More dumb traveling prevents fully worked out thoughts, so just a few notes.

I wish I had a name for this mistake, it seems too common in circles I read in. Here’s an example. Marx describes the behavior of an ideal-typical or abstract general capitalist. This helps clarify much. What it does not do is help provide predictions of the behavior of actual capitalists except at an incredibly general level (like, continue exploitation, maintain class power, etc). This is because there are two different descriptive registers – the capitalist mode of production in general and an actual capitalist in an actual industry in an actual time and place – and one can’t simply transpose between the two in an unmediated way and get much in the way of useful results.

I’ve long had a similar frustration with some people who I really like who take up some terms and ideas from the ultraleft milieu, like “low period of struggle.” Along the lines of “XYZ isn’t possible in a low period of struggle” where XYZ includes particular local organizational forms (like a conflictual membership-based organization of workers and one which persists for quite a long time). One of the mistakes here is to act like time periods are flat and have relatively even distributions of possibility. Another, and I think this is fundamental to what gets under my skin here, is that it mistakes a descriptive claim – in this case, “low period of struggle” defined as a time in which XYZ doesn’t happen – and mistakes it for a causal claim – XYZ can’t be done. During a low period of struggle, high intensity generalized struggle doesn’t happen. Because if that stuff did happen, it would cease to be a low period of struggle. That doesn’t really say much about what will or can happen, though form some people it feels like an argument (it provides the sensation of being convinced but it merely persuades) to that effect. Even less does this say much about what people can and should try to do with their limited time, abilities, numbers, and sphere of influence.

I suspect that in all of this the mistake is often tied to another move; the mistake provides a sort of negative move against another position and/or cover for another position, but the mistake’s contents are mostly negative. The positive contents – what people actually carry out tied to this mistake – is supplied via some other source (whether intuitive or otherwise).


I remembered that I mentioned this in a comment at Khukuri about that Badiou piece. At Khukuri I commented on this quote from Badiou:“discontent exists but it can’t be structured because it is unable to draw its force from a shared idea. Its power is essentially negative (“make them go away”). This is why the form of mass collective action in an intervallic period is the riot.”

I said “Perhaps I’m over-reading but “this is why” strikes me as implying causality. Whether Badiou meant that or not, that seems to me to be a mistake. It is not the case that a lack of a shared idea *causes* this form of action. That formulation strikes me as pretty mechanical and undialectical. Knowing what I do about Badiou I suspect this is just a matter of him speaking quickly and not something he’d set out this way in a finished piece of writing. It seems to me that what sounds here like a causal claim (“this is why the form…”) is actually just another description of the same events in a different register, making the causal claim here tautologous. ”

Remember I had posted that in turn made me remember that I’ve written about this before with regard to Ranciere a while ago, a few times I think. For now I’m going to call the mistake “confusing synonyms with causes” like in this post. As Colin said here, “The inference from “didn’t” to “couldn’t” and/or “can’t” is the same as saying “if something happens to be the case, then it’s necessary, because its actuality rules out alternate possibilities.” I don’t know why people find this kind of reasoning convincing.” I keep meaning to read about modal logic, except I don’t have time to read much anymore. Someday.

Here’s the best example I could find that I’ve blogged on with regard to Ranciere, from back when I was reading some of Althusser’s stuff from right at the end of his life.

Capabilities do not determine outcomes, and outcomes do not indicate the absence of capabilities. To think otherwise is a mistake.

A former student of Althusser’s provides something that can serve as an example of this point, although it wasn’t intended as such an example, as far as I know. Jacques Ranciere discusses intelligence in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster. (I recommend this book very highly. If I can recommend only one book to you, I recommend Marx’s Capital in all three volumes. If I can recommend one additional book, it is this book by Ranciere.)

Imagine a pair of twins, taking all the same classes in school, with all the same teachers. One twin gets better grades than the other. Someone could point to these twins and say “one twin is more intelligent than the other.” One can easily agree to this, as long as one takes it as an assertion of synonymy: “intelligent” means “gets good grades”, and vice versa, so “more intelligent” means “gets more good grades” or something like that. Using a synonym doesn’t really tell us much more than the original term does, but one is free to use synonyms.

The problem comes when it is forgotten that the terms are synonyms, and someone says “this twin gets better grades because this twin is more intelligent.” This doesn’t make sense, because a synonym can not be the cause of another of its synonyms. (”Why is it so cold outside?” “Because it’s chilly.” That doesn’t explain anything.)

The thought process goes something like this. The person first says, at least implicitly, “I will say ‘is intelligent’ about someone who gets good grades.” They then say, “this one gets good grades, therefore this is intelligent.”Then they say “Because this one is intelligent, this one gets good grades.” The presence of good grades is asserted as evidence for the quality called intelligence (and more good grades or means more of the quality called intelligence), and the quality called intelligence is taken as the cause for the good grades.

The function of this argument is to say two things. First, “this one gets good grades because of a capacity to get good grades.” This partially right. The presence of something means there must be a possibility for that something. That can not be argued against. (To say something is actual but impossible is to contradict oneself.) But this is also partially wrong. Capacity does not cause something. That there is a possible outcome does not mean that outcome will occur. Something has to happen to make a result, and this happening is not and was not guaranteed to take place. Much of the time, possibility is noted after the fact.

The second thing this argument says is more pernicious. It say “That one did not get good grades because that one was not capable of getting good grades.” This is false. There is often very little way to identify genuine incapacity and impossibility, if there is such a thing at all. That good grades are not gotten says nothing about whether good grades could have been gotten. “Not gotten” does not mean “could not have been gotten.”