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?
12 thoughts on “A McLuhanite Marxism?”
(Stephen? Steve? Please tell me what’s correct, I’m neurotic about manners) Thanks for the attention, I’m flattered. I’m bogged down w/ stuff right now so a longer response will have to relate. For now, here’s my take:
First, I don’t mean to say that D’s work is trivial (I don’t like it, in part cuz I don’t understand it and that makes me feel dumb, but that’s not an argument), nor do I think there’s no new forms of subjectivity. I think break or continuity (new or old) are relative to the frame of reference, and I can see possible uses for both terms. I find in what I’ve read of Deleuze and the uses of Deleuze I’ve encountered – Negri in particular – that there seems to me an overemphasis on break. I’ve tried to address this in a few places at my blog re: Negri, one such place is here:
My point boils down to that I think there’s a real danger in positing a conservative view of the past and the possibilities that were in it in certain conceptions of the present as having a radical break. This is the case w/ Negri as far as I’m concerned. This isn’t fair to people from before, which is trivial because they’re already dead. More importantly, it could serve to limit the role that research into the past could play in providing both emotional and intellectual/organizationl inspiration for us in the present.
That’s my basic worry and what I’m trying to push against – any kind of closing off such that some site becomes a priori not looked into for possible uses now. In particular I’m interested in the site(s) of historical research into collective organization, which there’s not enough work done on. I hear in the claims to a radical break with the past a possible note of “there’s no need or use for that kind of research.” At a minimum I can say that that’s certainly not my experience – I’ve found writings from the Fordist era on organization (in particular Martin Glaberman and Stan Weir, but also the bits I’ve read about what IWW members used to do when in jail together) tremendously useful in/for my own small efforts at/experiences with workplace organizing. Which is not to say work by/on new subject can’t be useful too.
I hope this is clearer.
I wrote a longer response over at mine.
Hi, Nate —
Thanks for your long and thoughtful response, here and on your own blog, to my posting’s interpellation of yours. I suspect that our differences are largely ones of emphasis (which doesn’t mean that they don’t come down to qualitative differences when the emphases are different enough).
I take your point, for instance, that “productivist” approaches were never accurate, or never particularly good as readings of Marx, in the first place; and that, therefore, to say that changed conditions render the “productivist” account obsolete is to ignore the fact that such an account never really applied in the first place. Therefore, “whatâ€™s needed instead of a new account of a new situation is a better account of the old one.” The thing is, though, that even if, as you say, “this account already exists in partial form, in voices marginalized within marxism and elsewhere in theoretical and political traditions,” I still maintain that it is the (new) present situation that makes these marginalized voices more visible today, and that makes the need to expand and complete them, to give a non-productivist account, more urgent than it might have seemed to be in the past.
More generally, this also rightly relates to the point that, as you say, both continuity and rupture are relative terms, and the degree to which we posit one or the other depends on the context from which we are speaking. The question of how much relative weight we give to either continuity or discontinuity is therefore a pragmatic question rather than one of principle, or of trying to objectively determine just how “real” this or that seeming break might be.
For me, it seems more important than it does to you to emphasize a break (between the Keynesian/Fordist/welfare-state world in which I grew up, and the Malthusian/neoliberal one that we inhabit now). This comes down to saying, in concrete terms, that I do indeed find somebody like Lazzarato extremely useful and accurate, in detail, in his account of how ‘immaterial labor’ has come to prevail in the world today (alongside, and often governing or regulating, the more familiar factory-floor labor), and how “affect” or “lifestyle” is a big part of corporate products today, and has moved to the center of marketing and of consumer subjectification. At the same time, I groan when — at some point or other in all of his articles I’ve read — Lazzarato makes the ritualistic assertion that this somehow renders all of marxism obsolete. This is of course wrong, because the whole process that Lazzarato traces is based precisely on — and only makes sense in terms of — the drive to valorize surplus value through the sale of commodities, in order to further the accumulation of capital. I’d even say that what Lazzarato gives us, that (say) Adorno and Horkheimer do not, is a more “economistic” account (instead of one just in terms of abstract “domination” and “instrumentalization”) of what it means for capital to be colonizing leisure time as well as work time, and transforming everything, impalpable experiences as well as durable goods, into commodities.
All this was of course implicit in capitalism from the very beginning (however and whenever we locate that beginning). But I still think that it wasn’t until recently that it became as explicit (and therefore as central) as it is today. In a simple sense, I am just trying to account theoretically for the fact (and the implications of the fact) that, when I was a teenager, there were no personal computers or VCRs or ATMs; there was also no such thing as massive third world debt, or gigantic shantytowns in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, or major economic depressions around the world triggered by delirious currency speculation; and brand names and corporate logos certainly didn’t play as massive a role in our collective consciousness as they do today.
