Lair Of A Squirrel Red


by Rob
January 27, 2008, 5:09 pm
Filed under: law, Rob, war on terror

And so once again the government has gone on a big terror offensive, and once again it seems to be an ill-conceived one. Here are a series of random thoughts on what I think about the idea of 42 days detention without charge. My first point to note is that this proposal represents a general trend towards the ‘infinite’ which is replicated in a lot of the countries which are participating in the war on terror. As its ‘high point’ this tendency is represented by Guantanamo, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call this a moment in the same trend. So here are a few ideas about why 42 days detention (were it to become law) would prove anything but an exception.

Definition of Terrorism
As part readers of this blog will know, the way in which terrorism is defined in the United Kingdom has been a real bugbear of mine. The definition of terrorism which is operative in UK legislation is taken from the Terrorism Act 2000:

(1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where—

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it—

(a) involves serious violence against a person,

(b) involves serious damage to property,

(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,

(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or

(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

(4) In this section—

(a) “action” includes action outside the United Kingdom,

(b) a reference to any person or to property is a reference to any person, or to property, wherever situated,

(c) a reference to the public includes a reference to the public of a country other than the United Kingdom, and

(d) “the government” means the government of the United Kingdom, of a Part of the United Kingdom or of a country other than the United Kingdom.

(5) In this Act a reference to action taken for the purposes of terrorism includes a reference to action taken for the benefit of a proscribed organisation.

 

So, to sum, an act is a terrorist one if involves serious violence to a person, or serious damage to a person and is done to ‘influence the public’ or to advance ‘a political, religious or ideological cause’. This is obviously a hugely broad definition which includes (as a possibility) pretty much every political grouping in the UK today (as they all advocate this to some degree). Presumably then, if one is suspected of planning violence towards people or property for a political end there is the possibility of being detained for 42 days without being charged.

Of course, in practice ‘terrorist’ will usually be taken to mean ‘Islamic terrorist’, but even then the wide-ranging nature of the definition can feasibly cover protest which ends up in intended property damage. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that this would not be extended past this ‘core’ of ‘terrorists’ (not that I think this core is acceptable), there is nothing in the wording which doesn’t mean this might extend broadly to a number of political groupings which we wouldn’t think of as ‘terrorists’. Having established the ‘infinite’ character of the ‘definition’ of terrorism, we go on to consider some other elements of the proposals. The Home Office has offered four examples when the power might become activated.

The foiling of a major plot
There are problems with this right off the bat. What is a ‘major’ plot? One which kills a number of people? One that damages a lot of property? But this of course raises another question how much is enough? Perhaps the proposed law will set a number of people that might be killed which we be sufficient to count as a ‘major’ operation. But this itself would be difficult, does anyone really want to make the type of moral judgment calls that say ‘only ten people could die, well that’s not enough’?

So it seems to me that even in the abstract a ‘major’ operation is one which is hard to judge. This is of course compounded by the fact that the 7/7 bombings would presumably be treated as a major operation. Now, whilst the bombings are obviously abhorrent the fact is that only 50 killed were people in them, if this is taken as a benchmark for a ‘major’ operation, then I would imagine it could extend to a good number of ‘potential’ terrorist operations. Linked to this of course is the fact that it is ultimately impossible to know in advance how major a terrorist operation is likely to be. This is one of the true problems with ‘pre-emptive’ detention, just like pre-emptive self-defence it has to act before the ‘attack’ has taken place, but it is not possible to know how serious it will be in advance. Compounding this is the fact that by definition there is an absence of evidence in these cases (hence the need for longer detention). What this all tends to mean is that it will be very difficult to determine a ‘major’ attack before it happens.

A complex individual case
It strikes me that by definition any case which the police will request an extension for is one which is ‘complex’. If the case was not complex enough to warrant 42-days detention then presumably the police would simply have charged the suspect. Bearing this in mind, I fail to see how – in the abstract – such a category could be particularly useful. However, it is probably the case that this would be part of an overall justification, but this of course brings exactly the same problems prior.

A major operation
I take it ‘operation’ refers here to the size of the police operation. Again, this strikes me as problematic for the reasons raised above. Presumably a major police operation is one which corresponds to the threat of a major terrorist attack. I question how it is that the ‘size’ of an operation can really be judged. So again, it seems of certain, possibly unlimited application.

An operation involving many countries
Many countries? One? Two? Three? Involving? How close of a link? All of which seems to belie the fact that apparently we are living in an age of ‘international terrorism’ with international terrorist networks etc. It strikes me then, that even if a threshold is established for what constitutes ‘international’ this will still be massively over-inclusive.

These brief considerations are only meant to argue one thing. This is that the apparent ‘exceptional circumstances’ that might be generative 42 days are entirely indeterminate, in that they don’t provide any real guidance for a decision-maker as to when it is that the power becomes active. In effect then, the power becomes ‘infinite’. This is of course a function of the ‘discourse’ on terrorism, which posits that terrorists are everywhere, and always a potential threat. But the point is that this threat is always unknowable in advance, therefore anyone is a potential candidate for intervention.

Resolution?
Of course, ultimately this doesn’t necessarily matter. I personally would argue that indeterminacy is a structural condition that is thrown up systematically by the contradictory nature of the legal form. Since the law is a form of social regulation that operates as between abstract individuals it constantly oscillates between ‘protecting the individual’ and ‘protecting the public’, these two imperatives basically mean that diverse outcomes can be justified. The point therefore is not what the ‘law’ says, but what the decision-maker does (a decidedly Schmittian point I know). So what we have to question is – bearing in mind the potentially infinite character of such provisions how will they be resolved?

Here, of course there are a plethora of inquiries we could make. Schmitt, for instance, at first resolved this is a decisionistic fashion. Thus, he tended to argue (in Political Theology) that this decision would ultimately read of the personal decision of the decision-maker. Later he realised this position was probably inadequate and moved towards what he called ‘concrete order’ thinking, whereby institutional priorities are what determines a decision (he advocates this position in On the Three Types of Juristic Thought which people tend to ignore). Then there are the American Realists, who tended to argue that economic factors were the prime determinant of decision-making. I tend to think that our inquiry into decision-making cuts across several lines. Firstly, we do have to understand that an individual (or group thereof) is making a decision. But this decision is informed by a number of factors, these are primarily economic, political and (dare I say it) ‘moral’, but these factors are articulated within an institutional matrix. With this in mind, I think we should take a look at the way in which the ‘decisions’ about 42 days will proceed:

A chief constable and the director of public prosecutions ask the Home Secretary to authorise the extension which remains in force for up to 60 days. She then tells Parliament within two days the 42-day rule is available to police.

A judge has to approve the holding of each suspect for more than 28 days and the terror powers watchdog overseas the case. Parliament gets a vote within 30 days of the law being activated – and if they object, the 42-day power is quashed. If they approve, the power remains in force for the full 60 days.

Parliament cannot quash the power at the outset. If police applied to use the power on day 27 of an arrest, and Parliament did not get an opportunity vote until two weeks later, then an individual would have been held for the full 42 days before MPs had been able to oppose the measure.

