This is the final installment of a five-part series by regular Triple Crisis contributor Ali Kadri, Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, and author of Arab Development Denied: Dynamics of Accumulation by Wars of Encroachment (Anthem Press).
The series is based on an interview he granted to the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics (LSE). The original interview is available here. The previous parts as they appeared on Triple Crisis, with Dr. Kadri’s revisions and additions, are available here, here, here, and here.
The Laboratory for Advanced Research on the Global Economy [part of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics] has as its objectives to provide a hub for creative work across disciplines and [to proceed] from theory to practice on issues central to concerns about justice under conditions of globalisation. How might the Lab’s mandate help inform your research?
The Lab anchors studies of development in the necessity to observe human rights as part of the broader picture to which societies may aspire in their day to day existence. The observance of human rights is not a luxury, but rather an obligation that states ‘must’ adhere to under international law. The overwhelming majority of states have ratified the international covenants on economic and social rights and the right to development. Yet, international law is the treaty attendant on the sovereignty of states. Sovereignty in turn is the rule and security of a dominant social class. Nations, such as those of the Arab world, whose working class security and sovereignty are voided by an alliance of international capital and their own merchant-bourgeoisie, can neither join a community of nations nor observe the application of the right to development in their favour.
Under the rule of international financial capital, a community of nations, its international law, human rights and rights to development become the cant behind which rights are trampled. In actuality, the principles of human rights and the right to development are wrought from the struggles of working classes as they weaken the rule of international financial capital everywhere, particularly, in the imperialist centres. So seen from a reality which is process-wise a heap of contradictions, analysis and policies cannot depart from the compass of human rights, which in political terms means boosting the ideological power of working classes and, which, in distributional terms means, strict observance of the historically determined subsistence needs of the working class.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the current mainstream approach purposefully departs from and overlooks the right to development. It places its emphasis on the right of an abstract individual to have choices but skips the right of social individuals to have a decent minimum level of subsistence wrought by the struggle of the working class. Under the guise of neutrality, it tends to omit power and class relations from its analysis and, as such, science becomes anything but neutral. Why? Because as I mentioned earlier (in part 2 of this interview), it abstracts selectively from reality to show and support only the points that advance its own vision, which is in the final analysis the vision of the ruling class.
For instance, consider some aspects of neoclassical economics. The idea that there is an unadulterated price mechanism that pre-exists outside historical social and power structures, which, if need be would clear all markets and allocate resources efficiently, tends to omit the simple fact that such a price system cannot exist even hypothetically as a centripetal point to which reality would gravitate by equilibrium forces. Any price system culminates a social process that involved a production process that began with the bombing of the colonies to wrest the raw material and the busting of the unions – in the more obvious manifestations of it that is. The only way the organised dimension of capital (the Keynesians of the world) averts severe crisis is by saving the market from itself and its supposed divine price system, or better yet, to foment war, dislocate and re-engage cheapened resources anew.
The delusion of the free market is yet more ludicrous, not only because it begins with a subject who lives in a trans-historical world in which he produces, trades, and consumes, but also because it adds up all the actions of the individualised subjects to emulate history. History is not sort of “I do, she does, and the sum of what we do” at different intervals, projected as slides on a wall. The majority have no effective political say whatsoever. Historical agency is not the adding up together of the trans-historical psychological traits and inclinations of every individual. The abstract or isolated subject does not exist. The individual is a social relationship reflecting the many social relationships of the social order in which he or she resides, of which only the relationships organised to produce a political impact by means of organised political action count as agency. That is all the more reason why collective rights do not negate and still hold primacy over individual rights.
Political agency is that social relationship which mutates within the intermediated space provided by the power of the social class in the world of politics. States and defence structures, the UN Security Council, and the International Financial institutions exemplify some of the forms of social organisations mediating the agencies of dominant social classes. Only the ruling classes have choices and it is delusional for the majority of the working classes to perceive themselves as agents of history outside working-class forms of resistance. In actuality, history happens against the wishes of the working classes; at least that much we know for sure. However, when working people are bamboozled by capital’s ideological power and ballot-box democracy (boxocracy or the rule of a box over people) into thinking that each is an embodiment of the nation state and a maker of history, there will only be an occasional divergence between what people want and historical outcome. History happens as people please despite the displeasure of the outcome.
