Out Like a Lamb: Day 16: Pink, Blue, Black, and Red

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As we draw close to the end of Out Like a Lamb, my thoughts turn to some more urgent and serious matters. I am talking, of course, about revolutionary left politics. By its nature, these politics have a universal scope within my life. I would be a fundamentally different person without my commitment to revolutionary politics.

Despite how obscure and general that sounds, I want to make sure that I communicate exactly how immediate these politics are. Ultimately, as arcane and contested anti-capitalist politics can appear, they emerge from the most elemental parts of life. This post will address where my revolutionary politics intersect with trans and queer issues, so it won’t cover anything. But, well, we have to start somewhere.

At its most basic level, communism is about removing every barrier between people and the resources they need to thrive. Capitalism is one system that acts as a barrier, since it bars people from accessing the goods they need if they don’t fit a very narrow profile of a “productive citizen.” It drains all the joy from work since it coerces people into jobs. It also treats people as mere factors in a machine, as a means to an end. States, as guarantors of private property and the locus of violence and conformity, enable capitalism to function while also disciplining those who are deemed, for any reason, socially undesirable. Whatever rights people have under a state are conditional and subject to being revoked at any time the state finds convenient. Fundamentally, people should be really enabled to make their own choices, to associate with whomever they choose, and to make collective decisions about issues they are concerned with.

This is why commitments to autonomy/anarchy and communism are mutually beneficial to each other. This is especially true, I think, for me as a trans and queer person. Under the current Canadian capitalist state, my right to express the way I want to, to do the work I want to without fear of exclusion and personal injury, are all at the mercy of the state. Political parties use us as a tool to gain leverage over people and to promote imperialist politics (save the gays by invading x country!) and promote tourism (especially in my home city).

Ultimately, trans people under capitalism are at the whims of doctors and a profit-gouging pharmaceutical industry who, again, don’t see us as fully human but rather as means to an end. Consumer products for trans people specifically are often expensive or inaccessible, and if they were made accessible under the current system they would continue to be used to forge a false trans “community.” In this case, it would be a community of consumers. But our worth as people, as ecological, physical beings in relation to each other, is not in our usefulness to one person or another but rather is intrinsic to us, just as it is for all other living things.

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Cover of a great zine  I can recommend heartily about this issue.

Revolution does not imply the ultimate resolution of all these problems, but rather a commitment in a particular direction. It is a method of looking at the world and a means to realize a more desirable, better world. It is necessary, unfortunately, because reforms are always recaptured by the system, as necessary as they might be. We can’t just get by surviving on scraps that other people give us forever. If trans people want to see a world where we can have a more fulfilling and less anxious life, with much less possibility of losing all of our gains, social and political revolution are what we need. Revolution is food, it’s hormones, it’s clothing we enjoy and want, its a beginning to healing rifts in our communities, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s creating a more healthful way for human beings to act within nature.

These are the ifs and needs that animate me when I think about revolution. Capitalism is a major support for transphobia, underwriting the sense that we are unnatural, that we cannot form “real” families, that we are useless to society, a “drain.” It’s far from the only barrier to our self-liberation as individuals and groups, but it forms the basic logic within which other oppressions weave and strike. Without capital, with our own autonomy, it becomes possible to build the worlds of solidarity and happiness we imagine.

Next three posts will be:

March 28: A post about femme things! Femme is a curious form of identifying yourself, and, I would say, not all that well understood. Bit of a history lesson before moving onto my own personal business.

March 29: About body image issues and ways that I try to sculpt the way I look for other people.

March 30: About my body itself, its permeability, the way I inhabit my environment, all that good stuff.

Akira Narusawa: “The Social Order of Modern Japan”

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Capitalism is first and foremost a mode of production, the division of society into an exploiting capitalist class whose existence is predicated on extracting surplus value from the proletariat. This mode of production, however, also generates social relations and ways of life that support its existence and help to produce people who are primed to either exploit or be exploited.

Akira Narusawa’s “The Social Order of Modern Japan” is a helpful exploration of the forms of life and regulation that suit capitalism in a particular place and time. Its focus is on the genesis of modern Japanese life during the period of the Meiji Restoration, roughly from the 1870s to just before the turn of the century. It explores the way that capitalism dissolves ways of living while imposing its own highly regimented systems to manage time, space, and the human body itself. Narusawa’s piece is a schematic look at how capitalism restructured Japanese society in the nineteenth century, forging a new social order that was in many ways unique while retaining some general features of capitalist social relations.

But why would the bourgeois ruling class care about time, space, and the motion of human bodies? This question feels somewhat obvious when we remember that capitalism is a dynamic system of production, distribution, and consumption that requires certain conditions to function. Namely, goods need to circulate, factories need to produce, armies need to manoeuvre, and people’s minds and bodies have to be conditioned for proletarian labour. Nature provides the vast resources that capitalists need to transform into capital, but capitalism’s demands on time, space, and people’s bodies are in many ways antithetical to traditional and natural patterns of growth and development. As a result, the state and social institutions are taken by the ruling class as weapons of persuasion and coercion, forcibly and painfully bringing the world of their dreams into being. This desperate need for favourable conditions colours the capitalist regulation of time and space. And in Japan, where there were outside pressures from the West to adapt to capitalist ways as soon as possible, there was a particularly acute need for this kind of social (re)construction.

To return to Narusawa’s piece, we see that methods of timekeeping in pre-Meiji Japan were largely tied to the cyclical rhythm of the moon and sun. Temple bells played some role in determining the workdays of servants and state officials, but the largely agrarian population’s entire life was oriented around these natural cycles. In 1872, the Meiji state replaced the old lunar calendar with a solar one, launching an assault not only on traditional conceptions of time but also on superstitious beliefs perceived to be insufficiently “modern.” Sunrise and sunset no longer determined the beginning and end of the workday, and this work discipline was increasingly enabled by the spread of artificial light.¹ Of course, capitalists could extract more surplus value from their workers if the working day could be lengthened past the boundaries of nighttime. Further, the state strengthened its hold over everyday life by creating a system of nationwide holidays that glorified the emperor-family system.

