The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Books

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

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Book Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction

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Elliott Liu’s 2016 book attempts to present a simplified synthesis of recent scholarship on Mao’s China as well as a historically-founded critique of the politics that issued from that period. There are a few provisos to consider when discussing this work, however. The first is that the Maoism Liu engages is not the Maoism of current revolutionary movements nor does it fit in Moufawad-Paul’s recent philosophical definition. Rather, Maoism for Liu means the politics of Mao himself and of the CCP from the mid-1930s to 1976. Insofar as the book criticizes core Maoist concepts like two-line struggle and certain conception of dialectics, it is still a useful intervention in the activist space. However, those who follow a modern form of Maoism will doubtless take the line that the book has nothing to say about their traditions since they are supposed to have transcended the politics of the Chinese Revolution proper. Nevertheless, the book, taken on its own, has quite considerable value to both interested students of the topic and, more importantly, to activists and revolutionaries.

Indeed, the book’s final chapter, which breaks down some of the more important Maoist concepts and evaluates their relevance to today, indicates that leftist activist circles are Liu’s primary audience. Still, in order to mount a critical argument, the author has to delve into history. The history of the Chinese Revolution and the Maoist period has recently been enriched by studies from Joel Andreas’ Red Engineers to Yiching Wu’s monograph about the dynamics of class and marginalized people during the Cultural Revolution. Liu
draws on all of these books as well as more general histories from the likes of Arif Dirlik, Maurice Meisner, and more classic texts like Bettelheim’s 1970s study of industrial organization during the Cultural Revolution. The resulting synthesis, evaluated on its own, draws entirely from secondary sources like those just mentioned but manages to present a coherent narrative about the vacillations of Chinese revolutionary activity from the 1920s up until 1976. Even separated from the “critical” part of its title, the book is an adequate summation of recent China scholarship, which earns it at least some points for those who are not familiar with the field.

Of course, the book is not marketed as a progressively-bent historical pocketbook but as a “Revolutionary Pocketbook,” which has slightly loftier goals than simple summation in mind. Liu draws a few core conclusions from his historical study. The first is that the People’s Republic of China was fundamentally a state-capitalist entity. By that, he means that the state functioned as the primary and dominant agent of capital accumulation during the drive to industrialize the country. As a corollary to this, he argues that the industrialization plan rested on the hyper-exploitation of the peasantry and the imposition of strict control and austerity over industrial workers. Even from the limited swathe of examples he employs to support this argument make a fairly airtight case.

Although property was theoretically controlled and owned by the entire people and used to benefit the entire people, the reality was more harsh and exclusive since workers and peasants did not have effective political authority over their lives. Resources that were technically nationalized were at the beck and call of central planners and workers’ and peasants’ access to their own produced goods was strictly limited by state regulations. Even during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese army and other armed forces were used to quash workers’ revolts and strikes, and the country essentially revolved entirely around building up the national economy with little regard for quality of life or autonomy of the workers.

Liu’s second argument is about Mao as a theoretician and leader. Mao himself, Liu contends, never broke from a Stalin-derived synthesis that equated simple empirical observation and study with dialectical investigations and movement. Mao, he argues, tended to see dialectics as a series of mutual oppositions that were fairly static and could be resolved from the outside by policy interventions. A more robust and nuanced picture of the dialectic, he contends, would emphasize the processual and dynamic character of the dialectic as well as the way in which dialectical oppositions constitute and support each other.

In other words, Mao misses that there is a spontaneous and energetic play of oppositions that can generate real insights even from unlikely sources. Liu links these problems to the general failures of Mao’s leadership and the CCP’s role in Chinese society more generally. In brief, he notes that the CCP and Mao’s administration were essentially bureaucratic, centralist, and often chose to crush the very popular movements they summoned to attack other, more conservative party actions. Liu is not uniformly negative in the book, especially when crediting Mao’s strategic and political gifts, but he takes a dim view of Mao’s philosophical and ideological contributions to radical politics.

Finally, the book’s most important conclusion or set of conclusions concerns the applicability of Maoist ideas in current organizing projects. He acknowledges that there are a number of live Maoist projects currently claiming to carry on Mao’s legacy in politics today, mentioning the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and revolutionary activity in Peru, Nepal,India, and the Philippines by name. He breaks down a number of core Maoist concepts including mass line, different kinds of contradiction, united fronts, new democracy, two-line struggle, and “putting politics in command.” Though he credits many of these ideas as general principles, he argues that Mao and many other organizations took these rather vague concepts and
took them in anti-people directions.

For example, in his discussion of the mass line concept, he notes that the concept could be used simply to drum up populist consent for central state policies or mobilize authoritarian campaigns. To be valuable, he argues, the concept has to be tied to a political programme that ensures that the revolutionary organization is actually listening to ordinary people and taking input from them rather than just gathering evidence to support preexisting political ideas. Each of his evaluations is fairly nuanced considering the small space in which he is operating. There are certainly much deeper criticisms or supporting arguments to be made for or against these concepts, but his conclusions are useful in that they accurately portray each concept and lay out potential pitfalls and opportunities associated with each one.

