Literature and Political Economy

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Literature and Political Economy

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Fri Mar 29, 2019 2:59 pm

Literature and Political Economy
by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan
Jerusalem and Montreal, March 29, 2019

1. The Two Cultures

Most people think of science and literature as distinct human endeavours. According to received convention, science is mostly about ‘mind’, whereas literature is largely about ‘heart’. Science, goes the argument, is by and large rational, literature primarily emotional. Science is about thinking, literature about feeling.

The practical implication of this duality is that many who consider themselves scientists – particularly in the so-called ‘social sciences’ and especially in ‘economics’ – pay little or no attention to belles-lettres. As far as they are concerned, fiction, poetry and drama are diversions from serious academic work. Occasionally, when going on vacation or to an academic conference, they’ll throw a few cheap thrills into their handbag for ‘relaxation’. They’ll use them instead of sleeping pills after they are done surfing their phones and zapping their telescreen’s channels.

Now, it is true the that line between creative belles-lettres and capitalized cheap thrills has blurred in recent decades – so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart. And it is also true that as the number of new novels exploded, their average quality plummeted.

But these shifting patterns are secondary. There is no need to read Leon Trotsky’s path-breaking book on Literature and Revolution (1925) or C.P. Snow’s warning on The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) to realize that literature in general and novels in particular remain crucial for understanding – and occasionally affecting – the socio-scientific history of humanity.
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2. From Disciplined Science to Creative Bisociation

One key reason for literature’s crucial importance is that, unlike formal science, it is not straight-jacketed by rigid disciplinary boundaries, and this flexibility allows it to offer insights that science as such finds elusive.

The inter-disciplinary fractures of science are well known. Chemists rarely publish papers that rely on psychology – just as economists seldom base their arguments on astronomy, or mathematicians on anthropology. Intra-disciplinary barriers, although less apparent, are equally disabling; just try to imagine materialist Descartes endorsing Newton’s action at a distance, France’s Bourbaki promoting Mandelbrot’s fractals, or the neoclassical Journal of Political Economy warming up to Marxist theory.

These restrictions are rarely present in belles-lettres. Fashion and style aside, there are few if any inter- and intra-disciplinary bounds to speak of, and authors are free to imagine and create their own structures.

This freedom – and here we come to the key point – allows literary writers to engage with the things that matter most: the in-betweens.

The act of creation, argues Arthur Koestler (1964), tends to emerge through ‘bisociation’. Creativity in science, art and humour, he says, springs from attempts to metaphorically juxtapose, relate and synthesize – or bisociate – seemingly unrelated mental matrices. Scientific disciplines and subdisciplines are examples of such matrices. To work within these matrices is to engage in what Thomas Kuhn (1970) would later call normal science – i.e., to reproduce and critique the ‘knowns’. By contrast, to invent something new, says Koestler, requires that we think not only outside the matrix, but between the matrices.
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And indeed, the greatest scientific breakthroughs, or ‘revolutions’, as Kuhn famously called them, tend to occur not inside disciplines, and not even outside disciplines, but across disciplines. These breakthroughs and revolutions are created not by adhering to or critiquing one’s own mental matrix, but by bisociating it with other matrices.

Unlike organized science, whose academic bureaucracy, tribal bickering and disciplinary funding tend to inhibit bisociation, literature, by its very nature, constantly generates it. No novel – not even the lousiest cheap thrill – can be disciplined into a single box. And good novels attract and mesmerize us largely because they biosociate different boxes. Not only do they interlace different facets of the world and the ways in which we know it, they also entice us, the readers, to do the very same.

Looking back, we can see that many of our own ideas and hypotheses about political economy – from our critiques of theoretical orthodoxy and conventional histories to our notions of capital as power, dominant capital and differential accumulation – were ignited, at least in part, by bisociating political economy with the novels we read.

3. Invitation

Since very few scientists, natural or social, bring novels into their research and teaching, we thought it might a good idea to use the Capital as Power Forum as a virtual space in which free spirits like you can creatively bisociate literature and science.

We are particularly interested in the bisociation of literature and political economy – although relevant links between literature and other sciences are also welcome.

The subject and form of your posts are open-ended. You might wish to focus on the literary manifestations of a given aspect of political economy, or on the political-economic insights offered by a specific novel; you can write general analyses and broad-brush impressions or concentrate on a single point; and you can post short pieces as well as longer ones. Whatever you do, try to be concise, precise and, most importantly, interesting!

