Sunday, January 24, 2010

You Would Make a Good Cop: Wacquant on the Neoliberal State

Loïc Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity is a book that had been recommended to me by many people. I have not read anything else by Wacquant, nor have I read much in the emerging studies of the prison or “prison-industrial complex” (a term that Wacquant rejects, by the way). Like many trained in philosophy, my understanding of the politics of the prison begins and ends with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I have, however, read and written some on neoliberalism, so it is primarily from that perspective that I approach the book.

First of all, it is worth saying that the book presents an exhaustive and depressing picture of the United States as a country that has increased the penal population drastically in the last thirty years (from 1.84 million in 1980 to 6.47); an increase that has nothing to do with any corresponding rise in crime. It is fueled by the “war on drugs” and a get tough on crime attitude that enforces mandatory sentencing and harsh penalties. This increase is coupled with a massive gutting of social spending and a transformation of welfare to workfare. The end result, and this is Wacquant’s central argument, is that there has been a fundamental shift in the way in which America deals with its subproletariat, the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, burdened by racial discrimination and longstanding marginalization. We lock them up: prison is our social program.

However, I am not really prepared or able to assess the book at the level of statistical and historical analysis. I am more interested in viewing it at the level of political philosophy, as a theory of the state. Wacquant makes it clear that he intends to view the rise of penal technologies economically, rather than as part of some new regime of power, but at the same time, they cannot be viewed simply economically. This is why Wacquant rejects the term “prison-industrial complex,” which too easily reduces the rise of the prison to the economic interest of a dominant industry. The materialist explanation must be understood along with the symbolic dimension, or, in Wacquant’s terms, Marx must be read with Durkheim.

“Weaving together concerns for control and communication, the management of dispossessed categories and the affirmation of salient social boundaries, has enabled us to go beyond an analysis couched in the language of prohibition to trace how the expansion and redeployment of the prison and its institutional tentacles…has reshaped the socio-symbolic landscape and remade the state itself. Tracking down the conjoint material and symbolic effects of punishment reveals that the penal state has become a potent cultural engine in its own right, which spawns categories, classifications, and images of wide import and use in broad sectors of government action and civic life.”

As Wacquant argues, despite its overarching rationale, the transformation from welfare to penalization is not necessarily efficient. Welfare spending, what Wacquant refers to the charitable state, was always a small part of federal spending, dwarfed by aid to middle and upper class families in the form of mortgage tax credits. Everyone knows the often-cited statistic regarding the cost of incarceration versus the cost of education. Wacquant’s point is that such purely economic analyses miss what he refers to the symbolic dimension. The destruction of the remnants of a social safety net and its replacement with a punitive dragnet are both justified by a moral idea of individual responsibility, in which everyone must be held individually accountable. This moral individualism is reinforced by a racism that is wise enough to remain more or less implied: all of the deviant subjects that inform the contemporary discourse of responsibility, from welfare queens to delinquents, are black. As Wacquant writes, detailing the racist dimension of “welfare reform,” “As the poor grew darker in the collective conscience, they were also cast in an increasingly unsympathetic and lurid light, as irresponsible, profligate and dissolute.”

This is not to say that this moral individualism does not have an economic function. Wacquant’s central point with respect to neoliberalism is that the destruction of social services and increasing powers of surveillance have as their ultimate function the regulation of population exposed to the precariousness of labor conditions. It is a matter of a new regime of discipline; a new regime of discipline to produce a new laboring subject, one that must accept instability and poverty as facts of life. For Wacquant the neoliberal state is a police state through and through. (He thus rejects Harvey’s analysis which leaves the security/penal dimension to the side, or others who see in the repressive arm of the state some sort of hybrid of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.) The only legitimate interventions into social life are those attached to the ideas of security and discipline, and these interventions are quite extensive, but any other intervention, any attempt to ameliorate the precariousness of life under market conditions, is immediately suspect.

Wacquant’s thesis of the symbolic dimension of prison reverses Foucault’s claim that we have done away with the spectacle of the scaffold. We may have done away with public executions and the chain gang, but that does not mean that the prison has retreated from public view. The prison has reemerged as part of a “law-and-order-pornography” that appears in campaign slogans and in a criminal culture made up of such shows as Cops and America’s Most Wanted. Wacquant says more about the former than the latter, which is unfortunate since the cultural dimension would seem to be integral to understanding the contemporary regime of penal power.