I think we both agree that the “logic” of these changes is best understood in terms of the exploitation, appropriation, and accumulation that were diagnosed by Marx. Where we disagree, is in our sense of how (ultimately) significant the changes themselves are, as factors that need new formulations in order to be made sense of — I mean something like how difficult it is to trace them in relation to the larger structural processes that continue to obtain. In this respect, I don’t disagree with your sense that we mustn’t just throw out the past and say that everything written before a certain date is obsolete and irrelevant (I am exaggerating here for emphasis). I also don’t disagree with your warning that it isn’t just a matter of periodization, because “thereâ€™s tremendous variation across spatial and other distributions.” Periodization is just a tool, not an essential difference — though it is a tool that (account taken of “residual” and “emergent” formations, etc.) I find more useful than you do.
That leaves us with the question of subjectivity, the big one, and the one where our differences are probably greatest. Frankly, I don’t quite know how to tackle it at this point. The heart of your argument, it seems to me, is when you say:
“I donâ€™t think that the way the pesent is already composed for us – the way the world is organized for us, the ways we are already constituted – should be our primary object of inquiry or point of departure. Rather, the ways we (re)compose the present and ourselves should be first (the struggle of the working class).”
This is precisely where I am totally stymied — and where I think that we are all blocked to some extent — because the major effect of the reorganizations of the last thirty years has been to reorganize affect and subjectivity in such a way that such a subjective (re)composition has become much more difficult even to imagine than used to be the case. I am thinking of how commodity and brand identification have become so much a part of immediate experience; of how atomizing assumptions about “individuality” and “personal responsibility” have blocked efforts to think in class or collective terms; about how, as Mike Davis says in his recent book about global slums, even in the poorest shantytowns micro-class-differences have been manufactured in ways that makes any sort of organization difficult. To my mind, theories of ideology don’t work very well to explain how all this works; we need to think in terms of affect about the organization and orientation of consciousness (which is where I find Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault for that matter, the most relevant).
All this may just leave us back where we started, but I hope what I’ve said provides some clarification of our mutual differences, at least.
Steve (that’s my preferred mode of address).
Thanks for clarifying. You’re right, much of this is a matter of emphasis.
I’m uncomfortable with formulations like “in the present X becomes more visible/audible” unless it means specifically that some group has become more organized and deliberately active within/upon some plane of perceptibility. I say deliberately because some folks – undocumented immigrants, say, or anyone involved in crime – want to avoid a certain perceptibility, at least some of the time. And since I’m tremendously ambivalent about political representation and delegation, even this is something I’m not sure about (does a group – in the sense of a class or a demographic – do something deliberately? or do representatives of a group do so in the name of the group? do some groups internal to the group contest the move to visibility or delegation?). And, of course, these groups were perceptible to themselves and to some others – that’s my other worry, that a discourse of perceptibility implies a valuation of importance. In some ways I don’t think I can – or that I want to – get away from this (I’ve got a reductive “it’s all about class”/”it’s the economy, stupid” streak that I want to retain), but I’m nervous about vanguards and labor aristocracies and I think this kind of stuff may feed into those dynamics. Certainly with regard to Negri.
Those confusions and worries on my part aside, I think some of our difference of emphasis is, for lack of a better term, generational. I’m 27. I don’t really remember Keynsianism (I got food stamps a while in 2001 and had a few glorious months of collecting unemployment in ’03 or ’04 but that’s as close as I come. I think in some respects if I could get somewhere with a functioning welfare state and sign on for the dole I would completely abandon all radical principles and just enjoy not working.) I’ve mostly worked in immaterial labor kinds of gigs so I really appreciate that aspect of Negri, Lazzarato, et al – it’s important to me that they take apart the factory centered (obfuscatedly normative) world view of much received Marxism (though I think they tend to re-import a different obfuscated normative ideal for/of the working class).
I’m very invested in having a relationship with the past, in knowing about things that happened before and how they were attempted – both for the sake of inspiration and for some use in regard to how to do things now, how to do them better, and how to reflect on our activity. What is to me the overemphasis on rupture threatens to add to what is, for me (and I think for a lot of other folks around my age), a relative lack of historical memory and tradition of struggle. Being older than I am, and just being a different person, I can see how this isn’t the same issue for you. Having grown up more or less in the present, I think, emphasis on the differences between present and past don’t really speak to me. If anything, I find them a bit disorienting (because if the differences get big enough it becomes hard to have a point of comparison – this is bracketing again to what degree some of the picture of the past may be inaccurate in folk like Negri). I can see, though, how for you it’d be important to precisely make such a contrast, as you’re trying to make sense of the present compared to something you remember being different. Not to put words in your mouth.
(And I should say, I’m also invested in the idea that folks in the past really had a chance to make the world genuinely better. In Negri’s take, for instance, or in any strongly determinist historical materialism, it sounds to me like there couldn’t have been truly revolutionary success prior to the present, which means that not only are all of our forbears basically losers – which is kind of unavoidable, they did lose, though in some cases not without making some important differences – but worse, they were deluded in thinking they couldn’t be otherwise. That makes reading them less useful and less inspiring, and I think it’s also just not the case. Not that you’re saying this, but these are some of the stakes bound up w/ all this for me.)