I would recommend Liu’s book to all those who have a cursory or even more intense interest in the Chinese Revolution and its politics. That sequence of events, the process of political and economic transformation in the world’s most populous state, was one of the key events of the 1900s. The book is not a deep critique of Maoism as it is currently practiced in organizations from North America to India, but it does serve to outline some of the limitations and potentially powerful ideas that such movements can carry forward. Neither
abjectly hostile to the Chinese Revolutionary project nor an advertisement for Mao and the PRC, the book accomplishes its limited goals with aplomb. I hope that it leads many people into some of the better recent literature on the Revolution and believe that it provides a good basic primer and criticism of an important revolutionary process.

Book Review: Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain

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(Disclaimer: I am colleagues with the author [one discipline removed] in the academy and know him. We also both have a tenuous academic career, though I am perhaps still more recklessly hopeful. While I’m here in the parentheses, I want to say that I think the author’s acknowledgements and dedications are some of the best-written and most sincere I’ve read, which shows the integrity of their author. Love to all of you in the movements!)

Continuity and Rupture serves a very specific purpose. The book is neither history nor theory because, as the author indicates, it incorporates history and body of theory into its basic premise. We’ll discuss what that history is as we go through the review, but the body of theory––which it calls Maoism-qua-Maoism or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM for the sake of my carpal tunnel)––should be explained first. In order to explain what Maoism means for the unaware or misinformed audience, the author has to show where it came from as well as what direction it is metaphorically travelling.

For Moufawad-Paul, MLM emerged as a coherent body of theory in the documents of the Communist Party of Peru––Shining Path (PCP) in the late 1980s. Over the next few years, the story goes, the party’s theory coalesced on an international level within the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). Maoism preexisted this historical and theoretical sequence as a term, the author argues, but in the 1970s it largely functioned as a synonym for a party or an individual’s alignment with China as opposed to the Soviet Union. This pro-China attitude often corresponded with an anti-revisionist orientation. Though revisionism is a slippery term that communists graft onto any number of perceived or real errors, here revisionism indicates parties that professed Marxism while abjuring revolution and arguing for a peaceful and gradual path to socialism through elections.

As anti-revisionists, groups like the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party in the US, La Gauche Prolétarienne in France, and revolutionary organizations from Turkey to The Philippines, arrayed themselves behind Mao’s criticism’s of the post-1956 Soviet Union and, by extension, parties that still maintained connections with Moscow. So the revisionist rogue’s gallery included a majority of the older, established capital-c Communist parties. But, Moufawad-Paul argues, simple support for China did not mean that they had transcended the limitations of Marxism-Leninism (ML), and in fact were ML orthodoxy incarnate. In fact, the author notes, the parties disintegrated precisely because their adherence to ML rendered them incapable of grappling with various social movements that had emerged in the 60s (movements in which the creators of these anti-revisionist parties had usually participated in some form). The typical example is the RU/RCP’s homophobic line, which relegated gay members to what has been dubbed the “Red Closet.”

Maoism, in order to be a relevant improvement on ML, had to resolve the contradictions of traditional ML. Moufawad-Paul’s fundamental argument is that it has done so without jettisoning the important insights of its anti-revisionist predecessors. Within its rupture from traditional ML, it preserved the continuity. In fact, he goes so far to propose that its rupture was not just simultaneously contiguous with its tradition but in fact necessary to the preservation of the entire Marxist theoretical edifice. MLM puts its ancestors to death in order to keep them alive, we could say.

Fundamental to the flow of Moufawad-Paul’s argument is the notion that Marxist theory constitutes a scientific, rather than merely ideological, tradition. Therefore when he appeals to the work of someone like Thomas Kuhn and his ideas about paradigm shifts in science, he is not being analogical but rather quite literal in ascribing to Marxism the same evolutionary process as physics, chemistry, and the like. Not that he thinks Marxism is a natural science or that it has any authority over such areas (he mocks those who do argue Marxism’s hegemony over all of science). Rather, like Louis Althusser, he sees Marxism as a form of knowledge and practice that can pose and answer questions scientifically, constantly negating its own theories even as it preserves core principles and “methods.” Thus, just as physics got its atom from Democritus but endowed it with a fresh and empirically useful meaning, Maoists took a word that had one meaning and transformed it. Words and concepts, in other words, are not identical.

Whether or not one supports the idea that politics can be scientific, the analogy with paradigm shifts in science is an illuminating device. We can see, throughout Continuity and Rupture, the ways in which Maoists deploy old Marxist concepts like class in a different way than Leninists, and how these differences are relevant enough to separate the two fairly strongly despite their shared embrace of the vanguard as a useful organizing concept. The author also dispels some misconceptions about Leninism and its ties to historical periodization in a way that I found very satisfying. The idea, for example, that Leninism is “the Marxism of the era of imperialism,” petrifies Marxism as long as imperialism exists. Linking the development of Marxism to the vicissitudes of capitalist evolution rather than the actual practice of communists seems foolhardy and self-negating as well as historically dubious since, as Moufawad-Paul observes, imperialism hardly waited for Lenin’s say-so to come into being.

