Politics and/or Political Economy

Sorry for not posting for so long. Things have been just too busy recently. Hopefully, more substantial, and more frequent, posting will resume soon. For the moment, some rough comments about politics and economics — or what used to be called (and probably should be called again) political economy…

Sorry for not posting for so long. Things have been just too busy recently. Hopefully, more substantial, and more frequent, posting will resume soon.

For the moment, some rough comments about politics and economics — or what used to be called (and probably should be called again) political economy. Zizek notes, rightly and usefully, that Marxist theory is characterized by a parallax — an unresolvable alternative, where both terms are necessary, yet each one disqualifies the other — “between economy and politics — between the ‘critique of political economy,’ with its logic of commodities, and the political struggle, with its logic of antagonism.” (As I have noted previously — here and here — Zizek gets the term “parallax” from Karatani, though he endeavors — wrongly in my opinion — to replace Karatani’s rigorous Kantianism with his own Hegelianism). The political focus of thinkers like Badiou and Ranciere — and Zizek himself? — means that they tend to elide Marx’s emphasis on economy; while Marx himself, in Capital, so emphasizes economics that he fails ever to link up his complex analysis of exploitation under capitalism with the political praxis that is the ostensible goal of his analysis.

I’d like to give a somewhat different twist to Zizek’s observation, by looking, from a different angle, at the parallax between politics and political economy in recent theoretical discussions. I am inclined to agree with Fredric Jameson (though I cannot find the exact citation) that the specific difference of a Marxist approach is precisely that it focuses on economy rather than on politics. You don’t need Marxist theory to do a political reading of contemporary culture — such a political approach is precisely what characterizes Cultural Studies in the US and the UK. But Cultural Studies generally elides political economy: it may mention “class” in a sociological sense (as in: how people define their own class status, and how they regard groups whose status is higher or lower than themselves); but it almost never looks at the systematics of exploitation and capital accumulation. It may well denounce “neoliberalism” in general terms, but it almost never thinks about how the Market has become the horizon of thought today, the a priori that is so deeply embedded in the background of everything we think and do, so taken for granted, that we scarcely even remember that it is there.

But I am not just talking about Cultural Studies — I am thinking about a lot of (other) recent theoretical work as well. It seems to me that economy is being elided (in favor of politics) whenever there is talk about power and domination, without linking these to processes of exploitation and capital accumulation. It seems to me that this elision is taking place in all the arguments about Agamben’s “bare life” and the notions of sovereignty and the exception. Much as I love Foucault, it seems to me that this elision is taking place whenever people invoke Foucault’s theories of governmentality (not to mention biopower and the control of populations — I do not think biopower can be understood apart from the investments and accumulation of capital). And it seems to me that this elision is taking place when Zizek writes of “surplus enjoyment” (instead of surplus value), of the obscene superego supplement, and of the alleged “decline of Symbolic efficacy” (this latter notion I especially dislike, because it seems to me to be just a sophisticated veneer overlaying the old conservative complaint that without Absolute Values and Authority to guide us, we slip into nihilism and/or anarchy. Isn’t Zizek really just a neoconservative of the left? — understanding neoconservatism, in the manner of Wendy Brown, as an unavoidable supplement of neoliberalism, shoring it up, insofar as the latter is always threatening to collapse).

Political economy is what’s missing from all these analyses. And I think that political economy needs to be brought back into the picture. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of energy was spent arguing (rightly, I think) against essentialism, and against the old base/superstructure model of a certain old-fashioned variety of Marxism (and of a certain strain in Marx himself, admittedly) which asserted that the economy was the fundamental cause and center of everything, and that all other levels — politics, culture, and so on — were mere epiphenomena. But the result has been an elision of political economy altogether. I agree with Deleuze, Foucault, Latour, et al. that systems are complex and can never be given a monocausal explanation; and that local practices and processes cannot be subsumed under a single Big Picture. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot make any sort of directional or general statements about “capitalism.” We can recognize, with Nigel Thrift, that “capitalism” and “the market” are “made up of institutions which are manifold, multiform, and multiple,” so that “there is no one capitalism or market but only a series of different capitalisms and markets”, or that “capitalism is ‘instantiated’ in particular practices” — yet this is not a license to simply abandon all talk of capitalist mechanisms like exploitation, expropriation, and capital accumulation. (What’s wrong with Latour, and his Actor Network Theory, in particular, is that they do indeed take locality and bottom-up description as an alibi for evading the movements and processes of Capital altogether).

