[OPE-L] Crashes, Panics, and Expectations

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Fri Mar 24 2006 - 16:15:39 EST

Hi Jerry,

Well, contrary to a determinist Marxism, I think Marx never denied the vital
importance of beliefs, feelings and mentalities; but I think that a
materialist interpretation of history would require locating the basis or
background of those beliefs, feelings and mentalities in social existence
and in practical life, and how the former react back to the latter,
influence that.

And I think Marx had no "rational expectations" model based on the
self-interested economic actor - there are always at least two "logics" in
his writing - the logic that individual subjects or groups consciously claim
to apply, and the overarching "logic" of the social totality in which they
are situated, or, to put it differently, the "logic" of the given objective
situation and the "logic" of the individual subjects or groups who may
rightly or wrongly imagine all sorts of things about that situation, as they
act within it.

The relationship between the two logics could however be difficult to
assess, and often one really has to participate in the situation to
understand it well, and avoid sociologisms (though, sometimes one can see
things by standing outside the situation better, than the people completely
involved in it - there are no epistemic warranties here). Hegel contrasts
with Marx/Engels here, insofar as Hegel often tries to deduce these logics
speculatively, while Marx/Engels believed they had to be verified
experientially (it was incidentally Engels who mainly drafted the section on
Feuerbach in the German Ideology manuscript, Helmut Fleischer says - so much
for the Engels-bashers).

Another issue is, that the "beliefs" I mentioned may lack any profound
rational basis, indeed this is precisely why they are beliefs. People may
act partly on the basis of instinct, intuition, impressions, superstitions
etc. (didn't Keynes also refer to "animal spirits"?). And what may appear as
irrational from one perspective of what rationality is, may appear as quite
rational, if the matter is looked at from a different angle.

The case I mentioned of Dutch savings behaviour, perfectly illustrates how,
when economics cannot explain real economic behaviour, it is forced to
resort to extra-economic factors (e.g. national psychology). Duncan Foley
has a delightful article on the notion of rational "economic agents" here:

Postmodernism of course casts doubt on our very ability to fathom the
rationality of social behaviour, in which case we are left only with a
story, a narrative, which may refract a reality in some limited way. But in
truth, of course, people are normally pretty rational about the most
important practical issues in their lives, and very resistant to propaganda
which does not accord with their real experience of life, even if this
happens not to be well-captured in economic theory.

Der Spiegel has an interesting, if somewhat cynical, article on the "crisis
feeling in France" which comments:

"Lack of security -- "précarité" -- is what everyone is talking about. The
student protest movement has no charismatic leader and no vision for
society's future. Many of the demonstrators and strikers are not members of
any political organization or party. "Many of them have never demonstrated
before," one student says. But the new type of employment contract
introduced by Villepin has created a common front of dissent. One flyer
distributed by the students of Nanterre asks: "How are you supposed to find
an apartment and build a future for yourself when you can lose your job from
one day to the next?"
In other words, the life plans the young protesters perceive to be under
threat are perfectly middle class."

Daniel Bensaid, for his part, commented on the French "crisis feeling" as

"The present movement is directly based on a social question - the
destruction of workplace regulations and the generalised casualisation of
employment, which is common both to youth in education and to workers. (...)
In 1968, the unemployed were counted in tens of thousands in a period of
great expansion, so students had no worries about the future. Today six
million people are either without work or casually employed, and over the
past few years we have experienced a series of social defeats, despite the
big movements of 1995 over public services, and of 2003 over pensions. So
the balance of forces that the present movement has intervened in is, at the
outset, very unfavourable."

You see here how Bensaid tries to apply Marx's "two logics" in his
analysis - the subjective impulse, and the objective "balance of forces"
(Kraftsverhaltnisse, rapports des forces). With all this "précarité" around,
it's of course easy to slipslide into either a voluntarist subjectivism or a
fatalist objectivism. I'm personally more skeptical about Bensaid's
sociological notion of "balance of forces" though, because frequently a
dramatic event (e.g. 9/11, the French riots, the EU referendum etc.) shows
that the real balance of forces is not what people thought it was, i.e. it
might be more a speculation or extrapolation, based on analogies with the
past, and it might indeed be counterproductive to people asserting
themselves; it is through asserting themselves, that the real power relation
becomes known, but that relation can also shift very rapidly, and take
people by surprise. In other words, it is not so much the balance of forces
which determines the conflict or campaign, but rather the conflict or
campaign which sorts out what the balance of forces really is.

In general, of course, you usually don't pick a struggle, unless you think
you have a chance of winning, but then again you might not have any choice
about struggle, and whether you can win, may be conditional on entering into
the ring ("You don't know what you haven't tried"). This is why I think the
notion of "balance of forces" itself is crucially ambiguous, and really not
very informative. When you read Bensaid's erudite rambling discourse "Marx
for our times" (Verso books), funny thing is that while he mentions a
"science of the concrete particular", he does not analyse the subject of
power in any profound way at all.

Francis Fukuyama cites an example of just how quickly perceptions about the
"balance of forces" can change: "A lot of the neo-conservatives drew the
wrong lessons from the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism.
They generalized from that event that all totalitarian regimes are basically
hollow at the core and if you give them a little push from the outside,
they're going to collapse. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, most people
thought that communism would be around for a long time."
http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,407315,00.html It's a sort of
brutally vulgar analysis.

So much for the pitfalls of reasoning by historical analogies though...


I want to be straight, I want to be straight
I wanna create a place of my own in the welfare state
wrr, gonna be good, wrr, gonna be kind
It might be a wrench, but think of the stench that I'm leaving behind
I want to be straight, I want to be straight
Come out of the cold, and do what I'm told and don't deviate
I wanna give, I wanna give, I wanna give my consent
I'm learning to hate all the things that were great when I used to be bent!

- Ian Dury and the Blockheads

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