Tag Archives: capitalism

the banality of the sacrificial truth

With the Covid pandemic, the sacrificial truth of capitalism came out. How so? We are openly asked to sacrifice (some of) our lives now to keep the economy going, by which I am referring to how some of Trump’s followers directly demanded that people over 60 should accept to die to keep the US capitalist way of life alive… Of course, workers in dangerous professions (miners, steelworkers, whale hunters) were risking their lives for centuries, not to mention the horrors of colonization where up to half of the indigenous population was wiped out. But now the risk is directly spelled out and not only for the poor. Can capitalism survive this shift? I think it cannot: it undermines the logic of an endlessly postponed enjoyment that enables it to function.

You know the world has been turned on its head (or on its feet, depending on how you saw the world before, I guess) when Žižek starts coming across as an optimist… though I guess you could counter that by saying that he’s consistently contrarian. Anyway, point being: I do not share his optimism regarding capitalism’s inability to survive the shift he’s describing here. It’s certainly possible that it might not survive it, but far from a fait accompli—to say otherwise is to fall into the same trap that Matt Colquhoun observes in folk who claim that “capitalist realism is over”, as if saying it were sufficient to replace the hard work of making it so. (Disclaimer: I’ve definitely done this myself. Magical thinking is very tempting in trying times.)

That said, Žižek’s observation of the pandemic’s exposure of the sacrificial truth of capitalism rings clear, at least to me, echoing as it does the bioethical implications of the pandemic that I discussed (or, more accurately, ranted about) months ago. But the neoliberal order’s response to (and incorporation of) that exposure was already then apparent, as manifest in the almost immediate establishment of global league tables of national death rates: the logic of market competition applied itself immediately, and we’re still arguing over who dun covid bestest, months later, despite it being far from over.

Furthermore, the same logic is starting to be applied to the sacrificial sectors: a competition to decide who gets the putative vaccine first, who gets to stay the safest for the longest time while we wait for it. Perhaps the Hunger Game vibes of this contest will eventually provoke some kind of pushback, as Žižek believes. But to return to Fisher, we’d do well to remember and respect capitalism’s ability to absorb, incorporate and commodify the fiercest attacks made upon it. The only counter to that paradigm is (a return to) a more communal, situated and grass-roots form of political organisation… and the medium-as-message constitution of the systems through which we are obliged to communicate and organise in lockdown and lockdown-adjacent circumstances are demonstrably and explicitly geared to exactly the opposite social dynamic. It is notable that the only political activity of any vitality at the moment is happening in the streets, in defiance of lockdown measures.

Is that an argument against lockdown measures? It’s not meant as one, but it might well be taken as such, I suppose. My point is that during lockdown, those privileged enough to be in lockdown experience the world outside only through multiple layers of mediation; the (very real) risk to older folk and the immune-compromised appears as part of the spectacle, but the (equally real) risk to the people embedded in the supply chains (in one’s own nation, but also far beyond it) which make living in lockdown possible appears far less frequently, if at all. The risk is indeed “directly spelled out”, as Žižek says—but to assume that this spelling-out of the universality of risk won’t result in people falling back on the old class and national divisions as a ready-made template for the (re)distribution of said risk seems optimistic in the worst possible passivity of that term. (OK, sure, the WHO has said everyone needs to pull together—but at this point it should be obvious that, for the most part, state apparatuses are taking only what they consider to be politically efficacious from the WHO’s pronouncements; an soft-pedalled argument for internationalism is unlikely to leave much of a mark, I’m assuming.)