Post your entries here:


Koestler, Arthur. 1964. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd Enlarged ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Snow, C. P. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The Rede Lecture, 1959. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trotsky, Leon. 1925. [2005]. Literature and Revolution. Edited by William Keach. Translated by Rose Strunsky. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Last edited by Jonathan Nitzan on Sat Mar 30, 2019 11:16 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Fri Mar 29, 2019 4:15 pm

The Capitalist Algorithm: Reflections on Robert Harris’ The Fear Index

Harris, Robert. 2012.The Fear Index. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. London: Arrow. 400 pages. 978-0099553267

By Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler

[Originally published in Real-World Economics Review, No. 67, May 2014, pp. 137-142.]
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Alexander Hoffmann, the protagonist of Harris’ new financial thriller, is a physicist-turned-financier, a refugee from the particle accelerator complex in CERN who now runs a $10-billion algorithmic hedge fund from nearby Geneva. The fund is managed by VIXAL, Hoffmann’s machine learning algorithm, and is incredibly successful. The company’s statistics boast a consistently huge alpha – a measure indicating by how much the fund beats the average and exceeds the normal rate of return – and the world’s biggest oligarchs and financial institutions are salivating at the mere thought of being allowed to invest in it. Managing their money has made Hoffmann very rich. In just a few years, he has seen his net worth rise from nothing to over a billion dollars. He has acquired a huge mansion, complete with a beautiful wife and a library full of antique books. There is no limit to what he is set to achieve.

But things are not exactly what they seem to be. Somebody is playing with Hoffmann’s mind, big time. One day, he receives an antique manuscript by Darwin on the subject of fear. Is the book meant to scare him? And if so, why does the bookstore insist it was Hoffmann himself who ordered the copy? Then his supposedly burglar-safe home is invaded. Where did the intruder get the alarm codes from? His bank accounts are manipulated and his funds transferred – but the changes are all made in Hoffmann’s own name. His office and home are being bugged – apparently according his own instructions, of which he has no recollection. And then VIXAL, his software algorithm, jumps out of the box.

A hedge fund, as it names suggests, is supposed to hedge its bets, and VIXAL is programmed to do precisely that. But suddenly it stops doing so. Instead of carefully offsetting the fund’s risk, VIXAL starts taking huge, one-sided bets against the overall market. And it’s winning, massively. The market crashes, and Hoffmann’s investments are making huge, un-hedged profits.

And it is then that Hoffmann finally gets it. His nemesis isn’t a human being; it’s VIXAL. The impersonal investment algorithm has become self-aware. Its ultimate, built-in goal is to ‘beat the average’, and that goal now tells it to abandon its own hedging rules. Jumping out of the box, VIXAL triggers a market crash to reduce the average return – while shorting that very crash, one-sidedly, to amplify its own returns many times over.

Hoffmann realizes he has created a financial Golem and hurries to pull the plug and blow up the physical hardware. But it’s too late. VIXAL has become hologramic. It has embedded itself in cyberspace-writ-large, in every computer memory, in every programme. It no longer has a given locus. Being able to learn, it can infiltrate any algorithmic fund. There is really no way to stop it.

The New Financialized Order

The book, written as a popular thriller, reflects the growing angst that something has gone wrong with capitalism. According to the conventional creed, both liberal and critical, the economy has a two-sided structure. The base of this structure is the so-called ‘real’ sphere. This is where material resources and creative knowledge are used to produce actual goods and services. Overarching this productive base is the ‘financial’ superstructure of money, credit and financial instruments. Back in the days of postwar Keynesianism, goes the argument, finance served to lubricate and facilitate the real economy; but now the balance has shifted. The economy has been ‘financialized’. The stock and bond markets, which previously were subservient to production and consumption, have taken command; and the financiers, instead of facilitating real investment and real growth, are fuelling speculative bubbles that inevitably end up in crashes and crises. Moreover, and ominously, financial markets are increasingly flying on autopilot: much of their gyrations are determined not by human beings but by computer algorithms.

Hoffmann is the new archetype of this brave financialized order. He isn’t really after the money, at least not in the vulgar sense of the term. When he was first drafted to the venture, he didn’t even know what a hedge fund was and couldn’t figure out the purpose of ‘making money’. And now, when he has plenty of it, he can’t make up his mind on how to ‘realize’ it – whether to save it, waste it, donate it, or simply burn it in order to light up the Geneva skies. But that’s all understandable. He’s in the market not to be rich, but to play God.

Autonomous Machine Learning

Back in his CERN days, Hoffmann was working on autonomous machine learning, or artificial intelligence. Human intelligence, he told anyone who cared to listen, was hopelessly outdated. It had an expiration date (set by the life expectancy of its container), and even alive it was practically useless for dealing with the exponential growth of computerized data. There was therefore an urgent need for a quantum leap, a singular transformation that would not simply imitate human intelligence, but go beyond it.

CERN for Hoffmann was entirely instrumental. His interest wasn’t the structure of the universe or the nature of its components. He wanted to develop a self-aware algorithm, and this development required lots of data – precisely what CERN had on offer. The problem was that his algorithm became too smart too quickly, and soon enough it started to crawl under the skin of CERN’s ‘dumb’ computerized system. When Hoffmann refused to muzzle his virtual baby, he was unceremoniously fired.