On the subject stuff, a lot of this is relatively new or unclear to me as well, especially at the theoretical level, such that I need to think it all through more and better. One really important person for me in all this has been Harry Cleaver, do you know his work at all? He says somewhere something to the effect that we on the left are really good at articulating the many things that are done to us, the degradations people face, but a lot less good at articulation people’s capacities and present activities to fight back and to be otherwise. I think that’s a really important point. It becomes perhaps theological in a sense – an insistence on the possibility of a form of grace in an indubitably fallen world – but it is possible to point to this-worldly phenomena to support the idea. (For instance, recent US events around immigration, the NYC transit workers strike, the organizing going on to try and hold Duke and the lacrosse scum accountable, etc.)
everything you say here makes sense to me. Including your sense of needing to recover the positive aspects of the past, and your suggestion (following Cleaver) that making critiques of how messed up things are is a lot easier than actually constructing an alternative.
And yes, some of this may have to do with our respective ages. The thing is, for all the critiques that were (correctly) made of the Keynesian/Fordist/Welfare State, it seems from a contemporary perspective as a time when the balance of forces were a bit different, when unions made more of a difference, when some of the evils of capitalism were at least mitigated in comparison to where we stand now.
Absolutely. On this same note, I find stuff like Zizek’s attacks on liberalism and so on which circulate in the blog dimension leave me cold in that it’s like, liberalism? That’s what you’re worried about? I wish the liberals were the primary enemy today! (Cue the Monty Python ‘Yorkshire Men’ skit.) That’s something else Negri’s not as good on as I wish he was (not to harp on uncle Toni), decomposition. Sometimes – most of the time – our side just loses, and it sucks, such that criticisms of the limitedness of our victories, while important, sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth given how rare those victories are.
Wow, fascinating and, for me, incredibly timely discussion here as I’m wrapping up a paper on exactly the issues encapasulated by the Fordism/Post-Fordism, discipline/control periodization.
I totally agree with Steven’s (if I may?) insistence on the importance of both sides of the the “antinomy.”
But I really value Nate’s points, too.
A great source for looking at Fordism is Mark Rupert’s case study, _Producing Hegemony: The Politics of Mass Production and American Global Power_. But my contention is that Rupert’s Gramscian leanings lead him to undervalue the subjectivity/affect/biopower side of things.
In my paper I contrast Rupert’s focus on the Ford Sociological Department with the (seldom discussed) Ford Motion Picture Department which, for a time, had greater distribution and produced more films than any other Film studio on earth. The biopolitical valence of cinema was itself “born in the factory” and the time-motion labor of looking (assembling images) suggests the simultaneity of the material and aesthetic technologies of capital.
Turning to the Ford Motion Picture Company I suggest, through a reading of Jonathan Bellerâ€™s critical theory of the “attention theory of value” and the “cinematic mode of production”, that the representational regimen of the Ford-Taylor paradigm troubles a strict Fordist/post-Fordist periodization, showing that Debordâ€™s â€œsociety of the spectacleâ€ cannot be thought apart from the Fordist factory regime. In the same scene that material labour, (attending) body, and nation were being organized and territorialized according to the dictates of assembly-line mass production, industrialization itself was being deterritorialized through its role in the emerging paradigm of â€œimmaterialâ€ labour, â€˜the visual,â€™ and the social-technological production of subjectivity: through industry’s involutionary movement into cinema.
“Extensive” and “intensive” power, formal and real subsumption, reinforced the other from the very beginning (Ford’s Motion Picture Department was established in 1914, the same year as the celebrated 5-dollar day-wage).
I’m currently tarrying with the posthuman dimension to so-called “immaterial labor” because it complicates Beller’s “attention theory of value.”
Hopefully the above isn’t entirely incomprehensible.
Also of interest is Nicole Shukinâ€™s 2005 PhD dissertation, â€œAnimal Capital: The Material Politics of Rendering, Mimesis, and Mobility in North American Culture.â€ Shukin takes a thoroughly materialist (and rigorously theoretical) approach to the cultural-material nexus of the rendering of animals, automobiles, and images in the 20th century. It’s available as fulltext PDF through the Proquest database.
Wal-Mart claims that over 50% of Americans now shop at a Wal-Mart at least once a month and the poorest people are the most likely to shop there. They offer this as proof of their more or less correct politics — that they are a boon to the working class. In Oneonta, NY — a town of about 15,000 which doesn’t include the 7000 students from SUNY Oneonta or Hartwick College — there is a Wal-Mart. It is just outside the boundary of the town so that they don’t pay taxes to the town. But almost everyone who lives in the town shops there because what remains of old main street are billiard halls, a few pubs for the students, but the grocery stores are shells and the family department store has gone out of business. This is true for most of the small cities of the northeast.
But here is my problem with the analysis that’s been presented — our workers don’t produce much of anything that they buy. What they buy has been produced almost entirely in China. Go to a Wal-Mart and check the bottom of almost any item. In the 1960s it would have said Made in Taiwan. Today it says Made in China. 90% of what we buy was made by cheap and even slave labor in communist China. Communist China. Communist China. Communist China. Communist. Communist. Communist China.
I suppose that’s where I derail reading this. We buy the products of slave laborers from a system that has attempted to end the iniquitous inequities of capital. The products are pretty good, too.