What is to be done?

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? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” 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 “final conflict” 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 Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” 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 “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” 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 Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’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 Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’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 “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’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. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’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 Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” 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 Marx’s own “economism,” 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 Zizek’s hyper-voluntarism, his fantasy of enforcing a rupture with capitalism, and imposing communism, by dint of a sheer, willful imposition of “ruthless terror.” At the other extreme, Adorno’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. Adorno’s and Zizek’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 Zizek’s manic voluntarism nor Adorno’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 “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” 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 “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” 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 Marx’s vision: “The 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.” 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.

9 Responses to “What is to be done?”

  1. Aaron P. says:

    Steven,

    I wonder what your thoughts might be regarding the possibility that capitalism may ultimately undermine itself by exhausting the material resources that sustain it, thereby triggering a socio-industrial collapse. What light does this possibility shed on the problems of subjectivity and old-school Marxist teleogy?

    Despite his diagnostic acumen, there is no way Marx could have foreseen peak oil, global warming, the mass extinction of species, and the approaching threshold of planetary carrying capacity. His takes on both capitalism and its revolutionary alternative seem to presuppose that industrial civilization will go on forever. But what if that’s simply not the case? What notion of agency–and what manner of systemic thinking–do we appeal to in the face of such a contingency?

    These issues seem to complicate the current dilemmas of radical politics in ways that current thinkers are not really ready to confront. Hardt and Negri in particular seem to give short shrift to the question of industrialism’s temporal horizon. Any thoughts?

  2. Aaron, I don’t have any answer, really. I do think that we need to reject the idea that *scarcity* is the fundamental human condition. Obviously a lot of our problems come from the way that we assumed certain natural resources would never run out… and now we are discovering that they will. But I’d argue that this is itself another way that we have unnecessarily produced scarcity, by mortgaging our technology and our lifestyle to those limited resources. As far as I know, the sun won’t run out for several billion years yet. So in that sense, I do not believe that green technology need entail lowering our standard of living to that of the poorest people alive today — it is still feasible to contemplate a high standard of living for everyone in an ecologically sustainable manner.

  3. r krahn says:

    I wonder if Zizek’s Bartleby, his “I prefer not to,” is something different than both the negativity and the voluntaristic “imposition” you ascribe to him. Instead, it seems like this “I prefer not to” is a creation of a type of productive space. That is, it avoids mere refusal/negativity (the type of refusal characteristic of Jacques Vergès’s advice to his clients that they simply refuse to accept the terms of the accusations put before them: the terrorist line of defence).
    That said, I am having a difficult time reconciling his Bartleby with his (Vergèsian?) pro-terror position.

  4. Aaron P. says:

    Steven,

    Thanks for the feedback–in which I actually do discern the preliminary outlines for a general philosophical approach to the contigency I mentioned. If I may infer a formulation, it would seem to go something like this: we shouldn’t allow the incipient consequences of a socially-produced scarcity (e.g. the end of petro-industrialism) to reinforce the ideological reification of scarcity into a supposedly “natural” fundament of human social relations.

    This idea actually seems to have valuable empirical applications in regards to the shape of the future. For instance: should we be forced to return to a predominantly agricultural mode of production, it could be used to resist the instantiation of a neo-feudal order. Or, supposing the post-petro landing is softer than that, it could be used to resist the corporatist or statist monopolization of alternative energy (a new form of capital accumulation).

    In my more dire moods, my fear is that despite their produced character, the types of scarity with which we will soon be forced to reckon are going to have too catastrophic an effect on social condtions to leave much room for anything like organized resistance or the exercise of mass agency–at least throughout much of the present century. There simply may not be enough time left for a soft transition to an alternative energy economy. But then, even in the midst of chaos, there is still the question of agency.

  5. Kirby Olson says:

    Nashian game theory would seem to provide one sense rather than a “planned economy” of a kind of one “invisible hand” (Smith) washing another — thus cooperation may be more ingeniously prescribed in Smith than in Marx, according to Nash?

  6. schluehk says:

    I do think that we need to reject the idea that *scarcity* is the fundamental human condition.

    But don’t you reject the need of labor in case of rejecting scarcity? So whats left from the human condition in a Marxists reflection when labor is not being fundamental?

  7. It may be the case that we should look at Bataille’s theory in *The Accursed Share*.

    “The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically” (v. 1 p. 21).

    I’m not familiar with Marx’s theory on war and economy. I’m not sure if he even addresses the matter. I will look it up as I often have to.

    The website address attached is not mine. The principled, non-violent resistance towards war for the sake that excesses may be reabsorbed into the growth of equal shares is partial to my own sensibility. (awk) Please take time to read.

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