Sunday, June 3, 2012

We need some bolsheviks up in this motherfucker: some reflections on anti-austerity movements

I will confine myself to a couple of short theses:
1.) A few victories notwithstandind (hooray for the comrades in Quebec) we are losing the war. We are losing the war because we are weak.
2.) Our weakness has multiple aspects. The first is spineless oportunism of "left" parties and unions, fighting on a political terrain that has over recent decades become ever more favourable to the right. The second is the radical and politically naive anti-authoritarianism of social movements. The third, perhaps most important, is the seemingly unbridgeable divide that has sprung up between these two: organizations that have absolutely no clue about the true desires of the masses on the one side, and spontaneous outbursts that reflect these desires in an authentic, but completely ephemeral, politically ineffective way on the other. Neither side is either willing or able to communicate.
3.)  With political weakness comes intellectual weakness. Even the brightest minds, having a thorough theoretical understanding of capitalism, therefore knowing full well that its crises can not be reduced to hyperproduction (or the opposite side of the coin: underconsumption), that its paradoxes do not originate and can not be resolved in the realm of consumption, fall prey to a spontaneous social-democratism after being forced by objective circumstances to try and defend what is left of the welfare state. Necessity is turned into virtue and thus delusions about the emancipatory potential of social-democratic opportunism proliferate, despite all historical proof to the contrary.
4.) The most pertinent symptom of intellectual weakness is the inability to propose a positive program, even more, the unwillingness to attempt such a task. The plain fact of the matter is that as long as we do not even have ambition to take power and a plan to overcome capitalims when we do, the bourgeoise has absolutely no incentive to give in to critique or pressure. Reformist critique addressed at the bourgeoisie only strengthens their confidence that there is no real power able to challenge their position as the ruling class. They might back off for a moment where opposition is fierce, but only because they are confident in final victory.
5.) This intellectual weakness works to further erode what little political power we have. Lacking a positive program, we are unable to organise and build political power around it. Critiques of the madness of austerity do not serve to strengthen our position, because we do not have a position. They either promote a futile hope of an enlightened bourgeoisie or cynicism and withdrawal.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why capitalism is inherently romantic

In his work Jacques Ellul makes an interesting point about propaganda. He claims that the basic mechanism by which it operates is not to change specific subjective dispositions like beliefs and opinions but by connecting existing subjective dispositions with actions it wants us to perform. It does not manipulate desire but proposes an object to it. For example Reagan and Thathcher did not teach people to be dissatisfied with the existing society, rather they addressed the already existing discontent with its rigidity, uniformity, undemocratic nature, where more and more decisions become the prerogative of trained experts, and managed to present themsleves as the solution to these problems. This means that the way we commonly think about propaganda is wrong, or at least unproductive, and another path should be explored. When looking for the effects of propaganda, we should focus on changes to the structure of the individual psyche rather than specific changes in its contents, and how propaganda changes the way individuals are integrated into society. In the abscence of propaganda the mechanism by which subjective dispositions are transformed into actions remains a psychological one: the individual experiences a certain emotion, or drive, holds a certain opinion etc. and then acts on it in regard to objects they encounter in their surroundings. In a propagandized society this link becomes socialized: the individual acts because propaganda has proposed a certain object to them and in a way that propaganda suggests.

To the propagandist - not the individual propagandist, but the collective propagandist of society - this poses two problems. The first is the one that propaganda research has commonly been concerned with: it is how to effectively propose objects to individuals so that they will in deed act in a way beneficial to the propagandist. The other is trickier and has been neglected in the study of propaganda. It arises from the fact that the propagandist moves people to action on his own and not on their terms. The solutions propaganda proposes are not solutions for its victims, the satisfactions propaganda provides are necessarily partial: they may fulfill some desires to a certain extent when it suits the propagandist, but those that are of no use are ignored. If propaganda were to propose solutions that would truly satisfy desires, it would cease to be effective. Making propaganda is like walking a tight rope: you must never disapoint your victioms, but neither can you satisfy them. The second problem is therefore the management of free-floating desires.