Capitalists use the technology afforded by science to destroy boundaries, but not for the sake of humanity per se but rather for their own enrichment at the expense of the people as a whole. We see another example of this in the realm of space: the abolition of restrictions on movement of goods and people across domain borders. At the same time it abolishes these barriers, it installs the spatial tyranny of landownership and private property anew, for example forbidding farmers from going up to the mountains behind their property:

“This, of course, presents a familiar view of the opening up o space by the modernization process, but there were…people subjected to new restraints on their movement…Such changes clearly established private possession of space and demarcated land borders. These people [farmers and other workers] were of no concern to the enlighteners.”²

In general, the Japanese ruling class encouraged the creation of “good order,” creating spaces that were meant to be functional and neat. Stipulations around neatness and orderliness were of course strong in military discipline but derivative rules were imposed in schools and factories. One of the contradictory aspects of capitalist schemes for rule, however, was that this concern for tidiness and bright, clean space only prevailed in the privileged central areas and did not apply to “undesirable” locations and people, who were more or less completely neglected. In reference to workers’ dormitories, Narusawa notes, “many of these facilities were extremely poor; there was a danger of fires and other disasters, hygienic conditions were bad, and many factories lacked even the space necessary to regulate the workers’ daily lives.”³ While certain parts of the population could participate in the aesthetic experience of modern cleanliness and order, people who were shunted to the side or considered as little more than organic machine parts were excluded from these aesthetic considerations.

Indeed, the entire spatial organization of capitalism in general is laid out in the book:

“The dirtiness swept out of the centre accumulated on the periphery,  but for order to sustain itself it was not sufficient just to remove the disorder to the outside. It had to be isolated and controlled there in order to prevent the invasion of the centre by this major disturber of order.”⁴

Here Narusawa is describing literal filth and unclean objects/spaces like cemeteries and places for the imprisonment mentally ill. Yet, one could talk about the capitalist treatment of the unemployed or homeless, the imperialist subjugation and military policing of peripheral states, the systems of isolation for refugees, exports of entropy like computer waste to countries like the Philippines, etc.

This ordering extended even to the body in Meiji Japan, as students and army troops alike participated in drills and physical exercises designed to regulate bodily movement and eventually inculcate a “correct” state of mind, one pliable to the needs of the capitalist state and mode of production. Laws forbidding nudity came on the books, which had never been illegal in previous periods of Japanese history. Every living and dead body was mapped onto a grid, intensively inspected for hygiene, encouraged to adopt Western diets, and bodily regulations as detailed as the position of the testicles inside one’s trousers were drafted, though how seriously any individual rule was taken must have varied. And of course a body of official experts arose to be the arbiters of all these new systems.

I’ve more or less summarized the content of the article and expanded on its meaning according to my own perspective. For example, although Narusawa’s perception is acute and his critical eye for matters of everyday life is useful, he actually neglects to mention capitalism much at all in the article. What we’re left with is an article that presents these facets of social order as emerging from pre-Meiji society and coalescing into modernity without any centre of gravity. It holds “modernity” responsible, rather than the productive/social engine that produced modernity for its own convenience and development. He tends to describe these social orders as products of “mass society” where large groups of people need to be coordinated, but neglects to mention, except in the case of the military, for what purpose people need to be coordinated and schematized. It’s an excellent article with a significant theoretical blind spot. Still, it produces some powerful insights into the fundamental sickness of this order in which Japanese people still live:

“Modern society…gives rise to excessive order. The more we process the nature we perceive as ‘disorder’ to make an artificial, ‘orderly’ order, the broader becomes the gap between nature and humans, and humans unconsciously or even gladly shut themselves into an artificial time and space.”⁵

Notes:

  1. Akira Narusawa, “The Social Order of Modern Japan,” in The Political Economy of Japanese Society, ed. Junji Banno (Oxford University Press, 1997), page 202.
  2. Ibid, 215.
  3. Ibid, 217.
  4. Ibid, 214.
  5. Ibid, 236.

Book Review: A Political History of Japanese Capitalism

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A Political History of Japanese Capitalism is truly rare book: a Marxist history of modern Japan written in English. Though its author, Jon Halliday, later repented his left leanings and coauthored the execrable Mao: The Unknown Story, I’m happy to report that this book, published by Monthly Review Press in 1974, stands as one of the best encapsulations and analyses of its subject out there. Although a large number of Japanese Marxists have published and engaged in debates around Japanese history, these debates and works have almost never made their way into English except in the case of pure political economy. Halliday’s book, though it’s decades old, makes a compelling historical argument and sidesteps the Japan-bashing/mystification binary that plagues Western writing about Japan.

Halliday begins the book with a chapter-length study of the Meiji Restoration and its lengthy state-building and development projects. The author correctly notes that the birth of Japanese capitalism was unusual, as Japan was a late entrant and an Asian country and was nonetheless able produce its own autonomous national capitalism and to launch its own imperial project. Indeed, for a country as resource-poor as Japan, the latter was an indispensable condition for the former. Growing from the dissolving influence of the mercantile money economy and set into motion by the arrival of Western powers at Japan’s doorstep, Japanese capitalism underwent a crash development both politically and economically. The Meiji facilitated the repression of class dissent, the installation of an imperial “family state” distinguished by paternalistic ideology, and began a policy of expansionism and intervention in China and the wide region.

One crucial part of the story that Halliday tells is the reason why Japan did not simply slip into one or another European sphere of influence. His answer is found in his construction of a dialectic of internal and external causes. Japan was not conquered because its people were unusually literate and its political leadership astute and intimidating. Compared to China, as well, Japan did not present as alluring a target, and was able to wriggle its way out of the unequal treaties by the early 20th century. Indeed, China’s story is in many ways inextricable with Japan’s in this respect. The Opium War absorbed crucial British military resources and saved Japan from the threat of invasion. The Americans were on the advance across the Pacific but were burdened by the Civil War and Reconstruction. In other words, Halliday argues, Japan escaped both as a matter of internal strength and due to a mass of historical contingencies that were not repeated anywhere else.

Though starting the book “at the beginning,” i.e. with the Meiji, is a commonsensical way to go since it’s the earliest period and history books tend to have narrative-temporal structures, there might be some room for criticism in this regard. One of the important tasks of the historian is not to just recount but to transform and critique received understandings of the field they’re working in. In that respect, Halliday is somewhat deficient. He takes commonplace notions like “Japan” more or less readymade and starts off straight away telling his story. He actually begins rather promisingly:

“Japanese capitalism has been the prodigy of the age of imperialism, the only outsider and late starter to join the leaders of world imperialism.”¹

Before telling the history of a particular subject, the historian should clarify the terms under which they are doing so. I consider it good practice to define the objects and terrains one is working with in any investigation. So Halliday begins with a definition of Japanese capitalism as a prodigy, as a late starter and outsider. But Halliday simply assumes a certain definition of Japan and of capitalism, and decides that it began with the Meiji. Yet this is itself a contestable assumption, and Halliday proves as much by beginning his discussion of the Meiji not with the Meiji but with the later Tokugawa period, providing background information for his background information.

