Real housewives of Ithaca

No disrespect to Tennyson’s famous poem, so beloved of high-school valetudinarians, I mean valedictorians, but I always suspected there was a domestic angle.

Penelope, at the loom, did truly pine for you;
Forgetting, in your absence, what a jerk you are;
Wove, unwove; dis-, or mis-remembers your bizarre
Tastes in the sack. The noisy unsalubrious crew

Of suitors, by comparison, give her a clue
Just what’s out there; mind’s eye, you’re steering by a star,
Not frolicking with nymphs and whatnot. At the bar
— Your open bar – the suitors swill your house’s brew.

Then you get back, dispatch the suitors, draw the bow.
You’re real now. Not potential; not imagined; and you snore.
Your tastes have coarsened since you went to Troy. You smell

Of garlic, bilge, and fish, and nymph. You’re not the beau
She thought you; really never were. And what a bore
Your tales of Troy. She thinks: It’s time to say farewell.

Bring on the nekkid ladies

Depressing convo with a couple of young people. They both agreed that Gauguin and Modigliani are “porny”, said of course with a strong tone of disapproval. In fact the Metropolitan Museum was censured as a place of “titillation” – too many nekkid ladies. Gets people worked up. Especially dudes.

I admit the titillation but unlike my young friends, I strongly approve of it.

In the same exchange “cultural appropriation” was greatly deplaaared. Picasso’s use of “African” masks (where in Africa, exactly?) was somehow mixed up with the painter’s own well-known oafish womanizing. It all added up to him being a bad guy and his work anathema. I’ve never been a big Picasso fan myself, so this is no skin off my neck, but the basis seems all wrong.

I admit the cultural appropriation and applaud it. Culture is all about theft. Steal away!

Speaking as a child of the Sixties, I really wonder how we got ourselves into this priggish, puritanical, pleasure- and play-hating frame of mind. So what if I emerge from the Met with a boner? What’s wrong with a boner? At my age, they occur about as often as lunar eclipses, but for just that reason I don’t take them for granted.

We seem to have a rather uncomfortable relationship with our ordinary human bodies and their humble but sometimes urgent needs.

Where on earth does this come from? Why do we have to do this to ourselves?

For my young interlocutors, it seemed to be connected somehow with feminism. Modigliani exploits women, so away with Modigliani.

I was around for the blossoming of “second-wave” feminism in the 1970s, and even then there were sex-friendly and sex-inimical tendencies. The latter seem to have won out, at least at the level of respectable culture, and maybe this is because the urgent need of bourgeois society is, precisely, the repression of human nature and its weeping anarchic impulses.

In aid of productivity or some shit.

The theory of everything

I think of myself as a Marxist – in much the same sense as I think of myself as a Darwinian, a Freudian, a Newtonian, etc. These guys were all brilliant and remain, always will remain, indispensable.

But none of these theories is a Theory of Everything. Freud doesn’t even try, but the others have been badly abused by their admirers. Darwin becomes sociobiology, Newton becomes the Clockwork Universe, and Marx – well, Marx is the burden of my song.

Let’s step back for a moment. All good theories have a scale at which they apply. Newtonian mechanics is really good for predicting, say, the trajectory of a comet, just from one or two observations, or the motions of the planets. It’s not good at predicting, or explaining, the shape of the little whirlpool in your bathtub drain, or the weather, or the movement of dust motes in the late-afternoon sunbeam shining palely through your wintry window.

Freud gives us a good, or at least highly suggestive, account of how neurosis happens. He can’t explain in principle why Sam becomes neurotic and Steve doesn’t, even if their life histories are very similar – though as a clinical practitioner he might suss it out, if they both came to him for analysis. This doesn’t mean he was wrong, you understand; it just means that a theory describes phenomena at some particular level of scale, or of generality, and not above or below it.

Darwin gives us a general theory of how organisms evolve, and no reasonable person thinks he was wrong; but notoriously, the theory of evolution throws up its hands in particular cases, except for brilliantly obvious ones like Darwin’s dear little finches. Evolution is the explanatory framework for things like the development of the eye but doesn’t explain it, in any substantive way. An explanation would involve setting out the steps – it would be, in fact, a closely connected narrative – and we don’t have that and never will, probably.

Which brings me to our man Marx.

Too many Marxists want Marxism to be a theory of everything. Brilliant as Dr Marx was, this is asking too much of him. As with Darwin, our great man provides an explanatory framework for certain aspects of human history (and not for others; I’m not aware that he tried to explain Grimm’s Law). If our man is right, and I think he is, then every actual particular explanation needs to fall within its ambit – no lusus naturae, please. But at the smaller level of scale, Big Theory doesn’t apply. That’s not to say Big Theory is wrong, or has failed; it’s to say that Big Theory is talking about something else.

