Economics cannot solve politics

I recently read William Clare Roberts’ book Marx’s Inferno. I was attracted by the notion that Marx structured his work according to Dante’s poem, but that connection proved to be a framing device for Roberts’ attempt to recontextualize Capital within the socialist debates of his own time. The upshot of this rereading of Capital, vol. 1 (which Roberts treats as a self-contained unit that represents Marx’s mature views on every topic it addresses — a move that I know many will find questionable) is that several classical features of Marxism are undermined. First, there is no intrinsic necessity for the progress from capitalism to communism, no teleology. Capitalism is a hell, not a purgatory — we need to escape it, not go through it as some kind of necessary penance. Second, he completely rejects the idea that Marx thinks capitalism is cool because it lays the foundation for a post-scarcity society. Instead, Marx sees in the capitalist mode of production (especially factory production) a novel social form that makes possible a new form of collective agency and control.

From this perspective, it seems that the blind alley of 20th Century Communism was its effort to create a post-scarcity society by using planning mechanisms that would supposedly deliver higher rates of growth than unplanned capitalist development. In the case of the USSR, that led them down a path of developing “heavy industry” almost as an end in itself and demanding endless sacrifice — ranging from political freedoms and everyday creature comforts — on behalf of the future generations who would enjoy “the material conditions of full communism.” Every political decision was justified by reference to the magical post-scarcity future that would answer every political question automatically. This utopia of pure economics is similar to the promise of neoliberalism, which attempts to deactive all political participation and decision-making by imposing economic standards and constraints. The supposedly automatic mechanism of the market makes decisions for us, removing any possibility of principled dispute or conflict.

As you will see in my forthcoming book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I am a huge critic of “Arendt’s axiom” on the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic, which I view as a fatal flaw in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos. So I don’t want to say here that we need to favor the political over the economic or resist the eclipse of the political by the economic or anything like that. The two realms really are inseparable, and I shouldn’t have to belabor that point. What I want to suggest here is that the idea that economics can replace or solve politics is a fantasy generated by capitalism itself — a strategy for legitimating its power structures as something other than power structures, its forms of oppression as something other than oppression.

If Marx really did believe that a sufficient level of economic development would automatically solve all serious political problems, then he would be the ultimate capitalist ideologue — and the 20th Century Communists who believed that was his teaching wound up becoming fodder for capitalist ideology, because the primary ideological lesson we are taught to take away from the experience of the USSR and pre-Deng China is that any alternative to capitalism is (in one of those grand ideological self-contradictions) simultaneously terrifying, boring, and impossible. One wishes — even taking into account the impossible situation in which they found themselves — that they had spent more time developing the machinery of collective decision-making and a little less laboriously reinventing the machinery of churning stuff out for the sake of churning stuff out. If there are any lessons to be drawn from that experience, it is not that planning, done right, with computers this time, can finally bring us the post-scarcity paradise, but in the very gesture of planning itself — collective planning not as a way of churning out more stuff, but as a way of taking collective responsibility for ourselves and the conditions of our life together.

On having a fake culture

On a certain level, every human culture is fake, in the sense of being made up by human beings. Greater authenticity means little other than greater success in covering one’s tracks. That being said, there are some cultures that are more overtly fake than others. In The Total Art of Stalinism, Groys describes Soviet culture under Stalin as very self-consciously artificial — creating new cultural forms, new approaches from the past, even (improbably enough) new clichés, with no pretense to authenticity or rootedness. Indeed, the artificiality was the whole point. When the Soviet leadership de-Stalinized beginning in the 1950s, then, that meant that the “native” Soviet generation was informed that their entire cultural tradition — the only culture they had ever known — was not merely artificial, but defunct. And a big part of Groys’ motivation in writing the book was to share late-Soviet artists’ attempts to grapple with having been formed from the ground up by a political project that had run aground.

Groys’ argument resonates for me, because I, too, was raised in a fake culture: American evangelicalism. This point was really brought home to me by my reading of Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, where she deconstructs the cultural fabrications of the Reagan reaction. The fate of American evangelicalism is deeply intertwined with that act of cultural construction, to the point where I have been willing to declare that “evangelicalism” as we know it today has no authentic connection to pre-“religious right” movements.