It may have actually been better to elaborate much more on the (then) present-day state of Japan and its political and economic peculiarities, giving the reader a strong grasp of the nature of the Japanese bureaucratic “Family State” and the position of Japanese capitalism in the world and in the country. He does provide this information, but at the end of the book. While this method of presentation is traditional and has certain helpful traits, it also makes it appear as though the key to understanding the present is to look back and simply trace our way through the past. But if one does so without a correct understanding of the present situation, one’s analysis of the past will be distorted. I don’t think that Halliday’s history is especially distorted, but I think that as historians our methods of presentation should assist the reader as much as possible in seeing that the present is the key to reading the past, rather than the other way around.²

After all those words, though, this is a minor complaint. To get to my conclusion more quickly, I’ll highlight some of Halliday’s best interventions, some of which remain relevant even now. His discussion of the definition of Japanese military government, which he declines to call “Fascist,” gives a window into a debate that should be had about the interwar and wartime Japanese state and exactly how much it shared ideologically with European fascism. In his final chapters, he discusses the weaknesses of the Japanese economy, which he predicted would stumble if it stopped growing, due to the extremely debt-ridden and credit-dependent state of core Japanese industries. He also highlights the oft-mentioned Japanese subcontracting system, characterized by colossal trusts at the top dominating countless small family businesses to maximize labour market flexibility (without endangering the “lifetime employment” guarantee for regular male workers) and cushion themselves against economic shocks. All of these individual sections are buttressed by the others, as the historical materialist framework links the political and economic discussions in a useful and informative fashion.

Finally, I think his most valuable contribution to a Japanese historiography is that he sees essential continuity between the Meiji state, the Showa state, and the post-occupation state. While each era of Japanese capitalism generated and adjusted new forms of state rule, the basic components of that state––bureaucratic control, imperial ideology, paternalism, weak legislature, imperialism, etc.––were unaffected. The American occupation essentially reestablished, with a few minor tweaks, the prewar state system, albeit with the crucial difference that the military took on a much reduced role. And yet corruption, one-party rule, and reckless developmentalism drove forward without missing a step. His analysis clarifies why parties traditionally classified as left––the JSP and the JCP––are both the most persnickety and conservative when it comes to interpreting the Japanese constitution, whose awkward, stilted words still tend to outstrip the reality of Japanese politics in terms of progress.

Because of these outstanding contributions, I can safely say that Political History is one of the best works on modern Japanese history I’ve read in some time. English-language works challenging the Orientalist tendency to ascribe quasi-mystical or spiritual characteristics to Japan are vital correctives. That this particular book uses the power of historical materialist analysis to present a comprehensive look at the character of the Japanese state and its evolution over time––that’s a bonus. It’s unfortunate that Halliday turned out the way he did, or we might be able to learn from a similar book about the post 1975 era, which ended up confirming the fragility of Japanese capitalism and showcased the onward march of rightist nationalism in the country right up to today.

Notes:

  1. Jon Halliday, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 3.
  2. For example, the fevered writing about the Japanese miracle and its mythical business practices in the 1980s took a particular mystified view of contemporary Japan and projected that impression back into the past, finding all sorts of cultural/religious justifications. Nationalists, of course, implicitly hold a certain organic and patriotic view of the country and find their own justifications for by reading forwards through history. Because history is a politically contested field, it’s valuable for radical historians to define their terms theoretically before engaging in the discussion of the past proper. Gabriel Kuhn does an excellent job of this in his book on pirates that I reviewed. It doesn’t eat up much space, but it lets the reader know what a particular author means when using certain contested words and, more valuably, alerts the reader to the existence of historical debate and lack of closure. Two for one!

Confronting the Violence of Capital: Summary of Historical Materialism Toronto

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Last weekend I attended the last two days of the Historical Materialism conference in Toronto, in the process gathering pages of notes I wanted to systematize in some way. With that established, I give you a four-part ode to the academic left. We launch books, we talk in echo-box classrooms, we line up for pizza like everyone else, and we pray the revolution won’t interrupt our careers. Let’s take it away.

Part 1: Book Launches

Among the conference panels I attended three were book launches. A book launch is basically a kick-off event for a block of paper that functions both as marketing and a chance for prospective readers to get conversational with the author. A panel of scholars mediate the event, all giving presentations on one or another aspect of the book they want to highlight. Normally, this also connects to their own research and generally includes both praise for the book in question and maybe some light criticism. After the presentations, questions are answered and––ideally––everyone leaves convinced to buy the book and tell their academic friends about it. A virtuous cycle, if you will.

My first panel was a peek at Paul Kellogg’s Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy after Left Nationalism. In short, the book is a slash-and-burn critique of nationalist tendencies in the study of the Canadian state and economy. Put briefly, the left nationalist tendency sees Canada as a satellite in the American orbit, a dependent raw materials producer that is underdeveloped by the dominance of American imperial power. While there was at one time a high concentration of American ownership of Canadian capital, even this empirical case for the nationalist side has collapsed since the 1980s. The importance of the book is, according to the panelists, that it decimates left nationalist arguments and firmly identifies Canada as an independent capitalist and imperialist country. That certainly accounts for the profligate destruction wrought by our mineral extraction industries throughout the world, not to mention Canada’s strategic location within NATO and its military interventions.

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Keywords for Radicals was my second book launch, a rather eclectic panel for a very eclectic book. Drawing its name and inspiration from a much older Raymond Williams book, Keywords is a work of definition and debate, collecting over 50 essays on different words that cause friction within the radical left. Additionally, the hope was to map out the conflicts over words in a way that they could be an index of broader social contradictions, particularly within the left but in general society as well. Each panelist spoke on their own word, including “war,” “experience,” “space,” “history,” and “populism.” When I get around to reading the entire book, I’ll have more fleshed-out responses on some of these entries, but I would like to single out Bryan Palmer’s presentation on “history.” Given that this was not a historical conference and most of the audience members were probably not historians, I can understand why his presentation felt incomplete and surface-level to me. It was pitched at a general radical audience, not necessarily someone invested in academic arcana about historical agency, subjectivity, and heritage, etc. It’s certainly vital to point out, as he did, that history might be about the past but is always written for the present and pointing towards the future, but he left me wanting more. Then again, that might just be effective marketing.

The final book launch was for an English translation of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya’s Selected Works, which includes his vital writings on the Turkish national question and his criticism of the pro-nationalist Kemalist left in Turkey. As this book could be better dealt with in a later section, I will leave this section with the note that both Kaypakkaya and Kellogg’s writing excoriated a left trapped by nationalist projects. While it’s important to recognize the liberating potential of certain nationalist movements, a lacking or blundering critical investigation can leave an entire radical group beached on shores they don’t belong on. Or else liquidated by reactionaries.

Part 2: Canadian State and Labour Movements

Speaking of Canadian nationalism, one of the core tenets of the 20th century postwar vision of Canada is the idea of peacekeeping and “good governance.” Canada projects good PR for capitalism, despite its history of repressing and jailing members of radical and labour movements and generally just strolling along as an ordinary capitalist state. Part of its aura, of course, comes from its proximity to the United States, which makes the more northerly country appear like less of a disaster area.