Under capitalism propagana becomes the main mechanism through which individuals are integrated into society. To the degree that markets become the universal mediating principle of society economic propaganda becomes the face society presents to individuals. As the political system behaves in a similar manner, propaganda is also its predominant way of relating to "voters". As propaganda becomes dominant it severs the ties between subjective dispositions and action: individuals become less capable of autonomous action and are reliant on propaganda to supply objects to which their desire might attach itself. But what to do with desires for which propaganda has no use, let's call them unprofitable desires? If capitalist society is to persevere it must find a way to manage them lest they become a destructive force - all unchecked desire is disruptive, as Freud well knew - and that way is romanticism. I don't mean romanticism in the narrow historical sense, in this context I refer to romanticism as management of unprofitable desires in a way that cuts them off both from their causes and from action.

The emotionalism of the eighteenth century as manifested in Greuze's paintings, Hoggarth's prints or Richardson's novels was of a very instrumental sort: it aimed to move the audience in order to impart some moral lesson. The feelings it presented in its characters were therefore always rooted in action: whether it was virtuous action rewarded according to the maxim of poetic justice or virtue persevering through adversity in order to strengthen the audience in its own pursuit of virtue. Rousseau's Julie, or the New Heloise heralds a new age, the age of spontaneity and authenticity. Feeling becomes severed from action and reason, becoming an end of poetic creation in itself. Soon a new social institution will have been born, that of autonomous art, which takes on the task of managing unprofitable desires. The new creed as proclaimed by Wordsworth or Schiller is that of giving satisfaction to an utterly abstract individual. Adorno and Marcuse are quite correct in noticing that autonomous art is a repository for unprofitable desires, yet they fail to grasp the significance of this fact. In his aversion to the historical avant-garde Adorno failed to see the contradictions of autonomy that the historical avant-garde exposed. The culture industry is not a negation of autonomous art, rather it is the proper capitalist way of fulfilling the same function: management of unprofitable desires, only that it does it in a profitable way. Only through autonomy has art become fully integrated into propaganda. Resistance to propaganda can therefore never occur from the standpoint of autonomy. It must be from the standpoint of social practice.

The underground current of philosophical pornography that was quite strong in the eighteenth century but is nowadays hardly ever remembered - the name of the Marquis de Sade is sometimes mentioned only as a grotesque curiosity - perhaps offers the possibility of a different path. You should not be fooled by the term philosophical, these were hardcore books full of precise and vivid descriptions, they were books one read "with one hand" (I have found this description attributed both to Rousseau and Diderot respectively). And you should not be fooled by their pornographical nature, philosophy was as central to them as the arousal of sexual desire. Its creed was the supremacy of desire and it was communicated through desire itself. There is no task better suited to emancipatory art: the organisation of unprofitable desire in a way that affirms its supremacy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ad 5. or Against the enclosure of the commons

Enclosure of the commons is a term that refers to the historical process through which common property was appropriated by a few individuals and transformed into the modern form of private property. Marx has referred to the process as primitive accumulation of capital and his historical overview is remarkably precise given the limited sources at his disposal. The process was carried out with varying degrees of violence but always ruthlessly since it gradually robbed the rural population of its means of subsistence. It was also a process that enabled the capitalist mode of production to take root in the first place since it created a sufficient degree of concentration of property in the hands of few and forced many into subservience to capital either as labourers in manufactures and later factories (what Marx has called real subsumption under capital) or as individual producers indirectly subordinated to capitalists (what Marx has called formal subsumption under capital). Even as early capitalism flourished in Britain the living standard of a large part of the working class declined: the wages, even when and where they were relatively high, could not make up for the theft of common land that used to provide people with means of subsistence. Modern apologists of capitalism often forget that capitalism did not take root simply because of its supreme efficiency - although, to be fair, the efficiency of organising labour in manufactures and factories was an important factor in the decline of earlier modes of production - but needed violence and coercion to force people into factories and prevent workers from organising politically.

