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Archive for April 2005

Badiou: from Worker to Immigrant

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WebaA paragraph from a brilliantly lucid piece by Peter Hallward on Badiou’s Politics.

The void left by
its disappearance [the term "workers], of course, has been filled by the obscure category of
‘immigrants’. Badiou has little trouble showing that ‘the hatred of immigrants
was established massively, consensually, at the level of the state, from
the moment when we began, in our representations of the world, to omit
the workers, the figure of the workers’ (LDP, 1.12.91: 3). It is obvious
that ‘the immense majority of immigrants are workers or people looking
for work’ (LDP, 1.12.91: 3) – hence the absurdity of current distinctions
between ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘economic migrants’. It is no less obvious
that the invention, as pseudo-political labels, of the terms ‘immigrant’,
‘foreigner’ ‘étranger’, ‘clandestin’, and so on, coincides
with the swing in global political economy over the 1980’s against organised
labour and popular movements generally.16
In France, Badiou points out, this movement can be dated quite precisely.
One of Mittérand’s first prime ministers, Pierre Mauroy, justified
the repression of a strike at Renault-Flins in 1983 on the basis that the
striking workers were ‘foreign to the social reality of France’ (LDP, 3.05.92:
12). The violent repression of another strike at Talbot later in the same
year confirmed the trend (LDP, 26-27.02.98: 18). Two years later, the socialist
Laurent Fabius confessed that it is ‘Le Pen [who] is posing the real questions’
(LDP, 19-20.04.96: 2), an admission effectively confirmed by Michel Rocard
(‘France cannot open its doors to the misery of the world’) and Mittérand
himself (‘we must struggle firmly against illegal immigration’) (LDP, 7.07.93:
6). The resulting consensus is indeed consistent, as the OP is at pains
to stress, with the general approach of the Front National. On the issues
of economic liberalism, immigration, crime, drugs, the banlieues,
the FN is ‘internal to the consensus’ established over two decades
of Mittérandisme (LDP, 22.06.97: 3).17
Hence the conclusion: ‘strengthen the workers, and thus limit Lepenism’
(LDP, 1.12.91: 3). Without a strong figure of the worker there can be no
effective response to the so-called ‘immigrant question’.

The common cause forged between the Front National and Mitterandisme found a precise mirror during the previous US election – in particular, during the process of determining the Democratic nominee. John Edwards’s economic populism, while not heading straight at immigrants, spoke the same code-words (tariffs, China, "free trade, but fair trade") that are aired nightly on Lou Dobbs’s show on CNN. (If you’re not familiar: a popular business tv-talking head from the (first) bubble period who tacked xenopopulist post-9/11 with recurring, actually almost complusive attention to "America’s Broken Borders."

Anyway, the issue of immigration is one of the many issues where US politics is distinctly in flux, with every side on the wrong side for the wrong reasons. The Democratic Party, pressured by the appeal of the North Carolinian Edwards (North Carolina has both been particularly hard hit by Chinese furniture imports and is facing up to their first wave of latin american lawn cutters and busboys) is lilting towards an anti-immigration, xenophobic stand. While Bush, against the grain of his patriotic rhetoric and against the wishes of his bubblefuck constituency, seems to have come to grips with the fact that the American economy instantly crumbles without the downward wage pressure of our hard-working uninvited guests… (The socially conservative lean of second generation latino voters doesn’t hurt either…)

At any rate, things have only gotten more complicated since the initial collation Badiou, via Halliward, describes above… In a certain sense, it’s not just the name "workers" – but their reality – that’s been taken over by the "immigrant," especially in New York, but actually nearly everywhere in the USA today… But Badiou’s point nonetheless holds: there’s something (everything) lost in the translation…

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April 20, 2005 at 1:34 am

Posted in Politics

Cargo Containers, Elizabeth NJ

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(Perhaps a followup to the previous followup…) Took my Nan to Newark Airport today – she stopped here on the way to see the folks where they live. And of course was treated to the fantastic perspective that the NJ turnpike provides upon the material remainder (reminder?) of the US trade deficit. The piles and piles of cargo containers that come full of the bountry of the world, but never leave. It is cheaper, apparently, to rent acre after acre of NJ swamp-land and simply let them rust than to disassemble them, sell them for scrap.


The last (and first) time I was in northern California, I was amazed by the fact that you could actually see the fault-lines. Drive right through them, over them, on US 1.



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April 16, 2005 at 12:51 am

Posted in Current Affairs

What in each case is given

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Perhaps, maybe, a follow-up to the previous post. From the Arcades Project:

“The concept of progress must be grounded in the
idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what
in each case is given.”

UPDATE (in response to Ft. Kant’s question in the comments):

It’s from the N convolute, "On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress." N9a,1. Page 473 in the Harvard ed.

