Friday, October 30, 2009

The Jargon of Inauthenticity

A casual reader of Adorno, and I am afraid that is all that I am, cannot help but notice his repeated use (or at least a translators repeated use) of the prefix pseudo. Here is a quote from the famous chapter on the Culture Industry (co-authored with Max Horkheimer) in which the term first appears:“From the standardized improvisation in jazz to the original film personality who must have a lock of hair straying over her eyes so that she can be recognized as such, pseudo-individuality reigns.”

Horkheimer and Adorno at first utilize the term to address what remains of individuality in the standardized products of the culture industry: character is reduced to a lock of hair, a funny hat, a hint of ethnicity. “Personality means hardly more than dazzling white teeth and freedom from bodily odor and emotions.”As Horkheimer and Adorno write:
Mass culture thereby reveals the fictitious quality which has characterized the individual throughout the bourgeois era and is wrong only in priding itself on this murky harmony between universal and particular. The principle of individuality was contradictory from the outset. First, no individuation was ever really achieved. The class-determined form of self-preservation maintained everyone at the level of mere species being. Every bourgeois character expressed the same thing, even and especially when deviating from it: the harshness of competitive society.
The use of species being in this passage is strange, the assertion of "mere species being" would contradict Marx's use, suggesting more of the reduction of man to a horde more than a universal potential. However, I see their basic point about the status of the individual. As much as the bourgeois philosophy of possessive individualism asserts the individual as its foundation, the competitive relations that are its basis produce an underlying similarity of behavior: individualistic competition. The result of this is paradoxical, individuals are similar in their fundamental isolation and competition. Individuality is to some extent always pseudo-individuality.
One could explore that this means for a rereading of the political anthropology of bourgeois philosophy and political economy, but my focus is on this idea of “pseudo”. The prefix "pseudo "also makes a prominent appearance in Adorno’s essay on “Free-Time.” Pseudo-activity is the term that Adorno uses to describe the various hobbies and other activities that people use to fill their time. These activities are pseudo-activities in that their terms and conditions of the activities are determined in advance: all is left to do is “paint by numbers,” follow the instructions, or fill in the blanks. Paint by numbers is Adorno’s dated example, I prefer Guitar Hero as a contemporary example of pseudo-activity. With respect to this definition of pseudo-activity, Adorno begins to outline some of the ways in which this prefix functions. As Adorno writes, “Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity.”
This statement about pseudo-activity would seem to apply to pseudo-individuality: in each case there is a genuine striving, a genuine attempt to assert something, activity or the individual. The “pseudo” turns it and warps it, ultimately undermining it, producing individuals who are the same and activity that is nothing but busy work. "Pseudo" makes it possible for Adorno to have it both ways, to recognize the simultaneous illusion and the real drive underlying the illusion.
Adorno’s use of pseudo-activity would seem to fit into a general paradox that defines the twentieth century. This paradox is caught between a tendency within the critique of metaphysics in which the distinction between essence and appearance breaks down. This metaphysical tendency is countered by a tendency within social and political thought in which the task is to recognize the role of appearance, of spectacle and simulacra in modern life. One the one hand there is the rejection of the distinction between essence and appearance, of real society versus its image; while, on the other, there is a renewed importance in understanding the “powers of the false.” Capitalist society is recognized as a spectacle at the exact moment that that distinction between image and reality breaks down. (This paradox explains much of the thought of the later Baudrillard and other “postmodern” thinkers.) Adorno’s use of the prefix “pseudo” is poised between these two tendencies:

I have some other thoughts that tie this idea of pseudo to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in which his critique of theocracy could be understood as a pseudo-democracy, but I do not have time to develop them here. The end point would have been to bring this full circle to discuss fascism, and fascist tendencies as pseudo-democracy, but that is going to have to wait for another time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reductions/Amplifications of the Political