In such a mass-psychosis, the social science that investigates the reality of why history happens against people’s wishes would not only stand corrected, but its raison d’être as an investigative tool of why fundamental changes happen would also cease to exist. History becomes a series of systematic but not systemic mistakes, which could be dealt with by an appropriate accounting framework. There is no reason to explore the laws of development that necessarily, but not exclusively, breed the repetitiveness of undesired outcomes in war, poverty and austerity. The social metabolic order in which the heights of prosperity meet the depth of poverty becomes just a ‘given’. But the power structure, including ideological power, driving any social metabolic order is antecedent to price. So even for positive science, omitting power from the ‘given’ picture is short-sightedness. Introducing power as a symbolic variable to complete the picture is sloppiness. Power is class power and class is the objective social process and the forms of social organisation, including class history and symbolism realised in the relationship with other classes.
The signification of value, which is the price system, is primarily a product of class power. Countries whose working classes lack power and sovereignty also lose their right to a dignified existence via liberalising policies, exchange prices, trade treaties and, foremost, by outright wars of aggression. The bamboozled masses, embodying the zeal of the nationalist state, whose advanced formations aggress and exact tribute from already insecure non-sovereign countries (via liberalisation and the dismantling of peripheral industry), would also find themselves on a historical trajectory that requires them to crank up their reified nationalisms into ultra-nationalisms in order to raise their shares of imperialist spoils. The nationality guise drives the divide in the international division of labour, and as such, it becomes the foremost resource allocation mechanism, wrapping class power in national power. The fictitious national boundary and bourgeois traditions mystify the real channels for the usurpation of wealth from the disempowered countries or classes.
Insofar as the symbols and traditions of classes go, when the bourgeoisie fakes the traditions of progressiveness as in democratic governance, gender equality and pseudo-feminism, it also erects cultural modes of differentiation that ‘other’ the resisting working classes everywhere. The ruling classes become different in the way the way dress and behave. They also become hated for their behaviour. Resisting working people abhor the insignia of the richer classes and those of their own bourgeoisie as it mimics the customs and consumption patterns of the richer classes elsewhere. Their own history is re-fantasised to bolster resistance, but in absence of strong internationalist ties, it bolsters the wrong resistance. In the case of the Arab world, for instance, the Hijab (veil), which was the select dress code of the few medieval merchants who could afford it and, which signified concubinage, re-emerges in modern days of mass-produced cotton-cloth as the symbol with which Muslim women oppose Western decadence. This psychological alienation issues from historical and material alienation (Frantz Fanon). The Arab working classes transmute historical myths into symbols of resistance, which, as international socialism ebbs, their symbols and fantasies from the past redirect the struggle away from imperialism.
The fanning of the Sunni/Shiite war, which never existed as such in histroy, is one such manifestation of socialist ideological retreat. By refocusing the struggle away from imperialism, this form of Islamic resistance acts as an asset to repression and capital everywhere. There is little room for the human rights agenda in a resource allocation process, which is determined simultaneously by militarisation, and working class differentiation by nationalist or identity politics to flourish. When the veneers of nationalism and the ‘pseudo-liberal’ traditions that have come justify war on cultural bases are demystified, capital, the social relationship would also be exposed as foundationally opposed to human rights.
The mainstream and its canon of orthodoxy only flirt with the idea of human rights and rights-based subsistence; it cannot integrate rights within its hypotheses because it is neither un-ideological nor neutral as is professed. It would be straightforward to model mathematically an economy with unemployed persons—or persons residing below subsistence—as receiving state incomes to meet their basic needs, or wages to engage in socially rewarding activity. That equality of condition, as opposed to equality of opportunity, should come first is a right. The mass of unemployed people are so because the market economy itself cannot provide full and decent employment and, hence, society and the international community owe people who are forced into poverty a decent minimum subsistence. The solution to mathematical models that incorporate a hypothesis of needs-based rights to the unemployed and/or people working at below poverty wages in their analysis would still be “rigorous,” since rigor itself is a convention and not an objective criterion. However, by overlooking needs-based rights, power, and interrelated forms of social organisation, the discipline of economics overlooks the objective and impersonal forces of history. It has to, because its constructed history is personal and subjective. It begins with a trans-historical individual possessing a megalomaniacal agency and ends with a history which is the sum of these subjective tastes and inclinations, taken at successive intervals in chronological time. Nothing could go wrong when the world is conceived as such, every point is Pareto optimal and all resources are efficiently allocated within a given level of technology. Social disaster, unemployment, and wars are ascribed to choice or cultural reasons. A few decades ago, they were attributed to race.
