Category Archives: History
[I’ve decided to write the intermediary steps of my interpretation of Economics through Laruelle’s Non-Philosophy, rather than wait until completing the sequel to my Sraffa essay.]
The key component of François Laruelle’s Non-Philosophy is its identification of the ‘Principle of Sufficient Philosophy’, which he claims has been presupposed by all philosophies throughout history. It is surprising, then, to see how simply it can be formulated: “Everything is philosophizable.” The PSP adopts its name from the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’ propounded by Leibniz, which stated that everything has a reason for being the way it is. The ‘sufficiency’ of philosophy, then, lies in its purported ability to apply itself (as a discourse) to every element of the Real: with philosophies of ’culinary materialism‘, the human voice, and even economics, the list of possibilities for “philosophy of x” seems limitless.
Laruelle’s innovation lies in his denial of the PSP: he states that the structure of philosophy is so constituted that it precludes itself from accessing certain elements of the Real, or more simply, that its methodological presuppositions lead to an overly constrained definition of what constitutes thought. Thus Laruelle posits that there exists a Non-Philosophy going beyond philosophy’s boundaries: his project aims to create new forms of thinking, as well as to comprehend the structure of philosophy by means of examining it from an outside perspective.
As this brief essay will endeavour to show, there also exists a Principle of Sufficient Economics (PSE), one identical in content with the Principle of Sufficient Philosophy (PSP), albeit different in its linguistic form. The following will describe why it is that the PSE takes a different linguistic form from the PSP (rather than being the simple transposition ‘everything is economizable’), how Sraffian theory demonstrates that the PSE is false, how Keynesian theory provided the initial break with the PSE, and how Austrian economics’ tacit assumption of the PSE entirely invalidates their criticism of Keynesian macroeconomics.
In its secession from political economy, economics as a discipline was able to make use of the most sophisticated mathematical techniques of its time. However, in adopting this form (doubtless to achieve the status of a science), it has come under fire for its tactic of applying an effectively closed system of mathematical relations to a set of market phenomena which, as contemporary microeconomists show, is growing ever more comprehensive. This in itself would not be a problem if this did not run the risk of distorting its objects: economics is lambasted for many of its heuristic presuppositions (and ‘metaphysical’ concepts such as utility) which appear blatantly untrue in practice, but nonetheless work well in making sense of empirical data. Milton Friedman famously declared that as long as a methodology works, it does not matter whether its presuppositions are correct, but to those who remain unsatisfied by this claim, the question arises of why the theorems of economics, despite their deficiencies, work as well as they do—whether it may be possible, by means of a new perspective, to gain an almost meta-economic view by way of starting from the phenomena themselves and only from there building a theoretical edifice. The first steps toward an answer may be found in the economic theories of a man who not only convinced Ludwig Wittgenstein to change the views propounded in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus but who also provided the pens and paper (not to mention much of the reading material) with which Antonio Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks—namely, an economic methodology which does not require marginalist concepts of supply, demand, equilibrium, or capital. The initial part of this essay aims to outline in brief the life and work of Piero Sraffa (1898-1983), to unravel some of the theoretical implications of his work for the research programme of marginalist economics, and to portray in a new manner the import of his research programme: as a Non-Economics.
“Mr. Piero Sraffa, from whom nothing is hid…” ~John Maynard Keynes
Sraffa was born in Turin in 1898, his father an influential Professor of commercial law and his mother a highly cultured woman from a distinguished family. He was given a liberal education, being taught French, English, and German by his mother, in addition to his first language of Italian. He was characterized, in a polemical paper by his friend Gramsci, as having a “democratic-liberal intellectual background, that is to say, normative and Kantian, non-Marxist and non-dialectical” (Potier, 3-4), though this account cannot be accepted without reservations; the intellectual milieu of his day was “dominated by ‘neo-idealism’ or neo-Hegelianism, represented by the thinking of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) and Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944)” (ibid, 3). He went on to study Law at Turin University, near the latter portion in his studies (1919) striking a friendship with Antonio Gramsci, who studied linguistics at the same university, which would continue until the latter’s death (ibid, 5). Shortly after this meeting, Sraffa joined the editorial team of the journal L’Ordine Nuovo and had friendly relations with the main journalists.
