Sunday, May 24, 2009

We Are All Neoliberals

This is something of a follow up to a previous post. It is actually awkwardly framed between reflections on “the current crisis” and some attempt to compile some notes on the work of Maurizio Lazzarato. In many ways the political terrain has changed; it is no longer true that there are no popular protests to the current capitalist crisis and the government response to it. There are the infamous Tea Parties, but these are not protests against capital, against profits, exploitation, and corporate power, but against government, against taxes, and “socialism.” Of course their status as actual political protests can be disputed, they have more of the status of simulated protests, advertised and televised. It is a perfect example of that all too clever neologism “astro-turf,” an artificial or simulated grassroots organization.

I do not want to discuss these protests here, but merely entertain a hypothesis. The current economic crisis is not only a crisis of neoliberalism but in neoliberalism as well. The first part of the statement should be fairly clear. As I stated earlier, it is a crisis of the idea of the market as a self-regulating system, capable of not only governing over itself but of all other areas of social life. This first aspect, this crisis of neoliberalism, is seriously complicated by it being a crisis in neoliberalism. By “in” neoliberalism I mean that this crisis takes place within a terrain in which the dominant common sense is shaped by neoliberalism.

In order to clarify what this means I take as a starting point a remark by Maurizio Lazzarato in Les gouvernement des inégalités: critique de l’insécurité néolibérale. Lazzarato argues, following Foucault, that neoliberalism has as a fundamental project a polarization of power and wealth that simultaneously seeks to neutralize the antagonisms that such a polarization risks producing. As Lazzarato points out, it does this through a disintegration of the social: health insurance is replaced by individual savings accounts and social security by individual investment accounts. Against everything that would produce a common problem and a common solution, neoliberal “social” programs reduce to individual solutions, solutions that demand different, which is to say unequal, results. On this point Lazzarato is repeating a refrain that can be found in Brown and Foucault.

Although it is worth pointing out that Lazzarato critiques the latter (and is most likely unaware of the former) for failing to adequately consider the role of “financialization” in the formation of neoliberalism. Lazzarato thinks that financialization should be considered not just as an economic strategy, as a mode of generating wealth, but as a political strategy as well, a transformation of subjectivity. Most importantly it is a manner of shifting the understanding of risk. He argues that Fordist policies of social security (in France) were legitimated by the asymmetry of power between employer and employee implied in every labor contract. It was compensation for subordination in the labor process. There was an understanding of an asymmetry of risk. Financialization transforms this social risk to an individual risk. It is no longer the risk of a class, but of the individual conceived no longer as a member of a class, defined by wages or profits, but the general figure of investment. Lazzarato then turns to Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of money, specifically the way in which the asymmetry of the two flows of money, payment and credit, are effaced by the same object, by money.

(Lazzarato’s turn to the discussion of money in Anti-Oedipus is interesting for two reasons, reasons that are somewhat peripheral to my discussion here. First, it represents a more nuanced engagement with Marx than Lazzarato suggested in Les Révolutions du capitalisme. Not that Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of finance capital is doctrinaire, but that is precisely the point; in Révolutions Lazzarato reduced Marx to a caricature of doctrine. Second, it turns attention to an important and overlooked dimension of Deleuze and Guattari, the theory of finance, which is important for a critique of neoliberalism.)

At the core of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of money is that idea that money reduces the qualitative difference between wages and surplus value, or profit, represented by the equations C-M-C and M-C-M, to a simple quantitative difference. The only thing that separates the wage earner and the capitalist is a certain quantity of money, with a few dollars more my savings could become an investment. Financialization continues this trend by transforming the minimal elements of social welfare, pensions, health care, and social security, all which are the products of social struggles, into individual investments.