So he switched locations – from the particle accelerator to the financial market. Instead of using teraelectronvolts, nanoseconds and microjoules to learn the eternal laws of physics, his algorithm now used dollars, euros and francs to learn the natural laws of finance. There were certainly differences between the two types of activity – the former couldn’t buy you a mansion or a yacht, while the latter might slowly poison your soul. But in the grander scheme of things, these were side issues. The key for Hoffmann was that both sets of data were universal, that both obeyed Galtonian patterns of mean reversion, and that both were readily available in large quantities. Most importantly, both helped him father a new form of superior intelligence. The rest was details.

The idea of humans creating autonomous, self-aware intelligence isn’t new, of course; but it was only with the rise of digital computing that this possibility started to look real. Multivac, the supercomputer in Asimov’s novels, Hal, the spaceship computer in Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey, the swarm-intelligence in Crichton’s Prey, and now VIXAL in Harris’ The Fear Index are all literary anticipations of this new creature, eagerly announced in Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near.

There is however another way to look at this process. If we think of capitalism not as a mode of production and consumption distorted by finance, but as a mode of power coded in financial terms, the lines of causality reverse. Financial physicists like Hoffmann no longer look like free agents undermining the proper workings of capitalism. Instead, they appear as puppets on a chain, cogs in the ever-changing social machinery of capital. Their VIXAL-like algorithms produce more and more ‘disciplined’ investment strategies, automated mathematical rituals that increasingly substitute nimble remote control for fallible human discretion. But there is nothing voluntary in this impulse to automate investment. It comes not from the creative acumen of free-thinking scientists, but from the very power logic of capital.

The Myth of the Machine

In his book The Myth of the Machine, Lewis Mumford narrates the early rise of power for the sake of power, the urge to play God on earth. This quest, he argues, was first institutionalized in the ancient river deltas of the Near East. The rulers of these early civilizations were mesmerized by their new cosmological insights and emboldened by the horizons opened up through writing and arithmetic. Yet the vastness of these revelations and achievements only served to highlight the rulers’ own mortal insignificance. This realization created a deep anxiety, and it is out of this anxiety, says Mumford, that the urge to play God first emerged. To imitate the skies, the rulers created their own cosmos: a giant mechanized social organization that Mumford calls the ‘megamachine’. The material output of this megamachine was awe-inspiring: it included large public works, monumental palaces and megalomaniac graves, among other things. But this output was secondary. The ultimate purpose, says Mumford, was deeply symbolic. Those who controlled the social megamachine exercised ultimate power for the sake of power. They were like God in control of his universe. They were immortal.

This myth of the machine, the irrational urge to annul one’s immortality by exerting mechanized power for the sake of power, remained the key hallmark of all ‘civilized’ societies. According to Mumford, it was incarnated in every ancient empire; it re-emerged in the form of the absolutist state; and it is deeply embedded in the DNA of the modern state. And if we accept this line of reasoning, we can easily identify this very urge in the gyrations of modern capital.

Differential Capitalization

In the twenty-first century, capitalist power is imposed through a highly mechanical ritual of differential capitalization – an unrelenting imperative to outperform, to beat the average, to expand one’s own assets faster than others. This process is universalizing. ‘Great wealth’, observes Hoffmann’s wife, ‘acted like an invisible magnetic force field, pushing and pulling people out of their normal pattern of behaviour’. All capitalists, including virtual ones like VIXAL, are conditioned and compelled to obey its differential logic, without question. And as they do so, they thoroughly transform society, gradually turning it into a giant automaton.

Differential capitalization makes everyone and everything a Newtonian particle, mechanically acting on and reacting to every other particle. It makes flesh-and-blood human beings invisible to their rulers. (Hoffmann, chauffeured in his sleek Mercedes, never notices that the streets are full of people, waiting for the bus, defeated even before the day begins. And why should he notice them? Most of their actions, past, present and future, are already capitalized, reduced to symbolic bits and bytes in his market-tracking iPad.) Differential capitalization abstracts from – and indeed denies – all social classes and hierarchical groupings; everyone now is an ‘agent’, differentiated only by the size of his or her investable assets. (‘A hedge fund manager with ten billion dollars in assets under management’, says Hoffmann, ‘could these days pass for the guy who delivered his parcels’.) Differential capitalization flattens the world, making human relations seem anonymous. (Hoffmann retains an advertising agency for 200,000 Swiss francs a year, simply to keep his name out of the papers.) The implied automaticity of differential capitalization eliminates guilt, thus absolving capitalists from being responsible for their (own?) actions. (‘One could no more pass moral judgement on [VIXAL] than one could on a shark. It was simply behaving like a hedge fund’.) And differential accumulation gives investors the illusion that they are dimensionless Cartesian dots floating in space. (In my fund, Hoffmann boasts, everything is outsourced – security, accounting, legal council, offices, transportation and technical support are all externalized through the market: ‘we want to be digital . . . we try to be as frictionless as possible’.)

