Capitalist Construction

Capitalist Construction

William Smith Wilson

Against the conflation of Islamic and economic fundamentalisms (William S. Wilson responds to Nick Spenser).

Nick Spencer writes: “Wilson believes that American society is based on ‘Becoming’ and secular flexibility and that Islamic society is predicated on ‘Being’ and fundamentalist rigidity. However, it is possible to view the faith in capitalism to which Wilson refers as a form of fundamentalist Being that is no less intolerant than the Islamic extremism that he describes.” However capitalism has never required leaps of faith, and no capitalism has ever founded itself on revelation the way Islam has. Therefore I write of belief in capitalism, yet of faith in Islam.

Spencer uses “fundamentalism” of both Islam and capitalism so that liberal capitalism can resemble Islam: “The World Trade Center may represent diverse possibilities, but these are possibilities that are restricted to the fundamentalism of liberal capitalism.” However any idea or image of the “fundamental” is fundamentally different in Islam and in 21st century Euro-American capitalism. Islam is a transcendental monotheistic religion that thinks with ideal concepts like eternity and infinity, honor, heaven, and humility. Statements within such a faith are neither verifiable nor disprovable. If the concepts are disputed, the dispute can refer to an original revelation to Mohammed. In contrast, the concepts of modern capitalism are derived from experience and are answerable to pragmatic criteria. Such concepts are either useless or useful, and must be functional, not decorative.

The most significant difference between Islam and capitalism in this context is that concepts in an idealist system work differently from concepts in a technological-scientific or empirico-practical system. Idealist concepts have implications for events in eternity and infinity, so can be referred out of time to the Eternal, and out of the finite to the Infinite. Thus the methods of handling concepts within popular Islamic thought differ from methods of handling constructivist concepts. By constructivist concepts I mean concepts with implications for materials or for practical operations in time and space. Such concepts emerged in the technological economy produced in practice by the Industrial Revolution, and supported in theory by the science of mechanics. This modern capitalism throws itself forward into concepts which are emerging from practice.

Islam does construct novel financial manipulations, but the motive emerges from religious qualitative values, not from quantitative or functional financial values. In Islam, money must not beget money in the form of interest, yet a profit is allowed on a transaction in which a product is sold. Thus a concept of “cost-plus financing” or “Murabaha Home Finance” has been rigged as a technique for avoiding payments of interest on money borrowed to buy property. Murabaha succeeds as a farther elaboration of the religious, devised as a strategy that can seem more like a contest of wits than like piety. Such strained devices conform in spirit to the Islamic reliance on contract, as in marriage. A contract is visible on the surface of experience. Thus an Islamic marriage, which is a contractual relation, is external, in contrast with a sacramental marriage in which the legal contract is merely the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual relation. An Islamic marriage can be for half an hour, so that sexual relations can be contracted for with a wife, who otherwise might seem to be a prostitute.

Technical distinctions like the difference between usury and profit are not discovered within the religious texts, they are invented in order to preserve spiritual honor by humble submission to the Law. A concept like honor does not lend itself to techniques of specific differentiations like Murabaha. The governing concepts in Islam overlap the way familiar idealist concepts like the good, the beautiful, and the true overlap (R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Philosophical Method, hovers usefully in the background of these thoughts.) Consider a prince, who is a member of a family, and who is qualified by his birth to rule politically. Family, politics, gender, honor, and other concepts so overlap each other that a son-in-law of Mohammed is qualified to be a religio-political leader. Thereafter people get killed fighting for his rights, or those of his remote heirs. In a technological democracy, non-political criteria like family and gender do not legitimate a political person, although they may get the person elected. The most economical judgment of an economic person is by economic criteria, more by meritorious profiting than by family, religion, or unearned charisma. Although capitalist dynasties like Fords and Duponts continue to function, they are untheorized anomalies within modern capitalism. Of course the political careers of Nelson Rockefeller and John F. Kennedy can’t be separated from their families, their aura of money and power, but I can hope that everyone is aware of the difference between pseudo-mythic idiocies like Camelot on Martha’s Vineyard, and Harry Truman of Independence, Missouri.