During the same period, Sraffa worked on his doctoral thesis on inflation in Italy since the first World War, a text which “reveals a profound knowledge of the literature on monetary and banking problems; not only the Italian…but also the English and American…and Swedish literature” (ibid, 6). The research for Sraffa’s thesis eventually led to a polemic against the banking practices of his time, then under the fascist policies of Mussolini. This rather “salty” essay (as described by the Italian committee which later awarded Sraffa the status of professor) enraged Mussolini, who demanded a retraction, which was not given because, Sraffa told his father, the paper was based on verifiable facts. Sraffa is also known to have debated via an exchange of letters with Gramsci at that time in matters of politics, one exchange being published in L’Ordine Nuovo. Sraffa’s trenchant criticism was not only directed at the fascist government of his day, however, but also at the methodological orthodoxy beginning to pervade economics departments throughout Italian universities; this culminated in an essay entitled “On The Relation Between Cost and Quantity Produced,” revealing several flaws in the work of Alfred Marshall, at that time the paragon of mainstream economics.
Jean-Pierre Potier (13-14) provides a summary of this essay (which was to earn Sraffa a full professorship at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia) that is fairly lucid even to the layperson in economics:
Between 1924 and spring 1925, Sraffa worked on a major essay that attacked the foundations of the orthodox analysis of the great English neo-classical theorist, Alfred Marshall…. Sraffa examined the law of non-proportional returns in Marshall’s model of static partial equilibrium, which established a symmetry between relations of demand and supply as regards the value of commodities. Previously, classical economists had given prominence to two separate laws of returns. The law of increasing returns was created by Adam Smith and associated with the process of the division of labour in industry―a problem of dynamics, in the category of ‘production’. The law of diminishing returns, on the contrary, set forth by Turgot, then by David Ricardo in connection with the problem of agricultural rent, is also a problem of dynamics, but in the category of ‘distribution’. Marshall tried to combine these two orientations in a single law of non-proportional returns, to set up his theory of prices. This law can be represented by a U-shaped curve, connecting average cost and output. The situation of a firm is studied, independently of that of other firms, in a framework of free competition. In this model, the normal case is that of diminishing returns (or increasing costs).
Sraffa foregrounded how Marshall’s explanation concerning the exceptional existence of increasing returns (diminishing costs) evolved ‘internal economies’ followed by ‘external economies’ of the firm. He nevertheless developed his attack to focus criticism on the problem of diminishing returns. In Marshall’s theory, the supply curve of a firm is independent of the supply curve of other firms and moving from the firm to the industry, the aggregate means a simple transposition. According to Sraffa, this analysis is unacceptable, because it does not take the interdependences into account: the conditions of production of a firm necessarily have an effect on those of its competitors. After having shown the incompatibility between the case of diminishing returns and the conditions of particular equilibrium, Sraffa concludes by considering, for the particular industry, ‘the case of constant costs as being normal, rather than that of increasing or diminishing costs’, in keeping with the opinion of Ricardo. This situation is, to his mind, the only one compatible with the equilibrium of free competition, or at least a ‘first approximation of reality’.
Sraffa was later invited by Keynes to write a summary of this essay in the Economic Journal―a prestigious opportunity granted due to the quality of an English version of his paper on the Italian banking crisis published several years before―which he entitled “The Law of Returns Under Competitive Conditions.” It is worth noting that Arthur Pigou was willing to reconsider his whole position in the light of this paper (Potier, 17). In addition to his summary, Sraffa attempts in his paper to “reformulate and rehabilitate” the concept of ‘surplus’—first developed by William Petty in the 17th century—and the notion of the economy as a circular process, first introduced by the physiocrat François Quesnay in the 18th century (Roncaglia, 31-2).
[The following essay is directed toward an imaginary positivist with unflinching faith in the veracity of Einstein's research programme of relativity, because of relativity's overwhelming empirical success. Rather than being anti-science (quite the opposite, actually), my humble goal here is simply to show that empiricism does not provide the full picture, and that fallibilism is justified as a default position when considering contemporary science. I would have liked to explicitly dwell upon specific philosophers of science (particularly Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend), but that will have to wait for another time. Lastly, this is unfortunately not an introductory essay, and is directed toward those who are at least superficially familiar with relativity and the history of physics preceding it.]
