Category Archives: political economy

H-Diplo Roundtable on Copeland’s Economic Interdependence and War

H-Diplo has published a very interesting roundtable on Dale Copeland’s book Economic Interdependence and War. I’d already noted the book as potentially worth a read, as it’s a major recent contribution to the long-standing debate on the relationship between geopolitics and economic interdependence – a topic that many great scholars from Waltz to Arrighi to Modelski have attempted to make sense of. But in the roundtable, it’s noted that Copeland is self-consciously working in the tradition of Kennedy and Gilpin – which piques my interest even further. I re-read some of Gilpin’s IPE scholarship recently, and in my view he is one of the most insightful modern realist thinkers. The relationship between the imperatives of economics and security is not straightforward, and so richly deserving of further exploration. I don’t think it’s much surprise that Copeland takes aim at offensive realism, as any realistic realist theory should acknowledge the difficult trade-offs between different facets of security – especially if it seeks to incorporate the role of political economy.

There’s some sharp disagreement in the roundtable, but it’s interesting to note that the controversies concern two issues that I’ve blogged on in the reasonably recent past. Some questions are raised about whether paradigms are really the best way to organise debates in international relations any more, or whether existing general theories ought to be decomposed into more specific middle-range theories. Classifying arguments into a theoretical taxonomy is a bit of a distraction from substantive debate. Second, a major point of substantive disagreement is over our old friend, relative gains!  Relative gains feature in Copeland’s argument concerning the conditions under which conflict might be preferable to trade. Maass argues that Copeland’s arguments relying on relative gains are flawed for similar reasons to those I discussed in the last post (and a couple of others to boot):

states may concede relative losses to one state in order to achieve relative gains compared to another that poses a greater security threat, they may see their peers engaging in trade and fear being left behind, or they may see the relative gains of trade as fluid rather than fixed and anticipate the balance turning in their favor

Copeland, of course, disagrees with this criticism and argues Maass has missed the wider argument – in which the relative gains issue only plays one part.

I thought the debate over relative gains was long dead, but apparently not. But is it encouraging that such issues are subject to continued debate and elaboration, or a worrying sign that the discipline hasn’t really moved on since the debates of the early 1990s?

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Relative gains are (mostly) bunk

I helped to teach a course on international institutions last term. The course included an overview of the debates from the 1980s and early 1990s over multilateral agreements and the possibility of mutually beneficial cooperation between states. According to most IR textbooks, these debates established an enduring point of contention between Realist and Liberal Institutionalist perspectives – the latter focusing on absolute gains (welfare improvements) and the former on relative gains (share of power resources). I am not sure this is a very accurate summary of current debates in the discipline, I don’t think that there has been much research on relative and absolute gains in quite some time (this and this were the only articles I could find from the last decade). If my grasp on the recent history of the discipline is correct, that this is likely because the initial research programme on relative gains initiated by Mastanduno and Grieco fizzled out pretty fast when the empirical evidence proved to be mixed and inconclusive. More hardcore rational choice theorists demonstrated that the claims made about relative gains being a barrier to cooperation did not really stand up to scrutiny. Liberal Institutionalism won the argument to a large extent, but then mutated into a pretty generic rational choice institutionalism concerned with the same sort of problems of credible commitment and collective action as much mainstream economics and political science – losing touch with discipline-defining debates. So relative vs. absolute gains provides a neat way for textbook writers to distinguish between two ‘paradigms’, but it’s not a division that provides much of a guide to current research in journals like International Organization.

But the division does appear in textbooks, so it’s part of the education of many thousands of students every year. Unfortunately, the argument that if states are concerned with relative gains (share of power resources) they will forgo the benefits of cooperation is bunk and can be shown to be so very easily. In writing this up I discovered that this argument may have been made by Duncan Snidal 25 years ago, no doubt more rigorously. But the fact that its not hard for people like me who lack Prof. Snidal’s expertise in game theory to show flaws in the relative gains argument demonstrates how flimsy the argument is, even granting all the assumptions made by its Hobbist proponents.

Let’s adopt the same soft rational choice approach of many 80s and 90s IR theorists. I’m not convinced by this approach, with its contextless hypothetical examples and stereotyped, oversimplified scenarios, but it’s the ground on which proponents of the relative gains argument chose to pitch.

