Hyperbolic Futures

My essay “Hyperbolic Futures” attempts to think about the ways that speculative fiction (i.e. science fiction) works in relation to speculative finance (of the sort that has screwed us over in the last several years). I take a look back at my 2003 book Connected, Or What It Means To Live in the Network Society, and think about what has changed in the world, and in SF’s relation to the world, since then. And I discuss two recent, great SF novels in particular: Richard K. Morgan’s Market Forces, and Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland.

The article was published in the excellent SF journal Cascadia Subduction Zone, published four times a year by Aqueduct Press. Each issue is published both in hardcopy and in pdf, and the pdf version is released free on the Internet six months after intial publication. The issue that includes my article (volume 1, # 2) is now available for free download, here.

Debt

I leave tomorrow for Milwaukee, to take part in the Debt Conference sponsored by the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  My own talk is about how neoliberal “capitalist realism” leads to the situation in which, as Deleuze put it, “a man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt.”  Everything without exception is subject to cost-benefit analysis and enforced competition.

Speaking of capitalist realism and neoliberal logic — I can only add my voice to that of others in opposing the idiotic and venal decision to close the philosophy program at Middlesex University — as recounted here and here and here.

Roddey Reid on the culture of bullying

My friend Roddey Reid has published a great article on the public culture of bullying that has arisen in the United States in recent years. In the light of recent “tea party” activities, I think that the article is even more relevant now than it was when it was first published a year and a half ago.

Roddey has made the article available for free downloading:

Original version, published in 2008

French-language version

Revised and expanded “tea party” version

Peter Watts alert

Peter Watts is a brilliant science fiction writer — I have written about all four of his novels on this blog (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth, and (at greatest length) Blindsight).

Earlier this week, returning home to Canada from the US, Watts was assaulted for no good reason by US Homeland Security guards at the border, and charged with a felony for supposedly assaulting a Federal officer. Cory Doctorow has the whole story at BoingBoing, here. Watts’ own account of the incident is here.

Watts was released on bail, and is back home in Toronto, but he needs money for his legal defense. I am going to make a contribution, and I urge all everyone reading this to do likewise. (There are details on how to contribute on the BoingBoing page I cited already).

This is something that could happen to anybody, given how security mania connected with the so-called “war on terror” has become so completely excessive and out of control. But it sort of hits home when I see this happening to somebody whose work I greatly admire. (I do not know Watts personally, though I exchanged email messages with him once).

Economism

I think that Hardt/Negri are right when they suggest that a contemporary analysis of “the organic composition of capital” will involve great attention, not just to what capitalist corporations do internally, but to the “externalities” that greatly affect “the increase and decrease of value” (Commonwealth 141). But there is rather a too easy slide from this to the claim that “capital is increasingly external to the productive process and the generation of wealth. In other words, biopolitical labor is increasingly autonomous” (141). These two statements are not equivalent. The first one means that what is being expropriated from workers is not just their eight hours a day of labor power, but their entire body and soul, with all the knowledges and practices that are parts of the common lifeworld that informs them, and that they inherit. In this sense, it is perfectly true that predatory capital is extorting wealth today to an enormous extent through continuing “primitive accumulation”, and through what might be considered a sort of “ground-rent” on what was up till recently the commons,or general culture, until it was appropriated in the form of “intellectual property.” But — where Hardt/Negri say that “the exploitation of labor-power should be understood in terms of not profit but capitalist rent” (141), they really should have said “as well as” rather than “not… but.”

Hardt/Negri then make a sort of rhetorical slide when they move from the (correct) claim that capital is increasingly exploiting the entire life-world of the multitude, to the (highly dubious) claim that, therefore: “rather than an organ functioning within the capitalist body, biopolitical labor-power is becoming more and more autonomous, with capital simply hovering over it parasitically with its disciplinary regimes, apparatuses of capture, mechanisms of expropriation, financial networks, and the like” (142). The problem here is that capital has always been “parasitic” in this sense. Industrial production was/is no more “organic” than the current regime of immaterial production. (That is, unless you get rid of the old-fashioned, idealistic notion of what is “organic”, and understand that the relationship of parasite to host is itself entirely something “organic”). It is not as if workers in call centers and workers hired through temp agencies somehow have more autonomous control over what they are doing than workers on a factory assembly line. What we are still seeing is the expropriation of relative surplus-value.

The ambiguity here relates especially to the idea of the “real subsumption” of labor under capital. I think that Hardt/Negri are right to see the intensifying movement from merely formal subsumption to real subsumption as a characteristic of the current order. I agree entirely with them that today “capital might be said to subsume not just labor but society as a whole or, really, social life itself, since life is both what is put to work in biopolitical production and what is produced” (142). But I cannot for the life of me see how this can be inverted into the assertion that, therefore, “capital is increasingly external and has an ever less functional role in the production process” (142). (“Functional” is a strange word here. Capital is always dysfunctional in the sense that, as Marx often says, it introduces faux frais into the process of social reproduction. But it is highly functional in the sense that it coercively organizes production to the end of more intensive expropriation — I am inclined to agree with Max Weber that the whole point of capitalism, in contrast to earlier modes of expropriation, is that it “rationally” organizes its extortion). With real subsumption, the coercive organization of all life by capital for the purpose of increased expropriation is, if anything, intensifed beyond what it ever was in the time of merely formal subsumption.