What interests me the most, at least theoretically, about Wacquant’s book is his assertion that prison and “workfare” most be viewed twice: materially at the level of economic structures and symbolically at the level of values, meanings, and images. These two dimensions follow each other, as Spinoza argued that the order and connection of ideas follows the order and connection of things, but they do no always coincide. As Wacquant argues voters in the U.S. do not want to pay for the penal state that they support. Moreover, one could say that the entire effort to “change welfare as we know it” was based on an entirely fictitious understanding of the overall cost of the government’s rather minimal expenditure on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. To this day one still sees the bumper sticker which reads, “Keep Working: Millions on Welfare Depend On You.” The symbolic dimension of welfare far exceeds the economic rationale. What matters most is not the economic justification, the reduction in state spending, but the symbolic dimension of the economy itself, the values of work and discipline. The same could be said for demand to be tough on crime, which continues to be a necessary refrain of elected officials despite decades of decline in crime. The destruction of the welfare safety net and the tightening of the security net are political strategies that exceed any strictly economic utility. They intersect with the economy obliquely only through their common denominator, that of the disciplined subject of labor.

Two (hurried) conclusions follow from this:

First, I think that much could be done with Wacquant’s general point that institutions should be viewed in terms of both the symbolic and material dimensions. One could apply this analysis to the “market” itself, which functions as a powerful symbol and image more than a reality. The image of the market has gone beyond “freedom, equality, and Bentham” to become the site of a massive libidinal investment, it is a free place where desires are realized. Such an image is at odds with its mundane functioning as the distributor of all kinds of materially necessary goods, not to mention the labor market, which produces insecurity and fear rather than desire.

Which brings me to my second point, one could conclude that the state is not only thoroughly repressive, but that “we” who support it are thoroughly fascist in our desires. We cry again and again for more cops and less bread. However, following the maxim that there is a utopian dimension in even the most repressive ideology, it is possible to perhaps see a glimmer of liberation in this desire for repression. It is possible that our obsession with “welfare queens” and prisoners watching cable television might just be our own muted revolt against the current regime of work. Not to mention the fact that this obsession with people who do not work, who live off of the work of others, is a Marxist critique inverted. I have often thought about making my own version of the bumper sticker mentioned above. It would read, “Keep Working: The Capitalist Class Depends On You.”

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Writing Degree Zero: or, In Praise of Short Punchy Books

Anyone who teaches feminism or Marxism to undergraduates invariably encounters certain resistances on the part of students. There are multiple resistances obviously, but in large part they concern the practical nature of each of these theories, their capacity to be realized. As Homer Simpson said of Marxism, or communism, actually, it works in theory, but not in practice. The Marxist critique of capital, the ideas of alienation, exploitation, and reification are all considered to be good and valid by most students that I encounter, but they quickly counter that any attempt to turn these into an actual project, to produce a world other than a capitalist world, organized according to the relentless pursuit of profit has been and will be a disaster. Thus, teaching Marxism ends up reinforcing contemporary cynicism: the sense that the world is bad, but nothing can be done about it. Inversely, feminism, students claim, has already been realized: women vote, own property, pursue careers, and are free to do whatever they wish. Marxism and feminism are inversely related to practice, one is impossible and the other is already done, but the overall effect is the same for each: there is no point in talking about them or studying them now. They have only a historical significance (and who cares about history?)

This little observation, which is not free of its own cynicism and exhaustion, came to mind recently as I read two little volumes from Zero Books: One Dimensional Woman by Nina Power and Capitalist: Realism: Is There No Alternative by Mark Fisher. These are short little books. I read each of them in one sitting. They are part of Zero books project of “publishing as the making public of the intellectual,” overcoming the divide between the popular and the academic. They are also in their own way positioned against the two obstacles indicated above. Nina Power takes on what passes as the realization of feminism, specifically its Sex in the City, post girl power manifestations. Mark Fisher, on the other hand, takes on not so much the feasibility of a Marxist or Communist project, but the necessity and difficulty of thinking an alternative to capitalism. What follows will be a few remarks on each of these books, a lengthy exhortation to read them, and not an actual review.

