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.

Hey Jude

Jude, notoriously obscure, and yet the patron
Of numberless lost causes, hopeless cases:
Quite a portfolio, Saint, for one so little known;
I introduce myself as one of yours.

I love your dark, Laconic, reprehensive letter;
Be also patron of polemicists,
Martin Marprelate, Johnnie M, and so much lesser,
Me; I can see you also like allusions.

Your emblem is a club; I guess they beat you down;
You’d feel at home on Facebook, then, or Twitter;
You don’t seem humorous, and yet you had some fun,

Clouds without rain – that’s good – trees without fruit – and better,
Great swelling words, yet servile to the person.
Fair cop, Saint Jude; you’ve got us, got us, to the letter.

Feel of flying

The dream, once frequent, now recurs no more;
I flew at will; stretched arms, and effortless
Went air-borne; and above the tediousness
Of dreary home-town scenes dreamt I could soar.

Confidence all. Belief opened the door;
I can do this; no tiresome fussy mess
Of flight checks, fuelling up; I just address
The sky; my dismal schoolyard distant floor.

But earthbound now, the everlasting pull
Of gravitas asserts itself; for me
No hope to soar again; sharp once, now dull;

Sea level not so bad though, or to be
Set on old dirt and ancient stone. I mull
The options. Guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Wise old crickets on the wall

Those who don’t like you – once you’re gone – will tell
Tales of you, sum you up; they’ll have their innings.
“Broken”, if that cliché is still around,
Though bright and charming now and then, they’ll grant,
Wise heads a-wag; sad case, an awful waste.
Oh and of course he drank too much you know.
That Commie thing; extreme; kind of a nut,
Really. Though bright and charming now and then.
“I blame the mother.”
— “Do you? I the father —
Thou misogyne.” This last subvocalized.
Both seek someone to blame, along with you.
And sure, there’s lots of blame to go around,
And you’ve your share, like everybody else.
The blamer seldom looks to blame himself,
Or claim his own blame due, unless neurotic
As you are. Blame: the water you’ve swum in
Since self-awareness dawned. You tried to shed it;
That never works, of course; one’s lot in life
Foredoomed, as the ancients knew; the blame and shame
Twin siblings, paired jaws ineluctable;
Oedipus never meant to kill his daddy,
Or bed his mommy; but the unpitying Fates
Had different plans. Not altogether harsh,
They gave him Sophocles to sing his song.
But as for you: you’ll have to sing your own.

The well-washed brain-washed

So, in the car again, NPR again; sorry, I just can’t do podcasts. Besides, NPR offers the morbid fascination of a five-car pile-up on I-95. It’s the consummate expression of the characteristic mental illness of my people, which is to say to the North American professional-managerial caste.

Of course it was all about the feckin Ukraine. They brought on — as an “expert” — a chick who used to be Zelensky’s media flack. Not any more, probably an interesting backstairs backstabbing story there. But she was staying with the story line, you know, the brave bold Ukies beating back the Russian bear’s gory claws, et cetera.

Her main schtick was Zelensky’s enlightened HR policies — she was a young fresh-faced woman, with reasonably good English, very Euro-oriented, and he picked her over all the old Ukie men! Why, say no more! The triumph of diversitarian meritocracy.

Of course about half the segment, apart from the chick’s resume, and fluffing her recent book, was devoted to unsourced, unexamined, third-hand atrocity stories. No skepticism shown by NPR; the former flack’s tale taken as Gospel. No “other side” mentioned, needless to say. The other side’s story is ridiculous a priori.

NPR’s audience eat this rancid shit up and beg for second helpings. Warm and fragrant from the steam table.

Oh, and China is pretty bad too. I recently had dinner with an old friend who assured me that tiktok was a sinister Chinese plot to brainwash the US public. And I’m not talking here about some Carl Hiaasen Yahoo; this is an intelligent, well-educated person — well-educated by US standards, anyway — with a fairly important job in the indoctrination sector, aka “publishing”.