Hardt/Negri can thus be denounced as guilty of the old Marxist sin of  “economism”, to the extent that they seem to argue that the advance of capitalist exploitation, in itself, somehow objectively leads to a situation in which the multitude (proletariat) becomes autonomous and is able to take the production and reproduction of life into its own hands. They even say that “the exercise of capitalist control is increasingly becoming a fetter to the productivity of biopolitical labor” (143); this is just a new formulation of the old idea, from the earlier Marx, that capitalism is doomed to collapse because the relations of production turn into fetters on the development of the forces of production. This is a position that Marx himself later nuances and problematizes greatly, and perhaps rejects entirely.

I think that Hardt/Negri’s claims that the current form of capitalist control interfere with productivity needs to be modified. They identify three trends that are needed in order for capitalism to control production, but that in fact limit production (145ff): destroying and appropriating the common fetters or reduces production, as does “precarization” of labor, and as does the enforcement of borders and the limitation of labor mobility. I am not convinced that these trends really cripple productivity in the way that Hardt/Negri say; rather, they all work to insure profits by transforming abundance into scarcity. Such measures do indeed lead to crises, as has been the case for the entire history of capitalism; but do such crises actually herald the end of capitalism?

I think not. Indeed, Hardt/Negri themselves quite accurately note that the inevitable, and repeated, economic crises of capitalism do not lead to collapse, but rather offer opportunities for capital to reorganize itself on a more intensive basis: “capital works by breaking down, or, rather, through creative destruction achieved by crises. In contemporary neoliberal economic regimes, in fact, crisis and disaster have become ever more important as levers to privatize public goods and put in place new mechanisms for capitalist accumulation” (143). It is extremely odd, therefore, that in the same paragraph where they observe this, they also argue that “subjective” crises, as opposed to “objective” ones, do indeed threaten the survival of capitalism by means of the contradiction between relations and forces of production. In Hardt/Negri’s own context, this distinction makes no sense. For all that they proclaim their allegiance to a Deleuzian affirmationism rather than to the old Hegelian vision of “the negation of the negation,” Hardt/Negri are in fact relying on a facile dialectical reversal in the bad old Hegelian manner.

“Economism”, in the Marxist tradition, has generally meant a belief in the inevitability of the fall of capitalism, and the birth of socialism, through objective economic laws alone. And I do think that Hardt/Negri can be charged with this, for all their claims to be radically rewriting Marx in accordance with the changed configuration of capitalism we face today. At the same time, I think that Hardt/Negri are right in their attention to economic processes, or to the accumulation of capital; in contrast to the way that Badiou, for instance, entirely dismisses such concerns, and turns instead to a romantic and mystical hyper-voluntarism. I think that Hardt/Negri are in fact at their best and most helpful when they discuss the “metamorphoses of the composition of capital” (Commonwealth 131-149); if only we leave out that twist of dialectical reversal at the end by which they endeavor to rescue things.

What I propose, therefore, is indeed a renewed “economism” — only without the sense of historical inevitability tacked on at the end. I haven’t really seen any arguments about agency, or about organization, that are more than futile compensatory fantasies. I think economism is of value, to the extent that at least it lets us see clearly what is going on, what the situation is, in which we are enmeshed. Economism would correspond, therefore, to Jameson’s famous call for a “cognitive mapping” of the world system of capital. It is necessary in order to account for the ascendency of finance capital in the present moment. It would let us better understand what has happened as the latest crisis has once again allowed for the reorganization and further consolidation of capital, rather than leading to even minimal changes in its oppressive functioning.

The positive functioning of “economism” is all rather vague for the moment — let’s just say it is something I am starting to explore and work on. I think that the whole subjective/objective opposition, which Hardt/Negri retain as a legacy of Hegelianism, needs to be questioned in the light of speculative realism’s attack on correlationism. The point would not be to get rid of the strong sense that economic arrangements are matters of concern for human beings in particular, but to understand the workings of such arrangements in a different way. I do not think that Marxist capital logic needs to be confined to the Hegelian framework, even if this framework is where he started out from. (Apologies for the vagueness of these final propositions; I am only at the beginning of thinking about them. Stay tuned).

“Totalizing” Marxism?

Some weeks ago, Nick at Speculative Heresy raised some interesting questions about the possible relations (or not) between Marxism and Actor Network Theory: “Across speculative realism, Marxism, non-philosophy and actor-network theory, one of the constant tensions is between a totalizing theory and what we might call an assemblage theory.” Now, this is something I have been trying to grapple with for quite some time.

Thirty years ago, in graduate school, I engaged, as a Deleuzian/Blanchotian, in endless arguments with my Adorno- and Jameson-influenced friends about the possibility and necessity of “totalization” — which they saw as a crucial imperative for Marxist thought, and which I denounced as a pernicious cognitive imperialism. They insisted that any attempt to historicize, or to mobilize critical negativity, necessarily implied an endeavor to totalize — even if this goal of totalization could never actually be reached. I supported assemblages and open systems, and saw the drive to totalize as an attempt to foreclose alternatives; I thought that the affirmation of difference would get us further than critical negativity.

