Category Archives: Theory


Karl Marx, part 1: Religion, the wrong answer to the right question
Arab youth: the tipping point
#TEDxTuttle – Rachel Armstrong Living Architecture
Economics Theory 3. Robots
How is wealth destroyed and where does wealth come from?
Where does Money come from?
Can you learn how to write lyrics?

Karl Marx, part 1: Religion, the wrong answer to the right question

With the current phase of capitalist crisis posing extremely stark questions about the fundamental nature of the system, you would think all the mainstream media would be falling over each other to wheel out academics and reformed revolutionaries to explain in simple terms “Why Marx was right after all” or “We’re all dialectical materialists now” but apparently not. Earlier this year, 2011, The Guardian published a series of articles about Karl Marx. This is part 1, on the subject of religion.

Powered by article titled “Karl Marx, part 1: Religion, the wrong answer to the right question” was written by Peter Thompson, for on Monday 4th April 2011 15.34 UTC

Marx famously said that all criticism begins with the criticism of religion. This is often taken to be the starting point of a position that ends with the slogan that “religion is the opium of the people”. However, as with most thinkers, this reduction to slogans does not do the ideas behind them justice. The critique of religion as a social phenomenon did not connote a dismissal of the issues behind it. Marx precedes the famous line in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right with the contention that religion was the “sigh of the oppressed creature in a hostile world, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions” and that an understanding of religion has to go hand in hand with an understanding of the social conditions that gave rise to it.

The description of religion as the heart of a heartless world thus becomes a critique not of religion per se but of the world as it exists. What this shows is that his consideration of religion, politics, economics and society as a whole was not merely a philosophical exercise, but an active attempt to change the world, to help it find a new heart. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in his famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach, the phrase carved on his gravestone in Highgate cemetery.

Even though understanding and action were tightly linked in Marx, we can trace his understanding back separately, through two German earlier philosophers, Hegel and Feuerbach.

In Hegel he finds the concept of the idealistic dialectic as a means of understanding historical change but he uses Feuerbach’s materialism as a tool for understanding it correctly. That’s why he called his system dialectical materialism.

Hegel’s dialectic is not at all materialistic. It is based on the existence and importance of ideas, which are conceived of as almost independent of the people who have them. We are merely their puppets. It was essentially an attempt to explain change in history during the period of revolutionary upheaval around the French revolution. Why do revolutions happen, he asks, and what happens to them? Why do things not stay the same and why is some world spirit (Weltgeist) constantly changing its mind about the way it wants the world to be and introducing a new “spirit of the age” (Zeitgeist)? Taking his cue from Kant, adding in some Spinoza and a dash of neo-Platonism, Hegel maintained that change happened in the world because it was immanent in a growing development towards something as yet incomplete but which had at its core the unfolding of the idea of human freedom. History thus became simply a vessel for this unfolding, a totality which was constantly changing and completing itself through a series of constructive negations.

The dialectic is a theory of motion which posits that within every given situation there exists its own negation. The tension and interplay between the situation and its negation, produce constantly new and emergent forms of social existence. Of course there are difficulties in deciding what exactly is the negation of any particular situation. I will deal with those later.

Marx took this Hegelian and idealistic dialectical approach and added in a materialist grounding from Feuerbach who was in many ways a sort of political Ditchkins of his day. For him religion “poisons, nay destroys, the most divine feeling in man, the sense of truth”. His insight was that all forms of religious expression were merely the abstracted vague longings of the human species translated into deities and their hangers-on, or in other words a god delusion.

Marx’s real synthesis of the debate between Hegel and Feuerbach is to agree with both of them but to turn them both upside down (or back on their feet as he would have it) and locate their ideas in concrete historical situations. Hegel’s idealism and Feuerbach’s materialism had one thing in common and that was their abstraction from real concrete conditions. Hegel’s dialectic was indeed a way of understanding change in the world but it failed to recognise that change emanated from prevailing material conditions rather than from the workings of the Weltgeist. On the other hand Feuerbach’s materialism dealt only in abstract form with the way people perceived religion and did not locate the form that abstraction took in the way that people, above all classes, interacted with each other historically.

