Wednesday, April 28, 2010
“Today, the consequences of the conflict between programming institutions and programming industries is blindingly clear: teaching institutions are crumbling, and a systematic symbolic misery reigns instead and in the place of culture, despite the fact that these institutions and this culture exist precisely in order to form new generations of non-inhuman beings. The result is a psychological and social disaster whose overriding consequence is the liquidation of our cognitive faculty itself, and its replacement by informational dexterity.” Stripped of its formidable theoretical framework, the argument of Taking Care of Youth and the Generations is rather conventional. Stiegler argues that written culture made possible the maturation of critical intelligence, the development of individuality, and the cohesion of society, whereas contemporary media industries “capture” attention and produce individuals who are merely immature, uncritical consumer types. Adult intelligence and a responsible society therefore need to be fought for through regulation of the media and the protection and transformation of educational institutions. Stiegler is aware that this position may seem rather reactionary (one can imagine a conservative author publishing a similar argument under the same title), but two theoretical resources go a long way toward making it palatable. First, Stiegler takes from Derrida a deconstructed version of Husserl’s account of the origin of geometry (Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and The Origin of Geometry as well as Derrida’s introduction to the latter are essential reading for grasping Stiegler’s linkage of writing and knowledge). Rather than regarding tradition as the repetition of the same, Stiegler argues that writing makes possible intellectual innovation and a process of communitization through the infinite, différant reactivation of meaning. Second, Stiegler relies on Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation to show how educational institutions that seem to be aimed at norms and conformity are actually essential for the production of singularities. Stiegler is able to argue for things like Freudian primary identification and a relatively traditional public education program because individuation occurs only alongside the individuation of others and is an ongoing process that does not result in a completed, reified individual. The starting point for Stiegler’s reflections on education is a new law in France that allows minors to be tried as adults. Stiegler argues that this law doesn’t reflect the extension of adult responsibility to more of society; it instead signals the fact that today there is hardly any such thing as adult responsibility. The law makes evident the erasure of any distinction between minors and adults, of any sense that it is the responsibility of adults to make sure that the young are able to learn responsibility. At the same time, contemporary consumer culture stratifies society into different target groups so that “the segment designated ‘minors’ becomes prescriptive of the consumption habits of the segment that is ostensibly adult – but is in fact infantilized.” Contemporary industries, such as television stations aimed at children, exploit attention and drive society toward “organized mass regression, cultural minoritization, and . . . the imposing of premature maturation.” Through marketing and the mass media, industries defeat the traditional systems of care that work through the media of “symbolic regimes and their bequeathed transindividual significations, transferred as education, from adults ancestors to their minor descendants.” Today, “systems of sliced and segmented audience capture . . . replace the psychic apparatus that should be constructing both ego and id . . . with a psychotechnical apparatus that controls attention yet no longer deals with [socially constituted] desire but rather with drives,” drives that are increasingly unleashed in violent forms. This “short-circuiting” of the links between generations blocks the formation of critical consciousness and reduces the psyche to a mere brain. Contemporary psychotechnologies assault the plasticity of the brain, subjecting it to predictable and controllable neurological limits. These psychotechnologies promote what Katherine Hayles calls “hyperattention,” a kind of channel surfing “neurological vigilance” which in reality is a consequence of a “hypersolicitation” of attention that ends up destroying attention even as it literally rewires the synaptogenesis of children’s brains. Particularly powerful are the industries devoted to the production of audiovisual objects that capture attention by subordinating the time of consciousness to the mechanical time of psychotechnology. The growth of psychotechnologies reflects not some cultural decadence but rather the historical development of capitalism. By the early years of the 20th century the forces of production had grown to such a great level that the primary problem became the limits of consumption. Over the century, marketing and service industries were invented to capture attention and to channel consumer libido, but the result today is the undermining of the foundations of attention and libido. Echoing Franco Berardi’s arguments about the gap between cyberspace and cybertime, Stiegler claims, “Businesses must now be attention-capture mechanisms for all their products and means of distribution, because only a ‘limited amount of attention is available.’” But in viciously competing for and manipulating attention, psychotechnologies destroy the forms of attention and responsibility needed for any long-term investment, of everything from libido to money. Financial speculation more interested in quick profits than the development of productive capabilities compounds the problem. “In privileging short-term, immediate satisfaction over investment, this drive-oriented organization of speculative capitalism also destroys all the forms of individual investment in a responsible consciousness.” “Global attention deficit disorder,” “cognitive overflow syndrome,” and a widespread weakening of libido signal the limits of the current capitalist regime. Stiegler of course does not suggest that psychotechnologies should simply be rejected. As a pharmakon, tertiary memories such as the modern media can be a poison or a medicine, and they therefore require what Stiegler calls a “therapeutic” response. Stiegler argues that there is no way to retreat from this new age of différance, but his rather abstract prescriptions are clearly based on his appreciation of the golden era of writing. In the second volume of Technics & Time, Stiegler argued that writing makes possible différant identity, repetition with a difference, which is constitutive of knowledge. