Capitalism, Consumerism, and Waste

No system of exploitation is ever total, just as no machine is ever one hundred per cent efficient. There is always some friction, some entropy, some dissipation of heat. In every process of transformation, some energy is lost. And this is true of capitalism as well. When social production is organized and appropriated by the monstrous body of Capital, Deleuze and Guattari say, then “a part of the libido as energy of production [i]s transformed into energy of recording (Numen)”; and again, whenever some of the circulated social product is consumed, “a part of this energy of recording is transformed into energy of consummation (Voluptas).” The crucial point, in both cases, is that only “a part” of the energy can be carried over from one form to another. The rest is lost. This sets a limit upon the overall accumulation of capital.

As Georges Bataille reminds us, non-capitalist economies often value and celebrate the very experience of loss, so that economic waste becomes a source of non-economic authority, power, or prestige. But capitalism rejects the logic of “unproductive expenditure,” and seeks instead to overcome this loss, or at least to reduce it to a minimum. Neoclassical economists fetishize efficiency, and construct idealized mathematical models from which all waste and friction have been magically eliminated. And in practice, capitalist innovation is largely driven by the compulsion to abolish waste, and to exploit every last bit of potential. Under the threat of competition, businesses are always trying to squeeze more out of the connective synthesis of production, to appropriate a greater portion of its energies. They accomplish this by increasing the productivity of labor: that is to say, by intensifying the extraction of what Marx calls relative surplus value. But of course, no matter how far this process is carried, full efficiency is never achieved. There is always something lost, and therefore always room for further intensification and further savings.

The disjunctive synthesis of recording also involves a necessary loss. This comes in the form of what Marx calls the faux frais of the circulation process. There will always be some “cost of circulation, which does not add anything to the values converted,” but rather “means a deduction from the product.” Now, Marx himself has great difficulty in determining just which activities in the sphere of circulation entail such a loss, and which are in fact productive (value-adding). And we may well agree with Jonathan Beller that, in the age of communicative or aesthetic capitalism, “the circulation of capital” must itself be “grasped simultaneously as productive and exploitative,” involving the direct extraction of surplus value every bit as much as production proper does. Nonetheless, this does not suffice to eliminate the faux frais of “storage costs, maintenance costs, protection costs, interest on capital etc., without counting the waste and spoiling which nearly all commodities suffer when they are inactive for long.” Neither bookkeeping, nor the storing of unsold inventory, nor anti-theft protection is costless — even though these practices may well serve to protect against other, greater costs. In circulation and distribution, no less than in production, some value is always leaking away, subtracting itself from the divine energy (Numen) of “self-valorizing” capital.

Energy is also dissipated in the conjunctive synthesis of consumption. In theory, wage laborers under capitalism should only receive the minimal income that is needed to replenish their expenditure of labor power, and reproduce their conditions of existence — so that they are available to work for another day. But as Marx notes, these conditions of existence are themselves historically variable: “the number and extent of [the worker's] so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country.” For instance, in the developed world today, things like televisions and mobile phones — not to mention toilet bowls, and toilet brushes to clean them — are included in the “means of subsistence” that workers receive in exchange for the sale of their labor-power. (This is one area in which union activity, and other forms of so-called “reformist” political activity, do indeed have concrete, observable effects upon the quality of people’s lives). In any capitalist society, the level of replenishment, or the excess of historically determined “necessary requirements” over literal bare subsistence, must be marked as an unavoidable deduction from the accumulation of capital.

Another way to put this is to note that workers are also consumers. As Kojin Karatani puts it, capitalism’s alienation of its workers, and its consequent “separation between the spheres of production and marketing,” leads to a situation in which “laborers are totally equal to consumers… It is not that individual workers buy the very same things that they produce, but that in totality… laborers qua consumers buy what they produce.” One result of this identification is a displacement of attention from production to consumption, leading to “the illusion of the consumer subject that plays a major role in consumer society.” By privileging consumption, neoclassical economics elides the labor process altogether. It ignores questions of the organization of production (connective synthesis) and of the allocation of resources (disjunctive synthesis). Instead, it focuses exclusively upon the individual consumer’s “preferences” and “choices” under conditions of supposed scarcity. (Deleuze and Guattari would call this a “segregative and biunivocal” use of the conjunctive synthesis). In this way, neoclassical economics makes considerations of efficiency mandatory; and it renders both exploitation and waste literally unthinkable. Within the neoclassical framework, there is no way to conceptualize them at all.