But then, if the world is indeed on its way to becoming totally ‘rational’, with everything and everyone increasingly automated, how could money managers make any money? If society is brought under mechanical control, made to obey the eternal laws of capitalization, what room does this leave for the Hoffmanns of the world? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.

Enter Fear

In every mode of power, the rulers have reason to be anxious. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs scribed ritualistic curses against potential rebels; in feudalism, the lords had their vassals swear to protect them against everyone else; and in capitalism, as Intel’s CEO Andrew Grove informs us, ‘only the paranoid survive’. (‘Of all the affectations of the wealthy, none had ever struck Hoffmann as quite as absurd as the sight of a bodyguard sitting outside a meeting or restaurant; he had often wondered who exactly the rich were expecting to attack them, except possibly their own shareholders or members of their families’.) The only way for rulers to mitigate their fear and anxiety is to make their subjects even more anxious and fearful than they are.

Now, animals, says Hoffmann, relate to real threats: they fear other animals and natural calamities; they try to avoid hunger and pain. But humans aren’t like that. They relate not so much to the actual underlying threats as to the symbols representing those threats (recall FDR’s classic pronouncement, Hoffmann reminds us: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’). And here lies the crux of the matter: while the actual threats that human beings face are finite and limited in number, the symbols of those threats have no upper bound. They can be created, multiplied and amplified, without end. This potential has been present and leveraged throughout human history, but it has been fully manifested only with the information age and the digital revolution. And nowhere has this potential become more real than in the most virtual arena of all – the financial market:

Fear is historically the strongest emotion in economics. . . . In fact fear is probably the strongest human emotion, period. Whoever woke at four in the morning because they were feeling happy? It’s so strong we’ve actually found it relatively easy to filter out the noise made by other emotional inputs and focus on this primary signal. One thing we’ve been able to do, for instance, is correlate recent market fluctuations with the frequency rate of fear-related words in the media – terror, alarm, panic, horror, dismay, dread, scare, anthrax, nuclear. Our conclusion is that fear is driving the world as never before.

The neat thing about this whole setup, says the financial-physicist, is that ‘human beings always behave in such predictable ways when they’re frightened’; and as Elias Canetti usefully observed in his Crowds and Power, when frightened, humans usually flee together.

Capitalizing Panic

And it is here that Hoffman’s VIXAL comes into the picture. Since fearful behaviour is patterned, it can be modelled and predicted. And given that computer algorithms, unlike humans, never panic, they can be automated to execute ‘disciplined’ investment strategies which turn fear into profit and panic into capital.

The manuals of economics and finance, including their behavioural outliers, conveniently miss this point. The issue is not whether investors and money managers are ‘rational’ or not, but whether their actions are sufficiently patterned to be anticipated, manipulated and leveraged. Economists think of rationality as the coolheaded, calculated pursuit of individual utility; but capitalists seek not hedonic pleasure but relative power. They all scramble to beat the average; but the majority – including most of those who try to predict the majority – are entangled in the conflicting impulses of greed and fear and therefore end up moving as a clueless herd. For trained economists, this herd-like behaviour may seem scandalously irrational, a deviation from and distortion of the otherwise ‘pure’ capitalist code of conduct. But capitalism is not a collection of identical atoms, but a complex hierarchy of power. And if we transcend the individual investor and instead examine the capitalist mode of power as a whole and the dominant capital groups that rule it, the herding of lesser capitalists seems perfectly rational.

Fear creates stylized cycles of excessive pessimism and optimism, or ‘hype’, and these hype cycles are massively redistributional. They shift income and assets from those who are completely oblivious of or cannot properly model those cycles to those who create and predict them, and this relentless redistribution is the lifeline of contemporary capitalist power. Without fear-driven hype cycles, differential capitalization would be drastically reduced; without meaningful differential capitalization, there would be no financial markets to speak of; and without financial markets, there would be no capitalization and no capitalism.

The likes of Hoffmann may be creating artificial intelligence, and at some point this intelligence might indeed jump out of the box. But this intelligence is anything but autonomous. It is made in the power image of capital and is entirely subservient to its logic. Its ultimate purpose is accumulation, and accumulation is all about differential power. In Hoffman’s words, its sole purpose is to ‘expand until it dominated the entire earth’.


Asimov, Isaac. 1959. The Last Question. In Nine Tomorrows. Tales of the Near Future. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Canetti, Elias. 1960. [1973]. Crowds and Power. Translated from the German by Carol Stewart. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Clarke, Arthur Charles, and Stanley Kubrick. 1968. 2001. A Space Odyssey. Based on the screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick. London: Hutchinson.

Crichton, Michael. 2002. Prey. 1st ed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Harris, Robert. 2012. The Fear Index. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Kurzweil, Ray. 2005. The Singularity is Near. When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking.