In one of the Islams, a book can be sacred so that its pages must not be recycled into paper bags or toilet paper, lest the sacred be profaned. The sacred is an area of thought in which concepts so overlap that they merge, blend, and fuse, letting concepts include each other. A demonstration can begin with a concept, and then move through that concept to reach the point at which it overlaps another concept. Such idealist religious thinking forges continuities among concepts so that a discussion can glide without inconsistency from a concept into an overlapping concept, and continue in such a process. These concepts can float overlappingly like water-lily pads, and thought can move across them without experiencing discontinuities or exclusive distinctions.

I can convey the point with an image: the concepts in Islam, as an idealist fundamentalist religion, are chromatic, while concepts in technology are diatonic. Look at Arabic manuscripts, where in some styles the letters flow across the surface until they become illegible. In contrast, the computer on which I type must differentiate between L and I and 1, and separate the letter O from the numeral 0. The point is that technological thinking devises differentiations among concepts, while Islamic thinking effaces differentiations in a process that would lead to an ultimate Oneness. In the religious context, everything bears on everything else, everything matters to everything else, so that nothing can be secular, because everything takes its ultimate meaning from its bearing on relations with Allah.

The effect of overlaps is that a person thinking can move imperceptibly from concept to concept, without crossing a gap between them. A spokesperson for the Taliban argued that Buddhist statues had to be destroyed because Afghan children were being allowed to die for lack of medicines. Technically, the money that was being spent to conserve the statues could not be spent to save the children, it belonged in a different category. But such departmental thinking is precisely the error of thinking for most Islamic purposes. I heard a television commentator making distinctions, separating and excluding, untying knots of thought, since the statues and the children had no rational or causal connection. In contrast, the spokesman responding for the Taliban wove strands together into a knot quite legible to himself. The statues were mere stones, and had to be destroyed in order to prevent the materialist error of preferring stones to children.

Perhaps this is an apt place to quote Joan Didion: “Inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced, in other words, was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy” (The New York Review of Books, January 16, 2003).

The reasoning that can seem so alien (although it is not), is reasoning that moves across an overlay of concepts, rather than moving from one separate concept across a gap to a concept excluded by that concept. No term in capitalism is an abstract object that works like those concepts anchored in the Koran. Infinity is excluded from the calculations and spread-sheets of capitalist economics, and eternity is not entered into actuarial tables. The terms in capitalism are constructivist terms, that is, words develop their meanings through use across centuries, and new words are devised for emergent novelties like “leveraged buy-out,” or “junk bonds.” Technological thinking at least since Galileo has been constructivist. Constructivist thought is a process in which novelties emerge from practice, without imitating a model or pattern, and certainly without participating in an ideal form in the mind of God. Willard Quine’s description of constructivist thought is useful: “Indeed one precise meaning that might be assigned to constructivism is that every abstract object is specifiable” (Quiddities). That process is obviously contrary to working with the products of divine revelation, where any apparent novelty is answerable to that primal revelation.

People use different methods of thinking within different contexts. Because of the “reality” taken for granted by most commentators, the methods of thinking of other people can seem unreal, and are left out of the account. The concept of a “cause” in Islamic thought differs from “cause” in Euro-American thought, if only because the primal cause in Islam is eternal and infinite Allah, while causes in capitalist thought are temporally prior to effects. Thus the interior histories of Islam and of any capitalism are entirely different. The history of Islam goes to moments of epiphany when the Eternal participated in the temporal - moments of divine revelation - and such moments are passed over in Euro-American histories. In books on Islamic art, I do not find faith in Allah offered as an explanation, I find sacred meanings reduced to secular historical forces. That is, Islam is not appreciated from within its point of view on itself, so that its supernatural is flattened to the naturalistic, with nothing accepted as real unless Euro-American science can describe or explain it.

