Friday, June 19, 2009

What We Strive For

This is going to sound terrible, but I will say it anyway: the problem with any living philosopher, or political theorist is that they go on living. When a philosopher dies a space opens up between their texts and whatever contemporary problem or situation which one might want to address. It is debatable that Spinoza would recognize himself in the idea of the multitude, or if Bergson would embrace the vitalist accounts of contemporary society, but this does not matter. As long as a philosopher is still alive, capable of commenting on current events, then it is tempting to take their word as the last word on the matter at hand.

This seems like an oddly appropriate way to introduce Massimo De Angelis’ The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital. De Angelis is not explicitly concerned with the tricky matter of offering an interpretation of a living philosopher, but he does offer a different interpretation of school of thought than its living epigones. The school of thought is autonomist Marxist, and the epigones in question are Antonio Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato, who have replaced class composition and self-valorization with immaterial labor the end of value. De Angelis presents the difference as “between a politics that looks to creative, immaterial workers almost as the vanguard of the revolution and those like myself who look instead to the Zapatistas and other similar commoners, especially the indigenous, the peasants, the just in time factory workers in the ‘free trade zones” of the third world, the peasant mothers, the slum communities struggling in a variety of contexts for livelihoods and dignity.”

Now, beyond the rhetorical heavy-handedness of this point, which is ultimately about two different ideas of the common, De Angelis is primarily concerned with how one sees the possibilities for struggle in contemporary capitalism. De Angelis primarily takes issue with Hardt and Negri’s claim that in empire capital no longer has an outside. For De Angelis capital is permeated by outsides, by commons; in fact, the system of capitalism is best understood as a conflict of values between commons, all of the various ways in which human beings produce and reproduce their means of existence, and enclosures, which subordinate that production and reproduction to capital’s drive to realize surplus value.

I have to admit that these grand statements are perhaps the weakest elements of the book: the discussion of the “outside,” in particular, is so slippery that it often seems worth jettisoning altogether. It is equally convincing to say that capital has no outside, as it is nothing but outside and the same activities—housework, babysitting, and community gardens—can be presented as exterior to capital, based on other values, or interior, since they ultimately reduce the cost of labor power. However, that does not mean that the book itself is weak. In many ways it functions best not as a polemic, but in terms of its own specific argument about the nature of capitalism. Most interesting is the way that De Angelis understands the specific way in which the market regulates cooperation. The market has to be seen as a particular mode of cooperation, a paradoxical mode of cooperation that can only function through antagonism.

“The problem with the market as the central order through which the co-producing social body reproduces livelihoods is in the fact that, paradoxically, it makes people cooperate socially by threatening each others’ livelihoods, subordinating each singularity to the artificial rule of an increasingly demanding clock, and thus turning any innovation, any creative idea, any new product of human communication and ingenuity, no matter how well its use values might solve certain problems, into a force threatening someone else’s livelihood, into a benchmark with the power of disciplining.”

In capitalism whatever invention helps my livelihood, whatever policy attracts jobs to my region, can only destroy other’s livelihoods, other ways of living in some other location. This is the unavoidable effect of competition. In order to theorize this relationship De Angelis borrows the concept of the conatus from Spinoza. Conatus is defined as the general striving, the persistence in being, that defines everything, including such artificial bodies as capital. Capital has its own particular striving, to realizing profit. De Angelis uses the idea of conatus to describe the way in which capital functions by grafting its conatus unto our strivings (or maybe it is the other way around). The point is that without alternatives to capital, to commons, every attempt to improve one’s condition, to produce and reproduce one’s existence necessarily involves aligning one’s actions and energies with that of capitalism. Thus De Angelis analysis invokes Marx’s idea of prehistory, as a fundamental alienation of our striving and powers. As Marx writes, “This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting out expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”(That is from The German Ideology, the actual remark about prehistory is in the Contribution, but the fundamental point is still the same. De Angelis’ title reflects the importance of this idea.) Much of what De Angelis says stems from this basic idea of capital as a condition for human activity that can only undermine it. Thus De Angelis is not so much concerned with charting the losers of capitalism, the lives destroyed and untold ecological damage, but on pointing out that capitalism is a system that necessarily pits humanity in a system of competition that remains unseen.

