Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 21 October 2012


The last time I was in Istanbul in 1995 I carried in my travel bag only two books that I read in the long sunny afternoons spent marvelling at the beauty of the Sea of Marmara from the lounge of the splendid Ottoman building housing my hotel: – one was a heavy tome containing Vladimir Nabokov’s collected short stories and the other was a much lighter collection of short stories by Tobias Wolff titled ‘The Night in Question’. Burdened by these volumes, I could not help reflect at the time on the ‘barbe et peripezie’ (Machiavelli’s expression for tribulations and vicissitudes) of the great Austrian philologist and critic Erich Auerbach, the laudable author of ‘Mimesis’, what I consider to be the greatest work of literary exegesis in our Western history. Forced to flee his Mitteleuropa by the rise of the Nationalsocialist German dictatorship, Auerbach sought refuge in Istanbul, perhaps the last bastion of Western civilisation and certainly the first approach to that Orient that had so often challenged it for global supremacy since the time of Xerxes and the Peloponnesian Wars.
I wondered back then at the pathos of this supreme intellectual exile, the ostracised victim of a European civilisation in its death throes, who yet – unlike the central character in Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ – found the courage and the strength even in his predicament to keep alive and illuminate the most genial expressions of his culture often aided only by the sheer power of his memory. In the flight from Vienna to Istanbul, indeed, Auerbach could no longer have access to anything remotely resembling the bibliographical resources that had availed him in the Austrian capital. After the conquest of Byzantium by the troops of the Ottoman Empire five hundred years earlier, in fact, Istanbul was no longer the centre of global civilisation that it had been since its foundation as Constantinople, the splendid capital of the Late Roman Empire turned Christian under the inspired vision of Constantine that had brought to its apotheosis that long and incessant marriage of Hellenic rationalist philosophy and science and Oriental religious mysticism and piety begun with the wars of conquest of Alexander the Great and crystallised in the vast intellectual synthesis of the Greek Paideia spread by the first Christian apostles and later debouching in the Christian Era.
In a related twist, this particular “marriage” (he calls it “encuentro”, meeting, in ‘Cristianismo Primitivo y Paideia Griega’, chapter 1) was the lifelong focus of study of another great German-speaking scholar and intellectual, the great historian of Antiquity Werner Jaeger, whose monumental ‘Paideia’ is surely one of the supreme achievements of human erudition and learning. Jaeger (whose work on early Greek theology inspired none other than Heidegger) also became an exile, this time to America, upon the rise of Hitler, though this time more by “choice” than by direct or immediate threats to his personal safety.
As convoluted as these literary allusions may seem, they do provide an intriguing platform for a critique of bourgeois economic “science”. But this time round what I bring to Istanbul to allow me to amplify on these themes are not heavy tomes over which to pore while I take in the impressive panorama of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn from my terrace window with views of the Basilica of the Holy Wisdom. This time round I am no longer burdened by the weight of books and the sad knowledge of the exiguous number that I could carry with me – because since my last visit a technological miracle has taken place, one that allows me at the mere click and tap of fingers to access almost every book that human ingenuity and learning have ever devised and composed. This miracle is called “information technology”, which includes computers, ‘USBs’ and more important, the internet! So here once again is what would seem at first to be a tribute to capitalism, and yet is instead an implicit critique – because if this economic system has been associated with the vast development of human technologies, it has also done so always in a manner that impedes most violently their “democratic” use and subordinates them instead to their “capitalistic use”, that is, makes them available only on condition that their employment is “profitable” so that its users are forced to surrender their living labour, their political autonomy, “in exchange for” the ability to utilise them. The fact that even now I am forced to rely on Spanish translations, the only ones available on the internet, rather than on originals speaks volumes about this “restricted capitalistic use” of technologies!)
The “motor” of capitalist industry and of its “growth and development”, as we have attempted to show in our studies of Joseph Schumpeter’s Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung, is not the capitalist entrepreneur but rather the opposite “force’, the antagonism of living labour that compels the capitalist to devise new ways of “containing” the explosive force of this antagonism between living and dead labour. The capitalist entrepreneur decides on the “direction” that this antagonism takes, but can never master or destroy it: and so the antagonism grows and grows. True, the “direction” of technological control comes from the capitalist “metropole” – but the antagonism is everywhere to be seen, perhaps nowhere more conspicuously than in the “periphery”. Istanbul and Turkey, like Egypt and Syria, are part of this “periphery”, one that is drawing ominously ever closer to the European “metropole”. The question for us then is ultimately how to reconcile the political autonomy of living labour, its “spontaneity” (Latin spons for will) with the need to guide and order it into a political unity.
