Monthly Archives: May 2011

Commons as contentless

From an essay by Evan Calder Williams called “A Fire to the Commons,” a critique of (among other things) “the thought that ‘the commons’ constitute a rupture in the reproduction and circulation of value (that is, that they are disruptive or ‘unthinkable’ for capital)”.

The crucial point is that even that which can’t be capital isn’t so because of an essence or property of its own, because of a fundamentally “uncapitalizable” content: if it had anything so unique, capital would be sure to find a way to make use of it. It is what simply doesn’t compute in this relation, the material of the contradiction thrown to the side, the slag of the dialectic, what Adorno would call the “non-identical.”

The implication seems to be that “commons” are not an alternative to capital but are already implicated in reproducing capital as a social relation, in letting capitalism’s organization of work and efficiency and precarity and so on persist. It doesn’t do away with the abstractions involved with a capitalistic conception of work. So there is no going backward to pre-capitalist commons; instead, we must go through the different sort of common that capitalism generates — that of “general equivalence” without specific content: “The full subsumption of experience to the law of equivalence, accelerated all the more during a period of the ‘socialization of labor,’ therefore produces with it a hollow identity that defines man, an echo chamber of value with itself.” Subjectivity is conditioned as “labor capacity” — we have in common the reduction to flexible employability, blank potentiality, something analogous to floating signifers.

What is common across us, the reserve of common ground to which those “without-reserves” could turn, the site on which the universal class begins, is nothing but the rendering of all things as formally common to each other (belonging to none, able to be endlessly circulated and reproduced) and of ourselves as the grounding unit of that dissolution of particular content.

I’m still not sure what to make of this, but for some reason it was bound up in my mind with critiques of meritocracy and various versions of the “crisis in value.” The “value” of capital is not in its objective usefulness but in the social relations in reproduces — the division of society’s resources it sanctions. It enables an organization of work as exploitation under the ideology that not nearly as much would get done otherwise.

China and industrial policy

From this post at Naked Capitalism, about a paper (pdf) by Andrew Haldane and Richard Davies of the Bank of England. They find that myopic short-term investing is worsening, with “excessive discounting” over longer time frames. Yves Smith notes, “The result is that projects with long-term payback, beyond the 30 to 35 year timeframe, are treated as having no value. No wonder we don’t fund basic science, infrastructure, or climate change related projects.”

Then she adds this point about China:

The irony is that China, with its command economy, is more willing to make long-term investments than capitalist economics which rely on the supposedly superior wisdom of having the capital markets play a dominant role in the pricing of risk funding. Now I’m of the school that China will likely have a bad stumble; there’s ample evidence that its unprecedented level of investment, which is fueled by lending, is scoring lower and lower returns. But the West’s short-sightedness increases the odds that this massive gamble might work out pretty well by moving into the type of projects that myopic capitalists are unwilling to take on.

Don’t have much to say about this but found it interesting. Presumably the cold war prevented this dynamic from coming into being back when the Soviets were running a massive command economy; China also amasses western capital for command-directed investment from having a sector that caters to short-termism in the west by offering cheap labor (at least I suspect those are connected, but I lack the time and knowledge to articulate it right now). Western consumerism undermines Chinese infrastructure, while Chinese consumerism is deliberately restrained by policy and ideology. Politician in the US already regard Chinese prosperity as inherently threatening to American interests. How long can this go on before a Cold War dynamic re-emerges in earnest?

Reality TV and social media

I was excited to see that Kelefa Sanneh’s review article on Reality TV books in the New Yorker cites Mark Andrejevic, whose work I had just been reading recently. Sanneh cites Andrejevic’s book Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched (which you can find on aaaaarg.org if you are so inclined) and quotes this passage:

The Illinois housewife who agrees to move into a house where her every move can be watched by millions of strangers to compete for a cash prize exhibits more than an incidental similarity (albeit on a different scale) to the computer user who allows Yahoo to monitor her web-browsing habits in exchange for access to a free e-mail account.

This is, of course, true of social-networking sites as well. His point is that reality TV is entertainment suited for a lateral-surveillance society in which the people’s conduct in everyday life can be transformed into a valuable source of innovation and marketing data.

Work and leisure are thus no longer separable, much like reality and the fakery of mediated entertainment. Sanneh summarizes:

Similarly, the “Real Housewives” shows, despite the name, feature very few actual housewives and lots of working women (not all wives or mothers), every one of them eager to sacrifice time, not to mention privacy, for a small payment and a less small portion of notoriety. This is the opposite of leisure, and it may also be a sign of the end of leisure — the end, that is, of our ability to spend long stretches happily engaged in non-work.

We can’t avoid being conscious of how what we are doing might be rebroadcast, and that it might be valuable or damaging to our reputation in some measurable way. So must professionalize increasing amounts of our everyday life, in the sense of being reflexive about how it might be consumed by others once it’s mediated.

I thought Sanneh went astray when asserting that “There is no longer any need for surveillance,” unless the point is that we’ve become completely accustomed to living in a surveilence society and don’t need it dramatized and naturalized on TV anymore.

