News of Insurrection…From Nowhere

June 11, 2009

Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
-Marcellus, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 1)

Shakespeare’s Hamlet – an early artistic defense of the Copernican infinite universe? – opens with the guards’ encounter with the ghost of King Hamlet. Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio seem to momentarily discern the indiscernible, groping at the contours of a threshold between the imaginary and the immanent. Derrida once described the guards’ encounter in this way: “Nor does one see in flesh and blood this Thing that is not a thing, this thing that is invisible between its apparitions…”[1] The result is a “visor effect,” according to Derrida, because the Thing sees without being seen. “We do not see who looks at us…looking without being seen.”[2]

For its part, twentieth century emancipatory politics deliver the recurring theme of the ‘uprising from nowhere,’ the premise of anti-colonial theorists and black revolutionaries from Frantz Fanon to Malcolm X, and philosophers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Alain Badiou.

In his Théorie du sujet, Badiou also presents our Copernican (Shakespeare) through Hamlet. “The Universe always contains more things than it can name according to those very things,” Hamlet says to Horatio, “hence its inexistence.”[3] Readers of early Badiou might know that the Lacanian “in-existent” plays a special role for his philosophy. Since then Badiou has never withdrawn from the inexistent, the name for that site at which being is exposed to the event. For Badiou, event, subject, and truth are always beyond existence, hidden in the realm of ‘trans-being.’[4]

Frantz Fanon wrote starkly of the fact that, “[t]he black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man,” causing the colonized subject to lack an existence.[5] The colonized ‘is’ invisible. But this invisibility for being, as the site of domination, also turns out to be the unforeseen site of emancipation. Emancipation is the will of an impossible possibility. It is the freedom that draws from its own indeterminacy. From the armored perspective of mere being, such truths are invisible, literally non-existent. They are outside ordinary placements and hierarchies.

Malcolm X once answered an interviewer about Harlem in this way: “there are all kinds of movements…[that] remain almost invisible – they remain almost unknown, but yet they are there. When I say invisible I mean invisible in the sense that their existence is unknown.”[6] They sit awaiting at the edge of the void, the non-space of possible transformations; the path of unknown liberation from obscurity to maximality.

____________________________________

[1] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International transl. Peggy Kamuf, (New York and London: Routledge, 1994) p. 6

[2] Ibid. p. 7

[3] Théorie du sujet, p. 235 quoted in Oliver Feltham, Alain Badiou: Live Theory (New York/London: Continuum, 2008) p. 73

[4] see Badiou, ‘The Event as Trans-being’ in Theoretical Writings: Alain Badiou transl. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano (London/New York: Continuum, 2004)

[5] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks transl. Charles Lam Markmann. (New York: Grove Press, 1967) pp. 109 – 110

[6] 

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Crisis and Dynamism: against the return to value

May 23, 2009

talk delivered May 21, 2009 to York Socialists (University of York)

*

As the Japanese critic Kojin Karatani noted, “the recent casino capitalism…seems to indicate that people no longer believe in the rewards of diligent production and fair exchange.”[1]  But as Karatani suggests, this common disdain for the ‘excess and greed’ of banking and finance is today the diversionary code-work of a failure to grasp our current predicament. Critics from several angles today place blame on “deregulation,”[2]  a catch-all term whose consequences are summarized as the separation of autonomizing finance capital from its real base, or in other words, a system adapted to the spontaneous creation of “fictitious” (in place of concrete) value. Deregulation becomes the real agent for a dizzying world of speculation, over-leveraging, asset inflation, ‘casino’ behavior, and the abandonment of what Karatani called – with more than a little bit of irony – “diligent production and fair exchange.”

We are made to picture a gap between real/fictitious, productive/financial, value/exchange-value: “the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money.”[3]  I myself will speak of a gap, and I use “gap” where others on the left speak of “de-coupling” (i.e. Robert Cox), “dissociation” (i.e. Werner Bonefeld), and “inversion” (i.e. Monthly Review editors), terms that one way or another obscure the original, constitutive nature of the gap itself. I should say that here we need to be a little bit theoretical, dare I say dialectical, or in any case we need to be patient with the use of concepts. This is because of a definite antinomy: while the gap is between value and money, there is at the same time no such thing as value without money, since money is the enabling condition of a system of value. In this respect, the gap can be thought of as internal to value, which, as I will argue, is precisely why notions of abolishing the gap through a “return to real value” – and the Keynesian, social-democratic, New Labour, etc. projects associated with such a ‘return’ – are less coherent than we would hope.

The gap reaches a breaking point at a certain conjecture, which we know as crisis. However – and this is my central claim today – the conjecture is called crisis, not the gap itself. The phenomenon of the gap is too vast, containing too many shapes and causing too many effects, to be reduced to something as narrow as crisis alone. The gap is the name for capitalism as a whole, as both the site of crisis and as the precise site of growth.

*

“Crisis,” wrote Suzanne de Brunhoff, “is the brutal manifestation of the law of value.”[4]  Mainstream critics of deregulation would now seem to agree with this characterization of our era, a period of two phases: 1) prices bloat, paper wealth multiplies and “all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself,”[5]  2) the ‘brutal law’ asserts its logic when prices can no longer levitate and “defy gravity” as the commentators often say of bubble economics. Crises burst bubbles and devalue capital, so that the political choice becomes one between ‘managed’ devaluation and ‘chaotic’ devaluation, this choice being secondary to the fact that in either case, devaluation is the common imperative: “In crises, the choice is between devaluing money or devaluing commodities.”[6]

Thus, by the summer of 2008, Jim Reid of Deutsche Bank was suggesting that $1.2 trillion of profits would need to be wiped out before the US financial sector could be “cleansed of its excess.”[7]  More recently, the IMF has estimated a $2.7 trillion write-down of US-originated assets, while the global number may be in excess of $4 trillion.[8]  “I would advance the following,” said Kevin Warsh, a Governor of the US Federal Reserve: “We are witnessing a fundamental reassessment of the value of virtually every asset everywhere in the world.”[9]

