Sunday, May 24, 2009

One More Fragment on Machines

A new stage in the historical process was suggested by Wedderburn's pamphlet Cast-Iron Parsons, or Hints to the Public and the Legislature, on Political Economy (1820). During a visit to Saint Paul's Church, Shadwell, on the London waterfront, he had asked the parson whether the church was built of brick or stone. "Of neither," came the reply, "but of CAST-IRON." An old apple woman who overheard the conversation added, "Would to God the Pasons were of Cast-Iron too." Wedderburn considered this to be an excellent idea: "Finding that the routine of duty required of the Clergy of the legitimate Church, was so completely mechanical, and that nothing was so much in vogue as the dispensing with human labour by the means of machinery, it struck me that it might one day be possible to substitute a CAST-IRON PARSON." It would be oiled and kept fresh in a closet, to be rolled out on Sundays. In fact, the idea had broader application, as it might also be possible to make a clockwork schoolmaster to teach the sciences. This invention Wedderburn called a "TECHNICATHOLICAUTOMATOPPANTOPPIDON." As a postscript, he suggested making a cast-iron king and cast-iron members of Parliament, and was promptly jailed for his blasphemy. He understood machinery, politicians, and the source of all wealth: "Slaves and unfortunate men have cultivated the earth, adorned it with buildings, and filled it with all kinds of riches. And the wealth that enabled you to set these people to work, ,was got by hook or crook from society.--Pray, was ever a solitary savage found to be rich? No; all riches come from society, I mean the labouring part of it."

From The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (318)

Follow-up and News

Well, Terminator Salvation did, indeed, suck. And that's an understatement. Perhaps, if there were no acting or writing, the film would have been watchable. I mean, Christian Bale is so boring. He puts me in mind of the part of Paradise Lost where Jesus appears, the most uncharismatic and stultifying Jesus ever, whose overbearing seriousness instantly forces you to Satan's party.


In other news, it turns out that Joshua has a radio show--Jane Dark's Cultural Revolution--and it also turns out that I'm going to be on it tomorrow, talking about pirates. I don't think you can download a podcast after the fact (the link is broken) but you can stream it live: Monday the 25th, 5:00 pm. After that, Joshua and I are going to read at the Sacramento Poetry Center.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Marx's Sci-Fi

I'm going to see
Terminator Salvation tonight. With full knowledge the film will likely suck. But I share with many of my friends the hope—irrational, surely—that a film like this will succeed, that it will lay bare all of the operative contradictions of this last horrible decade. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. The first two Terminator films were formative, giving shape to a form of catastrophic thinking I'd already developed on my own. (I’m remembering now that I watched the first one on Laserdisc, in a motel in the tiny highway town of Chemult, Oregon. I must have been ten or eleven, and was visiting my mother and stepfather who lived in middle-of-nowhere woods in southeastern Oregon. My stepfather had built a house for them, a log cabin, essentially single-handedly, but they didn’t have hot water or electricity, and so we’d occasionally drive into town and rent a room—just for the day—to take showers and watch movies. Then we’d go and eat fried clams or roast beef au jus).

I’ve been thinking about the first two Terminator films, which I’m sure I misremember, and wondering, to the extent that they are symptomatic of the Bush and Reagan years, how much they were really concerned with technology, robots and artificial intelligence. Or perhaps it’s only that they were worried about these things in a different way than a film like
The Matrix. In T1 and T2, the imminent robot takeover seems a pretext for a Haraway-esque allegorical recoding of the culture wars of this period: unborn babies threatened by a technological future, single mothers, androgynous women, at-risk kids.

In short, what seems at stake in these films is biological reproduction, the family and gender, where technology (in the form of T1’s “bad” Terminator) threatens to wipe out biological reproduction, or erase the differences between men and women (buff Linda Hamilton in T2). But in T2 the masculinized mother is also super-mom, so maybe what we get is a sort auto-immunological masculinity, not designed to undo the differences the institutions of patriarchy but to preserve them in a new form.

The first two films, then, seem to wonder if bourgeois society still needs the bourgeoisie—its morality, its family structure, its bizarre rituals. The anti-bourgeois bourgeoisie is, of course, coded in the first film as a fascist (read: Austrian, accented) other. But the second film realizes that there can be no simple rejection of these emergent forms—only the good terminator can destroy the bad terminator, only a masculinized mother can preserve the institution of motherhood.