By 1848 Marx was thus able to open the Communist Manifesto with the contention that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. This, for Marx, was the real motor of history; real struggles between real classes which produced real historical outcomes which in turn went on to become new struggles as the process of the negation of the negation – “the old mole” as Marx called it – carried on burrowing away, all the time throwing up new ways of thinking which themselves went on to negate and change the world.

What I shall do in coming weeks is to look at how all of this actually works, how Marxists took up the baton and what the consequences of it all were. I shall also ask whether Marxism still has any explanatory power today, in a new age of revolutionary upheaval, or whether we have, in Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s terms, reached The End of History. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in Politics, Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Karl Marx, part 1: Religion, the wrong answer to the right question

Arab youth: the tipping point

In these revolutionary times, even the BBC is quoting Trotsky. But not necessarily the theory of combined and uneven development.

Trotsky once remarked that if poverty was the cause of revolutions, there would be revolutions all the time because most people in the world were poor. What is needed to turn a million people’s grumbling discontent into a crowd on the streets is a spark to electrify them.

And on the Guardian, the notion of how revolutions can be made permanent is brought up by Hossam el-Hamalawy in this article titled “Egypt protests continue in the factories”

At this point, the Tahrir Square occupation is to be suspended. We have to take Tahrir to the factories now. As the revolution proceeds, an inevitable class polarisation will take place. We have to be vigilant. We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt. Onwards we must go, with a permanent revolution that will empower the people of this country with direct democracy from below.

which also appeared earlier here: #Jan25 The workers, middle class, military junta and the permanent revolution

Posted in Politics, Theory | Comments Off on Arab youth: the tipping point

#TEDxTuttle – Rachel Armstrong Living Architecture

Rachel Armstrong was one of the speakers at Ted X Tuttle yesterday, talking about her work with proto cells to create a new living architecture (non belligerent) which holds out a prospect of rescuing Venice and then the world.

Rachel_Armstrong Rachel is unashamedly anthro-optimistic and radiates intelligent thinking with almost every well chosen word. I think most of the audience found the presentation quite breathtaking in the audacity of the ideas, as she explained new and almost alien ideas with expert simplicity.

As a Ted X event, the video of the talk should eventually surface in a shareable form but in the meanwhile, here’s a clip from a short interview at a previous event where the Cytoplasmic Manifesto is outlined:

Preview to SCi Fi London - Rachel Armstrong from david dunkley gyimah on Vimeo.

There’s also a ‘live blog’ writeup on Adam Tinworth’s One Man and his Blog entitled #TEDxTuttle : The Future of Buildings

#TEDxTuttle – Rachel Armstrong Living Architecture

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

Posted in London, Randomness, Theory | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Economics Theory 3. Robots

This is the third in a sporadic series on economic theory, prompted by questions and answers on earlier posts.

How is the Labour Theory of Value affected by the Economics of Robots ?

A discussion has been burbling away on my post about How is wealth destroyed and where does wealth come from written last October, in a month when the world financial systems were exposed as being hopelessly overstreched and fell into an unprecedented destructive cycle of collapse, bailouts, bankruptcy and state takeover.

In September I had asked “Where does money come from?” answering from the basics in terms of primitive barter systems and early trade. The October post explained the Labour Theory of Value, which states that the market value of a commodity is ultimately determined by the total amount of socially necessary labour time that went into it’s production and delivery.

The comments have been really great. Conrad Taylor provided insights about early coinage and banking systems in 9th century Arabia. We discussed the price of fish. And then in the big wide world this happened:

The argument between two strands of capitalist ideology has just shifted enormously in the past weeks from monetarist to Keynsian economic theory – AR

Peter Childs proposed that all the problems stem from an error in the way stock market valuations are calculated.