Continue reading “On having a fake culture”

Doing the math on Facebook

For many people, the Cambridge Analytica revelations are the last straw, leading them to delete their Facebook accounts or at least radically scale back their participation. And I am tempted. Facebook is often annoying, and it does tend to be a timesink — in fact, I sometimes find myself just scrolling and scrolling and scrolling without really reading anything. As a late adopter, who only joined after being forced from Twitter by right-wing harassment, I missed much of what made Facebook trying for others (constant contact with relatives and long-forgotten high school friends) and have found it mostly beneficial. It has given me a chance to connect with other academics, who are much better represented than on Twitter, and it has resulted directly in speaking invitations and other opportunities. And while we would all love to Make Blogs a Thing Again, the spell is broken: blogs and blog comments simply no longer function as the free-wheeling conversation they once were, and we can’t just will that back into existence.

For me, I’m not sure my outrage about Cambridge Analytica is enough to make up for all I would potentially lose. Some form of social media presence feels like a career necessity, especially given my somewhat tenuous situation. More substantively, I don’t see any other venue that allows for the kind of open-ended discussion that happens in the best Facebook threads. I can post about Haydn or obscure points of Hebrew grammar, and a lengthy thread will spring up that rivals the very best threads that I ever saw in the golden age of blogging. What am I gaining by quitting Facebook that would make up for that?

More broadly — and realizing that this can sound like a cop-out — I’m always skeptical of demands for me to change my personal behavior to solve systemic problems. People have come to expect the forms of connection social media makes possible, and simply demanding that they give it up without offering anything to replace it (or, even worse, making moralistic appeals to “get off your phone and participate in real life” or whatever) doesn’t seem like much of a solution.

The core problem is the ad-driven, click-counting model of the internet. Realistically, someone probably needs to create a range of competing alternatives that are not “free” and hence not ad-driven, which will then realign the incentives and give users a more direct way to influence corporate behavior. One reason Apple is marginally better on privacy than most tech companies is that they are primarily selling hardware, so you are not “the product,” as they say. If there was a moment we all collectively sold the store, it wasn’t when we clicked on the wrong news story or took a quiz on Facebook, it’s when we let ourselves be seduced by “free.” This whole fiasco is the price of the “free” internet. Even if Facebook as an individual company dies — and I would not mind it by any means! — the “free” internet will lead inexorably to another Facebook.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump

Next term, I am planning to use selections from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in Shimer’s senior capstone course, and yesterday I spent some time working through the text. Part of my motivation in using it is obviously its contemporary relevance in the Trumpocene — something that many others have picked up on, particularly given the uncanny coincidence that Election Day was (at least by some reckonings) the Eighteenth Brumaire. As the apparent coiner of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Sarah Palin, I felt I should weigh in on this important cultural reference.

Aside from the fact that Trump is as ridiculous and incompetent as Louis Napoleon, I think the core parallel between the two events is that each exposes the truth of the state in their respective eras. For Marx, Louis Napoleon exposes the fact that the bourgeoisie cannot coherently wield the power of the state, which stands as a power over against them. In our era, I would suggest that Trump exposes the limits to the neoliberal state, which tends to become a purely coercive apparatus whose sole goal is to guarantee capitalist profitability. The fact that Trump’s instinct for cruelty finds such easy outlets — above all in brutalizing immigrant populations — is evidence of this truth, and the fact that he can use the state as a platform for his petty resentments and crackpot schemes demonstrates that there really is no “there” there. The fantasy of the Deep State filled with principled public servants serving the public good is precisely that, a fantasy. To the extent that the American state apparatus ever had something like the public good in mind, that ethos has been systematically destroyed. Trump’s open profiteering is one logical endpoint of the development that has been underway since Reagan and even before.

Even “progressive” neoliberalism is caught in this bind. Obamacare is exemplary here, as its key innovation was to expand access to health care by coercing people into supporting the profitability of the hated private insurance companies. From one perspective, their profits were capped by the law; from another, they were encoded as an entitlement. The other two prongs of the attack were to coerce private employers into providing health insurance (unless they were not large enough to do this while maintaining profitability) and to strongarm the states into expanding Medicaid (which has increasingly become a disciplinary apparatus rather than a public support program). Seemingly the entire thing was engineered to prevent the direct provision of health insurance by the one level of government that was in a position to finance it. And when the Great Recession backed Obama into a corner, forcing him to use Keynesian stimulus techniques, he tried to render it as invisible as possible — providing “stealth” tax cuts that people wouldn’t notice (ostensibly so that they would spend it routinely rather than treat it as a windfall) and financing only “shovel-ready” projects that had already been planned. It’s as though the fact that government spending could be directly beneficial was an embarrassment that must be hidden from the people — presumably because awareness of the possibility of collective economic action independent of “the market” would undercut labor discipline and the profitability of capitalist firms.

