Archive for max weber

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.