The first point to note is that there will always be a tendency for ‘public pressure’ about being ‘soft on terrorism’ to push decision-makers towards deferring to the police. The constant threat that they might be responsible for the next big terrorist attack is something that will be politically important to Ministers and MPs and morally important to Ministers, MPs and Judges. This is reinforced by my analysis earlier – that it feels particularly difficult to say this number of deaths would not be sufficient to warrant depriving someone of their ‘liberty’. Furthermore, there is the pretty much omnipresent discourse about ‘the police’ which permeates everything, our society has a tendency to venerate the police and everything they say and do, although there may currently be problems, it still seems a political taboo to question the veracity or accuracy of police statements.

It seems to me that we can pretty well rely on a Home Secretary to go with most of what the police say about threats etc. Aside from the general political pressure, it is clearly the case that the institutional position of the Home Office tends to push Home Secretaries towards authoritarianism, or at the very least listening to the police. Now whilst this may not be the case in respect of pay, I tend to think that in respect of ‘security’ the Home Secretary will always agree with the police.

I’d imagine that – to a large extent – most MPs would be the same. Here I think we have to draw a distinction between the abstract and the concrete. I think that it is quite possible MPs will oppose an abstract law, which makes it possible to detain people, especially on the basis that it is ‘not needed’ or is ‘hypothetical’. This is because they can claim to be in favour of liberty as against hypothetical problems etc. But, when they are faced with the Chief Constable telling them ‘if we don’t detain this person there is a possibility he will conduct a major terrorist attack, for which you will be responsible’, things may be slightly different. This is of course always compounded by the fact that the police are unable to give all the evidence they have a their disposal, for fear of giving away informants etc. Ultimately, it seems to me that the political cost of going against the police and then being proved wrong is much better with agreeing with them and detaining an innocent man.

And finally the judiciary. Well, I think it is probably a little bit more complex. Firstly, it is the case that judges – as they are not elected – are not subject to direct political pressure in the same way that politicians are. This being said, judges are still participants in the collective, communal life of the country, and so as such are subject to some of the same forces. Furthermore, although judges are not direct participants in the ‘democratic’ political process they are nonetheless a constituent part of our political system as a whole. As such, their position can be threatened or strengthened in given political conjunctures. One need only observe the mini-declaration of war by Lord Woolf a while ago, to understand that judges are just as ‘political’ as your average MP.

Secondly, people tend to invoke cases like the Belmarsh detainees case to show that the judiciary is either ‘soft on terrorism’ or ‘finding the right balance’. But of course this is problematic, especially if one actually examines the reasoning in that case. In the wake of 7/7 the House of Lords (with the exception of Lord Hoffman) acknowledged that there was a public emergency which threatened the life of the nation. This meant that the only question was whether the measures were proportionate or not. The majority concluded they were not because there was no rational connection between the means and ends, and because there was irrational discrimination. In theory both of these problems could have been overcome by locking up everybody up rather than just foreigners. This being said I haven’t read many of the recent cases on control orders, so I’m not entirely sure about this.

Ultimately, when it comes to the judiciary, I think that they are less likely to immediately lock people up. But I do tend to think that when faced with the stark opposition between ‘liberty’ and ‘security’ a judge may ultimately choose the latter. Simply because there is always the chance – no matter how small – that he will be ‘responsible’ for a terrorist attack. Putting someone in such a concrete situation does not – for me – seem conducive towards finding a balance.

In lieu of a conclusion
So what do we conclude here? I think the first point is that the particular shape of the ‘enemy’ in the ‘war on terror’ (and indeed its characterisation as a war) tends to push ‘law’ to its indeterminate limits. This ends up creating exceptions with infinite grasps. But of course a concrete decision has to be articulated within this context. And it strikes me that any concrete decision will be so agonising, that seems to me it will allow for an unchecked expansion of this power, I leave everyone with a quote by Žižek (on torture) which seems appropriate, if not entirely so:

If the choice is between Dershowitz’s liberal ‘honesty’ and old-fashioned ‘hypocrisy’, we’d be better off sticking with ‘hypocrisy’. I can well imagine that, in a particular situation, confronted with the proverbial ‘prisoner who knows’, whose words can save thousands, I might decide in favour of torture; however, even (or, rather, precisely) in a case such as this, it is absolutely crucial that one does not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle: given the unavoidable and brutal urgency of the moment, one should simply do it. Only in this way, in the very prohibition against elevating what we have done into a universal principle, do we retain a sense of guilt, an awareness of the inadmissibility of what we have done.


Cross postage.

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Marxism, Mao and Politics by Rob
January 18, 2008, 4:59 pm
Filed under: China, Maoism, Marxism, Rob, Theory

Over at Splintered Sunrise an interesting conversation was developing on Badiou, one to which I tried to make a contribution. Anyway some of the points that were made got me thinking a bit, so here I just want to say a few things. Central to this discussion was the question of why the Cultural Revolution might form an important event for some people on the left; my explanation as to why it might follows below, and segues into some more general considerations on Marxism.

My general contention here is that the Cultural Revolution and Maoism more generally, appealed to the late 1960s and 1970s left for a series of interconnected reasons. My key argument is the inadequacy of a Marxist theory of politics, and of the ‘superstructure’ more broadly conceived. In the period after the World War One and the 50s and 60s the state of Marxism – and certainly of ‘official’ Marxism – was pretty moribund. Despite a supposed adherence to Lenin, what we tended to see was a certain mechanical Marxism. In this schematic conception of history, what drove social change was contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production. This conflict is ‘resolved’ by class struggle, which eventually replaces one mode of production with another.

So in this conception politics and political action is conceived of as being determined or as actualising economics. This type of Marxism doesn’t really have a theory of politics strictly conceived. But this approach brings numerous problems with it. The first problem for this conception is how to explain the relationship between economic and political action. How is it that class struggle can move (as Gramsci put it) from an economic-corporate phase, to a hegemonic phase? And this itself brings the problem from the other direction why is that the contradiction has not yet been actualised. This is of course the classic starting point for a lot of contemporary Marxist theorising – why in the advanced capitalist countries has the working class not taken power?

The answer to this question can’t be found purely in economistic considerations (e.g. the dull compulsion of economic relations) because to look at it this way basically forestalls social change forever (or until the next crisis). In response to this you get the (thankfully long dead) Trot line about a ‘crisis in leadership’. But even the crisis in leadership line is making a grasping attempt to go beyond certain economist lines and move to a more political explanation of the crisis. Basically, then, it seemed that the situations on the ground demanded an examination of the role of ‘superstructure’. But not just as a ‘reflection’ of the base, but in its capacity as decisive. Because the entire issue necessarily must move outside of the economy and onto political and cultural grounds.

And it is here that the Mao becomes central. Mao’s heterodox Marxism represented a fairly innovative intervention into this impasse. This can particularly be seen in Mao’s On Contradiction. Basically, Mao argues that any social totality is a complex of interacting contradictions, all of which contribute towards development and change. However, in every social totality there is a principal contradiction, which serves to give a specific character to all of the other contradictions:

There are many contradictions in the process of development of a complex thing, and one of them is necessarily the principal contradiction whose existence and development determine or influence the existence and development of the other contradictions. For instance, in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction. The other contradictions, such as those between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie, between the peasant petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie, between the proletariat and the peasant petty bourgeoisie, between the non-monopoly capitalists and the monopoly capitalists, between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism, among the capitalist countries and between imperialism and the colonies, are all determined or influenced by this principal contradiction.