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations develops this notion of knowledge and makes explicit its ties to Enlightenment ideals. Stiegler takes up Kant’s “battle for intelligence” and adopts his “motto of enlightenment”: “Dare to know!” He supports Kant’s understanding of critical intelligence as mature responsibility, but emphasizes the role writing historically played in the public airing and criticism of ideas. Stiegler’s argument in this section strongly resembles Habermas’ idealized description of the bourgeois public sphere, though Stiegler does not engage here with Habermas. The implementation of “mandatory public education” was an important historical event because schools produce the intergenerational primary identification and the formation of attention that are necessary for the processes of individuation associated with writing. By teaching disciplines, education provides access to ideal objects, in the Husserlian sense, as a projected consistence of an infinite future to come. In order to defend this view of education, Stiegler undertakes a substantial critique of Foucault. Foucault famously included the school as one of modern society’s disciplinary institutions in which individual bodies are normalized. Stiegler is particularly disturbed by the image that has been popular since the 1970s of the teacher as a “prison guard,” and adds that such nihilistic beliefs fail to comprehend the contradictory nature of educational institutions. Stiegler argues that Foucault lays out one “tendency” of the technologies of knowledge, but neglects other tendencies. That is, “he never explores the specific question of the school among the disciplinary institutions.” As Friedrich Kittler has noted for different reasons, Foucault, despite his fixation on discourse and the archive, neglects the materiality of the book and the acquisition of literacy. Foucault therefore misses the relation of education to systems of care and individuation. For Stiegler, the bodies disciplined by schools are not reduced to individual norms but rather are the foundation for the process of individuation. Disciplines taught at schools orient students toward concepts, infinite knowledge to come, not merely norms. Because Foucault focuses too much on the disciplining of bodies and ignores the development of psychotechnologies, his account of biopolitics misses the fact that what Stiegler calls psychopolitics has become dominant. Stiegler asserts, “today the question of biopower is less one of ‘utilizing the population’ for production than of establishing markets for consumption.” Stiegler concludes, “In the strict sense that the truly educated learn to take care of themselves and thus of others, in taking care of objects of knowledge they have been given, knowledge by which they can and must take care of the world, this politics of care called ‘national education’ . . . this politics of care-through-instruction, evolving in the twentieth century into higher education and the politics of research, the pillar of modern democratic, industrial society, is in fact a metacare that, as it were, shapes care in modern society in the strongest sense – as the taking of noetic action that is politically and economically organized. It is thus on a completely different plane from the biopolitics emerging as the administration of what Foucault describes as biopower.”
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Friedrich Kittler is undoubtedly the most important media theoretician since McLuhan. His peculiar brand of reductive media determinism is an essential reference for most of the major figures in media studies today, though, admittedly, he is brought up often only to be summarily dismissed (for examples of the wide range of responses, check out the essays in the excellent new Critical Terms for Media Studies, edited by W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark Hansen). Unfortunately, Optical Media consists of lectures from 1999 and does not contain enough that will be new (that is, will be information in the technical sense) to those who have read his other translated works. And after the rewarding first section of the book, which deals with painting and the prehistory of optical media, Kittler rushes through a history of photography, film, and television that will be familiar ground to many. But these are meant to be introductory lectures, and I imagine they work quite well on that level. In these lectures, Kittler uses Shannon’s information theory to rewrite media history as a series of specific technical problems and solutions. In particular, he traces the discontinuous historical development of technologies and techniques aimed at sending, receiving, processing, and storing images. This history begins with linear perspective and the camera obscura and ends with all media converging on the digital computer. Kittler rejects as “cultural studies gossip” all reference to the cultural and economic contingencies that influence media history. He argues, “technical innovations – following the model of military escalations – only refer and answer to each other, and the end result of this proprietary development, which progresses completely independent of individual or even collective bodies of people, is an overwhelming impact on senses and organs in general.” As in his other works, the closest he comes to acknowledging the social construction of technologies is his assumption that new technologies are merely “byproducts,” misappropriations even, of military research. After a theoretical introduction, the book begins by trying “to tackle the long prehistory of contemporary optical media, in which images were actually painted but could neither be stored nor transmitted, let alone move.” In information theoretical terms, the camera obscura was a key early device for “receiving” images. Kittler writes, “The camera obscura, to use Shannon’s rigorous terms, works as a noise filter: the small hole through which the rays emanating from all light sources are forced . . . also blocks the scattered lights that are otherwise omnipresent and thus makes the reflection sharp.” The “camera obscura combines for the first time the optical transmission of information with the optical storage of information; the former function is already fully automatic, whereas the latter is still manual.” By the latter claim Kittler means that the human hand was still needed to draw or paint the image where it was projected. Kittler speculates on Brunelleschi’s use of the camera obscura and argues that Brunelleschi’s comparison of the human eye to the camera obscura introduced the revolutionary idea of “automatic image analysis.” That is, “through this analogy the eye itself became operationalizable, which means, as always, replaceable.” The invention of the printing press made it easy to reproduce written information. Improvements in woodcutting techniques allowed images also to be reproduced next to text in books. According to Kittler, this combination of reproducible words and images was enormously important because it became the media-technical foundation of future innovation: “Print technology made the autodidact possible – that is the point upon which everything depends. The book became a medium in which technical innovations as such could take place. They could be stored, shared, and even advanced with the help of technical drawings in the text. . . . It can concisely be said that Gutenberg’s letterpress made the techniques that superseded it – from photography to the computer – possible in the first place. It was the unique medium that set other media free.” He adds that linear perspective and the camera obscura played an important role in this by making the original drawings accurate. Kittler then turns to the lanterna magica, a projection device that in many ways seems to function as the inversion of the camera obscura. He traces the bizarre history of the device’s function in religious propaganda during the Counter-Reformation. Combating the Reformation’s reliance on the printed word, the Jesuits practiced a form of reading that attempted to create a “theater of illusions” (particularly those of hell, as is clear from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist). Kittler claims that what the Jesuits aimed for could be widely realized only through the lanterna magica, arguing, “thanks to the lanterna magica the solitary hallucination of the founder of the Jesuit Order, who once concentrated all his given senses on imagining the agonies of hell, became technologically simulated for the masses.” The lanterna magica was incorporated into the