It’s the *political* economy, stupid!

We live in an era where there is a deep desire to view humans as machines. Humans are not machines — they are free beings who can do surprising things for a variety of reasons or no particular reason at all — but our whole society is set up to hide that fact. Public policy is now the art of “nudging” “incentives,” setting up conditions where human-machines will respond appropriately. Important social choices are outsourced to something called “the market,” which is presented as a kind of naturally-occuring decision-generating machine despite being a product of human choices that runs on human choices.

It makes sense that people would turn to such impersonal, supposedly a-political models of our shared life. Politics has always been traumatic, particularly in the 20th century. We’ve all heard it before: “You think people can take collective control of their destiny in a deliberate and purposeful way? So did Hitler and Stalin!” But politics in the sense of purposeful human decisions about the distribution of power and resources is irreducible. Even if there were a supercomputer perfectly calibrated to distribute the best possible outcomes to everyone, the decision to entrust it with this responsibility would be a human decision — as would the ongoing decision to continue to submit to it. We like to pretend that something called “the market” effectively is that supercomputer, but it isn’t. All it does is cover over the human decisions that are being made.

The irreducibility of actual human decisions holds even at the level of the global market. Continue reading “It’s the *political* economy, stupid!”

First as tragedy, then as farce: Communism and neoliberalism

The twentieth century saw the advent of two heavily state-driven strategies for capital-intensive economic development: communism and neoliberalism. The difference is that communism focused on the development of fixed capital (above all, “heavy industry”), whereas neoliberalism focuses on fictitious capital. Both demand extraordinary amounts of effort and sacrifice on the part of the majority of the population — but where communism held out an ostensible goal of very rapidly creating the conditions for a vastly improved quality of life, in neoliberalism there is no promised end to the sacrifice. The pile-up of fictitious capital in the hands of a few cannot conceivably benefit the masses in the way that improved industrial capacity could. It serves only to increase the power of the elites over the masses, which brings me to another distinctive trait of both movements: the creation of a “zone of indistinction” between the economic and the political. Particularly under Stalinism, the “economic forces” at play were literal forces of violence, and the rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by a dramatic reemergence of violent repression as a key form of political control — most emblematically in Pinochet’s Chile, where neoliberal reform was achieved by means of a horrifying campaign of state terror.

There are fine-grained similarities, too. Take the much-lauded idea of “disruptive innovation.” Surely if there was ever a disruptive innovation, it was the communist project of collectivizing agriculture! They took a system that, though it was certainly not operating up to the highest possible productivity, basically worked most of the time in the sense of keeping the population fed, and they very rapidly replaced it with a radically new and different system that they believed would produce better results. We can see a similar logic at work with the disruptive innovation afoot in the education system. For all its faults, the U.S. education system does provide a certain baseline education for those who complete it — the literacy rate, for example, is very nearly 100%, and the vast majority of people can do the basic math necessary for everyday life — but the thought-leaders (a term that’s always struck me as somewhat Maoist) have decided it’s inadequate and needs to be replaced with a radically different one. In both cases, the short-term results proved to be devestating. Collectivization of agriculture led to famine and starvation, while de-collectivization of public schools has led to an active degradation of the quality of education. In both cases, the short-term damage caused by the rapid change is deployed as evidence that we need to move all the more quickly.

I’ve already written on the striking similarity between Stalinism and neoliberal corporate governance, so I won’t belabor that here. Suffice it to say that the same bizarre cocktail of lock-step historical necessity and voluntarism are at work in both systems. In communism, there was an attempt to immanentize the eschaton, to force their way through the necessary steps of historical progress in order to reach the promised land as quickly as possible. All that’s different is that in neoliberalism, there is no historical telos, no equivalent to the dream of “full communism.” We must continue cutting costs and disruptively innovating and giving 110% — forever, for its own sake. It is our ineluctable fate, and our only space of freedom consists in preemptively imposing our fate on ourselves. We must cut the budget, or else circumstances will arise that force us to cut the budget — this is how we express our amor fati.

The historical failure of Soviet Communism and the ambiguous status of Chinese Communism may have made all the sacrifices endured under communism seem pointless — but neoliberalism is inherently pointless, forthrightly and avowedly nihilistic. Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism. Perhaps we missed our chance to cash out of capitalism and turn its amazing productive forces toward constructive human ends. Now all we can do is watch as the machine destroys itself, and us along with it.

From the generalized resource curse to communism

Interfluidity has a great post up proposing that technological advances are turning the entire global economy into a generalized resource curse. For those who aren’t familiar, the resource curse is the phenomenon whereby the discovery of lucrative natural resources in a previously poor country produces vast inequality and immiseration, as the number of people necessary to exploit those resources is only a small proportion of the population. The way around this resource curse, it turns out, is to socialize the profits, as Norway and Alaska have done. The shift to a generalized resource curse comes as less and less labor is necessary for actual production — vindicating Jameson’s claim that what capitalism produces that is genuinely new in the grand scheme of things is precisely unemployment. And what is necessary is a pre-distribution of wealth, along the lines of Alaska and Norway’s payouts to all citizens regardless of their connection to the oil industry.

