Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Credit Democracy

(((Not universal healthcare, but universal credit; except when you marry your dream girl and you didn't know her credit was bad; relationship between credit, democracy, and housing, especially housing bubbles; credit is not the way to provide housing.)))

Ross McKibbin in the LRB. Aspects are quite specific to Britain, but some fundamental observations are not.
The second inescapable obligation is the return of housing to its proper function: as providing places to live in rather than to speculate on. The relationship of housing to politics in both Britain and the United States is not fully understood even by those who transformed it. They don’t understand it because that would require confronting awkward facts about Anglo-American democracy. Fundamentally, private housing has become a compensation for the increasingly gross maldistribution of income. Inadequate incomes mean that large numbers of people don’t have access to the style of life that has always been the ultimate justification of neoliberalism and to which, reasonably enough, they now believe they have a right. What does give them access to it (in the short term) is credit. But credit has to be secured, and that’s what housing does. However, it works only if house prices keep rising and people have enough income to repay debt. When prices stop going up and people can no longer repay what they owe, the financial system begins to disintegrate. This is what has happened; and it has happened because we have replaced something like social democracy with credit democracy, or universal access to credit, and credit is a thoroughly inadequate substitute because sooner or later it has to be repaid. Which means that people’s incomes have to be sufficient to repay it, and in many cases they aren’t. What we have put in place is a dynamically destructive cycle. The number of houses is rationed in order to force up prices [this ir related to a specific Tory policy]; people buy houses in order to secure credit on the strength of those prices; this encourages a heady belief in perpetual profit and thus both risky lending and risky borrowing; this renders the banking system unstable; and lending both to individuals and among banks then collapses. Such a cycle involves a paradox. Since these credit democracies still hold elections, governments are forced to underwrite savers at the expense of creditors and stockholders. And if savers are also small shareholders, as many are, the price they pay for protecting their deposits is the devaluation of their shares. This is absolutely not what was originally intended. The rationing of house building has one other consequence: it means that many cannot acquire somewhere adequate to live.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

There Is Only One World

(((Alain Badiou on what it means to be communist today, the necessity for courage, a distillation of a communist "hypothesis" in the form less of a manifesto proper (communism already has one) but maybe a sort of post-manifesto?, communism is not properly speaking utopian (or religious for that matter :-))))

From a Badiou essay mainly about Sarkozy in the New Left Review:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.

‘Communism’ as such denotes only this very general set of intellectual representations. It is what Kant called an Idea, with a regulatory function, rather than a programme. It is foolish to call such communist principles utopian; in the sense that I have defined them here they are intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion. As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state.

Note that "state" is used here in a historically specified sense, but understood this way, communism is surely an essentially contra-statist idea, a reaction to (and against) the state-formation as a mechanism of oppression and repression, which it can hardly not be, to greater or lesser degrees. Of course, communism has become bound up with statism even more than Nazism (an expressly statist ideology), for reasons that require no explanation. The question before is us how to proceed in the world as communists while leaving behind (we might say, negating, in that technical sense of Badiou's) the statist/party politics of the 20th century. That's the challenge, and it is of course both a theoretical and a practical challenge, a universal and a local challenge (how can it possibly be one and not at the same time the other?). So what we set ourselves is not the proverbial ideologue's task (to figure out what is wrong with the world while maintaining our theory), but the goal of rethinking the theory and the practice together. Again, what does it mean to do anything else? What we DO maintain is the idea, the hypothesis, that another world is possible; indeed, that one world is possible.

The (19th-century) movement and the (20th-century) party were specific modes of the communist hypothesis; it is no longer possible to return to them. Instead, after the negative experiences of the ‘socialist’ states and the ambiguous lessons of the Cultural Revolution and May 68, our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode, to help it emerge within new forms of political experience. This is why our work is so complicated, so experimental. We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improving its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable—within the ideological sphere.