As for the panel, the most notable presentation was on the revolutionary stagey of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in the years between the world wars. From its early beginnings advocating immediate insurrection to what the presenter described as “militant economism” and finally to the ignominy of the popular front in the late 1930s. What distinguished the presentation was its historicization of revolutionary strategy in a large communist party, acknowledging internal struggles within the organization and its evolution over time, both in relation to its own social context and the international space of the Comintern. It lays the foundation for a more thorough theorization of the mistakes and successes of the CPC in its glory days––back when it was worth paying attention to––and might allow the left within so-called Canada to adapt its strategies in light of these theories.

The other two presentations can be seen as a pair, discussing a recent Supreme Court decision in Canada to enshrine the strike as a right and the history of labour defence leagues, respectively. Both talked about the same broad topic: the incorporation of the labour movement into the “normal procedures” of the capitalist state and the associated decline in labour militancy and will to fight. Given that the current labour movement poses no threat whatsoever to the Canadian state, and in fact often acts as an enabler for it, it appears unlikely that a militant break could occur in the foreseeable future.

Part 3: Ibrahim Kaypakkaya and the Kurdish Question

Two panels I attended covered the issue of the Middle East and its relationship to American imperialism, Turkey, and Kurdish liberation struggles. One of these was a panel proper while the other was the aforementioned book launch for Kaypakkaya’s Selected Works. They bled right into each other temporally and thematically, so I wanted to discuss them together.

The panel on the Middle East had one paper condemning Western left praise and support for Islamist movements. A simplistic focus on the groups’ supposed opposition to American imperialism, the presenter argued, leads to an uncritical stance on groups that are often reactionary to the core and a corresponding neglect of people’s democracy movements working in those countries. One incident he cited was Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at a commemoration of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which addressed the 1953 coup and Britain’s complicity in it but of course neglected the immense suffering the theocrats have caused in their own country.

Two other panels focused on the Kurdish struggles in Turkey and Syria (Bakur and Rojava), with one analyzing the opposition of the PKK’s libertarian visions of the Middle East and the “dystopian” views of the fascist ISIS organization and Western imperialists. It further discussed the fact that the Kurds pose the main obstacle to Turkish state’s nationalistic aspirations. The second, meanwhile, focused on women’s civil defence units in Turkish Kurdistan, trying to protect Kurdish communities from Turkish military violence, sexual and otherwise. She highlighted the PKK’s strong emphasis on gender relations and women’s liberation within its base areas, all the while dealing with a war situation. Both presentations were illuminating but limited, for me, by my own lack of knowledge of the history of the Kurdish situation and its ramifications in Syria and Turkey today.

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Ibrahim Kaypakkaya

One way I might bulk up my knowledge of that area, however, would be through reading the Selected Works of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya. Kaypakkaya is a core figure in the history of Turkish Marxism, being one of the core members and founders of the Turkish Communist Party/Marxist Leninist (TKP/ML) and a leading theorist on the national question, semi-feudalism in Turkey, and the relationship between the Kurdish movement and the wider socialist project in Turkish state territory. The presenters and moderator on the panel did an excellent job of explaining Kaypakkaya’s importance and the timeliness of the book’s (long-delayed) release in an English translation, however flawed that translation might be. Given that Marxist work on the national question tends to be straitjacketed by Stalin’s dusty (if still relevant) articulation of nation and its relationship to the broader popular movement, I hope this book can make an impact worthy of its author.

Part 4: Conclusion

I shrink from making grand pronouncements on the “State of the Left.” My youth and inexperience are not the only reasons; I simply think that self-flagellation or self-glorification miss the point of what these conferences and similar gatherings are about. They’re about sharing knowledge, connecting with one another, and challenging each others’ failings. In many ways, we’re mired in a fog of war, a myopia that restricts us from seeing past our own local situations and understanding what solutions are needed for the broader quest for liberation. What I learned at HM Toronto was more of a confirmation than a new insight: academic work, particularly if not organically linked to peoples’ struggles, cannot overcome its inherent limitations. Put simply, even Marxist academics are restricted by publishing constraints, respectability, alienation from proletarian struggles, and career obligations. Nevertheless, I left HM Toronto more informed and more focused, and I’m confident that conferences like this are necessary if only for the indirect benefits they might have on academics who are also participating in live social movements and political projects.

Book Review: The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence

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“The tide of golf courses, ski resorts, and marinas that now rises over the land is striking for its irrelevance to the needs and problems of local communities, many of whom now see the whole process as a contemporary form of the enclosure movement, in which public land, forests, mountains, and beaches are enclosed by private interests for corporate profit. While corporate Japan thrives, they say, the people suffer. Hence the recently coined slogan: fukoku hinmin (Enrich the country, impoverish the people). It is a phrase that points to the poverty at the heart of affluence.”

McCormack’s book, the very volume we are looking at today, turns 20 years old this year. Despite being removed from us by two decades, Japan’s problems have only deepened and expanded. Economic stagnation, environmental disasters, a bloated construction industry, stagnant and alienated politics, and a troubled relationship to nearby nations in East and Southeast Asia are all relevant issues in Japan today. Specifics might differ, but one could easily draw depressing comparisons between the bureaucratic mishandling of the Kobe Earthquake addressed in McCormack’s book with the recent 3/11 disaster. Or the abortive social democratic governments of the 1990s and the recent and ephemeral DPJ ascendancy. What helps McCormack’s book remain relevant even today is that it is not merely alerting its audience about specific symptomatic problems but addresses some of the core structures of the Japanese state and society that condition these issues.

Specifically, McCormack formulates his analysis of Japanese malaise into an analysis of Japanese political economy, problems of Japanese identity, and war guilt. He covers the metastasizing construction state and its key role in the proliferation of massive corruption in the Japanese state throughout the last several decades. He diagnoses severe problems with GATT rationalization of Japanese agriculture and the opening of rice markets––one sign of a maturing neoliberal consensus even among Japanese elites who have coveted the rural vote since the end of WWII. And so on. The list of maladies would stagger a general practitioner.

His mode of presentation varies little between the chapters. First, he presents the case for a particular issue, lists off empirical evidence, and gathers some Japanese and Western analysis of the question. Finally, he laments the extent of the problem and notes some possible openings for alternative solutions. For the chemically addicted, degraded rural Japan, he recommends re-ruralization and a more traditional approach to agriculture that takes advantage of the islands’ natural productivity. Golf courses have to go, in other words. In the chapter that touches the most on my own work, the one about “New Asianism” in Japan and the country’s relations with its neighoburs, he argues that, given what he calls the end of 500 years of European global hegemony, Japan can strive for “a role as mediator, assisting the birth of a truly global civilization rather than participating in sterile…confrontations between civilizations.” In his more prescriptive moments, he often resorts to such vagaries, content to catalogue Japan’s ills while offering strong if nebulous remedies.