theater as well as used by con men. But as the Jesuit example demonstrates, the written word could compete as a “quasi-optical medium” with the lanterna magica. Repeating the argument of his Discourse Networks, Kittler shows how romantic literature succeed in making optical hallucination its primary function. “It is simply written that German romanticism itself inherited the successful legacy of all Renaissance camera obscuras and all baroque lanterna magicas. This triumph came at a heavy price though – namely, the fact that it halted media research in Germany for almost half a century because the historically awakened desire for images already appeared to be fulfilled in the imaginary world of the readers’ souls.” Kittler uses information theory to explain what sets apart the optical media of the 19th century from these “prehistorical” examples. He argues, “The camera obscura was one of the first technologies for receiving images, and the lanterna magica was one of the first technologies for sending images. The only thing that absolutely did not exist before the development of photography was a technology for storing images, which would allow images to be transmitted across space and time and then sent again to another point in space and time. For photography to emerge, it therefore needed an adequate channel. Romantic literature was founded on the systematic exploitation of this channel’s non-existence.” Despite his provocative overstatements and curious examples, Kittler from this point on shifts into a standard history of modern media, a story which runs from Daguerre to Muybridge to Marey to Edison’s kinetoscope to sound film to color film to television. He of course concludes with the computer, upon which all media have converged. The computer reduces all media to the same digital code, so “There are no longer any differences between individual media or sensory fields.” As a result, “visible optics must disappear into a black hole of circuits at the end of these lectures on optical media.”
Sunday, April 11, 2010
The third volume of Castoriadis’s Political and Social Writings covers the longest period, 1961-79, and traces the movement of his thought beyond the framework originally formulated by Socialisme ou Barbarie and toward the position he would fully set forth in The Imaginary Institution of Society. The previous volumes relentlessly attacked Stalinist Russia, the bureaucratized socialist parties, and the reformist trade unions. This volume begins by completely breaking with classical Marxism, and especially with its assumptions about the inevitability of the socialist revolution. Castoriadis explains, “Marxism remains for us an unequaled source of theoretical inspiration, but it ceased to be a living theory forty years ago.” The Socialisme ou Barbarie group itself dissolved in 1967 because, Castoriadis argues, its theoretical work was no longer tied to real political activity and its journal contributed to would-be intellectuals becoming “passive consumers of ideas.” The group therefore played no unified or central role in the events of May ’68, which, ironically, in many ways affirmed and advanced the ideas the group had set forth over the previous two decades. Castoriadis offers an ambivalent response to the movement of May’ 68 in “The Anticipated Revolution,” an article composed at the end of that month. He begins by praising the movement, and particularly the students, for recognizing and unleashing on an everyday level the creative potential of society. The movement also “dissolves away the mystifying notion of a well-organized, well-oiled, good society, where only a few marginal problems remain and where radical conflict no longer exists.” It offers a condensed political education, so that “In a few days, twenty-year-old youths are gaining an understanding and a political wisdom that sincere revolutionaries have not yet achieved after thirty years as militant activists.” But Castoriadis faults the movement for not developing a form adequate to its potential. He writes, “One can take the ‘best’ of all the extant tiny groups, multiple its membership a thousandfold, and still have nothing capable of rising to the exigencies and the spirit of the present situation.” Part of this failure is due to the difficulty of expanding the student movement to the level of society. Castoriadis argues that the student movement “has shown an admirable tactical sense, using methods of action that cannot at present be transposed, as such, onto the scale of society as a whole.” He adds, “It has short-circuited the most difficult organizational problems because it acted in professionally and locally concentrated and unified collectivities. And now it is obliged to confront the heterogeneity and diversity of the society and the nation.” As it opens itself to a wider population, the student movement confronts the possibility of cooptation from all sides. Castoriadis writes, “From early on, many revolutionary students have been worried by the danger that the movement will be ‘coopted’ by the old forces.” But he responds, “Someone who is afraid of cooptation has already been coopted. . . . The deepest reaches of his mind have been coopted, for there he seeks guarantees against being coopted, and thus he has already been caught in the trap of reactionary ideology: the search for an anticooptation talisman or fetishistic magic charm. There is no guarantee against cooptation; in a sense, everything can be coopted, and everything is one day or another.” But, “We should also point out . . . that the coopters coopt only corpses.” A living, autonomous movement need not worry, since “Everything can be coopted – save one thing: our own reflective, critical, autonomous activity.” Castoriadis continues, the “movement must maintain and enlarge its openness as far as possible. Openness, however, is not and can never be absolute openness. Absolute openness is nothingness – that is to say, it is immediately absolute closure. Openness is that which constantly displaces and transforms its own terms and even its own field, but can exist only if, at each instant, it leans on a provisional organization of the field.” Although the movement must reject the microbureaucracies of the left such as the Maoists and the Trots, some level of organization and organized activity and communication is necessary: “One cannot overcome bureaucratic organization by refusing all organization, nor the sterile rigidity of platforms and programs by refusing all definition of objectives and means, nor the sclerosis of dead dogmas by condemning true theoretical reflection.” These questions lead Castoriadis to the problems of demands and reformism. He begins: “Are the demands put forward concerning the universities ‘minimum’ or ‘maximum,’ ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’? In a sense, they may seem ‘revolutionary’ according to the terms of traditional language, since they could not be achieved without an overthrow of the social system (you cannot build ‘socialism in one university’). In other people’s eyes, they appear ‘reformist’ precisely because they seem to concern the university alone, and because one can easily conceive their being realized in a watered-down, coopted form, the better to keep present-day society functioning. . . . In this case, however, it is this very distinction that is false. The positive and underlying meaning of these demands lies elsewhere: being partially applicable within the framework of the existing system of rule, they make it possible to put the system constantly into question.” In other words, through demands “The self-management of the University can and should become an unhealable wound on the flanks of the bureaucratic system.”