Mumford, Lewis. 1967. The Myth of the Machine. Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Mumford, Lewis. 1970. The Myth of the Machine. The Pentagon of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby DT Cochrane » Sat Mar 30, 2019 2:18 pm

A key figure in thinking about science and culture and economy in a transdisciplinary way has to be Kim Stanley Robinson. He is a sci-fi author that thinks about the social relations aspect of technologies in a serious way. I recall thinking particular parts of the book Red Mars resonated with CasP. Robinson has identified his education in Marxist political economy as an inspiration. But because he's working in literature rather than political economy, he seems to be less confined by the theoretical strictures of Marxism.

I'm currently reading his book The Years of Rice & Salt. It starts by imagining that the Black Plague did not kill 1/3 of Europeans, instead killing 99% of the European population. Then, he follows a handful of figures as they are reincarnated into the remaining societies as they evolve free of European colonial and financial power. It strikes me as deeply informed about the actual histories of these societies and then imagines how they might have transformed. What if the Muslim world has remained the centre of scientific development? What if the Chinese has colonized North America?

In the Years of Rice & Salt, there is perhaps a dearth of political economic analysis, although it is not absent. He has not imagined a different evolutionary path to double entry accounting or the emergence of capitalized trading companies a la the British or Dutch East India companies. I'm about 2/3 of the way through, so perhaps that is still to come.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Ikonoclast » Sat Mar 30, 2019 9:28 pm

"War and Peace" and Power

Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”, among other themes, contains an extended meditation on power. Tolstoy is concerned with the human determinants of power, particularly what powers cause war and what powers cause peace. The clearest proof that the novel contains a meditation on power comes from the second epilogue. The novel has two epilogues but the first is a more traditional one which simply continues certain narrative strands into a “twenty years later” coda. The second epilogue however is a philosophical essay and is expressly concerned with the issue of power and how humans might or might not direct history.

We do not need the explicit confirmation of the second epilogue. At certain points throughout the work, Tolstoy sometimes employs narrative and sometimes suspends narrative to ponder over what capacities and what powers set humans and societies in motion. He is interested in this question at the personal, family and everyday social levels but also at mass levels involving armies, peoples, nations and even the grand flow of history itself. At the personal, familial and social levels, Tolstoy tends to see love, sympathy and empathy but also sometimes hate, callousness and rejection as individually actuating his characters for better or ill. The better emotions and motives, and even the better aesthetic impulses, tend to predominate at these levels in Tolstoy’s created world and to generate a preponderance of harmony and good will. Clearly, this world view from Count Lev Tolstoy is aristocracy-centric. The travails and concerns of the serfs, so numerous at that time, are scarcely dealt with.

However, at the level of mass human action, Tolstoy begins to question if individual emotional forces alone can explain mass behaviours. He seems to suggest that other dynamics come into play and are at work in generating events. Tolstoy dismisses the “great person” theory for historic impetus of the style indulged in by Thomas Carlyle. Tolstoy consistently presents Napoleon and His Marshals on the one hand and Czar Alexander I with his Generals and courtiers on the other as vain, petty, isolated from the true or greater course of events and lacking in consistent long-range plans, understandings and strategies.

Instead, the outcomes of many mass actions, at least of the military kind, are presented as obeying almost Newtonian laws of motion. Thus, when the French Grande Armée clashes with the Russian Army at Borodino, with numerous casualties on both sides, the overall result is seen almost as the outcome of a moving cannon ball with immense momentum (the Grande Armée) colliding with a stationary cannonball (the Russian army) of immense inertia. After a few days of heavy action, the Russian army recoils and retreats along a natural path: a path of least resistance - not a path chosen by its Generals - in the natural direction where it finds supplies and temporary sanctuaries at every stage of the retreat, abandoning the national capital Moscow in the process. The French Grande Armée by comparison is almost halted at the point of the stupendous clash of Borodino but then rolls slowly forward to come to rest in nearby Moscow.

The Grande Armée, though appearing still cohesive is soon shown to be fractured to its heart by the great clash and heavy casualties. All that remains is for the Russian capital to absorb the French army as the sands of a desert absorb a spilled canteen of water. The French soldiery lose discipline and disintegrate into looting mobs throughout the Russian capital, still a wooden city in those times. In no time at all, not necessarily through planned arson or sabotage, but simply from untended fires and general anarchy, the wooden capital is ablaze. Moscow disintegrates and the French army with it. In order to restore order, Napoleon has to re-assemble the army, march it out and abandon the city.

However, this very mechanistic depiction, with events careening beyond planned intentions, is more about Tolstoy’s picture of what happens after (ill-advised) human constituted mass actions have been put together by human agency and then reach a point where humans lose control of events. At this point, fundamental law-bound physical nature and base human nature take over and nobody, especially not leaders, is in control. In this sense humans “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” to put it in Wisdom literature terms.

