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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Epigrammatic Accumulation

Posted by Aaron Bady on 10/08/08 at 09:56 AM

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather begins with the following epigram:

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime"

-Balzac

So “Crime” and “Fortune” are not only foregrounded at the heart of the book, but this oddly Marxist quotation makes a particular claim about the relationship between: the legitimate power of wealth, it implies, is always derived from an act defined by its social illegitimacy.

The relevant piece of Marx would be this, on the idea of primitive accumulation:

“The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production...The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation."

More poetically, he writes elsewhere that Capital comes into the world “dripping, head to foot, with blood and dirt from every pore,” and more to the point, his argument was that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of capital (be it monetary or social) breaks down if we look at it close enough. All great fortunes, in other words, have their origin in some kind of crime.

Still, Balzac? Wikipedia confirms that the sentence comes from Le Père Goriot, p115, which in the 1896 translation reads: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.” That qualifier “for which you are at a loss to account” seems key, for with it we lose the Marxian certainty that all capital accumulation is, as such, a form of expropriation, and the more fundamental conceptual argument that all social modes of legitimation are, at their roots, sublimated forms of violence.

With some cheap internet sleuthing, I found some information in Ralph Keyes’ The Quote-Verifier, which has both the original French and an alternate translation that I like better ("The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectful way"), and hypothesizes that Puzo found the pithier (which is to say, pithily mis-quotated) version of Balzac in C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite.

Neither Balzac nor Mills fall under my pay grade--so if anyone has any insight into the genealogy, I’d love to hear it--but the interesting way the former has to be transformed by the latter before it can be adopted by Puzo not only reveals some of what is at stake in The Godfather (the necessary interrogation of social legitimacy by crime), but contains its own kind of literary irony. The secret of a great quote for which you are at a loss to account is a strategic omission? Literature comes into the world dripping blood and dirt from every pore? Behind every great epigram, perhaps, is a great mistranslation?


Comments

”...the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of capital breaks down....”

Yep, that’s Marx.

“All great fortunes, in other words, have their origin in some kind of crime.”

That’s not Marx, really. Marx wasn’t interested in a distinction between large and small fortunes. Nor would he have bothered stirring Balzacian intrigue with an allusion to “some kind of crime,” since all capital committed the same crime, as he saw it. Even the word “crime” makes for trouble, since Balzac and Marx meant different things by it.  For Marx, the law in a capitalist state was necessarily subordinate to Capital. For Balzac, there were such things as, say, good and bad cops.

Balzac was in no precise or useful sense a Marxist, though Marx admired him rather narrowly, for his documenting of “conditions.” It’s of course hard to say what Balzac WAS since he was all over the place, like any good novelist. To judge by his novels (which you can read, too; there’s no pay grade requirement), he was interested in the crimes behind large fortunes because, say, they were interesting, hidden, partook of life and reflected certain human traits. He did not see a corrupt millionaire banker and a small shopkeeper who invests his meager profit in a bank as two men up to no good.  He did not think the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate wealth was insignificant.

Marx was a Marxist. Balzac was impressively unillusioned when it came to rich people (and most people). That’s not the same thing

TOM

ps - As for “the necessary interrogation of social legitimacy by crime”...

A phrase like that is a crime, and not necessary.

By on 10/09/08 at 05:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom,
Perhaps, like most blog posts, mine wasn’t so much driven by an argument as a provocation. But, in that sense, while the statement that “all great fortunes, in other words, have their origin in some kind of crime” might not be how Marx would say it (though I don’t find your gloss, that “all capital committed the same crime,” to be all that irreconcilably different) you’ll note that I never said it was: the point was that Puzo misquoted Balzac in making that statement. This was not a post about Balzac, but about Puzo’s version of Balzac (and in that sense, I find your account of Balzac helpful, and in no way contradictory to what I was trying to do). Instead, what’s interesting about that misquotation is that Puzo (like Marx and unlike Balzac) seems to wonder whether the category of legal and illegal might need to be dispensed with, whether the idea of good cops and bad cops is just a social construction in service of particular social interests (though I’m sure they would have defined those interests differently). Whether or not Balzac thought this is somewhat beside the point, though I’m interested to know; if he didn’t, it only makes it more clear that Puzo had to creatively misread him (if via Mills) to get to that idea. 

As for “the necessary interrogation of social legitimacy by crime,” being an unnecessary crime, well, point taken, but let me assure you that I’m not deriving a fortune from it.

By on 10/09/08 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nil sapientae odiosius acumine nimio.

By nnyhav on 10/09/08 at 11:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

AARON:

Whether Marx and Balzac will seem “irreconcilably different” to you depends, I think, on how much you value subtlety and precision in the distinctions you make. Marx valued both. Why not try to live up to and honor his example? 

As for Puzo, it’s kind of neat to know where his epigram came from. But you seem to be doing the same kind of slosh and mix job with Puzo and Marx that you were doing with Marx and Balzac. I don’t see how you get from the epigram (or the Godfather) to “Puzo seems to wonder...whether the idea of good cops and bad cops is just a social construction in service of particular social interests.” I wasn’t aware that Puzo wrote The German Ideology, or any book like it. 

