Joseph Schumpeter

Joseph Schumpeter sees the process of “creative destruction” as the essential dynamic of capitalism. Entrepreneurs turn the market upside-down with their innovations, forcing the adoption of new patterns of production and consumption. Schumpeter, in contrast to the orthodox neoclassical economists, has little use for the idealizations of “perfect competition,” or for the putative rationality of the free market. He ridicules the notion of market equilibrium, and sees little value in the efficiency that results when firms selling similar products compete on the basis of price, performance, and marginal advantage. Schumpeter prefers monopolies and oligopolies, with their ability to realize economies of scale, to standardize production, and to take advantage of their control of the market in order to nurture innovations that might not be immediately profitable.

Schumpeter is the only right-wing, pro-capitalist economist of note to give Marx his due as a thinker. His theory of “creative destruction” is an expansion of Marx’s insight that capitalism can only work by continually revolutionizing the relations of production. For Schumpeter, the competition that really matters –- in contrast to mere price competition –- is that which a given product faces “from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization.” Even monopolies can collapse overnight when faced with this sort of unexpected shift. The “ever-present threat” of innovation from outside compels monopolies and oligopolies to stay on full alert and seek to expand their business, rather than simply raising prices and restricting supply. The neoclassical notion of equilibrium is nonsense, because capitalism is “an evolutionary process. . . [that] not only never is but never can be stationary.” Schumpeter clearly means “evolutionary” here in a Darwinian sense. Capitalism, he writes, is a “process of industrial mutation – if I may use that biological term – that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”

There’s an irony here that needs unpacking. The neo-Darwinian synthesis in contemporary biology is grounded in a vision of harsh competition under conditions of scarcity. Yet it emphasizes stability and continuity rather than revolution and destruction. It assumes that organisms are basically conservative. It tends to regard the organism’s external environment (or the “fitness landscape” defined by that environment) as essentially stable; it underestimates both the mutability of the environment, and the self-reflexive feedback effects that organisms have on their own environments. Instead, it calculates Evolutionarily Stable Strategies, using equilibrium models that are borrowed from neoclassical economics, and ultimately from 19th-century, pre-quantum and pre-complexity, physics. Schumpeter’s biological analogy, to the contrary, involves catastrophic destructions and dislocations. Stability is only a relative and temporary condition, a lull in between moments of radical mutation. Schumpeter even seems to anticipate the Eldredge-Gould theory of punctuated equilibrium: “these revolutions are not strictly incessant; they occur in discrete rushes that are separated from each other by spans of comparative quiet. The process as a whole works incessantly, however, in the sense that there always is either revolution or absorption of the results of revolution, both together forming what are known as business cycles.” In biology, it can at least be argued that punctuated equilibrium does not really contradict Darwinian gradualism, and can be folded into the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But in Schumpeter’s case, no such reconciliation with the neoclassical model is possible. The irony is that, during the Internet bubble of the late 1990s, Schumpeter’s celebration of entrepreneurship and “creative destruction” became popular right alongside the neoliberal faith in perfectly rational and efficient markets –- despite the radical incompatibility of these viewpoints.

Schumpeter refuses to minimize the dislocations and inequities caused by the process of creative destruction: “any pro-capitalist argument must rest on long-term considerations. In the short run, it is profits and inefficiencies that dominate the picture. In order to accept his lot, the leveler or the chartist of old would have had to comfort himself with hopes for his great-grandchildren. In order to identify himself with the capitalist system, the unemployed of today would have completely to forget his personal fate and the politician of today his personal ambition.” This argument is remarkably bracing and contrarian, especially in contrast to the usual neoliberal paeans to the perfection of the market. Schumpeter is indeed arguing that “trickle- down” economics works, that a rising tide ultimately lifts all boats, and that the immiseration of the British working class noted by Engels in 1844 was in the long run not a bad thing, because it led to a somewhat higher standard of living for British workers a hundred years later. But at least he doesn’t tell me – as Thomas Friedman does – that I myself will be made happier by living in a world without any social guarantees, and that I ought to feel grateful for the opportunity to raise my productivity by working longer hours for less pay.

There is reason to wonder, of course, whether the distant future that Schumpeter promises to my great-grandchildren will ever actually arrive. For if capitalism survives, the cycles of creative destruction will still be going on then too, and the promise of prosperity for all will continue to be deferred indefinitely. If, however, as Schumpeter fears, capitalism itself were to “become atrophic” and disappear, then there would no longer be any innovation or material progress at all: “human energy would turn away from business. Other than economic pursuits would attract the brains and provide the adventure.” I must say that such a prospect seems quite delightful to me; but Schumpeter regards it with unqualified disgust. Indeed, he scarcely distinguishes between the inertia of bureaucratic socialism, which he loathes, and the actual fulfillment of capitalism’s long-deferred promises of abundance. Nothing seems worse to him than “a state of satiety” in which “the wants of humanity might some day be so completely satisfied that little motive would be left to push productive effort still further ahead.” And the only thing that can rescue us from such a state, he adds, is the infinite restlessness of desire itself: “as higher standards of life are attained, these wants automatically expand and new wants emerge or are created. . . particularly if we include leisure among consumers’ goods” (131). This is again a remarkable piece of contrarianism. Usually, social critics (like Stuart Ewen) attack capitalism for colonizing leisure, and for soliciting artificial desires; while defenders of capitalism (like Virginia Postrel) indignantly reject these charges, and insist that the market gives us everything we truly want. But Schumpeter has the perversity to celebrate capitalism precisely for its creation of artificial “new wants,” and for its commodification of leisure time.