Warsh’s innocuous notion of a “reassessment of value” and Reid’s technical concept of “mean revision” are euphemisms for nothing less than the massive destruction of capital. I think that for us it’s far more illuminating to use Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” or to quote Henri Lefebvre, who wrote grimly of the fact that “wars and crises have the same result: they liquidate excess (things and men).”[10]  However, the enigma of capitalism – and this enigma is captured in the ‘creative’ half of ‘creative destruction’; the ‘dynamism’ half of ‘crisis and dynamism’ – is that the magnitude of the destruction of value that takes place in the event of a crisis is not equal to any previous gains. In the long trajectory of accumulation, it is as though crises are mere setbacks to be overcome, or as Marx wrote, “a crisis always forms the starting point for new investments.” [11]

Against this long view, liberal notions of equilibrium – notions always tasked with finding ways to either manage immediate crisis or to defend non-crisis operations  – seem to suggest a certain topology of a system in which finance represents an ‘overflowing’ […perhaps this cognitive mapping is helped along by an image of ‘liquidity’?] while crisis (qua illiquidity) represents the corrective – a lid – to the previous excess. The unifying figure of such a topology is the container itself, conceived as a static item of unchanging volume. But this imagery obscures the secret of capitalism itself, whose container is strictly figurative; capital is by definition that which discards its container. Capitalism solves its problems not with new lids but with new containers, so to speak. “Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome,”[12]  so that what were once limits are reconfigured as mere barriers in the endless circuit-work of de-containerizing and re-containerizing.[13]

Why is it the gap (between money and the value it represents) that enables the breaking of the container, in which broken containers are the forensic evidence of crises just they are of expansions? We should simultaneously broaden and specify our definition of the gap. There is not only a simple split of money from value, there is the gap that money itself engenders, a gap within value. This separation is simultaneously money’s ability to separate point of sale from point of purchase, and in a related mode,  present from future. As Keynes wrote in the General Theory (1936): “[T]he importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.”[14]  Marx therefore spoke of money as a ‘means of payment.’[15]  The means of payment is simply what allows the commodity producer to produce prior to sale: it is the inaugural money that exists temporally prior to the production of the actual value in whose name it is advanced. For a moment, the money advanced is therefore fictitious, or “up front,” until it is ‘realized,’ thereby becoming capital. ‘Capital advanced’ therefore “retroactively posits its own presuppositions.[16]  In other words, the ‘means of payment’ is credit: “credit-money springs directly out of the function of money as a means of payment.”[17]  Or, to say the same thing: “currency itself is already credit.”[18]

To summarize the last, rather paradoxical, point: money operates for the commodity producer by splitting the present (purchase) from the future (sale) in the name of a future gain – this is its ‘futurity,’ its essential credit aspect. I think its not incorrect to say that all subsequent gaps are derived from this primal archi-gap, so to speak. Financialisation, in the sense of a periodisation, turns the gap into a visible social sector called ‘financial sector,’ but it expresses the simple separation of exchange-value (money) from value, the separation internal to value itself. The financial sector is an institutional codification of money’s primary tension under a system of private producers.[19]  The fictitious aspect of capital is not merely an ‘excess’ for causing crisis, even if it is that too. Fiction creates value. As the novelist Margaret Atwood asked as a young child faced with the complexities of the banking system: “how could a fiction generate real objects?”[20]

How should we think about the move from fiction to what John Bellamy Foster calls “throughput.” Capital makes greater claims on the economy than the economy, at its existing capacity, can immediately realise for capital.[21]  The result is not failure, but rather competition, whose expression is the accumulation of an excess capital (profit) that, strictly speaking, is immediately unemployable. The structural resolution to this aporia in which existing productive capacity is saturated – in which overaccumulation looms – is total growth through the multiplication of values, in other words, through the multiplication of sites of absorption for investment.[22] The gap is a motor for forward movement (from the perspective of accumulation). Growth is not a choice but a necessity for capital: if growth does not occur, the capital advanced goes unrealized, failing to make its ‘fatal leap’ (salto mortale), in other words, in must be destroyed. If capital stops swimming it dies – like a shark and just as predatory.

*

I hope I have painted a picture in which, to bring a total rapprochement between money and value would be to eliminate both. My question is one posed to those who today aspire to perfect the state of the situation by eliminating “those most excessive aspects.” If we see that the dynamic gap is internal to value, to use the language I have deployed so far (admittedly there are probably better ways to pose the problem), is it enough to call for a ‘return to value,’ or ‘value for money’? Should we really criticize “excessive capitalism,” in which case the signifying predicate plays the role of a redundancy, as though one is speaking of “capitalist capitalism” – is there another kind? Excess (of money-circulation-exchange-finance over value-production-capacity) is the name for capitalism itself, so that we should criticize capitalism and not what has become its ideological decoy in the form of crises, no matter how severe and seemingly anomalous.

I propose a break from domination by the value form, therefore emancipation from the endless accumulation of capital. I am talking about an end of the total subsumption of labour to the commands of ceaseless work and capital. This requires an axiomatic insistence on equality in the face of barbaric inequality, the end of a ‘state of the situation’ in which individuals are part of the ‘count of the count’ (counted merely as potential sources of “effective demand”) under the biopolitical regime of population management. For the task we don’t need optimism, the affect that will never fade in all its beauty. We need to summon something more rare…which is courage: the will to be not an object but a political subject.