After all, that (re)distribution of risk is always-already ongoing—and the metasystem’s effacement of consequences, now amplified still further by lockdown’s forcing us into a situation where our perception of the situation is so thoroughly and seamlessly mediated and curated by algorithms intended to flatter our pre-existing perspectives, makes it oh-so-easy to pretend that it isn’t. That which is appears is good; that which is good appears.

some notes on Martin Parker’s managerial heroisms

There’s a lot of good stuff in this piece by Martin Parker at Aeon—hell, anyone who wrote a book titled Shut Down the Business School has gotta be on my side of the fence, right?—but it takes a problematic turn at the end that I think is worth digging into. Let’s start with the good stuff: after a reference to Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh” essay and a look at “fantasy futurisms” a la Silicon Valley, we take a turn into etymology, which is always and forever my jam. The word in the frame is management

The London Encyclopaedia (1829) has an entry for ‘Manage’, which suggests that it is:

an obsolete synonyme of management, which signifies, guidance; administration; and particularly able or prudent administration of affairs: managery is another (deservedly obsolete) synonyme of this signification: manageable is tractable; easy to be managed.

This sense of management as coping, as dealing with a particular state of affairs, is still passable in everyday English. You might ask ‘How are you managing?’ if someone has told you about some problem they face. To organise complex matters, to arrange people and things, to be resilient in the face of adversity, now that requires managery. This second meaning, not distinct but different in emphasis, emerges in the 19th century with the class of people called ‘managers’. These managers do management. And as this occupational group grows throughout the 20th century, driven by the growth of the capitalist corporation, so the business school expands to train them.

At the present time, that sense of managing as the art of ‘organising’ to cope with challenges is largely obscured by the idea of the manager as someone who helps to create financial value for organisations, whether they operate in state-engineered pseudo-markets, or the carbon-max madness of global trade. This means that questions about what sort of future human beings might create tend to be limited by the horizon of the management strategies of market capitalism. This version of the future isn’t about radical discontinuity at all, just an intensification of the business practices that promise to give us Amazon Prime by drone at the same time that the real Amazon burns. This is what they teach in business schools – how to keep calm and carry on doing capitalism. But the problems we face now are considerably bigger than a business school case study, so is it possible to rescue managery from management?

Lot of interesting semantic slippage there; OK. Now, back to the B-school heroism—Parker’s term, and I’m highlighting it deliberately—of the Lords of the Valley, and the futures they produce:

In the hands of technology entrepreneurs, driven by the imperatives of shareholder value and richer even than the robber barons of a century ago, the future has been displaced into the soma of fantasy, colonised by people who want you to pay a subscription for an app that helps you sleep, a delivery service that allows you to stay indoors when it’s wet out, or a phone that switches on the heated seats in your car before you leave home. This is a future of sorts, but it’s a business school version in which everything is pretty much the same, just a bit smarter and more profitable. It’s being sold to us in adverts at the cinema and in pop-ups on our screens, as if it were the real future, but it’s not. For something to count as the future, for innovation to be as inspiring as the Eiffel Tower, Apollo or Concorde, it must promise something that has never been before. It must be a rupture, a break in the ordinary series of events that produces a future that is altered in profound ways, and something on the horizon that is unknowable, but different.

This is the paragraph where Parker and I start to part ways, because he proposes to replace the new (B-school) heroism with an older heroism. Now, I’ll concede that there was a lot more substance to the heroic projects he mentions than can be found in apps for tracking your poop or getting someone else to do your laundry, but they came with their own problems. The Apollo programme is a fine case in point, and to his credit Parker notes critiques contemporary to the project as well as more recent ones. But there’s nonetheless an attempt to have the old cake and eat it, here—an attempt to disconnect that old (and, on the basis of the chosen examples, tellingly phallic and thrusting) heroism from the current iteration.