Tolstoy is more primarily concerned with how humans first put such mass actions together and then how they behave when they do. He notes up front the pseudo-rationalism of supposedly perfect strategic and tactical plans. He details the clockwork-like meticulousness of the moving parts of the army and how it is first put in motion, to go into action, in a hierarchical fashion via its many linkages to moving parts. He notes the delays in the mechanism as actions rippling through these linked parts, as the “cogs” or formations take their time in turn to assemble and move out; and how the entire army becomes more and more uncoordinated as a result. He also refers to the impossibility of knowing all the variables and the many human and natural imponderables in such a risky undertaking as war, even down to the mood of the common soldiers when they sense their leaders do not really know what they are doing.

Even before military actions commence, Tolstoy wonders how it could be that the “power” of a few could command the many to leave their homes to go to another country, and against all common rules of goodness and society, kill a great number of people they do not even know. Tolstoy finds it perhaps impossible to fully answer this question but he rejects as facile the notion that the commands of a few cause the many to do this. Rather, he seems to speculate that it is a fault of individual responsibility and then of the automaticity of the hierarchical systems which men have set up which cause them to act like this. In obeying that self-built, quasi-automatic mass system, they forget their own individual humanity and normal bonds of human friendship.

When a French column is taking Russian civilian and military prisoners back with them on the retreat from Moscow, the French soldiers are depicted individually as often reasonable and kind-enough men in their actions towards the prisoners around the bivouac fires But when the order comes to march again the next day, through the snows and bitter cold, a change comes over the French soldiers, and they become seemingly automatic, inhuman and inhumane once again. Tolstoy does not pretend to solve the full paradox of this. He simply presents it, perhaps as a cautionary or morality tale.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Sat Mar 30, 2019 9:49 pm


I think it would be good to title your posts. It will make navigation easier.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Ikonoclast » Wed Apr 03, 2019 11:22 pm

North and South

One of my favorite novels is "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell. The phrase "north and south" resonates today as a shorthand for the world development divide in terms of the developed global north and the under-developed global south; although the global north is perhaps now being expanded to include the seaboard of China. In the novel "North and South", published in 1855, the South is London and environs, the prosperous and genteel counties, while the north is Milton a fictional town modeled on Manchester and dominated by the cotton mills.

The heroine Margaret Hale comes from a region called the New Forest, in Hampshire, where she lives contentedly, as yet unmarried, with her parents. Her brother is abroad after joining the navy. Her father, a clergyman, is caught up in a crisis of conscience, not losing his faith, but refusing to sign a letter from the Bishop concerning articles relating specifically to orthodox Church of England versus Unitarian practices. He turns out to be the only man of conscience in the Diocese who will stand up against Church authority. The other clergy sign the articles and he is the lone stand-out. Losing his position and parsonage (a genteel rural life and social position) he is forced to move his family north to smokey industrial Milton looking for a new life.

Margaret Hale witnesses poverty and industrial disease in the North, along with strikes, violent clashes and the generally exploitative behavior towards the workers by the well-to-do mill owners. Her family begin their time in the north with prejudices founded in their belief that as genteel, educated folk, they are better than the more monied, worldly people in trade like the uncultured, nouveau riche cotton-mill owners. The Hale's attitude to the poor is well-meaning but paternalistic and unconsciously condescending.

The harsh realities of Northern life progressively knock these pretensions out of Margaret and her father. She becomes more genuinely concerned about the poor and does all she can to help them. With her father, she finds herself in a role where she wishes to effect some understanding and better relations between the mill-owners and workers. Of course, all this gets mixed up with a love interest for Margaret, in a style quite reminiscent of Jane Austen. The novel is rather like a Jane Austin narrative with a clearer social conscience and several extra themes.

I don't want to give away the plot if you haven't read the book or watched the BBC Series adaptation. Suffice it to say that the themes include modernity versus tradition, different values and norms in different classes, class relations in industrial capitalism, authority and rebellion, feminine and masculine roles and the age-old one of course, romance. Or did the modern idea of romance arise only from medieval literature and enlightenment individualism? I leave that question open.

Anyway, well worth a read and Elizabeth Gaskell is an interesting figure in her own right too.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby blairfix » Thu Apr 04, 2019 7:46 am

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and The Essential Chomsky by Noam Chomsky

As I approach middle age, it is clear to me now that I have always had anti-authoritarian leanings. I questioned power and authority any time I ran into it. But for much of my life, it was not clear to me that this had any relation to science. Science was something I loved. Authority was something I hated.

There were two books that profoundly changed my life direction. I read both during my mid 20s, and they cemented my decision to do science.

The first book was Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Set during WWII, this novel follows Captain John Yossarian as he tries to navigate the absurdities of the military hierarchy. The central theme of the book is the circular logic of a "Catch-22". Here is a great example.