In a strong contrast, the history of capitalism is a constructivist history which is open to reconstruction. When monopolies were in power, one history of capitalism was a history of the development of monopolies, which might even claim religious sanctions. However with the emergence of different values and methods, and with changes in structures, functions and meanings, any recent capitalism can be seen not to have been founded on a ready-made foundation, but to be constructing its foundation retrospectively. As global capitalism attempts to subsume a variety of capitalisms, and to annihilate any rival economies, new concepts or new financial entities will emerge. If an emerging system is strong, as it enlarges it will construct its own historical foundation. And as it increases, it will strengthen that foundation and secure it in place. Not one of the key terms of liberal capitalism suggests an ideal form, that is, a criterion-idea revealed by a divine power, or available in a book of revelations. Each term is a constructivist term that must be historicized in order to be illuminated, and, my point here, that historicization is a process that constructs the foundation, always retroactively, and on earth, not in Paradise. Writing history in Islam can be a process of discovering moments in past time that intersect with timelessness. Writing history in capitalism is a process of reinventing the past after the discovery of changes in the present. Such changes refocus attention on events in the past which seemed unimportant until they were revealed as precedents for or as causes of novel structures or functions. Events in the next ten years will change the history of the last hundred years in Europe and the United States, while historical events in Islam will still represent the unfurling will of Allah.

Now to harvest the concept “constructivist” I have been planting, any “fundamentalism of liberal capitalism” is not a fundamentalism of either religious revelation, or of reference to ideal forms as revealed to abstract reasoning. The concepts of liberal capitalism, even the meanings and values as those float free of specific concepts, are under correction, and have implications for specific actions. In contrast, the word “honor” comes with no specifications for performing honorably or for achieving honor. A person who murders the daughter of the family who dishonors it is not following a set of rules or specifiable operations. “Honor” as a concept has its own momentum, and can override reasoning that respects facts, as Garcia Marquez’ s great study of run-away honor, his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold demonstrates. But in contrast, terms used in capitalist economics are examined critically as they emerge from events, and precise distinctions are applied to new events.

The meaning of a term in any capitalism is reducible to the specifications of actions to be performed - a set of explicit rules which differentiate other kinds of bonds from junk bonds. The term “leveraged buy-out” can be used to point with toward vividly specific rules for specific actions. Such precise definitions prevent overlaps, that is, the very ambiguities which are part of the power of a term like “honor.” While “honor” may be mentioned in board-rooms, and may be a real force, just as there is no honor among thieves, so there is little honor among capitalists, or at least not enough to bank on. Thus quite technicallaws are a more reliable standard than honor, although as we can see with globalization of the economy, laws have difficulty keeping up with practice. Again, as new secular financial strategies are invented, the novel technical terms are investigated for the actions they specify. But in contrast, the word “angel” comes with no instructions for how to construct an angel, or even for how to judge an angel, or how to enter “angel” into accounts of any kind of quantities. While Spencer would have modern capitalism be “a form of fundamentalist Being,” that is quite impossible. In an idealist metaphysics, something does what it does because of what it is in the light of Being. But in constructivist capitalism, something is what it is because of what it does (with thanks to Max Jammer for phrases).

In this space, for now, I need to make a clarifying point, too hastily and enigmatically. The “Post-modernism” that is mentioned (by Spencer and the authors he reviews)is in my judgment a phenomenon too much of the surface. In my history, the Modernism that interests me, and the Post-modernism that might remain useful to think with about our commonplace reality, are fully constructivist. Russian Constructivism is one small episode. My strategy is to insert the concept of constructivism under such capitalism, so that my shallow optimism about possibilities and enlarging possibilities in a self-developing and self-organizing system is founded on my notion of the specific constructivist liberal capitalism. Even that won’t be any better than it ought to be, of course, but I am unaware of other options when I go to vote or to spend money in the United States.

Spencer is right, I do claim “that the openness of the building [WTC] is consistent with the spirit of Paris, 1968 and the radical movements of that era.” Spencer continues, “But it is also true that the WTC epitomizes the recuperation of the radical energy of postmodernism into a cultural form that advances the interests that were opposed by the movements that Wilson cites.” Yes, I suppose, but the style in which the WTC “advances the interests” is closer to the values of oppositional movements than earlier buildings like the Empire State Building. Obviously the World Trade Center is not an articulate critic of capitalist power as that was opposed by Situationists and others, yet it is as though the complex had responded to some of their criticisms. Here is a specific difference from other buildings that might represent Capitalism, at least if you will allow that as you approach a building you prepare yourself to respond to the summoning of its structure, function, and meaning. The late Stephen Jay Gould has written about the Woolworth Building, a “cathedral of commerce,” in relation to the WTC: Gould charmingly specifies the Woolworth Building as “the architectural love of my life, standing so tall against all evil, for all the grandeur and all the foibles of human reality and transcendence.”