All of this culminates in “human capital” the term of the complete effacement of the difference between wage and surplus value, worker and capitalist. In another essay, Lazzarato cites a remark from Deleuze and Guattari in which capital is defined as a “point of subjectivation that constitutes all human beings as subjects; but some, the ‘capitalists’, are subjects of enunciation […], while others, the ‘proletarians’, are subjects of the statement, subjected to the technical machines.” Capitalist and worker are differentiated according the one who speaks and the one who is spoken. (I must admit that I have never really been interested in this distinction, I much more interested in the second point) human capital combines these two aspects, making everyone capitalist and worker.

“The transformation of a salaried employee into “human capital”, into an entrepreneur of her/himself, a transformation facilitated by contemporary management techniques, represents the fulfilment of the process of subjectivation and exploitation, since in this case it is the same individual who splits in two. On the one hand, the individual brings the subjectivation process to its pinnacle, because in all these activities s/he involves the “immaterial” and “cognitive” resources of her/his “self”, while on the other, s/he inclines towards identification, subjectivation and exploitation, given that s/he is both her/his own master and slave, a capitalist and a proletarian, the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement.”

What does all of this have to do with protest or lack of protest in the current crisis? Up to this point much of the protest against the crisis of capital has been entirely within neoliberalism, framed entirely in terms of individual cost and responsibility. The bailouts have been criticized in terms that are entirely consistent with neoliberalism, as an improper response to a risk assumed, or an improper use of task money, understood as “our” money. As much as there have been positive effects to this criticism, as the excessive bonuses of Wall Street have come to light, bonuses that show themselves to be entirely disconnected from any moral justification of productivity (that old capitalist standby), this criticism has remained within the terrain of neoliberalism. Popular outrage has been able to swing easily from the cost of banker’s office renovations to autoworker’s health care, both of which are seen as an excessive public cost or a failure to assume individual risk. What is missing is not only some understanding of class, the difference between a banker and an autoworker, but the very idea of the social or collective goods. Everything becomes a profit, some gain on an individual risk.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Everyone is Educated

This is not exactly the Bunny Colvin scene from The Wire I was looking for, but it will have to do for now. The scene that I was looking for is where Bunny discusses his impression of the Junior High School. Against the common impression that the kids are not learning, Bunny responds that the kids are learning just not in the way that the teachers imagine. The kids are learning lessons that are relevant to their world, to the world of hoppers and corners; they are learning how to negotiate the world of rules and authority, to get away with stuff, before breaking those rules have any real consequences. As Bunny makes clear, in the scene I am thinking of, as well as the scene above, the kids are always learning, but what they learn and how reflects previous lessons. Education always already begins before the school bell rings. The educator must be educated.

It is admittedly quite a leap from the inner city school depicted in The Wire to my experience at a state university. Despite that difference I found myself thinking of Bunny’s remarks this week. We are in the final weeks of classes, and the final philosopher we are reading in my “intro to political philosophy class” is Paolo Virno. This follows a semester of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, Arendt, and others, all of which sets up Virno: a philosopher that I consider to be offering both an interesting summation of that history and an engaging take on the current conjuncture. Class went well. I reviewed Aristotle, Marx, and Arendt in order to set up Virno’s argument about contemporary labor and its connection with politics. I could tell that they were struggling however, especially with Virno’s idea of “intellect in general,” the diffuse intelligence underlying production.

After the class I had a bunch of students who wanted to talk to me about their final essay. Some had actually questions, but others wanted extensions or wanted to figure out how to get through the essay with as little work as possible. It occurred to me that this is what many students learn in college: how to negotiate the bureaucracy, how to get by, how to brown nose a little, and how to navigate the structures around them. This lesson will probably serve them more than reading any “great mind.” For most students college is bureaucracy 101. This education, the education in how to follow rules, bend rules, and keep up appearances is perhaps what will best serve them as future employees. What I wonder is how they learned to learn this, I suppose that it is the lesson of all education.

The irony of it all is that the very students who were struggling with Virno’s concept of cynicism in theory demonstrated in practice that they understood it all too well.