Saturday, March 10, 2018

Spectacular Compromise: Or, On the Accuracy of Broken Clocks

Much to my surprise I am going to begin this post with a citation of Ross Douthat. In a recent column titled "Woke Capital" Douthat argues that the current social consciousness of some corporations should be read along the lines of the the "Treaty of Detroit," in which the UAW agreed not to strike in exchange for benefits and cost of living increases. That Fordist compromise frames the basis by which we should understand the contemporary neoliberal compromise, a compromise not based on wages or productivity but image and identity. As Douthat writes, 

"But there are other ways to compromise besides on wages, and at an accelerating pace our corporate class is trying to negotiate a different kind of peace, a different deal from the one they struck with New Deal liberalism and Big Labor. Instead of the Treaty of Detroit we have, if you will, the Peace of Palo Alto, in which a certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, is offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively, in the hopes that having corporate America take their side in the culture wars will blunt efforts to tax or regulate our new monopolies too heavily."

I am going to leave behind the motivation here, or how Douthat understands capitalism, to focus on what he elides, and that is precisely the shift from wages to image. Although I will stop to at least note that perhaps the most important question, indicated but never answered, is of course why there will be no more treaties of Detroit, no more compromises tying wages to profits in the current era--whether such a rupture is the effect of the attenuation of worker's power of the decline of the rater of profit. Leaving aside that question it is at least possible to ask what is at stake when the struggle over the wage is replaced with the struggle over the image. Two theorizations of this come to mind.

First, there is Fredric Jameson who, in his book on Hegel, argues that we are not so much confronted with the passage from civil society to the state, in which the universality of the state sublates the particularity of civil society but with a reversal of this relation. This reversal is not so much the dialectic placed on its head, but an inversion where the corporation, and the brand, just seem more "relatable" (to use the parlance of our times). As Jameson writes,

"It is thus scarcely a distortion to posit the humanized world of consumer society as that externalization in which the subject can find itself most completely objectified and yet most completely itself. The contradiction begins to appear when we set this cultural dimension alongside the legal and political levels of late capitalism: for it is with these that the Kantian ethical citizen ought to identify himself, according to the theory, and in these that he ought to be able to recognize his own subjectivity and the traces of his own production. But this is precisely what does not obtain today; where so many people feel powerless in the face of the objective institutions which constitute their world, and in which they are so far from identifying that legal and political world as their own doing and their own production."

Departing from Hegel a bit, it might be worth teasing out why this is the case, of thinking through the pseudo-democracy of corporations. Companies in an era of declining profitability and increased visibility are quick to respond to twitter campaigns and social media politics. This speed and sensitivity is particularly striking in response to the slow pace of legislative change and political careers that are more like legacies. Our pseudo-democracy of brands and boycotts is speedy and sensitive while our representative democracy is slow and aloof. One demands loyalty and communication, while the other functions by indifference and ignorance. It is easier to imagine Pepsi retracting an idiotic "black lives matter" advertisement than it is to imagine that government would have an effective response to the institutionalized racism and brutality of the police. 

(Not to add to the world of online conspiracy theories, but I sometimes wonder if these corporate missteps are missteps at all. Might they be calculated ways to demonstrate responsiveness to outrage?)

The opposition cannot only be framed in terms of government or corporations, state or civil society. Civil society, or, more exactly, capital, divides into two as well. As I alluded to above, the new compromise is one of consumption, not production. This brings us to the second theorization, Frédéric Lordon; Lordon argues that the there is a tendency in contemporary capital, in some sense a residual tendency left over from the Fordist compromise, to efface the worker in favor of the consumer. Prices take precedence over wages, and consumer convenience is more important than working conditions. As Lordon writes, 

"The justifications offered for contemporary transformations in employment practices—from longer work hours (‘it allows stores to open on Sundays’) to competition-enhancing deregulation (‘it lowers prices’)—always contrive to catch agents by the joyful affects of consumption, appealing only to the consumer in them."

What Douthat also does not mention is that "woke capitalism" has its opposite in "MAGA" capitalism. For every Patagonia there is a Chick-Fil-A and for every Dick's Sporting Goods there is a Duck Dynasty. Brand identity displaces and augments political identity. At this point, however, it is worth returning to the question above, that of the displacement of the compromise from wages and profits to brands and identities. The passions with which people live out their politicization of brands, and branded politics, seems directly proportional to their inability to act, to have any affect other than the merely symbolic effects of marketing campaigns. 

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