vendredi 26 avril 2013

New Materialism.

Nicolas Jaar, Grizzly Bear - Sleeping Ute Remix, 2013.

Timur Si-Qin : One fascinating thing in your writing is how you debunk the existence of “Capitalism” as a generalized whole, in favor of much more heterogenous, emergent processes at play in the global economy. This seems like a refreshing non-conspiratorial position to take. Is this one of the ways your new materialism stands in contrast to marxist materialism ? Could you talk about this and some other important differences ? 

Manuel de Landa : The author that inspired me in this respect is Fernand Braudel, the main economic historian of our time. His history of European economies from 1400 to the Industrial Revolution is the most comprehensive that has ever been written : he and his disciples actually checked Florentine bank books from the 15th century ; the books from factories in Milan in the 16th century ; the history of the Venetian arsenal, the most important military-industrial complex in the early part of the past millennium. And after gathering all this data, his conclusion was that as far back as the 13th century there have always been at least two economic spheres : wholesale was never like retail (until the 20th century) ; industrial production using economies of scale was never like that based on the agglomeration of talent in a region or city and based on small firms ; and high finance has always been an entirely different world from that of small money lenders. At the end of the third volume of this work, Braudel concludes that there never was a single overall system. To fix this misconception he changes the definition of the term “capitalism” to signify Big Business, with its capacity to manipulate demand and supply, and keeps the term “market economy” for populations of small firms that are in fact governed by anonymous economic forces. Today, in the middle of an economic crisis created by firms that were too big to fail, a crisis in which profits were privatized while losses socialized, Braudel’s words sound deeply prophetic. 

As far as a contrast with Marxist materialism, the answer is two-fold. Against historical materialism we need a new vision of history without teleology, one which avoids a periodization into internally homogenous eras : feudalism, capitalism, socialism (or the Age of Agriculture, the Age of Industry, the Age of Information). There were never such Ages or Eras. Braudel, for example, shows how in the 14th century the areas of Europe that would become France and Spain did have manors ran by feudal lords, but the city-states in northern Italy and northern Germany (the Hanseatic league), as well as Flemish and Dutch towns, were already modern in many respects. Thus, we need to rethink our philosophy of history in the face of historical evidence. On the other hand, dialectical materialism is objectionable for different reasons. Any materialism needs a theory of synthesis to be able to account for the historical identity of mind-independent entities. But Marx took his theory from Hegel, synthesis through the negation of the negation, and this is an a priori scheme, the inadequacies of which were made obvious by Engel’s attempt to apply it to nature. What we need are a variety of a posteriori schemes of synthesis (from physics, chemistry, biology and other fields) to account for all the different morphogenetic or synthetic processes that shape the non-human world, as well as the world of economics, starting with an account of the emergence of prices (when not manipulated via economic power) as a collective unintended consequence of intentional action. 

TSQ : Do you have any thoughts on what a neo-materialist social and/or economic politics would look like ? For example how could issues like privatization versus socialization be approached ? 

MdL : Once we break with the idea of the capitalist system, a system that you must replace as a whole via a Revolution, many options open up. I mentioned before the distinction between industrial production based on economies of scale and that based on economies of agglomeration. The former is typically based on routinized labor (Taylorism) ; the leaders are managers of a joint-stock company (in which ownership and control are separated) ; its actors have pricing power (managers add an arbitrary mark-up to their costs) ; and it typically forms oligopolies, dominated by a few giant firms. The latter uses skilled labor (it depends on the agglomeration of talented people in a region) ; it is led by entrepreneurs (owners with a vision that risk their own savings) ; its actors do not have pricing power ; and it forms large populations of firms in which, unlike oligopolistic rivalry, there is real anonymous competition. Now, this is a rough distinction that needs to be nuanced in many ways but it will serve to make my point. While economies of scale are private, the system resembles that of a government run set of companies. As John Kenneth Galbraith, a great but neglected economist, pointed out half a century ago, oligopolies constitute a planning system, hardly distinguishable from communist central planning. And the fact that large firms are run by hired guns (managers can own stock options but they do not have to) also resembles government run firms in other countries. So, as it turns out, the distinction between the private and the public is a lot trickier than it seems. 

Politically, this matters because if you are, say, part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, you need to make a distinction between fair competition among small firms ran by entrepreneurs and the rigged system of large corporations in which the impersonal forces of demand and supply are manipulated, and hence, do not allow prices to set themselves. You need to make this distinction because you do no want to come across as denouncing the “system” as a whole. In a study by Annalee Saxenian comparing Silicon Valley (dominated by economies of agglomeration) and Route 128 near Boston (once dominated by economies of scale) she shows that during bad economic times, economies of agglomeration are more robust and “weedy,” while economies of scale are brittle, and hence, must rely on government bail-outs when external shocks bring them down. Hence, there are choices to be made that are not the old choice between “privatization” and “nationalization,” a distinction based on marxism, and one still carrying the stigma that Marx, borrowing from Proudhon, phrased with the ridiculous slogan “Private property is theft.” There are many leftists out there who still believe in that silly slogan.


TSQ : I think this is another example of locating and dismantling essentialist and transcendent notions in philosophy. Another example is in your writings on species archetypes vs. populations as well replacing the idea of “survival of the fittest” with a topological understanding of ecological optima. Can you talk about the importance of ridding philosophy of transcendental, archetypical and essentialist thinking ?

MdL : In contemporary biology the human species, or any other species, is not considered a higher taxonomic category (as in Aristotle) but an individual entity. Not, of course, an individual organism but similar to it in that a species also has a date of birth (the event of speciation) and a potential date of death (the event of extinction). Hence, just like organisms are unique and singular (not even a clone is an exact replica, since it has a different embryological and ontogenetic history) so are species : once driven to extinction they never come back.

In my book A New Philosophy of Society I tried to create a social ontology that is like this : individual persons, individual communities, individual organizations, individual cities, individual countries. That is, an ontology populated exclusively by unique and singular historical entities. Each individual entity is made out entities of lower scales : thus, communities and organizations are made out of persons, cities are made out of communities, organizations, and persons, and so on. This way, the properties (and tendencies and capacities) that characterize each entity can be explained as the emergent product of the interactions between its components. Emergent properties, in turn, exorcize transcendence: when properties are not explained as a historical result of actual and sustained interactions they become transcendent. When they are emergent, on the contrary, they block reductionism (in that the properties belong to the whole not its parts) but they do depend on there being some interactions between parts, that is, they are immanent to these interactions. 

On the other hand, each of these individual entities always exist as part of a population : a population of people, a multiplicity of communities, a plurality of organizations, and so on. This means that we must tackle these entities statistically, that is, that we must find out how variation is distributed in a population. This is another way of breaking with essentialism : for Aristotle the variation observed in a population of animals of a given species was a smoke screen, a sort of noise that did not allow one to see the eternal archetype of which these animals were but imperfect copies. But when you think statistically, the variation is the key (in biology, no variation = no evolution) as is its distribution. Thus, when you consider the distribution of secondary sexual characteristics in a population of men and women, you do not see two mutually exclusive categories instantiating the essences of masculinity and femininity, but two overlapping statistical distributions with many ambiguous cases in the area of overlap.

Timur Si-Qin & Manuel de Landa, Manuel de Landa in Conversation with Timur Si-Qin, SOCIETE, 2012, p.1-2 & 4-13.

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