook iv”, Selected Essays & Notebooks, Ed & Trans Thody, P. Penguin, Ringwood

Plato, (2005), Symposium, Trans Gill, C. & Desmond, L. Penguin, St Ives plc.

Plato, (1987), The Republic, Trans Lee, D. (2nd ED), Penguin, St Ives plc.

(written early 2007)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ernest Hemingway's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Hemingway didn’t deliver his own acceptance speech. He had been seriously injured in Africa and couldn’t attend. This recording was supposedly made years later in Cuba.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Chat: 'A Moveable Feast'.

The first time I tried to read Hemingway I ended by throwing the book across the room. It wasn’t until I read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ that I started to appreciate Hemingway’s work. ‘A Movable Feast’, unlike ‘A Farewell to Arms’, didn’t end up in the far corner of the room. There is a certain emotional authenticity in his sketches of Paris between the wars. I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes and observations made of Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which are the most developed characterizations of the memoir. The notion of “the lost generation” and Hemingway’s meditation upon Stein's point was enjoyable and Fitzgerald’s problems with measurement left me in stitches.

This new edition contains a lot more than earlier editions, but is not without controversy as to certain editorial alteration. Supposedly, some remarks that are uncomplimentary to Hemingway’s first wife Hadley have been removed. Nevertheless, this is still a great and evocative read.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Žižek on Cultural Studies.

“Some moths before writings this, at an art round table, I was asked to comment on a painting I had seen there for the first time. I did not have any idea about it, and so I engaged in a total bluff, which went something like this: the frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, implied by the structure of the painting, and these two frame do not overlap – there is an invisible gap separating the two. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dislocation of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. Are we, today, in our post-modern madness, still able to discern the traces of the gap? Perhaps more than the reading of a painting hinges on it; perhaps the decisive dimension of humanity will be lost when we lose the capacity to discern this gap…to my surprise, this brief intervention was a huge success, and many following participants referred to the dimension in-between-the-two-frames, elevating it into a term. This very success made me sad, really sad. What I encountered here was not only the efficiency of a bluff, but a much more radical apathy at the very heart of today’s cultural studies” - Slavoj Žižek, from "The Universal Exeption".

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The “New Capitalism” and The “Dialectics of Failure”.

In recent years there has been a spate of news reports on the ‘new economy’, the shifts in corporate structure and the resultant transformations in the nature of employment. Richard Sennett, in a series of works on the culture of “new capitalism”, has attempted to map the connection between large-scale trends in corporate structure and the employee’s experience of work and self. The operational logic of this new capitalism isn’t new; for Sennett (1997, p. 161) the novelty lies in the innovative organizational structure of business, which seemingly flouts Marx’s thesis that the concentration of production goes hand-in-hand with the concentration of capital. In the world of new capitalism, once stable corporate bureaucracies have become increasingly “flexible” and “highly mobile” enterprises, ultimately less secure in their position (Sennett, 1997, p. 161). In turn, Sennett argues, work has become subject to recurrent metamorphoses, engendering more uncertainty and instability in the workforce. An image in stark contrast to Weber’s (2008, p. 245) “iron cage”, were individuals born into the “technical and economic conditions of machine production” found their lives determined by the “mechanism” of capital accumulation. This almost Sisyphean fate had some positive aspects; it provided a measure of certainty for the worker. Their relatively secure position ensured a sense of usefulness and purpose. Sennett’s ultimate concern in his analysis of the new capitalism is the extent to which this picture has changed, the extent to which the modern worker is subject to uncertainties, haunted by uselessness and unable to gain a sense of purpose and coherent selfhood from work.

The backdrop to Sennett’s analysis is the shift from the fordist model of industrial production, to the post-fordists employment structures that developed after the collapse of the post-war boom. The French political economist, Alain Lipietz (1997, pp. 2-3), has argued that Fordism can be construed in essentially three different related ways: 1) as an “industrial paradigm, 2) as a “regime of accumulation”, and lastly 3) as a “mode of regulation”. In terms of industrial paradigm, Fordism combined the scientific management of Fredrick Taylor and the technological advancements of mechanization. The application of scientific management involved a demarcation between the organization of production and the process of production itself. Routines were formalized and carried out according to preset outlines. The gains in productivity which resulted from the fordist principles of organization formed the basis for a new regime of accumulation. Increased profit provided the basis for more financial investment, and the increased wages ensured higher levels of aggregate demand. British Historian, Eric Hobsbawm (2006, pp. 263-4), identified the spread of these fordist principles, both to divergent industries and to foreign counties as a crucial pillar underpinning the post-war “golden age”. Finally, Lipietz posited (1997, p3), Fordism constituted a “mode of regulation”, were the capital-labour relation was subject to a process of “contractualization” and there developed a system of rules that moderated employer and employee interests.

The mode of regulation indicative of Fordism placed heavy controls on redundancy and wage rates, locking Capital into a series of obligations towards labour. For Zygmunt Bauman (2000, pp. 144-5), the underlying ideal of Fordism was the melding together of labour and capital by the “mutuality of their dependency”. Henry Ford, from whose name the term Fordism is derived, famously introduced the five dollar day. This constituted a raise of twice the amount previously on offer at the Ford Motor Company. In Ford’s own explanation, he merely wished his employees the ability to purchase the cars they produced. However, many commentators have rejected this justification as tongue-in-cheek and point to the high level of labour mobility and the need to retain staff. The increased retention of staff and the reduction of labour mobility, allowed Ford to benefit from a relative stable workforce and minimize the cost associated with training new workers on a regular basis.

Given the fordist propensity to lock labour into long-term arrangements, the prospect of life-long employment was not only a possibility, but a probability often confirmed by experience. Bauman (2000, 146) characterized the frame of mind, typical under Fordism, as a “long-term mentality”. Whereby, the “time horizons” in question seemed expansive, often out-striping the lives of individuals. For the employee, life-long employment with the single company was not unheard of, and for the employer they often felt as if they were contributing to a family legacy beyond themselves. Fordism, in its tripartite manifestation, provided the institutional framework to sustain a somewhat “coherent self” based upon the Victorian notion of a life’s work, or purpose (Sennett, 1997, p. 172). Sennett (1997, p. 173) noted that, under new capitalism, the institutional structure that supported the long-term mentality and coherency of self image representative of both the Victorian mindset and fordist paradigm are no longer in place. For both Sennett (1997, p.162) and Bauman (2000, p.147), the shift from Fordism to new flexible organizational structures has caused an alteration in the relation between work and self.

The ‘crisis of fordism’, which had precipitated the cultural dynamics which Sennett attempts to elucidate, was predicated upon a series of economic fault lines that had developed over the course of the long-post-war boom (Lipietz, 1997, pp. 3-4). Throughout the course of the 1960s and 1970s, high-income economies had witnessed a decline in the rates of profit. This trend was associated with a decline in the levels of productivity and the overall cost of labour. The mainstream explanation for the crisis of the Fordism was that the social compact between labour and capital had over-empowered labour and therefore undermined the rate of economic growth (Lipietz, pp. 3-4). In order to surpass the limitations of Fordism, polices of “liberal flexibility” were introduced that slackened employment regulation and undermined social security: allowing for the general destabilization of work (Lipietz, 1997, pp. 3-4).

This general destabilization of work, is the organizational condition that informs Sennett’s (1997, p. 162) thesis that new capitalism is “impoverishing the value of work” by reducing it to short-term engagements that are incapable of forming the basis of a “durable personal purpose”, or a stable sense of self. News reportage on trends in employment often highlight the increased and mounting rates of casual, part-time and self employment relative to full-time employment within the new economy (Kanter, 2009; Bazelon, 2009). These reported figures buttress Sennett’s (1997, p. 166) observations about the increasingly ephemeral nature of work and the attempts of corporate managers to promote a sense of contingency in the workforce. Sennett (1997, p. 166) quoted the comments of an AT&T executive who stated that: “’jobs’ are being replaced by ‘projects’ and ‘fields of work’” with the ultimate aim of promoting a sense of impermanence.

In ‘No Logo’, journalist Naomi Kleim (2001, p. 242) argued that managerial notions of “flexibility” translate into “no promises”. No promises in the era of flexible accumulation have introduced new uncertainties and anxieties in the middle classes, that Sennett (1997, p. 161) asserted were more characteristic of the working classes in a bygone era. Given the continued metamorphoses of corporate structure, driven in part by ever-emerging technological advancements, that often lead to the de-skilling of workers and the ability of companies to do “more with less”, today’s middle classes are haunted by “the specter of uselessness” which for Sennett (1997, pp. 166-167) culminates in the underlying implication of a “dispensable self”. Dislocation from the engine of economic growth, coupled with reference to personal autonomy and individual “informational competence” within the “skill-based economy” forces workers into a double-blind, which denies them control of economic conditions, whilst promoting a sense of personal responsibility (Sennett, 1997, p. 167).