Extending his reach beyond management theory, Drucker explores in this book four “discontinuities” - new technologies, globalization, institutional pluralism, and knowledge work – that were transforming American society at the end of the 1960s. Drucker presciently identifies (albeit in an uncritical manner) many of the forces that in the 1970s would lead to post-Fordism and neoliberalism. Starting with the question of technology, he argues that many of the “aging ‘modern’ industries” that had driven the economy for the first half of the 20th century were built around technologies, such as steel production and the automobile, that were invented before World War I. He maintains that these industries are no longer vital sources of economic development, though they remain important for the core of the economy. A wave of new technologies, including the computer and plastics, are creating new industries and economic opportunities. In the new “knowledge economy,” the computer has been exceptionally important because “information is energy for mind work.” He claims, “The new emerging industries . . . embody a new economic reality: knowledge has become the central economic resource. The systematic acquisition of knowledge . . . has replaced experience . . . as the foundation for productive capacity and performance.” These new industries call for a new entrepreneur, one capable of creating an innovative organization that can take advantage of the dynamics of technological change and the potential of knowledge. As corporations became increasingly bureaucratized over the first half of the 20th century, the manager came to replace the entrepreneurial owner-operator. Drucker calls for a revival of entrepreneurship, but in a form capable of acting through the new organizational structures. He claims, “The businessman will have to acquire a number of new abilities, all of them entrepreneurial in nature, but all of them to be exercised in and through a managerial, and usually a fairly large and complex, organization.” The new entrepreneur faces the difficult task of creating a firm flexible enough to keep up with the new economy: “Businessmen will have to learn to build and manage an innovative organization. They will have to learn to build and manage a human group that is capable of anticipating the new, capable of converting its vision into technology, products and process, and willing and able to accept the new.” Of course the government must not interfere with flexibility in the economy, including the movement of capital and workers. Drucker argues, “In a period of rapid change in which new industries emerge as the new dynamic forces, government policy must, above all, not prevent or inhibit the mobility of productive resources.” Moving on to the second discontinuity, Drucker’s next section expands its focus to the international economy and analyzes the emergence of a global “shopping mall” in which all countries potentially compete with the others in producing goods bought by all. As he was writing, the U.S. economy (which has always been international, but prior to the 1970s still domestically oriented) was becoming clearly dependent on international trade for its success. Drucker claims that there is a lack of institutions to manage this unstable new world economy, though he does praise the IMF. He singles out the multinational corporation as one institution that, at least in his eyes, could benefit the entire globe. Though he admits it “is still a most imperfect institution,” he claims, “the multinational corporation is the only institution so far . . . that creates a genuine economic community transcending national lines and yet respectful of national sovereignties and local cultures.” He adds, the “multinational corporation is the one instrument so far, which has effectively stimulated economic development way beyond anything governmental aid programs have achieved. It is, therefore, in the best interests of the United States, as well as in the best interests of a developing, peaceful, prosperous world, to strengthen this instrument.” His third discontinuity involves “the emergence of a society of organizations,” a new institutional pluralism. He explains how all of modern life is organized and institutionalized: “all our major social functions are today being discharged in and through these large, organized institutions. Every single social task of major impact . . . is increasingly entrusted to institutions which are organized for perpetuity and which are managed by professionals, whether they are called ‘managers,’ ‘administrators,’ or ‘executives.’” Drucker admits that the hippies, students, and the New Left have most clearly recognized this transformation, though he of course has no patience for their flat rejection of institutions. Instead of opposing individual freedom to institutional conformity, he claims that freedom can be achieved by preventing any single institution – most importantly the government – from dominating society. He writes, “The freedom of the individual in a pluralist society demands autonomy of institutions.” But he also claims that all kinds of organizations need to be able to develop the resource of knowledge and adapt to changing circumstances. In modern society, all organizations need “to be an entrepreneur,” and he holds up privatization as one solution. “What makes business particularly appropriate for reprivatization is that it is predominantly an organ of innovation; of all social institutions, it is the only one created for the express purpose of making and managing change. All other institutions were originally created to prevent, or at least slow down, change.” Continuing to praise privatization, he adds, “Business can abandon an activity,” and “of all our institutions, business is the only one that society will let disappear.” The final discontinuity stems from the knowledge economy, which he has written on in numerous other works. As mentioned earlier, he believes that “The productivity of knowledge has already become the key to productivity, competitive strength, and economic achievement.” He traces knowledge work back to F. W. Taylor and scientific management, which first made “work smarter” (he denies that these techniques as well as knowledge work involve deskilling, claiming work before was even less skilled). “Taylor showed that the economic pie could be enlarged rapidly by applying knowledge to work.” He notes that knowledge work is self-motivated and anti-hierarchical, and that the current system of rigid university disciplines is far less suited to meeting the educational demands of knowledge work than flexible interdisciplinary projects might be.
