Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Spatiotemporal Dialectic, Part III: Abstract Space

Spaces of Capitalism

II. The Spatial Dialectic of Capital

There is a spatial duality inherent in capitalism analogous to the temporal dialectic covered in the previous section. For there are two distinct types of space engendered by capitalism — both an abstract, global, and empty space as well as a concrete, hierarchical space composed of concentrated and distributed masses.

The former of these, abstract space, as constituted under capitalism, can be referred to as “Cartesian” space, just as abstract time was called “Newtonian.” And just as Newton considered the abstract time he described to be “empty” (i.e., devoid of real happenings or events), the abstract space that Descartes described was conceived as “empty” (i.e., devoid of real bodies). Or, in his own words, this sort of spatiality is “comprised in the idea of a space — not merely a space which is full of bodies, but even a space which is called ‘empty.’”[35] This space unfolds temporally, as capitalism spreads throughout the world. It carries the traits of universality and homogeneity: it makes no difference what particular, heterogeneous forms of culture and society it encounters. The abstract space of capitalism absorbs them regardless and makes them more like itself. Nor does it honor any national or traditional boundaries; geographical barriers likewise mean nothing to it.

The concrete space of capitalism, on the other hand, describes the very real spatial disparities and inequalities that emerge out of the inner dynamic of capital. It accounts for the antithesis of town and country, the unevenness of capitalist development, and the huge urban agglomerations that resulted from the concentration of capital in different areas of the world. This more concrete form of spatiality could be called, moreover, the “topographical” space of capitalism. For even within the limits of a single municipality, this type of space can be witnessed in the various sectors that comprise the city: the dirty factories and centers of production, the clean, slick financial district, workers’ housing, the more “upscale” estates of the urban elites, and the palliative parks and green spaces, which serve to interrupt the dense overcrowding of the city. Concrete space would also help locate the centers of state power — the government buildings, judicial courts, and jails. Finally, it would include the main conduits of capitalist intercourse, the highways and backstreets, the subway systems of major cities, the train stations and railroad networks.

View of Le Corbusier’s “Cartesian Towers”

A. Abstract, Cartesian Space

Two main sources lay the groundwork for the abstract, global spatiality that developed under capitalism. The first is to be found in Marx’s works themselves, in both his early Manifesto that he co-authored with Engels, and later in his Grundrisse and the second volume of Capital. In the earliest of these works, the cosmopolitan, universal character of the capitalist social formation is taken for granted, as a sort of given. Marx mentions that the bourgeoisie are driven to the ends of the earth through their exploitation of the “world market,” and that this creates a new sort of global interdependency. In his later writings Marx identifies the actual mechanism by which capital is driven beyond any spatial limit, discovering it in the process of capital circulation. More specifically, it is through the development and enhancement of the means of transport and communication that pushes capital past its previous sphere of influence. Marx refers to this sort of spatial expansion as “the annihilation of space through time.”

The second major source for the globalizing dimension of capitalist spatiality is rather a bundle of sources from different authors. These authors were attempting to articulate a Marxist theory of a new phase of capitalist growth: imperialism. Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin each were trying to make sense of the accelerating pace of capitalist expansion they were witnessing in their time. Each of them understood this phase of expansionist growth as a result of a crisis in the heart of capitalism, as the outcome of a new capitalist constellation. The specific terminology deployed to explain this phenomenon varied from author to author, but they all seemed to agree that it was related to the development of a new form of capital, “finance capital,” or (additionally) a new distribution of capital within the largest-scale capitalist nations, “monopoly capitalism.” Both of these phenomena involved an export of rawcapital to territories that were largely virgin to capitalism, rather than the simple export of commodities . This entailed not only the development of these regions’ infrastructure and mode of production, but also a form of domination over the underdeveloped countries enacted by most advanced capitalist nations.

Late nineteenth-century German map depicting trade routes to Africa

1. Marx’s Theory of the Globalizing Spatiality of Capitalist Circulation

Capitalism, from the moment of its inception, was in concept a global phenomenon. This is so despite the fact that it did empirically emerge under historically determinate, localizable conditions. Circumstances would have it that these conditions first fermented in England between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.[36] But it could nevertheless be contended that no matter where it arose, once primitive accumulation had reached the point where capital was able to reproduce itself with a surplus such that it could be reinvested, the socioeconomic system and the relations it entailed were bound to spread and eventually wrap the globe. To the extent that capitalism could be imagined to have hypothetically emerged in a different part of the world (even on a different planet), the logic of capitalist reproduction would in any case eventually require its extension beyond any spatial boundaries that had previously contained it.