Of course, there’s no sense in trying to offer packaged solutions to such complex issues, especially given McCormack’s status as a non-Japanese person, one who is able to participate to some degree in discourse about the country in its native language but who is also embedded in the Western academy rather than ordinary life in Japan. Given its English-speaking audience, it’s likely that the book was largely read by those in a similar position. These are people who are neither exactly spectators nor instrumental in any project to produce alternative politics in Japan. Given that, I actually admire its willingness to merely outline and present existent, possible avenues of reform and change present within Japan. I also admire the book’s preference for an internal analysis of Japan’s problems rather than an external ones. It does not, in other words, simplistically replicate complaints about how Tokyo policy might be “directed from Washington,” and treats Japan both as an autonomous entity as well as a member of an international community with particular historical responsibilities. Best to simply state known truths rather than preach on what one does not know.

Though the nature of a single book is limiting and McCormack’s range of topics quite broad (necessitating a merely schematic analysis of each subject), I would recommend The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence as a survey look at Japan at a particular historical moment. It’s well-argued and bold where it needs to be and restrained elsewhere, shedding needless speculation or the use of rhetoric to mask ignorance. Though I would have appreciated fewer nostrums about peace, love, and democracy in the ending, I get the sense of McCormack as a person who truly feels a passionate interest and love of the Japanese people rather than just a cold observer. His arresting indictment of the Japanese state and the degradation of human life under capitalism ––and, indirectly the entire imperial order in which Japan is lodged––carries the book more than far enough.

Book Review: The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy by Minqi Li

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Most of the rhetoric around the rise of China in the West is either pure demagoguery calling Chinese workers job thieves or the intertwining discourses about China’s inevitable world takeover or inevitable decline. As Li points out in the second paragraph of his book, The Rise of China is more about “the ‘demise of the capitalist world economy’ than ‘the rise of China.'”¹ Drawing primarily on Marxist economic thought and world systems theorists like Wallerstein and Arrighi, Li’s book explores the implications of China’s rise on the capitalist world economy as a whole. As for his conclusions in that regard, he tips his hand from the title onward: the prospects for global capitalism in the twenty-first century are not good, and the rise of China represents only one of the insurmountable obstacles he sees in its future.

To establish why China poses such an existential threat to the smooth operation of the global capitalist system, Li first has to properly grasp the internal reasons for China’s rapid ascent since 1989. Unlike most authors on this issue, Li pins the primary reasons for China’s succeeding where most peripheral Third World countries have failed on the achievements of the Mao era. From 1949-1976, the Communists oversaw the industrialization of the country, rapid advances in health care, education, and standards of living, and the creation of a powerful  nation-state capable of imposing its will on economic activity.

Revolutionary China was quite successful at accumulating capital  in isolation from the world market, protected from the distorting influences of being relegated to a reserve of cheap labour and resource extraction––well, at least until the reform era––and able to develop a strong and independent industrial base. He certainly offers a left critique of the Chinese party-state during this time, noting the creation of a new bourgeois technocratic class and the failure of the Cultural Revolution in dissipating the threat they posed. He also criticizes the Great Leap Forward for being an overambitious failure of policy while refuting claims (à la Jung Chang and Halliday) that it was some human-engineered act of madness or “the largest famine in history.” In Li’s estimation, though China’s communists succeeded in creating a modern state and establishing general social welfare and capital accumulation, they failed in the intense class struggles that developed after the revolution despite the Cultural Revolution––and, in many cases, because of the mismanagement of the CR itself.

He then engages in an analysis of the class system of China after the Deng Xiaoping reforms and in particular in the wake of privatization and liberalization in the 1990s. He concludes that, despite all the fuss over the rise of China’s entrepreneurial and middle classes, the most dramatic shift in China’s demographics has been the decline in the rural peasantry and the rise of an increasingly organized and dense industrial proletariat. Given the history of labour movements, he concludes that this means the Chinese working class will grow more and more conscious and active within China, able to challenge capital for at least a larger share of the immense wealth accumulated in the country each year.

Still, that material is only background for the true purpose of the book, which is to explain why the capitalist world system will be unable to accommodate a China that demands even middle-country status. For Li, it’s all about population, as China “has a labor force that is larger than the total labor force in all of the core states.”² China’s sheer size and the number of proletarian workers there who are currently agitating more and more for greater wages and higher living standards means that the global economic system will struggle to accommodate these demands in its current form. Given the environmental limits on the amount of energy use and capital accumulation that exist, Li argues, there is a hard limit on capital’s ability to expand geographically to cover up its weaknesses. Given only one Earth, he concludes, the rise of China (and India) will mean the inevitable collapse of the current capitalist system, though its replacement by a socialist/communist world system is far from inevitable.

Though the book ends on something of a grim note––and makes some potentially Malthusian comments about the inevitability of a collapse in the human population that could be taken badly out of context––Li, as a Marxist, does not simply concede global society to oblivion. He does, however, believe that capitalism will end, for good or bad, by around the middle of this coming century. His work is both a timely warning and a call to action for those who want to found a human society free of want, and accomplishes all the above while being readable and quite brief. I would eventually like to see a fuller elaboration of his theses––and Robert Biel has produced something more systematic in this vein––but Rise of China has an undeniable relevance to our current moment and a reminder of the inevitability of change, demanding that we take charge of its direction.

Notes:

  1. Minqi Li, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), ix.
  2. Ibid, 109.

Scattered Thoughts on Japan and China’s Hedgehog Dilemma

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I understand China and Japan’s current and recent relationship to be one of acute tension caused by an attraction-antagonism dynamic. Both countries are increasingly interdependent in the economic sphere, but this has not resulted in the amelioration of historical grievances or current tensions because capitalist competition for resources and markets increases antagonism. There are numerous forces at play here, and I wanted to write a short post outlining some of my own ideas for how the history of East Asia has played out in the last few decades, culminating in the post-crisis history we are currently attempting to understand.

Factor 1: Japanese Investment in China

As key manufacturing industries in Japan faced problems accumulating capital with a (relatively) high-paid domestic workforce and increasingly subject to international competition because of neoliberal reforms haphazardly implemented since the 1980s, it began to export more and more capital to China. The result is that many Japanese cars, electronics, etc. are manufactured in China, which has done nothing to alleviate social and economic stagnation in the home country but has allowed individual corporations to survive. Recent Chinese protests against Japan (in 2012 most recently) often focused on the destruction of Japanese-branded commodities and the shaming of Chinese people who bought them.

