Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 4

Method and the Horizon: On Christian Parenti’s Dirigiste Radical Hamilton

Yashua Klos Head Study 6

Image Credit: Yashua Klos, Head Study 6, (2015). Paper construction of woodblock prints on archival paper, 8″ x 8″. Courtesy of the artist.

(for Mike Ladd)

Modern politicians tend to fawn over entrepreneurs and disparage state action. But once in power, even the most radical free-market ideologues practice a form of bastardized Hamiltonianism. This reflects an important historical truth: capitalism is produced and reproduced by the state.
–Christian Parenti, Radical Hamilton (174)1

Finally, there is one question which I am posing—only one: Do we have today the means to constitute a structural, historical anthropology? It finds its place within Marxist philosophy because—as will be seen further on—I consider Marxism the one philosophy of our time which we cannot go beyond and because I hold the ideology of existence and its “comprehensive” method to be an enclave inside Marxism, which simultaneously engenders it and rejects it.
–Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface, Search for a Method (xxxiv)

Under these circumstances, a new unprecedented menace seems to be lurking in the corner. To all intents and purposes, the unmitigated dominance of disembedded hyper-individualist rationality in conjunction with the decline of the idea of society is tantamount to a general idealization of “free rider” behavioural patterns. Even if officially disapproved of and ethically looked down upon, individual normless instrumentality seems increasingly lucrative. But this seems to be developing into a “Catch 22” situation. Ironically, the Mandevillan “private vices” appear increasingly detrimental to the advent of the common welfare they were supposed to ensure. It would seem that “free markets” can only bring about their beneficial effects if they do not operate as “totally” and inequivocally “free.”
–Konstantinos Tsoukalas, “The Deregulation of Morals: The Ultimate Phase of Globalized Capitalism” (34)

A hallmark of dialectical method is attending to and lingering on the specific steps. A consequence of America’s war against radical memory is that often it feels like we’ve forgotten how to approach “the correct handling of contradictions among the people”.2 Consider the following interpretive protocol: “Say yes to the text three times.”3 As a methodological marching order, it defies the contemporary political common sense of fashioning a priori inventories to decide whether to engage or discard figure, method, or phenomenon to further revolutionary projects. The risk here is forsaking the political in radical politics. Ultimately the requisite for smashing the white-capitalist hetero-patriarchal state (let’s say imperialism for short) might be provisionally glutting state capacity to provide resources and care based on a criteria of radical need. What is true for insurgent praxis is true for practices of reading. This is a somewhat circuitous route to focus on one of the many merits of Christian Parenti’s brilliant study of Alexander Hamilton’s state-planning economic and economic-military theories and implementations—Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder.  The centerpiece here is the oft-neglected Report on the Subject of Manufactures and Report on Public Credit— what Parenti calls Hamilton’s dirigiste economic theory. Instead of drawing contemporary conclusions (the rush to contemporary relevance or laying out a map of praxis), the book fleshes out Hamilton’s ideas on an active(ist), centralizing, interventionist state contextualizing its insights against a backdrop of settler colonialism, maroon uprising, insurgent indebted farmers, state fragmentation and calls for state sovereignty as a smokescreen to preserve the legality and practice of slavery captured by Parenti’s formula: “Democracy as Fetish, Slavery as Fact” (10). It refuses to turn a fetishized blind eye to Hamilton’s “faith in the utility of coercion,” both “ugly and dangerous” (141). Parenti’s deft analytic, pertaining to Hamilton’s ideas about “the means proper,” statist political economy designs, and “defensive developmentalism” demonstrates no anxiety about staying in its chronological lane. Overtures to the contemporary moment are here and urgent (for example, he theorizes a Green Hamilton), but pride of place is given to Hamilton’s ideas and their implementation. I want to think about such rhetorical and organizational choices and speculate on what it might say about both dialectics of reform and revolution and the directionality/directive of the radical horizon.