Then David N asked cunningly:

Suppose I have a shop that is completely robotic…my shop has created wealth without the use of labor, hasn’t it?

This is a good attempt at rebutting the labour theory, but in reality it doesn’t really matter if there is only one person left minding the shop and supervising the robots, or even nobody at all. The final product still embodies labour power from other parts of the overall process including the production and transport of raw materials and energy. Yes, there may even be some human accounting, management and marketing tasks which prove to be socially necessary to make the product worth bringing to market, or maybe not.

A robot at a TV Factory in Mexico CC pic by Avram Cheaney

A robot at a TV Factory in Mexico CC pic by Avram Cheaney

Aurino explains that the newly equipped robot powered shop has only a temporary opportunity to make super profits.

as soon as your competitors discover the same thing, the market price of your widgets will be determined by the price of your raw materials plus the amount of labour required to design, manufacture, operate and maintain the robots.

Mark Rowe’s suggestion takes this line of reasoning further:

If labour is the key – with the robot scenario wouldn’t you need to consider all the labour that contributed to the design, manufacture, operation and powering of the machines

Yes indeed. We can also differentiate between the one-off efforts involved in design and manufacture of the robots, and the ongoing requirement for some labour to operate, power and maintain these machine tools. As far as the value of the items produced by this newly automated labour-efficient factory is concerned, the initial investment will sooner or later be disregarded, and both the perceived and actual value of the items once brought to market will drop to match the lower amount of human labour power involved in the production process.

Machine Labour Hours?

Now then, McDudeqq’s answer is so far away from any previously existing theory that it’s quite hard to take onboard, but worth making the extra effort to consider. All he says is

It is machine (labour) hours

As if machine running hours can be considered in the same way as, or perhaps on a par with human labour hours. Well the robots are consuming a certain amount of energy for each hour of production, and will require a scheduled maintenance after certain fixed periods which could be divided into the hourly rate, so why not.

Is there a fundamental difference between machine hours and human hours?

Well humans have certain needs which if not fulfilled will not make them very useful workers. Sleep for example! In order for your worker to be able to work at making profits for your on a regular basis, she also needs to be able to take a minimal amount of time off for rest and everything else necessary to keep body and soul together, as they say. Of course we all need to eat, just as the robots consume energy, so the provision of food, shelter, warmth and even the production of future generations of workers needs to be factored into the total labour costs of buying each human labour hour.

Driving down the cost of labour is what profitability is all about, which is why corporations will sometimes invest millions in order to lay off just a handful of workers. As long as it reduces the total wages bill, the profitability will be seen to have inreased, thus pushing up the stocks value which can then be used to borrow and invest in yet more labour reduction, as long as things are going well.

So let’s continue our discussion about wealth, labour and recession . How do you think new technologies such as robots fit in to existing economic theory such as the labour theory of value? Is this something that should benefit from national and international stimulus packages?

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Posted in Economics, Theory | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

How is wealth destroyed and where does wealth come from?

Where did the wealth destroyed on Stock Markets come from?

If 20 percent of the value of world stock markets can be wiped out in one week, as has just happened, then where does that wealth actually disappear to? Is it buried in a big hole somewhere, scuttled at sea or sent on a rocket into outer space? Apparently not, but if money can simply disappear from world markets how can we make any sense of the concept of value in finance. How is it measured and where did it come from in the first place?

Theories of value

In the first post of this series I asked “where does money come from” and gave a brief history of the origins of money in the form of precious metal coins used to facilitate the process of trade from simple barter to the exchange of goods of different values. Without exactly defining where money comes from I hinted at the idea that monetary value is realted to the total amount of work or labour which is tied up in bringing the goods to market. That’s a theory which is known as the labour theory of value and is not always widely accepted, probably due to association with a certain Karl Marx who took that theory, which was already known by cpaitalist economists, and developed it a bit further with his concept of “socially necessary labour time”.