__________________

[1] Transcritique: On Kant and Marx transl. Sabu Kohso (London / Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003) p. 266. As the promotional material for a banking scheme in the United States recently stated: “the only solution is a return to value: value that comes from production and honest trade.” http://press.freelakotabank.com/index.php

[2] see a survey, Leo Panitch and Martijn Konings, ‘Myths of Neoliberal Deregulation’ New Left Review 57 May/June 2009

[3] Marx, Capital Vol. I (New York: International Publishers, 1967) p. 138

[4] Suzanne de Brunhoff, Marx on Money transl. M. J. Goldbloom (New York: Urizon Books, 1976) p. 118

[5] The passage in full shows Marx already observing what in the context of the subprime mortgage imbroglio we call “securitization”: “all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself, by the various modes in which the same capital, or perhaps the same claim on a debt, appears in different forms in different hands.” (Marx, Capital Vol. III quoted in David Harvey, The Limits to Capital ([1982] (London / New York: Verso, 2006) p. 288.) In Vol. I of Capital Marx also reports on something like securitization: “certificates of the debts owing for the purchased commodities circulate for the purpose of transferring those debts to others.” p. 139 op. cit.)

[6] Harvey Limits (op. cit.) p. 296

[7] John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009) p. 126

[8] see Patrick O’Connor, ‘IMF issues grim forecasts for 2009’ (April 24, 2009) World Socialist Website http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/apr2009/imfr-a24.shtml

[9] Kevin Warsh, ‘The Promise and Perils of the New Financial Architecture’ speech to the Money Marketeers of New York University (November 6, 2008)

[10] Henri Lefebvre, The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production transl. F. Bryant (London: Allison and Busby, 1976) p. 107

[11] Capital Vol II. quoted in Harvey Limits (op. cit.) p. 219, p. 222

[12] Marx, Grundrisse (Middlesex: Penguin, 1973) p. 408

[13] “Capitalism continually reterritorializes with one hand what it was deterritorializing with the other.” Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) p. 259

[14] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Great Britain: Palgrave, 2007) p. 293

[15] Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859] Ch. 2 (‘Money or Simple circulation) Section 3 of Ch. 2 (‘Money’) sub-section 3.b of Ch. 2 (‘Means of Payment’)  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch02_3b.htm

[16] Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA / London: MIT Press, 2006) p. 59

[17] Marx, Capital Vol. I (op. cit.) p. 139

[18] Karatani, Transcritique (op. cit.) p. 218

[19] What are the “roots” of today’s financial crisis? On the one hand, the financialisation of the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first is seen as a symptomatic development, having “roots in the whole pattern of real accumulation under monopoly-finance capital.” (Foster and Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (op. it.) p. 19). On the other hand, financialisation is seen as being closer to a cause of symptoms, so that “the international financial system [is] the rootstock from whose disorders stem the various problems which afflict the international political economy, just as blight, disease or mildew attack the different branches of a plant.” (Susan Strange, Casino Capitalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986) p. 4) I side with the first approach, stressing, however, that the root is money and the value form itself. “[M]oney lies at the root both of the social nature of the private labour of commodity-producers and of the fact that this social character can only prevail by the roundabout route of the exchange of commodities, the market, and private appropriation of the value product.” (Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (New Left Books, 1975) p. 408) Basically, the ‘roundabout route of the exchange of commodities’ is more roundabout than liberal and bourgeois economists are willing to admit – exchange travels through finance, pure and simple. It travels through the fated “gap” I’ve been promoting.

[20] Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, CBC Massey Lectures, 2008 (Toronto: Anasi Press, 2008) p. 6

[21] Competition “compels every capitalist to expand production by developing the forces of production without regard to the limits of the market.” Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis (Great Britain: Palgrave, 1994) p. 88

[22] see, for a foundational example of the discussion of saturation, Paul Baran The Political Economy of Growth (New York; Monthly Review Press, 1957)

On the political concept of love (near cinema)

April 13, 2009

theses by Bahram Norouzi, Andrew Witt

I

In our time, love has come to stand as a justification for two complementary and equally depoliticising modes of being: on the one hand love signifies little other than fun, sex and collaborative consumption; on the other hand, it is the way by which humans are integrated into the laws of the nation, state and capital. The dual forms of love appear most vividly in blockbuster cinema. The romance of Queen Gorgo and Leonidas in 300, Lorrell and Jimmy’s affairs in Dreamgirls and Dent and Rachel’s love in The Dark Knight – in each case the characters themselves are merely supplemental to a choice of costumes that can carry the characters over to the side of the good. But if in these movies the love among the characters has a merely ornamental function, the characters are nevertheless animated under the name “love”: the love of nation, the passion for the law, and the seduction of wealth. It is only under the name “love” that featureless characters endure the plot as they are crushed, mutilated, dismantled, and tossed across the screen. The romance of kitsch is easy to consume because it reflects the structure of everyday life, and the banal romance of everyday life is magical because its elements are found in the phantasmagoric epic of kitsch.

II

The story goes that until not long ago, people were subject to the discipline of religious and patriarchal masters who scorned sexual pleasures, especially the pleasures that were deemed illegitimate; the story then logically follows that we today are sexually liberated because we dismay pious scorn with laughter. What such sermonizing, after all, could survive a single episode of Sex and the City, Will and Grace, or even Friends? But there is at least one possibility for the disciplinary law to survive: what if Joey Tribbiani is the true archbishop of New York? Today, through sit-com jokes, sex advice columns, and the endless statistics and polls about sexual fantasies and practices, modern subjects learn to regulate their bodies, construct their fantasies, measure themselves against the average, and take the intensity of orgasms as the criterion of good life. Today the mode of discipline is the injunction to enjoy.

III

The private life of modern subjects is the oscillation between long periods of empty homogeneous time of repetitive practice and moments of explosive overstimulation by spectacles and drugs. Of course, love is not alien to the lives of modern subjects; modern romance simply fits in the general structure of the modern experience, which puts abrupt intensity in place of meaningful duration. Popular romantic movies are simply sentimentalized representations of the cycles of empty and overstimulated times. Whether the empty time is the time of uneventful marriage (Bridges of Madison County; The Horse Whisperer), frustrated engagement (Titanic), or simple honest prostitution (Pretty Woman), the romantic movie climaxes with a passionate kiss or a night of sensual lovemaking. But after this moment, either the lovers should be permanently separated (by death or by other means) or the movie should end because after the climax there is little to narrate but the return of empty time.