Such a position is a very interesting one, and we can find echoes of the argument in Althusser’s notion of a totality structured in dominance (and of course we would since Mao is an acknowledged influence on Althusser) and even in Lukács earlier discussion of the role of totality in Marxist thought. The point here is that one can immediately recognise Mao had constructed a theoretical edifice which might be able to bridge the impasse described above. Here we can see a way to articulate the primacy of the contradiction between the forces and relation of production; without having to rely on that for change. The point here is that as a principal contradiction it could shape political ‘contradictions’, even these contradictions became vital.

However, Mao goes further than this. He also argues that every contradiction has a principal and subordinate aspect. It is the principal aspect which will (eventually) supersede that subordinate aspect and so bring change. But further to this Mao argued that in a given struggle around a contradiction, things would develop to the point where what was the principal aspect could become the subordinate aspect and vice versa:

We often speak of “the new superseding the old”. The supersession of the old by the new is a general, eternal and inviolable law of the universe. The transformation of one thing into another, through leaps of different forms in accordance with its essence and external conditions — this is the process of the new superseding the old. In each thing there is contradiction between its new and its old aspects, and this gives rise to a series of struggles with many twists and turns. As a result of these struggles, the new aspect changes from being minor to being major and rises to predominance, while the old aspect changes from being major to being minor and gradually dies out. And the moment the new aspect gains dominance over the old, the old thing changes qualitatively into a new thing. It can thus be seen that the nature of a thing is mainly determined by the principal aspect of the contradiction, the aspect which has gained predominance. When the principal aspect which has gained predominance changes, the nature of a thing changes accordingly.

So the vision Mao here articulates is one which – in contrast to ‘official Marxism’ is a dynamic one; emphasising struggle. But the coup de grace, and what I would argue made Maoism so attractive to (particularly) the French left is the following passage:

Some people think that this is not true of certain contradictions. For instance, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the productive forces are the principal aspect … in the contradiction between the economic base and the superstructure, the economic base is the principal aspect; and there is no change in their respective positions. This is the mechanical materialist conception, not the dialectical materialist conception. True, the productive forces, practice and the economic base generally play the principal and decisive role; whoever denies this is not a materialist. But it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and the superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role. When it is impossible for the productive forces to develop without a change in the relations of production, then the change in the relations of production plays the principal and decisive role. The creation and advocacy of revolutionary theory plays the principal and decisive role in those times of which Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” When a task, no matter which, has to be performed, but there is as yet no guiding line, method, plan or policy, the principal and decisive thing is to decide on a guiding line, method, plan or policy. When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive. Are we going against materialism when we say this? No. The reason is that while we recognize that in the general development of history the material determines the mental and social being determines social consciousness, we also — and indeed must — recognize the reaction of mental on material things, of social consciousness on social being and of the superstructure on the economic base. This does not go against materialism; on the contrary, it avoids mechanical materialism and firmly upholds dialectical materialism.

Obviously, this is long, but I think it basically helps to illustrate the attraction Maoism held for certain people. The whole point is Mao has seriously broken with ‘official’ Marxism, and has attempted to theorise the political. Although Mao presents this as somewhat limited, the implications of this passage (particularly from where we sit) are fairly wide-ranging. Key to my argument is the notion that:

When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive.

But the whole point – at least so far as Marxists were concerned with in the West – is that it is always the ‘superstructure’ which obstructs the development of the base. Because if we are talking about the standard economic conditions which make things ripe for revolution (in the schematic sense) – well they’ve been here for God only knows how long. So what is the allure of Mao for him politics and culture become central. It thus seems that – quite accidentally – Mao addressed the central concerns of the left in Western Europe, since he attempts to theorise the primacy of the political/cultural whilst remaining a materialist. No matter what people think of Mao (and obviously opinions are not high), this particular theoretical position seems interesting.

Now, with this in mind, we can make a few other considerations. Firstly, it might be argued that this position – which stresses the importance of conscious, political action is a ‘Leninist’ one. Well, yes, I’d agree with that entirely, and it’s certainly something that Lenin articulated rather well. But the point is that Leninism – especially in the time period in question – was associated with the ‘Marxism’ of the USSR, which – to all intents and purposes – had reverted back to the Marxism of the second international. Secondly, insofar as Leninism was taken up by the Trotskyist movement it was (1) not always that great and (2) not likely to be taken up by people inside of the official communist movement. That is why Maoism managed to sink its roots into France, I feel. The milieu from which these people came from was one in which official communism (in the form of the PCF) was all powerful – both politically and philosophically – for a time, Maoism seemed to represent an critique of official communism from within the official communist movement.

Another point to bear in mind is that very similar philosophical positions are put forward (in whatever way) by the early Lukács and Gramsci. It’s no coincidence that interest in these two only began to grow around this period – they address precisely the same issues which I’ve outlined above. But Lukács had the great misfortune of being alive at the time; reconciled with the official communist movement and he had of course basically renounced much of History and Class Consciousness. Gramsci, had not yet been translated (I don’t think), and again, he had the misfortune to be placed at the service of the PCI, which even before its explicit Eurocommunism had started moving in such a direction.

So, my point about Mao is that he seemed to address some of the central problems of the time, in an innovative way. This was only reinforced by the fact that the events of the time seemed to suggest political action needed to be theorised. Because not only did the inaction of the working class need to be theorised – but also the action that had sprung up in the late 60s. So in particular, it proved quite difficult for ‘official’ Marxism to theorise les evenements of May ’68, and its response to what was a pretty huge moment was risible to say the least. This is also where the importance of the Cultural Revolution comes in. The Cultural Revolution appeared to be an actualisation of the theoretical positions outlined above. Here politics and culture were assuming the decisive role in transforming China. The emphasis on mass mobilisation obviously chimed with what was happening in ‘the West’ in a way that the experience of the Soviet Union could not.

It also strikes me that there are some other interesting threads that could be picked up (although I will decline to do so for now). Firstly, this concentration on the political (whilst maintaining that these struggles were ‘coloured’ by the principal contradiction) helped provide a way to explain struggle amongst groups not traditionally mobilised by the left (e.g. people who weren’t the manual working class). Secondly, Mao of necessity assumed a crucial role in the attempt to articulate a Marxist understanding of anti-colonialism and development. The inter-twining of the language of Marxism and decolonisation led to some very odd attempts to theorise these issues. Furthermore, most Marxists seemed (and pretty much still do) to accidentally condone mass death in the Third World – which is never a good way to make friends and influence people.

I rather look forward to seeing Splintered post on diamat.

Cross posted to my other abode (which I am determined will regain its readership!)



Historical Materialism Conference – Part 2 by korakious
November 12, 2007, 8:05 pm
Filed under: Historical Materialism Conference, Marxism, Palestine, Rob, Theory
Wow. Apparently my notes on the fisrt plenary session were pretty long. The notes for the next session ‘Islam and American Imperialism’ are a bit less so. Not becuase the talks weren’t interesting, but because I’d already sat through one long session and the lecture theatre was rather sophorific, owing to the temperature and layout.

The backdrop to the talks is the increasing resistance to American imperialism and the lack of a clear socialist alternative to it. This leads – on the part of the Socialist Register, who organised the plenary – to a crisis of agency. It therefore becomes necessary to analyse the new movements that have arisen so as to conceptualise the current conjuncture.

Gilbert Achar – Imperial Uses of Islam
Achar began his talk by examining the ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm, one which he described as pervasive on both a conscious and unconscious level. This view basically suggests that Islam and the West are engaged in a clash of civilisation and there can be no middle ground between them. This view is common to both Western Islamophobes and Islamic fundamentalists – who tend to characterise Islam and ‘the West’ is implacably in conflcit with one and other, and view this conflict as defining our current age.

