Capitalism: Open System, Collection of Processes

Take capitalism. It consists of moving elements such as the relative freedom of capital, contractual labor, the commodity form, and market/anti-market forces. But this complex (or “axiomatic” as Gilles Deleuze would call it) is both incomplete by itself and connected to other force-fields upon which it depends or which may intrude upon it. These include climate patterns, weather systems, animal-human disease jumps, the availability or [pg 37] depletion of clean water, fertile soil, oil, and other “resources,” educational systems, scientific activity, adventurous investors, medical practices, religious evolution, collective spiritual priorities, consumer trends, asteroid showers, and many other processes. All these partially open systems are linked in varying ways and degrees to the evolving system of capitalism. To treat capitalism as an (ideally) closed system periodically disrupted by “externalities” would be to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The very idea of an externality suggests an illegitimate intrusion into a system that would otherwise be self-sufficient and internally balanced. Indeed, neo-liberal economic theory is compromised fundamentally by its tendency to isolate “the market” as _the_ consummate or unique self-balancing system. But the world consists of innumerable force-fields with differential powers of self-maintenance, many of which interact periodically to augment or destabilize one another. When this feature of the human condition is admitted, the need to radically reformulate neoliberal economic theory becomes clear.
This means that you can’t define capitalism as a pure system, either in the sense advanced by some versions of neoliberalism or in that advanced by those versions of Marxism that reify the base/superstructure relation. It means that when a new possibility or crisis emerges, you must often experiment to ascertain where and how to engage it. It never occurred to Marx, Keynes, or Milton Friedman, for instance, to address the relation between capitalism and climate. This is fair enough for the first two, but Friedman wrote after the issue had been posed. Nonetheless, if each had folded into his theory a greater appreciation of the relatively open and incomplete character of capitalism in a larger world of becoming, the advocate of each theory would have been more alert to changes in other force-fields that can impinge profoundly upon the operations of capitalism. Connectionism, inter-involved systems of multiple sorts, and a world of becoming help to define each other. Capitalism is exempt from non of them, in my view.

— William Connolly, A world of becoming, chp 1 “complexity, agency, and time” p36-7

5 Comments

  1. I’m reading that book right now (and about 10 pages deeper than this quote). I enjoy reading it, but I am wondering where are the arguments? I know he writes in the intro that the book is not really about arguments, but come on?

    Why should we accept W.C’s view (or let it enrich us) over someone else’s? I like the poetic aspects of his discourse, but i’m still waiting to learn anything new…

    Plus, his notion of “force-fields” seems suspect (in terms of empirical connect as well as stylistically).

    Just some thoughts…

    1. the books shares problems with most academic ‘theory’ writing: exposition on a few abstract concepts to re-enforce system-building without providing enough detail to assist most forms of concrete intervention.

      my advisor has me doing a lot of work on complexity theory. it’s interesting to see connolly’s application. in the long run, i see myself doing much different things with it than him. for instance, WC seems to accept a lot of the science’s methodological prejudices without much commentary. the book is held hostage by multiple disciplinary entrenchments (physics/science, philosophy) without enough creative production to really break free.

      so “force fields” seems to fall into a trap set for most of the concepts developed through the course of the book. rather than being ‘under-determined’ like D&G, who construct concepts that are bursting with potential and exceed any example given, WC’s concepts seem ‘under-whelming’ – trapped in local contexts and barely able to escape. sure, he is able to “resolve” certain academic debates, but not very fully or convincingly. i find my own work suffering from the same problem.

      i think force fields is a strange mongrelization of “phase space” or “virtual” (as in Deleuze’s use of “virtual/ actual”). it is more suggestive than either of the terms, but as you note, does too much work and therefore feels suspect. there is a _precise_ use of force-fields when he’s quoting Kauffman to describe the “becoming-unity”/”becoming-necessary” of life via three assemblages (molecules + electrical force-fields + soupy earth = life) [“it may be that myriad small organized molecules and even more complex molecules, fell onto the young earth to supply some preconditions that then mixed with the electrical force-fields and soupy stuff on early earth [ to form life].” Kauffman, Reinventing, p48]. so i asked myself, ‘why does kauffman’s sprawling prose feel so much more convincing than connolly?’ the answer, i think i captured above.

      in summation: I like WC, i think he does good exposition. but i think it ‘fills in the gaps’ more than giving us anything particular to stand on. for me, the best sections of his books are the short bullet point lists. but maybe that’s because, after a few hundred pages of theory, i can’t help but appreciate an author who lets me be a lazy reader ; )

      1. I just read Chapter 5 on the Global Resonance Machine.

        It seems to clearly outline some useful models (for politics, resistance, etc). But it also appears to be too narrow with its typology. The examples given are quite helpful, but also seem to limit application. It doesn’t think “beyond” the current situation much. And in that sense – it’s pretty flat and seems to direct one to ‘keep at it!’ with pluralistic progressive cosmopolitanism, which seems pretty boring to me.