IV

Key to the current hegemonic success of liberal-capitalism is its anti-essentialist characteristic. Money does not distinguish sex, colour or ethnicity; capital views polygamist Arab sheikhs, lesbian couples in San Francisco, and aboriginal Australians simply as diversities. Capitalism emancipates humans from the dogmas of totalitarian cults as it makes everything holy profane, but it also falsifies all truths, turns every thought into an opinion and every practice into a choice of life. In the falsified world of liberal-capitalism, human’s biological body is the only remaining common denominator of judgment. For this reason, not only in our conversational language is “fun” emerging as an equivalent to “good,” but also in academic discourses of political scientists, psychologists and sociologists, biology is emerging as the only reliable foundation to analyze society. In motion pictures, the exploration of “fun” is delegated to pornography. The cameras that close up on the genitals of men and women penetrating, violating and pleasuring each other are not demonic – they are simply the ciphers of our time. No wonder then that the oft-quoted anti-war slogan that hung off the buildings from Berkley to the Sorbonne during the Vietnam War was poorly re-written before the 2003 Iraq War from “make love not war” to “make the sex not the war.”

V

People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept. Unlike the premodern and religious concepts of love, the modern concept is almost exclusively limited to the bourgeois couple and the claustrophobic confines of the nuclear family. Love has become a strictly private affair. Withdrawal into privacy today means adopting formulas of private authenticity propagated by cinema, television, and advertisement – from taking classes in spiritual enlightenment and following the latest cultural trends and other fashions, to engaging in yoga and jogging. But the ultimate truth of withdrawal into privacy also re-emerges in the public as the confession of intimate secrets on TV shows and the release of amateur pornography. Against this kind of privacy, we should emphasize that, today, the only way of breaking out of the constraints of alienated commodification is to invent a new collectivity. Today more than ever, the only way to have a passionate and fulfilling personal (sexual) relationship is not for the couple to look into each other’s eyes forgetting about the world around them while meditating, but, while holding hands, to take their love to serve as the basis for political projects in common and in the construction of a new community.

VI

What are the practices of the political subjects who construct a new community on the basis of their romantic love? The cinema of Chaplin was the last great enterprise of Western culture industry to offer a concrete answer to this question. In Chaplin’s movies the protagonist, often a tramp or a ghetto-dwelling Jew, is an outlaw, not in the sense of breaking the law, but based on the very fact of being abandoned by the law. But in his abandonment the protagonist also displays utmost indifference to the law, and transforms everything sacred and “respectable” into childish profanity. It is precisely within this outlawed profanity that Chaplin’s “heroes” encounter their beloveds, and tenderly and compassionately cater to them. However, these characters also know that for those living out of law, love is precarious. Their love is never attained but is always required to be reaffirmed – no wonder Chaplin’s protagonists treat every encounter as though it is their last. Nothing could be further away from this profane love than the contract of bourgeois marriage. Out of law, out of judgment, and especially out of the bourgeois contract, lovers encounter each other as such: tramps, beggars, abandoned children, and barmaids transform into the “heroes” of romantic epics. This is the sense in which we may say that love is the paradigm of emancipatory politics. Love is the fundamental indifference to the norm of the state; lovers do not forge their relation on the basis of the law – instead they negotiate their ways of life while their loves persist in spite of its precariousness. Love exemplifies the possibility of life out of the violence of law and judgment.

VII

There is no phrase more often said in cinema than “I love you”. Even in pornography “I love you” often appears as the pretext to a strip tease routine. The “I love you” that is the justification for a performance is the word becoming flesh: in cinema, there is simply no content in “I love you” other than the routine of the movement of bodies and predictable plots. But the corrupted word that has become profane flesh provides modern humans with an unprecedented opportunity that we should not ignore. Facing degenerate language, modern lovers neither recite poems to each other, nor do they find the “I love you” ever adequate. This is perhaps the reason behind the lovers’ insatiable need to cuddle, kiss, and hold hands, as well as to engage in frequent childish gestures when they talk to each other. In their romantic gestures, modern humans touch not this or that word of the corrupted language, but grasp its very communicability. In lovers’ kisses and gestures, flesh becomes word. The flesh that has become word is the profane realization of dreams, the incarnation of ideals and the creation of an egalitarian polity that takes the precariousness of life as its condition of possibility. But the flesh that has become word is precisely the domain that cinema can never reach.

Travel Journal (part I)

March 29, 2009

I have been traveling for the month of March without a chance to write anything. Now that I have a moment there are too many things to remember, so that only ‘chance operations’ can determine the retrospective, as John Cage might say. I can tell that this blog is becoming biographical, and therefore drossy/artless in an era of ‘crude biographism’ (Toscano diagnosis). I will try to keep it interesting, at least by staying off topic

*

I should start by defending the dictatorship of the proletariat. (You can see already that ‘chance operations’ truly do take any direction…but in reality they make me stumped, like Mr. Martins in the film version of The Third Man, when the literary critic asks, “do you believe in the stream of consciousness,” and Martins becomes speechless; you could say Martins’ stream of consciousness seizes when asked about the stream of consciousness, in the same way that nothing operates when I try chance operations. So I will start chronologically, with a conversation I had on the eve of my departure, a late-night chat about the dictatorship of the proletariat…)

I now find that Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not need a new name, despite being nutrition for the Gulag Industry, which in any case should be dismissed because it cheapens horror in order to pedal the capitalist system. First of all, it should be noted that Marx spoke with immense subtlety of the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’ Those who have read the 18th Brumaire know that Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has nothing to do with ‘totalitarianism’ and everything to do with a bourgeois state that is contradictory and precariously divided. The word “dictatorship” for Marx is not the 20th century Arendtian signifier now synonymous with “totalitarianism.” Rather, it refers to a class’s ability to dictate the conditions of existence of society through the medium of the state, always contestedly.

