Tag Archives: capitalism

once more, with feeling

Another eviscerating review of Bastani’s Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, this time at Radical Philosophy:

… FALC is an improbable, unhelpful and frankly undesirable blueprint for our collective future: improbable because it glosses over the ecological reality of our desperate global predicament, unhelpful because at a time when we are heading for global ecological collapse FALC advocates more climate-wrecking economic activity, and undesirable because the theory is grounded on a discredited and corrosive vision of human wellbeing.

[…]

There is a telling line in the book when Bastani discusses resource scarcity and writes that ‘the limits of the earth would confine post-capitalism to conditions of abiding scarcity. The realm of freedom would remain out of reach’. ‘Freedom’ in this passage is defined in much the same way in FALC as it is in neoliberalism: through access to opulence and through the capacity to consume. Though Bastani proposes a different model of wealth distribution, the values he shares with the neoliberal paradigm may explain part of the success of his book. There is something deeply conservative about his adherence to the values of materialism and consumerism. These values have participated in driving us to the edge of climatic and ecological collapse, which can only be averted by radically and rapidly transforming society.

It’s very well intended, I’m sure, but left accelerationism is just one more contradiction stacked atop all capitalism’s other contradictions. “What if we could do what Amazon does, but without all the evil bits?” Well, you can’t. The master’s tools cannot nanotechnologically dismantle, detoxify and redesign the master’s house… but, as the old riff goes, the master will gladly sell you iteration after iteration of his toolkit while you try to find a way to use it to do away with him!

To be clear, I’m not sure full-on degrowth is the answer, either — but I’m increasingly convinced that a viable path for civilisational survival is going to have to run closer to degrowth than to FALC; much closer. This cake-and-eat-it crap is a distraction from the hard work of portraying the potential upsides of reconfiguring toward a absolute-minimalist deployment of technological means of resource management.

To paraphrase Giorgos Kallis (very loosely), the point of reneging on capitalism isn’t first and foremost about resource limits, though those are both very real and very relevant; the point it to build a way of life which — due to being less cluttered with consumerist “luxury” and the anxiety, envy and wastage that accompany it — has more space for joy, beauty and reflection. Likewise, I object to FALC on the basis of its economic and scientific shoddiness, but first and foremost because its main promise is that the future will be like the present, only more so.

FALC is to capitalism what methadone is to smack: the promise of quitting without actually having to quit.

Murketing / Agency

Ryan Alexander Diduck at tQ on the demise of R*d B*ll Music Academy:

We no longer recognise brands and commodities as socially constructed, so we want to oversimplify and assign agency to them – agency that is really much more chaotically distributed, structurally prescribed, and historically driven. We tend to say, for instance, that the Walkman changed how we listen to music, rather than saying that home electronics companies changed how we listen to music, or the desire for portable listening devices changed how we listen to music, or an influx of inexpensive Japanese consumer goods into the malls of America changed how we listen to music – all of which are also true.

This interests me because Diduck is approaching a problem with considerable similarities to one of my own long-standing bugbears, namely the absence of a language, or more accurately a narratology, that can successfully portray networked causalities.

It’s recently become apparent to me that, in some respects at least, this is one of the things that Marx was trying to deal with in Capital: the dialectical method is an attempt to describe a highly complex and emergent system in a way that shows that everyone involved is equally complicit in it. Certainly Marx took the side of the worker, and I do as well, but the point is that no one — capitalists or otherwise — sat down and designed capitalism to work the way it does; rather, it has a terrifying bootstrapped autopoiesis all its own.

In my own work, this manifests primarily in what I call the self-effacement of the metasystem: the way in which infrastructure has steadily made its own seeming magicality an intrinsic part of its appeal. Back to Diduck for a bit:

[…] attributing these kinds of immense cultural movements to the purview of products rather than their vast social and industrial dimensions, ascribing them near-mystical abilities to affect real-world changes of enormous magnitude, is the very definition of commodity fetishism. This misidentification of power has disastrous consequences: the subject’s alienation; the transference of fear and desire to things rather than people; and ultimately, the determinist air of it all. As Robin James wrote, “When building capacity and the pleasure in doing so is experienced neither for its own sake nor our own sakes but for the sake of generating profits for the wealthy, the pleasure we feel in resiliently overcoming our prior limitations merely masks our subjection.”

The self-effacement of infrastructure is the expression of the commodity fetish after having metastasised into systems of distribution and provision. The misidentification of power in this case is the assumption that it is the infrastructural system (or, more often, the devices that we connect to it) that provides us with the functions fulfilled by clean water, electricity, etc etc. In fact, it is the world (or what we erroneously refer to as “nature”) which provides these capacities, but that provision has been so successfully mediated — along with our experience of the world, of which that world’s repackaging as “nature” is a crucial and inevitable element — that we think of it as little more than a warehouse through which the essentials of our existence are prepared and dispatched by some unacknowledged but nonetheless vaguely perceived authority.

I’ll probably make a lot of Marxians vary annoyed by saying so, but the problem with Marx’s analysis of capital is that it tends to be read as if capital is the villain of the piece. This isn’t entirely Marx’s fault; he certainly ascribes capital a great deal of agency in the system he describes, and even personifies it a fair amount — in a manner which is very influential on science fiction, as it happens; he was big on the concretised metaphor, which he blagged from the Gothic literature of his own time — but he never makes a moustache-twirling villain of it. Rather, we do that ourselves, because we are trained to a narratology in which villains and heroes stubbornly remain the standard model of linear causality.