Marxism doesn’t explain why Capitalist A fails and Capitalist B becomes Jeff Bezos. Doesn’t try to. Marx leaves plenty of scope for the chapter of accidents, the random event, the butterfly’s wingflap that causes the hurricane.

Years ago, when I was trying to make sense of the First Transition – from late antiquity to feudalism, in Europe – I was very puzzled about why the Visigoths became Arians rather than orthodox Christians. There must be a reason, surely? Doesn’t Marx shed some light on this?

I mentioned this perplex to a seasoned old mediaeval historian. His response: “Well, the Arian missionaries got to them first, I guess.”

Chapter of accidents; too small-scale for a Big Theory explanation. We need to keep this idea in mind.

Capitalists wanted (dead or alive)

I’ve been re-reading a classic essay by Fred Block, from 1977 ( with great interest. He talks about a lot of stuff that’s been on my mind for a long time. Very likely he even suggested some of it back in the day. Some scattered thoughts, which are probably not at all original, but I never know what I think until I see what I write:

One of the things that bedevils us in these discussions is the word “capitalist” and its plural, “capitalists”.

We switch a lot among:

  1. “Capitalist”, used either as a noun (some person who is a capitalist) or an adjective (the capitalist class);
  2. “Capitalism” (which might be an ideology or a state of affairs);
  3. “Capital” — which BTW was the title of Dr Marx’s big book, a fact which seems suggestive to me.

Marx switches around among these terms himself, and it’s not always obvious what distinctions he’s making, so we have a good example for our inconsistency, to be sure.

One problem that arises from the use of “capitalist” is the (usually unstated) assumption that “capitalists” is a set of individuals, the way evens is a set of integers. An integer is either even or not; a person is a capitalist or not. Or maybe he has a Capitalist Quotient on a scale of 1 to 10. Either way, it posits “capitalism” as an attribute of individuals. Is so-and-so a capitalist, or a state functionary, or a PMC, or a petty-bourgeois, or a proletarian? Damn, where did I put that Sorting Hat? Block himself, though he’s very clear-headed, sometimes seems to speak in this way.

Now I think that “capitalists” is not a set, and it’s not the case that an individual is a capitalist or not. “Capitalist” is an abstraction, though a useful one, like “momentum” or “impedance”. In a non-trivial sense, every suburban householder who expects to sell his house for more than he paid is a small-time capitalist (of the rentier or speculator variety, to be sure). But I’m arguing here that the focus on individuals is misplaced.

I mentioned that Dr Marx called his book “Capital” – not “Capitalists” or “Capitalism”. I think this points us the way to a better understanding.

Capital, I suggest, is an emergent phenomenon, or even emergent entity, of human history – an alienated power of mankind, insensate yet curiously purposeful and active, self-determining, self-reproducing and self-aggrandizing. Think of something like a hurricane, which starts as a little updraft somewhere in the Caribbean and grows upon itself and becomes a distinct, visible, palpable thing, distinct from other things, with a name and a projected trajectory and incalculable destructive power.

And of course you want to get out of its way if you can. You can do this, in principle, with a hurricane, but you can’t really do it with Capital. It’s a global hurricane. Unlimited in terrestrial space, but (let’s hope) not unlimited in human time. It had a beginning, and it will have an end. Which it will bring on, dialectically, by virtue of its own activity.

But meanwhile, Capital is a power in its own right. And individual “capitalists” are not its masters; they are its servants, as surely as proletaries are. Capital “knows”, so to speak, how to find the right twisted personalities to serve its ends – dumb psychopaths, as a friend of mine recently said. Or perhaps the right kind of twisted personalities find their way to serve Capital. It comes to the same thing.

Block is good on the absence of class consciousness among “capitalists”. Anybody who’s ever met any really rich people will surely have noticed that they totally believe their own bullshit and don’t have any real insight, apart from a kind of narrow, instrumental, tactical cunning, into how the world works, or what it’s really like, or what its fundamental laws of motion are. They know how to buy politicians and hire propagandists, and the politicians and propagandists too, in their own sphere, know how to do the work they’re hired and bought for. Nobody is consciously asking “what’s good for Capital”, or even “what’s good for capitalists”. The organizing principle, rather, is what you might call the gravitational field of Capital, which has pulled into closer orbit precisely those people best suited to advance Capital’s life-process.

This is not to say that concepts like “PMC” or “petty-bourgeois” are useless. They’re abstractions, but they represent social types we all know – a “type” being a social template, centered on a certain kind of relation to Capital, to which individuals adhere more or less closely. But the collection of individuals doesn’t constitute the type; other way round; the collection coalesces around the type.

Individual “capitalists” can be very good at advancing their own particular projects of exploitation and aggrandizement, even without a theory or with a ridiculous theory. Sometimes one of these projects will conflict with another, or random blocs of such individuals who happen to share the capture and custody of a particular nation-state apparatus may conflict with each other (and then you get a war).

