[OPE-L] "Ed" on Historical Materialism Conference

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Jan 18 2007 - 16:54:11 EST

The "International Rooksbyism" blog, written by "Ed" from the UK,
contains some entries on the HM conference which I have included
below.  There are also comments under each of the blog entries,
but you'll have to go to his blog to read them.

For those of you who went, is that what you remember about the HM conference?

Do you agree  with his takes on the papers by Poulantzas, Miliband,
Barrow, Thomas, Wetherley, Blackledge, Jessop,  Burnham, Glyn,
Harvey, S. Clarke, and Callinicos?

Who is Ed?

In solidarity, Jerry

Tuesday, December 19, 2006
More HM Stuff - Poulantzas, Miliband and Others
Warning - this is likely to be a little scrappy.

I have a few sheets of paper with scribbled notes taken at the Historical
Materialism conference last week still to write up here. I've written up
the notes on the plenary session on China in a post below. I have yet to
write up some notes from a few sessions on Poulantzas, a session on
Miliband, one on ecological crisis and one on the international state
system today. I thought I had better write these up while the memory is
still vaguely fresh.


Poulantzas, it seems, is sexy again. There is, apparently, a significant
re-awakening of interest in Poulantzas in Left academia at the moment. For
a while (the last 20 -30 yrs or so!) the old boy was regarded as a little
old hat. Yesterday's sensation. Outmoded. Rather unfashionably
'structuralist'. Now, however, he is set to make a big wowee comeback. A
bit like Peter Andre I suppose. That's very very good news for me. Bob
Jessop commented, at the start of his paper that Poulantzas would, very
soon, come to be regarded as one of THE major figures in political theory
of the 20th Century. I suppose Bob Jessop would say that, wouldn't he? But
it doesn't seem a particularly wild prediction to me. So read your
Poulantzas if you want to be hip (although I advise you not to attempt
Political Power and Social Classes unless you are really, really sure
about it).

Clyde Barrow presented an interesting paper on the matter of Poulantzas'
supposed 'Althusserian' theoretical foundations - a paper delivered,
rather bewilderingly, in an American deep south accent. I can't be sure,
but I should think that Barrow usually speaks with a deep south accent,
rather than saving it for the delivery of papers on Poulantzas. It's quite
odd, at first, listening to someone who sounds not completely unlike
Deputy Dawg talking about the structural configuration of different modes
of production - but one gets used to it after a while. I liked Barrow very
much - seemed like a really nice guy.

Basically, Barrow's argument (and one with which I fully agree) was that
people are wrong to pigeon-hole Poulantzas as an 'Althusserian'. I
certainly get rather annoyed when people dismiss P's later work for
'incorporating substantial Althusserian residues' - even if it does (which
I don't think it does in any meaningful sense - what, exactly, are
'Althusserian residues' anyway?) there is a real wealth of stuff in State,
Power, Socialism which people tend to miss if they are busily hunting for
Althusserian left-overs. I suppose most people would agree that P had made
a significant (if not decisive - which I think he had) break with
Althusser with the publication of SPS - but Barrow wanted to push this
further and argue that even the early Poulantzas (you know, the Poulantzas
in his 'Althusserian phase' - that one) is not, in any significant sense,
working within an Althusserian paradigm (or should I say 'problematic') -
(No, I shouldn't).
Barrow pointed out that there are very clear differences between the early
P and Althusser and Balibar. Althusser and Balibar operate with what
Barrow described as a 'Platonic' conception of the constitutive elements
which go to make up a mode of production in their structuralist schema.
Althusser argues, basically, that each mode of production is made up of a
particular configuration of pre-existing elements - 'the economy', 'the
political' etc. (an analysis which seems rather to mirror liberal
categorisation). They reproduce the capitalist assumption that the economy
is an autonomous entity - a spontaneously self-reproducing thing into
which the political/state intrudes from the outside if it has anything to
do with it at all. Poulantzas, however, starts his analysis at the level
of the mode of production - rather than at the level of transhistorical
'ideological', 'political' or 'economic' elements of reality. So, he is
not best pigeon-holed as Althusserian. And he is better than those
clueless schmucks, Althusser and Balibar.