But Achar notes that this is not the view of Western governments. Western governments tend to differentiate (in their rhetoric) between ‘good’ Muslims and ‘bad’ Muslims, they don’t view things as a clash with Islam but a clash within Islam. Achar also argues that Huntington himself doesn’t hold with the way in which his theory has been interpreted. Achar argued that Huntington is in fact a ‘global multiculturalist’, insofar as he thinks it’s a good thing to have different ‘civlisations’ existing worldwide, he opposes mutliculturalism nationally because he wants to preserve Western culture in its heartlands. Furthermore, Huntington dismisses universalism as imperialism (in the perjorative sense) and argues that a project of imposing Western values will end in disaster. In other words Huntington appears as a traditional realist.

Achar argued that it is this realist Huntington that has informed US policy towards Islam. His first (and very good) example is the United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia, a state which is in fact the US’ oldest ally in the Middle East. It has historically (and still does) served as the cornerstone in the US global stratey, particularly in combatting anti-imperialist nationalism. But of course Saudi Arabia is probably the most ‘fundamentalist’ state in the whole of the middle-east. In fact the US supported Saudi fundamentalism in Afghanistan. He further notes that plenty of fundamentalists were willing to colloborate with the US invasion of Iraq.

The point for Achar is that the US has used fundamentalism for its own ends and fundamentalism has often been (and is still) willing to colloborate with US imperialism when they had the chance. He then listed the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted other instances.

Achar’s basic point here was that at best we can call Islamic fundamentalism ‘anti-Western’ but it is only sporadically and inconsistently ‘anti-imperialist’. This of course has implications for how Marxists should approach Islamist resistance to US imperialism. At the very least when struggling with them it is necessary to view them with ‘distrust’ and attempt to spread our own ideas within their ranks.

One person’s attempt to critique Achar’s approach was based on the argument that notwithstanding our ‘subjective’ opposition to the domestic policies of the fundamentalists, they might nonetheless be ‘objectively’ anti-imperialist, since they are fighting imperialism. I wasn’t there was the response, but surely Achar’s argument is not about the political programme’s of Islamists, it’s about their record of supporting imperialists when they think it is to their advantage. Such a position of course means that while they may be ‘objectively anti-imperialist’ in a given instance the question is whether they will consistently hold this position. Achar’s analysis seems to suggest they won’t (and also that the imperialists won’t consistently target them either) so this has to be the position to proceed from.

Bashir Abu-Manneh
For my money Abu-Manneh’s speech was probably the most interesting of the lot, particulary because he engaged in some interesting theoretical anaylsis. Abu-Manneh’s speech was composed of three arguments:

  • The Palestinians have been in a state of seige since 1991
  • The Palestinian elite has collaborated with the Israeli state
  • The above two factors have led to the emergence of a specific form of resistance, one which has entrenched militarisation and depoliticisation

The first thesis is simple enough to understand. Israel has continuously interevened in the occupied territory, denying the right of freedom of movement throughout the West Bank and Gaza strip and within Israel itself. This process has culminated in the creation of the apartheid wall, which has formalised the process by physically closing off vast swathes of the West Bank. This – of couse – is all very uncontroversial stuff. But Abu-Manneh further argued that this has destroyed any meaningful sense of spontaneity amongst the Palestinians. It has tended to eliminate any proper sense of the Palestinians as a collecitive entity who are capable of collective action. Palestinians have been alienated into individuals, families etc.

The second thesis is another one which I think is uncontroversial. It seem incontrovertable by now that the Palestinian Authority has collaborated with and legitimated the occupation – corrupting and nearly destroying the Palestinian’s national aspirations. Abu-Manneh related an anecdote whereby the PA would always be there to stop attacks on settlers but would be mysteriously absent when there was an Israeli attack in the occupied territory. In line with this Abu-Manneh argued that the PA has consciously undermined any attempts to organise outside of the PA. To top it all off, when the PA did stop collaborating it was attacked by the Israeli authorities.

The combination of the two above factors leads to Abu-Manneh’s third argument. The point of these factors is that they have pushed Palestinian strategy towards militarisation. Firstly, this is because any meaningful political resistance seems impossible. The Palestinian’s traditional representation – Fatah – has been collaborating since Oslo. Furthermore, it is difficult – if not impossible – to develop political positions and mobilisation when freedom of movement is physically restricted. Furthermore, political action seems so difficult precisely because the Palestinians have lost their faith in their own capability for collective action. This depoliticisation means that solutions based on mass action seem impossible, which naturally seems to lend support to the idea that small acts of military resistance are necessary.

But it is not just the content (military acts) that are shaped by these social conditions, it is also the form. This is because the small military action per se is – in some respects – a collective political act. This would certainly seem to be the case when one considers the links between militants and political parties. The ultimate culmination of the tendency towards atomisation is the emergence of the suicide bomber as a ‘weapon’ in the struggle against of Israel. This of course makes a lot of sense, because the suicide bomber is the precisely opposite of a collective political struggle. Thus, the tendency towards atomisation and depoliticisation, combined with the concomitant process of militarisation tends to produce the ultimate individualist military act – the suicide bomber. Although, as Abu-Manneh points out, we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree to which suicide bombing has become the norm, and ultimately as a tactic it has proved counter-productive, since it tended to fit the Palestianian struggle into the discourse of terror.

What I really like about this analysis is the way in which it traces the particular configuration of Palestinian resistance back to the social conditions in which it operates. This is a much better position to take than just ‘condemning’ particular forms of resistance without understanding why they gain popularity or the opposite but related one of just saying ‘it’s understandable because they endure so much’. It’s therefore good to see someone take a materialist position on this issue. What’s also interesting is the degree to which Abu-Manneh’s position dovetails with Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness. This is because capitalism itself has a natural tendency towards depoliticisation (reification), alienation and fragmentation, of course these tendencies are often counteracted.

I think invoking Lukacs is useful for another reason. Abu-Manneh’s preferred solution to the problem is to replace this strategy of individualised militarisation with one of collective self-mobilisation. Well, this is fine in practice, but the whole point is that the situation Abu-Manneh outlined has already shown precisely why this collective self-moblisation is going to happen, and certainly not spontaneously. This is where Lukacs is especially relevant. Because Lukacs core insight is that the proletariat can’t just spontaneously organise against capitalism. What is needed is something that can take the viewpoint of the proletariat but do so in a way that transcends the reifying tendencies of capitalism. That is to say a vanguard party. In the Gramscian analysis this Party is composed of the organic intellectuals who arise from the class in the midst of struggle. And this is what Abu-Manneh’s analysis really seems to lack – the need for a conscious organising element of the Palestinian people able to mobilise them against the Israelis. But of course the other problem is that the people who you would expect to be able to fulfil this role in Palestinian society are – as Abu-Manneh argued – completely compromised. This – perhaps – is why he didn’t delve into this question, as it is one to which there doesn’t seem to be much of an answer.

Unfortunately I missed the last talk because I needed to get home, so I can’t comment on that. More stuff will follow over the rest of the week. This will reveal how horribly theory-obsessed I am, however, and no doubt I will be much looked down-upon for it.



