Das Kapital

Watch this:

I’ve given myself some homework; maybe some of you want to join in. The goal is to finish Marx’s Capital Volume I (a mere 1k pages) by Christmas, supplementing my effort with a concurrent reading of David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital. This blog may or may not turn into a Marxist free-for-all as I attempt to make sense of this difficult book. If you would like to join in, note that Harvey and I are both using the Ben Fowkes translation published by Penguin Classics. I got both books off Amazon for ~$25, which qualifies you for free shipping — although if you have an *.edu e-mail address, you can currently sign up for a free year of Amazon Prime and get shipped costs waived on everything anyway. Also, note that Harvey has been kind enough to put his entire class on Marx up on the Web as video lectures, but I’m basically ignoring them since his Companion is roughly those lectures in book form. I think I’d definitely like some study partners, so e-mail me if you’d like in on this party.

The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.

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World Film Festival of Bangkok

The 7th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok kicked off a week ago, but for a variety of reasons I’ve only managed to see three movies so far, including two today. The three films have also delivered three odd coincidences, which I’ll detail as we go along. As usual, I’ll use (perhaps with slight editing) the film synopses that the festival organizers wrote themselves.

Home / (trailer)

Country: Switzerland
Director: Ursula Meier
Length: 98 mins.
Rating: A-

Synopsis:
“A family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened only meters away from their isolated house in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to move, Marthe, Michel and their three children find innovative ways to adapt to their new environment. They continue their happy-go-lucky routine despite the daily stress of hundreds of noisy speeding cars. But suspicions about the highway’s unknown long-term dangers cause family tension.”

I’m not sure that synopsis quite captures what a nightmarish film this ends up as. As you might imagine, the bucolic environment is utterly shattered by the sudden intrusion of overwhelming noise pollution. Home essentially chronicles one close-knit family’s descent into insanity as they attempt to cope with, then block out, the deafening highway roar. The breakdowns are varied, but with the inexorable march of automobiles comes each individual’s inexorable march toward madness. Viewers are also taken along this ride, since the noise pollution from the highway contaminates the theater as well (albeit to a lesser extent). Meier does an excellent job transitioning between each of the film’s three sections (normal/loud/quiet, respectively), aided by great cinematography – including two memorable tracking shots. In its depiction of communal isolation, Home reminded me a lot of Dogtooth, also a quiet horror flick. In psychology there’s a concept known as “group polarization” that highlights the radicalizing effects of a group (both peculiar families in these cases). Crazy-pushes-crazy until (as in both films) something finally snaps, creating unpleasant scenarios but fantastic movie-going experiences.

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The Fragile Absolute

I’m currently working my way through Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? Coincidentally, The New Republic just published a scathing critique of Zizek by Adam Kirsch entitled “The Deadly Jester: Why Slavoj Zizek is the Most Despicable Philosopher in the West.” Cute title, huh?

I am not all that far into this book yet, but Zizek has lived up to his reputation so far. I’ve been particularly intrigued by his claim that “the Communist project was… not radical enough.” By which he means that Marx tried to keep the teleology of capitalism — that is, “completely unbridled productivity” — while discarding the framework in which that “mad dance of [the] unconditional spiral of productivity” can only play out. This a priori commitment to the Unlimited finds parallel in what Wendell Berry calls “Faustian economics.” In pure capitalism, there can be no limits because its “eschatology of profit” (Ben Kleis’ words) forces a perpetual quest for More. The insatiable need for more profit fuels the never-ending drive for higher productivity, greater efficiency, and newer markets (“the more profit you make, the more you want”).

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