Suppose states A, B, C and D are states, each with a GDP of 10 trillion dollars. Let’s use GDP as a measure of material capabilities, as many neo-realists do (and with good reason). Each state therefore controls 25% of the material capabilities in the system. If (offensive) neo-realism is correct, each desires to increase their share. They are expected to forgo economic gains if it would also involve larger gains for another state, as this would lead to a reduction in their relative power. Logically, if they are rational as defined within rational choice theory, they would even accept a lower absolute income in order to have a greater share of power resources. It seems, therefore, that asymmetric trade deals that benefit some of our actors more than others would never be struck. This is not the case, however.

Let’s say A offers B a take-it-or-leave-it trade deal that will benefit A by $2trn and B by $1trn. This example follows the discussion on page 105 of Theory of International Politics where Waltz explicitly discusses an imaginary deal skewed 2:1 in favour of one state. If B is concerned with relative gains, should they take this seemingly unfair deal? Contra neo-realism, yes: it increases B’s share of power resources in the system by 0.6% and puts it ahead of C and D in terms of their power ranking. So concern with relative gains will lead towards cooperation even though the terms are unequal. Let’s say that B can offer a similar deal to C and C to D. Assuming that each deal really is a take-it-or-leave it offer in which no better alternative is available, each offer will be accepted because each time it will increase the share of power of both states involved – providing relative gains.

Finally, after this chain of deals, if D can offer A a similar asymmetric deal, will A take it? Unless A is very concerned with a very specific sort of relative gain (i.e. gains or losses relative to the most powerful in the system), then it will. The deals that A and D were not involved in reduced their share of material power, and making a deal – even if it benefits D more – will increase A’s share of power resources.

At the end of the chain of deals, each actor will have $13trn GDP and so the same 25% share of power resources that they started with. Even if they cared only about relative gains, each state has ended up better off and participating in mutually advantageous cooperation.

So under this scenario, relative gains are not a barrier to cooperation. It should be easy to see that under more realistic conditions, the same will apply. A state is unlikely to want to be left out of a multilateral trade deal that provides benefits to others, even if the deal is skewed. In his book Ruling the World  Lloyd Gruber argues that something similar to this process created the clamour to join the WTO in the 1990s – even though many states in the global South preferred its forerunner the GATT. It’s only when the number of states is very small and the distribution of benefits very skewed that we should expect relative gains to matter and to prevent cooperation.

Alternatively, if we abandon the idea that all states are threatening to each other and acknowledge that states are primarily focused on certain specific rivals  then relative gains considerations might be relevant. There’s real world evidence for this: witness concern over French arms exports to Russia in the aftermath of its annexation of the Crimea. As pointed out by my students, one of the most compelling examples of relative gains presenting a barrier to cooperation comes from international environmental negotiations, where the US seems to have been concerned to avoid any agreement that would disadvantage it relative to China.

But in the scenario that neo-realism posits, where all states are rivals, somewhat counter-intuitively relative gains considerations will no longer be relevant as a loss of relative power compared to the other contracting state may be compensated by the relative gain compared to others. 

Starting with broadly Hobbist assumptions, there are other reasons why states might avoid entering into positive-sum multilateral agreements with each other. Waltz notes that states may be concerned with the vulnerability that dependence on a potential enemy or rival might bring. States might guard their sovereignty jealously and be wary of any loss of de jure or de facto independence. But whilst the issue of relative gains might prevent cooperation in some special cases, it isn’t a general barrier to cooperation under conditions of anarchy – even if the system is characterised by competition and aggression. Glancing at the historical record, this should have been fairly obvious: transnational capitalism emerged coterminously with the turbulent European state-system.