In a recent New York Times article, Sudhir Venkatesh relayed some tentative findings of his current ethnographical work in a series of Manhattan and Brooklyn coffee shops on freelance professionals, who he said exhibited a great sense of guilt and personal failure over their current economic plight (Bazelon, 2009). The self-reports of these freelance professionals have been made within the context of a major economic recession, but this only accentuates trends already observed by Sennett, and moreover highlights his concept of the double blind. Venkatesh’s interviewees have placed the onus of responsibility upon themselves, initiating a sense of guilt and personal failing, despite the overwhelming economic climate (Bazelon, 2009). Kanter (2009) describe how the management of IBM actively cultivate this sense of personal responsibility, insisting that in the current global environment employees continually need to keep themselves relevant to their employers by updating their skill set. In 2007, Sam Palmisano, the current CEO of IBM, talked of a new company program that would credit staff members with educational benefits. The “learning accounts” would reward individual employees for their contributions to the company, but Palmisano insisted that this was not a hand-out; rather, the need for the employee to remain usefull was their own resonsibility (Kanter, 2009).

It is clear that corporations like IBM do not provide the institutional framework required to support long-term mentalities and the sense common under fordist organizational principles of a life-long vocation. Not only does this induce a sense of insecurity and the fear of uselessness, but the lack of institutional cover coupled with the notion of personal responsibility culminate in what Sennett (1997, p. 174) calls a “dialectics of failure”, that place a tremendous burden upon individuals and undermines there sense of self. IBM’s position on personal responsibility and the need for employees to maintain and improve their skill base further exemplify Sennett’s (1997, p. 167) notion of the “spectre of uselessness” and the prospect that economic redundancy is an imminent possibility. This short-term mentality, the casualisation of employment and the reduction of jobs into projects, undermine any sense of loyalty and induce a general sense of uncertainty. In an earlier period, the mode of regulation indicative of Fordism did not alleviate industrial conflict and often facilitated it; however, labour and capital were locked into long-term contractual relations that instituted a relatively stable mutual dependency. The ‘crisis of Fordism’ and the movement toward ‘liberal flexibility’ might be said to have moved capitalism not to a ‘new’ formulation, but out of a momentary metastable social settlement.

Written by Mathew Toll.

Bauman, Zygmunt. (2000), Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.

Bazelon, Emily. (2009), “The self-Employed Depression”, New York Times, June 2nd, [,%20Flexibility,%20Self&st=nyt&scp=].

Hobsbawm, Eric. (2006), The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, London; Abacus.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. (2009), “IBM and Procter & Gamble's 21st Century Workplaces”, Bloomberg, September 8th, [].

Kleim, Naomi, (2001), No Logo, Netley: Flamingo.

Lipietz, Alian. (1997). "The post-Fordist world: labour relations, international hierarchy and global ecology.", Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 1-41.

Sennett, Richard. (1997), “The New Capitalism”, Social Research, Vol 64, No 2, pp. 161-180.

Weber, Max. (2008), “The Protestant Ethic and The Sprit of Capitalism”, Classical Sociological Theory, Edited Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, Indermohan Virk. Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 229-246.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Punk-Style and Sub-Cultural Theory.

The role and significance of sub-cultural style and its relationship to mainstream culture, moreover its political connotations have been an area of contention within sub-cultural theory. A seminal account of sub-cultural dynamics was postulated by Hebdige who drew on theories from disciplines diverse as Semiotics and Anthropology. Hebdige considered sub-cultural style to be grounded in the re-appropriation and subversion of the mainstream cultural order by alienated groups. This implies that style itself has a political dimension and that sub-cultural style is innately politically challenging (effectively or not) within the power relations of society. The task of this paper will be to shed further light on Hebdige’s theory of sub-cultural style as a form of re-appropriation and insubordination, building up from the theoretical antecedents to an application of the theory to punk subculture. Additionally, I will evaluate Hebdige’s thesis on the nature of sub-cultural style and its political dimensions.

The thesis advanced by Hebdige on the dynamics and significance of sub-cultural style has been influenced by a number of paradigms and theorists including but not limited to; The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony, Barthes’ semiotics and Levi-Strauss’s notion of Bricolage (Nilan, 2007, p. 116; Hebdige, 1981, pp. 101-103). The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies was itself heavily influenced by Antonito Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony. That is, that within a class society the ruling class cannot maintain power over subordinated classes by the violence of the state alone. Concurrently, the ruling classes must mobilise intellectual dominance in the form of normalised ideologies (Gramsci, 1988, pp 193-4). Birmingham school scholars utilised the concept of hegemony in explaining the nature of working-class youth sub-cultures in terms of a resistance to hegemony. They saw this class as reacting to social structures which marginalise them (Nilan, 2007, p 116). Resistance does not necessarily manifest itself as a distinct and tangible phenomenon. Are sub-cultures such as punk to be considered legitimate forms of political resistance or are they ineffective and do they inadvertently support the establishment? In response to this, Hebdige built a theory of sub-cultural style borrowing in part from Gramsci and earlier Birmingham scholars as well as integrating the Semiotics of Barthes, among other components.

The semiotic analysis of Barthes (1973, p. 120) was designed as a study of “significations apart from their content”. Arguing that objects have meanings - are “signifiers”, in so far as they are “signified”, to become a “sign”, that is to say, meanings are encoded upon an object rather then meaning being intrinsic to objects (Barthes, 1973, pp. 120-121). The cultural order of represented meanings is therefore a system of signs. Barthes argued that in modern Bourgeois society, cultural systems of representation are constructed to present Bourgeois society as natural and inevitable. He termed this the attempted presentation of the “immobility of nature” (Barthes, 1973, pp. 162-163). Hebdige (1981, p. 102) conceptualized sub-cultural style as an activity of subverting this ‘natural’ cultural order through a process of re-contextualizing. That is, removing objects from there traditional location and assigning new meanings in place of old connotations.

The Bricolage theory was a concept advanced by Levi-Strauss and featured in Hebdige’s work. Bricolage refers to the systems of meanings represented in objects that can be re-worked and re-contextualized spontaneously to produce new meanings and forms of understanding communicated between participants (Hebdige, 1981, p.103). According to Hebdige, style as a collection of diverse elements and objects brought together from a variety of sources to communicate meanings is a form of Bricolage. The sub-cultural Bricolage, according to Hebdige (1981, p. 103) is both an enterprise of “conspicuously refused” forms of consumption, and simultaneously a culture of “conspicuous consumption”. This is communicated through the re-appropriation and re-contextualizing of signs (commodities, bodies, etcetera) to produce new significations. Punk epitomized these dynamics, re-appropriating cultural forms and denying others, forming a neoteric mosaic of meanings - communicating oppositional defiance in the face of mainstream culture. This sub-culture hence can serve as an empirical case study, to test the conceptual framework which has been built up by Hebdige from the Birmingham school, Gramsci, Barthes and Levi-Strauss to form his theory of sub-cultural style.

The punk sub-cultural style developed in a social malaise of urban youth suffering from unemployment and marginalization, they reacted by exercising their power to offend and disrupt the social order (Hebdige, 1988, p. 18). “Fuck” and “Cunt”, words eschewed by mainstream culture as highly offensive obscenities were a stock standard of punk lyrics and publications (Triggs, 2006, p. 73). This represents an affront to the cultural norms and practices of the mainstream culture and legitimate language used by the respectable classes. To this end punk “fanzines”, do it yourself (DIY) publications, often had an amateurish feel with spelling and grammatical errors left unfixed to further emphasize their rejection mainstream conventions (Triggs, 2006, p. 73). Rejection of convention was not limited to the intentional ‘miss’ use of language, re-appropriation of cultural signs and the re-contextualization of commodities was a foundational element of punk sub-cultural style.

The safety pin, an object associated with domestication and the family function of social reproduction, was inserted through the ears by Punks, an ironic play on an old sign to present a confronting oppositional stance (Hebdige, 1981, p. 107). This represents both an instance of Bricolage and subversion of the established sign-system; innovation with existing cultural objects and the assignment of new sign-values over old meanings. In this light, Umberto Eco’s phrase “semiotic guerilla warfare” was utilized by Hebdige (1981, p. 105) as a description of sub-cultural style, insubordination and ironic play with cultural signs. This ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’, along with actual violence provoked intense media attention on the ‘youth problem’ (Hebdige, 1988, pp. 18-19).