Money grows on trees

People who don’t subscribe to the labour theory of value believe that money comes from being rewarded for taking risks, that value is determined entirely by the balance between supply and demand, and that substantial sums of money can somehow just “grow”. They say that money doesn’t grow on trees, but that’s not too dissimilar to the idea that interest just accumulates on investments because money begets more money. In reality, investments such as stocks and bank deposits typically pass through a number of hands but end up being used to buy goods not for consumption but for increased or more efficient production. Investment of capital buys machine tools, land, property and other wherewithal to employing labour in order to create goods or services for the market which can be sold at a profit. The important point here is that the capital doesn’t generate a single penny of orginal value until the employment of labour has happened. To be profitable, the output from this process of applying labour to previously accumulated capital must be of actual use to a buying market, and must be produced with a total number of labour hours which is competitive with alternative setups, such as differently tooled machine shops employing labour under different terms and conditions. That’s pretty much all that’s meant by the “socially necessary labour time” formulation really, to counter the idea that simply getting enough people to work hard for the the most minimal wages will necessarily creaste wealth.

Wealth Ceated by Labour

All wealth is created in the first place by labour, and that is the real answer to the question answer “where does money come from”. It comes from work that has been done by somebody, that has been abstracted and turned into a type of commodity itself, which can then change hands and accumulate, which can be exchanged for special kinds of products, Which can then be deployed in the employment of further labour. Capital is an accumulation of the results of previous rounds of expended labour, or “dead labour” as is sometimes expressed. The capital exchanged on world money markets then represents a further abstraction as speculators buy and sell options to receive the fruits of other people’s labour in the future, that hasn’t even been expended yet, and place bets on the likelihood of prices rising and falling.

Destruction of Wealth in a Slump

In a serious recession, when stock markets crash, and seemingly abstract wealth is destroyed, this is not just a accountancy game played out with pieces of paper or rather electronic transfers. It does actually play out into the very real destruction of productive capacity as enterprises go under or cut back and the very concrete machinery, buildings, expertise and systems are abandoned due to lack of a buying market that can afford their products at a profitable price. All of that overcapicity which has been built up out of the relentless requirement to reinvest and expand will be scrapped, levelled, and laid waste at the greatest of human cost until enough real capital has been wiped out for the accumulation cycle to begin all over again. In the current circumstances the effects are particularly catastrophic because the downturn had been temporarily postponed for a couple of decades or so through the use of massively expanded credit, which could distort the outward shape of the cycle for a short while, but never the underlying forces at work in any free market system based on the private ownership of capital.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Posted in Economics, Theory | Tagged , , , , , | 36 Comments

Where does Money come from?

Have you ever been asked, Where does money come from?

This might sound like a stupid question – “where does money come from” – but how many people actually know?

In recent days European and UK national banks have pumped billions of Euros and pounds into the economies to try and stabilise a volatile market. The US is debating whether to spend $700 billion dollars on covering bad housing debts. People are asking why should tax payers pay for the well heeled banking speculators mistakes, and will it be enough! Where does $700 billion come from? Where does one dollar, Pound or Euro come from?

Origins of Money

Money originated soon after the time when the simplest forms of trading began. Once people got the hang of surviving from day to day in a hand to mouth existence, they had a little spare time to themselves. Different people started to specialise in different types of work. So if I could make more than enough animal skin coats for myself and family, and somebody else could catch more fish than they needed, we might give some away to each other. At first this must have been how it worked. Descended from primates who lived in large social groups, we mostly looked after each other by instinct.

Early Humans

As things progressed, early humans who were genetically pretty much identical to ourselves became more efficient at simple farming, making pots and other basic crafts. The opposable thumb left over from gripping tree branches was a big help, as was the ability to form grammatical meaning out of vocal cries.

