One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I doubt you've even heard an Indian elephant break wind...

The word for today is:


This is a Pashto word refering to a unit of or basis for of solidarity, such as kinship, residence, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Sometimes it's transalated as 'tribe', but that's really an outsider interpretation with colonial overtones. (Irregular noun: We are a nation; You are a people; They are a tribe.) A qawm can cross tribal or ethnic boundaries and can is flexibly deliniated according to context, e.g. Our village vs those bastards in the next village; the villages in this valley vs those bastards over the hill; us Pashtuns vs those bastard Tajiks; All of us Afghans vs whatever bastard Americans/British/Russians/whoever is dumb enough to waltz into our country and reckon they can sort us out.1

Another way of looking at the concept of qawm is from the inside out, as the arena for competition between individuals. This idea has been taken up by anthropologsts - and especially by the NATO military wishing to get a handle on resistance insurgent organisations (Google 'qawm competion' for numerous examples).

From the anthropological view the idea of qawm gives a useful model of group and identity formation. The ties that bind are things like: exhange (people getting together to exchange goods, money, services, social obligations); opportunity for advancement through exchange; enforcement of power arrangements to enforce or protect advantage; solidarity arrangements to protect against competition or power; etc.

And so on to Marx2. I do keep trying to tell everyone that I'm not an Orthodox Marxist3. In fact I'm a pic'n'mix Revisionist. So you want get me dividing people rigidly into proletariat or bourgeoisie nor imagining the world as struggle to the death between the one and the other. I accept that many a self-styled Marxist regime has thought that way (or, at least, acted as though they did), but it wasn't what Marx was on about. ('If all these people are Marxists, then I'm not'. It's a valid criticism, notwithstanding, that if only the man were capable of writing a coherent sentence then fewer people would have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.)

What Marx was on about was the way that economics is the driver for the organisation and progression of society. He concentrated on the conditions within 19thC industrialised nations, hence the qawms that he identified as most important were the proletariat - those who earn their living by selling their labour and the bourgeoisie - those who own the means of production and are hence able to extract surplus value from the workers. The bougeoisie are the normally held to be synonymous with Capitalists - but I find it's often necessary to draw a distinction between them and those those at the top of the heap who make their living by dealing in the abstracted, rarified, slippery meta-commodity of 'Capital'. or 'Kapital' Let's call these über bourgeoisie 'Financiers' or 'Bankers' or whatever.

(Hang on...Did I say 'qawms' somewhere back there? My bad. Marx called them 'Classes'.)

There is conflict within and between classes. Take the bourgeoisie. Unless they constantly strive to keep up with or undercut other businesses, they won't be able to pay back their loans and put food on their families' tables, so they are constantly forced to find ways to lower their cost base - and this will always, ultimately, be at the expense of the workers. Automation. Lower Ts&Cs. Outsourcing to China. (In Marxist jargon, they're 'maximising their extraction of Surplus Value'). And thus, obviously, we have competition - conflict, even - between the proletariat bourgeoisis classes. Amongst workers we have competition which, in times of labour surplus at least, allows wages to be held in check - although if they're canny enough about it, workers can form solidal4 groups to curb excesses/ensure they get the best deal. Or, indeed, businesses can form corresponding associations, cartels, etc.

When it comes to bankers...well...the bourgeoisie tend to feel a class alignment there - they can't afford not to: they're dependent on finance - although various alements of competion apply, from shopping around for loans to the shares market etc. etc. When it comes to bankers...there's a nice, real-life contemporary example of competition in the current stooshie over bankers' bonuses. At the high end of the market, to where all the Capital has gravitated, to gain a competitive advantage, banks have to engage in risky, marginal trading. To secure the services of those best capable of doing this, they have to offer fuck off sums to entice people away from their competition. If they fail to attract the right people, their bank goes under instead of the other guys, busineses collapse, jobs are lost, mortgages are called in, etc. So it's fine to rail against banker's bonuses, but people should be aware that they're intrinsic to the system as a whole. Why not go for broke and oppose Capitalism as a whole?