Greek Tragedies

Before the weekend, the Monkey Cage featured an interesting article on the Greek debt crisis and Thucydides. In general, I’m not a fan of the way that Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War is trotted out within debates on international relations. The basic problem is that the famous quote plucked from Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, ‘The powerful do what they can, whilst the weak suffer what they must’, is potentially vacuous. There’s a question of whether the quote is even an accurate translation of Thucydides:  apparently, Mary Beard claims that a closer translation would be ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply’, which removes some of the natural necessity of the quote and assigns greater responsibility to the powerful. But putting this to one side, the quotation is circular and tautological if being weak is defined as suffering what one must and powerful means doing whatever one can without restraint. As I’ve emphasised (belaboured?) in discussions with countless students, a lot of power-talk in international relations is vacuous in this regard. These sort of parlour tricks, wheeling out old Thucydides to make seemingly-profound but platitudinous statements, are what provides fairly unsophisticated versions of realism in international relations with their superficial aura of plausibility. To talk about power properly, it’s necessary to distinguish between resources/relationships and outcomes, which enables a much more productive debate about what sort of resources/social relations generate control over outcomes under what sort of conditions.

But the article by Neville Morley is quite a bit better than the usual fare, as it discusses the way in which responses of actors placed positions of strength and weakness differ from what rational choice theories would predict. Thus it seems that the structure of the situation of bargaining among unequals has an influence over the goals that actors pursue. Perhaps this is another case where actors are operating according to heuristics, general strategies that are effective in a range of similar social circumstances. Maybe in their wider social experiences actors are used to using a position of strength to push for maximum advantage and used to shifting to moral appeals and unreciprocated cooperation when they are at a disadvantage. As the evidence I’ve read on cross-cultural experiments with game theory seems to indicate, actors may bring their wider social experiences of competition and cooperation with them into the laboratory.

The article makes some fascinating points about Varoufakis’s own research on game theory and the strategies that he has pursued as Finance Minister. But as someone in the comments points out, Morley’s piece ignores the fact of Athen’s eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides classic has been read as a tragedy in which the Athenians, who expressed the hubris of the overly mighty in their arrogant dismissal of the moral arguments of the Melians, were eventually visited by nemesis. On this reading, there are lessons for the powerful as well as the weak.

Technical Change Without Growth

A couple of weeks ago the Economist published an interesting article about labour markets and secular stagnation, the problem of low productivity despite apparent technical change in the industrialised world that has attracted the attention of economists such as Krugman, Summers and Cowen. The article examines a number of puzzling features of the current economic conjuncture. It argues that technological change substitutes for medium-skill labour, displacing workers into low-skilled work, leading to a fall in the price of low-skilled labour, making automation of low-skilled work unattractive. So under certain circumstances, technological change may be self-limiting. The article discusses how these features may be related to low aggregate demand and the expansion of consumer credit.

One possible takeaway from this divergence is that productivity is often endogenous to the real wage. Confronted with high real wages, firms reorganise production, invest in training and capital, and take other steps to boost productivity and economise on labour. When real wages are falling, by contrast, the incentive to economise is reduced and productivity lags.

There’s an interesting overlap with some of the analyses put forward by a previous generation of radical political economists, whose work I’ve been taking another look whilst preparing for a undergrad course I’m teaching. Emmanuel argued that productivity doesn’t drive high wages in the industrialised world, high wages drove industrialisation and productivity increases. This argument is too absolutist and is not consistent with most accounts of industrialisation in the West, but acknowledging that productivity is endogenous to the real wage is an important observation for understanding some aspects of the political economy of unequal development. As the Economist article suggests, the level of endogeneity may be greater than previously assumed – with significant consequences for both national political economies and the world economy.

Of course, the Economist doesn’t draw out the full implications of this analysis in terms of power relations and the conflicts of interest that exist between different social groups on a national and global level. Also missing from the article is any sense that technical change involves struggle and the assertion of authority. But hey, for an article in the Economist to acknowledge that ‘Distributional issues are key’ is pretty unusual.

The End of IR Theory? Part III – Cores, Peripheries and IR Theory

As I am incredibly busy I didn’t expect to write another post, but I want to note further excellent contributions to the ‘End of IR Theory’ symposium at the Duck of Minerva (previous posts here and here). Arlene Tickner argues that

core-periphery like logics similar to those described by world-system and dependency theory in the 1960s and 1970s are still operational in multiple spheres of (globalized) human activity, including knowledge building.   International Relations (IR) is no exception.

This pattern is resistant to change, not least because

Strategies that acknowledge and embrace diversity are inadequate too because scientific cores are hard-pressed to recognize non-Western or Southern intellectual contributions as equals without undermining their own power, privilege and place in the world knowledge chain.