My hope is that the lesson we can draw from the Trump era is that the left will give up the easy opposition between “the state” and “the market,” as though it is inherently progressive to favor the former over the latter. Trump shows that there is no inherently progressive impulse behind state power — perversely enough, we must now look to the corporate world for any institutional progressive gains in the coming years. A real transformation will not consist of favoring one side of the state/market, political/economic dyad over the other, but by refusing the distinction and rethinking from the bottom up the form and goals of the institutions we need to organize our collective life.

Lecture on Trump and neoliberalism

Last week, I gave a brief talk at North Central College about the relationship between Trump and neoliberalism, which was part of a series of TED Talk-style events hosted by the Political Science Department. Video is now available, and a full archive of all previous talks in the series can be found here.

The talk was pitched at an undergrad audience, and I was pretty happy with the solution I devised to the problem of how to define neoliberalism in an economical way. The basic thrust of my argument anticipates my conclusions from Neoliberalism’s Demons, albeit in a very compressed way.

Notes on a bad-faith critique of neoliberalism

In a recent article in America magazine, Nathan Schneider alleges that the left’s ideas about consent are eerily reminiscent of neoliberalism — and then jumps to the conclusion that the left should lurch toward a more traditional understanding of sexuality. I want to explain in detail why this is a bad-faith use of the critique of neoliberalism.

My primary critique of neoliberalism is the way that it entraps us through the illusion of free choice, effectively blaming us for any bad outcome we experience on the grounds that we freely chose it and need to live with the consequences. Consent discourse in leftist circles does not function in that way at all. It is a negative safeguard, based on the principle that any participant in a sexual act has the right to opt out at any time for any reason. This means that contemporary consent discourse is actually the opposite of the neoliberal rhetoric of choice, in that you explicitly don’t have to live with the consequences of a previous choice (consenting to begin a sexual encounter) if it did not turn out the way you hoped.

Rather than giving everyone just enough agency to be blameworthy, it empowers them in an ongoing way. And in this sense, it is not a contractual way of thinking, because as Carole Pateman reminds us, a contract removes agency — once agreed to, it effectively binds the contracting party. From this perspective, the “traditional” view of sexuality is much more neoliberal because more contractual: once you agree to marry someone, for instance, you are obligated to service them sexually in perpetuity. And while this would fall outside Schneider’s desired sexual morality, the old-fashioned patriarchal view that a woman who consents to sex basically signs herself over to the man for the duration would represent the same kind of neoliberal-style entrapment.

As for whether consent discourse can ground a more positive ideal of sexuality — obviously it can’t, but it doesn’t claim to. With its negative gesture, consent discourse is opening up a space for experimentation, grounded in a trust that if a culture of consent truly takes root, people will naturally tend not to consent to acts that are harmful or destructive. That is, it opens up the possibility of developing a sexual ethic not based on arbitrary taboos or scapegoating of sexual minorities, but upon lived experience.

The article does have a small sliver of a good point, because consent language does carry the danger of slipping into contractual thinking. And yes, at that moment, consent language devolves into an echo of neoliberalism — but at its best, it models an anti-neoliberal way of thinking about free choice and agency.

Defence Mechanisms

When conservatives hear the suggestion that they should do something good, they hear it as an accusation and a threat. Instinctively, they turn it around on the accuser, exhorting them sarcastically to do this supposedly good thing and predicting that disaster will fall on their heads as a result — and rightly so.

When liberals hear the suggestion that the law should directly pursue just ends, they hear it as an accusation and a threat. Instinctively, they turn it around on the accuser, predicting that they themselves will be excluded and violated in a legal order that sought substantive justice — because the only alternative to empty formalism is a positive evil.

When neoliberals hear the suggestion that they should do something good or the law should directly pursue just ends, it doesn’t even register and they just continue on with their “best practices,” oblivious and content.