Although it falls well within the management self-help genre, Drucker’s The Effective Executive remains of historical interest because it registers the outlines of the transformation of work and corporate hierarchies that would by the 1970s crystallize into what Boltanski and Chiapello term the “new spirit of capitalism.” The title makes Drucker’s book seem aimed at only the elite realm of executive management, but in actuality he extends the term “executive” to cover a wide range of positions. According to Drucker, the task of the executive is to be “effective,” “to get the right things done.” In the past executives may have been a select group, but in the modern economy founded on “knowledge work” the responsibilities of the executive are disseminated across the corporate hierarchy. In contrast to manual workers who mechanically carry out a task determined by management, knowledge workers tend to be semi-autonomous and self-directed. Knowledge workers also produce not material objects but ideas, information, and communication, things which only have an effect if taken up by others (in other words, what one might call “immaterial labor” produces social relations). Knowledge workers therefore have to be directly concerned with the “effectiveness” of their actions. That is, they have to be executives. Drucker writes, “Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an ‘executive’ if by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.” Unfortunately, after bursting open the category of the executive, Drucker proceeds to offer some rather mundane advice based on his years of experience as an organizational consultant. Drucker outlines five key practices of executives: knowing where their time goes, focusing on their contribution, building on strengths of colleagues and the organization, concentrating on primary concerns, and making effective decisions. He argues executives face four challenges: everyone else places demands on their time, they get swept up in the flow of events rather than deliberately constructing their situation, their effects only occur through the organization, and their perspective - limited by their place within an organization – tends to be ignorant of the organization’s environment. The last problem (what systems theory would describe as the consequences of the informational closure of the system) is exacerbated by the appearance of the computer, which works well to quantify information within the corporation but struggles to present much about the environment of the organization. Through what Drucker calls “computeritis,” “The tremendous amount of computer information may thus shut out access to reality.” Drucker adds that the computer cannot program executive effectiveness, but it can free up more time for executives to explore the environment outside of the organization.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
“From the very first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie we . . . claimed that the fundamental division in contemporary societies was the division into directors and executants. We attempted to show how the working class’s own development would lead it to a socialist consciousness. We stated that socialism could only be the product of the autonomous action of the working class. We stressed that a socialist society implied the abolition of any separate stratum of directors and that it therefore implied the power of mass organs and workers’ management of production.” The second volume of Castoriadis’ articles for Socialisme ou Barbarie continues the previous volume’s attack on “bureaucratic capitalism” and on the trade unions’ betrayal of the working class. Castoriadis also offers a much more detailed account of what he considers the “content of socialism” and of how a society of workers’ councils could effectively manage production. The volume is more bold and optimistic, perhaps because Castoriadis’ arguments seemed confirmed by a wave of wildcat strikes in France and America and by the Hungarian Revolution. Though not completely successful, these examples demonstrated that, “When the conditions are right, [the working class] develops astonishing capacities for self-organization, self-direction, and self-leadership.” At the moment the workers autonomously organize, “The bureaucracy has been made obsolete – the movement takes place from the very outset on another terrain.” Castoriadis adds to his previous critique of bureaucracy by surveying the numerous contradictions that bureaucratic planning produces. He argues that the spontaneous and creative organization of workers is necessary for all production. “No modern factory could function for twenty-four hours without this spontaneous organization of work that groups of workers, independent of the official business management, carry out by filling in the gaps of official production directives, by preparing for the unforeseen and for regular breakdowns of equipment, by compensating for management’s mistakes, etc.” Bureaucratic capitalism, however, must try to repress the very capabilities it requires to function. The problem lies in the capitalist division of society into directors and executants, a split which not only alienates people from their lives but also is enormously wasteful. “If a thousand individuals have among them a given capacity for self-organization, capitalism consists in more or less arbitrarily choosing fifty of these individuals, vesting them with managerial authority and deciding that the others should just be cogs. Metaphorically speaking, this is already a 95 percent loss of social initiative and drive.” But in reality, it is even less efficient because “The creative faculties [the workers] are not allowed to exercise on behalf of a social order that rejects them (and which they reject) are now utilized against that social order. A permanent struggle develops at the very heart of social life. The narrow stratum of directors has henceforth to divide its time between organizing the work of those ‘below’ and seeking to counteract, neutralize, deflect, or manipulate their resistance. The function of the managerial apparatus ceases to be merely organizational and soon assumes all sorts of coercive aspects.” Management focuses on the formal organization of work, attempting to reduce the workplace to an organizational chart that may have little basis in reality. Management also needs information in order to function, but most of the relevant information is held by the workers, who, because of the division of directors and executants, are antagonistic to management. Castoriadis claims, “The problem of obtaining adequate information will always exist. But the present structure renders the problem literally insoluble, for its very existence drives the whole of society to conspire to mask reality.” In contrast, “The instauration of socialism . . . entails