Historical Materialism Conference 2007 by korakious
November 12, 2007, 12:13 am
Filed under: Historical Materialism Conference, Imperialism, Marxism, Neoliberalism, Rob, Theory
As you probably already know, this weekend was the annual Historical Materialism Conference, which I had the good fortune to attend. Unfortunately I missed Friday’s sessions (prior commitments) which meant I didn’t get to see Zizek (damn, damn, damn, damn) but the rest of the Conference was pretty damn good. The first thing to say is that despite the current poisonous climate on the left (and particularly as between the SWP and everyone else) the atmosphere at the Conference was really good (bearing in mind there was a mix of people from different traditions there), everything felt very comradely (although of course the interventions were occasionally slightly cutting) and everyone seemed to get along well enough. So, as is usual in the old blogosphere I thought I’d give a [not so brief] summation of those sessions which I did attend.

Saturday

I rolled in a bit late on Saturday, so I missed the first session of the day. Not that I would really have listened to it much. The next session I attended was on ‘Marxism, Pashukanis and the Law’. In this session I actually ‘presented a paper’ on Pashukanis, Legal Nihilism and Legal Strategy, which I will probably put up here at some time (once I’ve cleaned it up a bit – the notes were really only intended for my consumption only). There weren’t too many people here (although there were a few), which was kind of predictable, as law is not a particularly glamorous topic for Marxist analysis. There were two other contributors aside from me – Andreas Harms presented a paper on ‘Commodity Form and Legal Form’ and Bill Bowring presented a paper on ‘International Law, Lenin and Self-Determination’. Both of the papers were of high quality and we got some good discussion in as well. It feels kind of weird summarising this session, so I’ll leave it for the atendees to do so (hopefully some of them blog).

There weren’t any more ‘sessions’ for the day, as it extended into a ‘meet the editors’ session and a lunchbreak, I did have some pretty interesting conversation during this period, so it was all to the good.

The next ‘session’ was a plenary one, featuring some rather big hitters, the talk was on ‘Neo-liberalism and Neo-imperialism’ and the speakers were Alex Callinicos, Robert Brenner and David McNally.

Robert Brenner
The central thrust of Brenner’s argument was the relationship between the war in Iraq and the US’ geopolitical strategy. Brenner argued that the Iraq war was a puzzling phenomenon which represented a real rupture with previous US strategy in content if not form. Brenner argued that during the 2000 election no one would have predicted that the Iraq war would come around in the time that it did. The Republicans seemed to have a fairly low-key foreign policy, certainly not the type of messianism that seemed to characterise them post-9/11. Furthermore, it was argued that the US had fulfilled its three key strategic aims (which it had held since World War 2); these aims were

  1. To freeze and weaken ‘communism’, third world statist nationalism and statism more generally so as to allow the free movement of [US] capital throughout the globe.
  2. Consolidate US hegemony in Japan and Europe – depriving them of their ability to disrupt the framework of international capitalism; key to this aim was depriving them of their military power and compensate them for this by providing them with security.
  3. As a consequence of the above two aims the US intended to implement a neo-liberal agenda throughout the world, with all the consequences thereof

Brenner argued that the US was willing to do this since US capital was so powerful that it didn’t require the formal protection of the US state. So on this reading the US had – according to Brenner – recognised the essential validity of the Leninist critique of imperialism – namely that monopoly-capital imperialist states vying for domination of the world’s resources inevitably culminated in war, which was not conducive to the continued position of the US and global capitalism. To combat this the US entered into a ‘radical Kautskyite’ project of restructuring the global situation as above – the only question was whether the US was disciplined enough to continue enforcing the consensus.

All of this was encapsulated in the term ‘New World Order’ as used by Bush et al. This meant that there was a new approach to the international use of force:

  • Don’t use force unless you can use massive amounts of force
  • Other conflicts should just be ‘policing’ or assymetrical conflict
  • Avoid committing ground troops if you can – use cruise missiles, bombs etc.

All of ths as summarised in a phrase by Madeline Allbright that ‘military force’ but not war should be used (which got a big laugh from the audience, but really the distinction isn’t as ridicoulous as it first, certainly international law tends to distinguish between the use of military force and an armed attack or war). This was basically a neo-liberal form of imperialism and one in which generally states toed the line (the thrid world accepted the neo-liberal consensus the [not yet] axis of evil was going to the table, etc.).

So US policy in Iraq has to be understood in relation to this. It is therefore necessary to view US policy towards Iraq in this context. What the context what seem to suggest is that no US adminstration would really want regime change in Iraq, as this would be internationally counterproductive – it would be costly, destabilising and could whip up Arab resistance across the Middle East. Futhermore, the Shia could not be trusted to serve as a counterweight to Iran. This is why Saddam was not overthrown following the first Gulf War and a policy of ‘containment’ was pursued in relation to Iraq.

Against this backdrop the recent war in Iraq does seem to be a break (and to a lesser extent so does Afghanistan). Brenner’s next task is to explain how this could happen. Brenner traces the strategic rupture to the ascendence of the neo-conservative movement within the American state apparatus and their huge influence within the State Department. It was only with 9/11 that they were able to gain control over foreign policy.

Brenner then gave an internal examination of this movement. According to Brenner the key theoretical position for the neo-conservatives is the ‘fungibility of force’. By this they mean that American military domination can be used to do anything, and the neo-conservatives were interested in ‘harvesting the fruits of military dominance’.

It is then necessary to understand how the neo-conservatives gained this power. Brenner roots the neo-conservative movement in the Republican far-right, who had taken over Congress in 1994. They had always had trouble gaining power and were only able to do so by pushing the foreign policy aspect. Once they had gained power they acted as a ‘Shadow Cabinet’ that pushed Clinton into all sort of things (like passing the Iraq Liberation Act) but they could only achieve limited success and certainly couldn’t impose their domestic agenda. But 9/11 changed all of this and gave the neo-conservatives the pre-text they needed to actualise both their domestic and international agenda.

Brenner’s analysis was pretty damn interesting (he’s also a very good speaker). I quite liked his focus on concrete, ‘micro’ US politics and the way in which they interact with the global sphere, a Gramsci quote seems particularly relevant here:

Do international relations precede or follow (logically) fundamental social relations? There can be no doubt that they follow. Any organic innovation in the social structure, through its technical-military expressions, modifies organically absolute and relative relations in the international field too. Even the geographical position of a national State does not precede but follows (logically) structural changes, although it also reacts back upon them to a certain extent (to the extent precisely to which superstructures react back upon the structure, politics on economics, etc.). However, international relations react both passively and actively on political relations (of hegemony among the parties). The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it, with the aim of preventing rival parties gaining the upper hand (recall Nitti’s famous speech on the technical impossibility of revolution in Italy).
Gramsci, The Modern Prince

So I actually thought that Brenner’s analysis was a niecly dialectical one, similar in the way that Gramsci presented it. I also see nothing a priori wrong with the ascription of such a decisive role to a ‘subjective’ factors. Especially as these subjective factors are in a dialectical relationship with the objective situation (Lukacs comes immediately to mind on this point). This isn’t to say that I think Brenner is entirely right, but I don’t think we dismiss his analysis out of hand.

Alex Callinicos
Callinicos delivered another pretty awesome speech (you will hear this a lot, because I thought the quality of this session was absolutely stellar, even if the sweltering heat of the lecture theatre left much to be desired!). Alex presented his argument as one diametrically opposed to Brenner’s. He argued that Brenner had only given us description, but no analysis – we can’t just see Iraq as a random event we need a larger perpective and so must look at the historical connection between liberalism and imperialism.