I don’t know what T3 is about. The internet? Yeah, sure, but the film also seems to take seriously the rhetoric of globalization and the end of history. The final scene—with its shot of the empty podium and the Seal of the Office of the President, its regression to an era (the 1960s) when US dominance was assured, wants to think the fact of waning US hegemony.

Not to disparage the themes above—which were relevant then and are still-relevant now—but my irrational hope for
Terminator Salvation is that it will take on the development of capitalist technology in a more direct way. In other words, now that we get to see armies of robots as opposed to one or two robots, I’d like to see a filmic translation of the part of Marx’s Grundrisse called the “Fragment on Machines” (Viking, 690-714). It's one of the most amazing pieces of critical theory ever written, and the points Marx makes there are enormously relevant to the current organization of society.

For Marx, as productive forces develop—as society becomes able to produce more and more stuff with less and less direct labor—large numbers of people become redundant. And yet capitalism has no way of distributing access to this wealth except through the measure of the wage and, implicitly, labor time. As his Hegelian grammar has it:

In machinery, objectified labour materially confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself, not only by appropriating it, but in the real production process itself; the relation of capital as value which appropriates value-creating activity is, in fixed capital existing as machinery, posited at the same time as the relation of the use value of capital to the use value of labour capacity; further, the value objectified in machinery appears as a presupposition against which the value-creating power of the individual labour capacity is an infinitesimal, vanishing magnitude. . .
Workers become “conscious linkages” within a larger automaton, “a mere living accessory of this machinery.” Such a situation effects a profound mystification, not only for perpetually mystified owners of capital, but for workers as well: “The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital. . .”

The paradox of such a situation—the central contradiction of capitalism for Marx—is that poverty and abundance grow simultaneously. The more these productive forces develop the more workers are cast out of the production process. Further, because this development also means, as he demonstrates in his reworking of this argument in Capital Volume 3, a tendency for the profit rate to fall, there is less willingness to ameliorate this growing poverty and dispossession by a redistribution of profits through social entitlement programs. This is what we’ve seen over the last 30 years.
Real wealth manifests itself, rather—and large industry reveals this—in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. . .

On the one side, then, it (capital) calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value. . .

The saving of labour time [is] equal to an increase of free time, i.e. time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts back upon the productive power of labour as itself the greatest productive power. From the standpoint of the direct production process it can be regarded as the production of fixed capital, this fixed capital being man himself. . .
The point here is that the accumulation of capital in the form of machinery is an alienated, objectified form of potential freedom—the full development of the individual—one that is constantly reconverted into alien form. There is some danger in the perspective that Marx lays out in this passage—we shouldn’t go too far in attributing to capital an automatic, self-organizing power. To the extent that the social brain of capital is Skynet, it is a robot horde that, in pushing both the class of capitalists and the working-class to the side, continually relies on them in order to stay in motion. There is no automatic subject without the people who serve and direct it, and such automatism takes place as the class struggle between the two classes trying to direct, control and appropriate the fruits of such a process. But neither class can really completely determine the automaton, as recent events confirm. At the same time, the automaton has no raison d’ĂȘtre except by way of people. If Skynet were to eliminate people it would have no reason to continue, would it? And anyway, the convenience of the time-travel plot device does away with this line of metaphysical speculation. There is no apocalypse. And history has not even begun.

This is a tall order for a film, and I realize I’m mostly using the Terminator series as an opportunity to geek out on Marx. But if Terminator Salvation doesn’t deliver, maybe we should make the action-movie version of the
Grundrisse ourselves?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Two Kinds of Credit