The pessimistic meta-induction is the supposition that just as so many theories in the history of science have been superseded, current theories will likewise be found to be unsatisfactory, despite their empirical success. This can be taken in a strong or a weak sense: the strong sense implies that current theories are completely wrong (just as phlogiston, to contemporary scientists, is completely wrong), and the weak sense (fallibilism) acknowledges the empirical success of current theories while insisting that they may be incomplete—epiphenomena, of sorts, of a larger pattern. It is the aim of this essay to make a case for fallibilism, illustrating its case with examples from special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory; once the latter case is made, the strong pessimistic meta-induction will be left as a possibility, since by definition no positive case (save the explicit falsification of current theories) can be made for its correctness, but only a negative case. Starting with a brief glance into Einstein’s epistemology, the historical development of the concept of ether will be documented, and upon finding that it is not necessarily as “superfluous” as Einstein may have once thought, the implications of this incompleteness will be examined.
“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother,” Einstein is reputed to have said. This strikes the reader as a surprising statement to come from one so notorious for the abstruseness of his theories, but it reveals a striking distinction for philosophies of science: that between how a theory works (in all its mathematical intricacy) and what it means. As Hegel writes in his Shorter Logic, “The chemist places a piece of flesh in his retort, tortures it in many ways, and then informs us that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. True: but these abstract matters have ceased to be flesh.” Here we see that Hegel rejects the mechanical in favor of the conceptual, presumably reacting to the reductionist tendency of scientists to favor the former at the expense of the latter, but we see in Einstein a desire to retain the two in all their incommensurability. Yet, we can also proceed backwards from Einstein’s distinction: if mathematics is a formal delineation of the relations between terms, then insofar as mathematical physics is an empirical science, its terms cannot merely be mathematical variables, but objects, to which correspond concepts. With physics in particular, however, the boundaries separating concepts are of prime importance, and it is these mutable boundaries that pose the primary weak point of scientific research, to the point where fallibilism becomes a rational mindset for scientists regardless of the empirical success of any given theory taken on its own. Read the rest of this entry
A fascinating chart of the US economy can be found here, neatly arranging the country’s entire GDP into little colored squares, starting from $1 (green), building up to aqua-colored squares each representing a trillion dollars. It’s utterly brilliant, and deserves to go viral.
Furthermore, the chart is now available for download, in 12538-by-8352-pixel glossy. Alternatively, it is up for sale as a poster. Credit to Cruel Mistress for the find.
[This is my first assignment for my Environmental Politics class, which I think is sufficiently interesting to merit publication here. As a preliminary note, I utilize the term "Greens" to encompass both environmentalists and ecologists (not the scientific type, but the holistic type; this distinction is the source of my reluctance to use the term 'ecologist' at all). For the first question, there is evidently an anthropocentric bias to the question which is likely the part that we're meant to critique, but I think that it's much more interesting to witness how this simple statement forecloses any possible argument on its own terms. If anyone can show how this différend no longer applies when the question is looked at outside of anthropocentrism, I would really like to hear their answer. In my second answer, I believe that 'intrinsic value' is an entirely empty concept, but utilize it nevertheless in a sort of 'immanent critique' which shows the contradictions of ecologism. My third answer mostly paraphrases Debord, but it's an excellent example of how the very terms of a question (i.e. what has been the most significant historical revolution thus far?) often delimit the possible answers to it.]
The ancient Greeks knew of nine spheres: the Sun and Moon; the planets we know as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; the “Starry Sphere” (the fixed stars in the sky); the Crystalline Sphere (the sphere which controlled the procession of the equinoxes). These were all assumed to move round the Earth, in a kind of stately and unvarying procession. Pythagoras’ research into sound led him to believe that the spheres, in common with all other objects which move, must vibrate, and that those vibrations must produce sound. As each sphere is a different size from the others, and moves in a different way, the sounds must all be different. However, as all Nature (to Pythagoreans) was a harmonious mathematical whole, the sounds emitted by the spheres must also be harmonious: a kind of glorious universal chord as they made their way through space. The idea of universal harmony and of the discordant chaos when something happens to upset it has persisted in myth and poetry ever since. (Source)
It was said that only the spiritually enlightened were able to hear the music of the spheres. I have a theory (purely speculative, of course) that this notion was developed as an explanation for tinnitus. Tinnitus, in short, is when people constantly and (usually) inexplicably hear a ringing, buzzing, hissing, or crackling sound. The average person has likely experienced this after going to a rock concert; upon returning home, you find yourself experiencing an annoying, persistent ringing sound. One should try to enjoy that sound, because whoever hears it as a result will never be able to hear that frequency again. For whatever reason, the philosophers of ancient Greece refused to accept the particularity of the sounds that they were hearing, and instead viewed this music of the spheres as a universal phenomenon which was only capable of being heard by those initiated into the divine. One should keep in mind that tinnitus often accompanies the natural hearing loss of the elderly, which may have contributed to its association with wisdom, that the ability to hear music of the spheres was something that had to be earned.
