Slow progress

It is possible for geniuses to explain things in ways that non-geniuses can understand but sometimes they need to switch formats to do it.

Karl Marx
Not this guy

I’ve spent a stupid amount of time trying to understand political science in general. I ought to have just gone to college or something but it’s too late for that so I buy books and subscribe to periodicals and so on. I follow interesting people on Twitter, I read Substacks and listen to podcasts. I’m all over it. But to be honest it’s not really working. I mean it goes in one ear and out the other. The best I get is a very gradual – almost undetectable in fact – improvement in my understanding. Pretty much the same kind of glacial change I’m seeing in my ability to write poetry (which I’ve also been doing for years) or to construct decent-looking shelves for all the fucking books.

This has go to do with my age obvs but also, it’s clear, to do with the fact that I’m doing this in the piecemeal, unsystematic way of a distracted hobbyist. My kids went off to university and studied this stuff for three years and now they explain it to me like I’m an idiot. I obviously envy their comprehensive, organised understanding, given to them in the time-honoured way by experts and, in fact, by geniuses. But I’m still here, trying to figure it all out.

This guy, Dylan Riley, is one of the geniuses, a big brain who teaches sociology in California and writes books and papers and long articles about Marxism and society and so on. He came to my disorganised attention last year when he co-wrote an influential piece – with an even bigger genius called Robert Brenner (who has a whole area of disagreement named after him) – about the emergence of something they call ‘political capitalism’.

I won’t try to explain it in any detail – I’d certainly get it all wrong – but it’s a fascinating idea that seems to account for the way investors and corporations continue to make increasing profits even as the return on investment declines almost everywhere. The piece has been influential beyond lefty circles and the ideas contained in it have begun to show up in mainstream politics and journalism. A kind of breakthrough for cloistered Marxists.

Anyway, the piece – and the other stuff he’s written that I’ve dug out since then – is full of deep insights and lofty ideas, as you’d expect, and a lot of it goes whoooooosh over my head while I wrinkle my brow. So I was kind of intrigued to learn that Riley had also written a little book made up of tiny, informal notes that he wrote – in longhand in an actual notebook – during the pandemic. To be clear, these are not the shopping lists (“400 rolls toilet paper, 20kg spaghetti”) and reminders (“stay indoors”) that I was writing during the pandemic, they’re notes about the genius stuff – and in particular they’re reflections on Covid, lockdown, the bail-outs and so on.

So I thought “that’s going to be right up my street, it’s going to be accessible stuff that I can get my head around, in small chunks that aren’t going to put me off and make me feel stupid.” I always jump on texts that promise to make the abstruse and theoretical transparent to me (in the same way I occasionally buy the latest ‘Quantum Physics for Know-Nothings’ from the table at the front of Waterstones).

And it is right up my street. I mean it’s still full of big ideas and a lot of assumptions are made about the reader’s understanding of politics and sociology (get ready for a lot of Durkheim) but it’s also full of nifty, two- or three-line insights – aphorisms, I guess – that genuinely illuminate the whole scene, the whole post-pandemic, end-of-the-end-of-history, collapse-of-neoliberalism thing – but also Trump, Biden’s green programme, lockdowns, music education, the economics of slavery, utopias, illness…

Riley’s language is never less than academic and can be po-faced. I’m going to say that he’s a pretty orthodox Marxist. He has no time for ‘IDPol’ or for ‘liberal hand-wringing’ in general. In his writing he never doesn’t take himself seriously. And this is something I also kind of envy, actually. I mean the confidence to lay down idea after idea without at any point feeling the need to make a joke at your own expense or understate your intelligence or whatever.

Like, for instance, demolishing the whole idea of democracy in four lines:

To imagine a postcapitalist political order is to imagine an order without sovereignty—and therefore without the metaphysics of sovereignty and its terminology, such as “democracy”—but with coordination and rationality.

Or illumating the present moment via the ancient state:

The state is an object of struggle among competing political-capitalist cliques. In antiquity two models emerged: the universal monarchy, which to some extent disciplined these groups; and the unstable republic, which allowed them to run rampant. Are there not analogues in the current period? Putin’s Russia could be thought of as the Roman universal monarchy, and the United States the unstable republican form.

Dylan Riley. microverses

That kind of thing.

And it’s one of those books that make you think “come on, geniuses, why don’t you do this in all your stuff? If you can make big ideas clear in a flash and in about 300 words of pellucid prose in one format, why can’t you do it when you’re filling a big, fat book?” There’s obviously something about the stylistic liberty provided by the informal layout that permits these more relaxed, generous, explanatory insights and something about the academic format that inhibits them, that explicitly excludes them.

Anyway, Riley’s book is a jewel – and it’s so short you’ll read it in a couple of days – or, since it’s not in any way linear, you can just keep it by the toilet.

  • Robert Brenner wrote another piece (free PDF from the Internet Archive) earlier in the pandemic which also crossed over a bit and was picked up in the wider debate about bail-outs and support for ordinary people. He called it ‘Escalating Plunder’ and the phrase became, for a little while, a kind of shorthand for the enormously lucrative raid on the public finances staged by big business during Covid.
  • Top book buying tip. You can buy the book in all the usual locations but if you buy it from the publisher, Verso you get the eBook for nothing along with the print edition (and, in fact, the eBook on its own is only £1.50, as against £7.99 at Amazon and, because it’s not copy-protected, you can read it on any device). This, in fact, applies to everything you buy from Verso, so might constitute a good reason for you to get started with your own hopeless effort to learn about Marxism. Not that there’s necessarily anything hopeless about it but you know what I mean.