In sum, the book does what it says on the cover: convinces me that Maoism came into being in the late 1980s and has created a novel set of theories and practices that have made some headway in challenging capitalism in parts of the world. I already shared this understanding with the author, but I think it makes a convincing case even to the relatively uninformed. Those who are hostile to Maoism in all forms would also benefit from this book because it offers a coherent explanation for what it is.

That’s not all a book like this has to do, of course. I’ve spent the first half of this review talking about the book in terms of its argumentative structure and commentary. However, the real question Moufawad-Paul has to answer, especially to the vast majority of people who are not Maoists, is why it matters. After all, if Maoism is irrelevant to the reader, an explanation of what it does and how it talks and where it was born is nothing but an abstract exercise. Almost like a taxonomy for mythical creatures: elaborate and fascinating, but of no immediate value except to nerdy enthusiasts like me.

After all, as the author admits, Maoism has no claim to hegemony either over the broader left or within Marxism more narrowly. In India, The Philippines, Peru, and Nepal it achieved/still is achieving some level of organizational success, and in the latter case was upheld by the party controlling essentially the entire country outside of the capital region. However, Nepal’s revolution has splintered and dissolved, seemingly held in perpetual stasis. The Peruvian Maoists capitulated after the capture of the leader they venerated, Gonzalo. In India, the party is under immense strain as a result of state repression. In The Philippines, the people’s war has been protracted indeed, though it seems the most stable of the movements at this time. This is not to speak of Maoist movements in the West, which are nascent or at best have achieved the status of marginal forces in certain cities. A reasonable and honest radical might rightly, I believe, still approach Maoism with skepticism.

Still, Moufawad-Paul declares, Maoism’s emphasis on putting communism into action, on bridging the here and now and the communist future, puts it on firm ground. And I think it’s at least undeniable that the old communist parties are moribund, especially in North America, and that Maoist movements are often militant bright spots, along with certain anarchists, in many urban settings here in North America. We might say that Maoists are making some of the most valuable and worthwhile mistakes of any leftist tendency today. So I would keep an eye on Maoist movements as the global situation tenses and we see a resurgence––how powerful we cannot reckon––of old reactionary and fascist tendencies. The margins are often the most fertile breeding ground for successful ideas, and I think Continuity and Rupture makes some of Maoism’s best ideas legible to those who might scoff at party documents. And that’s a valuable contribution indeed.

 

Insights from Richard Grove: Imperial Conservationism

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Reading history in academia often means gutting and flaying a book like fresh snapper. The practice transforms an object with intrinsic worth and literary integrity into a utilitarian conversation piece. Analogies like “strip-mining” and “gutting” try to capture some of the violence of this practice, which is conditioned by necessity and enforced by convention. Only rarely, therefore, do books read for class have an immediate emotional impact on me.

Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, or Green Imperialism to its friends, made an unusual impression on me as I read it. Hastily turning pages and searching for topic sentences, I lamented that I was not able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the book and its argument. Nonetheless, I wanted to present some excerpts from the book with light commentary with the intent of sharing its virtues.

Insight 1: Physiocrats and Bureaucrats

“The environments of tropical islands thus became even more highly prized, so that it may come as no surprise to discover that it was upon one of them, Mauritius, that the early environmental debate acquired its most comprehen- sive form. Under the influence of zealous French anti-capitalist physiocrat reformers and their successors between 1768 and 1810, this island became the location for some of the earliest experiments in systematic forest conservation, water-pollution control and fisheries protection. These initiatives were carried out by scientists who characteristically were both followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and adherents of the kind of rigorous scientific empiricism associated with mid-eighteenth-century French Enlightenment botany. Their innovative forest-conservation measures were based on a highly developed awareness of the potentially global impact of modern economic activity, on a fear of the climatic consequences of deforestation and, not least, on a fear of species extinctions.”

–Richard Grove, Green Imperialism, 11.

For those without the patience for blockquotes, I’ll summarize: tropical islands became on of Western environmentalism’s first theatres of struggle. Under the influence of the Physiocrats, early political economists who thought agriculture was the only truly productive economic activity, French intendants in places like Mauritius implemented conservation regimes. Tropical islands were especially important areas for the development of Western imperialist environmentalism because it was there that the contradictions between colonial resource extraction and the vitality of natural systems was the most obvious. In other words, islands are small, vulnerable places that are both more easily experimented on and more easily drained of resources.

So much for a brief summary of the material contradictions that incited these attempts to design and implement conservation policies. Another aspect that Grove emphasizes is the European association of tropical islands with Eden and paradise.

The increasing empiricism of travel literature derived simply from the greater frequency and regularity of long-distance travel. During the seventeenth cen- tury, as the work of John Donne suggests, the axis of interest began to shift away from the Americas towards the East, where a growing intellectual and Orientalist curiosity was developing alongside commercial concerns…Because of their geographical position astride the trade routes, St Helena and Mauritius became naturally prominent in this literature. Both islands were important staging posts on the Cape and Indian trading routes. Being uninhabited, they were peculiarly amenable to the kinds of projection and Edenic treatment described above. To sailors exhausted and weakened by long voyages, they were veritable paradises, bowers of untouched woodlands made up of plant species and inhabited by birds never before seen by man.