The question why the mainstream’s canon of orthodoxy cannot be superseded when addressing the ferment of social conditions, can be answered under the rubric of the subordination of science to power. But in social science generally, and in economics particularly, the continued departure of theory from its empirical referents on the one hand and/or the narrowly empirical nature of addressing concrete social problems on the other, had sacrificed theory altogether. Theory is either too general and explains everything across all times despite their concrete historical content or too narrow and empirical addressing only particular cases that cannot explain the historically specific mode of development. The latter is a case of theoretical nihilism. Of course, the solution to what is adequate in theory is not to choose a level of abstraction which is halfway between the theoretically vacuous and the empirically ludicrous. Adequacy would also not transpire from interpersonal comparisons as Oskar Lange had indicated half a century ago. So many economists rely on the same set of assumptions and think alike such that the historian Eric Hobsbawm facetiously noted that hundreds of thousands of economists discuss irrelevant issues. No relevant advances arise from like-minded folk.
Adequacy rests on interpersonal comparisons arising from the conflict of different methods of thought. Adequacy begins in the reconstruction of the concept itself, not as a standalone abstract idea, but as a historical condition co-determined in its interrelatedness to other real conditions. For example, it is absurd to see wage labour negotiating its wage outside the ideological forces of labour and capital everywhere. Because the mainstream supposedly did not want to be biased, it omitted the identification of the historical forces and their forms of organisation from its scope of enquiry. In any case, it cannot point the finger to its funding bodies.
The sycophancy of science is worst of all in economics. The schism between the real and ideal is apparent in the formal (one-sided) choice of assumptions, as in for instance, scarcity and perfect competition, which on their own, cannot be manifest as historical phenomena. Apart from the historically transcendent fact that a human being enjoys consuming food up to a point, none of the mainstream assumptions mean anything other than facilitating quantifications up to the level of mathematics that we know. Scarcity is only possible as an idea because a state of plenty represents its diametrical opposite: also one ought to underline that it is just a formal idea and not a current fact. Reality is not yoyo oscillating between two extreme ideas. There is scarcity, but only in relation to existing wealth distribution as exercised by the historical agency, and so on for other categories. The universal law is the dynamic of social contradictions and the not the similarities of things sharing the same qualities by virtue of overgeneralisation. The way social agency relays its decisions across real time to further the interests of the dominant classes cannot be replaced by the platitude of time incoherence. When time has a life of its own, every fact is distorted and every mainstream concept becomes an ideological tool to adumbrate real processes.
The more flagrant examples of how social science trumps reality is in how it presents capitalism as an absolutely progressive stage in history, which behind the scenes, may be made to justify the genocide in the colonies. Capitalism is said to be the evil one cannot do without. Colonisation was peddled as a civilising mission and the so-called humanitarian bombing of Iraq would bring democracy to it. Historically determined phenomena, such as power, social classes and their corresponding forms of social organisation—which frame the uncertainty of socially-built time and history—are rejected. So there is no hypothesis for a man or woman as a social relationship, intermediated in the complex power structure in a way that may void individual political agency altogether, or in a way such that history happens against his or her wishes. Homo economicus, the dominant subject of all the social sciences, is never helpless and his or her rights to decent living standards are accrued ex-post from the perfection of the market whose assumptions cannot exist. A market, nonetheless, that cannot materialise without famines, wars, slavery and the genocide of aborigines everywhere. So, for reasons of ideological bias, the mainstream incorporates the idea of rights in its frame of thought only as an unwelcome price distortion or as a moralising standpoint. In doing so, it forfeits the idea of rights as a concrete possibility accompanying redistribution and social forms of ownership.
Removing class and power structures and needs-based working-class rights from the analysis of social structures is a falsification of fact pretending to be theory. Some sort of ideological orientation is implicit in every empirical study, and even the most abstract theoretical concepts presumably have empirical referents. By omitting working-class rights and power and, as the late sociologist Arthur K. Davis had said, by deflecting scientific attention into harmless areas, such as abstruse theory or a surface view of social problems mainstream social science may or may not actively serve the dominant vested interests, but at least it does not challenge them. Mainstream social science is neither neutral nor non-ideological. By highlighting rights, the Lab may bring back into theory that part of reality which is assumed away by the mainstream. That is a very useful endeavour.
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