All this suggests that Schumpeter values the process of creative destruction itself, more than he does any long-term prosperity that might arise therefrom. Indeed, one might wonder whether he cares about prosperity at all. His glorification of capitalism centers on the heroic image of the entrepreneur; and this image, like the idea of “creative destruction” itself, owes far more to Nietzsche than it does to Adam Smith. Schumpeter’s entrepreneur is a charismatic figure, whose injection of new energy rescues the capitalist system from its otherwise fatal entropic tendencies (I’ve benefitted for this point from some suggestions by Douglas Collins). His deeds “lie outside of the routine tasks which everybody understands.” The entrepreneur, like the man of Nietzsche’s fantasized master race, acts spontaneously, without reflection or resentment. “The function of entrepreneurs,” Schumpeter says, “is to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production”: this function “does not essentially consist in either inventing anything or otherwise creating the conditions which the enterprise exploits. It consists in getting things done” despite massive opposition. In all these ways, Schumpeter’s entrepreneur is not really a bourgeois figure at all, but a mythical aristocratic one.

Conversely, Schumpeter’s picture of the “state of satiety,” of a socialist world without entrepreneurs to shake things up, is just like Nietzsche’s vision of the Last Man: “One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. . . We have invented happiness, say the last men, and they blink.” Schumpeter as for Nietzsche, socialism is basically bourgeois conformism and complacency writ large. Schumpeter’s analysis of the dynamics of capitalism traces the way that the very success of heroic entrepreneurship leads to the creation of an atmosphere in which entrepreneurship is no longer valued, and in which modishly left-wing intellectuals come to increasing prominence. By “intellectuals,” Schumpeter means people like me: “people who wield the power of the spoken and written word. . . [in] the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs,” and who therefore have the leisure to despise capitalist values despite (or because of) the fact that they are themselves the beneficiaries –- and indeed the product –- of those very values.

Schumpeter holds intellectuals in contempt, because they make judgments, and seek to legislate for society at large, without being accountable for the practical consequences of these judgments. In other words, the intellectuals’ judgments are contemplative, disinterested, and therefore –- in Kantian terms –- aesthetic. Schumpeter, no less than many Marxists, equates aestheticism with passive consumption, detached from any involvement in the actual processes of production. Schumpeter’s intellectual, like Nietzsche’s Last Man, is a mere consumer: someone who lives under the rule of universal equivalence, who lacks even the desire to make a difference. Who lacks desire altogether, in short, and who is incapable of an act of creative destruction.

But the impasse of Schumpeter’s own thought is a mirror image of the malady he diagnoses in his enemies. Creative destruction comes to grief over the fact that its outcome is just more commodities, more fodder for the regime of universal equivalence. All charisma is quickly routinized. The heroic individualism that Schumpeter glorifies is dissolved by its very success. Nobody is going to confuse Sam Walton, or Bill Gates, with the Übermensch. If Schumpeter’s bitter prophecy of capitalism’s decline has not come to pass, this is because such a “decline” is in fact the normative state of actually existing, and fully triumphant, capitalism.


I just finished reading Isabelle Stengers’ great book Cosmopolitiques (originally published in seven brief volumes, now available in two paperbacks; unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English). It’s a dense and rich book, of something like 650 pages, and it’s forced me to rethink a lot of things. I’ve said before that I think Stengers is our best guide to the “science wars” of the last decade or two, and more generally, to the philosophy of science. In Cosmopolitiques, she massively extends and expands upon what she wrote in earlier books like The Invention of Modern Science.

Stengers, like Bruno Latour, wants us to give up the claim to absolute supremacy that is the greatest legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. The point is not to abandon science, nor to see it (in cultural-relativist terms) as lacking objective validity. The problem is not with science’s actual, particular positive claims; but rather with its pretensions to universality, its need to deny the validity of all claims and practices other than its own. What Stengers, rightly, wants to take down is the “mobilization” of science as a war machine, which can only make its positive claims by destroying all other discourses and points of view: science presenting itself as rational and as objectively “true,” whereas all other discourses are denounced as superstitious, irrational, grounded in mere “belief,” etc. Stengers isn’t opposing genetics research, for instance, but she is opposing the claim that somehow the “truth” of “human nature” can be found in the genome and nowhere else. She’s opposing Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience” (with its at proclamation that positive science can and will replace psychology, literature, philosophy, religion, and all other “humanistic” forms of knowledge) and Steven Pinker’s reductive, naive and incredibly arrogant and pretentious account of “how the mind works”; not to mention the absurd efforts of “quantitative” social scientists (economists, political scientists, and sociologists) to imagine themselves as arriving at “truth” by writing equations that emulate those of physics.

Stengers wants to understand science in the specificity of its practices, and thereby to reject its transcendent claims, its claims to foundational status which are always made by detaching it from its actual, concrete practices. She defines her own approach as, philosophically, a “constructivist” one. Constructivism in philosophy is non-foundationalist: it denies that truth somehow comes first, denies that it is just there in the world or in the mind. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced through various processes and practices. This does not mean that truth is merely a subjective, human enterprise, either: the practices and processes that produce truths are not just human ones. (Here, Stengers draws profitably upon Whitehead, about whom she has written extensively). For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own, as it were, so that they remain “answerable” for their actions in the world independently of the laboratory conditions under which they were initially elucidated. This is what makes neutrinos and microbes, for instance, different from codes of justice, or from money, or from ancestral spirits that may be haunting someone. The point of the constructivist approach is to see how these differences work, without thereby asserting that scientific objects are therefore objective, and out there in the world, while all the other sorts of objects would be merely subjective or imaginary or irrational or just inside our heads. The point is not to say that scientific objects are “socially constructed” rather than “objectively true,” but precisely to get away from this binary alternative, when it comes to considering either scientific practices and objects, or (for instance) religious practices and objects.

