Quotable (#211)

Critical traditionalism:

Today the signification of “Puritan” approximates that of “authoritarian”, but this is an abuse of language. The Puritan, while an almost psychotically punctilious and ruthless rule enforcer, is the opposite of an authority figure: a spiritual outlaw and renegade, a born leveler and enemy of all social orders of rank, an antinomian and anarchist, a sower of discord and force for social disorganization. All of this is hardly the stuff of which secure and stable authority is made. Authority represents the organized whole over the part, the universal over the particular. Puritanism, born of faction and separatism, does the exact opposite. It is, in fact, the historic germ form of the abovementioned secularizing particularism that erodes the universal authority and public truth of religion and finally dissolves its solidity into a gaseous cloud of idiosyncratic personal tastes and opinions held by isolated and disorganized private individuals. Once again, this sort of thing is powerful to tear down existing authority structures – but to build new ones, not so much.

The whole article is impressively done, even if — from an accelerationist perspective, at least — its practical (rather than diagnostic) significance is hard to make out.

Quotable (#100)

Jacob Soll on those well-balanced Dutch:

Any system of enforcing fiscal discipline is an incursion against the absolute control of the account-holder, and kings and the powerful tended to see themselves above the merchant-like calculations of bookkeeping. They not only hid their wealth and debts: They often did not bother to calculate them. In the end, they saw themselves as only accountable to God; if they needed more ready cash, they could always lean on their inferiors. At least in the short run, it was far more comfortable to govern without the constraints of financial accountability. […] But in one place, the idea of financial accountability did take hold. By the early 1500s, Holland had become the center of global trade, with Antwerp and later Amsterdam acting as the most important ports in the world. Ships arrived laden with spices, exotic fruit, minerals, animals, whale oil, cloths, and other luxury goods. In 1602, the Dutch government in essence created modern capitalism by founding both the first publicly traded company — the Dutch East India Company, or VOC — and the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. […] Accounting was central to managing not only these companies, but also the Dutch government itself. While not all tax collectors or company managers kept perfect double-entry books, it represented an ideal. It was also seen as a necessary skill for civic participation. Most members of Dutch society were fluent in accounting, having studied at home or in publicly funded city accounting schools. […] Double-entry accounting made it possible to calculate profit and capital and for managers, investors, and authorities to verify books. But at the time, it also had a moral implication. Keeping one’s books balanced wasn’t simply a matter of law, but an imitation of God, who kept moral accounts of humanity and tallied them in the Books of Life and Death. It was a financial technique whose power lay beyond the accountants, and beyond even the wealthy people who employed them.

Objectified Growth

In The Nation, an exceptionally thoughtful article by Timothy Shenk explores the strange novelty of capitalism as an academic object. When examined by historians as an event (or thing), rather than by economists as a generic form (or type), it emerges as a peculiarly neglected target of attention which — despite its apparent familiarity — remains to a remarkable degree theoretical terra nova. Shenk notes:

Capitalism might seem like a strange topic to require discovery, yet until recently, scholars concerned with the subject tended to style themselves practitioners of economic history, or social history, or labor history, or business history, not the history of capitalism as such. But that is the genius of the label: it names a topic, not a methodology, opening the field to anyone who believes capitalism worth studying.

Taking the work of Harvard historian and “academic entrepreneur” Sven Beckert as a clue, Shenk outlines the emerging problems — and ironies — of the shift towards a growth-oriented perspective. Rather than representing the incarnation of a political-economic idea, or a ethico-political dilemma, “capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results — not by what it is, but by what it does.” The new capitalism studies sheds presuppositions in order to gain cognitive traction upon the plastic dynamism of a self-expanding system. Previously-dominant modes of engagement in both economics and history are disrupted in consequence:

Instead of focusing on the experiences of wage workers, scholars now dwell on the variety of ways in which labor of all sorts can be commodified and exploited. Plantation slaves and factory workers become different points on a common spectrum, rather than fundamental opposites. Commodified persons and the deft financiers capable of exploiting their commodification provide these narratives with their central figures — new embodiments for the old categories of labor and capital. […] In this rendering, capitalism is less a specific entity whose precise contours can be outlined than an infinitely resilient blob capable of absorbing every blow dealt against it and emerging stronger. It is a view that imposes stark limitations on the realm of the politically possible. Hyman is explicit on this point, arguing that “American capitalism is America, and we can choose together to submit to it, or rise to its challenges, making what we will of its possibilities.” Reform might be achievable, but the only revolution on offer is what Beckert, with a sly wink to Leon Trotsky, calls the “permanent revolution” of capitalism itself.

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Quotable (#33)

As the conclusion of an appropriately wide-ranging portrait of Peter Thiel, comes this vivid description of the dynamic double-bind that structures advanced modernity and mandates innovation:

When people look into the future, Thiel explains to me, the consensus is that globalization will take its course, with the developing world coming to look like the developed world. But people don’t focus on the dark, Malthusian reality of what that will mean, absent major technological breakthroughs not currently in any pipeline.

“If everyone in China has a gas-guzzling car, we’ll have oil at $10 per gallon and enormous pollution,” he observes.

But that’s just the start, because without growth there will also be increasing political instability. Instability will lead to global conflict, and that in turn may lead to what in a 2007 essay he referred to as” secular apocalypse” — total extinction of the human race through either thermonuclear war, biological contagion, unchecked climate change, or an array of competing Armageddon scenarios.

“That’s why,” he says, with characteristic understatement and aplomb, “I think the stakes in this are not just, ‘Are we going to have some new gadgets?’”

Twitter cuts (#9)

Deirdre N McCloskey on the elusiveness of the capitalist thing:

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Annotated #Accelerate (#2)

[Continued from here]

02. INTEREGNUM: On Accelerationisms

1. If any system has been associated with ideas of acceleration it is capitalism. The essential metabolism of capitalism demands economic growth, with competition between individual capitalist entities setting in motion increasing technological developments in an attempt to achieve competitive advantage, all accompanied by increasing social dislocation. In its neoliberal form, its ideological self-presentation is one of liberating the forces of creative destruction, setting free ever-accelerating technological and social innovations.

The brain-bruising invocation of ‘neoliberalism’ apart, these remarks are all perfectly sound.

2. The philosopher Nick Land captured this most acutely, with a myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity. In this visioning of capital, the human can eventually be dis-carded as mere drag to an abstract planetary intelligence rapidly constructing itself from the bricolaged fragments of former civilisations. However Landian neoliberalism [each use of this term deepens its senselessness] confuses speed with acceleration. We may be moving fast, but only within a strictly defined set of capitalist parameters that themselves never waver. We experience only the increasing speed of a local horizon, a simple brain-dead onrush rather than an acceleration which is also navigational, an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility. It is the latter mode of acceleration which we hold as essential.

The difference between ‘speed‘ and ‘acceleration’ is that between the zeroth and first derivative. It is rigorous and generally understood. The difference proposed here is something else. I have no clear idea what it is. (It seems to roughly amount to a distinction between Right and Left — i.e. the mere assertion that ‘capitalism’ is comprehensible as an ‘inside’ — with no further identifiable content.)

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