Nonetheless, consumerism is not a mere ideology. It would be wrong to say, as old-fashioned Marxists sometimes used to do, that we are “really” workers rather than consumers. Rather, these two functions are always intertwined. Consumerism is an “objective” illusion, one that effectively functions, and has actual consequences, in our everyday lives. The prospect of dissipation through consumption is a necessary compensation for the tedium of productive labor. As workers, we are almost entirely constrained. We have to continue working, just in order to survive; and we have to obey the orders we receive in the workplace. And even though we acquiesce in these harsh conditions, the surplus of our productive activity is still stolen from us. There is nothing uplifting or liberating about productive industrial (or, for that matter, post-industrial) labor; which is why the old-line Marxist (Stalinist or Stakhanovite) glorification of the “heroic worker” is so ludicrous and grotesque. If this were all, then wage labor would be little different from slavery. And indeed, David Graeber precisely argues that “industrial capitalism [i]s an introjected form of the slave mode of production… what one buys when one buys a slave is the sheer capacity to work, which is also what an employer acquires when he hires a laborer. It’s of course this relation of command which causes free people in most societies to see wage-labor as analogous to slavery, and hence, to try as much as possible to avoid it.”

But this is only one side of the story. Deleuze and Guattari say that, when we return to the scene of production as consumers, we are given a sort of compensation or bribe: we recover a “residual share” of the surplus that was stolen from us in the first place. There is always a “residual energy” returning to us in the form of enjoyment: a “residual share [une part residuelle],” a “recompense [un salaire],” a “reward [une prime].” There is always “a share [une partie] that falls to the subject as a part of a whole, income [un revenu] that comes its way as something left over” — however feeble and inadequate this sum may be. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that the subject per se is most accurately “defined by the share of the product it takes for itself [la part qu'il prend au produit], garnering here, there, and everywhere a reward [la prime] in the form of a becoming or an avatar, being born of the states that it consumes and being reborn with each new state.” The subject, so defined, has “no ego in the center”; it is “nothing but a series of singularities… collecting everywhere the fraudulent premium [la prime frauduleuse] of its avatars.”

It is no accident that Deleuze and Guattari’s terms for describing this subject are primarily economic ones, referring neither to wages nor to “profit of enterprise,” but to revenue derived from the ownership of property (interest or dividends). The subject of the conjunctive synthesis (the “schizo”) is a sort of rentier: not a prosperous one, but a pathetic figure of faded grandeur, such as we might find in the pages of Balzac, who barely ekes out a living from his various sources of income. Of course, the overwhelming majority of wage earners are not actually property holders even in this limited sense (except to the extent that the more fortunate among them might have paid off the mortgages on their homes, or might have saved some residues of their earnings in pension funds invested in stock and real estate). But Deleuze and Guattari seek to emphasize the radical incommensurability between the roles of worker and consumer, even though the same people are usually both. We are forced, as Karatani says, to buy back as consumers the very goods that we initially created as producers, and that were taken away from us. This “alienation” is the reason why my subjective jouissance as a consumer has nothing to do with my objectified toil as a producer. I do not consume in the same way that I produce. Even the money that I spend wastefully and gleefully, as a consumer, on (as Deleuze and Guattari say) “an imposed range of products (‘which I have a right to, which are my due, so they’re mine’)” seems utterly disconnected from the money that I earn painfully in wages or salary — despite the fact that it is, of course, exactly the “same” money. It is only, and precisely, in such a climate of disconnection that “acts of consumption” can be exalted as our only possible “expressions of freedom.” Or, as Graeber puts it, “rather than one class of people being able to imagine themselves as absolutely `free’ because others are absolutely unfree,” as was the case under slavery, in consumer capitalism “we have the same individuals moving back and forth between these two positions over the course of the week and working day.”