Here is a musician’s rendition of what tinnitus sounds like.
Apparently, tinnitus is quite prevalent, usually as a result of loud music, or by loud machinery at factories. Wear your earplugs.
Those who are interested in the biopolitics of sound are directed to the blog Sonic Warfare.
Those who would like to hear what it really sounds like in space (and I should warn that I don’t know if these videos are accurate) are directed here (see Saturn in particular, 3:10-4:40), here (Jupiter), and here.
Lastly, there’s a well-written article here about the effect of music on the brain.
[Edit: Draper's point has been disputed by Mike Ely: see his comments below.]
Given the concern with changing conditions in rural society in much of this issue (as represented by the work of Amin and William Hinton) we thought that readers would be interested in the origin of a misunderstanding that surrounds Marx’s thoughts on rural life. One often hears the criticism that Marxism was from the beginning an extreme modernizing philosophy that looked with complete disdain on rural existence. Did not Marx himself in The Communist Manifesto, it is frequently asked, refer to “the idiocy of rural life”? Here a misconception has arisen through the mistranslation of a single word in the authorized English translation of the Manifesto. This issue is addressed in Hal Draper’s definitive, though little known work, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (Berkeley: Center for Socialist History, 1998)an expanded version of his earlier work, The Annotated Communist Manifesto. Draper’s Adventures includes a new English translation of the Manifesto, together with paragraph-by-paragraph annotations, and the most detailed history currently available of the various editions of the Manifesto in major European languages.
In Draper’s translation the phrase “the idiocy of rural life” in paragraph 28 of the Manifesto is replaced with “the isolation of rural life.” His explanation for this correction is worth quoting at length:
IDIOCY OF RURAL LIFE. This oft-quoted A.ET. [authorized English translation] expression is a mistranslation. The German word Idiotismus did not, and does not, mean “idiocy” (Idiotie); it usually means idiom, like its French cognate idiotisme. But here [in paragraph 28 of The Communist Manifesto] it means neither. In the nineteenth century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community. In the Manifesto, it was being used by a scholar who had recently written his doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy and liked to read Aeschylus in the original. (For a more detailed account of the philological background and evidence, see [Hal Draper], KMTR [Karl Marxs Theory of Revolution, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978] 2:344f.) What the rural population had to be saved from, then, was the privatized apartness of a life-style isolated from the larger society: the classic stasis of peasant life. To inject the English idiocy into this thought is to muddle everything. The original Greek meaning (which in the 19th century was still alive in German alongside the idiom meaning) had been lost in English centuries ago. Moore [the translator of the authorized English translation] was probably not aware of this problem; Engels had probably known it forty years before. He was certainly familiar with the thought behind it: in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had written about the rural weavers as a class “which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” (MECW [Marx and Engels, Collected Works] 4:309.) In 1873 he made exactly the Manifesto’s point without using the word “idiocy”: the abolition of the town-country antithesis “will be able to deliver the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years” (Housing Question, Pt. III, Chapter 3).
Marx’s criticism of the isolation of rural life then had to do with the antithesis of town and country under capitalism as expressed throughout his work. See also John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 137-38.
This is fascinating. This point serves as an excellent support of Exchange Value‘s essay regarding misquotations of Marx by prominent business magazines in order to make him seem like he celebrates the bourgeoisie. As well, this quotation is apparently “often used by Greens to mischaracterize [Marx & Engels] as relentless modernizers.” Retranslating the sentence gives it an intriguingly collectivist resonance, and I urge Marxists and non-Marxists alike to readjust their conceptions of Marx accordingly.