Manuel DeLanda is a writer who I really appreciate because of the number of strong contemporary computer-model-based references he draws on, a strong power analysis derived from post-structuralist work by Deleuze & Guattari and combined with in-depth historical analysis of wealth and finance from Braudel that rejects idealist tenets of mainstream conservative economics (or “classical” economics or the typical econ 101). I’m trying to dig more into the implication of his work on the economics of labor organizing. I also find engaging with his work really useful in fleshing out and playing with anti-capitalist concepts. Here are some notes.
From this interview:
One fascinating thing in your writing is how you debunk the existence of “Capitalism” as a generalized whole, in favor of much more heterogenous, emergent processes at play in the global economy. This seems like a refreshing non-conspiratorial position to take. Is this one of the ways your new materialism stands in contrast to marxist materialism? Could you talk about this and some other important differences?
Manuel DeLanda: The author that inspired me in this respect is Fernand Braudel, the main economic historian of our time. His history of European economies from 1400 to the Industrial Revolution is the most comprehensive that has ever been written: he and his disciples actually checked Florentine bank books from the 15th century; the books from factories in Milan in the 16th century; the history of the Venetian arsenal, the most important military-industrial complex in the early part of the past millennium. And after gathering all this data, his conclusion was that as far back as the 13th century there have always been at least two economic spheres: wholesale was never like retail (until the 20th century); industrial production using economies of scale was never like that based on the agglomeration of talent in a region or city and based on small firms; and high finance has always been an entirely different world from that of small money lenders. At the end of the third volume of this work, Braudel concludes that there never was a single overall system. To fix this misconception he changes the definition of the term “capitalism” to signify Big Business, with its capacity to manipulate demand and supply, and keeps the term “market economy” for populations of small firms that are in fact governed by anonymous economic forces. Today, in the middle of an economic crisis created by firms that were too big to fail, a crisis in which profits were privatized while losses socialized, Braudel’s words sound deeply prophetic.
As far as a contrast with Marxist materialism, the answer is two-fold. Against historical materialism we need a new vision of history without teleology, one which avoids a periodization into internally homogenous eras: feudalism, capitalism, socialism (or the Age of Agriculture, the Age of Industry, the Age of Information). There were never such Ages or Eras. Braudel, for example, shows how in the 14th century the areas of Europe that would become France and Spain did have manors ran by feudal lords, but the city-states in northern Italy and northern Germany (the Hanseatic league), as well as Flemish and Dutch towns, were already modern in many respects. Thus, we need to rethink our philosophy of history in the face of historical evidence. On the other hand, dialectical materialism is objectionable for different reasons. Any materialism needs a theory of synthesis to be able to account for the historical identity of mind-independent entities. But Marx took his theory from Hegel, synthesis through the negation of the negation, and this is an a priori scheme, the inadequacies of which were made obvious by Engel’s attempt to apply it to nature. What we need are a variety of a posteriori schemes of synthesis (from physics, chemistry, biology and other fields) to account for all the different morphogenetic or synthetic processes that shape the non-human world, as well as the world of economics, starting with an account of the emergence of prices (when not manipulated via economic power) as a collective unintended consequence of intentional action.
so MDL (DeLanda) is perhaps best known for his book A Thousand Years of Non-linear History. He spends a lot of time writing about the troubles with discussing history as stages of inevitable causal events (like most economics courses will do when discussing “competitive equilibrium”), rather than complex systems with ebbs and flows and dynamic interactions. Capitalism, for example, could have shown up anywhere in the world, and in fact tried many times to reach an alarmingly self-reproducing level in many parts of the West and wasn’t able to succeed until a number of other circumstances were reached (among them tightly controlled colonial trade routes, steam power, a robust banking system). This is why he puts a lot of stock into mathematical modeling, in order to be able to more accurately explain how these interacting elements yield directionality to wealth, resources, energy, economic power.
(side note: deleuze and guattari are marxists, while Braudel rejected traditional marxist materialism and I think MDL rejects this as well. There are some critiques against his work that basically amount to a lack of analysis of non-economic types of power which I think is solid, and some other critiques that assert bad readings of D&G and contemporary marxism that I personally don’t buy. Although he basically rejects fundamental marxist theory of conflict as an oversimplification insofar as it applies to economic power, IMHO the synthesis of these two major influences creates a better framework of economic power for marxism to build on that digs into specific interactions between e.g. workers and owners.)