Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Its Competition All the Way Down: On the Spontaneous Anthropology of Contemporary Capitalism

As much as people love to cite that ubiquitous remark by Fredric Jameson about the end of the world and the end of capitalism. You know the oneThere is another, less discussed line, that covers the same terrain of ideological struggle and the limits of the imagination that I prefer. It is, “The market is in human nature’ is the proposition that cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged; in my opinion, it is the most crucial terrain of ideological struggle in our time.”   

I have heard some version of this claim nearly every time I have discussed Marx or capitalism in a philosophy course. The argument, to the extent that it can be called that, takes two forms. The first version goes something like this, we are competitive by nature thus any political or economic system not driven by competition will be necessarily repressive. The second version argues that everything that makes our life livable, every discovery, ever scientific breakthrough, and all productivity stems from competition. Life without competition would be nasty, brutish, and short. A world without competition is a choice between two different versions of the gulag. 

In the recently published Contre-Courants Politiques Yves Citton offers an interesting characterization of this spontaneous anthropology of competition. As Citton argues most people who believe in this ideal do not exactly live accordingly, are not throwing themselves into activities that risk life and well being. As Citton states, "They are content to believe. They believe that they believe, and believe that it is either competition or the end of the world." What strikes me is Citton's formulation "they believe that they believe." As Citton argues, competition is often less something that one actually engages in then a justification of the way things are. It allows those in power to reassure themselves that they played fairly and won. Competition is a veneer applied to existing hierarchies and inequalities giving them the shine of a contest. All complaints or criticism are relegated to sore losers.

Perhaps a few more words about Citton's book are necessary. Citton takes as his starting point the often uttered assertion that the old polarities of left and right no longer apply. Citton's response is not to accept uncritically this assertion, or to argue once again for the relevance of the old definitions of left and right but to critically take stock of the new divisions. The book is organized in nine dualities, mapping different points of tension. Some of them are familiar, taking up existing political divisions, like the Accelerationists and the various "slow" movements, food, thought, etc. (well at least the former is a political position or, more often than not, an epithet) others are attempts to name points of tension that are more inchoate, less likely to be named.

"Competitivists" is one such pole. As much as there are official and explicit ideologies of competition such as neoliberalism, there is also the more inchoate sense that capitalism is competition and competition is human nature. Underlying this belief in competition, or the belief in the belief, is the assertion that collectivity, the collective intelligence of human beings, manifests itself only by negating itself. The only collectivity capable of directing social life is the negation of collectivity, it is the invisible hand. Very often this ideal of competition does not end at the economy or the social world, throw in some evolutionary psychology or at least a few references to Darwin and it is competition all the way down. Every action, every living thing, is locked in a battle of all versus all.

This brings us to the opposite pole. Citton names this opposed pole "pollenists." Pollenists begin with the image of the bee, but a different fable than Mandeville's "public use of private vices." The bees in this case are the pollinators who are indispensable to agriculture, and thus our survival, while being overlooked by most of the tactics used to increase that productivity. Pollination exceeds any attempt to calculate based on competition. As Citton writes,

"Pollenists see in pollination the image of a more general truth, which goes far beyond the world of insects to give the key to our inscription in our world. What is education, if not something that pollinates our knowledge and our human relationships? How to measure (compartmentalize, individualize, digitize, calculate) what our societies gain with the production, the diffusion, the circulation of a knowledge, an idea, a gesture, an image, a melody, of a play on words."

The new fable of the bees is one about the externalities necessary to biological and social existence. In place of isolated individuals locked in competition there are relations of influence, dependence, and mutual transformation that exceed calculation and individuation. (If one wanted a clear illustration of pollinists as a politics or political philosophy, the Beehive Collective in Maine is a good illustration). Citton sees these as two different polarities in political opposition. However, it is also possible to see them as two different aspects of capital itself. Marx famously argued that the sphere of exchange was one of "freedom, equality, and Bentham," that competition, individuation, and self-interest were necessary after-images of market relations. To this he juxtaposed the sphere of production, which was necessarily a sphere of cooperation, of collective work. More to the point, Marx sees this division in two different ways. Sometimes he posits cooperative production against individual exchange, including the exchange of one's labor, but in other instances the salient opposition is between the freedom of the market and the coercion of labor.  As Marx writes,

"The same bourgeois consciousness which celebrates the division of labour in the workshop, the lifelong annexation of the worker to partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as an organization of labour that increases its productive power, denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to control and regulate the process of production socially as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining ‘genius’ of the individual capitalist."