Factor 2: Nationalism as the governing ideology of both countries

Since the Deng Xiaoping reforms, socialism has been displaced as the dominant party ideology in China by GDP-obsessed nationalism. Though the state was ambivalent about popular protests against Japan, it allowed them to proceed as long as they didn’t target national policies. This indicates that the PRC and the ruling CPC relies on nationalism as unifying ideology while fearing popular radicalization. In particular, a popular nationalism that endangered China’s hard-fought membership in the capitalist world system would spell trouble for the ruling class if it became widespread.

In Japan, meanwhile, PM Shinzo Abe is chipping away at the pacifist Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. Popular opposition is rising, but the Japanese state has been pivoting towards a renewed Japanese nationalism and assertiveness in foreign relations. It’s building its military capabilities and loosening the bonds on where and when it can intervene. It’s probably the case that Japanese and Chinese nationalisms feed off of their own antagonism, with nationalists in each country making different historical and political cases for the strengthening of their own nation vis-a-vis the other. Capitalist competition, nominally an economic matter, is thus to a degree overdetermined by its political connotations as the two nations try to open new markets for their goods and compete for influence in the Global South, especially SE Asia and Africa. Similar competitive dynamics contributed, lest we forget, to the outbreak of WWI.

Chinese and Japanese nationalism are not directly comparable, of course. Japanese nationalism, emerging in the Meiji era, traces its own heritage back to the military state of WWII and pre-war imperialism. Chinese nationalism has its own roots in national liberation struggles, though in the current context its progressive content is much more ambiguous and contested.

Factor 3: Rise of an Urban Consumer Class in China

One of the most intriguing parts of the recent protests against Japan in China is that it focused heavily on Japanese imports. The friction that sparked the protests involved territorial and resource disputes in the South China Sea, but the preferred objects for Chinese protest were the ones most readily associated with Japan: commodities. The content of these protests was thus shaped by Japanese commodities and their availability to a certain class of Chinese person. Reports on these protest movements focus on two pieces: discussions of the issues on online forums and their urban character. Nationalist protests against Japan broke out not only in places like Xi’an, which are weapons manufacturing centres, but also in industrial cities like Shenzhen, where many Japanese firms have industrial operations. It’s likely that China’s middle class has been at least partly shaped by the availability of Japanese consumer goods, and the working class by building those goods. But the fact that potential boycotts were advocated online and that sales for Japanese cars dropped significantly after the protest movement broke out shows there was at least a large section of protestors who are relatively prosperous. This has potential implications for how to analyze the class character of Chinese nationalism and its adherents since the 1980s.

***

We can conclude that the dynamics of capitalist competition, capital export and exploitation of lower-wage workers in China, and the entrenchment of nationalist politics in both countries indicate that the new economic closeness between Japan and China will not necessarily be amicable. Discovering how this situation came to be requires a historical investigation into the relations between the two countries against the backdrop of neoliberal globalization and the increasing regionalization of East Asia after 1990 (in the ideological sphere, see Japanese Asianism after the Cold War ended). The possibility of antagonism, either directly or through proxies, cannot be neglected.

Roger Horowitz: Putting Meat on the American Table

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In their relationship to the working class, capitalists long ago learned that they can make a lot of money out of taking back what they have given away. And, to the degree that—particularly in the 1960s and 1970s—workers became increasingly empowered in the sphere of consumption, capital starts to concentrate much more on pulling back value through consumption.

David Harvey, speaking to Roar Magazine

To help make ends meet in my last year of university, I cleaned my school’s auditorium building every weekend. The pay was minimal, but unlike many service jobs at the front end––working as a cashier or a station attendant, for example––the work was quite asocial and unsupervised. For several hours every weekend, therefore, I could turn on my iPod and listen to audio versions of David Harvey’s guide to Karl Marx’s Capital. 

I listened to every episode several times over those two semesters, and one of his crucial talking points, echoed in the above quotation, is that the global capitalist economy functions as a unity of production and realization. In everyday language, capitalism can only function as a cycle of making things and selling things. Without production, there are no goods and no value to capture, and without mass marketing, distribution systems, and retail outlets, all that capital would sit rotting and stagnant while the population lived on subsistence farms.

Further, we can see that these two unified but distinct aspects of global capitalism are separated both temporally and geographically. Here is a necessary evil in all capitalist investment: the time gap between sinking capital into a venture and realizing the returns. Naturally, every good capitalist seeks to minimize this temporal gap as much as possible.

Meanwhile, the geographical gap presently appears largely as the divisions created by imperialism; due to certain concessions won at the centres of capitalism, including higher wages and benefits for a large class of workers, industrial production has largely migrated to the Global South. Companies relocate their capital to minimize wage costs and maximize output, but the workers who are exploited in the South cannot afford to purchase what they make. This requires these businesses to haul their goods overseas to bring them to largely Western or Japanese consumers. Capital is thus produced in the South and realized in the North, at least largely.

When writing about capitalism and its recent history in the Global North, therefore, one of the cornerstones of a good analysis will be an assessment of consumerism. Rather than tackling the issue in its entirety, however, I have found it helpful to research a single commodity like meat or sugar. These simple goods have an outsized impact on people’s everyday lives-–everyone concerns themselves with food prices, quality, and availability, after all––and because of this they can be good test subjects for historical investigations. Food commodities rest at the bedrock of even our technically advanced societies, and studying them grants a peak at the tangled nets of social and material relations that make up capitalist society.

Now to the review: Roger Horowitz’s Putting Meat on the American Table.

Roger Horowitz, an American historian of labour, published Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation in 2006, more than twenty years after Sweetness and Power. Horowitz places a single commodity, or family of commodities, at the centre of his social and cultural history. One distinctive part of Meat is its emphasis on the technology part of its title far more than the taste part.

Where authors like Mintz uses anthropology and Marxism to show how both individuals and larger systems related to sugar, Horowitz is content with using more conventional social historical tools to tell a story about technological progress. Far less concerned with meanings or broader historical dynamics, it is much more focused––one could say myopic––in its emphasis on the production process and the capitalists and workers involved in manufacturing and transforming the American meat industry.

Though its narrower focus can be frustrating, it partly reflects a basic difference between sugar and meat. Sugar, though its processing is difficult and protracted, does not involve the same kind of visceral destruction as meat production. Much of the story of meat production in Horowitz’s book builds on the theme of “persistent nature,” the ways that animals remain integrated and organic beings that “refuse to die” despite capitalist industry’s attempt to standardize and restrict animals to uniform shapes and sizes.¹

Because of this endurance and Horowitz’s recognition of it, the book partly revolves around the bodies and agency of the animals themselves. For most of its duration, however, the book keeps such considerations in the background and focuses instead on the mechanical side of the conflict between flesh and machines.

