In each of the areas I have some, as it were, material interests people are beginning to ask questions about who should be made to pay for the financial crisis. University students and youth workers, as well as theatre makers are beginning to wonder whether the so-called “cuts” will mean the end of the victories won by the organized working class of this country in 1945.
Whilst those who took to the streets to protest job losses and the barbarous dismantling of education have learned a sharp lesson in the class-political nature of “economic” and “political” issues, various “subversive” intellectuals and commentators retain the bankrupt naivete they have always enjoyed.
From Ed Milliband to David Cameron, Bill Gates and Bono there is a shared belief that capitalism, the only way human being can organize themselves, has to be tempered by “values”. Values like respect for the environment, or fair trade coffee, or whatever. These formulae find a particular iteration amongst Muslim thinkers and commentators. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iranian populism, Tariq Ramadan’s Islamic Modernism and Hizb ut-Tahir’s if-you-liked-it-you-shoulda-put-khalifa-on-it lunacy, are also versions of this same pattern of thought . (I must stress, given the present racist and Islamophobic climate of fear around mentioning HT or Ahmadinejad, that I am in no way equating Ramadan’s politics or religious outlook with either Ahmadinejad’s right wing populism or HT’s general craziness.)
The problem with so-called “Islamic response” to the banking crisis, is shown most explicitly when Tariq Ramadan did a show recently about the financial crisis. He said something about Marxists, Christian and Muslims each separately trying to set up some autonomous set of values, insulated from the corrosive power of the market. (The proposed Islamic response, one is led to assume, must take some such format.) We are left to think that some broad progressive alliance might go some way towards resisting the destructive force of objectified greed. Sensing the brief moment of economic crisis, naïve faith in the power of a resprayed social democracy, now in the guise of Ramadan, Monbiot or Galloway, is once again presented as some sort of alternative to the way things are. The problem here is that there is nothing subversive (or indeed new!) to the existing state of things contained in this position. On the contrary, capitalism has always depended on a phantasmic outside to fundtion. In Capital, Marx shows at length how the sights of commonly held land functioned as a sight where, in economic terms, the primitive accumulation of capital could take place beyond the field of the realm of “normal” economic relations. Engels went on to show in The Origins of the Family, how the family, which for the Victorians functioned as the very same allegedly autonomous sphere of values, provided the exact same structural role; in this case masking the often brutal (re)production of the next generation of workers and capitalists. Whilst even a hundred years or so ago, Communist thinkers had succeeded in showing how the relation of exchange defines every so-called value in capitalist societies, bourgeois intellectuals have spent (and apparently continue to spend) the moments of economic crises wondering what particular set of values can be tacked onto the economic motor of capitalist production. Adam Smith himself argued, in The Wealth of Nations that certain parts of human conduct should be kept outside the market, and neither his argument, nor that of the “Islamic bankers” would overtly contradict the thought of Habermas and his disciples.
The thrust of the issue here is that the people in the debate confuse capitalist relations as such, with a kind of woolly attack on various ethical qualities of individuals or the malign intentions of some shadowy “elites”. On the contrary, capitalist relations, in and of themselves, are an act of violence and theft. This is as true in the historical development (through the starvation of 17th centuries of English peasants to kick start the industrial revolution, or the European slave trade for instance), as much as it is in the continuing reality that any capitalist by definition, and regardless of any adherence to religion, nationality or pet celebrity philosopher, seeks to accumulate capital through the extraction of surplus value. Obscurantist, this debate refuses to even consider the radical negation of the market proposition; what Badiou calls The Communist Hypothesis. There is an irony in the fact that such bourgeois philosophers, who don’t have the imagination to begin to conceive of a simple change to the way human beings order production, can easily conjure limitless reiterations of the same argument with Islamicate, Humanist or Neo-Habermasian variations. Clearly, all relations under capitalism are mediated by capital, which as Benjamin Franklin knew, is time. That is to say, capitalist relations are inscribed with the idea that the time one spends in labour is an abstract thing, reducible to some multiple of some unit. A critic might point out that this does not appear to be the case; any home chef knows the qualitative difference between the hour spent preparing food for loved ones and an hour spent doing the washing up.
Such a critic may also draw attention to the fact that for a Muslim, this is not the case. There are certain times of the day when one must pray, or certain times of the year when one must fast, for instance. In so doing, the critic would move close to a conception of the genuinely subversive parts of Islamic practice (with respect to the orthodoxy of capital), precisely because at that moment the debate shifts; that attempt to put a heart in a heartless world, to construct a set of values to patch up our oppression is confronted with fragments of a different life.
He was right again…