July 3, 2009:

Mike Davis' City of Quartz includes an essay sketching the history of ruling-class formation in Los Angles from the 19th through the early 21st centuries.

In "Power Lines", Davis traces generational, geographical, ethnic, cultural, and competitive divisions among local bourgeois class fractions as they emerge, come into conflict, and are transformed from generation to generation, nearly always under the impact of large-scale capital migration from outside the region. He demonstrates that across 150 years of conflict there were few moments in which a single capital block was hegemonic. More typical were lengthy periods of fragmentation into competing class fractions representing contrasting business strategies, geographical power centers, and often ethnic conflicts.

Two points:

1. This is a concrete analysis. There's no abstract (simple) contradiction here between capital and labor. Instead there's a multi-sided, ever-evolving articulation of conflict, compromise, and transformation within the capitalist class. The specificity (Louis Althusser) of the situation must be re-examined at each moment of its evolution. I cite this as a model for "concrete analysis" generally.

2. Davis undercuts his methodology by claiming that Los Angeles is unique among American metropolitan centers. He suggests that ruling class formation in other cities is simpler, with hegemonic class fractions more typically dominating subordinate layers. I think this is unlikely. It seems more probable that comparably concrete studies of other regions will arrive at similar conclusions. The idea of simple class hegemony itself is an optical illusion caused by analysis at too high a level of abstraction.

I believe this to be true nationally as well as regionally. The hegemony of particular ruling class fractions is never simple or uncontested. In a country with no dominant center comparable to London or Paris, ruling class power at the national level emerges through an ever-evolving process of compromise and coalition among class fractions. At a very high level of abstraction, the two parties are themselves dominated "in the final analysis" by manufacturing versus finance capital. But, the parties are composed of multiple shifting blocs reflecting regional groupings, ethnic alliances, and cultural coalitions, aligned and held together by one or another dominant capitalist class fraction. This is why it's possible to have Rockefeller/Goldwater, Taft/Dewey, or Reagan/Bush rivalries together in the same party at the same time. Where Taft represented the midwestern conservative opposition to the New Deal, Dewey represented east coast "progressives" within finance capital. Finance capital dominated the party. The relationships between dominated class fractions shifted continually.

Political professionals in America - real ones, not the ghetto leftists who use that jargon - say that in the U.S. "All politics is local." They're noting the strongly uneven and dispersed geopolitical character of American society. By contrast, American "revolutionary socialists" with their highly abstract, highly verbal politics typically downplay concrete unevenness. The professionals think from an analysis which is more concrete, intuitively similar to Davis' work on Los Angeles. The sectarians think from a posture of abstractness, more akin to Davis' unspecific assertions about the rest of the country. These differences reflect what the individuals do in their political practice.

I'll note very briefly a personal reservation about Davis' book. In every circumstance in which Davis discusses something which I personally happen to know about in detail, he gets it wrong. Crowley wasn't a Satanist. Scientology is neither black magic nor science fiction, but rather an updating of third century Gnosticism. It's not hard to get these things right. Instead, Davis accepts the dominant mythologies. What does this imply about the rest of his research?