Green Imperialism, 42.

Tropical islands, especially uninhabited ones like Mauritius, embodied the aspirations of people who wanted a clean break from a morally unclean world. Aside from the real relief they provided to sailors, they also captivated travellers and writers, including Shakespeare. It now seems apparent to me that ideologies of protecting untouched nature or an edenic paradise and the “empty land” ideologies of settler-colonialism share a common nature. That is, they fabricate an ideal to which the land must conform and produce that imagined space in the real world, displacing previous inhabitants where they exist. Indeed, liberal and reactionary environmentalism often dominate over the radical kind, and even the physiocrats put up a stronger anti-capitalism than many present-day green activists we’re familiar with.

I plan on reading Green Imperialism more thoroughly over the next few weeks. At some point, I may produce a full review of the book. For now, I have presented some of its key insights, which are developed with rich detail and an admirable attention to method in the book. I am still grappling with its underlying thesis, but I feel fairly sure of its relevance to us: the periphery of the colonial system was the place where the contradictions of capitalism and the environment first became apparent. That thesis is just as true in the era of climate change as it was when the dodo was just going extinct.

Gramsci and Braudel

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I recently borrowed a book called Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation by philosopher Esteve Morera. Because I knew a couple of points I wanted to explore immediately, I hurriedly read the introduction and pushed into the index. Once I found the brief portions on Fernand Braudel and the Annales, I began studying without delay. Coincidentally, my used copy of Braudel’s monumental The Mediterranean lumbered to my doorstep that same day. I wanted to use some of the commentary in Morera’s book to anchor a brief post? Its subject? The fascinating and, to me, novel parallels between Braudel’s project and Gramsci’s, as well as some of their profound differences.

So we have three writers in the room: Braudel, Morera, and Gramsci, with the second naturally bridging the two. His discussion of Braudel comes in the midst of a larger discussion of Gramsci’s historicism. Since Gramsci is famous for proclaiming his thought an “absolute historicism,” it’s worth pondering what that means, and Morera wisely breaks down this complex issue into a few pieces. The first aspect he ascribes to Gramsci’s historicism, an affirmation of the transience of all historical phenomena, leads to the discussion of different ideas about the complexity of historical time, from Marx to Kondratiev and, of course, Braudel.

Given how famous he is for advocating the primacy of structure and geographical forces in the course of history, there is some irony in the fact that Braudel is placed in a discussion of historical transience. Yet the connection here is more natural than it first appears. As Morera argues, Gramsci is interested in a “holistic” history that can only be understood from a long-term perspective.¹ He summarizes Gramsci’s views on the temporality of history:

First, an organic theory of society which rejects the atomist conception of history as a series of events; second, the rudiments of a history of historical time…of the various tempos that criss-cross each other in history.²

Anyone familiar with Braudel will already sense the trajectory of Morera’s argument as it leads directly from here to a discussion on Braudel’s triple-layer scheme presented in The Mediterranean. Level one is the realm of geographical time, where the relatively permanence of natural space and structure reigns. Social and economic time forms the second level, and it was here where the intersection between the relative permanence of structure intersects the most with the more short or medium-term conjuncture, which is often cyclical. As Braudel puts it: “swelling currents…economic systems, states, societies, civilizations, and, finally…how all these deep-seated forces were at work in the complex arena of warfare.”³ At last, we reach the final level, where all the froth and dust of political and diplomatic history are kicked up. It’s here, at the third level, where the contingent events follow their wave-like course, emerging for a brief time before disappearing into the sea of continuity and strong currents beneath.

So Gramsci and Braudel share a methodological commitment to holism and an emphasis on the long-term, what Braudel called longue durée. Their commitments each lead them, as Morera notes, to critique sociology and other social sciences for their fetishization of empirical models and the short-term time span. Though neither of them is hostile to the social sciences as such––this is arguable in Gramsci, but Braudel hoped that history could unify all the human sciences––they both understood that the long term perspective is key to grasping the entirety of human social relations and their evolution over time. Gramsci’s analysis of “situations”develops through study of the dialectical unity of structures, conjunctures, and events, which broadly correspond to the terms Braudel uses. I would note in passing, however, that Braudel is careful to avoid stitching these layers together with any kind of “dialectical” or theoretical glue, and his holism is a great deal more empirical and fragmentary than the Marxist or Gramscian theories of history.

Morera later notes, correctly, that where Gramsci and Braudel most differ is in the matter of politics.⁴ For Braudel, politics are part of the ephemeral flows of “the history of individuals,” and not of central importance to his project. Gramsci, being a (jailed) leader of a communist project in Italy, gave politics the most prominent place in his conception of history. Of course, both of them reject the idea of statecraft and royal rosters as the foundation of history, but Braudel ultimately wants to relegate all of politics, including mass politics, to secondary or even tertiary status.