I was always rather puzzled by how to reconcile the hegemony of Capital with the fact of conflict among capitalists; it seemed to suggest that Capital’s hegemony was somehow incomplete.

But this is to misconceive the nature of that hegemony. Like evolution, Capital doesn’t optimize or integrate or manage or strive for order; it doesn’t need to; a constant pullulation of conflict among its servants is perfectly consistent with its absolute dominance and vigorous good health overall. I don’t mean to say here that such conflict is necessary for Capital – it’s not Capital pulling the strings that produces wars for its own reasons; I merely assert that such conflict is compatible with it.

Block asks what constrains state managers (nice phrase, BTW) from pursuing policies inimical to Capital. To put the question this way presupposes that there’s some mechanism of control and constraint emanating from Capital to the state managers and preventing them from following their own impulses or their own reasoning. I’d turn it around: the reason why state managers (hereafter, SMs) pursue Capital-friendly policies is that there’s nobody to make them do otherwise. (To create that somebody is of course the task of Bolshevism.) On the one hand, they encounter the projects and instruments of influence possessed by individual capitalists or blocs of them, and on the other hand they find… a void. Now these individual or factional capitalist projects may incorporate a lot of conflict and competition, but you can be pretty sure that they will net out in favor of Capital as such. Policy, therefore, is precisely the sound of one hand clapping.

To say that the state apparatus is not self-determined is not necessarily to fall into what Block calls “instrumentalism” – the cartoonish idea that the capitalists get together (in their top hats, of course) and issue the State its marching orders.

Theorizing the State is a big job, especially in the Marxist context, but it seems, historically speaking, that once societies get organized on a scale much bigger than the tribal band, some kind of state apparatus arises. The State, as such, precedes the birth of Capital, so it’s reasonable to say that the State is a thing in its own right, distinguishable from the social relations of the society, and not merely an emanation from them. There are perfectly benign State functions that would be needed in some form regardless of social relations – collecting the trash, for example.

But of course the specific form that the State assumes in any given setting will be greatly affected by those actual social relations. And though the State is a thing in its own right, it’s not an autonomous power, with ambitions of its own (though bureaucrats always like to increase the scope of their authority, so perhaps that’s an immanent tendency). Nor do State functionaries have any better theory than the “capitalists” themselves. The State is essentially reactive and conservative, not proactive and militant. So its activity will naturally respond to whatever influences are brought to bear on it. Where the influences all run more or less in the same direction, the outcome is predictable.

Block’s essay appeared in 1977. One of his themes is the role of the State in “rationalizing capitalism”. He makes a case that this too is an immanent tendency, which seems to assume that Capital somehow wants rationalizing, a proposition I find dubious. But he was writing at the end of what Hobsbawm calls the postwar Golden Age, roughly 1945-1975, when such rationalization seemed to be happening. For a while.

I’m old enough to remember when the corner was turned from the Golden Age into the epoch of neoliberalism, in which we continue to dwell. The turn seemed glaringly obvious at the time, and Block also alludes to it. Since then, the relation between State and Capital has run in the other direction, in North America and Western Europe at least. The State has been sedulously de-rationalizing Capital; dismantling social democracy; embracing full-bore market cultism, surely the most Mad Hatter ideology that anybody ever cooked up.

Block rightly stresses the element of class struggle in determining “capitalist”, and hence, State behaviour. To paint with a very broad brush, it seems that when there’s enough social upheaval that a lot of individual “capitalists” start to eye with a certain chill apprehension the lamppost under the Park Avenue penthouse, a rough consensus arises that concessions must be made, and the State becomes the concessionary agent. Of course, once the crisis is over, there’s a steady tropism back to business as usual.

And that’s the actual world we live in now.

I just met a girl from Magdala

So many Marys in the book; but you
Show up a lot, and just the showing up
As we all know, is what we have to do
Liminally. Some say you used to schtup

For pay. I don’t believe it. Some old fart
In Rome made that one up. Yet seven devils
All say you had; delivered, not by art,
But grace put paid to their infernal revels.

And you were grateful; gratitude, a gift
Less usual than it should be, but you owed it;
Showed up, and even at the awful rift,
Veil torn asunder, sun dark, you abode it.

Showed up when the plot twisted, blessed girl;
To you the knee must bend of every lazy churl.

Jerry: Show me the money

Jerry, Jerome, Hieronymus, thou patron
Of fools-rush-in who translate, pray for us.
I always wondered how you got a lion
To be your agent. Pity the officious

Publisher. You show up, Leo in tow;
Is that a growl, or purr? In any case,
He makes your case for you, and back you go,
To cell and skull and the triliteral base

Of some strange verb form. With a nice advance.
For widows and for orphans, goes without saying;
It’s what saints do. Leo, meanwhile, will prance
Catlike, and sun himself; no cat for praying.

Rent on the cell is paid for, though; Leo
Warded away, pro tem., the Babylonian woe.