Newsletter #74: Listeners' Mailbag w/ Quinn Slobodian

A few weeks ago, historian Quinn Slobodian joined Dan for a detailed discussion of his new book, Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy. Today, we are piloting a new feature of the Dig newsletter, where supporters of the podcast on Patreon can follow up with the subject of the interview and ask questions that came to mind as they listened to the episode.

Justin C.: You’re a historian of the political right. Still, I’m curious about your thoughts on the spatial and territorial imaginaries that are popping up on the Left these days. Some want to reclaim the nation-state as the main place of democratic action, while others are all about localism and “temporary autonomous zones.” Some tenant unions have talked about territorial power. Could a spatial or territorial imaginary on the Left operate on the same level as “the zone” and para-state international institutions?

Quinn Slobodian: The socialist think-tanker Mathew Lawrence engaged in exactly this thought experiment in a New Statesman piece recently. He built on some of the examples from my book, in which I was very intent on not presenting libertarian proposals as transpiring on blank canvases or the only sites of political innovation, but rather as examples of counterrevolution against competing efforts to re-design space and economic relations.

The best example here is the Greater London Council (GLC) of the 1980s, which I dwell on at length in chapter two. There’s been a revived interest in the GLC’s ideas of doing politics “in and against the state” (Katrina Forrester will give a series of lectures on this idea at Oxford University this month) — whether it’s their “Socially Useful Technology” workshops, their use of non-English languages and their internationalist outreach to newly arrived immigrants, their organizing of night workers in the City of London, their push away from single-passenger vehicles to public transit, their embrace of music and art as part of political struggle, their participatory planning methods, their attention to daycares as a site of politics, their emphasis on cross-class horizontal consultation rather than the top-down seizures of power performed in the enterprise zones. 

The past is a rich mine to be excavated for inspiring models in the present. Still, it should be clear that libertarian efforts at perforation and zone creation are always much closer to realization, because they serve the interests of the powerful and follow the trend line of the regnant incentives and frameworks around which we have structured human life. For crack-up capitalists to say that we need only turn our world one tick further for it to be entirely commodified is not such a stretch. For the Left to demand decommodification, decarbonization, and real democratization, as Lawrence writes in his piece, requires pushing back against some of the hardest-wired structures in our modern world. That doesn’t make it any less of a worthwhile effort, but it certainly makes it harder.

Neil C.: I’m currently reading Crack-Up Capitalism along with Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century. Arrighi offers an evolutionary pattern of world capitalism in which the Genoese city-state had no costs internalized (protection, production, transaction costs), the Dutch nation-state internalized protection costs only, the British nation-state internalized protection and production costs, and the United States “world-state” internalized all of these costs.

My question for Quinn is, how do these economic zones fit into this evolutionary pattern? Particularly with regard to protection costs, it seems these zones may be reverting back to the Genoese model. Then again, maybe we will have a future where a multinational company can actually declare war.

Slobodian: This is a great question and a great analogy. One of the things that I’m working on now is a kind of historiographical review of the last twenty years or so of work on the topics of finance and empire. One of the things I’ve noticed is that 2003 marks a real turning point in the kinds of history that are written. With the return of “mask-off” US empire in the Middle East, many historians turned their attention to cognate histories of settler colonialism, capture of territory by force, and direct annexation. The rise of land struggles and indigenous rights activism at a global scale around the same time — whether through resistance to land grabs or the ramped-up extractivism of the commodity supercycle — helped feed academic interest in the primal moment of the seizure of land and its related need for protection. 

A pivotal figure here is David Harvey and his concept of “accumulation by dispossession,” which has become a kind of master category for seeing the past since he introduced it. It is notable that he coined the term in his book The New Imperialism, which was first presented as a set of public lectures given in the weeks of the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq. 

In that book, Harvey describes the oscillating dynamic over the centuries between what he called the “capitalist logic” and the “territorial logic.” One was that of the private sector and finance, which theoretically knew no borders and was itinerant and global. The other was that of states and formal colonies.

Interestingly, he sees his task as tracking the shifting and contingent dynamic movement between these two logics — a project that his former colleague and collaborator Giovanni Arrighi was very much engaged with too in The Long Twentieth Century. By contrast, I think much (but not all!) of the historiography since has tended to focus on the territorial logic and its questions of formal annexation, settlement, and frequently genocide, and has not engaged as directly with how this interacts with the capitalist logic.

The piece I’m working on is an attempt to stage a kind of rapprochement between historiographies of settler colonialism and historiographies of finance. In thinking that through, the similarity and difference between the parasitic relationship that financial centers of calculation and exchange in the early modern period and in the twenty-first-century have in common will be very helpful. 

Keshav D.: A writer like Ken MacLeod and his “Fall Revolution” series might anticipate or reflect some of the themes of this latest book of yours. Given how much hay is made with sci-fi on some corners of the Right, are there any books or authors you’d recommend for listeners, particularly for those who want a stronger sense of where the right–or the left–thinks we are going?