In tracing the lineages of the absolutist states of Europe, it becomes clear that the bourgeois revolutions began overturning what today we would call “dictatorships.” In other words, for Marx, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat are both versions of the post-absolutist dictatorship of democracy. In the wake of the historical revolutions, modernity is a choice between two forms of democracy: parliamentary-capitalist or council-communist. I highly recommend Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique, in this case his chapter on ‘Marx and anarchists’ (p. 165), where he shows that the difference between the two has been scandalously overplayed, a scandal perhaps started by Bakunin himself when he chose as a line of attack to ally Marx with Lassalle, even while Marx strongly criticized Lassalle for advocating state socialism (see the Critique of the Gotha Program, and in this respect, see Toscano’s discussion of ‘equality of right’ in his paper presented at the Birkbeck conference).

*

I travelled to London, where I would attend the famous ‘On the Idea of Communism’ philosophy conference at the Birkbeck Institute. First I reunited in Russell Square with my closest friends, who were travelling from Canada to visit UK family and to hear what the media now dubs the ‘super-star philosophers,’ particularly Zizek. In Russell Square we watched greedy pigeons imitate Hitchcock’s film while learning from Bahram (author of the Seven Theses) that he was swarmed and then harassed in Philadelphia by five members of the US National Guard. Bahram, who is Iranian-Canadian with a dual citizenship, was forced to miss his flight while playing the role of the countryman from Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’ parable. In some anonymous airport back hall, he was literally forced to wait at the door (of law) – although this time with a techno-modern twist: Kafka’s ‘lowly gatekeeper’ was made redundant by an automatic door buzzer.

In the end, Bahram was informed that the ‘hang-up’ was not his fault but the fault of security in Seattle, who had not properly interrogated him. “In the future,” the Philadelphia inspector suggested, “you should always find a security agent and ask him to interrogate you properly…”, a piece of advice from which it is tempting to conclude that we truly are in the era of the self-policing of internalized subjects, although it should be added that no level of self-policing could succeed in hiding one’s Iranian background – indeed, the police are as ‘external’ as ever in the racist war on terror.

*

In Russell Square we also met Alberto Toscano, Badiou’s great translator and a great philosopher (or self-described ‘anomalous sociologist’) in his own right. Before the meeting we already had opinions about the unforgivable hypocrisy of a £100 general public cover fee for the conference, but Toscano revealed some more interesting information. Students at SOAS had threatened to occupy the conference if their demands where not met: 1) broadcast the conference for free in a Birkbeck lobby, 2) allow us to present during the conference on the Free Our Books initiative. In a turn of events, the institutional radicals were being out-radicalled. In the end, after negotiations, the demands were met, and the Free Our Books presentation was one of the best presentations of the conference, in my opinion (the initiative extends the ‘hypothesis’ of the knowledge commons in the form of a concrete task: to have our universities and institutions free knowledge to the commons).

Thus, although it is little known, the conference narrowly missed the ignominy of an occupation, a crucial reminder that the intellectual left teeters always on the verge of being the figurative Adorno who calls the cops on his students.

The practice in Britain today is to occupy one’s institution. This positive repoliticization has taken the form of several dozens of occupations on UK university campuses over the past two months. Across the Atlantic, the occupation maxim was properly taken to its logical end when the ultra-left section of the New York New School occupations asserted that occupations are ‘pure means not means for ends’. The latest occupation is the Sheffield occupation, which follows occupations at Oxford, Essex, LSE and many, many others. Although the occupations are single-issue affairs, as international solidarity actions for Gaza, the spirit has carried over to London for the current G-20 meetings (see here for videos, this one , and then here for some standard ‘sober’ left commentary.

*

We stayed in a Bloomsbury hostel called ‘Generator,’ an 800-bed jock-backpacker’s after-club romp-room seemingly converted from a laser-tag operation. Therefore we blended in seamlessly, as proven when Andrew was asked by an American girl if he would like to ‘bump’ her friend. Delightful. Wisconsin fraternity girls are so charming, and sophisticated, too.

I will not write very much about the conference, since a lot has already been written (see especially Steven Shaviro’s summary of the conference and of Michael Hardt’s talk).  Just a few remarks: The Commons – communism is to do with the commons, a category that transcends the concept of “public” in its binary opposition to and dependence upon the “private”; Communism against the state – communism has the state as its foremost antagonist, especially for Judith Balso (“politics is alone”) and Badiou (“politics at a distance from the state,” “politics without party”), a thesis that nonetheless Zizek, Hallward, Bosteels, and to a less extent Toscano, problematized in their presentations; Communism of the will – I should point out that Peter Hallward’s inspiring and innovate exploration of the concept of the will, delivered in the starkly clear language of struggle and popular mobilization, was far more radical than any other single presentation; Gender trouble – the organizers arranged an entirely male dominated conference (subversive ‘Fantasy Programme’ here). One consequence of patriarchal leanings, among many: due to Badiou’s insertion into the place of master-signifier, Judith Balso’s presentation was reduced by many to a mere recapitulation of Badiou’s philosophy, when in fact it well exceeded Badiou in important ways. And on the other hand, given that Balso is a French writer who has been writing in the name of emancipatory politics since the 1970s, I would be surprised if Badiou has not gained more than one or two ideas from Judith Balso.

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Next post: Paris, general strike March 19, CRS violence

7 Theses for an interventionist publication

February 2, 2009

1- For those with sensitive stomachs, pseudo-criticality is the alternative strategy to digest the spectacle.