Symbolic subversion and physical violence provoked a dual reaction from the establishment; the introduction of new social programs aimed at alleviating youth’s dispossession and the importation of new means of crowd control (Hebdige, 1988, p .18). Therefore according to Hebdige (1988, p. 18) sub-cultural style functioned as a method utilized by subordinated groups (racial minorities, working-class youth) to enter into a dialogue with the establishment, making their position into a salient feature of the social body. Consequently Punks rejected their subordinate position within society; this logic leads to a consideration of punk’s political dimension and the politics of sub-cultural style.

The discussion over the political dimension of punk in particular and sub-cultural style in general spans a broad spectrum; from resistance to the establishment to complicity in re-producing social structure (Raby, 2005, pp. 155-156). The Birmingham school of cultural studies saw youth sub-cultures as acts of resistance to the establishment, in terms of rejecting the hegemonic norms of the ruling class (Nilan, 2007, p 116). For other theorists this resistance to the hegemony of the ruling class has resulted in the re-production of the hegemonic norms and power-relations (Raby, 2005, p.156). Hebdige (1988, p.35) argues between these two positions that sub-culture and sub-cultural style represent neither “commercial exploitation’ nor ‘Genuine revolt” but the creation of an independent, insubordinate identity, if only as an ephemeral phase.

A salient example of this punk sub-cultural style is the punk-rock band ‘The Sex Pistols’; this band symbolized the rebellious and anarchic sprit of the Punks (Moore, 2004, p. 315). Malcolm McLaren, the bands manager, presented the history of the band in the film ‘The Great Rock N, Roll Swindle’ as an intentional commercial enterprise aimed at turning teen rebellion into cash (Moore, 2004, p.315). “Post-subcultural theorists” contend that, in line with McLaren’s history, sub-culture style is often imbibed with features of capitalism (Raby, 2005, p. 157). Marcuse (1972, p. 21) argued that the construction of identity through commodity consumption is an underlying ideological grid which unifies divergent elements into the establishment. Punk sub-cultural style in this schema while subverting the existing sign-system through re-contextualizing the usage of commodities still remains complicit in the establishment by the continued commodification of the self.

Sub-cultural style, in respect to its political opposition to the establishment is superficial, remaining on the symbolic level, leaving the fundamental social structures in place. Punk’s sub-cultural style was an expression of political opposition, arising in reaction to the condition of marginalized groups such as racial minorities, youth and the working-class. Hebdige sort to understand the dynamics of punk and other sub-cultural styles constructing a theory of sub-cultural style complied out of a number of theoretical antecedences as shown through the works of Birmingham cultural studies scholars, Gramsci, Barthes and Levi-Strauss. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony established the foundational research parameters by establishing a model of how class societies are ‘harmonized’ not only by means of violence but also intellectual dominance and the creations of a cultural sphere with inherent value biases. Birmingham cultural studies scholars applied this theory of hegemony to post-WWII youth sub-cultures to understand their ‘deviance’ in terms of resistance to the hegemonic norms of the class society. Barthes’s semiotics went further in elucidating the dynamics of sign-systems and the encoding of meanings into objects as forms of cultural representation (and domination), the manipulation and innovation of these sign-system was conceptualized by Levi-Strauss in his concept of Bricolage. Hebdige’s integration of these elements to formulate a theory of sub-cultural style which can be seen in his conception of the punk movement: punks re-appropriated and collated divergent cultural representations to shock, confront and offend the establishment. In a reaction to their subordination they represented insubordination. Their style was political, yet effectively superficial.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Barthes, R. (1973), Mythologies, Glasgow: Paladin.

Gramsci, A. (1988), “Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc”, edited by Forgacs, D. A Gramsci Reader, Lawrence and Wishart Limited, Great Britain.

Hebdige, D (1981), Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Metheun.

Hebdige, D. (1988), Hiding the Light, London: Routledge.

Marcuse, H. (1972), One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, London: Abacus.

Moore, R. (2004). "Postmodernism and Punk Subculture: Cultures of Authenticity and Deconstruction.”, The Communication Review, Vol. 7, No. 3: pp. 305-327.

Nilan, P. (2007), “Youth Culture”, Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society, Edited Poole, M. and Germov, J. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Raby, R. (2005). "What is Resistance?", Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 8. No 2: pp. 151-171.

Triggs, T. (2006), "Scissors and Glue: Punk Fanzines and the Creation of a DIY Aesthetic.", Journal of Design History, Vol. 19, No. 1: pp. 69-83.

(written late 2007)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

European Cultural Hegemony and Australian Aboriginals

The relationship between the indigenous people of Australia and their native lands are essential to their traditional culture. The colonization of their nations by Europeans has lead to a destruction of this relationship and therefore of indigenous cultural practices and norms. This process was predicated upon European cultural norms and established a cultural hegemony of European culture over indigenous culture. The effects of this cultural hegemony by mainstream Australia can be observed through a series of social indicators. Therefore these social indicators can be used to demonstrate the nature of cultural hegemony on the indigenous peoples of Australia.

Cultural hegemony is a concept designed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (Ganguly-Scrase, 2003:55). Gramsci argued that a dominate group, could not retain power by threat of physical coercion alone, but also needed to retain control of the superstructure, i.e. of Ideology and belief systems (Gramsci, 1988: 193-4). The European invasion and subsequent colonization of the Aboriginal nations maintains itself not only through the ‘legitimate’ violence of the state apparatus but in addition through cultural hegemony.

The notion of Terra Nullius which the European colonists used to justify their invasion of the aboriginal nations was based on a western philosophical idea’s of property and ownership. John Locke’s argument that property arose out of mixing labour with nature, coupled with the biblical impulse to “go forth and till the land” justified the colonization of Australia (Yarwood, Knowling, 1982: 15). The Aboriginal’s semi-nomadic lifestyle, which left nature unscarred with symbols of ‘civilisation’ in a western sense did not satisfy the European notion of ownership, leaving the land open for occupation by whoever claimed it.

For the Aboriginals their relationship with the land was not one of ownership as it was for the Europeans. More then just a means of subsistence land held a spiritual and cultural significance (Warwood, Knowling, 1982:15). The struggle over land, because of its economic and cultural significance for both Europeans and aboriginals is the main axis of the conflict. Social indicators, in the form of statistical data provide empirical evidence of this conflict and cultural hegemony of mainstream Australia over the Aboriginals.

It should be noted that the mere fact of statistical information relating to ‘Aboriginals’ as a monolithic entity exist, infers that there is European cultural hegemony. As aboriginals pre-invasion did not identity as a single ethnic category, rather the indigenous population constituted many different groups and tribes (keen, 1993: 220). Bureaucracy is also a European import, a tool used to label and categorise the aboriginals in accordance with European terms.

The European notions of ownership having replaced aboriginal notions of belonging to the land, and therefore aboriginals have been displaced from traditional areas and culture. The devastating effects of this process of colonisation of the indigenous peoples can be seen in the aggregate population levels pre-contact at 314. 500, compared with the lowest levels of 73. 828 (Saggers, 2003: 217). As of 1996 the indigenous population comprises 2.1% of the total population of Australia (Saggers, 2003: 217). The indigenous minority’s land ownership is much lower relative to the non-indigenous land ownership. Housing statistics bear this out when 32.5% of indigenous people own or are purchasing their own home compared to 72.7% of non-indigenous people (Saggers, 2003: 220). The issue of Land ownership and Housing also have consequences for indigenous people in areas such as health because of such things as over-crowding. Indicated when indigenous male life expectancy is 57 compared to the non-indigenous life expectancy 75 years (Saggers, 2003: 220).

Since the Whitlam government there has been a change in policy towards the indigenous peoples of Australia and the notion of Whiteness which had previously defined an ‘Australian’ (Anderson, 2002: 244). The policy shift was from assimilation into mainstream European culture to one of self-determination and self-management of aboriginal affairs (Saggers, 203: 218-9). This change in policy started a shift in thinking which lead towards the development of Native title.

Native Title give the indigenous people of Australia a right to make claim on land once there own. This is an attempt to preserve their cultural heritage, resisting total submission to European cultural hegemony through establishing aboriginal connection with their land. The “Mabo Judgment” which was the landmark case in the development of Native title, overturned the legal fiction of Terra nullius (Saggers, 203: 215). But there has been continued conflict over forms of ownership. To illustrate the problem western Australia is area of 2, 527, 620 square kilometres, only 35% is vacant crown land, 38% of that is pastoral lease along with many other uses of the land (Manson, 1997: 823). As a result only a fraction of possible land is available for claim because of the European cultural hegemony which places the mainstream economic values and notions of ownership over aboriginal cultural norms and values.