the immediate abolition of the fundamental division of society into a class of directors and a class of executants.” Castoriadis claims that the content of workers’ self-management will take the form of workers’ councils. He admits that his views on councilism are very close to those of Anton Pannekoek in The Workers’ Councils. Workers’ councils are not anarchism, nor are they “miraculous” institutions. They are “adequate and meaningful institutions.” Because the workplace is the primary unit of social life, socialist society will be organized around work. At each factory, there will be a general assembly of all workers and a smaller factory council of delegates. There will be local assemblies of councils in each region, and a central assembly with a central council that will replace the state. Workers’ self-management seems relatively unproblematic within a single factory, but modern production that depends on long supply and distribution chains is more complicated. Castoriadis claims that it is possible to achieve the horizontal and vertical cooperation of councils that is needed for such forms of production. One necessary innovation will be the creation of what he calls a “plan factory,” whose function will be to formulate – with the assistance of computerized “operations research” – different production plans that councils will be free to choose and adopt. “Once adopted, a given plan provides the framework of economic activities for a given period of time. It establishes a starting point for economic life. But in a socialists society, the plan will not dominate economic life.” Socialism will also have to transform the technologies used in production and the division of labor, both of which reflect capitalist interests. “Of the sum total of technologies that science and technical development makes possible at any given point in time, capitalist society brings to fulfillment those ones that correspond most closely to its class structure and that best permit capital to struggle against labor.” Castoriadis concludes, “The conscious transformation of technology will therefore be a central task of a society of free workers.” Because the division of labor reinforces hierarchies, it will have to be circumvented through the regular rotation of workers throughout all areas of production. Castoriadis argues that this circulation is less problematic than it appears because most technologies and tasks can be mastered in a short period of time. As in the previous volume, Castoriadis claims that revolutionary theory cannot advance ahead of worker autonomy: “The content of socialism is precisely this creative activity on the part of the masses that no theory ever could or ever will be able to anticipate.” But the contradictions of revolutionary organizing are “partially resolved in practice when a revolutionary puts before workers ideas that allow them to organize and clarify their experience – and, when these workers use these ideas to go further, to give rise to new, positive contents of the struggle, and eventually to ‘educate the educator.’ It is resolved in part when an organization proposes a form of struggle and this form is taken up, enriched, and broadened by the workers.”
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
In The New Imperialism, David Harvey uses “historical-geographical materialism” to analyze the causes of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the beginning of the invasion, even mainstream publications discussed the idea of an “American empire.” Bush of course denied any imperial ambitions, claiming “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.” But defense strategy documents that have since emerged certainly seemed to have an “imperial intent.” There are good reasons to believe that over the last century the U.S. has, while “in a state of denial,” produced a kind of “empire lite” in which imperial actions were barely registered within the country. During the 1960s, leftists often accused the state of imperialism, particularly in its relations with Latin America and Vietnam, but today, theorists like Hardt & Negri posit a new “decentred configuration of empire” suited to the era of globalization. The possibility of a new form of empire has added to the confusion over recent U.S. military activities. As has become even more clear since the time Harvey’s book was published, all of the declared motives for the invasion of Iraq have been inadequate. The anthrax scare has been largely forgotten, the weapons of mass destruction never came forward, and arguments about Saddam’s evilness could be applied to any number of other countries. Harvey emphasizes the domestic problems of the U.S. at the beginning of the invasion. The 2001 recession, corporate scandals, spiraling current account balances, social inequality (exacerbated by neoliberalism), and other issues disturbed the home front. Harvey argues, “The only thing to prevent the political annihilation of the Republicans was the intense solidarity – verging on a nationalist revival – created around the events of 9/11 and the anthrax scare.” Drawing a dubious “connection between al Qaeda and Saddam’s regime” worked as a “diversionary tactic.” But Harvey argues we need to dig deeper and consider the fact that “fear of Iraqi power and of a potentially disruptive pan-Arabic movement had long lurked within successive US administrations.” With Bush’s election, “Neoconservatism displaced neo-liberalism of the sort that Clinton championed.” And 9/11 “provided the political opening not only to assert a national purpose and to proclaim national solidarity, but also to impose order and stability on civil society at home. . . . The engagement with Iraq was far more than a mere diversion from difficulties at home; it was a grand opportunity to impose a new sense of social order at home and bring the commonwealth to heel. . . . The evil enemy without became the prime force through which to exorcise or tame the devils lurking within. This relation between the internal and external conditions of political power has played a significant if largely hidden role in the dynamics that have fuelled the conflict with Iraq.” But what about oil as the cause of the war? Harvey of course wants to avoid the conspiracy theory approach to this question, but he does believe the geopolitical importance of oil is a key factor in the invasion. If the U.S. could transform Iraq into a subservient client state and stabilize its military control of the region, “it might, through firm control of the global oil spigot, hope to keep effective control over the global economy for the next fifty years.” Facing economic challenges from Europe, China, and elsewhere, “What better way for the United State to ward off that competition and to secure its own hegemonic position than to control the price, conditions, and distribution of the key economic