What might this involve? Experimentally, we might conceive of finding a point that would stand outside the temporality of the dominant order and what Lacan once called ‘the service of wealth’. Any point, so long as it is in formal opposition to such service, and offers the discipline of a universal truth. One such might be the declaration: ‘There is only one world’. What would this imply? Contemporary capitalism boasts, of course, that it has created a global order; its opponents too speak of ‘alter-globalization’. Essentially, they propose a definition of politics as a practical means of moving from the world as it is to the world as we would wish it to be. But does a single world of human subjects exist? The ‘one world’ of globalization is solely one of things—objects for sale—and monetary signs: the world market as foreseen by Marx. The overwhelming majority of the population have at best restricted access to this world. They are locked out, often literally so.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to signal the advent of the single world of freedom and democracy. Twenty years later, it is clear that the world’s wall has simply shifted: instead of separating East and West it now divides the rich capitalist North from the poor and devastated South. New walls are being constructed all over the world: between Palestinians and Israelis, between Mexico and the United States, between Africa and the Spanish enclaves, between the pleasures of wealth and the desires of the poor, whether they be peasants in villages or urban dwellers in favelas, banlieues, estates, hostels, squats and shantytowns. The price of the supposedly unified world of capital is the brutal division of human existence into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions. The ‘problem of immigration’ is, in reality, the fact that the conditions faced by workers from other countries provide living proof that—in human terms—the ‘unified world’ of globalization is a sham.

We maintain the idea of one world against a contradictory capitalist idea of division deserved and unification deferred. Capitalism, liberalism, insists that it is the best way to achieve the goal of one world, despite all the evidence to the contrary, but also despite a hypothesis that insists that such class divisions as there are, are the fault of the world—lazy people who don't work hard enough or at all, for example, and so do not deserve to live in the upper classes, if they deserve to live at all—and at the very same time the very meting out of justice according to the hypothesis. Extraordinarily, capitalism (usually, I think, by means of economic growth) is both supposed to spread the wealth to everyone and at the same time (by means of its meritocratic logic) to redistribute wealth from the undeserving (the sign of whose moral bankruptcy is their very poverty) to the deserving (the sign of whose moral superiority is their very wealth).

In its compassionate, liberal moments, it recognizes the falsity of that claim, but insists instead that, in Thatcher's words, there is no alternative, or at least no democratic alternative, no alternative compatible with the idea of the individual. But I've run out of the steam right now to respond to that. So go read the essay. Maybe, probably, I will take it up soon. But surely we can understand that the constitution of identity under capitalism is woefully underformed and binds us each to our several worlds, worlds in which our identity is often already constituted for us, but that even when we participate, we do so in the only way we can in a world of competing worlds: we pick a world.

Friday, October 24, 2008

War and Democracy: Always Already Together Again

(((Alain Badiou on what results from democratic materialism's commitment to the proposition that there are only bodies and languages; what else, by the way, is there?)))

Today, natural belief can be summarized in a single statement:

There are only bodies and languages.

This statement is the axiom of our contemporary conviction. I propose to name this conviction democratic materialism. Why? Democratic materialism. The individual fashioned by the contemporary world recognizes the objective existence of bodies alone. [ . . . ]

Moreover, it is essentially a democratic materialism. This is because the contemporary consensus, in recognizing the plurality of languages, presupposes their juridical equality. [ . . . ]

Having said that, democratic materialism acknowledges a global limit to its polymorphous and animalistic tolerance. A language that does not recognize the universal juridical and normative equality of languages does not deserve to benefit from this equality. A language that claims to regulate all the others, to rule over all bodies, will be termed dictatorial and totalitarian. Then it is no longer a matter of tolerance, but of our ‘right to intervention’: legal, international and, if necessary, military intervention. Aggressive actions serve to rectify our universalistic claims, along with our linguistic sectarianism.

Bodies will be made to pay for their excesses of language. That is how a violent Two (the war against terrorism, democracy against dictatorship – at any cost!) sustains the juridical promotion of the multiple. In the final analysis, war, and war alone, makes possible the alignment of languages.

War is the barely hidden materialist essence of democracy.

Democracy has always been at war with terrorism.

And always will be.