I’m very glad the subject of Russia didn’t come up. My friend is Jewish — or rather — Jew-ish, as Seinfeld says; never darkens the door of a shul, doesn’t keep kosher, violates Shabbos with gay abandon. But there’s a kind of hereditary antipathy here.  Great-grandpa’s tales, reinforced by the propaganda system.

Meeting Pete

Suppose it true: the gate, the saint, the book;
Damned by the book, of course. So there’s a saint
Manning the gate; for going by the book,
The joint would be un-peopled. Can’t have that!
But trust a saint to err the right way.

Looks you up. Process due. His sad old face —
The files he’s read; you won’t shock him; he’s seen
Worse; O so much worse. Still, you squirm a bit.
Because you’re bad enough, God knows. He too.

Reads and his sad old face grows sadder yet;
Every poor sinner more one furrow more
On the immemorial cheek. And did he know
This was the job he’d get, back in the day
On the Galilean shore, so full of bounce?
Knew what the keys meant? This I strongly doubt.
Surprised like all of us.

     The storied keys
Hang at his holy belt: one side all rust,
The other bright with use, as if he turned
One way and not the other, generally.
I feel a bit more cheerful, seeing this —
No bouncer he, and no security
Needs guard henceforth forever. My ID
Superfluous here; they know me all too well.
Which is a somewhat mortifying thought.
I’ll blush aeonically, a Rubens putto
Or putain rather.

     Still the saint reads on.
I would have thought that half a page might do it;
But no; a dossier Omniscience
Only could keep; and there’s no hurry here —
Which seems to me like Paradise enough:
Summer and never more a back to school.
Behind, the continents still shift and shrug;
Empires rise, fall, who gives a shit. Plates slide.
Species die off — my own of course included —
And none too soon. My God, how we fucked up.

But that’s not mine to answer for. My own
Fucked-uppedness our topic here. The Saint
Takes time. Has nothing but.

     Or no, I see it
Now; in fact, he has everything but time;
Eternity to ponder, time forgotten;
No queue behind me, no deserving feet
Shuffling to claim their turn. It’s him and me.
Suddenly, I feel strangely confident.

More thoughts on translation

I think translators need an oath, like doctors have the Hippocratic. Here’s my draft:

I undertake this craft understanding that I cannot succeed. No translation will ever convey more than a faint hint of the original.

I vow that first I will do no harm: I will not intentionally misrepresent my author.

I vow that I will not attempt to make my author more familiar or comfortable to my contemporaries. This is a lemma of the vow above.

I promise to be as literal as I possibly can.

I promise to be as plain-spoken as I possibly can in the language I’m translating into. Subject to the following clause:

I promise to observe the register. When my author is hieratic, I promise not to be demotic.

I vow, on pain of eternal torment, and the worm that dieth not, and the inextinguishable fire, to make no contemporary reference.

Recognizing that a precious old text has been entrusted to my unworthy hands; recognizing that all translation is vandalism; recognizing that the whole project is bullshit; I nevertheless take it on, in fear and trembling.

And let the congregation say Amen.

Translation, a perennial perplex

I’ve been reading through the Coverdale translation of the Psalms, and it’s actually very good. Modernists pooh-pooh it, largely because, being essentially illiterate, they don’t have any grasp of 16th-century English, so it all sounds very quaint and gadzookish to their large fair donkey ears.

One of the things I like about Coverdale is that he doesn’t try to cover-up the difficulties of translation; he plods through, rendering each Hebrew word as best he can. So it feels in some ways like a pony — one of those interlinear translations that schoolboys depend on. And yet at the same time it captures the earnest plain-spoken urgency of the original, and its impetuous rhythm.

No translation is ever satisfactory — this goes without saying — but a translation that familiarizes is a bigger liar than a translation that doesn’t. These are weird old texts and anything that diminishes their weirdness is falsification.