Actually, the quote continues "Thus Strindberg (in To Damascus): hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now."

For a gloss on the second line, I’d consider the distinction between "homogeneous, empty time" and "jetzt-zeit" in the theses "On The Philosophy of History."

“The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.” (Thesis XIII)

The social democratic concept of progress, to Benjamin’s mind, slides into an affirmation of the status quo. Jetzt-zeit depends on a different idea of change – qualitative rather than quantative, extra-temporal rather than temporal.

I also think this little snippet is a fantastic example of Benjamin’s "thetic" mode of writing – the sort of movement spread out a bit in the "Work of Art" essay  or the theses "On the Philosophy of History." Each step forward seems to cancel the previous one out – a writerly performance of the very temporality Benjamin seeks to describe here.

And finally, I tend to think all this is bound up with (or bindable with) the "creative destruction" characteristic of capitalism, whose "progress" requires continual "catastrophe," whose status-quo is the catastrophe, the collapse….

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April 12, 2005 at 1:55 am

Posted in Culture

Dominant Centre

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Wolcott’s got a post up about the coming US fiscal-economic crisis. I try to keep abreast of this stuff – read my FT and the business section of the Times (and Delong, for better or usually worse). But Wolcott’s been reading the subscription sheets of the analysts – worth a look. Just to give you a sense.

There’s a pattern here. As with Peak Oil, global warming, the real
estate bubble, and the various US deficits, there’s a general awareness
of Trouble Coming and yet no sense of urgency or battle plan. It isn’t
that the media, the political class, and the media are paralyzed by
fear or overwhelmed by alternative solutions, it’s as if everyone is
assuming that we can sleepwalk through the next crisis and muddle
through as we always have with only minor hiccups, if any, in our
lifestyles. As Stephen Roach and others have warned, the American consumer is now so indebted and
lacking in savings that there’s little cushion for the next reversal of
fortune. Almost any soft landing could turn hard.

OK, so other than a sort of irrational schadenfreude about the US economy that I (try to) hide under my mattress, why am I bringing this forward? Ferdinand Braudel, in his Afterthoughts on Material Culture and Civilization, advances a theory about financial crises and the shifting geopolitical (and perhaps ideological, cultural) "centers" of the world. I can’t for the life of me find my copy. But here’s John Plender summarizing in the FT a few months back:

No one can satisfactorily explain 1929 financial crash. One plausible theory is that such events
accompany rise and fall of financial hegemonies. Braudel, a French historian, argues that the world
always has a dominant centre. Over the centuries this has gone from Venice to Antwerp, Genoa,
Amsterdam, London and New York. The dominant centre usually presides over a dominant
currency. Being world reserve currency allows country to write cheques that no one cashes. Braudel
dates transfer of power from London to NY as 1929 – and it makes intuitive sense that dislocation
could occur in interregnum. 1987 stock market crash coincided with rise of Japan as main source of
international financial capital. 1974 crash which went further and faster than 1929 coincided with
shift of economic power to OPEC. Now it is not hard to make the case that US has reached high
point – with huge fiscal deficit, low savings, dependence on foreign capital (though this is
offset by
recent productivity gains). US now depends on China to supply capital needs. Economic power is
now shifting to Asia.

When I find my Braudel, perhaps I’ll revise this post. But here’s what I’m thinking about. Does the coming financial crisis in the US foreshadow a shift in not only the political and economic, but also cultural "center" of the world? Will the ideological/cultural center shift with the money and concomitant political power? Can we imagine a world in which the US wasn’t the primary supplier of images, "consensuses," and provocations? After more than a century of dominance, what might "our" work look like, if the more-than-a-century of UK-US dominance was to end?

What would it mean for us, for all this, to take our perhaps foreordained place as workers in a "minor" tradition? 

When I first moved to NYC, I was continually fascinated by the fact that I only had to walk three blocks or so to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, from which I could see very clearly the river root of Wall Street. Seemed strange and awing, in a way, that my eye could focus, during my evening walks, on the "real" space on the physical location where the cameras of the world framed their "business report" shots. What will happen to my American eye when Wall Street is just another street?

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April 12, 2005 at 1:36 am

Posted in Culture

Un Coup du Tonnerre

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Very nice new blog up at

To my mind, this new page distinguishes itself b

For instance, take Brad Delong’s recent post about Marx and the labor theory of value. (Comes complete with dorky pictures), which settles down eventually to this:

The labor-theory-of-value model is simply not a good or useful model.
Marx’s measures of "exploitation" and "rates of surplus value" don’t
tell you very much about what is really going on. It’s a swamp you
really don’t want to enter.

