Archive for neoliberalism

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 Neoliberal War

Posted in Articles with tags , , , on March 16, 2017 by Magadh

drone1The drone is the perfect tool of liberal warfare. It is notionally the most precise means of taking the war directly to the enemy. It allows U.S. forces to avoid the niceties of international law and the vulnerabilities that arise from putting boots on the ground where they are not wanted (which, let’s face it, is practically anywhere). The representatives of the U.S. security apparatus are conveniently insulated from any blowback from their actions. Safely ensconced in the air-conditioned shipping containers at Creech AFB, the  front line agents of this end of the conflict are far out of range of any direct retaliation by enemy combatants. Never again the smoking ruins of Khobar Towers, or the Marine barracks  in Beirut, or the gaping hole in the side of the U.S.S. Cole. More importantly, no more flag draped coffins and Gold Star families.

 

The central lesson of the Vietnam wars has finally been fully metabolized by the U.S. Government. Counterinsurgency warfare is dirty and difficult. It has the capacity to generate unpalatable images of people not easily classifiable as enemy combatants killed, maimed, covered in napalm. Lacking the underlying basis of legitimation in the defense of Western civilization that made the World Wars, the process of acquiescence is further disturbed by their propensity to generate dead white people. While non-white bodies can pile up like cord wood, the will to fight even for the most noble of causes deteriorates each time another Wally Cleaver comes home in a sack.

 

drone2To most Americans, the drone war is invisible. To its victims it is omnipresent. Each facet implies a psychological benefit to the overall process. Those in the conflict zones live life in a Benthamite panopticon, their lives reduced to mute pantomimes that might at any time call for a Hellfire missile from the empty air. Every act undertaken under the open sky (and sometimes within buildings as well) is translated into a symbolic code to deciphered in the cool darkness of a distributed military architecture. Each individually generated fragment of code synergizes with thousands of others, independently generated into a mosaic of life and threat. In most cases it is simply impossible to know when the flows and eddies of information will map lethally onto the ineluctable logic air to ground fire.

 

So far as the American public is concerned, the invisibility of the conflict eliminates the necessity, at least for most people, of thinking of it at all. Out of sight and very definitely out of mind, the invisibility of the drone war forestalls the need to soothe (or one might even say to embalm) one’s conscience. Otherwise reasonable (and reasonably critical) individuals can simply block out the reality of the situation through an assumption (more often than not simply tacitly made) that the people who get vaporized in drone strikes must have done something to deserve it. Collateral damage (i.e. surplus corpses) there may be. But if the good wars of the 20th century teach us nothing else, they teach us that the death of a few innocents is an unavoidable, if regrettable, concomitant of traversing the path of greater good.  And if those collateral losses outnumber the actual targets of (at least in some sense) legitimate violence by more than 25 to 1 the end must still be seen as justifying the means.

 

drone3The drone war reflects, in a certain sense, the perfection of limited, asymmetric warfare. Ideally, if not in every case, the application of violence can be limited to those who demonstrate by their actions malign intent. Rather than requiring the deployment of massed bodies of soldiery to far off places, the conflict can be bracketed, undertaken by a small cadre of anonymous joystick jockeys who have graduated from ninja level Mass Effect skills to the ‘leetest of the ‘leet. The relationship between this cadre and their opponents is both destructive and symbiotic. Prevented from striking back directly, the forces of Al Qaida, ISIS, and whoever else are limited to acts of pure terrorism against soft targets. Here the designation pure indicates only that it is not covered under the aegis of states sanction. State terrorism is different, more complicated in the sense that the actions that constitute it might, in some measure, be covered (less likely legitimated) by international law. Viewed in human terms its outcomes are hardly less grim. In any case, the perpetration of public atrocities facilitates the continuation of a conflict that benefits both sides. The cycle of violence is self-perpetuating and the medium is quite clearly far advanced in the process of becoming the message.

 

The capacity of this sort of warfare to cut off the malice at its source is touted every time it is announced that some important (though heretofore generally anonymous) member of the enemy hierarchy has been dispatched in a strike as surgically precise as the excision of a tumor. Perhaps it has, on a time, occurred to the agents and facilitators of this mode of conflict that they are fighting a postmodern enemy, one which has no center and thus one whose command and control structure is extremely difficult to degrade no matter how many explosions one causes. In fact, the state of continual war that this entails is functional to the complex of class fractions that run advanced capitalism, as it tends to occlude the pathways of democratic control that promoters of the neoliberal order find so pernicious.

 

In the industrialized world, warfare itself is in the course of becoming neoliberalized. This process was already far advanced by the self-reinforcing dynamic described above. War is a profit center. The other motivations that have at times governed its dynamics: religion, nationalism, racism, etc., have increasingly become epiphenomenal to the process of accumulation. The process is now, also, fundamentally different from that of accumulation by dispossession, in which war was undertaken for the control of resources or territory. War has now become a matter of the circulation of capital. It is the return of Keynesianism, but as if it was run by Darth Vader.

 

At its leading edge, war is decreasingly a human process. Rather, the goal is to make it a matter of autonomous, AI-governed systems making decisions and undertaking actions in the basis of merciless and unflinching algorithms. In the future, war will become like the weather, an event experienced as natural, sine ira et studio, an event for which there is no humanly comprehensible reason. It is becoming both hypercomplex and brutally simple. The technology, especially as current capacities and systems synergize with developments in artificial intelligence, is becoming increasingly prone to internally generated dynamics of such complexity as to far outstrip the abilities of human beings to understand them or to predict future outcomes. As artificial intelligence develops to the point that it becomes self-conscious and self-reproducing, it may turn out to be the case that it has goals and inclinations beyond the reaches of our souls. When that happens, capital itself may become autonomous and self aware. When that happens what place humans will have in the resulting order can hardly be guessed.