“Some of us win, and some of us lose; in either case we are involved in perpetrating the system that keeps us reproducing scarcity when in fact we could be celebrating abundance.”

De Angelis’ engagement with Spinoza is rather limited; he just borrows the word conatus to refer to a general striving that can be applied to living things, or abstract structures, such as capital. One has to wonder, however, given the immense literature on Spinoza, if there is not more room to consider this idea of the alienation of conatus. Such a concept almost seems fundamental to Spinoza’s philosophy. The critique of superstition in the Appendix to Part One of the Appendix of the Ethics, develops an idea that God is nothing other than a projection, and thus a misrepresentation of our human, all too human striving. The same could be said of the critique of scripture in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Now this might seem like an unnecessary philosophical digression, but as De Angelis makes it clear one of the fundamental problems of the struggle of values, is seeing the commons that we produce and reproduce in our day-to-day actions, commons that are enclosed by capital. This was Spinoza’s problem as well. As Antonio Negri writes, “In other words, in the postindustrial age the Spinozian critique of representation of capitalist power corresponds more to the truth than does the analysis of political economy.”

Perhaps the most interesting chapter from a theoretical perspective is the chapter on Hayek and Bentham. This is an important chapter in its own right. One of De Angelis’s central points is that markets, distribution, have to be seen not simply as mankind’s tendency to “barter, truck, and exchange,” but as a disciplinary mechanism. Comparing Bentham and Hayek draws out interesting similarities; both philosopher’s were interested in creating an apparatus that utilized the partial and incomplete perspective of isolated individuals to create an effect of discipline and control. What is perhaps more striking, however, is the light that this analogy casts on the work of Michel Foucault. Christian Laval has criticized Foucault for failing to grasp that Bentham was as much interested in the market as he was in prisons, and he saw the former as functioning by a kind mutual surveillance. (“Le premier dispositif panoptique, c’est la société elle meme comme espace d’intersurveillance”). In Foucault’s recently published lectures he makes a distinction between discipline, which is seen as more rigid and structured, and neoliberal governmentality, which is more flexible. What De Angelis suggests is that perhaps neoliberal society is a more abstract and less personal form of discipline, and not some flexible alternative.--control, security,or neoliberal governance. We are disciplined by the market, an impersonal form of evaluation that is nothing more than the effects of the striving of others.

De Angelis also argues against the dominance of linear temporality in Marxist thought: the idea of communism as something that necessarily comes after capitalism. Instead De Angelis sees multiple temporalities at work, times of valorization and reproduction. There are alternatives in the present, not just in the distance future. The commons are not the culmination of capital, but its persistent shadow. De Angelis book also demonstrates that the same is true of theory. The linear progression that makes immaterial labor the necessary end result of class composition, or governmentality the necessary corrective to discipline, is only one possibility. Every text, like every society is riddled with possibilities.


Steven Shaviro said...

Just very quickly -- & off the top of my head: what you say about DeAngelis on Hayek & Bentham, and how this relates to Foucault, could be interestingly complicated by noting that, for Foucault, in the Birth of Biopolitics lectures, what differentiates neoliberalism from classical liberalism is precisely that the neoliberals no longer champion the market on the grounds of a primordial instinct to "barter, truck, and exchange," but instead champion the market because it compels everyone to engage in competition. In this sense, Foucault, analyzing neoliberal governmentality, is in accord with what DeAngelis identifies as the major feature of contemporary capitalism. Whether one wants to describe "the discipline of the market" so beloved by Hayek and Thatcher as a disciplinary mechanism or a mechanism of the control society is secondary to the way that, in both accounts, competition is what enforces the enclosure of the commons by capital.

unemployed negativity said...


Thanks for writing, good point. Although it occurs to me that when Shaviro defines security in the previous year's lectures, he stresses the artificiality of the disciplines, the fact that they operate in a constructed, closed space. This could be seen to reinforce your point about the similarity of disciplines and neoliberalism, which I like, but it seems to me that there is an implied trajectory from discipline to security to neoliberal governmentality. De Angelis analysis is useful for interrupting this trajectory, and reminding us for the continued usefulness of discipline. Moreover, he connects discipline to financialization, which, as Lazzarato points out, reminds the blind part of Foucault's analysis.