Dirigiste State Planning

All the while, Radical Hamilton ostensibly maintains its focus on economic theory. Its rhetorical architecture resonates for today precisely by lingering in tomorrow with no apologies. There is a noticeable (and admirable) absence of anxiety in Parenti’s analytic. Not to say that the study refuses to broach centuries closer to our own. Consider his work’s single turn to V.I. Lenin:

At times, Hamilton sounds like Lenin in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in which the Russian revolutionary criticizes the ultra-left for “mistaking their desire, their political ideological attitude for objective reality.” Hamilton would have likely have agreed with Lenin that such a miscalculation “is the most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries.” He probably also would have agreed with Lenin’s pronouncement that “our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action.” (138)

The framing parameters of Lenin’s praxis are forged in the actuality of the struggle on the ground. It is not a matter of honoring one’s desire, seeing it through to its end, or abdicating to the mandates of objective reality. There is a constant toggling back and forth. Desire is persistently disciplined by actuality. Amongst other things, such prescriptive thought-action also functions as protocol for reading—texts, poems, and the insurgent moment. To never reduce the complexity of phenomenon to the demands of our interpretive ready-mades. Hamilton’s Parenti is not Lenin—on the same page he compares Hamilton’s 85 Federalist Papers to a “latter-day American pragmatist or postmodern cultural relativist.” Yet the comparison performs a heavy lifting: It underscores Hamilton’s flexibility set in relation to Lenin’s radical pragmatism and willingness to push the machinery of the bourgeois state to its maximum usefulness while discarding (rather, smashing) its repressive architecture. Lenin understood very clearly that socialism is not a mode of production (the combination of relations and forces of productions), but rather a transitional program that would ideally prefigure the smashing of the state. He demonstrated neither anxiety nor illusions about working with capitalist modes in this moment. As a friend running for city council in East Orange once said to me in Newark, NJ: “Even Lenin was in the Duma!” This protocol animates Radical Hamilton through Parenti’s assuredness in crafting a treatise about late eighteenth-century economic ideas.

The centerpiece of this analysis is a careful reading of Hamilton’s December 1791 Report on the Subject of Manufactures framed as “the unacknowledged text of dirigiste developmentalism”, which includes the earliest published mention of the world “capitalist” (174). It traces Hamilton’s critique of Adam Smith’s laissez-faire in his The Wealth of Nations, the overlap between his ideas and Karl Polanyi’s twentieth-century emphasis on economic planning, his willingness (and sometimes preference) of abolishing states, the debunking (like Marx) of the wrongheaded French Physiocratic insistence that the labor theory of value only applies to agricultural labor and that “all profits are just other forms of agricultural rent” (178). Hamilton’s conceptual array prefigures an articulation of a theory of uneven development, and his early confrontation with what economists call the “realization problem” in capitalist political economies. Hamilton itemizes “the means proper to be resorted to by the United States” in the form of a list of eleven “dirigiste tactics”(190). For Parenti, “the political right and liberal center ignore the Report because it attacks their sacred fetish, the market, them much of the left has ignored the Report because they see state power and economic development as always oppressive and bad” (12), reminding readers that, “in reality, Hamilton sought to create a national market from thirteen semi-integrated pieces and then transition that national economy from a lopsided dependence on export agriculture to a balance diversified economy centered on manufacturing”(2). Biography and theory meld uniquely here—Hamilton’s two-month nervous collapse in the winter of 1777-78 is referred to by Parenti as an “epistemological rupture” heralding his lifelong commitment to centralized state planning. This is a wonderful mash-up of Althusser’s borrowing from Gaston Bachelard’s The Philosophy of No (the source for Althusser’s idea of the epistemological break) and Nietzsche’s theorization of the philosophical benefits of convalescence. Such an array of anti-laissez-faire ideas has influenced South Korea’s developmentalist economy (see the work of Ha-Joon Chang), the nineteenth-century industrialization of Germany (by way of Friedrich List), Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