Today, in my grim middle age, it seems to me that the whole debate was irrelevant and beside the point. But it is obviously a debate that is far from dead, since it keeps on coming back, and seems central to contemporary disputes between Zizek/Badiou and Hardt/Negri, as well as between theorists who retain a Marxist orientation and those who adopt the anti-Marxism of Latour and DeLanda.

When I say the debate is pointless, what I really mean is that I have come to occupy both of the supposedly opposing extremes, without seeing any contradiction between them. (I hope this means that I have performed the Whiteheadian operation of producing “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast”). On the one hand, I have become more cheerfully pluralist than ever; I no longer worry about the danger of totalization because I know that it is impossible, that there are always multiple perspectives, multiple links among things, potentialities that cannot possible be exhausted and encompassed by any sort of dialectic. Likewise, critical negativity can never be effective — there are too many things and relations that evade its grasp — so it is not even worth fighting against it. On the other hand, and at the same time, I think that the events of the last several decades have justified and validated Marx’s insights concerning the nature and tendencies of capitalism, to a degree that I couldn’t have imagined thirty years ago, no matter how “Marxist” I considered myself at the time. The accumulation of capital, the extraction of surplus value, the plundering that is equivalent to an ever-expanding “primitive accumulation”, the relentless commodification of all aspects of human life: all these processes are everywhere you look, working systematically — to the extent that I am perpetually dumbfounded, both by discourses that deny the systematicity or problematicness of capitalism, and to those that analyze power and domination and “the State” without taking them into consideration.

I am claiming, therefore, both that capitalism (or, if you prefer, the relentless process of capital accumulation) is indeed systematic, and that this has nothing to do with any arguments about totalization, or base and superstructure, or determination in the last instance, or any of those old categories of “dialectical materialism” and of a “thought of the negative.” Or, to put it in a slightly different way, I am sympathetic to Latour’s insistence that networked social processes cannot be explained in terms of global categories like “capital,” or “the social” – because these categories themselves are what most urgently need to be explained. And the only way to explain these categories is precisely by working through the network, and mapping the many ways in which these categories function, the processes through which they get constructed, and the encounters in the course of which they transform, and are in turn transformed by, the other forces that they come into contact with. But — and this is an extremely crucial “but” — explaining how categories like “capital” and “society” are constructed (and in many cases, auto-constructed) is not the same thing as denying the very validity of these categories – as Latour and his disciples are often wont to do. It is simply disingenuous when (as Nick describes it) ” Latour and the main ANT economist, Michel Callon, argue that capitalism does not exist.” I would add the same for Manuel DeLanda’s anti-Marxism, and for Gibson-Graham’s argument — much discussed in the responses to Nick’s post — that lots of inventive practices already exist, so that we have already somehow reached “the end of capitalism as we know it” (to re-quote my own comments from here). All of these denials that we have to do with anything that could be called “capitalism” seem to me to do violence to the evidences of daily experience

Of course,”capitalism” is a process, or a collection of processes, rather than a thing or an entity. We might substitute for “capitalism” the wordier formulations of capital accumulation, exploitation, “primitive accumulation,” and commodification — since all these are nouns that more clearly indicate process than “capitalism” on its own does. But in any case, the systematicity of these processes is itself something that is largely empirical, rather than somehow a priori. Capitalism is a grouping of mutually-reinforcing processes and relations that insinuate themselves into more and more areas of human existence — and not just “human” existence, if we are thinking, for instance, of ecological effects. A “radical empiricism,” like that of William James, insists upon the experiential actuality — which is to say the reality — of all sorts of relations and processes (in contrast to the way that classical empiricism restricts itself to static entities or isolated sense-impressions). Alternatively, we might think of the way that the line between what is empirically given, and what is necessary a priori, is itself rather blurry and changeable (this is an anti-Kantian argument that nonetheless acknowledges the significance of Kant — it has been made most explicitly in recent years by Paolo Virno via Wittgenstein; but it is also implicitly behind Foucault’s claim for historically variable epistemes or a prioris; it is also consistend with Kojin Karatani’s Kantian Marxism).

Therefore, I agree with Nick’s double claim that “there are some sort of systemic tendencies, but there can be no totalizing system”; but I don’t find it as insuperably difficult as he does “to square the circle and incorporate Marxism, non-philosophy and ANT together.” (I leave aside “non-philosophy” here, because I simply do not have an adequate grasp of Laruelle’s thought). When ANT-oriented people deny the existence of systematic categories, or historically produced and historically variable (relative) a prioris, this is simply because they aren’t empiricist enough — they fail to extend themselves to the point of James’ “radical empiricism,” or of Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism.”

I will let this stand for now, although I regard it as unfinished — there is a lot more to say. In particular, I would like to work out how all this relates to “speculative realism” (and especially to Harman’s brilliant reading of Latour). I think that Harman’s greatest weakness (I am less sure about Latour) has to do with his exclusive focus on entities (objects) rather than on processes, and, in consequence of this, of his underestimation or excessive rigidity in how to understand relations. [I cannot justify this comment at present; it is part of what I am currently trying to work out. Whitehead sees the world as being composed of processes rather than substances; on this basis, he gives an account of “enduring objects” that is irreducible either to Bergsonian total flux, or to Harmanian substance ontology. I think that Whitehead’s understanding of processes and relations is compatible with a sense of the long-term systematicity of something like “capitalism,” in a way that Harman’s and Latour’s formulations are not. But this is all something To Be Continued].