The appearance of multiculturalism within Australian society has been criticised as essentially a monoculture because the fundamental British nature of society is unchallenged (Jamrozik, Boland, Urquhart, 1995: 110-1). This includes the mainstream’s relation to the indigenous peoples of Australia which is an expression of cultural hegemony. These Hegemonic cultural norms of mainstream Australia have suppressed aboriginal cultural norms and imposed themselves on the indigenous population, centrally around the issue of Land and ownership. This can be observed through the social indicators, in particular housing and land ownership which has flow on effect as highlighted with Health statistics. The introduction of Native title has done little to change this situation as European norms are still held by Mainstream Australia to be more worthy then aboriginal norms and cultural practices.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Anderson, W. (2002),The Cultivation of Whiteness, Melbourne university press, Australia.

Ganguly-Scrase, R (2003), “The search for Change: Karl Marx”, edited Jureidini, R and Poole, M. Sociology Australian connections, (3rd ed), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Gramsci, A. (1988), “Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc”, edited by Forgacs, D. A Gramsci Reader, Lawrence and Wishart Limited, Great Britain.

Jamrozik, A. Boland, C. Urquhart, R. (1995), Social Change and Transformation in Australia, Cambridge university press, Hong Kong.

Keen, I. (1993), “Aborigines and Islanders in Australian society”, edited Najman, M. J. and Western, S. J. Sociology of Australian Society, (2nd ed), Macmillan Education Australia , Hong Kong

Manson, A. (1997), “The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples In Lands Once Part Of The Old Dominion Of The Crown”, International & Comparative Law Quarterly, October, Vol 46, pp. 812 - 830.

Saggers, S. (2003), “Indigenous Australians”, edited Jureidini, R and Poole, M. Sociology Australian connections, (3rd ed), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Yarwood, A. T. Knowling, M. J. (1982), Race Relations in Australia: A history, Methuen Australia, Singapore.

(written late 2006)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Liberalism and Colonialism.

The first major wave of European colonization was initiated after the discovery of the Americas by Columbus in the late 15th century. The Colonization of these new lands was at first justified by the catholic nations as their duty to proselytize Christianity. Therefore their domination of the indigenous population was alleged to be of a great service to them, saving their souls from eternal damnation. This ‘Civilizing’ project was also used in an adapted form by British liberal political philosophers to justify their nation’s own colonization and empire building. Liberalism is a political philosophy that developed during the age of Enlightenment, noted for its ideals of individual freedom and rights. Two of Liberalism’s most prominent advocates; John Locke and John Stuart Mill supported the practice of colonialism. The rationalization of colonialism by Locke has been argued to represent the bankruptcy of western liberalism and its purported universal respect for human rights. To ascertain whether colonialism does demonstrate the bankruptcy of liberalism it first has to be established what colonialism constitutes and it’s development. Furthermore, liberalism needs to be more thoroughly elucidated with special attention paid to how Liberals justified colonial expansion.

Colonial expansion has a long history within European society. The Hellenic city states occupied a small territorial region. When population pressures increased, a segment of the populous established themselves in another area (Smith, 1991, p.493). The settlers were autonomous from their city of origin, declaring war independently and conducting its own administration. The Roman Republic implemented a modified form of colonial expansion, sending poor freeman to settle colonies with restricted autonomy (Smith, 1991, p. 495). The establishment of colonies gave poor Roman citizens economic opportunity. But they also functioned as garrisons in conquered localities, further expanding the Roman Republic’s sphere of influence. Colonialism came to denote an expansion of one nation’s territorial domination, through settling and displacing natives or directly administering the newly incorporated territory.

European Colonization was justified via ethnocentric conceptions of what is a human-being and how individuals and societies should function. Originally the Spaniard’s conceptualized the Native Americans as non-human; they had human form according to the Catholics but had the nature of beasts and consequently were “savages” (Parekh, 1997, p. 174). This distinction between Europeans and Native Americans, as human and non-human established a racist underpinnings of colonialism. Therefore under this racist ideological belief system the natives had no rights to life or property (Parekh, 1997, 175). During the initial period after European discovery of the Americas, the Spaniards technique for the expropriation of gold was to pillage it from the natives, a process which was totally completed within a decade (Smith, 1991, p. 499). Later Christians started to re-conceptualize the nature of the native population, observing that they had religious inclination and therefore had a human-essence however misguided and imperfect (Parekh, 1997, p. 175-6). The savage’s misguided and imperfect ways were cryptic-Christian. According to this logic, their conversion to Christianity in the proper sense would be an accomplishment of their “deepest aspirations” (Parekh, 1997, p. 177). This European enforcement of what constituted, the proper lifestyle on the natives marked the beginnings of the civilizing project, which was later adopted by liberalism.

A fundamental proposition of classic liberal philosophy is that human-beings are above all individuals, defined by this quality of individuality above collective identities (Heywood, 2002, p. 43). Liberals therefore insist upon the notion of individual rights and freedom to pursue their own ends as far as their action doesn’t impede another individual from doing the same. Governments which employ the tenets of liberalism must base their authority on “the consent of the governed” maintaining “equality before the law” (Heywood, 2002, p.44). When Good Government is instituted, each individual is therefore in accordance with their nature free to pursue their own development and self-actualization. This conceptualization of the optimal form of government is based upon a theory of the individual; Locke considered human-beings to be endowed with certain essential features (Parekh, 1997, p. 181).

The highest quality of human-beings, as postulated by Locke was their inheritance of reason, which differentiated them from animals (Parekh, 1995, p. 83). This hierarchy of beings, between those who have reason and beasts that don’t, was the basis of human dignity. As such human-beings have a duty to utilize their reason, to approach their interaction with nature and other individuals on a rational basis. To be rational according to Locke was to be productive and take advantage of natural resources to there full capacity. The application of this rationality was evaluated by Locke according to ethnocentric conceptualizations of society its notion of; private property, production optimization and political organization (Parekh, 1997, p.182).

For individuals to fulfil their rational duty they needed private property which leads, in the liberal view, towards individual freedom and industry. The Native Americans lacked private property, their land was left vacant and unenclosed, therefore it could be expropriated by civilized nations (Parekh, 1997, 183).The nature of enclosures were defined in a European sense with the use of fences and barriers that clearly marked the demarcation between properties. The Native Americans delineated between territories, but not in a way recognizable to Europeans (Parekh, 1995, p.85). Even in localities where properties were clearly defined with symbols recognizable to the European gaze, it was not adequate enough for Native American ownership to be respected. If they did not utilize their enclosed lands to maximum efficiency, they were guilty of not fulfilling their duty of rationality. The practice of letting crops decompose every three years, to enrich the soil was considered by Locke to be a waste of resources and consequently a violation of their duty (Parekh, 1995, p.85).

This same argument, of not utilizing land to its optimal efficiency, was used to justify the British colonization of Australia and displacement of the indigenous populations (Yarwood, Knowling, 1982, p. 15). Though even in Europe there were vast geographical regions left empty and vacant, which were not utilised to their maximum efficiency. Locke did not consider these areas as open for colonisation by other nations (Parekh, 1995, p. 86). The key distinction between an uncivilised and civilised nation’s vacant territory was the issue of political organisation and sovereignty. The Native Americans lacked a centralised form of authority in a European sense of a nation-state (Parekh, 1997, p. 183). The liberal argument that the Native Americans “state of nature” allowed for European intervention was couched in moralistic terms. The civilising project, would bring to the uncivilised population great benefits, and Locke thought in that the future the Native Americans would “Think themselves beholden” to the colonizers (quoted in Parekh, 1995, p 88). These notions of European superiority were often rooted in racism and the civilizing project was not always accepted as viable because of the postulated deficiency of non-European races (Jose, 1998, p. 42).

Concurrent with the claim of racism, colonialism and liberalism’s notion of a ‘civilizing’ project often neglects the harsh realities of European colonization. European intervention and colonization was not based on a moral duty, rather it resulted from unequal power-dynamics which enabled European states to appropriate the territories of political societies incapable of holding them. This is an extension of the European state-system, functioning around a “balance of power”, where the sovereignty of a nation was respected in so far as the central authority could maintain control over their territory, quelling internal strife or the incursion of another state (Jones, 1985, p.108).

