Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Neo-Feudalism with Capitalist Characteristics: A Response to Jodi Dean

I had the chance to respond to Jodi Dean's Communism or Neo-Feudalism at Red May. The following are are a revised version of my response. 

In the concluding section of her essay Dean sums up the difference that neo-feudalism makes.

“The difference is that non-capitalist dimensions of production — expropriation, domination, and force — have become stronger to such an extent that it no longer makes sense to posit free and equal actors meeting in the labor market even as a governing fiction.”

What is striking to me in this summation is that Dean focuses on the governing fiction of capitalism, in doing so she would seem to revisit one of the central aspects of Marx’s understanding of the distinction between capitalism and feudalism. Marx does not so much offer a theory of feudalism as a mode of production, but throughout Capital, he returns to feudalism again and again as point of contrast with capitalism, stressing the difference of exploitation and how this is experienced. As Marx argues, one of the defining characteristics of capitalism is that the difference between surplus labor and necessary labor, the very fact of exploitation itself, is necessarily obscured. People go to work and receive a wage, a wage which would seem to encapsulate the entirety of the value of the labor power they sell. This stands in sharp contrast to the feudal world, in which the division between necessary and surplus labor, between work done for oneself and work for the lord, is concretely lived in difference between plots of land. Marx attaches a great deal of importance to the spontaneous ideology of the labor relation, especially the way in which the wage obscures and conceals exploitation. As Marx writes,

"All the notions of justice held by both the worker and the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, all capitalism’s illusion about freedom, all the apologetic tricks of vulgar economics, have as their basis the form of appearance discussed above, which makes the actual relation invisible and indeed presents to the eye the precise opposite of that relation."

In other words, free and equal actors is the governing fiction that separates feudalism from capitalism. Feudalism is not just a system of interlocking hierarchies, but one in which exploitation work done for others is concretely experienced rather than effaced. My question is in some sense what has happened to this fiction under the transformations that Dean calls neo-feudalism. Is it a return to a clear and demarcated lines of hierarchy and exploitation?

In order to answer this it is necessary to first examine the conditions of what Dean calls a fiction, and what I would call, following Althusser, a spontaneous ideology. The spontaneous ideology of the wage is not the same as that of the market, which Marx associated with “freedom, equality, and Bentham.” In the market we are all equals before the same commodity. As Andy Wharhol puts it the coke that you drink and the coke that Liz Taylor drinks are the same. The wage does not assert an absolute equality, capitalist and worker are understood to be different, one sells labor power and the other provides money, but this difference is bridged by the wage. The wage not only obscures the exploitation, the difference between how much labor power costs and how much it produces, it also extends the fantasy that the position of worker and capitalist could be reversed. If capital is in some sense money, or at least the social relation appears as money, and the wage is money then it is only a matter of saving up enough money and every worker can become a capitalist. This is the what the fiction of the wage represents, not the absolute equality of capitalist and worker, but the idea that every worker could become a capitalist. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue, “‘Measuring the two orders of magnitude in terms of the same analytical unit is a pure fiction, a cosmic swindle, as if one were to measure intergalactic or intra-atomic distance in meters and centimetres. There is no common measure between the value of enterprises and that of the labour capacity of wage earners.” Capital and wages are not the same, are not part of the same relation or class position, but the money that makes up the wage makes them appear as if they could be.

What Dean refers to as neo-feudalism could be understood as a mutation of both ends of the equation, that of the worker and that of the capitalist. People posting all sorts of personal data to various websites, and servers, are often unaware that they are giving anything at all let alone what its value is to companies. No one ever reads user agreements, and many of the data driven monopolies of social media do not charge directly for their services, making it appear to be something freely given or at the very least worth so much more than what we surrender in revealing our searches, location, interests. The cloud platform is not only land squared in terms of power, but  also the wage in terms of mystification. Workers selling their labor power for a wage at least knew what they were surrendering even if they were unclear on its value. Most of the new peasants of a digital economy are unclear on what we surrender, or what it does once it leaves their phone or computer. One could make a similar point about the other forms of extraction in neo-feudalism, fines, debts, and fees that are inserted into every facet of life and every relation from education to health care. Here it is clear that what one is surrendering has value, it is money after all, but what is obscured is how productive these extractions are, how much the economy of states and corporations depends upon it for their very existence. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, "Debt obscures the productivity of workers but clarifies their subordination.” Hierarchy obscures the productivity, we pay our debts, our fines, and fees because we have no choice, failing to see that without out them the very institutions that lord over us would cease to exist. Across the spectrum from data to debt there is a fundamental mutation of the hierarchy of the wage.

This mutation effects the other end of the equation as well. The owners of private property, even when that private property is as immaterial as data, claim increased powers over individuals, over society, and so on, under the increased power of property itself. Because property creates jobs, creates the wonders of the internet and so on, it is allowed to do whatever it wants. It might be possible to say that while for much of the age of capital the social power of private property, the ability of property to command labor and dictate lives, was concealed behind the idea of individual private property, every capitalist compares losing their factory to thieves breaking into your home to take your stuff, now the social power of private property throws off such justifications and directly claims its rights as a social power. A factory, or more to the point, a collection of servers and distribution centers, is not at all like a factory. A “job creator” directly claims his or her power over society, over individual lives, but does so in a way that the power appears creative and generative of lives and wealth. What appears as neo-feudal, as the parcelization of sovereignty, can also be understood as a more open and unapologetic claim for the rights of private property over society, over individuals, over life itself. 

In the current moment, as states “reopen” in the midst of a pandemic, that power, the social power of capital includes the power to take life or let live, intermingled with what Joshua Clover refers to as the power to “make work and let buy.” This power seems less like the parcellation of sovereignty to me than division between state and capital as two sides of sovereign power. It is only because the state has retreated from any but the minimal provisions of social welfare, that employers will be able to expose people to death. The state has perhaps always been the condition of capital’s power, only now there is the added corollary that capital is the condition of the state, as the surveillance gathered across the digital spectrum becomes the condition of an increase in state power.

What is referred to as neo-feudalism, this transformation of the power of property and new modes of the extraction of wealth, is built not just on the material conditions created by capitalism, but its ideological conditions as well. Capitalism is not just a new mode of production, but a new, and even much improved mode of subjection, one that conceals subjection by masquerading it as agency. Its alibi is the equality of the labor contract and wage as a measure of labor power. It seems to me that neo-feudalism, cannot be understood as dispensing with this illusion but in some sense deepening it, even as it further exacerbates the hierarchies that the illusion conceals. This can be seen in the paradoxical attitude embodied by many in the current economy, they are fully aware that they are being taken advantage of, or ripped off by various corporations, but that awareness often fuels less an opposition to those companies than an even deeper desire to become a capitalist, to have the power of increased wealth. The deepening of the divide of the wage does not diminish the desire to cross it. Especially when crossing it seems to be the only way to have things like security and safety. It is not that neo-feudalism dispenses with the wage form, but that it is built on its ruins. Understanding the uneven transition from capitalism to whatever it is becoming now makes it possible to chart its strengths and limits, points where new powers utilize old justifications as well as point where the new hierarchies reveal older hierarchies that we have become second nature.

A video of the whole discussion can be found here: 

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