Finally, this crazed consumerism is the way that the capitalist mode of production manages a loss that it incessantly disavows, but that it cannot actually escape. Unproductive expenditure may well be the very point of the conjunctive synthesis of consumption. For this synthesis continually exempts or extracts something from the otherwise infinite processes of production and circulation. It provides a terminus for the otherwise aimless and limitless movement of the valorization of capital. For the conjunctive synthesis marks the point at which the circuits of money and commodities (C-M-C and M-C-M’) are broken, so that exchange comes to a momentary end. In the residual subject’s jouissance, the commodity is withdrawn from circulation, in order to be used up or destroyed. The conjunctive synthesis thereby deducts something from capital accumulation. And yet, without this synthesis and its deductions, the capitalist economy could not function at all. As Marx and Engels tell us, even in the ‘normal’ situation of bourgeois society, “a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.” Or, as David Harvey puts it, since capital is always in danger of being choked by overproduction and overaccumulation, it must continually resort to “violent paroxysms” of “the devaluation, depreciation, and destruction of capital.” Specifically, this is what happens on a major scale in moments of economic crisis. But on a minor or “molecular” level, the conjunctive subject or consumer is itself always in crisis — and it can only alleviate this situation by indulging in another round of shopping, purchasing, and consuming.

2 Responses to “Capitalism, Consumerism, and Waste”

  1. Kirby Olson says:

    Raymond Aron subsumes the artist in the garret under the heading of entrepreneur and also reverses the metaphor in arguing that the entrepreneur is also an artist (18 Lecons sur la Societe Industrielle). But the entrepreneur is actuall the greatest artist in society because their vision employs thousands and thousands.

    Proudhon’s notion of the individual artist-merchant that Marx thought of as a non-alienated worker is actually not true in reality. Someone like Warhol had to think of himself in the same way as the entrepreneur thinks of his factory, which is why Warhol had the brains to call his studio The Factory.

    Even in nature the bird or the wolf or the flower has to think of expenses versus income (in terms of calories). Or else it’s out of business.

    Darwin uses Smith as his model for understanding how nature worked.

    Creativity within humanity works better however if there is freedom for the entrepreneur. In the communist “planned economies” of places like North Korea and Zimbabwe not only is the artist constrained but the artfulness of the entrepreneur is also constrained such that nothing new can arise (most of what’s new fails, but some things take off –get legs — as the Broadway producers put it — or as we could say about mammals in the wake of the Ice Age).

    Hernando de Soto in Bolivia is arguing that what makes capitalism more possible in the west is a secure and simple set of laws. That this is the environment in which entreprenurial capitalism can grow. That environment in turn, seems to be best provided by the Judeo-Christian ethos, that details firm clear laws (10 commandments) outside of which, entreprenurial activity is terribly hampered, creating a desert.

    The worst environment of all is Marxism because it dismantles the rules, and allows for one small group of political poseurs to determine what can and should be made (the planned economy outside of which there is only the black market or in letters the Samizdat — even that may not even exist in places like North Korea).

    What you should be trumpeting is freedom of the market, freedom for individual creativity, based within firm clear laws, laws that for instance make it possible for students to disagree with professors, artists to disagree with critics, and where a certain individual liberty in general prevails. Of course most of it will be waste, just as in nature.

    Only 2% of baby alligators ever get to become adults.

  2. John says:

    “That environment in turn, seems to be best provided by the Judeo-Christian ethos, that details firm clear laws (10 commandments) outside of which, entreprenurial activity is terribly hampered, creating a desert.”

    “Only 2% of baby alligators ever get to become adults.”

    I frequently find myself arguing that American Christianity and social Darwinism are a match made in heaven (heh), but I can’t say I’ve ever seen a belief in the propriety of their relationship spelled out so explicitly . . . by a Christian. Because Christ taught the opposite of social Darwinism, I find your argument baffling. But in any event, the problem with social Darwinism is that there is no God up there, rewarding the virtuous with wealth and punishing the sinful with poverty. In order to believe that following the 10 commandments will make a country rich (this is televangelist-style prosperity theology, isn’t it?), you must believe that God exists. This does not make for a good critique of Marxism — Marx’s goal was not to dismantle the virtuousness that makes God decide to enrich religious adherents. He didn’t believe that the universe worked that way.

    The problem with capitalism and communism is the same — instinct. And so long as there is no apparent remedy to instinctive forces overriding reason, the supposedly inherent liberty of “free” markets musn’t be unquestioningly accepted. Of course, if you believe that God continuously messes about in “free” markets like some all-powerful day trader, you don’t really believe in free markets. You believe in the Christian karma of prosperity theology, a belief repeatedly contradicted by scripture itself.

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