resource upon which those competitors rely? And what better way to do that than to use the one line of force where the US still remains all-powerful – military might?” This argument assumes the U.S.’s economic position is threatened, so it is no surprise that the next section of Harvey’s book draws heavily on Giovanni Arrighi’s analysis of declining American hegemony. Harvey borrows from Arrighi the distinction between “territorial” and “capitalist” logics of power. Whereas the state governs over a territorialized space and is connected to a specific people, capital flows across national boundaries and moves between different peoples. “The fundamental point is to see the territorial and the capitalist logics of power as distinct from each other. . . . The literature on imperialism and empire too often assumes an easy accord between them: that political-economic processes are guided by the strategies of state and empire and that states and empires always operate out of capitalistic motivations. In practice the two logics frequently tug against each other, sometimes to the point of outright antagonism.” The way the two logics are related is historically contingent and cannot be simply deduced. In “capitalist imperialism,” “it is the capitalistic logic that typically dominates.” As Arrighi has pointed out, with each cycle of the capitalist world-system, the hegemon has become bigger and more powerful. But if the U.S.’s hegemony is reaching its end, is there any political power that could take its place? Arrighi argued hegemony was successful because it acted primarily through leadership (that is, convincing other nations that their interests coincided with the hegemon’s) rather than domination, which is costly in numerous ways. Harvey claims the U.S. has regularly relied on domination, but that “Consent and cooperation are just as important. If these could not be mobilized internationally and if leadership could not be exercised in such a way as to generate collective benefits, then the US would long ago have ceased to be hegemonic. The US must at least act in such a way as to make the claim that it is acting in the general interest plausible to others even when, as most people suspect, it is acting out of narrow self-interest.” During the Cold War the US, masking its particular interests under universal ideals such as the defense of freedom, was able to take a leadership position, at least in much of the non-Communist world, but that leadership has become unstable after the end of real socialism. Problems first developed in the 1970s, when economic distress and the cost of the Vietnam War opened the door for the era of neoliberalism from 1970-2000 (Harvey here gives a condensed version of the argument of A Brief History of Neoliberalism). But not even what Harvey terms “accumulation by dispossession” – the contemporary forms of primitive accumulation, such as privatization, the enclosure of commons, and the financial practices of the IMF and WTO – has managed to solve the crisis of capital accumulation. As Arrighi has pointed out, the turn to finance by declining hegemons merely defers a transfer of power, but it is unclear if or how that process might work with the U.S. Agreeing with Arrighi, Harvey notes that the U.S. might use its military strength to reassert its hegemony. Harvey claims, “the temptation [for the U.S.] to go for exploitative domination is strong,” and may have been signaled by the “shift in form from neo-liberal to neo-conservative imperialism in the United States.” Harvey here returns to his starting point on the invasion of Iraq: “Control over oil supplies provides a convenient means to counter any power shifts – both economic and military – threatened within the global economy.” The invasion “also constitutes a powerful US military bridgehead on the Eurasian land mass which . . . yields it a powerful geostrategic position in Eurasia with at least the potentiality to disrupt any consolidation of a Eurasian power that could indeed be the next step in that endless accumulation of political power that must always accompany the equally endless accumulation of capital.”
Monday, April 5, 2010
Harvey’s critical introduction to neoliberalism is essential reading for anyone with the slightest interest in understanding our contemporary conjuncture. As its name indicates, neoliberalism is a return to 19th-century liberal ideals favoring free markets and minimal state interference in the economy. Like Karl Polanyi before him, Harvey sets himself the task of revealing the contradictions, illusions, and violent consequences of (neo)liberal economic practices. Neoliberal theory maintains that the “free” market is the best guarantor of political freedoms and the most powerful source of economic prosperity. It “proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” According to neoliberal theory, the state’s activities are to be limited to preserving markets (or sometimes even creating them), defending the quality of money, and securing private property rights. The state should divest itself of almost all other functions, particularly because neoliberals believe the state to be a naturally inefficient bureaucratic institution that is far inferior to the market in carrying out most tasks. Neoliberal theory therefore prescribes “Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision.” According to Harvey, “Neoliberalism has, in short, become hegemonic as a mode of discourse. It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.” The intellectual origins of neoliberalism can be traced back quite clearly to the 1940s and the work of Hayek, Friedman, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Harvey quickly summarizes these original formulations, perhaps showing caution about attributing too much historical force to individuals and their ideas (he has elsewhere criticized Naomi Klein’s work on Friedman in this manner). But during the “long upturn” that characterized the postwar U.S. economy until around 1970, neoliberal theory was not a popular position, despite the influence it came to wield from the University of Chicago and its slow dissemination into think tanks and political organizations. In the first two decades of the postwar era, the state used Keynesian monetary policies and other instruments to work toward “full employment, economic growth, and the welfare of its citizens.” This “political-economic organization” has been labeled “’embedded liberalism’ to signal how market processes and entrepreneurial and corporate activities were surrounded by a web of social and political constraints and a regulatory environment that sometimes constrained but in other instances led the way in economic and industrial strategy.” Embedded liberalism worked quite well in producing economic growth at least until the end of the 1960s, when unemployment, inflation, and fiscal crises