So here’s one of the dilemmas, or (Kantian) antinomies, that I have been wrestling with lately. It has to do with the mutations, or changes in social spacetime, that are grouped under the categories of neoliberalism, postmodernism, post-fordism, the network society, the society of control, etc.
I am deliberately leaving these terms more or less vague, rather than trying to explicitly define them; they serve here as general markers or pointers; their significance is precisely what I do not want to presuppose. “Neoliberal” refers mostly to the ideology that “free markets” and privatization are the best ways to manage everything. “Post-fordism” refers to the way that production is organized (although actually, I’m inclined to agree with Jameson’s recent suggestion that we should call the current situation “Walmartification” or “Waltonism” rather than “post-fordism”; instead of paying workers well enough that they can afford to buy the commodities they produce, capital today works by paying workers so little that they can only afford to buy goods from the high-volume, discount outlets at which they work, or where the cut-rate products they make are sold). The “network society” (Castells) and the “society of control” (Deleuze) refer, not directly to production, but to other aspects of how social power and control is organized. “Postmodernism” is a more general cultural category, and therefore the vaguest term of all.
Now, what I am calling an antinomy in the discussion about what has changed today, as compared to the Fordist, Keynesian, welfare-state capitalism I grew up with (I’m 52), could be summarized as the difference between (a certain reading of) Marx, and (a certain reading of McLuhan). It has to do with how modes of production, and forms of power and control, relate to technosocial changes. The movement from Fordism to Walmartization is also that from massive assembly lines in Detroit to “flexible” and “just-in-time” production systems dispersed around the globe; from an economic system centered on industrial production to one that seemingly pays more attention to advertising and circulation; and from technologies of mass reproduction to technolgies of communications and computing that shrink space and time, and incite multiplicity and diversification.
Now, on the one hand, many Marxists tend to deny that there is anything like a rupture, or a fundamental change between the old Fordist regime and the current Walmartized one, or between the old hierarchical corporate structures, and the current decentralized, networked ones, or between the formations of discipline and those of control. There have indeed been some tactical adjustments in the appropriation of surplus value; but this doesn’t make for that great a difference in the way that capitalism works. The same basic system of exploitation still obtains. For instance, take some recent comments by Nate at What in the hell…, expressing a great deal of exasperation with Deleuze’s contrast between the 19th-century society of discipline and enclosure (based on “molds, distinct castings”), and the 21st century society of control and debt (based on a continual process of “modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point”):
The role of confinement is certainly important. But to my mind there’s a more important sense of enclosure which renders the passage from discipline to control (if it happened/happens) as much a relation of continuity as of break. That is, simply, the enclosure upon which the capital relation is premised: the imposition of lack of access to means of subsistence and the destruction of problematic collectivities in order to create the conditions wherein the sale of labor power as a commodity is basically mandatory.
Nate’s point here, I think, is twofold. First, the differences that Deleuze observes between the societies of discipline and control are, at the most, changes in tactics within an overall practice — that of exploitation, or extraction of surplus value, in the process of production — that remains dominant and unchanged. Second, both sorts of tactics (enclosure and modulated control) were at work in the era of capitalist industrialization, in 19th century; and both tactics are still at work today. This means that Deleuze’s distinctions are trivial at best, when they aren’t entirely spurious. And Nate therefore rejects Deleuze’s claims for new modes of subjectivity (and implicitly, for a radical redefinition of class consciousness) in postmodern society. And the same would go, presumably, for all the other arguments that proclaim a massive change as the result of the new electronic technologies (computing and communications) of the last thirty years or so.
On the other hand, there is the McLuhanite argument, for which these technological changes are absolutely crucial. A change of medium, McLuhan says, makes for a change in the sensorium, an alteration in the “ratio of the senses.” The mutation of subjectivity therefore has to be taken seriously. And this necessarily also implies changes in social, economic, and power relations. This is where Deleuze’s rupture, from discipline to control, would take place. It’s also where the figure of the consumer takes center stage alongside (or even instead of) the worker, or better where these two figures are merged. Hardt and Negri thus speak of “affective labor,” which is more important than the old productive kind (or, more accurately, which subsumes and includes old-fashioned industrial production together with much else). Lazzarato speaks of “immaterial labor,”, and of the separation of the capitalist enterprise from the factory. Deleuze and Guattari even speak of “machinic surplus value,” which would be extracted alongside the old-fashioned sort of surplus value that comes from living labor, since we are in a “posthuman” era where the distinction between human beings and machines, or between variable and constant capital, is no longer as rigid as it used to be. Many theorists also speak of circulation as taking over from production as the main sphere of capitalist activity. Edward Li Puma and Benjamin Lee, referring to the frenzied trade in derivatives that is the most massive form of financial transaction today, argue, for instance, that “circulation is the cutting edge of capitalism… “circulation is rapidly becoming the principal means of generating profit, absorbing the capital formerly directed towards production.” There are many of these sorts of formulations; and they are often accompanied by a disavowal of the very possibility of Marxist analysis: the claim that this is a totally new situation, in which Marx’s “productivist” categories no longer apply.