Biopolitics and political economy

A new paper proposal:

BIOPOLITICS AND THE RETURN OF THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY

In The Birth of Biopolitics, his 1978-1979 lecture course at the College de France, Michel Foucault makes a surprising turn towards the critique of political economy. At the start of the lecture series, Foucault sets out to trace the genealogy of the “art of government” in bourgeois society, with its ever-expanding attempt to manage bodies and populations. But as the series progresses, Foucault ends up giving an account, instead, of the logic of neoliberal economics, and of the new version of subjectivity (a mutation in the form of Homo oeconomicus) that corresponds to this logic. Foucault doesn’t explicitly denounce the logic of neoliberalism; but he dissects it with the cool distance of an entomologist discussing the life cycle of parasitic wasps. Foucault’s focus upon neoliberal economic rationality is quite prescient, coming as it does shortly before the accession to power of Thatcher and Reagan, and the US Federal Reserve Bank’s turn towards monetarism. This turn in Foucault’s thought is also surprising, because it cuts against the grain of the veiled anti-Marxist polemic that is present in many of Foucault’s other works. It almost seems as if Foucault were being forced, in spite of himself, to return from his usual concerns with governmentality, power and domination, and the incitation of discourse, to the fundamental grounds of the critique of political economy.

In taking a new look at Foucault’s lectures, I want to argue two points. First, that Foucault’s account of neoliberal rationality, centered upon the market, provides an important missing piece to a Marxist understanding of capitalism under the regime of flexible accumulation. And second, that Foucault’s own turn to the critique of political economy is, ironically enough, precisely what is missing from contemporary, post-Foucaultian accounts of biopolitics and biopower. My ultimate aim in this paper is to place biopolitics within the framework of capital accumulation and the contemporary regime of finance capital.

Communism at Birkbeck

I don’t have the presence of mind to summarize all of the presentations at the Birkbeck Communism conference, the way I did with Michael Hardt’s talk in my last post. But I can make some generalizations. Part of the appeal of events such as these is simply to see the academic superstars in action. From this point of view, the conference did not disappoint. Slavoj Zizek was in fine form, manic and excited, and so full of a kind of outward-directed energy that I didn’t really mind his overbearingness. Gianni Vattimo, whom I had never seen before (and of whose works I have only read a little) was quite a charmer, in a humorously self-deprecating way. Terry Eagleton reveled in the role of the British common-sense empiricist in a room otherwise full of dialecticians. Toni Negri was warm and animated, jacques Ranciere admirably meditative. Alain Badiou was… well, Badiou (more of which later).

The conference’s title was “On the Idea of Communism.” The idea, it was emphasized, as opposed to the harsh realities of day-by-day social and political struggle. I’m enough of an armchair communist (or petit-bourgeois intellectual, as they used to say in the bad old days) that I had no objection to such an emphasis. I agree with Zizek that we need to show a certain patience, to take a deep breath, to try to understand the contours of the situation we are in (or the conjuncture, in more traditional marxistspeak). But what does it mean to explore the mere idea of communism, as opposed to the actuality of capitalism? The idea of communism is to a large extent a negative one, in that we don’t really know what it would be like, only that it would mean the emancipation of people, and the establishment of forms of life that are repressed, oppressed, and denied an opportunity to flourish today. It’s utopian; or at least “communism” is the name for the only sort of utopianism that makes sense to me today — it makes sense precisely because it is not a religious or new-agey idea of perfectibility and salvation, but something much more down-to-earth. Communism has to do with “the common,” as Michael Hardt said, and this is a far different thing from, say, the “public” in its binary opposition to and dependence upon the “private.” It doesn’t mean giving up on our inner lives, but creating an environment in which such lives might flourish. And I don’t think that “communism” is really about politics — though politics is inevitably a large part of what is needed to get there,

There is also, of course, the question of the crimes committed by Communist parties, or in the name of “communism,” throughout the twentieth century. Zizek opened the conference by saying that the time for guilt was over, that in the 21st century we needed to reclaim the name of “communism” from the ill repute into which it has sunk. And I think this is entirely right — all the more so in that capitalism, too, is guilty of many crimes, but of ones which it still refuses to acknowledge, and for which it shows no repentance; not to mention the increasingly untenable situation in which we live today, exacerbated by the current financial disaster.

The conference showcased the major strains of Euro-communism (in which I also include North American leftist thought) today — though the rest of the world was noticeable by its absence. All the speakers were white Europeans or North Americans; 11 of the 12 speakers were men. The audience was more gender-balanced than the panels, but it was overwhelmingly white. This is quite disturbing (not because of any multicultural pieties of the sort that Zizek always criticizes, but precisely because it bespeaks a parochialism that “we” in the “West” have still only done a very poor job of breaking away from). Bruno Bosteels talked a bit about Latin American (specifically Bolivian) experiences and theorizations of getting beyond capitalism; and a number of speakers kept on coming back to the (very ambiguous) history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; but all in all, the conference was far less internationalist than it ought to have been.