Surplus and Transport

The extended families grew into tribes and the tribes into larger communities. People wandered further afield and bumped into other settlements, sometimes specialised for a slightly different lifestyle. Rivers and coasts were the super highways along which regular travels could be undertaken and occasional trading relationships were established.

But there was only ever anything to trade as long as people were surviving reasonably well and had some spare capacity to create a surplus of worthwhile products. Without refrigeration, a surplus of fish became a stinking heap after a few days so that was no use. A good pot could be used for preserving foraged food for longer though, so a pot was well worth bartering for if you haven’t got one. But how many animal skins are worth two pots?

The Underlying Calculation of Barter

The calculation would have been based roughly on availability. If community A had produced a surplus of 4 pots since the last trade and commuity B had produced 8 extra animal skins then two skins for one pot would have seemed like a fair trade. As the surpluses grew and the number of parties taking part increased so the bartering became more complicated. One canoe is worth 9 animal skins so if I give you 5 pots you can give me one skin change, which I don’t really need, but I might be able to swap for some particularly tasty berries. In this example the animal skin is being used for its exchange value rather than its intrinsic value, and it’s exchange value is still linked to the amount of time and effort put into catching the animal and processing the skin, including some part of making the tools for hunting and scraping.

Precious Metal Coin Money

The inconvenience of carrying around skins, pots and canoes just for use as small change soon became a burden, so anything just as valuable but smaller and more transportable was preferred. In it’s earliest form, money was made out of precious metals and the value of the coin was related to the weight and value of the silver or gold. That is, to the amount of work involved in finding, mining and refining the precious metals. This worked so well you could set off from Phonoecia (Iraq/Lebanon) and sail across the Med, through the straits of Gibraltar, up past the coast of Gallicia all the way to the West of the British Isles just to collect some tin and drop off a load of grain.

Confidence in the value of metal coins was such that some people were even able to give up farming, boatbuilding, mining and pottery to become full time travellers and traders.

End of Where does money come from part one – more next week..

Follow this blog in RSS

Posted in Economics, Theory | 9 Comments

Can you learn how to write lyrics?


Learn how to write lyrics?

The story goes like this: I was reading Friendfeed and came across a link to a site about How to write Lyrics and thought to myself “Well that’s a bit presumptuous isn’t it?” On visiting the site I found advice which seemed to recommend ‘tuning in to the music of the spheres’. Bah humbug said the little critic sitting on my shoulder, so I left a terse drive-by comment and moved on thinking no more of it. Then the original author read it and called me out, so good for him. We’ve had a good chat since during which I realised that I’ve never written down my own story about getting to grips with the songwriting process, so here it is as promised.

Join the Songwriters Circle 30 Day Challenge

My problem with writing lyrics

I picked up a guitar and learned to play when I was about fourteen, mostly devising my own versions of favourite songs by ear. Songs by people like Loudon Wainwright who is possibly the greatest lyric writer of all time, are music staveusually pretty simple in terms of the chord structure and I’d always loved to sing. Very soon I wanted to write my own songs because that’s what any musical artist seemed to need to do in those days, and it’s still the case today, if not more so. I found that the music came pretty easily, just out of experimenting with the sound of new chords and progressions, jamming with myself for hours on end so to speak. The lyrics, on the other hand, were problematic. I kept a notebook with two ends. At one end I wrote down rough drafts and odd verses, full of crossings out and rewrites. Then when I thought I had a finished song together with music I’d copy it to the pristine end and feel pleased with myself for having completed one. The trouble happened within a few days or weeks when I’d try to play the new song again and decide that it’s rubbish. Often the crossings out and rewrites had made it worse, or the original material was based on a really bad concept in the first place. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t fully understood that song lyrics are not poetry, and many of the most sucessful songs look pretty awful if you try just reading them as cold print. And teenagers are always very self conscious, so amongst all of this, just a handful of songs emerged which stood the test of time. “Hold on Below” is one of those from my early teenage period, together with Puddles and The Show Carries On.