The necessity of precapitalist social formations is a matter of debate; it is unclear whether there are necessary “stages” a nation or region must go through before arriving at capitalism. However, there can be no doubt that capitalism possesses this totalizing and compulsively expansive character once it comes into its own. In this sense, it can be distinguished from all the socioeconomic forms that preceded it, since these different systems can be said to have existed in relative isolation from one another. Oppositely, “[with capitalism, w]e are dealing with a new sort of interdependence, one that emerged historically in a slow, spontaneous, and contingent way,” explains Moishe Postone. “Once the social formation based upon this new form of interdependence became fully developed, however (which occurred when labor power itself became a commodity), it acquired a necessary and systematic character; it has increasingly undermined, incorporated, and superseded other social forms, while becoming global in scale.”[37]

For all these reasons mentioned above, the claim that capitalism possesses an innate globality can be justified. Insofar as capitalism could have potentially emerged anywhere and at any time that the conditions necessary for its existence obtained, the space it inhabits can be said to be abstract. The fact that it would expand outwardly and swallow all other social forms that come into its orbit, irrespective of their specific, concrete, distinguishing features, also attests to its abstractness. Regardless of national, geographical, or artificial boundaries, capitalism is able to transgress every border. “Through rapid improvement in the instruments of production, through limitless ease of communication, the bourgeoisie drags all nations, even the most primitive ones, into civilisation,” Marx and Engels wrote in theManifesto. “Cut-price commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces undeveloped societies to abandon even the most intense xenophobia. It forces all nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production or go under; it forces them to introduce so-called civilisation amongst themselves, i.e. to become bourgeois. In a phrase, [capitalism] creates a world in its own image.”[38]

Indeed, quite early in their careers, Marx and Engels recognized the international character of the capitalist mode of production. What in 1848 was limited to only a few of the more developed nations in Europe and North America would within the course of a century reach the remotest parts of the globe. Marx and Engels noted that capitalism had this unifying effect on all the nations and cultures of the world, such that for the first time there was truly a world market. Through this, the two young authors contended, this new global interdependence revealed itself:

Through the exploitation of the world market the bourgeoisie has made the production and consumption of all countries cosmopolitan. It has pulled the national basis of industry right out from under the reactionaries, to their consternation. Long-established national industries have been destroyed and are still being destroyed daily. They are being displaced by new industries — the introduction of which becomes a life-and-death question for all civilised nations — industries that no longer work up indigenous raw materials but use raw materials from the ends of the earth, industries whose products are consumed not only in the country of origin but in every part of the world. In place of the old needs satisfied by home production we have new ones which demand the products of the most distant lands and climes for their satisfaction. In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency and isolation we have a universal commerce, a universal dependence of nations on one another. As in the production of material things, so also with intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common currency. National partiality and narrowness become more and more impossible, and from the many national and local literatures a world literature arises.[39]

With the consolidation of the capitalist mode of production, no longer were there so many discrete, disconnected, and incomparable societies existing in relative isolation from each other. In their stead there arose a single, monolithic, and all-encompassing entity called Society. Only in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries did authors first begin writing of “society” as such, rather than with reference to this or that particular society. And so also was it only with Comte, Marx, Spencer, Durkheim, and Weber — from the middle part of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth — that the discipline of “sociology” carved out its place amongst the division of the human sciences.

“Bourgeois society carried out the process of socializing society,” wrote the Marxist theorist, Georg Lukács. “Capitalism destroyed both the spatio-temporal barriers between different lands and territories and also the legal partitions between the different ‘estates’…Man becomes, in the true sense of the word, a social being. Society becomes the reality for man.”[40] Society treats its members, its constituent parts, as belonging to “a general whole that is substantially homogeneous — a totality.”[41] No longer do they appear as divided into qualitatively different estates in which membership was more or less determined by birth. Neither is society absolutely divided along national or regional lines, into fundamentally distinct societies. Instead, as Adorno noted, “‘Society’ in the stronger sense…represents a certain kind of intertwinement which leaves nothing out; one essential characteristic of such a society — even though it may be modified or negated — is that its individual elements are presented as relatively equal.” Appealing to the authority of a nineteenth-century Swiss sociologist, Adorno specified “the concept of society…as an essentially bourgeois term, or a ‘concept of the third estate.’”[42] Society, it would seem, is only as old as capitalism.

But what is it specifically about capitalism that compels it stretch outward, absorbing non-capitalist societies along the way? What is the root of its cosmopolitanism? It was the later Marx, in his groundbreaking Grundrisse for the critique of political economy, who would pinpoint the specific aspect of capitalism that lay behind its international movement. The lynchpin of capitalism’s global spatiality was to be “located” in its drive to open up new markets, in the realm of circulation, to reach greater and greater distances by revolutionizing the means of transport and communication. “The more production comes to rest on exchange value, hence on exchange, the more important do the physical conditions of exchange — the means of communication and transport — become for the costs of circulation,” observed Marx. “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange — of the means of communication and transport — the annihilation of space by time — becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”[43]

