Tag Archives: capitalism

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.

the monstering

Almost a decade ago, I reviewed a book at Futurismic written by someone I’d gotten to know via the blog circuit. Ryan Oakley is a pretty singular character, and Technicolor Ultra Mall was a pretty singular book, too—furiously angry and cynical about the world that capital had made for us. With hindsight, I wonder if it wasn’t just a bit before its time; things were starting to shift back then, but this was before the genre-fiction culture wars had peaked, and while nakedly anti-capitalist science fiction is relatively commonplace now, it wasn’t then.

Despite the book being fairly well-received (and not just by yours truly), Oakley kinda dropped out of the writing world—partly in response to the three-ring-circus set-up of the publishing world, but also because he’s not someone with a great deal of tolerance for bullshit and pangloss, which (with the benefit of hindsight) was perhaps the defining tonality of the twentyteens. I lost track of him, much to my regret—though looking at my email archives, I see that it was me who broke the chain of replies, for shame.

But it turns out he’s still out there, and blogging up a storm from Korea, where he relocated with his wife a while back. He’s lost none of his fury and sharpness—and in a way that I’m sure he’d be the first to admit is kind of tragic, the SARS-2 crisis has given him something to focus that fury upon. There are lots of calls to the metaphorical barricades going around at the moment, but few are written with this unrepentant fire:

It’s reassuring to think that we can help without sacrifice — that we can not only save our neighbors and the planet but even get new goods while we do so. Our consumerism can be ethical. Our systems present the solution to a crisis, they are not the crisis. If we only make the right purchasing decisions, the market will adapt and we will save the world. The citizen becomes the consumer and the corporate media the parliament in which representation must be achieved. Spending power becomes votes. Philanthropy instead of taxation. A universal basic income instead of a social safety net. A Go Fund Me instead of a go fund a fucking healthcare system. Money can and will save us all. We need more choice, not less.

But our current crisis has given the lie to this thinking. If people could not or would not support their local artists and brands while they had a job, how are they supposed to do it now? What good is a universal basic income that you cannot spend? Are you just supposed to send it direct to your landlord while your other bills come due – you simply acting as a middleman for another massive upwards redistribution of wealth? Is a rich patron the answer to your specific problems? Maybe. But no such patron is coming. Even if they were, they would not fix everyone’s problems. Could they fix any of this? I have some doubts. And money? It’s less important than the necessities it’s supposed to deliver. Many of these must now be delivered without money. Without profit. Food, medicine, tests, and shelter. These must now be treated as public utilities. If they are not given, they must be taken.

What is now being asked of us is to imagine a world beyond capitalism. A world where the market is not expected to solve everything and the voting power of wallets is curtailed. It’s a world with some rules outside of those of the market. A world of fewer choices, not more.

A world of monsters.

[…]

This is a a crisis but it’s also new opportunity. This is the argument for all those systems that were dismissed as senseless luxuries just months ago. And it won’t be easy to build our new world. But it might not be as hard as what you think either. […] Many of these other systems exist and work in variety of countries. You only need to copy and paste. The problem has never been knowing the answers, it’s being acting like you know. Now we know what happens when we don’t.

Come for the union-mutualist political outlook, stay for the withering misanthropy and sarcasm (and the immaculate tailoring). Of all the blogs that have been restarted or rediscovered in recent months, this is perhaps the one I’m most pleased to be reading again.

an almighty crash in the heart of the form

Lovable Marxist granddad David Harvey, getting in there early on neoliberalism’s final Wile E Coyote moment:

… contemporary capitalist economies are 70 or even 80 percent driven by consumerism. Consumer confidence and sentiment has over the past forty years become the key to the mobilization of effective demand and capital has become increasingly demand- and needs-driven. This source of economic energy has not been subject to wild fluctuations (with a few exceptions such as the Icelandic volcanic eruption that blocked trans-Atlantic flights for a couple of weeks). But COVID-19 is underpinning not a wild fluctuation but an almighty crash in the heart of the form of consumerism that dominates in the most affluent countries. The spiral form of endless capital accumulation is collapsing inward from one part of the world to every other. The only thing that can save it is a government funded and inspired mass consumerism conjured out of nothing. This will require socializing the whole of the economy in the United States, for example, without calling it socialism.

When I’ve mentioned this to other people over the last week or so they’ve pointed out—quite rightly—that “there are still other choices They could make”. Of course there are! But few of them, if any, are unlikely to end in anything short of mass deaths and some sort of violent insurrection. As such, the race is likely already on to find a way to rebadge in an acceptable manner the socialization that Harvey predicts, while building in assorted sunset clauses and escape hatches for capital and its minions.

Which means that, for those of us on the other side of the fence, the race is on to block those bolt-holes. This is the Last International, comrades—because there won’t be another chance like this, if indeed there’s any more chances at all.

contra Maslow

I really should have guessed, but I never did know that Ol’ Man Maslow was a management consultant. Sam Haselby at Aeon:

Why was corporate America drawn to [Maslow’s] hierarchy of needs? They liked it because it offered both a grand narrative and master explanation for human psychology in a changing society and a practical guide to managing people. It is precisely in the tension between these two visions of the hierarchy of needs – the reductive diagram and the rich social theory – that the hierarchy of needs acquires its power and its politics.

[…]

It is certainly not coincidental that a motivational theory dubbed the ‘hierarchy’ of needs was adopted in companies ruled by hierarchical organisational charts. The hierarchy of needs could all too easily map onto work hierarchies, with jobs at the top providing more scope for self-actualisation (while also commanding higher paychecks). Uneven distributions of work and workers surround the promise of self-actualised work; devalued work, which we don’t expect to bring satisfaction, and on the flipside, overvalued work, supposed to be all of life.

Haselby goes on to note that Maslow was not the origin of the notion of self-actualised labour, and points to Max Weber. But of course Weber got at least some elements of that notion from Marx… and I imagine someone better read in Marx than me could make a case that he in turn probably picked some of it up from Adam Smith and the other “bourgeois economists”. Which is not to rag on Marx, as such, so much as to point out (as many far smarter people than me have done before — IIRC, this is a major plank of Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason, not that I’ve read the thing myself) that, perhaps inescapably, even the most critical understandings of capitalism end up accepting some of its fundamental assumptions.

This is, at a guess, because those assumptions long preceded capitalism’s emergence.… Weber put it down (at least in part) to the Protestant mind-set, after all, and Nietzsche was perhaps getting at a similar (though broader) point when he spoke of “slave morality”. So perhaps there’s a specifically Christian or even Abrahamic root to the notion of self-actualisation through work… though that’s perhaps a very blinkered and western thing to say, I dunno. Any thoughts out there?

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.