The Native Americans and other populations displaced by European colonization did not have sufficient ability to resist the aggression and territorial incursion. In Locke’s evaluation British colonialism was in contradistinction to the earlier Spanish colonialism humane. The British respected the indigenous population’s natural rights, as Locke had conceived them. If indigenous people resisted the expropriation of their lands though, it automatically rendered their individual rights invalid (Parekh, 1997, p. 88). Liberalism’s dichotomy between individual and collective rights, of ‘respecting’ the former but not the later, in practice renders both defunct. Consequently the costs in human-lives incurred by non-European populations as a result of colonization were colossal. The Dutch controlled Banjuwangi in Java, which had a population larger then 80,000 in 1750 but by 1811 the area had been depopulated to such an extent that only 18,000 remained (Marx, 1986, p. 704). In India the British between the years of 1769 and 1770 “manufactured a famine” by buying the rice supplies in total, selling it again for exaggerated prices (Marx, 1986, p.705). This Tragedy arises from a system of thought, which tests forms of governance through economic experience (Foucault, 1997, p. 76). Locke’s notion of rationality, especially the optimization of production is symptomatic of this test.

Locke’s defence of Colonialism offers ample opportunity to evaluate Western Liberalism. Modern Colonialism was defined as having the key characteristics of one nation’s territorial domination of another locality through the displacement or rule of the indigenous population with the concurrent settling of the territory. European colonization of the new world and other territories was justified by ideological systems. Christianity and Liberalism, both holding in common the belief in European Superiority were used to rationalize colonialism. This ethnocentric belief in European superiority and the dichotomy between the civilized world and the savages has often been characterized as racist. The original Christians to inhabit the new world did not consider the natives human. This later belief was later abandoned but the belief in their inferiority continued. Liberalism sought to give an explanation and justification of colonialism. Locke, as a representative of this school considered human-beings as endowed with essential characteristics. The most important of which was reason. This separated humans from animals; and as such individuals have a duty to utilize reason which should inform their interaction with nature and other human-beings. A rational society according to Locke supported the rights of individuals above all, supporting private property as a means of self-actualization, the realization of humanity’s inherent nature. Non-European societies which did not conform to European notions of private property, production optimization and furthermore political organization forfeited their collective rights. Individuals retained their rights in so far as they did not defend their collective rights of ownership over land appropriated during colonization. Therefore though liberalism in theory supported native individual rights, in practice they had no rights. But Locke supposed that colonization, even if it undermined collective rights held benefits for the non-European populace through introducing rationality. This idyllic picture of colonization as a progressive force was merely a rationalization of European dominance and exploitation. Consequently Liberalism’s historical record in relation to colonialism has rendered it severely compromised, when it justified the authority of governments over basic human rights.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Parekh, B. (1995), “Liberalism and Colonialism: A Critique of Locke & Mill”, Decolonization of Imagination: Culture, Knowledge and Power, Edited Pieterse, J.N. & Parekh, B. London, Zed Books, pp. 81-98.

Parekh, B. (1997), “The West and its Others”, Cultural Readings of Imperialism: Edward Said and the Gravity of History, Edited Parry, B. & Squires, London, Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 173-193.

Foucault, M. (1997), “The Birth of Biopolitics”, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Edited Rabinow, P. St Ives, Penguin Books.

Heywood, A. (2002), Politics, (2ed), China, Palgrave Macmillan.

Jones, E.L. (1985), The European Miracle: Environments, economies and geopolitics in the history of Europe and Asia, USA, Cambridge University Press.

Jose, J. (1998), "Imperial Rule and the Ordering of Intellectual Space: The Formation of the Straits Philosophical Society.” Crossroads:An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 12(2) pp. 23-54.

Marx, K. (1986), Capital: A critique of political economy, Vol 1, Edited Engels, F. Trans Moore, S. & Aveling, E. Moscow, Progress Publishers.

Smith, A. (1991), The Wealth of Nations, London, Everyman's Library.

Yarwood, A. T. Knowling, M. J. (1982), Race Relations in Australia: A history, Singapore, Methuen Australia.

(Writte mid-2007).

The Latin War and Rome's Expansion.

Rome was forged in violent struggle. Wedged between often hostile cities and civilizations from the Etruscans in the north, to Hellenistic cities of the south, Rome seemed to be forever poised between conquest and destruction. Aristocrats of the late republican period lauded their ancestors for their military discipline and glory. The frugality and duty of Cincinnatus appointed dictator and invested with Imperium while plowing his field, was held in great esteem by Cicero in the first century before the Common Era . This nostalgic conception of early Rome may not be too far removed from actuality. Roman history was dominated by almost perpetual warfare, but Rome’s might came not from mere force of arms. Tactical alliances and integration of defeated enemies provided the manpower necessary for empire. This strategy, which established and perpetuated Roman hegemony, was in large part developed by the political settlements enforced after the Latin War of 340-338 BCE. These settlements therefore, offer insights into the Roman state of mind and their methods of Empire building.

Prior to the settlements of 338, Rome had fought the Latins in the aftermath of their aristocratic revolution. In 493, Spurius Cassius than Consul, signed a treaty with the Latin league which ushered in a period of peace between Rome and Latium . The terms of the Foedus Cassianum, or Treaty of Cassius, outline a defensive military coalition with stipulation on the equal division of booty and mechanisms for the resolution of commercial disputes between private individuals . This alliance allowed Rome and Latium to effectively fend off incursions from foreigners, and conduct relatively inexpensive campaigns due to the diffusion of resource requirements among many cities. Most significantly, Rome secured for herself a leadership role within the alliance, providing the commander for the allied army during campaign.

Roman military leadership eventually led to the common identification of Latium with Rome, but this relationship while symbiotic was not equalitarian. According to Livy (c. 59 BCE – 17 CE), the roots of the Latin war lay in this inequality of authority . Demands were made by the Latins before the Senate of Rome, that one Consul is to be elected from Rome and one from Latium, and furthermore that half the Senate be comprised of Latins. These requests were rejected and war ensured. Culminating in a Roman victory, the Latin war allowed Rome to reassert its authority over Latium and impose new political settlements upon defeated enemies and allies alike.

Unlike the Foedus Cassianum, the settlements of 338 were tailored to individual cities and not to Latium as a corporate body. This innovation increased the tie between Latium to Rome, while simultaneously divided Latium from itself. Many Latin cities had the rights of Conubium and Commercium, intermarriage and trade, with Roman citizens. However, such rights and relations were severed between the citizens of different Latin cities . In addition to the dissolution of the Latin league and the segmentation of Latium, different cities received diverse statuses, affecting further demarcation between the cities of Latium.

The statues, rights and obligations of the Latin cities imposed by the settlements, were determined in part by the cities locality, role in the Latin War and past history with Rome. On one end of the spectrum, the Tiburtines and Praenestini were deprived of their lands, not only for participation with the Latin’s rebellion but for their past alliance with Gauls against Rome . Tusculum on the other hand, whilst a participant in the revolt was granted Roman citizenship, after the pro-war agitators had been put to death. Along with Tusculum, Lanuvium, Aricia, Nomentum and Pedum were incorporated into the Roman state as Municipium, or self-governing communities . This method of incorporation of non-Romans into Rome predates the 338 settlements.

Underneath the status of full Roman citizenship, there was also the civitas sine suffragio, citizenship without the vote, a method of integration which represented an innovation of the 338 settlements . This status conferred the rights of trade and intermarriage with non-roman cities, but denied them political rights. Hence the Roman state could expand, without necessarily diluting its traditional political institutions and power bases . Not all cities were incorporated into the Roman state proper, but remained at the status of independent allies. The continuum of statuses from alien to full citizen allowed for flexibility in Roman policy and advancement up the hierarchy of statuses provided incentives for the loyally of communities.

Livy characterized these new arrangements as “acts of generosity” which ensured the “good-will” of the conquered . Roman rule was relatively light upon the Italians, local government persisted and direct taxation was not initiated. However, in essence the settlements represented the end of Latin independence and the solid establishment of Roman hegemony and empire. The major obligation of the newly incorporated cities and allies was the provision of military forces in times of war. Polybius claims that Rome had recourse to a possible 700,000 infantry and 70,000 cavalry during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy . If Polybius is only approximately correct on the total man-power available to the Roman state, it still demonstrates the strength of the Roman mechanisms for integrating prior enemies and allies into their confederation, mechanisms of control largely established by the settlements of 338. Though, these settlements were built upon the precedent of the Foedus Cassianum, and as with the Treaty of Cassius Rome maintained their leadership role.