Dirigiste is employed a handful of times in the text but never fully defined. For me, this generated great anticipation as I plowed through the pages eager to discover how this term would be framed and what conceptual work it would be called on to do. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the French noun dirigisme (“the policy of state direction and control in economic and social matters) from the verb-form diriger (“to direct”). The quotation examples for dirigisme and dirigiste supplied by the OED are particularly telling in light of Parenti’s study’s direction of emphasis. As noun: a 1951 entry from Archivum Linguisticum on “linguistic dirigisme” as “standards of correctness in a constantly evolving language”; a 1952 study that signals the “increasing dirigisme of economic life on the part of the state”; a 1957 Times article that mocks Sinn Féin’s political program as a “strange amalgam of bombast, Chauvinism, and dirigisme” (at best, a bizarre call-back of that old opprobrium for leftism that sidesteps dogma—eclectic; at worst, dogmatic unwillingness to concede that revolutionary nationalisms often embody radical class consciousness). There is an article that conflates dirigisme with USSR state policy, and labels dirigisme a threat to “university autonomy.” As adjective (from a 1957 article from The Economist) it signifies a more heightened and acute path of Keynesian policy regulation. Dirigiste state economic policy is literally direction economics—Parenti’s study of Alexander Hamilton’s statist/dirigist policy direction of emphasis is progressively backwards. By purging his analytic of any anxiety about its choices, he allows his inferences to explode past his study’s timeline and settle as contemporary relevance. This is brave stuff.

Liberalism and the Horizon; Or, Why the Apricot Hell-Beast cannot become a “World Historical Individual”

I conclude with some words on the epigraphs framing this commentary and suggest a response to the enigma why Donald J. Trump can neither cultivate the universal, nor cohere to the level of the concept. Parenti’s study of Alexander Hamilton’s economic theories and practical implementation refuses to shy away from democratizing the state apparatus against its owners. It is in this facet that one might read Radical Hamilton as fashioning resources for the contemporary American variant of Social-Democracy: the political project that is democratic socialism. Perhaps. I hope so—in the spirit of you have to go through in order to get beyond. It seems like America has to experience a few more things before we can follow Toni Negri’s lead and say Goodbye to Mr. Socialism–to clear the space for more comprehensive and imaginative radical futures. Yet, as I have tried to suggest here, there is an impressive methodological imperative to Parenti’s analysis related to his studied insistence on focusing on Hamilton’s ideas and their global reverberations in a series of statist developmentalist projects. In my speculative encounter, its anti-anxiety, weighted attention to Hamilton’s ideas and their implementation speaks to Sartre’s mapping the political horizon.

In my prior contribution to A-Line on Goya’s Caprichos, I argued that we suffer a double-sided impasse: a revolutionary maximalist drive that in actuality abandons political engagement and a reformism that can neither comprehend nor transform late-capitalist palimpsest of structural crisis. Sometimes it seems that both partisans and their critics erect a mystifying false-divide constituting radical politics in competing and often antagonist camps– for example, a materialist politics contending with a so-called (erroneously posited) identity- based politics. George Jackson, in Blood in My Eye, brilliantly and caustically frames a particularly malevolent iteration of this logic as using “the tactic ‘white left-wing causes’ to protect their bosses’ ‘white right-wing cause’”(4). Most certainly, it is imperative to work towards expanding the developmentalist state for the benefit of the toiling many (to materially bolster the productive capacities and socialize its benefits). To expand its redress capacity even if it is to pedagogically illustrate such capacity’s inability to redress. All well and good. Such are cogent action-repertoires befitting a radical and flexible willingness to improvise. Yet only if in this particular lane mobilization is always countermanded by an acknowledgment that this will never be enough. In a profound sense, this is a Black Liberation Movement anti-carceral protocol: Mobilize and master the law bolstered by political movement to liberate captured soldiers while simultaneously having no faith in the juridical apparatus. One should strive towards (and Parenti most certainly models) a political stance, what Bertolt Brecht calls a haltung, of anxiety-free, useful instrumentality to be counterbalanced with one of unwavering incredulity. Stated as an obvious, somewhat clumsy maxim: The dialectic of identify and difference is imperative and synthesis is always deferred. Recast in a most current and urgent example: A Biden-Harris winning outcome is unequivocally qualitatively better than round two of racist chauvinistic anti-science only from the vantage point of conceding that it is not.