Which, you might think, is a long wander away from soft drinks sponsorship in the music industry… though it turns out to be less so than I expected. Diduck talks in his piece about the rise of water scarcity, and the epidemic of addiction to refined sugars, in which the companies which make commodities like R*d B*ll and C*ca-C*la are very much complicit. Of course, they didn’t design capitalism to work the way it does. But they continue to take maximal advantage of the commodity fetish and the self-effacement of systems of provision in order to meet the goal of increasing shareholder value — an autopoiesis of the organism which echoes the autopoiesis of its systemic environment. They’re merely responding to the incentives that surround them.

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not merely to describe the world, but to change it. My worry is that we can never describe it completely enough that our best-intentions attempts to change it won’t have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.

To be clear, though, that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.

A more humane and generous account

Eugene McCarraher at Aeon:

If it’s long past time to deny that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the time has come to renounce the parochial secular dogma of ‘the disenchantment of the world’. The pre-modern belief in the enchantment of the world – modernised in Romanticism, blending scientific rationality with Hopkins’s conviction of God’s worldly grandeur – offers a more humane and generous account of our place in creation, and it provides the most compelling foundation for opposition to capitalism.

Cf. my talk from a few years back: “How does the rabbit end up in the hat? (Or: what transhumanism doesn’t want you to know about infrastructure.)”

The technology/magic overlap is in desperate need of more thorough exploration. Assorted friends’n’colleagues have been doing great work with Haunted Machines, but that’s not quite the same thing that interests me; for me, technology isn’t merely analogous to stage magic, it IS stage magic. Which is fine, so long as everyone understands that the trick is a trick, and that the magic that powers the trick is a function of the plenitude of the world. But the disenchantment of capitalism is reified through infrastructure’s seeming provision ex nihilo: we mistake the plenitude of the world for the beneficence of the metasystem, while the latter is actually engaged in the effacement of the consequences of our consumption.

(Yes, this is just my own particular beachhead in the massed last-ditch assault upon the social/natural dichotomy. Because if you’re going to choose a hill to die on, why choose a crowded one?)

Execution, not policy

From a recovering management consultant:

McKinsey is capitalism distilled. It is global, mobile, flexible, and unabashedly pro-market and pro-management. The firm has an enormous stake in things continuing more or less as they are. Working for all sides, McKinsey’s only allegiance is to capital. As capital’s most effective messenger, McKinsey has done direct harm to the world in ways that, thanks to its lack of final decision-making power, are hard to measure and, thanks to its intense secrecy, are hard to know. The firm’s willingness to work with despotic governments and corrupt business empires is the logical conclusion of seeking profit at all costs. Its advocacy of the primacy of the market has made governments more like businesses and businesses more like vampires. By claiming that they solve the world’s hardest problems, McKinsey shrinks the solution space to only those that preserve the status quo. And it is through this claim that the firm attracts thousands of “the best and the brightest” away from careers that actually serve the public.

Read the whole thing; it goes a long way to explaining how we ended up where we are right now. McKinsey is distinguished more by its size than its style; in the UK, your Capitas and KPMGs and Deloittes and PricewaterhousemotherfuckingCoopers are in much the same business, and its in no small part due to them that we don’t really have a government any more.

The vital thing to note is that it’s not a matter of evil people doing evil things; it’s a matter of mostly well-meaning people being shaped by an ecosystemic prioritisation of profit first and foremost. We have to understand that McKinsey is not a failure of capitalism; as the informant above puts it so neatly, it is rather that McKinsey is capitalism distilled, perfected, exemplified.

Resistance to the colonising present

While I was in Hebden Bridge, I looked out of the window of a coffee shop one Friday at lunchtime, and saw a small crowd of schoolchildren on a climate protest. Sensitized by being in England, it dawned on me that what I was seeing was a rebellion of the natives against the colonizers – the inhabitants of the future marshaling resistance to the colonizing present and to the extraction of the resources that they will need to thrive.

The response of colonizing powers to uprisings has been chillingly consistent. […] It’s hard to stay optimistic when the worst of history is repeating itself, and writing a thousand words about colonial atrocities isn’t exactly helping. I want to be able to say with total confidence that we’re not going to open fire on anyone’s children for standing up against us and demanding a better world, but it’s really, really hard.

Deb Chachra

The notion that the present is colonising — or, in economic terms, externalising — the future is a powerful, if distinctly bleak metaphor. But I think it also contains some cause for hope regarding the ultimate result of this struggle, provided we lean into the metaphor a little further.

If the future stands for the colonised territories, then the past stands for the colonial core, the base of power from which the colonial project is directed and sustained as both project and narrative, through and into the present.

And we are currently seeing a substantive and drastic remapping of the past, a new narrative being pieced together by ever more subaltern voices: the enslaved, the oppressed, the exploited, slowly and painfully dragging into the light the stories of their subjection.

Empires collapse from the center outward. As the hold of capital and whiteness (which are effectively synonyms) over the past is loosened, its ideological supply-lines and recruitment strategies are thus broken and undermined. This would seem a good explanation for the recent surge in overt attempts to reassert this narrative, which previously had relied upon euphemism, effacement, and a veneer of scientism. The old metanarrative is breaking down, and we are living through the ever-more-desperate attempts of its primary benefactors to shore it up.

The hazard of collapse is the absence of a new narrative to take over from the old one. Deb goes on to say that:

… there absolutely is a path through to a better future for everyone, one that’s sustainable and resilient and equitable. But we have to learn to see it, to stay focused on it, and to follow it down. That’s the work.

That IS the work. It is all of our work — not just to tear down, but to replace. This holds true for physical systems as well as social ones — which, as I hope you know by now, are so entangled as to be inseparable.

Network is a verb. A network is a becoming, a thing that happens — a performance taking place upon and across a physical substrate. The engineering of the latter is part of the poetry of the former, and vice versa.