As pas au dela says, the post "demonstrates either his indifference to or ignorance of Marx, or some combination thereof." In short, this sort of thing pisses us off… But the problem is, I don’t know how to answer it… Out of my field… Sat staring at the comment entry form on the website… Just wasn’t going to happen.

And then along comes Reason Thunders and look at what we get:

Let me say first that I agree with Brad’s claim
that the labor theory of value is not a "useful analytic category" for
evaluating relative standards of economic injustice. His stick-figure
proof makes that clear enough: the quantity of surplus value extracted
doesn’t line up neatly with our everyday notion of exploitation.

There are good reasons, however, to resist jettisoning it completely:

The labor theory of value is indispensable as an index of the absolute
(i.e. not relative) exploitation of capitalist production. Profit
derives most generally from the discrepancy between what workers earn
and what they contribute. That is the essence of the concept of
the labor theory of value—that the source of profit is the difference
between the price workers are paid and the value of what they provide.

The labor theory of value participates in a now abandoned effort to
understand value. Economists have all but given up on the notion of
value, preferring instead the less freighted notion of price. The
difference between value and price is not economic. It is
philosophical, having to do with the ancient debate over the
localization of essence (now migrated to the sphere of capitalism). How
are the attributes of a thing related to its thingness? With the
attribute called value, the relation is profound: the value of a thing
inheres in its thingness. With price, the relation is incidental: the
price of a thing is only what someone is willing to pay for it. If we
abandon the notion of value for that of price, then we have no ground
from which to critique the priorities of economic life (how, for
example, can you argue for increased pay for teachers if their worth is
already perfectly established by their current salary?) The Labor
Theory of Value is an attempt, however flawed, to reorient economic
priorities to a more human measure of worth.

What’s fantastic (and relatively unprecedented in "our" line of blogs) is that RT is actually answering
Delong, in his own terms, but from the left. An actual response. Unlike Delong’s post – or the critical comments posted under it – I learned something from this post. And I even think Delong might too… Whether he’d admit it or not.

Anyway, go check out the new site.

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April 10, 2005 at 10:55 pm

Posted in Weblogs


with 2 comments

Democracy seems either to be ending or beginning in Mexico today, tonight, tomorrow…

MEXICO CITY, April 7 (Reuters) – About 150,000 Mexicans poured into the
streets on Thursday to support Mexico City’s leftist mayor, who
furiously decried a drive to knock him out of the 2006 presidential
race as an assault on democracy.

Take a look here or here or here.

(Of course, CNN’s doing an excellent job tonight preparing us to be prepared for tomorrow morning’s papal funeral and rehashing a random street-crime murder on the lower east side two years ago…)

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April 8, 2005 at 12:36 am

Posted in Politics

A Fjord-horse to do the farm work

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Pas au-dela does some nice dialectical blogging here and here.

Seems to me that this isn’t just a problem of Naztologia, intentional or unavoidable, but kind of running referendum on modernity as a whole that we each must participate in on a daily basis. The Mercedes brings the tensions to the fore, for sure, and I drive a Volkswagen Jetta Wagon. (Must say that I’m much impressed with the "german engineering" of my people’s car). Almost each and every product line bears traces of the same scent of death. More broadly, almost every innovation, the fruit of almost every episode of progress, is the same. I’ll spare the list, and spare the document of barbarism stuff…

I’ve been spending more time than usual in hospitals of late, taking delivery room tours, doing ultrasounds and the like. And the medical supplies – whose boxes are small masterpieces of a sort of blank design modernity, all "small print" and neologistic brandnames – bear the logos of an all-star squad of twentieth century complicit improvers.

My father took a job for two week with the corporation that made Zyklon B, before heading back to his former employer, a food company then owned by RJ Reynolds tobacco, now owned by Altria (or is Altria owned by them?) I asked him about it recently – it never came up during the interviews.

I myself alternate between Winstons and Marlboros, depending on what’s 3 for the price of 2 at the Korean market around the corner.

That said, I’ve always been unsettled – in the wrong way – by the approach to politics embraced by Adbusters and the like. Seems to me to be an infinitely foreseeable adaptation of left politics to the self-help, self-fulfillment culture that marks the current tidal mark of the American experiment. Marie Antoinette-ism… What the magazine prescribes for its readership is something other than politics, I think. At base, it’s a strange sort of "lifestyle" magazine. It is full of stuff like this, from the current issue…

Here in rural Telemark, Norway, my husband and I have an ancient, 100-acre farm without a road, without electricity, without running water, without a computer or mobile telephone or washing machine or CD player or remote-control carrot-dicer… without corporate products, including Barbie dolls or Nike sneakers. We have a fjord-horse to do most of the heavy farm work (and so on…)

And a subscription to Adbusters, it would seem…

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April 5, 2005 at 1:37 am

Posted in Culture