The other pillar of Stengers’ approach is what she calls an “ecology of practices.” This means considering how particular practices — the practices of science, in particular — impinge upon and relate to other practices that simultaneously exist. This means that the question of what science discovers about the world cannot be separated from the question of how science impinges upon the world. For any particular practice — say, for genetics today — the “ecology of practices” asks what particular demands or requirements (exigences in French, which it’s difficult to translate precisely because the cognate English word, “exigency”, sound kind of weird) are made by the practice, and what particular obligations does the practice impose upon those who practice it, make use of it, or get affected by it.

Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to distinguish between science as a creative enterprise, a practice of invention and discovery, and science’s modernist claim to invalidate all other discourses. Actually, such a statement is too broad — for Stengers also distinguishes among various sciences, which are not all alike. The assumptions and criteria, and hence the demands and obligations, of theoretical physics are quite different from those of ethology (the study of animal behavior, which has to take place in the wild, where there is little possibility of controlling for “variables,” as well as under laboratory conditions). The obligations one takes on when investigating chimpanzees, and all the more so human beings, are vastly different from the obligations one takes on when investigating neutrinos or chemical reactions. The demands made by scientific practices (such as the demand that the object discovered not be just an “artifact” of a particular experimental setup) also vary from one practice to another. Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to situate the relevance and the limits of various scientific practices, without engaging in critique: that is to say, without asserting the privilege of a transcendent(al) perspective on the basis of which the varying practices are judged.

Much of Cosmopolitiques is concerned with a history of physics, from Galileo through quantum mechanics. Stengers focuses on the question of physical “laws.” She looks especially at the notion of equilibrium, and the modeling of dynamic systems. Starting with Galileo, going through Newton and Leibniz, and then continuing throughout the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, there is a continual growth in the power of mathematical idealizations to describe physical systems. Physicists construct models that work under simplified conditions — ignoring the presence of friction, for instance, when describing spheres rolling down a plane (Galileo) or more generally, motion through space. They then add the effects of “perturbations” like friction as minor modifications of the basic model. Gradually, more and more complex models were developed, which allowed for more and more factors to be incorporated within the models themselves, instead of having to be left outside as mere “perturbations.” These models all assume physical “states” that can be said to exist at an instant, independently of the historical development of the systems in question; and they assume a basic condition of equilibrium, often perturbed but always returned to.

Stengers suggests that we should celebrate these accomplishments as triumphs of scientific imagination and invention. At the same time, she points up the baleful effects of these accomplishments, in terms of how they got (metaphorically) transferred to other physical and scientific realms. The success of models, expressible as physical “laws,” has to do with the particular sorts of questions 19th-century dynamics addressed (having to do with the nature of forces in finite interactions that could be treated mathematically with linear equations). The success of dynamics, however, led physicists to expect that the same procedures would be valid in answering other questions. This extension of the dynamic model beyond the field of its experimental successes, and into other realms, led to the general assumption that all physical processes could similarly be modeled in terms of instantaneous “states” and time-invariant transformations of these states. That is to say, the assumption that all physical processes follow deterministic “laws.” When the “perturbations” that deviate from the ideal cannot be eliminated empirically, this is attributed to the mere limitations of our knowledge, with the assertion that the physical world “really” operates in accordance with the idealized model, which thereby takes precedence over merely empirical observations. This is how physics moved from empirical observation to a quasi-Platonic faith in an essence underlying mere appearances.

It’s because of this underlying idealism, this illicit transference of dynamic modelling into realms that are not suited to it, that the ideology of physics as describing the ultimate nature of “reality” has taken so strong a hold on us today. Thus physicists dismiss the apparent irreversibility of time, and the increase of entropy (disorder) in any closed system, as merely artifacts of our subjectivity, which is to say our ignorance (of the fact that we do not have access to perfect and total information about the physical state of every atom). But Stengers points out the arbitrariness of the generally accepted “statistical” interpretation of entropy; she argues that it is warranted only by physicists’ underlying assumption that the ideal situation of total knowability of every individual atom’s location and path, independent of the atoms’ history of interactions, must obtain everywhere. This ideal is invoked as how nature “really” behaves, even if there is no empirical possibility of obtaining the “knowledge” that the ideal assumes.

There are similar problems in quantum mechanics. Most physicists are not content with Bohr’s injunction not to ask what is “really” going on before the collapse of quantum indeterminacy; they can’t accept that total, deterministic knowledge is an impossibility, so they have recourse to all sorts of strange hypotheses, from multiple worlds to “hidden variables.” But following Nancy Cartwright among others, Stengers suggests that the whole problem of indeterminacy and measurement in quantum mechanics is a false one. Physicists don’t like the fact that quantum mechanics forbids us in principle from having exact knowledge of every particle, as it were independently of our interaction with the particles (since we have to choose, for instance, between knowing the position of an electron and knowing its momentum — we can’t have both, and it is our interaction with the electron that determines which we do find out). But Stengers points out that the limits of our knowledge in quantum mechanics are not really any greater than, say, the limits of my knowledge as to what somebody else is really feeling and thinking. It’s only the physicists’ idealizing assumption of the world’s total knowability and total determinability in accordance with “laws” that leads them to be frustrated and dissatisfied by the limits imposed by quantum mechanics.

