Saturday, June 14, 2008

Everything is Externality

I have been working through two different problems lately, well longer, for the last few years. The first problem is a critique of neoliberalism, specifically a critical examination of its particular anthropology, its particular understanding of humankind as homo economicus as an isolated, rational, and calculating creature. The second can only be described as an examination of social ontology, specifically Simondon’s concept of transindividuality, Spinoza’s multitude, Tarde’s ideas of imitation and invention, and the revival of these theories in the work of Virno, Balibar, Deleuze, etc. Admittedly this second problem has occupied more of my time as of late, but for the most parts these have been two fairly separate projects, traveling along separate lines, with only the vaguest idea of any possible intersection. It is that vague idea that I would like to explore here.

In some brief remarks about neoliberalism in The Politics of Subversion Negri sketches something like a connection between these two projects. “The only problem is that extreme liberalization of the economy reveals its opposite, namely that the social and productive environment is not made up of atomized individuals…the real environment is made up of collective individuals,” What Negri suggests with this phrase “collective individuals” is that far from being a purely speculative exercise the question of what constitutes social relations is central to the political and economic struggles of the present.

Yann Moulier-Boutang has underscored the importance of grasping the paradoxical logic of externalities in contemporary capitalism. Traditionally defined externalities are the various impacts that a given transaction has on those who are not party to the transaction. Examples of this include such “negative” externalities as pollution and such “positive” externalities as the unintended cultural and social benefits of the formation of cities. In each case there are effects that are not paid for, not a part of anyone’s calculation. As Moulier Boutang presents it, “externalities are the representation of the outside of the economy acting on the economy.” One could push this a bit further to say that externalities are the way in which a neoliberal society imagines its constitutive conditions, they are everything that do not correspond to the strict calculation of cost for benefit. As such they represent the economy’s, or the market’s, attempt to represent its outside.

The problem is that these externalities have become increasingly difficult to ignore. This is especially true with respect to the environment, as a negative externality, and the knowledge involved in the production process, as a positive externality. There is a historical argument here about the transformation of capital, and it should be viewed critically, perhaps even dialectically, to recognize the continuities that underlie the changes, the complex mix of the new and old that constitutes any conjunction. It seems bizarre to say that the “environment” and “intellectual labor” are in any way new, but at the same time there is a certain manner in which they have recently become unavoidable. Capital’s negative effects on the environment go back to the very beginning, but have recently become unavoidable due to the density of population and intensity of accumulation; in other words, there are no new colonies left to exploit. At the same time capital has always put to work the accumulated knowledge of society, but for a long time it was able to work with the knowledge hierarchies that it found ready made, the medieval system of the university, the feudal system of guilds, etc, but now it must rewrite knowledge in its own image.

In an argument that is similar to Moulier Boutang's in many ways, Etienne Balibar underscores that what these “exernalities” call into question is first and foremost the idea of property as something that is absolutely and exclusively owned. As Balibar writes:

This question first arises “negatively,” by way of "ecology" in the broad sense, that is by the recognition of the harms that turn the "productive" balance sheet of human labor into a "destructive" one, and that suddenly make manifest that the use of nature is submitted to practically no law. By "nature" should be understood here precisely all the nonpossessable materials that are nonetheless an indispensable component of all "production," all "consumption," and all "enjoyment:" Their existence is only noticed when they are lacking (by the potential or ongoing exhaustion of certain fundamental "resources"), or when they are transformed into waste that cannot be eliminated, or when they produce effects capable of endangering the life of individuals and of humanity, which can be neither controlled nor repaired by the owners of their "causes," even when these owners are superpowers or multinational conglomerates with a worldwide reach....

In an opposite way the rise of intellectual production has challenged the particular identity of private property. Although as Balibar points out, this has perhaps always been the case; there has always been tension between the idea of absolute ownership and the production of knowledge and ideas, which in some sense depends on their transmission, their circulation beyond market exchanges. It has always been difficult to separate the work of art from its reproduction, the invention from its copy. Nevertheless there has been a quantitative if not qualitative transformation of this as well. As Balibar writes, “Data and methods are irresistibly "disseminated"; the "paternity" of the results of scientific and technological research can no longer be defined in an exclusive fashion - neither can, as a consequence, the property of objects that incorporate an ever greater amount of crystallized knowledge.” Ecological effects demonstrate that ownership, of land, resources, etc., are never discrete or total, it is impossible to limit the effects of any action to the chunk of the environment that I possess. At the same time the production of knowledge, or production through knowledge, reveals that the excess of effects over ownership are often a necessary condition for accumulation.