Callinicos noted that the US has always eschewed formal imperialism – and continuously legitimated itself with reference to this. He looks back to the ‘imperialism of the open door’ – in which the role of military power was only to enforce the conditions of a liberal world economy, this of course should not – as a rule – involve the use of ground troops. The predecessor of this type of imperialism was the ‘imperialism of free trade’ practiced by the British Empire in the 19th century and Britain relied heavily on informal empire in Canada and China. The US has a consistent, radical version of this.

Following World War 2 the US dominated the advanced capitalist world and built up a series of institutions, but this liberalism was only ever transnational. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the US was able to convert this transnationalism into global liberalism. This means that for Callinicos there was no fundamental break in the project – and it was one vigorously pursued by the Clinton administration. For Callinicos therefore, Clinton was the true pioneer of the fungibility of military power.

But of course hegemony is always about force and consent, and they are always combined in different ways. The manner in which these methods are combined is what differentiates the neo-cons from Clinton. Thus, for Callinicos this is a matter of quantity not quality there is no rupture. Callinicos further argues that the Bush administration was radicalised post-9/11 and that in this context the neo-cons cannot be considered ‘mad’. He argues that in the face of the increasing threat of China’s economic power a rational argument could certainly be made out for the US using its only comparative advantage in this conjuncture that of military force. Iraq was therefore important because rising captialist powers were dependent on its oil and the US needed to assert this.

The question Callinicos thinks we need to ask is ‘what are the interests of US imperialism’? When we do this we understand that the US ruling class is complex and the best strategy is always a contested question – we have to look at te question of the imposition of ideology on a world scale, and the geo-political is central to this.

All well and good – but I think Brenner responded pretty well by saying ‘we don’t really disagree on much’. I think this is probably the case – all they really disagree is whether there is a qualitative or quantitiative difference between Clinton and Bush (which sounds big but – meh – scales). Brenner just helps us to understand why it is that one side won the argument. But I’d actually go further than this. Callinicos seems to argue two contradictory things. On the one hand he argues that there is no rupture between Clinton and Bush, but on the other hand he seems to argue that China posed a qualitatively new threat to the US. Because of course post-WW2 there has been no capitalist power that posed a threat to the US in the way China has (although I guess the state-cap people would argue the USSR was a rival capitalist power, so maybe change the reference to post-1989?), since every other ‘threat’ was pretty damn friendly to the US, and were happy to allow the US maintain Pax Americana. So, on this reading, Alex seems to be arguing that the emergence of China has disrupted the ‘radical-Kautskyism’ of the US, since it doesn’t accept the US’ managerial role. But surely this would indicate a rupture, in line with Brenner.

David McNally
Although I really liked the first two talks David McNally’s was far and away my favourite (I think much of the audience agreed with this too). In contradistinction to the first two McNally’s position was to start from a general theoretical analysis and proceed from there. So for McNally the central point of depature was that of Marxist value theory. We need to begin from this perspective – so McNally argues – because we live in a world of alienated social relations and theory must de-fetishise them.

McNally’s talk revolved around 5 arguments:

  • Neo-liberalism involves radically extending and intensifying the commodity form
  • This is achieved through ‘monetarising’ more and more aspects of human life
  • This involves the extension of primitive accumulation
  • This occurs on a variety of levels and entails imperialism
  • World money becomes decisive

So McNally’s basic argument is that the phenomenon we call ‘neo-liberalism’ must be understood as the extension of the commodity form – not a conscious project of the capitalist class but a result of the value form itself. It is fundamentally connected to new forms of discipline, and is primarily exercised through the discipline of money – the IMF, the World Bank etc. This leads to a reversal of the partial decommodification of labour.

Dispossession is also fundamental to this (hence the importance of primitive accumulation) because land has to be converted into capital. But since this land is occupied by other people, they have to be turfed off. For this reason there is a nexus of land, violence and dispossession – which gives rise to new enclosures and modalities of class struggle arise against this. Furthermore, ecological disaster is incorporated into this, so disasters which displace people are taken advantage off (Hurricane Mitch was used to get rid of the Honduran indigenous population).

McNally further linked this process to militarisation – war is of course central in ‘clearing out’ areas of land, be that through death or fleeing. All of this has also led to a great rise in the industrial reserve army, which has grown massively as people have been forced out of their land in the process of dispossession.

McNally went on to criticise the approaches of David Harvey and Rosa Luxemborg, who he thinks failed to properly elaborate the ‘laws’ of this economic process – meaning they cannot properly theorise it. Instead they often remain at the level of (very powerful) description. [He also made a really interesting point about dialectics and subjects positing their own presuppositions – but I’ll ignore that]. Further, his problem with Rosa’s approach is that she assumes this form of imperialism requires permanent occupation, which is clearly not the case, as the discipline of money suffices to compel national elites to implement dispossesion.

McNally then went on to focus heavily on what he called ‘world money’. By this he means the currency which serves as the ‘global’ medium for exchange. He argues that there has beeen an intensification of unequal currecny exchange, with the global South losing out on this. But the concept has been under theorised, and it is important, because the state that issues ‘world money’ will get the surplus on exchange, and so can appropriate value. This means that different nation states struggle over who is to issue world money.

McNally argues that this can be illustrated by the Euro project in the European Union, where the states of the European Union have tried to create a currency with all the characteristics of world money. McNally describes this as a form of inter-imperialist rivalry and denies that such rivalry need be militarised.

McNally ended with the argument that we need to emphasise anti-neo-liberalism and anti-imperialism highlight the need for a de-commodification of labour – that is to say the socialist revolution (which earnt him a rousing cheer).

What I really liked about McNally’s talk was the way that he was able to articulate linkages between his theoretical paradigm and our practical trajectory. His analysis does explain rather well a lot of contemporary phenomena in a basic theoretical way, and I think this is to be welcomed.

Ultimately, I think all of these talks worked well, and frankly if we could have combined them all into one big talk it would have been awesome. So David sets the economic-theoretical scene for us, Alex embedded it in a broader historical context and Bob examined the specific way in which ruling classes responded to the broader need for the expansion of value. Each therefore had the merit of contributing to a totalising perspective, and with a little work we could trace the analysis of value directly into Alex’s and Bob’s talk. Of course this is the inherent weakness of the short talk format, but nonetheless I was impressed by this session.

OK, I’ve clearly gone on long enough, so I’ll stop now, and do something else. Tomorrow (maybe?) I want to at least outline the talk on ‘Global Flashpoints’ that was also on Saturday, particualrly as I felt it offered a really interesting perspective on the Palestinian resistance.



Jack Straw, Human Rights and the 21st Century by korakious
October 25, 2007, 11:24 pm
Filed under: law, Marx, Rob, Theory, UK politics

Just heard a speech by Jack Straw on ‘Human Rights in the 21st Century’, although by virtue of his position as politico the talk was of course slightly incoherent it was nonetheless interesting for several reasons. Firstly, the speech has to be read with the recent government announcement on a ‘Bill of Rights and Duties’, secondly the speech’s tone and structure give us some idea of the general government position on rights, thirdly I think Straw’s inchoate theoretical probings actually provide a useful foil for people like me. So – seeing as I had nothing else to do – I thought I’d give a rundown of what Straw said and my own opinions on the matter.The first thing that Straw was keen to stress (and something that is quite telling about his attitude towards the Human Rights Act (HRA)) was that historically and culturally Britain is a country that has been at the heart of the human rights project. He rightly pointed out that British lawyers were at the heart of developing the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Further, he put forward the position that ‘human rights’ are a tradition that has been rooted in British life since the Magna Carta. Whilst I agree with the latter point as far as it goes I’m pretty sceptical about it. Although it seems clear that Britain’s rights tradition does coincide with the content of the ECHR it certainly does not have a content of positively enumerating rights and then ‘balancing’ these rights with exceptions. Rather, the British tradition of ‘liberty’ is of one where one can do whatever is not forbidden. However, the effort to ‘domesticate’ human rights is one that speaks volumes about Straw’s position, clearly Straw is attempted to combat the typical accusations of the press the the HRA and the ECHR are alien impositions foisted on Britain by an ever-expanding Europe.