I realize that I have been neglecting this blog as of late, and, to be honest, that is not going to change in the next few weeks. I am at the point in the semester when anytime that I have for writing is dedicated to upcoming presentations or other crashing deadlines. Of course this is not a crisis, but I feel the imperative to post even if few people ever come to this blog. Caught between the imperative to post and the lack of time to write I scrounged around looking for anything that I have written in the past year or so that has not found a home. Well, I have this piece which is essentially homeless: I presented versions of it, but its breadth of references (Aristotle, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Rancière) give it a widely speculative, if not rambling, quality. No journal or book would accept this, it is the kind of thing that only gets published if you are famous and dead. Parts of it have been expanded to become the basis of actual publications, but the rest has been left to "gnawing criticism of the mice" or their twenty-first century digital equivalent. I realize that I am not exactly selling this, so I should mention that there is much in this that I am committed to: the critique of social contract theory, the oblique approach to the Hegel/Marx relationship, and the distinction mentioned in the title, all seem like worthwhile ideas.

If one wished to characterize the various periods according to the rise and fall of utopian desires and aspirations then one would have to describe the present moment—a period that encompasses at least the last thirty years as a period bereft of such desires. It is a period marked by the demise of the grand projects of communism, socialism, and even fascism, in which the present age is legitimated not as an ideal, as the best of all possible worlds, but as an unavoidable fact. “There is no alternative,” to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement about the conservative rise to power in the UK. There is no alternative because this power was based not on some supposed ideal, but on a reality, that of the competitive individual, the individual who could best realize her interests not in politics, in collective action, but in the market, in economic activity. Thus in the end of the twentieth century the utopia, dreams, and ideologies were apparently cast aside and what remained was not the revolutionary, the activist, or even the citizen but the pure and simple subject of economics. This subject, who assesses the balance sheet of risks and benefits in a isolated competition of all against all, is not presented to us a political project, as its own kind of utopia, but as a natural fact of human existence. The market is only a slightly kinder and gentler version of the law of the jungle, competition is a natural fact of existence.

Such an idea of the realization of mankind’s natural tendencies without the mediation of state or social structure could itself be considered a kind of utopia: after all what is more utopian than the idea of a purely natural social order? There is thus a sort of dialectics of utopia and anti-utopia, in which every anti-utopia, every attempt to put an end to unrealistic desires and impossible promises, becomes a utopia in its own right: a realist utopia of fact without promise, life without desire, and progress without disruption. Rather than focus on this general unity of opposites, a contradiction that like all such contradictions, receives its driving force from the particular situation, I would like to flesh it out by focusing on what precisely is elided in such claims of the natural basis of competition, and that is the political functioning of the economic itself.


To begin, I would like to in the most unlikely of places—with Aristotle:

In Book IV of the Politics, after classifying all of the various types of political constitution monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, etc., Aristotle argues that there are mainly two constitutions, of which all the others are only variations: democracy (rule of the poor, and many) and oligarchy (rule of the rich, and few). The reason for this is quite simply the principle of non-contradiction. It is possible for the same person to be both a farmer and a warrior, a craftsman and judge, thus making possible any combination of positions and tasks (e.g. an agrarian military dictatorship), but it is not possible for the same person to be both rich and poor (1291b). Rich and poor remain irreducible as identities and thus the conflict between the rich and the poor is unavoidable for every constitution. There is thus for Aristotle a dual foundation for politics. The first is a matter of principle, which links man as the speaking animal, capable of discerning just from unjust, to the political animal, and the second in fact which subjects this common condition to the division of rich and poor.