Oops...I almost fell in to a trap there. While we're here, let's knock something on the head. 'Capitalism' isn't an evil plot by nasty Capitalists. It's not a system designed to do down the workers. It isn't even designed or consciously adopted at all. Capitalism just is5. People compete and exchange. Someone gains advantage. Society is developed and shaped. Some people gain, others lose out - but that's nothing personal. 'It's just business' All Marx was describing is what happens, with particular focus on the industrial phase of societies.

Back to qawms. What I've described so far is something of a 'vulgar Marxist' version whereby people are fiited into defined classes and the heel of the bourgeoisie is forever on the face of the proletariat. It's a particarly British mistake: 'Oh, Marxists are always on about Class, but that's all disappeared.' 6 Of's more complicated than that. 7

If we take the concept of qawm and apply it to Marxist notions of Class and Class Conflict, we perhaps can perhaps see them as somewhat more mutable. If the basis of group/qawm/class identity is competition within and between, the the boundaries will be defined differently dependending on context: different identities for different types or arenas of competition; boundaries shift over time as economic conditions change; etc. All of this explains (obvious) stuff like why employers and employees can unite in a common interest (one needs wages, the other workers); why men can be persuaded to fight in Capitalist wars (better to be on the winning side.)

Something else. Another species of Revisionist is the Eurocommunist. Antonio Gramsci's concept of 'Cultural Hegemony' holds that when powerful class comes to rule a divserse society, its ideas become the norm. Those economically dominant set the rules of play. Seems to me that qawm makes sense of a lot of the stuff about the way people adopt identities which aren't necessarily in their interests.

To my mind, Marx shouldn't be thought of as painting a picture of inevitable conflict. OK - there's a bit of that: he pointed out the worst-case solution whereby the contradictions of capitalism will lead to its inevitable (messy, destructive) collapse. And, yes, he had distinct apocalyptic tendencies - he was a revolutionary manqueé8 who was hideously bad at predicting the onset of revolution. But reall his big idea is that economics - and here we should remember that economics isn't just about money but all forms competition and exchange - is the motive principle of society.

Ideally I'd like to bring Darwin in here. Marx was an enormous admirer of Darwin, whose ideas he cited as an leading influence on Das Kapital. Now, it's been said that 'Economics and evolution are isomorphic'9. If you think about evolution by natural selection, its a matter of competition within an environment leading to speciation. Order arising from a messy, impersonal process. Clearly the parallel with qawm isn't exact here (but when have I ever been exact?) - for example we don't find organisms that are one species one minute and another the next. My point is that evolution - and qawm - and Marxist theory - share the idea that competition acts as an organising principle.

See also genetic algorithms, The Blind Watchmaker, etc. etc.

Arn'tcha glad I've discovered the html tag for superscripts?

1 Cor! While researching this, I came across something about The Only Jew In Afghanistan. See the last line. No facile comparisons, please, to The Only Gay In The Village. In Afghanistan...there are plenty.

2 My 'Alice's Restaurant' moment: "But I didn't come here to talk about that. I came here to talk about the draft...".

3I'll admit that part of my reason for constantly calling myself a Marxist is to wind people up. It's generally been a rod for my own back, though, 'cause so many people get the wrong idea and make assumptions based on very little knowledge of Marx. I shall stick to my guns, though: Marx has made more sense to me the more I've aged.

4 Yes, it is a word. I checked.

5 Here's another way in which I'm not an Orthodox Marxist, I guess. I'm not a revolutionary, at least to the extent that I don't think revolution will cause the overthrow of Capitalism (although it can achieve regime change and social reform). The best we can do put in place measures which steer economic forces one way or another to mitigate against the negative consequences of Capitalism and achieve desirable social outcomes. More wealth accumulation vs More redistribution, etc. etc.