There is much polemic to Nina Power’s book, aimed at everything from Sarah Palin to contemporary porn, but there is also analysis of the current conjuncture. The most interesting and provocative interpretation concerns the “feminization” of labor. Most discussions of the feminization distance the concept from gender, stressing that it is more a less an allegory: work is increasingly become like the work done by women, flexible, service oriented, communicative, and emotional, or affective. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Commonwealth that the confusion the term implies, a category confusion of the kind of work that has been historically performed by women and the attributes of that work, makes it preferable to replace the term with biopolitical production, as a general term reflecting the increased intersection of work and life. Power, however, takes the term in the opposite direction. She examines the connections between contemporary labor and contemporary femininity, not in terms of the number of women who are working at what job, but in terms of the qualities demanded of both workers and women. Specifically, Power argues that the feminization of labor is inseparable from the “becoming CV of the human,” the transformation of every skill, every activity into a job activity, and thus a constant demand to expose oneself. As Power writes on Girls Gone Wild (which on first glace would have nothing to do with labor):

“When the Girls Gone Wild team hand out hats or t-shirts in exchange for a shot of breasts, or the performance of a snog with another woman, the logic is right out in the open: we’ll give you something obviously crap in exchange for a kind of performance that reveals that there is nothing subjective, nothing left, hidden behind the appearance, that you simply are commensurate with your comportment in the world. You are your breasts.”

As Power argues this goes beyond objectification. It is a subjectification, or form of subjection, that crosses labor and leisure, as everything becomes visible. “The personal is no longer just political it’s economic through and through.” In the end, as something, of a summation, I understand Power’s book to an argument not just for a renewed feminism, but for a renewed Marxist, or materialist, feminism. The latter disappeared too quickly from the intellectual and political scene, burdened by bad arguments about the primacy of capitalism or patriarchy and worse metaphors about unhappy marriages. Power demonstrates how much it can be renewed by attention to the new forms of domination in the current economy and the theoretical tools of post-humanism.

Fisher’s book is of course more specifically concerned with the renewal of an anti-capitalist project. The book takes its bearing from Jameson’s remark that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.” This remark (from The Seeds of Time) is often cited, by Zizek among others, as a truism of the present, but most do not seek to explain it. Fisher tries to explain this “weakness in our imagination” (to quote Jameson again). This is what he means by capitalist realism, which is less an aesthetic style, as in the old socialist realism, than the incapacity to imagine anything outside of capitalism. This realism is in part made possible by the fact that capitalism does not require our belief in order to function (a point drawn from Deleuze and Guattari): it functions outside of belief which makes it all the easier for it to define what can be imagined. As Fisher writes, commenting on Wall-E (but we could just as easily substitute the latest anti-capitalist blockbuster, Avatar):

“A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief. It is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalism without propaganda—but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it.”

Fisher connects this cynicism, this fact that capitalism functions without belief, with a pervasive inability to believe in anything, to engage in anything other than the pursuit of the latest distraction or pleasure, what he calls “hedonic depression.” The strongest points of Fisher’s book, aside from the brilliant readings of Heat and Nirvana, are the connections that he draws between the economic order, without justification or possible outside, and certain subjective states such as depression and boredom (subjective states that are effectively privatization of social problems as long as they are treated as simply subjective conditions). Anyone who has taught in a university classroom will recognize Fisher’s description of boredom, which is less about the specifics of any topic or class than the current production of subjectivity. As Fisher writes: “To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, You Tube, and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.”

Power’s and Fisher’s books are singular interventions in specific political/philosophical fields, and they should be read as such. However, if one approaches them together a common them emerges: they insist on viewing the intersection of the economic and the personal, the objective and subjective, on seeing the way in which the seemingly private and trivial is shaped by, and shapes, the official powers. In this way they follow the works of not only Deleuze and Guattari (cited by Fisher), but Paolo Virno (cited by Power) as well as anticipating some of Franco Berardi’s remarks on depression in The Soul at Work. This is not to suggest that these works are faithful citations of intellectual masters; on the contrary, they are attempts to invent new concepts and vocabularies to address the current conjuncture. They take seriously the idea that the present is different from the past, and that understanding this is the prerequisite of making a different future.

Like I said, not so much a review as an exhortation.

Finally, since I am writing in praise of Zero (books, that is) and math, infinity, and the void are such hot topics, I thought that I would include the following.