In any case, by “major strains” of Euro-communism I basically mean those represented by Zizek and Badiou, on the one hand, and by Hardt and Negri on the other. Since in fact it was Zizek’s and Badiou’s conference, I kind of got the slight sense that Negri and Hardt were only there on sufferance, as it were; they were noticeably absent during the summing-up on the final day. Now, I’ve had my criticisms of both of these camps (as can be seen in many earlier entries on this blog); but “at the end of the day,” I am much more in Negri and Hardt’s camp than in that of the others. This was confirmed for me by the fact that both Hardt and Negri focused on political economy in their talks; whereas none of the other speakers (with the exception of Zizek, whom I will discuss later) so much as mentioned it.

Now, this might be justified to some extent by the argument that the whole point of “communism” is to imagine a society in which the current constraints of a capitalist political economy no longer apply; but this isn’t much of an alibi, when you consider that so many of the talks were, indeed, about how to get there  from here — Terry Eagleton’s talk filled with literary allusions was really the only one that was actually about imagining communism as a state of being, rather than just as the negation of what we have today (and his talk precisely showed, in a symptomatic way, the limitations of trying to imagine such a utopian situation — I must confess that his literariness made me cringe a bit, as it reminded m all too much of the atmosphere of graduate school in English at Yale in the 1970s (it isn’t that I don’t like Shakespeare; I do; but I don’t really find helpful an approach which acts as if movies and TV and the Internet didn’t exist; one can talk about Shakespeare just as one talks about Spinoza — but in either case it should be from our actual present situartion).

No, the problem for me with much of the conference is that political economy (by which I include what Marx called “the critique of political economy”) was pretty much elided by most of the speakers. For instance, Peter Hallward, with his usual lucidity, developed a rather alarming call for Jacobin rigor and discipline in the defense of virtue and the Rousseauean principle of the “general will”; but he failed to explain how such a state, analgous to that of the Jacobin clubs in 1790s France, could arise in the first place. A number of speakers went on at great length about the necessity of struggles against the “State”; but they seemed to do this with little sense of how State apparatuses work to support and reinforce capital and finance. The dirty little secret of neoliberalism is that the “free market” could not actually function if the government were actually to observe laissez faire, and to leave “the market” alone. For it is only by rigid State control over things like the money supply, together with rigid enforcement of “property” laws (based on the absurd fiction that, say, the genetic makeup of genetically modified crops somehow had the same inviolable status as my personal effects in my bedroom). It’s disheartening to hear people on the left denounce “the State” in the very same terms that the neoliberals hypocritically and misleadingly do. Not to mention that, as Bruno Bosteels put it in a question that none of the anti-State panelists were able convincingly to answer, this sort of analysis is distinctly unhelpful when we have a situation such as that in Bolivia, where President Morales is specifically using the power of “the State” — the fact of his election to office by a large minority — in order to improve economic conditions for the vast masses, even at the expense of the wealthy and privileged. [One might add that, in Bolivia as recently in Thailand and several other places, it is precisely the privileged bourgeoisie who have used the tactics of “people power”, with mass protests etc., in order to bring down democratically elected majority governments who threatened their privileges).

In particular, not only did Badiou leave out political economy from his descriptions of how the revolutionary event might challenge the capitalist status quo; but also, when questioned on this score, he explicitly denounced any attention to political economy as being the sin of “economism”. All this is caaptured in the video here. Badiou claims that economics can only be part of “the situation” which it is the business of a new “truth,” produced in an event and by fidelity to that event, to disrupt. Badiou shows his Maoist pedigree (as Ken Wark remarked to me) in this insistence on politics as the ultimate ruling instance. Instead of engaging in the critique of political economy, and seeing the political as so intimately intertwined with the economic as to makie any separation of them impossible, Badiou relegates economy, in a nearly Gnostic sort of way, to the realm of the irretrievably fallen. His notion of a pure politics (and a pure philosophy) unsullied by any contact with, or ‘contamination’ by, the economic, is really the mirror image of today’s neoclassical economics which imagines itself to be value-neutral and apolitical. What this comes down to is that Badiou is a Maoist without the Marxism — a stance that I find rather terrifying.

At his best, Badiou is a kind of no-Kantian — this is an appelation that he would reject, of course, and one that most contemporary philosophers would find damning (though I mean it as a sort of praise). What I mean by Badiou’s neo-Kantianism is that his whole notion of the event, and of the ethics of remaining loyal to the event, is something like a late-modernist version of the categorical imperative. The event is singular, and yet of absolutely universal import — it commands our obedience, regardless of our merely personal, “pathological” implications. Badiou even defines the event, and the way we are called to be faithful to it, in entirely “formalist” terms — we are commanded by the very form of the event, rather than by anything having to do with its specific content. This is an utterly Kantian way of thinking — and, unlike so many “hegelian” commentators, I find this empty formalism to be a strength, rather than a weakness, of Kantian ethics. But I shudder when Badiou goes on to denature this Kantian impersonal universalism by turning it into a Pauline or Leninist or Maoist form of what Kant would have called “fanaticism.” Again, I am no Leninist or Maoist to begin with; but to take Leninism and Maoism, and remove the Marxism from them, as Badiou does, really leaves us with nothing but a delusional hypervoluntarism and a romanticized reveling in “terror.”