When reading The Mediterranean, I noted that Braudel’s sense of structure was much more fatalistic and continuous than the Marxist concepts I knew. Though there are also more structurally-oriented versions of Marxism that have been criticized for being fatalistic or “static,” Marxists tend to at least subscribe to the theory that human beings make history. Marxists will then make the structural qualification that humans only make history within the more-or-less determined situation into which they are born. Marxist history is the history of catastrophes, revolutions, and class struggle, the processes through which structures, so durable and powerful, prove their transience. “All that is solid melts into air.” With Braudel, I get the sense that it is rather history that makes people, and that people are merely swept along the currents. That said, unlike Althusser––who criticized the Annales journal and Braudel for not having a specific enough theory on the complexity of historical time––Man, capital-M, is the subject of Braudel’s history. He’s still at the centre of the story, but his natures and his actions are tightly bounded by land and water, prices and travel times, the very mental conceptions we’re taught. It’s not “process without a subject” pushed along through the energy of class struggle, it’s a process with a fatalistic subject who can take some reassurance that despite the tumult around him, the great immobile structures and whirling cycles will endure.

I should say that the above is a rank generalization, and Braudel’s histories are almost indescribably complex and eclectic. But I appreciate Morera’s insight into the relationship between Braudel and Gramsci because it called attention to my lack of knowledge about Gramsci and clarified the latter’s thought, which to me has always been less penetrable than that of his contemporaries. Engaging with Morera has pushed me back to reading Gramsci again, this time with a wiser frame of mind, and I’m glad I crossed this bridge between historians.

Notes:

1. Esteve Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation (New York: Routledge, 1990), 83-4.

2. Ibid, 85.

3. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II vol. 1, trans. Sîan Reynolds (New York: HarperCollins, 1972), 21.

4. Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism 93.

Makoto Itoh: The Japanese Economy Reconsidered

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The Japanese Economy Reconsidered is a short slice of Marxist economic history and analysis. Effectively summarizing the Japanese “lost decade,” which has by now accordioned out to more than two decades of stagnation, the book is an incomplete but strong primer on the Japanese economy in the 1990s. More than a factual account, however, it also offers a preliminary definition and critique of neoliberalism in the Japanese context.

It’s worth asking how Itoh is “reconsidering” the Japanese economy. He asks some of the same questions everyone was asking about Japan in the 1990s: what happened? Before the bubble burst, popular chatter about Japan ranged from idolization to outright terror.  Where he differs from the mainstream liberal discourse on Japan is in his diagnosis of the Japanese economy from the 1973 oil crisis onwards. Many accounts I’ve ready discuss how Japan weathered the oil embargo with relative ease, shifting towards an export-focused industrial strategy that ensured steady growth throughout the 1970s and 80s. Itoh, meanwhile, opens his book with: “In 1973, high economic growth in the Japanese economy…came to an end.”¹ Following the resource crunch and inflationary crisis of the 1970s, the Japanese state aggressively injected money into grandiose public works projects, assisted the implementation of automation in factories and offices, crushed public sector unions through privatizations, and fueled a temporary recovery. What came out of that was the famous bubble, where land prices escalated beyond all reason and financial speculation in land and stocks was feverish. After this bubble inevitably detonated, near-zero growth became the norm, which, combined with an aging population, has created an immense problem of planning and legitimacy.

Itoh fills in that basic narrative in chapters 2-5, investigating the role of information technologies, industrial hollowing-out and the effect of the boom and depression on family life, the process of the bubble’s bursting, and Japan’s position in the globalizing capitalist system. In that final chapter, the book focuses on Japanese industry’s increasing capital exports into other countries in Asia, particularly China and Southeast Asia. Given the publication date of the book (2000), it’s not surprising that it ends with a brief autopsy of the Asian boom of the 90s and the subsequent collapse of that bubble.

There is nothing difficult or unclear in Itoh’s book; there is nothing all that striking either. Well, there is one possible exception. While his diagnosis of the “failure of neoliberalism” in Japan might seem obvious in hindsight, it partially synthesizes its analysis of neoliberalism with the idea of Japan as a “company-cented society.”² We see the echoes of his concluding remarks in the 2007-8 global financial crisis, which reproduced many of the dynamics of the Japanese collapse in the 90s: “Company-centred restructuring combined with emergency economic policies that place priority on alleviating the difficulties of big business has deepened the hardship and worry in the economic life of the majority of people.”³ This reality, this induced existential fear, he argues, is part of what has depressed the Japanese birthrate to such lows.

It might be useful to take the longtime category of “company-centred society” and bring it to a more general analysis of neoliberal capitalism. When looking at the kind of civil societies the last forty years of capitalist mutation have produced, we see the gravitational pull of private firms increasing, orienting more and more of the rest of the state and nonstate sectors (NGOs, media, online communities, etc.) around capital accumulation. Indeed, given that most states’ response to the crisis was to violate neoliberal principles with gigantic public bailouts, the idea of company-centrism might even be more generally descriptive of the current form of capitalism in the First World than neoliberal.

