Tag Archives: capitalism

accumulations (three different ones)

So much chewy material in this genuine monster of an Evgeny Morozov essay at New Left Review. Absorbing it fully would likely take a number of re-reads, not to mention a greater familiarity with the literatures and debates he’s navigating here; as such, to the only precis I can offer is Morozov’s own, from near the end of the piece:

The ultimate irony here is that the best evidence that ‘accumulation via innovation’ is—like capitalism itself—still very much alive, can be found in the same technology sector that Durand writes off as feudalist and rentierist. We can see as much when we abandon the overdetermined macro-narratives of these analytical frameworks—be it Harvey’s ‘neoliberalism’ as a political project or Vercellone’s ‘cognitive capitalism’. Thinking of technology firms the way Marx would have likely thought about them—that is, as capitalist producers—surely yields better results.

But the bit I wanted to clip here for my own (and I suppose rather narrower) uses is this:

… if the ‘political’ was so instrumental to the constitution of the ‘economic’, one might as well ask just what is gained by presenting capitalism as a system that keeps the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’ apart? That capitalists and their ideologues talk that way is one thing; the extent to which this is an accurate description of what actually occurs under capitalism—the thesis of Woods’s article—is another. Here one is reminded of Bruno Latour’s quip that modernity speaks with a forked tongue: it says that science and society are poles apart—but this strategic confusion is precisely what allows it to hybridize them so productively. It may be that the story of the political and the economic under capitalism is very similar.

My ears always prick up when someone invokes Oncle Bruno—naturellement!—but that’s an analogy which could come in very handy, even (if not particularly) when working with Latour’s own writings.

In other news, this week I’m waving-not-drowning (or so I hope) in the riptides of Swedish academia’s Eastertide grant application season, and fretting over poor L____’s being holed up in a mid-tier Manchester hotel for the next six days, thanks to her having started to exhibit C19 symptoms on the first day of a conference. She’ll be fine, I’m sure, but of all the places to ride out a nasty virus, that’s pretty low on the list.

a world where flesh and machine are in tension: re-reconsidering cyberpunk

Found myself nodding appreciatively at this re-reassessment of cyberpunk by Lincoln Michel:

Everyone has their own definitions of genres, but to me the essence of cyberpunk is not tied to the 1980s visual trappings that have defined it in video games and film. Cyberpunk isn’t merely neon signs or street toughs with high-tech leather jackets (or its problematic “Japan panic” legacy.) For me, the core of cyberpunk is first as science fiction that fundamentally recoils at the growing power of corporations and unchecked capitalism. That, as Fredric Jameson once said, cyberpunk is the “supreme literary expression…of late capitalism itself.” Secondly, that it is a genre that understands that technology is not clean. Technology is never implemented in smooth and even ways—it is always messy, always unequally accessed. Always (in our world) in service of power and systems.

“The street finds its own use for things,” yeah—the centrality (and deep truth) of that element often seems to be lost in a lot of the trashings of the genre that have been thrown around recently. Though by no means all of them: Doctorow’s take on k-punk as Luddite lit is typically idiosyncratic, and Madeline Ashby, with the eye of a novelist who is also a practising critical futurist, identifies the fundamental limitations of of the paleofutures—now four decades old—that underpin the genre as most commonly practised.

This is kind of Michel’s point, too, and he gets there by returning to the source and tracing the journey from the meat to the virtual:

Of course, thinking about the effects of technology on the human form is not new to cyberpunk. All genres have tendrils of influences and precedents that stretch back in time, but it seems fair to pick William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer as ground zero. Gibson’s novel towers over the genre as surely as the Mount Doom of Tolkien rises above the realm of epic fantasy. And Gibson didn’t forget the body. From the first page of Neuromancer we are in a world where flesh and machine are in tension. We begin in a crowded bar filled with addicts and a bartender with a “prosthetic arm jerking monotonously…his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.” Our hero, Case, is suffering pain from his damaged nervous system. He has fallen “into the prison of his own flesh” without being able to access the matrix of cyberspace. Cyberspace is how Case escapes from the world of flesh. The meatspace.

Other ’80s works like Akira, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Donna Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto” were even more concerned with the mingling of the human form with technology. But by the 1990s it seems the genre—in the US and UK at least—focused ever more on the virtual realm, often in a giddy way. In the ’90s, the web was the “information superhighway” where anyone could be what they wanted unrelated to the real world. Later cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s satirical Snow Crash built on this idea of escaping into cyberspace, imagining a cyberspace that is a fantasy video game world. Escapism within escapism. Even the virtual representations of bodies were incorporeal.

Michel’s own approach is to look not at information technology, which he has consciously made banal in his own work, and to focus instead on biotechnology, with the human body once again the focus of the struggle between street and boardroom. But as he notes, cyberpunk, in its slow recuperation as a nostalgic aesthetic, went on to fetishize that which it once critiqued, and to abandon embodiment as the site of struggle.

Cyberpunk is typically thought of as a dystopian genre. But what had begun as a cautionary tale became a celebration. Isn’t all of this really damn cool? Wouldn’t you like nothing more than to be a hacker god swinging swords and dodging bullets free from your corporeal form?! As cyberpunk went further down this path, the body disappeared more and more. At the same time, the fundamental critique seemed to evaporate. Dystopian elements were still tacked on, but in the background like neon holograms. For visual style, not warning. Meanwhile real-world dystopian tech companies and right-wing movements felt free to pluck cyberpunk language (“red pill,” “metaverse,” etc.) for themselves. The end of this cyberpunk path is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the most exciting thing in the universe is to play a video game populated with corporate trademarks.

Top marks for summing up succinctly why even just plot summaries of Cline’s work have seemed nauseatingly unappealing to me.

I would note, though, that—for all the other flaws they might be argued to have—Gibson’s most recent novels are still very much focussed on embodiment as the site of struggle; The Peripheral is totally about that conflict, and the way it is shaped by political, financial and even temporal power.. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, Gibson recognised the merging of cyber- and meat-space quite early; it’s arguably the central idea of the Bigend trilogy, in which one character notes in passing that (and I paraphrase) “cyberspace has everted”.

Of course, as Michel says at the start, everyone has their own definition of any given genre, and it may be that the discourse around cyberpunk will get stuck on the co-opted late-phase fantasy-virtuality definition for years to come. Mostly it’s reassuring to see someone else respond to that definitional shift in much the same way I have in the last decade or so.

But as someone from the heavy rock side of the musical divide—and there’s a generic cluster that is very much in the cultural doldrums right now, reflexively associated with rockism, Boomers, and the worst-case Durstian cliches of the nu-metal era, even as the former underdog of hip-hop shambles ever further into its own bloated and drug-addled stadium-show hegemony—I’m aware that genres never die, they just shrink to a point where those who’ve always seen something to love in them can go off and make something new out of that discarded form or style.

Michel mentions Maughan and Newitz as both having found ways to return to the political (rather than simply aesthetic) heart of cyberpunk, and his own novel sounds interesting enough that I’ll be ordering myself a copy. The flame is still alight.

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).