Now, my summary of the last two paragraphs has actually done a disservice to Stengers. Because I have restated her analyses in a Kantian manner, as a reflection upon the limits of reason. But for Stengers, such an exercise in transcendental critique is precisely what she wants to get away from; since such a critique means that once again modernist rationality is legislating against practices whose claims differ from its own. She seeks, rather, through constructivism and the ecology of practices, to offer what might be called (following Deleuze) an entirely immanent critique, one that is situated within the very field of practices that it is seeking to change. Stengers exemplifies this with a detailed account of the work of Ilya Prigogine, with whom she collaborated in the 1980s. Prigogine sought, for most of his career, to get the “arrow of time” — the irreversibility of events in time — recognized as among the fundamentals of physics. We cultural studies types tend to adopt Prigogine wholeheartedly for our own critical purposes. But Stengers emphasizes the difficulties that result from the fact that Prigogine is not critiquing physics and chemistry, but seeking to point up the “arrow of time” in such a way that the physicists themselves will be compelled to acknowledge it. To the extent that he is still regarded as a fringe figure by most mainstream scientists, it cannot be said that he succeeded. Stengers points to recent developments in studies of emergence and complexity as possibly pointing to a renovation of scientific thought, but she warns against the new-agey or high-theoretical tendency many of us outside the sciences have to proclaim a new world-view by trumpeting these scientific results as evidence: which means both translating scientific research into “theory” way too uncritically, and engaging in a kind of Kantian critique, instead of remaining within the immanence of the ecology of actual practices, with the demands they make and the obligations they impose.

The biggest question Cosmopolitiques leaves me with is precisely the one of whether it is possible to approach all these questions immanently, without bringing some sort of Kantian critique back into the picture (as I find myself unavoidably tempted to do, even when I am just trying to summarize Stengers’ arguments). One could also pose this question in reverse: whether Kantian critique (in the sense I am using it, which goes back to the Transcendental Dialectic of the First Critique, where Kant tries to use rationality to limit the pretensions of reason itself) can be rescued from Stengers’ objections to the modernist/scientific condemnation of all claims other than its own. The modernist gesture par excellence, in Stengers’ account, would be David Hume’s consignment of theology and speculative philosophy to the flames, as containing “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Are Kant’s Antinomies and Paralogisms making essentiallly the same gesture? I regard this as a crucial question, and as an open one, something I have only begun to think about.

I have another question about Stengers’ conclusions, one that (I think) follows from that about Kantian critique. Stengers urges us (in the last section of her book) “to have done with tolerance”; because “tolerance” is precisely the condescending attitude by which “we” (scientists, secular modernists in general) make allowances for other world-views which we nonetheless refuse to take seriously. Stengers’ vision, like Latour’s, is radically democratic: science is not a transcending “truth” but one of many “interests” which constantly need to negotiate with one another. This can only happen if all the competing interests are taken seriously (not merely “tolerated”), and actively able to intervene with and against one another. To give an example that Stengers herself doesn’t use: think of the recent disputes over “Kennewick Man” — a 9,000-year-old skull discovered in 1999 near the Columbia River in Washington State. Scientists want to study the remains; Native American groups want to give the remains a proper burial. For the most part, the American press presented the dispute as one between the rational desire to increase our store of knowledge and the irrational, archaic “beliefs” of the “tribes” claiming ownership of the skull. Stengers would have us realize that such an indivious distinction is precisely an instance of scientific imperialism, and that the claims of both the scientists and the native groups — the demands they make and the obligations they feel urged to fulfill — need to be negotiated on an equal basis, that both are particular interests, and both are political: the situation cannot be described as a battle between rationality and superstition, or between “knowledge” and “belief.”

In this way, Stengers (and Latour) are criticising, not just Big Science, but also (and perhaps even more significantly) the default assumptions of post-Enlightenment secular liberalism. Their criticism is quite different from that espoused by such thinkers as Zizek and Badiou; but there is a shared rejection of the way that liberal “tolerance” (the “human face,” you might say, of multinational captial) in fact prevents substantive questions from being asked, and substantive change from happening. This is another Big Issue that I am (again) only beginning to think through, and that I will have to return to in future posts. But as regards Stengers, my real question is this: Where do Stengers’ and Latour’s anti-modernist imperatives leave us, when it comes to dealing with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the United States today? Does the need to deprivilege science’s claims to exclusive truth, and to democratically recognize other social/cultural/political claims, mean, for instance, that we need to give full respect to the claims of “intelligent design” or creationism, and let them negotiate on an equal footing with the claims of evolutionary theory? To say that we shouldn’t tolerate the fundamentalists because they themselves are intolerant is no answer. And I’m not sure that to say, as I have said before, that denying the evolution of species is akin to denying the Holocaust — since both are matters of historical events, rather than of (verifiable or falsifiable) theories — I’m not sure that this answer works either. I realize I am showing my own biases here: it’s one thing to uphold the claims of disenfranchised native peoples, another to uphold the claims of a group that I think is oppressing me as much as they think I and my like are oppressing them. But this is really where the aporia comes for me; where I am genuinely uncertain as to the merits of Stengers’ arguments in comparison to the liberal “tolerance” she so powerfully despises.

Confidence Games

Mark C. Taylor’s Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption is erudite, entertaining, and intellectually wide-ranging — and it has the virtue of dealing with a subject (money and markets) that rarely gets enough attention from people deeply into pomo theory. Why, then, did I find myself so dissatisfied with the book?

Taylor is a postmodern, deconstructionist theologian — if that makes any sense, and in fact when reading him it does — who has written extensively about questions of faith and belief in a world without a center or foundations. Here he writes about the relations between religion, art, and money — or, more philosophically, between theology, aesthetics, and economics. He starts with a consideration of William Gaddis’ underrated and underdiscussed novels The Recognitions and JR (the latter of which he rightly praises as one of the most crucial and prophetic reflections on late-20th-century American culture: in a book published in 1975, Gaddis pretty much captures the entire period from the deregulation and S&L scams of the Reagan 80s through the Enron fiasco of just a few years ago: nailing down both the crazy economic turbulence and fiscal scamming, and its influence on the larger culture). From Gaddis, Taylor moves on to the history of money, together with the history of philosophical reflections upon money. He’s especially good on the ways in which theological speculation gets transmuted into 18th and 19th century aesthetics, and on how both theological and aesthetic notions get subsumed into capitalistic visions of “the market.” In particular, he traces the Calvinist (as well as aestheticist) themes that stand behind Adam Smith’s vision of the “invisible hand” that supposedly ensures the proper functioning of the market.