6 "The Class War is over. The working class lost...and the government are charging reparations."

7 As it would be with Marx. He was the first post-modern philosopher, slippery as a well lubricated eel and fond of internal contridictions. Gotta admit, mind, this led to a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of trouble.

8 Unlike yours truly. I'm a revolutionary monkey.

9 That is, one learned person said it to me, but I've no idea who said it originally. If you google 'economics evolution isomorphic' it seems that quite a few people are interested in the general idea. I've a hunch that it might have been John van Neumann.


Dan | thesamovar said...

Interesting stuff Ed. A few random thoughts:

- Qawm is not in my scrabble dictionary, which is sad because it could have joined several other useful Q words which aren't followed by a U, like qi, qat and qanat.

- I like your idea of context sensitive classes. I wonder just how flexible they are?

- I think there might be a sense in which capitalism is an evil plot, albeit one that has been carried out not by an evil secret society of the type conspiracy theorists might hope imagined, but by the application of political power by the wealthy classes, following their class interest. The accumulation of capital by the capitalists was, historically, a very politically motivated process (or more accurately, several such processes). (I've just been reading "A people's history of England".) In the dialectical materialist view, these processes were inevitable - but they weren't unconscious processes by the people involved.

- You might find this paper interesting, although it's not freely accessible and I'm not sure I can get a copy (if you're interested and can't get it yourself, I can probably find someone with access):

Edward the Bonobo said...

Scrabble, you say?

>>I like your idea of context sensitive classes. I wonder just how flexible they are?

My guess is that there'll often be considerable inertia. Example, clearly race is a class issue, but even though it's a long time since slavery it's still a dominant organising principle American (and other) cultures.

(cf Peter Diamond's nobel work on economic 'friction'? Dunno.)

>>I think there might be a sense in which capitalism is an evil plot...etc.

Well, yes. But individuals behave in certain ways because that's the competitive strategy applicable within their socio-econonic environment. If sharks don't bite, they die. On the one hand, one doesn't want to let the individuals concerned off the hook, we need to remember that ultimately the problem is economic structures rather than individual morality.

Incidentally, here is where I wish Naomi Klein et al would read some Marx. Campaigning against cheap footwear is all very laudable, but when I'm told that Nike/Gap/whoever employ unscrupulous sub-sub-sub-contractors, my reaction is 'Duh!' (btw Marx wrote about Globalisation at the time of The Indian Mutiny in his New York Times journalism, and Engels had quite a lot to say about it too.)

And I should also have a wee dig at Anarchist notions of altyernatives to Capitalism. ;-) Capitalism just is. Things like Parecon are all well and lovely. But don't they rely on everyone - everyone agreeing to participate? How do you persuade someone who is already making hand over fist in the time-honoured Capitalist way? (and undercutting the fluffy Parecon types thereby). It seems to me to share something with religion:

'The world would be a lot nicer if only everone did the right thing.'

And you already know my views on this:

>>You might find this paper interesting

Yes, very possibly - but don't sweat it. Coincidentally I was planning a future posting on the difficulty of challenging (or even identifying) assumptions, inspired by something I read by our Slovenian friend. And there's elements of Chomsky's 'Manufactured Consent' obviously. What I'd really like to think about is how this stuff works in Marxist terms, ie how economic factors might encourage people to forget Inconvenient Truths, even though it's not in their interest. (It suddenly occurs to me that I'm going to have to brush up on 'False Consciousness'.

I don't suppose the paper covers the Marxist angle, does it? Americans don't usually do Marx.

Dan | thesamovar said...

Two part comment because there's a 4k character limit (yeesh).

>> Well, yes. But individuals behave in certain ways because that's the competitive strategy applicable within their socio-econonic environment.. we need to remember that ultimately the problem is economic structures rather than individual morality.