        I think the Deleuzian notion of ‘counter-actualization’ _versus_ virtual potential is helpful here. Connolly minces some of the D&G, particularly the abstract machine. For D&G, virtual potentials are unpredictable partially due to their excessiveness – an Idea will always be more powerful than the limited amount of actualizations made of it [in AOK, foucault says “everything is never said”]. For Deleuze, using counter-actualizations is just to show that it _can_ be otherwise. Using counter-actualizations as a blueprint for doing things ‘right’ would slip back into idealism, and instead of using the virtual as a source of potential, Connolly’s examples tend to be reductionist flattening of the Virtual/Actual into the Possible/Real (once something is “thought” it is now “possible” and just need to be “made real” – removing the creative excess between virtual/real). cf. Paul Patton’s “Political Normativity and Poststructuralism: The Case of Gilles Deleuze” http://www.uu.nl/SiteCollectionDocuments/GW/GW_Centre_Humanities/political-normativity-deleuze.pdf

        For more succinct/articulate explanations of this argument, just goggle it.

  2. AWC: …exposition on a few abstract concepts to re-enforce system-building without providing enough detail to assist most forms of concrete intervention.”

    MICHAEL: That pretty much sums it up.

    AWC: WC seems to accept a lot of the science’s methodological prejudices without much commentary. the book is held hostage by multiple disciplinary entrenchments (physics/science, philosophy) without enough creative production to really break free.

    MICHAEL: I wonder what worthy of engagements such discourse could possibly break free into if not grounded in particular methodologies? Would you advocate a free-floating speculative problematic?

    AWC: …rather than being ‘under-determined’ like D&G, who construct concepts that are bursting with potential and exceed any example given, WC’s concepts seem ‘under-whelming’ – trapped in local contexts and barely able to escape. sure, he is able to “resolve” certain academic debates, but not very fully or convincingly.

    MICHAEL: Agreed. I think he’s trying obviate the need for certain “debates” to even exist, and instead formulate a vocabulary dynamic enough to render politics a “new” light. But I’m not holding my breath for some monumental shift here – if only because I’m not convinced he’s going to dig too far into what he’s supposedly setting up. Bu I guess I’ll find out.

    AWC: I like WC, i think he does good exposition. but i think it ‘fills in the gaps’ more than giving us anything particular to stand on.

    MICHAEL: Again I fully agree. The problem is, at least in my case, he’s theorizing to the choir, so to speak. I already negotiate a similar understanding of being and becoming that he is describing (perhaps due to very similar interests). So nothing presented has been at all surprising or new (so far).

    AWC: I just read Chapter 5 on the Global Resonance Machine. It seems to clearly outline some useful models (for politics, resistance, etc). But it also appears to be too narrow with its typology. The examples given are quite helpful, but also seem to limit application. It doesn’t think “beyond” the current situation much. And in that sense – it’s pretty flat and seems to direct one to ‘keep at it!’ with pluralistic progressive cosmopolitanism, which seems pretty boring to me.

    MICHAEL: I haven’t read that far yet, but it sounds more in line with what I’m looking for: which could only be described as a sufficiently dynamic model of political activity with which to discuss massive systems change. If taken complexly enough the social field, I think, can begin to offer hints towards some base, primal post-ideological praxis. Here I’m thinking of something along the lines of a political ecology of infrastructure.

    Hopefully WC will provide some nuance in that direction.

    AWC: I think the Deleuzian notion of ‘counter-actualization’ _versus_ virtual potential is helpful here. Connolly minces some of the D&G, particularly the abstract machine. For D&G, virtual potentials are unpredictable partially due to their excessiveness – an Idea will always be more powerful than the limited amount of actualizations made of it [in AOK, foucault says “everything is never said”]. For Deleuze, using counter-actualizations is just to show that it _can_ be otherwise. Using counter-actualizations as a blueprint for doing things ‘right’ would slip back into idealism, and instead of using the virtual as a source of potential, Connolly’s examples tend to be reductionist flattening of the Virtual/Actual into the Possible/Real (once something is “thought” it is now “possible” and just need to be “made real” – removing the creative excess between virtual/real).

    MICHAEL: I could see where he might want to do that. I’m not a fan of the ‘virtual/actual’ binary either. I think the “virtual” is simply the imaginal – a secondary abstracted fantasy (in a neutral sense of that last term). Everything that is Real is Actual in my opinion – and the possible is the excessive differences which exists between multiple actualizations. Everything that comes into being does so through catalytic processes inherent in the properties of the things and forces involved as they are expressed in relation. In other words, emergence is the complexification and differential assembly of already existing immanent properties. Thus, there is no such thing as “potential” without reference to the actual properties of both actant (to bastardize Latour here) and network; field and event; figure and ground; context and object.

    This is just to say that, like DeLanda, I think D&G could use a little vulgarity and materialism to make their insights (strategies) more translatable into actions (tactics). The real buggery of theory is exploring the lines of flight opened up through all theory’s direct application. [plus, I think materialism gets a bad rap (cf. Jane Bennett)]

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