‘World knowledge chain’ implies that this feature of the IR discipline is but one facet of a wider pattern of asymmetric social organisation. But Tickner nonetheless claims that

Terms such as core and periphery (or third world) are largely passé, and may even be conceptually and heuristically objectionable on the grounds that they are rooted in dichotomous language that reproduces power differentials between diverse actors and sites around the world.

It seems odd for Tickner to describe the terms ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ as passé (although I agree that ‘Third World’ refers to a very specific conjuncture in world politics that has now passed) when her own argument appeals to ‘core-periphery like logics similar to those described by world-system and dependency theory’. What’s the difference between a core-periphery logic and a core-periphery like logic? In a superb, and beautifully written, response Inayatullah sketches the details of the political economy ‘implied’ by Tickner’s piece:

It is worth noting that under capitalism the competitive process requires all corporations to have research and development (R&D) facilities. The stream of capital dedicated to R&D is subsidized by the state, promoted by the military, and enriched by colleges and universities. Colleges and universities provide the training for future corporate employees, provide junior candidates for those jobs, and serve as incubators for social and technical innovations. Intensive and extensive cultivation of knowledge serves as the fuel for innovation – the driving force of capitalism. As participants in the discipline of IR, we are not passive bystanders in the accumulation process.

Why then does Tickner hesitate to actually embrace the wider structuralist perspective her contribution implies (and contributes to)? In part it seems to be her opposition to ‘dichotomous language that reproduces power differentials between diverse actors and sites around the world’. These concerns are widely held, but I would argue that some of the antipathy towards dichotomy is misplaced. It is very difficult to reveal, analyse and critique inequalities without drawing dichotomous distinctions. Identifying the location of power doesn’t necessarily contribute to its reproduction, sometimes quite the opposite. But these are issues that would have to be treated at greater length.

In any case, Inayatullah invites readers to un-forget the process by which concepts such as core and periphery were erased from disciplinary debates in favour of a concern with representation and social construction. For a brief period, core-periphery relations were the subject of major scholarly attention as dependency theory reached its apex. But

It wasn’t long before it was shelved in the curio cabinet. Caporaso himself was one of the few who soberly assessed the situation: Dependency Theory, he claimed, had died from neglect, not from critique.

Consider, in contrast, the case of what we call “Constructivism.” Not what emerged from Nick Onuf’s work but from Alex Wendt’s. Reflexivity? Dialectical sophistication? An awareness of the meta issues – ontology? epistemology? How shall we name that moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s when someone came up from the basement and said, “Hey, look what I/we found?” The result twenty years later: a booming mass-production of constructivism – the new liberalism, same as the old liberalism.

Reading Inayatullah’s post, it’s hard not to regret the unmet promise of that period of intense scholarly debate about core-periphery relations (it seems very strange to feel nostalgic about something I never experienced, but Inayatullah’s post really is well written). Caporaso’s assessment is accurate, dependency theory has a lot of weaknesses, but this was not why it was abandoned. As I noted in a previous publication, compare its fate to the benefit of the doubt that was extended to neo-realism after the end of the Cold War.

In the social sciences, if theories are to survive they need to be constantly updated and elaborated – reassembled mid-sea, with non-functioning parts thrown overboard and theoretical coastlines raided for new supplies. To contribute to contemporary debates in the IR discipline, which are increasingly focused on middle-range theory, remaining relevant requires a relentless focus on mechanisms and their interaction. But theorists also need to remain aware of the process of disciplinary forgetting that Inayatullah highlights, which – as argued by Arena in his comment on a contribution by Lake to the Duck symposium – in its latest incarnation has enabled scholars to represent the core assumptions of liberal international theory as neutral and non-paradigmatic. I’ve attempted to make my own contribution to a renewed analysis of systemic inequalities in world politics, but the path to theory (especially critical theory) is long and we in the discipline are prone to forgetfulness.