Once a legal framework for securing private property was firmly established capitalism no longer needed such brutal measures to ensure that products of social labour were privately appropriated, yet that did not motivate the ruling classes to become too faithful followers of the laissez-faire principle. They don't shy away from government intervention whenever it helps them to appropriate surplus profit and that is why the enclosure of the commons has been repeated many times over. Today it is an ongoing process institutionalised in the form of intellectual property rights. Knowledge, which is produced and can be produced only collectively, is being turned into private property, an unlimited resources is being made scarce to enable appropriation of surplus profits. Unlike industrial production, where the appropriation of surplus value by the capitalist needs but a legal guarantee of private property, appropriation of surplus value of cognitive production demands constant state intervention: it must grant patents and trademarks and it must constantly increase the scope of intellectual property (whether broadening it to include for example biological organisms, increasing its duration or forcing it on "developing" countries through the WTO).

The amount of state intervention needed to create and uphold the private character of cognitive production suggests that a central paradox of capitalism (collectively produced value being privately appropriated) is being manifested in its purest form. Asserting that creation of intellectual property rights has gone too far and is therefore hampering development, as for example Henry and Stieglitz or Lawrence Lessig do, misses this fundamental point. We are not dealing with the question of finding the right degree of property "protection" but with a paradox that can not be resolved under capitalism. Far from being the solution to the problems of capitalism, cognitive production is the point where capitalism is most frail. Political struggles for the right to infringe upon copyright (the best know example is perhaps the Swedish pirate party) are about far more than downloading music and movies, they are at the core of anticapitalist struggles today.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Crash course on Maxism

Peter Thompson is currently writing a nice set of articles for the Guardian, offering insight into some central tenants of Marxism and controversies surrounding it. Check them out:
1. Religion, the right answer to the wrong question;
2. How Marxism came to dominate socialist thinking;
3. Men make their own history;
4. "Workers of the world, unite!";

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ad 2. Universal basic income

Universal basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all individuals (for info on the universal basic income you can check out the Basic Income Earth Network). The concept has been gaining prominence among scholars and politicians and has already been introduced in a limited form in some countries. The best thing about it is that it reduces the power of coercion of the labour market by taking away its threat of death by hunger. As Rev. Townshend remarked, the legal imposition of work “gives too much trouble, requires too much violence and makes too much noise. Hunger, on the contrary, is not only a pressure which is peaceful, silent and incessant, but as it is the most natural motive for work and industry, it also provokes to the most powerful efforts.” (quoted in Paul Lafargue's The Right to be Lazy) An income not conditional upon work takes into consideration the fact that the valorization on a market is an imperfect mechanism of judging the social merit of labour at best, an utterly flawed one at worst. Together with a reduction of working hours it can lead to a significant increase in the independence of individuals from markets and can enable them to immediately begin building alternative modes of production, modes that are not based on ruthless exploitation, where supply responds to demand an not vice versa, where individuals are not alienated from the products of labour and from each other.

Ad 1. Drastic reduction of working hours in the private sector.

There are a number of reasons. First of all, labour productivity per hour worked in the developed world has been steadily increasing throughout the twentieth century. The rise in productivity only between the years 1990 and 2008 has been roughly 26% in Denmark, 25% in France, 16% in Italy, 58% in Finland, 45% in Sweden, and 41% in Norway (source: Eurostat, percentage points were calculated for all countries where data for both years is available). Throughout this time there has been no reduction in working hours and wages have failed to keep pace with GDP growth. Secondly, a reduction of working hours does not necessarily translate into an equivalent reduction of productivity. We can assume that employees are able to maintain a level of productivity for say four hours that they could not maintain for eight. Thirdly, we can expect a reduction of living costs and a reduced dependency on markets for the procurement of everyday goods and services like childcare, home repairs and food. All in all this means that we would be facing not only a significant increase in the quality of life, but also a partial emancipation from the labour market, which would open up space for further political actions.