It is not just Trump’s fatuous narcissism and craven singular focus on enriching his family by any means that prohibits him from being even an unwilling agent of universal history. It is not just his vulgar contempt for all life that it is not his own. Trump is the latest (and most crude) iteration of ruling-class solutions to paper over acute crisis. In this sense, he is most certainly the anomalous nonanomaly. Consider the viral fracturing of the American ruling class on display here: What is the nature of the carny that is Donald Trump, the crueler and cruder iteration of Mr. Punch à la Punch & Judy? An incomplete, and most certainly arbitrary ledger: He is not the Chicago School, he is not the Washington Consensus, he is not the afterbirth of the Straussians who gave us the illegal and immoral Iraq War, neither is he the racist neoliberalism of the 1994 Clinton/Biden crime bill that he attacks in bad faith, nor the white supremacists and xenophobes he opportunistically energizes. He is in fact gross–deservingly denounced by tic-tacs. He literally kills off his own electoral base—and perhaps, inevitably, the holders of his actual purse strings. He puts out full page newspaper advertisements demanding the state murder of innocent (subsequently vindicated) young (now grown) Black and Latino men. He alchemizes the ire of workers neglected for decades, workers in actuality that he hates (and historically has never paid!). A myopically self-interested cypher for other people’s desires (think the role of the heel in professional wrestling) and a dangerous symptom of the late capitalist structural unmooring theorized so elegantly by Konstantinos Tsoukalas. This moment stages a dialectic in which reformist choices matter only if you don’t forsake the revolutionary project on the horizon. I have tried to suggest that a speculative reading of Parenti’s method points to such directives/directions. In that, Radical Hamilton’s clever rhetorical and organizational hesitancy to fully marry its insights to the current conjuncture slows down a statist reformist directionality that refuses the pivot towards a revolutionary horizon “which we cannot go beyond”; while simultaneously allowing the full resources of history to aid in humanizing this ugly hell. **

1 For a helpful comparative framework of methodological approaches see: Dialectics of the U.S. Constitution: Selected Writings of Mitchell Franklin, and C.L.R. James, “The Two Sides of Abraham Lincoln.”
2 Mao Tse-Tung, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People”, February 27, 1957,
3 My friend Professor David Kazanjian conveyed to me this ethical reading protocol attributed to Professor Gayatri Chakvravorty Spivak as a remarkably lucid hallmark of deconstructionist method.

Works Cited
Franklin, Mitchell. Dialectics of the U.S. Constitution: Selected Writings of Mitchell Franklin. Edited by James m. Lawler, MEP Publications, 2000.

Jackson, George. Blood in My Eye. 1972. Black Classics Press, 1990.

James, C.L.R. “The Two Sides of Abraham Lincoln.” 1949. C.L.R. James on the ‘Negro Question’. Edited by Scott McLemee, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, 108-111.

Negri, Antonio. Goodbye Mr. Socialism. 2006. Seven Stories Press, 2008.

Parenti, Christian. Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder. Verso, 2020.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Preface, Search for a Method. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

Tsoukalas, Konstantinos. “The Deregulation of Morals: The Ultimate Phase of Globalized Capitalism.” Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination, Vol. IV, No.2, Spring 2012, 34.

Mao Tse-Tung, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People,” February 27, 1957,, Accessed October 10, 2020.

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