The Roman insistence upon leadership was an underlying cause of the Latin War and the settlements are a further product of this mind-set. They were unwilling to cede their hegemonic position without the necessary compulsion and managed to strengthen it further. Whilst the settlements of 338 were similar to the Treaty of Cassius, it differed in many key respects. Firstly, it dissolved the Latin league and divided Latium, which demonstrates the Roman application of the divide and conquer principle. Furthermore, the creation of a hierarchy of statues from full citizens to allies was an innovation of the 338 settlement and indicates that Rome was not rigidly conservative with regard to its foreign relations, outside its instance upon leadership and hegemony. The mechanism of control developed by the 338 settlements set the pattern for Rome’s conquest of Italy and the man-power for its expansion into the Mediterranean.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Dillon, Matthew and Garland, Lynda, Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar, (New York, 2005).

Cornell , T.J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC), (New York, 1995).

Crawford, Michel, The Roman Republic, (London, 1992).

Livy, The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome From its Foundation, (London, 2002).

Livy, Rome and Italy: Books VI-X of The History of Rome From its Foundations, (London, 1982).

Scullard, H.H., A History of The Roman World 753-146 BC, (New York, 1980).

(written, late 2008)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Quick Take on Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantages.

Adam Smith’s famous analogy of the “invisible hand” was first articulated in regard to the superiority of the market in comparison with import tariffs to protect and augment the national economy. However, Smith’s discussion of the benefits associated with free trade between nations was limited to the theory of absolute advantage. Put simply, if another nation can produce a commodity more efficiently than your own, it is more advantageous to trade then to continue on with inefficient industry. It wasn’t until David Ricardo developed his theory of comparative advantages that free trade between countries came to be considered beneficial in a wider number of contexts. Even if there is no complementary absolute advantage, in terms of inverse production superiorities, Ricardo argued, it can still be more profitable for both parties to trade. The theory of comparative advantages, given its wider applicability, is often taken to be the strongest liberal argument in favour of free trade. Those opposed to the policy of free trade have to contend with Ricardo’s essential argument, updated and reiterated through the neoclassical paradigm.

An originator of the “neoclassical synthesis”, Paul Samuelson, has expressed the view that the theory comparative advantage is one theory which is true, but not immediately agreeable to intelligent observers of economic theory. Smith’s theory of absolute advantage appears manifestly self-evident, while the Ricardian model requires more explanation. Ricardo made the counter-intuitive argument that, even without absolute advantage, there is still an incentive for a nation to specialise its production and engage in international trade. For Smith, the inducement to trade was based on clear cut differences between productive capacities. He likened international trade to the transaction between a tailor and a shoemaker: if the tailor required new shoes, he is better suited to mend cloth and exchange a portion of his income for the shoemaker’s services, rather than attempt to make the shoes himself. For Ricardo, however, the inducement to trade can also be affirmed upon the basis of relative productivity. The classic example Ricardo used, was a two commodity model: trade between England and Portugal in cloth and wine.

In Ricardo’s example, Portugal has an absolute advantage in both the production of cloth and wine. In order to produce a standard quantity of wine, Portugal employ’s the labour of 80 men and for the same output England puts to work 120 men. England fares no better with cloth, to produce the set quantity of cloth she requires the labour of 100 men, compared to Portugal’s 90 men. According to the theory of absolute advantage, there would be no inducement to trade with England given Portugal’s superior productivity in both commodities. From the perspective of comparative advantage though, the motivation lies in relative productivity. If England were to specialize in the production of cloth, and Portugal in wine cultivation, both England and Portugal would make available 20 labours per standard unit of production, than if each had retained both wine and cloth production.

Without a doubt, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage is a clear advance upon Smith’s theory of absolute advantage. Nevertheless, doubt can be expressed as to if Ricardo’s theory is a conclusive argument in favour of free trade. The theory is limited in many aspects, two major flaws are that; the benefits of specialization are gained once, and therefore, Ricardo’s model neglects to calculate the long-term outcomes of economic restructuring, moreover, Ricardo assumed that capital was largely anchored to national economies, but in the current age of globalization (or perhaps, more accurately regionalization) capital is no longer fixed within national boundaries. These two concerns are related to the issue of economic power. One consistent criticism of free trade has been that it favours those with a dominant position in the international economy. The German economist Friedrich List went so are as to argue that, if free trade had been introduced in the heyday of the Hanseatic League, Germany and not Briton would have been the dominant economic power in the 19th century.

The history of industrialization and the experience of underdeveloped nation provide the context necessary to evaluate Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantages and the ostensive advantages of free trade. In light of his theory of comparative advantages, Ricardo recommended that countries specialize in the production of commodities that lead to an optimization of their labour productivity. In Ricardo’s example, Portugal had both an absolute advantage in wine and cloth, but given the ratios between Portugal’s and England’s productivity Portugal’s immediate advantage was to specialize in the cultivation of wine . Similarly, many nations endowed with great natural resources and therefore a comparative advantage in the production of agriculture and raw materials would be wise to specialize in such endeavours according to the theory of comparative advantage. However, as noted by H. W. Singer, there has been a tendency for the terms of trade for raw materials and agriculture to decline relative to manufactured goods. Specialization in agricultural production would provide an initial spurt of growth, but in the long run, such specialization would be inimical to the nation’s economic prospects.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Krugman, Paul R. and Obstfeld, Maurice. (2003), International Economics: Theory and Policy, sixth Ed, Boston; Addison Wesley.

List, Friedrich. (1885), The National System of Political Economy, Trans Sampson S. Lloyd, London; Longman, Greens and co.

Ricardo, David. (1933), The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, London; J.M Dent & Sons LTD

Singer, H. W. (1950). "The Distribution of Gains between Investing and Borrowing Countries." The American Economic Review 4(2): 73-485.

Smith, Adam. (1991), The Wealth of Nations, London; Everyman’s Library.

Monday, August 31, 2009

"After The Orgy"

"The orgy in question is the moment when modernity
exploded on us, the moment of liberation in every
sphere. Political liberation, sexual liberation, liberation
of the forces of production, liberation of the forces of
destruction, women’s liberation, children’s liberation,
liberation of unconscious drives, liberation of art. . . .
This was a total orgy—an orgy of the real, the rational,
the sexual, of criticism as of anti-criticism, of development
as a crisis of development. . . . Now everything has
been liberated, the chips are down, and we find ourselves
faced collectively with the big question: WHAT
we can do is simulate the orgy, simulate liberation."

- Jean Baudrillard, in "The Transparency of evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena".

It has to be said, Baudrillard is terribly flippant.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Recommendation: “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism”

This is a very timely book and Bacevich manages to pack it with a substantial amount of well organized information. His main themes, as evidenced by the title, are the limitations of power projection through military force and the ideology of American Imperium. He traces the history of the National Security State, its organizational apparatus and the friction between various departments and the ideology of National Security which provide the rationale for the projects of political elites. His analysis situates the Bush administration within a tradition of ideology that spans back to the early days of the Cold war. Whilst also demonstrating its discontinuities; above all, the Bush doctrine’s concept of “preemptive war”. For Bacevich, this policy is both morally indefensible and pragmatically inept. He attempts to give both a description of the current crises (the crisis of profligacy, the political crisis and the military crisis) and prescriptive advice on how to readdress past mistakes. However, he does not view the current political, economic and military quandaries of the United State’s as the product of the Bush Administration and its key insiders alone. Though, he does a fine job of dissecting figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz while linking their ideological positions to pervious policy makers like James Forrestal and Paul Nitze. The crucial advantage of Bacevich’s “The Limits of Power”, is that it moves beyond the notion that the Bush Administration is an aberration and contextualizes the last eight years within the broader history of U.S. Foreign policy. Moreover, his analysis of institutional frameworks and the nature of self-seeking political elites add a deeper understanding to the current situation. To mention one failing, Bacevich does little to relate the current crises to the operations of capitalism itself. That however, would have perhaps limited the books appeal to segments of the political spectrum and pushed the book beyond its scope of inquiry. Despite that quibble, I couldn’t recommend Colonel Bacevich’s book more strongly.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Colonial System and Algerian Nationalism.

“[A]nd each day hundreds of new orphans, Arabs and French, awakened in every corner of Algeria, sons and daughters without fathers who would now have to learn to live without guidance and without heritage”
– Albert Camus, ‘The First Man’.