New Article in Millennium: Structural Inequality, Quasi-rents and the Democratic Peace

An article I wrote was published a week last Friday in a special edition of Millennium: Journal of International Studies focusing on the topic of Materialism and World Politics. The special edition  features papers presented at the rather excellent two-day conference at the LSE in October 2012, including my own. The title of my article is ‘ Structural Inequality, Quasi-rents and the Democratic Peace: A Neo-Ricardian Analysis of International Order’. Here’s the abstract:

This article employs the neo-Ricardian concept of quasi-rents – temporary above-market returns – to vindicate the structuralist claim that patterns of international order are shaped by global inequality and the transnational division of labour. Developing a framework linking the distribution of quasi-rents within the global economy to the process of class formation, the article examines the implications for the influential ‘social market democracy’ explanation of the democratic peace. It argues that the democratic peace is in part predicated on the quasi-rents enjoyed by substantial sections of the workforces of the ‘core’ advanced industrial states. Such a political economy provides the foundations for a ‘social market democracy’ in which economic security can be enjoyed by substantial sections of the population, giving rise to the system of values on which the democratic peace rests. Thus, present patterns of international order result from a historically specific unequal distribution of quasi-rents within the world economy.

The abstract is somewhat technical, due to the need to locate the article in ongoing theoretical debates in less than 150 words.  For the non-initiated, here’s what the article seeks to accomplish: Structuralism is a materialist theory of international relations which focuses on asymmetric relationships beyond the nation-state and how they result in global patterns of inequality. Structuralism has lost favour in international relations theory, partly because scholars feel it doesn’t have much to say about core issues of international politics such as authority, order and the use of organised violence*. This article seeks to present a fresh defence of structuralist arguments, arguing that patterns of war and peace may in fact be linked to patterns of global inequality and the organisation of the global division of labour. It does this by engaging with an influential position in the debate over the ‘democratic peace’ (the observed regularity that democracies very rarely engage in inter-state war with one another), Michael Mousseau’s ‘social market’ theory. He argues that peaceful, human rights-respecting values become dominant when large numbers of individuals in a society can enjoy economic security when they participate in the market. When markets do not provide economic security, those peaceful values will be weakened.

In the paper I investigate the circumstances under which markets may provide economic security, drawing on the labour market sociology of Aage Sorensen. He argued that individuals enjoy security when they occupy certain semi-insulated niches within labour markets, such as within occupationalised careers or professions. The ‘rungs’ of the ‘ladders’ of such internal job markets provide a greater degree of security than fluctating, unfettered markets. These niches arise out of the process of bargaining over quasi-rents, temporary returns above the normal market rate for an economic resource such as land, labour or capital. The local availability of quasi-rents will therefore determine the ability of actors in a common economic position (members of a class, if you like) to establish themselves within a niche in the labour market. The article uses research from the global value-chains literature to analyse some of the features of the distribution of quasi-rents. Until recently, the lion’s share of quasi-rents were located in the advanced industrialised North due to the compounded technological advantages of the early industrialisers. Economic actors in the global South found themselves stuck in industries producing generic products and were forced to compete on price.

But the new global division of labour has shaken this picture up. Many economic actors in the global South still lack access to quasi-rents and find themselves squeezed by large multinational buyers that control supply chains. But in other parts of the world, SE Asia and the S American cone for example, the shift in manufacturing capacity from the North may have led to opportunities to bargain for quasi-rents. Workers in the North, however, have been fighting a rearguard action to protect their niches within labour markets and defend systems of social welfare and insurance. Employers in the North have, due to a conjuncture of political, economic and technological factors, gotten much better at eliminating their workers from shares of quasi-rents. This seems to have led markets to become much more fluid, ‘flexible’ is the preferred term. But as Sorensen argued, freer markets might mean more insecure lives. More insecure lives might mean weaker support for pacific, liberal values. Of course, pacific values might actually strengthen amongst the new industrialisers in the global South. The point is that there are a set of compelling reasons, based on established empirical literatures within three different disciplines, to believe that the democratic peace is in fact underpinned by the specifics of the present global division of labour. This means that structuralism really does have something big and important to contribute to debates in international relations theory and the study of international security.

That’s the gist of the article (reversing the structure of the argument), but the real thing really attempts to nail down each step and present a rigorous, plausible restatement of structuralism using the idea of quasi-rents. I’m really happy with how the paper turned out and delighted to be part of what looks like a great issue of Millennium.

* I wouldn’t necessarily agree on this point, and there are some great counterexamples. But that’s the charge that has to be fought in order to make some headway.