Parker goes next to Nye’s technological sublime, and uses it as a figure for an inspirational and national-pride-stoking modernity, the concretisation of change—which it was, of course. But there are two sides to that technological utopianism, and we’re living in the torsions of its dialectical working-out right now. Sure, New Deal economics, NASA as a state-run project of unprecedented scale; all good stuff. But recall its primary motivation, behind the aspirational rhetorics, as a pissing context with the USSR. Yes, OK, “Apollo was also one of the iconic moments of the 20th century, and inspired feelings of admiring wonder among millions of people that still resonate half a century later”—but while my as-yet short tenure in Sweden has shown me that “technocratic” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, Parker’s rehabilitation of management with Apollo et al as a model, while well intended, is veering toward the same sort of place that Neal Stephenson went with Project Hieroglyph… which is to say, back to the technoutopian modality manifest (not at all coincidentally) in both Apollo and the golden age of sf. You’ve heard this line of reasoning before, I’m sure: “things were better back in the day; we used to build more big stuff back then; therefore maybe if we built more big stuff, things would be better again?” Well, maybe—but better for whom, exactly, and better how?

Regular readers will know that the technological utopia is not where I think we need to be going. The reason why pops up as Parker closes out the piece, which starts out just fine:

… what I do want to rescue is the sense that the future can be different: the sense that science-fiction writers have always had that yesterday and tomorrow don’t need to be the same. Capitalism has captured the future, and is now commodifying it and selling it back to us as gizmos and widgets, or else distracting us with fantasy – defined by its refusal to engage in realism or real problems. As the literary critic Fredric Jameson said in 2003, or rather said that someone else said, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’

Yeah, I’m with you. But it’s the question of what exactly should be different about that future that matters—so what is the thread that connects Apollo and Farcebook, the worm in the apple of both? We mentioned it earlier, but here it is again:

Now, more than ever, we need these stories about the future. Not the cityscape lensflare adverts in which we all have friends and lives that play to a soundtrack of Coldplay-lite thanks to our oh-so-very-smart telephones, and the sort of marketing taught in business schools. We need real futures, stories about radical changes that we’ll all be making in order to build the world differently. Deserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space, underground distribution systems that bring us what we need so that our roads can become parks for children to play in. These futures need to co-opt stories as compelling as those being told by Marvel and Samsung – not puritan warnings about what you can’t have, but pictures of lives that are rich and full, in which people can be heroes and you have nice things to eat.

No, no, no—we can’t all be heroes. That‘s the thread, that‘s the worm, as Saint Donna and Le Guin have made very clear. Totally agree on the refusal of puritanism, but heroism is not the solution to that; as Parker himself noted above, heroism is just as much a feature of the managerial masculinities of the Apollo program as of the Valleybros. And how are “[d]eserts covered in solar panels, food made from algae grown in space” distinct from the “cityscape lensflare adverts” that we’re dismissing here? In my experience, the former are the handwavium solutionist infrastructures that will supposedly make the latter feasible without anyone changing anything they already do; further externalisations of production and extraction, colonial enterprises, a continuation of capitalism, just, y’know *waves hand* over there, somewhere?

I’m all for a future where our kids play in the parks that we made from the motorways—but that future needs fewer heroes, fewer charismatic megaprojects, fewer technological “solutions”. It’s only by refusing the possibility of heroism that we may make the space for an appreciation of those who carry the cooking utensils, farm the crops, clean the latrines; Apollo-era modernism consolidated the process of hiding those roles behind the technological sublimity of infrastructure, and the application-mediation of the techbros is a continuation of that process of obfuscation and effacement, just at a different strata of the metasystemic apparatus. Etymology is not enough: managery remains trapped in the heroic figure of the manager. It’s not enough to close the B-schools; you’ve got to run the priesthood out of town, too.

Capitalism is an ideology of heroism; just listen to the valorisation of “wealth creators” if you (still) need the proof. We can’t arrest the former by creating more of the latter; the hero is contrary to collective effort. Our utopias must be not technological, but critical.

the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials

Some cheery theory from Brad Evans…

Giorgio Agamben has been disagreeable on so many points. But his autopsy of the present has led us to one distinguishable truth. As the providential machine of liberalism gasps its final cold breath, the new age, the new normal that has already arrived is a global techno-theodicy. An age where humanity itself has now become the sacrificial object, where the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials, where we all come face to face with the terrifying void, where the transcendental is purely virtual, where the future is already present, where technology is presented as the only thing that might save us and where the poetic is only of use if it can be already appropriated. Such a condition is necessarily bound up with a post-political imagination, micro-managing every breath taken, turning the intimate into a dangerous reckoning, augmenting a simulated reality in which the forces of militarism will truly thrive, while enforcing the most micro-specific segregations and prejudicial assumptions that venture deep into the souls of all planetary life in the name of sheer survival. 