Zizek, speaking on the last day, gave what I am sure he would be happy for us to think of as a Hegelian synthesis of everything that went on during the conference. Unlike most of his colleagues, and in what might be thought of as a nod to Hardt and Negri, his analysis did include political economy. He listed four threats or challenges that we face today in our world of capitalism gone mad; and three of them, he acknowledged, fit under the rubric of Hardt/Negri’s “affective” or “immaterial” production. These were 1)the threat of environmental disaster; 2)questions of so-called “intellectual property,” of copyright, patents, etc., and of the privatization of the common (understanding this in the broadest sense, as Hardt argued); 3)quesions of bioengineering, genetics, and the ability to manipulate our own genes, and thus change “human nature” on a biological and physiological level. Zizek then added a fourth challenge, which he said underlay all the others: 4)the question of inclusion and exclusion on a global level — as reflected in border controls, nationalisms, and the question of immigration (the countries of the North excluding people from the global South, except insofar as their hyperexploitation was facilitated on the basis of admitting them with only a semi-legal or illegal status. This ties in also with the whole question of “global slums,” as raised by Mike Davis. It articulates the demands of capital that lie behind what Deleuze calls the control society, and it gives a way of acknowledging the issues raised by post-colonial theory without falling into the multiculturalism that Zizek is not altogether without justification in criticizing.

Zizek argued that these questions could only be resolved, in an anticapitalist direction, by maintaining principles of egalitarianism and universalism. His example of this was the Haitian Revolution as the radicalization, and Hegelian “completion”, of the French Revolution. The French tried to repress the Haitians, which means that the French were not able to live up to their own universalism — they wouldn’t apply this to black people. But the Haitians took the principles of the French Revolution more seriously than the French themselves did; they demanded and won independence, against the French, on the basis of the very principles that the French had enunciated. This is Zizek’s way of splitting the difference between his inherent Eurocentrism, and the fact that by his own principles of universality he needs to get away from Eurocentrism. In effect, he is privileging Europe on the grounds that Europe invented the very universalism that commands us to stop privileging Europe. As so often, I remain highly dubious of how this kind of Hegelian maneuver can be invoked any time Zizek needs to get out of a tight spot. It ends up being a little too easy, and a little too self-congratulatory a method of resolving the problem. That is to say, Zizek still really is Eurocentric, and we need to continue to call him on this. But it is not entirely devoid of merit that the guy is trying, at least…

In any case, after laying all this out, Zizek went on to talk about some of the difficulties that we face in trying to deal with these questions. He was emphatic in arguing that the radicality of “communism” needs to be upheld, against the sort of reforms that — now that some of the excesses of finance are being at least slightly reined  in — could come under the name of “socialism” (as in Newsweek’s recent assertion that “‘we are all socialists now”). Such “socialist” reforms (including the nationalization of institutions like banks, or the de facto ownership of the majority of stock in troubled financial corporations by the US government) would give an illusion of reform, while really leaving the massive inequalities (between wealthy financiers and everyone else, and even more between the citizens of Western nations and the overwhelming majority everywhere else in the world) largely untouched. I think that Zizek is right about this — the current crisis situation at least in principle makes radical alternatives more thinkable than they were during the internet and real estate bubbles — even though the recuperative efforts of Western governments today are almost entirely oriented towards keeping alive the sense that “there is no alternative,” even as that system to which there is supposedly no alternative has entirely collapsed and discredited itself.

In this light, ZIzek talked of the difficulty of making any transgressive or oppositional gestures today, because of the way that such gestures almost immediately get commodified and recuperated, and because the very ideas of transgression and radical innovation have themselves become capitalist resources, the mantras of every business school and every CEO. Zizek even quoted Brian Massumi to this effect, much to my surprise (since Massumi, like Hardt and Negri, is very much on Deleuzian side, rather than the Lacanian one, of recent debates).

Awareness of these issues, I think, prevents Zizek from articulating groundless fantasies of revolutionary agency in the way that certain other speakers did. Yet the only solution Zizek had to offer, in his talk, was an appeal to Badiou’s transcendental formulation of politics as fidelity to an event of radical rupture, and of “communism” as the name of this event or rupture. In the course of his talk, Zizek called several times for a “radical voluntarism” — though, when called on this formulation in the Q&A, he backpedaled (at least rhetorically) and said that all he meant by such a phrase was that, unlike the old Marxists  of the earlier part of the past century, we could no longer believe today that the “logic of history” was on our side, or that we could trust to the objective course of events to displace capitalism and create the necessary and sufficient conditions for communism.

I agree with Zizek on this — indeed, my largest disagreement with Hardt and Negri is precisely that they seem to affirm a soft version of the inevitable-movement-of-history, or “objective conditions” thesis — but I think that a phrase like “radical voluntarism” works to insinuate a positive thesis — a sense of “what is to be done?” — that simply isn’t there. Which leaves us back in our current condition: the demoralization of an impotent left. I have no solution for this dilemma — and I don’t think Zizek or Badiou (or Hardt or Negri either) have any more of a solution than I have, although they are way to eager to adopt the rhetoric of seeming as if they do.

All this was symbolized at the very end of the conference. As everyone was getting ready to leave, Zizek asked us to all stand up and sing “The Internationale”. Almost nobody did (there were a few people in one corner singing it, but they couldn’t be heard above the general hubbub). In my case — and I suspect this held for a large majority of the hundreds of people in the auditorium — I would have liked to sing “The Internationale”, but I couldn’t — because, although I am vaguely familiar with the melody, I do not know the words.