In other words, it is possible to argue that political economy is necessary, that it needs to be put back in the picture, without having to argue that it is the “base” or the ultimate determinant or any other such metaphysical thesis. Ultimately, I am a Whiteheadian in metaphysics; which means that I think any abstraction, the one that reduces things to political economy as much as the others, is necessarily incomplete, and leads to confusion if it is given a “misplaced concreteness,” pushed beyond the limits within which it makes a certain sense. But the flip side of this position is the recognition that abstraction is necessary, that thought cannot do anything without it, that we won’t get anywhere without the partiality of abstraction. Political economy is not the base or the ultimate explanation and cause of everything in society; but it is the abstraction, or perspective, that we need right now, in this world of neoliberal globalization.

One of a number of reasons why I still find Deleuze and Guattari so worthwhile, is that — almost alone among “post-structuralist” thinkers — they do not elide political economy. Their formulations — especially in Part 3, sections 9 and 10 of Anti-Oedipus — remain crucial for any attempt to comprehend how Marx’s account of capital remains relevant for today’s “network society.” I have great difficulty in following many of the ways that contemporary Deleuzians make use of notions of the “virtual,” and especially of the “body without organs.” But these key Deleuzian concepts do make sense to me in terms of the body of capital, and of the way that capitalism, and especially “postmodern” or “post-Fordist” capitalism, is all about capitalizing and capturing potential, commodifying the abstract and the impalpable, and harnessing “innovation” and “creativity” for capital accumulation.

Of course, going back to the “parallax” with which I started, affirming political economy runs the counter-risk of eliding the practice of politics proper, of not addressing questions of antagonism, and of “what is to be done?” The more one comprehends the reach of Capital and the Market today, the harder it becomes to believe that any of the recent political proposals on the left — from Cultural Studies’ quaint faith that watching soap operas can be “oppositional,” to Hardt and Negri’s faith in the uprising of the Multitude, to Zizek’s romantic fantasies of Party discipline and an absolute Leninist rupture — can actually come to anything. I find myself led, in spite of my own better instincts, to a kind of Adornoesque despair, and to a pessimism both of the intellect and of the will. Nonetheless, I remain unapologetic about such negativistic gloom. For I continue to believe that the only way out is the way through, and that, if the point is not to interpret the world, in various ways, but actually to change it, that such change will never come about without a Spinozian understanding of the Necessity that constrains us — or (better) without a Whiteheadian understanding of the inseparability of the permanent and the transient, of the necessary and the contingent. And such an understanding today needs to pass by the way of political economy.

14 thoughts on “Politics and/or Political Economy”

  1. Welcome back. I am curious how your “Adornoesque despair” — caused by the need to address political economy as if it were the base or structure of everything metaphysically speaking while acknowledging that it can’t in fact be the base or structure of everything — differs from the (widely and often wildly misinterpreted) position Derrida tried to stake out in Spectres (remembering your post on this book a while back).

  2. It’s a minor point, but I thought the “decline of Symbolic efficacy” was related to the internal contradiction in capital as it necessarily colonizes the mind through its extension into mental and creative work.

    My understanding is that Z. views the collapse of the Symbolic as a symptom of late capital in crisis as an observation, not as some kind of nostalgic wish. But perhaps I misread.

    The notion of a Party and discipline (which is just a call for politikal organization) doesn’t appear “too” much of a fantasy – I instead view an Adornoesque despair and negativistic gloom as the typical intellectual romantic position.

    But it could just be the jet lag.

  3. As someone who has since gone from romantic optimism (Students for Nader, Green Party USA, etc.) to “Adornoesque despair,” I’d like to speak up for the latter.

    My own Adornoesque despair is refracted through Kafka’s remark, “there is hope, but not for us.” For us, there is no hope. But if not for us, then for whom? In a mood perhaps ultimately more Emersonian than truly Adornoian, I would say: for those yet to come. (Yes, Derrida is present in this mood as well, but I prefer Emerson.)

    The task for us to make possible the coming of those for whom there is hope, and that means, as Steve said, understanding the present. Only through writing a history of the present — and I very much like how Whitehead is set off against the Spinozist hegemony here! — can the outlines of futurity stand revealed.

  4. I didn’t think I was setting Whitehead against Spinoza, so much as recommending him as an amendment/recasting of Spinoza.