The second half of Taylor’s book moves towards an account of how today’s “postmodern” economic system developed, in the wake of Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, the Fed’s conversion from Keynesianism to monetarism in 1979, and the general adoption of “neoliberal” economics throughout the world in the 1980s and 1990s. The result of these transformations is the dematerialization of money (since it is no longer tied to gold) and the replacement of a “real” economy by a “virtual” one, in which money becomes a series of ungrounded signs that only refer to one another. Money, in Taylor’s account, has always had something uncanny about it — because, as a general equivalent or medium of exchange, it is both inside and outside the circuits of the items (commodities) being exchanged; money is a liminal substance that grounds the possibility of fixed categories and values, but precisely for that reason, doesn’t itself quite fit into any category, or have any autonomous value. But with the (re-)adoption of free-market fundamentalism in the 1980s, together with the explosive technological changes of the late 20th century — the growth of telecommunications and of computing power that allow for global and entirely ‘fictive’ monetary flows — this all kicks into much higher gear: money becomes entirely “spectral.” Taylor parallels this economic mutation to similar experiences of ungroundedness, and of signs that do not refer to anything beyond themselves, in the postmodern architecture of Venturi and after, in the poststructuralist philosophy of Derrida (at least by Taylor’s somewhat simplistic interpretation of him), and more generally in all facets of our contemporary culture of sampling, appropriation, and simulation. (Though Taylor only really seems familiar with high art, which has its own peculiar relationship to money; he mentions the Guggenheim Museum opening a space in Las Vegas, but — thankfully perhaps — is silent on hiphop, television, or anything else that might be classified as “popular culture”).

I think that Taylor’s parallels are a bit too facile and glib, and underrate the complexity and paradoxicality of our culture of advertising and simulation — but that’s not really the core of my problem with the book. My real differences are — to use Taylor’s own preferred mode of expression — theological ones. I think that Taylor is far too idolatrous in his regard for “the market” and for money, which traditional religion has seen as Mammon, but which he recasts as a sort of Hermes Trismegistus or trickster figure (though he doesn’t directly use this metaphor), as well as a Christological mediator between the human and the divine. Taylor says, convincingly, that economics cannot be disentangled from religion, because any economic system ultimately requires faith — it is finally only faith that gives money its value. But I find Taylor’s faith to be troublingly misplaced: it is at the antipodes from any form of fundamentalism, but for this very reason oddly tends to coincide with it. In postmodern society, money is the Absolute, or the closest that we mortals can come to an Absolute. (Taylor complacently endorses the hegelian dialectic of opposites, without any of the sense of irony that a contemporary christianophile hegelian like Zizek brings to the dialectic). Where fundamentalists seek security, grounding, and redemption, Taylor wants to affirm uncertainty and risk “in a world without redemption.” But this means that the turbulence and ungroundedness of the market makes it the locus for a quasi-religious Nietzschean affirmation (“risk, uncertainty, and insecurity, after all, are pulses of life” — 331) which is ultimately not all that far from the Calvinist faith that everything is in the hands of the Lord.

Taylor at one point works through Marx’s account of the self-valorization of capital; for Taylor, “Marx implicitly draws on Kant’s aesthetics and Hegel’s philosophy” when he describes capital’s “self-renewing circular exchange” (109). That is to say, Marx’s account of capital logic has the same structure as Kant’s organically self-validating art object, or Hegel’s entire system. (Taylor makes much of Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel). What Taylor leaves out of his account, however, is the part where Marx talks about the appropriation of surplus value, which is to say what capital does in the world in order to generate and perpetuate this process of “self-valorization.” I suggest that this omission is symptomatic. In his history of economics, Taylor moves from Adam Smith to such mid-20th-century champions of laissez faire as Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek; but he never mentions, for instance, Ricardo, who (like Marx after him) was interested in production and consumption, rather than just circulation.

Now, simply to say — as most orthodox Marxists would do — that Taylor ignores production, and the way that circulation is grounded in production, is a more “fundamentalist” move than I would wish to make. Taylor is right to call attention to the eerily ungrounded nature of contemporary finance. Stock market prices are largely disconnected from any underlying economic performance of the companies whose stocks are being traded; speculation on derivatives and other higher-order financial instruments, which have even less relation to actual economic activity, have largely displaced productive investment as the main “business” of financial markets today. But Taylor seems to celebrate this process as a refutation of Marx and Marxism (except to the extent that Marx himself unwittingly endorses the self-valorization of capital, by describing it in implicitly aesthetic and theological terms). Taylor tends to portray Marx as an old-school fundamentalist who is troubled by the way that money’s fluidity and “spectrality” undermine metaphysical identities and essences. But this is a very limited and blinkered (mis)reading of Marx. For Marx himself begins Capital with the notorious discussion of the immense abstracting power of commodities and money. And subsequently, Marx insists on the way that circuits of finance tend, in an advanced capitalist system, to float free of their “determinants” in use-value and labor. The autonomous “capital-logic” that Marx works out in Volumes 2 & 3 of Capital is much more true today than it ever was in Marx’s own time. Marx precisely explores the consequences of these developments without indulging in any “utopian-socialist” nostalgia for a time of primordial plenitude, before money matters chased us out of the Garden.