Communism conference — Michael Hardt

Michael Hardt’s talk, “The Production of the Common,” at the London conference On the Idea of Communism, summarized a lot of his ideas over the last several years in a way that I found helpful. He defined “communism” as having to do with the common — as opposed to both private property and state property. And said he wanted to put the focus on political economy and on the question of property. (This in contrast to the other speakers on his panel, Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward, who were both far-ranging and lucid, but foucsed rather of questions of political action and organization. Indeed, I have now gone to nine talks — with three more to come — and Hardt’s and Negri’s were the only two which so much as mentioned political economy. Quite odd for what is supposed to be a Marxism conference). I will try to summarize what Hardt said, with a little commentary

In the 18th century, and still in the 19th when Marx wrote, capitalism was in transition from a form based mostly on immobile property, which is to say agricultural land, from which surplus was extracted in the form of rent, to a form of capitalism based on mobile property, which is to say manufacturing (since a factory can in theory be built anywhere), from which surplus was extracted in the form of profit (i.e., although Hardt didn’t express it this way, from the direct expropriation of absolute and relative surplus value). The landlords were losing out to the new industrial capitalists. Even still in Marx’s time, there were less industrial workers than there were agricultural ones, but industry was the dominant mode of production in the sense that it was the one that imposed its forms and methods of organization on all the rest (a “dominant,” as Jameson would say).

Today, Hardt said, we are in the midst of another transition, this time from industrial production to “immaterial production.” The number of workers involved in immaterial or affective production is still much smaller worldwide than the number of factory workers, etc., but immaterial production is the leading edge that imposes its forms of organization on the rest, just as industry was in the 19th century. (This, in part, was Hardt’s response to criticisms of the entire notion of immaterial production on the grounds that millions of people still work in factories, even if it is mostly today in the “underdeveloped” world instead of in the wealthy nations of the West, or global North). [Hardt didn’t mention this, but his periodization fits in well with McKenzie Wark‘s idea of a movement from landlords to industrialists to the current “vectorial class” of the owners of property rights to “information.” Hardt, like Wark, is focused on what Wark calls “the property question”].

Today, informatic or immaterial production is focused on questions of so-called “intellectual property” (this is my term, not Hardt’s), in the forms of copyright, patents, etc. A company’s physical products often have value, not because of any actual use, but because they are manifestations of a “brand” to which consumers are attracted, or with which they identify. Massive sums of money are gained from things like patents on genetic sequences, genetically modified crops, rights to copyrights on music, video, and text, to (often frivolous) patents on supposed inventions, to control of certain channels of distribution, to a company’s working methods and “trade secrets,” and so on. Even traditional hard-manufacture factories are governed by informatics, and profit comes as much or more from control of the informational organization that governs production, than from the physical items in themselves that are produced (as these latter are not sold for much above cost).

According to Hardt, all this means that immaterial production has more similarities to the pre-industrial capitalism focused on the extraction of rent than it does to the (pre-informatic, or perhaps Fordist) industrial system that focused on the extraction of surplus value as profit. The most dynamic sort of capitalist appropriation today comes in the form of a renewed “primitive accumulation,” or privatization of the common: one can see how both the patenting of genetic sequences taken from plants used by traditional cultures, and the copyrighting of “new” ideas and their expression, fits into this paradigm. This means that the struggle against capitalism must take on radically different forms, compared to those of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Hardt, immaterial production qua primitive accumulation is more a case of the direct appropriation of the common by capitalists, than it is one of the indirect expropriation of the common through the sale and purchase of labor power as was the case under industrial capitalism.

Now, I am largely in agreement with Hardt (and Negri, and some of the economists associated with their position, like Marazzi and even to some extent Moulier Boutang) about the transformations in capitalism over the last fifty years, and especially since the 1970s. But I am not sure I entirely accept the framework through which Hardt interprets these developments. In particular, I do not think that immaterial production involves a more “direct” expropriation of the common than was the case when industrial capitalism extracted value. It is true, as I have already said, that a lot of this new source of capital appropriation comes from a kind of “primitive accumulation” — corporations are now appropriating the commons in the form of things like genomes and songs and procedures of working, in the same way that landlords appropriated the commons of land at the time of the enclosures. But I don’t think that this is either a novelty or a reversion. It is rather the case that “primitive accumulation” never went away; it is a continual structural feature of capitalism, and was at work in the industrial age as much as it was in the agricultural stage, and as much as it is still today. Capitalism always both appropriates to itself things that it didn’t produce — and this precisely by “privatizing” them — and extracts a surplus from the processes of production that it directly initiates and supervises.

That is to say, there isn’t that great a difference between, on the one hand, how industrial capitalism imposes “cooperation” on large numbers of workers simultaneously, and draws profit from the economies of scale due to this cooperation (which is a form of relative surplus value) as much as it does from the initial inequalities built into the process of buying and selling “labor power” as a commodity (which is what Marx calls absolute surplus value); and, on the other hand, the way that immaterial capitalism today draws its profits from turning employees’ collaborative projects, and the cultural knowledge of indigenous peoples, into “intellectual property” locked under copyright and patent. In both cases, there is a double movement: on the one hand, the appropriation of what would otherwise be (or what previously was) common, and on the other hand, the transformation of that “common” precisely into a commodified form that stores or embodies congealed “labor” and that allows for the “marketization” of the product. The transformation of home knitting into manufactured clothing is not that different from the transformation of a plant with medicinal properties into a patented drug, or into a genetic sequence that can be used for controlled production of the medicine.