Unfortunately, the lot of the Japanese working class has only deteriorated further in the sixteen years since the publication of The Japanese Economy Reconsidered, and the current Japanese government offers no chance of rescue from the vultures of corruption, bureaucratic domination, and industrial decay that have preyed on Japan for most of living memory. So Itoh’s short and straightforward work serves about as well as a book can: it informs and outlines what possible paths the Japanese people might take in liberating themselves.

Notes:

  1. Makoto Itoh, The Japanese Economy Reconsidered (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), 1.
  2. Ibid, 94-95.
  3. Ibid, 135-136

 

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.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Talking Back to Our History

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“There’s a story in an ancient play about birds called The Birds

And it’s a short story from before the world began…

From a time when there was no earth, no land. Only air and birds everywhere. But the thing was there was no place to land. Because there was no land. So they just circled around and around. Because this was before the world began.

And the sound was deafening. Songbirds were everywhere. Billions and billions and billions of birds.

And one of these birds was a lark and one day her father died. And this was a really big problem, because what should they do with the body? There was no place to put the body because there was no earth.

And finally the lark had a solution.

She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head. And this was the beginning of memory.

Because before this no one could remember a thing. They were just constantly flying in circles.

Constantly flying in huge circles.”

–Laurie Anderson, “The Beginning of Memory”

When I saw Bugs Bunny cross-dressing, when I saw Laurie Anderson in drag, dug into my mind and found stories about miraculous transformations, writing myself into stories about growing into a woman’s body lying down in a faraway place, I was making circles. Like brushing fingers around and around erogenous areas, like the frustration of samsara, I was stuck in a circle. And running in a circle brought me back to the same point: birth and rebirth of pain and guilt, self-loathing as a perpetual motion machine. It’s not that I’ve left that circle behind, but I’ve found that people like me have a name, have a history, have a unique form of life that is worth protecting and fostering. Trans people, and trans women like me, have lived before me and left me their memories. Without these collective memories, I was condemned to aimlessness.

I recently met the dearly departed Leslie Feinberg and asked hir what she thought about my career of choice. Hir answer, though an echo of her words my mind summoned from a book, was piercing:

“Which side are you on? The hunter or the hunted? Historians sitting on a pastoral fence…doesn’t exist in reality. The fences are barricades. And barricades are a dangerous and impossible place to perch on during a battle.”¹

I was used to this idea, but for the first time it truly sunk in that I was one of the runners, one of the people who ran from the cops and clung to each other because our families were absent or oppressive. Self-created people who had to build ourselves “on the fly,” and had no business perching on fences. Such is the brutality of the hunters that they keep us from burying our dead in the back of our heads, and we have to pass this vertiginous chasm separating us from our ancestors.

It’s a staggering responsibility, looming in the back of my mind. But I kept listening to Les talk, and an uncanny feeling springs up in my guts.

“Transgender people are not dismantling the categories of man and woman. We are opening up a world of possibilities in addition.”²

But if after we have done all we are called to do, gender as a system still exists, gender as a faceless cartographer who plots us all on a map, with most of us being where there “be monsters,” what is it all for? I should laugh at myself. After all, I stand before many accused of reinforcing the gender binary by identifying as a trans woman. To return to the map metaphor, what comrade Les is suggesting is that we are working to tear down the fences and open up new territories, recognizing all these gender positions and spaces as valid. I’m still left uncertain. Why not just throw out the map? Don’t repeat the mistakes of trying to build an androgynous “gender-neutral” society but don’t reaffirm gender as a positive! Maybe we’re simply talking past each other about the same thing.

Well, we live in a country where white gay fascists can sleep undisturbed. Where the capitalist-imperialist vampires can take our hard-won concessions and brandish them as a weapon against our kin in Palestine, Afghanistan, and a hundred thousand other kill zones. Land speculators and gentrifiers push our working-class and homeless youth out to pull in the champagne-and-Human Rights Campaign crowd. Perhaps I should take hir advice and put my petty suspicions of people I think have the “wrong” identity and put them where my internalized transphobia and guilt should go: oblivion.

“There are and will be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people on both sides of these barricades. How do we recognize our enemies from our allies?”³

We can’t simply scan someone’s gender expression or self-identification to tell who our friends are and who our enemies are. First, we define our goal: liberation of all and of each from all forms of oppression. Then we ask ourselves: for whom will that be a dream, for whom will it be a nightmare? Our movement will be the most advanced, a vanguard capable of uniting all of the exploited and oppressed, or it will be useless. Sie looked at me and asked another question:

“But on what basis will we form such a movement? Around what forms of desire? The ache of hunger? The desperate need of poverty and homelessness? The yearning for freedom from oppression?”⁴

I couldn’t answer, and I had finished the book before long, so I left it unresolved. At the same time, I know that it won’t come from spite, schadenfreude, mockery, or even thin and watery hope. Hope, always paired with fear and anxiety, is nothing compared to what will emerge from within history itself. Our liberation will come from within our bodies, which we hardly know, and from a history we will ourselves make. Whatever weapons and forms of love, war, and life we need to forge, we will.