What is interesting for me here is not just Aristotle’s assertion of the fundamental nature of class struggle for politics, beating The Communist Manifesto to the punch by over two-thousand years, but the way he proposes that this rift between the rich and the poor be dealt with, by conjoining aspects of democracy and oligarchy. Aristotle argues that one solution is to promote the formation of a middle class. For Aristotle this middle class, neither rich nor poor, is also a “mean” between two extremes politically, it is a class that neither “avoids ruling” or “pursues it” (1295b). Underlying Aristotle’s assertion regarding the virtue of the middle class is an argument that is so contemporary that it is almost unrecognizable: the identification of the social position of the middle class with the political position of the center. What is contemporary about this argument, which is really more of an axiomatic assumption than an argument, is the assertion, that the class which is in the economic middle is also the mean between extremes politically. The middle class is free of the arrogance and major vice of the rich and the malice and petty vice of the poor. They are the moral center of the polis. It turns out, however, that the middle class is as precarious as it is ideal, the middle class is constantly at risk of disappearing into its two extremes. (Two themes that which we might associate with contemporary invocations of the “middle class”: its fundamentally decent and honest nature and its “disappearance” turn out to quite ancient) It is for this reason that Aristotle lists other ways of resolving the tension between the rich and the poor, other ways of protecting the middle from its extremes. One strategy is to place the capital in the middle, equidistant from the small farms and villages, which make up the populace. The people, including the poor, are the permitted to participate in politics by right, but excluding by the mundane facts of life. As Aristotle writes: “For they have enough to live on as long as they keep working, but they cannot afford any leisure time” (1292b27). The rift between the rich and the poor is unavoidable, but it can be managed by other facts that are just as unavoidable. There is only so much time in a day, and given a choice between political participation and making a living the poor will always choose the latter—if it can be called a choice. The translation puts a particular contemporary spin on the matter by foregrounding “leisure time,” suggesting the contemporary situation in which politics is simply the least entertaining of several “leisure time” activities.

The philosopher Jacques Rancière has gone so far as to argue that what we find in Aristotle, the idea of the middle class and the use of the mundane facts of space and timing to manage political conflicts, is the strategy of contemporary politics. “Aristotle is the inventor of…the art of underpinning the social by means of the political and the political by means of the social.” As Rancière writes:

The primary task of politics can indeed be precisely described in modern terms as the political reduction of the social (that is to say the distribution of wealth) and the social reduction of the political (that is to say the distribution of various powers and the imaginary investments attached to them). On the one hand, to quiet the conflict of rich and poor through the distribution of rights, responsibilities and controls; on the other, to quiet the passions aroused by the occupation of the centre by virtue of spontaneous social activities.

Politics undermines the social by displacing the divisions of the rich and the poor with a unified identity, that of the citizen, or of the nation. At the same time the social or economic activities of work and leisure are used to temper political grievances, the conflict over the distribution of offices. In contemporary terms, Rancière argues that there is a “reduction” of the social by the political whenever national unity is used to ward off the facts and conflicts of social division. The inverse, the reduction of the political by the social, takes place whenever the promise of general economic development, of progress, is offered as a solution to political conflict.

Contracts All The Way Down

To see an example of the reduction of the political by the social, one only needs to look to the history of modern political philosophy. Modern political philosophy, at least the doctrines that can be grouped under the term “social contract theory,” is based upon a fundamental equivocation of politics and markets: an isomorphism that is centered on the idea of exchange. In the work of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau political authority is founded upon an original exchange of the uncertain freedoms of the state of nature for the certainties of civil society, of liberties for obligations. It is an exchange that follows the basic rule of the maximum/minimum thesis in which one looks for maximum results (freedoms or security gained) for minimum cost (freedoms or rights lost). On the basis of this calculation, tyranny is quite simply too costly, an unfair exchange, in which too much freedom is surrendered for security. This fundamentally economic idea of power, in which power is seen as something that can be exchanged for security, is put into the service of preserving private property—the end and final goal of politics. Thus it is possible to say that in social contract theory the economy appears twice. Once in the form of the theory, the way it understands subjects to be self-interested individuals who possess a particular amount of power, which can be exchanged for rights at the best possible rate. Secondly, in what could be described as its ends, or content; that is, the defense of private property as the most fundamental and basic right. These two aspects, form and content, intersect most directly in the work of Locke. Locke argued that possession, in the form of self-possession, is the most basic and fundamental aspect of the human condition, making him the exemplary instance of “possessive individualism.”