started to become pressing problems. The economic troubles of the 1970s led to a search for an alternative to embedded liberalism. The “capitalist world stumbled towards neoliberalization as the answer through a series of gyrations and chaotic experiments that really only converged as a new orthodoxy” with the Washington Consensus of the 1990s. After Pinochet’s coup in 1973, Chile became the “first experiment with neoliberal state formation” when a group of neoliberal economists from the University of Chicago were called in to “help reconstruct the Chilean economy.” But Harvey singles out the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975 as perhaps the most important test case for neoliberalism. When the city went bankrupt, the conditions of the bailout involved severe reductions in city spending and the requirement “that municipal unions should invest their pension funds in city bonds.” Harvey concludes, “The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s. It established the principle that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of financial institutions and bondholders’ returns, on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged. It emphasized that the role of government was to create a good business climate rather than look to the needs and well-being of the population at large.” But the nationalization of neoliberalism first required efforts “to capture the Republican Party.” In the U.S., Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s shift to tight monetary policies (“The Volcker shock”) signaled the shift to neoliberalism. Reagan carried out the rest of the neoliberal program through widespread industry deregulation, tax cuts for corporations and the elite, and attacks on trade unions, most notably the defeat of the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981. Harvey shows how Reagan and Thatcher “took what had hitherto been minority political, ideological, and intellectual positions and made them mainstream. The alliance of forces they helped consolidate and the majorities they led became a legacy that a subsequent generation of political leaders found hard to dislodge.” But, Harvey asks, why was neoliberalism of all the possibilities selected? Harvey argues that one of the primary reasons neoliberalism was adopted was that the members of the economic elite, who had tolerated the constraints of embedded liberalism as long as capital accumulation continued smoothly, were threatened by the economic crisis of the 1970s and saw neoliberalism as a way to restore their class power. In fact, what Harvey considers the “utopian” project of using neoliberalization to solve the crisis of international capitalism has more often merely served to cover over these direct class interests. Harvey claims, “Neoliberalization has not been very effective in revitalizing global capital accumulation, but it has succeeded remarkably well in restoring, or in some instances (as in Russia or China) creating, the power of an economic elite.” It is not chance that neoliberalization increases the polarity of society, making a small group absurdly wealthy while leaving more and more people impoverished or in precarious positions. In particular, the financial elite has greatly profited from neoliberalization. Large corporations have become increasingly involved in financial operations, with finance often being more lucrative for them than actual production. The crisis of capital accumulation as well as the deregulation of financial activities has supported the explosion of financial activity since beginning of the 1970s. “A wave of innovations occurred in financial services to produce not only far more sophisticated global interconnections but also new kinds of financial markets based on securitization, derivatives, and all manner of futures trading. Neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything.” After 1973, petrodollars began to be recycled through New York investment banks, which were led to seek out new overseas investment opportunities such as foreign governments. Developing countries borrowed heavily, but were vulnerable to fluctuations in interest rates and the unstable preferences of the financial markets. Because the default of these governments would hurt New York investment banks, countries in trouble were subjected to neoliberal reforms at the hands of the IMF and World Bank. “In return for debt rescheduling, indebted countries were required to implement institutional reforms, such as cuts in welfare expenditures, more flexible labour market laws, and privatization.” Such “structural adjustments” produced huge flows of surplus from developing countries back to the elite of the advanced capitalist countries. Neoliberal theory seems to have a relatively straightforward definition of the state, but in reality, “the neoliberal state may be an unstable and contradictory political form.” For neoliberals, the state should use its monopoly on violence to secure property rights and the existence of markets. In reality, the state has been used to protect the wealth of the elite and, through often reprehensible means, to create a supposedly “good business climate.” As we have recently seen, the state is more than willing to step in to save financial institutions such as the banks through bail outs, though a strict adherence to neoliberal dogma would have entailed letting such institutions fail. Harvey argues that neoliberalism is antagonistic to any form of collective endeavor outside of the market and therefore creates social chaos. Harvey points out that the conservative answer to this “chaos of individual interests” may be even worse than neoliberalism. He writes, “Neoliberalism in its pure form has always threatened to conjure up its own nemesis in varieties of authoritarian populism and nationalism.” The resurgence of neoconservatism in the U.S., especially after 9/11, is a disturbing example. Harvey argues that neoconservatism and neoliberalism only partially overlap: “Neoconservatism is . . . entirely consistent with the neoliberal agenda of elite governance, mistrust of democracy, and the maintenance of market freedoms. But it veers away from the principles of pure neoliberalism and has reshaped neoliberal practices . . . in its concern for order as an answer to the chaos of individual interests, and . . . in its concern for an overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers.” In response to this monstrous combination of neoliberalism and neoconservativism, Harvey suggests, “The first lesson we must learn . . . is that if it looks like class struggle and acts like class war then we have to name it unashamedly for what it is. The mass of the population has either to resign itself to the historical and geographical trajectory defined by overwhelming and ever-increasing upper-class power, or respond to it in class terms.”