Which is not to say we are assured of victory. Our lives are imperilled by many grave dangers and crises. But these will sit unresolved as long as we are scattered and divided. What Leslie Feinberg’s words, spoken and printed 20 years ago remind us is that a movement built on either cheap unity or calcified divisions is doomed either to fail or succeed in making our lives all the more miserable. “Constantly flying in huge circles.” Yes. At least until we remember all the names, far more than 100,000, and learn what history, what their voices, are telling us so insistently.

Notes:

I gently adapted Leslie Feinberg’s words to fit a more dialogic format without, I believe, twisting their meaning. All the references are here, though, for the curious.

  1. Leslie Feinberg, “Learning from Experience,” in Trans Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 119.
  2. Ibid, 58.
  3. Ibid, 128.
  4. Ibid, 127.

Quick Reflections on Kosaku Yoshino: Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan

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Unfortunately, Kosaku Yoshino’s book Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan ended up being an academic sociology book, the type that I know and dread. I have no issues with sociology as such––though I certainly agree with many of Gramsci’s criticisms of it and appreciate that it has been used as a wedge for pushing Marxism out of intellectual life in the global North––but I find its methods of presentation difficult to enjoy or take an interest in. That said, I did promise some kind of written piece on the book so I will highlight two of the book’s positive contributions

1. Discussions of how academic ideas, esp. nihonjinron are disseminated through intermediate layers in capitalist society:

Though its primary focus is on the semi-popular academic genre known as nihonjinron, which is a discourse around Japanese uniqueness. It seeks to explain the peculiarities of modern Japanese society, it also discusses the dynamics of how these ideas reach a mass audience and the role of capitalists in popularizing and consuming them. Nihonjinron typically depends on an assumption of the immutability and impenetrability of Japanese culture, which is deemed quite subtle and inaccessible to foreigners without Japanese blood. It analyzes Japanese society as a reflection of pre-industrial social forms like village communities and caste hierarchies.

What the book’s case studies show is that businessmen are highly receptive to the ideas of nihonjinron as well as being some of their most popular producers. This discourse, as the book notes, could take either a self-critical and downcast form––prevalent in the immediate postwar period––or the more recent bullish and nationalistic version that seeks, at least in part, to explain Japan’s “miraculous” economic success. Yoshino posits that the businessmen see value in these ideas as reinforcements of their own practical and empirical knowledge. In other words, as affirmations of their own individual experiences in running capitalist enterprises. Nihonjinron, in fact, often acts as a manual for managing group and employee relations within enterprises. Given the prestige of Japanese business and its “companyist” social structure, these ideas then naturally acquire a certain legitimacy, particularly since they also mesh well with the resurgence of political nationalism in Japan, although the book only discusses cultural nationalism. The book even notes that even educators and school administrators were more willing to give credence to the writings of capitalist businessmen than academics on a given topic since they had “practical experience” in contact with foreigners and group work.

So, in sum, I appreciate the book’s acknowledgement that the capitalist class generates its own organic intellectuals outside of institutionalized education systems, and that these intellectuals possess a strong pull in a situation of capitalist class hegemony, though the book doesn’t use these terms.

2. Insights into the importance of immediate social ties in the formation of ideology and values:

Though this comes up late in the book and only briefly, the book mentions that there is considerable evidence to suggest that the most important determinant of the influence of nationalism and culture in people’s lives is their immediate connection with other people. Social practices and rituals that form affective ties between people help to solidify groups and create common cultures and ways of thinking. This suggests that ideology, as we should remember, is not just a spectre in the realm of the ideas but rather embodied in practical objects, art, and formal rituals/activities. By understanding these aspects of social development, we can more clearly grasp what is required of those who want to build an alternative, proletarian hegemony.

Rob Steven: Japan’s New Imperialism

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Structure of this post:

Intro:

Japan’s New Imperialism was published in 1990, about 26 years ago, and largely reflects research done in the few years immediately prior to that. That makes it about 30 years old. Books about the Japanese economy before the collapse of the Bubble and the beginning of the long deflationary spiral that followed are of course limited in value. Even so, I picked up Steven’s book because I need to trace the historical development of Japanese capitalism and its international entanglements. It’s one of the few Marxist account of the growth of Japanese capital exports to the Asian mainland, and I appreciated it on that level despite some criticisms I’ll lay out further down in the review.

It should also be noted that the focus of the book is not on Japanese imperialism as a whole but rather, as Steven writes, “focused almost entirely on foreign investment and joint ventures.”¹ So while it mentions other mechanisms and institutions of imperialism, like unequal exchange and interstate relations, these are secondary to its focus on firm-level relationships. It tries to explicate the Japanese ruling class’ overall strategy to extricate itself from a particular crisis with a turn to exporting manufacturing capacity to Asia, and that is the narrative forming the backbone of the book. Those looking for more insight into other questions will find them relegated to an auxiliary role here.