Two Boosts for Elitism

As every first year politics undergraduate will be aware, once upon a time there was a debate within political sociology between elitists and pluralists. Elitists in political sociology, represented by scholars such as C Wright Mills, argued that political institutions exhibit a systemic bias in favour of certain dominant groups within society, i.e. the ruling classes. Pluralists, such as Robert Dahl, argued that no one set of organised interest groups could maintain permanent control of the political process within modern democracies.

Events over the past decade make pluralism seem rather prima facie implausible. One would certainly want some strong evidence to support such a claim during a period of increasing inequality and displacement of the costs of risks taken by globalised financial sectors onto general publics.

Instead, there seems to be mounting evidence from political science – where a basically pluralist outlook tends to dominate – that the elitist theory provides an accurate account of the current state of politics in the OECD. Via Kevin Drum a summary of a pilot survey by Page and Bartels that suggests that the policy preferences of US politicians seem to track the policy preferences of the wealthy much more closely than those of average citizens. Via Chris Dillow a recent paper by Torija that argues that politicians of all major parties work to maximise the preference-satisfaction of the top few percentiles of the income distribution. He argues that this is a new phenomenon that has arisen since the 1970s, which is interesting as it suggests that the problem is less ‘structural’ and intrinsic to capitalist democracies than ‘conjunctural’ and reflecting recent historical circumstances.

What relevance is all of this to international relations? Well, it gives a boost to more elitist/structuralist theories of international relations and foreign policy such as neo-Gramscianism (Robert Cox, Stephen Gill), and might undermine some of the complacency of pluralist theories such as ‘new liberalism’ that regard states as neutral agents that act on behalf of shifting coalitions of social actors.

Free Market Fairness, Distributional Adequacy and Distributivism

There’s an interesting review of Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness by O’Neill and Williamson in the Boston Review. The thought struck me recently that there isn’t much in the way of centre-right political philosophy. Many political philosophers present a set of principles which are squarely centre left, accommodating the free market but underlining the need for the maximum possible level of equality compatible with economic efficiency. The usual foil for this brand of liberal egalitarian position is the sort of minarchist free-market libertarianism defended by Robert Nozick, according to which individuals have an absolute right over legitimately acquired property.

According to the review, it looks like Tomasi wants to defend a compromise position which starts from a basically Rawlsian position but accords special value to market exchange and property rights. But it’s difficult to make such a compromise work – the reviewers don’t seem to think that Tomasi manages it.

The basic problems are that Rawls’s position does not prohibit market exchange and, once we’ve acknowledged that property rights are not absolute and can be compromised for the sake of social justice and/or the provision of public goods, it seems difficult to think of reasons why we shouldn’t arrange institutions to benefit those who are least well-off. There’s not much space for centre-right political philosophers to work with here. The best argument against liberal egalitarian conclusions seems to be an empirical one about the levels of equality that are realistically compatible with economic efficiency. But that isn’t a critique of liberal egalitarian principles as such.

In the review, O’Neill and Williamson report that Tomasi addresses this challenge by proposing his own test of ‘distributional adequacy’ as an alternative to Rawlsian distributive equality (i.e. maximise the position of the least well-off). But I didn’t really understand the idea of “distributional adequacy”, which is defined as being the requirement that ‘each and all should benefit from political and economic arrangements; if all are better off, it is acceptable that some have much more than others’. Better off than what? What is the counterfactual for comparison? It sounds like it is the requirement for pareto-optimality, but pareto is dependent on a comparison with the status quo. So a change is only ‘distributionally adequate’ if the rich are no worse off than they are at present? Or is it some kind of ‘state of nature’ comparison between the present set-up and a life of banging rocks together? Neither are very satisfying. I feel like I’m missing something…

In any case, it seems like O’Neill and Williamson are suggesting that Tomasi’s own principles point towards something like distributivism, a variant of European Christian democracy according to which the problem with industrial democracy isn’t that we have too many capitalists, but too few and too big.

If I get the chance I might give Tomasi’s book a read. I’m interested in seeing where contemporary philosophers might take the arguments of Hayek, who seems to be under-recognised by political philosophers as one of the major conservative liberal thinkers of the last century. But I start from a position of scepticism; I think it’s pretty difficult to make a clear philosophical case for the sort of centre-right position favoured by Anglo-American conservative liberals.

