Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Dr. Freelove (or, how I learned to stop worrying and love... capitalism?)
I must admit to a personal… flaw? drawback? vendetta? I’m not sure what to call it. Anyway, I can’t help but get into political and economic debates with other people, despite the fact that I’m not an expert in either politics or economics, and I often choose opponents that are. Because of my stance in both fields, I’m usually interpreted by my opponents as being somewhat left-of-center, let’s say; and I wouldn’t disagree with that kneejerk assessment, although I think that, more often than not, these horizontal categorizations along the political spectrum are, at best, convenient without being enlightening, and, at worst, obfuscate and polemical. I have no idea what a libertarian socialist is, or how someone votes for Mitt Romney and yet maintains a woman’s right to choose. Categorically speaking, these categories make no sense; and yet people fall into them, thus endlessly confounding the convenience of the political spectrum. False consciousness, cognitive dissonance…? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change the fact that these contradictions exist, and they make categorization difficult.
I’m writing this post because I can’t even begin to think of what to call myself, despite the fact that others often seem all too eager to pick a label for me.
The debate I have more than any other is with self-professed advocates of the free market over the efficiency, structure, and power dynamics of said market. Already, I’ll bet I’m looking pretty left to some people right about now. It’s true: I don’t agree with the free market because I don’t think there exists a free market – there never has existed one, and there never will exist one. I think that the market is always manipulated by vast amounts of capital already accumulated, and I think that such manipulation makes it next to impossible for any entity to operate truly freely in a market setting. I will agree with this bare minimum: that a market can fluctuate through varying degrees of voluntary action and that access to such voluntarism depends on one’s already-determined financial standing. I do not believe that there exists any such thing as exit or escape from the market. Exit equals exclusion (whether self-imposed or not, it remains exclusion nonetheless).
There, my cards are on the table – all bleeding hearts, running red like the Soviet flag, no? Well, go fish (I don’t really play cards), because the communist card is one I don’t carry (I feel this metaphor beginning to crumble… like a house of cards…).
No, I don’t count myself a communist. Far from it, in fact.
I have no communist vision, nor do I know how a full-fledged communist system would work. I find Marx’s work fascinating and relevant, but not particularly applicable in an organizational sense. Marx is relevant, I believe, for his trenchant critique of free-market economics, but not for his elucidation of a working sociopolitical system. I also read numerous post-Marxist scholars and theorists, some of whom consider themselves communists, some of whom do not; but I have no commitment to the communist cause.
No, much to Greg Gutfeld’s dismay, not all academics are closet commies waiting for the revolution.
I am not a communist, socialist, or any form of collectivist, even though I may believe that government can successfully and ethically implement functioning welfare programs (the mechanics of this, however, are controversial and should always be up for debate). In fact, if I had to admit which way I lean, I would claim to lean toward capitalism, although not for the reasons that my free-marketeering opponents might think.[i] I lean toward capitalism, but I do not equate capitalism with the free market; I am interested in capitalism because I see in it something profoundly modern, something terrifyingly science-fictional, and something capable of inaugurating a radical new epoch, albeit at the expense of massive amounts of human suffering. I feel ethically responsible to challenge such suffering at every turn, but I simultaneously feel obliged to feed the monster, so to speak – to let Benjamin’s storm of progress run its course. Something inside me is terrified by such a proposal; but something else inside me wants to witness the monstrosity, because I believe that no matter how violent or ruthless capitalist innovation may be for the human race, it is the catalyst for something unimaginable – the posthuman race.
While I don’t equate capitalism with the free market, capitalism still consists of the market. Ideas of capitalist development into something else entirely aren’t new; even Marx argued that the logic of capitalism gravitates toward communist revolution. My own tendencies regarding capitalism, however, derive from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari:
To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet. (Anti-Oedipus 239-40)
So to speak, capitalism already introduces an inhuman quality of civilization, the machinic and autonomous grinding of production itself. Any educated proponent of the free market will tell you that value only subsists in the subjective desires of a consumer; but capitalist development still treats value as though it were material, existing in vast quantities somewhere between factories, industries, companies, floating like cumulus clouds above the interpersonal social scene.
This is not to say, of course, that capitalism is a kind of subsistent entity, a behemoth in its own right, prowling the globe and feeding on the sweat and desires of those unaware. As Ray Brassier has helpfully explained in a recent interview, capitalism is not a living system:
There’s a temptation to hypostatize capital as though it were an impersonal, wholly autonomous agent subsisting quite independently of the myriad of little human subjects who compose it. This strikes me as a mistake. Here I think a sober appreciation of the mechanical banality of the processes through which capital reproduces itself might obviate this tendency to mystification: this seemingly fantastic, supra-personal complexity is not due to some mysterious self-moving cause or superhuman agent but an effect generated by the myriads of micro-processes that compose it: it is neither more nor less mysterious in its operations than any other complex, multi-layered emergent phenomenon. This kind of emergence and complexity are banal and ubiquitous. (Brassier, Ieven, “Noise”)
Capitalism possesses no agency, Brassier explains; it does not brood over its lowly denizens, quietly planning the destruction of the human race. It is not a conscious system; but it is, however, an ecosystem, and a distinctly modern one. Ecosystems, no matter how singular, individuated, and isolated their inhabitants may be, play an active and constant role in the manipulation of those inhabitants. Whether parasitic or symbiotic, organisms cannot help but coexist in feedback with their environment. Capitalism, for all its apparently human qualities, is the inhuman ecosystem in which we live and breathe.