While many have claimed that guaranteed minimum income is still “merely” reformist, I believe that the framing in this post points to the way that it could be a step toward communism. A market economy in which access to resources is not strictly correlated with wage labor for the vast majority of the population is significantly different from capitalism. It opens up new possibilities that are currently foreclosed by our insistence on systematically depriving people of freedom unless they agree to be exploited by a capitalist enterprise. For instance, imagine that someone is content with the minimum income and just wants to edit Wikipedia all day — that potentially produces a vast amount of social value that cannot be correlated with waged labor under the current system. One can imagine similar scenarios with other intellectual pursuits, and I expect that other scenarios would arise that are very difficult for us to imagine under current conditions. Yes, some undesirable labor would still be necessary, but once work and income are decoupled, there would no longer be constituencies opposing automation because it would destroy jobs — destroying jobs and setting us all free would instead be the goal.

So much political discourse is focused on “jobs,” but what we most desperately need is a decoupling of work and income. We may not have created the material conditions for full communism, but surely we’re much closer than we’ve ever been — and as Marx predicted, capitalism is increasingly incapable of managing the productive forces it’s produced. As capitalism undermines the need for constant human toil, the demand that everyone work becomes ever more urgent and yet impossible to insist upon. The U.K. is becoming the North Korea of neoliberalism in this regard — one can envision the entire country becoming a vast work camp, with the poor endlessly rearranging the grocery store shelves…

In short, it’s time to cash out of capitalism. We have the technology — and I would argue that fiat currency is actually among the most crucial technologies in this regard, which is why it has always generated an undercurrent of fear and distrust among capitalist ideologues. We all know that the current system doesn’t work anymore. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the indefinite continuation of capitalism. We owe it to ourselves to try.

Spring Breakers’ anti-human communism

spring-breakers04The New York Times describes Spring Breakers as “at once blunt and oblique,” although you might say the film spends half its time making a very obvious point and half its time not sure what point it’s making. Which doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but the film is actually pretty interesting. The obvious point it seems to be making at first is an analogy between the religious enthusiasm of Faith’s (Selena Gomez) evangelical church and the hedonism of spring break, emphasised by the similarity in the energized performances with which the minister encourages teenagers to get “crazy for Jesus” and the rapper Alien (James Franco) eulogises “bikinis and big booties.” If this were all the film were doing, it would be a fairly straightforward and indeed rather puritanical criticism of Schwärmerei. It would also justify interpretations of the films as entirely contemptuous of the characters and also the audience (who would be posited as a mindless Hollywood audience caught up in the hedonistic enthusiasm the film represents).

What makes the film interesting, though, is that it doesn’t just make this analogy the basis of a simple criticism: it takes this analogy seriously, or at least plays with it at length. It’s Faith, steeped in the dubious transcendence of church youth groups, who describes spring break as “the most spiritual place” she’s ever been, but the film-making seems to back this up. The bright colours, the visual and temporal distortions, skips and, repetitions, suggest  (the fantasy of) a spring break outside mundane time. This interesting review suggests the film is a “music video,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Rather, the film produces visually the affective structure of a dubstep track (or specifically of its theme tune, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” by some distance the best brostep track); sharply switching between an ethereal straining at the limits of reality and a brutal pulverising of it produces a kind of transcendence, or an aesthetic effect that hints towards transcendence, at least. Continue reading “Spring Breakers’ anti-human communism”

Fear of the state

It has always puzzled me that some people can look at something like public provision of health insurance and see a fateful step toward tyranny and oppression. What this requires is a suspicion of “the state” simply as such, and it seems to me that Foucault was right to say that the greatest achievement of the early neoliberal theorists was to convince seemingly everyone in the world that the lesson to be drawn from the experience of “totalitarianism” is the dangers stemming from excessive state power.

In fact, if there is anything to be gained by placing the Nazi and Soviet experiences under the same conceptual heading, it cannot be a lesson about the dangers of state power — indeed, it has to be just the opposite: the dangers of a weak and impotent state that cannot restrain the power of a para-state movement. Continue reading “Fear of the state”

Why Zizek doesn’t have a political program

From Less Than Nothing, pp. 1007-1009 (yes, I’ve finished the thing):

Faced with the demands of the protestors, intellectuals are definitely not in the position of the subjects supposed to know: they cannot operationalize these demands, or translate them into proposals for precise and realistic measures. With the fall of twentieth-century communism, they forever forfeited the role of the vanguard which knows the laws of history and can guide the innocents along its path. The people, however, also do not have access to the requisite knowledge–the “people” as a new figure of the subject supposed to know is a myth of the Party which claims to act on its behalf…

There is no Subject who knows, and neither intellectuals nor ordinary people are that subject. Is this a deadlock then: a blind man leading the blind, or, more precisely, each of them assuming that the other is not blind? No, because their respective ignoance is not symmetrical: it is the people who have the answers, they just do not know the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer…. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that the prohibition of incest is not a question, an enigma, but an answer to a question that we do not know. We should treat the demands of the Wall Street protests in a similar way: intellectuals should not primarily take them as demands, questions, for which they should produce clear answers, programs about what to do. They are answers, and intellectuals should propose the questions to which they are answers. The situation is like that in psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but does not know what they are the answers to, and the analyst has to formulate the questions. Only through such patient work will a program emerge.