Let me try to put this in another way. The fact that postmodern financial speculation is (quite literally) ungrounded seems to mean, for Taylor, that it is therefore also free of any extraneous consequences or “collateral damage” (Taylor actually uses this phrase as the title of one section of the book, playing on the notion of “collateral” for loans but not considering any extra-financial effects of financial manipulations). Much of the latter part of Confidence Games is concerned with efforts by financiers and economists, in the 1980s and 1990s, to manage and minimize risk; and with their inability to actually do so. Taylor spends a lot of time, in particular, on the sorry story of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), the investment firm that went bankrupt so spectacularly in 1998. After years of mega-profits, LTCM got called on its outrageously leveraged investments, found that it couldn’t repay any of its loans, and had to be bailed out to avoid a domino effect leading to worldwide financial collapse. In Taylor’s view, there’s a kind of moral lesson in this: LTCM wanted to make hefty profits without taking the concomitant risks; but eventually the risks caught up with them, in a dramatic movement of neo-Calvinist retribution, a divine balancing of the books. Taylor doesn’t really reflect on the fact that the “risks” weren’t really all that great for the financiers of LTCM themselves: they lost their paper fortunes, but they didn’t literally lose their shirts or get relegated to the poorhouse. Indeed their losses were largely covered, in order to protect everyone else, who would have suffered from the worldwide economic collapse that they almost triggered. The same holds, more recently, for Enron. Ken Lay got some sort of comeuppance when Enron went under, and (depending on the outcome of his trial) he may even end up having to serve (like Martha Stewart) some minimum-security jail time. But Lay will never be in the destitute position of all the people who lost their life savings and old-age pensions in the fiasco. Gaddis’ JR deals with the cycles of disruption and loss that are triggered by the ungrounded speculations at the center of the novel — but this is one aspect of the text Taylor never talks about.

Taylor sharply criticizes the founding assumptions of mainstream economists and financiers: the ideas that the market is “rational,” and that it tends toward “equilibrium.” And here Taylor is unquestionably right: these founding assumptions — which still pervade mainstream economics in the US and around the world — are indeed nonsensical, as well as noxious. It’s only under ideal, frictionless conditions, that almost never exist in actuality, that Smith’s “invisible hand” actually does operate to create “optimal” outcomes. Marginalist and neoclassical/neoliberal economics is probably the most mystified discipline in the academy today, wedded as it is to the pseudo-rigor of mathematical models borrowed from physics, and deployed in circumstances where none of the idealizations at the basis of physics actually obtain. It’s welcome to see Taylor take on the economists’ “dream of a rationally ordered world” (301), one every bit as out of touch with reality, and as harmful in its effects when people tried to bend the real world to conform to it, as Soviet communism ever was.

But alas — Taylor only dismisses the prevalent neoclassical version of the invisible hand, in order to welcome it back in another form. If the laws of economic equilibrium, borrowed by neoclassical economics from 19th-century physical dynamics, do not work, for Taylor this is because the economy is governed instead by the laws of complex systems, which he borrows from late-20th-century physics in the form of chaos and complexity theory. There is still an invisible hand in Taylor’s account: only now it works through phase transitions and strange attractors in far-from-equilibrium conditions. Taylor thus links the physics of complexity to the free-market theories of F. A. Hayek (Margaret Thatcher’s favorite thinker), for whom the “market” was a perfect information-processing mechanism that calculated optimal outcomes as no “central planning” agency could. According to Hayek’s way of thinking, since any attempt at human intervention in the functioning of the economy — any attempt to alleviate or mitigate circumstances — will necessarily have unintended and uncontrollable consequences, we do best to let the market take its course, with no remorse or regret for the vast amount of human suffering and misery that is created thereby.

Such sado-monetarist cruelty is clearly not Taylor’s intention, but it arises nevertheless from his revised version of the invisible hand, as well as from his determination to separate financial networks from their extra-financial effects. I’ll say it again: the more Taylor celebrates the way that everything is interconnected, and all systems are open, he still maintains a sort of methodological solipsism or blindness to external consequences. The fact that financial networks today (or any other sort of self-perpetuating system of nonreferential signs) are ungrounded self-affecting systems, produced in the unfolding of a “developmental process [that] neither is grounded in nor refers to anything beyond itself” (330) — this fact does not exempt these systems from having extra-systemic consequences: indeed, if anything, the system’s lack of “groundedness” or connection makes the extra-systemic effects all the more intense and virulent. To write off thesse effects as “coevolution,” or as the “perpetual restlessness” of desire, or as a wondrous Nietzschean affirmation of risk, is to be disingenuous at best.

There’s a larger question here, that goes far beyond Taylor. When we think today of networks, or of chaotic systems, we think of patterns that are instantiated indifferently in the most heterogeneous sorts of matter. The same structures, the same movements, the same chaotic bifurcations and phase transitions, are supposedly at work in biological ecosystems, in the weather, and in the stock market. This is the common wisdom of the age — it certainly isn’t specific to Taylor — but it’s an assumption that I increasingly think needs to be criticized. The very fact that the same arguments from theories of chaos/complexity and “self-organization” can be cited with equal relevance by Citibank and by the alterglobalization movement, and can be used to justify both feral capitalism and communal anarchism, should give us pause. For one thing, I don’t think we know yet how well these scientific theories will hold up; they are drastic simplifications, and only time will tell how well they perform, how useful they are, in comparison to the drastic simplifications proposed by the science of, say, the nineteenth century. For another thing, we still need to be dubious about how the idea of the same pattern instantiated indifferently in various sorts of matter is just another extension — powerful in some ways, but severely limiting in others — of Western culture’s tendency to divide mind or meaning from matter, and to devalue the latter. For yet another, we should be very wary of drawing political and ethical consequences from scientific observation and theorization, for usually such drawing-consequences involves a great deal of arbitrariness, as it projects the scientific formulations far beyond the circumstances in which they are meaningful.