Theoretical Questions:

Steven starts his introduction by demarcating his position in Marxist studies of imperialism. He sees two major conflicting camps: the world-systems thinkers––he groups Wallerstein and Amin in this group, among others––and more traditional mode of production thinkers (Szymanski being an example). He identifies himself with the latter group, seeing imperialism as “the attempt of a ruling class to solve conflicts with its own working class by moving abroad to exploit foreign workers.”² He decries world system theorists as economist for collapsing the entire capitalist world into the realm of commodity exchange. They are mistaken, he argues, in seeing imperialism as a function of a global system-wide logic rather than a mostly uncoordinated agglomeration of different ruling class schemes to deal with their own domestic issues.

The merit of Steven’s approach is that it appreciates the continued bedrock importance of individual states in the regulation and coordination of international capital and his point about each ruling class seeking to deal with labour issues by exporting capital is well taken. He rightly argues that the world is not one integrated mode of production differentiated geographically into a centre and a periphery. He argues that unequal exchange is a real phenomenon, but denies that it has any pivotal role to play in a system of imperialism that prefers the mechanisms of foreign direct investment.

My problem with this position is that he seems to reject the idea of a global capitalist system simply because he perceives that the dominant form of that theory is economist. And yet Samir Amin, one of those he accuses of having this viewpoint, does not reject the importance of individual states or of their domestic class struggles, but rather sees them as key parts of a system that nevertheless has a global logic and scope. If we are to believe that the relations between states are fundamentally only/mostly the product of each of their internal problems, it relegates the whole ensemble of interstate relations to a kind of anarchy (and not a good kind) where chains of alliances or blocs of states are only ever conjunctural and never constitutive of any systemic logic that supersedes their own internal issues.

I don’t believe that Steven’s approach to the problem is entirely wrong, of course, and he even concedes the increasing importance of unequal exchange and the persistence of imperialist rents on raw materials. But he also fails to recognize that the “world capitalist system,” while still not being one single mode of production, can and does emerge from the forces that originate in particular countries. Many countries both produce and obey the logic of a global system, which is not reducible to its components, much like other social units. We don’t need to say that there is a single undifferentiated mode of production on the planet to claim that world capitalism is governed to some extent by a structure that supersedes individual states, that accumulation and imperialism compel nation-states to act in certain ways that can be systematized the same way (but not with identical results) that capitalist relations on a national level are.

Empirical Case Studies:

The core of the book, however, is not concerned with these theoretical issues, as much as I find them fascinating. The bulk of Japan’s New Imperialism is taken up by a discussion of the endaka fukyō (円高不況)or high-yen crisis of the mid and late 1980s. This crisis was caused by the appreciation of the yen against the US dollar and other currencies, which undermined Japanese capital’s ability to suppress their own working class’ wages and keep production facilities in domestic territory. As a solution, the Japanese ruling class stepped up their export of manufacturing capital to the country’s regional periphery, especially South Korea and Southeast Asian countries. The crisis posed a set of problems that required the capitalists to find a quick solution. As the book shows, this solution was largely to reproduce the conditions of the Japanese working class abroad, thus using a “spatial fix” to continue growing accumulation. It does not really solve the problem but merely expands the scope of the original cause of the crisis.

In each of the case studies that follow a description of the high yen crisis and its context amidst the peculiar shape of capitalist relations in Japan (paternalism, strong full-time labour aristocracy, reliance on countless exploitable subcontracted workers and women temps, authoritarian education system, bureaucratic/corporate control of the state), Steven plumbs a huge amount of data to show how each case fits the pattern. Japanese capital needed to discipline its workers at home and therefore hollowed out manufacturing capacity in the centre, exporting its lower-tech operations to the peripheries, which built components for higher-level assembly work still done in Japan. It was far cheaper to exploit low-cost workers in Southeast Asia or the Mexican maquiladoras to produce car parts and then import those parts from one branch of a company to another.

But while this “industrialized” the regional peripheral countries, Japan was able to hold onto a monopoly of technology, exporting capacity but using favourable trade agreements, debt, and aid to control the terms of the transfer. What Steven does not do is show that there is a transfer of value from one country to another, instead focusing on how Japanese capitalists extract value from foreign workers and use them as a bludgeon to divide the working class at home and create “labour flexibility,” i.e. unemployment.

Still, all of these case studies are data-rich and worth reading, since they are not simply present snapshots of economic performance but are grounded in the historical and geographical specifics of each case. In his discussion of South Korea, for example, he discusses the importance of Korean nationalism and the concessions that Japanese capital had to make to the Korean state and nationalistic businesses in the country in order to do business. Or the opposite case in the comprador city-state of Singapore, where Japanese capital has been invited in to set up a regional clearing house for the realization of capital.

Whatever problems I have at the level of theory, and the inevitable issues with readability that accompany the sheer density of facts and figures here (at least supplemented with good graphs and charts), the book is a sturdy addition to anyone’s study of how Japanese imperialism changed and expanded at the end of the 1980s.

Notes:

1. Rob Steven, Japan’s New Imperialism (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 1990), 4.

2. Ibid, 3.

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