[…]

Guilt and shame have already re-entered with their familiar potency. Deployed by shameless leaders who absolved themselves of any guilt while knowing we would be less forgiving when it came to ourselves, especially to our own behaviours and past complicities, the question of shame proved inseparable to our forced witnessing to this tragedy from our own relatively safe distances. And who didn’t feel ashamed about the conditions of life on earth? Ashamed that we didn’t do more to help? That we could not do more to help, apart from isolate. Ashamed as we continued to watch in a horrified submission the continued number counts of daily fatalities? And who wasn’t slightly relieved it wasn’t them being reported upon, thankful to have survived another day? Ashamed that we weren’t the ones being silently killed by an invisible enemy? Might we have even been the contagious? Unwitting carriers in the premature death of others?

And what of our role in society, which appeared so under-prepared and ill-equipped? Should we have been ashamed that our societies are so incapable of slowing things down? That our lives were so caught up in the frenzy of existence, its only in the face of death we learn about the elderly neighbour who was already slowly dying a lonely death? Were we not ashamed of supporting governments whose worthless investments in guns and bombs and other fancy weaponry for destruction proved so irrelevant in this onslaught upon life? Or even ashamed for buying a plant that was apparently an “unnecessary purchase” or walking just a little too far from home? And what of our leaders, who have been shown to be shamefully compromised, dancing with death in their primary insistence upon business as usual, neglectful in their actions, while woefully out of their depth when it came to show the humanity required?

But let us not forget the world was already engaging in forms of lock-down long before this crisis. From building the walls to Brexit, the conscious policy to enclose life was underway and it was perfectly in keeping with the needs of global capitalism and its strategies for controlling human life by getting the masses to desire their own containment. The virus has provided the conditions to accelerate this. So, it’s no coincidence the real winners are the disaster capitalists, the global-tech giants now tasked with administering all aspects of life, and invariably the pharmaceutical industries. As our life was reduced to a motionless existence, slowed down to the point of a horrified inertia, the mechanisms for power have sped up exponentially.

Having spent the last few months in a reading group looking at and around Agamben’s theory of the state of exception, I’ll concede “disagreeable” in the strict sense of a thing with which to agree brings no pleasure… and perhaps with the more alimentary sense of something that is difficult to digest. But not at all hard-to-agree-with in the sense of (once one has finally grasped it) holding the argument up to the actual and looking for discrepancies… and as Evans points out, disaster capitalism, running hotter than ever on an optimised silicon substrate, has not hesitated to take the territory we willingly left on the table.

No conspiracy is needed to explain this turn of events. As a number of people have noted recently with regards to BLM’s critique of policing in the US (and elsewhere), it’s not at all that “our systems” are “broken”. On the contrary, they are working exactly as designed, and with astonishing efficiency (in the strictly economic sense of that term, which is subtly different to the vernacular usage).

no choice but to be aggregated: enclosure and augmented reality

I’m going to assume that people have spent the last few days pointing poor old Bill Gibson at this story by way of draping the (oft-refused) garland of prophecy around his neck. The short version is that people bored of the tedious affordances of that suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform (and/or possibly seeing an opportunity for a bit of self-promo?) started holding business meetings within the multiplayer version of the last-days-of-the-frontier cowboy RPG Red Dead Redemption 2; this of course echoes (and also mirror-flips) the appropriation by the character Zona (in Idoru) of a former corporate meeting space as a hang-out for her and her fellow Lo/Rez fans.