Attali’s Noise

Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music made something of a stir when it was published roughly a quarter-century ago (it came out in France in 1977, and in English translation in 1985). Noise comes from a time when “theory” had greater ambitions than it does today; it’s an audacious, ambitious book, linking the production, performance, and consumption of music to fundamental questions of power and order in society. I read it for the first time in many years, in order to see how well it holds up in the 21st century.

Noise presents itself as a “universal history”: it presents a schema of four historical phases, which it claims are valid for all of human history and culture (or at least for European history and culture: Attali, like so many European thinkers, consigns everything that lies outside Europe and its Near Eastern antecedents to a vague and undifferentiated ‘primitive’ category, as if there were no differences worth noting among them, and nothing that any of these other cultures could offer that was different from the European lineage). The mania for “universal history” was strong among late-20th-century Parisian thinkers; both Deleuze & Guattari, and Baudrillard, offer such grand formulations. Though I doubt that any of these schemas are “true” — they leave out too much, oversimplify, reduce the number of actual structural orders — at their best (as, I would argue, in Deleuze & Guattari, in the “Savages, Barbarians, Civilized Men” section of Anti-Oedipus, and in the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus) they are richly suggestive, and help us at least to trace the genealogy of what we take for granted in the present, and to see the contingency of, and the possibility therefore of differing from, what we take for granted in the present. Attali’s “universal history,” however, is much weaker than Deleuze and Guattari’s; it really just consists in shunting everything that is pre-capitalist, or simply non-capitalist, into a single category.

Still, Attali offers some valuable, or at least thought-provoking, insights. Music is the organization of sound; by channelling certain sounds in certain orders, it draws a distinction between sounds that are legitimate, and those that are not: the latter are relegated to the (negative) category of “noise.” Music, like other arts, is often idealized as the imposition of form upon chaos (Wallace Stevens’ “blessed rage for order”). Attali rightly insists that there’s a politics at work here: behind the idealization, there’s an act of exclusion. The history of music can be read as a series of battles for legitimation, disputes over what is acceptable as sound, and what is only “noise” (think of the rise of dissonance in European concert music in the 19th and early 20th centuries: or the way punk in the late 1970s, like many other movements before and since, affirmed “noise” against the gentility of mainstream pop and officially sanctioned rock, or why Public Enemy wanted to “Bring the Noise,” a gesture at once aesthetic and political).

Now, the imposition of order is always a kind of violence, albeit one that claims to put an end to violence. The State has a legal monopoly of violence, and this is what allows it to provide peace and security to its citizens. This is why, as Foucault put it, “the history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.” Attali draws an analogy — actually, more than an analogy, virtually an identity — between the imposition of order in society, and the imposition of sonic order that is music. Social order and musical order don’t just formally resemble one another; since music is inherently social and communal, music as an action (rather than a product), like Orpheus’ taming of the beasts, is itself part of the imposition of order, the suppression of violence by a monopolization of violence. Music excludes the violence of noise (unwanted sound) by violently imposing order upon sound. And music is addressed to everybody — it “interpellates” us into society. Music thus plays a central role in social order — which is why Plato, for instance, was so concerned with only allowing the ‘right’ sorts of music into his Republic; and why the Nazis paid so much attention to music (favoring Wagner and patriotic songs, and banning “degenerate” music like jazz).

Attali specifies this further by assimilating music to sacrifice, as the primordial religious origin of all social order. I find this a powerful and deeply suggestive insight, even though Attali understands the logic of sacrifice in the terms set forth by Rene Girard, rather than in the much richer and more ambiguous formulations of Georges Bataille.(To my mind, everything Girard says can be traced back to Bataille, but Girard only offers us a reductive, normalized, idealized, and overly pious version of Bataille. The impulsion to sacrifice, the use of the scapegoat as sacrificial substitution, the creation of community by mutual implication in the sacrifice, and so on — all these can only be understood in the context of Bataille’s notion of expenditure, and in relation to Maussian gift economies; only in this way can we see how sacrifice, in its religious and erotic, as well as political dimensions, doesn’t just rescue us from “mimetic rivalry,” but also institutes a whole set of unequal power relations).

In any case: music as a sacrificial practice, and more generally as a form of “community” (a word which I leave in quotes because I don’t want to forget its ambiguous, and often obnoxious, connotations), is central to the way that order exists in a given society. Music is not a mere part of what traditional Marxists called the “superstructure”; rather, it is directly one of the arenas in which the power struggles that shape and change the society take place. (These “power struggles” might be Marxist class warfare, or Foucauldian conflicts of power and resistance seeping up from below and interfering with one another, or indeed the more peaceful contentions, governed by a “social contract,” that are noted by liberal political theory). Attali argues that music is one of the foremost spheres in which the struggles, inventions, innovations, and mutations that determine the structure of society take place; and therefore that music is in a strong sense “prophetic,” in that its changes anticipate and forecast what happens in society as a whole.

All this is background, really; though music’s “Sacrificing” role is the first of Attali’s four historical phases. Attali’s real interest (and mine as well), and the subject of his three remaining historical phases, is what happens to music under capitalism. The 19th century concert hall is the center of the phase of “Representing.” The ritual function of music in “primitive” societies, and even in Europe up to feudalism and beyond, gets dissolved as a result of the growth of mercantile, and then industrial capitalism. Music is separated from everyday life; it becomes a specialized social function, with specialized producers and performers. The musician becomes a servant of the Court in 17th and 18th century Europe; by the 19th century, with the rise to power of the bourgeoisie after the French Revolution, the musician must become an entrepreneur. Music “become[s] institutionalized as a commodity,” and “acquire[s] an autonomous status and monetary value,” for the first time in human history (51). The musical emphasis on harmony in this period is strictly correlated, according to Attali, with an economic system based upon exchange, and the equilibrium that is supposed to result from processes of orderly economic exchange. Music and money both work, in the 19th century, according to a logic of representation. Money is the representation of physical goods, in the same way that the parliament, in representative democracy, is the representation of the populace. And the resolution of harmonic conflict in the course of 19th century compositions works alongside the resolution of conflicting desires through the (supposed) equilibrium of the “free market.” In the cases both of music and the market, sacrifice is repressed and disavowed, and replaced by what is both the representation of (social and musical) harmony, and the imposition of harmony through the process of representation itself. Playing on the multiple French meanings of the word “representation,” Attali includes in all this the formal “representation” (in English, more idiomatically, the “performance”) of music in the concert hall as the main process by means of which music is disseminated. The links Attali draws here are all quite clever, and much of it might even be true.