The conclusion that Balibar draws from these transformations are as follows:

It then becomes impossible in practice, and more and more difficult even to conceive of in theory, to pose on one side a right of property that would deal only with things, or with the individual concerned with the "administration of things" (with the societas rerum of the jurists of antiquity), and on the other side a sphere of the vita activa (Hannah Arendt) that would be the sphere of "man's power over man" and man's obligations toward man, of the formation of "public opinion," and of the conflict of ideologies. Property (dominium) reenters domination (imperium). The administration of things re-enters the government of men.

Balibar’s political statement reveals an ontological challenge as well. If it is no longer possible to separate the “administraton of things” from the “government of men” then it is equal impossible to rigorously and decisively separate objects form subject, things from agents. Thus we can perhaps locate the faint lines of this political transformation behind the various philosophical projects to recast reality as constituted of assemblages, networks, dispositifs, and so on. (All of which may also in some way be attempts to recapture or reinvigorate what Marx initially meant by a “mode of production,” which was not just a new name for an old thing, the economy, but an attempt to understand the mutually constitutive relations of subjects and objects, commodities and ideas.) Moreover, it is not just a matter of recognizing dense networks of relations that exceed any simple division of subjects and objects, but recognizing the constitutive character of relations. As Balibar argues Marx’s philosophy, like that of Spinoza and others, can be characterized as insisting on the primacy of relations, or, more accurately, the relation of relations. With respect to neoliberalism the externalities of the environment and of the circulation of knowledge underscore how completely impossible it is to understand our world through the category of the individual (object or subject) since everything seems to happen above and below the individual. To use Simondon’s terms, everything happens at the level of “pre-individual singularities,” the affects, habits, and perceptions, or transindividual relations, collectivities etc.

To return to Negri’s quote above, it is possible to understand neoliberalism as an ideology that is wholly out of touch with reality. At the exact moment that the world is made and remade through relations, of the sub and transindividual, it represents the world as made up entirely of individuals. However, such a characterization misses some of the strongest points of the criticism of neoliberalism in the work of Wendy Brown and even Foucault’s recently translated lecture course on “biopolitics.” Writers on neoliberalism have insisted that it is not just an ideology, in the pejorative sense of the term, a set of ideas one may or may not subscribe to, but a fundamental transformation of how we live and perceive the world, a production of subjectivity. As Wendy Brown argues, one can survey the quotidian effects or practices of neoliberalism in the manner in which individualized/market based solutions appear in lieu of collective political solutions: gated communities for concerns about security and safety; bottled water for concerns about water purity; and private schools (or vouchers) for failing public schools, all of which offer the opportunity for individuals to opt out rather than address political problems. Despite our best efforts we are all some sense produced as neoliberal subjects, calculating the maximum benefit for minimum cost with respect to our labors, actions, and desires.

In the end, and by way of a conclusion, the challenge would seem to be to retain these two ideas at once. To both recognize the constitutive nature of relations, relations which exceed the categories of subjects and objects, and to recognize that one of the things those relations constitute is the image of a world made up of isolated competitive individuals (an image which has very real effects).


Will Roberts said...

I love this post, btw. I've put up a response that connects what you're saying with some things Paul Romer and other cheerleaders for infinite economic growth are saying.

There is room in the world for a more systematic discussion of the exploitation of intellectual and affective labor. Hardt and Negri and Virno and so on talk about it, of course, but I'd like to see a systematic critique of the new political economy being offered up by people like Romer.

unemployed negativity said...

That is a very interesting response. I think that you are right that the "immaterial labor" debate needs to be expanded beyond the current discussions around Hardt and Negri, which often focuses on stale back of forth about change and continuity, to include a broader historical point of view, as well a critical reading of the apologists of neoliberalism. But Will you need to get better at self-promotion, here is the link to your post/blog:

Will Roberts said...

...and I even claim self-promotion as one third of the purpose of the damn blog!

unemployed negativity said...

I wish I could say that I remembered that when I made the joke, which would have made it incredibly clever, but I didn't, so it wasn't.