“In a sense,” Deleuze and Guattari write, “capitalism has haunted all forms of society, but it haunts them as their terrifying nightmare, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes” (140). Capitalism, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, stands in opposition to the laws of a culture, even while it purports to participate in those laws. Capital, in other words, eternally resists the laws that attempts to govern it, and this is how capitalism exceeds even the free market: even where the immutable libertarian law of voluntary (inter)action would have individuals admit the free behavior of their neighbors, capitalism insists upon violence, corruption, and betrayal. Its impetus is accumulation, and its logic is manipulation. The free market is little more than a hypothesized and idealized vision dreamt by those upon whom the boons of capitalist production have befallen in order to justify their success.
At this point, free market advocates are likely fuming in rage due to the fact that I have (seemingly) disputed the legitimacy of their success. While they would be correct, a clarification needs to be made: I dispute the legitimacy of success because, in a capitalist system, no legitimacy of accumulation needs to be made. Rationalizations and excuses for capitalist success, all disguised in the noble and honest vestments of the free market, conceal an empty occurrence, a contingent effect of capitalism itself. Such excuses and rationalizations have been made because, as is the case in all histories, there are those who draw the short stick; and, as is the case in all histories, the short stick crowd is fucking pissed. The free market is an invented ideal of human behavior intended to make capitalist success appear innocent and peaceful. In fact, there is no such thing as a free market – the market, in all its human variations, will always be accompanied by bloody skirmishes and forms of ritual sacrifice. Capitalism represents the dark, inhuman shadow of our social organization.
In a provocative and semi-satirical piece, “Drafting the Inhuman: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy,” Reza Negarestani refines Deleuze and Guattari’s argument that capitalism insists fitfully toward dissolution:
The ubiquity of capitalism […] is affirmed precisely by its identification as a liquidating storm which is in the process of dethroning the human from its terrestrial ivory tower. And it is this undulating deluge toward dissipation of matter and energy that either deceitfully mimics or genuinely coincides with the cosmic extinction or the asymptotic disintegration of the universe on an elementary material level, that is to say, the ubiquitous and all-inclusive cosmic truth of extinction, the truth of extinction as such. (186)
Damn. Kind of macabre, Negarestani. But oh well, civilization is for the birds, right? I don’t pretend to understand exactly what Negarestani is saying (for those interested in a truly wild ride, check out his incredible book, Cyclonopedia – and be sure to have your thinking caps on), but I think the general point remains clear. There remains a fascination among scholars, academics, and wannabe-philosophers with capitalism as an accelerating process toward a novel form of life.
I like novel forms of life. It’s why I read science fiction. Of course, I’m all for survival and perpetuating the human race; but at the same time, I’m okay with the fact that our time may be over soon. Capitalism, it seems to be, is the herald that sounds the horn, and it has been sounding it since humanity crawled out of Plato’s cave and began writing on the walls (which is to say, since before Ancient Greece). This is why I don’t consider myself a communist. I consider myself a capitalist. I will continue to debate the ethical obligation to protect animals, to help the poor, to fight for a woman’s right to choose, for a gay’s right to marry, and for a black child’s right to walk in the street without fearing the policeman’s bullet.[ii] I will continue to argue for all these things, but I won’t argue for the downfall of capitalism because, if capitalism truly is the dark shadow that haunts human society, then it cannot be torn down. It cannot be escaped.
When the time comes for capitalism to implode, for the catastrophic (for us, likely) singularity that brings about the novel form of life, we will have no conscious hand in it. When capitalism’s time is over, there will nothing we can do to stop it.
I seem to have lost the humor with which I began this post. Perhaps it wasn’t humor at all; maybe I mistakenly find myself really funny. This may not be the case with my patient readers (if you’ve made it this far, bravo – that Negarestani quote is murder), and if so then I apologize. A close friend of mine often reminds me that I lack a sense of humor when it comes to literature and writing. It seems I prefer a somber tone of scholarly discipline that likely compels many readers to slam their laptop shut and unfriend me on Facebook (it appears that “unfriend” is now an official word, as Microsoft Word doesn’t count it as a spelling error). I entertain no illusion that this is because I’m any good at scholarly writing; it’s more likely that I just enjoy rambling on about very boring topics. In either case, I felt the need to compose this piece because I want to rectify a misconception or two: that all academics are card-carrying commies, that we hate wealth and success, and that we want to see the rich tarred and feathered and shipped off to Mexico City.
I understand the convenience of choosing a label. I also understand the entertainment value in it. Just imagine how the ratings skyrocket on FOX News every time Eric Bolling calls Obama a Marxist-sympathizer who prefers hip hop over country music (I don’t know about you, but when I hear the over-produced drawl of Toby Keith’s voice, I feel the sudden urge to shoot something… preferably Toby Keith). But unfortunately, I don’t consider myself a Marxist, or a communist, or a socialist, or a libertarian socialist, or a socialist libertarian, or to-hell-with-it-I’m-sick-of-this-shit. I do consider myself a critical thinker, and even if I get half the things I say wrong, I can promise that I’ll never stop reevaluating my thoughts. If there’s any political position to be had out of this, point me in that direction. If not, then pour yourself another glass, because this is going to be a long, long night.
Brassier, Ray. “Against an Aesthetics of Noise.” nY: website en tijdschrift voor literatuur, kritiek & amusement, voorheen yang & freespace Nieuwzuid. Interview with Bram Ieven. nY, 2009. 8 Sept. 2009.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Negarestani, Reza. “Drafting the Inhuman: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy.” The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Eds. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman. Melbourne: re.press, 2011.
[i] On a side-note, an idea for a satire: The Free Marketeers: All For One, and… well, can I keep it?
[ii] Something I find humorously apparent in political debates today is that when a democrat or leftist argues for a woman’s right to have an abortion (for example), conservatives often interpret this argument as a kind of obligatory commitment; that is, that all women should have abortions, or that all people should become gay and marry other gays. The personal offense that many on the right take to leftist arguments is quite hilarious.