Finally, though, however important a role representation continues to play in the ideology of late-capitalist society, the twentieth century has effectively moved beyond it. For Attali, the crucial development is the invention of the phonograph, the radio, and other means of mechanical (and now, electronic) reproduction and dissemination: this is what brings music (and society) out of the stage of “Representing” and into one grounded instead in “Repeating.” Of course, Attali is scarcely the first theorist to point out how radically these technologies have changed the ways in which we experience music. Nor is he alone in noting how these changes — with musical recordings becoming primary, rather than their being merely reproductions of ‘real’ live performances — can be correlated with the hypercommodification of music. More originally, Attali comments on the “stockpiling” of recordings: in effect, once I buy a record or CD or file, I don’t really have to listen to the music contained therein: the essence of consumption lies in purchasing and collecting, not in “using” the music through actual listening. He also makes an ingenious parallel between the pre-programmed and managed production of “pop” music, and the instrumental rationality of musical avant-gardes (both the serialists of the 50s and the minimalists of the 70s). But all in all, “Repeating” is the weakest chapter of Noise, because for the most part Attali pretty much just echoes Adorno’s notorious critique of popular music. I’d argue — as I have implicitly suggested in previous posts — that the real problem with Adorno’s and Attali’s denunciations is that they content themselves with essentially lazy and obvious criticisms of commodity culture, while failing to plumb the commodity experience to its depths, refusing to push it to its most extreme consequences. The only way out is through. The way to defend popular music against the Frankfurt School critique — not that I think it even needs to be defended — is not by taking refuge in notions of “authenticity” in order to deny its commodity status, but rather to work out how the power of this music comes out of — rather than existing in spite of — its commodity status, how it works through the logic of repetition and commodification, and pushes this further than any capitalist apologetics would find comfortable.

Such an approach is not easy to articulate; I haven’t yet succeeded in doing so, and I can’t blame Attali for not successfully doing so either. “Composing,” the brief last chapter of Noise, at least attempts just such a reinvention — in a way that Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno would never accept. Which is why I liked this final chapter, even though in certain respects it feels quite dated. Attali here reverses the gloomy vision of his “Repeating” chapter, drawing on music from the 1960s (free jazz, as well as the usual rock icons), in order to envision a new historical stage, a liberated one entirely beyond the commodity, when music is no longer a product, but a process that is engaged in by everyone. Attali doesn’t really explain how each person can become his/her own active composer/producer of music, rather than just a passive listener; but what’s brilliant about the argument, nonetheless, is that it takes off from a hyperbolic intensification of the position of the consumer of recorded music (instead of negating this consumer as a good Hegelian Marxist would do). As the consumption of music (and of images) becomes ever more privatized and solipsistic, Attali says, it mutates into a practice of freedom:

Pleasure tied to the self-directed gaze: Narcissus after Echo… the consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces. He will institute the spectacle of himself as the supreme usage. (144)

Writing before the Walkman, let alone the iPod and the new digital tools that can cut, paste, and rearrange sounds with just the click of a mouse, Attali seems to anticipate (or to find in the music of his time, which itself had a power of anticipation) our current culture of sampling, remixing, and file-trading, as well as the solipsistic enjoyment of music that Simon Reynolds finds so creepy (“those ads for ipods creep me out, the idea of people looking outwardly normal and repressed and grey-faced on the subway but inside they’re freaking out and going bliss-crazy”). And if Attali writes about these (anticipated) developments with some of the naive utopianism that has been so irritating among more recent cyber-visionaries, he has the excuse both of the time in which he was writing AND the fact that his vision makes more sense — as a project for liberation, rather than as a description of what technology all by itself is alleged to accomplish — in the context of, and counterposed to, the previous chapter’s Adornoesque rant. Despite all his irritating generalizations and dubiously overstated claims, Attali may really have been on to something here. The problem, of course, is how to follow it up.

Gilbert Simondon

Gilbert Simondon (1926-1987) is another obscure French philosopher championed by Gilles Deleuze. I’ve just finished reading his book L’individu et sa genese physico-biologique. (The Individual and its Physico-biological Individuation; It doesn’t seem to have been translated into English, aside from the Introduction which appeared in Zone 6: Incorporations). And once again, as with other forgotten thinkers recommended by Deleuze, Simondon has proved a revelation, both for his influence upon Deleuze, and for what his own thought suggests.

The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell’s book _The Tipping Point_ is in many ways popular science writing at its best. The book is lucid and intelligent, and it gives concrete examples for its arguments–without being condescendingly simple-minded about those examples in the ways popular science books often are. The subject matter of the book is both fascinating and important: how the logic of epidemic contagion applies to social phenomena, often causing things to develop in ways that are nonlinear, and hence deeply counterintuitive. All in all, a worthwhile read. And yet I find myself having complex reservations about the arguments of The Tipping Point— though my problems are less with Gladwell himself, than with (I guess) the zeitgeist…