As something of an aside we could say that Marx's vacillation, seeing the site of production as both cooperation and coercion, is one of those divisions that continues to animate Marxism, caught between prefigurative workerism and the workerist "refusal of work."Work is something other than individual isolated self-interest, but what it is is split between social cooperation and imposed discipline. It is most likely a little from column A and a little from column B, a combination of cooperation and the coercion that transforms cooperation into something useable and sellable.

Competition is not just a belief, something one pays lip service to, it is also irreducibly limited perspective on the very economic world it attempts to encapsulate. In his own way David Graeber has argued against this anthropology of self interest by stating that most of our actions are governed by a kind of everyday communism (or anarchism, he has used both terms). In most of our day to day interactions we assist and help others with very little thought of a cost benefit analysis. If someone asks me the time, or asks for directions, I do not try to negotiate a price, but I simply answer because I can. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs"is the governing principle of much our interactions. It is worth noting that Graeber's two examples, asking directions and asking the time, are themselves being phased out by the ubiquitous smart phone which makes us more isolated and independent by placing social dependence, and social relations, in the black box of the machine. Turning back to Citton's book,  there is a chapter dedicated to what he calls the ideology of "automobilists."The automobile is a machine that generates its own spontaneous ideology, one of independence and competition. Driving down the highway is the material condition of asocial sociality, every is looking out for number one, viewing others as at best an indifferent backdrop and at worst hostile enemies. Material transformations of technology and the built world produce and reproduce their own spontaneous ideologies.

The cooperative dimension of our social life is constantly faced with its own disappearance. It is eclipsed by the ideologies that tell us that we live brutal lives of competition and self interest, and by the technologies that make it so. Social media has made friendship itself quantitative and competitive. However, it does not totally go away, and it cannot. As Peter Fleming has argued, it is precisely this incalculable sociality that is at the basis of contemporary work. Social relations not only sustain the workplace, as our attempts to assist and amuse each other do more for morale than any imposed "team building workshop," but are also essential outside of it as well, networks of care from carpooling to grandparents babysitting kids make possible the world of isolated and competitive workers. Every squeeze, every reduction of wages or increase in working times, may be addressed to us as competitive individuals, compelling us to increase our competitive leverage, but it materially affects us as parts of networks of relations that exceed it. Every cut to social services, every reduction in wages, is very often absorbed by increased pressure on relations of cooperation that are invisible to a society that tells itself it functions in and through cooperation. Cooperation functions as the concealed support and buttress for an ideology of competition. Social reproduction is the concealed backdrop of production. 

It is not a matter of not only refusing to believe in competition, but to turn the networks of pollination into something other than support for our continued exploitation.  Viewed from the outside and fairly superficially, the "gilet jaunes" in France would seem to be an example of what can happen when social relations contest capital rather than simply absorb its costs. It is necessary to go from worker bees to a swarm.

1 comment:

Erik said...

I am encouraged by the many crowd funded and crowd sourced open source projects from Wikipedia all the way down (including home brewing, community gardens, and xyz collectives), not to mention volunteerism in itself. Long live volunteerism, Mutual Aid, and leisure time to do what we please for 0 dollars.

"...a little from column A and a little from column B", it seems mixed economies are real, or the norm, but quite pernicious in our current reality. How do we re-frame the popular narrative successfully to make most people abhor capital and simultaneously not see competition (or markets/free-exchange for that matter) as necessarily adversarial? Of course the nature of capital is adversarial (theft), so that we could smash, competitively if we must.