Take the chapter on beef for example. Beginning with a summary of a Jack London story, it paints in the background of early industrial America, where urban consumer demand for quality cuts of beef drove the creation of transport and production networks that could process the animals efficiently and deliver the product quickly. The difficulty for capitalists was Americans’ relatively inflexible demand for palatable cuts of fresh beef rather than cured: “The necessity of preserving large amounts to make efficient use of the cattle’s meat warred with Americans’ persistent taste for fresh beef.”² What Horowitz does not do is trace this taste for fresh beef any further back in history, merely finding it readymade for his analysis.

From that point, the chapter focuses on how certain entrepreneurs transformed the beef business from a local affair centered on butchers and fresh cuts to a supermarket experience. Readers learn about refrigeration, distribution networks, grisly details about the ways butchers killed animals without causing stress, and the like. Overall, the story is focused on how producers fed a preexisting taste for beef in the American populace, with little focus on the hows or whys of that taste itself.

Though the book’s frequent use of “American” in the general sense could be interpreted as eliding racial, gender, and class differences, the book is not so reductive. Within the beef chapter, for example, Horowitz includes some snippets of labour history along with the narratives about technology. Beef slaughtering has always remained a relatively hands-on and non-automated process, meaning that butchers and other slaughterhouse workers in that industry have been able to build strong unions. “The capacity of butchers, in slaughterhouses and retail stores to secure recognition, and contracts, came from their essential role: putting meat on the American table,” he writes.³

In later chapters, this situation is played as a contrast to other workers in sausage factories, who were largely women. These jobs were devastated by automation in the 1960s.⁴ However, the women there were able to organize against discrimination and win back some of their jobs, though always at less pay than male butchers and workers. Another instance where gender appears as a category of analysis is in the discussion of consumer preference for certain meat colours––yellow chickens, for example.⁵ Meat shoppers were mostly women, as Horowitz points out. What is lacking is any further consideration of how gender, at a given historical moment, affected these preferences. Again, the story is one of how taste constrains and influences production but not either vice versa or how those tastes originated.

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Class and race appear in the same summary fashion. One notable tendency of the book is to use statistical surveys without breaking them down and looking beyond the numbers. Separating the country into three income brackets, “lowest third,” “middle third,” and “highest third,” Horowitz shows that overall meat consumption has increased and evened out between the three brackets over the last century.⁶ Higher-income individuals consume less meat than lower-class people by the 1990s. As he writes, for all classes, “meat supplies were simply part of what it meant to have a prosperous America.”⁷ He goes on to say approximately the same about racial and ethnic divisions: they have gradually narrowed and become less important over time as meat has become cheaper and more standardized.

But Horowitz does not attempt to look further than the data and analyze the qualitative differences between classes and races in their meat consumption. There are isolated mentions of how poorer people consume worse meat in rougher cuts, but it is never synthesized into the book’s main argument or presented in a systematic way. Much less is there an analysis of whether and how the symbolic meanings of meat differ between racial, gender, or class groups, and how this influences consumption practices. Putting Meat on the American Table, therefore, is less of a cultural history than a social and labour history of American meat production.

Notes:

  1. Roger Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 153-154.
  2. Ibid, 19.
  3. Ibid, 41.
  4. Ibid, 102.
  5. Ibid, 107-108.
  6. Ibid, 15.
  7. Ibid, 17.

Robert Biel’s New Imperialism

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Having already done a piece on the brilliant 2012 book The Entropy of Capitalism, I quickly got ahold of copies of Biel’s other two books, The New Imperialism and Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement, which together form a loose trilogy progressively exploring a coherent set of themes.

  1. Capitalism as a complex international system with a parasitic centre and exploited peripheries. Implies class as an instance that unifies a person or group’s status relative to racial, gender, and proletarian peripheries. These constitute the internal contradictions of concrete capitalism.
  2. Capitalism in relation to the environment. External contradictions between capitalism leeching off of all of human society and the nonhuman natural world.
  3. Agriculture as the ultimate basis of human civilization. This theme does not appear much until the second and third books, but it has formed arguably the core of his practical and published work for a decade plus.

One caveat for no. 3 is that the version of Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement that I read is the recently published revised edition that updates the content in light of Entropy of Capitalism. Because of this, I sense a better defined continuity between the three books.

In my writeup of EntropyI indicated that the most compelling thread in that book was:

how the notion of entropy and the concept of peripheries in imperialism studies overlap throughout the book. In Biel’s political ecology, the environment and the Third World––along with enclaves within the First World and women and minority populations––are sites of both extraction, the outsides that capitalism can use for resources, and dumping sites for entropy.

New Imperialism is a true predecessor to this book. Looking over my marginal notes, I notice that I make several references to the fact that Biel would fortify insights made in this middle book with concepts developed in the third. Reading New Imperialism casts a light on just how powerful the thermodynamics concepts and systems perspective are in unifying and strengthening the arguments Biel advances. Considered on its own, however, this book contains keen insights of its own. Despite its advancing age and the fact that many of its chapters are aimed squarely at concerns that existed circa 2000, it still produces some impressive analysis of capitalism as a heterogeneous world system.

In contrast to Entropy, where the analysis was mainly present and future-oriented, New Imperialism’s meatiest sections are on the historical development of capitalism throughout the 20th century. Biel does not merely summarize changes in the mode of production in a reductionist or economistic way, however. Rather, his eye is trained on the adaptation of capitalism as, shall we say, a whole organism.

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This does include various changes in the technological base and the “economy” proper, of course. He covers a swathe of issues ranging from financialization and the growth of the speculative economy, the industrialization of the South, the destruction of full employment in the North, the emergence of what were then the NICs (Newly Industrializing Countries, which has been replaced in international relations and econo-speak by the BRICS), and the complicated position of Japan. But rather than focus mainly on such changes, he demonstrates how capitalist powers instituted new control mechanisms and navigated tricky impasses. Defusing the idea of an omnicompetent imperialist bloc, he explores the real dangers faced by capitalism after World War II and during the 1970s. He identifies the central task of Northern capital in these periods: continue to exploit the South for cheap labour and natural resources while preventing it from developing to the point of gaining too much political power.

For example, I had never before considered the gigantic risks that capital takes when weakening the state apparatus in the name of faster accumulation. Yes, privatizing services and state enterprises does free them up for greater exploitation and narrows the terms of acceptable social debate, but it also leaves the states of the North prey to bankers and bondholders. The erosion of national sovereignty even within the European Union is an astonishing development in this past decade, as capital turns states over to the direct management of the financiers. Biel explains this as a weakening of the political centre for capitalism, cannibalized by the very capitalist forces it was protecting.