I completely agree, and about the problems with consumer campaigns (same thing with energy saving lightbulbs). But it is also important to remember that the sharks are not just biting within the economic structures that already exist, but actively and aggressively working to get those economic structures changed. There's a big difference there, because a single individual cannot, by their own actions, typically change the big things (global warming, capitalism), so it makes sense not to focus on the individual in that case. However, when they actively change the structures, that argument doesn't work because they themselves are not gaining any advantage over their peers by doing so (they are gaining further advantage over the poor though). This is slightly complicated by competition between nations, however.

>> Incidentally, here is where I wish Naomi Klein et al would read some Marx.

Well I won't expend a lot of effort defending Klein, but my impression is that she is actually quite radical. The focus on things like Nike, and so forth, are didactical - it's a way of translating the horror of capitalism into terms people can understand. I suspect many people have been radicalised (in the good sense) by this sort of thing, so I'm generally in favour.

>> Capitalism just is.

OK, so here I strongly disagree. I really think this is a myth that is put around by capitalist apologists - the idea that the system we have is somehow a natural one. To take a simple version: the idea that you can "own" land. There's nothing natural about that - you need a strong state representing the wealthy to make that happen. Or more recently, the idea that you can "own" ideas or data. That's such an obviously unnatural idea, that you have to jump through absurd hoops to make it real. This one will fail eventually, because the costs of enforcing it are so massively disproportionate to the costs of resisting it, and the benefit to be gained by it is relatively small (unlike in the case of land in the middle ages). But it's doing a lot of damage, and will continue to do so until its ultimate failure.

What I want to say is that capitalism is as much an artificial system as the alternatives (parecon etc.), and to get to capitalism required a sort of "revolutionary" change in society that was hard fought for and won, just as much as winning change for an alternative. The difference is that in the one case it was the powerful fighting for it, and in the other it's the poor.

Dan | thesamovar said...

>> Things like Parecon are all well and lovely. But don't they rely on everyone - everyone agreeing to participate? How do you persuade someone who is already making hand over fist in the time-honoured Capitalist way?

I think this is both right and wrong. To some extent, I agree that achieving something like parecon or other anarchist visions of how society should be will require an enormous change in the way people think. For that reason, I think it'll take a long time before it happens - almost certainly not in my lifetime for example. But such changes can occur, and can take as little as a couple of generations to occur. Think about the revolution in attitudes towards sex and so forth that took place from the 60s onwards. Although there has been, I suspect, something of a resurgence in homophobic attitudes (for example), I don't think there's any going back to pre-60s attitudes. And the prospects for change in attitudes are quite good: the enormous, and virtually free access to information and other ideas that people have now enables that to happen. I'm not naive about this, I don't think that just because the internet exists people's attitudes will change, and there are strong forces that oppose such changes. However, I think it is an asymmetric technology - it benefits the side of the angels more than the other side (the side of the devils?).

OK, but that said, I think you go slightly too far in your criticism. It doesn't rely on everyone agreeing to participate. Take parecon for example - suppose you had somehow managed to start a parecon society. There would, no doubt, be a few malcontents who would work on something like a black market - but would this destabilise parecon society? I would argue not, in much the same way that the black market doesn't destabilise capitalist society. (Incidentally, apparently the black market is huge in modern society, something like 20% - although that figure may be wrong it's just based on a vague memory.) The reason is: the size of the benefit to be gained from the black economy is relatively small compared to the costs (and risks) of operating in it. In capitalist society, it's mostly the costs and risks that prevent the black economy growing - but in a parecon society it would be limited by the sizes of the gains. Yes, you could trade small objects and maybe if you were good at it, you could do better than someone else and gain more small objects. But you could never gain enough to own a factory for example, because in parecon there is no capital - and capital requires a state to support it.

More difficult than the problem above (the stability problem) is the question of how to get there. I think Michael Albert is right that it will eventually require a revolutionary change. But, there are steps that can be taken preparatory to that that will make society better. For example, the fight for workplace democracy is an important one, I think. This may actually be achievable, because there is some evidence that worker owned and managed companies are more efficient. And it only takes a few such companies to exist, and be successful, and people in other companies will begin to demand such changes. Well, maybe that way doesn't work - but it's something that can be tried. I think there are several such things that can be tried.

