Monthly Archives: February 2004

Economics and Context

Starting in the eighteenth century, according to Robert Heilbroner, “the idea of gain which underlay [capitalism] was so firmly rooted that men would soon vigorously affirm that it was an eternal and omnipresent attitude” (36). Still, even though “The world of Adam Smith has been called a world of atomistic competition” (56), Heilbroner suggests that we ought to keep in mind that Adam Smith’s world was, in fact, eighteenth-century England, and not twenty-first century global culture. The free marketeers and libertarians who sing the praises of Adam Smith in support of lassez-faire deregulation seem to me to be deeply conservative in the persistent belief that there are ahistorical and transcendent principles that ought to govern human interaction — economic, social, or otherwise — no matter what the context, forgetting that capitalism itself arose out of historically transcendent circumstances. In a world of huge and increasing inequality, is it really appropriate to cite an eighteenth-century moral philosopher as support for the dictum of everyone for herself? It might provide a useful antidote to consider, as Heilbroner does, Smith’s characterization of “the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of the merchants and manufacturers” who “neither are, or ought to be, the rulers of mankind” (66), and suggestion that the laborer’s “manly virtues” will suffer “unless the government takes some pains to prevent it” (67). Or to consider the ideas of Smith’s successor, businessman and successor David Ricardo, who “saw that the escalator [of progress] worked with different effects on different classes, that some rode triumphantly to the top, while others were carried up a few steps and then were kicked back down to the bottom. Worse yet, those who kept the escalator moving were not those who rose with its motion, and those who got the full benefit of the ride did nothing to earn their reward” (77). Even a George W. Bush cabinet sock puppet like economist and textbook author N. Gregory Mankiw concedes the massive influence of Smith and Ricardo on contemporary mainstream economic thought in his books — but only insofar as they support the dogma of competition and advantage. Mankiw bowdlerizes the very foundations of his own work, throwing out what doesn’t suit him — and yet this work is, again, supposed to present transcendent and ahistorical principles that apply regardless of context. This is, of course, nonsense: the economic is as local and particular as the political.

The Contingent Market

Just a quick note tonight. I’ve got an old friend in town this weekend, so posting may be intermittent. (And she brought her dog, so Zeugma and Tink are very unhappy, although the dog is friendly and meek.)

The essential insight I’m taking from the first chapters of Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers is one foundational to the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham: the market system — and, so, capitalism — is contingent rather than inevitable. It’s a social phenomenon, dependent upon but not a natural and inevitable outgrowth of such “agents of production” (Heilbroner 25) as land, labor, and capital. Now: this changes everything, and yet it’s elemental. It’s an insight that runs contrary to much of current economic thought. So my question is if that I’m looking at current economic thought and how it plays out in the discourses of composition, what do I do about such an insight? Kind of a rhetorical question, really; the obvious answer is to just keep it in perspective.

Voting is for

Via NPR from MTV: the same morons who distributed Ghettopoly reach new lows. Part of me wants to say that a generation who shops at such stores deserves what it gets. And part of me wants to point out that they have two 800 numbers (800 282 2200 and 800 959 8795) if you feel like offering them any feedback on their slack-jawed know-nothing consumerist asininity, and there’s also a web form for email feedback.

The Worldly Philosophers

In The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner writes that “until a very few centuries ago, men were not at all sure that the market system was not to be viewed with suspicion, distaste, and distrust. The world had gotten along for centuries in the comfortable rut of tradition and command” (19), with “tradition and command” being the only two alternatives Heilbroner here seems to see to the market. As much as I admire Heilbroner’s consistent brilliance, insight, and eloquence (The Worldly Philosophers, like all of his writing, is a joy to read, stylistically speaking), I think this oversimplifies matters: as J. K. Gibson-Graham has detailed repeatedly, there is an abundance of economic activity in every society that is not market-based, and that does not depend on “tradition and command”, with blind altruism being only one example. Of course, some will say that my contention depends on definitions of altruism and tradition, and I’ll respond that we can quibble over the definition of “economic”, as well.
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Not a Marxist, Revisited

Karl Marx, in his early (1845-46) manuscript The German Ideology, argues that “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production musst not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production” (150). Am I reading this correctly, in understanding that Marx’s argument is that economic activity produces individual subjectivity? In understanding that, essentially, how you labor determines who you are?
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Consumption and Content

I never knew what RSS was, or RDF either. I’d see the acronyms in Dorothea’s writing, or in the hard tech blogs I occasionally visit, and understand that they were, yes, a technology, something about gathering content, but I’d tell myself that I didn’t much feel like putting yet another thing on my plate — not only the dissertation, but also wanting to learn MySQL and PHP and Actionscript and freshen up my Unix skills and maybe some Grep as well — and so I’d say to myself: it’s a tech thing, and you’re not that hardcore. But then IA mentioned it in a post, and she and Jill and Dorothea are people to whom I’ve learned to listen re tech issues.

And I’m hooked. Condensed content is fantastic, and I feel like I can read much, much more than I could before, when I was reading all content via my browser. As you might expect, if you know me, this raises a couple questions.
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Not Seeing

Short post tonight: I’m tired and stressed. The stress comes from the fact that a contention I’ve been involved in for the past year and a half is close to being settled, and I’m negotiating among a bunch of different people, some of whom are quite helpful and generous, some of whom are concerned for me to the point of being unwilling to see any other points of view, some of whom are doing their kind and tolerant best to be impartial, and some of whom are graceless, friendless, paranoid assholes. As the end gets nearer, it seems, the stakes get higher, and so too the stress — and the higher the stress gets, the less willing I am to negotiate, and the more I feel like tossing it all out the window and saying: to hell with a settlement; let’s go toe-to-toe, because you know I’ll win, asshole. My wrath is huge. My case is stronger, my will is stronger, my friends are stronger. And, morally, I’m right.

I can’t really say more than that here, at least until it’s done, but I’m happy to have an excellent ally in my corner, and I don’t think the graceless, friendless, paranoid asshole quite grasps how lucky he is to have a tentative agreement from me, since — after the unbelievably scummy things he’s done — nothing would make me happier than to see him ruined. Part of me would be willing to give up everything to see that happen. And it gives me a grim smile to think about that.

On the good side, I recently picked up Nigella Lawson’s wonderful cookbook, How to Eat, and am delighted by its voice, its wit, its downright (dare I use the word?) snarkiness. It’s a pleasure to read, and the recipes are terrific: last night I had company for dinner, and tried my hand at making a fish pie. It came out so, so good.

Lastly, and the point of this post: John, in a recent response, points to the “intellectual blindspot” of the discipline of composition (at least as it’s portrayed in the highly four-year university-oriented discussions in CCC and in the popular histories of the field) in its complete refusal to acknowledge community college scholarship. He’s absolutely right, and this is one of the things I’d like to focus on in my dissertation; the ways in which university-oriented composition scholars avoid talking about composition in community colleges because to talk about such things would be to talk about class, and class difference. In fact, the absence of talk about community colleges in the discourse of composition would seem to me to be the single most significant factor in favor of my thesis about why we don’t talk about class, which in some ways goes back to Burke’s notions of embarassment, but also goes back to constructions Berlin offers of the vocational eduacation and liberal education models. Compositionists have a stake in seeing their — our — discipline as egalitarian, and any talk to the contrary is dangerous, no matter how obvious the problems it points out may be.

John recommends Howard Tinberg. Perhaps it’s another piece of evidence in his favor that none of the five colleges in this area have his books in their libraries.