In the early months of 1958, Hneri Alleg’s La Question was published in France and caused an immediate scandal for its first-hand description of torture by the French military in Algeria. For Alleg, the scourge of institutionalized torture not only afflicted the native Algerians, but functioned as “a school of perversion for young Frenchman”. In the long course of the war (1954-1962), dehumanization of the enemy led to increasingly brutal manifestations of violence. Albert Camus bemoaned the war for its extreme tactics and for severing two interconnected communities. However, these two communities, the indigenous and the European, had never constituted an organic whole. Part of the strategic logic of Nationalist terrorism was to provoke a heavy-handed French response that illuminated and reinforced the schism between the French setter and the suspect ‘Arab’, thereby provoking greater collective self-consciousness. The instance of Algerian nationalism, of the struggle for independence can be interpreted as an instance of social imagination postulating a new societal form. In a limited sense this is accurate, but in the stronger sense employed by Cornelius Castoriadis it is not. Algerian nationalism was determining, but it was also determined, and it yields to rational explanation. To understand the violence of the Algerian war, the birth of Algerian nationalism, one must understand the logic of colonialism and the Algerian experience of colonial domination.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Stranger: Luchino Visconti adaptation of Albert Camus's novel

Great Novel, good film.

Marcello Mastroianni as Arthur Meursault.
Anna Karina as Marie Cardona

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ideology and Symbolic power: Between Althusser and Bourdieu.

Western Marxism has often laid considerable stress upon the ideology of modern capitalist societies. This focus upon ideology stems from the failure of proletarian revolution to have either occurred, or establish socialism within Western Europe. The exact nature and function of ideology became paramount in Marxian explanations of the continued stability of Western capitalism after the Great War and Great Depression. Marxian conceptualizations of symbolic domination (under the notion of ideology) remain in the realm of consciousness and intellectual frameworks. Pierre Bourdieu developed a paradigm for understanding symbolic power and domination through his theory of dispositional practices that breaks with the concept of ideology and it basis in the tradition of ‘Kantian intellectualism’. This theoretical model both deepens and broadens the sociological understanding of symbolic power and domination, through the acknowledgment of non-intellectual and bodily elements in the dynamics of symbolic power mechanisms. The theory of ideology advanced by Louis Althusser, with its assertion of the materiality of ideology, despite some tenuous overlap with the theory of dispositional practices provides a good counter-example to Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power, violence and domination.

Like Bourdieu, Althusser endeavor to understand symbolic domination was derived from the problem of social production and reproduction of stratified social structures. That is, for Althusser, the perpetuation of a class system inimical to the very interests of those who comprise the majority and unwittingly carry on their subordinated class position. Marxian analyses of the class system have often noted the repressive function of the state apparatus. Lenin unambiguously argued that the state was a product of “irreconcilable class antagonisms” and an organ for the hegemony of ruling class and their domination of other classes. The violence inherent in the state apparatus is augmented in the Marxian analysis by the subtle coercion of ideology. Althusser was concerned with the nature of ideology and its materiality both within individuals and within the so-called “ideological state apparatuses”.

The conception of ideology developed by Althusser differed in some respects to prior theoretical expositions of the concept, but it still retained essential elements common to Marxian analyses. In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels defined ideology as an assemblage of ideas that distort and mystify consciousness about the nature of human relations . This distortion of consciousness always represents a class position. The class whom controls the means of production, are often said to control the means of intellectual production and therefore, the hegemonic ideas of a society are those of its ruling class . Althusser concluded that “ideology represents the imaginary relations of individuals to their real conditions of existence”.

An archetypal example Althusser offered was the “divine right” of Kings. The notion that the relationship between the serf, the aristocrat and the King was established by the imaginary dictate of God and not to be found in the historical development of class relations and political organizations. Ideological conceptions have the distinctive feature of a seemingly trans-historical nature. The monarchy or capitalism is presented through ideology as the end of history and the eternal law. Bourdieu definitely breaks with Althusserian theory, for him, constitutions and law are obeyed more from custom and habituation than the “misrecognition of the arbitrariness which underlines it”. In Bourdieu’s view, the law and state are not heavily dependent upon intentional mystification, but docile dispositions. This is one central difference between the notion of ideology and dispositional practices. Ideology concerns thought and consciousness, whilst Bourdieu’s symbolic power functions through non-conscious embodied reactions.

Althusser did postulate that ideology had a material existence and a “modality” of “materiality”. Ideology derived its materiality from it existence within the subject and moreover the formation of the subject by ideology transmuted via the ideological state apparatuses (families, educational institutions, etcetera…). However, Althusser is still concerned with consciousness and its imaginary dimension even if seated within the individual subject. Althusser paid little to no attention to the body and its reactions, his assertion of the materiality of ideology seem to be more motivated by a defense of metaphysical materialism than the extent of inculcation. Bourdieu offers a theory that breaks with what he calls the intellectualism of the Kantian tradition in drawing attention to non-conscious and automatic bodily reaction in the mechanisms of symbolic power.

The physical and non-conscious reaction to symbolic power and the acquiescence to symbolic violence and domination are grounded in the imbedded dispositions that individuals acquire through interaction in social fields. Dispositions, or what Bourdieu calls their “habitus”, are durable structures that form generative principles that underpin practice. These generative principles are primarily the product of the family and educational system, but are not passively absorbed. There is an active component in individual practice. Central to the development of dispositions was the “socially elaborated” nature of “desire”; Bourdieu hypothesized a tentative thesis based upon a distinctly Freudian framework of the transition from ‘libidinal’ narcissism to the investment within the social field.

The transition from libidinal energy invested in bodily desire to investment within the social field and social reaction constitutes a crucial transitional point in which symbolic capital and therefore symbolic domination become a reality through the “search for recognition”. The individual develops a looking-glass self, by which is meant the individual start to evaluate itself via other people’s perception of him or her self. This search for recognition and self-evaluation via others becomes the source of satisfaction for what Freud called our primary narcissism, but it can also engender problems for individuals. Bad evaluations can elicit feelings of guilt and shame and individuals can develop phobias and complexes from repeated negative judgments upon themselves. There is also a lack of social capital or social regonition in the form of “glory, honour, credit, reputation, fame” etcetera and these common evaluative schemas allow for the symbolic domination of those with minimal symbolic capital.

“Symbolic violence”, wrote Bourdieu “is the coercion which is set up only through the consent that the dominated cannot fail to give to the dominator”. Symbolic power is constructed through the common evaluative schema that are habituated and inculcated within individual throughout their life, by the primary institutions of socialization and the constant re-socialization throughout day-to-day symbolic activities. The reaction to symbolic power is not initialized in the realm of consciousness, but is prereflexive and expressed as bodily reaction or emotional responses. In this sense, Bourdieu argues we are the outcome of a long process of “autonomization”. This automization take the form of a “quasi-bodily involvement in the world” and is not a process of conscious calculation. To exemplify his position on symbolic power, Bourdieu uses the example of orders and preformative utterances and linguistic exchanges in general.

The “symbolic force” or the illocutionary power of an utterance such as an order is said to derive from the previously acquired disposition of the body. Acquiescence to the order, for Bourdieu, is “automatic” and appears mechanical in its process. This symbolic force also depends upon the position of the speaker and their possession of authority invested in them by social institutions and their linguistic practices. Bourdieu utilized the example of judges to explain the importance of institutions and symbol of power. The judge can sentence someone to prison, not because of his intrinsic qualities, but because his speech is backed by social institution, manifested by the symbols of power and authority, the robe and gavel. Interpersonal linguistic exchanges are also sites of symbolic power and domination.

Linguistic exchanges are often conducted by individuals with an uneven distribution of linguistic capital, competence and expressive styles. This unequal distribution of linguistic recourses is often linked to both the condition under which it was acquired and the market (the receivers of linguistic products) under which it finds it conditions of use. The condition of primary acquisition of linguistic habitus is often highly related to economic capital and class position. Education imbues the individual with both linguistic dispositions and a bodily hexis. Different classes are said by Bourdieu to be characterized by different form of expression and hold their body in different ways. These characteristics are often tailed toward different social fields. When an individual from one class is placed within a social field that his or her upbringing had not prepared them for, they often find it harder to compete for social capital with those whose linguistic expression was formed for the field. This can manifest itself in nervousness and hesitant delivery in linguistic exchanges between those with different levels of cultural capital.