Of course, if your ambition is to live up to the precision and subtlety of Mario Puzo, you may have already succeeded!

NNYHAV:

Sapientiae, isn’t it? Sapientae is adverbial.  But I agree with Seneca, and you.

TOM

By on 10/11/08 at 03:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I wasn’t aware that Puzo wrote The German Ideology, or any book like it.”

You learn something new everyday!

By on 10/11/08 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pere Goriot is a good book; I recommend it.  It’s pretty cynical about what the rich are like, and how they got that way.  Part of what’s thrilling about it is the way the main character pits his will against a pitiless world.

Tom, your comments seem oddly hostile to someone who’s clearly just musing out loud.  That’s part of reading blogs, to me at least.

By on 10/12/08 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt and Aaron,

Did I sound I hostile? I just meant to sound grumpy, which is my default state. I appreciate the warning, though, and will try to hone my tone.

Rereading my posts, I think my first one isn’t bad, and tried to be helpful. Overdose of sarcasm, etc. does enter in the second post, I will agree, perhaps because Aaron’s reply to my first post struck me as somewhat incoherent/half-assed. 

Now Walt calls that musing and says it’s part of blogs. Perhaps. I guess I do most of my musing in private and in public prefer at least semi-serious argument, at least among academics. I might as well confess my sense that literary discourse does not suffer at present from a shortage of musing, but DOES suffer from a shortage of passionate argument. Passion sometimes sounds hostile. Passion sometimes IS hostile.

If you guys feel differently, though, no sweat, I’ll leave you alone.

TM

By on 10/13/08 at 01:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom,

In your original reply, you wrote “Marx was a Marxist. Balzac was impressively unillusioned when it came to rich people (and most people). That’s not the same thing.”

But the thing is this: I never said they were the same thing. I never asserted that Balzac was a Marxist. In fact, the post pretty much started from the presumption that he wasn’t, which is why I found it interesting that (and this was my argument) Puzo would put a kind of quasi-marxist spin on that original Balzac quote. The idea that capital accumulation is, as such, a kind of crime seems very much in the spirit of the Marxian idea of primitive accumulation, which make me think it’s interesting that Puzo would misquote Balzac to put that kind of spin on it. I find that interesting, and without attempting to close down what possible conclusions we can draw from that, I “mused out loud.”

Now, you can call that a “slosh and mix” job if you want, and you may even be right.  And you’re probably right to say you don’t see how I got from the epigram (or the Godfather) to “Puzo seems to wonder...whether the idea of good cops and bad cops is just a social construction in service of particular social interests.” because I didn’t make that connection very clear; that, too, was a bit sloppy, since I’m alluding to an argument I’ve made elsewhere but haven’t yet posted (I came across the epigram while I was writing a different kind of piece on Puzo, and the arguments bled together a bit).

But, to be meta for a second, is “passionate hostility” the right kind of response to this kind of sloppiness? I don’t think it is. The potential of venues like the valve, I think, is that one can make one’s thought process public in a way that allows other people to join in, and while one’s formulations are generally somewhat sloppy, because unfinished, this kind of collaborative venue can be really fruitful, occasionally, when people engage in it in a good faith effort to collaborate. More often, though, what seems to happen is people seize on the weaknesses with the zestful joy of proving someone wrong, while ignoring the interesting stuff that they can’t be bothered to take the time to think about. Note, for example, that rather than engaging with the substance of my argument--that the Puzo version of the epigram is surprisingly more marxist than you would expect it to be—-you instead claimed I was saying that Puzo wrote the German ideology. You can call that “grumpy,” if you want, and no one is asking you to leave, but my perspective is simply that it isn’t helpful. In fact, I don’t want you to leave, because you clearly have a point to make: that Puzo is not a Marxist. I’m not convinced by that argument, but you did make me think about whether or not I was making something out of nothing (and I concluded that I wasn’t). But had you addressed me in a less overtly hostile way, I would be much more inclined to take your comment seriously (and, frankly, I think if you took my argument more seriously, you would find less cause to be hostile).

By on 10/13/08 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You put “passionate hostility” in quotes as if it were my coinage. It’s not. It’s yours. I did not defend passionate hostility, but something else: passionate argument. I admitted that passionate argument can get hostile sometimes when one of the parties seems unresponsive or sloppy. You’ve just acknowledged some sloppiness. So maybe you’ve reaped something from this exchange, after all. It’s quite possible that a less pointed response would not have forced you to rethink.

Please do keep rethinking, starting with the following:

You say you are not convinced that Puzo is not a Marxist. Does that mean you think he is?

Perhaps he IS, but you’re suggestion that one can find Marxism in that epigram was, is and will remain a stretch. If you keep making that stretch in the face of its stretchiness you will frustrate anyone you argue with, not just me.

You seem, furthermore, a bit wilfully blind to the words of the epigram you set out to analyze: “Behind every GREAT fortune, there is a great crime.” (All caps mine, and necessary)

Not all fortunes, not all earnings, not all surplus: just GREAT fortunes. If that’s Marxist, then Barack Obama is a Marxist, too. After all, he wants to raise taxes on great fortunes. You see how easy/boring life gets when you stop caring about precision?