2- The exterior event (the revolutionary insurrection) is the spectacle that has haunted radical thought and practice for too long. Just as Copernicus’ On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres was written through and through in a Ptolemaic language, Marx’s thought too is built on the foundation of imaginaries and categories that belong to the bourgeoisie. The first task of radical thinkers is to think the imaginary proper to the task of overcoming capitalism.

3- The imagination of the exterior event (the revolution) centrally hinges on the promise of a return to the origin: the agrarian community. Even the idea of workers organizing themselves in worker’s councils borrows its aesthetics from the village; even barter and gift giving as alternative means of distribution are entirely agrarian practices. Most fundamentally, the promise of the return to the origin is also the promise of the restoration of the One, the hope of the resurrection of a dead God. Thus, just as in the Romantic fantasies of the rural, the village community is connected through the soil or the Nature, and this connecting Nature constitutes the agrarian field of communicability, the revolutionary resurrection is bound to rely on the party or the (proletarian) state to give the masses a unifying language (i.e. to constitute its field of communicability). The One, the God or the Nature, this time is restored as the state or the party (although the name may vary). From the perspective of the exterior event, the publication is the voice of the insurrectory party: at best propaganda. But since God and the party are dead, and Nature is only a fantasy of the past, we should come in terms with a new condition of politics of the masses: masses as pure multiplicities. Thus, the first question of radical politics in our time: how to organize the masses as pure multiplicities? The radical publication is a means of such manner of organization.

4- Against the exterior event we should invoke the interior event as the proper paradigm of radical politics. The interior event is the innovative thought that takes the field of communicability (or more generally the mode of praxis and the mode of production) as its proper object. The radical gesture does not constitute law, nor does it derive legitimacy from some constituted law, but takes the vicissitude of constituent and the constituted as its proper object. The radical gesture does neither produce nor consume, but takes the mode of production-consumption as its object. Similarly, a radical political publication does not simply communicate this or that message (especially this or that scandalous banal fact of bourgeois politics). Rather, the radical publication grasps and manipulates the field of communicability and enriches humans’ senses and their capacity to present themselves.

5- Politics is the realm of pure means. The pure means are the objective unfolding of the interior event. A publication derives its politics not simply from its political tendencies. It is the technical and technological tendencies of a publication and their relation to the interior event that determine the politics of the publication.

6- The relation of a political publication to an apolitical publication is like the relation of cinema to photography.

7- Critical thinkers for too long have strived to uncover capitalism’s obscene underside. While that surely is a noble practice, it is far more urgent in our time to neutralize capitalism’s sublime overside. The production of the sublime, i.e. the good, and not the production of falsehood, is the task of the bourgeois media (a task at which social democrats and progressivists are the main conspirators). The truly critical publication neutralizes the sublime, constitutes the world as mundane, and seeks passion, love, and eventality in that mundane world.

-Bahram Norouzi, December 2008

Reconsidering the Coalition

January 30, 2009

Today there is both a parliamentary crisis and a global economic crisis, and therefore a two-front storm in Canadian politics. But while they overlap, the two crises are by no means identical.

If we were to accept the thinking of the leadership of the NDP, we might conclude that the solution to the constitutional crisis is the same solution awaiting the financial one. The NDP’s answer has been an expected Keynesian imperative to spend, by any means necessary and whatever the result. As Keynes wrote in his main work, the General Theory (1936): “it is the volume, not the direction” of spending that matters.[1]

It is not coincidental, thus, that the NDP’s Keynesian call for a coalition is preconditioned on their staying forcefully silent on Afghanistan, among other things. According to the December coalition talks, coalition reforms will be Liberal reforms, not NDP-Liberal, as is commonly depicted. The coalition agreement contains no ‘deal-breakers,’ not even regarding the impending $50 billion in Conservative tax cuts. Anything goes according to Layton, including the continued militarization of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Liberal Party, perhaps Ignatieff himself, will select the NDP cabinet members if a coalition goes ahead.

In the wake of Harper’s “denial budget” in December – although it is better described as an attack on labour and the public party funding scheme – progressives argued for spending. But this call for spending has since then become so empty (without any actual plan for housing, for example) that it seems to be “anything is better than Harper.” NDP’s emerging message seems to be that Liberal Party economic reforms will be sufficient to avert the economic downturn. This is inevitably the founding assumption of the coalition itself, particularly now that Ignatieff has announced his ‘budget priorities.’

Neo-liberal restructuring

Under the past decade of Liberal and Conservative governments, global competition has been depicted as a beast that, unless fed large chunks of the welfare state, is prone to strike reprisals at the heart of the nation. This portrayal has helped neoliberal politicians into Parliament while sending social services into disrepair. Today, amidst economic crisis, people will need social assistance more than ever, particularly employment insurance. Unfortunately, the EI system has been drastically hollowed out under neo-liberalism’s Liberal Party phase (1993 – 2006) and more recently, its Liberal-Conservative Alliance phase (2006 – 2008), when the Liberals upheld all forms of reactionary conservatism in vote after vote.

The Liberal Party was a global leader in implementing the world-historic neoliberal transformation of the 90s and 2000s. From APEC to NAFTA, the Liberals have lobbied to secure the neoliberal economic transition, of which global financial deregulation was a main component. The Liberal Party takes with one hand what it couldn’t take with the other, because while on the one hand their name is imprinted boldly on the financial crisis itself, on the other hand, their national policies – major EI reduction, for example – will now make the crisis itself much more difficult for millions of Canadians to bear.

With this in mind, we should look again to the General Theory, where Keynes penned his liberal wisdom: “If government controls succeed in establishing [economic recovery] as nearly as is practicable, classical economic theory comes into its own from this point onwards and there becomes no more reason to socialize economic life than there was before.”[2] For Keynes, anti-capitalist measures are necessary at a time of crisis, but the system that brought about the crisis itself should be permitted to flourish once crisis retreats. The logic of the coalition is today a lesser reworking of the Keynesian wager.