Slobodian: One connection between the crackpot theorists and the science-fiction community lies in the multiple meanings of the idea of speculation. As the sociologist Aris Komprozos-Athanasiou has written recently, speculation is a fascinating category that implies both monetized investment in a future outcome and an open-ended, playful space of imagination. Because of the close relationship between many of these libertarians and actual investment advisors and consultants, their proposals about the future, no matter how harebrained, are always also, at some level, pitches, promising an edge to potential investors.

In this sense, they are naturally attracted to narratives such as that of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, which comes up repeatedly in my book, where nearly every patch of territory in the former United States has been parceled off, privatized, leased or sold to customer-residents. 

Because crack-up capitalists believe that monetized transactions and commodified possession are the highest values of human existence, they naturally want to multiply the possibilities for such forms of exchange and ownership. The fact that our real world comes quite close to this projection gives their prophecies the patina of fact. 

If, as Fredric Jameson suggests, science fiction is diagnostic of the present, it makes sense that their narratives are often closer to those that we find in novels and films. That is not to say, obviously, that the near-future novel or science fiction is a genre that should be ceded to the Right. Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, to name just one, remains one of the most extraordinary reflections on the conflicts between anarcho-primitivism and technocratic social democracy. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, which I opened my book with an epigraph from, is a wonderfully dense grab bag of progressive ideas about remixing sovereignty from the Mondragon, Spain’s federation of workers’ cooperatives, to “climate currency.” 

One of the things I admire about the anarcho-capitalists is their willingness to fold the fictional into their proposals. It stands in stark contrast to the frequent deadening attempts to turn political philosophy into a science on the Left. Attempts to appeal to some supposedly purified objectivity are rarely the routes to either mass mobilization or defensible analysis. We should be wary of replicating the economism and managerialism of our opponents. Letting fiction in is one way of doing this.

Tristan H.: Do these anarcho-capitalist secession plans give any thought to how one enclave might renege on tolerating other enclaves? If they’re trying to recreate the Holy Roman Empire, how do they stop a Napoleon-like figure from coming, conquering, and centralizing everything by force?

Slobodian: This is absolutely a problem that they know they would face. In fact, it is when contemplating questions of securing borders that they are most often compelled to concede the ultimate dependency of their enclaves on larger powers.

At some point, I toyed with the idea of describing them as “egret states,” in a symbiotic relationship to larger, better-armed actors. Gordon Tullock remarked once that a new anarcho-capitalist statelet would need to also develop nuclear weapons to be able to protect its sovereignty. The alternative would be a security treaty or alliance with a larger power. 

This is famously the model that Singapore took. Although self-presenting as a self-sufficient island amongst enemies (a “poisonous shrimp,” in Lee Kuan Yew’s metaphor), it actually remained totally reliant on its relationship to the former colonial power by letting the British navy remain for years, and also growing close to the Americans during the Vietnam War and profiting from their position as a hinterland supplier. Lee also built up the domestic military at the same time. 

In that sense, internal security is much more easily privatized and allowed to be unevenly enforced in comparison to external security. There is, in the end, no way that if a larger neighbor chooses to absorb Monaco — or Hong Kong — that they would be able to prevent it. As with any other aspects of the crack-up capitalist imaginary, the persistence of parasitism is hidden inside the fantasy of statelessness.

Ben M.: Quinn, we gotta know: what varieties of capitalist extremism are on display in HBO’s Succession?

Slobodian: One of the many wonderful things about Succession is that the only person who has a genuine interest in politics is also the daftest person in the show, the older brother Connor. He is the mouthpiece for some of the best lines for us political-thought heads, from his insistence that Logan was a “paleo-conservative or even an anarcho-capitalist” to his proposal for a “pan-Habsburg American-led EU alternative.”

There is a way that Connor’s ridiculousness captures well the basic self delusion — and even triviality — of some of the people that I describe in my book. After all, it is simply the case that asset-manager capitalism governs more of people’s lives than the would-be crack up capitalism of a few misfits and well-endowed dreamers surrounded by paid yes men and sycophants. Connor can secede horizontally to his desert compound or vertically to his dead father’s flat and imagine himself a Randian hero because he can always pay off just enough people to tell him he’s right.

But maybe we make a mistake if we think that an avant-garde must always be particularly sharp. We might be in an era of the stupid avant-garde, when the person who surfs the forward forth propelled by his own inherited wealth can unwittingly produce some of the most profound insights into the way the world works. After all, Connor is both one of the dimmest people on the show but also the person who seems to actually enjoy his wealth. We could do worse than think of these crack-up fantasies as the lullabies that the plutocrats hum to themselves as they fall asleep on their feather bed, sleep-talking the subconscious of an ever-later capitalism’s self-understanding.

Further Reading and Listening If you like the episode, trawl through the vast Dig Archives. There are plenty of episodes tightly linked to the themes explored in this one. Our last interview with Quinn, “A History of Neoliberalism,” is one such episode, tracing the straight line that runs from the end of multinational European empires to the inauguration of the neoliberal counter-revolution. Another comes from Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains, which brings clarity on what American libertarians mean when they champion ideas of liberty and freedom. Together, these episodes outline the anti-democratic reality behind the pro-market ideology on the political right.