I am reminded here of my post on Lacan’s pedagogy.

The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time

This post emerges out of a close reading I did of one of Negri’s toughest texts, “The Constitution of Time,” which is in the Time for Revolution book put out by Continuum. I’m referencing the hardback edition, which has different pagination than the paperback edition. My thanks to Adam, Anthony, and Brad for hosting the post at AUFS.

I’d suggest that Negri’s “The Constitution of Time” can be understood as part of a contemporary ethical project. I am using “ethics” here in the sense of a way of life, and it’s how I understand Negri’s usage of “the practice of theory,” such as the following statement: “When the practice of theory is directed simply towards the constitution of the transcendent, time is non-existence. Time is multiplicity. Time is a theological scandal.” (30) I think that his (uneven) attempt to chart out a materialist theory of time is more readily understandable in these terms, and I’d like to  draw out the main contours of this ethics in order to clarify his pervasive recourse to the language of hope. Given Negri’s grounding of his own project in Spinoza, this is something I’ve found a bit troubling, even though I’m willing to entertain the idea that Negri does the some kind of rewriting to terms like hope that Spinoza famously does with God. Nevertheless, reading through “The Constitution of Time” was a bit of a revelation for me in my study of Negri, and despite the fact that this text is at times even more difficult than The Savage Anomaly, I’ve found it pretty helpful for getting a sense of what he’s up to in terms of his own ethics.

The first place that Negri’s ethics can be detected is in his polemical opposition to the “re-equilibrating calculus” of Keynes and Polanyi. (41) The fundamental distinction in Negri’s text is between the empty, reversible, measuring time of capitalism, and the constitutive, composing, open time of communism. Negri suggests that the second has been made possible by the first, which for him is why the “overcoming of capitalism occurs on the basis of needs constructed by capitalism.” (26) The more that capital has expanded on a global scale, the more difficult it becomes to measure labor with time. When capital has expanded far enough, when it “invests the whole of life,” then “time is not the measure of life, but is life itself.” (35) This paradox is one way to describe real subsumption; in conquering life, capital has seemingly become victorious once and for all. There is no longer an alternative to the M-C-M’ relation. Continue reading “The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time”

Hedging communism

Yesterday Interccect hosted a lecture by Jodi Dean over her new book The Communist Horizon. It was my first time meeting Jodi in person after many years of online interaction, but more importantly it was a great lecture.

One thing that came up frequently in the Q&A was the issue of how we can know that advocating communism won’t lead straight to the worst excesses of Stalinism. She had addressed this question already in the lecture — saying, for instance, that the very existence of the question shows that we “know better” at this point and that there’s no reason to assume that history will repeat itself in exactly the same way — but she also admitted that part of her theory is that there can be no absolute guarantees in politics, so that tyrrany is always a danger to some degree in any political formation.

I was pretty satisfied with her answer, but the insistence of the question made it clear that some people needed more. That’s why I am announcing an exciting new financial product that will provide peace of mind to those who are interested in advocating communism but worried about the risk: Stalinism Insurance. In the event that a totalitarian dystopia emerges, the policyholder will get a generous payout to help them escape. We also offer a “Get Out of the Gulag Free” certificate to be presented to the authorities in the event of a purge, and we are currently cultivating relationships with literary agents to help our policyholders sell their memoirs.

Please do not hesitate to contact me about setting up a payment plan.

Red October

InterCcECT proudly presents Jodi Dean, “The Communist Horizon”  Saturday 27 October, 4:30pm, generously hosted by Gallery 400. Based on her brand new book, the talk urges us to imagine new Octobers.

*theorizing October*

(highlights from our calendar, which contains links and details):

12 Oct Laurence Hemming, “Production: Formerly This Was Called God: Heidegger in dialogue with Marx”

13 Oct Frances Ferguson, “Economic and Sentimental Reasons”

15 Oct Anthony Paul Smith, “Liberating Lived Experience: François Laruelle and the Work of NonPhilosophy”

16 Oct Michael Hardt, “The Right to the Common”

16 Oct Ramin Takloo-Bighash, “History, Theory, and Practice of Prime Numbers”

17 Oct Adam Kotsko,”Agamben on Liturgy and Politics”

17-19 Oct UIC French, “Inequality and Exclusion:The Theory and Practice of Human Rights”

18 Oct Achille Mbembe, “Notes on Fetishism and Animism”

26-28 Oct DePaul Philosophy, “Hegel and Capitalism”

29 Oct Danielle Bergeron,”Psychosis As It Is Lived”

Propose or announce your October aspirations by contacting us , and “like” us on Facebook for frequent links.