Your idea for a future entry on identifying/challenging assumptions sounds extremely interesting btw, please do it!

Edward said...


I do agree that Capitalism is a self-reinforcing system. I wasn't meanig to imply that it's 'natural' or inevitable, simply that - to continue the evolutionary model - it's the environment we find ourselves in. How do we change that environment? Kill the sharks?

That said...on pesimmistic days I might lean towards seeing Capitalism as natural - but 'natural' isn't, of course, always good. (bowel cancer is natural). Take land ownership. Can you point me towards any non-nomadic society in which the best land is not owned by those with the biggest sticks? And the rest of Capitalism follows from that.

Naomi Klein - no criticism of her per se...but I'd like to hear some of her young followers in the United States of Anemia at least airing some of the suppressed left wing ideas.

Changing the system....OK - I overstate the case by saying it requires everyone to agree, but I'm still sceptical about it's being done by individualist actions. Having said that - I came across this yesterday, on moral revolutions:

Plus I'll continue to wear my 'Bevar Christiania' t-shirt (although I'm sceptical about an anarchist society that empoys the Hell's Angels as security. :) )

Dan | thesamovar said...

Yes of course we have to deal with the situation we've found ourselves in - but the idea that capitalism is natural or inevitable functions as quite a damper on revolutionary spirit, I think. Why bother fighting capitalism if it's inevitable? The only natural element of capitalism is ownership of possessions (e.g. small objects), not of land or capital or ideas. To take land: it used to be the case that there was lots of common land in England, before the process of enclosure turned it all into privately owned land (which took almost 100 years!).

Naomi Klein: I don't know about her supporters but I guess at least some of them make it to Znet - and judge for yourself, I think it has good left wing credentials.

Changing the system: well of course I don't know how it can be done or what will work, but there are routes that can be taken that have at least some promise and hope of success. And I also don't think it can be done by individualist actions (depending on what you mean by that). That book does sound quite interesting.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Hmm. I'm not meaning to give a counsel of despair, entirely. The main point I'm trying to put over is that reform/overthrow of Capitalism requires something more than individual niceness and morality.

That's not to say that no change is possible - but it requires people to get together as a class, ie as an economically interested group and - and this is the important part - the change comes not simply because they persuade the Capitalists of the error of their ways, but because the wrest something away from them.

I know, I know. I'm straying into Orthodox Marxism here.

And, of course, some reforms have been made - although things like welfare states are precarious (as we see all over Europe just now). Yer Marxist would say that genuine elimination of Captitalism is dependent on economic conditions - the inherent contradictions of Capitalism, etc. etc. (And let's mention Zizek's 'Zero Point' here, too.)

To say something nice about Parecon-y stuff. Perhaps things like the Mondragon Corporation represent genuine success in breaking free from Capitalist control, and they seem to be doing well, even these days. Plus they're expanding into the US. Dunno, though - seems to me they're little islands within Capitalism.

(I was discussing Mondragon the other day witha LibDem activist friend at work - but one of the good ones who's spent the last few months apologising. Also, we covered them at university.)

Dan | thesamovar said...

I pretty much agree with that, with one caveat. Although I might admit that Marxism has some useful points to make, to use it (especially the Orthodox version) as a guide to when/how the revolution will take place seems a bit... misguided, in the face of the historical evidence.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Agreed...and I don't think we should try that. Possibly Marx did believe his ideas had predictive powers, and in that he was mistaken. But what they do give, I think, is a framework for thinking about some of the dynamics at play in our economically complicated society.

(Actually - despite Marx's apocalyptic bent, my feeling is that by the time of das K he was leaning towards a post-modenist-y 'it's all frightfully complicated' stance.)