Archive for the Research Notes Category

Night Thoughts on Necrocapitalism

Posted in Dispatches, Research Notes with tags , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by Magadh

Revolution is never quite the revolution we want. Lost in the warp and woof of our mingled thoughts, what lies below bubbles up like the contents of a witch’s cauldron. In such moments we are, or should be, reminded of the frailty of the worlds we make. But human arrogance is such that someone is always to blame, generally someone other than ourselves.

COVID-19 is both revolutionary and meaningless. It is no less meaningless for all the manifold attempts to build it into one narrative or another and thus to affix it within the realm of human causality. This is clearly the case in the flailing attempts of the current administration in the United States to build it into a coherent spectacular image. Having failed to nullify it through blunt denial, the administration’s latest tack is to try to make it part of the larger phenomenon of asymmetric warfare between the United States and China, flavored to taste with collaboration by the deep state.

This is one of those elite narratives that is clearly meant for distribution to the desperate and delusional fractions of the petit bourgeoisie who graze on Fox News and support the president with passionate intensity irrespective of his malign, bumbling incompetence. Its mélange of baseless assertions and debunked, paranoid fantasies is so obviously ludicrous that even that those in media and government tasked with doling it out can hardly do so with a straight face.

Beneath the crass politicization of the event lies a deeper reservoir of cathectic energy wherein the virus becomes an element of stories the moral of which ranges from redemption to pure catastrophe. One is here reminded of the televangelist in Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man who reminds his views that “the Lord works in mysterious and often meaningless ways.” To see COVID-19 as the hand of God might be seen as a source of comfort, even if the underlying purposes might escape the bounds of human comprehension. That the virus is the hand of nullity is rather less palatable.

What COVID-19 has done is to cast the contours of capitalism in relief. If the book trade persists in the wake of the crisis, many bytes will be spilled describing the various ways in which this is true. To take only one of the most immediately horrifying examples, coronavirus has given rise to a new variety of proletarianization. On Marx’s view, the defining feature of the proletariat was that its members had nothing to sell but their labor power. The new proletariat of the era of COVID-19 has nothing to sell but their presence.

Capitalism always involves the consumption of human life force. The current age is one in which the owners of capital are simply being rather more honest and open about it. This COVID-19-inspired glasnost was first eminently clear in the statement a month ago by the lieutenant governor of Texas to the effect that grandparents might (perhaps ought to) be willing to risk death in order to allow the economy to function. What might at another moment have been universally viewed as blood-curdlingly profligate with respect to human life read in the current circumstances as mere candor.

Since that time three things have become clear. The first is that the president is bored by the crisis. There is nothing fun or interesting about it. It just goes on and on. The virus doesn’t care about its reputation, can’t be slandered or flattered in the media, just keeps taking off the kind of inconsequential meat sacks who wouldn’t be part of the kind of entertaining synergies of which the president is so fond. And yet their sheer numbers present a problem that persists in sucking the joy out of life.

The second thing to emerge is the desperation of the state governors. Irrespective of political coloration, the inhabitants of the various statehouses are all intimately aware of the prospects for economic ruin presented by the virus. COVID-19 is having a catastrophic effect on the human propensity to truck and barter. Those segments of the economy that subsist most effectively in the current situation, ones involving delivery and little or no face to face contact, tend to generate cosmopolitan pools of capital that end up in bank or brokerage accounts beyond borders of the states (and often of the country).

Even among the most science-friendly among them, the specter of economic collapse creates inherent systemic pressure to do something. It doesn’t help that several are now being harried by astroturfed “protests” involving white guys, many toting long guns, demanding the freedom to die (or to kill others) for a burrito and a beer. It goes without saying that this is a white man’s protest since the consequences for people of color of showing up armed (be it with a gun or a cell phone or a candy bar) in public spaces are often lethal. Be that as it may, the compelling power of tens of protestors waving flags, guns, and the occasional antisemitic slogan on the premises of the state capital can hardly be denied.

Third, and as a consequence of the previous two items, the president’s response to the crisis is to fall back on the nostrums that have served him well in the past. Rather than engage in the unglamorous and tedious work of planning and executing a systematic, national-level program, it is clear that the president wants to stage some sort of macabre competition among the state governors to see who can wager the most human lives on the reopening of the economy. The weeks and months to come present the prospect of The Apprentice: COVID-19 Edition, with state governors playing the role of supplicants seeking the favor of the dear leader.

Rescinding stay at home orders, as many governors now seem intent on doing, will have one of three consequences. It may have no effect since just because businesses are allowed to open doesn’t mean they will actually do so, and even if they do that still doesn’t mean that people will be inclined to take the risk of patronizing them. It may cause a spike in infections and deaths from the virus, over and above the current upward trend. Or it might allow the state economies to function again, thus saving the day. Of these, the first two seem much the most likely outcomes, while prospects for the third seem vanishingly small. But this hasn’t stopped the cold-eyed realists of capitalism from banking that the longshot will actually pay off.