I’m no longer in the business of gleefully reporting sf tropes made manifest in the actual, or at least not just for their own sake; this story says something important about space, and the collision between the actual and the virtual versions thereof (which was, of course, an enduring theme of the Bigend trilogy, too). One imagines that for most folk who don’t read sf or social theory, this issue has seemed to just kind of erupt out of nowhere as a result of the pandemic. But it’s been going on ever since the arrival of cheap GPS chips in smartphones resulted in what another Gibson character (whose name escapes me at the moment) referred to as the “everting of cyberspace”: no longer a literal (as in placeless) utopia, cyberspace was suddenly another dimension of the actual; cyberspace had coordinates, correlations to meatspace. (Sterling got this, too; he was in pretty early on the augmented reality beat, and out just as fast once it had become part of the furniture.)

It’s not a trendy term any more; G**gle’s NGRAM suggests it peaked around 2004, and had all but disappeared by 2012, when the data set ends; I’d be very interested to see how it went after that date. But augmented reality itself didn’t go away: as so often happens, the concept just got rebadged in the process of its normalisation and commodification into the functionality of the interface layer.

Rob Horning wrote last week about what he calls augmented reality “land grabs”, a pattern established by Pokemon Go’s breezy appropriation of the whole world as its game board, and now iterated to the point that the likes of GrubHub can interpose their own food-ordering platform between potential diners and restaurants without either of the two transacting parties agreeing to let them play middle-man. He takes some time to take apart the argument for this as a viable or sensible business proposition for anyone other than vencap investors (and the huckster consultants that ride on them like remoras):

I find this version of how “innovation” now works much more plausible than the one that begins with entrepreneurs solving clients’ problems or meeting the pre-existing needs of sovereign consumers. Rich investors have so much money, so little immediate risk to their well-being, and so few conventionally viable investment vehicles that they now pursue this long-game approach. The rampant inequality that has created their dilemma has also created a new degree of leverage not only over a “broken workforce,” but also consumers, who are sometimes the same workers but in a different frame of mind. The strategy is to pit the induced “consumer expectations” against the workers’ expectation of humane treatment, as if to convince them that you can’t have one without the other. (Give me convenience and give me death!) If that means pitting workers against themselves, so much the better. It’s hard to organize resistance if you are at war with yourself, if your own compromises and contradictions make you feel always already defeated.

It’s good stuff, but it’s not the bit that’s of most immediate interest to me. That bit is a little further down, after some discussion of augmented reality as “a way to check out of the negotiations of what a space is for” that builds on Jodi Dean’s claim that late neoliberalism is giving way to neofeudalism; sez Horning, this

expands the pervasive critique that online platforms operate as feudal lords to user-serfs who have to provide their labor, and not for wages so much as for social existence. Work is no longer delineated by hours of worktime set against leisure; instead work is simply the capture of life lived within enclosed, richly surveilled (maybe call them “augmented”) spaces. The economic power elite are no longer primarily producers but rentiers, extracting fees and labor from the populations trapped on their demesnes.

Not an unfamiliar riff, at least to me. But Horning goes somewhere else with it, somewhere that chimes with thoughts that are starting to accrete around my long-deferred (but slowly spinning-up-again) project of writing a book of infrastructure theory. I’m going to quote at length, not least because I fear that the same digital rot that has done for so many blogs will almost certainly take the newsletters too, given time, and I want to have this material somewhere I can keep it safe:

Tech companies have seized the ground on which economic activity can take place: “Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur,” Dean notes. This allows them to establish immiserating conditions on all parties, including datafication that reinforces the situation: “Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared.”
 
“Land squared” is also a good way of understanding augmented reality: Where there was once just a space, not there is a data-producing enclosure, operating beyond the reach of the space’s legacy owners and amenable to scaling up to tech’s preferred monopolistic levels. Augment spaces with search until the search engines control them all; augment retail or delivery service with Amazon until Amazon dictates terms for them all. The “aggregators” (as business analyst Ben Thompson calls them) will eventually become feudal lords over those who have no choice but to be aggregated and have no means to mount a resistance to the layers being added over them.