Well Burrowed, Old Mole! Reflections on MacLeod’s The Star Fraction

When I first read it at the age of 16, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod was a revelation to me. I was already a voracious reader of Iain (M) Banks, especially of his novels that deal most directly with political concepts such as The State of the Art and The Player of Games. But reading Ken MacLeod was a discovery of a different order of magnitude.  Science-fiction takes ideas more seriously than any other genre. It refuses the conformity of presentism, daring to provoke the human imagination into considering different alternatives about the way that things might be.  But whilst much science-fiction focuses on the technological aspects of alternative futures, The Star Fraction is about the future of History in the ‘capital H’ sense: struggles between ideologies, movements, classes and states.  Ken MacLeod is aware of the fact that politics is not going to disappear, the future will present us with tough choices about our collective destiny. We may not always live long enough to understand the full consequences of those choices – although with the right innovations in biomedical science some of us just might…

'Well burrowed, old mole!'

‘Well burrowed, old mole!’

MacLeod’s introduction to the US version of The Star Fraction has been up for a while over on the blog for the Centre for a Stateless Society. The book is a reflection on a social-scientific, not technological, possibility: that comprehensive central planning is very likely unworkable for micro-economic reasons but capitalism may well be unsustainable for macro-socio-economic reasons. Like a lot of science-fiction, The Star Fraction presents a what-if: ‘What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?’. It’s still a pertinent question to ask.

As MacLeod himself reveals ‘History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine’. The Star Fraction is a work of social-science-fiction written by someone with a subtle understanding of the materialist theory of history, an insider’s knowledge of computing, and first hand experience of the travails of the socialist project. The cyberpunk stylings are mainly there to give the book it’s flechette-gun-volley velocity and impact – as well as to give concrete substance to some humanist worries about whether technology actually needs us in the long-term.

One of the cleverest things about the original The Star Fraction novel is the fragmented system of micro-states imposed on the UK by America’s invasion of Europe. I didn’t realise it when I first read the novel, but the UK’s political system is supposed to be a degenerate and oppressive version of the minimal-state market-anarchist system outlined in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the book ‘actually existing libertarianism’ is imposed externally by a occupying superpower – just as ‘actually existing socialism’ was in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Global financial crises generated by out of control algorithms, flying death-robots killing Islamist terrorists at the behest of the world’s last superpower, fascists in the shadow of the acropolis, grass-roots hackers’ movements releasing gigabytes of diplomatic cables – the world seems more like a MacLeod novel every day. This all reminds me that I really need to get a chance to read Farah Mendelsohn’s edited collection of essays, The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod. I’m still kicking myself that I wasn’t able to go the Science-fiction and International Orders seminar, which featured both MacLeod and Chris Brown, at the LSE back in 2011 too.

Charlie Stross, the super-rich, and the declining marginal utility of stuff

About a week ago, Charlie Stross wrote a post musing about the declining marginal utility of material possessions and the question of why billionaires would want to chase after even greater fortunes. He thinks that some of this behaviour is because being super-rich allows you to produce new goods which are not normally available for purchase at any price, i.e. create new inclusive club goods such as novel medical treatments. Interesting, but a bit charitable.

I’d speculate that much of the pursuit of ultra-wealth is motivated by status concerns, as at any point in the income distribution the income gap between oneself and those acquaintances one knows who are wealthier is likely to be greater than the gap between oneself and those acquaintances who are less wealthy. Even billions might seem small potatoes depending on the company one keeps. The second major reason is dynasty-building. Stross’s account is too individualistic. Whenever the wealthy have had the opportunity to bequeath their wealth as an unearned patrimony to their offspring they have done so, such as when British industrialists did their best to turn themselves into a landed gentry. Profits are often turned into permanent rent-producing assets as soon as they can be. Hence the complex systems of trust-funds, offshore bank accounts,  family limited liability partnerships and so on employed by people like Tony Blair. There might be limits to what super-wealth can buy you, but it can increase the chances that your descendants will remain at the top of the heap. In other words, the goal of many capitalists is feudalism.