Now, the reason that I started by calling this situation an “antinomy” is that, although these two points of view seem incompatible, I think that they both apply, or that they both are necessary. I do think that the social, technological, economic, and ideological changes of the last thirty years are massive, and that they do mark a rupture in the ways that the world is organized, and in the forms of subjectivity that constitute us, that we experience or inhabit. Our sensorium has indeed been fragmented and reorganized, as we move from a writing-centered to a multimedia, polycentric, post-literate form of life. Many of the old Detroit auto factories have been closed, and replaced by new manufacturing processes dispersed around the globe, and controlled by “general intellect,” or affective, immaterial labor. Advertising and branding, circulation and consumption, have taken a more central role than ever before. Lazzarato is right to say that, today, “consumption can no longer be reduced to the buying and ‘destruction’ [i.e. “consumption” in a literal sense] of a service or product… first of all, consumption means belonging to a world, joining/endorsing [adhérer à] a universe” (excuse my somewhat clumsy translation). This is why I think Deleuze is right in emphasizing the radical rupture that constitutes the new society of control. And the consequence of this is that traditional Marxist ideas about class consciousness, about organization, and so on, need to be completely rethought, from the beginning. (From this point of view, the trouble with Hardt and Negri’s notion of the Multitude is not that it abandons traditional proletarian consciousness, but that it is still too close to the old model of proletarian consciousness, and thus fails to take the full measure of the changes that, in other parts of their work, Hardt and Negri delineate quite well).
However — and this is the other side of the antinomy — I also think that the major result of the new electronic technologies, of the neoliberal “freeing” of markets, of the extension of surplus value extraction outside of the factory, and deep into the circuits of circulation and consumption, of the increasing colonization of leisure time as well as work time, of the primacy given to “information” (and of the way that “information” has become a new frontier for what Marx called “primitive accumulation,” i.e. the private appropriation of what was formerly common) — I think that the result of all of this is precisely that Marx’s delineation of “capital logic” — his exploration of the processes of exploitation (surplus value extraction) and capital accumulation, and of their wider (extra-economic) consequences and implications — is more valid today than ever, more universally applicable than it was in Fordist days, or even at the time when Marx was actually writing. Nate says, against Deleuze, that the old disciplinary worker “was also involved in other circuits of production other than those of surplus value production (this is always the case – value production is smaller than the total set of human activities – unless one posits an absolute identity between capital and life)”; and that it is only by ignoring these other activities that Deleuze can posit the discontinuous quality of life in the disciplinary society, in contrast to the presence today of a “continuous network.” But the point is precisely that “an absolute identity between capital and life” is in fact the tendential goal of capital: this absolute identity is the asymptotic point which will never (one hopes) actually be reached, but to which we are very much closer today than was the case thirty years ago or a century ago — closer precisely because of the new material technologies of computing and communications, and the new politico-economic technologies of marketing and control, that dominate our lives today.
The Kantian “solution” to the antinomy with which I began can therefore be stated in terms of the relative roles of production and of circulation. Traditional Marxist thought, of course, emphasizes production, and regards circulation and exchange as being merely of secondary importance. Marx himself famously invites us to “leave this noisy sphere [of circulation], where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow [the capitalist and the worker] into the hidden abode of production,” where the secret of surplus value can be unveiled. Nonetheless, we must not regard the relation of production to circulation as one of inner essence to outward appearance, or base to superstructure – as orthodox Marxist theory has all too often done. For production itself cannot lead to profits, and to the further accumulation of capital, unless the produced commodities are actually sold. As Kojin Karatani puts it, “industrial capital earns surplus value not only by making workers work, but also by making them buy back — in totality — what they produce.” And this requires the entire apparatus of circulation, as expressed in Marx’s formulas C-M-C and M-C-M . Without circulation and consumption, the whole system of commodity production and capital accumulation would come to a halt. The continuing instability, and frequent failure, of circulation – as a result of overproduction, or what (the non-Marxist) William Greider calls the “supply problem” – is at the root of capitalism’s periodic crises. This is why circulation can well be the cutting edge of postmodern capitalism, without thereby invalidating Marx’s insights about the accumulation of capital, and the incommensurability that is at the basis of how capital extracts a surplus without equivalent from the production process despite adhering punctiliously to the rules of “equal exchange.”
So I find myself conflating the logic of capital and commodities with the logic of technology and media. Or — as others may see it — I find myself pleading guilty to the sins of both economism and technological determinism. A McLuhanite Marxism? Why not?