Jessop's paper aimed to convince us that P's State, Power, Socialism is a
'modern classic'. I completely agreed with him. In fact I agreed with him
so much that I forgot to make any notes. What I remember of his
presentation, however, is his argument that the section of SPS on
'Authoritarian Statism' is a remarkably prescient account of 21st Century
politics - in particular, it is impossible to read this chapter without
thinking 'Blimey, you're describing Blairism there even though you were
writing in 1978, you remarkably prescient old fox, you'. Read it and see
what I mean. The only thing P gets wrong is that he fails he anticipate
the Thatcherite/Reaganite turn - he suggests that the politics of his near
future would involve an extension of state ownership rather than
privatisation and that 'economic' questions, would therefore, become
increasingly 'politicised.' In that sense it is very much a book of its
time - the 1970s. But, again, read it - and tell me that the stuff about
managerialism, the hollowing out of politics, the creation of
unaccountable, semi-militarised 'parallel state systems', about the
increasing concentration of political power at the apex of the state
executive does not describe what we have today. P, of course, goes further
than this. He doesn't just 'predict' this process - he provides an
intricate account of just why such a process would unfurl.

I have a scribble at the top of the Jessop page which tells me, by the
way, that Althusser refused to publish an early work by Poulantzas because
it was 'too historicist.' More ammunition, then, for the
Poulantzas-as-not-an-Althusserian position.

In his paper, Peter Thomas argued that, if anything, Poulantzas is best
thought of as a Gramscian. He focused on the final chapter (first
published as an article in NLR) of SPS (a brilliant if flawed attempt to
draw out the practical strategic implications of his theory of the state).
It focused on Poulantzas' reading of Gramsci's conception of the
distinction between 'state' and 'civil society'. Thomas argued that
Poulantzas wrongly attributed to Gramsci, the idea that the state is 'a
closed place' - a self-contained entity, separated and distinct from
'civil society', whereas the whole thrust of P's argument in SPS is that
the state is a social relation and that it is therefore continually
modified by changing balances of social forces - that 'the state is
traversed from end to end by the effects of popular struggles' (I'm
quoting from memory there, so that's probably wrong - but it's something
like that. I am, of course, too lazy to go and get the book from my
office.) Poulantzas' and Gramsci's understanding of the state, Thomas
suggested, was much closer than Poulantzas thought. Thomas also provided,
along the way, an incidental critique of Anderson's 'The Antinomies of
Antonio Gramsci' - one of the most celebrated and thorough analyses of
Gramsci's thought. I wish I could remember what the criticism was exactly.
There is some flaw in Anderson's approach - no can't remember it. Drat.


One of the main things to emerge from the Miliband session was that - just
as it makes little sense to categorise Poulantzas as an Althusserian
structuralist - it is a mistake to think of Miliband as an
'instrumentalist'. There are countless 'Introduction to Political
Science/Theory' books, where Marxist state theory is framed in terms of a
'structuralist/instrumentalist' debate and in which the NLR
Poulantzas-Miliband debate is wheeled out as the
structuralist-instrumentalist bun fight par excellence. The NLR
Poulantzas-Miliband (and Laclau sticks his big waggling oar in at one
stage, too) is actually pretty unenlightening. In fact its a bit shit if
you ask me. Miliband and Poulantzas simply talk past each other.
Poulantzas starts it by (unfairly) accusing Miliband of being a crude
instrumentalist and Miliband responds (quite understandably) by arguing
that, 'Well, Mr Poulantzas, you are just a structuralist abstractionist
and you talk bollocks'. So it's Poulantzas' fault. Miliband, however, was
not an 'instrumentalist' - his 'instrumentalist' book, The State in
Capitalist Society is an intervention in a particular debate and can only
be understood properly in that context. What Miliband was trying to do in
that book, was to prove 'pluralism' wrong on its own terms, by pointing
out the continuing salience of class and showing that power (particularly
the levers of state power) was/were not evenly distributed amongst social

In fact (as Paul Wetherley stressed in his paper) Miliband does provide a
fairly robust account of the 'structural constraints' which state agents
encounter and which tend to safeguard capitalism from political courses of
action which my have the effect of weakening it. See his NLR essay, State
Power and Class Interests for example. But even in The State in Capitalist
Society Miliband is quite clear that the state is not capitalist simply
because of the class background of senior state managers (the argument
wrongly attributed to him on a frequent basis). In fact he provides a
whole chapter on 'structural constraints' in that book!

Interestingly, Barrow (in his Miliband paper) suggested that the category
'instrumentalism' was invented almost arbitarily by Gold, Lo and (Erik
Olin) Wright in a graduate paper they had published in Monthly Review in
1975 (‘Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of the Capitalist
State’). They simply made up the category for the sake of convenience
and proceeded to dump a few theorists into it. For some reason, the term
became popular and the categorisation of Miliband (and Domhoff - who,
amusingly, produced, at some point, an essay entitled 'I am not an
Instrumentalist') just stuck. An interesting question then - have there
ever been any Marxist 'instrumentalist' state theorists?