However, as was rather predictable, Straw begins to move to our present ‘context’. For Straw the post-Cold War situation has been marked with the growth of an ‘enabling state’ and the spread of democracy to most of Europe. But simultaneously with this there still remain a number of authoritarian states and (dum dum dum) the growth of an international terrorist movement that operates outsides the bounds of ethics and leality. He further noted that this terrorism was qualitatively different from previous forms of terrorism because:

  • It is truly international, with non-national terrorists operating from foreign states with foreign backing
  • The terrorists have access to large and powerful weapons (biological, chemical, nuclear etc.)
  • The aims and scope of the terrorists are very different from preceding forms of terrorism

Now, I will refrain from immediately commenting upon this particular assesment of the threat of international terrorism, at least until I discuss the relevance that Straw attributes to this. What is particularly interesting is that Straw (unlike certain members of the Government and the Opposition) doesn’t seem to think that the HRA is inadequate in dealing with terrorism. In fact Straw thinks the HRA is absolutely necessary in order to ‘establish and marshall the lawful bounds of our [the government’s] response [to terrorism]’. Straw did seem to have some problems with particular decisions by the court – particularly concerning deporting people to places where there is a real chance they will be tortured (he prefers a substantial chance) – but in general he seems supportive of their overall approach. Personally, I actually found this to be quite gratifying, especially after hearing Dr. Reid’s ranting for as long as I had to. However, Straw did note that although he wishes to maintain the ‘principles’ of human rights, he thinks there are some issues with the applications.

Straw proceeded at this point to utterly demolish the Tory analysis of the Human Rights Act, this was awesome and very little needs to be said on it. The most interesting part of Straw’s lecture came in his amateur sociological examination of modern capitalism. Basically, Straw argued that there has been much deeper structural changes than just 9/11 which influence Britain’s culture of rights; basically he pinpoints two key features:

  • There has been an increase in the heterogenousness of the British population and he links this to the problem of communities ‘separating’ out etc., obviously this would lead to a decline in a national/collective/public life
  • Globalisation has made people much less deferential, independent and empowered; but this has also turned people into ‘consumers’ peoples’ primary identity therefore is not as the citizen but consumer

Straw then argued that this ‘consumerism’ is incompatible with ‘politics’ – as politics requires people consider their long-term interests, make some sacrifices for the social whole and engage in meaningful public participation. According to Straw the result of this process has been that our rights have become ‘commoditised’ (what a hideous, hideous word – has the man never heard of the term ‘commodified’!?). Rights are exercused so as to injure others, with no concern for the ‘public good’ or our collective right. Furthermore, people become covetous of the rights of others, which they view as a type of ‘possession’.

Whilst this is all very interesting I really don’t see why we need to tie it in with globalisation. The critique that Straw advanced is one that has been advanced countless times pre-‘globalisation’, in fact here is a rather famous analysis which bears remarkable ressemblence to Straw’s:

It is puzzling enough that a people which is just beginning to iberate itself, to tear down all the barriers between its various sections, and to establish a political community, that such a people solemnly proclaims (Declaration of 1791) the rights of egoistic man separated from his fellow men and from the community, and that indeed it repeats this proclamationat a moment when only the most heroic devotion can save the nation, and is therefore imperatively called for, at a moment when the sacrifice of all the interest of civil society must be the order of the day, and egoism must be punished as a crime. (Declaration of the Rights of Man, etc., of 1793.) This fact becomes still more puzzling when we see that the political emancipators go so far as to reduce citizenship, and the political community, to a mere means for maintaining these so-called rights of man, that, therefore, the citoyen is declared to be the servant of egotistic homme, that the sphere in which man acts as a communal being is degraded to a level below the sphere in which he acts as a partial being, and that, finally, it is not man as citoyen, but man as private individual [bourgeois] who is considered to be the essential and true man.

And who made this critique? Why it was Karl Marx in his On the Jewish Question. The basic structure of this critique has been voiced by conservatives, liberals etc. What I would argue here is that the vision Straw presents to us – of civil society as a collection of egoistic individuals whose main form of contact is through clashing rights – is one which is constantly reproduced by capitalist society. The whole point is that this can’t really be overcome by simply cementing new political forms over it, since these forms don’t tend to touch the social relations which produce certain forms of social life and since – as Marx notes – politics is conceived only as a means of guaranteeing or affecting one’s private, egostic sphere.

I would further argue in this vein that actually the whole idea of rights-based politics and rights-culture presupposes this state of affairs. This is where Straw really screws up in my view, the idea of rights being ‘commoditised’ (arrrgh!!!!) really seems to miss the point that the very right-form is grounded in the notion of an egoistic, individual man with an inviolable area of space, that is to say that the right-form is bound up with the commodity form:

None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-like itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together it natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.

All of this means that Straw’s solution – reminding people that rights also entail duties towards others – is kind of lame. I mean, he makes a really interesting critique (or at least I read him as doing so) but simply can’t go beyond the right’s based framework. But the point is that unless you go beyond the rights-based framework you can’t possibly transcend the notion of man as a ‘consumer’ as the defining characteristic of life. Inga Markovits traces this quite well in her examination of the differnce between ‘bourgeois’ and ‘socialist’ rights, as she first argues:

As individual entitlements, bourgeois rights confer autonomy in a limited area, which then can be exercised at the discretion of the rightholder. In a way, all bourgeois rights are modelled after property rights: they map out territory, set up fences against prospective intruders, or, to quote Marx, they delineate the elbow room of the individual capitalist.(Socialist vs. Bourgeois Rights: An East-West Comparison; (1978) 45 University of Chicago Law Review 612-636 at 614)

She then fleshes out this conception arguing that it results in a focus on dispute, precision and individualism. This critique dovetails nicely with Marx’s, and seems a hammer in the coffin for Straw’s analysis.

So, ultimately, my real issue with this bit of Straw’s speech was that he tried to present this phenomenon as something ‘new’, whereas it is one which he plagued capitalism since its outset. Further, his proposed solution is uniformly rubbish, and in facts would result in no change whatsover. Though actually this is something Straw seems to love to do. As a lawyer he oftens realises what the law is but then proposes some change to the law which is not a change at all.

Ok, I’ve written way too much, and it’s all got rather rambling, but on the plus side, at least it’s not about RESPECT!



Law by korakious
May 19, 2007, 7:22 pm
Filed under: law, Pashukanis, Rob, Theory

Why law?

In order to stop my fellow vanugardist from constantly heckling me about my laziness and lack of a work-ethic I have decided to make a post. Frankly, I reserve the Right to be Lazy and fear that my comrade is infected with a hideous managerial work ethic. Anyway, this will not be the normal type of post here, as I am not Scottish. I am also far too much of a student for my own good, hence the content of this post.