The question that Jaeger attempted to answer in his iter intellectualis was why Christianity rather than Judaism was able to spread way beyond Palestine and conquer through the Roman Empire the known world. And the answer he gave was, briefly, that this spread was greatly facilitated by the prior expansion of the Greek-Hellenic koine’ mainly through the Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Eastern empires. The great dif-ference (the different practical impact) between Judaism and Christianity lay for Jaeger precisely in this: - namely, that Christian religion could be wedded to (we spoke of “marriage” before) - indeed it was a direct partial descendant of - the experimental rationalism developed by the early Greek philosophers and their cultural koine’ that right from its inception sought to explain “rationally”, that is in an experimental scientific or “realistic” fashion, both the origin - metaphysical, onto-logical and theo-logical - of the world together with its experiential workings or operation as manifested to the human senses and perception. Whilst Jaeger traces the amazing “affinity” of early Greek theo-logical and onto-logical reflection with the experimental orientation of its great theoreticians, Auerbach concentrates instead on the dif-ferences between the peremptory, dictatorial biblical faith of Judaic religion as articulated in the Old Testament and the democratic realist praxis of early Greek narrative illustrated masterfully in the Homeric poems. (Cf. ‘Ulysses’s Scar’ in Mimesis, p.20 in the Spanish translation, and in particular this astounding passage that both epitomises and encapsulates Auerbach’s thesis in a political context that brings it back home, like the Homeric odyssey, to his own personal drama:
The pretension to truth of the Bible not only is much more peremptory than that of Homer, but it is also tyrannical: it excludes all other truths! The world of the biblical stories is not content with relating a historical reality, but pretends rather to be the only true world, destined to exclusive domination…The tales of the Holy Scriptures do not seek our favour [cf. Macbeth’s first encounter with the three witches], like thos of Homer; they do not address us with the aim of convincing and pleasing us: what they aim at is instead is to dominate us and, if we refuse, they immediately label us as rebels.
I can certainly vouch for the similarity of these sentiments to those of any other “rebellious” students in economics faculties the world over today!)
Indeed, even this “marriage” or “meeting” of a Judaic theo-ontology that denigrates temporal life or ec-sistence in favour of transcendence, that is, of a Divinity that stands outside the cosmos, with the Hellenic philosophical realist immanentism that sought to explain what exists by means of what exists and is perceptible – even this “marriage”, we were saying, that according to Jaeger gave birth to Christian religion with its eschatology of the “soul”, evidently contains within itself this opposition of divine theology and what Jaeger calls “natural” theology, in that the latter treats theology itself in anthropological fashion by seeking the human or, if you like, the “scientific” reasons for its own existence. As the master Sophist, Protagoras, genially put it, “Man is the measure of all things”, and that includes the divinity, of course. This priority given to how and why human beings live and die, to what comes between “the first and the last thing”, as Nietzsche put it (in Human, All Too Human), rather than to what lies beyond life and the world, became the object of the German philosopher’s championing of the rhetorical Sophists against the Socratic mystics.
Yet even within the democratic realist praxis of the early Greek philosophers and scientists there lies a dangerous ambivalence about the meaning of “measure”:- because if this “measure” with which modern science has grown obsessed then becomes what it has become in the hands of capitalist industry whose sole aim is to measure the immeasurable, living labour, in terms of its quantifiable exchange with “dead labour” or “goods” or “output”, then we have a new transcendentalism exemplified most brutally and odiously by so-called “economic science” whereby the theoretical categories are turned into strait-jackets or Procrustean beds into which human behaviour must fit (cf. Karl Polanyi’s superb study of The Great Transformation), or else in “pragmatic”, mainly econometric, efforts that take the present, what is now, not as history but rather as an exemplification of economic theory and then attempt to fit their observations of what is into the Procrustean bed of what must be, which is the most apt and correct definition of neoclassical economic theory. 

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