Paul Blackledge began his paper on Miliband by sticking his tongue out at
my girlfriend, causing her to go into an uncontrollable giggling fit for
the duration of the session. The substance of his paper consisted of the
argument that Miliband's position on socialist strategy in the last
chapter of Marxism and Politics (1977) is flawed since it is based on a
faulty view of the relationship between Leninism and the Popular Front
strategy. It seems to me that Blackledge is right about Miliband's
conflation of Leninism with Popular Front strategies. However, I wasn't
convinced by his argument. He got a bit of a telling off from Hilary
Wainwright and Leo Panitch looked distinctly hostile. The argument (as I
remember) from the floor was that Miliband (and other New Left figures
such as E P Thompson and Raymond Williams) objected to Leninism for
reasons that could not be boiled down to Miliband's mistaken reading of
Popular Front politics. They (Miliband, Thompson, Williams) never made the
leap into Leninism/Trotskyist politics (even though they produced some
fearsome critiques of both Stalinism and parliamentary labourism) quite
simply because they just didn't like the look of Leninism or Trotskyism.
Seems about right to me actually. Miliband didn't have an 'incorrect' or
'partial' or 'incomplete' analysis of Stalinism or reformism or whatever.
He didn't make the leap because, very simply, he was just waiting for
something rather more agreeable to come along.

Peter Burnham presented an interesting paper on Miliband's Parliamentary
Socialism - a classic which every left-leaning member of the Labour Party
should read. Burnham's argument, which seems about right to me, was that
Miliband oscillated throughout his life between calling for battle within
the Labour Party and calling for the building of a new party. I wonder if
this oscillation wasn't at all conditioned by his dislike of Leninist
parties - the thought, that is, that all of those (in many ways) rather
unattractive Trot parties out there had cornered the extra-Labour Party
market as it were so, bollocks, we'd better look again at the Labour Left.

This post is now far too long. I'll end it there. I may write up the
Ecological crisis and the international state system stuff in a couple of


This post is probably best described as a 'splurge of consciousness'
rather than a coherent summary of a set of academic papers. I'm sorry. But
it's late, I'm tired and it's nearly Christmas.
Labels: Historical Materialism, Miliband, Poulantzas

Saturday, December 16, 2006
HM Conference
I said I'd write up a little report on the Historical Materialism
conference (pdf.) last weekend. So here it is.

First of all, I have to say (a little shamefacedly) that I didn't make it
to the paper on George A. Romero - the one I was enthusing about before I
went. The problem was that this paper was presented at 9 O'Clock in the
morning and that I had been out a-boozin' the night before. It just didn't
work out the way I planned. Never mind.

One of the difficulties I encountered at the conference (apart from the
absolutely mad starting times - 9 in the morning... 9 in the morning??!!)
was that there was just too much to take in. This isn't a criticism of the
conference of course (no one was forced to attend all the slots after
all). I suppose I am just trying to register my disappointment about the
particular limits to human concentration and endurance. I found that by
the last slot in the evening my mind had turned to slush and that I really
couldn't take in what anyone was saying. I'll just provide a synopsis
here, then, of those papers which I attended when still in full possession
of my mental faculities and which I found particularly interesting (and
during which I remembered to take notes).

The most fascinating set of papers - a plenary session on 'China and the
Future of the Global Economy' - was by far the best attended. It was held
in the dungeon pit of the UCL Students' Union (at least I think that's
what it was) and was absolutely full to bursting. The speakers were Andrew
Glyn, David Harvey and Simon Clarke. I'm afraid that I didn't take any
notes on Clarke's speech because he spoke last and by that time my
capacity for concentration had collapsed. Glyn's paper consisted really of
a run through of a set of facts and figures about Chinese growth and its
significance for the global economy. His main argument was that the huge
reserves of cheap labour in China would progressively undermine wages and
living standards in the advanced West. He also argued interestingly, that
some of the old Marxian predictions about a progressive declining share of
income for labour under capitalism, although they seem to have been
confounded over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries, would over
the course of the next few years be proved right - ie that this prediction
was right in terms of long term tendencies.