So basically I am interested in Marxist approaches to the law. More specifically I am not a ‘Marxist looking at the law’ or a ‘lawyer who likes Marxism’ but I make some attempt to do both (although this shouldn’t be mistaken for an attachment to the law – because I’m really not). So in this post here I basically attempt to justify my odd position (although there are certainly a few contemporary Marxist legal theorists), and say why it is we might focus on law.

So the first thing I want to say is that a there hasn’t really been a lot of Marxist work done about law as a specific phenomenon. There have been quite a few works which (of necessity) include law as an element of the social totality, but many of these haven’t really been able to grapple with the specificity of law. So a lot of the time you’ll just hear that law is an ‘expression of the will of the dominant class’ or something, which – although it might have some useful content – tells you nothing about law as a specific phenomenon.

In this respect there is really only one ‘classic’ work of Marxist legal theory – E.B. Pashukanis’ General Theory of Law and Marxism – this is a work which has influenced me quite a lot. So I suppose later on in some posts I will expand upon the some theoretical points (or rather I’ll link or re-post some old stuff) and show how taking an in-depth position on legal theory (bearing in mind there is no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory) actually does serve at least some practical purpose.

So, here I’m just going to outline some reasons why I think it’s interesting and important to have a Marxist account of the law. Basically, I want to move from more abstract questions to concrete questions, although obviously these two factors are intimately related.


Law and Liberalism

Anyone who wants to make any sense of liberalism has to engage with the law. On one level this is obvious. Most of the classical liberals from Hobbes to Locke to Montesquieu to Rousseau all had to explicitly deal with law. In fact in many of these account the law assumes an absolutely central role (Hobbes is someone who really springs to mind in this instance).

The importance of law to liberalism isn’t just a happy accident, it’s a result of the structure of liberal thought and its presuppositions about ‘human nature’. Whilst it’s always difficult to define a political position as amorphous of liberalism one can find certain commonalities of liberalism. Firstly, liberals have a certain theory of human nature – basically this holds that (at the very least) human being have a propensity towards selfishness and individualism. Closely linked to this is the fact that liberalism starts from the‘naturally independent, autonomous’ individual.

From this perspective you come to the central problematic of liberalism (and what I think is the best way to frame this). If you have a group of individual, selfish agents who need to interact in some way how can you fit this together. Since these individuals are meant to be independent, each with their own ‘plan of life’, they can’t be unified by any broad ‘purpose’, or good, or status.

It is at this point that the law becomes useful. Law is therefore seen in a double sense. Firstly, as people like Grotius thought it served as a way of demarcated the autonomous sphere of each individual. It creates a kind of shield of interlocking rights and duties. Secondly, and this is in a more Hobbesian vein, law serves as a non-moral ‘trump’ to individual disputes. This ‘trumping’ function is also how you can ‘coordinate’ the diverse lives of these ‘autonomous individuals’, because it provides a conclusive guide to what happens when individuals come into dispute.

But in a way this begins to seem a little contradictory, law is a device which both coordinates (in its trumping sense) and dissociates (in its ‘demarcating sense’), Pashukanis notes this contradiction, saying (General Theory of Law and Marxism, p.70):

Law is simultaneously a form of external authoritative regulation and a form of subjective private autonomy. The basic and essential characteristic of the former is unconditional obligation and external coercion, while freedom is ensured and recognized within definite boundaries. Law appears both as the basis of social organization and as the means for individuals “to be disassociated, yet integrated in society”. On the one hand, law completely merges with external authority, and on the other it completely opposes every external authority not recognized by it.


Without the law liberalism (ideologically) completely falls apart. It is forced either to revise its central presuppositions about human nature, or reject the autonomy of the individual, or support a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’.

It is not accidental therefore that the radical anti-liberal critiques concentrated to a large extent on the role of law and rights within liberalism. The main example of this is Carl Schmitt, German fascist and utter bastard – yet someone who focused particularly on the intersection of law and liberalism. But there is also Marx’s famous On the Jewish Question, and numerous bits of Lenin.

Now of course, this all remains rather abstract, but I think it does address real concrete problems. Firstly, the intimate connection of law and liberalism might tell us to be slightly wary of raises slogans about the ‘rule of law’, and making paeans to it. Furthermore, we of course live in a broadly ‘liberal’ society, and as such one in which law assumes (at least at first sight) a particularly important role.


Law and Capitalism

Of course, this all seems rather airy fairy (and believe me it will remain so), stuck in the ‘idea’ of liberalism. Yet, as I have argued before, liberalism is a product of capitalism. I’ll briefly go through this connection, and then I’ll explain some other reasons why capitalism and law are deeply interconnected.

The presuppositions of liberal theory begin to make sense when you analyse the historical transition from feudalism to capitalism (bearing in mind this was a long transition). So basically (and this is very sketchy) feudalism involved individuals being placed into static, customary rules. Their ‘rights and duties’, such as they were, arose by reference to their position in the political order.

The basic point is that in the transition to capitalism this status was demolished by the commodity form. Guilds and hereditary castes were broken up; the old system of land tenure (the connection of the peasantry to the land) was destroyed. So what we have here is a situation where individuals increasingly resemble the liberal vision of them. They no longer have any status based connection with their employer/employee, instead it is a relationship based solely on a cash nexus.

But simultaneously with this you have a great drawing together of people. Increasingly, owing to capitalist manufacture people are brought together, disputes inevitably arise, demarcation needs to take place. And here is the relationship between liberalism and capitalism, the problems of liberalism are the problems of capitalism – how do increasingly disconnected individuals, who are nonetheless brought into contact find a way to be ‘dissociated yet integrated’. So, in capitalism, as with liberalism, law plays a central role.

However, and as I will make clear later, the connection between law and capitalism runs deeper than the one described above. The above description shows that law is connected to capitalism because of the ‘solution’ to some of the problems it throws up. However, I (and in fact anyone who follows Pashukanis) think that there is a more structural connection between law and capitalism. This is a topic that is beyond the confines of this (already overlong) introduction. It is something I have written about before and will write about later. However, there are some opening things I would point out.

The most important thing to first note is that central to capitalism is the commodity. The commodity is the ‘unit’ of capitalism, and through the unfolding of its internal structure, and through many mediations you will eventually reach the state of the world today. However, as Marx notes:

It is plain that commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges of their own account. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are also their owners Commodities are things, and therefore without power of resistance against man. If they are wanting in docility he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another, as persons whose will resides in those object, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and part with his own, except by means of an act done by mutual consent. They must therefore, mutually recognise in each other the rights of private proprietors. This juridical relation, which thus expresses itself in a contract, whether such contract be part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills, and is but the reflex of the real economic relation between the two. It is this economic relation that determines the subject-matter comprised in each such juridical act.

In other words, the commodity relationship posits and presupposes the legal one, since in order to exchange a commodity (and a commodity is only characterised by exchange) one must recognise someone else as your equal. This connection is vastly important since it shows the primal connection between law and capitalism. On the level of commodity exchange (and this incidentally is why law pre-dates capitalism) the two are irrevocably and structurally linked.

This is of course central to the arguments of Lenin and Engels on the link between bourgeois ‘equality’ and the commodity form.

With this established one can go on to consider how the law is important to more concrete, everyday situations, which I’ll talk about next time I post. Also, I’ll talk about why I think my philosophical orientation is best.