It was the use of enclosure that caught my attention, as that’s one of the fundamental principles of infrastructural capture—the making-legible of the world, in James C Scott’s terminology, the swapping of the map for the territory, a story that’s at least as old as the navigations-and-turnpike booms in Great Britain, and (qua Scott again) perhaps as old as infrastructure itself, which is to say as old as the monocultural grain state (which is literally older than history).

There’s a whole thing to be done here about the logic of monopoly as it inheres to spatially-bound networks, and the way in which the functional infrastructural layer of the global communications network (which is to say the actual fibre and cell-towers and backbones and routers and what have you) is effectively inaccessible to most people without going through the (privately-owned and dark-patterned) interface layer of the software that we still, however increasingly inaccurately, think of as “the internet”… but working all that out in a coherent and easily-explained way is why I need to spend time roughing out this book idea, which will be a project for the summer holidays (given that I find myself in the enviably weird position of actually having a significant chunk of paid holiday for the first time in my life). So if that sounds of interest, hold that thought (and/or drop me a line)!

What I want to say now, in a somewhat peripheral argument, is that Horning’s use of the term enclosure is interesting in the context of an argument about neofeudalism, because (as ol’ Karl explained), enclosure was the nail in the original feudalism’s coffin, hammered in by capital itself. I don’t yet consider myself sufficiently adept with dialectical thinking to say this with confidence, but it seems like a very big-circle sort of synthesis for a new form of quantificatory enclosure to emerge as a function of late-late capitalism in such a way that the dynamics of feudalism make a return to the picture, rather than being pushed further away… maybe Dean and Horning are using “neofeudal” in a lighter sense than I’m parsing it, or (far more likely) I’m misparsing both their arguments and the fragments of Marx that I actually feel I understand? Or then again, maybe this is the ultimate internal contradiction of capital—to turn into a system of spatiality remarkably like that which it initially demolished to use as fuel for its transformation and disenchantment of the world?

(I dunno—like I say, more reading of Marx is definitely among the things I need to do to get this book moving, as well as a return to a lot of the material I read during my doctoral research, and far more besides. But I consider it a good omen that, mere days after sitting down and setting out what I want this project to do, little bits of relevant material have started to wing their way over the transom. The thing has a gravity well already… which is good news, but also suggests that it has the potential to eat my life for a good long while. Well, selah—I know what I’m good for now, so I might as well get on and do it.)

archaeology of prestidigitatory production

A short Doug Rushkoff riff that chimes with my extended infrastructure-as-stage-magic metaphor:

The industrialist’s dream was to replace [workers] entirely — with machines. The consumers of early factory goods loved the idea that no human hands were involved in their creation. They marveled at the seamless machined edges and perfectly spaced stitches of Industrial Age products. There was no trace of humans at all.

Even today, Chinese laborers “finish” smartphones by wiping off any fingerprints with a highly toxic solvent proven to shorten the workers’ lives. That’s how valuable it is for consumers to believe their devices have been assembled by magic rather than by the fingers of underpaid and poisoned children. Creating the illusion of no human involvement actually costs human lives.

Provision ex nihilo. The seemingly magical product or service always sells better. Rushkoff points off in the direction of the metamedium, too:

While people once bought products from the people who made them, mass production separates the consumer from the producer, and replaces this human relationship with the brand. So where people used to purchase oats from the miller down the block, now consumers go to the store and buy a box shipped from a thousand miles away. The brand image — in this case, a smiling Quaker — substitutes for the real human relationship, and is carefully designed to appeal to us more than a living person could.

Infrastructure as a metasystem is complicit in its own effacement. Its purpose is not only to enable our prosthetic consumptions, but further to obscure their consequences by displacing them in timespace. It is the veil that capital draped over Gaia, the entangled cause and effect of the social/natural dichotomy.