So, the point is that primitive accumulation and surplus-value extraction go together, both in 19th-century industrial production and in today’s immaterial production. This is why I don’t accept Hardt’s claim that production today somehow involves a less mediated and more direct appropriation of the common than was the case in the large factories of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Primitive accumulation or appropriation doesn’t occur apart from those other techniques of the extraction of surplus value — and this is just as much true for immaterial production today as it is, and was, for industrial production.

If we are to see a difference in the capitalism of the contemporary era, this has to to with the fact that, today, capital has become even more mobile and abstract than it was in the age of heavy industry. The movement from industrial to immaterial production is an intensification of the movement from agricultural to industrial, an even further internalization of capitalist social relations, an increase in the “mobility” or “flow” of capital. Today we are coming closer than ever to the limit-condition of the real subsumption, instead of the merely formal subsumption of all of society under capital. There is less and less of an “outside” that capitalism can “primitively” accumulate, and more and more is included in the mass of what is directly managed by capital’s disciplinary and modulatory procedures. (But there is only an asymptotic approach to the absolute of “real” subsumption; such a totality is never fully achieved. There always has to be some outside that capital has not appropriated yet, and without such an outside capitalism would entirely stagnate — a point made as much by Schumpeter as by Marx).

To say that we are moving ever closer to real subsumption is equivalent to saying that now — under what Jonathan Beller calls “the cinematic mode of production” (although I think it is rather post-cinematic — which is a point I am still working on), or what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — surplus value is extracted in the processes of distribution and consumption as well as in the process of primary production. For Marx, circulation involved the faux frais of the capitalist mode of production, and had to be subtracted from profit. But today, in an “information economy” or ‘attention economy,” circulation is itself a direct source of further profit. Hardt and Negri are correct to associate this situation with real subsumption displacing merely formal subsumption. But they seem to me to be overly opimistic when they suggest that this means that we are finally reaching the point where the “objective conditions” for communism finally exist, or that the property form has become a “fetter” on the technological means of production, a fetter that is ready to be burst asunder. It just ain’t so. Digital technologies bring with them new forms of potential liberation, certainly; but they also bring new forms of control, new potentials for micromanagement and control via continual modulation (as Deleuze says in his great article on the society of control).

Hardt said at several points that the restrictions of copyright, patent, etc., because they are privatizing the common, are thereby making immaterial or affective labor less “productive” than it could be — which isn’t altogether wrong, but also isn’t the right point to be making — since “productivity” (like “efficiency”) is a category of the private enterprise system and wouldn’t have the same meaning (certainly wouldn’t be measured in anything like the same way) in a world of communism, or of the unrestricted common. Part of the point is precisely that (as Hardt, together with Negri, says — and as Virno says as well) even the most individualized and particular acts of human invention rely so extensively on the whole past accumulation of human invention, that private property rights become absurd. I maintain my signature on this blog, for instance, but it would be utterly ludicrous for me to maintain that my ideas and words come from nowhere — in fact, they come from what I have heard and read and otherwise encountered in the society that I live in. My own personal spin on things is still a spin on what arises and exists elsewhere, or in many elsewheres. And people can make what they want of my words, including things that I absolutely detest, which disabuses me of the notion that these words are “mine” in any metaphysical, propertarian sense.

At best, my words here will become part of what Hardt beautifully called — quoting from Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts — “the production of man [sic] by man” — this by way of making the point that those early manuscripts are anything from essentialist, since they see “human nature” not as something that exists once and for all as our basis, but rather as something that human beings themselves continually remake. Our very remaking of ourselves is at stake, and this is one further reason why the relentless privatization of the common is so obscene. But I am made uneasy when Hardt also calls this remaking a process of “biopolitical production” — because, once again, I think that this characterization is only valid under the conditions of capitalist appropriation, and that it would have to be characterized differently if it were truly to be, and to remain, common. I think that more than vocabulary is at stake here; Hardt and Negri’s terminology reflects what I see as their excessive optimism about how conditions for the common have (supposedly) already been achieved in the heart of capitalism itself.

One final word, on finance. Hardt cited the current financial crisis as an instance of capital’s inability to manage its own complexities in a useful manner. But things seem to me to be a little more complicated than this. Obviously, the system is dysfunctional; and obviously, the insane proliferation of derivatives and other “arcane financial instruments” is a symptom of informatics run amok. More orthodox Marxists often say that finance is merely fictive, since it is not related to, or backed up by, any actual production. But this “ungrounded” finance itself needs to be seen as part of the infrastructure of immaterial and affective capitalism; and as an effect of immaterial and affective labor. In such a context, “fictive” does not mean unreal or ineffective — as we are currently experiencing, the effects of delirious financial capital flows are all too material and evident. This is something that needs to be theorized much more than I am able to do here. I am still trying to figure things out; I would definitely say that, for instance, Christian Marazzi‘s ideas about the linguistic nature of these types of finance is inadequate. But I haven’t found anyone yet who can explain it to me, or theorize it, better.