Paolo Virno’s "Notes on the ‘General Intellect’ "

In Marxism Beyond Marxism, Saree Makdisi, Cesare Casarino, Rebecca Karl, Eds.

Virno ruminates over the significance of Marx’s Fragment on Machines, from Grundrisse. He focuses on the notion of “general intellect” and what that implies about the productivity inherent in subjectivation. The general intellect, or mass intellectuality, Virno writes, can be found “in different functions within labor, but above all at the level of metropolitan habits, in linguistic usages, in cultural consumption.” Sounds like he is talking about creative-class hipsters to me, regarding them as paradigmatic for all of the laboring class as old-school “hard labor” moves offshore. “Nonetheless,” he continues, “it is precisely when production no longer seems to offer an identity that it projects itself onto each and every aspect of experience, that it beats into submission linguistic abilities, ethical propensities, and the nuances of subjectivity.” So thanks to the general intellect’s role in production, you can’t use language (or do anything else in “everyday life” or “at leisure”) without it being a kind of expropriatable labor. The general intellect “constitutes the fundamental component of contemporary capitalist accumulation” — presumably in the sense of generating marketable data, commodified meanings, experiences, affects, enriched by contextual links supplied by individual consumers.

I don’t quite follow the argument, but he argues that the general intellect constitutes a different “real abstraction” from the ones that previously dominated capitalism, namely money, which instantiates a principle of commensurability. As the general intellect comes to govern production, the equivalence principle is lost: “it prevents any unified representation of the productive social process; it capsizes the very foundations of political representation.” This prompts, according to Virno, contemporary cynicism, which “relinquishes right away the search for an intersubjective foundation to its praxis, just as it also relinquishes the demand for a common criterion of moral evaluation.” I think what he is getting at here is the way individual identity in its specificity has become productive, and this undermines the formation of a disgruntled class who can agitate for change in work conditions. Instead everyone is isolated in their particularity and goes along with existing work conditions in a sort of bad faith. But that is honestly just a guess. The idea makes more sense to me if I think about market anonymity and consumption rather than equivalence of productive labor. (Everything consumed is attached to a unique and discrete individual identity and used to place that individual within social relations.)

This is what strikes me as the key passage:

The collapse of the principle of equivalence, which is so intimately linked to exchange and the commodity form, manifests itself in the behavior of the cynic as a renunciation “without sorrow” of the possibility of equality to the very point that self-affirmation will take place precisely through the multiplying and making fluid of hierarchies and inequalities.

That is, cynics accept as inevitable the desperate scramble for a status hierarchy they can dominate and embrace social forms that mobilize hierarchies and offer new grounds in which to compete with other isolated individuals in zero-sum status games. The general intellect is the sum of these competitions, as opposed to some manifestation of a collective spirit through a collectivized subject. In other words the prevalence of the general intellect in late capitalism doesn’t imply that it is producing a collective subject that will overthrow it. Worse, under this general condition, we form our identities precisely to be competitive; our subjectivity is conditioned by a need to dominate a niche. (Kind of like picking a specialization in graduate school.) We “affirm” ourselves through inequality, which makes political aspirations of reducing inequality always already hypocritical or at least open to suspicion. The burden of proof is never on the cynics.

Responsibilization

Not the most euphonious word, but gets at a key aspect of neoliberal subjectivity — getting people to recognize risk throughout everyday life and assume responsibility for managing it themselves, without help from the state, employers, or the community, but entirely by their own wiles through the help of the market (consumer purchasing power and advertising-assisted savviness) and technology. Mark Andrejevic, in his paper “The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk, and Governance” (pdf), brings it together in the conclusion (after discussing some now outdated approaches to peer-to-peer surveillance that have been entirely supplanted by social media and its cult of positivity):

The dissemination of surveillance tools and practices has to be read alongside a climate of generalized, redoubled risk. The conjunction of risk and responsibility derives from another intersection: that of reflexive skepticism with the participatory promise of the market — the injunction not to trust in discredited social institutions and traditional practices, but to take matters into one’s own hands through the mechanism that has helped corrode them. Management of family, optimization of personal relationships, and maximization of one’s own productivity are modeled on the enterprise model: maximized outcomes, enhance productivity, reduce risk. The market is promulgated as the anti-institutional institution, a big Other that relies neither on faith or tradition, but solely on the intersection and exchange of self-interest. As such, it inoculates itself against savvy critique, conceding before the fact the subterranean agendas revealed by every deconstructive gesture.

The point is that social media allows us to spy on each other, and thus fits the sort of DIY aspect of neoliberal subjectivity — the part that also fits with the “personal brand” (the enterprise model) and with Žižek’s idea of lost “symbolic efficiency” (the loss of trust in communication because of its decontextualization, etc.) and the prevalence of cynicism as an everyday affect, as a street-smart wisdom that thinks it sees through the culture but actually serves it and suits it perfectly. We rely on our ability to get to the bottom of things and think that serves us better than regulation, collectivity, community standards being enforced, etc. The pseudo-community of social media allows us to feel we can draw on a huge wealth of information while participating in social life at our own convenience, controlling it to our advantage as a way of managing risk without having to make any compromises or sacrifices to uphold/participate in communal values.