Today it is possible to speak of a credit crisis in the double sense with which one used to speak about the Bush administration's "intelligence failures." For the torrents of real and nominal money that the Obama economic team continues to pour into banks, with the sole intention of propping up equity values and saving stockholders and bondholders from an inevitable day of reckoning, money which has reached consumers and businesses almost not at all, done nothing to stop the plummeting of housing prices, the hemorraghing of jobs, you can fill in the rest yourself--such a plan is only really possible because of the intense, fanatical optimism which his election has produced, and which his diplomatic and charismatic form of eloquent thievery and rhetorically-skillful imperialism maintains by a favorable comparison with the unashamed, plainspoken thuggery of the Bush crew. The trillions of dollars of credit facilities that team Obama has offered to the banking industry--for the sole purpose of maintaining the wealth of the rich and avoiding the dreaded nationalization which will yet still be necessary, next month or next year--: none of this would be possible without the belief, the hope, the faith and optimism which the majority of the American people continue to lend to his administration. The same goes, of course, for his intensification of the war in Afghanistan and its extension into Pakistan; his continuation of the Bush policies with regard to secrecy and extra-legal detention; Homeland Security's continuance of raids and its deportations of immigants; the proposal of a solution to the health care crisis that comes from the medical and insurance industries themselves; a solution to the ecological crisis developed by the energy-industry. None of this would be possible without Obama's return to the graceful, charismatic form of lying that once used to characterize the office of the President: a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on torture, the bob and weave of diplomacy covering the use of military force, a few decisively vague admonitions for Israel designed to imply the opposite of what they say. Obama is, therefore, an instrument, a kind of credit facility, by which the US state can absorb vast torrents of political "capital" in the very same way that the banking industry can suck up economic capital. But just as the interventions in the banking industry do nothing to address the underlying contradictions of the US economy, so too is the face-lift that Obama gives neoliberalism entirely cosmetic. In the same way that our banks are now zombie banks, their avant-garde accounting practices maintained by state guarantees, so too is neoliberalism a zombie neoliberalism, dead but still shuffling forward. Both zombies will die, of course, die again, when the supply of fresh brains runs out. And when they do die, we will most likely find that the libertarian wing of the Republican party, with its naturalistic fantasies of the free market, is better at resolving its differences with the gay-bashing, racist and pro-life wing of said party than the American hard left is at convincing the still starry-eyed and hopeful progressives that they've been pwned.

The World Turned Upside Down

(Office of the Under Secretary)
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW,
Washington, D.C. 20220.

I am Timothy F. Geithner the newly elected secretary of the united
state treasury department, following the series of complains from
Citizens of the United States as well as Citizens of Other Countries
In Europe over the Discrepancies and fraudulent ways in which fund
transfers are handled by Africans which has made it impossible for a
lot of People to claim their Contract or Inheritance or lottery funds from most
African Countries due to frauds and illegal activities, A decision was
reached recently by the United States Treasury Department under the
authority The office of foreign Asset Control(OFAC) at the G-8 summit
in Japan to compel African Union Fund Recovery (AFR) to urgently
release all funds of American and European citizens that are trapped
in most Banks in Africa. It was discovered that some bureaucratic
bottlenecks was put by these Banks to make it impossible for
beneficiaries to claim their funds so that they will fraudulently
divert those funds to their private accounts. After this meeting it
was stated that because of the problems with Bank transfers and so it
was agreed that all Unclaimed Funds should now be paid in Cash to the

Consequent upon the aforementioned, I personally came into this matter
with my vector power as the official secretary of united state
treasury department secretary to ensure that all funds of our Citizens
and others, which are fraudulently being trapped in African Banks, are
urgently retrieved and paid to the actual Beneficiary under a legal
manner. the team of experts were delegated to Africa for this task and
we discovered your File NO: AFR/NG227/59068007/00 with your unclaimed

It was discovered that officials of the Bank has only put up illegal
requirements in order to make it difficult for you to claim your fund.
The United States Department of Treasury has retrieved all Files of
legal transactions and we will be working under a legitimate
arrangement to ensure that you receive them along side with your

Your unclaimed Fund has been directed by the G-8 to be packed in
two trunk boxes and delivered to your destination the Diplomat who
will accompany the funds will not know the contents of the Trunk Boxes
for security reasons so once the Diplomat arrives You will be notified
so that you will go personally to the Airport to claim your

You are requested to Re-confirm the following information to us by e-mail:


Be informed that the above information will only enable us to make due
confirmation and You are also required to get prepared to Clear the
Consignment as soon as the Diplomat arrives your country, with this
medium you will not be subjected to any illegal bills for any
documents from any office and I shall make sure that all the documents
regarding to this transaction is also sent to your residents.

Thank you.

Timothy F. Geithner