As the critical geographer and Marxist scholar David Harvey has noted, the centrifugal movement of capitalism relies upon a general improvement of the means of transport and communication, such that the turnover time (production + circulation time) required for commodities to realize their value is consequently shortened. Proportionate to the shortening of this turnover time, moreover, is the widening of the scope of capital’s potential reach. “The reduction in realization and circulation costs helps to create, therefore, fresh room for capital accumulation,” writes David Harvey. “Put the other way around, capital accumulation is bound to be geographically expansionary and to be so by progressive reductions in the costs of communication and transportation.”[44] The result of this continuous expansion is the creation of the “world market” Marx had talked about in the Manifesto. As Marx would later put it: “If the progress of capitalist production and the consequent development of the means of transport and communication shortens the circulation time for a given quantity of commodities, the same progress and the opportunity provided by the development of the means of transport and communication conversely introduces the necessity of working for ever more distant markets, in a word, for the world market.”[45] And so it is by the creation of this global market that capitalism inevitably “conquers the world,” imposing its logic onto the preexisting social structures with which it comes into contact:

[W]hile capital must on one side strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, i.e. to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its market, it strives on the other side to annihilate this space with time, i.e. to reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another. The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time.[46]

Moreover, as David Harvey has pointed out: “Marx also argued that the historic tendency of capitalism is to destroy and absorb non-capitalist modes of production at the same time as it uses them to create fresh room for capital accumulation.”[47] Even beyond this, Marx identified the impetus for this tendency in the prehistory of capitalism, in the mercantilist push outward in “the age of discovery.” Mercantilism, which was primarily motivated by the search for precious metals, seamlessly laid the groundwork for commodity export to the colonies in the centuries that followed. “The hunt for gold in all countries leads to its discovery; to the formation of new states; initially to the spread of commodities, which produce new needs, and draw distant continents into the metabolism of circulation, i.e. exchange,” wrote Marx, in Notebook II of the Grundrisse. “Thus,” he continued, “in this respect, as the general representative of wealth and as individualized exchange value, it was doubly a means for expanding the universality of wealth, and for drawing the dimensions of exchange over the whole world; for creating the true generality [Allgemeinheit] of exchange value in substance and in extension.”[48]

This was the way in which Marx understood the global expansion of capital — its general extension throughout the world. The tendency that the young Marx and Engels identified in their Manifesto, regarding this new form of international interdependence, would thus later have its mechanism explained by Marx in his more mature reflections on capital. Through capitalism’s ceaseless drive to enhance its systems of transportation and communication, the commodities it produced spread further and further afield. The need for capital to constantly “annihilate” distances in space through the improvement of its locomotive forces ensured that any spatial barrier capitalism ran up against would not last long. From the age of discovery to the industrial revolution, Marx pinpointed the dynamic of capitalism’s global spatial growth.

[35] Descartes, René. Principles of Philosophy. Translated by John Cottingham. From The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume 3. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1985). Pg. 228.

[36] “We have seen how money is transformed into capital; how surplus­value is made through capital, and how more capital is made from surplus-value. But the accumulation of capital presupposes surplus-value; surplus-value presupposes capitalist production; capitalist production presupposes the availability of considerable masses of capital and labour-power in the hands of commodity producers. The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn around in a never-ending circle, which we can only get out of by assuming a primitive accumulation (the ‘previous accumulation’ of Adam Smith) which precedes capitalist accumulation; an accumulation which is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure.” Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Pgs. 873. The conditions by which primitive accumulation arose are described between pgs. 877-895.

[37] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Pg. 148.

[38] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 5. My emphasis.

[39] Ibid., pgs. 4-5.

[40] “In its universe there is a formal equality for all men.” Lukács, Georg. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” From History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1972). Pg. 19.

[41] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Pg. 72.

[42] Adorno, Theodor. Introduction to Sociology. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2000). Pg. 30.

[43] Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. (Random House, Inc. New York, NY: 1973). Pg. 524. My emphasis.

[44] Harvey, David. “The Geography of Capitalist Accumulation: a Reconstruction of the Marxian theory.” From Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. (Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh, England: 2001). Pg. 244.

[45] Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 2. Pg. 329.

[46] Marx, Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Pg. 539.

[47] Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. Pg. 251.

[48] Marx, Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Pg. 225.



Ross Wolfe said...

I think I might be posting these too quickly.

Thersites said...

The Road from Amun Ra to Mut is lined with many sphinxes.

Kamutef must either "shuttle" between them. Else Monthu MUST be unleashed.

The Leftist's hate BOTH Kamutef AND Monthu. What is to be done? Nose or face, which should I spite? "Neither," they say! We have solved the ALL sphinxes riddles. But the Black Swan yet flies, for sphinxes ever give birth to new sphinxes.

Thersites said...

The flail is yet out of Kamutef's reach, and Monthu is safely enclosed in his precinct. Yet the Leftists mourn.

*shakes head*

Larry Gambone said...

Thoughts on #3

1.Capital involves the domination of the work force, but also the domination and conversion of the non-capitalist world into capitalism. Capital is thus a totalistic system, if not totalitarian. This in itself is a cogent critique of capitalism, as imperialism is an innate part of its existence. Shows talk of democracy and pluralism with capitalism as largely a sham.

2. The more exchange value dominates the more important communication and transportation become - but the latter is dependent on cheap petrol and that is ending

A very interesting series, Ross Wolfe. Never really considered capital's dialectic of time and space before. Definitely food for thought. Look forward to your next writings.