Breaking with neoliberalism

In a time of crisis, Ignatieff may be able to hide his big-business allegiances beneath a Keynesian façade. On the other hand, the chance still exists for the NDP to announce an break with neoliberalism, which would undermine the currently-fragile Liberal claim to social democracy. We should have no doubt that a socialist appeal can gain popular support as the economic downturn unfolds. The shift would be helped in no small part if the NDP were to finally point clearly to the failures of neoliberalism and its objective historical instrument in the form of the Liberal Party (and to a great degree the Conservatives).

Some have argued that the coalition will give the party the opportunity to prove to Canadians that NDP Cabinet members can “govern responsibly.” Unfortunately, because the current economic crisis is of world-historic magnitude, NDP MPs may merely be demonstrating their ability to “responsibly” oversee the continued decline. They will do so while implementing Liberal policies, and while being prevented from declaring any kind of break with neoliberalism.

The experience of British ‘New Labour’ is instructive in this case, not least because it is unfortunately a model for some inside the NDP. In the UK, the Labour Party was able to win government in the late ’90s by turning rightward, abandoning socialist principles while successfully phasing out the country’s Liberal party. The result has been a disastrous new era of race-to-the-bottom neoliberalism under Blair and now Brown, extending from high rates of child poverty to tuition deregulation to the war in Iraq. While the U.S. and the UK have no third party, Canada is not yet in such a bind. Progressives in the United States and the UK only dream of a left party tied to labour and grassroots activists. While the Canadian Liberal-Conservative alliance is the mirror image of the Republican-Democratic alliance, the fundamental difference is that Canadians still have a potential way out of the corporate party trap. It would be foolish to give that up for a Cabinet photo opportunity.

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[1] “[T]here is no objection to be raised against the classical analysis of the manner in which private self-interest will determine what in particular is produced…I see no reason to suppose that the existing system seriously misemploys the factors of production which are in use.” John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Palgrave, 2007) pp. 378 – 9

[2] Ibid.

BOOK REVIEW

January 11, 2009

David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience (London/Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985)

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Review:

Although the production of space and the built environment are made in the image of capital, the urbanization of consciousness itself is a “topic far harder to ground” (xviii). For this reason, Consciousness and the Urban Experience is in fact far more about the urbanization of capital and the production of space than about consciousness and conscious experience. Rather than give a phenomenology of the urban mind in the way of great 20th century urban theorists like Simmel or Louis Wirth, Harvey shows how the processes of urbanization, and specifically the urbanization of capital, are intertwined with the urban experience. There is a dialectical clarity to this position, since he does not simply give an account of the urban mind as a mere symptom of the urbanization of capital:

The urbanization of consciousness cannot…be understood independently of the urbanization of capital; nor can the latter be understood without the former. The task for historical materialist interpretation of the urban process is, therefore, to examine how the consciousness produced through the particular patterning of relations between individualism, class, community, state, and family affects the paths and qualities of capitalist urbanization that in turn feed back to alter the patterning of relations that underlie the urbanization of consciousness. (253)

Thus, the first chapter of Consciousness, “Money, Time, Space and the City”, builds on urbanists like Simmel and Wirth, but also the full range of modern writers more generally from Zola to Dickens. From the outset, Harvey politicizes space, time and the city by placing them at the foot of nascent 19th century urban capitalism. The novelties of early-modern urban experience, tied so closely to the development of money, the “discipline of the clock” and the modern life of urban space, are inseparable from the urbanization of capital. For Harvey, no account of urbanized consciousness can gloss over these “concrete abstractions.” They are the content of daily life that both derive from and inform urban capitalism.

The abstractions and struggles of modern life play out particularly in the built environment – the urban domain of consumption facilities, built residence, public spaces, daily life and beyond.  For Harvey, capitalism ensures the “annihilation of the absolute qualities space” – ‘everything that is solid melts into air’ – thereby establishing a relative spatial environment (13). This new, changing environment is always subject to capitalism’s driving “creative destruction” and is the fundamental background to contestations over the built environment. The spatial and geographical phenomena of capitalism, so little explored in critical social theory of the 1980s, necessitate for Harvey a reworking of fundamental Marxian categories. In this reworking, the built environment comes to operate in modern life as a kind of ‘second terrain’ for the class struggle, largely as an outcome of the modern separation of work and living spaces (52).

It is with a new Marxist geography that Harvey turns to a historical study of the built environment. His classic example, to be revisited in Paris, Capital of Modernity (2003), is mid 19th century Paris at the height of Haussman the planner, the Paris Commune, and Haussman’s downfall. Paris in this period is the surprising embodiment of all matters formulated in Chapter 2, “Labor, Capital, and Class Struggle around the Built Environment in Advance Capitalist Societies.”  It merges all range of transformations in urban time and space: monetization and concrete abstraction, urbanized capital and the rational modern State, struggles over the built environment, class alliances and antagonisms, and so on.

The built environment in France’s Second Empire came under the rational control of the State, with Haussman at the helm, at a time when capital accumulation was advancing at a historical unprecedented rate due to new forms of circulation and investment based largely on the founding of the modern credit system. After the crises of capitalist growth that culminated in the revolutions of 1848, the State came to take a new role in the administration of Parisian space. At the time, credit capital and the modern banks had both volatized capitalism and given it new possibilities for growth. As massive capital surpluses were generated, the State was forced to step in and stabilize capital accumulation. It did so, according to Harvey, through the planned management and reconstruction of the built environment. In other words, the State was able to transform the built environment in the process of absorbing excess capital, thereby stabilizing the attendant capitalist crises of overaccumulation that periodically visit capitalism.

In the chapter, Harvey traces the clash between new forms of credit capital and the period’s triumph of a Pereire model of finance (deficit spending, large scale capital advances, speculation and massive borrowing) over a more conservative, Rothschildian view of finances and short term lending. It was the Pereire model that enabled new rational state planning, spatial control, and the overall urbanization of capital that allowed for incredible growth in Paris.