Hegel was the first to critically equate the perspective of social contract theory with the economy. For Hegel, social contract theorists did not so much fail to understand the nature of the state, and of politics, as they represented it from a particular perspective: that of civil society. Practically speaking we can identify “civil society” with the private realm, the world of business, commerce, and trade unions. Hegel writes, “Civil society is the stage of difference which intervenes between the family and the state…”(§182) If the family is defined by the immediate identification of the interests of one with the interests of all, in which it is impossible to delineate where one individuals interest begins and another ends, then civil society is the negation of this: the assertion of a particular will and identity. “In civil society, each individuals is his own end and all else means nothing to him” (§182). Thus what is most important for Hegel is not so much the structural division of society into the spheres of family, civil society, and the state, but the fact that each of these spheres has its own perspective, its own point of view, which is generated from its structures and institutions. It is the perspective of civil society that social contract theory expresses: the attempt to view and construct the state from the perspective of individual self-interest. Of course Hegel does not agree with this perspective, the state for Hegel is more than the total sum of its parts and is thus irreducible to a contract, but what is more important for us here is the manner in which he understands the limitations of this perspective. The perspective of individual self-interest views others as merely a means to its own particular end. What it lacks, according to Hegel, is any understanding of universality—it can only hope that its particular interest (its particular enterprise, business venture or job skill) corresponds to the needs and desires of others through a kind of faith in an invisible hand of the economy. The perspective of civil society is a based on a fundamental contradiction: the more it asserts its independence and absolute self-interest the more it reveals itself to be dependent upon factors and conditions which are beyond its control. The universality and inter-connectedness that it denies in principle reasserts itself in fact. As Hegel argues, in passages which are somewhat surprising for those who consider him to be a staunch conservative, universality, the connection of one individual’s interest with that of other, reasserts itself in the form of crises of overproduction and unemployment. History advances by its bad side. The particular perspective of “civil society” realizes its connections with others not through an immediate recognition of some greater good, but through the collisions produced by individual interests, collisions that produce the need for a stronger state to regulate these conditions. These regulations take various forms: state powers to police and regulate individual enterprises, social programs to cushion the shock of economic crises, and most of all in the need for colonies, which exist to absorb the excess population and abundance of products produced by the crises tendencies of capitalism (§245).

Where Hegel saw a linear progression from the family, through civil society, to the state, in which self-consciousness is educated, realizing its relationality and universality, Marx sees the continual subversion of the universal by a particular interest. In commenting on the 1791 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” Marx underscores the division that separates man and citizen. The fundamental rights of humanity, equality, liberty, security, and property, are not just human rights but express a particular ideal, the ideal of a rational, self-interested, individual. As Marx writes: “Let us notice first of all that the so-called rights of man, as distinct from the rights of the citizen, are simply of a member of civil society, that is of egoistic man, of a man separated from other men and from the community.” Marx subjects the “Declaration of Rights” to a critical reading in which the individual of civil society, and the importance of private property, reveals itself to be the subtext underlining and undermining the ideals of the citizen. While Article Six of the declaration states: “Liberty is the power which man has to do everything which does not harm the rights of others,” Marx declares its implied content as, “…liberty as a right of man is not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation. The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.” All of this culminates in security, which Marx argues “…is the supreme social concept of civil society, the concept of the police.” At the heart of the “Declaration” Marx finds an inversion: rather than individual life, the private life of the bourgeois citizen, functioning as a means to political life, life in common and relation with others, becomes a means to individual life. “Life itself appears only as a means to life.” The subject of the declaration of rights is not humanity, or even the somewhat circumscribed figure of the citizen, but the property owner.

Marx can be interpreted as simply following Hegel on this point, with two major exceptions. First, Marx does not situate the perspective of disconnected individual in the middle of the narrative of universal recognition. There is no bridge from the particular to the universal: no way in which the perspective of isolated self interest is forced to confront the limitations of its perspective and recognize its constitutive relations with others. Rather. the “perspective of political economy” generates a point of view in which the economy appears to be independent and autonomous. It is no longer seen as the sum total of the effects of individual actions, as a sphere of human activity that can be transformed and acted on, but as a quasi-natural phenomena with its laws, its own crises and transformations, which are akin to the fluctuating changes of the weather. As Marx writes, reflecting on the relation of individuals to the economy, their own economic activity: “To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.” Universality is not a perspective that dialectically emerges from the contradictions of self-interested individuals, it is a material event, brought about by the conditions of capital and the revolutionary transformation of these conditions. Secondly, and more importantly, Marx further clarifies Hegel’s critique by arguing that the image of a free and autonomous individual is not simply an effect of economic activity, but of a specific aspect of economic activity: exchange. In the sphere of exchange goods are always exchanged for equivalents, including labor power, which is always paid for at a fair rate. The equivalences of the market produces its own ideal, its own ideology, out of this exchange of equivalents. As Marx writes:

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, equality, and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labor power, are determined by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law…The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each.