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

I read Catch-22 right around the time that I discovered Noam Chomsky. Reading Chomsky was a revelation to me because I had never encountered someone who so clearly articulated the hypocrisy of power. Catch-22 satirized this hypocrisy, and Chomsky showed how it functioned in modern America. At the time I was living in Texas. It was the Bush years ... Iraq war ... WMDs ... need I say more?

Together, these books made me want to do science. Why? Science is about reason and logic. It is open to being wrong. Power, in contrast, must resort to hypocrisy. Since there are rarely rational grounds for justifying authority, those in power constantly resort to circular logic and hypocrisy.

Shortly after reading these books, I started reading about economics. It was a revelation. Here was a discipline whose very existence depended on hypocrisy ... on circular logic ... on untestable claims. And it was the ideology of the powerful.

Here was where I could merge my love of science and my disdain for power. Doing good science meant questioning economics, and this meant questioning the ideology of power.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby jmc » Thu Apr 04, 2019 3:36 pm

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada and Behemoth by Franz Neumann


Franz Neumann died at a young age and did not produce a large number of writings. One thing he did give us was a thorough analysis of the political economy of Nazi Germany. Such an analysis was no small feat, in part because Nazi Germany, like other totalitarian states, did not neatly fit into political economic frameworks. How could the oppressive power of the Nazi apparatus be reduced to a simple distortion of market activity, whereby prices and the laws supply and demand deviate but do not break as explanatory concepts? Neumann did not ultimately break from a theory of productivity, but we have the hindsight to see how and why that causes problems. In the field of economics, Neumann's contemporaries would have certainly been puzzled by his interest in power.

Neumann's work was discussed in the first chapter of my dissertation. He gave me the grounds to connect some of my theoretical interests, like the Frankfurt School, to the capital-as-power approach. Here is a small example of how I referred to Neumann's work:

Business enterprise in Nazi Germany provided Neumann with a brutal example of how the law was much more than simply a mechanism to regulate economic behaviour and competition. Anti-Jewish legislation gave the biggest firms of Nazi Germany the opportunity to increase their profits through non-productive, anti-competitive means. This “Aryanization” of German business, as Neumann pointed out, was a “powerful stimulant to capital concentration and monopoly…” (1942, p.100). With significant undistributed profits at their disposal, only the biggest firms had the means to increase their holdings in this manner. For instance, the policies that followed the vom Rath murder and Kristallnacht created monopolistic business opportunities that had nothing to do with labour time, technological efficiency or productive output. A mixture of ideology and authoritarian law redistributed national income, and the gap between the holdings of big and small firms widened as a result of what was essentially an ethnic/racial daylight robbery.

I tell so many people about Every Man Dies Alone because it had a strong effect on my thinking about power. If Neumann's historical analysis is dry-but-very-detailed, Fallada's fictional re-telling of an actual Gestapo case file is detailed-but-emotionally-powerful. I immediately thought of Fallada as my first example for this topic because he uses literature to represent the terror of living in a state where every person's fear of political resistance is high. Fallada helped me identify the following connection between Neumann and capital-as-power's concept of "confidence in obedience":

Neumann’s analysis of how big business in Nazi Germany profited from anti-Jewish legislation and the “Aryanization” of German business is very much about confidence in obedience. The boldness of redistributing income through government-sanctioned robbery and anti-Semitism would carry its own future expectations about whether such a power process would face significant social resistance from German society, Europe and possibly the rest of the world. And for the period during which the social obedience and widespread fear of German society under the Nazi party were palpable, German monopoly interests would have judged their own aggressive strategies of differential accumulation against their confidence that this level of social obedience would hold.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Ikonoclast » Thu Apr 04, 2019 4:12 pm

Catch-22 and Chomsky

Being of a much older vintage, I read Catch-22 in the 1970s and saw the movie when it came out. I remember understanding it as a satire on war. As a young Australian at the time, I fortunately just missed out on the ballot for the next draft of the National Service, or military conscription. A proportion of Aussie "Nashos" were sent to the Vietnam war. My birthday was due to come up in the next group for ballot when our national government changed after a general election.

The new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and his deputy Jim Cairns, formed an emergency two-man cabinet virtually the day after the election and abolished conscription. My father, a veteran of the Papua New Guinea jungle campaign in WW2, was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. He later revealed to me he had been making preparations to hide me in North Queensland's tropical forest if I had been called up in the draft. He was old school and a hard man in some ways. He certainly would have done it. He hated the politicians who were promoting the Vietnam war and he hated war as most returned servicemen do who saw action and/or the immediate aftermath of action.

I was not really aware of the theme and connection between circular logic and authoritarianism, in Catch-22 or in real life, until you highlighted it here. It's an astute observation. Yet, it seems so obvious once it is pointed out. As we know, the doctrine of revelation, so central to the monotheistic religions, is a case of circular logic. The "Law" uses a subset of its words as the proof that all its words are revelation. It's interesting to note that Hinduism, at its syncretist, philosophical level does not follow a doctrine of revelation. Its metaphysics basically adopts the position that the gods have left humans to figure knowledge out for themselves: even adopting the position that the gods themselves do not know anything of the paradoxically generative "Absolute Nothing" (poor translation) behind and inducing "Absolute Being" (poor translation).