For that to happen, workers have to be made to give up their labor power and to do so on terms that allow for the efficient extraction of surplus-value. This applies particularly to that segment of the workforce whose jobs cannot be done from a remote location. If the hash is going to get slung and the mani-pedis are going to get done, people have to be on-site to do them and it won’t do to have them withholding their labor power merely because of some squeamishness about contracting a potentially fatal illness.

The opening shot in this struggle (or in this intensified phase of it) was the president’s signing of an executive order indemnifying the meat industry against suits by employees sickened in the course of their jobs. The president was very hesitant to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to make supplies necessary to fight the pandemic. But he approached the project of protecting multibillion-dollar corporations from the depredations of their employees with gusto. When a handful of meatpacking plants were forced to close because employees became ill (and some had the temerity to actually croak), the president saw an imminent threat to the timely provision of hamburgers and moved with alacrity to make sure that the risk remained precisely where it belonged: among the proletariat of the physically present.

Congress has since taken up the call. Mitch McConnell has let it be known that no further bailout money will be made available, especially to the states (read as blue states) without some sort of blanket immunity against liability being provided for employers. Exceptions would be made, McConnell intoned, for cases of “gross negligence”. But they will apparently not be made for simply forcing people on the threat of starvation to deal out subs and chicken wings to whoever might care to come by.

There is a certain (admittedly highly contested) view of fascism that sees it as the project of capital to discipline workers. The argument goes that the rising militancy of workers in the late 1920s and 1930s, resulting from the systemic dysfunction of capitalism in the era between the world wars caused those in need of their surplus-value to undertake extreme measures to encourage, or enforce, workers’ compliance. The root causes and fundamental nature of fascism are certainly more complicated than this. Still, the need or desire to keep capitalism functioning smoothly by making participation more or less explicitly compulsory is a common feature of the system in crisis.

Signs of the systemic crisis are easy to see and were visible before the shock of COVID-19. Slow growth and system-wide overcapacity have combined with the concentration of wealth at the top of the income distribution to create turbulence. In part this turbulence has been managed by diversionary tactics: communism, the threat of global jihad, “we have always been at war with China”, the prospect that brown people are coming to take jobs and white women. Trump is the apotheosis of this diversionary spectacle, but he is only an expression of it rather than, in any significant sense, its author.

Viewed in a certain light, the roots of the current political-cultural formation go back to the formation of the republic, and to the slave system that provided the moment of primary accumulation for both Europe and the settler colonies it created. More directly, it’s roots lie in the need for conservatives to find some other basis on which to compete for votes during the economic boom of the postwar decades, which high growth and a (by American standards) healthy welfare state made small-government conservatism a hard sell. The so-called “Southern strategy” and the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign were its harbingers.

Much as this approach has reaped considerable rewards in the last decades, the advent of coronavirus has presented it with new challenges. The consequences of the destruction of the welfare safety net are now clear for all to see and become painfully apparent to people whose jobs are currently unavailable and are likely to be exceptionally dangerous for the foreseeable future. The ramping up of the ludicrous narrative in which COVID-19 was generated in a weapons lab with the goal of destroying the Trump regime is symptomatic of the challenges facing the neoliberal populist project.

The other side of the coin is the chorus off assertions from Republican officials that “there are more important things than living.” These things include (perhaps are limited to) keeping processes of capital accumulation running. The rush to reopen states is a further expression of this, as it amounts to a sort of back door compulsion for people to reassume their positions in the workforce irrespective of whether it is actually safe for them to do so. The mayor of Las Vegas was particularly brazen in this respect, offering up her city as, in effect, a giant Petri dish in which the effects of unrestrained transmission of coronavirus can be studied at closes range.

Sadly, the popular slogan about things that happen in Vegas staying there never held much water, and in the context of the current circumstances is simultaneously brutal and utterly vain. The mayor herself was coy about her own potential exposure, which gives one a little insight into the understanding in conservative circles about the appropriate distribution of risk. Given the stark facts of COVID-19’s propensity to spread via asymptomatic carriers, it may be the case that best friends of the Republicans (those most willing to cast off the shackles of social distancing) will turn out to be its worst enemies, as the curve of contagion takes a further upward course. In any case, the next few months will see a nationwide experiment in necrocapitalism and where that will take matters in anyone’s guess.

So here we are in the revolution, and it is being televised. The danger posed by COVID-19 and the threat it poses to those lacking the political and economic capital necessary to absent themselves from the venues of greatest risk have the capacity to play the role of class consciousness in the classical Marxist system. Certainly, the rules of the game and the imperatives on which it operates will become ever clearer to those placed in the firing line the need to make and sell. But all the neither automatically constitutes a clear understanding of the problem nor the organizational nous to become an agent of change. The future is, if not open, at least more susceptible to fundamental transformation than it has been for the best part of a century.