The “eden of the innate rights of man” is an after image of market activity itself. Marx’s argument in Capital is not to critique this ideal of private self interest in the name of some republican ideal of the citizen, but to show how it only reflects half the picture: it only reflects the image of exchange, of circulation, and not of production. One of the contradictions of capital is that it must exchange equivalent for equivalent, respecting the fundamental equality of exchange, while at the same time producing a profit, surplus value. In order to do this there must be a commodity that produces more than it costs. This commodity is labor power. Upon entering the realm of production, the factory or office floor, the relation of equals is transformed according to the specific nature of that peculiar commodity: labor power. As Marx writes:

The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible, and where possible, to make two working days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides.

The laws of exchange dictate that everyone wants to get the maximum benefit for minimum expenditure. The capitalist, or employer, would like to get the most out of the commodity called labor power, and the worker would like to get the most for this commodity, which is nothing other than his or her life or existence. The claim of each bares the “seal of the law of exchange,” and thus force, in other words, class struggle is the deciding factor.

Marx’s entire analysis of the capitalist mode of production in Capital is an excavation of the relations of force, the social conditions, which lie beneath the apparent exchange of equals. The worker must sell his labor power in order to survive, while the capitalist, thanks to the reserve army of the unemployed, a surplus of people, has many potential employees to choose from. Their formal and legal equality is a mask of a physical and material inequality. The relation between worker and capitalist, employee and enterprise, only appears to be one of two individuals freely consenting to exchange labor for money, it is in fact an assymetrical relation. The appearance of equality, self-interest, and autonomy is a powerful ideology that reinforces this relation. This “ideology,” if it can be called that, is all the more powerful in that it is generated by the day practices of a market economy, the simple fact of purchasing commodities. The everyday experience of shopping interpellates each of us as a subject who is free to choose his or her brand of soft drink, detergent, and political candidate, all the while concealing the social conditions of this choice: everything from the exclusion of certain options, to the production of the desire for others. While consumer society may be the very model of a certain idea of freedom, freedom as the choice between alternative product that are more often than not organized into virtually indistinguishable binaries it exists on the basis of fundamental social necessities, such as finding a job, consuming products, etc. As Eric Alliez and Michel Feher illustrate this paradox:

On every level, subjection is related to the independence of a subject: as free worker, as responsible citizen, and finally as consumer who maximizes his utility within the limits imposed by his salary. But reciprocally, this sovereign subjectivity is only actualized by voluntary submission to capitalist conditions of production, consumption, and circulation.

Marx offers a powerful critique of the “reduction of the political by the social,” the way in which economic ideas of subjectivity, equality, and exchange come to define political ideals of citizenship and rights. What makes this critique “powerful” is that it traces these ideals to their source, what Marx defines as the sphere of circulation. This could more simply be described as the day-to-day experience of shopping and consuming. Then demonstrates how this experience is only a partial account of the realm of the economy: it does not account for or reflect the necessities of production. The realm of freedom of exchange is made possible by the realm of necessity, in other words, the realm of production, labor, and the toil of the human body. Thus, for Marx, the reduction of the political by the social is simultaneously the reduction of the social by the political: the abstract categories of right and exchange deny in principle the existence of the inequality of social conditions. Exchange generates political ideals that in turn obscure the reality of production, the inequality of condition and force, which define the “social.”

As “powerful” as Marx’s critique is it is also limited in that it is dependent upon another identity to displace that of the perpetually self-reinforcing circle of the citizen/consumer: that identity is the worker. As an activity and an identity the worker is what must necessarily be excluded in order for the citizen/consumer to claim its place in the “eden of the innate rights of man.” It must be excluded because it is a reminder of the necessity, the submission, and constraint, not to mention the precariousness and uncertainty that are also a part of capitalist society. For Marx, however, the worker is not just the sum total of repressed inequalities, it is also the figure of creativity, transformation, and the source of value. The politics of Marx’s critique is dependent upon the worker becoming an identity and a rallying cry—it is the figure through which the constitutive exclusions of the political/economic sphere can be addressed and the existing conditions can be transformed. However, it is precisely this identity, this particular ideal of revolutionary subjectivity that is absent today. Of course people continue to work all over the globe, perhaps more than ever, but the “worker” is predominantly absent as a figure for politics.