Glyn started by pointing out that the centre of world capital accumulation
is now shifting from the US and Europe to China (and to India, too,
although to a lesser extent than to China). At the moment the level of
China's exports is no larger than Japan's - but of course China has huge
capacity and, in particular, a huge labour force (or, at least, potential
labour force - it has a huge reserve of rural peasants yet to be
proletarianised). The key thing to understand about Chinese growth, and
its potential for further growth, Glyn pointed out, was the level of wages
in that country. Despite huge growth in the Chinese economy and despite
rising levels of productivity there has been no increase in wage levels in
that country as compared to US wages (not sure what the time scale is here
- the main thing is that wage levels are held down much lower than rates
of productivity gain and much much lower than in the US and Europe). The
rate of profit in China is about twice that of the US and Europe. So, Glyn
pointed out, China (and India) are a huge pole of attraction for foreign
investment. Glyn admitted that there was not yet the flood of investment
going to China that you might expect (more on this later) - FDI from
global north to global south (which of course includes China and India) is
still only about 4% of the level of FDI between countries of the north.
But an increasing share of global FDI was now going to China and India and
this, Glyn argued would soon turn from the 'trickle' it was now to a
'flood'. He pointed out the rate of growth in capital stock in the north
from 1945 to the mid 60s was about 45%. It is now about 2 - 2%. Under
these conditions China and India with much higher rates of growth and
rates of profit will look increasingly attractive to northern investors.
In other words the working class in the north is doomed. As is the welfare
state and anything else which reduces the 'competitiveness' of the
northern economies in relation to those of the booming economies of the

Glyn finished up by providing a kind of periodisation of the fortunes of
northern labour. He pointed out that labour's share of income in the
period from the publication of Smith's The Wealth of Nations to the
publication of Marx's Capital was declining (and this, of course, shaped
Marx's analysis). However in the period up until the 'profits squeeze' of
the 1970s labour's share of income improved. It was in this period, of
course, that Crosland and others argued that the injustices of capitalism
had been (or were in the process of being) ironed out - that Marxist
economics were outdated. But since the 1970s labour's share of income has
been falling again. Competition from low wage economies in this period has
been one factor (amongst many) in this drop off in the share of income
going to labour. Now, with the emergence of China as a global
super-economy boasting low wages and relatively high productivity levels
and rates of profit, labour's share of income in the north will start to
drop off dramatically.

All very doom and gloom. However, Alex Callinicos made the point from the
floor that low wages are only one (very minor) determinant of investment
levels. He pointed out that if Glyn's thesis about a coming slump in
western living standards was true we would expect to see much more than a
'trickle' of northern FDI going to China right now. In fact there are many
factors which investors hold to be more important that wage levels when
deciding on where to invest - these include proximity of the place of
investment to affluent markets, the level of skill of labour, the
infrastructural provision on offer and the political and economic
stability of the place of investment. In fact Glyn's argument seems to
replicate a lot of the wilder claims of the 'hyper-globalists' in the
globalisation debate of the 1990s. Glyn's argument was quite
comprehensively dealth with by 'sceptics' such as Hirst and Thompson in
that debate to my mind.

Harvey was up next. If you've ever read the first chapter of the Communist
Manifesto - you'll know that it provides the most extraordinary grand
sweeping vision of historical development - a vision, in particular, of
the merciless dynamism of capitalist development. It manages to be
electrifying and terrifying at the same time. Well, Harvey's speech was a
bit like that. I can't really do it justice here - but he provided a
description of Chinese growth in terms that just made the hairs on the
back of my neck stand on end. It was this sweeping description of the
development of economic and political forces which are quite out of

He started out by telling us how he explained the concept of
over-accumulation to his students. Quite useful I thought. What he does is
he tells them to imagine a day in the life of a capitalist. He or she
starts off with x amount of capital and (if things work out how they
should) he or she ends the working day with x amount of capital plus a bit
more. The problem for the capitalist, then, is to work out what do do with
this extra capital - how to absorb the surplus. He or she will, under
pressure of competition from rivals, have to find a productive outlet for
it. This happens, of course, day after day, week after week, with the
capitalist having to find something to do with an accumulating amount of
extra capital. There come periods when there is so much surplus that
capitalists simply can't find outlets for it and the system becomes
unstable. The other problem is that capitalists will have invested a lot
of this surplus in building extra capacity - and there will come a point
when this capacity becomes surplus to requirements - ie they just can't
shift the stuff they are producing and they just don't need those 5 extra
factories. Harvey argues that one method of dealing with these crises of
overaccumulation is for the state to take on responsibility for the
absorption of the surplus in order to stabilise the system (the other
option I suppose is to induce or allow some sort of mass devalorisation of
capital - a slump - to get rid of the surplus and get rid of inefficient
capitals). He argued that quite often the surplus is absorbed in projects
of massive urban regeneration. In 1848 the French state dealt with a
crisis of overaccumulation by re-engineering Paris - famously, the
boulevards of that city were greatly widened and the narrow streets of
Paris cleared out. Similar re-engineering of city centres has occurred in
New york, Los Angeles and Chicago. The 20th Century rise of the surburbs,
Harvey argues, was a response to overaccumulation crises.

