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).

Bourdieu , Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power, Edited John B. Thompson, Trans Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, (1991, Cambridge: Polity Press).

Lenin, V.I, The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution, (1999, Sydney: Resistance books).

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.


Robin Blackburn, “The Subprime Crisis”, New Left Review, No. 50, (March-April 2008)

James Devine, “Marx’s Theory of Crisis”, Science & Society, Vol. 60, No. 1, (1996).

Frank A. Fetter, The Principles of Economics: With Applications to Practical Problems, (1911, New York: The Century Co.).

John Bellamy Foster and Fred Mgdoff, “Financial Implosion and Stagnation: Back to the Real Economy”, Monthly Review, Vol 60, No. 7, (December 2008).

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Bill Lucarelli, “The United States Empire of Debt: The Roots of the Current Financial Crisis”, Journal of Australian Political Economy, No. 62. (December 2008), pp. 16- 38.

Alfred Marshall, “Demand, Supply and Equilibrium”, Economics As A Social Science: Readings in Political Economy, edited George Argyrous and Frank Stilwell, (2008, Melbourne: Pluto Press Australia), pp. 120-123.

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Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire, (2000, Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3rd Ed, (1950, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers).

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