Neoliberalism is one name for the process by which “the worker”, and with it the entire social realm, is excluded from politics, and the identity of citizen as consumer, or citizen modeled on consumer, is entirely cemented. In order to clarify this the term “neoliberalism” needs to be defined. It is a difficult term to define because the word, which is used to define a globally hegemonic ideology, intersects with different regions, and places within which the various component parts of the term, most noticeably “liberal” have fundamentally different meanings. In most of the world the term “neoliberal” is synonymous with what Americans call “globalization.” While in the U.S. “liberal” is associated with the left, or “center-left,” policies of the welfare state. The prefix “neo” is no less confusing: What makes it new? How are we to understand this novelty? For simplicity we can graft an understanding of neoliberalism on the definition of what was said above about classical liberalism. While liberalism was an attempt to carve a space out of the state for the market, arguing for the sacred and foundational nature of property rights, neoliberalism models the state on the market. It is possible to understand neoliberalism as the simultaneous completion and transvaluation of liberalism, in that it completely sutures the citizen to the idea of an economic subject. As Karl Polyani an early historian of neo-liberalism writes with respect to this shift: “Instead of the economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.”

There are multiple perspectives from which one can thus examine neoliberalism: as part of a new world order, as it has been applied to developing countries through “structural adjustment programs,” as a new common sense, the co-called “Washington consensus” underlying globalization, etc. In following with the train of thought that I have outlined above, I would like to follow a perspective that has been opened up by lectures Michel Foucault gave in the nineteen seventy-eight/seventeen-nine academic year titled The Birth of Biopolitics. As we have seen, classical liberalism makes exchange the general matrix of society: everything from the market to the social contract that forms the basis of the state can be viewed as an exchange. Neoliberalism, according to Foucault, also makes economic activity a general matrix of social and political relations, but it takes as its focus not exchange but competition. What the two forms of liberalism, the classical and neo, share, according to Foucault, is a general idea of “homo economicus,” that is, the way in which they place a particular “anthropology” of man as an economic subject at the basis of politics. What changes is the emphasis from an anthropology of exchange to competition. The shift from exchange to competition has profound effects: while exchange was considered to be natural, competition is understood by the neoliberals of the twentieth century to be an artificial relation that must be protected against interventions by the state and the tendency for capital to form monopolies. Competition necessitates a constant intervention on the part of the state, not on the market, but on the conditions of the market.

What is more important for us is the way in which this shift in “anthropology” from “homo economicus” as an exchanging creature to a competitive creature, or rather as a creature whose tendency to compete must be fostered, entails a general shift in the way in which human beings make themselves and are made subjects. First as Foucault argues neoliberalism attempts to address a particular lacunae in classical liberal thought and that is labor. In this sense neoliberalism rushes to fill the same void, the same gap, that Marx attempted to fill, without reference to Marx, and with very different results. Marx and neo-liberals agree that although classical economic theory examined the sphere of exchange, the market, it failed to enter the “hidden abode of production” examining how capital is produced. Of course the agreement ends there, because what Marx and neo-liberals find in labor is fundamentally different: for Marx labor is the sphere of exploitation while for the neo-liberals, labor is no sooner introduced as a problem than the difference between labor and capital is effaced through the theory of “human capital.” Human capital encompasses all of the aspects of subjectivity, from skills, talent and knowledge, to appearance and ethnicity that forms the basis of one’s earning power Salary or wages become the revenue that is earned on an initial investment, an investment in one’s skills or abilities. Neoliberalism scrambles and exchanges the terms of opposition between “worker” and “capitalist.” To quote Etienne Balibar, “The capitalist is defined as worker, as an’ entrepreneur’; the worker, as the bearer of a capacity, of a human capital” (Balibar,1994: 53). Once ‘capital’ and ‘investment’ have been redefined so broadly the scope of the economic is drastically redefined. Any activity that increases the capacity to earn income, from learning a new computer program to getting one’s teeth whitened,is an investment in human capital. Economic rationality, the balancing costs and returns, risk and benefits, is removed from the specialized realm of the market, from the specific science of economics, to become tantamount to rationality altogether. Neoliberalism thus entails a particular version of “capitalism without capitalism,” a particular way of dispensing with the antagonism of capitalism while maintaining private property and inequality. The opposition between capitalist and worker has been effaced not by a transformation of the mode of production, a new organization of the production and distribution of wealth, but by the mode of subjection, a new production of subjectivity. Thus, neoliberalism entails a very specific extension of the economy across all of society; it is not, as Marx argued, because everything rests on an economic base (at least in the last instance) that the effects of the economy are extended across of all of society, rather it is an economic perspective, that of the market, that becomes coextensive with all of society. As Christian Laval argues, all actions are seen to conform to the fundamental economic ideas of self-interest, of greatest benefit for least possible cost. It is not the structure of the economy that is extended across society but the subject of economic thinking, its implicit anthropology (Laval, 2007: 17).