But the absorption of capital isn't simply conducted at national scale.
There is also an international dimension - Harvey argues for something
called a 'spatial fix' where excess capital is diverted overseas to a new
'space'. Harvey's argument was that the epicentre of global surplus
absorption - the current point of 'spatial fix' - is now China. There is a
massive project of construction and development going on in that country.
Harvey has, apparently visited China on a few occasions - and he describes
the rate of construction there as absolutely 'scary'. It is a boom economy
completely out of control. It is Chinese demand for materials that is
driving the world economy. Apparently it's Chinese demand for copper, for
example, which is driving the growth of Chile and China is currently
consuming half the world's cement supplies! But much of this frantic
construction in China is unnecessary. Harvey pointed out, for example,
that in one valley in China (don't know how big) they had built 5 airports
in the past few years - when they only needed one. There are many other
examples of unsustainable construction. Harvey pointed out that in one
small village he visited the local authorities were building a state of
the art school and hospital which, as I remember, was far too big for
local requirements. But of course, not everyone in China is enjoying the
fruits of the boom - as Glyn pointed out, the Chinese working class is
being paid extremely low wages. Interestingly, though, the new Chinese
rich are not just from the government bureaucracy or well connected party
members. Some peasants were wise enough to draw up contracts with
construction firms - so that, in return for giving their land over for
appartment construction, they arranged ownership of, say, the first floor
of the building and have now become quite rich in renting out the rooms to
incoming labourers. Those labourers of course work 12 hours a day or
something, often don't get paid (because construction firms go bust all
the time) and live in squalid conditions. As an aside, Harvey referred to
a conversation he had with some Chinese new rich party members - he asked
them what they thought of the growing inequalities in their country. He
was told that they deserved their money because they had worked hard to
attain it. As Harvey pointed out - clearly, very few people in China have
ever heard of the concept of surplus value.

Anyway, Harvey's argument was that there is now massive over-investment in
China - that there is a growing crisis of over-accumulation in what is now
the epicentre for the absorption of the global surplus. Already, he
pointed out, the Chinese are starting to expand outwards - to look for
their own 'spatial fix' - they are expanding car production abroad for
example. In another aside Harvey told us that he (in his capacity as a rep
of a US university) had been offered 60 million dollars on the spot by a
Chinese vice-chancellor (or whatever the Chinese equivalent of that role
is) - it was to go his university and in return, staff from his university
would work for 6 months in the year at the Chinese university (clearly,
the Chinese universities want US knowledge). It shows just how much excess
money there is sloshing around in China.

Harvey finished up by pointing to the huge environmental problems being
stored up by this out of control growth. Things aren't great in China
ecology-wise it seems. He also pointed, of course, to the hugely unstable
nature of this global arrangement. There was some cross over between
Harvey and Glyn in that Harvey also pointed out that the only way that the
US and Europe could compete with this rousing giant in the long run would
be to force down the wages of its workforce. He ended his speech with a
suggestion. It was that the only alternative to this out of control
nightmare was socialism or something.

Anyway, this post is now far too long, so I think I'll leave the rest of
it for another time. I still want to write something up about Poulantzas
and Miliband briefly - and also the Socialist Register stuff about
ecological crisis.

# posted by Ed : 8:03 PM
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Bean-Counters Will Not Save the Planet
<snip, JL>
There was a discussion of 'ecosocialism' at the HM conference I went to a
few days ago, to mark the launch of the Socialist Register 2007, which,
this year, focuses on the (rather pressing!) issue of ecological crisis.
One of the the questions the participants addressed was that of whether
capitalism could find any solution to the looming environmental crisis.
Interestingly the various speakers disagreed about this - at least one,
Daniel Buck, suggested that capitalism might well find a 'solution' to the
fossil fuel pollution/global warming crisis under the pressure of looming
catastrophe (incentive and all that). He did suggest, however, that this
solution would come at the cost of the further commodification of the
environment, of the further exacerbation of international inequalities and
would involve a significantly authoritarian dimension. The other
participants disagreed. I'll see if I can write this up more fully in a
few days. Really busy at the moment. I've got loads of notes on the
Harvey/Glyn/Clarke plenary session on Chinese growth and the global
economy (in which Harvey, in particular, was fantastic) which I hope to
write up in some detail on this blog when I get a chance. The gist of the
Harvey argument was that the rate of over-accumulation and developing
over-capacity in China is of huge proportions - in his words it's
absolutely 'scary'. He brought in his notion of 'spatial fix' - the idea
that capital must continually expand in spatial terms and colonise new
territory in order to avert crisis - in a really interesting way.

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