The conceptualization of symbolic power put forth by Pierre Bourdieu breaks with the conceptualization of ideology advanced within the Marxian tradition and Althusser’s work in particular. Althusser sought to understand the production and re-production of stratified social system in terms of ideology and its power over individual consciousness. Bourdieu identified this as a continuation of the tradition of Kantian intellectualism that privileged conscious thought over the body and ignored bodily reactions and habituation in the development of dispositions and symbolic power. Symbolic power and domination are therefore much broader concepts than ideology, despite Althusser’s assertion of the materiality of ideology. Bourdieu’s conception of symbolic power is given an interpersonal dimension with its focus upon the uneven distribution of symbolic capital and the conflict over symbolic profits. Bourdieu’s conception of symbolic power is therefore, both deeper and broader then that of ideology, while also breaking with its intellectualist bias.

Written by Mathew Toll.

Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: (Notes Towards an Investigation)”, Lenin and Philosophy: and Other Essays, trans Ben Brewster, (1971, New York: Monthly Review Press).

Bourdieu, Pierre, Pascalian Meditations, Trans Richard Nice, (1997, Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Bourdieu , Pierre, The Logic of Practice, Trans Richard Nice, (1990, Oxford: Polity Press).

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Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, “The German Ideology: A Critique of the Most Recent German Philosophy as Represented by Feuerbach, B. Bauer, and Stirner”, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Trans and Edited Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, (1967, New York: Anchor Books), pp. 403-473.

Neoclassical Economics and the Problem of Realization.

The Neoclassical School of economic theory emerged from a dissatisfaction with classical political economy and the labour theory of value. Critics of capitalism, from the Marxian tradition, had hijacked the precepts of the classical school to analyze the historical tendencies of capital accumulation and the stumbling blocks inherent within the process. In a maneuver which ostensibly undermined the Marxian conception of exploitation and therefore capitalism, the neoclassical school sought to explain economic systems in terms of markets and the arbiter of economic allocation, the price mechanism. From this focus, the neoclassical economists developed the theory of general equilibrium, under which the price mechanism (within a condition of perfect competition) is conceived of as self-regulating, self-adjusting and therefore a stabilizing apparatus. In diametrical opposition, the Marxian tradition of political economy characterizes capitalism in terms of instability, structural contradictions and disequilibrium. The current financial crisis and burgeoning recession provide the empirical material necessary to weight and contrast the contrary claims of these two competing schools on the stability of the capitalist economy.

Before a comparison with Marxian theories of capitalism is possible, the nature of neoclassical economics needs to be further delineated. In essence, neoclassical theory is a re-articulation of Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” and the self-regulating nature of markets in a “system of nature liberty”, distinguished however by the abandonment of Smith’s labour theory of value. Instead, neoclassical theory based itself upon a conceptualization of individuals and market forces augmented with the theory of marginal utility. The crucial nexus of these ideas is the neoclassical assessment of individual psychology.

The simple psychology of neoclassical economics is akin to the rational-calculations of the Machiavellian prince. The ultimate goal of the individual is the optimal satisfaction of their interests. Smith prefigured this psychological impetus when he argued that benevolence was not the prime-mover of economic production, but rather the individual’s gratification of their own interests . This selfish motivation and rational calculation underpins the neoclassical principle of marginal utility.

In contrast to the labour theory of value, the utility of a good or service was not determined by the amount of labour employed in its production, but rather from the benefit derived from the last unit purchased. Alfred Marshal noted that while wants maybe unlimited, each particular wants has a definite limit. Marginal utility diminishes with each extra addition of a product. If an individual acquires a chair, the utility of that single unit is higher then if he or she acquires ten. The first chair allows him to sit and each subsequent chair he acquires becomes less valuable given his main need for one is sufficed. The decline in marginal utility for each subsequent unit decreases the desire for another unit and is manifested in the reduced willingness to buy a given unit at prices unreflective of the decease in demand.

The relationship between supply and demand within the market is the crux of the price mechanism and the nexus which is said to converge towards equilibrium. The principle of marginal utility highlights the importance of supply and demand in determining the utility and therefore the price of a commodity. If a product is over-supplied than its marginal utility will be reduced and therefore the price will also be reduced. Conversely, if a product is under-supplied in relation to strong demand its marginal utility will be high and therefore it will command a high price on the open market. The point at which demand and supply meet is said to be the equilibrium price, but as Marshall noted the market is rarely static. For Marshall and the neoclassical school in general, the market is not stable in the sense of being motionless, but rather the market exhibits a tendency towards equilibrium. This tendency towards equilibrium is the sense in which capitalism, or the free market, is said to be stable by the neoclassical school of economics.

In sharp contrast to neoclassical economics, the Marxian school of political economy developed a conception of capitalism that asserts its fundamental structural contradictions, disequilibrium and tendency towards insatiability and crisis. For Marx and Engels, capitalism was marked by its instability and uncertainty deriving from the “constant revolutionizing of production”. This process, whereby capitalism continually renews and develops its productive capacities has been called “creative destruction” by Joseph A. Schumpeter. Whilst Schumpeter thought the basis of creative destruction was technological innovation and the search for profit by entrepreneurs, Marx emphasized push factors inherent in the process of capital accumulation and intra-capitalist conflict for the realization of surplus-value.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have argued that the central nexus of Marx’s analysis of the necessarily expansionary character of capital is the “quantitative relationship between worker as producer and power as consumer of commodities”. Marxian theory fundamentally asserts the asymmetry of class relations between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. This is manifest in production and consumption. In order to accumulate capital and realize a profit the capitalist must extract surplus-value and complete the capital circuit by selling the product of production. Surplus-value is only realized if the price of the commodity outstrips the cost of production. Labour-power is but one component of the cost of production, but it falls upon the working-classes to buy and consume commodities that cost more than their wages to sustain capitalist profit and capital accumulation. Therefore, there is a structural disequilibrium between production and consumption within the process of capital accumulation.

The problem of realization in the guise of under-consumption is but one of a multiple of Marxian theories of capitalism’s instability and crisis. David Laibman outlined five different forms of capitalist crisis, whilst Simon Clarke has argued that there are no comprehensive “Marxist” theories of crisis. However, it is clear that the Marxian conception of Capitalism’s inherent instability is at obvious variance with the general theory of equilibrium and school of neoclassical economics. The reasons for the divergence between Marxian and neoclassical school of thought are manifold: ideological inflection, scope of inquiry and methodological approach all markedly different.

Methodologically, the neoclassical school is grounded in abstract modeling, while Marxian conceptualization are often more sociological and historical in their prejudices. Marxists and Neo-Marxists have often criticized the ahistorical and abstract nature of neoclassical theories and moreover asserting that it does not reflect actual economic conditions. Milton Freidman has argued in turn that it is not the assumptions of a model that are important, but rather its significance rests in the accuracy of its predictions. The current financial crisis and global recession provides a basis for the evaluation of each school upon the stability of capitalism.

The major proximal cause of the current financial crisis and credit crunch was the sub-prime crisis of early 2007. Interest rate increases caused an increased rate of defaults upon subprime mortgages. In turn, this lead to the collapse of many mortgage brokerages and banks faced with overwhelming bad assets. Of course, a spark without a powder keg is a non-event – an interest rate increase was not the course of the financial collapse –the roots of the financial crisis lay much deeper. Ultimately, the financial crisis is the result of a credit glut caused by structural imbalances in the world-economy and unsound banking practices designed to profit from an excess of cheap credit. For neoclassical economics in the proper sense, the current financial crisis is merely a severe market correction. Mortgage backed assets and collateralized debt obligations were over-priced by the market and firms which over-valuated their worth. From this point of view, there is really no crisis in purely economic terms, but a market correction. Marxian economics, which its focus upon the structural imbalances would see the current turbulence within the world-economy as validation of their general paradigm. Debt played a central role in the current crisis, and this can be construed as deriving from capitalisms fundamental asymmetry and instability. In order to propel the growth and capital accumulation of the years preceding the crisis, debt was acquired by many house holds and individual to bridge the gap between their livelihoods and the price of commodities. The problem of realization, therefore, is at the forefront of the current goal financial crisis.

The current financial crisis seemly give credence to Marxian claims about the instability of process of capital accumulation. Neoclassical economics give no explanation of crisis in terms of its endogenous character; this is because neoclassical economics limits itself to the analysis of price-mechanisms and the importance of supply and demand for market equilibriums. The financial crisis in view of this school is not a crisis, but rather a market correction. Neoclassical economics presents a rather myopic view of social dynamics given the limited basis of its analysis. Marxian political economy on the other hand seeks to understand economic instability in terms of inherent structural imbalance. This does not necessarily imply that capitalism’s collapses is inevitable, but does contradict the notion that free markets tend toward equilibrium. Both schools of thought have valuable insights to offer on the nature of markets and capitalism, but the Marxian analysis is better suited to understanding economic instability and crisis.

Written by Mathew Toll.


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