Other highlights include a discussion of Cold War bipolarity as a system set up to use the USSR to crush popular social movements––or to co-opt and neutralize them––while undermining Southern solidarity. But because of my professional interest in Japan, I want to spend the rest of this little review discussing the way the book deals with this “honorary Aryan” economic power.

Japan:

Japan’s position within the capitalist world had already shifted greatly by the time Biel published this book in 2000. It had been dragging through almost a decade of its ongoing stagnation, a far cry from the beacon of growth and social coherence it had appeared to be in the 1960s through the 1980s. Allowed to develop fully because of strategic considerations and the industrial demands of the Korean War, it had managed by the 1980s to command an immense amount of wealth through an intense state-driven focus on GDP growth and the establishment of a national government that was effectively run through collusion between bureaucrats and big capital. Biel notes that its success also depended on a highly hierarchical system of subcontracting. Male workers at the top of the pyramid, employed by big monopolies, were guaranteed high wages––over double those of lower ranking workers––and lifetime job security. Below this stratum were two layers of firms employing cheaper and more precarious labour, which since the slump has become more generalized in Japan.

At its apex, however, this system and the management techniques created to groom effective and loyal workers commanded such respect that they were made use of in the larger Northern transition to neoliberal regimes in the 1980s and 1990s. Effectively, firms could open leeway for more human initiative while leaving employees with direct responsibility for the quality of their work, in effect exploiting themselves while management positions proliferated in an attempt to prevent slacking. Europe and the United States forced the Japanese currency to appreciate in value, which is what fueled the foreign buying frenzy and property boom in Japan in the 1980s (the infamous “bubble economy”).

What Biel notes is that the Asian countries that have been allowed to industrialize––Japan, the ROK, Taiwan––have all been able to do so purely because the United States had strategic reasons for doing so. He notes that this status as part of the Global North might be tenuous. This guess came at the end of the Asian crisis of the late 1990s, so it makes more sense then than it might now. Still, I suspect that there is a germ of truth in this since these countries are also all dependent on American arms support for their defense, and therefore possess limited true autonomy.

Conclusion:

If you must read one Robert Biel book, make it Entropy of Capitalism. That book incorporates the basic theoretical and concrete concerns and methods from New Imperialism and makes them far better and more pertinent. At the same time, New Imperialism, despite being out of date and possessing a rather vague strategic vision for the future––a common feature for books written on the left––brings its points home well. In largely avoiding economist reductions and bringing gender, race, and the environment into the discussion it sets itself apart from a great deal of Marxist discussion of capitalism as a world system. And its insights in agriculture, which I did not have space for in this post, are almost worth your time in themselves.

Rendezvous with Hucksters and the Academic Underbelly

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Because serving in the reserve army of the unemployed is a dreary and potentially lethal enlistment, I’ve been obliged to find myself a job. Currently between bouts of education, I therefore strive to find the most agreeable way to spend my days (or nights) earning rent and food money. But being unemployed leaves you in a vulnerable state, and long periods without work can leave you desperate. I’m far from that point, and have a privileged status that makes it less likely I’ll ever slip through the cracks completely. At the same time, the power of temptation is strongest when you feel as though you have to swipe the first opportunity you get, like a tiger being fed by a zookeeper (not that I have all that much experience with being in tiger cages, mind you).

It takes less than a minute of digging on job listing sites to find that, beneath the soft loam of corporate jobs and other “respectable” occupations there is a layer of sticky dreck clinging to the boots of the capitalist economy. At least, I hope our location is so clean. These firms and agencies operate essentially as parasites on the body of what we usually accept as the “normal” working of the economy. They produce no value and do not fulfill human needs. Rather, they operate to fill niches of demand that capitalism creates in the interest of profit. There is a key difference between need and demand, bearing in mind, as Robert Biel says, “many of the demands generated by capitalism are not based on real needs,” which follows his argument that demand is not given or spontaneously arising from need but is instead manufactured for the sake of moving product.¹

Hence, on the back of charismatic advertising and carefully tended appearances, companies have found ways to exploit people in ways and for reasons that even run-of-the-mill capitalists and their state representatives can’t swallow. All of capitalism thrives on exploitation of workers, but groups like Just Energy make you nostalgic for the days of outright merchant swindling. Which is, in effect, what the company has been accused of doing. Just take a look at the wikipedia page for the company and you can recite the litany of regional governments and regulators who have thrashed the company’s reputation. More bizarrely, the issue goes beyond salespeople bullying “prospects” into signing up for expensive energy plans. All the way up at the top, their CEO and Canadian Conservative Party buddy-buddy has been accused of falsifying claims that she is the descendant of a Yugoslav energy minister. No wonder they sound a bit desperate in their hiring pitches.

Note that they don’t sell any energy they produce themselves. What they sell is pieces of paper that assure their clients that they will pay a (higher than their salespeople promise) fixed rate for energy, supposedly to protect them from spikes in fuel costs. Of course, had this been the amazing deal they allegedly promised, they would not be a billion-dollar company today.

My other encounter with the slightly sleazier side of the job market came in the form of a listing for an academic essay writer. That’s bound to appeal to many college students who have just graduated and find themselves with few workable skills other than producing academic essays. Of course, one has to ask what kind of people would pay for academic essays other than the usual list of journals and slate-faced gatekeepers?

Well, cheating students of course. I won’t deny that academic pressures can, for certain people, create a sense of hopelessness combined with an attachment to grades as an ultimate sign of self-worth. That kind of mixture can lead to cheating. Businesses like this owe their existence just as much if not more so to higher education’s insistence on tying financial aid to grades as it does to unscrupulous or lazy students. Students, at least in North America, are now evaluated so ruthlessly and so often that failures are seen as catastrophic, easily worth bending or breaking rules to get.

And, unlike Just Energy, these companies are actually selling something that is at least potentially valuable, at least in terms of knowledge. But the fact that they can do so at such cut-rate costs shows you how the writers who don’t manage to get famous––i.e. almost all of them––have to scrounge for money just to live off their own skills. Capitalism sucks value out of its own institutional failures, another recurrent theme in Biel’s work. In a better world, you wouldn’t be able to make money off of put-upon young people desperate for grades. These two small examples show that, despite attempting to baptize itself as a positive force in the world, capitalism cannot escape, at a certain level, being overtly predatory––well, more so than usual. Sometimes we seem to have a wistful and whimsical view of the old snake oil salesmen who supposedly prowled the streets of the pre-FDA American wilds. Indeed, all of this would be a lot more funny if real people weren’t being ripped off in the process––and this one top of their subjugation to capitalism in the first place.

Notes:

  1. Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (New York: Zed Books, 2000), 109.