I suggest that a person approaches the Woolworth Building differently from the style in which one approached the WTC. Approaching the Woolworth Building or the Chrysler Building, the nearer one gets, the more limited become the stylizations imposed upon people. The difference is vivid in the Fuller Building, an office building with several galleries for art, as the business people approaching their work-place dress and walk with self-stylizations different from the people visiting a gallery of art. The Empire State Building even separates tourists from workers, so that their styles do not conflict.

At the WTC, people ready to pay to eat were divided into the usual economic hierarchies, perhaps even with executive dining rooms and private chefs. However no top level of the hierarchies dominated the way the top floors of the Chrysler Building, and Walter Chrysler’s private dining room, dominated his building and governed people’s actions down to minute details. As I saw on a visit during its reconstruction, Chrysler is depicted on a black glass mural as a worker on the factory floor, sleeves rolled up - and you can guess my verb - constructing automobiles and the capitalist business of manufacturing a standardized product. Chrysler was not following either timeless ideal patterns, or historic precedents, but was attempting to invent methods that would construct their foundation under themselves if they succeeded. The mural, as a criticism of inherited wealth and power, and as an example of hard-earned art, suggests that you must change your life, and that you can do so with an honest day’s work. The Chrysler Building encourages conformity to its style as a method of adaptation to the realities of competitive business and the scarce necessities of life. The design of the WTC renounced such oppressions and pretensions.

One theme in a work of architecture, not a mere building, is its critique of false illusions in earlier architecture. Suppose that the WTC is to be read as a text. Spencer writes that in “many other postmodern texts there is at least some overt critique of American capital,” and he doesn’t find critique in the WTC. Yet I wonder if those overt critiques have changed the daily texture of the lives of actual workers as much as the WTC did. The World Trade Center gathered its meaning from its functioning as a structure within the lives of the people using the building. Such constructivist architecture summons people to become constructivist persons. The term, constructivism, although like all terms it remains answerable to transcendental concepts, cannot imply a transcendental religious fundamentalism; and it won’t support the notion of a liberal capitalist fundamentalism. Obviously the WTC as mute formal architecture does not exemplify “the political radicalism of postmodern culture,” but the call of the buildings was a response to decades of social change, some of it inspired by political radicalism. Some people who had worked in the building had taken time off that morning to tend to the needs or desires of a child. Such an act is scarcely consistent with the industrial-strength mores of a Vanderbilt, a Frick, or a Carnegie, yet seemed to merge with the atmosphere of the World Trade Center.

To restate this point in a different image, works of architecture like the Woolworth Building and the Seagram’s Buildings attempt to become spheres, that is, closed spheres. A sphere has a uniform curvature, and no margins, so that anyone trying to fit that socio-economic sphere would need to conform to its uniform stylizations. In contrast, the WTC did not aspire to become a closed sphere; if anything, it opened spheres to each other. And it provided margins for anomalies which could not conform to the uniformities of a sphere: “Beginning in 1997, the ninety-first floor (and later, the ninety-second) of the north tower were left as raw space and were divided into some fifteen studios for emerging artists, who applied for the units on a rotating basis. Artists thus had free twenty-four-hour access to some of the most famous and expensive light and views in the world. On the morning of September 11, a painter named Vanessa Lawrence and a sculptor named Michael Richards were both working in their studios. Lawrence escaped when the plane struck the building, but Richards did not.”

The meaning of a building emerges from its appearance in relation to its uses, and to the experiences of people using it. The WTC functioned as a Post-modern structure inviting people to live Post-modern lives. Of course my thoughts are distorted: I want the lives of the people who were working in the buildings to have been happy and useful. However, since for me consolations are false consolations, I do suspect that some falsely constructive comments rot my text because of my unearned ideas about constructivism. However in my view Nick Spencer conjures up errors because he doesn’t grant that the methods of thought construct the objects of thought, so that Islamic methods produce Islamic products within a closed sphere, while constructivist methods, even in capitalism, both unsphere idealist spheres and produce open processes.