Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Monstrous Body of Capital

Continuing my process of catching up on things that have been written while I was away, I wanted to post a pointer to Steven Shaviro’s fantastic series of reflections on Capital and contemporary Marxism over at The Pinocchio Theory. The first post introduces the problematic:

Of course, there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.

This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?

This and subsequent posts go on to analyse attempts to respond to this situation, including those of Hardt and Negri, Gibson-Graham, Deleuze & Guattari, and others. Shaviro’s critiques are particularly sharp: Gibson-Graham are targeted for their optimism:

This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.

Hardt & Negri for their implied return to the notion of a self-superseding capitalism, agency not required:

For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.

Shaviro also critically explores their reversal of Marx’s metaphorics – their attempt to appropriate the imagery of the monstrous, which in Marx figure as critiques of the animated, undead, parasitic, and Frankensteinian body of capital, as an emancipatory imagery of the multitude:

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

Running through all of this are reflections on Deleuze & Guattari’s analysis of the Body without Organs, culminating in some fantastic imagery for our complex relation to the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of our own product, become an alien force:

The “full body” or flesh of capital, therefore, is at the same time palpable and intangible – however much of an oxymoron this formulation might seem to be. We are always in contact with this ghastly flesh, but we are never actually able to “grasp” it. We do not have enough distance to apprehend it accurately; we can no more “see” it than a flea can see the dog within whose fur it is embedded. In our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, this capital-body is an alien enormity, that we cannot ever tear ourselves free from, but that we also do not own or control in any way. The experience of the capital-body is common to everyone; but this is only a suffering in common, rather than the production in common that Hardt and Negri would like it to be. Either as producers or consumers, our subjective activity is relentlessly atomized and scattered; the only unity is that of the socius itself. We scurry about in the folds and convolutions of this capital-flesh like lice or bedbugs. At best, we may manage to divert some of the flows of the body of capital, pervert them, and detourn them. We may even be able to reprogram the body’s “axiomatics” or “genetic code” here and there, just a little bit, the way that viruses do. But that is all. This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it, because we depend upon it for sustenance, and we cannot live without it. Understood according to the order of first causes, sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it, capital is parasitic upon the labor of the multitude. But existentially and experientially, the situation is rather the reverse: we are parasites on the monstrous body of Capital.

Fantastic series – much much more in the originals.


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