The theory of idealism

Because I didn’t understand why sometimes, rarely, I was able to write lyrics that I was happy with, while at most other times nothing good would come out, I began to entertain the theory that the inspiration was coming from somewhere “out there” rather than from within. That fits with a philosophy of idealism which is common enough in our society, and prevalent amongst artists but which I now view as particularly unhelpful. I could go for months and even years at a time without writing a single song, waiting for the right conditions in which the muse would arrive. I even wrote one about that very idea which contained the line “I’m just the man who held the pen that wrote it down” which is very similar to the concept at the How to write Lyrics site where it says “I don’t write music, music writes through me”.

My new approach to songwriting

If you have ever read published authors advising hopeful writers on how to write a novel, the advice usually comes in the form “Sit down at a desk and start writing. Then continue writing every day for at least eight hours until you have written the first draft”. They have to treat it as any other job, otherwise it will never get done. So I decided a few years ago to try the same approach to songwriting. I knew I had a song which I wanted to write, a ballad about a journey I had made. I planned myself a day to write it, and decided that I would spend the day on a river boat cruising up and down the Thames, making good use of the all-day ticket.

how to write lyrics on board Mercedes Thames cruiser

I took with me paper and pencils, and maps to remind me of the journey. There was a convenient table on the boat so I installed myself there and got everything out, knowing I had all day to get the song lyrics written. I love being on boats so this had been a great idea, and within a couple of hours I had about eight or nine verses written so I could afford to take an enjoyable lunch break. That song remains unchanged (well, apart from the pronunciation of Ugijar) as “Winter in Andalucia” for which I get requests from time to time, and it’s a nice one to play if I ever feel like quietly fingerpicking and can remember all the lyrics.

Intentionally writing song lyrics

So this was nothing short of a revelation. If I set out deliberately to write a lyric, I could do it!

Songwriting trip

A few years later, I was badly let down by a companion with whom I’d planned a holiday. I decided to go anyway, as the flight and car were all booked up, but instead of trying to have a holiday by myself I would treat it as work and do lots of writing. I said I would write a CD, which meant writing enough songs so that maybe ten or twelve of them would be worth keeping. Eight would do it at a pinch, and I had a week, so one song a day seemed reasonable.

Writing lyrics on an Aeroplane

I started writing the day before, and made good use of the time on the plane. After a day or two on the road I didn’t restrict myself to writing sat at a desk. In fact I often started composing a first verse or so while walking.

Creative Walking

Zoom back a few years and during a sparse phase for songwriting there was one song which emerged from out of a camping trip. Filling two large water containers then tramping back downhill, the rhythm of my gait started me off humming and then I shut myself away for half an hour and wrote some lyrics to the new tune. That’s Mondura Dam.

So during my deliberate CD writing trip I fell back on the creative walking technique once or twice, and then made sure I memorised the verse or two composed in my head, so I could write them down and elaborate after I got back to the hotel. Incidentally I don’t think I could do that with a companion.

How to Write Twenty Three Lyrics

By the end of that trip I had no less than twenty three new lyrics which I’m still using as base material. Gernika, Cormorants and The Wreckers Prayer all came from then, and there are a few more which may also represent some of my best work. So I’m definitely convinced now on the question of how to write lyrics, that the deliberate method is the best one for me. The same philosophy probably stands for other forms of writing and creativity as well, like this blog post for example, which I planned yesterday and then got out of bed this morning with the deliberate intention of getting it written and published.



  1. The Songwriters Circle – support group
  2. Andy Roberts Music page at DARnet
  3. Free Download Andy Roberts songs from
  4. Free Download, music player and widgets at Andy Roberts on ReverbNation

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Posted in Music, Theory | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

Thanks for reading Andy Roberts articles about Theory on the DARnet Blog