Given the long history, dating back to Aristotle, of the reduction of the political by the social, we can ask, why does neoliberalism emerge now, as a particular Utopia of capital, at this moment in history? First we can see in neoliberalism a particular reduction of the political by means of the social. It is possible to see this reduction 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 (Brown, 2006: 704). Neoliberalism constitutes a particular manner of de-democratization; it does not operate through a resurgence of authority, at least overtly, instead it continues the fragmentation and isolation, already at work in a capitalist democratic society. Neoliberalism is also a reduction of the social by means of the political, as this particular social identity, that of the isolated entrepreneur is not just mobilized against the citizen but against the transformed social conditions of labor as well. Labor in contemporary capitalist society is defined not only collective in its form, as every act of production, distribution, and exchange, involves multiple individuals across national borders, but in its content as well, as it is social relations themselves in the form of knowledge and collective intelligence that are put to work. The present thus constitutes a particular paradox, as more and more wealth is produced by the collective social powers of society, neoliberalism presents us with an image of society made up of self-interested individuals. For Antonio Negri, neoliberalism and the idea of human capital is a misrepresentation of the productive powers of society. “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” (Negri, 1989: 2006). Rather than extend the market across all of society, seeing every individual as a “company of one” locked in bitter competition, a more accurate picture of society is that of the “social factory,” as the general knowledge of society, as well as communication and social relationships become the basis for the production of wealth. Thus, neoliberalism has to be understood not just as a destruction of the citizen, not is it simply aimed at “the worker” in the classical sense such a strategy would be anachronistic, rather, it is aimed at something which is only beginning to emerge, the subjectivity of an emergent form of social relations, that have alternately been defined as the multitude or the commons. Thus, to conclude somewhat abruptly, what the present calls for is not simply a critique of the utopia of the market, in the name of some more realistic understanding of society and human beings, but a utopia which is adequate to the present; adequate in a paradoxical sense that it would recognize the non-identity of the present to itself. Against the reduction of the overlapping reductions of the political by the social, and the social by the political, that underlies the idea of neoliberalism it is necessary to think an amplification of the social by the political and vise versa, in which the political question of exploitation and domination is brought to bear on every social relationship and the new social dimensions of labor become the basis for the constitution of new political constructions.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Violence and the Common: Truth is Structured Like a (Science) Fiction Part Two

It has been said that every generation invents its own Marx: colonialism, alienation, commodity fetishism, and living labor have all at one time or another occupied center stage as different texts are discovered and different vicissitudes of struggle emerge. If this is true, and I realize that I have done little to do back it up here, then it could be argued that the Marxist themes that define the present are violence and the common. The first, violence, is primarily examined through the concluding chapters of Capital on primitive accumulation. Although this is not the only point of reference, the overt violence of primitive accumulation has also made possible a renewed examination into the structural violence of capital, the anonymous violence of day-to-day exploitation. Alternately, the common appears first and foremost as the commons, as the commonly held resources, such as land and woods, that primitive accumulation destroys. It is also not limited to that, however, there is also a reading of the common that works through the concept of species being and Marx’s writing on cooperation in the factory to articulate a different sense of the common. Not the common as a thing, but potentialities and relations internal to subjectivity.