The intersection of credit capitalism and spatial control was not coincidental. Marx had already remarked on the modern conquest of time over space. Capitalism eliminates spatial barriers while at the same time enables new possibilities for the production of space. Harvey writes: “space can only be overcome through the production of space” (27). This is the “creative destruction” that capitalism absolutely requires and which found its logical expression in the Haussmanization of Paris. Not only did the new capitalism make the spatial environment in its own image, capital’s new ability to reconfigure space was the outcome of finance and credit, i.e. the embodiment of time’s victory over space. On a massive scale, investors and speculators where capable of spending “fictitious” capital in anticipation of new projects yet to be realized but that would fundamentally alter the built environment.

The creation of the built environment, tied to investment capitalism, was a deeply political process precisely because lending substituted and advanced time to allow for the immediate control of space. Haussman’s widened boulevards are a famous example of the political rationalization of Paris. The wider boulevards made it impossible for workers and radicals to barricade the streets. And thus for all of the eliminated space, a certain spatial abstraction was concretized and made real in the built environment. The “dual order” and special segregation between of rich and poor neighborhoods in Paris (95) best illustrates the physical concretization of spatial and monetary abstractions. The east-west distinction in Paris and the “embourgeoisement” (94) of the west side were early forms of gentrification, mirroring the emergent uneven development of center and periphery in Paris and throughout the world.

It was out of the contradictions and confusions of urban capital that resistance emerged, singularly represented in the Paris Commune. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Consciousness and the urban Experience is chapter 4, “The Building of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart”. Harvey tells the story of revolutionary Paris through the struggle over the hill of Montmarte, ultimately the site of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur. The basilica crystallized a definite struggle over space involving the Catholic church, newly elected republicans, and an embattled collective memory of the Commune. The basilica, finally built by the church out of commitment to the ‘cult of the sacred heart,’ solidified the victory of reaction over the Commune in the most spatial sense: it’s domes now command attention from nearly every location in Paris, guaranteeing a central monument around which spatial configurations of the city are imagined.

But in a sense, the basilica is not a center at all. Harvey begins to wonder if the urban experience – especially the working-living distinction and spatial division of consumption itself – does not obscure the class struggle itself. Harvey reflects on the Pullman strikes of Chicago in the 1890s, where the ‘enemy’ of working class actors was not made opaque by urban consciousness and the separation of work and the built environment, such as in the truly modern multi-dimensional experience of Paris. The latter summoned an intractable world of contradictions and ambiguities, abstractions and lived experiences. Paris in contrast to Chicago was where not only phenomenological, but “objective” experience is made opaque: even capital interests come into conflict with one another, with the state, possibly even in a temporary alliance with labor and so on. Harvey accepts that Paris Commune was in fact already an expression of the multi-layeredness of modern urbanism. Thus, even while he insists that the surface appearances of conflict around the built environment “conceal a hidden essence that is nothing more that the struggle between capital and labor” (57), he ambiguously concludes Consciousness by endorsing the politics of urban struggle in the built environment.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Transl. Gayatri Spivak (London/Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) p. 162.

Passion for the Real

December 2, 2008

Pictures of my eyeballs:

“Alain Badiou had identified the key feature of the twentieth century: the ‘passion for the Real [la passion du réel]’. In contrast to the nineteenth century of utopian or ‘scientific’ projects and ideals, plans for the future, the twentieth century aimed at delivery the thing itself – at directly realizing the longed-for New Order. The ultimate and defining moment of the twentieth century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality – the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality…In the domain of sexuality itself…is not the ultimate figure of the passion for the Real the option we get on hardcore websites to observe the inside of a vagina from the vantage point of a tiny camera at the top of the penetrating dildo? At this extreme point, a shift occurs: when we get too close to the desired object, erotic fascination turns into disgust at the Real of the bare flesh.”

-Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (2002)

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death

November 29, 2008

In New York State a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death today by shoppers rushing to buy “Samsung 50-inch plasma high-definition televisions for $798, Bissel Compact upright vacuums for $28, Samsung 10.2 megapixel digital cameras for $69 and DVDs like “The Incredible Hulk” for $9.”[1] When shoppers were were told that the employee was killed, they protested: “I’ve been in line since yesterday morning.”

According to the New York Times, both the state detective and the union boss blamed the death on a lack of “security.” Marx, however, taught that security – capitalism’s “supreme social concept”[2] – is only the flip-side of the fetishization of commodities. The ‘fetish of the commodity’ was a concept introduced early in Capital in order to name the process by which commodities are abstracted from the wage labor relationship, the “secret of our social products.”[3]  In the absence of the legibility of real-world relations of inequality, production, and exploitation, objects become obscure and we lose our orientation. When objects are no longer thought of as products of labor and capital, all that is left is a mystified fetishism; commodities come to appear  as autonomous objects and “social action takes the form of the action of objects.”[4]

For an exchange object to become an object of fetish, therefore, its social basis in wage labor must be negated or somehow disavowed. Did the Wal-Mart customers not take commodity fetishism to its absolute logical extreme by literally negating labour, by killing the wage employee? Is that how capitalism must end? If capitalism is to collapse under its own barbaric weight, it can only do so by undermining the material basis of the “social hieroglyphic” itself: the commodity. “What is it about the particular mode of human practice that requires it to exist against itself in the mode of the object?” More importantly, “what sort of praxis is needed to fight against Barbarism?”[5]

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Notes
[1] “Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death” New York Times 11/28/2008

[2] Marx, Early Writings, ed. Bottomore (1964) p.25

[3] Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (International Publishers, 1967) p.74

[4] Ibid. p.75

[5] Werner Bonefeld, “Emancipatory Praxis and Conceptuality in Adorno,”in Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism (2009) p.129, p. 123