    And although Adorno, alas, seems more and more relevant to me as I get older, I think of all this more as a kind of (inverted? I’m not sure) Kantian imperative. Kant warns us, in the First Critique, against the temptation of trying to push our understanding beyond the limits within which it works and is defined — although he recognizes such a pushing-beyond as an unavoidable illusion. But he also suggests, in the Second Critique, that we must — in the sense of a duty — think against (and thereby, perhaps, beyond) the limits that circumscribe our horizon, or define our conditions of possibility: in a process that Foucault (reading Kant with Bataille) calls an enigmatic process of nondialectical contestation. And in the Third Critique, still more enigmatically, Kant opens up the thought of aconceptual singularities, which do not transcend the limits of cognition, but take exception to it from this side, from within.

    To my mind, this sort of Kantian approach offers a better way of negotiating the despair I was writing of, than does Derrida’s spectrality or endlessly deferred futurity. This is why I more or less embrace Adornoesque melancholy, while keeping much more of a distance from Derridean melancholy. I think that Adorno, far better than Derrida, approaches this Kantian sense of limits.

    Not to mention that Adorno, but not Derrida, understands the crucial role of political economy.

    In the original French editions of volumes 2 and 3 of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, there was, on the back covers, a motto from the poet Rene Char that did not make it into the English-language edition. It said (and excuse my feeble attempt at translation): “The history of human beings is the long succession of synonyms of the same word. To contradict this history is our duty.” Today, it is the ubiquity of the logic of capital, of the market, of the commodity, that it is our duty to contradict.

  5. Its time to replace the insult ‘vulgar Marxist’ with a different one: ‘vulgar anti-Marxist’. Which would cover both the refusal to acknowledge any econimic determination, as well as anxious rewritings of them into other codes. Or in other words, both Foucauldians and Zizekians.

  6. hi Steve,
    Great post. I agree. I think the political-economic relation has to be thought through carefully, though, so as not to repeat any of the many mistakes littering much of the marxist tradition. I’m partial to seeing the economy as a political relationship and as the most important one in the world today. On this also, I think it’s important that by “market” one emphasize the labor market, which is also present in socialist countries (ie, state capitalism).
    take care,

  7. Sorry to post twice, I had another thought, this one on the Adorno/despair thing. I’ve not read all of any of the critiques but one of the things I like best in Kant is the “as if,” acting like there is an intelligible world but not making a claim about intelligibility or nonintelligibility of noumena. There’s also a bit I like in the Religion with the Limits of Alone where he says that people should ‘proceed as though’ everything depended on them. The other thing this makes me think of is Badiou’s assertion of ‘keep going’ as the primary ethical principle, which he I think sometimes expresses via the Beckett quote “can’t go on, must go on” which has a sort of Adornian sensibility I think.

  8. I always think credit should be given to St. Paul when it comes to asiffing…as Badiou reminds us.

  9. Hi Steve,
    I just had a thought. I had some music on while washing some dishes. A song came on with a line, “just throw your hands up at the sky” and it’s ambiguous as to whether it means “throwing up one’s hands” as in exasperation, or if it’s “wave your hands in the air, wave them like you just don’t care.” The thought that struck me about both options, though, is that they are both that same “as if, ” acting as if powerless or acting as if free from other cares. It seems to me that both are connected with certain aesthetic experiences, for me with music – in my case music that’s really depressing or angry more than really happy (so, usually it’s exasperation more than carefreeness). I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything, but I thought I’d paste it here in case it connects with the age of aesthetics and/or with Kant (I’m only on the beginning of the 3rd critique so I don’t know if this is relevant to that or no). This does suggest, I think, that as much as I want to valorize the as-if (a la Badiou’s Paul as figure of militant subject), I think it’s also compatible with capital and valorization, since it’s one of the selling points (use values) of at least some commodities – “as if you just don’t care” whether in a carefree or aestheticized despondency.

    ps- Ken, that’s the direction I want to take this stuff in too, not necessarily Paul but themes addressed by Badiou. The ‘as if’ as indifference rather than claim about identity, it’s partly my wanting to dodge around having to engage with ontology.

  10. Nate,
    I agree that “as if” can go both ways; the point is that aestheticism can go both ways, which is part of what I am trying to work through in my book (which therefore opposes the common idea that aestheticism is merely or only reactionary). But more of a case might be built for the moral or categorical as if: act as if you are a rational and free being, etc; and, human beings must be approached as ends and not merely as means (which, as Karatani says, rules out the market-capitalist economy in which people, together with all else, are only means).

  11. “Given the choice between accomplishing something and just lying around,
    I’d rather lie around. No contest.”
    — Eric Clapton


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