Now that I have handed in the final manuscript of my Whitehead book, I am trying to return to The Age of Aesthetics, the manuscript that I left unfinished two years ago, when various other and more pressing things (including the opportunity to write the Whitehead book) came up.
What follows is a quick and dirty, and overly compressed, attempt to clarify the larger stakes of this project:
Of course, there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? Itâ€™s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the â€œnegation of the negation,â€ or the â€œexpropriation of the expropriators,â€ would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the â€œfinal conflictâ€ of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzscheâ€™s Overman, that â€œwhatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.â€ The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our â€œempowermentâ€ as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal â€œreformsâ€ of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.
This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marxâ€™s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marxâ€™s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marxâ€™s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marxâ€™s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx â€œwrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence â€“ issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalizationâ€™s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marxâ€™s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.â€
From this point of view, the problem with Marxâ€™s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. â€œMarkets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest openingâ€ (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adornoâ€™s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusserâ€™s Spinozism, his view of history as a â€œprocess without a subject,â€ but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?
All this explains why cultural Marxism turns away from Marxâ€™s own â€œeconomism,â€ and back to the subject. It seeks after some voluntary principle: some instance that is not just passively determined, that is capable of willing and effecting change, and that escapes being caught up in the redundancy of capitalist circulation. By rehabilitating agency, and by foregrounding particular practices of resistance, cultural Marxism hopes to find some sort of potential for overcoming capitalism. This reinvention of the subjective element takes many forms. At one extreme, there is Zizekâ€™s hyper-voluntarism, his fantasy of enforcing a rupture with capitalism, and imposing communism, by dint of a sheer, willful imposition of â€œruthless terror.â€ At the other extreme, Adornoâ€™s ultra-pessimism, his hopelessness about all possibilities for action, is really an alibi for a retreat into the remnants of a shattered interiority: a subjectivity that remains pure and uncontaminated by capitalism precisely to the extent that it is impotent, and defined entirely by the extremity of its negations. Despite their differences, both of these positions can be defined by their invocation of the spirit of the negative. Adornoâ€™s and Zizekâ€™s negations alike work to clear out a space for the cultivation of a subjectivity that supposedly would not be entirely determined by, and would not entirely subordinated to, capital. For my part, I cannot see anything creative, or pragmatically productive, in such proposals. Neither Zizekâ€™s manic voluntarism nor Adornoâ€™s melancholia is anything more than a dramatic, and self-dramatizing, gesture. That is to say, in spite of themselves they both restore subjectivity in the form of a spectacle that is, precisely, a negotiable commodity. In the world of aesthetic capitalism, critical negativity is little more than a consoling and compensatory fiction.
On the other hand, it is hard to say that those variants of cultural Marxism that present agency and subjectivity affirmatively, and without recourse to negation, do much better. J. K. Gibson-Graham tell us that the Marxist image of capitalism as a closed, voracious, and totalizing system is an error. They offer us the cheerful sense that a plethora of inventive, non-capitalist economic and social practices already exist in the world today. This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached â€œthe end of capitalism (as we know it).â€ Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.
For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the â€œobjective conditionsâ€ for communism, but also the â€œsubjective conditionsâ€ as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marxâ€™s vision: â€œThe centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.â€ Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.