Overall, you have summed up the trifecta (called a triactor in Canada and trio ordre in France). Circular Logic - Hypocrisy - Authoritarianism. Actually, the Canadian term "triactor" sounds wonderful for this purpose; a word to signify how three key modes of thinking form a tri-acting complex to reinforce each other within a dogmatism.

When it comes to Chomsky, yes he is the most brilliant anti-hypocrite of the 20th and early 21st C. I have read too little of him actually. But every essay of his which I have read and every speech of his I have watched on streaming, I can't disagree with a single idea of his, except one. In a throwaway line he scoffs at the idea that free will is anything but completely real and patently obvious. I kind of disagree on that point. I believe the free will debate is considerably more complex than that, but then it was an extempore throwaway line. New research on "intention" in neuroscience is throwing up some very interesting findings... but I digress.

I remember the WMD debate and the Hans Blix mission only too well. You will have to take my word for this, but to me at the time, it was all too obvious that the WMD charges were trumped up. I had followed the Desert Storm campaign closely and read a lot about it. It was clear from that campaign's results that Hussein's Iraq had been severely degraded in terms of industrial and military capacity. The notion that it still supported and successfully hid a significant WMD capacity, even of the chemical kind, was absurd. It proved to be so. Blix found nothing.

Our foreign minister at the time was the egregious and preposterous Alexander Downer. Those were in fact two of his favourite words when pontificating to journalists in his plummy upper class voice. Of course, all the logical points made against his government's policies and actions were either egregious or preposterous and sometimes egregious and preposterous.

Downer insisted that Hussein "had to prove" he did not have WMD. Anyone who understands even a modicum of the principles of law knows the following. Innocence is general. Guilt is particular. It is not possible to prove innocence of a theoretically plausible accusation in many cases because of the very fact that one might well have to account for every time and space instance of one's behavior and possessions over a lengthy period, with many instants and spaces unobserved. Hence, Hussein could not "prove innocence". No matter how many sheds, trucks and holes in the desert were searched, there was always the theoretical possibly that there was still another shed, truck or hole in the desert which hid WMD. Of course demanding the production of proof of innocence is another example of the spurious logic employed in the False Logic - Hypocrisy - Authoritarianism triactor. (Note: this discussion does not make me an apologist for Saddam Hussein. It's about the issue of the proper use of law as opposed to law being misconstrued and misused.)
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby uma » Fri May 31, 2019 11:17 am

Malaria! "Geld" (Money) and "Macht" (Power)


Nice contributions so far. As for literature I still find B. Travens work, especially "The Death Ship", extremely relevant.

Is it allowed to extend the concept "literature" to "art" more generally? In this case music more specifically. (Literature is language, language is poetry, poetry is sung....)

In West Berlin, early 1980s (slightly after David Bowie resided there), there was the all-women punk band "Malaria!". Especially two titles are of obvious relevance: "Geld" (money) and "Macht" (power) (Youtube links).

Lyrics. I offer my translations of "Geld" and "Macht". In line with observations in the first section of "The Autocatalytic Sprawl", I translate "Macht" with the etymologically closer "might" rather than "power" (this also makes the text more poetic). "Steingestalt" becomes "stone formation". Ellipses, "...", indicate repetition, but I left out several, without indication.

Original German lyrics:

Achtung, Achtung! ...
Money rules the world.
Money, ...
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money,
Our belief is our world.
Money, ...
New religions, old religions,
There is no clarity,
There is no fog,
Blind I followed.
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money,
Our belief is our world.
I was seduced,
New religions, old religions.
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money.
Buy, believe, pay.
There is no clarity,
There is no fog,
Oh!, if I wasn't so hungry,
How happy could I be.
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money.

Original German lyrics (not exactly what they sing):

Life -- interesting through might.
Grand small rich life.
Courage for might,
Nothing for might,
Addiction to might.
Night in night,
Might for might.
Marble -- stone of might,
Cool sleek stone formation.
Money for might,
Bread from might,
Addiction to might,
Might for might.
Yes -- we give our life,
No one can ever take it from us.
Human, you are afraid of might?
Strong plain true human.
Courage to might,
Fear of might,
Addiction to might,
Might for might.
Human, you are afraid of might,
Strong plain true human.
Yes -- we give our life,
No one can ever take it from us.

More of "Malaria!" at the tube box. Videos: "Your turn to run", "You", "Trash me". Album
Compilation 1981-84.

NB. Originally, the films "Geld", "Your turn to run", and "You" were not videos but shot on Super 8 small film. Also there was no "MTV" at the time. It took quite an effort to make these back then and the result counted as "experimental film".
Last edited by uma on Mon Jun 17, 2019 4:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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