Look, others might be more polite about this. That is, they might quietly stop taking you seriously, and nod along to be nice.  I hope you can see that I’ve taken you seriously.  Sorry if that sometimes seems hostile. I don’t mean it to.

Sincerely,

TOM

By on 10/15/08 at 05:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom,
No, I get your point that “great fortunes” does not equal all fortunes, all earnings, and all surplus. It’s a solid point and I’m glad you brought it up, but I disagree with you about the significance of it.

Here’s why. Your analogy to Barrack Obama is instructive: yes, liberals sometimes talk about progressive taxation at the same time as they valorize the accumulation of wealth, but that doesn’t mean Obama is a Marxist, it just means liberalism is somewhat incoherent and is vulnerable to exactly the critique a Marxist or Puzo would subject them to. Marx might say that all capital accumulation is, ipso facto, criminal, while Puzo might make a fine distinction between great and small fortunes (only critiquing Wall street, for example), but they’re still both attacking the liberal myth that wealth can be purely the result of personal virtue, cleverness, entrepreneurialism, etc. Most liberals are not Marxist because they wouldn’t tend to question that last statement (the bootstraps Horatio Alger myth), and the fact that Puzo would suggest that there is some necessary connection between even great wealth and criminality is interesting to me, and marks the difference between him and Obama, a much larger and more significant difference than the one you describe between him and Marx.

So while I’ll grant you the point that Puzo is not identical to Marx, the thrust of the epigram still, I think, suggests that there is a connection between crime and the accumulation of wealth. This isn’t to say that Puzo wrote the German ideology, which is why I never asserted that he did. Instead, my suggestion was simply that Puzo is more Marxist than we might expect him to be, and that’s a suggestion that nothing you’ve said leads me to question. Putting it in black and white terms (as when you wrote “You say you are not convinced that Puzo is not a Marxist. Does that mean you think he is?”) only erases the particular shade of gray I’m trying to evoke since I don’t think being non-identical to Marx is incompatible with being “marxist” in some sense; the marxists I find useful are the ones who work creatively within the tradition, and anyway, whether or not Puzo is a marxist isn’t nearly as interesting (to me) as the fact that a novel (and a film) that has been broadly embraced by a population not known for their marxist sympathies, has something significant in common with Marx’s critique of the myth of primitive accumulation. You call that a stretch, but it feels like a useful stretch to me, since the point is not that they make the same positive statement, but that they both deconstruct the same class of myth.

After all, Marx’s critique of primitive accumulation (as I understand it) isn’t so much a description of what happens as a deconstruction of the liberal myth that the people who accumulate sufficient resources to convert it into capital are somehow inherantly virtuous (the ideal of the protestant work ethic and so forth). Liberals tend to adopt versions of that myth, and that’s why Marx took it apart. But Puzo’s epigram is doing a very similar kind of deconstructive work, and even if he isn’t taking the next step of writing the German ideology, or arguing that all capital accumulation is, as such, violent, it still is a critique of that liberal myth, and it proceeds in interestingly similar terms as Marx’s. This is why the thought experiment of “Puzo=Marx?” isn’t something I’m proposing as a thesis (such that proving Puzo to be non-identical to Marx disproves it and shows me to be a sloppy thinker), but an idea I want to explore (and I still think is worth exploring).

I’m glad you pushed me to think this through. This is why these forums are useful. But while you wrote that “It’s quite possible that a less pointed response would not have forced you to rethink,” I would respond thusly: it’s also quite possible that I wrote this post for the express purpose of engaging with other people’s ideas, and am probably quite sympathetic to doing so. I find the second possibility more likely.

By on 10/15/08 at 05:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Puzo’s epigram, you claim, “is a critique of that liberal [Horatio Alger] myth, and proceeds in interestingly similar terms as Marx’s.”

I have problems with this.

1. An epigram is not critique. To say it does “deconstructive work” even seems like a stretch, the latest in series of stretches. Why not be less sloshy with terms like “critique”?

2. How many liberal intellectuals can you name who actually believe that “people who accumulate sufficient resources to convert it into capital are somehow inherently virtuous”? That’s a fair description of Ronald Reagan, but I hope that you have noticed those intellectuals (often called “liberals") who occupy ideological ground between Reagan and Marx.

3. Skepticism about the Horatio Alger myth is common to most thinking people; it does not make one a Marxist, or even Marxian in any meaningful sense. Why do you insist on using Marx to make such a simple (and arguably banal) point as “Mario Puzo doesn’t buy into the Horatio Alger myth”?

I suspect you are trying to add prestige to your theory by invoking a still (rightfully) venerated name, Karl Marx. Pierre Bourdieu (an actual Marxist) would understand the maneuver, but would also remind you that such displays of cultural capital require the consent of your audience. This one won’t fly with an audience who has actually read Marx and is capable of distinguishing among Reaganites, liberals and Marxists.

Tom

By on 10/16/08 at 02:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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