My beef with the fetishization of fictitiousness
Source Tom Walker
Date 05/01/14/01:47

I'll just briefly name what I find compelling:

1. the use of Veblen's analysis of business power as
centring on the ability to restrict production

2. emphasis on Marx's section on primitive
accumulation, particularly emphasis on government
finance for war.

3. periodization: show me a time series graph that
goes up and down and up and down and I'll follow you
anywhere. ;-)

and a couple of things that trouble me

4. the rooting of revolution in the "original spark of
free human creativity."

5. the role of "risk" in calculating differential

6. footnote 19: employment as proxy for size.


There's an important context for Veblen, which is that
he raised the issue of business restriction of
production at a time when business propagandists were
strenuously promoting the notion that sabotage by
trade unionists was a prime source of economic
distress (See, e.g.: Geoff Brown, Sabotage; Richard
Price, Masters, unions and men; A.G. Taylor, Labor
Policies of the National Association of Manufacturers;
"The Crisis in British Industry" London Times,
November 18, 1901, page 10.} I would suggest that
Veblen's attention to the issue and subsequent insight
may have been inspired by taking a cold, hard look at
the businessmen's wild claims (pot calls kettle
black). There's also an intriguing spin-off from
Veblen in the theory of value -- basically
capitalization of present value of expected future
revenues -- proposed in the 1930s by Arthur O.
Dahlberg in Jobs, Machines and Capitalism.

Primitive accumulation

Again with regard to Marx and primitive accumulation,
I want to stress context. Marx's analysis of surplus
value was inspired by that developed in the anonymous
1821 pamphlet, "The Source and Remedy of the National
Difficulties." That is, it was inspired by the
author's discussion in the first six pages of the
40-page pamphlet, which could be read as a kind of
utopia "deduced from principles of political economy".
The rest of the pamphlet goes on to explain why that
utopia has never arrived and lays major emphasis on
role of government finance for war. While it's always
possible to read a utopia as "the way things should
be," it is perhaps more prudent to see it as a
heuristic to make the artificiality of reality (its
fictitiousness) stand out more starkly.


I find the cycles of stagflation and mergers
intriguing  both on their own merits and with possible
juxtaposition with my own speculative periodization of
successive "epochs" of formal, real and general
subsumption of labor based on the previously
unpublished "chapter six" of Capital. Are there two
Nitzan-Bichlers to a Kondratieff? (not that it

Sparks of creativity

Although no conservative or radical sociologist may
have seen May 1968 coming, Situationists had already
for more than a decade been modeling practices and
slogans that resonated in the event. Might those
practices and slogans have been more decisive had they
"seen the event coming?" Perhaps. The autonomous
qualities and energies of human kind may certainly be
impossible to quantify, and sometimes extremely
difficult to even fathom. But that doesn't mean they
are patternless. Furthermore, I believe it is
fundamentally mistaken to claim that Marx saw the LTV
as the one basic logic through which both accumulation
and political struggle could be comprehended --
although this may be the view of 'traditional
Marxism'. The whole point of Postone's book is to
challenge that as a misinterpretation of Marx.

Risk v. uncertainty

"Are there uncertainties that are not risks?" was the
question that Daniel Ellsberg asked in his 1961
article on "Risk, ambiguity and the Savage axioms"
(Ellsberg's doctoral dissertation on which the 1961
article was based has recently been published). As you
might have guessed his answer was affirmative. The
implications of this are far reaching in the modeling
of decision-making, especially so if we're talking
about the relationship between state power and

footnote 19

How are breadth & depth not related to labor power if
the equation for differential accumulation depends on
employment as a proxy for size? Footnote 19 states,
"we use employment here to measure the 'size' of the
corporation as a power organization, not a productive
unit. Whether the employees produce plenty or little
is relevant only insofar as the output bears on the
corporation's 'elemental power.'" It's hard for me to
see how an organization would increase its power by
hiring people to do nothing, so there's clearly
something missing from this explanation. During the
'downsizing' craze of the 1990s, stock prices went up
when corporations announced layoffs (implying, I
suppose, a huge jump in "internal depth" from cost
cutting) but B&N argue that the net impact of cost
cutting is to "meet the average rather than beat it."

I forgot to mention unemployment. N&B's discussion of
the importance of unemployment to capitalist power and
capital accumulation is very important. Unemployment
isn't just some regretable but unavoidable side-effect
of economic activity -- it's precisely what makes
"employment" enslaving.

In this connection, I would like to mention Virno's
thesis number 4 that in the current epoch, "every
qualitative difference between labor time and
non-labor time falls short... It could be said that:
unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in
turn, is remunerated unemployment." Although this may
superficially sound like recycled Situationist word
play, it takes on analytical force when we understand
unemployment as undergirding capitalist power.

Or consider the unintentional admission of the
following anti-trade union diatribe from 1901 London

"It was hoped to 'absorb' all the unemployed in course
of time... The motive of this aspiration, however, was
not one of philanthropy pure and simple. When all the
unemployed had been absorbed the workers would have
the employers entirely at their mercy, and would be
able to command such wages and such terms as they
might think fit."

The Sandwichman

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