The Era of the Late Republic, Part 1

Posted in Dispatches, Research Notes with tags , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2019 by Magadh

We are living in the late period of the American republic. The global order of the decades following the Second World War has entered an era of inexorable decline. A new global order has arisen whose fundamental characteristics are refeudalization, colonization, and hyperreality. It is shaped by a complex of overlapping and interlinked economic and political processes, for which these terms function as heuristic markers. The transformation of the global order has fundamentally undermined the institutions of the America republic. How, then, are we to parse the conceptual ecology of the late republic.

It is difficult to periodize precisely, because its roots reach back into the previous era, but also in some respects to the origins of capitalism itself. History resists the definition borders between clear, unambiguous periods. This, it is impossible to point to an exact moment at which the current age was born. Its existence has been defined by two overarching features, the outlines of which have become increasingly clear against the background of political and economic processes that make up postwar industrial mass society.

The political order of the industrially developed world has been reshaped by a process of privatization (and monetization) of previously public governmental functions which some (Jürgen Habermas, Sighard Neckel, and others) have termed refeudalization. This process involves the extreme concentration of wealth at the upper end of the income distribution which, as some (such as Thomas Piketty) have argued, is a tendency intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production. But it has also involved a project, often term “neoliberalism,” conceived in the 1940s and 1950s and operationalized with increasing intensity since the 1980s. The central thrust of this project was the substitution of private economically based modes of governance for public democratic ones.

At the same time, capitalism itself has been subject to a series of fundamental transformations. The first was the rise to predominance of finance capitalism. Finance has been a central element of capitalist production since the 19th century. Since the 1970s, financial profits have risen sharply as a proportion of the whole. Much recent work has shown, in the last 20 years capitalism has undergone a further metamorphosis. Shoshana Zuboff has argued that a variant of capitalism that she terms “surveillance capitalism” is increasingly becoming the dominant mode of capital accumulation. Others, like McKenzie Wark, Wolfgang Streeck, and the journalist Paul Mason, have argued that capitalism itself is in a process of transformative crisis. Wark views current conditions as post-capitalist, while Streeck and Mason argue that post-capitalism will arise soon. Both contentions merit further investigation.

Zuboff has argued persuasively that a process of colonization has driven the formation of a new mode of capitalism. A new digital nomos has been established, facilitating the large-scale collection, retention, processing, and sale of behavioral surplus data. This process mirrors in important ways the brutal projects of extractive colonial domination undertaken by European powers with ever extensively and intensively over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. Carl Schmitt’s analysis of the parsing of colonial spaces in the era of the ius publicum Europaeum is an apposite reference point here. Citizens in the industrially developed world are now experiencing a sort of neo-colonial reflux of systems of domination and exploitation to which extra-European regions have been subjected, to one degree or another, for the last three centuries.

At the level of the political, hyperreality is the order of the day. Arguably, the hegemony of the hyperreal emerged in 1964. In that year, in response to a fictional attack on U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed (with a mere two dissenting votes) the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the president authorization to order military action without a formal declaration of war. A more compelling starting point is October 2002, when the U.S. Congress, approved the Iraq Resolution. Although there was greater dissent at this point (155 opposing votes out of a total in both houses of 529 members), it is the speciousness of the underlying evidence that connects these two events.

History is replete with instances in which dissimulation and bluster have formed the basis for military adventures. This difference in these two cases if the hyperreal context of the decision-making process. This context was in the process of formation in the earlier case. By the time of the (so-called) Second Iraq War, hyperreality was in full effect and debates over the course of action appropriate to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and/or global terrorism took place in a conceptual and intellectual ecology far removed from any viable concept of common ascertainable and demonstrable reality. These events in the politico-military sphere are symptomatic, the external faces of an order in which the internality of society and human being have disintegrated. In place of coherent subjectivity, there is now only performance and reflection.

Prediction is a vain, of also occasionally interesting mode of interaction with historical and contemporary conditions. As Max Weber wrote compellingly more than a century ago,

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrifaction, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.

It may be the case that the totally administered society that the thinkers of the Frankfurt School (quite rightly) found so alarming will arise in the context of a technological formation that they could not have imagined. The digital panopticon created by surveillance capitalism seems in many ways to be more powerful more all-encompassing than the “stahlhartes Gehäuse” with which Weber characterized modernity. What follows is an attempt to trace some of the features and synergistic interactions between the return to feudal modes of political action and organization, the colonization of private life through the collection of behavioral surplus data, and the spectacular politics of the hyperreal.